The Race For Better Batteries

It’s on, and we’re up against global warming.  Energy storage is the critical clean technology piece to decarbonize the grid (at least without nuclear power).  The good news is that innovation is really taking off, now that the market for storage is clearer, with more renewables and electric vehicles.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

In October, an international team of scientists announced a breakthrough in overcoming major obstacles in next generation energy storage and creating a battery that has five to 10 times the energy density of the best batteries on the market now. In September, Whitacre won a $500,000 invention prize for his eco-friendly water-oriented battery. And in April, Elon Musk announced plans for his Tesla Motors to sell high-tech batteries for homes with solar panels to store electricity for night time and cloudy day use, weaning the homes off dirtier power from the burning of coal, oil and gas.

“The pace of innovation does seem to be accelerating,” said JB Straubel, chief technical officer and co-founder of Tesla with Musk. “We’re kind of right at the tipping point where the current performance and lifetime of batteries roughly equal that of fossil fuels. If you are able to double that, the prospects are huge.”

Some of these breakthroughs will take years to commercialize, but at least we know in the near-term that lithium ion battery costs are coming down about 8-10 percent a year. Bottom line: lots of changes will happen on both the grid and in vehicles with these innovations.

And it can’t come soon enough.

Getting Unhealthy Sierra Forests Healthy Again: A Photo Journey

I was fortunate to spend many childhood summers in the Sierra Nevada forests around Lake Tahoe, exploring and enjoying.  But as a child, I had no idea that the seemingly pristine forests that I loved, which seemed so ancient and enduring, were in fact new environments, the product of complete ecological devastation starting in the late 1800s.

Lake Tahoe forests used to feature massive, thousands-year-old pine trees, spaced well apart on land where the underbrush was cleared out by regular forest fires, usually intentionally set by the local Washoe Indians.  The Washoe summered by the Lake and wintered in the Nevada desert.  These trees were so big they rivaled Sequoias in size.

But when the Washoe were systematically displaced and killed by invading Americans in the mid-1800s, with a corresponding loss in decision-making authority over land use, the forests were placed at tremendous risk.  With gold discovered nearby and then silver in Nevada, the huge mining companies that went to work needed lumber for their mines.  They began completely clear-cutting the forests, and the wealth from the mines enriched San Francisco and made it the city we know today.  The pattern of clear cut scars are still visible in the mountains above Sand Harbor in Nevada, where loggers constructed giant flues to send the old growth trunks shooting down into the lake below, to be barged off to Nevada.

In the wake of this annihilation and forest fire suppression, fast-growing fir trees moved in.  These fir trees weren’t as drought and fire resistant as the pines they out-competed and replaced, and they grew up in clumps, all of the same generation.

So the result for the past century has been a thick, overgrown forest, prone to intense wildfires that devastate the landscape and lead to erosion and a repeat of the ill-fated, fast-growth cycle.  And now with climate change increasing the severity of the droughts and intensity of the summer heats, these fires are only becoming more common and severe.

In short, the American invasion of these forested lands has been a complete ecological and aesthetic disaster.  It will take thousands of years to restore the forests to their previous glory, assuming a changing climate doesn’t wipe the forest species out completely.  But we might as well begin now.

With that in mind, I’ve enjoyed exploring Burton Creek State Park in the Tahoe Basin in the last 15 years especially, as long-term work to restore the forests has begun.  CalFire has been systematically thinning the overgrown firs and clearing the forest floor into burn piles.  Here’s an example from this summer:

IMG_2177And now with the first snowfall in the mountains, CalFire has begun burning these piles, with the results visible here:

IMG_2333The foresters have been leaving behind the pine trees, focusing only on firs which can be shipped to build homes in the American southeast.  One day, if climate change doesn’t get them, these pine trees will grow large like their ancestors.  Their pine needles will kill off and prevent rival trees from growing below, leading to a clear under-story. The forest will once again tolerate and benefit from regular “cool” fires that don’t destroy the big trees.  Here’s an example from an area that was thinned about five years ago:

IMG_2181I’ll never live to see these forests restored to their old glory, but you can see examples of intact old-growth forest in places like D.L. Bliss State Park on Emerald Bay on the Lake.

But in the meantime, I’m glad to be witnessing the beginning of the rebirth of these lands, as the once unhealthy forests become healthy again.

