Showing all posts by Ethan Elkind
Congress Boosts Transit, Clean Tech & Energy Efficiency Funding

The new federal spending bill that just became law represents a big win for transit, clean technology and energy efficiency. Despite efforts by the administration to gut funding in all of these areas, a bipartisan majority in congress resisted.

Curbed covered the increased spending for transit:

The bill, which covers spending through the end of September, includes significant increases in transit funding. The Community Development Block Grant program, which many local governments have used to fund streetscaping, cycling, and pedestrian-friendly projects, would receive a significant boost, rising to $3.3 billion from the $3 billion allocated in 2017. Initially, President Trump’s budget called for eliminating the program.

In addition, the bill includes more money for Capital Investment Grants, which help pay for transit projects, increasing spending from $2.4 to $2.6 billion, and would allocate $1.5 billion for the TIGER Grant program, tripling the $500 million spent on the program in 2017. This Obama-era program has been a key tool used by state and local governments to fund new rail and transit expansions.

Notably, even Amtrak funding increased under the package.

Meanwhile, some of the most important research and clean energy programs at the Department of Energy were bolstered, as E&E reported [paywalled]:

Instead of eliminating the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, DOE’s innovation arm, the package increases funding to a record level of $353 million. The Weatherization Assistance Program, which Trump also wanted to kill, would get a more than $20 million boost to $248 million. The deal keeps state energy grants and the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program intact.

It also would increase funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which Trump wanted to slash by more than half.

This is all good news, and it points to the bipartisan support for these key components of our climate mitigation strategies. There’s still a larger issue about the availability of long-term funding for these programs, given the massive deficits the federal government is running, particularly with the budget-busting tax cut passed last December. But for now, these programs are safe and even stronger, in a rebuke to the administration and transit and clean tech opponents.

New Data Reveal CEQA Barely Affects California’s Transportation Rehab Projects

The California State Senate Office of Research just released a new report examining data from the state’s transportation department, to find out how the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) affects transportation infrastructure projects.

As you’ll recall, CEQA mandates environmental review for major projects and feasible mitigation for significant impacts. Industry critics often blame CEQA for unnecessarily slowing vital projects.

The results from the research? CEQA barely registers when it comes to rehabbing and maintaining transportation projects. As you can see from the chart below, between 80-90% of projects were exempt from CEQA altogether, while only between 0.5 and 2.8% had to undertake full environmental review. The rest received negative declarations of impacts.

The Office of Research obtained the data from Caltrans for 751 transportation projects from the State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP) program, which prioritizes everything from maintenance to rebuilding bridges. The projects all completed construction in fiscal years 2014 through 2017. The data included information on costs, duration, and the resulting CEQA documents.

Together with an earlier report showing how minimal CEQA litigation is when it comes to state-sponsored projects, plus the Rose Foundation report showing minimal litigation rates statewide, this report is further evidence that CEQA is simply not a major barrier to California’s transportation infrastructure investments.

To be sure, rehab and rebuilding projects are much less likely to face CEQA review issues than a new transportation project (such as high speed rail, which has been the target of substantial litigation). But data like these are helping to paint a clearer context for policy makers who hear anecdotes of CEQA abuse. Because when we start looking at the broader context, CEQA appears to impose relatively minimal costs in the aggregate.

Talking Energy Storage In Sao Paulo, Brazil — Conference Live Stream Today

Brazil has distinct energy and greenhouse gas reduction challenges compared to other countries around the world. But its energy leadership has one thing in common with many other countries: a desire to boost energy storage. I’m at a conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil focused on this technology, hosted by the Instituto de Energia & Ambiente (IEE) at the University of Sao Paulo (USP).

Why are Brazil’s energy and climate challenges distinct? Unlike other countries, its energy and transportation sectors are already relatively clean, at least from a carbon perspective. Two-thirds of their electricity comes from hydropower, and about 60% of their transportation fuel comes from sugar-based ethanol.

But the country’s energy leadership knows that hydropower is dwindling, as more frequent droughts and farming reduce the water supply. And they must reduce transportation emissions to meet their nationally determined climate commitments under the 2015 U.N. Paris accord. They hope to meet burgeoning demand for power through more wind and solar deployment. But this deployment will require more energy storage, too, to integrate these variable renewable sources without needing more fossil fuel-powered generation.

