Smart meters and stakeholder engagement


You may have missed it last week, but there was an excellent piece on the opposition to smart meters in California in the New York Times.  PG&E has installed 7 million smart meters in California since 2006; they transmit real time data on consumers’ electricity use to the utility, helping them to allocate power more efficiently.  The goal is to give consumers information about how they use power, and incentivize them to use less of it.  However, opposition to the smart meters comes largely from two different constituencies: Tea Party conservatives and consumers afraid of EMF.  Initially, you may remember, opposition to smart meters came when electricity bills increased; critics first charged that the meters were inaccurate, but it soon became apparent that the old meters were undercharging.  Now, opposition from Tea Party conservatives to smart meters is predictable; doubtlessly PG&E is just the latest Big Brother out to destroy their lives.  However, the anti-EMF opponents are a constituency that PG&E can work with, and should have worked with.  After all, it would be easy enough to find a way to connect these meters to broadband lines.

However, if we step back and examine this problem, a lot of the fuss comes down to stakeholder engagement.  Both Santa Cruz and Marin Counties put up obstacles to these meters because PG&E did not effectively engage with them beforehand.  Ultimately, we are going to have difficulties adapting to our warming climate; as we make policy changes, it will be more important than ever to properly engage and address concerns before and during rollout.  Unanimous consent is probably an unrealistic goal, but acknowledging and working with people is a must.

If you’re going to have renewables, you’d better love transmission

The controversy surrounding a proposed high voltage transmission line in El Centro, CA, which would potentially deliver wind, solar, and geothermal energy to San Diego, is instructive on the difficulties that will surround future renewable energy development.

El Centro has 110 degrees plus temperature, high wind, and readily available geothermal resources neat the San Andreas Fault.  All told, there ate 16,000 MW of potential renewable energy in the area. However, some environmentalists want the utility to forego the project and simply develop rooftop solar in San Diego.  Other critics worry about the fact that existing natural gas energy will be transmitted over the same line, and that the renewable energy claims are merely a smokescreen for a government-subsidized investment that will have a large ROI.

Michael W. Howard, president and chief executive of the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit utility consortium based in Palo Alto, Calif., said that while the potential for exploiting renewable energy remains huge nationally, “you’ve got to get it from somewhere,” he said. “If you’re going to have renewables, you’d better love transmission.”

In the end, rooftop solar deserves development, but so does an area as resource rich as El Centro, especially with its low population.  If we can’t build a transmission line in El Centro, we will certainly be unable to do it in more populated areas.

The glass half full view of Tuesday’s election

If you were to rely on the mainstream media for an analysis of Tuesday’s election, you might think that a Tea Party revolution is about to take hold of Washington.  Yes, Rand Paul was elected; the countdown begins on his vow to eliminate entire Federal Government departments.  Yes, some amazingly effective leaders such as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold were defeated.  However, in the larger picture, those concerned with creating a sustainable future can celebrate some important victories.

First of all, California voters dealt a resounding defeat to Proposition 23, which would have suspended California’s pioneering greenhouse gas reduction law, AB 32.  Prop. 23 wasn’t just defeated, it was defeated 61-39.  California voters said no to Texas-based oil interests.  They are committed to an energy future that recognizes the externalities of fossil-based fuels, and demand a clean energy revolution.  Try that on for size, Tea Party.

Second, while many sympathetic politicians lost, some stalwarts of sustainability, like Senator Barbera Boxer in California, fought off challengers.  Former Denver mayor, and sustainability advocate John Hickenlooper was convincingly elected Governor of Colorado.  Governor Deval Patrick was re-elected in Massachusetts, and Independent Lincoln Chafee held off a last minute challenge by Republican John Robitaille in the Rhode Island Governor’s race.  Even one Republican victor, Governor-elect Rick Snyder of Michigan, offers hope, as he is a board member of The Nature Conservancy.  Extremists like Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell were defeated.  In short, while no one will confuse incoming House Speaker John Boehner as a champion of sustainability, Tuesday’s midterm election was not a disaster.

Proposition 14 passes, but Lincoln survives.

Corruption in California is Terminated?

Blanche Lincoln managed to survive her primary battle with Bill Halter, but Proposition 14 passed in California:

“Under the new measure, only the top two vote-getters in a primary election — regardless of their political party — will advance to a November runoff. Currently, the top vote-getter in each party advances to the fall campaign.”

