Complete Society

Ideas and strategies for a sustainable world

CA and SF Ballot Propositions 2014

Quick Reference

State Propositions:  1 (YES), 2 (YES), 45 (NO), 46 (NO), 47 (YES), 48 (YES)

SF Propositions: A (YES), B (NO), C (YES), D (YES), E (YES), F (YES), G (NO), H (NO), I (YES), J (YES), K (YES), L (NO)

Bonus: Assembly District 17 (David Chiu)


Here are my votes and thoughts about this year’s ballot, both statewide and for SF.

I didn’t have time to do as much research as in previous years, so the proposition votes are mostly based on my analysis of the language and opinion about the proponents and opponents.

For influencers, I mostly avoided the voting slates of the political groups. I simply don’t trust most of them, either because I don’t trust their process or they had a couple non-sensical positions or arguments. I’d like to thank Deb for her analysis of the state propositions and acknowledge SPUR for their well-reasoned voting guide.

I generally dislike the proposition system in California and will vote against propositions that: a) seem unnecessary b) are badly written c) are too bluntly tackling a complex issue that shouldn’t be up to the general voters (including most things that force budgeting constraints)

That being said I’m actually voting YES on more than half of the propositions, so there you go. 🙂

CA State Propositions

Proposition 1 (Water Bond): YES

The water system in CA is broken in a lot of ways and we need to invest money in the infrastructure. Fiscal impact appears to be relatively small (.3 percent of annual general fund revenues) and estimated savings to local governments almost counteracts that amount.

Looking at main arguments against, the arguments are generally poor quality.

  • Opponents make a valid point re major focus on dams, but the argument against dams is not compelling. The whole water system in CA should be looked at as a system – not individual water users paying for the water that gets to them. And it doesn’t make obvious sense that the new dams would automatically divert water from the named rivers.
  • Opponents don’t offer any specific better solutions on the supply side
  • Statements like “no amount of water storage will produce more rain and snow” are disingenuous and make opponents look bad, like they’re trying to deceive people with sound bites that seem to make sense but actually don’t

Proposition 2 (Budget Stabilization): YES

This seems to add more restrictive budget requirements on Governor, which is something I’d generally oppose, but Governor Brown supports it and he’s been good on fiscal responsibility issues. Without knowing too much about the topic, again the arguments against are weak and come only from one organization. The arguments against are also misleading in using the wrong terminology.

Proposition 45 (Health Insurance Rates): NO

This is close call for a few reasons, but ultimately, as Deb says, it’s another example of what’s wrong with our proposition system.  The issue is way too complex for the average voter to determine.  That alone is worth tipping it to a NO.  But here’s some of my thoughts.

I’m very wary of the opportunity of the Consumer Watchdog Group to make a lot of money off intervention in rate changes. They stand the most to benefit by opening up this additional avenue of legal activity.  There are times when it makes sense to have more direct consumer oversight of regulation but it’s not clear this is one of those times and it shouldn’t be primarily pushed by the group that’s going to make the most money from a new bureaucracy.

Also, the Proposition is written poorly in allowing “rates” to be so broadly defined to cover anything related to a medical visit. Homeowners and auto insurance are much simpler.  Proponents argument that health insurance should be regulated like those other insurances is again deceptive and illogical.

Furthermore, there’s certainly a risk of disrupting Covered CA based on my experience with regulatory intervention. It could be too easy for intervenors to prevent plan rate changes to be available during open enrollment and could be a tool for opponents of the Affordable Care Act to try to make it fail.

My only resistance to voting NO is that I’d be siding with a bunch of groups I don’t like or trust, including the CA Chamber of Commerce and SEIU labor union.  But the arguments against creating a new, possibly expensive bureaucracy are compelling enough.

Proposition 46 (Medical Malpractice): NO

Drug testing of doctors and checking the CURES database before prescriptions both make decent sense. But these provisions can be seen as just “sweeteners” for the proponents to get their real win – increasing the cap on non-economic damages. Increasing the cap based on inflation based appears to make sense, but it’s hard to justify big first year jump for the lawyers.

Groups who funded this Prop are all lawyers which makes it appear that the real mission is for them to make more money, not to achieve a real reduction in medical malpractice.  If the proposition didn’t have the cap increase (or it was just an inflation based increase starting from now), I’d probably say YES since the other items seem like good ideas.

