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The Future Of Energy In 2030: California State Bar Conference On April 12th

How we generate, distribute and use electricity is key to meeting California’s environmental and greenhouse gas reduction goals.  We need to be much more efficient with the electricity we use, while ensuring that it comes from greenhouse gas-free sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal, coupled with energy storage technologies. We also need to electrify almost everything, from transportation to home heating.
The state has ambitious goals in all these areas for 2030, including a 50% renewable energy mandate, a requirement that we double energy efficiency in existing buildings, a related energy storage target, and electric vehicle deployment goal, among others.

But with so many technology changes, uncertainty over federal energy policies, and challenges related to financing and cost, what will the grid of 2030 look like?

The State Bar’s environmental law section is hosting a conference to explore this question, on Wednesday, April 12th in downtown Los Angeles.  Co-sponsored by Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, the conference will feature:

  • Keynote by new California Public Utilities Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen;
  • Panel on the impact of the Trump Administration on California’s energy policies;
  • Discussion of the rise of community choice aggregation as an alternative to the traditional utility model; and
  • Speakers from leading utilities, renewable energy companies, public agencies and nonprofit groups.

You can see the full agenda and register at the State Bar’s conference website.  Reduced rates are available for students and government/nonprofit employees.  Register now to secure your spot!

How Species Go Extinct: The Case Of The Woolly Mammoth

When humans first arrived in the Americas at least 13,000 years ago, they found a continent filled with huge animals (megafauna, as the scientists call them).  They included giant ground sloths, anteaters, saber-toothed tigers, and of course the woolly mammoth.

These elephant-like animals had never seen humans before and probably didn’t have much fear of them, given their relatively tiny size.  But as we know, no species on Earth can be quite as deadly as a group of human hunters with weapons.  The result was a constant barbecue, as humans dined on the mammoth bonanza and began to thrive and multiply on the new continent.

I always wondered how these humans could have knowingly killed the last few mammoths, with the species in what should have been an obvious decline.  But as it turns out, they may not have had to wipe them out completely to put the mammoth into a death spiral.

A new UC Berkeley study indicates that inbreeding from a smaller population may have done the trick:

To test the theory that woolly mammoths’ genomes changed as their population declined, researchers compared existing genomes from a mainland mammoth that dates back to 45,000 years ago, when the animal was plentiful, to one that lived about 4,300 years ago. The recent genome came from a mammoth that had lived in a group of about 300 animals on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean.

“We found an excess of what looked like bad mutations in the mammoth from Wrangel Island,” Rogers said.

The analysis showed that the island mammoth had accumulated multiple harmful mutations in its genome, which interfered with gene functions. The animals had lost many olfactory receptors, which detect odors, as well as urinary proteins, which can impact social status and mate choice. The genome also revealed that the island mammoth had specific mutations that likely created an unusual translucent satin coat.

To be sure, some people believe that the Ice Age was the real culprit in killing off the mammoth.  But mammoths had survived multiple ice ages in the past and emerged okay.  I’m sure the stress of human hunters, combined with the Ice Age, was a deadly twofer.  But the impact of hungry people with spears and the resulting inbreeding could very well have been enough to send the species into extinction.

Unfortunately, it’s not dissimilar to our current condition of a growing, hungry, meat-eating population and a rapidly changing climate.

Are Oil Companies Afraid Of Electric Vehicles?
The gas killer?

The gas killer?

They should be.  If some of the projections about declining battery costs are accurate, battery-powered cars will be much cheaper (and better) than gas-powered cars within possibly the next decade.

Electric vehicles like the Tesla Model S are already outselling similar gas-powered cars in their class, and a new generation of mass-market, long-range EVs have arrived with the Chevy Bolt, soon to be followed by the Tesla Model 3 and the new Nissan LEAF.

As E&E News (paywall) reported, one bullish study from the Grantham Institute for Imperial College London and the Carbon Tracker Initiative suggested that electric vehicles could make up around 35 percent of the market by 2035 and two-thirds by 2050:

“The oil and gas industry feels that EVs aren’t anywhere past being niche products,” said Luke Sussams, a senior researcher at Carbon Tracker and one of the authors of the report. “The model shows what might happen if EVs are further along that S curve [of consumer acceptance], just before that inflection point of mass uptick.”

The scenario outlined in the report, which also includes an aggressive projection for solar energy, would see oil and coal demand peak in 2020 and fall through 2050. The amount of oil displaced by EVs could reach around 2 million barrels per day by 2025 — the same volume that caused the 2014-15 oil price collapse.

I’m bullish on electric vehicles overtaking gas-powered ones for two reasons: first, electric vehicles are superior to gas-powered ones in terms of performance and convenience (less maintenance and easy home fueling if you have a garage); and second, battery prices have declined remarkably just since 2010. I remember the days of $1000 per kilowatt hour in battery prices that year; now Chevy reportedly bought batteries for the Bolt at $165 per kilowatt hour.