As I mentioned yesterday, this system, in Kentucky, would have left Rand Paul out of the November election.  This will make get out the vote operations essential in all counties.  Proposition 14, supported by the Governator, could he his last major political act as Governor.

One note to keep an eye on: California passed a similar measure in 1996, only to have it overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Will Halter top Lincoln?

This is an odd election year, with primaries, run-offs, and special elections appearing on a monthly basis.  Today voters in California and Arkansas will make important decisions.

In California, voters will determine the fate of Proposition 14, which would replace the Primary system with a new system that would allow the top two vote getters to face off in November, in both California and Congressional races.  If that proposed system were in place in Kentucky, where the May Senate primary was known nationally as Rand Paul’s decisive victory, in fact the two Democratic Senate candidates, Jack Conroy and Daniel Mongiardo, would face each other again in a rematch, leaving Paul, who received less votes than both Democrats, out of the November election altogether.

In California, both political parties oppose Proposition 14, because it threatens their power.  California is crippled financially, with Democrats and Republicans unwilling to agree on a path forward, and with voter-driven financial restrictions on tax increases.  Voters, of course, can at the same time demand spending increases through the Proposition system.

In Arkansas, Senator Blanche Lincoln is fighting for her political life in a run-off against Lt. Governor Bill Halter.  Will we see a Halter-top?  Unions committed to this election after Lincoln reversed her position on the Public Option and Card Check.  Predictably, this is yet another centrist that will be defeated.  David Brooks wrote an excellent column recently about two competing theories of change, founded in the writings of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke:

“We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment…Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.  The children of the British Enlightenment are in retreat. Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance.”

Is a Halter victory a victory for the French Enlightenment? Not quite, but it is a sign that centrists, as Brooks eloquently writes, lack a clear identity.  Too often, we just see what they are against, and not what they are for.  Lincoln, in a desperate bid to save her political seat, took a bold step with an amendment to reform derivatives.  Unfortunately, the amendment will die in committee. Lincoln only played that card when she was desperate; that was obvious to everyone.

Is our two-party system dying? Not yet.

In 1997 I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, attending an event by the campus Young Democrats, in which Bill Lockyer was the speaker.  Lockyer, the current State Treasurer of California, was back then a stalwart in the California Legislature, serving as Senate President pro Tempore.  1997 was of course during the messy end of the Clinton Presidency, when his triangulation conflated with the burgeoning sex scandals to dim even the most optimistic young liberal.  Naively, I asked Lockyer, why don’t we enact Proportional Representation?

Like many before, I thought that a Third Party could somehow get beyond the ideological gridlock to get work done.  Of course, Lockyer laughed at my question.  At least that is how I remember it.  After the 2000 election, when a few Nader votes in Florida swung the election to George W. Bush, my view of third party candidates shifted.  They were certainly effective in swinging elections, and elevating issues, but had little hope of governance.

Yesterday in Providence Joe Scarborough, the Conservative MSNBC commentator and former Representative, said before a convention crowd that the two party system was dying, and that a third party candidate would inevitably win election as President.  I don’t discount the possibility that one day a Third Party might eventually win the Presidency, but I find it hard to believe that our two party system is facing imminent demise.   A look at the current phenomenon of the Tea Party is instructive.

On one hand, Tea Party supporters are creating a “Contract From America” which aims to improve on the 1990s Republican document by avoiding divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage.  The Tea Party wants to limit its focus to the role of the Federal government and tax policy, where it believes it can gain more supporters.

On the other hand, it was reported today in Politico that Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, and wealthy Republican donors are working to create a “vast network” modeled on successful Democratic groups like and the Center for American Progress, to take back the White House and Congress.  Republicans are working to try to harness the energy of the Tea Party, and focus it behind Republican candidates.

Republicans, however, face a messaging dilemma: their most ardent supporters “want Congress to repeal the healthcare overhaul, aren’t convinced that climate change is happening, and don’t think illegal immigrants should have a way to become citizens or that President Barack Obama has improved the United States’ global standing – all stances that put them at odds with the majority of voters,” based on a recent survey by Resurgent Republic, one of the groups created by Gillespie.

