Golden update: "Street vacation & sustainability"

Hi everyone –

I’m still thinking through how best to use this email list, but I got a lot of positive feedback after my election-related emails, and once in a while community issues come up that I want to make sure folks know about, so my plan for now is to send out an email every now and again flagging issues I think community members may be interested in.

Here are two:

1. City Council Considers Giving Away a Portion of Arapahoe Street

On Thursday night, City Council is slated to make a decision about the proposal to give Arapahoe Street between 13th and 14th to the Calvary Church. I haven’t decided what I think about it yet, but it does seem like the sort of issue that the community should know about and have a chance to weigh in on, and I don’t have the sense that many folks know it’s happening.

As the staff memo explains, “Calvary Church is now returning with a new proposal, which is a request to vacate the entire block of Arapahoe Street between 13th and 14th Streets, but without a private drive or improvements to Miners Alley. Calvary’s stated intention is to create a pedestrian and plaza space that would serve the needs of their planned “campus” environment, as well as create amenities, such as seating and landscaping, that is open to the public and establishes a better pedestrian link between CSM to the south and downtown and Clear Creek to the north.“

Calvary has proposed variations of this street vacation for many years. Unlike their 2014 proposal, however, the current proposal would simply give Calvary that stretch of Arapahoe without making any vehicle and pedestrian improvements to Miner’s Alley. This is one of several concerns with the proposal.

Another concern is the uncertainty about what the community’s future mobility needs will be. Planning Commission voted 5-2 against the proposal for this reason, specifically because they weren’t convinced that the public right-of-way won’t ever again be “necessary for public use or convenience.”

I’m a fan of Calvary and deeply appreciate their many contributions to the Golden community. But even so, I’m skeptical about street vacations since they basically mean the city permanently hands over a community-owned asset to a private entity. They are definitely a big deal, in any case, and deserve a lot of thought and scrutiny.

If you are interested or concerned, I encourage you to weigh in with Council either by email before Thursday evening, or in person at their Council meeting on Thursday night (City Council Chambers, 911 10th St., 6:30pm). You can download the staff memo to City Council if you want more details.

2. Golden Sustainability Summit in the Works

City Council and the Sustainability Advisory Board (I think it’s on the board’s agenda tomorrow night) are talking about pulling together a sustainability summit this spring. I like the idea … if it’s done well it could be a great opportunity to re-engage community members in this ambitious community-wide effort, celebrate what we’ve accomplished so far, and identify where we are falling short and how we’re going to get there. I’d love to hear your ideas about what the summit might look like and how it could be organized to make sure we get strong community involvement and that we give the Golden Sustainability Initiative a good boost. You can email me at jacobzsmith@gmail.com. I’ll compile all the ideas folks send and pass them on to the board members and city staff. Or feel free to email Theresa Worsham (TWorsham@cityofgolden.net), who staffs the board for the city.


That’s what I’ve got this time. If you’ve got any thoughts about how I can best use this email list – still 1,000 folks strong – and provide info that’s useful to community members, please shoot me a note. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Happy holidays everyone –

Jacob

Why Golden should accept Syrian refugees

Here is the letter I sent to the Mayor and Council today:

To the Honorable Mayor and City Council,

I write to express my support for the City of Golden clearly expressing its openness to welcoming Syrian refugee immigrants along the lines of the Golden Relief Group proposal.

Our country has a long, complicated history with immigration. Although we are, truly, a nation of immigrants, wave after wave – Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, and others – have faced fear, anger, and hostility from those already here.

Yet these very waves of immigrants have contributed in vast ways to our scientific and technological innovations, profoundly enriched our civic and cultural life, and have made extraordinary contributions to the economic health of our communities and of the entire country. This is as true in Golden – the Swedes, Chinese, Germans (including, for instance, the Coors family), Sherpas, and others that have contributed so much – as it is anywhere else in the country, and the vast majority of us in Golden are either immigrants ourselves or the descendants of immigrants.

We live in a time of economic and security uncertainty, to be sure, and the threats we face are real. But we shouldn’t let that fear cloud our generous spirit, our good judgment, and our values. Is it possible that someone who enters the country as a refugee does so with intent to harm Americans and undermine American democracy? Of course, but – according to our own national security experts – the real risks lie elsewhere, and the screening systems for immigrants are thorough and detailed (and if our screening system needs strengthening then let’s fix it rather than merely pretending to do something useful by grandstanding against Syrian refugees).

At a moment of rampant anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant demagoguery, when national politicians call for a national database to track Muslims, suggest that Syrian refugees are the equivalent of rabid dogs, and argue that we should accept only Christian refugees while banning those of other faiths – there is an opportunity for Golden to add some sanity and decency to the conversation.

These are the very people – refugees fleeing their own war-torn country in search of a better life – we should welcome into our communities, offer safe haven to, and create opportunities for becoming engaged and productive members of our towns and cities, as we have for so many immigrants before them.

As Governor Hickenlooper said just a few weeks ago, “We can protect our security and provide a place where the world’s most vulnerable can rebuild their lives.”

As a community built by immigrants, and one that has benefitted enormously from the ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity that results from their arrival and integration in the community, and as a community that genuinely values diversity and inclusivity (including the City Council’s 2006 affirmation of “our commitment to inclusion as a fundamental aspect of our community”), I believe it would be appropriate and laudable for the City Council to make clear we welcome Syrian refugees.

Respectfully,

Jacob Smith
601 Cheyenne Street
Golden Colorado 80403

Golden update: "Please remember to vote"

A few weeks ago I shared my voting recommendations for the 2015 City of Golden and Jefferson County School Board elections. You can link to that post if you want the details, but here’s the summary version. Most importantly … if you haven’t voted yet you’ve got just two days left!

Please don’t mail your ballot! If you do it probably won’t arrive at the county in time for your vote to be counted.

