The Clean Energy Revolution Is Coming

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When you read about climate change in the news these days, it’s mostly about supercharged, destructive hurricanes, melting icecaps, and imminent catastrophe. Steve Westly, venture capitalist and former California State Controller, has a brighter vision. He shared it with a receptive group at an event hosted by Acterra at the Foster Foundation Gallery in Palo Alto.

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Westly, a lean, animated man who reads younger than his 61 years, knows his stuff and his audience. He presented images and data to show a world in which energy production is moving towards renewable solar and wind at a much faster pace than predicted. The transportation sector is on the verge of a massive, positive change to electric and autonomous vehicles.

Much as Jeremy Rifkin proposes in The Third Industrial Revolution, Westly is placing his trust in the younger generation of millennials to pull off the work we need to combat the climate crisis.

Westly grew up in Santa Clara Valley, before it was called Silicon Valley, when it was mostly farmland, Stanford University, and not much else. He witnessed the sweeping changes that transformed the valley into the place where much of the technology that can save us is now based.

Westly has been involved for years. He was a board member with Tesla when it was a few dozen people in a small warehouse and has seen much more since. He knows his numbers.

Carbon dioxide, CO2, is invisible, so it’s harder for people to get upset about it increasing, but air pollution is easy to understand. While the skies have largely cleared over the last 30 years or so, they are beginning to darken again, thanks to significant pollution wafting over from China – as much as 25 percent of what we breathe in California originates there.

That’s because to support their economic growth, in recent years China was on a massive coal plant building spree. Now, however, that is changing to renewable energy, as the Chinese people demand an end to the choking clouds of pollution that could kill up to 83 million Chinese citizens over the next 25 years. Now, the Chinese are becoming the green energy world leaders.

Per Westly, coal and nuclear are out, while solar and wind are on the way up—much more quickly than they were projected to rise. Coal is too dirty and nuclear plants are too expensive. Meanwhile, the price of wind and solar continues to drop steadily—it’s at a fraction of where it was—while natural gas, currently a popular energy source, fluctuates.

Storage of solar and wind generated electricity has been a problem over the years, since the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t always blow, but the storage price is dropping quickly. Westly presented a chart showing a steeply descending line, depicting a 35 percent drop between 2016 and 2017 alone.

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This drop is in part thanks to Tesla’s huge battery gigafactory in Nevada, which when complete will be the largest building in the world. Interestingly, this American plant has pushed the Korean LG and Japanese Panasonic/Sanyo battery makers to become more competitive, all to the consumers’ benefit.

Westly predicts affordable $25,000 electric cars in the next five years as part of a boom in these clean-running models. BMW, VW, and other companies are investing big time. It’s no longer going to be a small, fringe group, as EVs take over.

Westly says three things are going to make leaps of progress happen: The Internet of Things, where everything is connected; Big Data, with the ability to provide the enormous amount of data needed to make connected cars work; and a sharing economy. Together, these factors will contribute to the rise of the autonomous car in just a few years. It’ll be sooner than you think, Westly promises.

Westly is counting on millennials, with their different set of values, to lead the charge. They are now the largest population group, passing the aging baby boomers. Shared values of this generation include having a small carbon footprint, wanting a choice of connections, and having clean air, food, and water.

Other countries are already moving ahead with plans to dump the gasoline-powered car in the next few decades. Norway say it’s 2025. India, with its huge population, says 2030 will be it. Even England and France are talking about 2040 to sell the last petrol-powered car. The U.S. today is lagging, but, as usual, California is leading the way on its own.

Westly is sanguine on the possibilities of rapid, beneficial change to help combat global warming—with answers coming from Silicon Valley. The private sector, not the U.S. government, will lead the charge. It’s a very appealing vision.

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Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet. They put on worthwhile events and other activities in their efforts to get people involved in making a difference.

The Foster Foundation’s mission is to share artist-explorer Tony Foster’s powerful watercolor journeys to inspire reflection, discussion, and education about art, wilderness, and the natural world. Here’s a beautiful image of the Shiprock, New Mexico area, where I lived for a few years as a child:

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Earth Day 2017 – Driving My Electric Car

IMG_8417This Earth Day comes at a time of significant concern for our home planet. Our new president, continuing in his belligerent, ill-advised way to work against the needs of our children and grandchildren, has appointed climate-denier Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. He’s approving pipelines, reducing regulations, and we hear rumblings about backing out of the Paris accords. What can a concerned person do?