From Deb: “I might support the first point if it were a more gradual increase, but quadrupling the cap in one go could have economic and health repercussions, as doctors & hospitals would have to carry more malpractice insurance. This could push clinics in low-income areas out of business…it would be better to do a gradual increase and see if there are negative impacts, particularly in areas with low levels of health care provider service to begin with”

Proposition 47 (Reduced penalties for some crimes): YES

It’s generally a good idea to cut back on incarceration for non-violent crimes and this proposition seems to have a good amount of protections in place. Opponents seem to be doing a bit too much fearmongering – trying to scare people with warnings about things like possession of date-rape drugs, and the idea that people will never get higher penalties even after they’ve repeatedly committed crimes.

Also, opponents argue that lower penalties will mean people will commit a lot more of these crimes. At this level of non-violent offenses, I seriously doubt whether the penalties level will make a noticeable difference in decisions to commit crimes.

Proposition 48 (Tribal gaming compact): YES

Another example of a bad misuse of the proposition system.  The tribal gaming compacts are seriously complex things that our elected officials are supposed to deal with.  There’s no reason why some random uninformed person at the other end of the state should have a say in whether a tribe can build a casino.

SF Propositions

A (Transportation Bond): YES

Useful step in funding much needed capital improvements. Doesn’t raise taxes beyond what they are now. Opponents don’t make any compelling arguments.

B (SFMTA Set Aside): NO

This was a close call, but in the balance, I’m going with SPUR’s analysis.  Some of their useful points:

  • Using population growth, rather than revenue growth, to determine the increase means that the measure is not connected to the city’s ability to pay.
  • The set-aside would go up when population increases but would not go down when population declines. This is not a good precedent
  • it is not tied to available revenue, it is not funded by a new revenue source, it does not expire and it is not tied to a specific, measurable performance standard or outcome

While the SFMTA does need more money, I don’t entirely trust the way they handle money now (although Prop A is ok because it’s dedicated to capital investments identified by a special task force).

Unfortunately, the person who wrote the argument against Prop B sounds like a nutcase. But that’s not enough to vote YES.

C (Children’s Fund): YES

Again, I don’t like budgeting by proposition, but SPUR points out that children generally don’t do well in the budgeting process.

My biggest issue with this Prop is the classification of adults up to 24 as children. This seems ludicrous – how many SF startup entrepreneurs are 24 or under? The MVP of the World Series is only 25!

I also problem with design of this set aside, which SPUR also notes, but since it’s mostly an existing set aside the budgeting already has accounted for it in the past.

D (Retiree health benefits): YES

No brainer.  In this case, definitely would not vote with the same nutcase opposing Prop B

E (Sugary Beverage Tax): YES

This article sums up the arguments pretty well:

From SPUR:

The San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst estimates that each year sugary drinks cost San Franciscans $41 million to $61 million — including $6 million to $28 million incurred by city agencies — in public and private health care treatment. An analysis by the San Francisco Controller’s Office estimates that a tax of 2 cents per ounce could decrease consumption of sugary drinks by up to 31 percent

The beverage industry PAC has tried to make this all about hurting the poor – but that argument holds no water based on lots of analysis from similar measures around the world.  *All* of the paid arguments against this prop were funded by the industry PAC (except for the Republican Party)

If you don’t want to pay the tax, *don’t buy the sugary drinks*.  No one is forcing you to.  Some of the best water in the country is free from the tap in SF.

Extra update: One friend made the good point that this tax could drive people towards diet sodas (which aren’t taxed).  And diet sodas contain other chemicals that are bad for your health and can also cause diabetes.

In my opinion, while this is a real risk, Prop E is worth it to take a first step in regulating this industry and we’ll learn whether people do switch over to diet sodas or not.  If no behavior is changed, we at least get funding for public health programs.

F (Pier 70) : YES   (another no-brainer)

G (Real Estate Transfer Tax):  NO

As much as I like the idea of discouraging real-estate flipping for rental buildings, the proposition authors left one corner case possible that I can’t support.  Person buys a small building, maybe with an in-law unit and moves in.  Sometime before a year is up they need to sell because of a work move or medical issue or something.  If the value of the house went up even just a few dollars, they’re now hit with a 24% tax, meaning they lost 24% of their investment through no fault of their own.

