The Need For Spock On Transit

Riding transit can be a great way to be a part of your community, as you get a chance to mingle with people from all walks of life instead of traveling in an isolated vehicle. But humanity isn’t always grand, and sometimes transit can expose you to some obnoxious behavior.

When that happens, just imagine you’re traveling with your own Spock, from this classic scene of Spock and Captain Kirk time traveling to 1980s California in Star Trek 4:

Super Cheap Wyoming Wind Vs. Coal Industry

Wyoming is pretty much the Saudi Arabia of wind. In fact, Wyoming wind farms are starting to get so cheap that they can out-compete solar, gas and coal, even without subsidies.

The financial firm Lazard released its most recent Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, an annual report of different energy sources and their costs, which shows this progress in hard numbers. It documents that new wind power costs between $30 and $60 dollars per megawatt hour in levelized costs. And with the federal tax subsidy included, the cost of new wind falls to between $14 and $52 (Wyoming does even better than most places on cost because the state is just so windy next to the Rocky Mountains).

By comparison, coal had a higher cost of between $60 and $143 per megawatt hour, while a combined cycle natural gas plant’s cost was between $42 and $78 per megawatt hour, cheaper than coal but not as cheap as wind. Nuclear was way high, between $112 and $183.

The result of these numbers is a booming wind industry in the Cowboy State, as Heather Richards of the Casper Star-Tribune reports:

Developers Power Company of Wyoming and Viridis Eolia both have significant wind projects proposed in the state. Power Company’s Chokecherry Sierra Madre wind farm is under construction for the first phase of a 1,000 turbine farm near Rawlins. And Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, would like to repower their entire wind fleet in the state, as well as bring 1,100 new megawatts online.

But the coal industry is not happy about it. The state’s coal sector is still the largest in the country, despite this new competition, and it’s facing considerable pressure from cheaper fuel sources both traditional and renewable. The industry hates the federal tax credit for wind and even got the state to levy a separate tax on wind production.

But with costs continuing to fall, plus the prospect of Wyoming serving out-of-state renewables market in places like California (should California successfully regionalize its grid), the coal industry’s fate will be unavoidable. In the long term, that’s not only good for air quality and stabilizing the Earth’s climate, it will also diminish the political power of the industry to try to hurt clean energy through bad tax policy, whether at the state or federal level.

The Uphill Battle To Limit Sprawl In California’s Central Valley

California’s Central Valley is the state’s defining geographical feature. It’s the country’s breadbasket, with over 400 commodity crops, including all the almonds grown in the country. At the same time, it’s poverty-stricken, with Fresno the second poorest city in the U.S., and yet oil rich down by the deeply Republican Bakersfield.

It’s also one of the most environmentally vulnerable region in the state, with one of the most polluted air basins in the country. And as the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area regions say no to new housing, sprawl is spreading into the Valley from these areas, as workers choose cheap housing and super commutes. Sprawl is also the norm around the Valley’s large cities along Route 99 on the eastern side. Like Los Angeles before it, the flat terrain means the region has no real geographical impediments to sprawl.

High speed rail could make the sprawl even worse, as the train will spur growth in places like Fresno, which will be just an hour or so from the booming coastal job centers (Berkeley and UCLA Law released a report on the subject in 2013, along with recommendations to combat the problem).

People in the Valley are well aware of the risk. Former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin, a rare Republican high speed rail supporter, tried to do the right thing to encourage more downtown-focused growth in Fresno and not allow the urban core to get hollowed out by competition from nearby cheap sprawl.

But Mayor Swearengin and other downtown booster’s efforts are threatened by Fresno’s neighbor Madera County next door, whose leaders prefer the model of continued sprawl over productive farmland and open space. The result will be the usual negatives we see elsewhere in the state: more traffic, worse air quality, and lost natural resources.

Marc Benjamin and BoNhia Lee detailed the new sprawl projects in the Fresno Bee last year:

Madera County is on the verge of a building boom that creates the potential for a Clovis-sized city north and west of the San Joaquin River, with construction starting this spring.

