Thursday, March 31, 2022

Diagonal Single Curb Cuts: I don't care if you live or die

I was walking home from the library and thinking about all the ways that my city doesn't prioritize people trying to make trips without cars.  

Behold, the Single Curb Cut, set at 45 Degrees (on the diagonal) with respect to the crosswalks. It's hard to see underneath the car blocking the crosswalk.

Here's the view after the car made a right turn right in front of me as I approached the crossing. If I were in a wheelchair, or using a walker or shopping (granny) cart to get to the grocery store on the other side of the crosswalk, I would have to step out of the marked crosswalk, make a 45 degree turn to the left, cross in the sidewalk, then pull out into traffic again to go up the other diagonal ramp. 

Notice the dark stain at the foot of the ramp? That's the damp spot left after the recent rain because the Diagonal ramp cut is a gravitational well at the intersection of two crowned roads. People who roll things will always be directed into a puddle with these kinds of curb cuts. 

Imagine yourself in a wheelchair, trying to roll to the grocery store. You have to turn, roll yourself diagonally into the street, slowing yourself down so you don't roll off the sidewalk into speeding traffic.  After you stop yourself, you need to make a sharp turn to get into the crosswalk, then roll outside the crosswalk to approach the diagonal curb cut. 

Turning slows you down, so you could be at a near dead stop. To get back onto the sidewalk, you have to push uphill starting from a dead stop in a low point. Now imagine yourself coming home from the grocery store, laden with food.  Do that in reverse with the extra weight. 

At this intersection, there isn't even a marked crosswalk in the other direction; why direct the ramp towards the middle of the arterial intersection? Omission of a marked crosswalk and a traffic signal across this 35 mph arterial road (40,000 vehicles/day) means you want to suppress people from walking across the arterial at this intersection.  You've already decided to pay for only a single curb cut. So why not align it with the marked crosswalk? 

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

CA Car Rebates and Our Underfunded Active Transportation Program

There's been much hoopla about California's budget surplus and high gasoline prices. So why not use some of that surplus to alleviate pain at the pump? That may be good political messaging when the impetus is the much more mundane Gann Limit on CA public spending. The ghost of Howard Jarvis strikes again. Not content to limit just property taxes, they sponsored and got the electorate to approve caps on overall spending that limit public investment overall.

I don't want to belabor the stupidity of giving people who own cars $400 per car, up to $800 per person, while not similarly rewarding people who are either too poor to own cars and/or care enough about the common good to not own a private car in the first place.

In a world without all the stupid laws that we inherited, we could have fully funded our Active Transportation Program (ATP) to increase the proportion of trips accomplished by biking and walking.  The majority of ATP-funded projects are Safe Routes to Schools--to help children get safely to and from school. Basically, we need to protect kids outside of cars from the cars chauffeuring them around. 

Because of limited funding, ATP grants are extremely competitive

In 2014, cities and counties across the state requested about $1 billion in funding for pedestrian and bicycle safety projects, but there was only $368 million available, meaning about 37 percent of applicants were funded that cycle. Fast forward to Cycle 5 in 2020 when over $2.5 billion in funding requests were submitted for $554 million in available funding, a success rate of about 22 percent. In Los Angeles County, only 14 of 64 applications were awarded even partial funding, or 22 percent total – demoralizing, yet consistent with the statewide average.

The 2023-24 ATP budget is even grimmer. ATP has $147,670,000 to spend that is not already committed to other projects. That means, the 6-county SCAG region of 20 M people (including LA County, has only $31,242,000 or about $1.50/resident. 

In contrast, Governor Newsom's proposed 5-year infrastructure plan will devote $10 B to electric cars and $20 B for roads, roughly $5 B/year (pages 7-8).  This isn't even counting the $ spent on CHP and traffic enforcement. Due to the Gann limit, every $ spent in one place is a $ we can't spend somewhere else. This is extremely discouraging. 

In the mean time, we depend on volunteers and advocates such as Safe Routes Partnership to help communities hone their proposals to improve their odds of winning an ATP grant. "In ATP Cycle 5, four out of the five communities we worked with scored an 86/100 or above." In other words, communities can compete to get technical help to further compete to get funds to improve street safety for school children. 

My community finally won an ATP grant, but the funds allotted are well short of what we really need to remodel our streets.  We're likely to end up with some paint and street signs. Sigh. 

We have so much work to do. Spend some time exploring the California ATP Transportation Injury Mapping System.  (You need to register to create a free account, but it's worth it. UC Berkeley researchers built the system and don't do anything nefarious with your search terms.)

Here's a heat map of the 2017-2021 carnage. 

People who live in the neighborhoods with the larges blotches of red are least likely to own a car but most likely to be killed or maimed by one.  In Los Angeles County, over 5 years, 173 cyclists dead, 1323 pedestrians dead, thousands more injured and maimed. Their lives will forever be marked by pain and disability. (I'm not even counting the effect of air pollution in their neighborhoods.)

The Gann Limit requires CA to give out rebates. I wish that the rebates be used for restorative justice instead of rewarding people for owning cars. Who's with me?

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Article 34, AFFH, Land Use and Climate Change

 Following up on How Mixed Income Cross Subsidies Work  

In 1950, California voters passed Proposition 10 that became Article 34 of our state constitution which bans construction of publicly-financed low-income housing unless a majority of voters approve.

