Friday, March 09, 2007

Interview with Jodie Van Horn of Freedom from Oil and Plug-in Bay Area

In September 2006, Marin County soft ordered 22 Plug-in Hybrids Electric Vehicles. In October the City of Berkeley soft ordered 40 plug-ins and in December the city of Alameda soft ordered 98. What's going on? The three Bay Area municipalities, along with Oakland and San Francisco (who haven't placed their orders yet) have all signed-on to be part of Plug-In Bay Area, an initiative to put more plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road.

I talked with Jodie Van Horn, a campaigner for Rainforest Action Network's Freedom From Oil campaign, and the coordinator for Plug-In Bay Area about the plug-in campaign in the Bay Area as well as the national Freedom from Oil Campaign. Below is a transcript from the interview, which you can also listen to on the Big Vision Podcast.

Jodie Van Horn: Plug-In Bay Area is a national grassroots effort to try to commercialize plug-in hybrid vehicles. We do that by pressuring automakers to start rolling these vehicles off of their assembly lines.

This was an initiative that began in the city of Austin, Texas with the municipally owned utility company, Austin Energy. They saw a need for a mode of ultra-efficient transportation that would plug in to a clean grid, and shift our fuel source off of gasoline, and provide us with an opportunity to find a cleaner, cheaper, domestic source of fuel and energy specifically for the transportation sector.

They began by setting a target of 50 U.S. cities. They were going to go out to those cities and try to form partnerships with the cities, to get the Mayors or the council members of those cities, at a policy level, to endorse the Plug-In Partner campaign, and then subsequently to get them to place a soft fleet order. A soft fleet order is an indication on the part of the municipality that were these vehicles to be commercially produced by the automakers, that municipality would buy "x" number of them the day they become available.

The desire of Austin Energy, and of this national initiative was to demonstrate that there is an existing market for a cleaner electric source of transportation, and that there is a recognition on the part of municipalities, businesses and consumers that technologies exist that will enable us to wean ourselves off of oil, and shift over to a new paradigm for our transportation needs.

From there, these efforts were springing up all over the country. They began with their approach of municipalities, mostly cities and counties. They were extremely successful in generating the support of politicians all over the country.

At a grassroots level, there had also been support for solution-based organizing around oil addiction, and around transportation, fermenting from some time. When this program sprang up, Rainforest Action Network, had been involved in campaigns surrounding the crushing of the EV1 a decade ago, which happened here in California -- with the car mandate -- many people have now seen Who Killed The Electric Car, and it goes into explaining that story quite well. So we had a history of organizing around transportation through our Jumpstart Ford campaign, which now has transitioned into our Freedom From Oil campaign.

With that history we recognized that plug-in hybrid vehicles are an immediate and viable solution to the issues that we have been trying to pressure automakers to acknowledge over the course of this campaign here at RAN. We picked this up and we dedicated a staff person to coordinate a local effort to get Bay Area cities and counties on board to support the national effort, and to contribute their soft fleet orders to the national demand for plug-in hybrids.

Britt Bravo: What are some things that are happening with plug-ins here in the Bay Area?

JVH: In the first six months we had five Bay Area partner municipalities; San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda and Marin County have all sign on. Out of those, Marin County, Alameda and Berkeley have all placed their soft fleet orders. We're also working with those cities on generating some demonstration projects.

It's a really exciting time. We've had announcements out of some of the automakers that there is a potential that they're building this platform for these plug-in hybrid vehicles to be produced. They haven't set any production dates, or indicated any numbers for their production. We don't want this to become a niche market. We see this as a potential future for transportation, or at least an immediate step to having ultra-efficient choices in vehicles for the public.

What we're trying to do is generate enough support to indicate that we need these announcements out of the auto industry to translate into something tangible. We're doing that by trying to bide our time until that promise comes, or until that commitment comes, by actually putting as many of these vehicles out on the road as possible and watching them operate in a real-world function; generating data on their emissions, reductions and fuel savings; educating the public about their potential to help us solve our oil addiction, and really getting them out into the hands of fleet operators; holding educational conferences and demo projects where people can rally behind this technology and continue to build that pressure on automakers so that they actually come through with some commitments on when and how many they're going to build.

BB: What is a plug-in hybrid?

