Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles — A Different Path to Clean Driving

By Steve Schaefer

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When people are thinking about “clean” cars, I suspect their minds picture hybrids, like the uniquely styled and long-established Toyota Prius. Or, they may be aware of pure EVs, such as the Nissan LEAF, and certainly Tesla’s glamorous suite of offerings. But who thinks about hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs)?

The technology is not new. Toyota’s been working on it since 1992, and debuted their first concept FCEV in 2011. Mercedes-Benz has been experimenting with their “F-Cell” cars since 2002, and just introduced a new model for the German market. Honda offers a fuel-cell version of its Clarity. Hyundai recently brought out the all-new Nexo, its second fuel-cell car (after its fuel-cell version of the Tucson). It’s the only FCEV shaped like a crossover in the U.S. market, which seems like an advantage.

Most recently, I spent a week with a 2019 Toyota Mirai. See the full review in Clean Fleet Report.

The essence of a fuel-cell vehicle is that it doesn’t have a conventional engine. It processes compressed hydrogen fuel through a sophisticated device that creates electric energy by blending hydrogen fuel and oxygen to charge a battery and power one or more electric motors to move the car. Although the only byproduct is harmless water (H2O), the process of creating the fuel itself can be less “green.”

Although hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles are sold in other countries, in the U.S., most live in California. That’s supported by the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which has been slowly building out a network of stations. But once you cross the state line, you could be out of luck.

Bottom line? For someone who wants to have an environmental impact and is willing to put up some inconvenience, it can be a very satisfying choice.

 

Fidelio II – My New/Old EV for 2020

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I’ve enjoyed my time with my Chevy Bolt EV–in fact, I love the car. However, my lease ends on January 8th, 2020, and I’ve been considering my options for months.

One possibility would be to go into another expensive lease on something like the fine new Hyundai Kona Electric. Or, I could buy my Bolt at the end of the lease. But with a residual value of about $25,000 (the original list price was nearly $44K), that would mean my loan payments would be higher than my lease payments had been.

The third option was to grab a used EV. I recently researched the used EV market, and found there are some great deals out there. I wrote about six great used EVs under $15,000. Believe it or not, you can drive home an early Nissan Leaf for $6,000! So, I decided that I would go cheap and try to keep my monthly payments under $200.

Over a  year ago, I wrote about Rose Motorcars, a small dealership in Castro Valley that specializes in used EVs. I decided that I would patronize them for my next car.

I intended to start looking in mid-November, and it was November 16th. Fresh off of reading an online story about the wonders of the Chevrolet Spark EV, I decided to visit Rose and check out the Spark, along with my old favorite, the Fiat 500e.

I had the unique experience of securing a three-month journalist loan on a cute blue 500e back in January-April of 2016, and wrote extensively about my test car, which I named Fidelio. I even did a video review of the car. The Spark and 500e are both available for under $10,000, which was the amount I figured I’d need to keep the payments under $200/month.

So, I drove the Bolt down to Rose Motorcars and chatted with Miles, a friendly salesperson there. Rose appears to hire only friendly salespeople. Part of that may be that they are not paid on commission, so there is an incentive to deliver great customer service and to work together to help close the deal.

We looked at the online listings (which I’d studied earlier at home), and picked out a light blue Spark to test. I also mentioned my affection for the Fiat to Miles, and he said he had one in the same color as my Fidelio.

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The Spark (above) looked like new and drove like a smaller version of my Bolt. It had the “L” setting in the transmission, which enables one-pedal driving. I love that feature in the Bolt, and the Fiat doesn’t have it!

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We drove to my house and checked to see if my bass would fit in back–and it did, passing that test.

I liked the car fine, and drove it on curving roads, neighborhood streets, and a piece of freeway before returning to the store.

Then, Miles said he already had the keys to the blue 500e in his pocket (smart). So we took that one out, driving most of the same route. We didn’t stop at my house because I knew that the bass would (barely) fit, so we just headed out over the hills, onto the freeway, and back.

Well, if I liked the Chevy, I loved the Fiat. It is simply more fun to drive, and the retro design looks more upscale. It felt just like it did when I drove the first quarter of 2016 in one. We pulled back into the parking lot and walked into the showroom.

