Rolling in Green 

Canadian e-cars come to B-town, invasive trees pegged as a top eco-fuel candidate, and a carbon calculator that multiplies guilt.

Nerds come in all colors. Especially green. Consider Berkeley resident Marc Korchin, who since July has been running an electric car dealership out of his house.

Korchin's Green Motors imports Canadian electric cars: the Dynasty IT, a cute four-seater that seems to have taken some design cues from the Volkswagen Beetle; and the ZENN two-seater, which looks like a mini SUV. His fleet recently made its public debut in the parade of alternative-fuel vehicles headlining the Solano Stroll, each helmed by local political celebs.

So there he was at the parade staging area, (a 76 gas station, natch), showing off the finer points of the ZENN to Congresswoman Barbara Lee, whom he would be chauffeuring. "What does this cost? About $100,000?" a woman asked suspiciously, as Korchin eased the ZENN into the parade lineup.

"No, not like the Tesla!" he yelled cheerfully over Lee's head. "About fourteen grand!" (The IT retails at $22,200.)

Lee exchanged pleasantries out the window with Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, who was tooling past in a vegetable-oil-powered VW Jetta, as Albany Mayor Robert Lieber, about to take a spin in the IT, schooled his passenger, Korchin's six-year-old daughter, Shauna, on the proper way to scatter candy out the window.

Korchin is a former VP of sales for a software company who got religion thanks to the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? and guilt trips from his kids. This spring, the family bought an IT, since Korchin found it paradoxical that his wife, Alison Gill, editor of the Journal of Environmental Management, was driving a gas-powered vehicle.

"Everywhere we went we gathered a crowd," Korchin recalls of the purchase. The attention got so overwhelming that Gill crafted a flier to hand the gawkers. Bingo: business opportunity. Sure, the cars can't handle freeway speeds and their range is limited, but, Korchin points out, they're good for the planet, much cheaper per mile, and are relaxing to drive. Now, he says, "I realize why God didn't intend man to go at seventy miles an hour."

Korchin will open a Berkeley showroom in October. For now, he offers test drives by appointment, which people can schedule through GoGreenMotors.com.

A Tree in Your Tank: At last there's "a better use for eucalyptus besides kindling for wildfires." So says Joint Genome Institute spokesman David Gilbert.

It turns out the tree, one of the most commonly planted in the world, is doubly promising as a new alternative fuel source: Eucalyptus stems and branches are easy to break down into biofuels such as ethanol, and its roots naturally sequester carbon below ground.

The Walnut Creek lab is about to sequence the eucalyptus genome — the goal is to help scientists better understand how the tree removes carbon from the atmosphere, and how it might be bred for the bioenergy market.

The world's eucalyptus biomass already outweighs the total US corn crop, but researchers think we should grow even more of it — the rapid growth that makes eucalyptus a pest here in fire country makes it an attractive biofuel crop, according to program lead Jerry Tuskan. "It can achieve five to ten dry tons per acre per year productivity," he says.

So why is a plant-based fuel preferable to gasoline? "With fossil fuels," Tuskan says, "We're releasing ancient carbon that remains up in the atmosphere as a net CO2 emission." But ethanol is biodegradable, and its production from eucalyptus would ideally form what he calls a "closed loop," in which the carbon produced by burning ethanol would be re-absorbed by the roots of the next generation of eucalyptus trees. Better yet, Tuskan says, farmers would be encouraged to plant eucalyptus as a cash crop, supplementing their income and creating agricultural jobs — which would make it another kind of green.

Carbon Crunching: Atmospheric carbon doesn't just come from cars — more than half results from producing everything we wear, eat, and use around the house, says Chris Jones, staff researcher at the Berkeley Institute of the Environment. That's why Jones designed the Lifecycle Climate Footprint Calculator.

It is, in a word, horrifying.

Unlike other environmental impact calculators, this one doesn't just measure your carbon footprint by what comes out of your tailpipe. Users also input what they spend on household power, appliances, cleaning supplies, beauty products, apparel, and food. The program then tallies up how many metric tons of greenhouse gases were created producing and transporting these goods. "People don't know what the relative contribution is of all these things," Jones says. "When you add them up, you get a pretty scary number."

He's got that right. On average, each US household produces about fifty metric tons of greenhouse gases a year — about five times the global average. Only ten of those tons come directly from cars and trucks.

"We need to reduce global emissions by 80 percent to stabilize the climate," he says. That's why the questionnaire concludes with a list of carbon offset programs that can mitigate the environmental impact of your buying habits.

Calculate your score at CarbonNeutral.org. Then take a deep breath. Or, don't.

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