Walters: California’s income-based utility charge saga began with misuse of the state budget process

A year ago, California’s three big investor-owned electric power utilities – Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – proposed new fixed charges on their residential customers that would vary by income.

Households making less than $69,000 a year would pay $20 to $34 a month, while those earning $69,000 to $180,000 would be charged $51 to $73. The charge would be $85 to $128 on customers with incomes over $180,000.

Fixed utility charges separate from usage volume are nothing new. They offset costs for utility companies to maintain the power grid. However, basing utility charges on customer incomes would be a new step that touched off a spirited ideological debate that spread beyond the state’s borders.

It drew fire from those on the right because of its class-based underpinnings but also from those on the left who said even small charges would put more stress on low-income families struggling to pay rent and utility bills.

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Recently, the California Public Utilities Commission offered a less contentious proposal: a flat $24.15 per month fixed charge for most customers, lower $6 or $12 charges for low-income households, and lower overall rates tied to usage.

By downplaying the income redistribution aspects and promising lower overall bills for most ratepayers, the PUC has quieted some, but not all, criticism.

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin of Thousand Oaks is leading a group of Democratic legislators who think the proposal is still too onerous and back a different proposal, Assembly Bill 1999, that would cap the fixed charge at $10 a month for most customers and $5 for low-income families. Irwin complained in a social media post that the PUC is “completely out of touch.”

The merits of the PUC’s plan notwithstanding, the issue is also a classic example of how the annual budget process is misused to enact major policy changes without fully airing their impacts.

A year ago, California’s three big investor-owned electric power utilities – Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – proposed new fixed charges on their residential customers that would vary by income.

Households making less than $69,000 a year would pay $20 to $34 a month, while those earning $69,000 to $180,000 would be charged $51 to $73. The charge would be $85 to $128 on customers with incomes over $180,000.

Fixed utility charges separate from usage volume are nothing new. They offset costs for utility companies to maintain the power grid. However, basing utility charges on customer incomes would be a new step that touched off a spirited ideological debate that spread beyond the state’s borders.

It drew fire from those on the right because of its class-based underpinnings but also from those on the left who said even small charges would put more stress on low-income families struggling to pay rent and utility bills.

Recently, the California Public Utilities Commission offered a less contentious proposal: a flat $24.15 per month fixed charge for most customers, lower $6 or $12 charges for low-income households, and lower overall rates tied to usage.

By downplaying the income redistribution aspects and promising lower overall bills for most ratepayers, the PUC has quieted some, but not all, criticism.

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin of Thousand Oaks is leading a group of Democratic legislators who think the proposal is still too onerous and back a different proposal, Assembly Bill 1999, that would cap the fixed charge at $10 a month for most customers and $5 for low-income families. Irwin complained in a social media post that the PUC is “completely out of touch.”

The merits of the PUC’s plan notwithstanding, the issue is also a classic example of how the annual budget process is misused to enact major policy changes without fully airing their impacts.

A year ago, California’s three big investor-owned electric power utilities – Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – proposed new fixed charges on their residential customers that would vary by income.

Households making less than $69,000 a year would pay $20 to $34 a month, while those earning $69,000 to $180,000 would be charged $51 to $73. The charge would be $85 to $128 on customers with incomes over $180,000.

Fixed utility charges separate from usage volume are nothing new. They offset costs for utility companies to maintain the power grid. However, basing utility charges on customer incomes would be a new step that touched off a spirited ideological debate that spread beyond the state’s borders.

It drew fire from those on the right because of its class-based underpinnings but also from those on the left who said even small charges would put more stress on low-income families struggling to pay rent and utility bills.

Recently, the California Public Utilities Commission offered a less contentious proposal: a flat $24.15 per month fixed charge for most customers, lower $6 or $12 charges for low-income households, and lower overall rates tied to usage.

By downplaying the income redistribution aspects and promising lower overall bills for most ratepayers, the PUC has quieted some, but not all, criticism.

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin of Thousand Oaks is leading a group of Democratic legislators who think the proposal is still too onerous and back a different proposal, Assembly Bill 1999, that would cap the fixed charge at $10 a month for most customers and $5 for low-income families. Irwin complained in a social media post that the PUC is “completely out of touch.”