“Do you mind if we fill out a little paperwork?” asked Miles. I said, “sure.” What I realize now is that he was doing what any good salesperson does–start processing the order. There was no pressure, but it made it seem more and more possible to just do it.

“Run a credit check?” he asked. I said “OK,” since it was just information. David, the General Manager, was able to work up a deal that brought my monthly payments down to $195 a month on a five-year loan. Check!

It seemed like things were moving awfully quickly, but I already knew the car, had done all of my model and price research, and was sitting in the exact place where I planned to buy the car. And–it was a ringer for my beloved Fidelio–only a model year newer. So why wait, and take a chance it would be sold?

I texted my wife. She said that if it was a fair price and everything was good then it would be OK to go ahead. After all, I did have to buy something in the next few weeks. We got the financing to allow making the first payment 45 days out, so it’ll be December 31. I had hoped for the first week in January, as my last payment on the Bolt is December 8, but that’s really close.

Now, I have my new car, and have named it Fidelio II, of course.  It sits, along with the Bolt, at my house as part of my small EV fleet. I’ll be saving a lot of money next year, and the Fiat has a sunroof that the Bolt doesn’t, but I’m aware of the things I’ll be losing, too.

For one thing, my EPA range will drop from 238 miles to 84. I figured out, between my three-month test and my Bolt usage, that 84 miles will likely be sufficient for most things. I have Level 2 (240-volt) charging in my garage now, too, if I need to charge up quickly. It doesn’t leave any margin for error, though, or permit any 50-mile side trips.

I will miss having Apple CarPlay, which lets me project my iPhone onto the screen on the dash. I’ll miss my video rear-view mirror and my bird’s eye camera. I’ll perhaps long for two rear doors and the extra space. But Fidelio II’s job is to take me to my BART train and around town, so I should be fine. We have other cars for longer trips.

If I had been willing to pay $250 or $300 a month, my choices would have been wider, but I’m happy, and plan to enjoy my Bolt for the rest of the year. But in January, there’ll be a new little car in its spot on the driveway.

More to follow.

 

National Drive Electric Week – Cupertino 2019

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My Chevrolet Bolt EV

National Drive Electric Week is a nine-day celebration of the electric car. Now in its second decade, it grows annually, and spanning two weekends and the days between in the middle of September, offers EV enthusiasts a chance to meet and compare notes as well non-EV drivers a chance to look at, and sometimes even drive, the current crop of plug-ins outside of a dealership environment.

I attended the Cupertino, California event on Saturday, September 14–the first day of NDEW 2019. I brought my Chevrolet Bolt EV, which I’ve enjoyed–and showed–since I got it in January of 2017. With its three-year lease running out on 1/8/2020, it’s likely the last chance I’ll have to share it before switching to another EV next year.

The Cupertino event has a long history, and there is where you can still see some of what EVs used to be–labor-of-love science projects. I’ll talk about a few shortly.

EVs You Can Buy or Lease Now

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Hyundai Kona  Electric

With a bit smaller number of display cars than it was last time I attended, and a thin crowd, it was a little disappointing, but many of today’s pure EV options were there. I saw three Chevrolet Bolt EVs, including my own. A compelling new entry, the Hyundai Kona Electric (shown above), was there, sporting a white top over its jaunty blue-green.

The Kona, with a 258-mile range, is the next-best thing to a Tesla for range, and probably today’s best deal for range. This base model, at about $36,000, sat mere steps away from a 2019 Jaguar i-Pace, which starts about about twice that price. The Jaguar offers great style and luxury, and with 220 miles in the big battery and all-wheel-drive, has its own, different, buyer.

Nissan brought a new LEAF to show, and from its booth awarded prizes throughout the six-hour event. It was the one chance you had to ride in a car. Some NDEW events are more experience-oriented, but this one was more of a show and meet-up.

I saw a BMW i3 down at the far end, and a couple of Tesla Model 3s. Also nearby was a plug-in hybrid Ford Fusion, flanked by two Ford Focus electrics. These EVs, with just 76 miles of range, would make cheap used cars if you wanted a stealth EV.