But the oil industry may not be taking this challenge that seriously. I know someone who works at Chevron, and he told me had presented some of his superiors with an analysis on the “threat of EVs.” But the company, in his words, is run by old-style Texas oil guys.  Oil is all they know, and they’re not in a position to transition the company dramatically to a completely different product.

My guess is the oil industry will have another decade or so of a good ride, but they’re facing diminishing market share. Policies like California’s low carbon fuel standard and zero-emission vehicle mandate won’t help them either.

If I worked for an oil company, I’d be advising them to figure out how to make money off this new paradigm.  It’s coming more quickly than they may realize.

RIP Chuck Berry

One of the founding giants of rock-n-roll music passes away at 90.

Future Of High Speed Rail Without Caltrain Electrification — KPCC Radio Discussion

Statewide_System_2016California’s high speed rail system was supposed to rely on electrified service between San Jose (Silicon Valley) and San Francisco.  But with the Trump Administration putting the brakes on the grant for Caltrain (peninsula commuter rail) to be converted from diesel to electric motors, people are wondering how it will now affect high speed rail.

To discuss the matter, I spoke on KPCC Radio’s “AirTalk” program in Los Angeles yesterday.  I was joined by:

  • Ralph Vartabedian, L.A. Times national correspondent; he has been following the story
  • Meghan McCarty, KPCC reporter covering commuting and mobility issues

You can listen to the audio on the Airtalk page.

The bottom line: high speed rail can still continue without Caltrain electrification, but it will stop at San Jose.  Of course, it’s not slated to arrive there until 2025, which gives the Bay Area and the California High Speed Rail Authority a fair amount of time to find alternative sources of funding if the Trump Administration officially torpedoes the project.

And in the meantime, the system will be relying on funding from cap-and-trade auctions, which recently haven’t gone so well.  All in all, trying days ahead for high speed rail proponents.

Los Angeles On The Verge Of Formaldehyde? Vote No On Measure S

Los Angeles voters face a major decision on Tuesday: will the city retreat from future growth in existing urbanized areas, worsening its current path of income inequality, economic decline for most of the population, severe traffic and air pollution? Because that’s what Measure S would largely achieve.

The measure would effectively halt new development for the next two years that involves any planning changes, putting development pressure on areas currently zoned for more development, usually in disadvantaged communities. The result will be a broken status quo that will only get worse, keeping Los Angeles only affordable to the very wealthy and displacing or pushing everyone else out into sprawl and far from good-paying jobs.

I think most sides of this land use battle would agree on one thing: Los Angeles needs better planning to ensure more development in the right places (near transit and jobs). This measure would not help achieve that goal though.  It will instead mostly benefit existing homeowners who were fortunate enough to buy their homes at the right time or have the incomes to afford decent housing near jobs.

These individuals fear “overdevelopment” and density in their neighborhoods, and they want government to intervene to prevent it from happening.  It’s the Anti-Sanctuary City.

Madaleine Brand hosted a lively one-hour discussion of Measure S yesterday on KCRW radio, featuring many of the leading voices on the issue from all sides:

Fingers crossed that Angelenos make the right call on Tuesday, or the region will have just taken a giant step backward in terms of economic, environmental and quality-of-life outcomes.

And in the long run, my hope is that a defeated Measure S will still spark a long-overdue discussion in Los Angeles about better planning.

Leapfrogging Traditional Electricity Grids With Renewables: Tanzania’s Example
Elizabeth Mukwimba is a 62-year-old Tanzanian woman who now has solar lighting and electricity in her home at the flick of a switch, thanks to an off-grid project.  Photo from Off-Grid Electric.

Elizabeth Mukwimba is a 62-year-old Tanzanian woman who now has solar lighting and electricity in her home at the flick of a switch, thanks to an off-grid project. Photo from Off-Grid Electric.

Tanzania exemplifies so much of the future of energy infrastructure in developing world countries, as Greenbiz describes:

The East African country of Tanzania faces a serious electrification challenge. Only 2 percent (PDF) of rural households have access to electricity, and most of the rural population relies on expensive, hazardous and low-quality fuels such as kerosene for lighting and charcoal for cooking.

Access to electricity and other modern energy services is fundamental to human well-being and to a country’s social and economic development. In many countries, electrification through off-grid applications has become a cost-effective alternative to conventional grid expansion in remote areas — and this could become a model that propels Tanzania’s next phase of economic growth. Already in the country, energy systems based on wind, small hydropower, biomass and solar resources are being used successfully to meet energy demand in isolated villages. By integrating these renewable-powered off-grid systems, rural communities are increasing their access to affordable energy supplies while contributing meaningfully to climate change mitigation.

Much like the leap to cell phones over landlines, many countries like Tanzania are better served going directly to decentralized, renewable technologies rather than building expensive and dirty traditional power grids with central-station power plants and far-flung transmission lines.

The upside is a cleaner, more resilient energy system with potentially few impacts on the land.  It also means more immediate electrification for rural residents, rather than making them wait for government and utilities to build a centralized grid to reach them.

