Why We Need Electric Cars Now

By Steve Schaefer

Taking delivery of my Chevrolet Bolt EV in January 2017.

This post talks about electric cars, the climate crisis, and actions we all can take to help solve it, including driving electric vehicles (EVs).

A Quick EV History

The Nissan LEAF paved the way in 2010.

The first mainstream EVs in the U.S appeared a decade ago, as the all-electric Nissan LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. Today, major companies, including GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai/Kia, and Mercedes-Benz, are proudly announcing their upcoming models (while continuing to sell lots of internal combustion vehicles).  

EV sales, juiced by Tesla’s success, are increasing every year, but still represent a small percentage of the market. Tesla, of course, sells only EVs. Many countries (and even some states) are passing legislation to support the phasing out of gasoline-powered cars in the next 10-15 years.

EV Benefits and Challenges

Electric cars have a lot to offer. They are smooth and quiet. Electric motors deliver all of their torque the moment they are working, so acceleration is amazing, and the low center of gravity from the battery pack helps them handle well.

Electric drivetrains contain a lot fewer parts, so there is much less to go wrong, and routine service is minimal (forget oil changes, tune-ups, radiator flushes, and even brake pad replacement thanks to regenerative braking).

EVs have no tailpipe emissions, but are not 100 percent clean, of course, because like all cars, their production uses energy from various sources. Some companies, including GM, are working to use renewable energy in their vehicle production. Some of the materials for today’s EV batteries must be mined, sometimes in dangerous and unsustainable ways. This issue must be addressed and solved.

There can be some inconveniences. EVs take longer to charge, and there are fewer places to charge them today than there are gas stations. Although the charging networks are expanding, this uncertainty can create “range anxiety,” although most people hardly ever drive more than about 40 miles a day, and modern EVs feature more than 200 miles of range. The ideal place to charge your EV is at home, but some people live in apartments. Some workplaces provide charging, as well. The charging network is being built out and should not be much of an issue at some point in the future.

Right now, there are fewer category and style choices in EVs than there are in the overall market. However, that will change over the next few years, as more companies roll out a range of attractive and powerful models. There are a number of affordable choices today, such as the Kia Niro, Chevrolet Bolt and the second-generation Nissan LEAF. On the luxury side, you can get an electric Porsche (Taycan), Jaguar (i-Pace) and Audi (eTron) now. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have exciting EV models on their way. There are many more.

The second-hand EV market is filled with bargains, if you’re willing to drive a car with a shorter range. Three-year-old vehicles can change hands at a fraction of their initial price. I picked up my pristine three-year-old Fiat 500e, with 25,000 miles on it, for less than a third of its original 2017 retail price. However, its range is only 90 miles, which means I can’t use it for long trips. These older EVs make great commuter shuttles and second cars.

My Fiat 500e has a 90-mile range, so it doesn’t go on long trips.

Some brands now sell or plan to offer plug-in hybrids, which have an electric motor and a gasoline engine too. Unlike regular hybrids, plug-in hybrids can serve as pure electric vehicles for a limited range, say 20-50 miles, depending on battery size. Plug-in hybrids are not as clean and quiet as EVs, but will be helpful transition vehicles as we move to an all-EV world someday. When the fast charging network is built out and minimum vehicle range starts at 250-300 miles, plug-in hybrids will no longer be needed.

Today, electric cars usually cost more than equivalent gasoline vehicles. This is mainly because of the high price of their batteries. However, EVs cost significantly less to operate, so there is a break-even point at which they become less expensive to run than petrol-fed models. So, you have to consider total cost of ownership when you examine the numbers. And sale/lease prices are likely to drop over the next few years as battery costs are reduced, until they reach purchase price parity with gasoline vehicles in mid-decade. At that point, with lower maintenance costs, EVs will be the better deal.

But the most important reason you should drive an electric vehicle is to help fight climate change.

Climate Change

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Our planet is heating up. There may be some disagreement or confusion in the general population about what’s causing it and what we can or should do about it—and there are some climate deniers, too. But among trained scientists, it there is virtual unanimity about the cause—us—and the urgency of acting quickly. The United Nations’ IPCC Report clearly states how we must all work to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid the worst crises. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was held to commit all countries on a path toward achieving that goal.  

Climate change is actually not news, because experts have known about it for decades and have spoken out. But we haven’t listened or done much about it. Now, scientists say that we have about 10 years to get it handled or it could spiral out of control.

