Showing all posts by Ethan Elkind
A Return To City-Focused Federalism

Richard Florida argues in that the election of Trump should bolster calls to devolve more power to states and specifically cities.  While he acknowledges that some of this smacks of “sore loser” federalism, it would address a growing structural problem in governing a nation as large and diverse as the U.S.:

Even on the domestic level, though, the modern-day presidency is crazy when you think about it: Why would a nation of 300 million-plus people, 50 states, 350-plus metro areas, 3,000-plus counties, and thousands and thousands of cities and communities choose to vest so much power in one person and one office? If there were any doubt about it before, we now know for a certainty that our current governance system, with its packing of humongous power in a unitary executive, is vulnerable to catastrophic failure. In addition to our well-understood horizontal separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the vertical separation of powers among the federal government, the states and the local level provides a further set of safeguards and protections that we can and must use better. As a number of large corporations have discovered, devolving decision-making from executive suites to work groups on the factory floor drives huge productivity gains.

I’m sympathetic with much of the progressive policy aims for the federal government over the last century or so, from basic social safety nets to labor and environmental standards to civil/women’s rights and infrastructure investment. But Florida’s point is hard to argue with. In a country as large and diverse as ours, with so much power now concentrated in the federal government, each election becomes a divisive tug-of-war now prone, as Florida says, to democratic (small “d”) catastrophe.

Some of this “devolution revolution” could be straightforward, such as allowing states more flexibility on infrastructure investment. As a pro-transit person, the federal government hasn’t been great on this issue anyway, mostly funding highways, and in recent years, not funding much of anything.

But Florida doesn’t grapple with some of the hard choices and trade-offs this approach would entail. Are we comfortable as a nation allowing some states to continue discriminating against women, minorities and religious groups? To pollute their environment, when the effects might spill over to neighboring states? To weaken labor and safety standards? And of course to roll back social safety nets like Medicare and Social Security?

The upside, perhaps, is that states would be freer to solve these problems themselves, and we’d get a true laboratory effect going. People would be free to move to more successful and tolerant states, as the Great Migration exemplified.  We’d also potentially ratchet down the growing tension in this country between affluent, urban areas and economically stagnant and declining rural regions.

But it would come at a cost to specific policies and policy goals that need to be addressed head on.

It’s worth considering as a long-term response to a problem that is much bigger than just one presidential election, and that won’t be resolved with just a change in leadership.

Why Conference Panels Are So Boring

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman trashes the professional conference staple: the multi-speaker, moderated panel:

For conference organizers, panels represent an undemanding ask. For participants, they’re a way to put themselves in the middle of the action without needing to invest significant amounts of prep time. Unfortunately, this usually ends up creating a “co-owners are no owners” dynamic. When responsibility gets so distributed, no one feels obligated to carry the show themselves. Even moderators may feel comfortable just winging it.

But this is only the start of a panel’s structural problems. Because there are so many people to introduce, introductions take too long. Because panelists know they’ll only have limited time to speak, they tend to focus on clear and simple messages that will resonate with the broadest number of people. The result is that you get one person giving you an overly simplistic take on the subject at hand. And then the process repeats itself multiple times! Instead of going deeper or providing more nuance, the panel format ensures shallowness.

Even worse, this shallow discourse manifests as polite groupthink. After all, panelists attend conferences for the same reasons that attendees do – they want to make connections and build relationships. So panels end up heavy on positivity and agreement, and light on the sort of discourse which, through contrasting opinions and debate, could potentially be more illuminating.

His preferred alternative? A one-on-one, fireside chat. Or failing that, the panel should be structured so that participants have specific questions to answer to avoid repetitive points, that they only respond to each other when they disagree, and that the audience vote at the end on who was most persuasive.

For my part, I’ve seen boring fireside chats and well-done panels, so the format is not always the issue. The trick to a good panel is mostly in the advance conception and speaker selection, to make sure you have engaging speakers with different viewpoints on a clearly defined question.

But moderation is also key. The best panels I have been on allowed some “opening statements” from speakers but otherwise involved a flow of conversation with a skilled and knowledgeable moderator. And ideally, as Hoffman describes, the panelists then disagree with each other.

Either way, it’s food for thought in an era when people not only have limited time for conferences, but the speakers now have to compete with smart phones for audience attention.

Bolt EV Crash Test Looks Promising

Sure, electric vehicles are fun to drive, reduce local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and can save you a lot of money on fuel at the same time.  But are they safe?

We know the Tesla Model S achieved the highest safety rating ever recorded by the federal government, mostly because of the lack of front engine block.  As a result, the car has a huge crumple zone for cushion in the result of a front-end impact.

