Electric Currents

You're Powered By Coal, You Know That, Don't You?

Earlier this week, my wife and I were driving north on 72nd St during the dinner hour. We were first headed to the Nebraska Furniture Mart, one of the jewels in Berkshire Hathaway's local crown of companies, to pay off our 45th wedding anniversary present, a new television set. After that we'd head west on Pacific Street to Trader Joe's for our twice monthly grocery shopping trip.

Just south of the intersection with 'F' Street, the city had closed the left-hand lane, forcing traffic to move right. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I saw this red Ram pickup truck speeding up, trying to close the gap in the right lane that I was trying to move into. There was still time to slip over and with the barricade getting ever-closer, I confidently pulled into the right lane, forcing the speeding pickup driver to slow down. I didn't think anything more about it. It's a standard move that happens maybe a few billion times a day, but this time it was different.

North of Interstate 80, I moved back into the left-hand lane, giving the red Ram driver the opportunity to pass. He didn't. Instead, he pulled alongside and started yelling at my wife, pointing his finger. Several times, at least, he angrily repeated the phrase, "You know you're driving on coal, don't you? You're power by coal, you know that, don't you?"

My wife started to reply back to him and told her to just ignore him. After he'd vented his spleen, he gunned the rusting rattletrap he was driving, and raced ahead of us. Eventually, he disappeared into the parking lot of a Walmart.

Both a little shaken by the experience, I told my wife that you don't argue with people like that. They are just as likely to pull out a handgun and use it if you make them any madder. Clearly, he was angry, probably because he thought I'd cut him off. Then he read our vanity plate and I am sure thought we're a bunch of liberal treehuggers, which I suppose we are. Actually, the 'LIVNG GRN' refers to my wife's favorite color: green. When we bought the car, she insisted it be green. It was also meant to say that we were trying to be a little more sustainable in how we live our daily lives: her driving the Prius, my riding my, yes, green K15 electric bicycle. But as the name suggests, there's also a bit of vanity there too, I suppose.

As I drove towards NFM and then to Trader Joe's, I kept thinking about his accusation of our 'driving on coal.' It is only true in the sense that we plug-in the Prius to top-off its aging NiMH pack to keep the car from giving us the 'red triangle of death.' The 6.1 kWh pack no longer carries sufficient charge to propel the car on its own like it did when it was new. Eventually, we'll have to remove it and restore the car back to its original stock configuration. It was a fun experiment back in 2009 before the advent of the Volt and LEAF, but it lasted for only a couple years. Now the car operates nearly 100% of the time in normal hybrid mode, burning, like the other 8 million Toyota hybrids -- and like that rattletrap Ram -- gasoline.

Whoever the angry pickup driver was, he clearly doesn't know a Prius from a LEAF. All he knows is that we're all a bunch of hypocrites driving our supposedly 'green' cars "powered by coal." Whether he read that somewhere, heard it on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or maybe he works for the Union Pacific, who hauls millions of tons of coal through my hometown every day, I don't know. What I do know is that, he's only partially right. Yes, if you drive a plug-in car here in Omaha, a lot of that electricity is generated by burning coal, though not all. A fair share of it comes from our nuclear power plant at Fort Calhoun, and increasingly, from wind. In fact, our local utility has a plan to shift from using coal to more natural gas and to buy more wind power, the goal being something like 20% renewables by 2020.

The other consequence of that encounter along 72nd Street is that when it comes time to renew our car plates next month, I won't be paying the extra $35 for the vanity plate. No sense antagonizing people who simply don't know any better.

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