Rooftop solar — and the ability to produce your own energy without reliance on utilities — is obviously troubling to the incumbent utility industry. These companies have been trying to strangle solar in the crib for years now, as the technology combined with inexpensive batteries will eventually put them out of business.
But it’s precisely the upstart nature of the solar industry, and the choice it provides ratepayers, that is inspiring some unlikely allies. CNBC profiles Arizona’s Barry Goldwater, Jr., as well as other Tea Party activists and even evangelical leaders who strongly support renewable energy policies, especially rooftop solar:
As a conservative, Goldwater has become a vocal advocate for solar energy in recent years. He currently serves as the chairman of “Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed” (TUSK), a solar advocacy group that is pushing for energy independence across the country.
And he doesn’t think there is anything odd about being a political conservative who also challenges utility companies for the right to choose solar over traditional forms of power. In fact, he finds it to be the natural outcome of true political conservatism.
“We promote the conservative philosophy of free market, choice and competition, because as the cost of things go down, the quality goes up,” he said.
The “choice” argument is obviously very alluring to these activists, as are the benefits of decentralizing economic power and energy production to residents. But I’m not sure these anti-government conservatives realize that much of the recent solar “boom” is due to public subsidies and tax credits, both in the United States but also in countries like Germany, China, and Spain, which gave the industry the early push it needed to become cost-competitive with many fossil fuel energy sources.
But no point in quibbling over details, as solar energy will continue to need this kind of bipartisan support to establish its place among the incumbents.
California is not getting it done when it comes to public charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. The stations are too few and far between, unreliable, and crowded. Brett Hauser, CEO of charging company Greenlots, described the overall problem (for non-Tesla drivers) at a recent California Energy Commission hearing, citing a PlugShare.com survey of EV drivers:
[I]n terms of driver satisfaction or dissatisfaction is the confidence [for EV drivers] in knowing that wherever they’re going, that if they’re trying to plan a trip that is of significant range that there is a great risk that that charge station, when they get there, is either not going to be available or, in fact, will be broken. I think, as a matter of fact, when they surveyed, I think it was about 547 drivers, those drivers that were Tesla drivers, 93 percent of those drivers actually had confidence that that charge station would be up. But all others it was down to 33 percent. Okay, I mean and that’s on all of us.
At the same Energy Commission hearing, many of the major players on EV infrastructure in the state spoke about the lack of progress to date, particularly with respect to publicly funded infrastructure. The transcript is available on-line [PDF].
Perhaps the most striking revelation from the hearing was eVgo’s inability even to come close to meeting the $100 million settlement terms on EV infrastructure spending [PDF] that it agreed to in 2012. NRG, eVgo’s parent company, had reached the terms with the state for the devious corporate behavior of one of its acquired subsidiaries back in the rolling blackout days circa 2000. These charts from the California Public Utilities Commission presentation [PDF] sum up the dismal state of eVgo progress:
So what gives? NRG/eVgo representative Terry O’Day explained that the siting process for these charging facilities has been extraordinarily complicated. He described it as a multi-step process that typically takes 9-12 months:
And the steps along the way include host approvals for retail tenants and for landlords. It includes utility interconnection. It includes permitting.
He also described some critical gaps in the system, such as in West Los Angeles and San Francisco’s peninsula and East Bay where there’s an “older building stock” that makes siting more difficult. He also noted a big gap in rural Northern California around the faux state of Jefferson. Safety, lighting, and handicap accessibility are all big factors:
You know, we need to plan these stations to consider this edge case of a single mom, with two kids, at 11:00 at night, in rural Northern California, when it’s raining. And that station better work because we took — we convinced that driver to come out to that station in the middle of a rural community. That means it also has to be available.
But even in overcoming these challenges, a larger problem emerges: the lack of a viable business model for private sector ownership of the stations. As Charlie Botsford, project manager for the West Coast Electric Highway, described:
One of our stations took two years to develop. It was on Forest Service property. Don’t ever, whatever you do, put something on government property, especially Forest Service. That was Mt. Hood Ski Resort, so it was really, really difficult. So, I can give you all kinds of horror stories, war stories about siting fast chargers, and getting into lease agreements. A lot of it has to do with why, you know, what’s the motivation for putting a fast charger at a particular site. And, you know, because the business model is — to say that it’s weak is an understatement. It’s even weaker, by the way, for level 2. But for DC fast chargers, it’s a pretty weak business model.