The only way to make sure your vote counts at this point is to drop it off:

  • At Golden City Hall (911 10th Street in downtown Golden) – 24-hour ballot drop off.
  • At the main Jefferson County building (aka the Taj Mahal – 100 Jefferson County Parkway) – 24-hour ballot drop off.
  • If you prefer to or just want to vote in person, you’ll probably want to go to the Jefferson County building (100 Jefferson County Parkway) on Monday between 730am – 530pm OR on Tuesday between 7am – 7pm.

If you have any questions, call the Jefferson County Elections Division (303-271-1811) or visit their web site.

My voting recommendations:

  • Mayor of Golden: Marjorie Sloan
  • Golden City Council District 1: Saoirse Charis-Graves
  • Golden City Council District 2: Casey Brown
  • Jefferson County School Board District 3: Ali Lasell
  • Jefferson County School Board District 4: Amanda Stevens
  • Jefferson County School Board Recall District 1: YES, and vote for Brad Rupert as the successor
  • Jefferson County School Board Recall District 2: YES, and vote for Susan Harmon as the successor
  • Jefferson County School Board Recall District 5: YES, and vote for Ron Mitchell as the successor
  • Jefferson County Public Library Ballot Issue 1A: YES

Feel free to check out the more detailed explanations for each of the races in my last blog post.

Golden update: Election Special

The presidential race is getting all sorts of attention these days, but there’s an election coming up here in Golden a whole lot sooner and with more immediate implications for our community. Yup, we’ve got two city council seats up, plus the mayor’s term is up, and that’s all in addition to an extremely important Jefferson County school board election.

But first things first. I had a terrific time during my two-year stint in D.C. and now I’m thrilled to report that I’m back home in Golden. I haven’t figured out a plan yet for this email list – this is the list I built and maintained while I was mayor – and I’m open to thoughts about how to use it in a way that’s useful. But for right now, at least, I want to offer a few thoughts about the upcoming election here in Golden.

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1. Mayor of Golden

I supported Marjorie Sloan when she ran for mayor after my term ended four years ago and I’m supporting her again now. Although I think there are still some important challenges that still need attention – protecting the remaining unprotected open space around Golden and tackling our long-term financial challenges are two – Marjorie has maintained a steady and competent hand on the tiller. She’s also navigated two really challenging situations: Mike Bestor’s retirement and the hiring of a new city manager, and finalizing an agreement to end the beltway war and actually build some projects that will be immensely valuable to the Golden community. I will vote for Marjorie and hope you will too.

2. Golden City Council
For the District 1 seat (the southern half of the city) I’m supporting the incumbent, Saoirse Charis-Graves. Saoirse takes her role incredibly seriously, she works incredibly hard, and it’s tough to imagine someone who more earnestly understands the responsibilities of representing her community on the Council. And she has a vision for Golden that I think most Golden residents share: a livable, safe, thriving community where the city government communicates effectively and is responsive to community needs and concerns. I recommend a vote for Saoirse.

For the District 2 seat (the northern half of the city) I encourage you to support Casey Brown. Most new members of City Council take at least a couple of years to figure out what’s going on enough to have any real impact on anything at all. Casey won’t have that problem; his experience ranges from the Campaign Election Board to the Parks and Recreation Board to even chairing the Planning Commission. He helped kickoff and lead the Golden Vision 2030 process that most of the candidates at the forum last week cheered and celebrated. If ever there were a City Council candidate who will be able to have a real impact advocating on behalf of his constituents from the day he is sworn in, it’s Casey. Casey is also genuinely the nicest and most accessible guy around. Call him or email him or corner him at the grocery store and he’ll actually listen, and think about what you say, and do his best to help. He’s the sort of guy you want as both your City Councilor and your neighbor. If you like the idea of giving Golden residents more power to protect and support their neighborhoods, and making sure the City Council has the tools they need to preserve Golden’s historic small-town character, Casey is the guy. Finally, I’ll mention that Casey also has a real backbone, and he’ll call people out – city staff, land developers, whomever – when he thinks they’re doing sloppy work or trying to pull one over on the community. He’s professional and respectful about it, but he’s not shy, either. And frankly we really need some more of that on the Council. I recommend a vote for Casey Brown.

3. Jefferson County School Board
There are two important things happening in the school board election. First, there are two open seats on the board for which Golden residents will get to vote. I’m supporting Ali Lasell and Amanda Stevens for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

Second, there is an effort to recall the other three school board members (“the school board majority”). I want to be really clear that I am very skeptical of recalls. Many of you probably remember Marion Olson’s attempt to recall six members of the city council, including me, over policy disagreements. If you don’t like someone’s policy choices, vote for someone else in the next election (and for those of you who weren’t in Golden at the time, community residents so fiercely and widely opposed the recall that we killed it before it ever got to the ballot … not only did Golden residents disagree with Marion’s policy views, they widely supported the City Council’s vision).

Recalls should be reserved, in my view, for willfully misleading voters, gross negligence, or severe ethical violations. Sadly, and truly unfortunately, the situation on the Jefferson County School Board is actually that bad and a recall is actually the appropriate response. It seems like these issues have been fairly well covered in the local press, but in case a recap is helpful, the school board majority:

