By Zan Dubin-Scott and Paul Scott
While we’re in this pandemic pause—as electric and other car sales stall—Paul and I thought we’d take a brief look back at the EV/renewable energy activism we and others have undertaken over the past couple of decades because we want to make a simple but critical point: individual choices and lifestyle changes to fight climate change are more important than ever.
Yes, of course we need policy change, namely a carbon tax, fuel economy standards and incentives for renewable energy to spur the proliferation of EVs, wind and solar power and other life- and planet-saving measures.
But Paul and I worry when we hear anything that minimizes the role that individuals and lifestyle choices can and must play in confronting the crisis of our lifetime, one that will make COVID pale in comparison. The choice to “drive on sunshine,” eat less meat and, yes, recycle, et al, has other key repercussions, which we’ll get into later, but first let’s take that brief trip down memory lane, which we were honored to share with several current and former Plug In America board members and other wonderful early adopters.
Though Paul and I are now long happily divorced, it all began for us shortly after we were married in 2001, when Paul was diagnosed with aggressive bladder cancer. Facing, well, possible death, he expressed a desire to quit postponing his dreams. I asked him about his biggest dream, and his answer could have only come from a lifelong environmentalist who got a vasectomy at the tender age of 23 to do his part for overpopulation. He said he wanted to put solar panels on our roof.
“Leaving a legacy of clean energy seemed the right thing to do, given the state of the world, then and now,” Paul says. “I’ve always been frugal, some might say stingy, but it came from a place of not wanting to waste anything. I loved the idea of generating the energy for our home from the sunlight falling on our roof. And as for the cost, which was reasonable, I saw it as an investment that would pay dividends for decades. Considering that the photovoltaic system, now 18 years old, paid for itself after only eight years, it turned out to be a very good investment.”
This was 2002 during what you might call the start of our era’s resurgence of the consumer solar movement. So away we went. And going solar really started everything because in shopping online for panels, Paul fell into a crowd of rebels enamored of electric cars, which had just come on the market. EV1s could still be glimpsed on the street and, in California anyway, one could walk into a dealership and purchase a RAV4 EV.
“After reading posts from folks who seemed very happy with their EVs, I asked whether there was anyone living near me who would give me a test drive, since the local Toyota dealer didn’t carry the vehicle,” Paul says. “The very next day, a friend drove over and let me drive his RAV. After a tour of the neighborhood, I was sold. The vehicle was clearly better than its gas version, and even though it was expensive relative to that, the fact that I could drive using energy generated from sunlight made it more than worthwhile. We bought one immediately.”
We took possession of our RAV while a bald Paul was undergoing chemo. I’ll never forget the feeling I had during my first test drive. Considering how much time we all spend in our cars, driving a gas vehicle is easily the most environmentally deleterious thing the average American does. This car didn’t have a tail pipe. No emissions, no exhaust. No gas. Auto-related pollution prematurely kills millions every year. So, as I took the wheel, years of a nagging, if unconscious guilt lifted from my shoulders. And we could and would, indeed, drive on sunshine. Exhilarating. We felt hope. Millions could now take a giant step toward a cleaner world.
Fighting to save EVs
Of course, anyone who has seen Who Killed the Electric Car? knows that impossibly powerful anti-EV forces were taking giant steps around the same time to boot these vehicles off the market. And so, our EV activism began. Our first foray: a letter-writing party to get the California Air Resources Board (policy action!) to not kill the electric car. Our friends, charged up for this fight, arrived at our house in all manner of EVs, more than one EV1 included.
As part of this campaign, we organized a press conference at L.A.’s federal building wherein we spelled out a giant “ZEV” in the parking lot with 50 EVs before EV-owning enviros including Laurie David, Ed Begley, Jr. and Tony Shalhoub made the case while news cameras rolled.
We next flew with a handful of others to Sacramento to testify before the air board. Chris Paine used footage from the meeting for “Who Killed?” But, in fact, the board drove a nail in the coffin.
We were undeterred, however, and buoyed in a big way when Ford agreed not to crush their Ranger EVs after soon-to-be-friends Dave Raboy and the late, great William Korhhof sat in their leased Ranger pick-ups for a week in protest. Indeed, that action led to the formation of DontCrush.com, the predecessor to Plug In America, which many readers will know as the nation’s leading independent EV advocacy organization (whose policy achievements include having had a major hand in securing billions in early EV incentives).
But easily the most exciting, as well as disheartening experience we had along this road was the 24-7 vigil that a whole bunch of us staged at the GM training plant in Burbank to try to prevent GM from hauling a whole lot of EV1s to the crusher. We even got commitments from several EV1 lessees to purchase their cars and absolve GM of any liability, and wrote a big fake check for the press conference to show GM we meant business.