Actually, the best business model that I’ve seen so far is Tesla and they do it for completely different, self-serving reason, purely for the convenience of their drivers. Wow, what an idea.
Complicating matters, the major automakers plan to introduce cheaper 200-mile range, all-battery electric vehicles in the next two years. Drivers’ charging needs are therefore about to rapidly change, as they’ll need more local overnight charging opportunities if they can’t charge at home or work and more interstate-based charging sites between major cities.
So it may be time to rethink how the public supports charging infrastructure in general. Tony Williams, R&D manager for Quick Charge Power LLC, drafted an open proposal to the Energy Commission:
I propose that our state fund a logical California West Coast Electric Highway system comprised of 40 multi-charger (2 minimum) “Plazas” that are powered by onsite batteries, and the batteries are replenished with solar, wind power where applicable, and “single” phase sub-20kW grid power to mitigate or eliminate “demand charges”. These sites would cost approximately $250,000 per site and be placed at 60-100 miles apart along the major corridors that already have freeways:
1) Los Angeles to Sacramento, via 5 and 99
2) Los Angeles to Las Vegas, via 15
3) Los Angeles to Phoenix, via 10
4) Los Angeles to San Francisco via 101
5) San Francisco to Reno via 80
6) San Francisco to Oregon via 101
7) Sacramento to Oregon via 99 and 5
8) San Diego to Yuma via 8
These are the logical routes the Californians actually drive to already. With numerous 100-200 mile electric cars on the horizon from major auto manufacturers like General Motors and Nissan, and also premium auto makers like Tesla and Jaguar, these routes must be planned for the near future, but made capable with existing cars that have sub-100 miles ranges. For those cars, I recommend placing small 20kW DC chargers in between each Plaza site, which will not need batteries or infrastructure to eliminate demand charges.
Williams argues that the investment would be relatively small, or “just half the amount of money devoted to hydrogen cars for just one year (just $10 million) by our state,” with an additional $2.5 million to fund 50 additional low powered sites at $50,000 per site.
Of course, this plan won’t necessarily help condo and apartment dwellers who lack home charging options. But that could be addressed in part through new technologies, like chargers on streetlights and chargers that don’t need to be hard-wired but can roam around a parking lot. Plus greater utility involvement in funding urban chargers. Overall, if you combine this interstate charging plaza idea with improved local deployment, then California would be on its way to solving many of the EV infrastructure challenges.
A new study from researchers at Princeton, Yale, and George Mason University finds that repeatedly communicating the “97% scientific consensus” that human actions are warming the planet may help breakdown climate denier resistance to accepting the science:
After being presented with the consensus message, people on average increased their estimate of the percentage of scientists who agree about climate change by 12.8 percent. And the paper further found that when people up their estimate of the percentage of scientists who accept that global warming is caused by humans, they also increase their own belief in the science, and their own worry about it, becoming more likely to want the world to take climate action.
But Yale public opinion researcher Dan Kahan is skeptical of the report findings:
If this is the strongest case that can be made for “97% consensus messaging,” there should no longer be any doubt in the minds of practical people–ones making decisions about how to actually do constructive things in the real world– that it’s time to try something else.
Kahan argues instead that discussions of geoengineering are actually better at getting climate deniers to start thinking constructively about how to solve climate change, mainly because geoengineering as a solution doesn’t involve government intervention into the economy through taxes or regulations on fossil fuels. And it’s the fear of this solution or policy response that seems to motivate climate deniers to reject the underlying science that could justify them.
My feeling is it can’t hurt to try both approaches, provided there’s no evidence that either message could actually backfire. In fact, I found it reassuring that the 97% message didn’t cause a backfire, knowing how people with false beliefs can really get their backs up when others cite science that disagrees with them.