The merits of the PUC’s plan notwithstanding, the issue is also a classic example of how the annual budget process is misused to enact major policy changes without fully airing their impacts.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

Middle or upper income? Brace for higher electric bills

Column: Solar owners will not escape fixed charges for electricity, either, but low-income households stand to get a break

People, the pain is real.

If you’re one of the 12 million-plus or so households in California that do not have solar panels — meaning you buy electricity from Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, or Pacific Gas & Electric — your bills have essentially doubled over the past decade (has your income?). Electric bills in California are now twice the national average, and a new income-based, fixed service charge means they’re headed even higher for many middle- and upper-income folks.

This time, the 1 million-plus or so rooftop solar households won’t be shielded from their neighbors’ pain. Since most solar owners depend on the same infrastructure as everyone else for power once the sun goes down, they should also pay for its upkeep, the thinking goes.

Meet California’s first-in-the-nation, income-based fixed service charge, aiming to lessen the load on lower-income folks. The nitty-gritty details are still being debated — fiercely — but decisions are due by July, to take effect in 2025 or 2026. There are various proposals, but they stand to shrink what we pay for electricity by some 5 to 18%, while divvying up what we pay for the infrastructure that delivers that electricity according to how much money we make.

Low-income households could save some $300 a year, according to plans proposed by the Big Three investor-owned utilities (Edison, SDG&E and PG&E). Top-tier earners, making more than $180,000 a year or so, could see increases of some $500 a year.

“An income-graduated basis for the fixed charge would require higher-income households to pay a larger proportion of overall fixed costs to more equitably share the burden of funding electric system infrastructure,” says a report from the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates rates. “The
CPUC is leading a proceeding to reform rates to implement this important equity tool.”

Right now, the cost of delivering electricity is largely baked into the rate you pay for electricity itself. One of the ideas here is to bifurcate infrastructure costs from actual power costs, on the theory it’s as expensive to get energy to homes that consume gob-loads of power as it is to get energy to homes that are highly efficient.

Edison, PG&E and SDG&E propose a standard fixed charge on all residential customers’ bills, except for lower-income customers enrolled in the state’s CARE or FERA programs, whose income already qualifies them for bill discounts. Their fixed charge would be lower, said Edison spokesman Jeff Monford, and on average would reduce bills for customers who need the most help.

There’s much critics hate here — including that some lower-income households might end up paying more, not less — but don’t lay blame or thanks for this sea change at the CPUC’s feet. It’s just following orders.

This progressive bit of ratemaking is brought to you via unassuming little paragraphs in a bill passed (with precious little public comment or debate) by the Legislature and signed by the governor last year: Assembly Bill 205. It repeals the existing cap on fixed charges — a wee $10 a month — and requires the CPUC to develop fixed charges “on an income-graduated basis with no fewer than three income thresholds, such that a low-income ratepayer would realize lower average monthly bill without making any changes in usage,” says a Senate analysis of the bill.

One proposal would charge the lowest-income users a fixed $15 a month (Edison and PG&E) or $24 (SDG&E), while the highest-income users would pay $85 a month (Edison), $92 (PG&E) or $128 (SDG&E).

The Public Advocates Office — the in-house Solomon-the-Wise at the PUC, charged with protecting the little guy — favors the change, though proposes smaller, flatter fixed charges than the Big Three investor-owned utilities.

While critics brand this a “utility tax” (highly effective red meat here in California), officials stress that these proposals do not change the amount of money the utilities collect.

Utility profits are set by the CPUC itself at roughly 10%. The easiest way to think about the change is like this: Under the old method, the utility collected $100. Under the new method, the utility will still collect $100 — but who is paying that $100, and how, will shift.

It’s really a modest change meant to lower the price of electricity so folks have incentive to ditch their gas cars and appliances and go all-electric, supporters say. It would also make bills more predictable and transparent.

Critics, from SAVE THE FROGS! to the California Assembly, disagree.

Entrenches high prices, doesn’t fix them

“We, the undersigned organizations and community leaders, are writing in strong opposition to the ‘Utility Tax’ provision embedded into Budget Trailer Bill AB 205 (2022),” says a letter to the governor and state legislators urging its immediate repeal.

“We object to the un-democratic and opaque way in which the Utility Tax was enacted, passed in three days without any public hearings or discussion. The people of California deserve a voice in any major policy change with such wide-ranging consequences.”

