Electric Vehicles Fueled by “Brown Energy” No Better Than Kramer’s “Nonfat” Frozen Yogurt

By Valerie Salinas-Davis

The Frogurt Episode: “This is so *[email protected]#$*! good!

Remember that Seinfeld episode when Kramer invests in a shop that sells “nonfat” frozen yogurt, and Jerry and Elaine can’t get enough of the guilt-free treat?

Elaine gushes about the “real blueberries,” and Jerry loves the fresh-ground coffee beans in his frogurt.

In fact, the “healthy” treat was so surprisingly tasty it led to Jerry cussing an uncharacteristic blue streak, which became a subplot to the episode: “This is so *[email protected]#$*! good!”

Then Kramer begins noticing Jerry and Elaine are gaining weight. “Maybe your yogurt isn’t so nonfat,” Jerry tells Kramer.

Too Good to Be True? Electrifying Lessons From the Food Industry

Hilarity ensues when Jerry and Elaine send a sample of Kramer’s yogurt to a lab for testing. To protect his investment in the shop, Kramer tries to get a lab tech to falsify the results. He ends up making out with her and knocks a vial of his yogurt into a blood sample belonging to Rudy Giuliani, who’s in the middle of a New York mayoral campaign. (Are you with me so far?)

Kramer’s calamity causes Giuliani to get an astronomically high cholesterol report, and the politician blames all the so-called nonfat frozen yogurt he’s (coincidentally) been eating at Kramer’s shop. Giuliani claims “false advertising,” the store cleans up its act and starts selling real nonfat yogurt, which tastes horrible, and the shop goes out of business.

It sounds convoluted but any Seinfeld fan will call it perfection. There is one big, fat flaw though. “Nonfat” does not mean calorie-free. Jerry and Elaine can gobble up real big helpings of real nonfat yogurt every day and still put on the pounds unless it’s nonfat and sugar-free.

Labeling everything “fat free” was all the rage in the ‘90s. All kinds of cheeses, salad dressing, pudding, candy, and yes, frozen treats were labeled fat free. The catch? Have you ever tasted fat-free cheese or sour cream? Like with Kramer’s yogurt, taste and calories can be an issue.

There can be other complications, too.

If you’re too young to remember fat-free chips, just Google “Olestra” + “bathroom.” It’s another “too good to be true” page in food industry history that would have made for an equally hilarious Seinfeld episode. Chip, Jerry?

Not So Fast! Can Renewables Catch Up With the Auto Industry?

So now, it’s 2018 and “gluten-free” is all the rage. (For the record, comedian Orny Adams does a great bit about gluten-free in his Showtime special.)

My ultimate focus here is not about food, but rather two other giant industries that beg the question, “Are they too good to be true?”

I’m talking about the auto and energy industries–specifically, the connection between electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy.

How healthy is a world with EVs powered by fossil fuels?

In October, GM announced an “all electric future,” promising 20 new all-electric models by 2023, and Ford’s “Team Edison” pledged to produce 13 electrified models within the same timeframe. But what good does it do when five years from now these vehicles are being charged by “brown energy” (conventional fossil fuels)?

Fat-free frozen yogurt. Fossil-fuel-free vehicles. As smart as these concepts sound, there’s always a catch. Everything has a footprint. But there is good news. When it comes to guilt-free dining, there are many fat-free foods in this world that taste good and are low-calorie. They’re called fruits and vegetables, and except for in food deserts, they’re readily available in our grocery stores.

When it comes to guilt-free power, it could be called renewable energy. The problem is, wind, solar and other renewables make up just 15 percent of U.S. electricity generation. So unlike fruits and veggies, renewables are not so readily available in this country.

The Elephant in the Green Room

Granted, natural gas and nuclear make up another 54 percent of our electricity source (34 percent and 20 percent respectively). But what sense does it make for all of us to be driving around in EVs when the charging infrastructure and renewables market haven’t caught up with the auto manufacturing industry?