Today, on the second day of this two-day conference, I’ll be speaking at 12:30pm PT (4:30pm local time) about the California energy storage experience and how the state’s laws have helped create a market for the technology. You can livestream the pane discussion here. I’ll blog more about the conference and Sao Paul upon my return.

Underneath Downtown L.A.: My Tour Of The “Regional Connector” Rail Tunnel
Image result for regional connector transit project map

Map of the regional connector. Staging area was by the 1st and Central station on the right.

What’s a transit line without a tunnel? For densely populated areas, digging a tunnel can bring badly needed new capacity to congested corridors, while promising quick speeds underneath crowded roads. Plus tunnels represent interesting engineering and construction projects.

So when Jody Litvak of LA Metro invited me for a tour of the regional connector tunnel last spring, I jumped at the chance. At the time, the regional connector was under construction underneath Downtown Los Angeles, as you can see in the map above. I wrote about tunneling in Railtown, my book on the history of Metro Rail (I actually devoted a whole chapter to construction). But I’d never seen it up close until this tour.

I met Jody and her team at the staging area near Alameda and 1st Street in downtown. Olga Arroyo helped arrange the details, Dick McClane was the lead tunnel operator, and Bill Hansmire, Gary Baker and Glen Frank came along for the tour. Dick helps control the tunnel boring machine from a command center that resembles a miniature air traffic control tower. He monitors and corrects the machine’s every moment, using a complex network of sensors.

Dick MacLane and I by the ‘command center’ for the tunnel boring machine (TBM)

Dick also helps oversee the workers who do the tunneling. They call themselves “miners” — not “tunnel stiffs,” as the original tunnelers called themselves who built Metro Rail back in the 1980s, as I wrote in Railtown. The work is not for everyone: the miners described to me how some first-time workers have panic attacks when they get in the tunnel and simply can’t do the work.

But the regional connector and other train tunnels are actually a luxury — in the tunneling world. Many tunnels they work on are tiny and go miles deep, such as for sewers or other pipe infrastructure. The workers have to journey in the whole way on a makeshift train, leaning over to speed through the narrow tunnel. By comparison, this was a big, convenient tunnel. But still, there’s no daylight down there, so it’s a challenging work environment, and the miners work long shifts — sometimes 24 hours, 5 days straight on multiple shifts (with downtime in between, of course).

Big pile of prehistoric dirt from underneath L.A.

As the tour kicked off, safety was a priority. We were outfitted with helmets and reflective gear and instructed on proper procedures in the tunnel. Upon approach, the first thing we saw was the multi-block, fenced-off project site. The main feature was a conveyor belt from the shaft below, bringing up dirt that probably hadn’t seen the light of day in centuries, to be hauled off to help bury landfills. It created a huge pile that was actually just a couple days’ worth of excavation (see photo to the left).

The crew used this staging area to avoid disruption to the community from truck traffic coming out of tunnel. All that dirt requires a lot of vehicles to move it out of the area. In fact, truck traffic could be a limiting factor on tunnel boring, even if Elon Musk and his “Boring Machine” could speed the physical tunneling process.

Also visible up above were stacks of preset concrete slabs to line the tunnels, along with temporary steel rails. The rails help bring materials in and out of the tunnel, as they are hoisted down by crane and brought into the tunnel by temporary rail cars to lay more track.

We then journeyed down from the staging area to the giant shaft in the shape of the eventual station box. It had steep, temporary stairs leading down to the future station bottom and tunnel entrance. At the bottom, we could start walking through the actual tunnel.

Temporary rail cars from down inside the future “station box” shaft.

Getting close to the tunnel, we could see lots of utility lines through pipes above us, including an old aqueduct from original the original Pueblo settlement. As the workers told me, these “station boxes” are where they find all the archaeological finds. Otherwise, the boring machine pretty much grinds everything else up (although evidently the formation that the tunnel passes through doesn’t typically have archaeological finds). For more on the archaeological finds in the tunnel, check out this article.

Inside the tunnel, it was hot with an odd smell. It was loud, too, particularly when workers dropped new 30-foot steel rails to the ground. The rails were needed for the temporary cars that brought in equipment. The tunnel boring machine (“TBM”) itself was probably about 100 yards long. In fact, it was so long, I was walking through it for a while without even knowing it.

