For those who missed my interview on KALW radio on Monday night, you can listen to it here. The discussion covered the history of the waterfront (did you know that much of the port was built on old abandoned ships from the Gold Rush era?), the agency structure of the Port of San Francisco, and the likely impacts of climate change on the waterfront in the coming century.
We also talked about the recent development battles there, particularly the impact of Proposition B, a San Francisco voter initiative that passed earlier this year that requires any project developer that seeks to build above current height limits to get the approval of all San Francisco voters.
The state is suing to invalidate the measure though, arguing that the waterfront is state land and that San Francisco voters cannot veto what gets built there. I hope the state is successful, because this kind of ballot-box, project-by-project planning is detrimental to sound, comprehensive planning. And I also agree that the whole state has an interest in the waterfront, not just well-heeled neighbors in the city who don’t want their views blocked.
The big fossil fuel companies wanted to avoid paying for the carbon pollution from their products via California’s cap-and-trade program. They tried to scare California residents about the looming gas price increases. They found an ally in Assemblyman Henry Perea (D-Fresno), who introduced AB 69 to delay including fuels under the cap. As I blogged about a few weeks ago, the money for the fuel pollution allowances would fund transit and electric vehicle programs, among other pollution-reducing technologies.
Now good news: State Senate President Darrell Steinberg prevented Perea’s bill from even coming up for a vote. That avoids the messy political problem of forcing legislators to weigh in on this issue during an election year. As I wrote about, the gas price increase is likely to be negligible, and there’s no reason oil companies can’t simply absorb the cost from their $200 billion annual profits, rather than passing it along to consumers.
Steinberg wrote a forceful letter to Perea explaining his logic, worth reading in full. So now fuels will come under the cap on January 1st, and California will use the revenue from the pollution allowances to fund the ongoing transition to a cleaner, cheaper and more sustainable form of transportation. And once under the cap, it will be difficult for the oil and gas interests to remove it later. Overall, this is excellent news for California’s fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bolster our clean tech sector.
Steve LeVine over at Quartz has an excellent write-up of the Tesla versus General Motors showdown to build the first mass market, long-range EV:
The stakes are enormous. Most electrics have less than 100 miles of range. Experts regard 200 miles as a tipping point, enough to cure many potential electric-car buyers of “range anxiety,” the fear of being stranded when their battery expires. If GM and Tesla crack this, sales of individual electrics could jump from 2,000 or 3,000 vehicles a month to 15 to 20 times that rate, shaking up industries from cars to oil, which were until now certain that large-scale acceptance of electrics was perhaps decades away.
LeVine traces the economic and engineering challenges to bring battery costs down so dramatically. Musk is betting on economies of scale through mass production. But the scientific consensus is dubious. Experts point to the difficulty of building a better anode (the negative electrode):
All current lithium-ion batteries use graphite anodes. But scientists say a big jump in performance would be possible if they could perfect a silicon anode, which would absorb far more lithium than graphite, increasing how much energy could be stored. The problem is that in tests thus far, silicon expands, cracks and kills the battery. The US government is funding six efforts to create a working silicon anode that can go commercial, but even if one or more are successful, they would not deliver a 200-mile car by 2017 or 2018.
Meanwhile, Nissan is quietly improving the LEAF’s battery range. By 2020, given the current decreases in battery costs, Nissan may be able to offer a 170-mile model for the current price (approximately $29,000).
It’s very encouraging to see so much capital and ingenuity devoted to cracking this battery code. Let’s hope for success and that it happens quickly.
With the stroke of a pen, Governor Brown could now save California building owners an average of a $1000 off the cost of installing rooftop solar. That’s the estimate from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in analyzing the impact of streamlining local permitting regimes in California. AB 2188 (Muratsuchi) seeks to do just that — streamline local processes and end additional burdens from homeowner’s associations on rooftop solar. The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk. As I wrote about earlier this month, California can’t control the cost of solar PV, but it can get its collective local houses in order when it comes to permitting solar.
I’ll be on KALW radio tonight at 7pm (91.7 FM in the Bay Area, internet for everyone else) discussing the future of development along San Francisco’s waterfront. The implications go well-beyond San Francisco: waterfront development battles have brought out neighborhood opponents in full force, reflecting a widespread dynamic of local politics thwarting development projects in our existing cities and towns.
And the waterfront will be ground zero for sea level rise over this century and beyond. How will cities start to plan for the ongoing climate impacts?
More information on KALW’s website here, as well as an eventual link to the audio.
Steven Hyden of Grantland attempts to anoint the American Band Champions from each of the last 50 years:
I tried to be as impartial as one can be when handing out a fictional prize on the basis of perceived artistic value. There are times when I chose groups that I personally don’t feel that strongly about, but whose résumés were indisputable. There were also times when personal favorites got the heave-ho. One of my favorite American bands of all time is the Replacements. The Replacements were not awarded an American Band Championship Belt. This enrages me, and yet it seems just.
I can’t argue with most of his selections. But Velvet Underground over The Doors in 1967-68? The Doors had way more influence and success. And I like Steely Dan, but not sure I’d go with them over Aerosmith in the 1974-76 time period (again, it was — and is — a much more influential band). To his credit, Hyden at least mentions these other bands.
