Google PowerMeter

Felix Salmon updates us on Google's PowerMeter project:

San Diego Gas & Electric [] has recently started installing what it calls “smart meters” in 1.4 million homes in southern California. It’s up to 10,000 now, hopes to get more than 200,000 by the end of the year, and have everybody installed by 2011.

Any of SDG&E’s customers can get their electricity-usage information from the utility’s own website, but now they’ll have the option of getting it straight from Google instead, embedding it on their iGoogle home page, that kind of thing. And the more they see how much energy they’re using, the less they’ll use — a 5%-10% reduction up-front, with more down the road when they start replacing appliances and light bulbs and the like.

SDG&E's smart meters are indeed smarter, but they're still outside, and they're still basically just a fancy replacement for your current power meter.  What's important is having something inside that shows you in real time how much electricity you're using.  Someday that will probably be a physical device, but for now Google is providing this information to SDG&E customers via its PowerMeter app, which can be embedded on your iGoogle home page.  Open it up and you can see exactly how much power you're using every time you turn an appliance on or off.  Neat.

The simple act of making people aware of their electricity usage can probably generate a surprising amount of conservation.  And relatively speaking, it's cheap.  This kind of thing could help in other areas too.  Here's a cheap and simple idea, for example: place the estimated 5-year cost of gasoline on the sticker of every new car.  EPA could easily come up with a formula based on average car use and recent gasoline prices, and it would almost certainly make fuel-efficient cars more attractive if people saw the savings of buying one right in front of their faces when they were comparing cars.  More like this, please.

Forbidden Topics

I'm having a little bit of a slow start this morning, so in the meantime here's your idiot news of the day:

The ACLU is demanding that school officials in the northern San Diego County community of Ramona apologize to a sixth-grade student who was not allowed to present her report on slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk during class time.

Instead, the principal sent letters to parents giving them the option of not allowing their child to listen to the presentation by classmate Natalie Jones. Officials cited the district policy requiring that parents be notified before any classroom instruction about sex, AIDS or "family life."

About half the class received permission and listened to the report, which was given during lunch hour rather than regular classroom time like other students' reports, the ACLU said.

Honestly, I don't even know if I blame the principal for this cretinism.  He probably has long experience with mobs of angry parents making his life miserable over trivia.  Not exactly a profile in courage either way, though.

Global Economy Update

The U.S. economy contracted by more than 6% last quarter, as bad a decline as we've had since World War II.  So how's the rest of the world doing?

On Wednesday, Mexico became the latest country to report a plunge in output. The country's gross domestic product fell at an annualized rate of 21.5% in the first quarter....Mexico's decline followed by a day Japan's report that its economy contracted in the first quarter at a 15.2% clip, its worst performance since 1955. Last week, Germany said its first quarter decline in GDP, an annualized 14.4%, was the worst since 1970.

Holy cow.

California's Constitution

California is broken.  So what's next?

As the notion of California as ungovernable grows stronger than ever, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has expressed support for a convention to address such things as the state’s arcane budget requirements and its process for proliferate ballot initiatives, both of which necessitated Tuesday’s statewide vote on budget matters approved months ago by state lawmakers.

“There could not be more of a tipping point,” said Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a business group that moved forward on Wednesday with plans to push for a constitutional convention. “We think the interest is going to grow by orders of magnitude now.”

I'm actually in favor of this idea, even though it would almost certainly turn into a circus of unparalleled proportions.  Latter day Madisons and Hamiltons are thin on the ground here in the Golden State.

But — just to remind everyone: in order to even hold a constitutional convention, it has to be put on the ballot and approved by a majority of the electorate.  And how does the question get put on the ballot?  It has to be approved by two-thirds of the legislature.  But this is the problem we're trying to solve in the first place: to pass a budget or raise taxes takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature, and Republicans have enough votes to stop that from happening.  Votes that they use regularly.  So why wouldn't they also stand in the way of a constitutional convention whose main purpose would almost certainly be to remove the two-thirds requirements for passing a budget and raising taxes?

