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The Lost Smart Phone Generation

Smart phones are now ubiquitous and have revolutionized almost every aspect of our lives in barely less than a decade. The power of digital connectedness, convenience, and information is at our fingertips.

Yet these devices are powerfully addictive. They intrude on our in-person relationships and time spent together, as well as on our attention spans and sense of calm. They provide unrelenting access to stimulation and diversion that conditions us to a heightened mental state.

And now research is beginning to show just how detrimental all this screen time is for the generation of kids that only knows a world with smart phones.

Jean M. Twenge is a psychologist who has been researching generational differences for 25 years. While most changes among generations tend to happen somewhat gradually, she noticed an abrupt shift around 2012, right as smart phones passed the threshold of ubiquity. As she writes in a fascinating and disturbing article in the Atlantic:

Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

And these alarming results are traced clearly to this new technology:

The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that increasing physical isolation leads children to unhappiness, combined with the mental blur of interacting via a screen with so much information and social communities. We are basically conducting a massive psychological experiment on today’s children to see how they’ll react to the technology of this brave new world.

To be sure, there are plenty of obvious positives with smart phone usage. As the article points out, kids are safer and engaging in less risky behavior. They also have the opportunity to use the technology to benefit their intellectual and social development.

But these technologies need to be viewed with skepticism. As Twenge concludes, the best advice for a happy adolescence is straightforward:

“Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.”

Gone Fishing

I’ll be on vacation for the next week or so.  Blogging will return August 7th.  Enjoy the summer!

Tiny Homes In Hawaii Could Be A Large-Scale Solution For The Mainland

Hawaii’s energy and land use challenges are very much a postcard from the future for mainland USA. I’ve written before about how renewables and EVs in Hawaii are trend-setting for the rest of the country. But it’s true on land use, too.

Native Hawaiians are allotted homesteads on lands that were property of the dethroned Hawaiian crown. Yet many Native Hawaiian have waited years to be able secure lands and affordable homes. Now pre-fabricated, tiny homes may offer the solution, thanks to financing from the nonprofit Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.  Hawaii News Now covered the story recently:

Hawaii News Now – KGMB and KHNL

Why is this useful for the mainland? Here in California, high construction costs are part of the reason for our housing shortage. Prefabricated homes, like those in Hawaii, represent a promising way to bring down the costs and ensure more affordable and ample homes for everyone.

We’ve already seen the movement start to take hold, such as tiny apartments in San Francisco and Sacramento. And prominent developers like the Bay Area’s Rick Holliday have begun building modular homes for the likes of companies like Facebook, all to bring down construction costs but still deliver high-quality homes.

If it can work in Hawaii, it can certainly work across the country.

How Lincoln & The Civil War Changed The U.S. Constitution

When did America go from “These United States of America” to “The United States” (i.e. singular)?  When did citizens in this country stop identifying primarily with their state (be it Massachusetts, South Carolina, or Virginia) and instead call themselves first and foremost “Americans”?

While we celebrate our country’s birthday tomorrow, many of us are unaware of how the U.S. Constitution — and our culture around the role of the federal government — has changed since the founding.  Many of those changes are due to the Civil War and President Lincoln.

Berkeley Law’s constitutional law expert (and my colleague and faculty director) Dan Farber discusses these changes on the Weekly Constitutional podcast, “Abe Lincoln’s Constitution”:

Worth reflecting on this subject as we celebrate the 4th during turbulent political times.

New Report: How To Boost EV Charging Infrastructure (Plus UCLA Law Release Event Webcast At Noon)

Electric vehicles (EVs) represent one of the most promising clean technologies, in terms of their potential benefits for the electricity grid, local air pollution, and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.  Not to mention they’re fun to drive.

The good news is that as EV prices have dropped by nearly half the last few years, the number of Californians driving them has gone way up, with almost 300,000 EVs now on the state’s roads (up from about 10,000 just five years ago).  The batteries in these vehicles can be used to soak up surplus renewable energy, and the use of electricity instead of petroleum as a fuel means significant reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

But all this progress is threatened by the lack of reliable and accessible charging stations, particularly for the 40 percent of Californians who live in apartments, townhouses, and condominiums without dedicated on-site parking spaces with charging capability (including even just a simple wall outlet).

Researchers estimate that California may need up to 220,000 publicly accessible charging ports by 2020 to meet projected demand, way beyond the roughly 12,000 available today. Hundreds of thousands of additional charging stations may be necessary at those multi-unit dwellings.

Private investment alone won’t be enough to make it happen: the business model for charging stations is currently not strong enough to attract sufficient private capital.  Simply put, many charging stations are too expensive to build and operate right now, without dependable near-term revenue to cover costs and produce a profit.

“Plugging Away” Report Releasing Today

To address the challenge, UC Berkeley and UCLA Law convened experts from the EV charging sector in 2016, including automakers, utilities, and charging companies, as well as government officials, academics, and nonprofit advocates.

Based on those discussions, the law schools are today releasing the new report “Plugging Away: How to Boost Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure.”  It is the eighteenth report from our Climate Change and Business Initiative, generously supported by Bank of America since 2009.

Among a number of detailed solutions, the report recommends:

  • More robust and strategic electric utility investments in charging infrastructure, at least for any new wiring to the charging station, in key locations such as workplaces, multi-unit dwellings, and fast-charge “plazas” to stimulate maximum EV convenience and adoption;
  • Revised commercial electricity rates to encourage charging at the right places and times to best meet grid needs, including options to reduce high demand charges related to peak usage at remote fast-charging sites; and
  • Targeted rebates and grants for office and multi-unit dwelling building owners to install charging stations, as well as expedited permitting to allow more curbside charging.

Free Lunch Event & Webcast at UCLA Law, Noon to 1:30pm

To launch the report, UCLA Law is hosting a free lunch event from noon to 1:30pm today, featuring a keynote by California Energy Commissioner Janea Scott and a panel including:

  • Tyson Eckerle, Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz)
  • Terry O’Day, EVgo
  • Dean Taylor, Southern California Edison

For those not in the Los Angeles area or unable to attend in person, the event will be webcast live.

I hope you can tune in or join.  With a more robust and reliable charging network, policy makers and businesses can help ‘pave the way’ to more electric vehicle adoption in California and beyond.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

The singer-songwriter recorded an obligatory speech earlier this month, or else he wouldn’t get the prize or the cash.  Complete with some strange background soft piano, the talk offers some insights into his influences and his thoughts about music versus literature.

Spoiler alert if you listen in: he discusses the books Moby Dick and All Quiet On The Western Front at some length.

You can listen to the full talk here:

The New York Times also has a summary of the speech.

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