The TBM is operated by four people: an operator, engineer, and mechanic, along with an MTA inspector. The machines have sensors everywhere and are extremely high-tech, monitoring the ground movement above. The software can automatically brake the TBM if the machine starts going in the wrong direction. The TBM uses pressure within the tunnel to maintain the pressure in the ground around the tunnel as it’s bored. That stabilization reduces, if not eliminates, both ground subsidence and gas seepage into the tunnel. For example, at the time of the tour, we were directly under a Japanese market in Little Tokyo. Hopefully, the patrons up above had no idea what was going on below. Sometimes TBM workers have to tunnel quickly through some parts of the city, like through certain soils that aren’t as solid.

Tunnel touring group in the Tunnel Boring Machine

Progress was steady: the miners were clearing about 80 feet in one day, at an average of 65 feet. They were starting with just the “left” bore for now, drilling it out for one mile, then hauling the tunnel boring machine (TBM) back to the project site and reassembling it for the “right” bore in the same direction, to create two tracks for the line. Overall, the first tunnel was set to take 5 months to go the whole 5,000 feet, 2 months to reassemble, and then another 5 months for the other tunnel.

In terms of cost, the tunneling represented only 10% of the total project cost. The station boxes are the other big chunk of change, particularly the future Bunker Hill stop, because it’s so deep.

Overall, it was an interesting opportunity to see digging in action. The project is scheduled to be finished in 2021. Once I ride it, I’ll end up whizzing through the section I walked. But I’ll now know how much work went into building it.

If you want more tunnel tour accounts, check out Curbed.LA from July and then again last month.

How Has Climate Science Changed In 30 Years?

E&E news [paywalled] recently tackled the subject of evolving climate science. Reporter Chelsea Harvey examined the five assessment reports from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was established in 1988 by the U.N. Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization.

The UN tasked the IPCC with assessing the risks from climate change by using the most up-to-date scientific and technical information. The five IPCC reports since 1988 have grown increasingly complex, with the latest published in 2014 (the sixth is due in 2022).

The bottom line over 30 years? The big picture forecast of climate warming, covering a broad range of potential temperature rise, remains the same:

[M]ajor uncertainties about climate sensitivity remain, even though estimates of its value are largely the same as they were in the 1990s. The First and Fifth assessment reports both suggest that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase global temperatures by between 1.5 and 4.5 C.

But the IPCC has been too conservative on some specific topics, like sea level rise:

The First Assessment Report suggested that sea levels would likely rise by about 65 centimeters by the end of the century, under a business-as-usual trajectory, “mainly due to thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of some land ice.” By the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014, scientists were projecting up to a meter of sea-level rise by the end of the century under a business-as-usual scenario.

Even in the few years since, multiple studies have suggested that the IPCC’s estimates may be too low, taking into account improvements in scientists’ understanding of the physical processes affecting the world’s ice sheets. Some scientists expect the projections reported in the Sixth Assessment Report will be even higher.

And the IPCC underestimated how much warming has already occurred since 1880:

[W]hile the First Assessment Report estimated that global temperatures have warmed by between 0.3 and 0.6 degree Celsius in the past century, the Fifth Assessment Report honed this estimate to about 0.85 C since 1880.

The science has also improved in terms of modeling capability and ability to forecast impacts in specific parts of the globe, as well as attribute particular weather events to climate change with more precision.

Clearly the science over the past 30 years has been too conservative in some respects, which should give us even more motivation to take action on climate. We’ll need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as we can through clean technology deployment, while preparing for the now-unavoidable impacts to come.

SB 827 & California’s Housing Debate — KQED Forum Today At 10am

I’ll be on KQED radio’s Forum this morning at 10am discussing SB 827 (Wiener) to relax local restrictions on transit-oriented housing. We’ll discuss what the bill might mean for California’s cities, environment and economy.

Please tune in at 88.5 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area and weigh in with your questions.  Even if you don’t live in the Bay Area, you can stream it live.

SB 827 Upzoning Impacts Around BART – 3 Case Studies (Orinda, Rockridge & MacArthur)

Joe DiStefano at the Urban Footprint blog ran a useful experiment to see how the transit-oriented upzoning proposed in SB 827 would affect three station neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system. All three stations are in the East Bay but are somewhat distinct:

  • Orinda is a low-density suburban commercial and residential stop
  • Rockridge is a medium-density, largely suburban stop
  • MacArthur is a more urbanized commercial stop

The analysis included an assessment of what housing units are currently built in the 1/2 mile radius of the stop, how much capacity would be legal to build under current zoning, what would happen if only commercial areas were rezoned and not single-family homes and townhomes, and what would happen if the full upzoning allowed under SB 827 took place.