Everything else about the Prop is generally ok and I think could be useful.  And I dislike the opponents and deceptive messaging and mailers against Prop G.  So, I’d be for Prop G except for this, probably rare, situation.

H (Beach Chalet grass field): NO

This is NIMBY-ism at its worst and an abuse of the proposition system.  Any taxpayer in SF should be pissed at this small group that has wasted six years of time and money to fight this one soccer field upgrade.  SPUR says it well:

“through a multi-year public process, appearing before the Recreation and Park Commission, the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Board of Appeals and the California Coastal Commission. In each case, their arguments failed to persuade the regulatory bodies, and the environmental impact report for the renovation project was certified and upheld. With the regulatory appeals exhausted, the opponents filed suit in California Superior Court, which also rejected their arguments”

“The endless process and delay has likely cost more than $3 million in city and philanthropic resources that would have been better spent elsewhere. By resorting to a ballot initiative after losing at every stage of the approval process, the measure’s proponents are undercutting the ability of the existing planning and regulatory process to settle controversial issues fairly”

The Sierra Club SF Chapter’s support of this is another reason why I’ve stopped trusting them on any kind of government policy.

I (Playgrounds):  YES   (this is just to counter Prop H)

J (Minimum Wage): YES

Arguments and evidence for this are relatively straightforward.

K (Affordable Housing): YES

It’s a good commitment to make.  No real arguments against were presented.

L (Transportation Priorities): NO

This is also a no-brainer.  There’s no compelling need to change the priorities and tons of reasons to keep on the path of more, better sustainable transportation.  Also, the Prop is horribly written, with some provisions being stupidly unworkable.  Proponents don’t get some very basic ideas like:

  • Parking meters actually improve parking availability
  • If you’re a motorists, your best friend is the person who didn’t drive today


BONUS: Assembly District 17  (east side of SF)

On the surface the two candidates look very similar – two Harvard law school lawyers named David who are Democrats.  But they are actually quite different, and if your primary criteria is who will do a better job at getting good things done in Sacramento across any of the major policy issues, then David Chiu is the obvious choice.

I won’t get in to a whole lot of heavy detail here.  Basically, Chiu has a track record of getting things done, forging compromises that tackle important issues and move our society forward.  Campos is all talk, very few impactful accomplishments and since he can’t actually attack Chiu on any substantive issues, his campaign has resorted to nasty backroom tactics and incredibly deceptive smear campaigns.  I know Chiu personally and he’s an incredibly smart guy with great integrity.  I haven’t heard anyone say the same of Campos.

And btw, specifically for the environmental / sustainability minded folks:  Chiu has championed *and passed* over half a dozen useful pieces of environmental legislation (from building energy audits to urban ag to the most recent solar vision for SF) while Campos has maybe zero?

Here’s a few useful links:

SF Chronicle Endorsement

Dispelling misinformation about Airbnb legislation

Attorney General Kamala Harris speaking on behalf of Chiu


October 30, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Building the sustainability movement through movement

In June of 2012 I went to the Greener Mind Summit for the second time, choosing to cut myself off from the digital world and spend the weekend connecting with a hundred other folks who had passion and ideas about sustainability and green business.  While there, I struggled with how to connect one of my greatest passions, freeform dance, with sustainability – holding experiments and having conversations that I don’t think really landed for my fellow participants.

It took another year of introspection and exploration, with meditation, dance and stark lessons about presence and community, for me to come up with a link between dance and sustainability that seems plausible:

Dancing together leads to connectedness and community, which leads to greater awareness of yourself in the whole of society.  That awareness leads to greater care about the sustainability of society and the planet.

So at this year’s GMS, my annual dance workshop experiment with these folks was designed around creating a dance experience that built community.  If I could design a workshop that helps anyone experience greater community through dance, and take that feeling to other dance floors in their lives, then I have another powerful way to use my passion and talents to promote sustainability.

While I haven’t gathered feedback on the experiment yet, the theory seemed to resonate with some of the dancers at GMS.

And right now, as I’m thinking about it, there’s a great connection back to my best contribution to the Presidio Graduate School community:  the semi-annual Dance-off.  People have told me that it’s the biggest community-building thing at this school full of people passionate about sustainability.

