Some Common Sense On Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure

A Tesla driver reports on his epic (11,000-mile) all-electric US road trip this summer.  The driver went from his home in Seattle to national parks in California and then out to Maine.  His only real challenge was the “Great Montana Supercharger Desert” between Rapid City, South Dakota and Ritzville, Washington — a distance of 916 miles with only a single Supercharger in Billings, Montana.

electric-vehicle-charging-station-houston-engadgetFirst of all, it’s great to know that such a road trip is possible, although at this point it’s only for the most economically successful among us who can afford a Tesla.  Second, this is the result of Tesla’s investment in a nationwide supercharger network, so they should be congratulated on providing this level of service for their customers.  And finally, it’s a nice window into the future road trip possibilities for electric drives, once the costs come down and the infrastructure improves in the coming decade.

But  more importantly, this driver offers a common sense list of requirements for a functioning public charger network, and it’s a list that could apply even to Level 2 chargers for less expensive electric vehicles (I recommend reading the whole thing).  I hope policy makers and charging companies alike take notice.  The obvious prime factor is:

Reliability. There is no way around this one; it is key – the charger has to work when you get there. In fact, unreliable chargers are WORSE than no chargers – without chargers, the owner will have made other plans for the trip; but with an unreliable charger, they may encounter a long unexpected delay.

As an EV driver, I don’t really have “range anxiety” about running out of juice on a big drive, but I do have this kind of “charger anxiety.” Will the charger I expect to use be functional when I arrive? And relatedly, will it be available or will there be a long line?

The driver makes another important point about what he calls “usability.” No key fobs, please, or complicated charging company networks that you have to sign up for in order to use the charging equipment. We need to make the transaction as smooth as possible, just like a gas station credit card reader.

Once we solve these seemingly minor but significant hurdles, more of us will be in a position to take the kind of all-electric road trip that this driver got to enjoy.

Do Blue States Discriminate Against New Housing More Than Red States?

The real estate site Trulia compiled some fascinating data on housing prices in both red and blue metropolitan markets.  The site categorized the 100 largest metro areas as “red” or “blue” depending on how residents in those cities voted in 2012.   In 32 of the 100 metropolitan areas, Republican Mitt Romney got more votes than Democrat Barack Obama.  The researchers found the housing crisis and recovery affected the red and blue markets similarly but that the current lack of affordable housing is more severe in blue markets.  Here’s the chart:

margin-vs-ppf

Trulia is reluctant to draw conclusions:

What does all this mean? The point is not that Democrats cause expensive housing, lower homeownership, or greater inequality. Determining whether and how the political views of voters or their elected officials affect local housing markets is the stuff of scholarly research, not short blogposts. But because blue markets are less affordable, have lower homeownership, and have greater income inequality, political leaders in Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning metros may push for different policies.

My guess is that there are two possible explanations. One is that the most economically successful urban areas tend to be dominated by Democratic voters, such as major cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. After all, Romney only captured 32 of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. As a result, the swift economic recovery in these urban areas would put upward pressure on housing prices and lead to at least a short-term affordability problem. So maybe it’s less about political leanings, unless political leanings drive economic success (ironic, given how Republicans claim to be the pro-business party).

But the second possible explanation is that rich people — or more specifically rich liberals — may be less tolerant of new home construction in their neighborhoods. Perhaps they are more comfortable using the heavy hand of “big” local government to squelch new projects. Or perhaps they don’t see or want the economic value associated with new construction. Or maybe they favor “environmental” values and believe stopping new development is somehow the more environmental outcome (in fact, it’s the opposite, given that restricting development in the core drives new development to the fringe).

Either way, it’s a fascinating dynamic that is worth more exploration.

Silicon Valley Companies To Bolster Public Caltrain Service

caltrainsystem11-16-5In recent years, we’ve had public transit, and we’ve had private employer-based transit. Maybe now we’re about to see the ultimate hybrid: private companies sponsoring public transit improvements.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that major Silicon Valley corporations, frustrated with poor Caltrain commuter rail service [map to the left] and facing opposition to their so-called Google luxury buses, are forming the “Caltrain Commuter Coalition.” The group includes the 49ers, Oracle, LinkedIn, Stanford University, HP and other firms yet to be named:

The group will work with Caltrain — a partnership of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara county transportation agencies — to press for funding to expand the commuter railroad’s capacity, replace its trains pulled by diesel locomotives with electric trains, extend the tracks to the Transbay Terminal and make other improvements.