The letter summarizes the complaints of many critics and was signed by more than 200 organizations across California, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Latino Environmental Advocacy Network, Feminists in Action Los Angeles, Democratic Club of West Orange County, Indivisible San Jose and SAVE THE FROGS!

“Because of this provision, the utilities and other organizations … have proposed the highest fixed charges in the country, between $30 to $70 per month,” it continues. “That would be three to seven times the national average for such a fixed charge. …

“The Utility Tax entrenches the problem of high electricity prices, rather than solving it. Electricity prices are too high mainly due to the increasing costs of unnecessary long-distance power lines, liability when those lines create wildfire risks and generous utility profits that drive this spending. A Utility Tax does not fix that underlying problem because it just rearranges who pays what — harming millions of working-class people in the process.

“The true solution to stabilizing the high cost of electricity is to reduce our overdependence on long-distance power lines through greater conservation and local clean energy.”

Nearly two dozen members of the California Assembly — some quite progressive — fired off their own objections to the CPUC president.

“We have significant concerns about the direction of the CPUC’s implementation of AB 205 and its potential negative impacts on our constituents and believe that, at a minimum, more time will be needed to consider such a significant and far-reaching change in policy that will significantly impact ratepayers with only a theoretical benefit,” says the letter, dated Oct. 27. 

First, the CPUC has rejected a request to hold public hearings on “major changes” to the state’s electric rate structure. Given the breadth of impact to ratepayers, it’s only fair that a full, public process is conducted to hear from all folks who’ll be affected, not just the companies and nonprofits who are party to the proceeding. And, really, what’s the rush? The CPUC was authorized to do a fixed rate charge in 2013 when AB 327 passed, “but has felt no urgency to do so for the past 10 years,” the legislators said. “(W)e believe there is ample time to open this proceeding to the public.”

Second, the legislators worry that this approach could thwart conservation and increase electrical consumption by sending the wrong price signal to ratepayers.

“With these proposals, there would be a decoupling of electricity policy from the volumetric and conservation-based model that the CPUC has long been promoting. For instance, even under some of the lower proposed flat rates, analyses show that those who consume more electricity, such as a single-family home with pool, will receive a discount at the expense of a low-electricity user, such as an apartment renter. There is a very real possibility that these proposals could discourage the kind of conservation that is needed in order to avoid rolling blackouts that have threatened the state too often over the past several years,” the legislators wrote.

A $30 monthly fixed charge would cost lower-income folks an extra $360 a year, and lawmakers worry about the impact to current and future rooftop solar and battery users. Solar industry reps said business has plummeted since the PUC slashed how much new solar systems are credited for the energy they produce, making the payback period longer.

“While we understand that a fixed charge may be needed, we do not believe a policy shift of this magnitude should happen without sufficient time for a wide array of public input,” they wrote. “Further, the majority of the current proposals are unreasonable and the Commission must ensure that any fixed rate being considered be in line with national rates.”

Then there’s the income verification issue. The state knows all about how much money we make — but who wants to give that information to the electric company? There are varying ideas on that, from having a third party handle it to just sticking with the current CARE and FERC discount program rules, but it’s a hot topic that goes directly to privacy.

“Nobody wants to give their tax return to the power company,” writes Jim Lazar, an expert in utility rate design. “Income has no clear correlation to the electric utility cost of service. Poor people in rural areas are relatively expensive to serve; rich people in condos in urbanized areas are cheap to serve.  Does the lack of correlation to the cost of utility service make it a ‘tax’ under the laws of California? In California, most new ‘taxes’ require a different process than the PUC runs, including a public vote.”

Edison said no new income verification process is needed in the proposal put forward by the Big Three. But Lazar, an economist, predicts this effort will fail, and said that’s the fate it deserves.

Solutions?

Solar panels are installed on new homes in the Great Park Neighborhood of Cadence Park in Irvine, CA, on Thursday, June 1, 1970. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
(File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

This rejiggering of who pays that $100 and how doesn’t do anything to actually reduce California’s crazy high electricity rates. Hundreds of comments have been filed in passionate opposition.

“This is nothing more than thinly disguised attempt to put the screws to owners who have invested in solar panels,” said Gil Legault of Ladera Ranch. “Instead of incentivizing homeowners to go green, you’re doing the opposite.”

“This fixed rate proposal is a Marxist/Communist idea to make Socialism a reality in our utility companies,” said Donald Grass of Oceanside.