Making Lemonade Out Of VW Lemons

The Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal is another sad example of corporate malfeasance. For those not following the story, the basics are as follows: Volkswagen secretly installed “defeat devices” on approximately 11 million vehicles worldwide that could detect when the cars were being tested for emissions and then reduce the emissions to avoid being penalized. While the vehicles performed well during laboratory testing, in reality the emissions were up to 40 times the legal limit. You can see the map of affected areas from the pollution via Grist here.

So what remedies should California, as the state most immediately affected, seek from VW? At a minimum, state leaders should use the opportunity to bolster reduced emissions from vehicles going forward.  And that means improving the deployment of battery electric technologies in vehicles.

VW should do more than NRG to support electric vehicles.

VW should do more than NRG to support electric vehicles.

California has gone down this path before. When Enron and other energy companies defrauded electricity ratepayers with the rolling black-outs in California back in 2000 and 2001, the state eventually settled with NRG, the corporate entity that assumed the liability through corporate acquisitions. State negotiators required that NRG spend $100 million on electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

But that settlement has so far not worked out well. NRG is way behind schedule and state auditors are investigating what’s going on. So state leaders need to learn from that experience and find a more direct way for VW to pay for its malfeasance and pollution.

A relatively simple way to do it would be to require VW, via settlement terms, to purchase a set amount of “zero emission vehicle (ZEV)” credits from automakers making battery electrics. That would boost their supply and reduce the costs of electric vehicles. Or VW could pay into a fund that reduces the cost of purchasing or leasing electric vehicles, via a point-of-sale cash rebate, for example.  And to be clear, these requirements should not be the only settlement terms, but the ones directly related to repairing the harm to the environment from this cheating.

Of course, we have years of litigation to come on this scandal.  But state leaders should start thinking now about how to make some lemonade out of these bitter VW lemons, while learning from past experiences.

San Diego Media Are Focusing On Need For Better Transit-Oriented Development

I continue to be encouraged by the reaction of San Diego leaders to our report last month grading California’s rail transit station neighborhoods.  San Diego overall did not perform well, and now major media outlets like the NBC affiliate there are focused on the problem.  Here’s a recent story they aired, including a short profile of Gillespie Field, the worst-performing station neighborhood in the state:

This educational effort couldn’t come at a better time. The region is now contemplating a new transportation plan and at the same time is battling with local environmental groups and the state attorney general in the state Supreme Court over their last super-crappy plan. So we need more information about the transit-oriented development opportunities there to enter the public discourse, through stories like this one.

Los Angeles NIMBYs And Libertarians Seek Alternative Universe

The land use and transportation news out of Los Angeles yesterday was head-shaking. On land use, per the Los Angeles Times, wealthy NIMBYs are bank-rolling a voter initiative essentially to freeze development in Los Angeles:

The Coalition to Preserve L.A. announced plans for a ballot measure, titled the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, that would put a moratorium of up to 24 months on development projects that cannot be built without votes from elected officials to increase density.

The proposal also would make it harder for those officials to change the city’s General Plan — the document that spells out the city’s policies on land use and traffic — for individual real estate developments.

You can read the text here. As my colleague Jonathan Zasloff rightfully describes it, it’s “NIMBYs gone wild.”  The last thing an overpriced and supply-constrained region like Los Angeles needs is less housing, especially near transit stops in places like Hollywood.

Let's pretend this works.

Let’s pretend this works.

Meanwhile, on transportation, the libertarian Reason Foundation came out with an equally retrograde proposal [PDF], advocating for over $700 billion in new transportation spending in Los Angeles, primarily for roadway expansion.  About half of those funds would come from toll revenue. Because we all know that expanding capacity on roadways is an excellent long-term solution to solve traffic (even CalTrans now admits that expansion just induces more demand).

Even worse, most of the capacity expansion would happen via tunnels underneath existing roadways, which are hugely disruptive, difficult to build, and not likely to get approved by our byzantine power structure. The only decent part of the report is the emphasis on bus-only lanes and greater use of congestion pricing in highway lanes, with the revenue going to transit.

All in all, a tough day for sensible proposals on land use and transportation in Los Angeles.

Atlanta vs. Barcelona

From urban scholar Alain Bertaud, the chart below pretty much says it all about how much urban compactness matters.


All else being equal, which city would you prefer?