Guess how many were approved in higher income, whiter areas? 

You don't have to guess, because California has created the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Map, so you can see exactly where they are.  Not surprisingly, Public Housing (the publicly-owned ones targeted by Article 34) are rarely in the wealthy suburban areas of Los Angeles County, where the excellent schools and abundant jobs are. 

Notice how many of them are clustered around Freeways. Funny how areas with poor people attract freeways and how the only places that don't encounter NIMBY opposition to low-income housing is next to freeways. 

But, didn't I write in the last post that there were subsidized homes in Redondo Beach?  Yes, but there are different types of subsidized homes. The ones I showed last time are part of a mixed-income community, cross-subsidized by other residents of that complex--not the government. They don't even show up on this map because they don't use public funds (except some minor administration).

If we visualize government-Subsidized Housing, funded by HUD and LIHTC, you can see that they are more broadly dispersed, but still concentrated in certain areas. 

HUD (yellow) = Housing and Urban Development, funding directly from the Federal Department of Housing 

LIHTC (red) = Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a Reagan-era program created in 1986 that substitutes direct federal dollars with tax credits for private developers. It's very complex, but it's the biggest program in use today. 

Click on each red or yellow dot to learn more about each development.

My mother lived in a LIHTC home for a few years after maintaining her old house was too much for her and before she needed assisted living. We submitted paperwork each year to requalify her for below-market-rate (BMR) rent.  (In Silicon Valley, paying $2200+/mo for a 1 modern bedroom apartment is considered a great deal and worth giving her landlord an $800/mo tax subsidy over full market-rate rent.)

To create any kind of subsidized affordable units, you have to build in the first place. If you block all new housing, you can block subsidized housing without explicitly saying that is your intent. 

That gets us to the last line of affordability, Federal Housing Choice Vouchers aka Section 8. Once you secure one (and you can spend decades waiting for your area's waiting list to open and then decades waiting to move up the waiting list to get a voucher), then you have to find a home whose rent is low enough to qualify for the program

The map below shows the percentage of rentals in each census tract that are rented using Section 8 vouchers. Click on each Census Tract to get details of how many units that represents. If you have only one rental 4-plex building in a census tract, but it is all Section 8, then that shows up as 100% and dark brown. If you have 3000 rentals in another census tract, and 400 of them are Section 8, then it shows up in a lighter color. But the second tract is providing more affordable homes. 

People can't use Section 8 vouchers in your neighborhood if you block apartments from being built in your neighborhood. 

If there are apartments, landlords used to be able to discriminate and refuse to take Section 8 voucher holders. But, laws have changed. 

That brings us to the biggest impediment in my area, the lack of units whose rents are low enough to qualify for the program. After all, the government should subsidize basic, not luxury homes, right? 

The HUD Fair Market Rent is set on a regional level, so it's supposed to be an average of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana. But, that regional average rent doesn't stretch to the rents in most high opportunity areas. Try finding a 2 bedroom apartment in southwest Los Angeles County for $1330-1708/mo in 2021. This is another reason there are no or very few Section 8 beneficiaries in many census tracts. 

If you have more time to kill, explore the AFFH map further. Click on the squares at the upper left to expose menus of datasets you can layer. For instance, select Jobs Proximity Index. The blue areas have the best access to high numbers of good-paying jobs. The red areas have the least access (by both car and transit). Notice how comparatively few subsidized homes are in the blue areas? 

If we are going to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and air pollution, we need to move people closer to their jobs. No, that does not mean shipping jobs to the desert. It means that we densify the already developed areas. Unfortunately, this is considered intensification of land use and is very hard to do under existing law. 

Do we change the human laws or do we ignore the physical laws that govern climate change?

Friday, March 25, 2022

How Mixed Income Cross Subsidies Work

There seems to be a lot of confusion about low-income and affordable housing in California and beyond. I was similarly confused, but learned a few things when I signed up to be a League of Women Voters volunteer and attended housing meetings at the regional and local level. 

I keep saying that I am not an expert, but people I consider to be true experts say I know more than 99% of CA voters. So I'll blog about a few things I learned, in no particular order except that it was at the top of my mind for some reason (usually answering a recent question). 

In 1950, California voters passed Proposition 10 that became Article 34 of our state constitution which bans construction of publicly-financed low-income housing unless a majority of voters approve. This helped fuel a rush of incorporation amongst small and midsize cities so that locals won't be overwhelmed by voters of a larger city. Why it’s been so hard to kill Article 34, California’s ‘racist’ barrier to affordable housing (LA Times link) does a good job of explaining the situation.

