EV Evangelism Starts at Home

Can one person accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles? Sure, if he’s Elon Musk. But what about one more typical person, who doesn’t run a car company? Sven Thesen thinks that answer is yes. He calls himself an EV evangelist…

Can one person accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles? Sure, if he’s Elon Musk. But what about one more typical person, who doesn’t run a car company?

Sven Thesen thinks that answer is yes. He calls himself an EV evangelist and devotes himself to speeding up the adoption of electric vehicles. He’s been doing this for a decade now, and his efforts have made a difference—at least in his home town. Last year he convinced the city of Palo Alto to allow him to put a public EV charging station on the city-owned land between the sidewalk and curb in front of his house—he pays for the electricity used. This fall, he convinced the Palo Alto city council to pass an ordinance requiring all new construction to be prewired for the easy installation of EV charging stations. And he’s not stopping there.

Sven, welcome to the podcast.

Sven Thesen: Tekla, thank you very much. I’m quite pleased to be here.

Tekla Perry: So how did you get started in this passion, this activism, for EVs?

Sven Thesen: In the early 2000s I was at the utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company, or PG&E. And one of my tasks was to compare the emissions from a diesel irrigation pump in the central valley for it to be replaced by an electric pump motor, an electric motor. So I compared the emissions from what is produced when you generate electricity here in California to that of these diesel engines. And to be quite honest, I nearly fell over backwards. It is…I want to say, disgraceful. The diesel engine produced so much more pollution—both the criteria pollutants, which directly impact air quality to the residents in the Central Valley because these are stationary diesel engines. The stacks are six feet above ground, right at the height of us breathers. And also the carbon footprint, the CO2 footprint of the diesel pump. And again, they’re roughly 20 percent efficient versus electricity, and again, because we’re in California, we have a particularly clean grid. And the electric grid is only getting cleaner as we add more and more zero carbon sources and more and more renewables, but the diesel is only getting dirtier, as we add things like tar sands and other sources of nonconventional fuels.

So we have two curves, the petroleum one getting worse, and the electrical one getting better. I said, we’ve gotta move electricity into the transportation sector, and I’d never thought about that before. To me, they’d always been two different sectors.

Tekla Perry: So after you had this revelation, what was the first thing you did to start advancing the cause of electric vehicles?

Sven Thesen: I was in the environmental department at the time, and I went to the head of the transportation department of PG&E that was focused mainly on natural gas, and I asked if I could, as a side project I’d like to get PG&E a plug-in hybrid. And I was successful and did, and PG&E was one of the first utilities to get a plug-in hybrid. We made it so you could actually off-load power to demonstrate, if there’s a power outage, you could do what’s called vehicle to grid, you could upload energy out of the car’s battery up to the grid, or, for example, power a sound service or a sound system. We did a lot of community education; we ran a popcorn machine out of the car. A lot of things we did in terms of showing the potential for these technologies.

From PG&E I went to Better Place, and initially I was their evangelist there. Again, my job was to promote electric vehicles.

Tekla Perry: Better Place is a battery-swapping scheme?

Sven Thesen: Yeah, exactly, the battery swap stations. Sadly, their business plan, or our business plan, wasn’t sufficient to fully germinate the program. That’s a whole ’nother kettle of fish.

Tekla Perry: But you’ve continued your EV activism in your personal life, and last year you installed a charging station in front of your house. Why did you do this?

Sven Thesen: I wanted to demonstrate, and show and prove, that electricity is not that expensive as a fuel, and second of all, to normalize the behavior of charging one’s car. So I’ve got this very nice charging station, wrapped in recovered redwood, in front of my house, and people, the public, anyone can pull up and charge their electric car for free. We’re not asking for donations; it’s funny we’ve received a number of bottles of wine and lots of kudos from EV drivers who have used this station; we’re not asking for anything like that. It costs all of 8 cents a kilowatt hour because I have solar power on my house, which translates, at 8 cents a kilowatt hour, to 2 cents per mile of fuel costs, roughly, on an electric Leaf.

Tekla Perry: How much did this charging station cost to install?

Sven Thesen: If I was to hire someone out to do it, probably several, probably [US] $3000, but a lot of the labor was donated by friends and myself, in terms of digging the trench and the wiring. I got the charging station through a grant for public chargers, and mine is a public charger, so if you were to do it from scratch, it would probably be $3000 to $5000, but again, we were lucky. I would say less than two [thousand].

Tekla Perry: This is on city land, so how hard was it to get the city on board?

Sven Thesen: I’m blessed because my wife and I built…we built our house here. We wanted it aesthetically beautiful—that was her requirement, mine was functionality—and on top of it as a chemical engineer and an environmental guy I wanted it extremely efficient. So we had gone through the city with a number of quote, unquote firsts, permitting firsts, that no one had done before, and this was one of the bigger firsts. And it took lots of…I don’t want to call them tedious meetings, but lots of meetings to put together the paperwork, from the insurance, to the permit from the utility, from the permit from the city planning department, and lots of head scratching of why would you want to do this, and what sort of dangers does this present.

