Tesla “Gigafactory” In Stockton Should Prompt A California High Speed Rail Route Change

Western states like California are falling all over themselves to secure Tesla’s proposed “gigafactory” to mass-produce lithium ion batteries.  This cheap energy storage will be a game changer for making electric vehicles affordable and decarbonizing our electricity supply by balancing intermittent renewables from the sun and wind.  But for state leaders, the factory means great middle class jobs in an expanding clean-tech industry.

Texas seemed to have the lead, but California is pulling out all the stops, including waiving key environmental laws like the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  Now it appears that if the factory happens in California, it may be in Stockton, according to the Los Angeles Times.  Stockton is just an hour outside of the Bay Area in the Central Valley, with many people commuting into the Bay Area there from cheaper middle-class sprawl developments.  Plus it has access to waterways, freeways, and the Tesla vehicle factory.

But if the factory does happen in Stockton, it should also have access to high speed rail.  A decision to locate the gigafactory there should prompt the California High Speed Rail Authority to reconsider its proposed route to the Bay Area from the south via Pacheco Pass and pristine, rural San Benito County.  That route is not my favorite — it cuts off major population centers, including Stockton and Modesto, and puts a beautiful, undeveloped part of the state at risk of rail-induced sprawl.  It does serve San Jose more directly, but the city could still be served by a spur from an Altamont route.  Here’s the current proposed route:

OB-QL002_FASTRA_G_20111104231557And here’s the alternative Altamont Pass route that would provide access to Stockton and the possible factory (source is the advocacy group Transdef):

followthelightsThe Authority just won a CEQA case on appeal upholding environmental review on the Pacheco alignment.  But maybe the prospect of the gigafactory, combined with the other benefits of routing the system along Altamont, will prompt long-overdue reconsideration.

Local Financing Program for Energy Efficiency and Renewables Growing Despite Federal Opposition

Energy efficiency upgrades and renewable energy arrays for homes and businesses pay for themselves over time through savings on the utility bill. But the big obstacle for many is finding the upfront cash.  PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) programs overcame that barrier by allowing local governments to pay for this work and have property owners repay them via additional assessments on their property tax bills.  Big win-win: communities get more energy efficient and clean energy neighborhoods, limiting pollution and creating good local jobs, while homeowners get access to low-interest financing.

But the federal agency that underwrites over half of the mortgages in the U.S. freaked out in 2010 over the program.  The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) put a stop to its rapid growth across the United States by telling property owners that they might jeopardize their mortgage if they take out a PACE lien.  Basically the FHFA didn’t like the idea of local governments having lien priority on these payments in the event of a foreclosure, despite the numerous protections and safeguards included in the program.  Since then, some PACE programs have continued, notably in Sonoma County and Riverside.  California even created a statewide loan-loss reserve to protect federal interests, but it didn’t satisfy the feds.

Greentech Media now has a hopeful article on how PACE programs are rebounding from the federal hysteria:

It’s not illegal for homeowners backed by Fannie or Freddie to participate in the program. They are simply required to pay off the loan first if they move or refinance their mortgage. That may deter some homeowners from considering a PACE loan, but a lot of them are still making the decision to finance a retrofit through PACE.

Stacey Lawson, the CEO of Ygrene, another large PACE administrator, said in a previous interview that it all comes down to communicating the implications of taking on the loan: “There’s been a lot of fear, uncertainty and misinformation in the marketplace around the risk to homeowners. But it’s really just a simple business decision they have to make.”

Turns our PACE program administrators and homeowners are forging on, undeterred by the federal threats. This is good news for the climate fight and for the economy. And once the federal government reverses its stance (we can hope), the program should proliferate and become a top source for financing clean energy building improvements.

LA Could Take A Nationwide Lead On Solar Incentives

For a little while there, circa 2009, there was a debate about how best to compensate rooftop and other small-scale solar PV owners.  Some people wanted the German-style “feed-in tariff” — an awkward term that basically means solar owners receive cash payment for the energy they generate, equivalent to wholesale power rates.  This program resulted in a huge burst of solar deployment in countries like Germany, Spain and Italy.  On the other side, advocates wanted “net metering,” in which solar owners receive retail credit for the energy they produce off their electricity bills, but no cash.  So the more you use on-site, the more retail credit you can get (there’s typically no cash for surplus energy you generate).

Rooftop solar near downtown.  Photo: LA Times

Rooftop solar near downtown. Photo: LA Times

Net metering folks won in California and other places, and the program is in place in many states all around the country.  It’s helped spur significant deployment.  But the system isn’t ideal.  As mentioned, if you own a warehouse or other big facility with little on-site usage, you don’t have a strong incentive to purchase or lease solar, because you don’t have much usage to offset with credits.  And utilities don’t like it because some customers “net-out” to zero charges over a year, even though they still use nighttime or wintertime-daytime energy.  But they pay nothing.

