Santa Monica Takes Big Step Backward To Keep Out New Residents

An unfortunate vote last week by the Santa Monica City Council will keep major boulevards in the desirable coastal city from being redeveloped, underscoring the anti-housing policies in coastal California that is driving up rents and home prices.

Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards in Santa Monica are major transit thoroughfares but feature many low-rise, single story buildings.  Back in 2010, the city developed a plan to encourage multi-story housing in corridors like these. But with last week’s vote, which will affect an ordinance to be voted on in a few weeks, those kind of projects will be almost impossible to build under the city’s approval process.

This hotel is likely to be the densest housing built on Santa Monica Boulevard for the foreseeable future

This hotel is likely to be the densest housing built on Santa Monica Boulevard for the foreseeable future

Why does this matter?  Because coastal cities like Santa Monica in California have not been doing their fair share to build housing, leading to hugely expensive housing costs and exacerbating inequality for those who can’t afford to live on the coast.

Not to mention that Santa Monica is about to open the multi-billion dollar Expo light rail line, subsidized by the region’s taxpayers, which requires more residents and workers around the station areas to be cost-effective.

Coupled with the city’s rejection of a major office and housing complex by a future Expo Line station, and my former home is sadly becoming a NIMBY poster child.

“2030″ Climate Goals Conference Highlights

Yesterday the California State Bar Environmental Law Section held a conference on greenhouse gas emissions reductions for “2030 and Beyond,” featuring top officials from state government.  Here are some highlights from the event:

The science of climate change: Jane Long of EDF painted a dire picture of how little time we have left to fight catastrophic climate change.  She noted the oceans have absorbed half our carbon emissions but that we need to take immediate action to decarbonize the electricity grid.  Interestingly, she spoke in favor of controversial carbon capture technologies and disparagingly of biofuels, due to their carbon footprint.

Politics of getting climate change legislation passed this term: former State Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said that the slate of bills in the Senate related to 2030 goals should sail through that house.  But the real test of passage will be in the Assembly, where the Democratic caucus is split between “progressive” and “moderate/business-friendly” members.  August will likely be the time of action.  To grease the legislative wheels, lawmakers might include provisions allowing utilities to own electric vehicle charging infrastructure in order to get them to support a bargain.  They also might use cap-and-trade money guarantees to encourage recalcitrant members to vote to approve.  Ah, sausage-making.

Plunging solar and wind costs, with storage breakthroughs: California Public Utilities Commission president Michael Picker said we’re seeing really cheap prices on solar and wind.  To illustrate the point, he cited a new 300 megawatt solar installation about to break ground near Blythe that has no state subsidies or power purchase agreement.  Picker also noted that our rules are finally catching up to storage technology, with the Ice Bear technology that freezes water at night on cheap wind power for cooling buildings during the day finally being rewarded with a contract in Southern California, in part to offset the loss of nuclear power from the shuttered San Onofre plant.

Federal action on climate change: Amy Zimpfer from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency described the controversies over the proposed Clean Power Plan, which received an unprecedented 3.5 million comments, plus litigation just over the draft rule (also unusual).  She says the plan is “changing the dialogue” in many states, where energy regulators are meeting environmental regulators sometimes for the first time to discuss ways to coordinate.

Energy efficiency financing could get easier: Cisco DeVries from Renewable Funding thinks we may soon get past the federal regulatory hold-ups to the PACE (property assessed clean energy) financing program, which gives homeowners easy access to local government-provided capital for home energy upgrades.  PACE is already back up for some residential markets, and he hinted a compromise may be in the works to put the whole issue to bed in the coming months.

Utilities may soon enter the electric vehicle charging space in a big way: A panel I moderated on electric vehicles featured Randall Winston from the Governor’s Office, Alex Keros from GM, and Kevin Lee from eVgo.  All three speakers sounded open to the idea of utilities entering the charging market, provided (at least from Kevin’s point of view) that it’s structured to allow third parties like eVgo to have a role in the deployment.  Winston did not commit, given the ongoing regulatory and legislative proceedings, but said it’s an area of “huge interest” for the Governor’s Office.  Keros said GM is enthusiastic about utility involvement because “we need the scale of investment” to meet the projected 1.5 million electric vehicle charging needs by 2025.