Economist Lazar has some ideas on how to lower California bills more equitably. One: Shrink the profit utilities are allowed to collect.

Mind you, they’re only allowed to collect profit on gridwork and infrastructure, not on power, and that margin is set by the CPUC itself. California utilities are allowed a higher rate of profit than most utilities in the U.S. and Canada, and the CPUC could take this up in a separate proceeding.

Another idea: Cap the amount of executive compensation that comes from ratepayers’ pockets.

These folks are exceptionally well-paid. Even the pauper of the bunch, Southern California Edison’s president and CEO, made $2.8 million in total pay and perks last year. PG&E’s got $3.6 million in cash compensation and another $10 million in stock, while SDG&E’s got $5.7 million in cash comp and $7 million in stock. The latter two both got other forms of comp as well.

Lazar suggests that anything above a certain cap — say the governor’s $224,000 salary? — should come from shareholders’ pockets, not ratepayers’ pockets.

Clcik here to read the full article in the OC Register

Decarbonization in homes and businesses at what cost?

The California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) plans to make all homes and businesses use electricity only means electricity will need to take up the duties that natural gas has been performing, and provide continuously uninterruptable power as California is on a path toward 100% renewables and “zero-carbon” sources in electricity by 2045.

But wait, California cannot generate that much electricity from wind and solar renewables!

Last year alone. California imported up to 29 percent of its electricity because it could not generate enough in-state to meet its demands. The good news is that we’ve had no brown outs. The bad news is that imported electricity comes at higher costs and are being borne by residents and businesses alike. Without the huge land requirements for wind and solar renewable electricity, the need to import more will escalate every year.

The benefits of a carbon-free society are often discussed, but rarely are the high costs of achieving this technological breakthrough or the financial impact that breakthrough would have on various economies. Before we dump our current electrical generating plants shouldn’t we have replacements in place for that electricity? It’s like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute attached!

Under current technologies, France has demonstrated that the only way to achieve scalable, reliable, flexible, abundant, and affordable carbon-free electricity capable of powering modern societies is using nuclear power.

As you know, California is phasing out nuclear reactors that have been generating continuously uninterruptable carbon-free electricity. In 2013 California already shutdown the continuous nuclear facility of SCE’s San Onofre Generating Station which generated 2,200 megawatts of power and will be closing PG&E’s Diablo Canyon’s 2,160 megawatts of power in 2024 getting ready for the renewable intermittent electricity from wind and solar.

It gets bleaker in the coming years, as Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti’s recently announced that Los Angeles will shut down three gas powered electricity generating power plants at Scattergood, Haynes, and Harbor: 1) The 823 MW Scattergood plant in Playa Del Rey to be shuttered in 2024, 2) the 575 MW Haynes plant in Long Beach to be shuttered in 2029, and 3) The 472 MW Harbor plant in Wilmington to be shuttered in 2029, instead of reconstructing them. He went on to say that “this is the beginning of the end of natural gas in Los Angeles.

The likelihood of constructing large wind and solar farms in California is very bleak as evidenced by recent actions in San Bernardino. Recently the San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors slammed the brakes on big solar projects and highlighted a challenge California could face as it seeks to eliminate the use of fossil fuels.

San Bernardino locals soundly voiced their objections to those land devouring, eco system disrupting, unsightly monstrosities that lead to higher electricity prices and lower property values for nearby residents, saying not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY’s in action)! So, with no places to locate the renewables farms, what’s next?

The Mayor and the CPUC hearings about decarbonization in homes and businesses, are deliberately ignoring the fact that Natural Gas generating plants provide about 47 percent of the state’s electricity, and the state has no plans to replace that with renewables!

With the shuttering of nuclear and natural gas power plants that have been generating continuously uninterruptable electricity, our elected officials seem to be oblivious to the fact that the State has no electricity generating capacity to replace what’s being shuttered. Further, that “green” electricity from wind and solar is only intermittent electricity as neither generates when the wind is not blowing, and the sun is not shinning.

California’s expensive electricity is already fifty percent higher than the national average for residents, and double the national averages for commercial, and are projected to go even higher. The inability to replace the closure of continuously uninterruptable electricity from nuclear and natural gas with renewables of wind and solar is causing the state to import more and more of its electricity. 

