Glaciers, Electric Cars, and Austerity
Why climate is personal to me, two ways to decarbonize your own transportation, and how to not be a preachy vegan.
Welcome to Into the Details. My name is Peter Ehrlich, and in this post, I talk about when climate change became “real” for me, before going in depth on my everyday experience in 2022 as an EV driver, and how I carbon-offset flights. I wrap up with a related note on policies of austerity, and how the concept updated the way I understand the world. In the following posts, I’ll talk about decarbonizing personal finances and dwellings, and touch on some of the groups working to make the process easier.
Also: I work fully remotely, and often miss many of the casual in-person interactions to be had among new faces and old. I invite you to book time on pehrlich.com/meet, or simply drop in and say hello on our brand new Discord Server.
A Personal Note
How my eyes were opened to the effects of Climate change.
I was astonished when I visited a glacier in Alaska while on vacation in 2018. The following story made a huge impression on me at the time, and has stuck with me ever since.
At the Harding Ice Field, my partner and I parked our rental car in the tidy National Parks lot, slathered on sunscreen on a hot July day, loaded up our Nalgene water bottles, and started our hike out from the trailhead. We were excited for our first chance to walk on a real glacier, but it wasn’t yet anywhere to be seen. Instead was a thick forested path, some typical Alaskan bear warnings, and a small wooden sign labeled “1926”. “That’s odd” I thought, and kept walking.
About a half mile later, we passed another sign, this time labeled “1951”. Our perplexion led us to check the visitor’s pamphlet, which described the trail we were walking on as the old area of the glacier. The signs indicated how far the glacier had extended on a given year. The path was miles long. We continued walking, passing more signs, sweating, listening to the cicadas, and eventually wound up in the hills finally sighting the snow and ice. The next day we went on kayaks around the other side, and watched at a distance as blocks as big as buildings broke off and fell into the ocean every few minutes.
Ever since then, I’ve been struck by the immensity of the problem before us. Is this proof of human-made climate change? Of course not. But it is proof of warming in this part of the world, which I regard as a tragedy and a personal responsibility not to be side-stepped.
Today’s post is the first in a series on what I’ve found since 2018 which a person can do to impact climate change positively.
The process at its core is very simple: find everything you do which emits greenhouse gases either directly or indirectly, and find an alternative to replace it. With this guide, you can personally hit net-zero far before the 2040 or 2050 national timelines. It falls on those who are already thinking about these issues to lead the way by showing this can be done. It is my hope that you will join me for the journey.
Electric Cars - What’s on the market?
If you, like many people, are considering the jump from an internal combustion (ICE) vehicle to an electric one, it is most likely you are considering one of two philosophies.
1) The two-car mindset. In this case, buy a lower-cost EV for daily use. Save money on lower range and slower charging, but maybe fall back to internal combustion for longer trips. The car will still be comfortable and nice to drive.
2) The one-car mindset. Pay 50-100% more for an EV which does “all the things” - long range, super fast charging, spacious, handles terrain, and whatever your requirements may be.
To evaluate a vehicle, you will likely have to learn at least one new term: Level 3 “DC fast charging”. Level 3 charging works at a rate of more than 150kW, and can probably get your car charged in 20 minutes. Both car and charger need to support it, and vehicles supporting this are rare outside of Tesla today, as is the charging infrastructure.
Level 2 chargers and car combinations are typically around 50-70kW, and a complete charge is measured in 1-4 hours. This vlog is less than flattering towards Electrify America's and EVGo’s charging infra in comparison to Tesla’s. (correction: level 2 is up to 20kW. "Level 3” charging covers a wide range in experience between that and 150kW.)
Also know that charging rates are not constant for batteries - the rate is highest between 15% and 80% battery capacity, so you may see some variety in reported charging speeds online. The best standard is to use that midrange, as that is where most of the charging happens except for carefully planned single-shot trips or trip segments which use 90%+ of a battery.
For the “two car mindset”, the Chevy Bolt and Kia Niro are good examples. They top out at 60-70kW charging speed, or about 150 miles (of range) per hour. Reports from acquaintances are that they love their Chevy Bolts ❤️ and that the Ioniq 5 is good for fast charging and large capacity, while making the ID.4 feel “heavy”.
Note: In researching for this blog, I found ev-database.org to be a wonderful resource, particularly for European readers, as it has 184 EVs documented, quickly filterable by range, price, make, availability, and so on. They say US support is on their roadmap.
My Tesla Experience
In February 2022 I received my Tesla Model 3 Long Range. I chose this car because I wanted the cheapest zero-emission car I could find which would have access to the best charging infrastructure. The long-range version is recommended in colder Northeastern climates due to the 10-20% cold-weather drop in usable battery capacity. Because of that and some occasional trips across the country, the Model 3 Long Range is what I went with. By now I’ve gotten used to a standard set of questions from curious folks, which I will detail below.