Here are the results (apologies for the blurry screengrab — check out the site for a better image):

The bottom line is that under SB 827, potentially 48,000 additional new units could be built, just within 1/2 mile of these 3 station areas. It demonstrates the power of upzoning near transit to build enough housing to accommodate future population growth and stabilize prices for existing residents.

And even if single-family homes and townhomes didn’t redevelop (either because the owners didn’t sell or the bill eventually gets amended to prevent development there), the state could still see over 10,000 new units in the “modified upzone” scenario — again, just at 3 station neighborhoods.

Caveats are of course necessary: not all of these units would be built, even under the full scenario. Property owners wouldn’t sell in some cases, developers wouldn’t maximize density and height on all lots, other local restrictions may prevent some of the units from getting built, and the final bill may contain additional restrictions that would limit a full build-out.

But this analysis indicates the power of upzoning near transit to help solve California’s dire housing shortage. Given the importance of this issue to California’s environmental and economic health, solutions like SB 827 are well in order, as this analysis shows.

Oil Industry Leaders Underestimate Electric Vehicles At Their Peril

I’m bullish on electric vehicles, for two big reasons:

  1. EVs offer a superior driving experience to gas-fueled cars
  2. EV costs are dropping rapidly, while the technology is greatly improving, with larger-capacity, more energy-dense batteries and faster charging times.

But oil industry leaders are apparently unafraid of this lurking threat. At a recent industry conference in Houston, Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser told the crowd:

“I’m not losing any sleep over peak oil demand or stranded resources,” he said. “Oil and gas will continue to play a major role.”

Electric vehicles will not deliver rapid and economical reductions in carbon emissions until the electric fuel mix is sufficiently clean, Nasser said. He also sees coal remaining a big part of the energy mix for years to come, especially in places such as China and India.

“Right now, with electric vehicles, we are simply moving emissions from tailpipe to smokestack,” Nasser said.

Nasser is only partially correct. Around the world, and especially in the United States, we’re seeing significant improvements in deploying a cleaner electricity grid. With steep price decreases for solar PV and wind, this dynamic will continue to play out across the world, lowering emissions from EVs in the process. And in the meantime, driving an electric vehicle is only comparably dirty to a relatively high-mileage vehicle on a grid that is essentially entirely coal-powered, which will be much less common going forward.

But Nasser wasn’t done underestimating EVs:

As for vehicles, he said multiple technologies are in a race for the future, with options such as an advanced internal combustion engine, hybrids, plug-in vehicles, electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Most vehicles on the road today have an internal combustion engine. There may be potential as well as challenges such as cost, durability and public acceptance, he said.

Technically, Nasser is correct that multiple low- and zero-emission vehicle options exist. But battery electrics are pulling away as the clear winner. Even companies like Toyota that have been pushing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are now realizing that they need to catch up with battery electrics, at least on the passenger vehicle side. Costs, durability and public acceptance are all coming along, too, as automakers introduce new, more affordable long-range models.

Nasser wasn’t alone in his anti-EV sentiment at the conference:

Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total SA, told the CERAWeek gathering on Monday that he got an electric car to test. He called it silent and expensive, saying that renting a battery doesn’t save money compared with gasoline. He’s convinced big cities will see plenty of electric cars in 10 or 15 years because of air quality. But he still described a “longer story for oil in front of us,” noting uses such as airplanes and shipping.

It sounds like Pouyanné had an odd EV experience. For most EV drivers, it’s much cheaper than driving a gasoline-powered vehicle. And models like the Chevy Bolt and new Nissan LEAF have much longer range at affordable prices. Still, I agree with him that oil will still be needed in the medium-term for long-haul shipping and possibly aviation, if hydrogen and biofuels don’t catch up.

But there was one truly cautionary note for EV enthusiasts. Spencer Dale, a BP economist based at Rice University, modeled one “extreme” scenario where all new passenger vehicles had to be fully electric from 2040 onward (meaning a global ban on the internal combustion engine by that year). But even in that case, Dale calculated that global oil demand will still be higher 20 years from now than it is today, based on the increased number of vehicles on the road.