Riverstone is the largest of the approved subdivisions in the Rio Mesa Area Plan. It’s underway on 2,100 acres previously owned by Castle & Cooke on the west side of Highway 41 and north and south of Avenue 12. Castle & Cooke had plans to build there for about 25 years.

It’s the first of several subdivisions in the county’s area plan to be built. Over the past 20 years, Riverstone and other projects were targeted in lawsuits, many of which have been settled, but some still linger. But some critics contend that the new developments will worsen the region’s urban sprawl.

Principal owner Tim Jones’ vision for his nearly 6,600-home development a few miles north of Woodward Park is a subdivision with six separate themed districts. Riverstone will compete for home buyers with southeast Fresno, northwest Fresno, southeast Clovis and a new community planned south and east of Clovis North High School.

The Rio Mesa Area Plan will result in more than 30,000 homes when built out over 30 years. About 18,000 homes have county approval. The contiguous communities could incorporate to create a new Madera County city that could dwarf the city of Madera and have a population greater than Madera County’s current population of 150,000.

In the coming years, an additional 16,000 homes are proposed in Madera County. On the east side of the San Joaquin River, in Fresno County, about 6,800 homes are approved in the area around Friant and Millerton Lake.

Defenders of these sprawl projects claim that some are mixed-use developments located close to distributed job centers, minimizing the chances that they will become merely bedroom communities of Fresno. But as the development continues outward, it undercuts the market for infill housing, leading to a vicious downward spiral that we saw hit downtowns throughout the country in the middle of last century.

The best way to solve these growth issues is better regional cooperation, particularly around some type of urban growth boundaries. The growth boundaries can be de facto through mandatory farmbelts, rings of solar facilities, and possibly better pricing on sprawl projects to account for their externalities. Or they can be actual limits on growth and urban expansion outside of already-built areas.

Without concerted action, and with the high speed rail coming from Fresno to San Francisco soon, we may soon find that it’s too late to undo the damage in the Central Valley.

The Power Of Group Think & Lessons For Climate Communications

Sean Illing in conducted a fascinating interview with Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive science at Brown University, about how we arrive at the conclusions we do. In short, the process (and outcomes) are not pretty, as Dr. Sloman relates:

I really do believe that our attitudes are shaped much more by our social groups than they are by facts on the ground. We are not great reasoners. Most people don’t like to think at all, or like to think as little as possible. And by most, I mean roughly 70 percent of the population. Even the rest seem to devote a lot of their resources to justifying beliefs that they want to hold, as opposed to forming credible beliefs based only on fact.

Think about if you were to utter a fact that contradicted the opinions of the majority of those in your social group. You pay a price for that. If I said I voted for Trump, most of my academic colleagues would think I’m crazy. They wouldn’t want to talk to me. That’s how social pressure influences our epistemological commitments, and it often does it in imperceptible ways.

He concludes that if the people around us are wrong about something, there’s a good chance we will be too. Proximity to truth compounds in the same way. And the phenomenon isn’t a partisan problem; it’s a human problem on all sides of political debates.

In some ways, it’s understandable how this dynamic arose in our species. There’s no way one brain can master all topics, so we have to depend on other people to do some thinking for us. This is a perfectly rational response to our condition. It also may explain why traditional societies often relied on a few religious leaders to make a lot of the key decisions for a society that would rather not have to think too hard about broader societal problems and instead focus on problem-solving in their own immediate lives. The problem though becomes when our beliefs support ideas or policies that are totally unjustified.

So are we doomed to a fate of group-think with the risk of unsupportable beliefs? Dr. Sloman doesn’t think so, noting that some professions train people not to fall into this trap:

People who are more reflective are less susceptible to the illusion. There are some simple questions you can use to measure reflectivity. They tend to have this form: How many animals of each kind did Moses load onto the ark? Most people say two, but more reflective people say zero. (It was Noah, not Moses who built the ark.)