I was at a Renewable Energy Markets conference in New York in October 2017, just after Ford and GM made their audacious EV announcements, and I asked that same question of my friend and colleague Karl Rábago, Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center.


“There’s a natural gas elephant in the room,” said Karl, pointing out this fuel is cheaper than coal, which used to be the leading source of our electric power generation. “But you can’t use the EV as an excuse for natural gas.”

Today, coal is now our second greatest power source (30 percent). However, the coal industry can’t blame renewables for its decline. As I heard last night on NPR, “the actual war on coal came from natural gas.” It’s just been in the last several years that cheaper natural gas has put King Coal in the back seat. However, as always, there’s a catch. Natural gas is also a fossil fuel and the process to extract it is not so natural.

The good news is the American power industry is recognizing that renewables are very often cheaper than coal and are competitive with natural gas prices. Our local utility companies also seem committed for the most part to the Clean Power Plan, despite Trump’s executive-order pen strokes (also recall the Paris Climate Agreement and Standing Rock/Dakota Access Pipeline).

But how can renewables compete with readily available, cheap natural gas? How quickly can American utilities help us evolve to a world where renewables put all fossil fuels (including natural gas) in the back seat and catch up with the auto industry’s fast-track commitment to manufacturing EVs?

Giving Renewables the Time-of-Day

Karl and I talked about not just the need for the renewables market and local utilities to catch up with automakers sooner rather than later, but also another missing piece of the puzzle – a charging infrastructure allowing access by all people of all incomes.

I know Karl from his days as Vice President for Distributed Energy Services at Austin Energy, and he points out that if and when all the pieces are in place, time-of-day charging by all these future EVs with renewable energy will be “huge” for utilities and the challenges of our current electric grid.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “electric power systems must match generation and load in real time, with tight tolerances. As a result, both system stress and prices can vary considerably throughout the day.”

Are you with me? Like a convoluted Seinfeld episode, understanding the power grid can be a brain drain, at least for me.

There’s a “morning ramp” and then “peak demand” in the early evenings, reflecting the work and school lifestyles of American families. These spikes cause prices to rise, and threaten power outages – especially during severe weather in the summer and winter. Remember the “bomb cyclone” from earlier this month? Utilities urged their ratepayers to take showers at night rather than stressing out the system powering hot water for morning bathing.

Karl pointed out that renewables by nature could make for a remarkable, symbiotic solution to the time-of-day challenges of the power industry.

Imagine a world where we’re all driving or riding in EVs to work and school. (Props to my Proterra friends who are on a mission to convert the entire transit world to electric buses within the next decade.) Our vehicles are all plugged in throughout the day while we’re in the office – and at night while we’re sleeping. At work, our cars are parked at stations shaded by carports topped with solar panels– soaking in the sun during the daytime. At home, EVs are plugged into our garages, charging while we’re sleeping during peak wind generation at night.

Why do I suddenly want a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup? “You’ve got chocolate on my peanut butter! No, you’ve got peanut butter on my chocolate!”

Taking such a beautiful future to the next level, Karl and I also imagined a world where our highway system is lined not with gas stations but with fast-charging EV stations. Think pit stops where you can go inside not just for some Reese’s and a bathroom break. Think Starbucks, with quality coffee and comfy areas to charge your cell phone and laptops, while your car is fast-charging outside. Valero, Shell, Exxon, Texaco, are you listening?

Thank You Tesla! Market Signals Critical But Who’s Next?

There’s no denying Ford and GM wouldn’t have thrown down the EV gauntlet last fall were it not for Tesla. This luxury, high-performance car line has led the way in break-through EV technology and acceptance. What Tesla lacks in capacity, Detroit has now pledged to bring to American EV production. Check the box for the auto industry.

But what about clear market signals for growth in the renewable energy industry? At that Renewable Energy Markets conference in New York, I got to watch Target talk about its partnership with utilities to “source 100 percent renewable energy.”