  • Has repeatedly gone out of its way to conceal information, limit public oversight, restrict public input, and make important policy decisions in secret behind closed doors. The point of Colorado’s open meetings and sunshine laws is to ensure that government decisions are made transparently; the school board majority has ignored and even flouted these rules. And as anyone who lived in Golden during my time as mayor knows, I believe these are some of the most important responsibilities of our elected representatives. A healthy democracy absolutely depends on honest and open access to the workings of government. And the school board majority has aggressively done the opposite.
  • Attempted to inject an overtly ideological agenda into the curriculum, sparking mass student protests (which was both ironic and impressive, since part of what the school board was trying to censor was the role of dissent in American history and politics). This debacle was particularly revealing and offensive. The proposal included the mandate that AP History classes “not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” History teachers were understandably concerned, since the history of the U.S. is, in many ways, a history of people challenging authority in the name of fighting injustice and expanding liberty … the authors of the Declaration of Independence, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, etc.
  • Forced out the beloved, highly regarded, and widely respected Cindy Stevenson as superintendent despite her impressive record of success. And they replaced her with a novice superintendent (despite Jefferson County being the state’s largest school district) at a salary that was $80,000 more than they were paying Ms. Stevenson.
  • Are aggressively pushing an agenda that, in my view, is anti-public education, anti-teacher, and anti-kids. It’s an ideological agenda explicitly modeled on the far-right wing ideological agenda that’s been unfolding in Douglas County over the past decade. The results there: an exodus of the best teachers to other school districts, a national reputation that is now suffering, wasting millions of dollars on ideologically-fueled litigation (which they’ve lost, by the way), and, ultimately, the quality of the education itself suffering.

We made the mistake of electing people whose goal seems to be to weaken the very thing – the Jefferson County Public School District – they were supposed to be safeguarding. All of these school board elections are fundamentally about whether we will let our schools here in Jefferson County follow the same path as the schools in Douglas County – an ideological battleground that comes at the expense of our kids and our communities – or whether we’ll put our schools back on a thoughtful, non-ideological path.

Which brings me back to the two open seats. Ali and Amanda, in my view, are moderate, thoughtful candidates who actually support the idea of public education and are committed to putting our kids’ education above ideology. Their opponents, on the other hand, are supported by the same Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity organization supporting the Douglas County craziness and the school board majority in Jefferson County (and which has a rich history of attacking and undermining public education).

My recommendation: vote for the Clean Slate for Jeffco candidates:

Ali Lasell
Amanda Stevens
Brad Rupert
Susan Harmon
Ron Mitchell
4) Measure 1A for Jeffco Libraries

This is a proposed mill levy increase to support Jefferson County’s public library system, and I encourage you to support it. It’s a modest increase, and it should go a long way toward restoring library hours, investments in books and other materials, fixing the things that need fixing, and generally improving our libraries.

I don’t love this measure because the problems it is trying to address run deeper than a mill levy increase: we have a public library system that answers to a Board of County Commissioners that doesn’t prioritize or – apparently – care much about public libraries. But I also think it’s a mistake to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and this measure should help improve what is now a broken system, and it should make it easier for the hard-working and committed folks who run our libraries across the county to do a better job despite the lack of support from the Jefferson County Commission. Please consider voting yes on Measure 1A.

It sounds like ballots are now in the mail and should start arriving in our mailboxes any day. Your ballot has to be received by 7pm on November 3, so I’d encourage you to fill it out and mail it back quickly. Alternatively, you can drop it off at the Jefferson County building (100 Jefferson County Parkway) or at Golden City Hall (911 10th Street). You’ll find more general election information on the Jefferson County elections page.

Whatever you do, and whatever opinions are on the races I talked about here, please vote! It matters.

"Crouching Tiger" takes on the theater industry

Lots of indie filmmakers have been experimenting with alternative distribution strategies in recent years, but aggressive attempts by major production companies and distributors to give consumers alternatives to the big screen at the time a film debuts are rare. Here we are again: Netflix, Imax, and the Weinstein Company are releasing a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” sequel simultaneously in theaters and via Netflix streaming. The theater companies have maintained a stranglehold on the release windows, typically ensuring that films enjoy three months or more in theaters without any competition from home entertainment platforms.

The problem, as Variety’s Brent Lang reported, is that the theater chains are fighting back: “Four of the largest theater chains in the U.S., including AMC, Cinemark, Carmike, and Regal, tell Variety they are refusing to screen any so-called day-and-date releases in their Imax theaters.” We’ll see how this scuffle plays out, but what I find most interesting is the chains’ feeble attempt to justify their pushback because giving consumers the choice would harm those very consumers.

“While a homevideo release may be simultaneously performing in certain Imax locations, at Regal we will not participate in an experiment where you can see the same product on screens varying from three stories tall to 3-inch wide on a smart phone,” said Nunley. “We believe the choice for truly enjoying a magnificent movie is clear.”

And Carmike spokesman Robert Rinderman said, “We are committed to an exclusive theatrical release for the enjoyment of our valued guests. We are therefore opposed to showing day and date releases at our entertainment complexes.”

Mike Langdon, a Cineplex spokesman, argued that theaters remain the best way to see a movie and that the theatrical release window would be undermined if it agreed to screen the film.

Naturally, Netflix sees it differently. From Indiewire, quoting Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos:

“Theater owners stifle this kind of innovation at every turn. The reason why we may enter this space and try to release some big movies ourselves this way is because I’m concerned that as theater owners try to strangle innovation and distribution. Not only are they going to kill theaters — they might kill movies,” he said before suggesting that Netflix would like to premiere movies the same day they open in theaters.

But as Indiewire’s Paula Bernstein writes, “independent films are already challenging the traditional theatrical model with multi-platform releases, including day-and-date VOD releases and ultra-VOD. So it was only a matter of time before Netflix wanted to jump on the day-and-date bandwagon.”

I know the ‘incumbent threatened by disruptive innovator defends market share through brute market power instead of innovating to outcompete challengers’ narrative is overly simplistic when it comes to movie theaters and film distribution, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, either.

Girl Bilbo: unexpected adventures in pronoun switching

My biggest delight of the week: Michelle Nijhuis’ aeon magazine piece about gender pronoun switching while reading The Hobbit to Sylvia, her five-year old daughter.

And last year, when we started to read J R R Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (1937) together, she listened patiently to the first two chapters. Then she told me, matter-of-factly, that Bilbo Baggins was a girl.

Well, I said. That would be nice. But Bilbo is definitely a boy.