JVN: A plug-in hybrid is essentially a conventional hybrid vehicle, like a Toyota Prius, with an additional battery pack that extends the range of the vehicle in all electric mode, and then adds a plug for overnight charging. It's a little bit like having an electric vehicle with a back-up gas tank. You can drive all electric for the extended range of your battery charge, and then when you reach the end of your battery capacity you have a backup engine in case you need to do long-distance driving. You always have the support of a back-up engine that ideally is a flexible fuel engine, which could be powered with bio-fuels or domestically grown cellulosic ethanol or some other more sustainable fuels than gasoline. It makes a much more sustainable vehicle and it doubles your fuel efficiency.

Additionally it decreases your carbon footprint and your tailpipe emissions significantly. Especially if you are plugging your vehicle into a clean grid, you're powering your car literally with renewable energy like wind or solar, that's coming directly from the grid and into your car, as opposed to filling your car with dirty gasoline, that's a foreign source of oil, and that has all of the implications of the chain of production of oil. It's much cheaper for the consumer; it's under a dollar a gallon to fuel your vehicle with electricity as opposed to gasoline, so there's a real consumer incentive to support this technology. Environment aside, from a consumers standpoint it makes a tremendous amount of sense.

BB: What's preventing this from happening? What is the argument against plug-in hybrids?

JVH: The primary argument coming out of the automakers at this time is I believe a bit of a cover-up for a larger problem, which is simply the inertia on the part of companies to change their model of business; to change their way of doing things. It would not require a huge investment on the part of automakers and what investment it incurs will be paid back over time in the savings from switching over to more highly efficient vehicles. This has been proven through studies that have been done of the current vehicles on the market and that demonstrate that even with existing technologies, we could improve the overall fuel efficiency of vehicle fleets to 40 miles per gallon without even implementing new technologies.

Plug-in hybrids fit into that, and the one piece that automakers are claiming is an impediment to putting these cars on the road is the battery technology. So we are looking at finding batteries that hold a charge for a long period of time, that give people the extended range that they need to do their commuting, and new technology such as the lithium ion battery have the potential to do that, but right now they are very expensive because automakers haven't invested the R&D money into those battery technologies to really stimulate the change that is needed for them to be able to use those batteries in the application of the plug-in hybrid. So it is sort of a chicken and the egg. They need to put the money into making the battery technology available, but they are claiming that they can't do that. They can't produce the vehicles because the battery technology isn't there.

We are seeing some breakthroughs on this. They have applied for federal money for battery research and development, which is promising, it indicates that they are serious about looking into electric transportation and they are exploring the battery question, but I think that the other issue is simply just the larger issue that it is hard to get corporations to change their behavior, and as we saw with Who Killed the Electric Car, there is a strong relationship between the oil industry and the transportation industry, and until we are able to shift transportation away from the oil companies, it's going to be difficult for us to make major headway in defeating oil as our primary source of fuel and so the more that we can pressure automakers into believing that there is a public perception that oil is a fuel of the past, and that there is an urgency with climate change, with national security, and with the price of oil to get ourselves off of it, I don't think the automakers are going to change out of the goodness of their hearts.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about the other aspects of the Freedom from Oil campaign?

JVH: So Freedom from Oil is a campaign that looks at the behaviors of automakers and tries to pressure them and negotiate with them in order to have them change their behavior and really be the leaders in weaning America off of oil.

Transportation in this country represents 70% of American oil consumption and so it is a major piece of the pie if we are talking about switching over to renewable energies and getting off of this very dirty fuel source. This is why we have chosen the transportation sector as the area where we really feel we need to focus our efforts if we are going to have an impact on climate change, and on national security, and so what we have done is taken an approach to try to convince automakers that they need to do a variety of things in order to maintain their positions as leaders of an industry, so looking especially at the behaviors of Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler and Toyota, which are the major players, the four out of the big six in our country that are producing vehicles, and asking one of them to step out in front of the industry and really make commitments to fuel economy, make commitments to greenhouse gas reductions across their fleet, make commitments to producing ultra fuel efficient vehicles, and harnessing the technologies that exist today that would enable them to do so.

Additionally, there has been a lot of rhetoric on the part of the automakers regarding the greenness of their operations, when in fact what we are seeing is a lot of green-washing. They recognize that green is very vogue right now. They recognize that citizens are extremely concerned about global warming. They recognize that consumers have made the connection between climate change and transportation, and so they are trying to portray their vehicles as green choices.

