S. David Freeman — California's former energy czar and an adviser to former president Jimmy Carter, Congress, and several governors — is one of the key "witnesses" interviewed in the new film Who Killed the Electric Car?
The documentary chronicles "the life and mysterious death of the GM EV1" — a sleek, fast gas- and emissions-free car. On the eve of its mandated mass production in 2003, California regulators reversed themselves and automakers recalled and destroyed hundreds of these leased vehicles. Those events reverberate loudly today as war still rages, the atmosphere heats up, and gas prices soar.
Filmmaker Chris Paine and his crew interview myriad witnesses (including electric car enthusiasts Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks) about what's being called "Detroit's drive-by shooting." Who is guilty: Automakers? Oil companies? Government regulators? Battery technology? Or even consumers?
Freeman rose to national prominence as head of the Tennessee Valley Authority before spending the next 30 years running the country's biggest municipal utility districts, including the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He currently serves on the board that oversees the Port of Los Angeles.
With his trademark cowboy hat and a slight Tennessee twang, Freeman says on camera that if GM had really wanted to sell the electric car, its ads would have draped an attractive woman over it. And he blames the fact that this country's fuel economy standards haven't changed in three decades on Big Auto and Big Oil.
Surprisingly, off camera he observes that the electric car isn't dead yet and sketches a cure for our oil-dependency ills.
SFBG Your life's work has been energy policy. What was your reaction to the California Air Resources Board's decision in 2003 to gut the mandate requiring mass production of 100,000 "zero emissions" cars that year?
S. DAVID FREEMAN We ought to go back to 1990. I had just taken over the managership of Sacramento Municipal Utility District. I remember coming down to LA to the hearing board where they adopted the zero emissions standard, and this was probably the most farsighted, important act of any regulatory agency existing at that time. CARB stood very tall in the saddle and mandated a program that, interestingly enough, has resulted in today's hybrid cars.
I think that if you look at the total sweep of that program, it is not a failure. The electric drive mechanism [used in today's hybrids] — and I've had automakers confirm this — would never have been developed but for the mandate to develop an electric car.
So CARB stood up real tall and real brave, and then they just took a powder. And there's no other way to describe it. I testified at both hearings, and what I told the entire board in 2003 is that your staff has been talking to the automobile companies too much.
SFBG Were you surprised, though, in the end with what they did?
DF No, because they were waffling quite a bit before that in terms of delaying the number of cars. It wasn't surprising, but it was seriously disappointing. But it ain't over.
By just adding a plug-in feature to existing hybrid cars [running a wire to the battery], we can have automobiles that are 20, 30, 40, 60 percent gas-free, maybe 80 percent.
So the use of electricity to run cars can make a giant comeback, and I think with the lithium batteries that we now have, and the price of gas that we now have, we will either see all-electric cars made in America, or my port [of Los Angeles] is gonna get a lot of new business when they come in from China....
I don't think the idea of electric cars is by any means dead. Every time the price of oil goes up a bit more that sleeping giant is closer to being awakened.
You have to realize that under the hood of a hybrid car is a part-electric vehicle and part parallel internal combustion engine ... so that the electric parts run until the juice runs down in the battery; then the gas engine kicks in. That kind of car — which they know how to make — with the plug-in feature, with just a few more batteries in it, can run at least 60 miles all electric.
If you can run 60 miles on electricity in a plug-in hybrid — and it's entirely feasible — then for most of the people, most of your daily driving is all electric. And most of the cities are no more than 60 miles between stops. And at the stops you charge.
I'm writing this book [about energy], and this is our most available big option for displacing oil, far bigger than ethanol.
DF Because the electric grid is in place.... This is not like fusion power or even developing an electric car. I think there's a gentleman who's developed a [plug-in] kit ... so Detroit can't say they don't know how to do it.
SFBG As far as charging from the grid, if plug-ins became popular, would that create a problem?
DF It's an opportunity to improve the load factor of the electric system. We certainly are not gonna charge the battery during peak hours. For one thing, the peak hours of driving coincide with peak hours of the electric system. But you would have rates that would make attractive — and conversely, prohibitive — plugging in during peak hours, with a discount for off-peak.
So the existing electric system is going to take care of a huge number — millions of cars.
If we were successful enough to have enough cars on electricity, that would require another power plant or two. That would be much better use of electricity than anything else.
DF Because importing oil has got our country tied in a knot, and is causing global warming and polluting the cities at lung level on the streets.
SFBG But pollution from coal-fired plants is also a problem.
DF Well, the electric system has to become greener and greener. The mayor of Los Angeles is taking the lead in that. He's ordering the local utilities to be 20 percent green by 2010. Whether they have the willpower and initiative to do it is an open question. Twenty percent is just the beginning. Then when we're powering cars with green electricity, we can have a carbon-free system.
SFBG When you were head of Sacramento MUD, did you use electric cars there?
DF Hell yeah, we pioneered it. We've had electric cars at every facility I've managed....
We had a fleet of electric cars [in Sacramento], and there was a fleet of them in LA until the car companies recalled them all.
