The (Other) Purple Line Is Delayed, Due To Litigation & DC Metro Woes

No, not the L.A. purple line subway down Wilshire.  It’s the Maryland light rail purple line, providing a critical rail connection between spokes of the beleaguered Washington DC Metro.  Think of it as the rubber tire connecting the end of the Metro spokes, per this map:

purple_line_preferred_alternative_mapLast year, I triumphantly blogged that the rail line was approved after the Republican governor of Maryland had a change of heart from his highway-favoring ways. I took credit because I had just given a talk on rail in Washington DC (victory has a thousand parents).

But this year, a judge has put the kibosh on the line, due to a lawsuit by affluent homeowners upset at losing the current leafy bikeway and trail to a rail line for the masses. As Construction Dive reported, the gist of the decision is that new environmental analysis is now required to revise the ridership estimates. It seems that falling DC Metro ridership, which purple line backers relied on for their analysis, need to be taken into account to revise the projections downward.

The decision is jeopardizing $900 million in federal funds already committed, and it may kill the project entirely if the new numbers don’t pencil well. As a backup, the rail line could turn into a busway, but it would be a major setback for transit advocates.

It’s another example that contentious rail projects and litigation are not just a feature of California’s politics, and that the usual suspects of affluent homeowners groups hold sway across the country when it comes to these critical infrastructure projects.

Because it definitely had nothing to do with my presentation.

Oakland AirBART Connector Performing Poorly

The East Bay Times is reporting some depressing numbers from the two-year-old people-mover rail connection to the Oakland Airport from the BART station:

Rather than making a projected $2 million profit in its first two years, the service has cost the agency $860,000. And ridership dropped 4.5 percent during the three-month period ending Sept. 30 from the same period a year earlier, as ride-booking services tripled their numbers over the same span.

This performance comes as the airport has experienced 6% passenger growth, meaning the connection is failing to capture new travelers.

OAC1As I’ve written before, the $6 fare is just brutal for this ride. It makes any taxi or ride-hailing service cost competitive (and probably faster) if you have more than one person in your party.  The fact that the ride is a slow-moving cable car with a 20-second cable “transfer” in the middle doesn’t help matters either.

Still, I’m surprised to see this news given that the numbers looked better last year, with fares appearing to cover operating costs.  The ubiquity of these ride-hailing services must clearly be making a big impact.

Now that BART has sunk all this money into the connection, rather than the cheaper and comparable bus-only lane that many social justice and transportation advocates wanted, the agency has limited options.  They could experiment with cheaper fares (and promote them widely) to see if that might lure enough additional people to cover costs.  But that could be tough: if they cut fares to $3 each way, they’d have to attract at least one additional person for every existing rider just to cover the reduction, plus probably a second new rider to help cover the operating deficit.

Could be worth a try.  Otherwise it will go down as an expensive learning experience for BART and other transit operators.  Assuming they and the public are paying attention.

Anti-Clean Tech Forces Launch Smear Campaign To Kill Federal Support, But Are They Too Late?
Begun, the smear wars have

Begun, the smear wars have

Anti-clean technology forces, emboldened by Trump’s electoral college win, are eager to kill federal support for electric vehicles and solar power. Critical to the effort is a smear campaign directed at Tesla CEO Elon Musk, especially now that the company has merged with SolarCity.  As EcoWatch uncovered:

Elon Musk is being targeted by the conservative political action committee, Citizens for the Republic. The group’s so-called Sunlight Project is behind an incendiary lobbying campaign and website called, “Stop Elon Musk from Failing Again,” with a mission of divesting the Tesla/SpaceX/SolarCity boss from federal clean energy subsidies.

The group cites a misleading Los Angeles Times article stating that Tesla is set to receive $4.9 billion in government subsidies.  As Musk described, the figure is derived from “adding up everything that’s ever happened and including things that will take the next 20 years” and doesn’t compare with subsidies for fossil fuels.

It’s not clear who’s funding the effort, but right-wing ideologues are definitely spearheading it:

The Drive‘s Liane Yvkoff also reported that Citizens for the Republic’s board members Craig Shirley and Diane Banister are partners of the right-wing public relations firm Shirley and Banister Public Affairs, that has represented the National Rifle Association, commentator Ann Coulter and the Tea Party Patriots. Posts on “Stop Elon Musk From Failing” are authored by someone called “stopelon,” the same user name on Alt Left Watch, which also happens to be managed by the PR company.

