The Future of Energy

Power Q&A: Chelsea Sexton

The bubbly star of "Who Killed the Electric Car" explains why General Motors is still her favorite car company, even after they laid her off and buried the EV1.

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

Mother Jones: What is the most promising new energy source?

Chelsea Sexton:Well, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in the existing renewable energy sources, like wind, solar, geothermal. And one of the things that will enable those sources the most is actually the deployment of plug-in cars, because they provide a way to store this renewable energy that currently we don't have on the grid.

MJ: What's the most overhyped energy source?

CS: Probably nuclear.

MJ: If you had $1 million, where would you invest it?

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CS: I would probably invest it in batteries, or in things to enable the smart grid.

MJ: What do you think it will take for renewable energy to go mainstream?

CS: Economics and awareness, really. We often find that policymakers try to drive this from a grid perspective, but what really accomplishes it is pulling—the consumer is pulling. For instance, about 50% of the people who drive EVs currently went out and got solar panels because their awareness of where their energy was coming from was heightened, and they wanted to complete that cycle. Whereas if you are pushing it from the grid, you already have electricity coming out of your wall now. Most consumers don't really care where the electricity is coming from, or they don't care enough to pay more for it, because their end-use experience is the same. So the use of renewables in general will be driven by wanting different gadgets, or wanting to be able to do different things with those gadgets.

MJ: Does there need to be more public awareness of the different options that people have in terms of places for them to get energy?

CS: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Industry in general, whether it is auto industry or utility industry, tends to fall back on this "we want to do what consumers want" type of argument. "We aren't building better cars because consumers aren't asking for them." Consumers can't ask for what they don't know is possible, whether that is wind energy or electric cars. We didn't know we wanted iPods until they were available. Who looked at their Walkman and said, "Gee, I wish this were the size of a deck of cards and I could watch TV on the thing"? It just wasn't something that we even thought to ask for. So we have to raise awareness of these other things so that people can then go out and ask for them or seek to actually do them.

MJ: Do you have a favorite personal energy-saving tip?

CS: I try to take up less space in the world. I live in an apartment. I don't drive if I don't have to. I use less of whatever I can. But at the same time I'm a big fan of technology and technology's potential to enable that sort of efficiency. You know, electric cars can help you drive 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas.

MJ: And what kind of car do you drive?

CS: A little Saturn. I won't buy another car until I can buy something with the plug on it.

MJ: When do you think we're going to see the last gasoline-powered Hummers?

CS: We are going to see large vehicles for decades. But what we are already starting to see and what I think will continue is the trend of making those large vehicles more efficient. We are starting to see hybrid Tahoes and Escalades, because consumers are limited in their willingness to compromise. You have to give them alternatives so they can have their cake and eat it too. And there's no reason we shouldn't be making all of those vehicles hybrids, and then plug-in hybrids, and I think we will start to see that. A lot of that will be driven by consumer demand. People are starting to get more enthusiastic about smaller cars, but we will also see one way or the other what the enthusiasm is for more efficient big cars.

MJ: Have you seen any recent activity on the plug-in front? Any developments?

CS: Yeah. I would consider all of the automaker enthusiasm for plug-ins a recent development. You know, only a year and a half ago, maybe, there were no plug-ins being talked about by the automakers. GM remains the only automaker to have announced plug-ins for production and they've announced two in the Saturn Vue and the Chevy Volt. Ford is doing a plug-in hybrid test-pilot program with SBC. Toyota announced 400 cars for another test program. And it's one of those things where people really, really, really have to get involved because CRB is proposing to reduce the number of zero-emission vehicles automakers are required to build by up to 90%, which automakers love, but the rest of us, not so much.

MJ: What one policy change do you think would get us furthest toward cutting either fuel consumption or increasing fuel efficiency in the U.S.?

CS: Well, CAFE has proven to be a nonstarter. Honestly, that's not terribly effective. The most effective policies, and there are multiple ways to go about them, are the ones that make products available. At this point, the most useful policy would be one that puts cars in showrooms.

MJ: So there's no use giving people tax credits if they can't find that kind of vehicle in their town.

CS: Exactly. I mean, it's a chicken-and-egg thing. Automakers don't want to build cars unless they are sort of incentivized. R&D pilot programs are useful, but we had anchored very firmly in that camp, and we have put off actually doing anything until R&D has been done to death, so it's nice to continue to provide funding for those sorts of things. But we really have to yank it back toward actual production and commercialization of these technologies. You know, fuel cells obviously are 20 years away. But plug-ins and biofuels are much closer. And I think we really ought to be emphasizing the near-term technology and not so much on the R&D. We can't afford to wait.

MJ: Do you have a favorite car company that you think is being really innovative?

CS: As ironic as it is at this point, I would have to put my money on GM. [Sexton was laid off by General Motors when it killed the EV1 electric car program she was working on.] And trust me, I'm the last person that ever thought I'd be saying that, but they are the ones that are the most aggressive right now about actually not talking and more doing. And they absolutely still have to come through, and I am cautiously optimistic until there is a car in my driveway from whomever. Nobody else has actually put their money where their mouth is and said "We are going to build cars by this date," so I think they deserve some credit for that.

MJ: Would you rather live next to a nuclear power plant or a coal-burning plant?

CS: Well, I'm within walking distance of an oil refinery. I'm not sure either one of them would be a significant difference. Probably nuclear if I had to make a choice.

MJ: Is that just because the chances of an accident are smaller than with coal, which is putting stuff in the air everyday?

CS: Basically, yes. The health impacts are less immediate with nuclear, but I'd want to avoid either one.

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