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. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Vacancy Truths

Every heard about Vacancy Truthers?  They are people who deny that we need to build more housing. I hadn't heard of them either until I started attending housing forums to advocate for building more housing. Darrell Owens has written an excellent article about the Vacancy Debate.  Please read it.

What is the right level of vacancy?  It was shocking (but welcome!) to arrive in Redondo Beach in the middle of a recession and have lots of apartments to choose from.  Housing seemed abundant, even though the vacancy rate wasn't over 10%.  It just felt relatively abundant because Bad Dad and I had become acclimated to housing scarcity.

It feels wild to read a paper about Homeless in America, Homeless in California by John M. Quigley, Steven Raphael, and Eugene Smolensky.  The 1990s seemed so long ago, and we can only dream about vacancy rates and rent to income ratios like this.

This paper was published in 2001 in Harvard/MIT's The Review of Economics and Statistics.  They analyzed the numbers from around the country to study homelessness and tested two hypotheses.  They debunked the hypothesis that homelessness was primarily caused by Reagan-era policies to close Mental Hospitals.  If this was true, then there should be a positive association between homelessness and patients released from mental hospitals in different cities and over time.  They didn't. 

Instead, they saw the opposite.

They then looked at vacancy rates, rise in rents, and rent to income ratios.  Bingo, that's why California is a homeless magnet.  California is special because we have the most extreme housing scarcity.  For each increase in vacancy rate from an average of 6.7%, there would be a 25% drop in homelessness.  The opposite can happen.  If vacancy drops, conditions allow landlords to raise rents, and more people fall into homelessness.

Economists broadly agree that a 5-7% vacancy rate stops rents from rising.  Los Angeles' vacancy rate was 4.2% in 2017

The rent is too damn high, which means that people on low fixed incomes (SSI, non-wealthy retirees, Section 8 voucher holders) cannot find housing that fits their budget.  This is why Redondo Beach has unused Section 8 vouchers.  My preferred policy choice is to make housing more abundant, so that the vacancy rate rises and rents come down. 

California has made a different choice.  We seek only to staunch the bleeding, but not to heal the patient by bringing rents down.  In the 6th Round of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), cities only have to plan for enough housing to raise the rental vacancy rate to 5% and the owner vacancy rate at 1.5%.  

There is no natural reason why for-sale homes have to be so scarce.  That's a policy choice to prop up sky-high home prices that are already unaffordable for most Californian workers. 1.5% still perpetuates rising prices.  The data since 2017 is even more grim.  California's owner vacancy rate in 2020 was 0.7%, which fomented bidding wars and home sale prices climbing at double digit rates in the midst of a pandemic.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

LTN: One possible solution to decarbonizing transportation

Bad Dad and I were featured in A Local Travel Network for the South Bay Story Map* riding my Ebike and an Escooter we bought for combining with transit just before the March 2020 lockdown.

Click through to see the full wide picture that also includes a BMW electric car.  I have mixed feelings about this project.  I think it is a reasonable baby step, but the South Bay Cities Council of Governments does not appear inclined to offer more than sharrows.  In fact, their South Bay Bicycling Master Plan counts roads with 50+ mph traffic and a sign on the shoulder saying it is a bike route as a bikeway.

The Story Map makes some good points about the South Bay region of Los Angeles County.  This area is home to roughly 1 Million people and 750,000 cars.

70% of South Bay trips are less than 3 miles, yet we do most of them by car. It's both a problem of habit and the built environment. We don't provide safe spaces for people out of cars, so people make trips in cars, even if they would prefer to do otherwise. Spend some time exploring pedestrian and cyclist data using UC Berkeley's Transportation Injury Mapping System

In 2009-2020, there were 100,000 collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists, including ~3100 deaths,  in Los Angeles County.

This is just the people that braved the streets outside of cars. This doesn't even represent the suppressed active tranportation trips that people took in cars or forwent out of (quite rational) fear.

