Plugging in electric cars is easy, but paying for them might kill you

Charging a plug-in vehicle is a lot like a middle school science project – except most middle school science projects don’t leave you stranded in a parking lot hundreds of miles from home.

Electric_car_chargingThat's the implicit message permeating the public duel between Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk and New York Times writer John Broder. The former objects to the latter’s review of Tesla’s swanky Model S electric sedan. Broder's travelogue legitimizes a central fear about plug-in vehicles: that they’re unreliable if they stray too far from a high-speed charging station. (Which, incidentally, aren't all that speedy at 30 minutes for a 150-mile charge.)

Broder wrote that he did everything short of pumping magic beans into the Model S to keep it rolling. He drove at low speeds without the heat on for miles to get from one charging station to another. He stayed in almost constant touch with Tesla customer service. He took long breaks while the Model S slowly sipped from electric outlets.

Even with those accommodations, Broder claimed that the Model S ran out of juice and shut itself down in Milford, Conn., about two thirds of the distance from his starting point of Washington DC to his destination of Boston.

Tesla struck back – persuasively. Musk cited the car’s on-board activity log and Broder’s own communications with Tesla customer service to charge that Broder deliberately ran the Model S down for dramatic effect. Oh yeah, and he didn’t putter along at 50 miles per hour with the heat off in February, as he claimed. He drove at highway speeds with the heat on.

No matter whom you believe in this beef, the underlying issue is bogus. Electric cars are not going to fail for lack of places to plug them in any more than gasoline-powered cars failed for lack of gas stations at the end of the horse-and-buggy era.

When gasoline engines hit the scene, the technology was good enough to spur growth of an infrastructure around it. The same thing is happening with plug-ins. Nissan and Tesla Motors are rolling out coast-to-coast networks of high-speed charging stations for their electric vehicles. There are already gujillions of charging devices on the market. The Baltic nation of Estonia has made it a national priority to establish a network of charging stations and they’re off to a good start.

I know, Estonia doesn’t compare to the U.S. in size or population. Yet it has 1.25 million people and 17,000 square miles to cover, so it’s not a throwaway comparison either.

No, the issue with plug-in cars isn’t where to plug them in. The issue is also not that they plug into a grid powered largely by dirty-burning coal, which is the other popular red herring around plug-ins. The grid is getting more environmentally friendly and will grow steadily more so as more renewable energy sources come online.

The issue with plug-in cars is that they’re too expensive for large-scale consumer adoption. A Tesla Model S costs $54,000. A similarly tricked-out Mercedes Benz E-class sedan goes for $51,000. A Chevy Volt is $39,000, compared to $21,000 for a Chevy Mailbu. A basic Nissan Leaf costs $21,300 – and the Leaf is the econobox of the electric car set. A comparable conventionally powered car costs about $14,500.

These price points make plug-in vehicles irrelevant to most consumers. Even if they care for the environment, they can’t pay for a car with good intentions. So treat spitting contests like Broder versus Musk for what they are: entertainment. But when someone talks about making a plug-in that the average consumer can afford, you might want to pay attention. That’s the real obstacle for plug-ins.

Wildlife corridors: eyes wide shut

Doe jumping fenceA few years back I wrote about how ever-shrinking migration corridors across the American landscape threatened wildlife populations. Corridors are the natural avenues along which migratory wildlife travel, plants propagate, genes flow and species relocate in response to environmental changes. The Yellowstone-to-Yukon corridor spanning US and Canada is a good local example.
It’s one of the most underreported stories in the long parade of environmental causes. Possibly because it treads on so many sacrosanct issues like private land rights, housing and jobs.
So I was heartened when Treehugger brought the issue to light again this week in its 5 things you need to know about wildlife corridors post.
In a nutshell, the piece explains why current efforts by conservationists to establish protected habitats is folly if there’s no unencumbered connectivity between them. More importantly, the piece points out that it’s a political issue. Not so much for the environmentalist-vs-developer theatre, but rather for the cross-border cooperation needed between states and internationally in order to make it happen.
As my forementioned piece on computational ecology points out, we already have the data; we have the technology. If we can rally such inter-government cooperation to pull-off controversial commercial corridors for the Keystone pipeline spanning the Canadian oil sands to the Texas Gulf Coast (or, closer to home for me, the Quebec Hydro Northern Pass project), surely we can muster some cooperation and a few dollars to address this under-the-radar threat of wildlife extinction.