I note that in this article, batteries do not seem to be on the table for Tanzania’s rural areas, while biomass may make up a crucial portion of the electricity mix.  I have nothing against biomass in concept, but depending on the technologies and incentives involved, it can sometimes lead to increases in emissions.

These opportunities in many ways come from the developed world’s investment in renewable technologies, which has brought prices down to the point where they are now viable options for poorer countries like Tanzania.

Keep Those Smart Phones Away From Your Body?

The smart phone revolution has almost completely taken over the human race, rendering most people into neck-bent zombies hungry for their next dosing of information or messages from friends, family or colleagues.

But maybe there’s a downside to the technology, too: harmful radiation.

A few years ago, California’s Environmental Health Investigations branch assessed the risks of cellphone radiation and offered recommendations for public use.  But the branch kept the supposedly “draft” document under wraps, until my UC Berkeley Law colleague Claudia Polsky and the school’s environmental law clinic students sued to have it released, on behalf of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Claudia and her clinic students just won the case in superior court, and she appeared on CBS Local News to discuss it:

Advice for those worried about cell phone radiation?  Keep the phone out of your front pocket or bra and keep it as far from you as possible while you sleep — especially for children.  Better safe than sorry!

Why Climate Facts Don’t Matter To Deniers

ten-tall-tales-climate-change-skeptics-29-Jun-11Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker explains why facts don’t matter to people, when it comes to persuasion, belief and arguments.  Ultimately, research shows that most people’s views are more about securing tribal-type cooperation among their social groups than dispassionate, reasoned analysis.

That’s all fine and good when it comes to organizing a group hunt or — in the modern day — relying on other people’s expertise to run basic infrastructure or business transactions.  But that group thinking has major pitfalls when it comes to achieving positive policy outcomes, particularly on climate change.

Kolbert’s piece offers a number of examples of how people are terrible at reasoning:

Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)

But there may be a glimmer of hope to force more careful thought and opinion:

In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.

Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

Following this logic, perhaps one way to open up some daylight among closed minds on climate science is to ask people to explain the impacts of their opposition to climate change efforts.  What if they’re wrong on the science?  What if countries like China take the lead on manufacturing clean technologies like solar panels?  Why not work to reduce pollution from the electricity and transportation sectors?

With some focused questions like these challenging pre-determined beliefs, perhaps we could make some headway opening minds.

Republicans Start Targeting Urban Transportation Investments
Current proposed high speed rail route

Current proposed high speed rail route

It was only a matter of time.  Once Republicans swept the election in November, they were likely to start using federal transportation funds to kill urban transportation projects.  Not only do Republicans tend to dislike public funding for any form of non-car-related transportation, but most transit systems are in Democratic urban strongholds, giving Republicans little incentive to spend dollars there.

California’s high speed rail project is apparently the first up in their crosshairs.  Even though state voters approved the system in 2008 and have been largely funding it themselves, what little dollars from the federal government to support the system are now in jeopardy.

Case in point: right before this past holiday weekend, congressional Republicans succeeded in getting the new transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, to effectively kill funding for Caltrain electrification.

The Caltrain project actually has little to do with high speed rail, although eventually high speed rail could use the upgraded tracks to serve San Francisco.  But in the meantime, electrifying the popular commuter rail between Silicon Valley and San Francisco would decrease travel times and air pollution and increase capacity, providing a huge benefit to the technology breadbasket of the country, while generating jobs from contractors and suppliers around the country.

The federal government under Obama had already agreed in principle to help fund the line with a $647 million transportation grant, with high speed rail funds used to help support the state’s contribution to the project.  But then 13 Republican members of congress wrote Chao a letter demanding that the grant be halted until a full audit of the high speed rail system could occur.

Chao complied on Friday, proving that the administration is keen to play politics with transportation dollars and keep them away from urban areas.

Perhaps most galling for Bay Area residents, Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a leading critic of high speed rail from Bakersfield, wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle full of hypocrisy:

We should work to unwind the messy and unworkable high-speed rail project, and instead try to direct more funds to modernizing needed transit and infrastructure projects — up and down the valley and the coast, in and out of downtown Los Angeles, and along Bay Area commuter corridors.

Which is of course exactly what the high speed rail money would have done with this project.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area’s business community had tried to lobby McCarthy not to hold up the funds, at a fundraiser on February 9th.  As Matier and Ross report in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“He [McCarthy] said he supported electrification of Caltrain, but said the problem was that the $647 million was commingled with high-speed rail money and that the line would be used by high-speed rail,” said Bay Area Council President Jim Wunderman.

As for McCarthy’s argument against high-speed rail?

“Same as it has always been,” Wunderman said. “Too costly. It’s not really high-speed rail.”

The move by the feds won’t kill high speed rail though:

Dan Richard, chairman of the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority, said that if McCarthy and the other 13 California House Republicans were out to kill bullet trains, they picked the wrong target.

“The business plan allows us to stop at San Jose,” Richard said. “If McCarthy is trying to blow us up, Caltrain was collateral damage.”

But the message is clear: until Republicans lose power in Washington DC, California is on its own in funding vital transportation infrastructure like high speed rail.

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