And we have seen, in the case of Toyota, we've seen them come out with a hold on the hybrid market, and look like a very green company, but at last month's Detroit auto show the premier vehicle that they displayed was one of the largest trucks in the industry, and so until we see actual production matching the PR that is coming out of these companies, we don't feel that we can afford to take the pressure off of them to create commitments instead of faulty promises, or to create commitments instead of PR, and we do that in a number of ways. We do that by showing up at auto shows and giving voice to the public, and you know just the old fashioned stand out there with your banners and get heard, and get heard by the media and be the dissenting voice that calls out their green-washing and that makes it clear that there's a lot more that these companies could be doing.

Additionally, many of the large automakers are involved in the State of California in a lawsuit to sue the State of California for trying to impose regulations on tailpipe emissions, and for companies that are trying to portray themselves as green companies, it is unacceptable that they are trying to impede progress in the State of California for us to have healthier air for California consumers and California citizens and to try to regulate our state greenhouse gas impacts.

So it is highlighting those hypocrisies and working to spread the word and generate more support amongst the public, and to put more consumer and reputational pressure on automakers for them to clean up their act and match their words to their deeds.

BB: How can people who are listening get involved?

JVH: To get involved in the Freedom from Oil campaign, there are a variety of ways that we hope to work with communities, work with labor, work with effected oil communities and work with grassroots activists to try to mobilize a movement to pressure automakers and on our Freedom Fom Oil website which is just, there is a list of tactics that we use that we hope to engage people in, and it ranges from fun and creative actions like the Oil Enforcement Agency, which is going out and starting to take the specs on big SUVs and writing them tickets for their gas guzzling and for their emissions, to holding an Oil Addicts Anonymous meeting in your town to bring community members together to talk about oil addiction, and to figure out how you can organize to get involved in the campaign, and in the movement. That would look like a meeting to first admit our addiction to oil, and then to talk about some of the ways in your community that you can either pass a resolution; for example, through the City Council to wean your city or county off of oil, and to adopt more fuel efficient purchasing for city fleets, which brings in the plug-in hybrid work. So in many cases we have worked with Council members to try to draw up a resolution to pass through City Council that mandates a city to place fleet orders for the most fuel efficient vehicles available, and to place soft fleet orders for those that aren't yet there, but are on their way, like the plug-in hybrid vehicle.

If there is interest in starting a local campaign to promote plug-in hybrids, this can be done in a variety of ways either through working with a municipality, or initially getting businesses to sign on. Businesses often have fleet vehicles, or at least have ideal lobbying power for creating rebate programs or incentives for employees to purchase fuel efficient vehicles, and there is kind of a campaign-plan menu of options available through the Plug-in Partners web site, or by contacting me at to discuss the plug-in work or the Freedom from Oil work.

BB: How did you get involved in this kind of work?

JVH: Well, I really started out as kind of a college activist who felt that things weren't right in the world. I wanted to see them improve and I was looking for ways to get involved. I came about it by way of fair trade and economic justice issues and got very concerned with the growing climate justice movement and how that not only affects generations to come, but it affects people, communities living on the ground today, and became increasingly concerned about resource extraction and its impact on those communities, and how that ties in so strongly to these climate issues and to resource extraction.

I was very fortunate to come across the Rainforest Action Network, which has been working on these issues for decades, and to find a niche within this organization to be able to carry out the work that I felt passionate about. I applied for this job with the Freedom from Oil campaign because I see climate change, in particular, as one of the most pressing issues of our time. I see that there is a major tipping point happening in the global climate change movement and consciousness of global warming, thanks in part to Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, and simply the manifestations that we have seen from hurricanes to melting icecaps, and that it's a time that I could not be working on anything else but this.

I am so pleased that an organization like Rainforest Action Network exists that is working on these issues with a variety of other allies and key organizations that are really working with people on the ground to make a difference and to shift our economy off of destructive, extractive fuels and resources, and provide a more sustainable future.

BB: How do you keep inspired?

