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Revenge of the Electric Car: Filmmakers explore the future of EVs

Revenge of the Electric Car: Filmmakers explore the future of EVs

Austin Photo Set: News_melissa_revenge of the electric car_dec 2012_volt
Filming the production and assembly of the Chevy Volt in the Hamtramck Assembly Plant in Michigan. Courtesy of Revenge of the Electric Car
Austin Photo Set: News_melissa_revenge of the electric car_dec 2012_chris paine
Director Chris Paine Courtesy of Revenge of the Electric Car
Austin Photo Set: News_melissa_revenge of the electric car_dec 2012_poster
Revenge of the Electric Car poster.
Austin Photo Set: News_melissa_revenge of the electric car_dec 2012_volt
Austin Photo Set: News_melissa_revenge of the electric car_dec 2012_chris paine
Austin Photo Set: News_melissa_revenge of the electric car_dec 2012_poster

Ten years after they killed the electric car, the movie declares it’s back.

Revenge of the Electric Car tells the story of four men struggling to make the electric vehicle, or EV, a viable reality, not to mention save their own skins. The movie, directed by Chris Paine (who also made Who Killed the Electric Car), attracted a full house at an event on The University of Texas campus Tuesday.

Tim Robbins narrates as the filmmakers follow EV research and development at General Motors, Nissan and Tesla motor companies, and one quirky guy converting classic cars to electric in his garage, for three years.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, of PayPal and SpaceX fame (and a keynote speaker at SXSW 2013), goes from promising start to the brink of disaster and back, thanks to investments and a Department of Energy grant. General Motors vice chair Bob Lutz, ironically the man responsible for killing GM’s EV1 (the subject of Paine’s earlier movie), becomes an unlikely champion of the hybrid Volt.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn stakes the company’s entire future on the all-electric Leaf. And Greg “Gadget” Abbott, Paine’s neighbor (how else would anyone have heard of him?), tries to start a one-man revolution. None of them find the going easy, giving the film plenty of drama.

The Tuesday night event was sponsored by The Electric Vehicle Transportation and Electricity Convergence Center, or EV-TEC, which supports multidisciplinary research on the adoption of plug-in vehicles and aims to maximize their economic and social benefits. EV-TEC is a joint effort of UT, Texas A&M University, the National Science Foundation and private and government agencies — including the City of Austin and Pecan Street Inc.

Pecan Street Inc. is an R&D organization seeking to “reinvent America’s electric system” through developing and testing technology, business models and consumer behavior within advanced energy management systems. It runs the Pecan Street Demonstration, a smart grid research project in the Mueller development, funded by a DOE grant.

Austin, no surprise, has embraced electric vehicles in a relatively large way. In order to have enough electric vehicles for its research program, Pecan Street awarded rebates to those who purchased or leased one, says spokesperson Colin Rowan. About 60 folks in Mueller took the bait. The project wants to examine in particular the impact on the grid of a cluster of vehicles in one area. The company hopes to answer questions such as, if everyone plugs in their car at night, will it blow the grid?

Austin Energy leads a regional program to promote EV use called the Texas River Cities Plug-in Electric Vehicle Initiative. There are more than 100 240-volt charging stations in the Austin area; although the current generation of plug-ins can also charge from a regular plug in your garage, that takes longer. Additionally, the Pecan Street project paid for 240-volt charges in the garages of Mueller EV owners — again, in order to be able to collect data on how they are used.

The movie focused on the rough road to production of the electric car rather than the vehicle’s potential environmental benefits. Manufacturers tout the zero emissions when a vehicle runs on electricity, and while that’s true of the car itself, in reality, an EV only shifts emissions to the point of electricity production. Those emissions depend on how the electricity is produced.

According to the Department of Energy, in regions that depend heavily on conventional fossil fuels to make their electricity, there may not be any emissions benefit over the life of the car. Still, what comes out of the tailpipe of a conventional car is pretty nasty, and it gets spewed throughout our cities, neighborhoods and countryside.

One could argue that concentrating emissions in one place — the coal power plant, say — might be an improvement. It might also present a better opportunity for working to reduce said emissions, with new technology or equipment. Also, as our electricity grid becomes greener over time (one hopes), then electric cars become greener as well.

Currently, only two to three percent of the cars sold are electric. Unless that percentage increases dramatically, electric cars won’t make much of an environmental difference, no matter how green the electricity they use. The only way to increase that percentage is for electric cars to become more affordable, or gas to become more expensive. Both things certainly are possible. Clearly, the story isn’t over yet.

The film is available as video-on-demand and DVD from Amazon, has been featured in a number of film festivals, and is occasionally shown by groups and at special events, such as the UT one. Check the website for dates.