This year has been a doozy for climate change. February is on pace to break all sorts of records for the warmest ever recorded. Washington DC, for example, has temperatures similar to Honolulu the past few days. And it’s not just a blip: each year that passes has broken records from the previous year for hottest year on record.
Here in California we’re now experiencing what scientists have warned about: extreme drought followed by extreme rain. We just finished a record drought and are now on pace for record rainfall this year.
These extremes are badly stressing our infrastructure, from dams like Oroville to shuttered highway around the state. To discuss the state of infrastructure in an age of climate change, I participated today on a press briefing via Climate Nexus.
I was joined on the panel by:
We received questions at the end from members of the press, but the discussion could be of interest to anyone. Here is the audio:
Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker explains why facts don’t matter to people, when it comes to persuasion, belief and arguments. Ultimately, research shows that most people’s views are more about securing tribal-type cooperation among their social groups than dispassionate, reasoned analysis.
That’s all fine and good when it comes to organizing a group hunt or — in the modern day — relying on other people’s expertise to run basic infrastructure or business transactions. But that group thinking has major pitfalls when it comes to achieving positive policy outcomes, particularly on climate change.
Kolbert’s piece offers a number of examples of how people are terrible at reasoning:
Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)
But there may be a glimmer of hope to force more careful thought and opinion:
In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”
Following this logic, perhaps one way to open up some daylight among closed minds on climate science is to ask people to explain the impacts of their opposition to climate change efforts. What if they’re wrong on the science? What if countries like China take the lead on manufacturing clean technologies like solar panels? Why not work to reduce pollution from the electricity and transportation sectors?
With some focused questions like these challenging pre-determined beliefs, perhaps we could make some headway opening minds.
It was only a matter of time. Once Republicans swept the election in November, they were likely to start using federal transportation funds to kill urban transportation projects. Not only do Republicans tend to dislike public funding for any form of non-car-related transportation, but most transit systems are in Democratic urban strongholds, giving Republicans little incentive to spend dollars there.
California’s high speed rail project is apparently the first up in their crosshairs. Even though state voters approved the system in 2008 and have been largely funding it themselves, what little dollars from the federal government to support the system are now in jeopardy.
Case in point: right before this past holiday weekend, congressional Republicans succeeded in getting the new transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, to effectively kill funding for Caltrain electrification.
The Caltrain project actually has little to do with high speed rail, although eventually high speed rail could use the upgraded tracks to serve San Francisco. But in the meantime, electrifying the popular commuter rail between Silicon Valley and San Francisco would decrease travel times and air pollution and increase capacity, providing a huge benefit to the technology breadbasket of the country, while generating jobs from contractors and suppliers around the country.
The federal government under Obama had already agreed in principle to help fund the line with a $647 million transportation grant, with high speed rail funds used to help support the state’s contribution to the project. But then 13 Republican members of congress wrote Chao a letter demanding that the grant be halted until a full audit of the high speed rail system could occur.
Chao complied on Friday, proving that the administration is keen to play politics with transportation dollars and keep them away from urban areas.
Perhaps most galling for Bay Area residents, Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a leading critic of high speed rail from Bakersfield, wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle full of hypocrisy:
We should work to unwind the messy and unworkable high-speed rail project, and instead try to direct more funds to modernizing needed transit and infrastructure projects — up and down the valley and the coast, in and out of downtown Los Angeles, and along Bay Area commuter corridors.
Which is of course exactly what the high speed rail money would have done with this project.
Meanwhile, the Bay Area’s business community had tried to lobby McCarthy not to hold up the funds, at a fundraiser on February 9th. As Matier and Ross report in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“He [McCarthy] said he supported electrification of Caltrain, but said the problem was that the $647 million was commingled with high-speed rail money and that the line would be used by high-speed rail,” said Bay Area Council President Jim Wunderman.
As for McCarthy’s argument against high-speed rail?
“Same as it has always been,” Wunderman said. “Too costly. It’s not really high-speed rail.”
The move by the feds won’t kill high speed rail though:
Dan Richard, chairman of the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority, said that if McCarthy and the other 13 California House Republicans were out to kill bullet trains, they picked the wrong target.
“The business plan allows us to stop at San Jose,” Richard said. “If McCarthy is trying to blow us up, Caltrain was collateral damage.”
But the message is clear: until Republicans lose power in Washington DC, California is on its own in funding vital transportation infrastructure like high speed rail.
As the price of solar panels and batteries decreases, our electricity system is starting to look a lot cleaner and more decentralized. While some people think the rise of community-based electricity technologies will undermine utilities, utilities are in fact embracing one version of decentralized power: microgrids.
San Diego Gas & Electric delivers power to the town of Borrego Springs via a single radial transmission line running through the desert. Lightning strikes and desert flash floods threaten that line, resulting in historically poor reliability, Chief Engineer Thomas Bialek explained at the DistribuTech panel.
The utility needed to maintain or improve reliability for the nearly 2,800 Borrego Springs customers, but the traditional fix — building out a parallel transmission line — was pricey. A microgrid would be three or four times cheaper, Bialek said. So that’s what they did.The system, paid for by SDG&E, the Department of Energy and other partners, combines diesel generators, large and small batteries, and rooftop solar PV.
The microgrid has already proven itself in the face of adversity. When a flash flood in September 2013 downed transmission poles and lines leading to the town, the microgrid fired up and restored power to 1,056 customers while the grid repairs unfolded. That covered the core city center, so that those residents who didn’t have power yet could move to central facilities for shelter from the heat.
The future portends even more investment in microgrids, as Utility Dive notes:
Last year, GTM Research estimated there were 156 operational microgrids in the country, making up 1.54 GW of capacity, and that number is expected to rise to 3.71 GW by 2020. Globally, Transparency Market Research believes the microgrid market will be worth about $35 billion by 2020 — up from $10 billion in 2013.
But as microgrids — and the technologies that underpin them — become cheaper, utilities may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction. With a few additional breakthroughs, these technologies could eventually allow entire communities to defect from the grid, leaving utilities and their remaining ratepayers stuck with stranded assets.
But for now, these installations will provide an environmental and energy win, while furthering investment in the technologies needed to clean and decentralize the electricity sector.
When I lived in Los Angeles, I hated to pay for parking. And not just for the obvious reason of not wanting to part with precious dollars. My feeling was that if I had to put up with so much traffic, emissions, and space dedicated to the automobile, the least I could get out of it was free parking.
And now the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies has put together the gory details on the impact of excessive parking requirements on Los Angeles land use, all in a handy infographic:
The information is pretty disturbing but worth understanding to motivate reform. And the most obvious reform is to reduce or eliminate minimum parking requirements for new projects, particularly near major transit stops.
When people think of robot cars, they mostly imagine taking naps, reading a book or phone, or doing work, while the car whisks you to where you want to go. It’s basically a chauffeur for everyone.
But there’s another aspect to self-driving vehicles that doesn’t get as much attention: platooning.
No, not the Charlie Sheen movie. It’s the word for when vehicles can drive in formation on a highway, like geese, via software and hardware technologies, that allow them to tailgate like crazy.
The advantage for other drivers is that it frees up a huge amount of roadway capacity, equivalent in some cases to building a whole new highway (of course, we know that extra capacity just induces more driving in the long term).
But for truckers, it can also mean major fuel savings, which produces environment gains. Mountain View’s Peloton Technology is an early leader in this field. It develops the hardware and software that allow the trucks driving behind the lead vehicle to brake and accelerate automatically to synchronize. As Carolyn Said in the San Francisco Chronicle reported:
Independent tests show the front truck uses 4.5 percent less fuel and the rear one saves 10 percent, Peloton said. Averaging those savings between the pair could result in saving a few thousand dollars per year per truck, Switkes said. Peloton’s pricing is a subscription based on a fraction of the actual cost savings that trucks achieve.
“That adds up quickly for a fleet with 30,000 trucks,” said [Josh Switkes, Peloton CEO and co-founder] said. The types of big rigs it’s targeting rack up 130,000 miles a year. “For a heavy truck, in a year and a half you spend as much on fuel as you did to buy the truck” — some $130,000 to $170,000.
Peloton’s name refers to a group of racing bicyclists who ride in close formation to reduce wind resistance, which is somewhat ironic given the dangers that trucks and other vehicles pose to biking — not to mention that biking is a far more environmentally friendly (and healthy) way to get around.
Still, our society needs trucking for goods movement. So technology solutions that can reduce fuel consumption and therefore pollution, as well as reduce accidents and the need for more highway expansion, are something we should encourage.
The Oroville dam crisis is on temporary reprieve, as the main spillway is holding up so far, allowing enough water release to lower the reservoir to a safe level. But with more rain coming tonight, we’ll find out if dam operators have been unable to draw the lake down far enough to withstand further spillway compromises. In the meantime, residents below the dam have been able to return to their homes.
As I wrote on Monday, if the spillways fail, this could be a monumental environmental disaster for the state. Not only (in the worst case) could it lead to a devastating flash flood, it would undermine long-term water supplies for much of the state and create energy problems as well. As Bloomberg reports, the reservoir feeds an 819-megawatt hydropower plant, capable of supplying about 600,000 homes. It’s the equivalent of two natural gas-fired power plants that may need to be fired up to replace the lost power.
But the policy implications may already be taking shape, as the White House is using the crisis as a justification for a big infrastructure package. Per the San Jose Mercury News story on yesterday’s White House news conference, it may become a rallying cry to build unnecessary dams — and not just repair existing ones:
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed the Oroville Dam emergency in a press briefing Tuesday, calling the evacuation of more than 180,000 residents a “textbook example” of the consequences of the nation’s aging infrastructure.
“The president’s been keeping a close eye on the Oroville Dam situation in California,” Spicer said. “The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress.
“Dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair. In order to prevent the next disaster we will pursue the president’s vision for an overhaul of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.”
I agree that an infrastructure funding bill is badly needed in this country. We have significant needs and low interest rates, making borrowing to build and repair a smart move. But all signs indicate that a Trump infrastructure bill would mostly favor new, environmentally harmful projects that aren’t cost effective, like more highways, when we should be building more transit and high speed rail and maintaining existing roads rather than expanding them.
The idea of building more dams fits squarely in the former category. Dams are expensive, environmentally destructive, and, as we now are seeing, prone to the occasional failure. We certainly want funds to maintain existing dams, but we shouldn’t be building new ones over far more cost-effective options, like water conservation, recycling, and groundwater storage (as opposed to reservoir storage).
Many agricultural groups in California, and now their ally in the White House, have been clamoring for more pricey dam projects for years. If this Oroville crisis becomes a rallying cry to boost their call for more dams, it would be yet another tragic result.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times made a lot of waves when it ran a piece decrying falling transit ridership. They used what I called a misleading chart to make the decline look worse than it really was.
Now the paper is back with more disheartening news about Los Angeles transit ridership, from transportation reporter Laura Nelson:
Trips taken on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s sprawling bus and rail system dropped again in 2016, by nearly 6%, driven by a continuing slide in bus ridership, according to agency data.
Although year-to-year ridership changes are worth noting, the bigger issue is how Metro has fared over time, said Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Since 2009, Metro has opened four new rail extensions at a cost of more than $4 billion. In the same period, rail ridership soared 21%, but bus trips — a much larger share of overall ridership — dropped 18%.
Subway and light-rail boardings rose 4.4%, bolstered by the debut of the Gold Line and Expo Line extensions. But those gains did not cancel out a decline in annual bus ridership, which fell 8.9% to 304 million — the lowest in more than a decade.
While it was a bit easy to dismiss last year’s article, at this point I think we’ve reached the point of worry.
So what gives?
Surprisingly, no one seems to have any firm answers. The theories range from weak transit performance on on-time arrivals, poor overall service (convenience of the routes and time spent waiting), passenger fears about safety, a stronger economy that encourage more people to drive, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, and the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
To be sure, this is a national trend on transit ridership, as is the trend of increasing vehicle miles traveled.
If I had to guess, I would venture that two trends loom largest: the growing economy and the rise of Uber and Lyft.
With nationwide vehicle miles traveled increasing, it seems likely that much of that driving is coming at the expense of transit ridership. With a robust economy, more people can afford to purchase cars and the gasoline to fuel them.
But the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft should not be understated. Anecdotally, I hear about bus riders who can cost-effectively take Uber Pool or Lyft Line to their destinations, saving a huge amount of time in the process if they live far from their jobs and have to transfer multiple times (or catch the bus at non-commute hours when the waits are long).
For low-income people, particularly those on hourly wages, that time savings can quickly equate to badly needed increases in earnings from more hours worked.
But all is not lost for transit investments. As I wrote last year in an op-ed for the Times, transit agencies still have plenty of options. The big three:
- Encourage the building of more homes and offices within walking distance of transit stops
- Reduce fares
- Focus on building bus-only lanes on major boulevards and highways
Honestly, transit agencies should be doing these things anyway. Maybe the alarm bells about falling transit ridership will finally give them the political motivation they need to start implementing.
Last night, over 100,000 people were forced to evacuate the towns immediately below California’s Oroville Dam, the tallest in the United States and the second-largest reservoir in California. Turns out all the rain Californians were begging for have now created a potentially horrific catastrophe.
To recap, the reservoir has finally been at peak capacity with all the recent rains. But the main spillway ended up with a giant sinkhole towards the bottom, which created the danger of further erosion and weakening if more water were to be released. Meanwhile, the auxiliary spillway — basically a concrete lip above an earthen hillside — had never been used in the dam’s 50-year-history.
And yesterday, on the first day that it was tested, it began to fail. See this picture from the local news of the giant fissure carved out below the concrete lip in just one day of use:
Last night, officials were concerned about the imminent collapse of the auxiliary spillway, which meant a 30-foot breach of rushing water down towards Sacramento. The breach could lead, in a worst-case scenario, to the entire hillside getting washed out, draining the entire reservoir in a colossal flash flood.
In short, it could be the worst environmental disaster California has seen.
First, the good news: the immediate threat of spillway failure is now past. Officials are draining the reservoir like crazy, and so far the sinkholed spillway seems to be holding up okay.
But the bad news is that more rain is coming on Thursday and beyond, meaning the dam operators are in a race against time.
It’s hard to overstate how terrible failure of this dam would be. Obviously, hundreds of thousands of people are already affected, having had to rush out of their homes and book motel rooms or stay in shelters, not knowing if or when they can return to their lives and belongings. If major flooding does occur — or worse, total failure — all these towns will be wiped out, and it could even inundate Sacramento downstream.
Long term, the dam is the prime source of water (61%) for the California State Water Project, which supplies water to Southern California and the Bay Area, as well as Central Valley farmers. Losing that reservoir would likely put those parts of the state in an extreme water shortage situation for the long term.
It also has energy implications, as the hydropower generated by the reservoirs in this part of the state equals 2.2 billion kilowatt hours per year — making up a third of the total power generated by the statewide system.
The crisis in Oroville is both a natural and man-made disaster, with significant implications for long-term policy. It’s a natural disaster because of all of the recent rains that have overwhelmed the reservoir system and stressed the infrastructure. This trend will likely continue in an era of climate change, with more severe droughts punctuated by heavy rainfall and runoff from what used to come down as snow.
But it’s definitely a man-made disaster, too. Not least of which, officials were asked by environmental groups back in 2005 to pave the auxiliary spillway, out of concern for exactly this situation arising. As Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News reports though, those officials denied the request, apparently out of an unwillingness to pay the tens of millions needed to perform the work.
From a policy perspective, the dam crisis has a number of implications:
- It reminds us once again that U.S. infrastructure is badly in need of repair and replace. The big wave of projects following World War II are now reaching the end of their useful lives or are in need of major upgrades, as the dam now symbolizes.
- Dam failure could potentially undermine the case for more dam projects going forward. In other words, what Fukushima did to nuclear power could now be happening to dams. The public may not want more dams to be built after this crisis.
- Most hopefully, it could bolster the case for more responsible and cost-effective means of dealing with water shortages, such as more water recycling, conservation measures, and storage in recharged groundwater aquifers rather than on the surface.
In the meantime, let’s hope state officials can stabilize the dam and release enough water, and that mother nature cooperates by bringing more slow-melting snow to the area rather than flooding rainwater.
No clean technology is more important than the battery (or energy storage more broadly, given that batteries are just one — albeit critical — version of storage). Batteries will soon help power almost all of our vehicles with cleaner electricity instead of fossil fuels. And they’ll help store our surplus renewable power to clean our electricity grids.
The PBS show NOVA just ran a fascinating episode on the subject, called The Search for the Super Battery. It features interviews with UC Berkeley colleagues Dan Kammen and Venkat Srinivasan, as well as car company representatives and other industry leaders. As far as shows on batteries go, this one is pretty fascinating and accessible and well worth the watch:
Happy Friday viewing!