How did this happen? With a population rapidly approaching 8 billion, human activities are now substantial enough to change the planet. Every day, we spew about 110 million tons of manmade global warming pollution into our atmosphere. It comes from various sources, but the major one is the burning of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is only a very thin shell around the earth. As more CO2 accumulates, the atmosphere traps more heat, causing global warming. The science is unambiguous on this.

So, what does it matter how warm the planet is? The problem with the earth heating up is that it disrupts the stable conditions we’ve lived with for the last 10,000 years or so. Global average temperatures have climbed significantly over the last 40 years. Scientists are concerned that we could eventually have some areas of the earth that are uninhabitable, and the people who have to leave there will create refugee crises.

One visible issue with global warming is the melting of glaciers, especially in the polar regions, where temperatures have risen alarmingly. The water from this melt will raise sea levels worldwide, flooding coastal cities.

Someone could ask, “so what do a couple of degrees matter?” Think of it like when a person is sick and has a fever. Even a couple of degrees of difference upsets the body’s processes, and if a fever is too high, death occurs.

Climate disruption also means that global air flows, such as the jet stream, slow down and get a little out of whack, for example, allowing cold air to move from the Arctic into places that are normally not frozen, like the middle of the U.S. Conversely, the Arctic gets 100-degree temperatures, speeding the melting of polar ice.

The oceans are absorbing a lot of the excess heat, and the warmer air above them holds more moisture. This leads to bigger, stronger storms. A lack of rain in the western U.S. causes draughts, so there are more dead trees, which along with rising temperatures, increases wildfires, as we’ve seen in the last few years. 2020 has already been disastrous, and the fire season isn’t over yet.

Disruption is insidious. What if the worms are ready before the birds arrive to eat them? What if the conditions for laying eggs are ideal before or after the turtles arrive? What if warmer temperatures send deadly virus-carrying mosquitos from equatorial areas to temperate regions where the population centers are? And because nature is an ecosystem, a disruption in one area affects many others. It’s all been predicted and is now beginning to happen. Scary.

The complex interactions of nature can’t be explained in a few paragraphs, but the experts who spend their lives studying the natural world and climate science are telling us that we must change our ways now to prevent the planet from accelerating its warming and becoming irreversible. The earth has a great capacity for regeneration, but we are overwhelming its ability to heal itself.

Green Transportation Is an Important Part of the Answer

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Transportation contributes the largest portion of CO2 to our atmosphere—38 percent in California, where I’m located. There are many other causes, including the production of fossil fuels and burning it to generate electricity. Buildings and agriculture make a significant contribution, too. We need new homes and commercial buildings to be much greener, without burning fossil fuels, and to retrofit the old ones for much greater efficiency. All of this creates many good jobs in a green economy.

To generate clean electricity to power the electric fleets of the future, we need to stop burning coal now and move off of natural gas, too. We need to replace it with solar, wind, and other sustainable technologies. This is doable today, but change is very hard. An encouraging fact is that EVs gets cleaner and cleaner as the energy to power them does. Feeding your EV from solar panels on your roof is the ideal option, if possible.

Fossil Fuel Industry Resistance/Auto Industry Sloth

There are powerful forces at work that want to preserve the status quo. Wealthy oil industry executives are hanging onto their business model—it’s been very successful for more than a century. You can hardly blame them, from a business standpoint. But, if a habit is killing you, you need to stop doing it. Smoking is a killer too—and the answer is to put down the cigarettes.

Another issue with the fossil fuel industry is that the people who run it aren’t suffering from the impacts of climate change nearly as much as the poor people who live near oil wells and refineries or in neighborhoods blighted by freeway traffic. This is why moving to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is a social justice issue, too. Read this report from the American Lung Association about the benefits of clean air.

The auto companies are beginning to get on the EV bandwagon, but other than Tesla, it is not where their profits come from, so they have been moving slowly. However, based on what they are saying, the expectation is that EVs will play a major role in their future products. The questions are “how much?” and “when?” GM, for example, talks about “putting everyone in an EV,” but isn’t specific about a timeline. I believe that if consumers demand electric cars, manufacturers will be more than happy to provide them. So, they are getting prepared now but are still making their profits from the SUVs and trucks that have been sustaining them for years. We can make them move faster by demanding EVs!