The wording of the Proposition binds our hands:

No low rent housing project shall hereafter be developed, constructed, or acquired in any manner by any state public body until, a majority of the qualified electors of the city, town or county, as the case may be, in which it is proposed to develop, construct, or acquire the same, voting upon such issue, approve such project by voting in favor thereof at an election to be held for that purpose, or at any general or special election. 
For the purposes of this Article the term “low rent housing project” shall mean any development composed of urban or rural dwellings, apartments or other living accommodations for persons of low income, financed in whole or in part by the Federal Government or a state public body or to which the Federal Government or a state public body extends assistance by supplying all or part of the labor, by guaranteeing the payment of liens, or otherwise. 
For the purposes of this Article only there shall be excluded from the term “low rent housing project” any such project where there shall be in existence on the effective date hereof, a contract for financial assistance between any state public body and the Federal Government in respect to such project. 
For the purposes of this Article only “persons of low income” shall mean persons or families who lack the amount of income which is necessary (as determined by the state public body developing, constructing, or acquiring the housing project) to enable them, without financial assistance, to live in decent, safe and sanitary dwellings, without overcrowding. 
For the purposes of this Article the term “state public body” shall mean this State, or any city, city and county, county, district, authority, agency, or any other subdivision or public body of this State. 
For the purposes of this Article the term “Federal Government” shall mean the United States of America, or any agency or instrumentality, corporate or otherwise, of the United States of America.
This guarantees that no new subsidized rentals can be built in wealthier, higher opportunity areas. It also explains why public housing in CA is so old. We have to hang on to old, decrepit and dangerous subsidized rental housing because we can't offer modern replacements. 

HUD used to help fund modest market-rate apartments (until about 1970) that have become "naturally affordable" as they rotted and became less desirable. That downward "filtering" of homes to lower income households no longer works with our severe housing crunch. Even older apartments can command high rents. This is why you now see families headed by two working PhD rocket scientists squeezing into 2 bedroom apartments built in 1969. My area has slowly become whiter and more affluent. (Anyway, this is getting off-topic and I'll save it for a separate blog post.) 

Today, low and moderate income housing is likely to be built without public subsidy by non-profits or by for-profit developers who are willing to build a few below market rate units in order to be allowed to build more units overall.  This is called a cross-subsidy. 

In the words of the Family Housing Fund
In strong housing markets, nonprofit or mission-driven for-profit developers who build affordable homes can use profits from the sale or rental of market-rate homes to subsidize the costs of affordable homes. For example, some developers have used the profits from market-rate condominium units to subsidize affordable condominium or rental units for working families within the same development.
Here's an example in North Redondo Beach, along a loud and polluted truck route called Artesia Boulevard. I'm using the satellite view option of a California Property Tax Map, which shows you how much taxes are assessed in a bunch of California urban counties, including Los Angeles County. Click the link to see this area.

Each balloon represents a parcel. A range means that there are multiple properties on the parcel (condos, townhomes). Yellow or black means they pay near average taxes. Red means they pay higher than average. Green means they pay lower than average. Proposition 13 allows people to pay much lower than average taxes, as exemplified by the single family home at the top center paying around $1,346/year while adjacent townhomes pay $4,490-$10,525 each (3-5 homes on the same size lot).

On the commercial side of the block, several lots were combined for a mixed-use project of commercial on the street level with 3 stories of housing above. There is a 2-level parking garage below and behind the commercial offices. 

Click the bubble with a range on that building and a spiral with all the assessments becomes visible. Note the 9 green bubbles among the 39 black ones? When the developer built this complex, they offered to sell 8 units below market rate and the buyers of those 8 units promised to sell only to income-qualified buyers at below market rate prices. 

It looks like one of the original 40 market rate homes is now paying lower taxes, perhaps an older person who sold another home and used Proposition 13 portability of lower taxes. That unit does not have any limitation on who they can sell to and at which prices. (I'll explain that later because that is another mind-bogglingly inefficient and stupid system we use because we can't built low-rent rentals.)

From the National Housing Conference's Policy Guide:
Under strong housing market conditions, the market-rate share of a mixed-income development can generate more income than is necessary to cover costs for developing these units. These profits can fill the gap between income and expenses for the portion of units that are rented or sold at affordable (below-market) rates. This “pure” cross-subsidy model is likely to be viable only in strong markets, where rents and/or home prices are high enough to generate profits to cross-subsidize the affordable units. 
As the federal funding available for affordable housing has declined in recent years, communities and developers have sought more cost-effective and market-based strategies for increasing the supply of affordable homes. The inclusion of market-rate units within a mixed-income development or community can make the development more financially feasible and less reliant on public subsidy through cross subsidization.
Anyway, the 30-second elevator pitches is that developers can sell a few homes as loss-leaders if they can command high-enough prices for the other homes to "pencil out".  How many homes is determined by their costs and the prices they can command for the other units.  The higher the prices in that local market, the more loss-leaders they can create.  

These mixed-income cross-subsidized developments require no public money, which is why they can be built under the conditions of Article 34. But they do mean that new residents who share the building will have to pay higher prices than they normally would have (or the developer takes a lower profit). Usually, it's a bit of both. 

But, local governments can raise their costs by throwing impediments at developers until they can't afford to do so. This is why streamlining the development process is so important. If something can be built "by-right" without any additional permitting processes other than normal health and safety ones that apply to everyone, then CEQA challenges aren't possible. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

World Water Day 2022: Groundwater

We've circled the sun one more time to another World Water Day. This year, the theme is Groundwater. 

I co-organize a monthly (Zoom) series for the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles County that grew out of a one-time water walking tour I led in the Beach Cities. We record and post all the Water and Infrastructure Group (WIG) lectures along with the slides. Occasionally, I add articles about what we learned or add further information on each month's subject. 


