SolarChargedDriving.Com interviewed long-time EV advocate and activist Chelsea Sexton — perhaps best known for the starring role she plays in Chris Paine’s documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? — on her views about the future of EVs and PHEVs and her views on the solar-EV/PHEV synergy.
The interview follows below.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: You’re well known for your starring role in Who Killed the Electric Car? How did you get into the film and how did it end up that you played such a starring role? How has this affected you and your personal and professional life?
Sexton: I leased EV1s to both the director and executive producer many years ago, and helped with the film here and there along the way. It was a labor of love for all of us involved. But it was a total surprise to have ended up onscreen. I had no real idea until I saw it at the Sundance premiere. I’m actually pretty shy and was always used to being behind-the-scenes, so I don’t think I’ve stopped blushing since, but it’s been a heck of a ride. Certainly the film raised awareness in all sorts of circles, and as EVs have started to make a comeback, I’ve had the opportunity to interact and work with more and different types of people as a result. My group of co-conspirators has certainly gotten bigger!
SolarChargedDriving.Com: When is Revenge of the Electric Car scheduled to be finished and distributed? Do you play a role in it? If so, can you tell us a little about it – and about the film?
Sexton: At this point, our next film is scheduled for release in Spring 2011. We’ve been filming for a couple of years now, following the efforts of different people and companies to put plug-in cars back on the road. I’m involved in this one as a Consulting Producer, but have no idea if I’ll be onscreen again. I expect folks have probably gotten their fill of me by now!
SolarChargedDriving.Com: What are you doing these days, professionally, in terms of advocacy, etc.? What are your hobbies, interests, etc.?
Sexton: I’m in a great spot in that I get to play with everyone – all the different stakeholders involved. Generally, I think of them in three groups: industry, including automakers, utilities, service providers — all the moving pieces needed to get and keep cars on the road; policy makers, developing supportive and appropriate regulations, incentives, etc., and consumers. I’m doing lots of public speaking, education, working with NGOs, etc. Each of these needs to push against the other two – success lies in the middle of that triangle, if we do it right.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: What kind of car do you drive?
Sexton: Ironically, I still drive a little Saturn. My plan is to keep it until I can get something with a plug on it.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: How many different EVs/PHEVs have you owned or leased? What models and years were they and how long did you have them?
Sexton: I got to drive both 1997 and 1999 EV1s every day while working on the program, but was never able to lease one of my own – or any other EV, for that matter. I have been able to drive lots of them though over the years. My husband and I have something of a running competition going about who’s driven more cool/fast/unique/prototype, etc., EVs. I have him beat on variety (including a 1912 Detroit Electric and the land speed record-setting Impact) but since he works for Tesla, he’s definitely winning on consistency these days!
SolarChargedDriving.Com: I assume you will be buying an EV/PHEV within the next year or two? Which ones are you focusing on in particular – and why?
Sexton: Yes, I’m certainly hoping to – and I’ve driven several impressive prototypes of the next generation cars, including the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi iMiev, etc. Personally, I want a car with at least enough pure EV range to get me through an average day, and I tend toward something smaller and more nimble vs. a large vehicle – even with a family, I don’t need to carry my living room around. So, I’m happy that both the Volt and the Leaf will be among the first available. There are other promising cars coming, but I don’t know if I’m patient enough to wait for them!
SolarChargedDriving.Com: You’ve been interviewed frequently since Who Killed the Electric Car? and have often been asked about your views on electric cars in general, but, as far as I can tell, no one has focused on your views on the EV/PHEV-solar energy — until now. What are your general views on the EV/PHEV solar energy connection? How important do you think the EV/PHEV-solar energy link is to growing the EV and PHEV industry, in the U.S. and beyond?
Sexton: I think this connection is both incredibly important, but one which we struggle to articulate to our collective advantage. There are huge benefits to the PV/PH/EV combination — among them, that solar electricity reduces the environmental impact of the car, and offsetting the cost of gasoline reduces the payback period of the solar system. Over half of the current production EV drivers know this and use solar power to recharge their cars.
That said, I’ve seen way too much of the message that plug-in cars aren’t beneficial if you don’t use solar energy to charge it; that charging off the grid isn’t “good enough”. That backfires for both sides, because it feeds the idea that if someone can’t do everything, he shouldn’t do anything at all. Consumers need to understand that each technology stands on its own merits and that starting with either is a good thing. Usually, they’ll continue once they’re on the path, so I find encouraging people to start where they can to be more effective.