No, she said. Bilbo is a girl.

Michelle conceded and discovered that Girl Bilbo not only worked but worked really well. As she explained in an earlier post on The Last Word on Nothing website:

Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

I think the world, for each of us, is bounded by our ability to imagine would else could be, and for kids beginning to find their place in the world those boundaries are all the more defining and important. Exposing girls and boys both to a wide universe of role models seems especially important, and yet children’s literature may not be doing such a great job of this. As A Mighty Girl points out, “The gender disparity in children’s literature remains high — according to a 2011 study of 6,000 children’s books, only 31 percent had central female characters.” And as Michelle notes, even that 31 percent may not be offering the most useful model:

More insidiously, children’s books with girl protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroines to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow.

The response to her original The Last Word on Nothing piece about the experience, which she just reflect on in aeon magazine, included plenty of supportive comments but plenty of criticism as well. In pushing back against the critics, Michelle cites no less an authority on storytelling than Joss Whedon: ‘All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend … Art isn’t your pet – it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.’

For me the math is pretty straightforward: a terrific classic tale + the precocious and brilliant Sylvia reshaping her world + her mom as willing co-conspirator = awesomeness.

A new jump in electric flight

Although we can’t predict improvements in battery technology with Moore’s Law-style regularity, it’s very clear that technological advancements are making it easier and cheaper to store larger amounts of energy using increasingly lighter materials. This is great news for rooftop solar, utility-scale renewable energy, and electric cars. It’s also great, it turns out, for some less obvious applications, like the electric airplane.

  Chip Yates’ electric plane can keep up with gas-powered competitors. Yates Electrospace Corporation photo

Chip Yates’ electric plane can keep up with gas-powered competitors. Yates Electrospace Corporation photo

 

Last week pilot and airplane tinkerer Chip Yates was officially recognized for having set five world records for electric planes. He flies a highly modified 258 horsepower Rutan Long-EZ. With a top speed of 220 mph, his Rutan Long is now the fastest electric plane on the planet.

Giant underwater balloons and other energy innovations

If you’re a fan of wind power, check out this design for high altitude inflatable wind turbinesAn MIT-born company called Altaeros is working on a Buoyant Airborne Turbine, potentially enabling low-cost electric power anywhere in the world, providing emergency power in the aftermath of natural disasters or even general purpose power in remote off-grid locations.

For energy storage, how about giant balloons filled with compressed air and stored deep underwater? Water pressure keeps the air compressed in an underwater CASE (compressed air energy storage) system, which might work extremely with in conjunction with offshore wind farms.

And MIT researchers have found a highly efficient way to convert solar energy into steam using a spongelike structure consisting of graphite flakes and carbon foam. The material converts 85% of the incoming solar energy into steam and works even at very low solar intensities. If the team can scale the technology, it may have very useful applications for desalination, hygiene systems, and sterilization, especially in low-grid or no-grid environments (which are often places that desperately need effective water and sterilization technologies).

flotsam and jetsam

Richard Renaldi does some very cool photography, but his ‘Touching Strangers’series is especially fascinating. The gambit: asking complete strangers to pose as couples might reveal something interesting. It does.

YouTube, Pakistan, censorship, and hugs. H/t to Ethan Zuckerman.

For the most part, when we think of drones we think of unmanned aircraft, but autonomous vehicles are making inroads on land and under water, as well. ‘Underwater gliders’ are particularly cool, not because of their nimbleness or speed (they have neither) nor because they can autonomously respond to environmental stimuli (they can’t) but because of an ingenious propulsion system that enables month- or multi-month long data collection journeys on battery power alone and because they can operate in a coordinated “gliderpalooza” fleet gathering extensive data about water temperature, density, carbon dioxide sequestration, and other characteristics.

Don’t mess with the ocean.

Normally you have to travel pretty far north to see the aurora borealis, but that wasn’t true last month in Golden, Colorado.

Nina Simon, the best museum blogger around, makes the case for not killing off underperforming arts nonprofits.

Drone anxiety

On August 6, 2013, the Town Board in Deer Trail, Colorado, about 55 miles east of Denver, voted on a proposal to establish drone-hunting licenses and to offer $100 bounties for shooting down unmanned aerial vehicles.

It was a provocative act generating chuckles, accolades, a Colbert Report segment, and a stern warning from the FCC that shooting at drones is illegal. The proposal was so controversial within Deer Trail that the board deadlocked at 3-3, setting up a special election in December.

The circus atmosphere of Deer Trail’s proposal belies the complexity of the policy questions, but what I find even more intriguing are the cultural issues.

Military-grade drones have increasingly captured our attention since their first documented use for a targeted assassination in 2002. And while there are some indications that the Pentagon and the CIA may be tempering their use of drones, there’s little reason to think that drones will cease to be a major component of our arsenal.

 MQ-1 Predator in flight (DoD photo)

MQ-1 Predator in flight (DoD photo)

I find it interesting and little puzzling, though, that the use of drones for overseas operations has provoked such a domestic backlash. Full-sized military drones aren’t that much different in most respects from conventional combat aircraft. They fly, they release weapons, and people – sometimes including civilians – die. The difference can’t just be their ability to fly unobtrusively, since many of them tend to be both audible and visible (while there are plenty of military aircraft, not to mention spy satellites, that are capable of discretely gathering enormous amounts of high-resolution data). It can’t simply be their ability to carry and fire lethal weapons, since that’s not limited to drones, either.

Despite the similarity with conventional combat aircraft, there is clearly something different about drones and how we use them that provokes such concern from across the political spectrum. I suspect it’s in part their presumed pervasiveness. The disassociation between the killer and the killing (which I think amplifies the sense that the U.S. treats military action like a video game) is often cited (including in this terrific ‘short history of drones’ piece in The Nation).