Rapid content response – can you do it?

Communications organizations need to act fast these days – like the bicycle maker that recently pounced on a green gaffe by General Motors.
Here’s how it went down.
GM put out this ad, targeted at college kids…
 GM 'stop pedaling' ad
…showing a poor sap on a bike in front of a cute co-ed who was riding in a … wow, car!

Embarrassed

…and then there was this part:

bad part

“Yep. Shameless,” wrote BikePortland.org publisher/editor Jonathan Maus. “But just more of the same from the auto industry.”

Cyclists went ballistic. The auto company – a recent beneficiary of American tax dollars, contributor to our national debt, and the front end of a pretty big greenhouse gas supply chain – actually had the gall to promote its cars as, well, an alternative mode of transportation.
Why pedal, indeed? Why drink tap water when you can get a plastic bottle from Fiji? Why compost your leaves when you can let the garbage man take them to the landfill? Heck, why regulate carbon emissions when it’s easier just to spew?
Cyclists occupied Twitter with complaints about GM. The company quickly apologized (smart) via Twitter, shifting the blame onto college kids (dumb, but no one called them on it):
We're listening 
One company in the bicycle industry, Giant Bicycles, actually made some hay with the story. The bike manufacturer came up with this take-off on GM’s ad and, within about 24 hours of the twitstorm’s beginning, posted it on Facebook.

Giant Bicycles reply parody ad

That’s quick.

The Giant post gained more than 1,000 likes and 386 shares (a pretty big share ratio). That’s solid engagement and a boost for the brand. Although Giant is admired for Toyota-like value, it doesn’t have the cachet of the Pinarello, Orbea or maybe even Trek brand. So leading the charge against GM’s foul, if only for a minute, adds an emotional dimension to Giant.
Either way, Giant’s rapid content generation feat is rare. Sure, savvy communications organizations know how to join a Twitter conversation, but quickly developing solid content like the parody ad almost never happens. Many companies and agencies still use byzantine “public relations 1.0” workflows for social content creation, review and approval – assuming they can conceive of a clever response in the first place.
Too often, it still takes a month to put out a press release. Even if social content takes half the time, this pace simply won't work. In the age of Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, an opportunity goes cold long before you’ve had a chance to run your proposed creative response up and down the chain of command, collecting edits, suggestions and feedback at every turn. By the time the content is blessed, if it ever is, it’s worthless.
To get results in 2011, be ready to act. Faster than you ever have. Like Giant, which is said to be the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer.
So … how does a giant company like Giant get so fast on its feet?
Well, we asked them*.
CleanSpeak: First, how did you come up with the idea for your parody ad?
An Le, Giant Global Marketing Director: GM’s ad was so off the mark that it made our idea quite easy. We simply illustrated the real “reality” of what college students (and many of us) are facing these days – rising cost of fuel, congestion, and an ever-expanding waistline.
CleanSpeak: How did you get the ad done so fast?

Giant: Instead of going through our agency or design house, we did this piece in-house. It took us about two hours from conception to going live on Facebook. With Facebook, we have a quick and casual way to get a message out to our core audience, and we would not have produced this parody ad if Facebook did not exist.

CleanSpeak: Do you pull off these quick content creation feats very often?

An Le on a charity ride. Photo by Jake Orness.

Giant's An Le in a charity ride. Photo by Jake Orness.

Giant: We create content daily – be it news, videos, photos, etc. – but this is our first parody ad.

CleanSpeak: What’s your process for approving the concept and, later, the final? How many approvals?

Giant: We don’t have too many layers of management at Giant. I have final say in creative, and in creating this particular ad, our in-house designer (Nate Riffle, who sits next to me) and I bounced ideas back and forth and had it done in a couple of hours. If we work with a design agency, the process is similar but does take a bit more back and forth.  

CleanSpeak: What is your secret for fast content creation?

 

Giant: Be quick. Avoid committee approval. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Have some guts to take chances once in a while. And don’t be malicious – do it in a spirit of fun.

