From Iceland — It´s Electric

It´s Electric

It´s Electric

Published September 12, 2008

Chris Paine is the director of the acclaimed film Who Killed the Electric Car, a documentary about the decline of technology that seems to be making a comeback in Iceland. He will be coming tp Reykjavik to speak at Driving Sustainability, an international conference about alternative energy sources in transportation. In addition to screening his hit film, he will also be speaking at the conference and getting footage for his upcoming documentary The Revenge of the Electric Car. We gave him a call in his LA studio to find out what we can expect.

What was your reaction when you were asked to come to Iceland to speak at Driving Sustainability?  

I was psyched. You know, Iceland’s got a reputation for a lot of renewable energy, which is the missing link on electric cars. I’ve always wanted to come to Iceland, so this was a big opportunity, and then I saw the program and it looked like they’d put together a tremendous group of European, Icelandic and American expertise on these issues. It sounds like a great conference.
What does it take to make alternative transportation work?
The three secret ingredients are battery technology, renewable electricity, motivated consumers—well, I just said three and I’m already up to four—and wise government leadership. Just looking at the conference, those elements all seem to be in place.
Over 90% of Iceland’s electricity comes from renewable energy so it makes sense for the country to go electric in terms of transportation. Do you think it makes as much sense for the rest of the world?
Absolutely. I mean there’s no one transportation solution for everything you need to do, but for pure electric, for any place where you have 100 miles or less in a day of driving, which is really almost every urban area and every place where the daily commute of people is 60 miles or less, it’s just perfect. That is a gigantic percentage of transportation.
In addition to coming to Iceland to speak at Driving Sustainability, you’re also coming to film your sequel to Who Killed the Electric Car?   
We’re calling it a new film. The last film was sort of a case study about why it’s so difficult to create change. Especially when you’re up against entrenched interest like petroleum and the auto industry and consumer habits. It’s just difficult for people to say: “Oh am I going to start plugging my car in? Am I going to stop going the gas station? What does that mean?” These are difficult hurdles and industry doesn’t want to change the way people make money so you’re threatening industry: “I don’t want to give up my oil revenues,” or “don’t let the utilities take over,” So, the movie was about why it’s so difficult to change.
Now that oil prices have gone up so much even Americans are dialling into global warming. A huge renaissance is happening with electric drives for cars. That’s why were calling the next film The Revenge of the Electric Car—the coming back from the dead, as it were.
Who killed the electric car seemed to provoke a sense of outrage and foul play. Do you think this film will be more optimistic or are you finding things that are just as daunting that stand in the way of moving forward on renewable energy in transportation?
 It’s much more optimistic. It’s about people saying to hell with it we’re just going to do it. We’ll do it with or without industry. If industry is not going to get onboard we’ll do it anyway. It’s about making a better future come hell or high water and to do it smartly.  We want to make sure that electric transportation does not end up building coal plants everywhere, which really isn’t a lot better than making gasoline.
What do you hope to find when you come to Iceland/ Driving Sustainability when it comes to content for your film or the future of renewable energy in general?
I want to look at your geothermal plant. I want to talk to ordinarily folks, Icelanders, about their attitude about their cars. I know a lot of people drive Range Rovers and trucks and sort of manly-men-cars that go from place to place and I’m very much interested in the projection that cars have. Men want tough cars because they radiate a lot of power and women are attracted to that. I think there’s a lot of primal stuff in cars. I’m interested in what the general population has to say about their willingness to embrace either smaller cars or bigger cars that use electricity.
I’m interested to see what the balance is on hydrogen. I’m very sceptical about hydrogen fuel cells. I know there’s been a hydrogen push in Iceland and I want to sort of investigate what the reality is on hydrogen versus batteries. I fear that the world has been severely misled about hydrogen fuel cells for cars and that this is a stalling strategy, a very expensive stalling strategy, and batteries are ready to go today for short trips. Is Iceland buying the hydrogen hype and if so who’s pushing it?
Why is the push for hydrogen a stalling strategy? What is it stalling for?
I think there’s a lot of people in hydrogen that have very good intentions and it’s certainly a beautiful vision for transportation in 100 years. But, the problem is there’s only so many dollars for alternative transportation because new technology is expensive and batteries can do it now.  Initially, the oil companies were pushing hydrogen because they want to control electricity as a fuel.  Hydrogen is basically electricity as a fuel so they get to keep playing the game. They get to ship the hydrogen around in their trucks, but the problem is that it’s very inefficient and very energy intensive way to do it. We don’t need the fuel companies shipping hydrogen. We already have the infrastructure for electricity and when we use batteries and existing electrical infrastructure, we don’t need the oil companies. We can do it ourselves and at a big savings. If the oil companies have convinced Iceland that they want hydrogen, I think that Iceland will lose more time in efficiently getting off oil.
It’s good that hydrogen is an option it just shouldn’t be on the front burner.  It should be on the back burner. What should be on the front burner are plug-in hybrids and plug-in electrics, in my view.
Do you think a small country like Iceland can be a role model for the rest of the world?
Of course, Iceland can definitely be a role model. I think it already is and that’s why I’m looking forward to coming, to see how that role model plays out.

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