My Attorney Bernie

This might be my new favorite song title.  Blossom Dearie does a great vocal performance on this Dave Frishberg original:

L.A. Metro’s Blog Podcast On “Railtown”
Photo by Steve Hymon

Photo by Steve Hymon

Metro’s official blog, The Source, posted a podcast with me on my book Railtown, covering the history of modern rail transit in Los Angeles.  The chief blogger for the site, Steve Hymon, covered Metro for the Los Angeles Times before joining the blog, so he has first-person knowledge of many of the events I chronicle.  He asked a lot of good questions and shared some of his personal memories from the recent transit past as well.

Steve is also a talented photographer, so it was nice to be a subject of one of his shoots.  Here’s the photo he took (right), which would have made for a nice jacket photo in the book.  Oh well — maybe for the sequel.

You can listen to the 34 minute podcast here.  Thanks to Steve and the editors at The Source for putting it together.

Gov. Brown Making Good Progress To Help Infill And Curb Sprawl

The San Francisco Chronicle is running a joint op-ed today from the Council of Infill Builders and Greenbelt Alliance that supports Gov. Brown’s efforts on SB 743.  As you may recall, the controversial implementation of this law will allow transit-friendly infill projects to escape the need for litigation-enabling traffic studies, while requiring sprawl projects to reduce their overall impact on regional traffic and driving miles.

The op-ed seems to be a response to a misguided outcry from state business leaders who claim to want more infill but see this reform as simply creating more “uncertainty” for infill projects.  Their claims are basically meritless, and the real aim seems to be a larger campaign to unravel the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). After all, slowly fixing the seriously deficient parts of the law, like with this traffic analysis, undermines their case for wholesale change.

As the piece describes of the transportation impacts analysis:

This perverse result has to change, and the Brown administration is taking action. Following a 2013 state law, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research has developed an alternative way to address traffic effects. Project developers must now look at how a project will affect the overall driving miles as measured throughout the metropolitan region. So downtown-oriented projects, where most people can walk, take transit or bike (modes of transport that are good for the environment and relieve traffic regionwide), would not trigger lengthy CEQA review on this particular issue. Outlying projects, however, must account for the regional traffic they generate and mitigate where feasible. Mitigation could include anything from free transit passes for residents to adding more jobs and retail opportunities on-site so residents don’t have to drive long distances to access them.

I hope Governor Brown follows the advice here and stays the course.  CEQA was long overdue for this modernization.  Final comments to OPR are due on Friday.


Toyota Unveils New Fuel Cell Vehicle
"Crazy ugly?"

“Crazy ugly?”

Toyota announced its new fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai.  Available only in California, it has a range of up to 300 miles at $57,500 (not including rebates and tax credits), which also includes free hydrogen fueling for three years.  The advantage?  It can refuel in 5 minutes, compared to an hour or way more in a traditional battery electric vehicle.

The disadvantages?  Well, if you like looks and horsepower, this vehicle won’t do it for you.  One website review called it “crazy ugly” and noted it takes 9 seconds to accelerate to 62 miles per hour (compared to 4.1 seconds for the Tesla Model S).

The real disadvantage?  The fueling infrastructure isn’t there.  While battery electric drivers may complain about the lack of charging stations, at least electricity is ubiquitous and basically cheap.  But with hydrogen, we need a whole new, expensive, and energy-intensive infrastructure to produce and dispatch the hydrogen.

Here’s Toyota’s response:

Research at the University of California Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program (APEP) has found that 68 stations, located at the proper sites, could handle a FCV population of at least 10,000 vehicles. Those stations are on their way to becoming a reality. By the end of 2015, 3 of California’s 9 active hydrogen stations and 17 newly-constructed stations are scheduled to be opened to the general public, with 28 additional stations set to come online by the end of 2016, bringing the near-term total to 48 stations.

