Gone Fishin’

I’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks with a blogging hiatus. I’ve added a new email sign-up feature to the blog, so if you’d like to be notified when posting resumes, enter your email address in the box at the top left on this page.

Enjoy your July!

Paul Simon Ready To Retire?


He’s my favorite singer-songwriter, and his new album is one of his best.  But the New York Times reports that he may be ready to call it a career.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine that someone like him won’t continue to have musical ideas that he’ll want to share.  But the touring and album production I’m sure could get onerous, particularly for someone in his mid-70s.  And from the article, it sounds like he’s got some soul-searching he’s ready to do with time off and the pressure relieved.

Meanwhile, he offered these thoughts on songwriting, which strongly resonated with me based on my experiences writing songs (minus the comparably huge hits that Simon has scored since the 1960s):

“I was 21, maybe 22, when I wrote ‘The Sound of Silence,’ which seems to me like quite a big jump from where I was before that,” he said. “And why or where, I have no idea. I thought the same thing when I wrote ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ —whoa, that song is better than what I’ve been doing. Different chords and something special about it. The same feeling with ‘Graceland,’ and ‘Still Crazy After All These Years.’”

The successes mystify him, he said: “All of a sudden you’re there, and you’re surprised. This happened to me at times where some line comes out, where I’m the audience and it’s real, and I have to stop, because I’m crying. I didn’t know I was going to say that, didn’t know that I felt that, didn’t know that was really true. I have to stop and catch my breath.”

He paused, then added, “It doesn’t happen too often.”

At a basic level, you could simply describe what he experiences as “inspiration” or “being inspired.” But it’s always a mysterious, almost out-of-body experience that he captures really well here.

Regardless of his future plans, I’m deeply appreciative of the legacy of songs he’s created over the last half century. They’ve certainly enriched my life and helped raise the musical standards for artists everywhere.

What Is The “Secret Sauce” To Boost LA Rail Ridership?

In the run-up to this November’s big ballot initiative in Los Angeles County to raise revenue for transit through a higher sales tax, the pro-transit nonprofit Move LA argues that improved connectivity will boost ridership:

The new measure could deliver the necessary votes because it more than quadruples the connectivity of the rail system: Before Measure R riders could transfer from one line to another at 7 stations in the system, but the new measure would build projects that increase the number of transfer points to 32, enabling people to get from one corner of the county to any other corner. This is the secret sauce that will make ridership grow!

It’s a relatively minor quibble, but the real secret sauce to boosting ridership is to build more homes and offices within walking distance of the transit stations.  Certainly more connectivity and faster service helps.  But in the meantime, the region has plenty of transit stations that are operating now that could be leveraged to boost ridership.

And if the measure passes, it would be helpful if transit leaders could offer some guarantee that new spending on transit lines will be conditioned on this supportive land use development.  Otherwise, the region will be replicating a pattern of under-performance that is still a major challenge for ridership in the existing system.

The Logic Of A Tesla-SolarCity Merger

The proposed merger between Tesla and SolarCity has a lot of Wall Street types grumbling.  But as I wrote a few weeks ago, the deal makes some sense in the short run and has the outside potential for major gains unlike anything we’ve seen in the energy space.

Now the Chicago Tribune spells out some of the specifics of the upside for the company, much of which is predicated on likely policy changes to solar policy in the U.S.:

Net metering rules, which require electric utilities to buy back rooftop solar from customers at retail rates, are the biggest U.S. subsidy for solar power. But as solar power spreads, the policy will begin to destabilize grid economics. Several states have reversed their rules already, most notably Nevada, where the abruptness of the turnabout left customers in the lurch with overbuilt solar systems and no way to recoup costs. Higher-capacity battery storage will eventually allow solar customers to profit from their solar systems with or without net metering. It’s investment security for the homeowner.

Essentially, Tesla is betting — with good reason — that states will likely start encouraging battery installation along with solar panels.

He may soon be drinking your energy milkshake

He may soon be drinking your energy milkshake

The article also notes that Tesla may be able to aggregate all of its customers’ battery power to sell this flexible resource to the wholesale electricity market to provide various grid services, distributing the revenue to its customers in the form of reduced energy bills or cash payments.

My only quibble is that the “frequency regulation” market that the article cites is lucrative but relatively small.  So the company may have better success aggregating all this flexible demand to be responsive to grid needs (essentially to match renewable generation).