Mr. Matthew Hacker is a registered geologist in California and is currently a Senior Resource Specialist at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He has more than 27 years of experience in water resources planning and local resource development in the areas of groundwater, stormwater, and water recycling. Currently, he is striving to create a more resilient water future for Southern California through innovative new projects such as Metropolitan’s groundbreaking Regional Recycled Water Program. 
His prepared talk is under an hour, half the video is Q and A. 

One fascinating thing I learned is that Metropolitan stores imported river water in the vast LA coastal aquifer. That water we pump out, treat, and deliver to our homes, may have originated in Northern California or Colorado. 

You can learn more about that by watching the Who Fills Your Taps? Video or reading the Who Fills Your Taps? Slide Deck. This is a marathon one that is better ingested in two bites. WIG co-organizer, Kathy Kunysz, is a scientist & planner who has had a long & varied career in water. She knows so much, it's an honor and an education to co-host this series with her. 

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

New Construction Subsidizes Old

I was reading city council minutes and my head was going to explode with all the coded things that some council members were saying. In one discussion, Council Member NN wanted to impose Quimby Fees on the theory that newcomers have not been paying taxes into the community and should have to buy their way into the parks and other amenities of this city. That is, they didn't pay for the park purchases so they shouldn't get enjoyment until they pay their debt to existing homeowners. 

This is so nonsensical, because, he then talked about using the Quimby Fees to buy new parks or to maintain existing parks. That sure sounds like he wants new construction to subsidize old homes, not the other way around. Hmm. Coincidentally, he wants nearly all the new housing (and Quimby Fee payers) next to the freeway in the extreme NE corner of the city while using their Quimby money to purchase parks in the coastal southern area of the city that he represents. 

BTW, the southern end of our city has been identified as a Racially Concentrated Area of Affluence. In a county that is 26% non-Hispanic white, he represents census tracts that are currently over 80% non-Hispanic white (and formerly whites-only on HOLC "red line" maps.)

Back to this idea that new construction doesn't pay their fair share for infrastructure, let's take a look at this screenshot from the California Property Tax Viewer

Take a look at the mixed use building with 48 homes, 8 affordable (hence, lower green property tax flags). There is also a garage and several businesses, generating more property and sales taxes since 2011.  200' by 120' = 24,000 sf. One condo unit is paying $7,200/yr in property taxes. 

Look at the single family home (SFH) behind it on a 50' by 150' = 7,500 sf lot.  It pays only $1,300 in property taxes each year or about 18% as much as one of the 48 condos. It was built in 1953 so it's been paying property taxes for 67 years.

Let's do a back of the envelope calculation and just use ratios.  One ten year old condo has already paid as much in property taxes as the older house has in 55 years.  Plus, our city charges Quimby Fees of $25,000 per net new home and a bunch of other fees totaling about $29,000.  That adds up to another 22 years of taxes from the old house. 

And that thing about sewer lines?  Complete nonsense.  Our water and sewer mains run down the street and maintenance costs go by the frontage.  That old house sits between a 6-plex on one side and a duplex on the other, each on the same 50' wide lot.  

Our sewers are run by the LA County Department of Sanitation and we're charged per hookup.  The infill townhomes are paying 2-6 times as much to maintain the sewers as the old SFH. The mixed use development has about 50 hookups on 200' so they are paying 12.5x as much for our shared infrastructure.  

The water and infrastructure myth is even more pernicious in light of water conservation (which is a good thing!) Read Adapting to Change: Utility Systems and Declining Flows. As we conserve water, the residence times in the water pipes increase, sometimes too long to be safe.  Infill housing, if it adds more people, can help keep the water residence times safe.  

If you don't add enough infill housing, you end up in San Diego's fix.  In just a few years, the cost of expensive potable water (imported from the Colorado River) they had to flush to keep their domestic water safe has increased from $200,000 to $2,000,000/year. 

Speaking of flushing, water-saving appliances and toilets mean that sewage outflow is lower volume and thicker than in the past.  That requires more energy to pump it back to the sewage treatment plant.  If managed well, infill housing can offset declining flows, save energy and reduce clogging.

Infill housing helps in two ways.  It gives you more customers to share the cost of maintaining infrastructure. And it also offsets declining flows for both inbound potable water and sewage.

That SFH is the deadbeat in the picture.  Long live infill!

Monday, January 03, 2022

Dark Money Greenwash Wokewash

If you consider yourself an environmentalist and live in California, odds are high that your inbox has been bombarded with misinformation from a certain group that purports to speak for small solar rooftop owners combatting climate change. 

They call themselves The Something Rights Alliance.  Notice their rhetoric focuses on Individual Rights vs Collective Responsibilities.  This Libertarian framing is then wokewashed with faux concern for the poor to argue for policies that actively harm the poor. 

This Dark Money group is so effective at Flooding the Zone with Misinformation that I'm not going to name them for fear of their web sniffers and the mobs they unleash. But pay attention to the loaded, emotional language that they use in order to short-circuit critical thinking. 

I've been taking a lot of heat from this group and was going to lie low. But, this morning, I read Skeptics Say, ‘Do Your Own Research.’ It’s Not That Simple. written by Nathan Ballantyne and David Dunning (yes, that Dunning) and decided that I have to speak out against armchair environmentalists and the Dark Money manipulators weaponizing them.