Nineteen of those 48 stations will be built by FirstElement Fuels, supported by a $7.3 million loan from Toyota. The company has also announced additional efforts to develop infrastructure in the country’s Northeast region. In 2016, Air Liquide, in collaboration with Toyota, is targeting construction of 12 stations in five states – New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Personally, I think the expense and energy needs for the fuel disqualifies hydrogen fuel cells as a viable technology, at least for passenger vehicles.  However, given that we need to electrify pretty much all of our transportation to meet our long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals, I could see hydrogen being useful (and maybe necessary) for heavy-duty shipping, as batteries may not be able to provide the power necessary.

In any event, we can see how Toyota and other fuel cell-committed companies like Honda do with their technologies.  But from a public policy standpoint, we should not be subsidizing the fueling infrastructure for vehicles like the Mirai.

Is Rail Worth It? New Essay In UC Berkeley Planning Journal

Martin Wachs and I take a stab at answering this question in the new issue of the UC Berkeley Planning Journal (PDF here).  Excerpt from my recommendations:

[S]cholars and practitioners need to better link land-use development to transit infrastructure. They should support policies that
require density (or local plans to enable density) around transit stations and corridors. Such requirements at the federal and/or state levels could change the rail and land-use decision-making dynamic for local officials, whom otherwise might be easily influenced by well-resourced constituents at the expense of the regional good. The requirements could also deprive local groups of litigation opportunities to slow, stop, or drive up the costs of rail and related development.

Planners and practitioners should also advocate for nonrail options that can catalyze land-use changes, such as bus-rapid transit systems
on bus-only lanes. These lower-cost transit modes can be as clean, fast, and reliable as rail.  Advocates need to communicate these benefits as an antidote to the negative bus stereotype.

Tesla: A Battery Company That Happens To Make Cars

New information on Tesla’s Nevada gigafactory indicates that the company is making a major play for the stationary storage market (i.e. backup battery systems for homes and businesses and maybe stacked batteries for bulk energy storage.  According to CEO Elon Musk:

“Stationary storage is a vital element for going to sustainable power generation and we are currently assuming that somewhere around 30 percent or so of the Gigafactory output would be aimed at stationary storage, that’s a rough guess, says Musk. But, one way or another, stationary storage is going to be a really huge thing that needs to be done.”

30 percent is a pretty staggering figure for a company making such great headway on the vehicle side. Of course, we need both types of energy storage, for transportation and for decarbonizing the grid. Meanwhile, plans for the factory are coming along, with some production possibly beginning as soon as 2016.

I hope they hurry up — I’ll be in line to get their mass-market Model 3 as soon as it’s available.

Are Hot Tubs Good For Droughts?

hot-tub-tea-cupIt seems counter-intuitive, but that’s what hot tub dealers like to say.  They may have a point: after a long soak, the shower that follows will probably be quicker because you don’t need the warm water to warm you up in the cold winter months.  And the water that gets dumped every six months or so can be used to irrigate nearby plants (provided the chlorine levels have dropped enough, if you don’t use bromine to keep it clean).  And if you take regular baths, hot tubs are a much better substitute from a water conservation standpoint.

But when droughts hit, severe water rationing usually means that hot tub owners are encouraged not to fill their tubs (as happened in Santa Cruz recently).  So if hot tub dealers feel the data are on their side in terms of water conservation benefits, they should study this issue to change policy decision-making.

In general though, hot tubs are an environmental negative due to the energy required to heat the tubs.  Of course, if you have solar panels or live in some kind of eco-compound in the Rockies like Amory Lovins, then maybe you can be forgiven for indulging in warm water.

Either way, I’m up for doing a significant amount of research on this topic.

Continued Good News On Solar Panel Price Declines

A new report from the U.S. Energy Department’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) documents price declines for solar panels in the past year of up to 19%, with up to 12% more reductions forecast for the coming year.  PV magazine summarizes:

  • Modeled utility-scale PV system prices fell below $2 a watt in 2013 and have continued to decline in 2014 to roughly $1.80 a watt, which is 59% below what modeled pricing showed in 2010.