Cap-and-trade and other state programs are going well: California EPA Secretary Matt Rodriquez said cap-and-trade implementation is going well in California, and it may be inspiring other states to follow suit.  For example, he was invited to speak to the Oregon Legislature recently to discuss the California program, a possible sign of future collaboration.  And lots of money will be coming from auctions, with over $600 million in allowances sold in the first of four auctions held this year.  So we could see $2 billion in revenue in 2015 to be used on efforts including high speed rail, weatherization programs, and affordable housing near transit. And to bring it full circle, opening speaker Ken Alex, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, took stock of the progress we’ve made to date in state, citing in particular our relatively rapid deployment of electric vehicles and renewable energy.

Overall, the speakers covered a wealth of topics related to achieving 2030 goals, from the political, economic and engineering challenges to the race against time we face on the climate.  While the state has made a lot of progress, we’ll need to address these hurdles — often in legislative and regulatory forums — in order to continue our progress and accelerate it going forward.

Now Al Gore Is Joining The Tea Party — For Rooftop Solar

body-0-1376425473419The former Veep and Inconvenient Truther teamed up with a Tea Party firebrand against utility policies to roll back rooftop solar incentives:

In back-to-back speeches, the political Odd Couple struck surprisingly similar tones on clean energy’s future, even if Gore dwelled on renewables’ role in avoiding catastrophic global warming while Dooley didn’t use the words “climate change” at all, focusing on consumer choice.

“This is a battle that we will win,” said Dooley, a board member of the National Tea Party Patriots group. “I am literally floored with the response I have been getting from conservatives with the right message.”

Tea Party leaders of course never mention the words “climate change” because it “shuts down” the conversation. But solar means freedom and independence for many Tea Party conservatives, which is an important message for solar advocates to drive home.

Ultimately, political inroads among conservatives on issues like renewables will be necessary to build support for the broader policies needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Let’s see if this movement will translate to Tea Party support for electric vehicles, energy storage and energy efficiency. Now that would really be an inconvenient truth — for climate deniers and the fossil fuel industry.

California At 100% Renewables?

The new president of the California Public Utilities Commission thinks it’s possible:

Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said the grid already is comfortably managing solar and wind energy that reached as much as 40 percent of the total a few days last year. In the years ahead, authorities can add the flexibility needed to manage power that flows only when the wind blows or the sun shines.

“We could get to 100 percent renewables,” Picker said at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance summit in New York on Tuesday. “Getting to 50 percent is not really a challenge.”

He notes that California is making cash selling excess renewables out-of-state. It’s definitely an answer to overgeneration during peak sun and wind times.

The article does not address, however, what happens in the evening when the wind isn’t blowing. We can import some renewable power from out of state, but ultimately we’ll need energy storage to capture overgeneration in-state for use at night or on cloudy or windless days. And we’ll need leaders like President Picker to push for policies that achieve that kind of energy storage deployment.

Why No Electric Vehicle Purchases Outside Of Major Cities?

Brooke Crothers of Forbes investigates why electric vehicle sales seem to be taking off in his hometown urban Los Angeles, but not so much a mere 50 miles away in the high desert and other more rural areas of California.

He finds a few factors, such as lack of dealer interest in and knowledge of electric cars in more rural areas (they’d rather sell Silverados and Camaros).  But it also may be the desirability of getting the carpool lane sticker for traffic-clogged commutes in the urban core.

I’m sure there are a bunch of factors at play, such as demographics, travel patterns, and the price and range of the vehicles.  But my guess is that as new models of electrics come out (especially SUVs), as battery range increases to allow drivers in rural areas to easily access the nearby big cities, and as prices come down, this divide won’t quite be so stark.