The trick is to not only come to a conclusion, but to verify that conclusion. There are many communities that encourage verification (e.g., scientific, forensic, medical, judicial communities). You just need one person to say, “are you sure?” and for everyone else to care about the justification. There’s no reason that every community could not adopt these kinds of norms. The problem of course is that there’s a strong compulsion to make people feel good by telling them what they want to hear, and for everyone to agree. That’s largely what gives us a sense of identity. There’s a strong tension here.

He’s also pioneering some research on ways to reframe political-type conversations from a focus on what people value to one about actual consequences. As he notes, “when you talk about actual consequences, you’re forced into the weeds of what’s actually happening, which is a diversion from our normal focus on our feelings and what’s going on in our heads.”

This work could contribute to a better understanding about public perceptions around climate change. For example, the denial of basic climate science can certainly be attributed to group-think. But as Sloman posits, reframing the messaging from the science to the outcomes of climate mitigation (such as a cleaner world, less dependence on extractive industries for fuel) might open more in the middle to taking action. We could also focus on training the next generation to be more open-minded on evidence and arguments, as with the scientific, medical and judicial fields.

But just being aware of our mental processing of information and beliefs is a good start to addressing the problem of when those processes take us in the wrong direction.


How Polluting & Conflict-Ridden Is The Electric Vehicle Battery Supply Chain?

Last week I blogged about the potential environmental and governance harms from clean technology mineral extraction. But what about one specific technology, the lithium ion batteries powering the burgeoning electric vehicle market?

Alex Tilley and David Manley of Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) discussed the potential boom in lithium mining in specific parts of the globe:

[I]dentified lithium resources are concentrated in salt flats in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. If the world shifts to lithium-ion batteries to power vehicles and electricity consumption, South America will become a globally strategic region for energy. And if governed well, this industry could be transformative for these countries’ economies.

Fortunately many of these lithium-rich countries have decent standards and processes for mineral extraction, although we’ll need to be vigilant to monitor impacts.

The story is more concerning though for cobalt, also an important metal for EV batteries. Cobalt is a byproduct of copper and nickel mining, and a typical EV contains about 33 pounds of cobalt. Until recently, there were often surplus cobalt supplies, as it was used mostly for steel production. But its ability to conduct electricity so efficiently has made it critical for rechargeable batteries like in EVs and therefore more in demand.

The problem is the location of the supply. Thomas Wilson in Bloomberg News tackled cobalt mining in a recent piece, noting that the relatively rare metal is found mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “a country in the African tropics where there has never been a peaceful transition of power and child labor is still used in parts of the mining industry”:

The country formerly known as Zaire — which hosted boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman for their 1974 heavyweight title bout dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle” — supplies 63 percent of the world’s cobalt. Congo’s market share may jump to 73 percent by 2025 as producers like Glencore Plc expand mines, according to Wood Mackenzie Ltd. By 2030, global demand could be 47 times more than it was last year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates.

With demand growing, mining companies including Glencore, Eurasian Natural Resources Corp. and China Molybdenum Co. are pouring more money into Congo. With cobalt prices rising, that government is looking for ways to increase its control of the supply as well as the profits. It’s also creating supply disruptions, as in a recent incident in which the government blocked copper and cobalt exports by the China-Congo joint-venture Sicomines in a dispute over local refining.

Worse, the cobalt mining may entail significant human rights violations. Amnesty International alleges that some “informal” mines may rely on child labor.

Corporations are responding to some of the public pressure around situations like in Congo to address the human rights and environmental implications of the battery supply chain. Apple and Samsung in particular were forced to more fully vet their suppliers. But these companies don’t always know where their cobalt comes from. Ultimately, more than half of the world’s supply of refined cobalt in rechargeable batteries comes from China, which in turn gets 90 percent of its cobalt from Congo.

Without more public pressure and international guidelines and cooperation, we lack guarantees that resource-rich countries will meet decent environmental and governance standards. Not only will residents of these areas be at risk, the supplies for electric vehicles may be held hostage to unstable, corrupt regimes. We’ve been down that road before with oil, and we should avoid repeating it in the coming age of electric vehicles.