 ...

* via email. They provided answers from their global marketing director in one hour and five minutes. Do your spokespeople move that fast? We got the right email address by pinging Giant’s Twitter address. That yielded another quick reply. Who’s monitoring your Twitter feed for media/blogger inquiries?
 

Are green buildings killing birds?

Dead birdHow green can green buildings really be if they kill billions of birds per year? That’s the premise Chicago Tribune’s Sheryl DeVore floated in article last week, citing frightening Audubon Society bird death statistics and linking the avian genocide to more than 33,000 LEED certified buildings whose facades make heavy use of glass.  

But Treehugger quicklypointed out the flaw in DeVore’s logic, countering that the birth deaths aren’t a green building problem, but rather a universal building problem.

And, in fact, LEED-certified glass buildings tend to use advanced glass technologies such as fritted glass or tint-changing glass like Brodeur/Beaupre client SAGE Electrochromics that do a far better job at repelling bird collisions.

You can read and follow the debate here.

Climate not changing? Tell it to tsunami victims

There’s nothing a climate change denier likes better than a good cold winter. “Hey, how’s that global warming working for you,” they’ll chortle as the sides of your nose freeze together in the latest Arctic blast.
 


Photo credit: NYDailyNews Kyodo/AP

First of all it’s not global warming, it’s climate change, and the changes are coming faster and faster with each passing year. If you want to know how “well” it’s working, take a look at what the earthquake and tsunami did in Japan the other day. The early death toll was 350, with more expected. More than 500 people are still missing, 1,800 homes have been damaged or destroyed, billions of dollars worth of property lost. The earthquake the caused the tsunami was 8,000 times stronger than the quake that leveled vast areas of Christchurch, New Zealand, just a few weeks ago
 
It was just seven years ago that an Indian Ocean tsunami killed an estimated 150,000 people. See a pattern here? Extreme environmental events are on the rise. The most damaging tsunami on record before 2004 was the one that killed an estimated 40,000 people in 1782 following an earthquake in the South China Sea. There were a few more significant tsunamis before 2004, but they were spaced decades apart. In 1883 some 36,500 people were killed by tsunamis in the South Java Sea, following the eruption of Indonesia's Krakatoa volcano. In northern Chile more than 25,000 people were killed by a tsunami in 1868.
 
The Davos, Switzerland-based Global Risk Forum specializes in identifying risks of any kind to society. The group’s president, Walter Amman is convinced that climate change will lead to more disasters due to extreme weather. He told German’s Deutsche Welle that he believes that we no longer can or should argue that we merely register events more quickly and accurately than 20 years ago. “If you look at the number of those events over the last 10 years, then it is clear that they have increased in number,” he said.
 
Some people won’t believe the climate is changing until they see a polar bear raiding their backyard bird feeder. Hopefully, however, the majority will take events like the tsunami to heart and realize that things they do every day – what they buy, drive, burn, throw away – have a bearing on the life of the planet and everyone on it.

Coal is cheap, except when it costs $500 billion

Coal is the cheapest fuel for electricity – if you spin it right and ignore the costs of coal-related waste, health problems and environmental damage.
 
That’s the gist of a new report saying coal really costs the U.S. public as much as half a trillion dollars annually. If true, that is equivalent to adding 27 cents per kWh to the market cost of coal-fired electricity (2008 dollars). This perspective strengthens the case for renewables.
 
“Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non-fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive,” says the report in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences titled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.”

Hidden costs of coal-fired electricity include mining deaths, climate damage, cleanup, health-care, rail fatalities, acid rain, harmful algal blooms, retardation, subsidies, abandoned lands and the “energy penalty” of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Coal is the predominant fuel for electricity generation worldwide, generating 40 percent of electricity (2005) and responsible for 30 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions.

Perhaps this information could somehow help the behavioral scientists, neuro-economists, environmental scientists and others at the Climate, Mind and Behavior SymposiumThey are trying to figure out how to take our intellectual understanding of the climate threat and get people to actually change their behaviors.

Part of the challenge “has been the assumption that science and logic will suffice in making the case for changes in human behavior,” blogs the New York Times. In the real world, gut instincts, friends and personal passions also play a role. (Treehugger.com has a nice overview of day one here.)