If anything, Dale’s modeling speaks to the need for more aggressive action on EVs around the world. From a climate perspective, we need to focus on transitioning our vehicles off of gasoline as soon as possible. While the oil industry may not see the urgency, those who care about the future of the planet sure do. But regardless of potential future policy actions, EVs are here to stay and grow, and it’s a threat that leaders in the oil industry appear to be underestimating.

Struggling High Speed Rail Authority Needs Political Change To Save The System

The California High Speed Rail Authority released its 2018 draft business plan on Friday, and the news is not good. Not only have costs gone up with no new revenue in site, the authority now admits it’s unlikely to build any actual high speed rail service for at least a decade.

How did we get to this unfortunate place? Since voters originally approved a $10 billion bond issue to launch the system in 2008, two important events happened:

1) Central Valley representatives insisted the system start in the Valley, with no benefit to the coastal cities. While the system was originally billed as a quick way to serve Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Joaquin Valley representatives saw it as an opportunity to diversify and grow the Central Valley economies, by linking this largely impoverished part of the state to the thriving coastal cities. As a result, they insisted on starting the system in the Valley, where it would provide no benefit to the major population centers on the coasts. It’s the equivalent of starting LA Metro Rail in the suburban San Fernando Valley, or BART in the East Bay suburbs. Most train systems need to go back to voters for multiple rounds of funding. But in this case, voters in Los Angeles and San Francisco have no stake in the system. Had the system instead been started between San Francisco and San Jose and also between Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim (and up to northern Los Angeles County), there would have been something to show for the initial investment and more political support to complete it (and less litigation and opposition from the Central Valley residents).

2) Republicans took over Congress in 2010 and have since refused to return Californians’ tax dollars to the project. With that Tea Party election that year, Republicans withdrew the federal purse strings for the project. While the federal government is happy to pay 90 to 100 percent of the costs of new highways, and 50 percent of the costs for new rail transit, so far California residents have been on the hook for $17 billion of the roughly $20 billion in costs to date.

Nothing can be done about the first event, which is a mistake that the authority has since tried to rectify by dedicating some funds to improve Caltrain and Metrolink in the coastal cities.

The second event could potentially be remedied this November, if a “blue wave” removes Republican control of Congress. While President Trump could veto any subsequent infrastructure plans that funds high speed rail, he will have lost leverage at that point. And revenue to fund non-automobile infrastructure like high speed rail could come from sources like a new carbon tax, passed via reconciliation in the Senate.

Still, hoping for a political shift is not exactly a great business plan. In the meantime, the authority appears set to finish the 119 mile first segment in the Valley. Then, absent new revenue, they’ll probably hand it over to Amtrak to run regular diesel trains on it, biding time until political and economic fortunes change in the state and the country at large.

Bad News On Tesla Model 3 Quality

Tesla has done amazing work pioneering electric vehicles and forcing positive change toward EVs within the broader industry. But the company will risk its progress and investor enthusiasm if it’s first “mass market” vehicle — the new Model 3 — is unreliable.

And so far, the news is not good. Green Car Reports just reviewed the Model 3 and had this to report:

During the test itself, two things became clear: The Model 3 works largely as intended, and the build quality was the worst we have seen on any new car from any maker over the last 10 years.

The company was reviewing a car that had just been delivered in January, as production was ramped up at Tesla’s Fremont factory. The owner was not pleased with the vehicle:

We took delivery of our Model 3 today. It looked like everything was working OK until we got within about 10 miles of the house. That was when the touchscreen started to malfunction.

It is getting random touches along the right side of the screen. The worst part is that the stereo will go to full volume without notice. It also makes the map and navigation mostly useless. I called Tesla and they had me try rebooting the screen several times.

Unfortunately it didn’t resolve the issue. They said they would call me back [within 24 hours] to attempt a software update or to schedule a service call. Nothing like paying $50,000 to be a beta tester. Again.

I hope this is just a stroke of really bad luck for Tesla. But the higher-end Models S and X have also had these quality problems, although with an upper-income clientele that is more forgiving and able to weather having to bring their car to the shop. But the Model 3 is supposed to be an every day car for middle class buyers. So a reputation for unreliability could undermine that claim.

Tesla is relying on its brand as an innovative 21st century high-tech company with a luxury good. And certainly any new model car can have its growing pains, as we’ve seen for example with the otherwise high-quality Chevy Bolt EV. But if more stories about the cars falling apart surface, Tesla’s very survival could eventually be at stake.

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