But what about the non-premium electric vehicles, particularly the new long-range, mass-market Chevy Bolt EV?  The federal government has not released crash test information yet on this car, but a new safety test looks very promising, per

Chevrolet’s all-electric car is the first of its kind to earn high safety scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The safety group gave the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV the Top Safety Pick nod, one test short of its highest rating.

The electric hatchback earned good ratings in all five crash tests, including small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint evaluations; the Bolt’s optional front crash prevention system earned a superior rating. According to IIHS, the Bolt automatically avoided a crash in tests at both 12 and 25 mph.

Evidently the only knock on the car is the glare from its headlights.  Meanwhile, the Nissan LEAF did not fare as well.

Like any car, design is important for safety.  But the fact that EVs don’t have big engine blocks in front clearly gives them a strong advantage in this respect.  It’s yet one more reason for consumers to consider making the switch from gas to electricity to power their vehicles.

The Trade Case That Could Kill U.S. Solar

Solar panel prices have plummeted as much as 80% over this past decade, leading to a huge boom for renewables and helping to dethrone coal in our power sector.  Much of that decrease has been the result of large-scale manufacturing advances and scale from solar panel manufacturing in China.

But a new trade dispute could upend the economics of the solar industry in the United States.  It starts with Suniva, one of the few domestic solar panel manufacturers that was left in the U.S., until it went bankrupt earlier this year.  Although Suniva assets were eventually bought by a Chinese company (ironically), its creditors now want the U.S. to invoke an obscure law to “level the playing field,” per Bloomberg:

Suniva is asking for import duties of 40¢ per watt for solar cells, which currently sell for 25¢ to 33¢ a watt. If the company prevails, the price of panels imported into the U.S. could double, potentially crippling demand for solar power. Suniva’s ­majority owner, Shunfeng, makes its own panels in China and opposes the trade case, but it lost its say once the bankruptcy began. Suniva’s biggest creditor, New York-based SQN Capital Management LLC, made filing the trade case a prerequisite for a $4 million loan Suniva is using to finance the Chapter 11 case.

The case goes to the U.S. International Trade Commission, which will rule by September 22nd and then send its recommendations to the president. But even if the commission finds against Suniva, trade experts apparently think the law gives the president broad authority to slap import duties on the panels.

The fear is that this case plays right into Trump’s political hands: he can kill the solar industry, which is a rival to his favored coal base, and he can then claim to put “America first.”

But given that solar PV jobs vastly outnumber coal jobs, and that solar panels provide Americans with choices to save money on utility bills and reduce local air pollution, it would be a backwards move, even by his logic.  As with so many issues and this new administration, we’ll have to wait and see on the outcome.

Pro-Coal Republicans’ Phony Attack On Renewables As Hurting “Grid Reliability”

Republican politicians and their allies in the Trump administration may seem to be motivated by climate science “skepticism,” but their actions seem more about protecting favored polluting industries at the expense of clean ones.

Take renewable energy: the costs have come down so dramatically that solar & wind, plus cheap natural gas, is out-competing coal, the favored Republican industry.

So how can Republicans try to privilege coal over renewables, in the face of market pressures?  It’s unlikely that Congress will cooperate by eliminating federal tax credits for renewables that have strong bipartisan support (although it’s still a possibility with tax reform discussions looming — plus reduced corporate tax rates can undermine the tax credit incentives for renewables).

So that means the action has to fall on the regulatory side, specifically at the U.S. Department of Energy.  We know that DOE appointees are trying to gut clean tech research and shut down all climate and clean energy programs.

But the new tack is to create a phony “study” of grid reliability and then use it to undermine solar and wind.  The argument is that solar and wind, given that it relies on intermittent sources (sunshine and wind), will lead to blackouts and grid instability and cause grid failure.  As E&E News reports on DOE secretary Rick Perry’s recent memo to this effect:

Boosted by “extremist political agendas,” according to Perry, renewable energy undermines baseload power that includes large coal and gas-fired generators, dams, and nuclear reactors. “Baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning electric grid,” Perry declared in the memo.

At least that’s the theory, and DOE appears set to write a study that proves that outcome.  They can then use the study to invoke an obscure law that gives them emergency authority to freeze in place coal production at 30 percent of our nation’s supply, all in the name of securing grid reliability.

But the problem, as with so much of this pro-“brown power” ideology, is that the facts don’t support it.  Here’s California Energy Commissioner David Hochschild and California Independent System Operator board of governor David Olsen in a pre-emptive strike in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle:

What happens when the wind doesn’t blow, or the sun doesn’t shine? To answer that question, one needs to examine the many countries that have more renewable energy than we do. Wind and solar contribute a share 2.5 times larger in Germany’s electricity mix (18.2 percent in 2016) than they do in the United States (6.9 percent). Germany produced 82 percent of its electricity from renewables for a period of several days in May. Denmark gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewables on many days of the year. Yet both nations have electric grids that are 10 times more reliable than America’s. Germany and Denmark average 23 and 24 minutes of customer outages per year respectively, while the United States averages 240 minutes per year.