I’m excited to explore this further, so totally welcome any thoughts, ideas and references.

July 6, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

California and SF ballot propositions

Quick Reference

California State Propositions:  30 (Y),  31 (N), 32 (N), 33 (N), 34 (Y), 35 (N), 36 (Y), 37 (N), 38 (N), 39 (Y), 40 (Y)
San Francisco City measures: A (N), B (Y), C (Y), D (Y), E (Y), F (N), G (Y)

30 (temporary tax increase to fund education): YES.

We need something to solve to fix the state budget and this proposition at least stops the massive education cuts that would come in January.  Purely selfishly, I also want Brown to be able to think about clean energy issues instead of spending all his time on the budget.

31 (constitutional changes regarding state vs. local budgeting and oversight): NO.

Poorly worded proposition that exacerbates the problems with budgeting by ballot measures.  There’s no reason to handcuff the Legislature this way and give local governments too much leeway to ignore state policy.

32 (payroll deductions for political purposes): NO.

While I do want to see money taken out of politics, and I don’t like the extreme influence that the labor unions have on state politics, this is an insidiously wrong proposition that just gives more power to corporations and PACs.

33 (changes to auto insurance costs): NO.

This is another sneaky proposition that gives the insurance companies more flexibility to raise rates while purporting to be about providing discounts.

34 (repeal death penalty and replace with life in prison without possibility of parole): YES

I’m generally against the death penalty.  I haven’t seen evidence that it deters crime and even if it were to cost more money to incarcerate for life, I think it’d be worth it to avoid executing someone who’s innocent.  The analysis says that it’s actually cheaper to incarcerate for life than to go through the full death penalty process, and the number of death row inmates is so small that it shouldn’t have an impact on prison overcrowding.

35 (increase prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions): NO.

Poorly worded proposition that seems ripe for unintended consequences.  It’s not clear how big the human trafficking problem is and whether increased penalties would make an actual difference.

36 (repeal 3 strikes law): YES

37 (label GMO food): NO

From Kat Phillips (C9)

“Meg and I are part of this crazy food system now, working on driving change. We have knowledge that others, even those who’re passionate and have done their research, could never have. My advice is that if we say its no good then vote NO. Take it from someone who’s lives in the shadows of Ag chem companies.”
38 (tax increase to fund education – competitor to prop 30): NO.

Increases taxes across the board without actually helping solve the overall CA budget problem.  Much more effective to add to the sales tax as well as increase tax rates on the wealthy.  Increasing taxes on the low-to-middle income people more makes zero sense during a recession.

39 (increase income tax collected in CA and dedicates 5 yrs of revenue to clean energy projects, with some set-asides for schools too): YES.

This is a no brainer.

40 (redistricting): YES.  This whole proposition is weirdly backwards, but its needs to pass in order to retain the district maps drawn by the Citizens Redistricting Commission.


A (City college parcel tax): NO.

As much as I’d like to support community college, the CCSF is apparently pretty bad at financial management.  If their financial problems were just due to state funding cuts, then I could see providing support.  But the accreditation problems and audit issues make me not want to give more money to mismanagement.

Quote from SPUR analysis: “CCSF is facing the loss of the institution’s accreditation. Investing taxpayer dollars while CCSF is rectifying significant administrative challenges will further exacerbate the problem and allow trustees to avoid difficult decisions about the college’s future.”  (note that SPUR is actually recommending YES on this)

B (neighborhood parks bond): YES.

As a heavy user of SF’s parks, I’m naturally inclined to support improvements but I did get a bit concerned about mismanagement.  Reading SPUR’s analysis alleviated these concerns a bit since they specifically call out improvements in the capital management at SF Parks and Rec.

Quote from SPUR analysis: “improvements in the department’s capital planning team in recent years have restored some confidence that funds will be managed responsibly and projects delivered on time. This bond has been rigorously planned, and the department has done a good job of preparing for efficient project delivery.”