I'll take allies where I find them.  I am accepting the LTN (if they actually build it) as a down payment, but not as payment in full, for the safe streets that we deserve and need as we decarbonize local transportation.

* We were told to be near the intersection of Pacific and 10th street in Manhattan Beach, CA one Saturday morning to film.  We bike through that area on our way to the beach several times a week.  It's one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the region.  The organizer wanted a quintessential South Bay setting with the ocean.  But, I would not have selected a neighborhood that aggressively protects Single Family Home Zoning to preserve the affordability of $30,000,000 ($30 Million) dollar homes.  We have to quit showing SFHs as if they are normal or representative. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Batteries don't grow on trees

This video came across my Twitter timeline and I retweeted it. Rice geophysics professor Cin-Ty Lee explains why nickel and cobalt laterites are found in the areas where biodiversity is greatest. It's pretty heartbreaking.


I knew that batteries were very toxic, and that the Cobalt used in them came from DRC*, often using slave or child labor, but I had believed the stories that alternate sources of Cobalt had been found and that would be a nonissue as soon as the alternate sources came online. 

Professor Lee's video made me realize that the most economically viable Cobalt deposits are all in the tropics: Congo, Papua New Guinea and Queensland, Australia.  You reach the deposits either by strip mining in tropical highlands, or mining the oceans.

If you are in the "green-industrial complex" and need to calculate your client's carbon footprint, you end up having to sum the carbon from battery production with the savings that the battery enables.  If battery production includes the carbon released from strip mining tropical rainforests to mine the ore, the potential carbon savings plummets.

I found an open access journal about the Life cycle assessment of cobalt extraction process that gave a picture of the tradeoffs.  Eutrophication means adding nitrogen and silt to waterways from the strip mining.


  • The life cycle assessment of the cobalt extraction route is carried out.
  • Blasting and electricity consumption in cobalt mining is damaging to the environment.
  • Eutrophication and global warming are the most affected impact categories.
  • Carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emission are highest from cobalt mining.
  • Alternative energy sources for electricity generation would enhance sustainability.
One way to avoid destroying tropical rainforests to mine ore is to source your ore from the ocean floor.  I found other articles such as, Deep-ocean polymetallic nodules as a resource for critical materials, that show the potential of deep ocean mining metals used in batteries.  You may not release carbon by cutting down tropical rainforests, but you will make the fishing and tourism industries and coral reef ecologists very angry.  You'll also destroy ocean ecology.  Pesky tradeoffs!

Right now, we're in the battery build up phase.  Eventually, we'll have enough that we can keep recycling them, much as we do for lead-acid batteries.  This will end the destruction caused by mining, but cause other problems.

I did a little research to wrap my head around how much we are talking about.

Lithium-metal batteries are about 10-20% cobalt chemistry, but that includes water, so it's about 1-2% Cobalt by weight.

Teslas have 1060-1200 pounds of batteries or about 55-85 kWh (kiloWatt hours)
The new eHummer has 200 kWh
My Ebike has 0.5 kWh
My Escooter has 0.3 kWh**

Electric cars have 100-500x the batteries and toxicity of Ebikes/Etrikes/Escooters. They are also very very spatially inefficient with road space and urban space (parking).  For rural areas where space is not a problem and distances are large, they make sense.  For the 90+% of Californians and Angelenos living in urban spaces, they are a last solution, not a first solution.

I Ebike about 50 miles on the charge used to move a Tesla X just 1 mile.  Do we really need to move a 4000# car with an additional 1000# of batteries to move one person plus groceries?  I can carry 5 days worth of groceries for 3 on my Ebike without a backpack.  I could probably carry 7 days worth with a backpack, but why bother?

This is why I don't support strongly support electric cars, trucks and buses alone.

We have to get out of single occupancy cars as much as possible, especially in the urbanized areas.