LA residents have access to both programs, now that Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has begun a feed-in tariff program that is stimulating solar deployment all over the city, including the brownfields and industrial sites that net metering had trouble addressing.  But in a recent report from LADWP staff, the utility recommends expanding the feed-in tariff program over net metering, due to the aforementioned concerns and limitations.  KCET has the run-down here.

The advantages are big: feed-in tariff customers will still pay for the utility infrastructure and energy they use, but they will receive much simpler cash payments for what they have on-site. And property owners with low-usage buildings and facilities will still be motivated to go solar. If the rates are structured properly, it could lead to a huge, cost-effective boom for solar in LA and avoid much of the utility complaining.  Ultimately, if successful, LA could show on a large scale how to do solar incentives right, giving California and other states a path to follow.

A Depressing Tour of “TOD” along the San Gabriel Valley Gold Line Extension

Los-Angeles-Metro-Gold-Line-Foothill-Extension-MapThe political bargaining to make LA’s rail system happen meant that transit leaders had to greenlight some lame rail lines.  How else can you get to 2/3 support for a county sales tax measure if you don’t throw a bone to every region?  The poster child is the Gold Line, first to Pasadena and now extending into the suburban San Gabriel Valley at Azusa (Everything from “A” to “Z” in the “USA”) (map to the left).

As I document in my book Railtown, the line got approval over more densely populated and higher transit-reliant parts of LA due to political support from Republican Rep. David Dreier and a host of state and local pols from the Pasadena area.  Dreier was the rare Republican in favor of rail, because he wanted the line to eventually serve his San Gabriel Valley constituents.  The hope among Gold Line boosters is to extend it out to the under-utilized Ontario Airport.

Streetsblog LA recently took a tour of the station areas along the new extension.  The photos they took, as well as the renderings of planned development, show why this line is so unfortunate.  There’s very little hope in the near future that any kind of density will happen around the stations, which is what is required to maximize ridership and get both a social and economic return on the expensive investment in rail.

Some lowlights (with photos):

The Monrovia "Parking-Oriented Development"

The Monrovia “Parking-Oriented Development”

Blah retail in downtown Azusa

Blah retail in downtown Azusa

  • A Monrovia Square development that essentially looks like a giant parking lot with a building in the middle;
  • A low-rise, sprawling retail center in Azusa, featuring a giant Target store.

Nowhere to be found are the kind of exciting new neighborhood plans or development, with clusters of 5-6 story residential and office buildings, necessary for light rail station areas. In fact, they would probably seem out of place in the low-rise suburbs there anyway, further underscoring why this line was a bad idea compared to other transit corridors in urban LA. In retrospect, a bus rapid transit line would have made more sense for this corridor.  But at the very least, local leaders should show more ambition for development around the stations, now that we have the line.

Top Five Pacific Northwest Environmental Trends

I just returned from a road trip through the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon (Cascades, Willamette Valley and Portland) and Washington (Seattle and the San Juan Islands).  So of course I’m now an expert on the environmental trends there, as seen from the window of my car and my conversations with friends and strangers there. Based on this purely anecdotal evidence, I’ve compiled my list of top five environmental trends in the Pacific Northwest.

5) Farm-to-Fork: Lots of great agriculture in the Northwest, and they take advantage of it. Much of the food we ate on our trip, whether purchased at farmers markets, restaurants, or eaten at friends’ houses, came from hyper-local sources. At one cafe in the San Juan islands, all food was either grown at the farm on-site or traded/purchased from other local farms, including a nearby brewery.

4) Rail Transit: Portland and Seattle are undergoing a light rail construction boom. Seattle just recently began theirs, and we saw new tracks going in near the downtown, while Portland’s MAX system is extending south of the city. Plus Portland has a cool-looking (although I gather cost-ineffective) gondola tram linking two parts of their hospital complex that are separated by a hill.

3) Renewable Energy: Particularly in Oregon, we saw some innovative renewable energy arrays. Portland State University features the first solar “arch” that I’ve seen (photo right),

Portland's solar arch

Portland’s solar arch

while another building in downtown had cool-looking wind turbines up top (photo left).

Nice wind turbines

Nice wind turbines

Bonus points for its energy efficient ventilation system through windows that can open to the street (remarkably unusual in most skyscrapers).

2) Infill Development: Portland and Seattle featured cranes galore on multistory apartment buildings near their downtowns. Seattle’s trendy Eastlake neighborhood and Portland’s Pearl District stood out to me for construction in these transit-friendly neighborhoods. One negative: Seattle’s Safeco Field baseball park has failed to stimulate much development in the otherwise industrial area south of downtown. I can only assume it’s a failure of planning and financing, but maybe it’s just not a great area for homes and businesses given the industrial activities going on.

1) Electric Vehicles: while California is still the leader here, Oregon features great signage for EV charging stations along the highway (see photo on the right).