“Game Of Thrones” Could Be Preparing Us For Climate Change

So say a few researchers, pointing out that the climate change threat in the fantasy show (and films like “Snowpiercer”) offers a way to communicate the real-life dangers of climate change in the real world:

Elizabeth Trobaugh, who teaches a class on climate fiction in popular culture at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, believes they [popular depictions of climate change] help the cause.

“For many movie-goers, these climate fiction films might just be action films, but for many they are raising awareness and interest in the air,” she said.

But Ted Howell, who teaches a climate fiction class at Temple University in Philadelphia, said film-goers may be getting the wrong idea about what climate change looks like.

“Some people think (climate change) is going to be this massive tidal wave or giant snowstorm, but it’s actually slower than that,” he said.

As a fan of both the books and the show, I’ll be tuning in for the Season 5 premiere on Sunday. But maybe now I can also feel good that the show might be helping to advance discussions around climate science.

Will Self-Driving Cars Make You Carsick?

The authors of one new study out of University of Michigan seem to think so.  As someone who suffers from nausea via virtually anything that moves, I find this to be a depressing prospect for what could otherwise be an environmentally beneficial technology (reducing car ownership and improving vehicle efficiency).

I’m in the minority though:

The results indicate that, for example, 6%-10% of American adults riding in fully self-driving vehicles would be expected to often, usually, or always experience some level of motion sickness. Analogously, 6%-12% of American adults riding in fully self-driving vehicles would be expected to experience moderate or severe motion sickness at some time.

I guess reading a book or checking email while a self-driving car jerks you around in unpredictable ways is not a recipe for keeping down your lunch. At least for the unlucky 6-12% of us.

My EV Horror (Sort Of) Story

Well, it was bound to happen.  After hearing other EV drivers tell me their horror stories, I finally (sort of) got one of my own.

On Wednesday last week, I parked my Nissan LEAF at an off-site airport parking lot for a four-day trip, returning Sunday evening.  I was the sole adult with three children in tow and parked the car with about 70 percent of the battery remaining (more than enough to get back home).  I loaded the luggage and kids onto the shuttle van, had a great trip, and returned to the car on Sunday evening.  Everyone was ready to get home, have a quick, late dinner, and go to bed.

But lo and behold when I looked at the dashboard, the sign said “key not detected” and the battery was at only 20% capacity.  The roughly 24 miles remaining was not enough for a 15-mile, mostly uphill trip home.

What happened?  Evidently I had failed to turn the car off when I left it.  And with no auto shut-off feature, the car battery slowly died over four days, presumably beeping for an undetected key that was in my pocket 400 miles away.

Oh LEAF, why didn't you turn off automatically?

Oh LEAF, why didn’t you turn off automatically?

We weren’t going to make it home.  Panic ensued.  We had to find an available charger somewhere nearby as the battery quickly dwindled on the freeway.  We finally located (via a ChargePoint Level 2 in a parking garage by an Amtrak station in Oakland’s Jack London Square.  Thankfully one of the two parking spots/chargers was available when we pulled in.

Since I don’t have a ChargePoint membership, I had to call to activate the charger with my Visa.  I was on hold for a few minutes, and after about 5 minutes I got it plugged in. Then I had to wait in an empty parking garage with three hungry and tired kids while the car slowly charged.  I gave myself about 30 minutes, which I figured would be about an additional 10 miles or so — just enough to get home.

I unplugged after about 35 minutes to be safe and had 28% of the battery now.  But it was still a white knuckle drive home as the dashboard said we had about 9 miles remaining when we were about 5 miles from home. It was not a pleasant way to end the trip.

Lessons learned?  Of course I need to double-check that the car is actually turned off.  But why did Nissan not include an auto shut-off feature?  After a day left on with no key, I think it’s safe for the car to turn off automatically rather than draining the battery.  I really hope Nissan fixes that problem.  The car motor is silent and so it’s not always obvious that it’s been left on.  And I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s easy to accidentally double-click the off button, which actually turns the car back on.