C (create a housing trust fund to support affordable housing): YES
D (consolidate odd-year municipal elections): YES.  Simple common sense.
E (gross receipts tax/change payroll tax): YES.
F (hetch hetchy): NO.  Might have been ok if it was just a water recycling/efficiency plan.
G (opposing corporate personhood): YES

November 5, 2012 Posted by | Politics and Governance | Leave a comment

Need for a new policy paradigm

Watching an episode from Season 4 of West Wing, I’m struck by how almost 10 years ago, the show was foreshadowing the partisanship dysfunction that we find ourselves in today.  They talked about how impossible it was to get anything done with a Democratic President and a Republican Congress that hated him, but even then it wasn’t portrayed anywhere nearly as badly as the situation today.

Today, we’re stuck in a paradigm where it’s all about winning and losing, us versus them, with very little hint of trying to come up with solutions that work for almost everyone, solutions that actually change the system for the better in a meaningful way.  Even if there is some compromise, some sense of positive change, it always seems justified (or driven) by political points.

Is it naïve or fanciful to think we can change this?  To think we can work on improving government policy so that it benefits the most people, collaborate towards systemic win-win solutions?

A commentator I heard on NPR recently suggests that we got what we asked for by electing a Congress that is something like 40+% lawyers.  These people are trained to fight, to win over the other guy.  And legislative politics is set up like a battle, mostly a battle of money, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see the partisanship get worse, to see how Congress and legislatures get less and less real positive change accomplished.

I see a similar thing in the regulatory realm, at the Public Utilities Commission, because there too, the system is structured for fighting.  Activities there are set up like court cases and participating is even called “litigating’.  So again, much of it becomes a battle of lawyers and resources.

Since I’m not a lawyer, and look to solve problems from an engineer’s system-thinking viewpoint, I feel like we can do better, that if we put people in to the right structures and incentives, we could actually sit down together in a constructive conversation.  I can imagine facilitating such conversations with the people I’ve found in the industry (even some lawyers) who genuinely get the idea that their “winning” today on an issue isn’t actually what is best for society in the long-run.

Starting in a small, targeted way, I’d like to get such a conversation going in a specific energy policy topic in California.  It could be any of a number of hot topics from DG, grid reliability or smart grid, to long-term renewables targets, CCA’s or energy efficiency.  We would just need all the players to recognize that the current system of PUC proceedings, CEC workshops, Legislative hearings, etc isn’t working.  Then we’d need a funder, such as the Energy Foundation to see the need and take a risk by funding a group like the Clean Coalition to make such a conversation happen.

March 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Feb 7, 2012: Great day in News and Media

Ok, so this post has nothing to do with the general theme of this blog or any of the regular topics. I just need to mark this day somehow with the sheer amount of good news that happened. These days, in “mainstream” media it sometimes feels like all you get is bad news, depressing events, or stuff that makes you fear for where society is going.

But here’s the great “news” day I had courtesy of my Facebook feed:

  • Kicked off the day right with an awesome punctuation joke picture: “Stop Clubbing, Baby Seals”
    • This made my day just by itself – combining my love of dance with being a grammar/punctuation geek
  • Then I saw that the woman responsible for the Komen Foundation fiasco resigned
    • Whatever her politics or the official party line, just putting the foundation through that mess was enough for them to fire her if she didn’t resign
  • After seeing a few writeups of Jeremy Lin’s second career record breaking game, the highlights video was posted
    • Breakout awesome performances like these are inspiring, and all the better that it’s an Asian American making headlines in professional sports.  It was so cool, I watched it twice during the day.
  • My FB feed lit up with joy when the 9th Circuit Court panel declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional
    • “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for ‘laws of this sort.'”
  • The hits kept coming with John and Leo, my MIT classmates and startup buddies from the old dotcom days, selling one of their startups for the *4th time*.
    • I was part of the first one, but my career went in a totally different direction.  I’m super happy for them and impressed – I bet when they walk in a room now, investors just throw big checks at them.
  • Then us “greenies” got a win with the SF Board of Supervisors voting unanimouslyto extend the plastic bag ban in SF to  all retailers
    • We’ve got more reusable bags at home than you can shake a FSC-certified stick at.  It bugs me every time I get a plastic bag in SF, so I’m really excited to see this ban go in to place.
  • Finally, back to great news from friends, several of the cool leaders of the David Chiu for Mayor campaign announced the launch of their new political consulting firm – 50+1 Strategies
    • Beyond being happy for cool people, I really appreciate how their mission is to win elections through community organizing power.