Let’s All Take Action

Everyone is part of the problem—environmentalists included. I have an electric car and solar panels to  feed it, but my house still uses natural gas for heat, hot water, and cooking. It’s very difficult –and expensive–to change our ways, which is why providing a method for preserving your lifestyle in a more responsible way is an easy sale. We can’t expect everyone to simply stop driving, can we? EVs can replace gasoline vehicles, but it’s even better if we don’t drive as much, or start riding a bicycle, or walk, or take electrified public transportation. That becomes an urban planning priority, and a lot of work is being done now in this area.  

A Recent Peek at a Cleaner Future

With emissions temporarily curbed this Spring, the view opened up.

This Spring, when COVID-19 shut down the world for a while, the clear blue skies of yesteryear reappeared quickly. In India, people saw the Himalayas from home for the first time in decades. You could see the difference from space! But, as we’ve resumed more of our travel, the benefits, sadly, have faded away again.

Many Actions We Can Take

There are many things we can do to keep the earth habitable for humans beyond switching to electric vehicles, but getting rid of your gas-burning car is an easy one. Changing to a more plant-based diet is hugely beneficial, too, since the meat industry causes big environmental impacts. Insulating your home and replacing your natural gas furnace with a heat pump is a great way to make an impact, too. Project Drawdown is a great resource for learning more about the many ways you can help.

It’s hard for human beings to think big picture or long range. I consider myself a climate change activist (not an expert), but there are plenty of times I’d rather go have a beer and listen to music than send emails to my congressperson about climate action or improve my house or attend a city council meeting. We all need to do what we can, and urge our local, state, and national governments to do the right thing.

We need corporate responsibility, too. A large company can have a proportionally big impact. If Google moves to renewable electricity sources for keeping their cloud servers cool, it takes a big bite out of dirty energy production. See what Climate Voice is doing on that front.

Al Gore, who’s studied climate change since he was in college and has tirelessly advocated for climate action, founded the Climate Reality Project in 2006 to train others to share the facts about climate change that he presented in his award-winning An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. You can be part of this, too. Go to The Climate Reality Project website for more information about free online trainings. I attended mine in person in Los Angeles in August 2018 and it was a revelation.

Beyond EVs

Scooters have a very small carbon footprint.

Switching to an EV helps, but maybe you don’t need a car at all! In cities, there are many options, including public transportation and shared vehicles (when there’s not a pandemic). Many people are discovering the utility of electric scooters, bicycles, and mopeds—from shared fleets or owning their own. If you’ve ever visited Amsterdam, you know that bicycles, which generate no pollution whatsoever, can be a fine way to travel, especially if cities are designed to make them safe and convenient.

In suburban and rural communities, it’s definitely more of a challenge, but with a growing range of EV offerings, you should be able to switch over easily in the next few years. Electric pickup trucks are almost here!

The Bottom Line

Climate change is heavily driven by the burning of fossil fuels. It’s a real problem and we have to move away from it quickly. There are many things we can and must do, but one action we can take today to lower our consumption of fossil fuels is to drive an EV instead of a gasoline car. Bonus points for riding a bike instead.

Clay Collier Talks Smart Charging at VERGE 19

By Steve Schaefer


Electricity charging industry veteran Clay Collier spoke in a panel at VERGE 2019 about electric vehicles and connecting them to the grid. Afterwards, I caught him for some insights on what’s going on and where we’re headed.

Collier has a BA in Physics from U.C. Berkeley, co-founded Akuacom – where as CEO he worked with Lawrence Berkeley Lab and electrical utilities to connect cars to buildings and the grid using Automated Demand Response (ADR).

He sold the company and started Kisensum, a company that developed a suite of software for bidirectional V2G (vehicle-to-grid) applications. Again working with Lawrence Berkeley Lab and also the Department of Defense and California Energy Commission, Kisensum found a way to use “load shaping” to optimize vehicle charging assignments and also to limit and equalize the vehicles’ state of charge.

Kisensum participated in the four-second utility market. To meet the market requirements a resource must adjust the amount of energy supplementing the grid on a four-second basis, up and down, based on a signal from the utility.

“That just doesn’t pencil out,” Collier found. The costs of the vehicles, equipment, schedule coordination, and the rest make it too expensive. “Someday, with scale, it may become profitable,” he said.

For a project at the Alameda County Parking Facility, Kisensum enabled vehicle smart charging using an optimizer engine to flatten out power peaks, which achieves demand charge savings on the utility bill. They monitored the cycle changes and moderated the level – what’s known as “smart charging.”

When ChargePoint bought Kisensum, Collier became their VP of Energy Solutions.

Smart charging uses sophisticated software to coordinate charging. It works especially well with fleets of buses and trucks.