Those core voters are working to create purity tests, and call Republicans like Lindsay Graham RhINOs (Republicans In Name Only).  Rush Limbaugh raised the possibility this week that the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is actually an environmental conspiracy.  He said on his radio program that:

“lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, the carbon tax bill, cap and trade that was scheduled to be announced on Earth Day. I remember that. And then it was postponed for a couple of days later after Earth Day, and then of course immigration has now moved in front of it. But this bill, the cap-and-trade bill, was strongly criticized by hardcore environmentalist wackos because it supposedly allowed more offshore drilling and nuclear plants, nuclear plant investment. So, since they’re sending SWAT teams down there, folks, since they’re sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I’m just noting the timing here.”

Of course, Rush is just “noting the timing.”  That being said, when the resurgent Tea Party avidly supports Rush and Glen Beck, it is difficult to imagine that they would be able to even come close to the watershed Third Party moment of 1992, the candidacy of Ross Perot.  Ron Rappaport, who co-authored a book on the Perot movement, compared a recent survey of Tea Party supporters with Perot supporters and observed:

“The major difference is that Perot movement was a total rejection of both parties, while the tea party movement is a total rejection of only one party–the Democrats.  Whereas only 5% of tea party supporters said that they usually or always voted Democratic, fully one-third of Perot supporters had voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 and slightly more had voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988.”

Nate Silver, who interviewed Rappaport, concludes that “if [the Tea Party] is a danger or threat to the Republican Party it is thus a danger from within, not without. And if it is a threat to the Democratic Party it is because it readily mobilizes voters who ultimately are going to vote for Republicans (or more accurately, against Democrats), not third-party candidates.”

So, based on what I see, it is difficult to imagine the Tea Party becoming a successful third party.  The only chance that a third party would have to prosper would be if election rules were amended to include Proportional Representation.  In that system, legislative assemblies are apportioned based on the percentage of votes for a particular political party.  There are various types of PR, and the system is used in countries like Germany, Israel, Brazil, and Ireland.  In many of those governments, third parties create coalitions with more dominant parties to form governing blocks.  Like Bill Lockyer told me years ago, neither of our two parties is likely to make a change like this, because it would be against their self-interest.

What about voter reform, in the state where voters have a vehicle for radical reform? Proposition 14, a June ballot measure in California, would reform Primary Elections in the State by enabling only voters to nominate candidates for the primary, and pitting the top-two voter getters of that combined primary in the November election.  This measure, similar to Proposition 62, which was defeated 54-46% by California voters in 2004, would aim to elect more moderate politicians to the State Legislature.  Opponents of the Proposition argue that the measure will actually reduce the influence of third parties by raising thresholds to qualify for the ballot, and creating a November election in which only the two dominant parties will have a voice.  While gerrymandered districts and party extremes frustrate Californians, Proposition 14 will not create conditions for change.

The other potential for a third party would of course come if one of our existing parties were to disband or die off.  The Republicans are not going out of their way to embrace the growing Hispanic vote. They will eventually need to moderate the views that their core voters hold on Global Warming and immigration if the party is to grow its base.  However, there is plenty of money invested in our current system, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

In the end, the Republican Party will do enough to survive; along with it, so will our two-party system.  The only real hope of a third party is if an issue becomes an intractable problem that paralyzes the two parties and threatens the future of our country, in the eyes of voters of all stripes.  As voters showed recently in Arizona, an intractable problem can produce unprediictable results if left unaddressed.

UPDATE: The Maine Tea Party just rewrote the GOP platform.  Looks like they really want to co-opt the GOP.  In the words of the FrumForum, the inmates are now running the asylum:

“delegates attending the Maine Republican party convention voted “overwhelmingly” to rewrite much of the party platform to reflect their less than mainstream views. The new Maine GOP platform now calls for, among other things, getting rid of the Department of Education, and the Federal Reserve. It also rails against “the UN Treaty of Child Rights” and “Law of Sea Treaty” on the grounds that we must push back against “efforts to create a one world government.” The tea partiers also took the opportunity to call for an investigation of (this is an actual quote) the “collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth.” Also, we’ve adopted Austrian economics… whatever that means.  It’s hard to even know where to begin. On one hand, it is not exactly new news that Tea Party people have some unconventional views. What is news is that Tea Party values are imposing themselves on mainstream Republican party values. Up until now, the primary question for mainstream Republicans is whether the Tea Party would break off from the Republican Party and form their own movement. The events in Maine raise the possibility that the Tea Party is looking to ideologically transform the GOP to reflect their (gulp) “unconventional” ideas.”