But I also wonder if the notion – to some extent accurate already – that drones carrying lethal payloads can be designed to act autonomously is at the heart of the anxiety. The idea that an aerial robot armed with missiles could, on its own, based on computer code and on sensor input, decide when to kill, without any human intervention … I think this is truly a terrifying thought for many people.

And it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to conceive of how such a scenario could go terribly wrong, on an ad-hoc basis or even more systemically. Forgot Skynet becoming self-aware; one well-designed virus or one clever team of hackers and it’s easy to imagine all sorts of devastation (even aside from the ordinary array of drone-caused civilian casualties). Interestingly, one of the arguments in favor of “lethal autonomous robots” is precisely that they are better protected against hacking.

And while we may not need to worry about autonomous Terminator assassins anytime soon, gains in autonomous behavior, learning algorithms, and modular robotics, and truly impressive. One recent favorite are ETH Zurich’s autonomous, self-improving quadrocopters.

On the military drone side, then, I suspect that the fear of autonomous, lethal robots more than anything else may underlie our growing anxiety about drones.

What I find equally interesting is what’s happening on the civilian side of the drone universe. Interest in what was formerly the realm of niche hobbyists – small, radio-controlled model aircraft – has also been exploding. Some of this was the result of technological advances in remote controlled aircraft. Improvements in batteries (size, weight, and capacity) have meant smaller, more agile aircraft that are easier to design and fly (enabling many enthusiasts to sidestep the complexities of liquid fuel entirely, for instance, and requiring much less skill and practice to operate). Advances in unusual designs like quadcopters (as well as improvements in electronic control systems) has resulted in aircraft that are both safer and cheaper to build.

 

 Drone with Go Pro camera attached (Flickr user Don McCullough photo).

Drone with Go Pro camera attached (Flickr user Don McCullough photo).

And the possibilities for small, inexpensive aircraft – formerly called RC model aircraft but increasingly folded into the ‘drone’ label – are apparently limitless. Crop dustingfarmland surveyspost-disaster surveys and photographsdelivering medicine during natural disastersdelivering pizza during football games, and on and on.

Despite their origins in the hobbyist world, and despite that they aren’t designed to carry munitions, domestic drones are getting caught up in the growing drone anxiety just as their military siblings are. We’re seeing this partly through the vernacular … “drone” is increasingly used to refer to any remotely controlled aircraft, whether large or small and whether domestic or military. We’re seeing this on the policy side, as well, with many communities adopting or considering total bans on drones, and many states considering tight restrictions on their use. And the advocacy groups – libertarian, Tea Party, anti-surveillance, the ACLU, and others – their focus isn’t on the potential future lethality of domestic drones so much as it is about their surveillance capabilities.

I don’t think the anxiety about domestic drones is just a conflation with their lethal military siblings. Instead, I suspect it’s the Moore’s Law-driven advances in consumer surveillance technology that has so many people worked up. Powerful, high-resolution cameras are now inexpensive enough to be widely accessibly and lightweight enough to fit on small drones. When combined with innovations in wireless communication technology, remote piloting over longer distances becomes much easier to accomplish. Even more sophisticated sensors, such as Safecast’s Geiger counters for monitoring radioactivity levels around nuclear facilities or waste sites, could easily be attached to inexpensive drones.

If this is right – military drone anxieties fueled by the fear of lethal autonomous robots and domestic drone anxieties fueled by fears of an expanded surveillance state (not to mention the ease with which your neighbors, your business competitors, and your political adversaries can spy on you) – then we may be headed for an enormous policy and political collision. While the proposed Deer Trail bounty (stay tuned: the election is on December 10) may not represent a particularly thoughtful and nuanced approach, it embodies a deep and widely-shared apprehension about the likelihood that drones will become a pervasive, intrusive part of everyday life. Technology always outpaces policy, but in this case the tech may have already lapped the policy a few times, and it might be worthwhile for communities and policymakers to think more seriously about what we want our increasingly drone-infused world to look like.

Self-assembling robot cubes and the electric grid

For years, the notion of modular, self-assembling cubes was an example of an idea that worked better as a conceptual model than as a functional design. Ryan Whitwam of ExtremeTech explains:

When studying modular robots, researchers often use the sliding-cube model. This is a simplified design concept where two cubes are connected face-to-face, but can also slide up and over each other without changing orientation. This model is useful for developing the algorithms that govern self-assembly, but building a working version of the model is surprisingly difficult.

Modular robots aren’t new, but real-world versions require complicated designs with a complex assortment of servos and they tend to be pretty limited in what they can do to very specific purpose-built tasks. Robotic cubes that can self-assemble in complex ways haven’t been an option.

John Romanishin, a researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, thought it must be possible, and based on a design he’s been pursuing since 2011 he finally cracked the code. His breakthrough was to combine a suite of cleverly arranged magnets with a tiny, high-powered flywheel, all inside of a small cube. The flywheel, capable of up to 20,000 rpm, spins and then halts suddenly, its angular momentum is transferred to the cube itself, the cube is propelled into its new configuration, and the magnets secure it in the right location with the right alignment.

These two videos are worth watching if you’ve got a few minutes. In the first video, Romanishin and colleagues explain the principles of the system.

The second video shows off a bit more about how it works in practice.

In both videos you get a sense of just how sophisticated the action might be at some point, with multiple cubes operating independently to create or rearrange complex structures, much like ETH Zurich’s autonomous, self-improving quadrocopters.

Early hints at the potential for sophisticated, coordinated behavior by modular robots is exciting (if simultaneously disconcerting), but the flywheel technology on which it’s based – in contrast – is remarkable for its simplicity and efficiency. Flywheels, which are found in everything from toy cars to to reciprocating engine crankshafts to potter’s wheels, are essentially energy storage devices. Apply torque, store energy, and then release as needed. In modular cubes, that energy can be applied for the sake of propulsion. By using flywheel technology on the electric grid, it just so happens, allows you to store energy produced from a power plant elsewhere on the grid and release it when you need it, just like any other energy storage system.

