Carl Pope Calls for Climate Hope

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Carl Pope, longtime environmentalist and former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club, came to Palo Alto on November 2nd to talk to Acterra about his new bookClimate of Hope. The 264-page volume, co-written with financier and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, presents climate change in a different way from what you often hear in the media, which tend to dwell on the most dramatic results of change, such as hurricanes and floods.

It was a fascinating and instructive hour, and I got to meet Carl and speak with him both before and after the presentation. The book is an energizing read, as it deals with real problems but also presents lots of ways that action is already happening. My copy is now autographed.

Read my detailed report on Carl’s talk on Clean Fleet Report.

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

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VW’s Iconic Past Meets its Aspirational Future

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Last night, my wife called me into the family room to watch a Volkswagen commercial. In it, a young couple is driving their VW Microbus through the sunny countryside, as it turns out, to Woodstock. Combine an iconic vehicle with an iconic soundtrack (Joe Cocker’s A Little Help From My Friends), on its way to an iconic event and the effect on me was breathtaking.

Everything was perfect–the hair, the 1969 Ford in the background, the look of joy in the eyes of the long-haired, bell-bottom-jean-wearing flower power enthusiasts. They stop to pick up a couple girls. During the also iconic rainstorm (with the famous standing couple recreated amidst the crowd) our Microbus owners offer sanctuary to several other people from the downpour. When it’s over, and the bus is stuck in the Woodstock mud, a few attendees happily push them free. Power to the people! I’m not sure what could be better than this.

I went upstairs afterwards and watched the commercial a few more times on my iPad with the headphones on. As the tears streamed down my cheeks I thought about how Volkswagen was using one of its greatest historical strengths (and one of my generation’s most powerful images) to try to rebuild trust after the Diesel emissions scandal.

It’s stunning, really, how this giant car manufacturer can hit all of my buttons. The cleverness and creativity of this ad is only equaled, perhaps, by the same cleverness and creativity that brought about the Diesel emissions scandal itself. But in any case, it worked on me.

VW has had great advertising before. Back in the 1960s, VW featured brilliant, self-effacing ads through Doyle Dane Bernbach that were perfect for the time. The little, cheap but efficient and reliable Beetle and its brethren were the perfect vehicle for the later 1960s alternative lifestyle practitioners. In fact, in 1969 they sold more than half a million Beetles.

Volkswagen, with its troubling present, is working to move forward by evoking both the almost sacred relationship many of us had with our basic VWs back in a time of social change and the hope we have for saving our planet with new technology. While they show us Beetles and Microbuses, VW is working to bring us an entire line of electric Volkswagens under the I.D. brand, starting in 2020 (a futuristic-sounding year).

There’s an I.D. Buzz all-electric concept vehicle out now that owes much to the Microbus. It appeared at the famous Pebble Beach auto show this year in Monterey, and also in the December issue of Automobile magazine, which I had just been reading a half hour before I was summoned to the family room. The clever folks at the magazine drove the futuristic yellow Buzz along with a gorgeous 1952 original model in a long, illustrated cover story.

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The commercial, by the way, is touting the company’s new People First six-year bumper-to-bumper limited warranty–another effort at trust building. The message is meant to hit much deeper, though, and it sure did with this baby boomer.  My first two cars were air-cooled Volkswagens, and I’m at the very heart of the target of this remarkable commercial.

The real challenge is whether Volkswagen can build enough business in EVs to make up for the loss of its Diesel cars–and reputation. Meanwhile, they just introduced the huge new Atlas crossover SUV to compete in that successful market segment. Back to the real world, where you have to make a profit selling what people are asking for. The Buzz isn’t due until 2022, which sounds like a long time from now. But 1969 was a long time ago, wasn’t it?

 

Green Mobility in Portland, Oregon

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On a three-day trip to Portland, Oregon this week, I had a chance to witness some ways that the Rose City is moving toward a cleaner transportation future.

To start out, my trip into downtown from the airport was on the Trimet electric train system. The Trimet Max Red Line docks steps away from the baggage claim area, and for $2.50, you can sit in a clean, comfortable chair and look out the picture windows at the Oregon scenery. It was clear and beautiful my first day, but, naturally, became gray and rainy later. But that was pretty nice looking (and smelling) too.

Once I stepped off the train onto the street, I walked the several blocks to my company’s Portland office. Along the way, I passed four things that told me that Portland is working hard on going green.

I walked past the Forth Mobility showroom. Forth is set up to give people a chance to learn about and test drive electric vehicles, including the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt. On my way out of town, I dropped in and chatted with Sergio, who showed me the displays, which included a sample of wall-mount charging stations and a screen folks can use to determine which EV would work best for them.