Needless to say, the car is stupidly fun to drive, as is universally reported. My experience was particularly good on the snow, with traction-controlled AWD being a huge step up from a 2wd Kia Soul. I can just drive on through conditions where I used to need chains.
Although the car comes with two keycards, most of the time I just use my phone in my pocket as the key. The car feels somehow like driving a big smartphone: I just sit down and go. No ignition. Quiet electric hum. It is particularly nice when you want a warm space to sit in the winter - no need to keep the engine running to generate heat or cold.
In 2022, I drove more than fifteen thousand miles in the car. I’ve taken it to the shop zero times, and had zero issues more severe than figuring out how to operate the gear-shift lever on day one. I was worried about the build quality scare going around at the time, and need not have been.
The pickup experience was, for me, exciting. I installed the app on my phone, pressed the “blink lights” button to find my car in the Tesla lot, and drove away. I didn’t even step inside to talk to anyone.
Naturally I started with some range anxiety, but after a few trips I came to really trust the vehicle for the following reasons:
Estimated range has been spot-on, with a variance of a few percentage points at most. I’ve had stress only once when driving between multiple far-flung destinations in northern New Hampshire where I also was not able to charge overnight. This is the one time I had to wait for a few hours at a (free!) Level 2 non-Tesla charger at a grocery store.
To give you an idea of mindset: I very casually keep the battery at the recommended 80%, and make a two hour weekend trip, arriving at 40%. For longer trips, nothing really changes: If I’m on a four hour drive instead, it will automatically insert a charging stop on my route as I type it into the nav system.
Charging stops are fast. You might not realize it, but you can easily spend 5-10 minutes pumping gas when you need to fuel up and use the bathroom. This car charges in about 15-20 minutes (note: this a standard charge from 20 to 80%), which gives me time for a bathroom break and maybe a snack. After 3-4 hours of driving, a few minutes to respond to messages is a blessing. Finally, this may sound odd, but I really do not miss the smell of gasoline at the pump, or standing out in the cold waiting for the hydrocarbons to make their journey into my tank before the next step in their journey.
I’ve driven from NY to CO and back twice now - once in a Kia Soul and once in the Tesla, each time doing the driving in just two days. The extra charging turns an ~18 hour day of driving into a little over a 19 hour day. Of course, about two hours are spent charging, not one, but it seems that I spend about an hour fueling and eating even with the gas car. I’m getting to know the charging stations well by now - and have a new love for the midwestern grocery store HyVee for its delicious sandwich fixins and on-site superchargers.
Overall, my fuel stress is less than when I owned the Kia. Why? Because you always have to pay attention to fuel levels on a gasoline car. Sometimes, you need to go on an errand, and the amount of time it takes doubles because you parked on “empty”. On the contrary, even with only a 110v charger at home, I know I’m always going to have enough juice for my daily routine (see the grey bars in the chart in the “Cost” section below. Red bars were trips to CO and elsewhere).
Skeptics will be quick to point out the embedded cost of carbon in a Tesla. That is, the amount of CO2e emitted during manufacture. This is a little overblown.
The carbon is offset within about 13,000 miles (See the Tesla Impact Report). For me, this is less than a year. What you don’t see mentioned often is that the purchase of a new electric car, when combined with the sale of an old gas car, replaces the purchase of a new gas car. For a full comparison of embedded carbon in different vehicles, see the charts in this article. (edit: Note of course Tesla’s impact report is not third party audited. Even if they’re fudging numbers down by 50% though, or even if your electricity comes from coal (via NYT) it will still pay off).
Of course the carbon makeup for electricity generation really matters - there’s not a lot of point if we stay tied to coal. This is why Community Solar and International Carbon Taxation are so important.
To the skeptics who demand an all-green supply chain
Any study of the history of technology will quickly reveal that one must use existing technology in order to build next-generation technology. This is hardly more clear than at one the the my favorite museums, even: the American Precision Museum in Windsor, VT, where my boyish brain was melted by thinking how they could use a milling machine of one accuracy to build another of much higher accuracy 🤯. In short, we can go ahead and replace the transportation sector by leveraging our existing manufacturing sector. And we’ll get to manufacturing in due time. In fact, the world’s first electric lithium mine is already underway in the UK.
You’ll probably spend about half as much on fuel (depending on local electric rates, gas prices, etc). There are nice metrics in the Tesla app, which line up with my experience of $15-$20 for a
tank of fuelfull charge (about 300 miles, leaving some buffer in each case).
Individuals making less than $150k in a year (or households @ $300k) qualify for a tax credit of $7,500 for a new EV, or $4,000 used. This means you get the full $7,500, not that amount off of your taxable income for the year. This only applies to the now wide number of vehicles with final assembly in the US, including Tesla. You can see the list of 20 options in Consumer Reports.