“This is the result of conversations we’ve have had for years with these companies,” Seamus Murphy, Caltrain’s director of government and community affairs, said Sunday. “They realize that they can’t continue to rely on shuttles or expand shuttles, and they’ve been frustrated, frankly, that they can’t rely on Caltrain or public transportation.”

If done right, this could be a very positive development. First, cash-strapped transit agencies like Caltrain could use the private dollars to bolster existing transit service to benefit everyone. Second, private companies would no longer have to pay for curb-hogging shuttles that inspire hatred from many locals. And finally, it’s a sign that public transit like Caltrain is providing a societal good — in terms of usefulness, ridership, and general potential — if private employers are willing to invest in it.

I should also note that this development could save the High Speed Rail Authority some money. The agency has proposed using rail funds to electrify Caltrain and extend it to the future Transbay Terminal. I assume with this privately funded effort, that need would no longer be there.

What Is An “Environmental” Lawyer?

My post last week on renaming “environmental” law to “resources” law greatly peeved a number of private bar environmental attorneys, who thought I was impugning their entire side of the practice.  My post clearly played into some longstanding tension and defensiveness (no pun intended) about this issue.  These attorneys believe that even though they may represent polluting clients, they are able to do good work for the environment by steering their clients to comply more fully with applicable environmental laws.

I have no doubt that attorneys working with polluters can and do make a positive impact on the environment by advising their clients to take proactive steps to comply with laws, and in some cases to go beyond the minimum to protect the environment.  And there are certainly instances where public sector lawyers and plaintiffs’ attorneys may be hurting the environment, such as when a lawyer in a state attorney general’s office defends a polluting agency or when a plaintiffs’ attorney is suing to stop an environmentally beneficial project.  Even nonprofit attorneys could arguably be hurting the environment if they block badly needed renewable energy projects (although I’m usually somewhat sympathetic to these suits).

So what then does it mean to be an “environmental” attorney?  With only a few exceptions, none of these lawyers — from the defense, plaintiff, or public sector side — have an ethical, professional duty to protect the environment.  Their duty is to their client, and if they help the environment, then that is an incidental outcome.

This dynamic brings me back to the subject of my original post: the term “environmental” implies to the public (and perhaps even within the practice) that all the attorneys in this field are somehow working on behalf of the environment.  My Kim Jong Un analogy was described by one commenter as a “cheap shot,” but human rights law actually provides the closest analogy.  When you meet a “human rights” lawyer, you never assume that that attorney is working to destroy human rights.  But in our field, there are certainly “environmental” lawyers whose work will lead to environmental degradation.

Some commenters on my post simply don’t have a problem with the mismatch between public perception and the actual work of attorneys in this field.  As a result, they don’t see a need, or a need great enough, to justify a renaming.  But I think greater honesty within the profession with our word choices would be a good move.  The euphemisms in the field have become numerous.  Here at UC Berkeley, for example, the College of Mining at some point morphed into the Orwellian-sounding “Materials Science and Engineering Department” — I assume once the word “mining” took on a negative association for the public.  But whatever happened to just using plain English to describe our work? “Resources” in my view comes a lot closer to reality than “Environmental.”

I’m certainly not the first person to recognize this perception and labeling problem. Santa Clara law professor (and noted environmental defense attorney) Ken Manaster wrote about it in a 1994 Loyola Law Review article entitled “Ten Paradoxes of Environmental Law” (PDF).  I’ll close by quoting at length from his piece, which is worth reading in full:

One of the consistent, though minor, pleasures of working in environmental law is the frequency with which every environmental lawyer (EL) experiences the following type of conversation with a nonlawyer (NL):

NL: What kind of work do you do?
EL: I’m a lawyer.
NL: What kind of lawyer?
EL: I practice environmental law.
NL: That’s great.  That must be a very interesting and exciting field. There is so much being done now for protection of the environment.

This conversation is one aspect of environmental law that has not changed in twenty-five years.  Environmental lawyers have been widely and correctly perceived, both by nonlawyers and other lawyers, as doing extremely interesting and useful work.

