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New Sierra Club electric car czar talks up plug-ins

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The Sierra Club, the largest grassroots environmental organization in the U.S. with 1.4 million members, is now an official supporter of electric vehicles. [Photo Credit: The Sierra Club]

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Sierra Club's new Senior Campaign Representative for Electric Vehicles Gina Coplon-Newfield.

The Sierra Club, America’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization, recently threw its support behind electric vehicles. SolarChargedDriving.Com caught up with the Sierra Club’s new Senior Campaign Representative for Electric Vehicles, Gina Coplon-Newfield. We spoke with her about the Sierra Club’s reasons for creating its brand new “Go Electric" campaign, what the campaign’s aims are, how Sierra Club members have responded to the campaign, and a number of additional topics.

Below is our interview with the Sierra Club's Coplon-Newfield.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: What does your job entail? When was it created – and why?

Coplon-Newfield: I’m running the new EV campaign for the Sierra Club. I came on board about six months ago to work with colleagues in gathering information about EVs. We’re also looking at what other groups have done and how the Sierra Club can have an impact on this issue. There are four main parts to the campaign: 1. Public education; 2) Advocating at the federal level for programs that incentivize EVs; 3) Advocating at the state and local level for measures such as carpool lane access for EVs and additional EV tax credits; and 4) Advocating for utilities to incentivize for EVs through things such as Time of Use (TOU) metering. Our EV campaign is in conjunction with our efforts on cleaner fuels, cleaner ways to drive, more public transit and biking and walking, and cleaning up our electric grid. EVs are generally cleaner than traditional vehicles, but they will become even cleaner as we continue to clean up our grid.

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SolarChargedDriving.Com: What is the primary reason behind the Sierra Club’s advocacy for EVs?

Coplon-Newfield: There are two main reasons: Reducing emissions and reducing dependence on oil. EVs offer the opportunity to do both. By reducing our dependence on oil, we are also able to increase our national security. Finally, the EV market is already producing tens of thousands of new domestic jobs in auto and battery manufacturing, smart grid technology, and electrical infrastructure installation.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: Is there any opposition to the EV campaign from within the Sierra Club?

Coplon-Newfield: Some of our members have expressed immediate enthusiasm for this campaign – they appreciate that EVs offer many opportunities to help the environment. Some people have questions about the focus on EVs. Some who are very focused on public transit, for instance, are not interested in focusing on anything that has to do with individual vehicles. We’re expecting that we’ll have to continue to work with members to educate them about EVs. Of course, EVs should not be pursued in a vacuum. We need to do several things simultaneously: Increase public transit and biking and walking, increase fuel economy, incentivize EVs, and continue to clean up the electricity sector.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: Some environmentalists are outright anti-EV, in large part because they: a) associate EVs with more coal plants; b) and/or they say the data show that there are minimal CO2 benefits for EVs as compared to hybrids like the Toyota Prius? What do you say to those folks?

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The Sierra Club's official support for electric vehicles could help boost sales of EVs like the Nissan LEAF among the green crowd.

Coplon-Newfield: As you probably know, with our Beyond Coal campaign, the Sierra Club has played a major role in preventing 150 coal plants from coming on line in the U.S in just the past few years -- of course, there’s still much more to do. I say to those people: Yes, the Sierra Club is committed to moving beyond coal. While we do that, we need to pursue transportation alternatives that move us beyond oil as well. We also need to significantly reduce emissions. Given that EVs are generally significantly cleaner than traditional vehicles, it makes sense for us to advocate for them. Of course, in some states, EVs are cleaner, while hybrids might actually be cleaner than EVs in other states. It’s great if people are doing their research on the grid mix where they live. Ultimately, they should be looking carefully at whether purchasing an EV or another kind of vehicle makes sense for them.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: Another group of environmentalists wants to ditch cars altogether – what do you say to those folks?

Coplon-Newfield: I think we need to encourage biking, walking and any completely emission free activity as much as possible as well as public transportation. But we also need to recognize that biking and walking to work and to other places are not currently feasible for everyone.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: Which other environmental groups are advocating for EVs?

Coplon-Newfield: The Natural Resource Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, and others are starting to get involved in this issue. Plug In America has advocated for EVs for many years now. Local groups, largely in California, have been doing advocacy from an environmental perspective for awhile. The Sierra Club is a huge organization with 1.4 million members and supporters. So we’re excited to reach a really broad spectrum of people around the country and engage them on this issue.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: Do you think the rise of EVs will help grow renewable energy?

Coplon-Newfield: I think that is inevitable. The more people who purchase EVs, the more people there will be thinking about emissions, how we power our cars and how we get electricity. And the more people we have thinking about those issues, the more people we’ll have working to grow renewable energy.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: What’s Big Oil doing to oppose EVs?

Coplon-Newfield: I think some (companies) have been holding their tongues in public, at least. When you go to policy discussion arenas, though, they’re starting to try and put out the message that EVs are implausible.

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The Sierra Club views electric cars as a vehicle for growing renewable energy -- not coal.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: Do you think Big Coal is secretly licking its chops at EVs?

Coplon-Newfield: I don’t know.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: What about Big Utilities?

Coplon-Newfield: I’ve seen a range of views. Some utilities seem very eager and proactive. Others have expressed some skepticism. All utilities need to be engaged in active planning to accommodate EV charging on their grids, to educate their customers about the benefits of charging at night, and to offer attractive policies that will incentivize EVs, such as lower off-peak rates and smart grid technology for EV drivers. Eventually, utilities should provide “vehicle to grid” opportunities that will allow people to sell their excess electricity that they’ve created by charging their EVs. And if customers can do this with solar panels on their roofs, all the better.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: What does the long term future look like in terms of EV growth?

Coplon-Newfield: President Obama’s goal of one million EVs on the road by 2015 is a bold one, and we support it. More importantly, we need to get way beyond one million. We need to figure out a way to very quickly scale up EVs -- much more quickly than hybrids were scaled up.

SolarChargedDriving.Com: Do you plan on getting an EV yourself -- and how will you power it?

Coplon-Newfield: We’d love to purchase an EV in the future -- they’re not being sold yet in Massachusetts. We’re also looking into solar for our house.

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