JVH: I think I am most consistently inspired by the people that I meet when I am traveling around this country who are working in their own capacity on various aspects of these issues. When I realize that I am this small person in the midst of a growing, global movement that is so massive and so important, and when I travel to college campuses and I see students who are putting school work aside to be engaged in campaigns to promote a healthier future for all of us, and when I go to affected communities, and I see the destruction on the ground translating into action and hope among the people most affected, and I hear them speak, I know that my place needs to be participating in that in some way.

I am most purely given hope by all those folks out there that I work with on a day-to-day basis, or that I interact with at some juncture in this movement, who make me feel not alone in the work that I do and help me know that there is an alternative that many people are working towards, and we are working against a difficult system, but we're in it together. Through that, I believe it is possible.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about the Freedom from Oil campaign or Plug-in Partners, or Plug-in Bay Area?

JVH: The bigger vision specifically for the plug-in work, but how it really ties into a lot of other work we do, ties into rainforests, which is clearly in our mission statement and in our name as the Rainforest Action Network, and ties into climate justice issues and economic justice issues, and that is with the plug-in work there is an opportunity to not only plug our vehicles in, and drive on electric power, but to stimulate a greening of the grid so that we can get off of fossil fuels. That is where we see the real momentum behind this particular technology being is that it has implications for our grid energy to be able to green the grid.

You can't green gasoline, you can't green fossil fuels, but you can make the grid greener over time, and if we create an economy that is poised to do so then we are actually able to see a chain effect, stimulate an economy for renewables and we eliminate a lot of the chain of production issues and we get oil companies off of indigenous lands, and we get pipelines out of rainforests. There is a bigger picture here that we have acknowledged, that we feel if executed properly, there are wide-ranging implications that can help us achieve our commitments to forests, to climate, and to the people that live in those places that are most affected by these types of projects.

I guess the only other thing I would add is that we, as an organization, really hope to provide a grassroots network of activists with the tools or the training, or simply the support, to make change. We dedicate a lot of time intentionally to supporting other campaigns and supporting other efforts, and working in solidarity with groups who have a similar mission in mind, and a similar vision for this planet.

As a Freedom from Oil campaign, we really hope to work with more activists and provide what we can to support efforts that are happening on the ground to solve some of these issues. By contacting Rainforest Action Network, or by contacting the campaign, or by contacting our coalition partner, Global Exchange, activists out there working on these issues, should feel empowered to tap into a network, and should help empower us to tap into their network so that we can all work together to solve some of these problems. We have mandated ourselves to do what we can to support those groups because that's really where change is happening, is from the ground up.

For more information about Rainforest Action Network's Freedom from Oil campaign, go to For more information about a plug-in campaign in your area, go to


  1. I wish we the United States would have brought are own high breed cars first instead of some body elses . I am a old lady I still remember when we had oil reserves ans food reserves . The favorite song back then was sunshine apple pie and chevrolet what went wrong living in the car belt you really see the effects of unemployment and factory closings.

  2. Anonymous9:43 AM

    The progress on this issue really gives me hope things will go more ‘mainstream’—

    I went to the MIT/Stanford VLAB event a couple weeks ago where they previewed the new zero emissions lithium-ion battery pack Tesla electric car (instead of lead-acid or nickel-metal hydride batteries)

    It was REALLY promising technology, but the price points were an ouch for the snazzy sportster, so not as viable for mainstream just yet…

    Their view is that hybrids represent just ‘more efficient gas cars’ since they have no way of charging their batteries except using energy generated by gas engines, whereas lithium-ion bat packs are commodity based and recyclable like running ‘computer chip’ autos with net resource consumption per mile being more eco-friendly than fuel cell cars, ethanol, biodiesels, solar-elec,

    Frankly, I say ANY of these hybrid/alternative options are better than where we ARE now, plus they ALL fuel market demand, which is what will be needed for mass change!

    I wrote a bit on this w/links to other research here:

    When hybrid services like ‘planetran’ start making pop culture news in pubs like ‘Daily Candy’ I’d say we’re making HUGE progress!

    Plug-In Bay Area could really lead the way for the country…Thanks for the great link to Freedom From Oil, too…I’m going to add these to my article and send people to your site for more. (once you teach me how to ‘trackback’ properly it’ll be a snap) Best, Amy

  3. Anonymous4:20 PM

    What a fascinating struck me that you guys in the US have an opportunity with the upcoming elections to make these issues a real priority...we've allowed the political debate to be marginalised for too long.


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