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S. is an electric-vehicle (EV) driver, builder of a platinum-LEED home, and all-around passionate environmentalist in my congregation. He lends his EV out to everyone who’s curious (Joy, my wife, calls him an EVangelist), and one Tuesday in October, he brought it to church for me to try it for a week. It’s a Leaf. It was lots of fun. And I promised I’d write it up, which I am finally doing now that I’m making myself blog daily (except for the Weekend from Hell, which we will ignore).

The first thing you need to know is that I have a serious commute. It’s 32-39 miles, depending on the route. A car has to get me that far in heavy traffic with lots of battery charge to spare, or I’m going to be very nervous. The car had plenty of charge for the job.

It did not always have as much charge as it said it did, or maybe it’s vice versa. For example, we took a seven-mile drive to a restaurant one day. The car said it had 35 miles of charge, so that seemed plenty safe. By the time we’d gotten to the restaurant, our cushion had dwindled; the car was reporting it had dropped 14 miles. Ulp. We made it home, no problem, but this erratic behavior could hamper travel.

Plugging into the 110 outlet in our entryway was enough to charge the battery overnight, but it meant running the cable over the sidewalk, which meant taping it down each time. If we owned an electric car, that would get old very fast. We’d need a charging station in the street, or in our garage, or at least we’d want to use the 220 outlet that’s in the garage. (Our garage is not presently accessible to any car that wants to keep its undercarriage attached.)

At work, I could fully charge in 4-6 hours, because our church rocks and puts its money where its Seventh Principle is by having a free charging station. If you had a commute of any significant length and didn’t have access to a charging station while at work, an EV would be pretty impractical; however, more chargers are popping up all the time, many available to anyone who wishes to use them, for free or a small fee. Mobile apps direct EV users to the network, and there’s a great community feel to it, eco-creative types helping each other out. Our church is on the apps’ maps, and we often have visitors who are there to plug in while they’re working, shopping nearby, etc.–or they live in the neighborhood.

The other cool thing about UUCPA’s charger is that, like many Palo Alto locations, we opt for Palo Alto Green, which means that all our electricity is from renewable sources. So after I charged at work, I was driving a truly zero-emissions vehicle. Even charging at home, with plain old Pacific Gas and Electric, I’m running a much cleaner car than one with a gas engine. Joy, who is an energy analyst for the state of California, says that even if you use electricity generated in the dirtiest way available (that would be coal), driving an EV would still generate lower emissions than a hybrid, gas, or diesel engine. (S. takes care to say, “The manufacture of the EV causes emissions,” proving that there is such a thing as a rigorously honest evangelist.)

A factor that surprised me may be a major barrier to widespread acceptance of EVs around the country: they’re cold. A gas engine engenders so much excess heat as a by-product that when you want to warm the interior, you just run a little air off the engine. Okay, all that heat is part of the problem–but in Vermont, you need it. Heck, you need it in Palo Alto. You can turn on the car’s heater, of course, but making heat from electricity takes a lot of energy, and it cuts into the battery’s time quite a lot. The seat warmers, plus some old-fashioned approaches like a blanket over the lap, were good enough in this climate, even for an easily-chilled person like me, but in a cold climate, EVs will need more efficiency to get both a warm interior and a long-lasting battery.

On the other hand, S. is an early adapter and the Leaf has been around a while, so I was driving one of the least efficient EVs. I’m sure this aspect of the technology will keep improving, as will the infrastructure that is currently reminiscent of the earliest days of ATMs, when they were few and far between and of so many formats that most of them didn’t take your card. Standardization will come soon, as it usually does in technology.

Joy got to go on a tour of the Tesla factory last week–don’t ever let anyone tell you that the job of State of California Regulatory Analyst lacks in glamour and excitement–and reports that they plan to offer an EV for under $30,000 in 2017. Our Prius will be pushing 200k miles by then. Hmmm . . .

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I’m passionately concerned about the environmental catastrophe that is already upon us and only getting worse. We need to reverse climate change as soon as possible, and ending our dependence on fossil fuels is a key step. There seems to be a groundswell for the idea that the best way to do so is to divest from fossil fuels. So I have been reading up on divestment, and finding that no one, least of all Bill McKibben in his article “Divest from Fossil Fuels. Now,” has explained to me yet how this movement would further the goal of reducing fossil fuel use. I’m frustrated, because his organization, 350.org, and Naomi Klein, who’s also working on divestment, have been two bright lights in the environmental movement in recent years. I would love to be convinced that they are not wasting everyone’s time and a whole lot of activist energy on a project that divestment supporter Isaac Lederman, a Princeton student, says ” is attractive primarily because of the symbolic weight it carries.”

Granting that divestment helped end apartheid in South Africa (which is of course debatable, but I think the evidence is strong that it did), is this situation analogous? In one crucial way, it is not: it comes accompanied with no demands. And I fear that that dooms it to being merely symbolic.

In the South African divestment campaign, the message was simple. To corporations:  cease operations in South Africa and we will re-invest in you. To the South African regime: end apartheid and we will support you and the return of corporations’ capital to your country.  I strongly supported this movement, which was at its peak during my college years. I not only urged my university to divest its Shell holdings (on one occasion, by leading the crowd outside a trustees’ meeting in singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” I cringe to recall), I stopped buying Shell.

But I can’t stop buying fossil fuels and the energy they produce–not yet.  I use them to get to work, to do my laundry, to keep my food cool, to power this computer. (Unlike Mr. McKibben, I can’t afford to convert my home to solar power, though it’s on the list of improvements we’d like to make.) So if I support divestment, I’m asking people to stop funding Exxon’s oil exploration, while I’m pumping its gasoline. While I’m not advocating purity as a moral stance, this is too much cognitive dissonance for me. You scum, stop drilling! And give me that gas!

McKibben argues that these companies have so much political clout because of the value of their stock. That may be true in part. But no matter how low their stock drops, they’ll still drill, because we’re still buying their products, and they’ll still have political clout, because the economy can’t continue without them. Again: yet.

A change movement has to ask, what change are we hoping for and what’s the leverage that will bring it about? In South Africa, the answers were clear. With the Divest from Fossil Fuels campaign, I don’t get it. It seems to just be saying “Fossil fuels companies are horrible” (no argument there) and “If they extract and burn everything they’re trying to extract and burn, the warming of the planet will accelerate” (again, I agree). But as long as we are so dependent on extracting and burning them, nothing will change. A heroin junkie might be completely justified in demanding the arrest of all the heroin dealers, but if it were to happen, he’d be up a creek. He still needs his fix. I still need to get to work, 35 miles away.

The situation is too dire for symbolic gestures. We need to take real action. I love the idea of putting economic pressure on these companies, and the first question to ask–the question their directors and executives will surely ask–is “Pressure them to do what?,” a question that not even McKibben, the man who started the divestment movement, has answered. One colleague of mine has–thank you, Earl Koteen; he suggests that what we are asking fossil fuel companies to do is to switch their operations to sustainable sources and become (alternative) energy companies, as the savvier ones are beginning to do. That sounds promising. Now if only the movement, and not just one of its fans, would make a concrete demand like that, then it might make a difference. Even better, we could do the much more difficult work of funding alternative infrastructures that would allow us to break our fossil fuel addiction.

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