The key to avoid reliability challenges is a diverse renewables mix, energy storage, and a regional grid, all features that many states in the U.S. already have or feasibly can have.  So Perry’s study is unlikely to bolster his pro-coal (and pro-nuclear) case, unless he and his appointees are willing to cook the books.

As the secretary might say: “oops.”

EV Drivers Get Up To $1540 To Let Their Utility Delay Their Charging — New BMW & PG&E Pilot

Electric vehicles are good for the environment not just because they decrease petroleum fuel burning, but because the batteries in the vehicles can help support a cleaner grid.  To test that concept, BMW signed up drivers of their electric i3 vehicle for a project with Pacific Gas & Electric in the Bay Area.  The basic goal was to reduce demand from a fleet of vehicles at a time when the grid was constrained, by activating software in the vehicles to halt charging for up to an hour.

The upside for drivers who participated?  They got $1000 for signing up, plus as much as $540, depending on how many days they did not manually opt out of the program.  Drivers were notified by a software app when a delay was about to happen and could use it to opt-out if needed.

In practice, that meant eight delays in charging over the 18-month pilot period for the typical driver.  However, some vehicles, based on when they were plugged in and how little they opted out, had more delays.  Of the 100 participating drivers, for example, three vehicles participated in over 50 events.

If it sounds like a good deal, that’s because it is.  In fact, 500 drivers ended up applying for just 100 spots in the pilot.  The report did not mention if the payments were cost-effective from a ratepayer standpoint (I suspect not).  In other words, could that electricity have been more cheaply supplied or reduced elsewhere?  But given that this was a pilot, it was important to get data and participation first.

During the 18 months (from July 2015 to December 2016), PG&E asked BMW 209 times to “provide capacity of 100 kW over an hour-long period.”  This is actually a lot of times.  As a point of comparison, residential “demand response” (as this kind of moderated demand is called) programs are capped at 15 events per year.

Ultimately, BMW met 90% of the events.  The reason for the failings was mostly due to technical problems, which apparently got fixed as the pilot went on.  And the response time to actually delay the charging once the utility sent the signal was 2.3 minutes on average, which was fine for the day-ahead market and not bad for the real-time market, which requires 4 minutes at most of delay.  The lag was mostly due to communications issues that seemed to get fixed as the pilot unfolded.

Drivers seemed not to mind the delays.  The most opt outs for any one event was on Thursday, October 14, 2015 at 11 PM, when three customers opted out. The majority of events had no opt-outs and only two participants opted out for more than two events over the entire pilot.  Meanwhile, 95% of the drivers surveyed said that they never, or rarely, had to change driving or charging behaviors.  Ultimately, 98% indicated they were satisfied with the experience.

But there was one relatively big hitch to the findings: not enough EV drivers were plugged in at any given moment to meet the demand response events.  As a result, BMW had to rely on “second-life” used electric vehicle batteries to meet almost 80% of the power requested during these events.  The vehicles on average supplied the other 20% of the demand reduction.

Possibly because of time-of-use rates and cheap off-peak power, many drivers did not plug in until after 9pm.  As a result, these drivers simply missed any demand response events happening during the daytime or early evening.  In fact, only 37% of the drivers charged at work during the day, due to the lack of availability of chargers at their place of employment.

Meanwhile, the drivers that were able to participate in the top 10%:

[A]re characterized as frequent drivers, who have regular charging patterns and are not on a [time-of-use] rate. These drivers habitually plug in and begin charging around 8 PM in the evening and typically charge for about 3 hours. Since a majority of the events were called from 8–9 PM, these vehicles were frequently called upon and able to participate.

So in the long run, more workplace charging and electricity rates that encourage demand response participation could address these challenges.

Meanwhile, the benefits to the grid look very promising.  Each vehicle contributed 4.43 kw of demand response delayed usage.  It may not sound like much, but assuming by 2030 the state has 1.2M electric vehicles, with 250,000 drivers enrolled in this kind of program and 17,000 participating in a demand response event:

[T]he potential load drop of a single event in 2030 is about 77.6 MW, which is enough to power approximately 58,000 homes in California. Thus, on a larger scale, a similar program has the potential to provide a significant resource.

So while more work remains to be done, this pilot project is overall very encouraging.  Coupled with reforms related to boosting workplace charging and improving electricity rates (the subjects of a forthcoming report from UC Berkeley and UCLA Law), this kind of demand response could be very beneficial for the state.

And it could put a healthy dollop of cash in EV drivers’ wallets to boot.