Wow!  What a great day, right?

February 7, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

True priorities in policy debates

One of the key issues I keep seeing in all types of policy discussions is that people don’t take the time to agree, or at least lay on the table, not just the goals/objectives of the policy, but more importantly, the *priorities* of those objectives.

Taking examples from my recent experience, wouldn’t it be refreshing to walk in to something like a CPUC public workshop and have everyone declare their top 5 priorities *in ranked order* at the outset?  Everyone wants to appear that they are trying to find the best, balanced solution, but where the rubber meets the road, each has a definite ranking.

The Feed-In Tariff discussion is a great case study here.  The base assumption is that for whatever reason, everyone wants more renewable energy online.  But when we start debating FIT design, people’s actual detailed priorities emerge to some degree.

Every stakeholder who talks to a policymaker tries to say that their position is the objectively best position for everyone.  But demanding an actual ranking of priorities will show how their position is grounded.

Whatever the actual order, policymakers who care what’s best for society (as opposed to just their reelection) should at least be clear within themselves what their priorities are and ask for clarity and honesty from all stakeholders.  If a stakeholder’s priorities doesn’t line up with yours, then you know to discount their arguments and design ideas.

Looking at the apparent priorities of some of the louder stakeholders in the FIT discussion, then shows how you should evaluate what they say.  Some examples:

– A major player in renewable energy regularly attacks the best-proven FIT designs even though a FIT would increase their addressable market 10x.    What’s clear is that their top priority is not to expand the market, but instead to keep the market at a size they can dominate and keep the barriers to entry high to new entrants.

– A seemingly “grassroots” non-profit similarly advocates for programs that advantage larger, entrenched players.  While one would assume that the non-profit would advocate for the best policies for the most people, the reality is that the org is sponsored by those larger players and the org’s funding is actually the top priority.

– An influential consultant consistently disparages FITs and discounts the success stories from around the world.  Even though their job is to provide objective evaluation, this consultant has a clear ideological bias that prevents objective analysis in this space.  Their top priority is to fight an ideological battle against “socialism in the US” rather than what’s best for renewable energy.

As a society we try to demand transparency from our policymakers.  If a policymaker truly wants to design the best policies, they should demand or ferret out transparency from their stakeholders.

August 15, 2010 Posted by | Policy | Leave a comment

Superfreakonomics and the Commonwealth Club

After reading weeks of criticism and debunking of Superfreakonomics by some of the leading figures in climate change conversation, I was disappointed to find that the Commonwealth Club was highlighting the authors with their own book publicity event.

So, some Presidio classmates and I put together a petition and letter to the Club inviting them to take a stand, not on the science of geoengineering, but on the integrity of the book. Essentially, on a topic this important, students in sustainability programs and prominent public forums should hold such authors to a high standard and make sure distortions and misrepresentations don’t pollute the conversation.

Here is the email we sent to the Commonwealth Club today as well as the text of the petition.

Dear Commonwealth Club,

Many in the Presidio Graduate School community were disappointed to hear that the Commonwealth Club would be featuring the authors of Superfreakonomics as part of their book publicity tour. The attached petition and signature comments detail why we feel that the Club should not highlight this book without explicit acknowledgment of its flaws and the widely publicized repudiation by their main scientific sources on climate change.

We believe climate change is the critical issue of our time. As a school dedicated to learning and discussion about sustainability, we welcome diverse opinions, but also take a stand for integrity in the public discourse. Conversation should be based on an honest representation of science and the work of experts.

We know the Commonwealth Club shares our dedication to honest conversation and we invite you to use this opportunity to take a stand for truth on this vitally important topic.


Forty-four members of the Presidio Graduate School community

As students of business and public administration at the Presidio Graduate School, we
passionately believe in the integrity of public discourse and the urgency of the climate change
crisis facing our society.  We have the utmost respect for the Commonwealth Club, its mission,
and its recognition of the crisis with its Climate One initiative.  In that spirit, we strongly urge you
to reconsider your event featuring the authors of Superfreakonomics.

The book’s chapter on climate change can at best be described as “contrarian” and at worst,
dangerous misinformation.  Experts with the highest credentials have thoroughly debunked this
chapter, including a Nobelist stating that there are factual errors “on every page”.  That being
said, we understand that this may be considered acceptable public debate and a discourse that
the Club would like to bring forward.