A couple of blocks further, I spotted Electric Avenue (see photo, above). This brightly painted spot at PGE (Portland General Electric) headquarters, sports six charging stations–Level 2 and Level 3. Located near Forth, it’s a good one-two punch for EV awareness and use.

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Along the tree-lined streets, which were beginning to display some autumn-colored leaves on the ground, I spotted two ways to drive around without owning your own car. ReachNow is BMW’s car-sharing service. I saw the logo on the sides of Minis and BMWs wherever I went.

Tucked into other spots were the Car2Go vehicles, which feature cars from BMW’s German rival–Mercedes-Benz. I spotted numerous Smart EVs, along with the smaller Mercedes-Benz crossovers and sedans.

In 10 minutes and six short blocks, I got a sample of Portland’s efforts to reduce traffic and greenhouse gases.

On my first night in the city, I rode in a car on the way to my old friend’s home in suburban Gresham, and there was lots of traffic. These efforts in Portland should help congestion, as well.

To top off my trip, on my return to the East Bay, I rode BART’s airport shuttle and the regular BART line most of the way home. The electric vehicle future is now.

Another Hydrogen Station Opens

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Along with plug-in electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell cars have a major part to play in the movement away from the internal combustion engine. The latest fuel cell cars look and perform just like “regular cars,” but the impediment to mass adoption is the still fledgling hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

To help remedy that situation, the State of California is building 100 hydrogen fuel stations. As part of that effort, San Ramon (on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay) now hosts station #29.

I attended the ribbon cutting event a few days ago and besides admiring the station’s scenic, convenient location just off a major freeway intersection, I heard speeches by and met with numerous people who represented agencies and companies who made this achievement possible. They included representatives from Toyota (maker of the Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car and owners of the land),  Linde (station builder), various California state agencies, and politicians representing the city of San Ramon and the California Senate and Assembly districts.

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Please read the complete story at Clean Fleet Report. I’ll be testing a Toyota Mirai for a week later this month and will share that here as well.

 

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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When Nature’s Not Natural

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Last Sunday, I took a walk in Lake Chabot Regional Park, near my home. My goal was to enjoy some scenic beauty, smell some greenery, admire some trees, and frankly, to accumulate plenty of steps to reach my 11,000 daily goal on my Fitbit.

It was a beautiful September morning, warm but not yet hot. As usual, there were more people near the entrance than once I got a half mile in. The usual shady spots, dry creeks, and golden dry California grass were all there, ready to enjoy. But I started to notice something. I was trying to absorb the natural environment, hear the birds and bugs, and feel the majestic beauty of the taller trees, but there was a lot more going on.

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I heard two people approaching, talking loudly about something. Then, a squealing child, running free. Bicyclists whizzed by. Runners with earbuds chugged along, seemingly oblivious. I saw what I believe was a trainer with a panting, sweating customer in tow. One man had a portable radio playing in his pocket.

In the distance, I saw paddleboats and the little restaurant that sells bait for fishing along with sandwiches, candy bars, and snacks. An airplane flew by overhead.

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Suddenly, I got an idea about why it’s so hard to get people aware that we have a climate problem. We don’t live in the natural environment!

Although the noisy people and zooming cyclists were a little annoying, I immediately realized that they were just like me–using nature for recreation. I wanted views and quiet, but some folks were making sure that their five-mile run wasn’t interrupted by cars or crosswalks. The families just wanted to get the kids outside for an outing. The 10-foot-wide paved path was lots better for the bike riders than dodging cars.

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Nature is where we have recreation, but it’s not where we spend our days, so why worry about it? Our world is made up of computers, cars, buildings and TV, along with cell phones and all the other mass-produced soft and hard goods we love. Our entire culture is man-made. No wonder we can’t relate to a damaged planet–it doesn’t seem relevant.

Even the “nature” I celebrated is a man-made lake, the result of dam built in 1874-75 to create a reservoir. The area didn’t become a recreational area until parts were opened up in the 1960s. It’s hardly wild, but compared to my street, it is.

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As I hoofed it back home and checked periodically at the slim device on my wrist, I was left wondering at how we’re going to sound the climate change alarm if nobody is listening.

 

 

 

Triple Play for National Drive Electric Week

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National Drive Electric Week (NDEW) is an annual celebration of electric cars, which has grown larger and more popular each year since its inception in 2011.

This year, NDEW ran from September 9 to 17. I attended three events—one of them hosted by me. The photo above is from that event, at my workplace (photo: Candice Tandiono).

I’d always wanted to be part of this, but it wasn’t until I actually had my own car–a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt–that I felt I belonged.

Please read my report, published in Clean Fleet Report.