At the other end was a Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid. It’s actually a significant vehicle, since it’s the only PHEV minivan available in the U.S. Its 33 miles of electric range is plenty for local soccer practice shuttles and commuting. This one sported a little extra flair.

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EVs are not just cars, of course. I saw some electric motorcycles and bicycles there, too, but as I stayed near my car much of the time, I didn’t spend time with them. I have ridden a few, and they are a fine option for some people under particular circumstances (good weather, short trip, no baggage, etc.). I did hear one motorcycle zoom past a few times with its electric whine. I’ve considered getting my motorcycle driver license just so I can test these in the future.

Here’s Roberta Lynn Power with her folding Blix electric bike from Sweden.

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Historic EVs

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EVs have been available in major manufacturers’ showrooms since 2010, when the 2011 Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt came out. But before that, besides the conversion projects, there were few. One model that had two representatives there at the show was the Toyota RAV4. Built just around the turn of the century, it put Toyota ahead of the crowd. Too bad they didn’t keep building them, because the RAV4 is a very popular body style now. You can get a new one as a hybrid today.

A pair of cute little Corbin Sparrows sat together. Not much more than shrouded motorcycles, these little pods would make perfect little errand-runners or last-mile transit connection vehicles.

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The tiny German 1993 City-EL weighs a mere 575 pounds and can shuttle one person for about 40 miles at up to 45 miles per hour. This one is nicknamed “Lemon Wedge.”

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Pioneers, Projects and Conversions

As long as there have been cars there have been tinkerers–people (mostly, but not exclusively, men) who enjoy a tough project. While some folks like to make a classic Mustang faster and louder, others enjoy electrifying an old gasoline car. The man displaying the Jaguar i-Pace had converted a Mazda Miata before.

I spent some quality time with George Stuckert, a retired engineer who also serves as secretary of the San Jose chapter of the Electric Auto Association. This group, a major sponsor of NDEW, was founded way back in 1967. They used to host a Cupertino event that was all project cars. George is glad that you can buy a new EV at a dealership today, but his pride and joy at this event was his 1996 Volkswagen Golf, which he converted ten years ago. It looks like an old Golf, but has a clever pinstriped design with a plug along the side (that I somehow managed to forget to photograph). It’s filled with electronic tech.

George proudly displayed a large card with photos of the project, and showed me his notebooks of carefully documented steps and the book that got him started.

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It was not a smooth process, and included a few spectacular explosions, but he showed the grit and determination that’s what I admire about people willing to get their hands dirty and triumph over failure to ultimate success. The fact that you can buy a used 2015 VW e-Golf that is superior in every way to George’s car is completely missing the point.

In the front corner of the exhibit were two fascinating displays that, along with George’s Golf, gave a look at what a Cupertino Electric Auto Association event was like before the NDEW and mass market EVs. Bob Schneeveis, a local legend, showed off his two-wheeled inventions, including a prototype steam-powered bike.

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Yes–you read that right. Although it’s not quite in the “drive it around the lot” stage, it is a beautiful piece. His electric motorcycle featured a fascinating front fork that made the ride soft and smooth. As a novelty, he had a “chariot” with a horse up front with “legs” made from brushes that capably gave rides to lucky attendees.

I enjoyed an extended conversation with Jerrold Kormin, who brought two displays: his converted Honda Insight and his prototype solar panel trailer. The former, besides swapping its engine for a motor and batteries, had new fiberglass nose and radically changed tail (and just one rear wheel). These design changes, per Kormin, gave the car a 15 percent improvement in its coefficient of drag.

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The car was being charged by Kormin’s fascinating portable solar generator. The inventor’s goal is to replace dirty, noisy Diesel generators. He is renting his prototypes out now. One appeal of replacing Diesel, Kormin told me, was that companies can avoid the major inconvenience of refueling Diesel generators, which adds complexity and expense. He claims customers can save $500 a month in fuel costs with a solar generator working just a 40-hour week. The trailer folds up for easy towing and takes about 5-6 minutes to open up. Learn more at his website.