We need to decarbonize transportation using every tool, starting with right-sizing the vehicles for the task.  

We need to use road space more efficiently, which means remodeling our urban environments to make better use of transit and active modes (walking/cycling). 

There is no time to waste.  

We need to do it all at once.

Further reading:

* Just because you rebrand a county from Congo to the Democratic Republic of Congo, doesn't automatically make it so. I refuse to use the Newspeak name.

** A research paper showed the CO2 per passenger-mile for a bunch of different transport modes and the statistic that caught all the media editors' clickbait attention was that shared electric scooters are inefficient.  They are inefficient due to their short lifespans (people trash them) and miles driven in cars by the people who hunt them down, recharge them and restock them.  

A subsequent study showed that privately-owned Escooters are almost as efficient as Ebikes, which are almost as efficient as regular bikes-the most efficient mode of travel ever invented.

Monday, March 29, 2021


I vent sometimes on Twitter. Earlier this month, I ran a Twitter poll and learned how hard it is to write an unambiguous multiple choice question.

Is plastic petroleum?

Of the 164 votes, 

  • 72.6% chose "Yes, duh"
  • 3% chose "No"
  • 4.3% chose "Don't know"
  • 20.1% chose "Not enough info to answer"
It's a good thing that I don't have to come up with a grading rubric for this question because you can make a valid argument that any of the choices are correct. 

I started to write an explanation for the answer, but it became quite a long thread.  Since it took so much research and time, it deserves to be put up on the blog.

Until 2 years ago, I didn’t know that materials scientists consider plastic a property instead of a material. You can make plastic from all sorts of polymers that are soft when warm and rigid when cooled. Eg potato starch plastic. 2/ 

Most plastics used in the world are made from fossil hydrocarbons, typically ethane. It used to be made mainly from petroleum distillates but is now often made from fossil gas aka natural gas. 3/ 

Worldwide, plastics use is increasing alarmingly. We should question whether we really need to consume so much. But, in the US, our car dependence is a much, much bigger problem. Landfilled plastics are sequestered. Gas tank hydrocarbons get burned and add CO2 to the atmosphere 4/ 

4/ Quote Tweeted this AirQ thread about how CO2 is lower on weekends because people drive less.

I’m not a big plastic user and live in a community that supports reduce, reuse, recycling. Angelenos produce much less garbage than US avg. Many areas, including mine, haul away yard and kitchen waste for industrial composting. Our recyclables are collected, sorted and recycled 5/ 

The rest of our trash is incinerated at SERRF on Terminal Island, Long Beach. It generates electricity for SERRF and feeds the grid. The ports of LA/LB use a lot of electricity 24/7 so this is synergistic. My city diverts 74% of waste (typical for LA County) and burns the remaining 26% 6/ 

(Our regional solid waste stream is also smaller than the US avg due to state/local government policy choices. Our family also made lifestyle adjustments to reduce it even further. The main driver is that government policies support solid waste reduction.)

I’m still using a roll of Saran Wrap purchased 10 years ago. I used Parafilm in lab when I needed it. I have zero guilt about using plastic when I need it. Right now, my trash is full of takeout containers from local restaurants that need our support during the pandemic 7/ 

Try to reduce single-use plastics in your day to day life as much as you can. Carry that refillable water bottle daily, but keep a case of water bottles in your earthquake kit. The American Chemical Society devoted a special issue to plastics recycling 8/ 

In short, mechanical plastics recycling chops up the long-chain polymers and weakens plastic. So, the current methods of plastics recycling, where new and old plastics are mixed together, is not closed loop or sustainable. Eventually, the plastic will be too weak to do its job of holding stuff. You don't want a container that breaks unpredictably.
THE DYSFUNCTION OF PLASTICS RECYCLING Plastics recycling, as it exists today, is a mess. In 2015, the US recycled only 9.1% of the 31 million t of plastics that consumers threw out, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The vast majority ended up in either landfills or incinerators. In contrast, two-thirds of paper, a third of metals, and a quarter of glass were recycled that year. In the European Union, about 14.8% of the roughly 27 million t of plastic waste was recycled in 2016, according to the European Commission.
But, there's active research into using enzymes to break down plastic back to its pre-polymerized raw feedstock shape. About 40% of it will remain, but it can be turned into low-sulfur diesel fuel--not a bad fuel for long distance trucking or ocean-going cargo ships which operate away from urban areas. 

