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tesla roof tiles
© Tesla

A quiet complaint from Mike, an architect I admire in Seattle:

A response from Sheena, an architect I admire in Toronto:

It is food for thought, a whole banquet in fact. I have always been a bit troubled with the obsession with electric cars, and always quote a decade-old piece Alex Steffen wrote in Worldchanging about a presentation he did to a group of Tesla engineers, where he said that the car (back then, the Roadster) "though undoubtedly cool, went nowhere near far enough to be called sustainable." He wrote:

The response surprised me. After my talk, scores of people approached me or emailed me to ask, in generally polite tones, what the hell I was talking about? How could a car that gets 135 mpg-equivalent not be a major harbinger of sustainability? Because the answer to the problem of the American car is not under the hood, and we're not going to find a bright green future by looking there.

Steffen continued: "The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go." In the decade since he wrote that, over 319,000 highway-legal plug-in electric cars have been sold in the United States. It's growing, but it is a rounding error compared to the number of SUVs and pickups sold, as America actually goes backward on average fuel economy.

Meanwhile, in 2015 alone, 12.5 million bicycles were sold. The number of cyclists commuting since 2008 increased by 68 percent to almost a million Americans. These are usually people who live within a few miles of where they work, usually at higher densities. And its not just your treehuggers saying saying this; Just this month, in its strategy for decarbonization, the White House wrote that we not only should be moving away from gasoline powered cars, but from cars altogether by embracing smart growth, where people can get around in other ways:

Transportation energy demand is influenced not only by available technology but also by societal trends. Improved and highly utilized mass transit, higher-density and mixed-use development, increased and efficient ridesharing, and walkable and bikeable neighborhoods can reduce the usage of passenger vehicles

They showed this remarkable graph that showed how much less traffic there would be, and how much less energy would be used, if we actually promoted these strategies. That's why this TreeHugger promotes radical building efficiency and changing the way we live so we don't need cars, instead of oohing over all this new tech made of lithium and silicon. But everyone is excited about Net Zero houses with solar panels on their roofs, even though, as I have said before,

Rooftop solar disproportionately favors those who have rootops, preferably big ones on one-story houses on big suburban lots. Those people tend to drive a lot.

Or as Passive House architect and promoter Bronwyn Barry notes,

Electric vehicles are not a panacea either. While they may serve as a transitional technology, they still require massive infrastructure. Roads, freeways, tunnels, bridges and parking garages all require the use of asphalt and concrete. These materials generate carbon emissions during their manufacturing process – tons of it – and are never included in vehicle Co2 emission calculations. When all these added costs and emissions are finally included in the home energy equation, our current obsessive focus on right-sizing a home’s solar PV to zero out the utility bill will soon look quaintly myopic.

Really, I get so much flak when I complain about Teslas and even more when I complain about net zero, and here I am whining about both together. Superficially it is all very silly, complaining about electric cars and solar roofs as if they are not wonderful things. But they suck up so much air. While it is all beautiful and aspirational, and I wish everyone could have it, we spend far too much attention on the niche markets and not enough on the big picture.

Designing our future around electric cars driving to single family houses, even if they are net zero, is just not going to scale. I'm kind of with Mike, we have to stop hyping this stuff as the answer to our problems, its not. But it helps, I wouldn't mind having a Model 3 and hey, I happen to be lucky and rich enough to have a south facing roof. Perhaps I can happily write about both?

What's wrong with this picture?
Electric cars and solar roofs are nice to have but are they the answer? Have we defined the problem?

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