Showing all posts by Ethan Elkind
Electric Airplanes: Quieter, Cleaner, And Coming Soon?

The sky may be the actual limit when it comes to what types of transportation we can electrify. We know electrification is a great fit for passenger vehicles.  But trucking and aviation are iffy for battery electric transport, as the weight of the battery doesn’t work so well for powering long-distance trips.

But short-haul trips may be another matter. A company in the United Kingdom wants to electrify short plane trips from places like London to Paris and Amsterdam, per the Guardian:

Carolyn McCall, easyJet’s chief executive, said the aerospace industry would follow the lead of the automotive industry in developing electric engines that would cut emissions and noise.

“For the first time in my career I can envisage a future without jet fuel and we are excited to be part of it,” she said. “It is now more a matter of when, not if, a short-haul electric plane will fly.”

The airline said it was the next step in making the airline less harmful for the environment, after cutting carbon emissions per passenger kilometre by 31% between 2000 and 2016.

Wright Electric claims that electric planes will be 50% quieter and 10% cheaper for airlines to buy and operate, with the cost saving potentially passed on to passengers.

It’s pretty amazing to imagine the reduction in noise and air pollution from electric airplanes. Like trucking, other fuels will be needed for long trips (ideally low-carbon biofuels). But short-haul electric flights may be an idea ready to take off soon.

The Solar+Storage Revolution Could Come To Hawaii First

The island of Molokai in Hawaii would be a good place to start a clean energy revolution, at least in the United States. The island imports oil to burn for electricity, leading to some of the highest electricity rates in the country, not to mention significant pollution. It also has abundant sunshine and a relatively small population.

So a solar array coupled with battery energy storage could potentially save the residents a huge amount of money on their electricity bills. It could also provide them with energy security and independence in the event of fuel shortages. And of course, it could reduce emissions per capita significantly, as the model scales eventually to meet 100% of the island’s electricity needs.

A mainland company called Half Moon Ventures produced a video with Molokai-based Quazifilms to feature their solar+storage proposal for Molokai. While the project will need community and utility buy-in to move forward, this video does a nice job explaining the issues and opportunities:

As the company spokesperson says in the video, if it can work on Molokai, it can work on the other islands. And eventually, as prices decrease, this basic model can benefit communities across the country and globe.

Navajo & Hopi Tribes Reveal The Local Impact Of Closing A Coal Plant

The Navajo Generating Station (NGS) is a massive coal-fired power plant.  It is the country’s eighth-largest greenhouse gas polluter, at 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions (and hundreds of pounds of mercury and arsenic) each year.

But as I blogged earlier, it’s also the economic lifeblood for one of the most impoverished regions in the country, for the Navajo and Hopi Tribes. The plant is responsible for 3,000 jobs, and the Hopi Tribe alone receives $13 million annually, representing an astonishing 85 percent of the tribe’s yearly revenue.

Bloomberg reports on the economic challenge facing these communities with the impending closure:

It’s unquestionable that closing NGS is the best possible outcome for the land the Navajo and their neighbors, the Hopi, have called home for more than 800 years. It’s also unquestionable that closing NGS presents an existential threat to both tribes. Once the work of winding down operations is said and done, “some will say, ‘I have no choice but to make a life off the reservation,’” says Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie. “That is very likely, and something that we, as parents and tribal leaders, especially for younger people, may have to really encourage.” After centuries of fighting against both men and laws, it’s market forces that have brought them to this breaking point. “I think we need to reach deep down inside ourselves and ask how we want to survive as a people,” he says.

These communities don’t have a lot of other economic options, but it’s never a winning long-term strategy to be so totally dependent on one economic source. Like many rural communities across this country, they’re going to have to figure out alternative means of surviving economically, and they’re going to have to do so quickly.

China Launches The Electric Vehicle Arms Race

If you care about global adoption of electric vehicles, there is good news out of China. The country is requiring one out of every five vehicles sold by 2025 to be electric.  And Chinese residents have bought 300,000 electric vehicles already this year — equal to all the EVs sold in California to date, from 2011 to the present.

But as the New York Times reports, these requirements and market support are in part designed to help China corner the market on producing and manufacturing these vehicles:

Behind the scenes, China is recruiting some of the world’s best electrical engineering talent, even in the United States. China is also home to many smaller companies that make the parts essential to assembling electric cars. All this comes just as electric cars are finally starting to become competitive with gasoline- or diesel-powered cars on performance and cost.

So while the U.S. federal government is trying to roll the clock back on clean technology and pretend we can go back to a fossil fuel world, China is getting ready to eat our lunch on the next generation of vehicles. California in particular has a lot to lose economically, with Silicon Valley emerging as a hub for both electric vehicle innovation and manufacturing, with the Tesla plant just up the road in Fremont.

In the end, it’s good for the environment and the economy if China can make EVs cheap and ubiquitous. But it would be a shame for the U.S. to lose its edge on the jobs and economic growth that goes with that production.