One of my husband’s former classmates at MIT is working on enzymatic fuel production from plastics and agricultural waste. I am optimistic about the technology, though it is still too expensive. 9/ 

Driving an ICE car is single use petroleum. Using plastic, even if it is incinerated after 1 use, gets 2 uses out of the material. If it is landfilled, it is at least sequestered vs burned and released into the atmosphere 10/

Gasoline accounts for 45% of US petroleum use while all chemical feedstocks (paint, solvents, cleaners, pharmaceuticals, plastics) account for 1.5% https://eia.gov/energyexplained/oil-and-petroleum-products/use-of-oil.php 11/

In summary, that smarty pants state senator is operating on old information. Plastics are made from a variety of sources & petroleum is one of the top 2. Plastics in waterways is a problem, but tire particles are the overwhelmingly major source 12/ 

[oops, I skipped 13/]

EVs, because of their weight, increases tire wear, exacerbating water and air pollution https://greencarreports.com/news/1127424_study-particulate-emissions-from-tire-wear-is-higher-than-from-tailpipes 14/ 

I wrote a detailed blog post about this 15/ Leaf blowers, street sweeping, car tires, fish and you

“Non-exhaust emissions...are currently believed to constitute the majority of primary particulate matter from road transport: 60% of PM2.5 and 73% of PM10.” https://tiretechnologyinternational.com/news/regulations/pollution-from-tire-wear-1000-times-worse-than-exhaust-emissions.html 16/

Under-inflated tires are a huge contributor to tire particles. Remember the Ford Explorer rollover scandal? SUVs are top heavy. To reduce rollover risk, they use special tires that don’t burst when inflated much lower than passenger car tires 17/ 

SUVs and pickups need larger tires, often at lower pressures, so they don’t roll over. Want to know why our regional PM 2.5 just keeps increasing? The answer is almost always cars, especially SUVs. Electric SUVs are greenwash. Electric bikes/trikes in every garage instead 18/fin

I'm not the only one who sees EV-only approaches without remaking our streets to help us move out of cars as greenwash. 

Tackling the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing all motorised transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible. Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions. 
Only getting out of cars will solve the urban particulate air pollution, road congestion and parking/land use problems. I said URBAN. Rural areas have different problems and different solutions. But, since California is the most urbanized of all US states and Los Angeles is among the most urbanized of all CA and US counties, this is what we need to do right here, right now, where I live. 

10 Million people live in Los Angeles County, 5.6x as many people as Idaho. So I don't want to hear any critiques along the lines of this will not work in Boise or on my Montana ranch. The Netherlands has a bike culture with just 511 people per square kilometer vs 905 for Los Angeles County. 

Sure, NL is flat and LA is surrounded by steep mountains. But that also means we live more densely because most of us live in the flatter broad valleys and coastal plains. Ebikes flatten the hills anyway.  It sure does rain a lot more in NL, though.

Followup 10/1/21 
The US Department of Energy, who runs the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, started a new program to fund research in chemical recycling of plastics.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Battery Pile-up

I'm usually an EV (electric car) pessimist, but a couple of things make me hopeful.

You can set lofty goals in the future, but stymie real and substantive changes today.  I see that at all levels of California governance.  E.g. you can put an electric car charger on the sidewalk of a downtown LA street, which precludes installing a bike lane later. I walked by the charger below and lamented the lost opportunity.