And we’ve got a two-year pilot permit, and I’ve only heard good things about it. And I’ve got e-mails from people saying thank you, this saved me, and handwritten notes saying thank you, I really appreciate what you’re doing. And to me the most important thing of course is none of the neighbors have complained; they’ve only come up and said, “This is great. Can I test drive your car?” It’s been a huge educational tool to talk to people about EVs, sort of if EVs are this good, are this inexpensive to operate, you can do this sort of thing.

Tekla Perry: What kind of usage are you getting, like how often is a car parked there, charging?

Sven Thesen: I’m going to get up and look outside right now, and there is a white Leaf—we have a blue Leaf—there is a white Leaf parked out front charging. Or it’s plugged in, I don’t know that it is charging. So it’s being used right now. I would say we have use two out of three days.

Tekla Perry: Are you aware of anybody else in the community or elsewhere following this model and installing a station of their own?

Sven Thesen: One Saturday morning I got an e-mail from a guy in Berkeley who had just bought a Leaf and needed to install a curbside charger. And I am helping him get through the Berkeley permitting requirements, which seem to be even more onerous and difficult to get through than ours, than Palo Alto’s. Here in Palo Alto they allowed me essentially to just go ahead and do it as a pilot project. In Berkeley, they’re trying to establish some sort of policy. They are trying to figure out what this means big picture, versus actually realizing, in my world view, there’s not actually going to be a lot of people that do this, simply because it was much cheaper to install our charger in our driveway for our car than it was to install the curbside charger, especially with all the hassle of the meetings and required paperwork and insurance and all that.

To me, I look at this as a one-off, but it normalizes the EV charging behavior, that it’s A, inexpensive, and it’s not that hard, and it’s really safe, because it’s so safe that I’ve got this charger between the sidewalk and the road.

Tekla Perry: So this year, you were instrumental in getting a city ordinance, or code, passed, requiring all new construction to be prewired to make installing EV charging stations easier. How did that all come about?

Sven Thesen: So that was a big joy. Every September there is an EV week celebrating electric vehicles. And this year, there was an organization called Charge Across Town that was holding an event in Palo Alto on Thursday, with a lot of ride-and-drives, and the mayor was going to talk and all that. And this was at the end of September.

I realized in late August that the city really didn’t have anything to talk about, so I put together a three-bullet paragraph about what they should do along with some background information and brought it to city council members and called them all up, e-mailed them all, and the joy is, the mayor has a Tesla, so there are a lot of people on the city council who support EVs. We’ve got—one city council member is also a board member with the local Bay Area air quality management district, so she gets it, and put forth this resolution, talking about that I wanted them to mandate all new buildings, all new parking lots, essentially, become EV ready, and we would define what that meant as the ordinance was developed. And then we said we wanted to reduce the fees and the permit hassle—if people wanted to put in curbside chargers, well, God bless them and encourage them to do so. And we’ve got all of that.

And what actually started out as being just a simple e-mail has now morphed into multiple meetings with electrical vehicle supply equipment manufacturers, with the public, with developers in discussing what the city council directed staff to come up with things and of course, sadly, not many Palo Alto staff drive EVs, so we as the EV community have come in and are holding meetings every two weeks—and it’s boring—to develop these regulations.

And the first one that has been approved is all new single-family dwellings have to be EV ready, that is, they have to either have raceway or wiring and a 50-amp circuit to charge your EV out to the garage—in essence, an extra circuit out to the garage. And so when you go buy a house in Palo Alto, you won’t have to spend the several thousand to many thousand dollars to rewire your home for an electric vehicle.

Tekla Perry: And when you’re building a home, how much does that add to the construction cost?

Sven Thesen: One blogger compared it to the price when you’re building a million-dollar home in Palo Alto to that of a doormat. But in my opinion it’s on the order of $200. The way most people are going to do it they’re just going to end up running wire, an extra set…one more wire, another breaker in the panel, running to the garage, terminating in a box, an electrical outlet, you know…a 240 electrical outlet.

Tekla Perry: Has there been any pushback from builders?

Sven Thesen: Not that we’ve heard. Again, Palo Alto, generally there’s about a hundred new homes per year that are built in Palo Alto, so it’s not impacting a huge number of homes. But it’s the first in a series of ordinances. Right now we’re looking on the committee to address multifamily dwellings, we’re looking at commercial spaces, so when you redevelop or build a parking lot in the commercial sphere, how many electric chargers, or just the wiring, are we going to require.

Tekla Perry: So what’s your next move? What’s the next thing you’re going to focus on?

Sven Thesen: So once we finalize the ordinance in Palo Alto, and it’s actually a series of ordinances, different types of parking lots will be mandated to be EV ready to different degrees. I plan on taking that to other jurisdictions in the state to say, look what Palo Alto did, you can do this too. We have to be EV ready, we’ve got our AB32 goals of 80 percent carbon reduction; we’re going to get 3.5 million vehicles on the roads by 2025. We have a lot of work to do—this is what Palo Alto did. Just take all of our work and repeat it in your code.

Tekla Perry: Okay. Thank you for joining us.

Sven Thesen: My pleasure, and if you ever find yourself in Palo Alto, Tekla, in an electric vehicle and short on juice, just swing by my house, we’ll get you filled up.

Tekla Perry: We’ve been speaking with Sven Thesen, an EV evangelist, about his efforts to convince his town, and soon, towns around it, to support the adoption of EVs in the community. For IEEE Spectrum’s Techwise Conversations, I’m Tekla Perry.