At times when the government isn’t cooperating, you need to act on your own. One of the things I do is to drive an electric car. On January 8, just weeks before the election of our frightening new leader, I took delivery of my  Kinetic Blue Chevrolet Bolt EV. As a journalist, I sometimes drive other cars to review them, but my goal for 2017 and forward is to test and promote cars with battery power–full electrics and also the many hybrid options for folks to drive electric part of the time.

Hybrid cars offer a way to slip into EV driving without risk, because you have a gas engine and an electric motor in the same car. Some come with a larger battery for storing some power to drive in a pure electric mode for a while. For example, the plug-in Chevrolet Volt has an EPA range of 53 miles in pure EV mode before a gasoline engine comes on to charge the battery. The hybrid Ford Fusion sedan delivers great fuel economy by blending its engine and motor to stretch out your fuel about twice as long. There’s a plug-in version that gives you about 27 petrol-free miles. Nearly every car manufacturer offers one or more hybrid today.

Until recently, driving a pure electric meant being constrained by battery range. Cars like the pioneering Nissan Leaf, despite their virtues, couldn’t make it past 80 or 90 miles before requiring a time-consuming recharge. Tesla turned that equation on its ear with its offerings, but they remain out of the affordability range for most people.

My Bolt EV, with its EPA-rated 238 miles of range, eliminates most, if not all, of that worry. Unless you’re planning a cross-country or California trans-state trip, you’re gold. I’ve proven that this winter by using my Bolt for commuting, visiting, and errands all over the San Francisco Bay Area–my home.

Now if I wanted a compact five-door hatchback and was OK with using gas, I may have selected a worthy car like the Honda Fit. It resembles the Bolt EV, but without the 964 pound battery and other amenities, it is a very modest investment, starting at under $17,000 including shipping. I also read yesterday that the new Alfa-Romeo Giulia sports sedan is the same price as the top-level Bolt EV–nearly $44,000. Which one would you pick?

There’s an element of sacrifice to spending that much on a compact (but roomy) hatchback from a mainstream manufacturer, but driving and living with the Bolt EV has been a real pleasure. It’s high enough to slide right in. The back seat is roomy for passengers, and it folds down to provide lots of space for the upright basses and Costco visits. The dashboard is friendly, colorful, and provides a wealth of the information you need. And I really like the interior and exterior styling, even if it attracts virtually no attention on the road.

But if you asked me, I’d say the best part remains the nearly silent, buttery smooth powertrain. I cruise down the freeway at 65 mph and listen to the Bose stereo on the way to work and the feeling is sheer bliss. Without the reciprocating pistons, you won’t feel vibration or hear any of the typical engine sounds. Slide the one-speed transmission into Low (L) and you can use your right foot to do “one pedal” driving that provides some of the feeling of control you used to get  from manual transmissions. Just touch the brake when you need it for sudden stops.

I like knowing that my car is contributing less to global warming than internal combustion engine-equipped cars, but doing it without sacrifice is even better. We Bolt EV drivers have an active Facebook page, too, with more than 2,500 members!

We have a long way to go–and not a lot of time to get there–but individual choices, regardless of what our temporarily derailed government says, can make all the difference. Today, I drove my EV on Earth Day. Driving it every day will help make every day Earth Day. Please join me.

Happy Earth Day.

Fun with the Tesla Model X

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I’ve wanted to spend some quality time with a Tesla for a long while. Sadly, Elon & Company don’t hand out their electronic keys to just anyone, so I didn’t get any significant seat time until my good buddy and colleague Rob K generously lent me his recently acquired bright white Tesla Model X P100D for half a day.

The Model X stands tall and sits wide, making a big impression. The shape is nicely rounded, and while the rear lamps seem almost generic, the nose, with its pert little pout and no grille, is still a little emotionless to me.

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After sending the falcon-wing doors slowly upward and removing the unnecessary child seat from the middle row, Rob attempted to show me the latest holiday Easter egg Tesla provided. Sadly, the car didn’t respond, but I got to see an amazing video of lights flashing and doors wagging on Rob’s phone. Because Tesla can update your software any old time, changes in displays and vehicle functionality can occur regularly. I did learn that Tesla will warn you it’s coming, so you can stop and not drive the car while it’s going on—a safety precaution.

We chatted about the ingenious Matchbox car sized Model X key, which locks, unlocks, opens, or closes the area on the model you touch.