Example of highway EV signage

Example of highway EV signage

Washington State also seemed to have a good presence of EVs on the road. We even saw a Tesla Model S on Orcas Island in the San Juans (an hour ferry ride from the mainland) with California plates! If that car wasn’t shipped there, then that’s a real coup for Tesla’s supercharger network along I-5.

Overall, it’s great to see other West Coast states making such progress on environmental and energy needs. One area of improvement: Washington State should definitely improve its tailpipe regulations — cars and trucks there are quite smelly and polluting. And of course we need both states to join California’s cap-and-trade market. But I’m confident that in the long run, the West Coast will help lead the country in smart policies to clean the environment and build a sustainable economy.

Gone Fishing

I’ll be on vacation until July 21st or so.  Regular blogging will resume after that.  Enjoy your summer!

Jim Fallows on California’s High Speed Rail

A rare pro-high speed rail piece by the Atlantic reporter. He gives a nice shout-out to our UC Berkeley / UCLA Law 2013 report on managing the project’s impacts on the San Joaquin Valley. As Fallows notes:

Judging the dynamic effect of big projects — downtown restoration efforts, canals or highways or airports — is essential because they all involve “compared with what?” questions. Building a railroad is expensive. But what is its cost, compared with that of building roads, airports, and so on? Building a railroad requires extra land. But how much land will it use, compared with instead building more highways, airports, etc? Trains use fuel and send out emissions. But compared with …

Of course, Fallows doesn’t compare the current route to perhaps more optimal routes away from the Antelope Valley and pristine areas of San Benito County, but his larger point is well-taken.

Hawaii’s Big Island Goes “Big” On Electric Vehicle Charging

Hawaii is the perfect place for electric vehicles. High gas prices and lots of renewable energy potential (sun and wind) mean residents have an incentive to switch from gas to renewable electricity for driving. And then when you factor the relatively small island geography, range anxiety goes away. Even a small electric vehicle battery should get you to most places on the island on a single charge.

But on the Big Island, range is an issue. They don’t call it “big” for nothing. However, as the joint Berkeley Law / University of Hawaii, Maui College report “Electric Vehicle Paradise” notes, a few key fast charger stations around the island would completely solve the range issue there.

Ideal locations for fast-chargers on the Big Island

Ideal locations for fast-chargers on the Big Island


This map on the right shows some of those locations, as envisioned by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

So I’m pleased to see that over the holiday weekend, Big Island EV drivers, the local solar company, and a charging company unveiled a brand-new fast charger at the key location of Mauna Lani, roughly midway between Kona on the west side and Hilo on the east side. The station provides a crucial link between the two, at least for all-battery EVs like the Nissan LEAF. (It’s about 70 miles, including an uphill and then a long downhill to Hilo from there, and about 30 miles over flat ground to Kona — with elevation affecting battery range.)

Congrats to Big Island residents for finally making this happen. Now they just need a few more fast chargers to make the island a true EV paradise.

Happy July 4th

To celebrate July 4th, check out the song that should have been our National Anthem, sung by the man who performed the definitive version:

Meanwhile, a few other songs on my July 4th playlist:

America, Simon & Garfunkel
Power to the People, John Lennon
American Woman, The Guess Who
Majority Rules, Jimmy Cliff

I’m open to other suggestions, if anyone has any.

High Speed Rail May Start in Northern Los Angeles County

The LA Times reports that the High Speed Rail Authority is considering beginning the Palmdale to Burbank section of the train along with a Central Valley portion. The Central Valley portion is a political loser, foisted on the state by Valley congressmen who required it as a condition of federal funding. It means high speed rail begins in a low population center filled with ideological and agricultural opponents who are suing like crazy. This segment would counter that problem to some extent by providing benefits to residents of LA County.

Much like LA began its subway as a tiny 4-mile section downtown, high speed rail should start in a visible population center with an initial segment that has its own ridership logic, rather than as a piece that only makes sense decades from now when the system can be built around it. While Burbank to Palmdale isn’t the LA-Anaheim or LA-San Diego winner that one would hope for, it would allow commuters from Antelope Valley to get to Metrolink and then to Union Station and beyond via Metro Rail and bus.

But a word of caution: this segment could put sprawl in the Antelope Valley on steroids, as people there could now live within a 14 minute train ride of Burbank. In addition, it doesn’t solve the need for a new rail line through the Tehachapis. Currently, Amtrak riders need to transfer to a bus at Bakersfield to get over the hill. A high speed rail construction project there would provide an immediate and significant boost for the statewide Amtrak system, while we wait for the rest of the high speed network to get built.

Overall, I’d like High Speed Rail to skip the Antelope Valley, which was added for purely political reasons to the route. This segment may bring about the worst of all worlds: more sprawl in Antelope Valley, while locking in a route gerrymander that slows the train for everyone. At this stage, I would pull for a Tehachapi start over the Palmdale-Burbank segment.

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