However, we believe the Club should not endorse a blatant violation of journalistic integrity. 
Beyond a healthy disagreement on how to address climate change, the authors have in fact
misrepresented and distorted the statements and work of the expert sources their position relies
upon.  Most importantly, their main scientific source has publicly repudiated this chapter and its
interpretation of his work.   

This shows that the authors did not intend to constructively add to the public discourse, but
instead deliberately distorted scientific truth to further their own profits.  We assert that the
Commonwealth Club, an organization founded to seek and disseminate truth, should not be a
party to this effort.  By featuring only the authors in this event, the Club is conferring credibility
and validating the integrity of their work.  

Climate change is too important and the expected audience of this book is too large for us to
allow such self-serving distortions to pollute the conversation.

Given that it is likely too late to remove the authors from the agenda of next week’s event, we
recommend that the Commonwealth Club invite and give equal billing to an additional speaker
to challenge the authors.  

We believe that this action is necessary for the Commonwealth Club to remain truly objective
and maintain its strong stand on truth and integrity in the public discourse.

November 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

CA Energy Bills Part 2: SB32

SB32 – “FIT-like” extension

The quick way to think about SB32 is that it expands and does a little fixing to the existing FIT-like program in California. Despite what many reporters are saying, this is not a new FIT for California. California has had a FIT-like program since early 2008, starting with AB1969. That program is limited to projects up to 1.5MW and has failed mainly because the price you are paid for the electricity you produce is too low to make investment worthwhile. Despite a goal of deploying 500 MW of renewable energy, the program has resulted in about 10MW of biogas projects.

The program is FIT-like because it sets a fixed rate for energy over a long-term contract (10, 15 or 20 years) and directs utilities to create a standard contract for everyone in this program rather than having each developer negotiate a new contract for each project.

SB32 made improvements to this program in several ways, including:

  • The price set by the CPUC can now include the value of avoiding environmental impacts (e.g. GHG emissions).
  • The price may also include the value of “locational benefits” which can mean several things depending on how the CPUC interprets the bill. At a minimum, it is expected that this will include the extra value of energy produced on distributions circuits that need help with peak demand.
  • Projects can be up to 3 MW: better economies of scale could help make investment viable
    The program applies to all utilities, not just the big Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs)

The primary distinction between this SB32-expanded program and the German-style FIT is the pricing. The California program starts with what’s called the Market-Price-Referent, and estimate of how much the energy is worth to consumers based on what they would have paid for a 500 MW gas-fired power plant. This is called “value-based” pricing. SB32 allows other elements to be added to the MPR whereas the existing program is limited to just MPR.

German-style FITs calculate price based on “cost plus reasonable profit”. First, you estimate the cost of developing and operating a solar farm for example. Then you consider a reasonable ROI, such as 7%. Then, based on how much energy the farm will produce over the life of the contract, you set a rate that the utilities pay per Kilowatt-hour to provide that reasonable ROI.

Bottom line is that we don’t know whether the SB32 changes will result in more renewable energy development because we don’t know what the price will be. The most successful programs in countries around the world use the German-style cost-based approach.

However, the FIT Coalition decided to support SB32 because it represented some real progress this year. The non-price related improvements were good steps towards a successful FIT and we welcomed those.

You can read our letter to supporters and to the Governor on SB32 here. We’re happy that SB32 was signed but we’ll be gearing up full force to get AB1106, an even better FIT, passed in early 2010.

To learn more about FIT’s in general, visit the FIT Coalition at and join our mailing list for regular updates.

October 18, 2009 Posted by | Policy, Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

CA Energy Bills Part 1: AB920

Two particular bills, AB920 & SB32, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger on Oct 11, 2009 have received a lot of attention recently for how they change the incentives in California to produce energy from renewable sources. Being steeped in this topic for the last 6 months as co-founder of the FIT Coalition, I am seeing that unfortunately, much of the reporting on these bills has been confused and inaccurate.

People have been throwing around the term “feed-in-tariff” with respect to both bills. If you think very broadly as a FIT being any system for selling energy back to the utility company, then sure, the term applies. But, there are many different ways to implement such systems and just as many meanings for a FIT.