But, LA actually installed a 'parking protected' bike lane right there, and a bicyclist flipped off his bike one night when he ran into the cable in the dark.  He posted a photo of what he saw in the dark on Twitter.  It went viral.  See the staged photo below, which highlights the black cable in orange.

Notice the narrow width of the bike lane to accommodate private car storage on a downtown LA street.  I may not be a Climate Mayor, but even I know that using streets to move people rather than store private property is a better use of public space.  Don't @ me about customers arriving in cars.  People spend money.  Cars do not.  In fact, providing car parking is a huge expense for business owners and society in general.

There are lots of parking garages in DTLA and our family even uses them sometimes.  But I mainly use transit to get to and around DTLA because it's too crowded to do otherwise.

When I realized that we used our minivan mainly for getting to the light rail station and our annual road trip, we decided to replace it with a folding electric scooter (for coupling with transit) and occasional car rental.   I already had an eBike, and used it for most of my local Beach Cities and West Torrance trips.  If our area had better bike facilities, I could travel even further. Sigh.

Electric cars (what most people refer to as EVs) are very popular in the Beach Cities.  But, I think we should also accommodate smaller electric vehicles, such as my 0.3 kiloWatt-hour scooter and 0.5 kWh eBike.  In contrast, the very popular (in our area) Tesla X has 100 kWh batteries.

Batteries are so toxic, resource-intensive and sourcing their raw materials are so problematic environmentally and socially, I won't go into it here.  It just makes sense to move people around in the smallest package necessary with the least amount of batteries.

But, that's not how we're behaving.  It makes no sense to celebrate replacing 4000 pound ICE cars with 5000 pound EVs while not simultaneously working as fast as we can to get people out of cars in the cities.  

What will we do with the growing pile of spend batteries?  Until recently, they were just piling up dangerously.  Some were sent overseas to poorer countries, that stockpiled or recycled them in (sometimes unsafe ways, especially for their workers).  That is not a long-term solution. 

Available Li-ion battery recycling facilities are few and expensive.  Until recently, there were only three in all of North America.  Furthermore, it would cost ~$91,500 to recycle one MegaWatt-hour (MWh) of Li-ion batteries.  A Tesla X has 100kWh or 0.1 MWh; recycling its batteries would cost ~$9,150.  In contrast, my eBike has 1/200th the batteries and my scooter has 1/300th the batteries.  I can also travel about 40 miles by eBike on the same electricity that moves a Tesla 1 mile.

Ideally, spent batteries should be circular and recycled into new batteries.  While lead-acid batteries are circular, the Exide and Quemetco battery recycling plants in LA County were not good environmental neighbors.  There are limited ways to recycle batteries--smelting (heating to evaporate away all the non-metals), leaching (repeated acid/water washes to carry away the metals) and physical (electrochemical).  

In LA, with our limited water supply, smelting was used.  A small fraction of the lead escaped through the smokestacks.  (I never understood how that happened if strict emissions control equipment were used, but it did.) A small fraction of a large amount created an awful lot of lead pollution in some of the poorest and densest parts of Los Angeles County.

Would we repeat our lead recycling environmental mistakes with lithium batteries?  

Maybe not?

Start with some regulations that force industry to take action, even if it is expensive today: 

The new US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on the North American auto industry has a 2030 requirement of 75% locally produced content, and use of recycled battery materials could help North American EV manufacturers achieve that.

Add money and cities willing to host recycling plants:

The Canadian firm Li-Cycle will begin constructing a US $175 million plant in Rochester, N.Y., on the grounds of what used to be the Eastman Kodak complex. When completed, it will be the largest lithium-ion battery-recycling plant in North America.
[The articles don't say which process they are using to recycle the batteries.  But, I notice that both plants are near large quantities of water.]

We need to build a lot more of these plants throughout the world. We need to pay attention to make sure that they are built and run safely for both the workers and the surrounding areas. But, this is an encouraging sign that we are getting serious.