What Have Uber & Lyft Done To Bay Area Traffic & Transit? Tonight On City Visions

Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft have transformed travel patters in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere. Tonight on City Visions, we’ll look at the impacts of these companies on traffic and transit.

Has ride-hailing decreased car ownership, as promised? Does it increase traffic congestion? What about its impact on public transit use? Can our existing infrastructure support this burgeoning practice?

Joining me to discuss will be:

You can see an interactive map created by SFCTA of Uber and Lyft pick ups and drop offs in San Francisco, as an example of their impacts.

Tune in with your questions at 7pm tonight, 91.7 FM KALW in the Bay Area or on the web.

Lessons From The Maryland Purple Line Rail Fight

The Purple Line light rail is finally underway in the Maryland inner suburbs around Washington DC, after a 31-year battle by neighborhood residents to get it built. It’s a badly needed light rail connector between two spokes of the Metro heavy rail lines, running through very transit-dependent areas (see map above).

Ben Ross was one of its chief advocates as an activist resident. He summarized some of the lessons the grassroots coalition learned in their three decade fight, which I distill here:

  • Democracy still works: grassroots organizing and mobilization defeated well-heeled property owners.
  • Think big: the bigger the project proposal, the greater the coalition in support became, featuring an alliance of business, labor, environmentalists, and civic groups as well as transit advocates.
  • Go on the offensive: forget the active opponents of a controversial project, mobilize supporters and convince the undecided with a positive message about the many benefits and forget point-by-point rebuttals of their arguments.
  • Avoid preemptive concessions: Ross writes, “When the critics object to the project itself, changes they suggest will not end their opposition, and they will make it harder to build support by lessening the project’s value.”

That last bit of advice probably would have been helpful for the Obama White House negotiators on the Affordable Care Act, who accepted numerous Republican amendments on the bill without getting their votes and instead alienated their base supporters from the bill.

Overall, the lessons learned in Maryland with the Purple Line could apply to transit and infill housing backers in almost any community.

How Polluting And Conflict-Ridden Is The Clean Tech Supply Chain?

It’s a recurring knock on clean technologies like solar PV and wind turbines. Critics like to argue that the metals and mineral extraction to make them entail exactly the kind of pollution – and sometimes political conflicts – that clean tech advocates hope to displace in the current fossil fuel supply chain.

We should be clear that we’re starting from a terrible baseline: the geopolitical negatives and pollution from the current regime of oil extraction, coal mining, and natural gas infrastructure dwarfs the likely risks and environmental footprint of producing most clean technology like solar PV and wind turbines.

But at the same time, it’s an area of legitimate concern and one that probably should be addressed at this relatively early stage in clean tech deployment, when advocates of better governance and pollution controls have potentially more leverage over the source countries and states.

Alex Tilley and David Manley of Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) explore the environmental and political footprint of the clean tech supply chain in a recent blog post and accompanying report. The researchers based their analysis on a World Bank report on various clean technologies and the minerals and metals needed to manufacture them, down to country-level data for the various commodities. They then ran the data against the 2017 Resource Governance Index (RGI) scoring:

[We] found that across the different minerals, on average 42 percent of reserves are in countries with “good” or “satisfactory” resource governance, 37 percent are in countries with “weak” scores (China accounts for 14 percent of this total) and a further 7 percent are in countries that score “poor.” Almost none of the reserves are in countries that are “failing” in their resource governance.

The outlook also presents some serious risks. A high average proportion of minerals reserves is found in countries with “weak” or “poor” governance and for some of the individual minerals, this proportion is much higher.

For example, 90 percent of the reserves of chromium, a mineral used in wind turbines, are in Kazakhstan and South Africa, two countries with “weak” RGI scores. Almost two-thirds of reserves of manganese, used in both wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries, are in countries that score “weak” or “poor” in the index—32 percent in South Africa, 23 percent in Ukraine, 7 percent in China, 4 percent in Gabon and 2 percent in Ghana.

The problems that could ensue from resource extraction in these “weaker” countries include worsening corruption, over-reliance on a single extractive industry, more political conflicts over resources, and local pollution of forests, rivers, and coastlines.  For project developers, these impacts could result in delays and project cancellations.