“It turns out that 80 percent of delivery truck routes are less than 100 miles—perfect for electrification,” said Collier.

The yard trucks that never leave the site are even easier, since they can be charged while the other trucks are out working.

Smart charging provides two main benefits to balance loads on the electrical grid—Adding capacity and grid balancing.

  • Capacity – The goal is to get as much power on the grid as possible at the times it’s needed most
  • Grid Balancing – Software monitors the grid to charge vehicles during lower usage periods and stop charging during peak usage periods.

Microgrids have an application for smart charging, too. For example, in a vehicle charging system you can balance the grid load by using battery power during peak usage periods, such as 6-9 p.m., and allowing charging directly from the grid when electricity is abundant.

Flattening the Duck Curve

In utility-scale electricity generation, the peaks and valleys of electricity usage are commonly depicted on the Duck Curve.

The Duck Curve is a graph of power production over the course of a day that shows the timing imbalance between peak demand and renewable energy production. The belly of the duck is overgeneration and the neck is the peak load. The term was coined in 2012 by the California Independent System Operator (Wikipedia).

The problem is that there is a mismatch as the highest demand for electricity is in the early evening, but solar generation is highest in the afternoon. Electricity storage is one solution to that discrepancy, and a major goal of setting up a two-way EV-to-grid connection is to use electricity stored in EV batteries to help “flatten the curve” as needed.


What’s Coming

Collier sees mass electrification coming in two waves. The first is in commercial fleets. Electrification of fleets can save a lot on operation expenses. This will be especially relevant as cities start charging fees similar to existing “congestion charges” specifically to internal combustion engine vehicles ($50/day). Regulations are driving this change, and with competition, EVs are cheaper to operate.

The next electrification wave will be when passenger EVs take off. This will happen as people understand that with larger batteries and a built-out charging infrastructure, range anxiety isn’t really an issue. Autonomous fleets will help move people away from individual vehicles, too. The more these vehicles can be linked to the grid, the more they’ll help to balance electrical generation and flatten the Duck Curve.

David Hochschild — California and the Dawn of the Clean Energy Era

David Hochschild

On Wednesday, October 24, David Hochschild, a commissioner on the California Energy Commission, delivered some hopeful news about the progress California is making to reduce climate pollution. His talk, sponsored by Acterra, took place at the Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation in Palo Alto and was titled, “Sunrise from the West—California and the Dawn of the Clean Energy Era.”

Hochschild was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Energy Commission in February 2013 in the environmental position. A longtime solar energy advocate, he worked with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to put solar panels on public buildings, and cofounded the Vote Solar Initiative, an organization advocating for local, state, and federal solar policies. He served as executive director of a national consortium of leading solar manufacturers and worked for five years at Solaria, a solar company in Silicon Valley.

Hochschild’s goal now is to “bring light in dark times,” when the national government is going in the opposite direction from what we need for clean energy development. He believes that California can show the rest of the country—and the world—how it’s done.

First, he showed how predictions of the growth of solar and wind were way too low. While the line on the graph for the prediction of solar implementation barely moves up, the actual installed solar generating capacity jets up at a steep angle.

On a different graph, going down in exactly the opposite direction, is the line representing the value of the top four coal companies. They have lost 99 percent of their value in recent years.

“It’s the beginning of the end of an era,” said Hochschild.

Hochschild disparaged the long history of subsidies to the oil industry—which are still going strong with no end date. Meanwhile, the much smaller subsidies for solar have short time spans.

“This causes a tilted playing field,” said Hochschild. “We’re wasting money propping up the oil industry.”

California’s economy has grown, as has its population, but the state’s emissions have gone down, except in one area—transportation. But with the passage of SB 100 with Governor Brown’s signature in September, the state is on track to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

Hochschild explained that the 100 percent number represents “clean” energy, which is still being defined, but would not include nuclear. To get there, we will need to have diversity in the portfolio, including wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and others.

“For years, skeptics have said that moving to clean sources of energy would ruin the economy, drive up unemployment, and raise energy rates, but it hasn’t,” he said.

California actually leads the rest of the U.S. in renewables installed but has had 46 percent economic growth while over the same period the U.S. has seen 35 percent.

“Because we set energy standards, we use half the energy that the U.S. uses,” said Hochschild. “These old arguments are just wrong.”

Hochschild said that as a large market, California can affect manufacturers’ decisions on what to build. For example, our standards on the energy efficiency of TV sets saves consumers $1 billion a year, but the effect is magnified because companies choose to incorporate those standards into their products for everyone.