Ultimately though it will take a big cultural shift to truly kill off the anti-science beliefs, the same way the American South came around (largely anyway, or at least publicly) to reject legal segregation based on race. Some of that requires changing of the generations, but a lot of it requires changing events (like more extreme weather) and the relentless dialogue and discussions of the subject, even in the face of obstinate attitudes that seem impossible to change. Whether we start with geoengineering or the 97% message, the conversations just need to keep going, and the tide will keep turning.
Ryan Reft at KCET penned a relatively brief but comprehensive history of the Blue Line to mark its upcoming 25th anniversary. He acknowledges the ongoing maintenance challenges as well:
The Blue Line’s total cost eventually reached $877 million: $227 million over the 1985 estimate at groundbreaking. Yet its unveiling in 1990 set off a wave of [Pacific Electric] nostalgia. In the ensuing 25 years, it would become the busiest light rail in the nation, ferrying 26 million passengers annually.
That said, in recent years the Blue Line, and light rail in Los Angeles more generally, has encountered some snags: the former, the consequences of neglect; and the latter, community opposition in places like the Exposition Park neighborhood where working class homeowners have expressed worries about gentrification, overburdened public institutions, and crime.
In 2012, $239 million in deferred maintenance resulted in numerous cancellations and delays for the Blue Line. In January and February of 2012 alone, the line experienced 858 delays or cancellations, roughly double the total during the same period in 2011. Most of these issues resulted from aging rail cars, which by 2012 required maintenance after 19,500 miles, down from 26,000 in 2009. Similar issues plagued bus and rail systems nationally. A 2010 report by the Federal Transit Administration argued $77.7 billion would be required to bring all systems to “good repair.”
All the more reason to fund transit operations and find new revenue sources for crumbling infrastructure like the Blue Line (subject of the recent UC Berkeley / UCLA Law report Moving Dollars).
But in the meantime, the article uncovers this bizarre Blue Line promotional video featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
Some UC Berkeley researchers stuck cameras and sensors down some Yellowstone and Chilean geysers to find out. Here’s what they learned:
The key to geysers, said Michael Manga, a UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science, is an underground bend or loop that traps steam and then bubbles it out slowly to heat the water column above until it is just short of boiling. Eventually, the steam bubbles trigger sudden boiling from the top of the column, releasing pressure on the water below and allowing it to boil as well. The column essentially boils from the top downward, spewing water and steam hundreds of feet into the air.
Cool video describing their findings here:
On Sunday I was interviewed on KCBS News Radio in San Francisco about how California can better spend its transportation dollars. It’s the subject of the new UC Berkeley / UCLA Law report Moving Dollars. I posted the audio, which you can listen to here:
Potholed roads, crumbling bridges, crowded buses and trains, collisions between cars and bicyclists. In short, California’s transportation infrastructure is in dire need of improvement.
Every year, the state, regional agencies and local governments spend about $28 billion. But are we spending that money effectively?
Too often, decision-makers would rather fund new road and highway projects instead of improving our existing infrastructure and providing more affordable and convenient transportation options. Local political considerations seem to drive these decisions, instead of the most effective use of these funds. And to make matters worse, decision-making is highly decentralized and therefore uncoordinated. Money comes from federal, state and local sources, with multiple levels of government controlling the spending.
Yet these transportation decisions affect our lives as directly as anything our government does. They help determine the layout of our towns and cities, the location of our jobs and shops, and how painlessly we can get where we need to go. The decisions by an agency in a neighboring jurisdiction can mean the difference between an easy commute and a nightmare.
Streetsblog LA also posted a nice write-up on the report here. And for those in the Bay Area, I’ll be interviewed about the report on Sunday at 11:20am on KCBS radio.
California spends approximately $28 billion on transportation infrastructure each year. But are we spending that money as cost-effectively as possible? And given the major impact that transportation investments have on our land use patterns and the amount of driving we need to do, are we spending this money in ways that align with California’s environmental and energy goals?
The short answer is: no. The majority of these dollars go to automobile-focused infrastructure, including for new road and highway expansion projects. Yet at the same time, our existing infrastructure is crumbling and in dire need of maintenance and investment, while options for transit, biking and walking are routinely underfunded. And while the state seeks to encourage more housing in walkable, transit-friendly communities to meet market demand, too often transportation funds are directed to outlying areas, encouraging more growth at the edge at the expense of the core.
