Tuesday, June 26, 2012

power comes from somewhere, and that means Carbon

Business Insider has an article that reminds us even with electric cars, the power to charge the battery has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is mostly coal powered electricity. This means that electric cars are not as green as we'd like to think. Now it's easy to counter that we could go all solar which would make electric cars really green. So let's grant this that the power to propel the cars is green. But does that make cars for everyone a good thing?

When we talk about cars, we talk about operations but we forget to include the cost of the infrastructure  to let us drive our cars. For those in the S.F. Bay area, imagine rush hour with everyone driving a Tesla or a Leaf? Does it make it any better?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Santa Cruz Experiment!

Recent events have rendered me with limited mobility as a freak accident has made it very difficult to drive. Fortunately I have availed myself to alternate commute options like my company shuttle and the kindness of friends and beyond that I still take a lot of mass transit. 

A friend of mine, the very talented Dhaya Lakshminarayanan had a comedic gig in Santa Cruz so we had planned pre-accident to hang out in the lovely surf town of Santa Cruz after her gig. Normally a fairly trivial, if at times stressful drive over the hill on highway 17. So to keep my appointment I dutifully investigated mass transit options so that this little set back would not get in the way of my so called life. 

The internet is a wonderful thing, and I found that luckily there is a regular bus from San Jose's Diridon station to Santa Cruz. So I just had to get there. However to make my 11:30 AM appoinment I was going to need to get to Diridon by 9:50 AM. But the first Caltrain going south would get to Diridon at 9:51 AM (I kid you not) and was a reasonable 22 minutes transit time. Not much more than driving to the station if it was an option. Okay, off to Plan B. Luckily, there was VTA light rail which could get me there in time but I had to leave much earlier since it was an hour ten minute trip (70 minutes). But I had committed to this so what was one to do. So I left earlier at 8:23 am to make it by 9:33 AM. Argh but the experiment must continue. VTA is painfully slow and the routing is very indirect, however they recently they have added wifi to the light rail so it definitely made it more palatable to pass the time so I brought a happy tablet to start me on my way. And there was a reasonable 20 minute layover. Kindles were made for mass transit, no doubt about that. 

So I got on the light rail at the Mountain View station and I was off. The light rail is reasonably fast, but I have no idea what they were thinking when they laid out the route. But since I was on board, I would just have to deal with it. The wi-fi worked as advertised with a few issues but once resolved I could distract myself with email and other amusements. Youtube was not one of them. I got to Diridon station with plenty of time to spare, seats were a little uncomfortable, but you get what you get. 

The Santa Cruz 17 Express is a natural gas bus that were pleasant and new but the seats were a bit cramped together, but being mass transit there were lots of free seats. A bummer is the cup holders are a wee too small for my coffee cup which led to a spill. Oh well, such is life.  The bus too had wi-fi for the 50 minute bus ride which is not bad at all since driving would have taken about 40 minutes and here there would be no parking hassles. My main complaint is 17 is a windy road and the large bus exacerbated the movement so it is really hard to read without being sick, but video or podcasts are viable distractions. Email would have been tough.

So after 2 hours and 20 minutes I successfully got to Santa Cruz. I was able to find a bus that would get me to the motel Dhaya was staying at, and a nice benefit is if you buy a round trip ticket it doubles as an unlimited bus pass in Santa Cruz for the day and once there everything was pleasant. 

The return trip was easier since after taking the bus over back to Diridon in San Jose there was a Caltrain about 30 minutes later and the train was a straight 22 minute shot (Big Difference, fewer stops better routing). There was a wrinkle there since the train was delayed by a drunk young man who fell and bumped his head. So the train had to wait until medical attention arrived. A delay no worse than an accident on the freeway so I don't want to generalize about how mass transit is so held up. 

The net net is that mass transit is possible to Santa Cruz from the peninsula with a little planning and compatibility with you schedule. So let's run the numbers.

By car from Mountain View the trip to the boardwalk would be about the following 


1 hour to get there 
15 minutes for parking. 
Total time 75 minutes. 


50 miles one way so lets say $8 for gas
$2 for parking. 

Multitasking of podcasts so some productivity there. 

Using the VTA Light Rail and the 17 Express Bus.

VTA 70 minutes, 
Wait time of 20 minutes
Bus of 50 minutes.
Total Time: 140 minutes.


VTA $2
Metro/Amtrak bus $5
Total cost $7

So clearly a time for money trade off. One hour email time.  Loss on car 55 minutes and save $3.

If you can make it by Caltrain

22 Minutes for Caltrain
30 minute layover
50 minute bus ride
Total Time: 100 minutes 


Caltrain $4.75
Bus $5.00

Was able to do email and podcasts. Total cost $ 9.75 and total time 110 minutes. With a loss of 25 minutes on car. A wash on cost. 

So mass transit can be viable in this case but the penalty remains frequency and convenience. And you have to adjust your schedule a little bit. Even the time and cost penalty were livable, there is something psychologically that I observed. Driving gives you a sense of control and that is something very soothing about that. On mass transit, there were loud boisterous people and you felt your space being shared. Not bad, but different. I do a fair amount of mass transit, but it seems more pronounced when it isn't a part of the daily fabric. I need to mull this over some more.

So I definitely plan to head back to Santa Cruz by bus, it just lets you enjoy the beach, have a drink and  just chill with not much of a penalty in time or money. Just privacy and convenience. A reasonable trade off.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Life is easy, why do we make it so hard?"

Business Insider has a great story on a Massachusetts high school teacher who decides to see how much electricity he can save. What he does is so amazing that the power company suspects fraud because he reduced it so much. What was it that he did to make it possible to reduce his electricity consumption by two-thirds? Lots of cutting edge high tech stuff you think? No. really ordinary things like replacing lightbulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs and getting up to date appliances that are more efficient. These simple things are more cost effective and more efficient than glamorous fixes such as solar panels or green roofs. The article is really comprehensive but I'll summarize the high points, but it is worth a read and explains why the biggest bang for the buck is reducing electricity consumption since it's production is so inefficient. 
  • Lighting: replace incandescent light bulbs with CFLs
  • Kitchen Applicances: replace if older than 10 years old. Especially refrigerators. 
  • Heating: Avoid using electricity for heating of water and space if possible. Use individual thermostats to regular heating efficiently. 
  • Plug electronics into power strips and switch the strips off when not un use. 
  • Insulation and Sealing: you don't make your food and throw it out before eating it do you? Same with your heat.
If you live in California, be sure to check out PG&E's "High Efficiency Refrigerator Rebate Program" which will rebate up to $75 for replacing an old refrigerator with a new one.

Life comes in batches, and the same day the article came out, my friend Peter forwarded me a link to this TedX talk titled "Life is easy, why do we make it so hard?" that talks about how we have made life  more complicated by getting too smart for our own good ignoring what is in front of us for something that might be around the corner.