Wind and solar obsessed GermanyAustralia, and Denmark fight it out for the honor of paying the world’s highest power prices.  Just like Germany, Australia, and Denmark, before trudging into the green morass, our California leaders cannot “see’ the direct correlation between energy costs for electricity and fuels, and homelessness and poverty. 

To go carbon free by 2045 will require inclusion of buildings built before 2020 that were constructed over the last 50+ years. Those buildings were equipped with hook ups for gas and electricity. That means to succeed at their goal gas ovens in pizza restaurants must be converted.  Korean barbecue restaurants must be converted. Most restaurants that rely on the even, controllable temperature of gas flames need to be converted.

To decarbonize homes and businesses will require that almost every chef in the state must be retrained to cook on electric grills and with electric ranges and ovens.  Do you know how hard a task that is?  

To decarbonize homes and businesses every home and business will need to change equipment from natural gas to the more expensive equipment in electric and also pay the exorbitant higher costs for that electricity to run cooking, heating and cooling, and washing and drying clothes.

Meanwhile, the non-electrical energy that has empowered the military, transportation, infrastructures, and global travel has done more for globalization and human progress than anything in mankind’s history and continues to be, met with deep-earth minerals/fuels. 

CPUC’s actions will not contribute significantly to the 2045 targets but will most likely stymy growth of new construction and further drive up the cost of electricity for everyone. Their short-sighted action plans to decarbonize homes and businesses will put an undue strain on economically challenged individuals who already count every dollar they earn to make ends meet. This will not end well for anyone.

Ronald Stein is founder and ambassador for Energy & Infrastructure of PTS Advance, headquartered in Irvine, California

Will Regulators Break Up Scandal-Plagued PG&E?

VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 5: A home is destroyed by brush fire as Santa Ana winds help propel the flames to move quickly through the landscape on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A California Public Utilities Commission report that Pacific Gas & Electric failed to fulfill its responsibilities to properly maintain natural gas lines from 2012 to 2017 even after a natural gas explosion killed eight people in San Bruno in 2010 may be the last straw for state regulators.

On Dec. 21, the CPUC released a dramatic statement saying it would consider drastic steps to address the “serious safety problems” it says the utility has long condoned. The commission said a break-up of the agency into smaller regional utilities or a state takeover would be among the possible changes it examined.

“This process will be like repairing a jetliner while it’s in flight. Crashing a plane to make it safer isn’t good for the passengers,” said CPUC President Michael Picker. “This is not a punitive exercise. The keystone question is would, compared to PG&E and PG&E Corp. as presently constituted, any of the proposals provide Northern Californians with safer natural gas and electric service at just and reasonable rates.”

CPUC looking at seven possible major changes

The CPUC statement said seven possible changes would be considered.

– Having “some or all of PG&E be reconstituted as a publicly owned utility or utilities.”

– Replacing some members of PG&E’s Board of Directors with members “with a stronger background and focus on safety.”

– The replacement of existing corporate management.

– Adoption of a new corporate management structure with regional leaders overseeing regional subsidiaries.

– Linking PG&E’s “return on equity” – the profits it shares with its investor-owners – to its safety performance.

– Breaking the utility’s natural gas operations and its electric transmission operations into separate companies.

– Ending the arrangement in which PG&E is controlled by a holding company so it becomes “exclusively a regulated utility.”

Picker’s statement was a remarkable turnaround from his comments on Nov. 15, when his upbeat remarks about the ability of PG&E to survive its fourth consecutive year of devastating wildfires in Northern California led the utility’s stock price tospike.

It reflected the anger among CPUC officials over a staff report released Dec. 14 that found the utility had systematicallyneglected natural gas infrastructure despite being fined $1.6 billion and convicted of six felonies in federal court over the 2010 disaster in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco.

Utility facing 500 lawsuits relating to fires it may have caused

Even if PG&E survives in something like its present form after the CPUC’s review, its future is still very cloudy.

Because of claims that PG&E was responsible for the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people in Butte County in November, U.S. District Judge William Alsup announced he was reviewing whether PG&E had violated terms of its federal probation in the San Bruno case.

PG&E also disclosed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it is facing roughly 500 lawsuits with more than 3,100 plaintiffs over claims the utility was responsible for many of the dozens of wildfires in Northern California since 2016.