But is it too late to stop the momentum for clean technologies like EVs? As the Detroit Free Press reports, EV sales in places like California have been accelerating due to state policies, while global investment in EVs continues:

These are global companies, and China and Europe are moving forward with their incentives for non-gas-burning vehicles. Whatever the Trump administration does, the rest of the world won’t abandon the Paris Agreement to reduce the global growth of carbon emissions.

“The industry has made a massive investment in electric vehicles,” [Dan Sperling, founding director of the University of California Davis Institute for Transportation Studies] said. “While some would prefer to slow it down, most companies are going to continue along that path.”

And Bloomberg as well notes the global investment in alternatives to gas-powered vehicles:

Gasoline has been the world’s choice to power automobiles. From the 1950s onward, when Henry Ford’s dream that every middle-class American could own a car became reality, gas stations sprung up next to drive-through restaurants and strip malls and transformed the landscape of America and economies across the globe.

Now, however, car companies — most obviously Tesla, but also incumbents such as General Motors Co., BMW AG and Nissan Motor Co. — are putting their money, and reputations, behind electric vehicles. With technology improving — especially for batteries — prices are falling. Tax breaks, particularly in China, are helping sales.

Meanwhile, as Salon writes, other automakers are following Tesla’s playbook of investing in batteries as building energy storage and not just vehicle transport.

So it may be too late to stop the momentum behind battery price declines and improved options for EVs.  But this smear campaign is an attempt to turn Musk into the bogeyman of clean tech and rally the right to ditch the federal tax credits.  Advocates should counter by debunking the claims and trumpeting the domestic economic and job benefits of these technologies.

A 100% Renewable Island In American Samoa
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Si’u Point Trail, Ta’u Island, National Park of American Samoa

I’m a big believer that islands will lead the way in decarbonizing the economy.  Many of them have ample renewables resources, such as geothermal on Hawaii’s Big Island and Iceland, wind and hydro on Kodiak Island, and solar energy on other Hawaiian islands.

Now, on the heels of the big Tesla-SolarCity merger, the American Samoa island of Ta’u used the companies’ products to go 100% renewable.  As the Washington Post reported, the island’s leaders wanted to stop depending on expensive, imported diesel fuel to generate electricity:

“[They] basically just put out a solicitation to see if anybody could provide an alternative to diesel, and that’s something that we responded to,” said Peter Rive, co-founder and chief technology officer of solar provider SolarCity, which was recently acquired by Tesla.

The result is a system composed of more than 5,000 SolarCity solar panels and 60 Tesla Powerpack battery storage systems. The new microgrid could save the island nearly 110,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year, which amounts to about 2.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  

The microgrid is already up and operating, according to Rive, and covering about 99 percent of the island’s power needs. The battery system can provide three full days of power to the island without sun, he added. And it can fully recharge in seven hours of sunlight.

It may have been easier for this island to go 100% renewable compared to other places, given its ample sunshine and small population. I’m assuming the island lacks energy-intensive industries as well. But the lessons can be applicable to other islands and economies, particularly when you factor in other generation technologies, like wind and hydropower.

Now if Ta’u just switches to all battery-electric vehicles, they’ll pull off the full eco-paradise.

Chevy Bolt: EV Game Changer Or Unexciting?
Chevy Bolt prototype interior

Chevy Bolt prototype interior

The Chevy Bolt is a big deal.  It’s the first sub-$30k (with incentives) electric vehicle that has an over-200 mile range.  238 mile rated range, to be precise, which seems to be holding up in real-world conditions.  It’s set to hit the showrooms in January, and it should open up EVs to a much broader market of consumers.

In a very good sign, Motor Trend has already named it the 2017 Car of the Year:

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Bolt EV is there are no caveats, no “for an electric car” qualifiers needed in any discussion. It is, simply, a world-class small car, and that’s before you factor in the benefits inherent in the smoothness, silence, and instant-on torque provided by the electric motor. The ride is firm and sporty, but transmitted road noise is very well damped. The steering has slightly artificial weighting, but brake feel is natural, and once you learn to use the higher regenerative braking modes, you can pretty much drive all the time without touching the friction brakes at all.