You might think you also have to upgrade your home with a fast charger for your car to be usable. I have found this not to be necessary due the many hours I spend sleeping and the car spends charging. However, your situation may be different if you have a large commute or no 110v line to charge from*. Or you may think you need solar in order to be making an impact on the environment. However electric grids are generally growing in their proportion of renewable energy, whereas gasoline refineries are not. (Or at least, not any time soon enough, as direct-air-capture-based fuel is far away).
If you do want a fast charger at home, you may be fine with a standard 240V receptacle, rather than an entire Powerwall type battery solution.
*As an aside: I’m working on a project to produce low-cost 110v metered charging outlets which apartment buildings and HoAs can install without a major rewiring investment.
If you’d like one installed in your building, please get in touch for private beta access! (Edit: actually, Orange just announced a big funding round for exactly this!)
How to fly Net-Zero
There are some technological solutions being worked on. Beta technologies, local to Burlington VT, makes small electric Vertical-Takeoff-and-Landing (VTOL) aircraft specialized on point-to-point flights. (The founder previously worked on organ transplant transportation).
Nasa has prototype X-57 Maxwell electric airplane with 12 small motors along the wings. Electric airplanes have some neat advantages due to their high-torque. Besides being ideal for VTOL, these engines maximize airflow at low speed and can be independently controlled for steering, like traction control on an automobile. The Maxwell is scheduled to fly in 2023.
Boeing has no electric aircraft themselves, and says electric jumbo jets are decades away. They have invested almost half a billion into Whisk Aero – a company which is making small autonomous air-taxis.
Airbus is a bit of a mixed bag. They have some very neat promotional designs: a standard jetliner converted to run on hydrogen. It’s all very exciting, and then disappointing when word from the inside reports that the company is abandoning their 2025 green aircraft launch plans to instead "hit the gas pedal while nobody is watching". In a riveting blog post, a resigning employee polls his colleagues on their views, expecting them to be in some sort of climate denial, and instead finds a silent majority in disagreement of company policy.
One true answer is simply not to fly, and France has even banned short-haul flights (where train is a viable alternative) accordingly. While this has worked for me largely, professional off-sites make an exception which I must allow. Furthermore I will not recommend austerity to others, as I discuss in the next section.
There are websites out there which offer carbon offsets at $8-$80 per 1,000lbs of carbon offset. These likely do some good, but that price seems a bit lower than what it should be. Often these kinds of funds go towards solutions which may help but are ultimately limited in scale (such as forest preservation) or effectiveness. I prefer my funds to go towards building a machine which takes carbon right out of the air, and dumps it into the ground where it came from.
Climeworks offers carbon capture at about $600 per 1000lbs, which likely means you won’t be offsetting your whole flight this way. (That would cost $300 for a round trip from Denver to SFO). However, the funds are going to a scalable solution which is early in its development cycle, and costs will come down with continued investment. (This is the general philosophy of Stripe Climate, which I am in agreement with).
One final question on this topic —
Can I Drive a Tesla without being a conceited jerk?
Yes. Stay humble. People often have many genuine questions, and it is fun to answer them. Just don’t be like this guy:
Closing Thoughts on Austerity
I’d like to wrap up this post with the topic of “austerity”. This is a term which applies in both contexts of economic policy and in cases of someone pushing their own values… which can happen very easily in political contexts.
Let’s start by looking at the 2008 financial crisis reaction as a case for why collective austerity can be a counterproductive or even a dangerous thing, and then see from that why it’s not a great tool for creating change, especially on the scale needed to decarbonize our lives.
After the 2008 crisis, governments were deeply ($2 Trillion) in debt, and Europe in particular responded to this not by issuing more currency (which would have been inflationary) but by practicing fiscal austerity (which was deflationary). Either can cause a recession, and although the diffrences between the two are technically fascinating, you can study those without my help with this fantastic ebook by Ray Dalio.
The bottom line with fiscal austerity is that less spending can cause “deflation” which can cause people to hoard money at home while feeling less financially secure. It’s an ugly cycle. Mark Blythe, everyone’s favorite economist-who-sounds-like-Shrek, describes it very well in five minutes:
I believe the same trouble with austerity holds true in social contexts as well, sort of like the Shakers - a celibate religion which has all but died out thanks to their own values. In both cases, I believe leadership through positive action, not self-repression, is a stronger choice.
Along a similar vein, although a person may choose to not fly, not eat meat, and so on, trying to achieve an ethical goal by imposing values of austerity upon others is often a losing proposition which generates strong adverse reactions. There are many examples of this such as preachy veganism, complaints about COP27 members using private jets, and so on. Although I admire Greta Thunburg’s tenacity and integrity in crossing the Atlantic in a racing sailboat, it is just not a scalable solution. It is much better to find solutions which make people’s lives better while also making the world better.
If you liked this post, please share it! Many thanks to Jordan, Sarah, Edward, and Brad for a critical eye in reviewing.