It's bad enough that we are dealing with Covid & Climate Change deniers, but now we have to worry about Regulatory Capture by Big Solar as well? 

Let's start with Dark Money.

“Dark money” refers to spending meant to influence political outcomes where the source of the money is not disclosed. Here’s how dark money makes its way into elections: 
Politically active nonprofits such as 501(c)(4)s are generally under no legal obligation to disclose their donors even if they spend to influence elections. When they choose not to reveal their sources of funding, they are considered dark money groups.

I looked up this group in Charity Navigator to find out more about them. They are unscored because they won't disclose information. Hmmm. Then I looked up their 990s on the IRS website. They reported ZERO income in 2017, the last year 501(c)(4)s were required to disclose their donors in a supplement. New grassroots organizations may start with no money and a bunch of volunteers, then grow slowly (both members and $), but this organization's funds grew overnight and then stayed flat. 
IRS 990 for 2018, showed they went from $0 income to $215,017 income, but did not file a (now purely optional) supplement to show who gave them the money. Meanwhile, the board shuffled a bit, but kept the same executive director. He earns his keep by being very active on the bird app and always in your inbox stoking outrage for Straw Man claims that no one is seriously proposing or considering.
In 2019, they report $215,027 in income and their board changes slightly again with the addition of more minorities to bolster their wokewash credentials.

Enough about the Dark Money, let's talk about the lies. I wrote an entire fact sheet debunking the wild things they say in their mass emails. It all sounds so physically plausible, until you pick up a physics textbook and calculator. 

The kerfuffle is over Net Metering, the methodology where we credit rooftop solar owners at retail rates for excess electricity that they export onto the shared grid. It made sense when the goal is to nurture a nascent industry, but it becomes a problem when the industry is mature, per panel costs have come down over 90%, and a lot of homeowners are trying to do the same thing. 

When CA passed the first Net Metering law back in the 1990s, lawmakers were worried about the day when residential rooftop solar would be ubiquitous enough that Net Metering would cause a cost-shift from solar owners to non solar owners.  They wrote in the legislation that they would periodically examine the cost-shift and readjust incentives as necessary. This Dark Money group wants to subvert the law. 

This is further exacerbated by the fact that (with few exceptions) you have to own your home and have enough home equity to swing a loan to install solar panels on the home. Guess who has the money?  It's generally older, wealthier and whiter people than the general population.  Over half of Californians are renters. Add in the people who live in condos/townhomes, whose smaller roof area per resident constrain their ability to generate excess electricity to export. 

According to the vast majority of energy experts in academia, national labs and industry; that cost-shift is happening, costs CA electricity customers without solar over $3 Billion per year (and rapidly climbing), and is a very inefficient way ($ and materials) to decarbonize California's grid.  I'm not going to belabor the points, it's already covered in my Fact Sheet. The main point is that people who have  larger systems, and fewer residents/users, export the most electricity to the grid and benefit the most under the status quo NEM 2.0. 

This Dark Money organization tried to stop the regulatory reform process by claiming it was rigged.  When that failed, they turned to organizing a mob to lobby Governor Newsom to either veto the proposed decision or to appoint new California Public Utilities Commissioners that are friendlier to them. This might work because the CPUC was led by an environmental justice rock star, Martha Guzman Aceves, who has been tapped by the Biden administration to head up the EPA for Region 9, which includes California. 

There will be two openings on the CPUC, so this is where they might actually succeed. The vote is scheduled for January 27, 2022 and there might be new commissioners, or the vote can take place without two stalwart defenders of poorer Californians. This is why I'm writing about it here. I'm hoping you will learn more, and then help vaccinate the population against the lunacy.  They are going to flood the governor and the CPUC with their talking points. So I want to get mine out as well. 

I want to talk about the Straw Man claims vs the actual California Public Utilities Proposed Decision. The Dark Money group is using wildly inflated numbers for the Grid Participation Charge. The math doesn't even work out right on their claims.  If you don't want to read the 204 pages of the Proposed Decision (PD), then at least read the CPUC NEM Fact Sheet: Modernizing California’s Net Energy Metering Program to Meet Our Clean Energy Goals Proposed Decision for Proceeding R.20-08-020. 

Simply put, the Grid is a support system that binds all of us together.  We depend on our neighbors and they depend on us. That is the rationale for the Grid Participation Charge, GPC. 

The Grid is a complex and expensive system to build and maintain.  It's also extremely creaky, with many system components from the Rural Electrification Act era, over 80 years ago. If we are not going to burn coal or fossil gas, for which we already have plants close to the users, then we need to build out a twenty-first century national grid to move renewable energy around from source regions to use regions. 

Transmission losses are inversely proportional to voltage; high-voltage interstate transmission lines that bring New Mexico evening wind energy to Los Angeles can lose as little electricity to transmission loss as from a neighborhood substation to a home in the suburbs (a few % each).  That's all taken into account in the Avoided Costs Calculator that NEM 3.0 uses. 

