Wednesday, August 30, 2006

SF Activist Wants To Make Electric Vehicles Everyone's New, Cool Car

New America Media
Brian Shott
August 29, 2006

DITOR'S NOTE: As gas prices rise and sea levels inch upward, kicking the nation's oil habit is becoming a priority. Now one group of activists wildly passionate about their electric vehicles (EVs) is fighting to put a plug on American autos. Brian Shott, an editor at New America Media, interviews one such advocate, who says a tiny, ugly EV changed his outlook on energy use and personal transit.

SAN FRANCISCO--It was his passion for automobiles more than a growing concern for the environment that first pushed activist Marc Geller to purchase the electric vehicle he says changed his life.

In 1999, "I was looking for my next cool car," says Geller, a tall, wiry man who came to the Bay Area in 1976. Keeping up his old Citroen -- a funky French station wagon with hydraulic suspension that Geller says rode "like traveling in a living room" -- was simply too expensive. Plus, the car's leaking hydraulics nagged at his conscience.

Geller's search for a desirable but cleaner car led him into a world of electric vehicle owners wildly passionate about their "EVs," and powerful automakers reluctantly building, barely promoting and then reclaiming and crushing many of those same vehicles. He's emerged as a committed EV driver and activist and solar panel salesperson determined to get electric cars the respect they deserve.

If former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" put global warming in the national spotlight, the smaller but similarly well-reviewed documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car" could help focus those concerns around Geller's transportation agenda. Geller, who knew director Chris Paine from battles to save EVs, has helped promote the film.

Finding an EV to replace his old Citroen back in 1999 wasn't easy. Geller tracked down leasing agents "hidden away in the back of the dealers," only to be told that no cars were available. California, through its Zero Emissions Mandate of 1990, had required the major auto companies to produce non-polluting vehicles. Carmakers used a variety of ways to keep those vehicles' profiles low while obeying the requirement to put them on the roads, often leasing EVs only as fleet cars, typically to municipalities.

After almost two years of searching, in the spring of 2001, Geller found Ford's Th!nk City, a car he describes as "little, plastic, scary-small... a glorified golf cart." He leased one because he knew it might be his only chance to get an EV.

Owning the micro-car turned out to be "fantastically transformative," Geller says. It had no tailpipe to pollute. Geller found he rarely needed to go beyond the car's limited (under 50 mile) range, and when he did, friends were eager to trade cars for the day. Then came Sept. 11 and the rush to war with Iraq, when the relationship between U.S. oil dependency and foreign policy was, for many people, blasted into the open.

As Geller puts it, "You don't have to kill people for electricity."

As most environmentalists know, however, electricity only seems clean. Author Jeff Goodell writes in his book "Big Coal," "There is perhaps no act of greater denial in modern life than sticking a plug into an electrical outlet...Fully sanitized of any hint of its origins, electricity pours out of the socket almost like magic." More than half of all U.S. electricity is produced in power plants fired by coal, a major contributor to smog and global warming.

But Geller and other electric car advocates insist that electric cars are still cleaner than their petroleum-powered cousins. The electric grid, they say, gets cleaner every year due to environmental regulation (on Aug. 17, a federal appeals court upheld a Clean Air Act rule requiring older plants to install modern pollution control whenever they undergo certain upgrades), while gas cars pollute more as they age. At night, EV advocates say, utilities' excess power could charge millions of EVs. Plus, wind and solar power could completely clean up the grid.

According to Sherry Boschert, author of the forthcoming "Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America", "well to wheel" studies -- analyses that take into account emissions from both the vehicle and its power sources -- show that electric vehicles could reduce CO2 emissions anywhere from 11 to 100 percent. Analyses vary on whether EVs would reduce or increase the air pollution that causes smog and acid rain.

Geller says his tiny Th!nk City made him contemplate all these connections. Today, two large solar panels sit atop the Victorian he owns with several other people near San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. Geller estimates that solar power generates 75 to 80 percent of his household's total power usage, including his car (now an electric Toyota RAV4).

"Literally nothing is more disempowering to the oil companies than saying, 'I don't need your sh-- anymore,'" Geller says.

In fact, all the automakers wanted to get their EVs off the road as soon as possible. In 2002, just months after Geller finally found the Th!nk City, Ford canceled its electric division, took back the cars and shipped them to Norway to be crushed. Ford said there was little demand for the cars and didn't want any liability after their leases ended. Activists claimed Ford and the other major automakers never promoted the cars and sprung at the chance to get them off the roads after a court injunction delayed tough zero-emissions standards.

Geller fought back. First he convinced the San Francisco activist group Global Exchange to go beyond its call for greater fuel efficiency and get behind an effort to save Ford's EV. Eventually, San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace in Europe got involved. In September 2004, Greenpeace took over the roof of the Ford plant in Oslo that made the Th!nk City. Ford gave in, and the remaining vehicles were saved.

Owners of Toyota's RAV4 EV, GM's EV-1 and Ford's Ranger EV and Th!nk City soon joined forces and created Geller and Boschert also formed Plug In America, which pushes the automakers to offer Evs and make a gas-electric car with greater electric capability, a "plug-in hybrid."

It's a movement, Geller says excitedly, that could spread like a virus. "I see how hungry people are to do this. All different kinds of people." Plug In America's membership includes ex-CIA chief James Woolsey.

Conspicuously absent from the movement, Geller says, are the large environmental organizations, which have been slow to get behind EVs. Because of this failure, Geller says, Americans want cleaner power but don't know their options.

"Fundamentally, we're more concerned with improving fuel economy," says Brendan Bell, Associate Washington Representative in the Sierra Club's Global Warming Program. EVs in California make sense, Bell says, because the electricity grid is relatively clean. "The problem is in Ohio and Missouri, for example, where the grid is incredibly dirty."

But to Geller, reducing the nation's oil dependency, combined with electricity's green potential, more than tip the scales toward EVs.

The EV activists' latest battle? Saving the Nissan Hypermini. Employees of Pasadena Water and Power, the city utility, so loved their 11 Hyperminis that on August 8 they blocked them from being taken back by the Japanese auto manufacturer. "This is with no word from us," Geller says. "It had just been kind of bubbling."

Driving his Toyota Rav-4 EV around the block -- fast -- to show this reporter the fun and ease of electric drive, Geller sums up his love for EVs.

"Every mile is no petroleum. Every mile is no pollution where you're driving. Every mile is no money to Dick Cheney's retirement fund."

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