Many consumers are (sometimes less-consciously) motivated by what I call “conspicuous non-consumption.” They’re willing to do the right thing, but they also like to be recognized for it. One of the reasons the Toyota Prius has sold better than the Civic hybrid is because it looks distinctive – it was a visible environmental/energy security choice. The same phenomenon has faced utilities trying to encourage green power programs – short of putting a sign on your lawn, there’s no way your neighbor will know you’re doing it. So there’s significant opportunity for the solar movement to embrace the rolling billboards that are EVs. I can easily see the possibility of special license plates or other identifiers for those who commit to renewable power for their cars, and certain incentives being available only for those who do. We need to think more co-operatively and creatively about how to encourage both technologies.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: Do agree with the proposition that a disproportionate percentage of early adopters of EVs/PHEVs, have been, and will continue to be, more environmentally conscious, and more driven by green considerations, than the middle to late adopters of EVs/PHEVs?
Sexton: No, not necessarily. I think awareness is increasing across the board, but early adopters are often more financially able to act upon that awareness, and more tolerant of early technologies.
However, most EVs have not been leased/purchased out of environmental considerations as the primary factor. They’re seen as cool, fast, fun, the new thing to have, etc. A secondary segment of buyers also resonate to the technology and engineering – the geeky stuff. And at the end of the day, vehicles are very much an emotional purchase; this is no different with plug-in cars. The most successful automakers will take all of these things into consideration and not try to sell PH/EVs on environment alone.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: How do you get (more) greenies on board the EV/PHEV express with the specter of hulking coal-plant smokestacks in the back of their minds – is linking EV/PHEVs to renewables, and thereby exorcising the demons of Dirty Coal, the best (only?) way to go? Is it fair, given that in many parts of America, and other industrialized countries, coal is still king?
Sexton: I don’t think the mission is getting more environmentalists on board so much as getting more of everyone on board. But for many years, we’ve actually struggled with some of the environmental organizations and climate change advocates, because to them, coal is the number one enemy. So we’ve actually seen environmentalists argue against electric cars because of a rampant misperception that they’re going to force the building of more coal power plants, and that they actually create more pollution than gas cars – just at those plants instead of from a tailpipe.
Both arguments are dead wrong. First, we have enough off-peak grid capacity to fuel the vast majority of the nation’s vehicles with electricity without building a single new power plant of any kind, let alone coal. It will be important to develop policy and utility rate structures to encourage overnight charging in most cases. But I’ve found from experience that people tend to do this anyway, because it’s what’s convenient; the car is sitting in a garage and the owner is sleeping. We’ll need to develop some infrastructure solutions for people who don’t have a garage, but we’re working to do that now – preferably using renewable energy, but absolutely in ways that don’t rely on more coal. I’ve never seen an EV advocate push for another power plant.
But, there is also the reality of the current national grid mix, about half of which is comprised of coal. Even given this, study after study has shown that EVs pollute far less than gasoline vehicles – to say nothing of using domestic fuel that’s much more economical to buy.
From my perspective, coal is bad – awful, really – but oil is worse. We need to shift away from both, but we also have to enable people to start where they can.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: What do you think about the term ZEV – is it accurate?
Sexton: I think we’ve gotten way too hung up on this term. It was created as a policy distinction – a class of vehicles (EVs and hydrogen fuel cells) required by CARB (California Air Resources Board) in the 1990s. Technically, it’s correct – the vehicles themselves are zero emission. It’s true that if you use standard grid electricity and evaluate on a “well-to-wheels” basis, they’re not. But that wasn’t a term on most people’s lips back then anymore than “climate change” was. But there is a lot of sniping about the term these days. The renewable energy/alternative fuel/environmental movement has an unfortunate tendency to become a circular firing squad. There aren’t nearly enough of us in the first place, and we waste a lot of human energy this way.
Of course, if you use solar or another source of renewable energy to charge your vehicle, then it really is a ZEV, and there’s nothing to argue about.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: Do you think big automakers like Nissan, Toyota, Ford, and others devote much, if any thought to: a) considering the synergy between solar and EVs/PHEVs; b) actually tapping into this synergy as a way of pulling “green” class car buyers into the EV/PHEV ring?