  • There is a difference of roughly $2 a watt between the median reported price of the lowest and highest-priced states for residential and commercial systems (less than 10 kW in size); a similar price range also exists within individual states.

  • There is a wide-range in analysts’ PV pricing estimates, however a number of analysts are now projecting long-term pricing in line with the targets set by the [DOE] SunShot Initiative for 2020. At these pricing levels, PV is expected to reach widespread grid parity in the U.S. without federal or state subsidies.

All good news for providing ubiquitous and cheap clean energy. Now if only battery prices can achieve the same price decreases, solving climate change, cleaning the air, and keeping our energy dollars local will become a given.

San Diegans Not Drinking In High Speed Rail
Stay classy, high speed rail.

Stay classy, high speed rail.

Count me among the believers that the most sensible high speed rail route in California is between Los Angeles and San Diego.  The two cities are 120 miles from each other — too close to fly and painfully slow to drive during most daytime hours.  Amtrak takes almost three hours to get there.

But a high speed rail route could chop that distance to 45 minutes — a huge value-add to connect the cities, which would do wonders economically and for quality of life.  The line would pay for itself in fare revenue.

So of course it will likely be the last section of high speed rail to be built in California.  And some people in San Diego are not happy about it, according to the San Diego Union Tribune:

Even with lukewarm support from the region, then San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders took a strong stand in favor of high-speed rail after the [2008 state high speed rail] bond passed.

“We stand firmly behind high-speed rail and will do all we can to bring it to San Diego,” Sanders told the authority’s board at its February 2010 meeting in San Diego. “It will help fuel our economy, help the environment and improve our quality of life.”

Reached by phone on Friday, Sanders, who now heads the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he’s no longer a bullet train backer.

Sanders said he supported the project because he thought San Diego would be included early on, but delays have convinced him that the state’s money would be better spent bolstering the region’s existing rail connections.

“We haven’t seen any progress,” Sanders said. “They’re not even talking about San Diego-to-LA at this point, which is too bad.”

The California High Speed Rail Authority doesn’t plan to break ground on the San Diego-to-Los Angeles link until after it completes the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles section in 2029.  That’s too bad.  But I hope in the meantime the state will consider either a concurrent start in San Diego or upgrades to the Amtrak line to get it running to 110 miles per hour.  It would be a great demonstration of a successful high speed rail line in California and provide immediate benefits for the millions of people in that corridor.

Why “Virtual” Net Metering Will Save The Planet

We know we need more renewable energy to have a fighting chance at reducing greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid fully baking the planet. But for many people, rooftop solar is not an option. They may not have enough sun exposure, they may rent their place and not own their roof, they may be in a condo or apartment without ownership of the roof, or they may not use enough electricity to justify installing solar.

body-0-1376425473419So enter “virtual” net metering.  For those who don’t know, basic net metering is the primary incentive program for rooftop solar, where excess solar power a building owner generates beyond his or her needs gets sold to the utility for retail credit (i.e. the meter “spins backward”).

But with virtual net metering, the customer can get the benefits of this retail credit with a solar installation that’s not directly on the property.  Typically the panels would be installed somewhere nearby with good solar exposure and possibly more room for panels.  And with this arrangement, solar customers can co-own a solar panel array with neighbors and others, allowing for economies of scale to take hold.

Dick Munson at EDF lists the top five reasons why virtual net metering is better than plain ol’ net metering. It’s worth reading them all in full.

Of special note, California has authorized virtual net metering for certain multi-family dwellings, although the state could certainly do more to expand this program. Munson’s list makes the case for why it’s important for the state to do so. Eventually, these community solar plots can be coupled with energy storage to allow whole neighborhoods to go “off the grid” and be their own utility via a neighborhood microgrid.

But it all starts with a virtual reality.

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