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I met Joseph, an entrepreneur who was showing his Cirkit electric bike prototype. Looking clean and simple, it reminded me a bit of early minibikes, that you would assemble from a kit and the engine from your lawnmower! Click the link above to go to his website for more information.

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Vendors and Services

EVs need to be charged, which is why you’ll always find a friendly ChargePoint booth at EV shows. ChargePoint is a leader in chargers (I have one in my garage).

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I also met Shane Sansen, the owner of DRIVEN EV. His company works directly with manufacturers to acquire their lease returns and sell or lease them directly to customers. A great idea, and one I’m considering for my next EV. You can learn more at their website.

Besides seeing the vehicles and booths, I had a chance to network with some other folks who are working on EVs and climate action. I met up with my friend Greg Bell, who told me about his exciting new job working with Home Energy Analytics. Offering the Home Intel program, Greg meets with homeowners and shows them how they can reduce their energy consumption and save money. It can be as simple as replacing incandescent bulbs with LED ones, or more. Find out more at their website.

So, having consumed 3-1/2 pints of water and all my snacks, I packed up and drove home. It was a good day.

You can attend an NDEW event in your area through Sunday, September 22. Check their website for details.

America, at 243, is Slow to Adopt EVs

By Steve Schaefer

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Red Generation 1 LEAF

Two days ago, I received an email from Plug In America, inviting me to join in the First Annual Independence Day EV Count. Modeled after the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, it’s meant to be a non-scientific study of what’s going on around you.

I’ve hosted and attended the group’s Drive Electric Week events and they’re a great organization, so why not?

Today, July 4th, after lunch, I decided to join the EV count. I needed the exercise anyway, so  I grabbed my trusty pad and a ballpoint pen and headed out into my Castro Valley, California neighborhood. It was clear and in the low 70’s–perfect.

The rules of the EV Count are simple:

  1. Walk or drive in your neighborhood and count all the cars you see
  2. Note the all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids
  3. Tally it up, fill out the online form, and send it in

The group doesn’t include regular plugless hybrids (their name is Plug In America, after all), but I noted them anyway, just to satisfy my own curiosity.

I walked a loop that I often take to add a couple thousand steps to my Fitbit. I started out well, as I could count my personal Chevrolet Bolt EV and the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid I’m currently testing right away. However, as I walked and wrote, the bad news piled up.

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White Generation 2 LEAF

When I returned home and tallied up the numbers, I had:

  • 118 cars total
  • 3 EVs (my Bolt and two Nissan LEAFs)
  • 2 plug-in hybrids
  • 7 regular hybrids

That’s pretty disappointing.

Perhaps Castro Valley is a little behind–I know I see more EVs in San Francisco, where I work. And it wasn’t a scientific study–just a small sample. But it means that I need to work harder to get the word out on the many benefits of EVs–and the necessity of stopping using fossil fuels now to help control the effects of the climate crisis.

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My Blue Bolt EV

In 2019, as the U.S. turns 243, we have a long way to go to significant EV adoption. At least in my neighborhood.

 

 

California’s Climate Leadership and the Future of Transportation

A Conversation with Annie Notthoff and Max Baumhefner

By Steve Schaefer

On May 14, 2019, two leaders from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) spoke to Acterra members and guests at The Foster, a gallery in Palo Alto filled with the beautiful paintings of Tony Foster. The topic of Acterra’s final segment of its Spring Lecture Series was the future of transportation in California, the U.S., and the world.

ann-notthoff-300x343Annie Notthoff is the Senior Western Advocacy Director of the NRDC in San Francisco and Sacramento. She has spent her long career working on a broad range of initiatives to promote climate action, public health and environmental protection.

 

 

Max-BaumhefnerMax Baumhefner is a Senior Attorney with the Climate and Clean Energy Program at NRDC, based in San Francisco. His focus is moving our nation’s cars, trucks, and buses to zero emission vehicles and accelerating the transition to a smarter, more affordable electric grid powered by renewable resources.

 

 

The NRDC was founded in 1970 by law students and attorneys at the forefront of the environmental movement. Today’s leadership team and board of trustees make sure the organization continues to work to ensure the rights of all people to clean air, clean water, and healthy communities. And today that also means tackling the climate crisis.