People without solar pay for the grid through volumetric rates ($ per kWh) and a very daily fee.  Rooftop owners push/export electricity to the grid during midday and then pull/import from after sunset.  They are heavy users of the grid, but their volumetric bill can be effectively zero. So they are not financially supporting the grid even though they are heavily reliant on the grid.

In order to encourage conservation, we set volumetric rates so that, the more you use, the more you pay.  That makes intuitive sense, as long as everyone is paying into it.  But, suppose all the heavy users, who also happen to be the wealthiest, install privatized systems--rooftop solar. With volumetric rates, they buy a lot less electricity, which means the (~9/10) non solar customers have to pick up the slack to support the grid.  

The fewer people paying for the Grid through volumetric rates, they higher the volumetric rate (cost per kilowatt hour) needs to be to pay for the Grid.  Under the current Net Energy Metering 2.0 program, rooftop solar owners get paid the retail rate for electricity they export, which is about 5 times as much as the avoided cost (generally wholesale cost of utility-scale solar plus transmission & reserve capacity).

This retail rates have to go up to cover this overpayment, which then generates even higher payments to the rooftop solar owners.  This is a positive feedback mechanism, also known as a runaway train.

Net Metering Reform is about countering this runaway train effect. 

It's long, it's complex, the ruling (proposed decision) is 204 pages for a reason. But I want to counter two BIG LIES. 

The first is that the Grid Participation Charge will hurt low-income solar owners (or which there are very few).  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Remember earlier when I explained that the Grid is a social contract?  Well, we acknowledge some people have more needs and less resources than others.  We subsidize the vulnerable.  Low income and disabled people (their entire households) will be exempt from the GPC.  The GPC will phase in slowly over 5 years, with a Market Transition Credit to soften the landing. Low income households will also get the MTC so they will get a negative GPC. 

In contrast, NEM 2.0 is paying low income homeowners with solar LOWER prices than for much wealthier solar owners.  Why? Because low income people pay 18-35% lower retail electricity rates.  So, the wealthier you are, the more you are earning under NEM 2.0. 

The second lie is that the CPUC is doing the bidding of the utility companies and designing NEM reform to kill their competitor, roof top solar.  Utility companies are regulated monopolies. They can wish for the sky, but the CPUC tells makes the rules. 

The CPUC has an obligation to keep the Grid in good working order (capacity and maintenance); ensure a safe, reliable and affordable electricity supply for all users; decarbonize the Grid in a cost-effective way as fast as possible, using roof top solar as one of their many tools; and to sustainably promote roof top solar.  It's a tough balance, which is why they studied the issue for so long, listened to many arguments, examined a lot of data. 

The CPUC isn't trying to kill off an industry they are tasked to support.  They are just trying to do it within the constraints of the other things they must also ensure--like affordable rates and a robust grid for everyone.

The second lie is related to the resilience argument.  Currently, the CPUC and the public who pays for NEM 2.0 has no say in where new rooftop solar is installed and subsidized.  Adoption is much broader in wealthy communities. That leaves a lot of poor communities vulnerable to rolling blackouts and Public Safety Power Shutoffs.  Rooftop solar + batteries/storage help insulate people from power outages. If your community has a lot of solar power, and it is set up to run in island/micro-grid mode, then you may be able to access some intermittent power off the micro-grid. But it's not reliable.

Under NEM 2.0, the resiliency benefits of rooftop solar accrue to the owners, and a little bit to their neighbors.  If you are so worried about access to reliable electricity for the medically fragile in the era of frequent Public Safety Power Shutoffs, why not just give solar systems with batteries for the disabled?  Or build Community Resilience Centers in poor neighborhoods where people can come for air conditioning, electricity, wi-fi, hot showers, etc?

That's the beauty of proposed NEM 3.0.  It would raise and disburse $150 Million each year to fund solar installations with storage (batteries) for those in highest need.  We would swap a horribly inefficient subsidy system, NEM 2.0, for a new subsidy that identifies those in highest need and directs the largest subsides to help them. Disabled people who are on SSI (and their households), regardless of income, will be exempt from the GPCs. 

It's about efficiency with our dollars. It's about directing help to those in need instead of waiting for trickle-down solar to work. It's about helping renters and multi-family residents instead of single family home owners (who have a larger rooftop/person ratio).

Please, please, please, don't feed the outrage machine.  Read the Proposed Decision yourself (the conclusions of law starts on page 175 and the order starts on page 179), or at least the CPUC NEM Fact Sheet

Friday, October 29, 2021

Decarbonizing California's Grid

This is a follow-on to Rooftop Solar Inequity or Net Metering Goes Grrr.  It was brought on by this hilarious inside joke Tweeted out by @BPBartholomew

I had to ask him what "Gas plants running through negative spark spreads" meant. He clarified with another Tweet explaining how gas power plants can be ramped down to only the minimal amount needed to stay stable without shutting down. This costs them some gas and causes them to run temporarily at a loss.  Or they can be shut down completely, which reduces gas costs, but increases other costs. It's not an easy call. He and others coined the term "negative spark spread" to describe when plants run at a loss. 

Why would a plant operator run at a loss?  It can make sense if the cost of restarting from a shutdown is too high in terms of money or time.  The entire system has to ramp up for California's evening peak demand.  If you don't, the grid frequency slows down and may even crash*. 