What may be incorrect, however, is the accompanying and widely held assumption that every “environmental” lawyer is a lawyer for the environment.  The source of this impression is probably the historical fact that the most visible lawyers at the genesis of this field were those working from a proenvironmental protection, proenvironmental plaintiff, proenforcement position. The popular image still is formed mostly by publicity surrounding lawsuits brought by public interest lawyers for environmental groups or by environmental prosecutors at the federal, state, and local levels of government.  Lawyers in these two categories always have been, and still are, the easiest to perceive as lawyers for the environment, even though the label “environmental lawyer” generically applies to all lawyers who work on environmental matters.

These perceptions are paradoxical because while environmental lawyers are seen as lawyers for the environment, the vast majority of environmental lawyers are neither public interest lawyers nor prosecutors. Most environmental lawyers represent regulated interests, such as polluting industries, private companies engaged in land or natural resource development projects, or governmental or quasi-governmental agencies that are polluters or resource users themselves. The gap between the pro-environment connotation of “environmental lawyer” and the type of work most environmental lawyers perform reflects lingering confusion regarding the functions of the environmental bar. This confusion exists not just in public perceptions, but to some extent within the legal profession as well.

Perhaps the confusion is best exemplified by a governmental attorney, such as one in a state attorney general’s office, who at times may represent environmental enforcement agencies and at other times may represent state facilities that are sources of pollution or other adverse environmental impacts. Can the lawyer fulfilling both of these roles meaningfully be seen-or see himself or herself-as a lawyer for the environment? Is this lawyer at times really working against the environment in the service of other economic or political objectives? In this and other contexts, should the term environmental lawyer be used more sparingly, perhaps only by the two categories of plaintiffs’ lawyers mentioned above? Does environmental practice need more specific labeling of sub-specialties on opposing sides, of the type commonly found in the labor law and torts fields?

Dispatch From Orange County: Conservatives, Collapsing California, And The Craziness Of Carl’s Jr.

In case I was tempted to eat at Carl’s Jr., one speech from the company’s CEO killed that prospect.  The CEO spoke at lunch on Friday at an all-day symposium at Chapman University’s law school, a school with a reputation as a conservative bastion.  The subject was supposed to be a dispassionate inquiry into how law and policy in California might be affecting the business climate.  But it instead became largely a complaint-fest about liberals, taxes, and teachers.

The morning panels were dominated by speakers bashing California’s terrible business climate and high taxes.  The picture painted was of a California captured by public sector unions that has squeezed out entrepreneurial spirit and forced businesses to leave.  The evidence was mostly anecdotes, although a few speakers presented surveys on California’s business climate and charts ranking its tax rates.  With all the doom-and-gloom, it got to the point where I was afraid to go outside in case my beloved state had suddenly turned into a third-world country, instead of the eighth-largest economy in the world.

Carl's Jr. CEO Andrew Puzdur wants more burgers and less socialism

Carl’s Jr. CEO Andrew Puzdur wants more burgers and less socialism

The low point for me came with the lunchtime address from Carl’s Jr. CEO Andrew Puzdur (video here), who gave a largely a-factual, a-historical takedown of an imagined socialist California.  Puzdur assumed the chairmanship of the Southern California-based fast food chain in 2000 from Anaheim-based Carl Karchner, the founder who starred in many of its TV commercials.  Puzdur revived the company into a global chain.

Puzdur described numerous legitimate-sounding complaints about doing business in California.  He cited the long wait times to get a building permit, the work rules that keep store managers from filling in on various store duties in times of need, and the required rest breaks without flexibility that keep stores from being able to serve large customer groups that come in unexpectedly.  Meanwhile, state overtime rules prevent the schedule flexibility that would come with a 40-hour workweek rather than mandatory 8 hour days.  While I’m sure there are good reasons for these laws, it all sounded like typical complaints from a CEO.

But then Puzdur went off the rails.  First, he simplistically painted world history as a progression from feudal servitude to the freedom provided by capitalism (glossing over the global slave system that capitalism boosted), now under threat from “socialism.”  He blamed teachers for the poor state of California’s educational system, ignoring that the state ranks last in per pupil spending.  He dismissed the recent economic success and low unemployment in the San Francisco Bay Area as occurring in just one “enclave” of the state (home to 7 million people).  And he cited California’s onerous regulations as the reason he won’t open many more restaurants in the state, when consumer surveys repeatedly indicate that Carl’s Jr. food is nowhere near as good as In-N-Out (or Five Guys, for that matter).