On a grid dominated by coal, natural gas, and nuclear power generation, storage isn’t typically a major challenge because you can operate those generation plants to meet whatever the demand might be at that time. It’s an incredibly inefficient system because you have to invest an enormous amount of capital – power plants and transmission are expensive – in building enough capacity to cover all of your peak energy demand. It’s also inefficient because the type of power plants that can ramp up quickly to meet peaks in demand as they occur are particularly expensive to operate. It’s a stable system, but expensive, inefficient, and highly carbon intensive.

The growth in clean energy sources offer a way out: they have nominal carbon emissions, they are quickly approaching so-called “price parity” where the cost is competitive with the cost of fossil-based energy.

But clean energy sources like wind and solar don’t work the same way. For one thing, they are highly variable. Turbines turn when the wind blows and not otherwise, and solar panels convert solar energy into electricity only when the sun shines. In addition – and this is especially true with wind – they may not generate electricity during peak hours, precisely when the demand is highest.

Wind, especially, often blows the hardest at night when the demand for energy is at its lowest, and often doesn’t blow much at all during those hours of the day when demand peaks. Without large-scale storage systems, you can’t use the clean energy to offset dirty fuels. As we transform our energy system away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy generation, in other words, the importance of getting storage right, and of driving innovation in storage technology, is quickly escalating.

Thankfully, we’re seeing huge strides in storage technology. One example: Abengoa’s Solano solar thermal plant just began commercial operations last month, the largest parabolic trough concentrating solar power plant anywhere and the first in the U.S. to use a thermal energy storage system. Solar energy captured during the day is stored in the form of molten salt, enabling the plant to increase power supply in the even peak hours even as the amount of solar radiation dwindles.

 Abengoa’s Solana concentrating solar project with thermal storage. (DOE photo)

Abengoa’s Solana concentrating solar project with thermal storage. (DOE photo)

Where do flywheels fit in? Flywheels are too expensive, at least for now, to store large amounts of energy for sustained use, and too industrial, as well, to work effectively in a residential context where a homeowner might want to pair her rooftop solar system with a storage system to provide electricity at night or on cloudy days. Beacon Power’s 20 MW flywheel array, for instance, involves ten shipping containers, each of which is surrounded by ten five-foot diameter cylinders. It might be a bit much for a backyard.

But unlike many storage technologies, flywheels can dispatch energy to the grid extremely quickly, fully ramping up in a matter of seconds. The organizations charged with maintaining the reliability of the grid, such as ISO-New England, already have to manage variability in demand and supply, including predictable changes like the increase in demand that soars when summer temperatures climb.

As the percentage of variable-supply clean energy sources on the grid grows – Vermont is aiming to meet 90% of its energy needs with renewable energy sources by 2050, for instance – this becomes a more complex problem, and storage systems that can dispatch almost instantaneously to balance the load will become even more important.

Ethan Zuckerman explains the “frequency regulation” problem really well:

The electrical grid is all about stability. The US grid provides power at 60 alternating cycles per second. When demand for power balances the amount of power being consumed, the grid remains stable at 60Hz, but if there’s an increased demand, the frequency will tend to creep downward. That’s a bad thing, as many electrical systems will fail in unpredictable ways if the frequencies drop below 59Hz or so. (Same goes for high frequencies, caused by generating more power than there’s demand for) … If lots of people get up during the NFL playoffs and microwave a plate of nachos, the demand for power spikes, and the frequency drops.

(Ethan deserves a hat tip, by the way, for his thoughtful framing of the flywheel/Beacon Power story in terms of of our difficulties with infrastructure innovation). A system that can provide 20 MW for 15 minutes – Beacon Power’s flywheel, for instance – is precisely what grid operators need for frequency regulation: a moderate amount of energy that can be dispatched instantly for a long enough period of time to bring other, slower-ramping energy supplies online (or for the spike to pass).

Flywheels aren’t the only option for doing this, incidentally. Isothermal compressed air energy storage shows some promise, as do supercapacitorssuperconducting magnetic energy storage systems, and other emerging technologies. But advances in flywheel technology are very much a part of the enormous disruption facing an industry that hasn’t changed much in its fundamental architecture for a century.

And perhaps flywheels, hidden inside modular self-assembling robotic cubes, will be part of the next major disruption. Maybe cubes with embedded photovoltaic cells that can self-assemble into whatever shape might be appropriate? Self-repairing solar assemblies on satellites or other extreme environments? Or maybe their role will be more straightforward: perhaps the cost and efficiency of flywheel systems will drop enough in the coming years to make them competitive for smaller storage or load balancing needs in community microgrids or even for individual homes.

The challenge of aligning incentives: electric utilities and the new energy economy

  The AllEarthRenewables South Burlington Solar Farm in Vermont.

The AllEarthRenewables South Burlington Solar Farm in Vermont.

Here’s one thing we know about climate change: if we continue to dump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at the current rate the planet is going to be a very unpleasant place to live. And we know the solution: dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using less energy and by rapidly transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Some of the challenges get a lot of attention, like the technological hurdles around energy storage and the number of federal lawmakers who don’t believe climate change is occurring. But one of the most interesting and important challenges – how electric utilities make money – receives a lot less attention.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: electric utilities in the U.S. mostly make money by selling electricity and by building power plants and other infrastructure. The more juice they sell, and the more power plants and transmission lines they build, the more they make.

And the problem isn’t hard to tease out. If our goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a national electricity system that incentivizes maximizing power plant construction and energy consumption presents a messy collision of misaligned incentives. In some cases it works all right, since reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require construction of more power plants (of the clean energy variety, such as the new Abengoa concentrated solar plant in Arizona) and more transmission (to connect those new plants to energy users). But it often doesn’t, so utilities end up building more of what we don’t need because we’ve incentivized them to do so.