Still, all in all we were pretty lucky.  We found a charger and everything worked out.  With more charging stations deployed, this kind of situation will be easier to handle in the future.  But it was an inconvenience that could have been avoided by Nissan, and not just by my being more careful.  I surely will be in the future though.

Play Ball! What Baseball Series Nicknames Tell Us About America’s Cities
Oakland Coliseum, home of the A's and the Bay Bridge Series

Oakland Coliseum, home of the A’s and the Bay Bridge Series

Now that Major League Baseball’s American League plays the National League during the regular season and not just during the World Series, we have some interesting nicknames for series within or near metropolitan areas.

In honor of Opening Day today, it’s worth reviewing these nicknames to give us insight into the urban character of the cities, and in particular the way people are physically connected within or between them:

  • Oakland Athletics vs. San Francisco Giants: the “Bay Bridge Series” — It’s all about the waterway bisecting this metropolitan region.
  • New York Yankees vs. New York Mets: the “Subway Series” — Travel in New York is all about the subway.
  • Chicago White Sox vs. Chicago Cubs: the “Crosstown Series” — Supposedly this one is also nicknamed the “Red Line Series” after the connecting train line.  But you get a sense of the intimacy of Chicago from this nickname.
  • Baltimore Orioles vs. Washington Nationals: the “Beltway Series” — Despite being an East Coast city, Washington DC is pretty auto dependent and has bad traffic on the beltway.  Of course the heart of Washington DC is very transit-oriented.
  • Tampa Bay Rays v. Miami Marlins: the “Citrus Series” — I’ll give it to the series’ boosters for not going with a highway name on this one and trying to reinforce the agriculture angle (for a state that will be mostly underwater due to sea level rise in the coming century).
  • Kansas City Royals v. St. Louis Cardinals: the “I-70 Series” — These cities are far apart, so I give them a pass on the nickname.  But they should use the Amtrack line name between these cities: the Missouri River Runner.  A “River Runner Series” would be cool.
  • Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: the “Freeway Series” — Not much to add here.  If Dodger Stadium moved downtown, it could be the “Metrolink Series.”  Maybe it should be called that anyway, just to give a struggling rail line a marketing boost.

But enough about cities and transportation.  Play ball!

Cable Boxes Are Energy Hogs, So Get A New One If You Must

I’m always on a quest to reduce my home energy consumption, so I was intrigued over the winter holidays when Markos Moulitsas of the political blog described his intense efforts to save money and eliminate waste at his house. In particular, he noted the huge energy consumption of DVR cable boxes:

My TV service is provided by DirecTV. My satellite box was drawing 45 watts, continuously. While it had a “sleep” function, it merely dropped consumption by a single watt. You see, devices with DVRs are continously recording, so even if you’re not recording a specific show, it’s recording the last hour of whatever channel you are on. Why? Who the hell knows.

If you have cable, you may be wasting even more on vampire draw. An NRDC study found that set-top boxes drew roughly 50 watts whether they were on or off, or about 446 kWh per year. At my rates, that would be about $85, for something that is on just a fraction of the day.

Then, earlier this year, DirecTV introduced a new settop box mid-last year that consumed 20 watts, less than half the draw of the previous model. I harassed the company until I had my replacement, for free—the most cost-effective upgrade of all. So if you’re sitting on a cable box that you’ve had for a while, see if there’s a newer more efficient model available. The cable companies are under a lot of pressure to improve their energy efficiency, so this could be a great way to save money for little effort.

Since I love local sports, I haven’t been able to “cut the cord” and go all-internet/no cable. So I made it a mission to swap out my box from 2010 and get a new one this past weekend. If anyone is interested in saving energy without sacrifice, this is an easy call to make.

To learn more about efficiency upgrades, I recommend reading Markos’s diary entries on the subject. And for a relatively painless way to find out how to save energy, sign up for Home Energy Analytics on-line. It’s a free web-based software program that can remotely read your Smart Meter and then identify the appliances and features that are using — and wasting, as the case may be — electricity in your house.

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