 

'I've been working on the turbine, all the live-long day ...'

A study that came out of Germany this week theorized that investments in renewable energy could pump as much as 600 billion euros into the European Union’s economies. The study, by Germany’s Institute for Climate Impact Research, forecasts a construction boom as owners retrofit homes and businesses to cut their energy costs, and as electrical utilities upgrade their existing grids into efficient “smart” grids.
So naturally, that made me think of railroads. Let me explain how the playpen of free association in my mind arrived at that comparison.
The railroads were the first quantum leap from colonial to modern America. Pre-railroad, the U.S. population huddled around harbors and rivers and lakes because they were the best means of transporting goods over long distances. Most of the American interior might as well have been Venus for all the good it was doing us. The massive agricultural plains of the Midwest were so far from major markets that it didn’t make economic sense to cultivate them on a large scale. There was no way to get the product to market. Then along came the railroads, and all of a sudden those empty acres in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas et al were a treasure trove. The railroads sparked one of the greatest economic expansions in history. As historian Chris Butler puts it on his site “The Flow of History,” “By 1900, railroads had virtually revolutionized overland transportation and travel, pulling whole continents tightly together (both economically and politically), helping create a higher standard of living, the modern consumer society, and a proliferation of new technologies. Although airplanes and automobiles would continue this revolution, it was the railroad that paved the way.”
The U.S. government subsidized railroad growth with land grants and military protection. It could have the same role in developing the renewable energy economy. Today, Congress and the White House are debating how much to support renewable energy economy’s development. President Obama put $16.8 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development into the 2008 recovery act. Deficit-conscious legislators in the House of Representatives want to scale that back.
The question is whether federal renewable energy spending is a drag on the economy (through deficits) or a growth path, as the German study suggests. The study’s author, Carlo Jaeger, doesn’t mince words.
“What we are showing here is that by credibly engaging in the transition to a low-carbon economy through the adoption of an ambitious target and adequate policies, Europe will find itself in a win-win situation of increasing economic growth while reducing greenhouse gases,” he writes.
What do you think? Is clean energy investment the next railroad, or interstate highway system, or Internet? Or is it just another debt to be paid off by the next generation?

One person will die today because of climate change

Climate change could wipe us out someday. That’s the story line, yet it doesn’t seem to be resonating on a broad scale. The truth is climate change is already killing us – if by us you mean humans on this planet.

According to a new report,

  • 350,000 individuals die every year as a result of climate change we’ve already experienced;
  • More than 99 percent of the mortality is occurring in developing countries;
  • 5 million will die over the next 10 years if we don’t change;
  • Nearly 1 million will die every year starting in 2030 if action isn’t taken; and
  • Climate change drains $150 billion from the global economy every year.
The report, by DARA and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, reflects death due to climate-related diseases and weather disasters; loss of habitat due to rising seas and desertification; and economic stress, including loss of natural resources.
How you receive these stats depends heavily on what you believed about climate change prior to reading this post. But even if you’ve bought in to the idea that climate change is occurring and is perilous, big numbers have a way of overshooting emotions.
The truth is we care more about individual suffering than group suffering. It’s human nature. That’s because of the way people regulate their emotions, according to another new study, out of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming,” the authors write. “As a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion.”
So when you read the stats, don’t picture 350,000 people dying. That’s a data point. Picture the suffering of just one person – say, an infant – starving to death because the local farmland has dried into a brick.

Insulating against revolution?

This blog post is from our colleague, Ed Marshall

insulated coolerIn New England where I'm writing this, insulation is typically thought of as a way to keep the cold out and heating costs down. In hot climates, however, it's a way to keep the air conditioned cold in and the hot out. Think of your beach cooler keeping the ice from melting and, in turn, your beer cold. Same concept.

A recent Reuters story notes that the Saudi government is undertaking an ambitious program to cut energy use by some 40 percent, “largely by enforcing investment in insulation”. So, why the Saudi push to insulate? They need the money - specifically, the money made selling oil. The Reuters story quotes a Saudi official noting that 70-80 percent of their energy use goes to air conditioning and they use oil to generate the majority of their electricity. With a growing population and an extreme dependence on fossil fuels to subsidize the amenities of a comfortable life (cheap electricity, plentiful food, cars, roads, etc), the Saudis are staring at a classic export land problem.