Energy efficiency is one casualty, since reducing energy use conflicts rather forcefully with a utility’s financial incentive to increase energy sales, and building new power plants generates a sizable return for the utility’s investors, further undercutting the case for aggressive energy efficiency efforts. And more sophisticated strategies – demand side management, smart meters, smart grids – can suffer from the same misaligned incentives problem.

In some ways it’s an immensely complex problem. There are multiple independent authorities operating at various levels interacting in messy ways (FERC, RTOs and ISOs, PUCs). Some states are “regulated” while others are “deregulated” (although all are tightly managed by government and quasi-governmental entities). Ownership patterns across generation, transmission, and ultimately selling to consumers varies widely. Federal and state laws can interact in messy ways, and the private sector players engage in fierce battles to defend or expand their role in the grid.

But what makes this problem so unusual is that the utility business model is contrived. We created it in order to entice substantial and reliable capital investment in energy infrastructure, and we can choose to tweak it to produce different outcomes. In other words, instead of incentivizing decisions that result in increased greenhouse gas emissions through the utility business model that we’ve created, we can rewire those incentives to produce the outcomes we do want: reducing energy use, shifting energy generation from fossil fuels to renewable sources, and maintaining a highly reliable and resilient grid.

Some states are already tackling this. Vermont created a statewide energy efficiency utility that collects money from everyone purchasing electricity on the grid, uses that money to improve energy efficiency across the state, and is rewarded for its success in reducing energy use. It essentially grafts an energy efficiency revenue model onto the underlying electric utilities. Despite the structural awkwardness it actually works quite well.

Renewable portfolio standards, like those in California and Colorado, force the inclusion of renewable energy generation into the mix, and they are clearly driving market penetration of solar and other renewables. This is helpful, but they tend to operate in tension with the underlying utility business rather than fixing the business model itself; utilities are required to meet their RPS obligations, but because doing so can undercut their revenue model they have little incentive to exceed the minimum standard and they usually have a lot of incentive to resist expanding the RPS requirements.

Decoupling a utility’s profits from its energy sales can also help reduce the misalignment (which we’ve seen for both natural gas and for electricity). Decoupling doesn’t necessarily incentivize aggressive movement toward a clean energy system, and it doesn’t necessarily remove the financial incentive to build more transmission and power generation, but it is a modest, important step.

In some cases, the utilities themselves are simply adopting a much more progressive, long-term view, which is exciting to see, but then other parts of the ecosystem kick in to limit the renewable energy transformation. Again in Vermont, Green Mountain Power is investing heavily in the smart grid and in renewable energy generation, but because the ISO perceives growing renewable generation capacity as a threat to grid stability the utility has been regularly directed to curtail wind production during peak demand episodes even as the ISO has directed fossil fuel generation plants to ramp up generation.

These questions about how to redesign the utility business model do get a lot of attention from the policy wonks, think tanks, and academics. Plenty of very smart people are figuring out both the broad strokes and the gory details of this transition (for example, this post about emerging investment opportunities for utilities). But the business model issue – how investors will actually make money in the utility of the future – isn’t yet very much part of the political conversation.

By tackling that question head on, we might be able to create some space for productive dialogue rather than the more traditional entrenched-industry-fights-change dynamic. The industry is already facing enormous disruption from distributed generation. Distributed generation – people around the country installing their own energy production (usually solar but not always) on their own homes – is extremely threatening to the traditional business model because it means the homeowner needs less of everything the utility makes money doing.

The rapid growth in distributed generation (as well as the growing promise that storage technologies will enable a truly decentralized grid) is so unnerving that the utility industry is mounting an aggressive national attack against the “net metering” provisions allowing homeowners to get compensated for the energy they produce and contribute to the grid (in addition to paying for the energy they consume from the grid).

The Edison Electric Institute, representing investor-owned electric companies, earlier this year published a frequently cited report on the threat posed by distributed generation, demand-side management, and other emerging technologies. The report reads more like a call to arms in defense of the status quo than a call to lean into the opportunities of a clean energy transformation.

While the various disruptive challenges facing the electric utility industry may have different implications, they all create adverse impacts on revenues, as well as on investor returns, and require individual solutions as part of a comprehensive program to address these disruptive trends. Left unaddressed, these financial pressures could have a major impact on realized equity returns, required investor returns, and credit quality. As a result, the future cost and availability of capital for the electric utility industry would be adversely impacted. This would lead to increasing customer rate pressures.

In every fight like this there are losers. The fossil fuel industry won’t fare as well as we transition to the New Energy Economy unless they transform themselves. But for the utilities, and for the public utilities commissions, the ISOs, and the RTOs responsible for managing their electricity markets, it’s a different story. Historically they have largely resisted the aggressive growth of clean energy generation and distributed generation, but with the right kind of policy space and leadership across the issue the utilities, their shareholders, and they communities they serve can all come out ahead.

How to stay engaged in Golden

If you’re looking for ways to stay plugged in to Golden’s happenings, here are a few suggestions:

The official City of Golden website is the place to go for information on city services and amenities, city government, and most anything else city-related.

You can email the entire City Council at CityCouncil@cityofgolden.net, and you can learn about and contact individual members on the Council Commentaries page.

At least two city councilors have email newsletters. To subscribe, send each an email: Bill Fisher (BFisher@cityofgolden.net) and Saoirse Charis-Graves (scharisgraves@cityofgolden.net).

A few of the Council members are active online:

Barb Warden runs the unofficial portal for all things Golden. It’s the website to visit for visitors and residents alike: http://www.golden.com/

And Judy Denison still runs the most comprehensive email newsletter in Golden with news and upcoming events. To subscribe, shoot her an email: judy_d@prodigy.net

Finally, my Radio Golden colleagues Pamela Gould (who is likely to be the new Ward 3 City Councilor!) and Matt Burde just launched the coolest new project, Golden Beer Talks. Their first guest was my friend Adrian Miller, author of a terrific new book called Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time(and it turns out you can still listen to his talk even if you weren’t there), and they’ve got more talks in the queue (including brewing industry guru Finn Kundsen talking about beer and health on November 12).