For instance, the system had to add 13,671 MW over 3 hours to meet electricity demand the evening of Oct 12, 2021. That's a large amount to add over such a short time and California does this nearly every day!

First, some background on CAISO (California Independent System Operator) and the Duck Curve.  CAISO oversees the operation of California's bulk electric power system, transmission lines, and electricity market generated and transmitted by its member utilities. 

Net load is the difference between forecasted load and expected electricity production from variable generation resources. In certain times of the year, these curves produce a “belly” appearance in the mid-afternoon that quickly ramps up to produce an “arch” similar to the neck of a duck—hence the industry moniker of “The Duck Chart”.
Here's another plot from @BPBartholomew of the net load.  

At midday, California electricity is mostly renewables, mainly from solar.  It doesn't matter who your electricity provider is or which energy plan you are on; we share the same grid.  In most of the state, including all the urban areas**; you are using mostly renewables at midday and mostly gas at night. The different energy plans that customers sign up for at the retail level is about shuffling paper Renewable Energy Credits (REC). That's a gross simplification but I'll explain that later in another post. 

Don't take my word for it, stalk the CAISO supply website. Here's yesterday, October 12, 2021. The tall Green Hump is Renewables.  The Orange Duck is gas plants (of all types). The smaller Brown Duck is energy imports from other states. (Imports can be Solar from the east in the early morning, hydropower from the north, or wind power from the east in the evening.  Or it can be gas or coal from power plants east of us. 

Note that large hydropower is not considered renewable for regulatory purposes (meeting California's Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard), but it is low carbon.  Nuclear is also low carbon but not considered renewable. CA only has ~2,000 megaWatts of nuclear power capacity since the San Onofre plant closed in 2012. 

Renewables are further broken out on a separate plot.  Note that the day started out windy and then calmed down. Some clouds also rolled in. Geothermal is like nuclear, it hums along at a constant rate. 

There are "Climate Warriors" that oppose interconnecting California's grid to those of other states because they have use fossil fuels than CA. That would mean losing access to hydropower from the Pacific Northwest, wind power from the Intermountain Region, and solar power from Nevada and Arizona.  The grids serving the western states are getting greener and an important driver is that new investments have a big market for new power coming online.

Anyway, micro-grids are important for resilience, but not feasible for year-round decarbonizing. There simply aren't enough batteries. We are building a great deal, but winter nights are long, the wind is intermittent (and NIMBYs prevent us from building it), and batteries rely on rare earth minerals that are rare and environmentally costly. Read Batteries don't grow on trees for more about that.

Decarbonizing the grid while keeping it running is so hard for many reasons, big and small.  I'm in awe that it works at all, much less works so reliably that we take it for granted.

A couple of years ago, the leader of the League of Women Voters of California's Natural Resources Committee asked me to serve as the Energy Team leader. That's why I've been reading so much about energy.  I've learned so much and still have so much more to learn. Should I blog more often about electricity? I'm not an expert.  Although I took graduate Electricity and Magnetism and passed my qualifying exams in E&M, it was my weakest subject in both undergrad and grad school. 

* Remember when large parts of Texas lost electricity for days in February 2021? I read many accounts by industry professionals about how they narrowly averted a disaster that could have kept the state off-line for months.  AC, alternating current, has to be kept in a stable range of 60 Hertz. Texas' current dropped to 59.4 Hertz at 1:51 AM on Feb 15, 2021. This can damage equipment, which would take months to repair.

You don't start up a bunch of power plants and then blithely add them to the grid.  AC stands for alternating current.  You have to carefully hook up each generator to the grid such that their frequencies and phases are perfectly matched to the grids'. This is one of those invisible *very hard things* that get done all the time to bring us our comfortable lives.  

** There are pockets of rural California near the Nevada border that are more tied to the Nevada/Reno grid and parts of far northern California that are better connected to Oregon. But we're all part of WECC, The Western Interconnection and shift energy to each other as needed. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Rooftop Solar Inequity or Net Metering Goes Grrr

Brian Bartholomew tweeted this out around 3 pm on a sunny autumn afternoon (October 13, 2021) along with the message, "CAISO right now"

I ran over to CAISO's real-time prices page and saw this:

If you were buying or selling electricity then, you would have paid $0.41 per megaWatt hour, or $0.041 per kWh.  

Under Net Metering, owners of rooftop solar panels who are producing more than can use can put it on the grid and be credited against their electricity use from the grid for anytime between 7AM and 5 PM.  The problem is that electricity prices fluctuate quite a bit. Here's another graph from @BPBartholomew

Say your panels are on the west-facing side of your roof and don't generate any electricity in the early morning hours you are getting ready for work/school.  You use your credited kWh banked during midday and don't have to pay for the energy.  Say you (or your kids) come home after school and turn on the air conditioning; you can crank away between 4:00 and 5:00 PM against your credits. 

A Southern California Edison (SCE) customer under the Time of Use (TOU) Prime plan, users without credits would pay 48 cents (Jun-Sep) or 45 cents (Oct-May) for that electricity.

Sometimes, net electricity costs can be negative.  You can be paid to take electricity and move it out of a congested grid. Do you have a big bank of batteries near Los Banos?  If so, you can be paid to charge your batteries tomorrow and then sell them during the evening duck curve.  It's called Energy Arbitrage. 