SFBG They recalled the fleets as well?
DF Oh, yeah, they're trying to exterminate the product.
SFBG What did you make of that?
DF I think it's pure, bureaucratic stupidity. That's the only way I can describe it. Whether it was malicious or not, I don't know. They had a trial in the movie.
SFBG Yes, there were the suspects, and ...
DF The players found General Motors guilty of murder.... But I don't think the electric car is dead.
SFBG How important do you think it is for this story to be told now?
DF Extremely important. The country's unlucky, but [the filmmakers are] very lucky about the timing. I think when gasoline approaches $4 per gallon, this movie is gonna get a lot of attention from people who wouldn't otherwise have seen it.
Instead of depriving a few electric car enthusiasts of their cars, [suspending the mandate is] depriving the country of an option for self-sufficiency and lower costs that could have been very viable by now. There's nothing that is shackling American power in the world more than this dependency on imported oil.
I don't think you can say too much about the impact on our national security. Plug-in hybrids would probably make as much difference as any weapons we can come up with. As it is now, the oil money is funding Iran's nuclear program. But for the price of oil, they wouldn't have the money to build a nuclear bomb. There's a massive transfer of wealth going on from the United States and other consumer nations to nations that hurt us and are funding terrorists with oil money.
If [CARB's] decision had gone another way, by now we would have mass production of electric vehicles, and oil imports would be going down rather than up. So this is a major, major blow to our national security, not to mention the environmental side.
SFBG When CARB pulled the plug on electric cars in 2003, there was a lot of talk about hydrogen fuel cells, a lot of hoopla about the next new thing coming down the pike.
DF It hasn't materialized because the Bush administration is using hydrogen just as a futuristic thing, putting research money into it. They don't make a distinction between renewable hydrogen and hydrogen from fossil fuels, and if you make the hydrogen from fossil fuels, it's like taking somebody that needs a bath and putting some clean clothes on him. It's the same old dirty stuff by another name.
So you gotta focus on renewable hydrogen [from solar and wind power] and focus on using the hydrogen in internal combustion engines, which is entirely feasible and also something that will make a difference in this decade. They're doing neither, so the hydrogen thing has become really kind of an excuse for not going for stronger mileage standards and doing something that would help this country at a time when it needs help.
SFBG Technically, there's still a zero emissions mandate; they've just broadened it and reset the clock. But how much time have we lost by not mass-producing cars that are even close to no emissions?
DF We've lost most of the years past the year 2000; CARB started wobbling well before 2003. On the other hand, I'm 80 years old, and I don't look at what was lost, I look at what we can get done. And in my book, I'm gonna propose that we substitute the plug-in hybrid for pure electric, and reinstate the mandate.
The perfect is the enemy of the good, and a plug-in hybrid is about 80–90 percent all electric. So bring the mandate back, and Detroit cannot possibly say it doesn't know how to make the hybrid cars they're making, and certainly they can add a plug-in feature.
My proposal is that we reinstate the mandate. We could substitute plug-in hybrids for the ZEV [zero emissions vehicle].
SFBG How would you have the government championing green automotive technology rather than having Big Oil and Big Auto sit on it?
DF Well, I think California came up with a neat idea.
SFBG The ZEV mandate?
DF And the fuel economy standards we passed in ’75 in amendments to a bill that President Ford wanted badly; that was major governmental action which made a huge difference. It brought the cars from 12 up to 20 miles per gallon.
The regular hybrids today are not much better than my Honda Civic; they get around 40 miles to the gallon, which is far better than the 20 on average or the 15 or 12 an SUV gets, but we've got to slash oil imports, not just steadily increase them again, which is where it's at.
With specific actions by the government we could have Big Solar by now, if we put money into it, and instead of putting money into fusion power.
SFBG What are other green automotive options?
DF Biomass as a partner. You can use E85 [ethanol] in a plug-in hybrid and have a virtually oil-free car.
SFBG Before the automakers recalled and destroyed electric cars, a lot of people didn't even know there was an electric car. What can people do now to have greener car options?
DF Right now the most important thing people can do is tell the automobile companies they want their next car to be a plug-in hybrid. Consumers do need to learn the difference between a cut to the finger and blows to the heart. Unfortunately, a lot of the information that's given them is a series of laundry lists that mixes up things that would be nice, like remembering to turn the lights out, with buying a plug-in hybrid.
One is a huge thing. If a million people signed up to say they're not gonna buy a car until they can get a plug-in hybrid, it would happen. It would pass more quickly than any law.
SFBG CARB's decision in 2003 switched from forcing automakers to innovate for the common good to letting them decide when and how fast to change technology. What does it mean to go back to a free-market model?
DF The market is blind to our national security and to the environment. The market doesn't give you a nickel more for oil from Texas than oil from Iran.... And so we're in a heap of trouble right now. We've been going blind. Economists have played to the market, but they're wrong because the market has no capacity to protect this earth or protect this country.
And CARB and General Motors have deprived us of an option, to run our cars at half the cost of four-buck-a-gallon gasoline, and cleaner. SFBG