But some question the lack of sleek “coolness” that distinguishes Tesla from all the boxy or buggy EV competitors.  In an otherwise positive review, Lawrence Ulrich at The Drive laments the aesthetics:

I truly hope I’m wrong here. But the Bolt, like so many would-be Detroit pioneers before it, fails to absorb the blackboard lesson of that hot professor Tesla: A cutting-edge car should be cool. It should spark daytime reveries and nighttime desire.

The Bolt’s cool factor, frankly, hovers right around zero. Electric tech aside, there’s no sense of gotta-have, from the kitchen-appliance exterior to a cheapskate cabin that screams “Middle America” like Jim Harbaugh’s WalMart khakis.

Personally, I think the car doesn’t look that bad, and it’s certainly an improvement over models like the Volt, i3 and LEAF.  But I do wonder why automakers aren’t marketing the cars more as performance machines rather than Eco-vehicles.  Tesla has exploited that aspect of EVs perfectly, leaving competitors in the dust.  I’m no engineer, but I wonder if Chevy could have smoothed out the blocky shape a bit to give the car an edge.

In the end, my guess is the Bolt will be a success, especially with the Model 3 coming next.  I wholeheartedly agree with Ulrich that it will make similarly priced short-range EVs like the LEAF obsolete. Ultimately, the car signifies that EVs are here to stay and accessible to a much larger group of buyers.  I look forward to seeing them on the road.

A Thanksgiving Day Reflection On Temptation & Self-Control

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year, and yet it’s also become a day for gluttony (albeit a delicious one).  A few weeks back, Vox.com ran a story on temptation that may be applicable for a day like today. Author  studied findings that successful people aren’t actually all that great at denying themselves temptations, contrary to what might seem intuitive.  Furthermore, rigorous self-denial can actually be destructive over time.

He presents the real secret to success:

“People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” Galla tells me. And structuring your life is a skill. People who do the same activity — like running or meditating — at the same time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, he says. Not because of their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.

So routines are critical, but so is advance planning to ensure that you’re not constantly tempted: not buying fattening or sugary foods to have around the house, or maybe putting that addictive smartphone away in a drawer so it’s not in your pocket at all times.

This kind of self-aware planning is critical to personal and economic success.  Sadly, it may be the very thing that poverty discourages:

When Mischel’s marshmallow test [in which kids were told they could either eat one marshmallow sitting in front of them immediately or eat two later, with the ability to resist correlated with positive outcomes like higher SAT scores] is repeated on poorer kids, there’s a clear trend: They perform worse, and appear less able to resist the treat in front of them.

But there’s a good reason for this. As University of Oregon neuroscientist Elliot Berkman argues, people who grow up in poverty are more likely to focus on immediate rewards than long-term rewards. Because when you’re poor, the future is less certain.

So that uncertain future gives the child in poverty an incentive not to prepare for it, which also makes a positive, healthy future much less likely to occur.  A vicious, self-defeating cycle.

Hopefully everyone will have a happy Thanksgiving, be mindful of excess from temptation, and be empathetic to those who don’t have enough on this holiday.  I’ll be back posting next week.

Could Trump Bet Big On Nuclear Fusion?

It’s been a guessing game since Election Day about what Trump will do on climate change and renewable energy.  Some renewable advocates believe the bipartisan support for solar and wind will inoculate current federal tax credits from getting rolled back.  Others believe that the tax credits will be vulnerable in the event of a big congressional overhaul of the tax code.  Meanwhile, Trump has surrounded himself with climate science deniers and oil-and-gas tycoons.

But one “clean” energy technology might get favored treatment: nuclear fusion.

Why?  One of Trump’s most ardent backers, Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, is a big proponent and investor, as Bloomberg News reports:

Nuclear fusion, which would harness the power of the sun without all the nasty byproducts, is a long-shot—politically, financially, and technologically. Despite relative ambivalence toward fusion by the Obama administration, research has continued apace internationally, and in the American public and private sector. At the head of this pack are venture capitalists like Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention and is said to be working on the Trump transition team. He has funded a fusion start-up called Helion Energy through his Mithril Capital Management to pursue the ultimate dream of environmentalists the world over.