It is also facing wildfire-related lawsuits from the state Office of Emergency Services, Cal Fire, Calaveras County and other government agencies.

But while the CPUC is apparently ready for major changes at the utility, it’s not clear yet how state lawmakers feel.

On Nov. 19 – even as criticism of PG&E swelled as confirmed deaths grew in the Camp Fire – Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, was reported to be considering introducing legislation to help the utility deal with wildfire costs.

Holden helped pass a law earlier this year that allowed PG&E to spread out the costs from the liabilities it faced from 17 wildfires in 2017.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

California Legislators Want to Tax Text Messages

Text messageA California regulator’s plan to tax texts in order to fund cellphones for the poor hit a snag Wednesday after a Federal Communications Commission ruled text messages aren’t subject to the utility agency’s authority.

The decision by the FCC, which categorized text messages as “information services” on par with emails and not “telecommunications services,” came in an effort to combat robo-texts and spam messages. The California Public Utilities Commission now faces an uphill battle ahead of a scheduled vote on the measure next month.

Those opposed to the planned tax hailed the FCC decision a victory.

“We hope that the CPUC recognizes that taxing text messages is bad for consumers,” Jamie Hastings, senior vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, which represents the U.S. wireless communications industry, told The Mercury News. “Taxing this service would burden those who rely on and use this service each and every day.”

The CPUC has not yet commented on the FCC’s decision. The group is scheduled to meet next on Jan. 10 in San Francisco. …

Click here to read the full article from Fox News

California’s Uber Hunt

uberThe way things are going, Uber may soon face a court challenge in California over its failure to use an umlaut. The popular ridesharing startup has already been hit by an administrative law judge’s recommendation that the company pay $7.3 million in damages and suspend operation in the state. At issue: Uber’s alleged failure to provide the California Public Utilities Commission with internal data about how many customers with service animals or wheelchairs Uber drivers serve, along with time, location and fare data.

This decision came just a month after the California Labor Commission redefined the app-based ride-hailing service’s business model. In that case, San Francisco Uber driver Barbara Ann Berwick demanded that the company reimburse $4,000 worth of expenses. The commission ruled that Berwick, a transsexual who previously operated a phone sex business — Linda’s Lip Service — was a full-time-equivalent employee during four months of sporadic driving for Uber. (Berwick, now a financial consultant, expressed disappointment with the money an Uber driver makes.) The decision directly threatens Uber’s business model, in which drivers sign up as independent contractors with a minimum of the fuss and paperwork associated with modern hiring, choose their own hours, and are clearly remunerated on a piecework basis.

Last week, a U.S. district judge in San Francisco allowed a group of cab companies to proceed with a false-advertising lawsuit against Uber. The same judge also greenlit a suit against Uber claiming that it spammed potential drivers with recruitment text messages. That suit was dismissed when electronic records showed that one of the plaintiffs had begun pursuing the company herself.

Notably, complaints about Uber typically aren’t coming from customers, and even among the firm’s drivers, crusades like Berwick’s are rare. In fact, what’s striking about the various campaigns against ride-sharing is their reliance on paperwork and credentialing instead of outcomes. The CPUC, for example, doesn’t assert that Uber is harming actual handicapped people, only that the company has failed to produce paperwork that proves the absence of harm. Similarly, the cab companies’ speech-related lawsuit — which focuses on safety claims made in Uber ads — does not claim that traditional taxis are safer than Uber rides. The plaintiffs assert instead that cab drivers are subjected to more paperwork than Uber drivers.

The anti-Uber campaign’s reluctance to assess outcomes is understandable, given the public’s strong revealed preference for the company. Interest groups can complain, but drivers and customers continue to vote for Uber with their time and money. In a free country or a sane state, a clear market decision in favor of a business would be the end of the discussion. But Uber is increasingly under pressure to furnish evidence that its model works in theory as well as in practice.

The company recently commissioned Los Angeles-based BOTEC Analysis to measure service in low-income neighborhoods — a market in which anecdotal evidence already suggests that Uber’s influence has been positive. BOTEC compared UberX with taxi services in Van Nuys as well as Central and East Los Angeles. The median wait time for an UberX ride in L.A. neighborhoods was five minutes and 52 seconds; for a taxi ride, it was 14 minutes and 33 seconds. The maximum recorded wait time for UberX was 20 minutes; for a cab, 57 minutes. Despite Uber’s widely maligned practice of “surge pricing” — a concession to the law of supply and demand that is for some reason considered outrageous — UberX also soundly beat traditional cabs on price, with a median cost per ride of $6.28, versus $15 for taxis. Surge pricing didn’t even produce a higher maximum price. UberX’s max cost per ride was $11.68, against $22 for cabs.

