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Exclusive: Sierra Club’s Director Talks About Green Cars

Green  /   /  By Bradley Berman

Sierra Club Director Michael BruneMore than sixty communities around the country will be holding events to celebrate the second annual National Plug-in Day on Sunday, September 23. The event, designed to stimulate interest in electric cars, is organized by the Electric Auto Association, Plug In America—and perhaps surprising to some people—the Sierra Club. eBay Green Driving spoke with Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, to find out why an organization dedicated to preserving natural places would want to support cutting-edge electric car technology.

Why is the Sierra Club promoting electric vehicles?

We have a deeply held philosophy at Sierra Club that you can’t just criticize the things that are wrong with the world. You have to offer real pragmatic solutions to some of the biggest problems that we face. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans believe we need to reduce our dependence on oil, if not get off oil entirely, because of its impact on public lands, the Arctic, the Gulf, foreign policy, and our economy. Electric vehicles aren’t the only solution to our oil problem, but it’s in a handful of the best solutions.

We believe it’s very important to electrify the transportation sector, or as much of it as we can, in order to help people get from place to place in a way that doesn’t pollute nearly as much.

Critics say that electrics and other fuel-efficient cars are too expensive, and that consumer will not reap any savings at the pumps.

It’s factually untrue. My family has been driving a hybrid for eight years now. It did cost a little more than a conventional car when we bought it. But we have more than made up for those costs, and have had significant net savings over the life of the vehicle. And we expect to have it for a few more years.

Yes, it’s fair to say that the purchase price of a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle may be higher than that of a car that uses more gas, but it’s also demonstrably true and there’s plenty of evidence that depending on how much you drive, and how much gas prices rise, that over four, five, six years, you’ll see significant savings. It’s rare in life when you find one solution that works for multiple problems. An electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid helps cut air pollution, helps stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, helps to cut costs, helps to revitalize the manufacturing sector in the U.S., and helps to reduce our dependence on oil.

So, unless you are a senior executive working at Exxon or Chevron, there’s not much to not like about cars that use a lot less gas.

Is the Sierra Club taking on the oil industry?

Yes, we are. It’s even bigger. As a country, we’ll be stronger, healthier, and more resilient when we break our dependence on fossil fuels. When we do, and I’m confident that we can, we’ll increase the quality of Americans’ lives. We’ll be able to put more people to work. We’ll make our air and water cleaner, and our climate and our economy more stable. The only question is how quickly we can move beyond oil, and how we can we do it in a way that maintains our quality of life. In addition to other transportation choices like biking, walking, and transit, we think that electric vehicles are one of the most effective ways to meet those objectives.

Is an electric vehicle in your future?

Definitely. We’re maybe a couple years away from our next car. We made a commitment that our next car will definitely take a plug. I don’t think we’ll ever buy a car again that doesn’t have a big battery.

Does holding on to a car longer, or buying used, make sense from an environmental perspective?

There’s a fourth R that goes in there. Reduce, reuse, repair, and recycle. As a country, and as a species, we’re past the carrying capacity of our planet. We’re using more resources than can be sustained. So, what we have to do for everything we consume is to find a way to repurpose and extend the life of lots of products. And cars are no different.

It’s clear that Americans’ usage patterns of cars are changing significantly. People are living closer to work. People are engaging in car-sharing as well. We think it’s possible for someone to have a car for a much longer period of time, if they use it less—but also to be buying fewer new cars and extending the life of the existing fleet.

What role does public education play in making these positive changes regarding transportation?

Cars really didn’t change that much for more than a half a century. Now, what we’re seeing is technology that will make things a little bit different. As you go from a conventional car to a hybrid, the only real impact is that you use less gas and pay less money at the pump. As you move from a hybrid to a plug-in hybrid, you have to make sure to plug in at night and that the car is fully charged. But you see even more savings in greenhouse gas emissions and fuel costs. And once the leap is made to fully electric vehicles, then there’s another usage pattern altogether.

Sierra Club has more than a million members and supporters. And a big part of our involvement in National Plug In Day, and other similar activities, is to help our members as they move toward hybrid or plug-in or electric vehicles, if they drive at all, to educate each other about the best ways to use the new technology.

For more information about electric cars and other fuel efficient alternatives, visit eBay’s Green Driving Center.

About the Author

Bradley Berman is a leading writer and researcher about electric cars and green transportation. He regularly contributes driving reviews and technology articles to The New York Times, Fortune, MIT Technology Review, Popular Mechanics, and other publications.

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