Now, maybe sheer desperation would get a few of them on board.  Maybe some kind of backroom deal could be arranged.  Who knows?  But one way or another, you have to get two-thirds of the legislature to agree to it.  That's a problem we obviously haven't solved yet.

Right Whales Found on Old Grounds

Another good day on the whale front. Scientists have documented the presence of endangered North Atlantic right whales in an area the species was believed extinct.

Using underwater hydrophones, a team from Oregon State University and NOAA recorded more than 2,000 right whale vocalizations off the southern tip of Greenland—on the Cape Farewell Ground, site of legendary 19th-century whaling operations.

Although only two right whales have been sighted in the last 50 years at Cape Farewell Ground, the hydrophones located right whales at three widely space sites on the same day. Even three whales is significant since the entire population of North Atlantic right whales is estimated at only 300 to 400 whales. Plus there are likely/hopefully more.

“The technology has enabled us to identify an important unstudied habitat for endangered right whales and raises the possibility that—contrary to general belief—remnant of a central or eastern Atlantic stock of right whales still exists and might be viable,” said David Mellinger of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

The discovery is important not least because this is an area that could be opened to shipping if polar ice continues to melt. Slow-moving right whales are extremely vulnerable to collisions with ships.

The pattern of recorded calls suggests that the whales moved from the southwest portion of the region in a northeasterly direction in late July and then returned in September—putting them directly in the path of proposed shipping lanes.

"Newly available shipping lanes through the Northwest Passage would greatly shorten the trip between Europe and East Asia but would likely cross the migratory route of any right whales that occupy the region," said Phillip Clapham, right whale expert with NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory, who participated in the study. "It’s vital that we know about right whales in this area in order to effectively avoid ship strikes on what could be a quite fragile population."

Results of the study were presented this week at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Portland, Oregon.
 

Chart of the Day

The latest MIT study of global warming has now been published in the Journal of Climate, and its conclusions are grim.  The chart on the right shows their new projections (in red) compared to previous projections (in blue).  (The heavy lines are the median projections; the lighter lines are the 5% and 95% percentiles.) In the middle latitudes, they project warming of nearly 5ºC compared to previous projections of about 2ºC.  At the poles, they project warming of 8-10ºC compared to 5-6ºC.

Why the change?  Joe Romm summarizes the technical explanation: "The carbon sinks are saturating, and the amplifying feedbacks are worse than previously thought."

Is Waxman-Markey enough to stop this?  Not even close.  Will anything we do make a difference if we don't get the rest of the world on board?  Nope.  Does that mean we should give up?  Or continue wanking away on cost-benefit studies that still assume a 2ºC rise over the next century?  Or join the GOP buffoon caucus in pretending that CO2 is harmless because otherwise they wouldn't put it in Coca-Cola?  No, no, and no.  It means we have to work even harder to strengthen Waxman-Markey and then press the rest of the world to follow suit.  The time for wanking is way past over.

Meet the Climate Lobby

There are now four climate lobbyists for every member of Congress -- an increase of 300 percent in just five years. But who are they working for and what do they want? The Center of Public Integrity has a new report on the climate change lobbying stampede which finds that the fight over energy policy has exploded in complexity. While big polluters still comprise more than half of the groups or companies lobbying on climate legislation, they've been joined by a diverse roster of new interests, all with complicated designs on government reforms. 

In addition to those entities that are simply trying to support or block efforts to cut carbon emissions—positions that now look increasingly retro—many companies and trade groups see climate legislation as inevitable and want to shape the resulting reforms to their own ends. The financial sector, for instance, has 130 lobbyists pushing for a cap and trade system that banks could profit from. There are city and county governments that see an opportunity to snare some federal money. And then there's the renewable energy sector and environmental groups, although they're outnumbered by everyone else by eight to one.

All of this activity has resulted in a bewildering proliferation of proposals on how to regulate pollution or encourage efficiency. Small wonder that the Waxman-Markey bill is now 900 pages long and counting, or that House Dems have hired a speed reader to keep up with GOP amendments. More on all of this to come...