Nevada Becoming A Leading State For Renewables & Energy Storage

What a difference a year (or two) makes. Back in 2015, Nevada became the enemy of rooftop solar advocates when state regulators arbitrarily ended all rooftop solar incentives, including for customers who had already invested in them with an expectation of a 20-year return.

But Governor Sandoval just signed AB 405, which will officially restore those rooftop solar rates almost back to where they were, with a slow phase-out to encourage more energy storage options (see his Twitter post above).

But more legislation is on tap, as the  legislature has passed some ambitious clean energy bills.  Specifically, AB 206 will boost the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard to 40 percent by 2030 (by comparison, California has a 50% target for 2030).  And as Greentech Media reports, the innovative part of this bill is that energy storage can count for up to 10% of the portfolio, with special privileges for geothermal energy.  Let’s hope the governor signs this bill, too.

While the solar industry had a lot to do with this win, environmental groups may also have played a key electoral role.  Specifically, according to E&E News (pay-walled), the League of Conservation Voters spent more than a half-million dollars on state races in Nevada last year and helped flip the statehouse, paving the way for legislation like this.

It shows how effective political dollars can be at the state level, and how important state leadership is at a time of federal retrenchment on clean energy policies.

How The Wealthy Use Zoning To Keep Their Families Rich

Richard Reeves, a U.K. native, takes Americans to task in a New York Times op-ed for pretending that we’re not a classless society.  He points out how the wealthy use local housing policies to protect their wealth, advantage their children, and prevent the lower classes from accessing educational and job opportunities:

Things turn ugly, however, when the upper middle class starts to rig markets in its own favor, to the detriment of others. Take housing, perhaps the most significant example. Exclusionary zoning practices allow the upper middle class to live in enclaves. Gated communities, in effect, even if the gates are not visible. Since schools typically draw from their surrounding area, the physical separation of upper-middle-class neighborhoods is replicated in the classroom. Good schools make the area more desirable, further inflating the value of our houses. The federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes. For the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.

It takes a brave politician to question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle class. Recently, there have been failed attempts to make zoning laws more inclusive in supposedly liberal cities like Seattle and states like California and Massachusetts. The handout on mortgage interest appears to be an indestructible deduction (unlike in Britain, where the equivalent tax break was phased out under both Conservative and Labour governments by 2000).

Considering that zoning was essentially invented as a tool for racial exclusion and white supremacy back in the 1920s, Reeves’ argument is pretty damning. As America’s income inequality worsens, local housing policies that prevent new multifamily developments only exacerbate the problem, from a moral, economic and environmental standpoint.

Boosting Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure — Free Luncheon & Report Release At UCLA Law, Thursday, June 29th

Few clean technologies are as central for meeting climate change goals as electric vehicles. Yet in places like California, which leads the U.S. with approximately 300,000 EVs on the road, the needed charging infrastructure is lagging.

Analysts estimate that the state will need as many as 220,000 publicly accessible EV charging ports by 2020 to meet demand, well beyond the roughly 12,000 available in the state today.  So how will California meet this challenge?

Join the UCLA and UC Berkeley Schools of Law for a free lunchtime forum on policy options to boost California’s EV charging infrastructure on Thursday, June 29th at UCLA Law. The two law schools will release a major joint report at the event as part of the Climate Change and Business Research Initiative, entitled “Plugging Away: How To Boost Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure.”

WHEN: Thursday, June 29th, 12 noon to 1:30 p.m. (registration and lunch begin promptly at 11:30am).

WHERE: Room 1447, UCLA School of Law, 385 Charles E Young Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90095

Keynote Address:
The Honorable Janea Scott, Commissioner, California Energy Commission

Panel presentations:

  • Tyson Eckerle, Office of Governor Jerry Brown, Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz)
  • Terry O’Day, EVgo
  • Laura Renger, Southern California Edison

RSVP by Friday, June 23rd. Space is limited, and MCLE credit is available.

Funding for the Climate Change and Business Research Initiative is generously provided by Bank of America.

Is San Francisco Ready For A Safe Injection Facility? City Visions Tonight At 7pm, KALW 91.7 FM

Should San Francisco provide an indoor, medically supervised facility where drug users can safely and legally inject?

Last month, the board of supervisors convened a special task force to examine this issue. Harm reduction advocates and local public health officials support it, but many members of the community are concerned about what it will mean for the city’s neighborhoods and for those who would utilize the services.

I’ll be moderating a discussion on the pros and cons of safe injection facilities in San Francisco tonight on City Visions at 7pm.  Panelists include:

  • Alex Kral, Director of the Behavioral and Urban Health Program, RTI International
  • Gary McCoy, HIV/AIDS activist and Recovery advocate
  • Laura Thomas, Deputy State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance

City Visions airs on local public radio KALW 91.7 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area and via our website.  Call in, comment, or email with your questions!

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