Shell Buys An EV Charging Company: Will Gas Stations Now Pivot To Electricity?

It’s a corporate acquisition that could be the sign of a coming tectonic shift from gas to electricity: the gas station company Royal Dutch Shell just bought NewMotion, one of Europe’s largest electric vehicle charging providers. NewMotion’s specialty is converting parking spots into EV charging stations, with more than 30,000 EV stations in Europe.

As CNN reports:

The acquisition, Shell’s first in this space, shows how Big Oil is being forced to confront the long-term threat posed by electric cars and efforts to phase out gasoline and diesel vehicles.

“This is a way of broadening our offer as we move through the energy transition,” Matthew Tipper, Shell’s vice president of new fuels, told CNNMoney in an interview. “It’s certainly a form of diversification.”

We’ve certainly seen oil companies try to diversify before. Chevron, for example, had a renewable fuels unit that it discontinued a few years ago, as oil prices and profits went up at the time. But this acquisition could be an indicator that these gas companies now see a growing market for EVs that will need to be met with more fueling infrastructure.

I’ve written before about our sore lack of charging stations in places like California. It would be a pretty elegant solution if more gas station companies like Shell started getting into the EV charging business. Station owners don’t make much on fuel sales anyway but on the retail sales in the on-site mini-marts. So attracting EV buyers to charge and buy at these gas stations could make economic sense. And with super-fast chargers on the way, EVs could be an economic lifeline for these gas stations with fueling as fast as gassing up is now.

The transition to low-carbon fuels will disrupt some existing companies but provide opportunities, too, particularly for incumbents like Shell that are willing to take a risk.

Fires & Floods Show Why We Need Less Sprawl & More Infill

This has been a tough year for the planet and our climate. With rising air and sea temperatures across the globe, we’re seeing more intense hurricanes and wildfires. But the flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Houston and the devastating fires in California’s wine country are made worse by our land use patterns.

As I wrote about during the Harvey floods, the Houston sprawl exacerbated the damage by paving over natural floodplains that could have absorbed some of the excess rainwater.  And now in the Napa and Sonoma wine country, we’re seeing sprawl neighborhoods of single-family homes adjacent to fire-prone wilderness areas taking the brunt of the destruction.

Both types of disasters are going to become more common and intense in the coming years, as the planet warms even more. And that means we’re going to need to re-adjust our land development patterns with less sprawl and more infill.

In flood-prone areas, we’ll need more natural floodplains by concentrating development in the urban core and not allowing more sprawl. And in fire-prone areas, we’re going to need more defensible space between wildlands and sprawl, with more focused growth in our city centers that are protected somewhat from these fires by the urban ring.

How do we achieve these goals? Absent strong land use controls, such as urban growth boundaries and deregulation on local land use policies, we can achieve them through pricing. Examples include ending subsidized insurance for sprawl in flood- or fire-plains and levying higher fees on developments in these areas to cover the costs of the inevitable disasters.

Ultimately, more compact infill development and less sprawl will help make our cities and towns more resilient in the face of worsening climate change. It will take political will, perhaps motivated by these recent disasters, to get us there.

What A Nobel Economist Can Teach Us On Congestion Pricing

Richard Thaler, one of the founders of modern behavioral economics, just won the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. His research holds some interesting lessons for transportation planners trying to reduce traffic.  Specifically, it highlights why people may be averse to policies that charge drivers more for peak-hour driving.

The goal of “congestion pricing” is to alleviate traffic and encourage more transit usage, walking and biking.  As I described last week, it tolls drivers during peak times for entering city centers.  It’s an important strategy for cities like Los Angeles that need to reduce traffic to increase mobility, while funding alternatives to driving with the revenue.

Yet Thaler’s research is a cautionary tale for congestion pricing.  He describes the “endowment effect,” which is closely related to loss aversion.  Basically, people try to avoid losses in their well-being, money, and so forth, much more (at least rationally so) than they try to pursue gains. As Vox.com explained:

The endowment effect helps explain why businesses don’t engage in rational behavior if it’s likely to enrage their customers. Take, for instance, concert venues that know their events are likely to sell out quickly, and yet do not jack up ticket prices to hundreds or thousands of dollars to control the demand. Because jacking up the price would entail taking away something people are used to — reasonable ticket prices — it prompts a strong feeling of repulsion and injustice, which can lead to consumers turning on businesses and hurting them more than raising prices would help.

How does this apply to congestion pricing? Simply put, if drivers are used to driving somewhere for free, and now they’re being charged, the endowment effect indicates that many of them are going to be upset (potentially irrationally so) and react against the policy makers who are now charging them.

So what can be done to counter it? Well, first of all, policy makers can ensure that drivers have options to avoid the charges, such as the ability to drive off-peak to avoid getting charged as well as having access to easy transit, walking or biking alternatives.  Second, policy makers can present the pricing arrangement as a temporary pilot, in order to give drivers the opportunity to see the “gains” from such an arrangement through decreased traffic and travel times.