Fusion has sounded interesting on paper but has never materialized as a practical option.  Of course, solar panels used to be prohibitively expensive and impractical until government incentives and pro-manufacturing policies spurred the necessary investment to bring costs down.  Thiel’s company is hoping for the same dynamic with fusion:

Helion hopes to make a fusion generator that’s 1,000 times smaller, 500 times cheaper, and 10 times faster than more conventional, massive projects, according to its website. The company is building a “magneto-inertial fusion” generator. It produces power by injecting heated hydrogen and helium at high speed (a million miles an hour) into a “burn chamber,” where a strong magnetic field compresses the plasma to a temperature high enough to initiate fusion. Energy from the reaction is used to generate electricity.

Meanwhile, a potential ally, pro-nuclear environmentalist Ted Nordhaus, is causing a stir with a post arguing that the clean energy industry shouldn’t rush to deal with the Trump Administration given its authoritarian leanings, even if it pursues policies in their interests:

Trump campaigned and won the election fair and square. He has every right to pursue his agenda and vision for the country. When and if it becomes clear that democratic norms will prevail in the new Administration, that Trump does not intend to prosecute his political opponents, squelch dissent, and harass the free press, I will happily praise the Administration when it takes actions that I believe to be consistent with health, prosperity, equity, and environmental protection, and criticize it when it does not.

But the signals have thus far been mixed and that presents complicated decisions for those of us in think tanks, advocacy organizations, and the media. Most of our professional incentives are to act as if some version of normal democratic discourse and policy-making will prevail. There is not much for us to do, at least in the normal way that advocates advocate and analysts analyze, in the event that those norms do not prevail. The risk for all of us is that in our haste to get back to normal politics and advocacy, we normalize a dangerous turn toward authoritarianism.

Lots to chew on for an industry (one of many) now facing complicated and challenging times.

Will L.A.’s New Transportation Sales Tax Measure Solve Traffic?

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Edward Humes spoke to the Los Angeles Times‘ Patt Morrison to complain about the just-passed Measure M sales tax measure to boost transportation in Los Angeles. He argues it won’t help traffic and is missing out on big technological shifts:

But what’s missing are transformative visions that are necessary to get people to really change the way they get around. There was a survey done last year of transportation planning for the largest municipalities and counties in America, and something like only 7% of their plans even addressed the big changes that have arrived recently in mobility or are coming soon — ride-sharing services, automation, driverless cars.

We know they’re coming — there’s nothing in Measure M that even addresses these transformative developments that 1980s-style transportation plans wouldn’t know to address. It’s like we’re not acknowledging that things are changing very rapidly in the transportation space. We’re going to just go out and lay down more asphalt and lay down more rail and hope for the best. It’s not going to work.

He recommends doubling down on these technology changes with first/last mile automated vehicles, putting big rigs in carpool lanes, and relying on automated buses in dedicated lanes.

I agree with him that Measure M won’t solve traffic by itself: the only way to do that, barring huge spikes in fuel costs, is congestion pricing.

But nothing about Measure M precludes what Humes advocates. And in the meantime, it will pay for important new infrastructure — including maintenance of existing infrastructure — that a growing population will rely on for mobility. We need the new capacity to move people that rail and buses bring, and Measure M will boost ridership across all rail lines by finally giving the region comprehensive rail coverage to fill in the missing pieces.

On automation, Humes doesn’t seem to acknowledge that more driverless cars could mean a huge spike in traffic, which could push more people to want to use the rail or bus networks that Measure M will fund. His solutions (such as encouraging shifts in employment hours) will only provide temporary respite from induced demand.

Meanwhile, we can acknowledge that Measure M is probably not enough by itself to address all the mobility challenges in Los Angeles, but it’s a necessary part of the solution. For example, the region will need smart policies on automated cars.  But these vehicles will still rely on and complement improvements in infrastructure from Measure M, just like investments in bus-only lanes funded by the measure can eventually accommodate the automated buses that Humes envisions.

Finally, Humes never discusses land use (at least in this interview). But that issue is central to the mobility concerns. The region needs to concentrate all new growth around transit corridors, and Measure M can provide the network to get new residents and workers to move about without adding to congestion.  Measure M also provides new development opportunities to channel growth around transit, which is the only sensible recipe for future growth.