Density Only Works In The Right Places

I’m all in favor of abundant housing in California’s major metropolitan areas.  We need it to meet demand and reduce economic inequality.  But to solve our congestion problems and bolster our transit networks, we need that housing to be built in the right places.

Along these lines, Robert Cervero, Friesen Chair of Urban Studies and professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, has a fascinating (but long) presentation on-line that describes the recipe for successful, functional cities:

The bottom line is that density by itself doesn’t work unless it is well-planned and co-located with high quality transit. Good examples of bad density? Sao Paulo and Los Angeles, where the density is spread across the landscape and average per capita travel times are long. Examples of good density? Curitiba, Brazil, where density is located in “transit-sheds” along boulevards with bus rapid transit and per capita travel times are relatively short.

For Los Angeles in particular, the path forward will be essentially to retrofit the city by building a new, more functional one on top of the old. That means abundant housing along the new rail network and major bus routes, but probably not anywhere else at this point.

As an interesting concluding note, Cervero describes how most urban growth in the world will occur in the “Global South,” making these lessons critical for new cities as they are designed and built.

Clean Technology As An Alternative To War In The Middle East

The attacks in Paris on Friday were another reminder of the threat that Middle Eastern instability poses to the rest of the world.  The news affected me more than the usual foreign event, since I was just in Paris for an electric vehicle conference last December and am planning to attend the United Nations conference on climate change there in just a few weeks.

I’m struck by the similarities to 9/11 in the United States, in terms of the willingness of many in France and the United States to retaliate militarily in the Middle East.  As an example, France just launched a big bombing assault yesterday on an ISIS stronghold in Syria.

I can certainly relate to the impulse to retaliate, but it seems that most of the political chatter now is about our military intervention options in response to the attacks, from large-scale to targeted.

But no one seems to be discussing with any seriousness another option: divest from the Middle East.  And by divestment, I mean stop investing in the economies of that region, specifically in oil.  Fortunately, we have an existing technology that can help with this effort: electric vehicles.

I ran some numbers on the cost of large-scale war versus the cost of investing in electric vehicles, and the results are pretty staggering.  The Iraq War, as a point of comparison for a large-scale military effort, will end up costing the United States over $2 trillion dollars (and the war in Afghanistan is estimated to cost $1 trillion).  If you assume an electric vehicle costs $30,000 (the price of a Nissan LEAF after incentives), that’s enough money to buy over 66.7 million electric vehicles, or one for every two households in America — and many households in urban areas may not even have a car. Assuming that each of these vehicles displace 10,000 driving miles on gas per year at 25 miles per gallon, that could save 26.7 billion gallons of gasoline annually, or almost a quarter of United States annual consumption.

Of course, if the United States government (and other willing governments around the world) actually bought that many electric vehicles, the cost of the vehicles would fall dramatically with the economies of scale, so these figures are quite conservative.

The result of this huge decrease in demand for oil would be the economic collapse of many petro-states around the world, including some parts of the United States, like Texas.  Middle Eastern countries would have to find different industries to gain their wealth and would be hard-pressed to support terrorism financially. Meanwhile, for the United States, the region would no longer be of strategic importance to us and could be left to sort out its own problems without American lives on the line.  And of course the investment in electric vehicles would not only bolster our domestic economy and electric utilities, it would clean our air and stabilize our global climate.

All in all, electric vehicles as a response to Middle Eastern terrorism seems like an important option to consider, if our leaders are willing to do so.

Hawaii’s “Postcard From The Future” On How To Pay For Rooftop Solar

Hawaii_solar_photovoltaic_panels_on_a_roof_Image_Hawaii_State_Separtment_of_EducationAs I’ve covered before, the State of Hawaii has halted its rooftop solar incentive program (“net metering,” where solar customers get full retail electricity credit for any surplus solar they generate). Now state regulators are proposing to replace it with two options, a “grid-supply” option and a self-supply option. The outcome will be a “postcard from the future” for other states, given that Hawaii leads the country in rooftop solar penetration and high electricity prices.

The grid-supply option would replace the full retail rate credit for surplus solar electricity that happens under net metering.  Instead, customers would get a new tariff for surplus solar power, based on the avoided costs of fossil fuel-based generation during peak generation hours, as measured from July 2014 to June 2015. That translates to $0.151/kWh for Oahu, $0.154/kWh for Hawaii, and $0.172/kWh for Maui. That’s still a good payment for the surplus electricity, but it’s about half of what customers used to get under the full retail rate under net metering. Plus new customers will have to pay a minimum monthly bill of $25.