Ms. Notthoff spoke first. She began by mentioning she was a Bay Area native and talked about how California’s size means that standards set here are often adopted by other states, so the state’s impact is magnified. Other nations have adopted California standards, too.

What has made this possible in California is “a combination of political will and the courage to act,” she said. “You need to elect people who will take action on climate. Over the years, these people, being held accountable, have helped raise the percentages of voters who vote for climate issues.”

Notthoff noted California’s 40 years of energy efficiency and air quality standards.

“If the other 49 states followed California’s Star standards, the U.S. would have about 25% less carbon emissions today,” she stated.

In California, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation—41%, in fact—so moving to 100% renewable energy is essential—and is planned by 2045 in the state.

Notthoff said that that even though many of us know what the problem is, we’re not doing enough fast enough. And with the U.S. government not acting on climate change in the current administration, it falls to the states and cities to make the efforts now. They, along with businesses, will work to meet the United States’ Paris Agreement terms.

Notthoff said climate progress was especially likely in “trifectas,” where the state governor and the legislature agree on climate change urgency and get laws drafted and passed. For example, in Colorado, several new laws have recently passed. And the NRDC is partnered with the Bloomberg Foundation to work with 25 selected U.S. cities on building and transportation measures.

Of course, if we elect a more climate-aware chief executive in 2020, in 2021 we can use what was developed at the “subnational” level to move quickly. If the 25 cities meet their goals, then the U.S. will almost meet its Paris commitments.

Notthoff then turned the microphone over to Max Baumhefner, a tall, slim man with a youthful bush of curly hair. He started out by saying that we know what we need to do to reduce emissions in the transportation sector, but we can’t just order consumers to do things, like you can with the electricity generating companies.

Transportation has now surpassed power generation as the highest source of carbon emissions. He says we need to power everything we can with electricity, and use clean electricity to power our vehicles.

Baumhefner described the “three legs of a stool” needed for success:

  1. Reduce the need to drive – provide other options
  2. Massively improve vehicles
  3. Develop low-carbon fuels

He travels to other states and meets with leaders there to bring what’s working in California to them. One big success in California is SB 350, which as originally written required 50% renewable energy by 2030, mandated that the electricity industry make plans and invest in accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles, and cut petroleum use by half. The oil industry stripped the last section from the bill.

There will be a $1 billion investment in changing the infrastructure, and another $1 billion has been proposed. This kind of action in California is getting attention from other states.

“There are 10 to 20 proceedings in other states now, and the regulatory commissions are glad to see you, and want to learn to do the right thing,” Baumhefner stated, striking a positive note. “But because utilities are not risk takers, sometimes they need a legislative kick in the pants.”

In Oregon, leaders are working on a bill to get utilities to use 50% renewables and to electrify transportation. After three tries, it just got done in Colorado. It’s happening in New Mexico, too.

“This is a tangible example of aspirational leadership,” he said.

Baumhefner mentioned a 1995 program in China for a coal cap, when the NRDC worked with them on reducing emissions. China is serious about electric vehicles, and EVs are now 50% of their market—the largest market in the world.

The speakers then took some questions. One audience member asked about carbon taxes. Baumhefner replied that they were not sufficient to force a market transition, but that could have a “complementary role.” Notthoff added that there wasn’t enough time to get them to work—and that they were divisive—so better to get other policies in place.

A question was asked about phasing out gasoline cars by a certain date. Notthoff said that California’s phase-out bills were stalled in the legislature. Baumhefner said he’d rather see it stated in the affirmative – a certain percentage of EVs by a particular date.

Someone asked about the gas tax and EV user fees. Baumhefner said that because the gas tax hadn’t risen for inflation, it was now too low. He stated that a user fee based on mileage might seem like a solution, but that the gas tax itself was serving as a price on carbon, so there were advantages in keeping it in place. Better, he said, to tweak it and extend it in some way to EVs. High EV fees, like those being considered, are not addressing the real problem, he added.

Continuing on EVs, a question was asked about setting up a “cash for clunkers” type of program for gas-powered vehicles. There are swap and replace programs giving up to $9,000 for old cars in some places, Baumhefner said. He supports finding ways to get EVs into the hands of more Californians, “not just some ZIP codes.”