Social media in a crisis: lessons learned during Golden's Indian Gulch Fire

  Jeff Warner pic of the Indian Gulch Fire behind Golden.

Jeff Warner pic of the Indian Gulch Fire behind Golden.

Colorado is experiencing yet another year with enormous natural disasters impacting dozens of communities and many tens of thousands of residents. One of Golden’s recent brushes with disaster, aside from the near-miss flooding this fall, was the Indian Gulch Fire. The fire started on the morning of March 20, 2011 and quickly grew into the most significant fire in the country, threatening hundreds of homes in and around Golden, Colorado.

My City Council colleague Bill Fisher and I spent most of our waking hours that week gathering information about the fire and sharing it with our constituents in real-time via the web, Facebook, Twitter, and email. This was the first time in Golden that the web and social media had been used with any intensity to help share information, identify problems, and answer questions during a crisis.

Bill and I wrote a report detailing what we did and the lessons we learned from the experience. Although the fire was two years ago, most of the lessons from that experience seem just as fresh and relevant today. We shared an informal version of the report with city staff and City Council, and we thought that folks in the community might find it useful as well.

We would welcome your thoughts on any of this, especially about where Golden might head from here: how can the City of Golden (and other local governments around the country) – during natural disasters and perhaps at other times as well – be responsive to the growing use of social media and other internet-based tools for monitoring what’s happening in Golden and for engaging with the City and with each other as community challenges present themselves.

Download the “Community Communication During a Crisis – Lessons Learned During the Indian Gulch Fire” report.

Elections 2013

Golden is in the midst of a City Council election, and while most of the seats are uncontested residents of Golden’s Ward 4 will have to make a choice. There are also a handful of other important issues and elections, including school board seats and a statewide school funding measure.

Bill Fisher did a good job laying these out, so I’ll just excerpt from his newsletter:

Golden Election Endorsements
We have Ward Councilors up for election in 2013. 3 of the 4 wards are uncontested, but I am happy to endorse current Mayor Pro-Tem Joe Behm for Ward 1, current Councilor Marcia Claxton for Ward 2, and Pamela Gould for Ward 3. Here in Ward 4, I am very excited about the candidacy of Laura Weinberg. She will be a knowledgeable and energetic addition to City Council. Many folks have mentioned seeing Laura and her family walking our neighborhoods this fall, and she has expressed appreciation for getting to know the breadth and variety of neighborhoods and people here in Golden!

Golden DDA & associated ballot titles – Vote YES on all. A special election covering downtown, a DDA will help maintain the special character of our unique, historic downtown. Some people in Downtown Golden will receive this separate ballot with several measures aimed at creating a Downtown Development Authority. I urge adopting all the measures to help keep our Historic Downtown going in a vibrant direction for the community!

Golden: Selling surplus land
We have two minor parcels of land which would be better out of our inventory with reduced maintenance costs … and with proceeds going towards our Parks & Rec and open space program. I urge you to vote yes to allow the City to consider these transactions if we get the right offer. [I don’t know enough about this one to have an opinion, but Bill certainly does so I’m including it here – Jacob] 

JeffCo School Board
Jefferson County Schools have been going in the right direction these past several years, with a responsive administration that puts our children first and funnels every available dollar into the classroom. I urge you to continue this trend which is demonstrating great progress in graduation rates and scores that puts JeffCo among the elite districts in Colorado. I am strongly endorsing Jeff Lamontagne, “Spud” Van de Water, and Tonya Aultman-Bettridge for the Jefferson County School Board. Let’s turn the corner on disruptive politics and endorse smart, caring, thoughtful parents!

The easy way to remember who to vote for: Vote for the LOOOONG names to go a LOOOONG way for JeffCo schools and our children!
Spud4JeffcoKids.com
TonyaForJeffcoSchools.com
Jeff4Jeffco.com

Statewide Ballot Measure
Amendment 66: Education – Vote YES. Colorado embarrassingly ranks near the bottom of education funding. Amendment 66 is a thoughtful, tightly budgeted effort that goes a long way towards bringing Colorado to the competitive middle in funding and giving teachers the tools to help our kids be tops in education! The Golden City Council recently heard comments regarding the measure and voted to pass a Resolution in favor of Amendment 66 this fall. This measure gets education in the state back on track, and focuses money in the classrooms. More info: http://coloradocommits.com

General Election Information
The best Election & Voting details are at JeffCo’s website. FYI – It’s now easier than ever to register to vote, including online. It’s not too late, so surf on over and sign up! Statewide legal ballot issue information is located at the Secretary of State website.

My new online home

It’s official … SmithforGolden.com is retired, and this is my new online home.

I’m posting today from Washington, D.C., serving a stint in the U.S. Senate working on climate and energy policy. It’s a terrific job, I’ve got a front row seat to the very strange world that is the U.S. Congress, and I’m neck-deep in issues I care deeply about. I’m also doing the urban thing for the first time in one of the country’s more interesting cities. I don’t exactly when I’ll return to the Golden Valley, but I kept my home in Golden, I duck back into town at every opportunity, and I’m staying plugged in and supporting the great work that my Golden friends and neighbors continue doing to keep golden Golden.

I imagine I won’t be blogging about Golden as much, but I’ll jump in when it seems to make sense, and this will be a good place to throw down on whatever else grabs my attention (which, these days, seems to tend heavily toward global warming and energy policy).

Thanks to all of my Golden friends who have stayed in touch through email and Facebook, and shoot me a line anytime (jacobzsmith@gmail.com).