This means that you can’t really liken the world’s most successful FIT, the German one, to AB920, but you can make a more direct compare/contrast to SB32. I’ll try to provide the important details of each bill and likely effects below but note that I’ve been focusing on FITs, not net metering, so while I’ve read and analyzed AB920, I’m not an expert on its likely impacts. (This post is about AB920. Part 2 will be about SB32)

AB920 – Net Metering excess
In simplest terms, basic Net Metering allows a property owner to “zero out” their electricity bill over a 12-month period. Any energy your solar system produces beyond what you use in a particular month gets credited to your bills in other months. So, for example, in the summer, your solar system produces more energy than you use. Then in the winter, you use more than you system produces. The excess production from the summer offsets the energy you took from the grid in the winter.

This program complements the California Solar Initiative. The CSI gives rebates to people who install solar systems based on the size of the system. Basically, Net Metering alone wasn’t enough to get people to install solar because it was still too expensive. So, the CSI brought the cost down and has been pretty successful in getting a lot of people to install.

Two of the problems that have remained with Net Metering:

  1. Larger solar systems have better economies of scale but even if you have space for a big system, there’s no incentive to do this when you can’t get any money for the energy you produce beyond zero-ing out your bill.
  2. Once you have a system, there’s no incentive to become more energy efficient, again because you can’t get compensated for the extra energy your solar system produces.

AB920 was targeted at solving these issues. In the simplest terms, now the utility has to pay you for all the energy that you produce after zero-ing your bill. It’s important to know that the rate the utility pays you will not be your typical electricity rate that you pay for energy. On your bill, you pay the *retail rate*, whereas for the excess energy, you will earn something close to the *wholesale rate*.

Will this be a big boost to Net Metering and incent a lot more people to deploy solar energy production? It will help some but probably not as much as people think because:

  • You now have a reason to put in a bigger system, *but* you may risk not getting the CSI subsidy. The CSI requires you to install a system no bigger than your peak demand estimate. So, if building a bigger system and getting the excess payments is worth more than losing the CSI subsidy, you might do this. I think this will probably only apply to businesses rather than residential homes, and/or will be more effective in a few years when the CSI subsidies have come down.
  • The price the utilities pay is going to be pretty low. The price is set by the PUC but it is required to reflect the “value” of the energy and make sure that it doesn’t raise prices for people without solar systems. That means the price will be at a low wholesale rate for energy. And btw, this energy is not “dispatchable” so it’s worth even less to the utilities.
  • Net metering and this program ends when enough customers have signed up to make up 2.5% of the utilities delivered energy. Many of the utilities are not far from that limit which is why there was a bill to try to up that cap this year. The bill failed, so the overall program may come to a halt mid-2010 anyway.

Here are two reasons that people typically don’t use the term feed-in-tariff to describe net-metering or even net-metering excess:

  • FIT usually applies to independent power producers selling energy at the wholesale level to utilities. It doesn’t include offsetting a retail bill.
  • FITs usually don’t require the power producer to be a customer of the utility. You should be able to sell power with a FIT on a bare piece of land that doesn’t take any energy from the grid.

To sum up, AB920 is not a feed-in-tariff in the way FITs are talked about in the industry and is unlikely to incent a lot of new, larger development of solar in the short term. In a few years, this bill may have more of an impact due to two trends: CSI subsidies will be coming down so developers won’t face as much of a subsidy loss, and solar panel costs may come down enough so that the AB920 payments make a real difference in the investment decision.

October 18, 2009 Posted by | Policy, Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

Commencement speech by Paul Hawken

This speech is so amazing, I felt I had to publish it and try to get as many people to read it as possible.  There’s so much in here that speaks exactly to why I feel driven to work on sustainability, join the movement embodied in the Presidio MBA program, and change my career so drastically.

Commencement Address by Paul Hawken to the Class of 2009, University of Portland

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, neked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” Boy, no pressure there. But let’s begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades. This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.

Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food, but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING.

The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.

What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description.

Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refugee camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums. You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen.

Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisher folk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way. There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true.

Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.
Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots.

Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty.

But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental organizations, of companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals.

The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history. The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy.

We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the only species on this planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet.

At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering.

Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich. The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable.

We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it.

In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging, stupefying challenge ever be quested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment