For Los Angeles Metro Rail fans (or critics) in the Bay Area, or for those curious about the L.A. story, I’ll be speaking tonight on my book “Railtown” at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club. The talk will begin at 6pm, followed by a response by Dr. Martin Wachs. Wachs was himself involved in the history of rail, mostly as a critic of the effort to get Metro Rail built. I will be interested in hearing his response to the history. More information on the event can be found here.
This past Friday in Sacramento, the Office of California Governor Jerry Brown convened a few hundred electric vehicle experts for an update on California’s progress deploying EVs. The attendees were mostly from California, including utility representatives, advocates, researchers, and officials. However, experts also came from places ranging from Oregon to the Netherlands. Some informational highlights from the conversation:
- The Netherlands recently reached a major milestone: 25% of their new car sales were electric vehicles. Part of the appeal: the Netherlands waived the sales tax on EVs and has invested heavily in charging stations. Maybe a good lesson for California as EV rebate money runs out? Waiving the sales tax on EVs, if it could pass the Legislature, would be a great incentive for purchase.
- Most Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt, and Toyota Plug-In Prius customers were motivated by the environmental benefits and fuel savings. Tesla customers, however, were primarily motivated by vehicle performance and access to new technology. Survey results found here (collected by the entity that sends out vehicle rebates, which is a great source of market data like these).
- Most electric vehicle customers skew to the older, whiter, more highly educated, and male demographic.
- HOV (carpool) lane access was an “extremely or a very important purchase motivation” for 59% of EV customers. This bodes poorly for California as the state is running out of carpool lane stickers to distribute — like in a matter of months. The Governor’s Office vowed to make addressing this need a priority.
- California sales of EVs currently represent one-third of the national market, with 64,649 sold to date. The sales graph is definitely looking like a hockey stick, which is an incredible advance for the technology.
- An electric utility rep says that sales of California’s low carbon fuel credits could mean $200 a year back in the pockets of EV drivers. The low carbon fuel standard is part of California’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and it requires fuel refiners to either limit the carbon content of their fuel or purchase credits on the open market. Since electric utilities are providing low-carbon fuel (electricity) to their EV customers, the utilities get to sell the credit to oil companies and then return the money to the EV drivers. And if the utility is saying $200 a year, it’s probably more like $500 a year, which is basically free charging at home for most EV drivers.
- Atlanta is the number 2 market in the US for Nissan LEAFs, due to HOV access and other state incentives in a congested urban area. San Francisco is #1 and Honolulu is #6 (and it could rise to the top in terms of percent of EVs sold each year). Even Nashville clocked in at #9. I like see red state cities showing up on this list. EVs should be a bipartisan priority.
Ultimately, the Friday convening was a success in terms of sharing the latest information, providing participants with a chance to influence state priorities on EVs, and giving people in the field a motivational boost. The state is doing incredibly well in terms of EV adoption, as the hockey stick sales graph and anecdotal observations can attest. Look for the key near-term priorities to be an extension of the HOV sticker program and making that low carbon fuel standard rebate happen quickly.
Full speed ahead, California EV drivers and those who will soon be one!
The first thing that jumps out at you when Pat Metheny walks out is the hair. A ‘do that would make a 1980s era Jon Bon Jovi fire his stylist, Pat looks like he stepped into the Ice Pirates time warp and aged 50 hair years. But you quickly forget the hair once this (almost) 60-year-old master plays guitar. On Friday night in San Francisco, he walked out solo and grabbed an acoustic that seemed to have a mandolin and mini-harp built into it, creating symphonic sounds from his alternating strums and noodles and the loads of reverb.
His band soon joined him, including saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Chris Potter, acoustic upright bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Antonio Sanchez. They played a series of rocking cuts from his 2012 Unity Band album, including “New Year,” “Come and See,” and “Roofdogs.”
But that’s where the comparison ends. His electric guitar tones feature a haunting, wailing, almost trumpet-like effect that he uses to shred over his more upbeat tunes. His compositions are also often rocking and funky, rarely featuring the swing style of classic jazz. And he now travels with a gigantic “orchestrion” of semi-automated percussion instruments, like a massive, futuristic piano roll.
But mainly, to watch Pat solo is to take a journey on an incredible ride, with his bandmates providing the booster rockets.
Despite the strength of the new material, the highlight for me in the first part of the set was his jam on the classic “James.” It was vintage “old Pat,” and the audience at San Francisco’s Warfield began clapping as soon as the first notes came out.
About an hour in, Pat grabbed the mike and announced that he would now play a blizzard of tunes from the new album, Kin. The quartet was then joined onstage by an Italian keyboardist and vocalist, Giulio Carmassi, and the band explored songs like the eery and beautiful “Kin,” the soaring waltz “Born,” and the Brazilian-tinged, 11-beat metered “On Day One.” The audience ate up the dramatic, symphonic songs but seemed a bit lulled by his slower fare.
After about 90 minutes, when it seemed like the show was ending, Pat played a series of duets with each band member. The virtuosity on display was dazzling, particularly with Potter, as the two seemed to be playing in parallel yet sequential universes, only to reunite at the end.
After the duets, Pat seemed ready to quit, but the audience wouldn’t let him. The band came back onstage for a momentous jam on “Are You Going With Me?“, one of my favorite “old” Pat tunes that features a bring-down-the-house extended solo. Pianist Brad Mehldau has said that this tune was “one of maybe five or six life-changing moments for me as a listening musician.”
The band walked off stage, but again the audience brought Pat back. Just as he had begun the show, Pat grabbed an acoustic guitar and played a medley of some of his older songs. Even though he is just one guitar player, the playing was so dynamic that it sounded like a full acoustic band — and yet intimate enough that you could imagine sitting on the floor in his living room listening to him play.
With that, after 2 hours and 45 minutes without a break, Pat stood up, waved to the crowd, and walked off stage. His hair looked the same, but I had just been taken through my own time warp of emotions, all brought about by the varied sounds that Pat taps into with his playing.
Pat’s music may not be for everyone, but it’s highly recommended if you’re into incredible musicianship and letting loose with killer solos.
Plus, the hair.
As a follow-up to my post on Elon Musk and Lyndon Rive’s talk at the Public Utilities Commission on Thursday, a few more comments stood out to me that may be worth relating:
- Tesla came within a few days of going bankrupt in Christmas 2008. The company secured a round of funds at the last minute. This drama was captured in the movie “Revenge of the Electric Car,” which is worth watching if you haven’t seen it. (It also captures Musk’s dysfunctional private life, which seemed like too much info for my tastes).
- Musk was convinced that Tesla and SpaceX (his rocket company) would fail. He did think SolarCity would succeed, but only because he had confidence in his cousin Lyndon. So much for the myth of the starry-eyed entrepreneur who bends reality to fit the vision.
- Musk launched Tesla not because he loved cars necessarily but because he identified the lack of sustainable energy as the critical challenge facing humankind. Energy storage and alternative-fueled cars are critical to addressing the problem. How many successful entrepreneurs start their companies not out of love of the product but because they believe it will address a critical environmental and societal need? My guess is Musk is unique — or at least unique in the sense that he’s been successful so far.
- Musk feels that burning oil for energy is a waste of a good product. He thinks oil has a higher value in the long term for plastics. He likened oil consumption for transportation to burning the furniture in your house for firewood.
- Along these lines, Musk wryly noted that one of the raw materials for batteries includes a byproduct of coal. But just a bit, he said.
- Musk foresees used Tesla batteries, once they’re no longer useful for driving but still have 60% capacity, being deployed for stationary energy storage. Either that or they’ll be completely recycled. Either way, he sees no waste resulting from the batteries.
- Tesla is experimenting with battery swapping, which takes 90 seconds to do (quicker than refilling a tank with gas). They will begin soon on the LA to San Francisco route to see if it’s popular. Personally, I don’t see how the ownership model works for this process. If you give up your Tesla car battery somewhere along Interstate 5, and you’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars for that battery as part of the car purchase, how do you know your new battery is just as good? It only seems like it could work if you lease your battery, but that business model did not work for Better Place.
Musk is under a lot of scrutiny these days given the high-flying success of Tesla (the stock is up over 600% in the last twelve months), so his comments can make an impact on the electric vehicle market just through the media attention they receive. But it’s worth giving his words and experience thought, given how he’s revolutionized the electric vehicle market — and soon the energy storage one — so far.
Today I heard a panel presentation at the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) with Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, and Lyndon Rive, Elon’s cousin and CEO of SolarCity. I deal with a lot of climate-friendly businesses in my line of work, but Elon Musk is the one business leader with products (electric vehicles and batteries) that actually have the capability of saving the world. Electric vehicles mean two things for fighting climate change: 1) they represent a switch from transportation fossil fuels to electricity and 2) they offer an investment in battery technology that could enable 100% clean, renewable electricity (for when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing). Global climate change solved!
So I was keen to hear Mr. Musk’s take on battery research and the future of EVs. Some highlights from the panel discussion, which also included PUC President Micheal Peevey:
- Musk noted that the raw material cost of batteries is about $60-$70 per kilowatt hour, and he believes his new battery “gigafactory” can get the price down to near that level. Right now batteries are about $400 per kilowatt hour, which for a 24 kilowatt Nissan LEAF means the battery alone costs $9,600. Bringing it down to $100/kwh means shaving $7,200 off the cost of the LEAF. Or perhaps more importantly, for the same cost you could get a 96 kilowatt battery in a LEAF, enabling a range of over 300 miles per charge. That’s a game-changer for EV adoption.
- Lyndon Rive complained that solar PV customers who have a battery pack for nighttime or backup energy are currently having to wait up to 8 months for the utility to connect the system. To which Musk commented in disbelief, “that’s crazy.” I guess utilities have no incentive to hasten their inevitable demise, but this needs to change.
- Musk envisions home battery packs to go with rooftop solar that would be maybe three inches thick and attach to a garage wall. Otherwise, he said, “they can’t take up the guest room.”
Overall, Musk and Rive noted that EVs and rooftop solar still represent a tiny fraction for consumers, with rooftop solar outpaced by new home construction nationwide and EVs less than .1% of new car sales right now. We have a long way to go, but it’s good to know we have dedicated business people working to solve these problems and export California technologies and innovation around the world.
I spent a summer living abroad in Spain in 1993, and one of my fondest memories was learning Spanish guitar playing from one of the friends I made there. I became a fan of Paco de Lucia, who popularized Spanish flamenco to the world and demonstrated how incredible music can be when you meld Gypsy, Arabic, and European influences. And all without using a pick! I was fortunate to see him perform live in Berkeley a few years ago. He died yesterday of an apparent heart attack. Rest in peace, Paco.
Environmental law expert and UC Berkeley Law professor Dan Farber reviewed Railtown today, and he provided an accurate and insightful summary of the LA rail story:
It took several decades to get the current rail system built. There were many detours and delays along the way. Mass transit in LA has to confront not only a sprawling geography but a sprawling political situation, which meant that the route was set as much by neighborhood politics as planning needs. For instance, although Wilshire was a prime candidate for rail, because of its population density. But environmental icon Henry Waxman blocked the ideal route, seemingly in order to protect a neighborhood with which he had a class connection. Partly because of political delays and poor management, construction costs went way over budget.
Overall, he described the book as a “fascinating account of LA’s move away from an almost religious attachment to the automobile. The LA story has some important implications for other cities.” You can read more from Dan on the Legal Planet blog, to which I am also contributor.
Now that the two states that just legalized marijuana sent their football teams to the Superbowl this year, it’s clear that the stars are aligning for legalizing marijuana nationwide. Sure, legalizing marijuana makes fiscal, moral, and practical sense, but what about the benefits to the environment? Well, it turns out that even the fight against climate change could potentially be enhanced by making cannabis — and the grow operations that produce it — legal.
It starts with the grow sites. Regular Legal Planet readers may recall co-blogger Rick Frank writing about the local hazards and pollution caused by illegal grow operations on public lands. But there’s another, potentially broader environmental issue at stake with legalizing and mainstreaming grow operations: enabling the improved collection of energy data to help target energy conservation and efficiency programs.
Energy data are critical to the fight against climate change and other harmful forms of air pollution. Policy makers, especially here in California (as represented by Ken Alex, Legal Planet guest blogger and senior advisor to Governor Jerry Brown), would like to get a better sense of where the most energy is being used. If they could access energy data by neighborhoods, industry, and time of use, among other categories, policy makers could target the most inefficient customers with incentives and rates to become more efficient. Reducing this electricity usage would have major benefits in terms of reducing air pollution (including greenhouse gas emissions) from power plants and saving ratepayers money from the avoided construction of new plants. Not to mention that the customers themselves would benefit from paying for less electricity.
So what is standing in the way of giving policy makers access to the vital data? Privacy concerns. Even though the energy data are anonymized and aggregated, a vocal segment of ratepayers doesn’t like even the remote possibility that the government could use these data to know when you’re home, when you leave for work, or how your business operates.
Overall, most people have little to hide when it comes to electricity usage. But indoor marijuana growers sure do, and they are quietly constituting a major force in opposition to greater disclosure of energy data. And they have reason for concern. In documented cases, police have issued subpoenas for electricity data to bust pot growers. This is not a small industry either: a 2012 study by Evan Mills of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (the Lab was not involved in his work) indicated that these grow operations could be responsible for up to 2% of nationwide household electricity usage, at a total cost of $6 billion (in fact, the growers themselves may be our first target for implementing improved efficiency measures, given their potentially wasteful, unregulated ways).
So it’s not a stretch to think that legalizing marijuana nationwide, and allowing commercial grow operations to proceed in a regulated fashion, could have the additional benefit of defusing some of the major privacy objections to releasing environmentally beneficial energy data. Of course, the privacy objections aren’t just limited to marijuana growers, and even with legalization, some residential growers may still want or need to remain anonymous. But sensible marijuana policies could make a major difference in alleviating privacy concerns, unlocking the data that can lead to sound and strategic energy efficiency programs.
Sounds like a result everyone should be high on.
Back in 2000, rolling blackouts descended upon California and eventually cost Governor Gray Davis his job. The crisis was caused by deviant corporate behavior, and one of the companies involved, NRG, finally settled with the state in 2012 for damages related to its conduct. But instead of being punished, the California Public Utilities Commission allowed NRG to commit to spending $100 million on electric vehicle public charging infrastructure, essentially helping the company invest in a new business venture.
It was a controversial bargain, but the upshot for the state was a big injection of capital into badly needed electric vehicle infrastructure. With 65,000 electric vehicles now on the road in California, the competition is increasing for charging stations. The NRG settlement would result in at least 200 new publicly available fast-charging stations around the state, as well as wiring for 10,000 more charging stations in offices, homes, and other public and private spaces.
So how is implementation going? Not well. NRG’s new subsidiary to build these stations, eVgo, is way behind schedule, with only 13 fast-charging stations open out of the 200 that need to be ready by 2016, with 100 of those to be open by the end of this year under the settlement terms. The company cites the startup pains associated with trying to get new infrastructure built – finding amenable site hosts, upgrading local utility wiring and equipment, and clearing the necessary permits. They believe they will make up for lost time this year.
But much of the reason for the delay is the basic conflict of interest involved in this settlement, which allows eVgo to site charging stations in crowded, complicated, and suboptimal urban areas in order to maximize the company’s profits. To be truly effective, expensive fast-charging stations (which can repower a battery to 80% capacity in just 20 minutes) should instead be located between cities and popular destinations, replicating the interstate gas stations drivers rely on for longer trips. These sites allow drivers to extend the range of their all-battery vehicles when they’re driving between cities like San Francisco and Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego/Palm Springs/Santa Barbara, or Fresno to Bakersfield, to name a few. For a good example of successful (and speedy) fast-charger deployment, look no further than Tesla and its optimally located Supercharger network along well-traveled interstates (enabling even an all-electric cross-country road trip).
On the other hand, fast-charging stations in urban areas tend to be a waste of money and counter-productive. Most city visitors live or work within 20 or 30 miles, meaning that a full charge over a regular wall outlet at the home or office should be sufficient to get them into the city and back in a typical 85 mile-range electric vehicle. And if they do need to charge downtown, these drivers usually don’t need a 20 minute fast charge because they are there to work or shop for at least one or two hours anyway. For this time frame, a cheaper “Level 2” 240V station will do just fine. What’s worse, crowded downtown fast chargers often require drivers to wait in line, defeating the purpose of a “fast” charge.
So why doesn’t eVgo/NRG follow this more sensible interstate model instead of trying to site their stations in suboptimal urban areas? Part of the answer lies in the settlement, which prescribes regions of the state for deployment. But the larger problem is that the company has a business interest in trying to make money off these stations through repeat customer membership deals and from patronage at nearby retail options. That’s why the company is working with upscale businesses, like Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters, and selling membership deals to hook local drivers into subscribing and becoming captive customers who will shop near the stations. This is a waste of charging infrastructure and a probable money-loser for NRG to boot.
If California was serious about making NRG pay for its rolling blackout damages and truly benefitting electric vehicle drivers, state leaders would insist that the fast-charging stations go in interstate locations, a la Tesla, to facilitate extended range for all-battery electric vehicle drivers. These locations should be the first priority, and they should blanket the state between our cities, not within them, and certainly not next to the local Whole Foods.
Were NRG representatives to take that approach, they’d find it a lot simpler to get these stations installed and ready. Sure, it wouldn’t help the company’s bottom line as much, but it would best serve the electric vehicle drivers of California.
Today the Los Angeles Times is running an op-ed I wrote on the need to better integrate land use patterns into the region’s rail transit system. When I first started writing Railtown, I was a rail transit enthusiast who thought that the region was crazy for not building more of it. If I could have written an op-ed back then, I would have simply extolled the virtues of rail to get the public to support building more of it.
But as I researched the history and issues involved, it became clear that rail as a solution to LA’s problems was not the silver bullet I thought. Rail is expensive and complicated to build. More importantly, LA is a decentralized city with people going in every direction at all times of day. There’s very little order or centralization of jobs and housing, and it all takes place over a huge land mass. Not necessarily a great recipe for efficient rail service (although parts of LA are more than fit for rail, given their density).
So this op-ed is an attempt to recognize that complicated reality. The solution, if Angelenos want to make the most of their rail investment, is to make a better effort to channel future growth and development along the rail lines. If that doesn’t happen, rail will have failed to reshape the city and help overcome its traffic and quality-of-life challenges that plague so much of the region. Hopefully this op-ed will spark a debate about how best to make that happen.