Erin Robert, JPMorgan Chase

And then back home in Austin in late November, I met Erin Robert at a Business of Green forum hosted by The Atlantic. Erin is Executive Director of Sustainable Finance at JP Morgan Chase, a sponsor of the Austin forum, and she spoke about the financial behemoth’s recent commitment “to be 100 percent reliant on renewable energy by 2020.”

Talk about a market signal to the power industry, not just in the U.S. but also to the world. JPMorgan Chase has operations in more than 60 countries.

This really hits home with me, as the company has just opened a 1-million-square-foot regional campus for 6,000 hard-working fellow Texans in Plano (also, by the way, home to Toyota’s new sustainably built North American headquarters, powered 100-percent by good ol’ Texas wind and sunshine).

Erin explained getting a huge, new sustainability commitment crafted and launched within such a complex global corporation “was not easy.” Not only did JPMorgan Chase make the 100-percent renewables commitment, but they also announced “the world’s largest LED lighting installation, in partnership with Current, powered by GE” in 4,500 Chase branches.

But that’s not all. JPMorgan Chase also committed to facilitate $200 billion in clean energy financing by 2025. Erin said the bank’s renewed sustainability commitment was 10 years in the making, with more than 40 bankers working on the clean finance plan and also involving many from the real estate team on the operations side. Perhaps most gratifying, she said, was the resounding support of the commitment by over 5,000 JPMorgan Chase employees in a recent survey.

Though Erin loves her full-time sustainability job, she told me she was surprised how “over the moon” her fellow employees are about spending their waking hours at a corporation that is working so hard to make such big environmental commitments.

So, who’s next for the critical market signals to help close the loop between EVs and renewable energy? These commitments can’t come too soon. As Erin pointed out, this stuff takes years of work, dedication to authentic, transparent core values, and employee education and training.

With all the changes in Washington, DC since 2017, corporate and local utility commitments have never been more important. As Reuters recently prognosticated for 2018, “Investors are gaining confidence – up to a point – that 2018 will be the year of oil stocks. … [Uncertainty] over whether the crude rally can stick, and fears that advances in electric vehicles will undermine longer-term demand for oil, still overshadow the sector.”

Complicating matters is the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, everything, and I mean everything, has a footprint, including EVs. Read “The Battery Apocalypse.” The good news is there is great innovation happening in recycling and reuse solutions.

I also acknowledge fossil fuels are part of the toolbox, at least for now, and I know how unrealistic a 100-percent renewables future might seem. But I’m sure if you asked someone in the 1800s about a future without relying on horses for transportation, you’d get some pretty puzzled looks.

Now is not the time to spin our wheels. No real change happens without consumer demand. But with innovation we’re not necessarily sitting around waiting for certain cool things to be created. They just are, by risk-taking passionate people and companies. (I know I never pined last century for a MacBook, iPhone, or iWatch — and now here in 2018 all three are never out of my reach 24/7. OK, I’m constantly losing my phone but you get the idea.) When it comes to innovation, we just know it, like it and demand it when we see it. This spells better quality of life and happiness for us (like the JPMorgan Chase employees) and potentially big bucks for values-driven big-business innovators.

Our Volt charges at the office in a carport covered with solar panels. At our urging, our landlords opted in to Austin Energy’s Green Choice renewable energy program.


How To Make It Real

Final note: no greenwashing please! Did you see Ford has just joined the ranks of VW and other big automakers being sued for allegedly cheating diesel emissions testing controls? Hopefully, we’re not as gullible about EVs and renewables claims as Jerry and Elaine were about Kramer’s “nonfat” frogurt.

So what can the average person do to help close the EV-renewables loop – besides stay informed and take in environmental claims with a grain of skepticism? If your energy provider has a renewables program, opt in. If you’re in the market for a car, consider an electrified model. I started with my Prius hybrid in 2008 and with 102,000 miles it’s still going strong (knock on wood). My work vehicle is an electric hybrid 2015 Chevy Volt that we charge at the office. In town we run emissions-free errands on a charge, but the gas tank allows plenty of range for fuel-efficient trips to client trips to Dallas and beyond. It drives like a dream, but thankfully is a very cool reality.