The authors cite some potential solutions from a Nature article for the international community to consider:

Because avoiding disruption is so crucial for the progress of clean technologies, the group of experts writing in Nature propose a global governance approach to avert potential bottlenecks. They call for the international community to set targets for mineral production; map resources; monitor impacts; research and invest in new extractive technologies; and carry out exploration in new frontiers, from sea beds to deep in the earth’s crust. Additionally, they propose an early warning system, using data analysis to trigger alarms for impending supply, governance and environmental concerns.

The upside for the residents of these countries, if the extraction processes are sound with respect to governance and environmental impacts, is rising standards of living and potential growth of a more diversified, open and tolerant economy. The downside though is unfortunately all too possible, unless the international community and clean tech industry mobilize for coordinated policy action.

Fully Self-Driving Vehicles Have Arrived — Beware The Sprawl & Traffic Impacts

A double shot of autonomous vehicle news this morning should be a wake-up call for those who don’t think fully self-driving vehicles will get here anytime soon:

  1. Waymo announced that it is ditching the backup drivers for its “robot cars” in Chandler, Arizona, and will offer them to the public as an autonomous taxi fleet, per the San Francisco Chronicle.
  2. Also in the Chronicle, Las Vegas is hosting a driverless shuttle for a half-mile, all-day loop in the downtown Fremont East district.  AAA of Northern California, Nevada, and Utah is sponsoring the yearlong pilot program, along with French companies Keolis (a global transportation company that already runs Las Vegas’ public bus system) and Navya, which manufactures the driverless shuttle.

With this news, the urgency of the situation should be clear to policy makers concerned about runaway sprawl and traffic. Having a robot chauffeur will encourage significantly more driving, if we don’t take policy steps to curb usage. I outline some of the options here, such as pricing driving miles as opposed to fuel.

The future is upon us with autonomous vehicles, and this single technology (which otherwise promises tremendous benefits for the public) could end up being an environmental and quality-of-life disaster if we don’t get ahead of it.

Will Automakers Fight Hard To Keep The $7500 Electric Vehicles Tax Credit?

Will GM fight for tax credits for its Bolt EV?

The news that Republicans are targeting the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles has stirred up automakers, who are relying on the incentives to boost demand for their EV investments. The incentive was created in 2008 through a bipartisan deal, with environmentalists teaming with national security-types concerned about U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The credit is available for the first 200,000 qualifying vehicles by each automaker. While no automaker has reached that cap, Tesla should do soon, once the Model 3 is widely available.

But how motivated is the auto industry to fight for it? Tesla certainly has the most incentive, given their all-electric line of vehicles. But so far they are mum publicly. The other automakers are mixed on electric vehicle deployment. General Motors and Nissan have gone all-in on EVs, but they still make their money on big gas cars.

And perhaps more importantly, the industry as a whole would presumably benefit from the huge corporate tax cuts proposed in the plan. They therefore may be unwilling to pick a strong fight over this one provision for just one part of their business, given how much they could benefit from the plan overall.

E&E news reports [paywalled] on the industry position:

“Eliminating the fuel-cell and EV credits will hamper progress towards getting these very clean and energy-efficient vehicles on the road,” said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the powerful trade group for domestic automakers.

Yet she also said the EV tax credit had not previously been a focus of lobbying as Republicans drafted their proposal. Member companies of both the car alliance and the Association for Global Automakers — the trade group for the U.S. operations of international automakers — are meeting this week to sketch out a position and strategy.

That lack of sustained interest in fighting for the tax credit is troubling. For example, the article reports that Ford Motor Co. redirected inquiries on this subject to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, “a tactic most automakers assume when there’s disagreement within the industry about strategy.”

Until we see more all-electric automakers like Tesla, EV backers may have a tough road ahead relying on the auto industry for full-throated support for supportive policies. In the meantime, the tax plan still has a long way to go to becoming law, with many changes likely to occur. So we’ll have to stay tuned.

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