I remember getting up at 1 a.m. to do a shift in darkness, and Paul’s favorite memory was getting a call from Jay Leno and having a bit of an argument with him over whether EVs were the end game. “I had hand-delivered a letter to Leno’s office in Burbank, just a mile from our protest site, asking if the rumor that he had offered GM one million dollars to buy an EV1 was true,” Paul says. “I happened to be taking one of my turns guarding the vigil site one rainy day when my cell rang. I answered and heard a familiar voice say, “Hi, this is Jay Leno and I don’t know where you heard I offered a million dollars to GM for an EV1, but it isn’t true.” I accepted that at face value and asked if he’d be willing to come by our vigil and help us get some publicity. He declined the offer, and then proceeded to tell me that fuel cells were the future, not EVs. I was surprised that this very famous man, who is known as a car expert, would be taking a stand that I knew was wrong. I then had a five-minute argument with him over the relative merits of the two technologies before he was pulled off the call by his assistant. I’m happy to say that Jay has come around to agreeing that EVs are definitely the end game of transportation.”
Also at the vigil, our cohorts Alexandra Paul and Colette Devine got arrested for refusing to move aside as lumbering car carriers did indeed carry away stacks of diminutive electrified paradigm changers. The victory? Chris Paine likewise filmed this for his documentary, which probably did more for EV awareness than anything else, and our battle hit the pages of the Washington Post, the New York Times and other national megaphones even as we went on to stage more protests at our next target, Toyota. After two protests on successive Saturdays at our local Toyota dealership, we succeeded in saving some 800 RAV4s from the crusher.
True, sit-ins and picket lines aren’t exactly a “lifestyle choice” like going vegan. But they are part and parcel, and all that energy eventually lead us to National Drive Electric Week, Plug In America’s test-drive heavy annual celebration that has not only introduced hundreds of thousands of people to EVs (and solar and other clean technologies) but has boosted EV sales. Now nearly a decade old, last year’s observance drew some 170,000 people to 324 mostly volunteer-run events in all 50 states and eight countries.
Individual actions make an impact
Today, every automaker has an EV model, which was our impossible dream when our activism began. Still, a lot of work is left to be done. Which is to say our individual actions, activism and lifestyle choices must not and will not end. Again, policy is part of that. But, we can pass laws mandating higher fuel economy standards only to have a president overturn those laws, as we have seen. However, no one can stop us from buying EVs. Likewise, long-standing agreements with renewable energy providers can be jettisoned, causing costs to rise relative to dirty energy. But no one can stop you from installing solar, or buying clean energy from third party suppliers which your utility will deliver. Prices for both solar and wind, at utility scale, have dropped below that of coal and gas, putting future expansion of dirty energy in a financial bind.
And, taking personal actions robs the oil, coal, and natural gas companies of all the money they would otherwise receive. Those carbon taxes everyone wants will never be passed as long as we’re all spending billions at the pump and paying billions to utilities for dirty electricity that enriches the fossil fuel companies and lobbyists fighting such regulation.
To quantify this: Every one million Americans driving internal combustion engine cars and using dirty electricity spends $3 billion for energy from the oil, coal, and gas companies. According to the EIA, the average American spends close to $1,400 per year for electricity. Since 62% of the national grid is coal and gas, this means the average American spends roughly $1,000 every year for electricity generated from these dirty sources.
Progressives come down hard on candidates who take money from fossil-fuel interests, but the vast majority of them drive gas cars and use dirty electricity, so they are giving tens of billions to those very same industries. Does this make any sense at all? You cannot beat an opponent whom you are also funding to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.
So yes, your lifestyle choices matter.
The tide is turning
The good news is that while most EV sales are struggling at the moment, ICE cars are gradually losing market share to EVs in all markets. Once electric pick-up trucks are available next year, all categories of personal vehicles will be offered as electric. This includes class 8 semis, by the way. Eventually, all auto factories will transition fully to electric (or be purchased by companies like Tesla) because it is difficult to turn a profit while making both ICE and electric vehicles. EVs are vastly superior to ICE cars and once that fact settles in the minds of ICE carmakers’ owners, they will understand that if they continue manufacturing ICE vehicles, the buyers will shun them by the millions. While there will be some ICE holdouts, no automaker who wants to stay afloat will keep a factory running to manufacture them when the market is quickly moving toward electric technology.
A similar transition is occurring in the electricity sector. Now that both solar and wind energy have dropped well below the cost of coal and gas-generated power, orders for new coal plants have ended and new gas plants are slowing. More importantly, most of the new power added to the grid every year is now renewable. This trend will continue until the grid is close to 100% renewable.
So progress is being made. To hurry this process, we must get as many individuals and politicians as possible to switch to EVs and clean energy—and start working for change while walking the walk.
We all have a choice. Make it the right one. Live your best lifestyle.
And we’ll see you on the picket line. Or at the EV dealership.
For how-to tips on getting an EV, go to PlugInAmerica.org. Simply Google how to install solar to put those panels on your roof or ask your utility about green energy options.
Zan Dubin-Scott and Paul Scott are co-founders of Plug In America and former board members. @zandubinscott, @paulscott