Why do we keep making sustainability so hard?

Why do we keep making sustainability so hard?

Years ago, I used to rant in this blog about how Americans said they wanted to buy greener cleaning products, but they either weren’t going to walk from the regular cleaning products aisle all the way back over to the Green Ghetto, or they didn’t even know it existed. Once green cleaning products got put in the regular cleaning aisle, we made it easier for folks to choose the better option, and more people have. When Walmart eliminated non-concentrated formula laundry detergents in Sam’s Club stores, they accomplished the same thing – they made the more sustainable choice the only choice, which made it easy to choose.

So why are we making electric cars so hard?

I just inked a two-year lease on a BMW i3 as part of my ongoing crusade to actually do the things we’re asking Americans to do to be more sustainable. Here’s what I’ve learned … and what I hope the automotive industry will change:

  • Something I didn’t know before I started a search for an electric car is that hybrids (gas and electric) largely only go about 20 miles on a charge and then kick into regular gas mode. Can’t we do better than that? I wound up with the BMWi3 because it was the best option I found in terms of distance on a charge (about 120 miles) with a little gas as a safety net (it holds about 2 gallons). Seems like we should have more options – and less expensive options – than the i3.
  • When I shopped for it, the BMW salesperson told me that BMW had a deal with the Charge Point network so I could register for free and charge all over the country at their charging stations for free for two years. “Yes! I’m doing a two-year lease, so that’s free charging for the life of the lease,” I thought to myself, and put that in the “pro” column for this car. Turns out it’s not true. Charge Point isn’t available in Knoxville, TN, and even though it is available in markets I intend to drive to – Nashville and Atlanta – I’m not allowed to register because I don’t live in a market where it’s available. Seriously?
  • Here’s the kicker: wouldn’t you think, if we were serious as a nation about getting people over to electric cars, that we’d build out one common, universal infrastructure? Did we not learn anything from the Beta/VHS wars of the ‘80s? Not much. The pretty Tesla charging stations you see dotting popular shopping center parking lots only work for Teslas (they literally don’t fit my car), and the fast chargers at Cracker Barrels don’t fit for my car either (so I’ve been told; I have yet to test that for myself). There are many medium-speed (called Level 2) charging stations around the country that fit my car … but it takes 3-4 hours to get the car charged up to 80%. Cracker Barrel is fun and all, but who wants to add another 3 hours into their travel time to get from Point A to Point B? Bottom line: can you imagine pulling up to a gas station and realizing the pump doesn’t fit your car? That’s the experience … cue the anxiety.
  • So why not just drive the car until it’s out of charge and stop to fill the gas tank every 70 miles? Because the car isn’t as powerful in gas-only mode. I took it over the Smoky Mountains from Knoxville to Asheville a couple of weeks ago without a full charge and was down to only gas about the time the mountain got pretty steep. With my pedal to the metal, I could only go 49 miles an hour.
  • Lastly, I’m plugging the car into an electric system that’s still heavily fueled by coal. So I haven’t actually improved my environmental footprint all that much. I’d like to buy enough solar to charge the car, and will dig into that after the new year. I have to say, though, I dread it. My mind makes up that it’s going to be a hard, complicated, expensive ordeal.


Now, it’s super fun to drive, and I get stopped by people and asked about it. So there’s definitely intrigue and interest … but I can’t in good faith recommend that anybody buy an electric car until we make the whole charging situation fast, universal and easy. Just like moving green cleaning products into the regular cleaning aisle.


Suzanne Shelton

About Suzanne Shelton

Suzanne Shelton is President and CEO of Shelton Group, the nation's leading marketing agency focused exclusively on energy and the environment. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of the industry, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights in her writing, research, and client work. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz.com, and she speaks at over 20 conferences a year, including ACEEE, AESP, Greenbiz Forum, and Sustainable Brands.

View all posts by Suzanne Shelton →


  1. You raise some valid points re: infrastructure and range. Even though you are not getting “free” charging you are still saving money on your commute as the cost to drive EV is generally $1 equivalent to a gas fueled vehicle. Add to that the generation profile IS getting cleaner and driving an EV is about generally 50% less CO2 than a gas fueled vehicle. The pluses outweigh the negatives in my book – you just have to look a bit harder past some of the inconveniences that we Americans are so used to.

  2. Hi Suzanne! The 2017 Volt was a better choice for me. Zero range anxiety, and nearly 5000 miles so far on about 40 gallons of gas. Best of all, this car RIPS IT UP…! Great torque and acceleration. I will concede the range takes a hit on the highway. My typical 50 mile range dips to the 35~40 mile range when doing 65mph or more. But in suburban and urban driving, I’ve gotten as much as 80 miles on a full charge. I think the tipping point for EV’s will come when they do away with charging stations in favor of (well managed) modular battery-swap stations. At that point the battery swap happens in less time than a typical gasoline fill-up, and a much more sustainable business model emerges for battery-swap stations. Check it out: https://cleantechnica.com/2015/01/08/battery-swapping-can-now-scaled/

  3. Suzanne, nice blog and I agree for the most part except very few electric utilities are burning 100% coal to make electricity; for most it’s below 50% with the rest using clean energy or carbon free nuclear. You are still better off sustainability wise driving an EV over a gas burning which always burns a 100% dirty carbon fuel.

  4. Thanks for this! I’m a Climatehawk who focuses on working to encourage utilities to move to clean renewable generation. The easiest way to go is JUST DO IT. That is seldom an option right out of the box when you have (potentially) zillions of dollars in stranded assets with their embedded relationship with the bond market, but you remind us that this option can be the very best one for many things. Standardized charging or battery stations can be once such case.
    AND it doesn’t have to be a Federal project in densely populated states.

  5. Suzanne – I understand your concern, but there are lots of benefits to buying an electric car. Because they don’t use fossil fuels while on the road, there are no CO2 and other hydrocarbon emissions. Here in PA, we can chose our electricity provider. Since I am getting my power from an energy provider that provides renewable energy, it’s like I will be charging my car with my own solar panels. And finally, you are sending a message to the fossil fuel industry that you don’t want any more of those dirty fuels.

  6. I’ve got to echo Brian’s comments. My (used, new to me) 2012 Volt can move when it needs to, has enough range for my daily drive (except on days like today when the temps are well below freezing), and has a big enough gas tank to take longer trips without the range anxiety. I’d love to charge during those longer trips, but I don’t take enough long drives where that is a deal breaker for me.

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