Either way, congestion pricing may prove to be a tough sell in Los Angeles, albeit a needed one.

Finally, Data Show How Uber & Lyft Cannibalize Transit Use & Increase Driving Miles

The impact of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft on transit ridership hasn’t been clear.  Anecdotes and personal hunch suggests that they’ve hurt transit ridership nationwide and increased driving miles.

Now we finally have a study to document that impact, courtesy of UC Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies.  As the San Francisco Chronicle summarized:

•Urban ride-hailing passengers decreased their use of public transit by 6 percent. Bus and light rail service were both used less often by Uber and Lyft riders, while commuter rail saw a 3 percent bump in usage.

•Many ride-hailed trips (49 to 61 percent) would have not been made or would have occurred via walking, biking or transit.

“Ride-hailing is currently likely to contribute to growth in vehicle miles traveled in the major cities represented in this study,” the report authors wrote.

This is an important step in understanding the cause of falling transit ridership.  It’s also an argument in favor of policy action, like congestion pricing and switching from the gas tax to a mileage fee to discourage extra car trips.

But fundamentally, transit agencies still need to do what they can to improve ridership, which includes requiring more development adjacent to transit stops and re-evaluating their fare structure and service network.

California’s “Big” New Housing Subsidies Are A Drop In The Bucket

California legislators patted themselves on the back when they passed a housing package this sessions raising money for affordable housing.  But these tough votes to hike real estate document fees (SB 2) and place a bond measure on the ballot (SB 3) will barely make a dent in subsidizing the state out of its extreme housing shortage.

Real estate developer John McNellis runs through the numbers on The Registry, which are pretty shocking in their paltriness, given the scale of the problem:

According to the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco’s 700-unit Hunters View low-income housing project cost $450 million or $643,000 a unit. While appallingly high, that number sounds about right. Thus, if SB2 actually raises $250 million a year, California could add another 388 low-income units annually. And the whole $4 billion from SB 3 would be gone after 6,220 new units. In a state which needs to add 100,000 new dwellings a year just to keep up with its population growth—and not allow the housing crisis to worsen—this is truly spitting in the ocean.

But it gets worse.  As McNellis points out, lack of money is only part of the problem.  Neighborhood opposition to new affordable projects — which also affects market-rate projects but with more intensity given antipathy to people who need subsidized homes — makes implementation of these projects more difficult:

The problem is you can’t spend affordable-housing money. Last year, the citizens of Los Angeles generously voted to increase their property taxes by $1.2 billion to build housing for the homeless. This year, the somewhat less compassionate Angelenos in Boyle Heights blocked a proposed 49-unit homeless shelter in their neighborhood, a political scenario that has been played out countless times in nearly every city in the state. Tie-dyed progressives, kind-hearted liberals, even Orange County conservatives are all in favor of low-income housing…in someone else’s neighborhood.

Affordable housing advocates would be smart to respond to this dynamic by fighting for more than just more money to subsidize these few expensive projects.  Instead, they should be working to lower construction costs overall and reduce neighborhood opposition to new projects, from market rate to affordable ones.

Otherwise, the problem will continue to worsen.  And the money we do spend will become increasingly less effective and wasted.

What To Make Of Columbus

Today is Columbus Day, or as more places are calling it: “Indigenous People’s Day.” I support this terminology change, as the brutal impact of Columbus’s journey on Native Americans (throughout both continents) is too often overlooked by the dominant culture.  Case in point: we still regularly use terms like “settler” and “colonialism” rather than more straightforward terms like “invasion.”

But I didn’t totally agree with this short, entertaining video takedown of Columbus by “Adam Ruins Everything” from College Humor, which is making the internet rounds today:

A lot of the points in the video are accurate. And I’m glad a spotlight is being shone on Columbus’s foibles and cruelty.  But some context would be helpful.

First, Columbus was a master navigator, and his achievement of sailing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean is a legitimate one.  It’s supposedly the route that sailors still take today.

Second, the idea that Columbus was a “footnote” in history until Washington Irving wrote about him, as the video argues, was not by accident: the Spanish tried hard to keep their “discovery” a secret from other European powers.  They wanted monopoly access to the Americas. As a result, Columbus was not celebrated or promoted officially during his time (actually, it’s even worse than that: Columbus was evidently such an autocrat and tyrant that his crew eventually had him sent back to Spain in chains below deck).

Finally, like it or not, Columbus’s voyage set in motion a massive invasion from Europe (and Asia) into the Americas.  While other Europeans had made it to the Americas before, none generated a lasting wave of migration like what Columbus’s voyage did.

That’s not to say that the impact was all because of Columbus: Spain was financially, technologically and politically ready to capitalize on its discovery.  But Columbus’s voyage was a cataclysmic and world-changing event that is worth being remembered and honored.  Just not by idolizing the flawed man at the center of it.

Next Page