Sexton: Sure, I think so; the companies who make plug-in cars bear the brunt of the “long tailpipe” (to a coal plant) argument – though it doesn’t help that Toyota, in particular, has been pushing this line of thinking. So, no question that automakers would like to see their cars run on solar power. But especially given recent events, I think they have to focus most on getting cars on the road in the first place. It’s also important to balance that “perfect vs. good” problem mentioned earlier for those who can’t do both.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: Do you have friends and/or family who run their EVs on sun?
Sexton: As you might imagine, I have many, many friends who run their EVs on sun.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: Why do think it is that so few people know about, or think about, running their cars on sun? And what do you think it will to take to change this?
Sexton: Let’s be clear: Not enough people know about the cars, let alone how to power them. The most common thing I hear in my travels is “I didn’t know electric cars were possible.” We have a massive amount of consumer education work to do on a number of fronts. But it would help to have more cooperation between the climate change/renewable energy and transport communities.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: Have you considered running your own future EV/PHEV on sun and/or wind?
Sexton: Sure, but at this point I’d be grateful to start with the car!
SolarChargedDriving.Com:Who Killed the Electric Car contends that car makers and Big oil are likely “in bed” with one another, what do you think? And is this changing?
Sexton: Actually, I don’t think the film contends that – more that each industry had its own reasons and took its own actions that contributed to the demise of that generation of vehicles. It’s not that some conspiracy wasn’t possible, but the point is that one wasn’t required to have achieved the result.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: What do you think are the biggest stumbling blocks to EVs going mainstream?
Sexton: Easy answer. Lack of cars – consumers can’t buy what isn’t available.
There are huge benefits to the PV/PH/EV combination — among them, that solar electricity reduces the environmental impact of the car, and offsetting the cost of gasoline reduces the payback period of the solar system. Over half of the current production EV drivers know this and use solar power to recharge their cars. –Chelsea Sexton, EV activist and advocate
SolarChargedDriving.Com: I’m going to anticipate that one thing you will mention is range anxiety. In some ways it seems so ridiculous. First, because most people don’t drive more than 40 miles per day and second because the average American household has 2.3 cars, meaning one of those cars could always be a gas (ideally a PHEV) vehicle for long trips. What gives – why don’t more people see how ridiculous range anxiety is?
Sexton: See, surprised by my last answer, aren’t you? I know from experience that range anxiety is vastly overblown. It is a concern among “virgin” drivers who are used to a 300-mile gas car. They do indeed ask the question, not least because we spend so much time in traffic, it seems like we’ve travel much further than we do. But it’s a psychological problem, and a little exposure to the technology goes a long way. Within the first week or two of driving an EV, people figure out how far they really drive and that they generally have more than enough range. The community aspect of the EV movement helps too. Drivers tend to become ambassadors, talking to friends and neighbors (and strangers!) about their cars, enabling an “if he can do it, so can I” mentality.
PHEVs and EREVs will also help with this – those who really do drive a lot or want the “safety net” can have the best of both worlds. And it is useful to have a sprinkling of public chargers in the EV market areas. But we don’t need one on every corner to get started.
SolarChargedDriving.Com: There are extremely divergent views on how fast EVs and PHEVs will take off, with some predicting widespread adoption within the next 10 to 15 years and others claiming EV/PHEVs will barely make a blip on the global auto market in that same time period. What are your predictions?
Sexton: There’s a lot of enthusiasm these days because we finally have some momentum with respect to putting EVs on the road again. But, I think we have to be realistic about how long it really takes to turn over the vehicle fleet, and what “widespread adoption” means. For example, in 10 years of being on the market, gasoline hybrids have come to comprise about 3% of new cars sales in the US- not the total fleet, just new sales. It looks as though plug-ins might happen a bit faster- but even if we have 10 million PH/EVs on the road globally in 10-15 years, that’s still a rather tiny fraction of the overall vehicle fleet. The willingness of automakers to ramp-up production will be the sticking point- consumers can help with that by showing demand. But I find myself in these odd conversations with policymakers and utilities along the lines of “What happens when we have a million cars in our area? Can the grid handle it?” Of course we need to plan for those numbers (and I’m encouraged to see that they are), but frankly, we should be so lucky. It’s a problem I’d like to have.
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