Credit Report Hell

This morning I got an email from reader SD about a recent experience with the credit reporting industry:

Through some screwups and misunderstandings settling my father's estate, we were hit with a tax lien.  We immediately cleared it up, but a year or so later when I went to get a car loan there it was on the record.  Got a notarized proof of clearance on it, sent it to the credit reporting agency.  A few years after that, we got a home improvement loan and there it was.  My wife was visiting our daughter recently in San Diego and looking at houses and a realtor ran a credit report and there it was.

It appears that when any credit reporting agency gets some dirt on you, they immediately tell all the peer operations....who tell all that they work with, and on and on.  Not only that, but it's nearly impossible to ferret out every instance of such misinformation (which should be the credit reporting agency's responsibility to clean up), AND the chain reaction keeps going until the same piece of disinformation that you originally expunged from, say, Experian, comes BACK to them and they enter it their database against you AGAIN.

Financial organizations should not only be made liable/responsible for correcting this kind of thing, but should be responsible for making sure that all instances of it are expunged.

As it is, they love and live for dirt on you, and take no responsibility for its correctness or the integrity of their data.  And you never find out, all the while suffering under the bad credit score unknowingly until you formally take out some kind of loan....

Credit reporting agencies don't care about making sure their reports are accurate.  Why should they?  There's no penalty for screwing up someone's life.

If the tax lien automatically showed up on SD's credit report, it should just as automatically be removed when it's taken care of.  Why should SD even have to handle this in the first place?  Beyond that, there should be straightforward procedures, mandated by law, for correcting your credit report.  Likewise, there should be straightforward procedures, mandated by law, for ensuring that corrections are sent immediately to every credit reporting firm.  Anyone who doesn't correct their records within 24 hours should be liable for statutory damages.  End of story.  Do that, and guess what?  Credit reporting agencies will suddenly start caring about the accuracy of their reports.

In case you had any doubts, here’s the real reason why insurance companies don’t want health care reform to include a so-called public option: These champions of freemarket capitalism know that they simply can’t compete with a government-run plan.

The insurance lobby is already trying to scare people off the idea of a public  option, warning that the government will leave all of us to die slowly and painfully as we try to wade through its bloated bureaucracy. (One example of the industry’s PR efforts appears at the end of this post.) But the truth is that on a level playing field, the government would probably drive private insurers out of business, because it can deliver health care more effectively and efficiently than any profit-driven corporation.

This isn’t something we need to speculate about, since we already have a government-run health plan on which to base comparisons: Medicare. For years, studies have shown a high level of satisfaction among Medicare beneficiaries. Last week, a new study released by the Commonwealth Fund revealed how Medicare measures up against private plans. It was bad news for the insurance industry.

Elderly Medicare beneficiaries are more satisfied with their health care, and experience fewer problems accessing and paying for care, than Americans with employer-sponsored insurance (ESI), according to a study by Commonwealth Fund researchers….The gap between consumers’ ratings of Medicare and ESI has widened since a similar survey in 2001….

Why Jon Huntsman Juked Left

Zvika Krieger proposes an answer in his profile of the Utah governor, Obama's nominee to be the US ambassador to China:

If Huntsman was planning to run for president, why would he move so brazenly to the left at a time when the GOP seems to be heading rightward? The most obvious reason is that he may actually be a moderate. "I'm not very good at tags," he tells me. "I just try to do my best, and maybe that makes me a pragmatist." He joins a long tradition of moderate Republicans from Utah, despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that the state is the reddest in the country, with the GOP holding every statewide office and more than two-thirds of the state legislature. The GOP lock on Utah politics allows the party to welcome a broader swathe of politicians, and breed leaders who are less combative and ideological than their besieged colleagues in more competitive states. And if Huntsman has learned anything from the failed Mitt Romney campaign, it is that the only thing worse for a Republican than not being a conservative is being a phony conservative.

Emphasis mine. If Huntsman does make a run for the presidency, the big question will be whether or not he will resist that GOP pressure to move right.