Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sierra Summit Showdown

The Sierra Summit, also called The Sierra Club's National Environmental Convention & Expo, was held at the Moscone Center last weekend. Sherry Boschert, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Electric Vehicle Association, found out early on that there would be car manufactures represented and that they would be giving test-drives in their latest hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (plus one natural gas car). Naturally we felt that the public should also be educated about even better alternatives such as the Prius Plus and the all-electric car so we signed up for booth space and requested that we also be allowed to offer the public rides in our cars.

Somehow this request never quite made it into the program. At first they said yes, then they couldn't remember, then it was too late to include us and basically they thought we would just forget about it. Did they not know whom they were dealing with? That this was the team that coordinated with activists in Norway to publicize the impending intentions of Ford to crush the much loved all-electric Th!nk City car? And that, with the help of Greenpeace, they succeeded? Did they not know that our Vice President Marc Geller was one of the founders of, a group created to save, among others, the Toyota RAV 4 all-electric car and it was indeed saved? Did they not know that we also have, as an ally, Felix Kramer, founder of, who has dedicated many hours to promoting the Prius Plus, a car engineered by Ron Gremban to carry an extra battery pack, drive all-electric at sub-freeway speeds, and thus up the mileage to 100 mpg.

As Margaret Meed said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." And it is in the arena of this David and Goliath fight with automakers, that I have found this much-lauded sentiment to actually hold true.

Perhaps what it comes down to is money. Non-profit organizations need money to carry out the good that they do. And this money comes largely from corporations. It is the unwritten rule that, in taking such money, the corporations are to be made, shall we say, comfortable within the culture of said organization and perhaps be allowed to exploit the situation.

It still cost the car dealers $3,000 for each car they brought to give test-drives to the public, plus $800 for a booth for each dealer. This was supposed to be the barrier to our entry into the game because as a non-profit we couldn't afford that. The Sierra club paid $63,000 to Green Car Journal to organize, hire staff and run the test drive event. The car dealers then held a press conference in conjunction with publicity being generated for the Sierra Summit.

Details of this cohabitation between a leading environmental organization and makers of the much maligned planet killing SUVs was duly reported in the Chronicle with much free publicity given to the features of the new cars. The writer lauded this union as a demonstration of how environmentalists were finally getting their needs met by technology. Hah we say. Though the Prius raised the bar to 60 mpg, all the hybrids that followed are far short of reaching that standard. In our view, the Prius had merely set a baseline to which others should aspire to exceed.

We would continue to educate the public whether or not the Sierra Club gave us a fair and equitable place to do it in. The manufacturers' cars were parked just outside the doors to the convention center, but we were not allowed to park there even though it was plenty large enough to accommodate everyone . So we got a police permit for the two closest parking meters - half a block away. Then we positioned ourselves on the public sidewalk beyond the automakers' gasoline and hydrogen fueled vehicles, armed with walkie talkies to call our electric cars whenever a Sierra Club member was interested in taking a ride. As the Sierra Club no doubt desired, we were out of sight. That is until Sherry got out a bullhorn borrowed from our friends at Rainforest Action Network.

She was asked not to mention the Sierra Club in her announcement so she didn't. Then she was asked not to mention the word "automakers" so she dropped that. And still they weren't happy because, after all, we were offering an alternative to everything the car dealers represented - a gas car.

"Hello Sierra Club members. If you would like to ride in a plug-in hybrid that gets 100 miles per gallon or an electric car that doesn't use gas at all, walk past those gas cars and we will put you in a car that is all electric. It doesn't even have a tailpipe."

I took my turn holding up our sign announcing the plug-in cars. Automakers have a conniption fit when we say "plug-in" cars because they have spent so much money trying to teach the public that they don't have to plug in their hybrid cars and shouldn't ever want to. It's just, you know, so dorky, like having training wheels. Having a plug implies that the hybrid technology doesn't work because it does not mimic the plug free standard of the status quo.

Insiders suspect that Toyota is actually developing a plug-in hybrid, but is keeping it under wraps until gasoline prices are astronomical and the public is screaming for phenomenal gas mileage. Then instead of looking dorky holding a plug, they can be innovative. Imagine having the option of tapping into your household electricity for pennies per mile; you might go for months without actually having to buy gas. What an amazing new technology.

We are blowing it for them. We have added the plug-in option in our own garages already. We want the option now, but the public is still in the dark. Who will lead them to the new technology? When gas is $10 a gallon? And what of the old technology of all-electric cars? We made them stop crushing those cars as if they were just a bad dream. Can we make them give us electric cars again?

Those who took us up on our offer of a free ride were very enthusiastic about the all-electric car. Marc in his Toyota RAV 4 electric car enthusiastically expounded on the virtues of his ride. The quiet take-off alone is a charmer. And with a range of 120 miles, that's still plenty enough for most commutes.

Early on we were asked by the Sierra Club event managers not to bring the cars into the Convention Center even though anybody else could still drive in to drop off passengers. We then picked up passengers at the sidewalk. They could not do anything about Sherry and her bullhorn because as a citizen standing on the sidewalk on public property, she was within her rights.

Still miffed at our stealing the limelight from the "real" cars, they called a cop to report us for a traffic violation. He came over to tell us that stopping at that particular spot in traffic was illegal, which it was, so we simply moved to another location.

Many people visited our booth. "PV + EV" said the banner over our booth, for we were also promoting a solar homes tour which will take place later in the month. The turquoise Sparrow parked in it was an eye catcher. It belonged to my mechanic. (He assures me that my Sparrow will return soon, since he's found the part. Yay!) People were very curious about the Sparrow and while they were there, we told them about the Prius Plus. One of the Lincoln Mercury guys, who works on their hybrids, came by our booth, too, and was very interested in the technology. We also got 90 signatures on our petition to the automakers to offer a plug-in option.

As they say, half the battle is just showing up. And that we did despite the Sierra Clubs ambiguous welcome.