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With a little simple guidance on the controls, Rob sent me off. My goal was to ride through the local curvy roads, and hit the freeway, and head south to my see my other friend, Michael C, with whom I’d have a relaxing lunch. Then I’d take him on a ride so he could sample the X too.

The X feels like a room on wheels, with seemly acres between you and the opposite side door. The surfaces wear real carbon fiber, leather, suede, and high quality plastic. The simple fold of the interior door grip is kind of a Scandinavian Design touch.

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The windshield is humongous, reaching way up overhead. Tinting keeps you from getting fried, but what about sun visors? Tesla folds them in half lengthwise and tucks them up next to the windshield pillar. They attach magnetically. When you need sun protection, you pull it out and position it where the sun is. That may be in the center of the glass in front of you or at some other angle—you decide. It was still a habit to reach for it and be disappointed—but I settled in after a while.

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The controls are not too hard to figure out. The shifter feels familiar in a modern German sedan way. Steering is smooth and assisted, and the electric motor is nearly silent, so moving out at a light is like asking the magic carpet to please hurry along. I noticed aggressive regenerative braking, so that you can essentially do “one pedal” driving. The brake pedal is a nice place to rest your foot when you’re sitting at a light.

Much has been made of Tesla’s enormous 17 -inch capacitive touch screen—sitting there like a huge iPad—but it’s not just a sea of undifferentiated icons. The stuff that fills an ordinary 7- or 8-inch screen becomes the top half of a screen twice that size. The climate controls, looking clean and logical, are arrayed along the bottom. I saw mostly audio settings and the navigation map and instructions sharing the remaining real estate. So, no squinting required. When I requested directions—using voice commands—the system misunderstood the name I gave, but got it right the second time.

When you request a map, it fills the ENTIRE panel, so it’s easy to follow. The narration was completely familiar.

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The combined 532 horsepower from the front and rear electric motors, and awesome 713 lb.-ft. of torque propel the 5,594-pound Model X along like you’re being launched out of a slingshot, and that’s not even including the expensive Ludicrous mode. Car and Driver clocked a 3.3-second zero-to-60 time.

With the electric motor taking up little space up front, the Model X offers a “frunk” to hold some smallish things.

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I decided I’d better visit one of the famous Tesla Superchargers. So, I asked for directions to the nearest one using the voice button. I was directed a few miles away, to the lot at the Computer History Museum. I saw a collection of mixed Teslas parked there, along with something else—a waiting line. Mike, the patient attendant, said that this was one of the busiest Supercharger locations, and lines were normal. I think that some of the more remote locations would be easier to simply pull into. Because I had plenty of charge, I decided that I could wait for next time to sample the charging experience.

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I got a chance to sample the car’s semiautonomous driving skills. It’s stone simple to operate. Just pull the little cruise control stalk twice and a blue steering wheel icon pops up on your screen and the car stays in the center of its lane, follows the curves of the road, and stops safely behind the car ahead.

You’re not supposed to let go of the steering wheel, although you can. But after a few seconds, the perimeter of the instrument panel flashes and a message pops up – Put Your Hands on the Wheel! We’ll be having no lawsuits here, thank you very much. I did ride a few times with my hands on my knees and it felt odd but safe. I’m sure the full autonomy mode will seem like no big deal when it arrives—probably sooner than you think.

When I arrived at my lunch destination, I found a place around the corner and parked. Then, I wondered how I was supposed to turn the car off and lock it. After searching fruitlessly for the “start” button, I phoned Rob. He said, “Just put it in park. When you step out of the car and walk away, the doors will close automatically and the car will lock. Who would have thought of that? It goes against my 47 years of dutifully locking my car every time I leave it. When you walk up to the car, with your key in your pocket, the doors pop open a little, swinging fully open when you draw near.

Those expensive, trouble-prone, but awesome rear falcon-wing doors are fun. I opened and closed them with the door switches. All the doors open and close on their own with just a hum and a gentle electric pull. You could get used to this.

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The big audio half of the panel temped me to sample things I don’t normally listen to. Rob mysteriously didn’t have my favorite—SiriusXM Radio—hooked up, but I touched an icon to hear a podcast about porta potty maintenance and some unfamiliar musical selections on the Tesla Top 20 Music channel.

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The biggest surprise for me was that after a few minutes, I felt relaxed and at home in the Model X. It’s so pleasant and the electronics work so simply and subtly, that I wanted to just park it and hang out, like a relaxing little hotel room. The driving experience, especially in a P100D model, is super brisk, but the exclusive amenities are what make this a six-figure car. See the website for details.