It was a valuable hour of learning about how California leads the nation, the valuable work the NRDC is doing, and what we can do to contribute.

Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.

Bolt EV Mysteriously Loses Half its Range

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Still looks like new.

By Steve Schaefer

Since I got my Chevrolet Bolt EV on January 8, 2017, I’ve been a big fan. It’s been totally reliable, delivering 200+ miles of range and handling all kinds of loads, all while being fun to drive. And, I love the way it looks, including the Kinetic Blue paint on the outside and the white-and-gray interior. I appreciate the regeneration setting that enables one-pedal driving. I enjoy not visiting gas stations. I’ve spent time and energy promoting the car on my business cards and in many posts to this blog.

But over the last few months, my Bolt let me down. Nothing broke and it drove fine, but when I charged it, it said it was full at about 100 miles.

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It all started after I took my car in for its first service. Unlike gasoline-powered cars, EVs, need very little attention, so my car had never been back to the dealership in more than two years. The only required service was a tire rotation. However, I accepted a new job that would move me away from the Chevy dealer in Redwood City, CA where I leased the car, so I decided to take it in for a checkup while I had the chance.

There was nothing to fix, of course, and they performed the tire rotation for free. I let them replace the cabin air filter (they did charge me for that),  They also ran a couple of hybrid battery system updates. Notably, they fixed one tiny annoyance—my bird’s eye camera had always shown the left side at an angle—and I appreciated the effort they made, including ordering a new part.

I then started my new job in late February, which cut my daily driving from 36 miles to about 4. I also tested some new EVs from the fleet, so the Bolt sat a bit. When I started driving it regularly again, I discovered that when I charged up the battery, it topped out at around 100 miles, instead of the normal 200+ it had been doing since I brought it home the first time. After a couple of instances of this, I decided to take it back to the dealer to get it looked at.

They reported there was nothing wrong, and said they had reset something and told me that if I didn’t use my heater it would improve the range. This struck me, frankly, as silly. I had ALWAYS used the climate system, summer and winter, for more than two years, and had never seen 100 miles of total range. Running the climate system reduces the range by only about 8 miles. I drove the car some more, gamely trying to go without the climate system just to test it, but the battery still topped out at 100 miles.

I contacted the media people at GM/Chevrolet with my plight and decided to try the dealership nearest to my home–F.H. Dailey in San Leandro, CA–to see if they could up with something. The short answer—nope. Same recommendation—and don’t use the heat. The suggested that I run it through a couple of charging cycles to reset the range.

But the story doesn’t end there. The next day—about 24 hours after I picked up my car—I got a call from the dealership. After consulting with GM’s tech experts, they decided that it was probably a bad cell in the battery, and asked me to bring my car in again to do more tests.

So, the following Monday, I drove my car to F.H Dailey, arriving around 7:35 a.m. I checked it in with the same person, Service Advisor Fatima Rios, and then waited around a half hour for a shuttle ride home. This time, with GM’s tech people in the loop, they came up with a different diagnosis: Replace the battery! So, they ordered it—and I felt vindicated.

The dealers’ service departments were missing something, and the first one telling me to put a band aid on it felt disrespectful. The second dealer’s conclusion, when I knew there was a real problem, meant I had to push back, and they listened.

Through this experience, I was reminded that a 100-mile range is actually enough for most people. I learned this from my three-month test of my cute little blue Fiat 500e, which had only 80 to 90 miles. The few times I’ve actually needed the range to visit my granddaughters has been handy, but mainly it means you don’t have to charge as often, and you don’t have to worry about range. There were only two times last year when I knew that the Bolt wouldn’t be able to handle a long trip, so I used another vehicle in one case and flew in the other.

So, last Thursday morning, I drove my Bolt EV down to the dealership to receive its new battery. It turned out it had to spend an extra few days away from home—the battery was delayed and didn’t arrive until Friday. On Friday they did most of the work, and today, I got a call from Fatima  in mid afternoon saying that the surgery was a success, it was all charged up, and that I could pick it up.