I don’t even know the bands from 2004 through 2010, but maybe that says more about me than him. Still, I’d probably nominate Eminem or Dr. Dre in that time period over the bands he mentions. But no use quibbling over a fictional prize I suppose.
My KUCI radio interview on the Heather McCoy show is now available on-line.
Heather asked a lot of good questions, and as a result, I pretty much cover the entire history of LA rail. So if you haven’t yet read my book Railtown, this gives you an overview.
The best hope we have on Earth for averting the worst impacts of climate change is a pretty simple formula: a huge amount of renewable energy, with surpluses stored in technologies like cheap batteries, and all our transportation running on electricity.
Well, actually there’s another solution: we could de-industrialize and return to the Stone Age. Or humans could die off suddenly from disease or war. But I prefer the first approach.
The critical piece to this energy and transportation transition is bringing the cost of these technologies down, and two articles this week indicate that we’re making progress. First, solar prices have come down dramatically, leading to huge new demand which is now causing a shortage of panels. Analysts don’t expect solar panel prices to rise in response, but it is prompting companies like SolarCity to invest heavily in new solar PV production facilities. Underlying this dynamic is the fact that panels now sell for 76 cents a watt, compared with $2.01 at the end of 2010 (including a 12 percent price drop just this year).
Second, wind prices are falling, making wind energy competitive with natural gas in some parts of the country:
After topping out at nearly $70 per megawatt hour in 2009, the national average levelized price of wind purchase agreements fell to around $25 last year, the [U.S. Department of Energy] report sad. That means wind electricity costs about 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour, a highly competitive price in some parts of the country.
Finally, as I blogged about earlier this week, electric vehicle battery prices have dropped 40% since 2010.
This is all great news for the possibility of an economically painless transition to a sustainable economy. Credit so far is due to the private sector for the innovation and investment. But this is also a clear sign that government policies around the world to boost these markets are having success. On the solar and wind side, the federal government offers tax credits for investors, while many states have renewable energy mandates, financial incentives, and utility programs that reward customers for installing renewables. The federal government also provides a tax credit for electric vehicle purchases and loans and grants for clean technology startups (in some ways, the 2009 economic stimulus was Obama’s true climate change bill, given the support that legislation gave to game-changing companies like Tesla). And states like California offer cash rebates and other incentives for EV purchases, as well as a mandate for utilities to buy more energy storage.
Obviously we still have a long way to go, but the cost trends are very encouraging. And they should reinforce the political will to keep the incentives going while the private sector continues to do its part to bring down costs.
A new report (subscription required) in Transportation Sciences suggests that EV buyers would be better off purchasing cars with battery ranges of less than 100 miles. Why? That range covers the vast majority of their trips for the cheapest vehicle price, particularly as battery prices decline. And an expanded public charging infrastructure with cheap electricity would cover longer trips less expensively than buying a higher-priced, big battery EV. To gauge consumer demand, the study relied on a 2009 survey of more than 36,500 drivers and their driving patterns. Notably, it did not rely on any new data from consumers in response to specific questions about EV preferences related to range.
Perhaps as a result of this lack of consumer preference data on EVs and battery range specifically, the study is already getting some raised eyebrows at Green Car Reports:
Sometimes mathematical logic is simply swept aside by the more primal emotions: fear, anxiety, and insecurity. Which is why so many car buyers make choices that cost them money in the long run. Some of those choices may be luxury items they want but don’t need; others may be capabilities they’ll rarely, if ever, use but want to have in case of unusual circumstances. The choice of vehicle range for a battery-electric car turns out to be one of those decisions where fear of what could happen decisively trumps what probably will be.
I think most consumers would pay more for EVs with bigger batteries to maintain the convenience they have with gas cars of not having to worry about recharging on long trips. They want a car that meets all their driving needs, and if they just wanted cheap, they could buy an inexpensive fuel-efficient economy car (or used car) and save a lot on gas that way. Eventually, automakers will produce a range of battery sizes in the vehicles, so we’ll see how the market shakes out. And certainly we need a better public charging infrastructure anyway. But charging takes time, and most people don’t want to have to even think about it. So my guess is that cars like the LEAF will become a lot more popular once they improve the range while keeping the price steady.
I posted a few weeks ago about the hydrogen fuel cell versus battery electric vehicle debate, citing alternative fuel expert Joe Romm’s evidence. Romm is back at it, highlighting the high costs and lack of environment benefits of hydrogen fuel cells:
The biggest problem hydrogen fuel cell vehicles face is that they deliver no obvious major consumer (or societal/environmental) benefit compared to the competition, but have a bunch of obvious consumer defects. These defects include high first cost, high fueling cost (compared to both gasoline and electricity), lack of fueling stations and lack of a nationwide fuel-delivery infrastructure — especially for renewable hydrogen.
Romm also describes the significant price decreases seen over the past few years in lithium ion batteries:
[M]assive amounts of money were poured into improving batteries and related components, not just by governments, car makers and clean energy venture capitalists, but also by portable device and phone manufacturers who wanted to improve performance while cutting costs. The results in the case of batteries have been impressive:
Between these highly encouraging battery cost reductions and the corresponding steep mountain to climb on hydrogen fuel cells, I continue to wonder why California just invested $50 million in this dubious technology.