Part of the problem is that the money is collected and spent at multiple levels of government. Local governments raise almost half the transportation dollars in California and control almost three-quarters of it. Federal and state dollars are also spent via multiple agencies with sometimes competing priorities.
To address the challenge, UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law are today releasing the report Moving Dollars: Aligning Transportation Spending With California’s Environmental Goals. The report resulted from a one-day gathering of transportation experts, state officials, and transportation agency representatives. It is the fifteenth in the law schools’ Climate Change and Business Research Initiative, sponsored by Bank of America, which develops policies that help businesses prosper in an era of climate change.
The group identified the following priority solutions to overcome the challenges, recommending that state and regional leaders:
- Establish rigorous performance standards for new transportation projects that ensure that they are cost-effective, reduce driving miles, and provide more transportation options, among other possible metrics;
- Reform the transportation decision-making processes by developing a common transportation vision for state agencies, with incentives for local and regional agencies to follow it; and
- Direct a greater percentage of transportation dollars to the maintenance of existing infrastructure (“fix it first”), including to make roadways safe and accessible for people who take transit, walk and bike.
I’ll be speaking about these and other recommendations this Saturday at the annual Planning and Conservation League Symposium at UC Davis Law, on a panel with California Assemblymember Richard Bloom, Pete Hathaway (Former Director of Transportation Planning, SACOG) and Kate White (Deputy Secretary, California Transportation Agency). Hard copies of the report will be available, or feel free to download a digital copy at the links above.
UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law will be hosting a free legislative lunch briefing next Tuesday on expanding access in California to clean energy data, the subject of the Knowledge is Power report that the law schools released last month. The energy data could include improved customer access to long-term usage patterns, utility statistics on distribution grid needs and pricing, and anonymized, aggregated energy usage patterns on a neighborhood scale. The goal is to help boost California’s clean technology industries and reduce costs for ratepayers, while ensuring that the state can more cost-effectively meet its climate and energy goals.
WHEN: Tuesday, February 24th, 11:45am to 1:15pm (registration begins at 11:30am)
Lunch will be served, followed by the keynote address at noon
WHERE: Room 125, California State Capitol Building, Sacramento, CA 95814
The Honorable Andrew McAllister, Commissioner, California Energy Commission
Michael Murray, Chief Technology Strategist, Mission:data & President, Lucid
Lisa Schmidt, President and CEO, Home Energy Analytics
RSVP by Friday, February 20th at this link. Space is limited to the first 40 people who register, due to the size of the room.
This event is presented by the UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law Climate Change and Business Research Initiative to develop policies that help businesses prosper in an era of climate change. Funding for this initiative is provided by Bank of America.
For anyone in the Portland, Oregon area, I’ll be speaking this afternoon about second-life electric vehicle batteries at a Drive Oregon event in downtown. Here’s the blurb from the event organizers:
Created from heavy metals and rare earth elements, the lithium-ion batteries used in today’s electric vehicles are challenging to recycle. However, these batteries and packs are extremely valuable, so the race is on to develop innovative ways to recycle battery cells at the end of their useful lives and provide “second life” applications for these batteries.
Our February event will review the opportunities and challenges in battery recycling and reuse. Our first speaker, Steve Sloop of Bend-based OnTo Technologies, will share the latest developments in battery material recycling and his own company’s unique approach, that is both more effective and less environmentally damaging. Our second speaker, Ethan Elkind of UC – Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law, will discuss current research and pilot projects in the second-use market for battery packs. A lithium-ion battery can retain up to 80% of its original capacity for holding a charge even at the end of its life in a car. Research suggests that discarded batteries aggregated together can serve as inexpensive energy storage for our power grid – a critical component needed to support the integration of more renewable energy sources.
Much of my talk will be based on the UC Berkeley / UCLA Law report “Repurpose and Repower.” You can register to attend here for $25 (non-Drive Oregon members), while Oregon wine, beer and light refreshments will be provided at no additional cost.