I drove the white Chevrolet Cruze they rented me (at no charge) down to the dealership. I was greeted by Fatima, who by now was my friend. She, and F. H. Dailey in general, took good care of me, and I now recommend visiting them if you’re shopping for a new Chevy. They have dozens of Bolt EVs in a rainbow of colors there lined up and waiting for your test drive.

Battery replacement isn’t cheap, but as a warranty repair, it didn’t cost me a dime. Neither did the rental car.

I got into my Bolt, adjusted the seat that they had moved, and pushed the start button. And there it was—260 miles of range. My car was restored.

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The Great Pivot, by Justine Burt

A book review by Steve Schaefer

The Great PIvot cover

There are many books, videos, and news stories out on global warming and climate change. Some are filled with scary predictions and are good at shocking us into action. But the best kind are the ones that try to paint a picture of ways we can take action to make a difference. The Great Pivot is one of the latter category.

The current carbon-based business model is becoming unsustainable. So, dealing with the huge tasks before us means not only deciding what to do but who’s going to do it. The Green New Deal, which is the subject of the last chapter (and is throughout the book in spirit) says that people want and need meaningful work. So why not get two for one?

That’s what the 30 pivots in The Great Pivot are meant to do. Burt’s carefully developed ideas show how we can scale up efforts to build a sustainable future. This means both creating meaningful jobs for workers and generating more sustainability project opportunities for investors.

Burt begins by addressing the employment situation today. The low official percentages don’t reflect the 37 million people ages 25-64 who are out of the labor force. With outsourcing, automation, and the gig economy, it’s tough out there. Today, the middle class is disrupted by changes in the work place and rising costs, and wages have been stagnant. We can rebuild the economic safety net with new sustainability jobs.

The author proposes five categories for job creation and devotes an entire chapter to each. They all have the goal of stabilizing the climate:

  • Advanced energy communities
  • Low-carbon mobility systems
  • A circular economy
  • Reduced food waste
  • A healthy natural world

Starting with Zero Net Energy, the first few pivots involve electrifying single-family homes and then spreading to multi-unit dwellings and commercial spaces. Existing technology can make all spaces more pleasant and energy efficient.

Twenty-eight percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and Burt spends significant time discussing low carbon mobility. Besides moving to electric cars, we also need to develop clean mass transit, safe bicycling options, walkable communities, mobility-as-a service options, and build out the EV charging infrastructure. All of these are pivots that require people to do them.

The circular economy is a worthy goal to get us to our goal of climate stability. Instead of the current take-make-waste economy, a circular economy reuses and recycles. There are many jobs in waste prevention and building deconstruction (instead of demolition). How about a tool lending library combined with a repair café and maker space to reuse things rather than replace them?

It’s pathetic that 40 percent of food grown and raised in the U.S. is thrown out, for various reasons. Wasted food has a large impact on the climate. Jobs to prevent, recover, or recycle food waste make for excellent pivots. Many of these jobs do not require higher education—just training—so they would be available to many people who need meaningful work and steady pay.

Restoring nature is a valuable and meaningful form of employment that would help the planet recover. Ways of sequestering more carbon in the soil can improve agricultural yields while reducing carbon in the atmosphere. There is good work in restoring forests, waterways, and wildlife. How about creating furniture or other useful items from drought-stressed trees? Then we could leave healthy trees in place to do their job of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

Besides these actions, we can start looking at the economy differently. We need to disrupt business as usual. For example, we should decouple growth from the traditional measurement of using gross domestic product (GDP). Burt proposes four goals:

  • Shift from fossil fuels to renewables
  • Create a circular flow of materials
  • Dematerialize by shifting to digital products and services
  • Radically reduce waste

It’s fine to get people working, but investors can make a big impact too, by funding the projects we need as part of the overall process of transforming our economy. Burt discusses bootstrapping, crowdfunding, direct public offerings, private equity, and other ways to get investors involved in the right way.

The book ends by discussing meaningful work and relating it to the goals of the Green New Deal, including leaving no person behind. We have many ways to move forward, and the 30 pivots are a great place to start. We need to do it now.

 

The Great Pivot by Justine Burt

MP Publishing, 2019