So in the near term, Tesla can benefit by selling solar panels in its showrooms.  In the medium term, it can bet on battery incentives in many states and the possibility of aggregating all of its customers’ energy resources to sell to grid operators.  And in the long run, as costs continue to decline and new technologies become available, the company could very well supplant traditional utilities by managing all of your energy — and transportation — needs.

Not a bad play, all in all.

“Railtown” Book Club Selection

I’m honored to see that the on-line TransportiCA has launched a new book club contest with my book Railtown.  The club will include a contest to win an autographed copy of the book.  You just need to answer three questions on L.A. rail history correctly and submit it to the site.  More details can be found here.

Check back in on the site for more details, and thanks to TransportiCA for the selection.

Is “Game Of Thrones” Really About Climate Change?

Perhaps with too much time on his hands, Vox writer Zack Beauchamp makes a surprisingly persuasive case that the “white walkers” in the popular Game of Thrones HBO show are really a metaphor for climate change:

The Children of the Forest are a nature-worshiping magical race who lived on Westeros before humanity’s arrival. After the humans came, they went to war with the Children of the Forest over territory. The creation of the White Walkers, powerful monsters specifically designed to kill humans, was the Children’s response.

So that means the White Walkers are a quasi-natural backlash to humanity’s growth and expansion. Today, they have spun out of anyone’s control and threaten the very foundations of human civilization. Yet humanity is ignoring the White Walker threat in favor of internal squabbling.

The parallels are interesting to think about for fans of the show. But the one thing missing in the analysis is a parallel to the economic factors in real life that prevent concerted action to address climate change.

In reality, many industries stand to lose out as we transition to clean energy, and they and their sympathizers are helping to underwrite the case against climate science and action. I don’t see that parallel in the Game of Thrones world, where inaction is more about political squabbling rather than an economic motivation not to confront the challenge.

But I suppose if you play out the analogy, then the fire-breathing dragons in the show could be like nuclear energy: a potential solution to the white walker challenge but one that carries the risk of meltdown.

The Surprisingly Sordid History Of Bus Rapid Transit

Count me in as a general well-wisher for bus rapid transit, or BRT.  If done right, in dedicated lanes with multiple boarding openings and signal priority, it can mimic much of the benefits of rail (speed and reliability) at a fraction of the cost and time to build.

Many environmentalists and transit advocates agree, which is why more and more BRT lines are being introduced around the country, from Cleveland to San Francisco.  Los Angeles has one of the first in the country in the San Fernando Valley (see the photo below — I document the history of the line in my book Railtown, as the one exception to my otherwise-exclusive focus on rail transit history).

The Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit in the San Fernando Valley

The Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit in the San Fernando Valley

But now Benjamin Ross, a transit advocate in Maryland, offers a surprising account of the history of bus rapid transit, with evidence that it originally sprang as an idea by the oil and gas industry and highway lobby to blunt momentum for rail transit.

While he acknowledges that buses are important and that BRT, when done right, can be successful, he ultimately believes that the push for BRT has in too many cases undercut momentum for much more effective rail transit systems.  He also decries the “watered down” versions of BRT that lose many of the critical distinctions that make it a speedy and effective mode of moving people.

The account is hardly a paranoid polemic and seems well-balanced.  For my part, I think context is everything.  There is a reason that BRT has taken hold well beyond the anti-rail, pro-highway forces.  Its low price tag, speed of construction, and quality of service are hard to beat and offer the perfect technology for certain corridors and mid-size neighborhoods.  For places like Los Angeles, it would be easy to add bus-only lanes to existing highways, and that shouldn’t detract from the push for rail in high-density parts of the region.

But it’s worth considering Ross’s point that BRT advocacy can sometimes go too far and undercut the case for more right-sized transit like rail.  His point about decision makers watering down BRT too much is also well taken — it’s not truly BRT without a dedicated lane and signal priority, at the very least.

Meanwhile, transit advocates should keep this mixed history in mind, in order to guard against efforts to divide them or to lower the quality of transit in the ongoing mobility battles in cities across the country and beyond.

By-Right Housing Approvals Won’t Solve The Housing Shortage In San Francisco?
No help from the state?

No help from the state?

Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations write in a San Francisco Examiner op-ed that the governor’s proposed state “by-right” approval of housing projects consistent with local zoning won’t help San Francisco’s housing shortage.

Why? Because approvals aren’t the issue — it’s actually getting the units built where things start to break down:

Between 1996 and 2015, the city of San Francisco approved 51,000 units for construction. In the same time period, developers actually constructed 37,000 units. That’s 14,000 more units approved for construction than have actually been built, and, on average, that backlog has increased by almost 700 units every year. The City’s latest pipeline report, through the first quarter of 2016, puts that figure even higher, at almost 19,000 entitled units! That’s not even counting the approved housing from the massive Park Merced, Hunters Point/Candlestick, and Treasure Island developments.

The op-ed authors vigorously defend the public process that would be eliminated by the governor’s proposal, arguing that this process allows for extracting more community benefits from projects that actually move forward.

Instead, they say the real problem is financing. Lenders won’t invest in approved projects without more guarantees of return, and that’s where state and local leaders should be focusing their attention, not on by-right approvals.

But my question is: why aren’t financiers stepping up to fund these approved projects in the pipeline? Could it be that the same “community benefits” and other restrictions on new projects are limiting deployment only to the most high-end projects, which can guarantee enough return to make up for the exactions?

I only speculate, but it’s a potential contradiction in their argument that the op-ed authors do not address.  Otherwise, I certainly agree that more answers are needed to explain this financing conundrum.

The Pope’s Climate Miracle?
Two more miracles and he'll be a saint

Two more miracles and he’ll be a saint

Climate change has become one of the most ideological issues of the day, with beliefs hardened according to political attitudes. But Pope Francis appears to be pulling off the miracle of actually changing people’s minds, per the Christian Science Monitor:

In 2015, on the eve of the release of Pope Francis’s encyclical [on climate change], research showed that Catholics in the United States were divided over global warming. Their differences mirrored the partisan divide found among much of the population, with around 80 percent of Catholic Democrats claiming there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming, and only half of Catholic Republicans claiming the same. Meanwhile, around 60 percent of Catholic Democrats said that global warming is a serious, man-made problem, while just a quarter of Catholic Republicans agreed.

But over the past year, perceptions began to shift. Just 6 months after the release of Laudato Si, the percentage of American Catholics who thought climate change is a moral issue jumped from 34 percent to 42 percent, according to a study conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Meanwhile, a study released by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America found that Catholic Republicans who read Laudato Si were 10 percent more likely to agree that human activities are responsible for climate change.

So we can add that to the arsenal of strategies for overcoming resistance to the science: get more religious authorities to speak out on climate change.

The issue is rightly framed as a moral one, given how vulnerable communities will be most likely to face the worst impacts of extreme weather wrought by a warming planet.

Utah Energy Leaders Concerned About California Grid Expansion
The dark orange over Wyoming means great wind resources to import to California

The dark orange over Wyoming means great wind resources to import to California

In the battle to balance California’s booming renewable generation, the state’s grid operators are actively looking to expand into other states.  The effort overall promises lower costs and a market for in-state surplus renewables to other states, while allowing California to access cheap renewables from other states when our in-state supply dwindles.

But local environmental groups don’t like the prospects of keeping Utah’s coal plants in business a little longer, while in-state power providers don’t like the potential loss of energy sovereignty to California.  Utah leaders in particular are now sounding peeved, per the Salt Lake City Tribune:

Although the proposal says the body of state regulators would have “primary authority over regional … policy initiatives on topics within the general subject areas of transmission cost allocation and aspects of resource adequacy,” it’s not clear how or even whether the body would interact with the CAISO board. It’s also not clear what would happen to the five sitting CAISO board members when their current terms expire. Those details would be left to a transitional committee, which would be appointed by the CAISO board. This transitional committee would be tasked with hammering out the details not included in California’s governance proposal.

Though the proposal implies that the distribution of power would be worked out down the road, the initial setup worries Kelly Francone, executive director of the Utah Association of Energy Users.

Starting with a majority of board members representing California could lead to an imbalance of power down the road, she said.

States like Utah will be angling for more say over grid operations, while California will push back and will also be trying to ensure nobody messes with its renewable energy policies. If the expansion goes forward, the power sharing will be dependent on the negotiating skills of the respective parties, leaving much of the arrangement’s governance details up in the air for now.

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