One revealing moment came when the mayor of Anaheim, a Karchner family friend and observant Catholic, objected to Carl’s Jr. racy TV commercials.  Puzdur expressed no remorse, saying the commercials saved the company and featured “beautiful women” who enjoy doing the spots.  Puzdur and his all-male management team see no reason to object to them.

Yet for all my bewilderment at the California-bashing, in some ways I found it heartening.  These conservatives were very focused on the loss of middle-class jobs in the state.  And it’s true that while California’s technology sector is booming, rising income inequality threatens the quality of life here.  Of course, the trends they point to are happening across the U.S., not just in California, as manufacturing jobs have been fleeing for decades, in part due to free-market oriented trade policies and globalization.  But I’m glad conservatives are bringing attention to these middle class issues.  I just wish they would stop the blame game, and I don’t agree that gutting worker protection and slashing taxes is the best way to solve the problem.

California’s New Electric Vehicle-Friendly Building Codes

The California State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) issued proposed new building code standards last month that vastly promotes electric vehicle charging infrastructure in new home construction. It’s much more costly to wire a home for “Level 2″ or 240V charging once it’s already built, while relatively cheap to do it when the house is already under construction:polar-network-charging-stations_100374452_m

The new code will ensure that the conduit and service panel capacity is already there, making installation a simple matter of running wires and bolting charging stations into place. By one estimate, the average cost of compliance will be around $50, a fraction of the potential savings to residents who choose to install charging stations. For one- and two-family dwellings, the service panel must have capacity for a 40-amp circuit (sufficient for a 32-amp charging station), and conduit that can support wiring for an 80-amp circuit.

The new standards also call for parking lots with 100 spaces to have conduit and service panel capacity to wire at least 3 percent of the parking spaces.

This change is welcome news for future EV drivers and home buyers/renters in California. A Level 2 charger offers a lot more convenience than the traditional 110V wall outlet. For example, when I plugged our electric vehicle into a regular wall outlet, the battery charged at about 5 miles an hour (one hour of charge gave me an extra five miles of driving). But after we installed a Level 2 charger, we could get at least 20 miles of range for every hour of charge. It means we never need to worry about the battery being too low and having to make sure to plug in every night before bed.

I hope California’s actions inspire other states, as the country moves to electrify passenger vehicles at an increasing rate.

Sea Level Rise By 2100

At the Yosemite conference this past weekend, I moderated a panel with California Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird. The topic was greenhouse gas reduction goals by 2030, and Secretary Laird spoke about the likely risks California faces from climate change. He said that in the agency’s recent report on climate impacts, they settled on a median scientific estimate of a five-foot sea level rise by 2100 (see the PDF report). That’s median — so the result could either be much worse or (hopefully) less severe.

Threatened by this sea level rise are 20 existing coastal power plants, 80 substations, natural gas pipelines, and the levees that form the crucial connection in our north-south water infrastructure. Not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars — if not more — in coastal property. It’s worth remembering these costs when we hear critics discuss the costs of prevention, such as relatively tiny increases in gas or electricity prices.

Jon Stewart and the Daily Show seems to have the best summary of the dynamics, complete with an optometry exam for climate change deniers on sea level rise:

Time To Rename “Environmental” Law

Every year in October, the California State Bar Environmental Law Section hosts a three-day conference on the outskirts of Yosemite, attracting prominent lawyers, advocates, and public officials from all over the state. This past weekend, at the traditional Saturday night banquet, famed climate activist Bill McKibben was the speaker. Unfortunately at the last minute he couldn’t attend in person, but in his videotaped remarks, he commented on all the good things California is doing on the environment. However, he urged attendees to stop the state from taking a leading role in fracking, the destructive process of harvesting and then burning the last drops of oil and gasps of natural gas from underground rock.

McKibben could be forgiven for not realizing that there were a number of lawyers in the room who are dedicated to helping their oil and gas clients frack to their hearts’ content. After all, it is an “environmental” law conference, right?  McKibben is not the first outside speaker at the conference to make that mistake.  And he’s probably not the first person to hear someone introduce themselves as an environmental lawyer and assume that he or she is working to protect the environment, when in fact that person is working with clients who are hurting the environment.