Three light bulbs

One easy way to save energy is to switch to LED light bulbs from traditional incandescents, which are being phased out. Starting on January 1, 2018, stores in California were permitted to sell the incandescent bulbs they had in stock but couldn’t order more. As it is, customers are embracing LED bulbs, which cost a little more (prices have been dropping) but last 20 to 25 years and use 80 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs.

Newer LED bulbs are available in a soft white and other shades, so they feel more familiar, emitting a warm glow. The compact fluorescent bulbs, which tended to have a harsh light quality, have faded away now that LEDs have taken over.

Topaz Solar Farm

Topaz Solar Farm in California

Hochschild displayed images of large solar farms in the California desert that are producing vast amounts of electricity. The technology is improving so fast, he said, that they were able to incorporate improvements into the panels and the installation process mid-project.

The major computer and software companies, such as Google and Facebook, are all signing on for 100 percent renewable energy. Hochschild showed an aerial view of Apple’s massive donut-shaped campus, covered with 17 MW of solar panels.

The list goes on. California has the world’s second-largest lithium-ion battery plant (behind Tesla’s giant Gigafactory in Nevada). California leads the nation in energy from biomass, too.

Block Island

Block Island Offshore Wind Farm in Rhode Island

Offshore wind farms are developing—we saw the Block Island offshore wind farm in Rhode Island – the first one in the U.S. Offshore farms are easier to construct in the East, Hochschild explained, because the Atlantic shoreline is shallow, while the Pacific’s drops off. However, there is a new way of creating offshore wind energy in the Pacific Ocean by installing floating platforms for the windmills, tethered down to the sea floor. There are some significant benefits.

“Offshore wind installations out at sea are not only invisible from land, but more important–the wind blows more of the time out there—60 percent versus 35 percent on land,” said Hochschild. “And because it blows at different times of the day from the times when the sun is shining, it can offset times when solar panels aren’t generating electricity,” he added.

Offshore windmills are more expensive to install, but with greater capacity, they catch up by generating more energy.

Regarding employment, there are 86,400 solar workers in California. That’s more than the workers in every other energy industry. And, it’s growing, as solar installations are increasing, reaching about a million in California.

Hochschild believes that the best plan for clean energy would be to electrify all services and run them off a clean grid as we reduce use of natural gas. He talked about how much natural gas is used in homes today for furnaces, stoves, water heaters, and some dryers. But some new homes are being built without gas lines at all.

“It saves $3,000 right away by not having to run the gas pipes,” he said.

The good news continued. One hundred percent renewable energy will power the state’s high-speed rail system, when it’s built. California institutions have taken $6 trillion out of investments in fossil fuels.

Hochschild compared the fossil fuel industry methods now to the tobacco industry in the 1950’s. Service personnel during World War II were given cigarettes as part of their rations, building lifelong habits. Advertisements showed celebrities like Marilyn Monroe smoking, and even a doctor. Hosts smoked on TV. About half of the population were cigarette customers then.

“The industry was selling cigarettes and also doubt about the health risks,” he said, comparing it to the way fossil fuels are denying climate change today. “But with rigorous campaigns and limitations, such as placing warnings on the packs, removing cigarette ads from TV, raising the age to buy cigarettes, and increasing taxes, smoking is at about 15 percent now, and is heading down. We need to do the same thing with the fossil fuels industry.”

Electric vehicles are part of California’s plan to reduce CO2, and the state adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle Action Program in 2013. In January, Governor Brown signed Executive Order B-48-18, which sets goals of building 200 hydrogen fueling stations and 250,000 electric vehicle charging stations for 1.5 million EVs by 2025. The goal is 5 million EVs a year by 2030, which means that 40 percent of new vehicles would have to be EVs by then.

Per the ZEV Action Program’s website, in 2017, 5 percent of vehicles sold in California were EVs. There are now about 474,000 EVs in California, so there’s a long way to go to meet the goals, but sales are increasing, and Hochschild thinks it will accelerate.

“100 percent clean energy is solvable—but it’s not a silver bullet—it’s silver buckshot,” Hochschild said. “It is a combined effort of developing clean energy sources, increasing battery storage, lowering demand, and creating a regional grid,” he added. He also said that it’s likely that the first 80 percent of the way will be easier, while the last 20 percent could be more challenging.

So, although things look dire, California is leading the way, and will be doing a lot more in the future.

Acterra is a San Francisco Bay Area 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Palo Alto that brings people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.