BOTEC is led by UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman, a thoroughly un-libertarian, good-government figure. Nevertheless, Uber opponents have dinged the study as free-market propaganda from the Uber central command. SHOULD YOU TRUST UBER’S BIG NEW UBER VS. CABS STUDY? New York asks. (Answer: a definite maybe.) Meantime, L.A. Weekly wonders, “Is Uber really being straight-up about its commitment to serve folks other than young, white professionals and party people?” But defenders of the taxi status quo face an even bigger hurdle: Uber’s very existence is an advertisement for the free market. It’s an obviously less-regulated initiative that has produced measurable, positive outcomes across a wide spectrum. No wonder people hate it so much.

Regulators Want All New CA Homes To Use ‘Zero Net Energy’

Solar panelsPlacing a big bet on solar power and new regulations, state officials have rolled out ambitious new requirements aimed at slashing energy use in newly-constructed homes.

“Buildings built in California starting in 2016 will have to comply with the nation’s toughest energy conservation standards,” the Central Valley Business Times reported. “The California Energy Commission has unanimously approved building energy efficiency standards that it says will reduce energy costs, save consumers money, and increase comfort in new and upgraded homes and other buildings.”

In single-family homes, that would amount to a drop in energy use by almost a third, relative to 2013 standards, the CVBT noted.

Cost and consequences

The New Residential Zero Net Energy Action Plan, as it has been dubbed, aimed “to establish a robust and self-sustaining market so that all new homes are zero net energy (ZNE) beginning in 2020.” Critics have reiterated longstanding objections to a statewide push of this kind, especially around the prospect of rising energy costs.

“The most complex issue will be valuing the homes, which will cost more upfront,” according to Greentech Media. “Currently, the CPUC is quoting an extra $2 to $8 per square foot after incentives. There will likely need to be incentives or creative utility billing, especially if the homes are providing demand-side services as the CPUC envisions. The CPUC says that the utilities are on board and will have to evaluate locational benefits of having net-zero homes on the system.”

As Greentech Media noted, planners have built in some would-be loopholes designed to make progress on ZNE without imposing the new standards too quickly: “Homes can be ZNE-ready, rather than actually being energy-neutral. That could mean they are solar-ready, for instance, but perhaps don’t have solar panels already installed.”

But even supporters of the plan have cautioned that executing on its goals may be a daunting challenge. At the Huffington Post, one analyst noted, “as California’s clean power goals rise, new capacity could begin to slow.”

“Some planned large projects are now on hold due to financial problems. Others face environmental challenges, such as threats to bird flyways and desert habitats. Large-scale solar plants, particularly those using solar thermal technology, are losing appeal to investors as photovoltaic panel prices plunge. And utilities, having largely reached their current renewable procurement targets, have few new projects in the pipeline. What’s more, the federal solar investment tax credit program for new utility projects drops from 30 percent to 10 percent after 2016, and ends completely for individuals.”

Unifying the grid

Nevertheless, optimism among policymakers and activists has remained high — largely because of the role of technological innovation centered in California. Apple and Google have embarked on so-called “grid-scale” renewable energy projects, while Tesla has pushed into the home energy storage business.

But some experts have implied that the problem of rising energy costs could best be addressed by linking up the net-zero energy industry with the zero-emission automobile industry. “A recent California study estimated that utility companies could earn $2.26 to $8.11 billion in net revenues from large-scale commercialization of EVs,” as reported in Fortune. “This is sufficient to allow utilities to invest both in installing charging infrastructure and return some of the revenues to their customers in the form of lower rates.”

By supplying ubiquitous EV charging stations, observers surmised, utilities could eventually recoup electrical power from cars embedded into the same flexible grid as homes. “The value of having a flexible load on the grid will grow even further with higher amounts of wind and solar,” Fortune continued. “Electric vehicles can be programmed to charge during peak solar or wind generation periods, preventing this valuable electricity from being wasted. In the future, electric vehicles could increase their value by putting electricity back into the grid as well[.]”

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com