I think it’s worth thinking through the issues that Humes describes, and a visionary voice can be powerful.  But we shouldn’t dismiss so readily the incredible funding tool that Measure M gives the region to address its transportation challenges.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Giving Way To Batteries? Toyota Changes Gears

The race for zero emission vehicles has largely been between hydrogen fuel cell technology and batteries.  Many analysts feel there really isn’t a competition, given the superiority of batteries for both environmental and economic impacts.  A new study from Stanford underscores this reality:

The results were definitive.

“In terms of overall costs, we found that battery electric vehicles are better than fuel cell vehicles for reducing emissions,” Felgenhauer said. “The analysis showed that to be cost competitive, fuel cell vehicles would have to be priced much lower than battery vehicles. However, fuel cell vehicles are likely to be significantly more expensive than battery vehicles for the foreseeable future. Another supposed benefit of hydrogen – storing surplus solar energy – didn’t pan out in our analysis either. We found that in 2035, only a small amount of solar hydrogen storage would be used for heating and lighting buildings.”

Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle.

Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle.

Perhaps more significantly, Toyota — one of the few automakers that has gone all-in on hydrogen — appears to be retrenching in favor of batteries, according to Elektrek:

Now one of the most prominent proponents of hydrogen fuel cell cars, Toyota, is reportedly planning to mass produce battery-powered long-range electric cars by 2020.

The news comes as Toyota is having difficulties selling the Mirai, its hydrogen cars, in the US. Despite cutting the price on several occasions, with now a lease at only $350 (down from $500) in California, the Japanese automaker can’t find a market for the vehicle and only delivered 782 units since it started deliveries last year – and that’s including the state buying dozens of them for their own fleets to justify the millions of dollars spent on refuelling infrastructure.

And as Nikkei reports:

Eyeing a full-scale entry into the electric vehicle market, the Japanese automaker will create an in-house team for planning and development as soon as the new year. Toyota will seek cooperation from group companies to start production quickly.

Toyota aims to develop an EV that can run more than 300km on a single charge. The platform for models such as the Prius hybrid or Corolla sedan is being considered for use in building an electric sport utility vehicle.

This is definitely significant news, particularly given that it seems to be in response to stagnant fuel cell vehicle sales. Of course, we shouldn’t pit technologies like these against each other, as hydrogen could potentially have a role for zero-emission transportation like long-haul trucking that is less suited for batteries. But it’s also not great to spend a lot of public dollars on hydrogen fueling infrastructure that won’t be needed. Maybe this latest development signals a new future for investments in EVs, without the distraction of fuel cells.

The Dawn Of The Electric Vehicle/Solar/Battery Company

It’s official: Tesla shareholders approved a merger with SolarCity. Despite financial analysts’ concerns, the basic concept makes sense: electric vehicle drivers will want solar panels to make fueling the vehicle at home cheaper. Solar customers will be interested in electric vehicles because they already have cheap fuel at home. So there are big marketing/customer acquisition benefits.

01-2012-tesla-model-s-fd-1347336745But more importantly, as rooftop solar sales decline and state regulators pull back on incentives, batteries will be crucial to keep solar competitive. Why? Right now most rooftop solar customers use the grid as their battery. I have panels on my home, for example, and when I have surplus electricity in the summer, I export to the grid and get a retail credit for that surplus. I then apply that retail credit to my grid usage in the dark winter months, and “true up” after a full year accounting.

But regulators are doing away with that bargain already in places like Hawaii and Nevada. Soon new solar customers are going to need an actual battery to store their surplus solar. It would be the same model that I have, but you no longer need the grid to store your electricity, and you don’t need regulators requiring utilities to do so. Instead, with a big enough battery, you capture and use all your solar energy on site.

The one question I have is whether the economics are still good enough to encourage people to purchase both a battery and solar array. I doubt a typical Tesla home battery will be big enough to capture all the surplus energy in the summer months, meaning some power will be lost that the grid would otherwise have used. But as battery and solar prices decrease and electricity rates increase, the deal could be good enough.

Either way, the merger represents a sea change in our electricity system, packaging transportation and home energy use in a way we’ve never seen. If all goes well for the company, Tesla could one day become a monopoly like we’ve never seen, with a gas station, utility, and car company all rolled into one.

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