Almost half of Saudi Arabia's GDP is directly related to oil exports. Some 75 percent of its government revenue comes from the oil industry. The more oil the Saudis use, the less is available for export, even as production from their aging oil fields slowly declines. The reduction in exports helps push up prices on the open market, increasing cash flow which encourages domestic economic growth and energy use. Eventually, this domestic demand increases enough to materially reduce revenue from oil exports, squeezing subsidies that support things like cheap and plentiful food and fuel. Exposing the national population to unsubsidized prices is politically perilous. Hello Cairo.

Saudi marketIran is caught in a similar rock-and-a-hard-place bind. Indonesia dropped out of OPEC in 2008 when declining production and increasing consumption pushed it from being a net exporter to net importer of petroleum.
 
So, what does the export land issue mean to us, the oil importers? We don't generate much electricity in the United States with oil these days, but it certainly is vital to our transportation system. Whether by car, truck, train or plane, our consumer lifestyle is powered by petroleum. Gasoline, diesel and kerosene move everything from people, food and building materials to toys, toothpaste and auto parts. As oil prices rise, transportation costs increase, putting a drag on an already weak recovery. Hard to insulate our way out of that.

Football, Fritos and the killer analogy

 
If you’ve got good stats to back up the value of your clean technology product, congratulations.
 
Quantifying the benefits your product delivers – e.g., pollution reduced, revenue generated, costs lowered, or time saved – can make a big difference to the communities you are trying to engage. Great stats, however, only work when the context is clear. How much is, say, 37 percent? 10 tons? A nanoliter? Compared to what?
 
To deliver that context and drive home the impact of your numbers, try drawing a simple, concrete analogy. That’s exactly what Reno Contracting of San Diego did a couple of weeks ago with a news release that began…
 
Reno Contracting has recycled more than 60,000 tons of waste from construction projects since the beginning of 2009, accounting for an average 72% of construction debris diverted from going to a landfill.
 
Great stats, but did they not get a lot better when the analogy kicked in?
 
This amount is the equivalent of three football fields, each 100 feet deep.
 
… and when the analogy was reinforced by this simple graphic?
 
 
 
 
 
While 60,000 tons of waste and 72 percent diversion are impressive, they operate on the cerebral level. Football field imagery, coming in the heat of playoffs for the country’s most popular sport, adds emotional impact.
 
So valuable is emotion that we’re in New England blogging about a West coast construction firm after seeing news that somehow caught the eye of Inhabitat, which gets 100,000 readers a day. Although I have no way of proving it, I think the football fields comparison made all the difference between obscurity and publication by one of the world’s premier green blogs. Okay, two, including us ;).
 
Ten days later, the Boston Globe rolled out three tangible comparisons in a front page story about coins that went missing in an armored car transfer. The coins weigh 4,317 pounds, equivalent to an average hippopotamus. Stacked, they’d be three times taller than the city’s iconic Hancock Tower. And, in case you hadn’t heard about the NFL championship tournament, the coins weigh more than the starting linemen of the two Super Bowl teams. There were graphics for all three of these analogies. Pounds are abstract. Analogies deliver emotional, or at least sensory, impact.
A client of ours offers up high-impact comparisons like these through their software. The product’s main function is performing forward-looking environmental impact assessments on manufactured goods while they’re still in the design stage. The software measures carbon, energy, air and water impacts of a design, not only in the straight-up metrics you’d expect, but also in their layman’s equivalents, such as:
 
Energy consumption – hours of TV watching, light bulb burning, laptop operation
 
Carbon production – miles driven (European car, American car, hybrid)
 
Air impact – liters of sulfuric acid created, Kg of corn grain produced in the USA, and (my favorite) bags of corn chips produced
 
Water impact – Deep ponds depleted, shallow ponds depleted, Kg of corn grain produced in the US.
 
Take your pick. If you can say your clean technology product can do the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the road, unscrewing 30,000 light bulbs and preventing 50,000 ponds from drying up, people will listen.
 
What other effective comparisons have you seen?

 

 

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