The self-supply option is primarily designed to support customers who do not export their surplus to the grid.  Instead, they would earn retail rate credit for on-site generation that aligns with their demand. In other words, customers would strategically shift their electricity usage to soak up all their surplus solar power, such as by running all their appliances during peak daylight hours.  Or they could buy a battery to store surplus solar power for dark times. Utilities would then be required to streamline interconnection for these systems.

The environmental and solar communities basically hate what state regulators are doing, as Utility Dive reports.  But these proposals in fact may not dramatically stall the rooftop solar market.  For example, my favorite utility, Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC), ended net metering in 2009 and replaced it with the similar grid-supply option, and their installations continued to climb.  Plus, the self-supply option could serve to encourage ‘grid defection,’ as customers with batteries and solar realize they don’t actually need their utility anymore.

Certainly I’d prefer to see a more gradual transition away from net metering, as opposed to the sudden halt that happened in Hawaii.  But in the long run, with continuing price declines on solar and batteries, we need to move in this new direction anyway.  However, regulators shouldn’t pull the plug too quickly on the current incentives, or they may end up destroying the only bridge to this future.  And that’s not a postcard I want to see, no matter how many palm trees are on it.

Concert Review: Brad Mehldau At SF Jazz

Jazz piano isn’t my main thing, but it’s a whole different story when Brad Mehldau plays.  Brad often does inventive covers of modern pop songs, particularly shining on Beatles tunes, and he adds classical and blues elements combined with the occasional funk.  He can really groove, or he can be tremendously tasteful and melodic.

He also comes out of a Los Angeles jazz scene that featured music producer Jon Brion, who has worked with a range of artists including Kanye West and Fiona Apple.  So Brad comes from a community that is open to innovation and experimentation in terms of what defines jazz.

Brad and trio wave to the crowd, view from our seats at SF Jazz.

Brad and trio wave to the crowd, view from our seats at SF Jazz.

Tuesday night I got to hear him play at SF Jazz, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve attended.  Brad was with his trio, including Bay Area-native, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard.  They opened with a jazz standard made famous by Sinatra, “Almost Like Being in Love,” although it was almost unrecognizable in their arrangement.  The tune was kind of an odd, quirky start, featuring Brad’s meandering and experimental solos and then ending with trading solos (eight measures and then four and then two each) with Ballard on drums.  In retrospect, I found it to be one of my least-favorite tunes of the night, just because the arrangement was a bit challenging to absorb.

But one of my favorites was the second tune, a Mehldau original called “After the After,” featuring haunting piano work in trill style and numerous key changes to give it an atmospheric but groovy feel.

After those more ethereal tunes, he played probably my favorite of the night, an awesome cover of jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues.”  It’s a blues waltz, and Brad completely rocked it on the solo, overlaying classical phrasing on top of blues scales.  Ballard’s drum solo was one of the best I’ve heard, as he kept the waltz time on the high hat and bass drum while going ballistic poly-rhythmic on everything else he could bang.  It was a tour de force.

Next they played a gorgeous Brazilian tune from the 1940s called “Vibracao” (Brad said it was written by a guy whose name translates to “Jack the Mandolin Player” in english).  It sounded a lot like an Antonio Carlos Jobim song, kind of bossa nova and full of beauty and joy.

The trio followed it with an original called “Ballard’s Balls” (they unveiled the working title at our show).  The melody sounded a lot like West Coast Blues, which was distracting.  But the groove was fantastic, featuring Ballard’s excellent work on the snare drum, and I could picture the song evolving nicely as they play it more.

Brad ended the set with a beautiful ballad and jazz standard, “Where Do You Start?“.  It featured some haunting solo piano work by Brad, and the song reminded me of the joy conveyed by “Vibracao” earlier in the set.

For the encore, the trio completely rocked it on a cover of “Hey Joe,” made famous by Jimi Hendrix.  Grenadier played his solo like a rock guitarist, totally owning his upright bass and practically stealing the show at that point.  But then Brad’s solo took over, building to a finale by using that walking-bass line sound that Jimi used at the end of his guitar solo.

And with that, the trio left the stage, leaving us to groove on our way out the door.  I’ll definitely try to catch his show the next time he’s in town.

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