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the owners of rooftop solar panels selling electricity to SCE (which is forced by the CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission) to take it (even if they don't want/need it), can feed electricity into the grid worth 41 cents/megaWatt-hour or 0.041 cents/kWh, get credit for it, and use that 1 for 1 to offset electricity use in the evening, when it's worth 1000x that.

There is no point in me belaboring this; just read Severin Borenstein's Rooftop Solar Inequity.

I wrote a Net Metering Fact Sheet after reading lots of books, reports and government documents about how electricity is generated, moved around, regulated, purchased and used. I'm sure it will get angry comments from the people who are benefiting the most from California's current Net Metering policies. It's important to know that academics, government scientists and CPUC agree that overall, people with rooftop solar are benefitting at the expense of those without.

This "Energy Waterfall" plot showing the different 2019 costs for the three largest electricity providers in California from Ensuring Equity in California’s Energy Transition was very convincing. Look at the right-most column of Public Purpose Programs.  The thin green slice is aid for low-income customers under the CARE program. The fat brown slice is payment to PV owners (solar rooftop) under the current net metering scheme. 

Here's the detail of CARE and PV subsidies. We spend more subsidizing rooftop solar owners than low-income electricity users.  A lot more.

Who benefits from rooftop solar?  People who own their own homes and don't need to obtain HOA approval. That's basically people who live in Single Family Homes and have enough cash or home equity to purchase solar systems. They tend to be much wealthier than those who subsidize them.  (I know that lower income people have been growing among the rooftop solar owners, but that is largely because they were pushed out to live in new homes built in the deserts.)

That cost-shift from rooftop solar owners to those without is about $2 billion in 2019 and growing.

This post grew too long, so I split it up into another one explaining the Duck Curve and California's renewable energy portfolio. Stay tuned. 

Speed Kills (& doesn't get you there any faster)

Getting data out of some public agencies is so hard.  But, Redondo Beach Policy Department Tweeted this out today. It shows the traffic count at all hours of the day for a 15 day period between September 23 and October 7, 2021 at 1700 Artesia Blvd (just west of the intersection with Aviation Blvd).

On the top left plot of traffic counts:

  • Green is Compliant
  • Yellow is Inside Threshold
  • Red is Violators
There doesn't seem to be any violators so that looks great, right? 

Notice that the Threshold is set for 5-10 miles per hour above the 35-40 mph speed limit (which was ratcheted up from 35 to 40 mph by speeders due to the 85 percentile rule.) So you can speed up to 50 mph near an intersection of two busy arterials and not get a speeding ticket.

This should concern all of us because speed is the overwhelming determinant of whether a pedestrian or cyclist will die when hit by a motorist. CalBike showed this in yesterday's webinar, summed up by Warren Wells in a Tweet thread

Killing 40,000 people per year in the name of economic efficiency is worth it, right? (Sarcasm light flashing)

The dirty little secret is that it doesn't even get us there any faster. 

I found this nugget from A Century of Fighting Traffic Congestion in Los Angeles. The faster vehicles go, the more following distance they consume. (The same goes for taller vehicles like trucks/SUVs, which are much more to blame for traffic congestion than bike and bus lanes.) Road occupancy (space covered by a car) goes down with speed. 

The sweet spot for moving the most vehicles in a limited area and time is around 20-25 mph. Above that, you don't move any more people, but you make the roads more deadly. 

To quote the UCLA report:
  1. When cars are traveling at free flow speed and more cars are added the flow increases. 
  2. Flow continues to increase until the critical density. 
  3. Every additional car now lowers speed on the roadway. 
  4. Since cars are traveling slowly when traffic is dense, fewer cars overall are passing a given point on the roadway. 
  5. The relationship between density of traffic and speed is non-linear. 
  6. Figure 2 shows the relationship between speed and flow. As described above, flow increases until the roadway reaches capacity then begins to decline.
So why are we allowing people to speed up to 50 mph near a high school, two daycare centers/nursery schools, an elementary school and two senior housing complexes?

It's time to lower the speed limits on both residential streets and arterials.  

It's time to build out the South Bay Bicycle Master Plan (passed in 2011), and put *Protected* bike lanes on arterials.  Paint is not protection as the evidence and the bodies mount up. 

Both Artesia and Aviation Boulevards are supposed to get bike lanes whenever the roads were getting work done.  In the last decade, very little of the promised *Connected* network has been built.  What was built, is sadly disconnected and often in door zones next to fast-moving traffic.

Redondo Beach is using eminent domain to obtain land to build a right turn lane on Northbound Aviation, also without building a bike lane. 

Take a look at the graphic up at the top again.  The median and average speeds at most hours of the day and evening is 20 mph.  It's only higher around 2am, bar closing time.  What if we just made that the speed limit?  

Traffic flow would remain the same, but lower speeds would reduce road noise, making walking on the street more pleasant and welcoming. See also, Road noise and what we can do about it.

I've written letters.  I've gotten nowhere.  I need others to help apply political heat so that we see meaningful change on our streets.  Please.  Let's build streets where high school students can safely ride their bikes to school and our seniors can walk to senior fitness classes at the HS pool.