Is this an "environmental" activity?

Is this an “environmental” activity?

The problem is the terminology.  “Environmental” sounds benign, and it’s closely linked to “environmentalism,” which people associate as a movement to protect the environment.  But calling a lawyer dedicated to helping their client frack (or pollute generally or stop environmentally beneficial projects) is like calling Kim Jong Un an expert in human rights law and policy.

Given the dynamic, it’s time to change the name of this legal field to a term that is less value-laden and misleading.  My pick would be to rename it “resources” law.  While many lawyers in the field associate “resources” with only one aspect of the practice, namely the forest and mineral-type part of it, there’s no reason the term needs to be defined so narrowly.  Ultimately, everyone in this profession is fighting over natural resources, whether it’s air, land, chemicals, or water. And members of the general public would not assume that a “resources” attorney is either doing protective or destructive work when it comes to the environment.

I don’t mean to propose this change out of a sense of righteousness. After all, I fill up my gas car at Chevron; my carbon footprint is probably bigger than most people on Earth. And the law schools where I work are not immune to this criticism: our “environmental” law courses are training a significant number of students to counsel clients involved in damaging the environment.

But I believe words matter and that we have an obligation to be honest with the public and Bill McKibbens of the world — let alone ourselves.  After all, when I get my gas at Chevron, I don’t tell everyone that I’m engaging in an “environmental” activity. And lawyers should stop pretending the same about what happens in this field.

The Future Of Rail In Los Angeles — Monday, November 3rd

Join me and author Tom Zoellner on Monday November 3rd at 7pm for a discussion that asks: “Are Trains the Future of L.A.?” The event is hosted by Zocalo Public Square and will take place at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles (317 S. Broadway). From the blurb:

For a century, the hearts of Angelenos have belonged to cars and to flying machines, not trains–even though we never would have become a city without the railroad, and couldn’t survive as a global trade center without the rail links to our seaports. But today, in a potentially historic shift, Southern California governments are betting billions that trains can win us over. Five rail lines are under construction right now in L.A., part of a 30-year wave of projects that could give Southern California the most highly developed rail system in the country, save New York. But will we go along for the ride? Only a small percentage of us use the Metro rail regularly, and California’s high-speed rail project is unpopular in L.A. Will we change our ways and depend on trains daily–and embrace development around rail networks? What is it about rail that captures people’s hearts–and why has L.A. remained immune to this almost universally beloved mode of transport? Journalist and Chapman University English scholar Tom Zoellner, author of Train, and UCLA and UC Berkeley legal, business, and environmental scholar Ethan Elkind, author of Railtown, visit Zócalo to discuss the past and future of trains here, and whether Los Angeles will finally fall for rail.

You can get more information and register for the free event here. Hope to see you there!

Solar Power Getting Cheaper But Not From Oversupply

Brad Plumer at vox.com describes why solar panels are getting cheaper. Interestingly, it’s no longer due to the glut in supply from Chinese overproduction and subsidies:

1) Solar modules are getting more efficient. “This doesn’t necessarily make the modules themselves cheaper,” [GTM Senior Vice President Shayle] Kann says. “But as modules get more efficient, you can get the same amount of power in a smaller area of your roof, which makes it easier to install, you need less racking and wiring, and it saves money on balance-of-systems costs.”

2) System manufacturers are facing pressure to cut costs. Again, back in 2008 to 2012, panel manufacturers faced a lot of competition and pressure to cut costs. Nowadays, that same pressure applies to the people making other parts of solar systems — the racking, for instance.

3) Economies of scale. Historically, the residential solar market consisted of thousands of small local installers who had high costs for finding new customers. But nowadays, the rooftop solar industry is dominated by some large companies — particularly SolarCity and Vivint, who had half the rooftop market in the second quarter of 2014. “So as the big guys gain more scale,” Kann says, “you see some savings out of that.”

Looming ahead is the planned expiration of the 30% investor tax credit at the end of 2016 for all residential owners (it drops to 10% for third-party installers like SolarCity). My hope is the renewable lobby will successfully extend it. With prices coming down, the need for a 30% credit will probably be lessened. But some kind of diminishing tax credit will be important to maintain, especially as long as dirty power producers get to pollute for free.

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