Some Hurdles Hamstring Homebuilders

A lack of buildable lots and a shortage of skilled labor are among the major issues facing homebuilders. With builders unable to find qualified workers to fill vacant positions, the rate of job openings in the construction industry is now greater than during the housing boom in the early 2000s.

 The skilled-labor shortage is likely to continue. Many young workers joined the industry during the boom, but lost their jobs during the Great Recession. When the energy sector began to slow down a couple of years ago, many of these workers were expected to rejoin the building industry. For a variety of reasons, though, a large share didn’t return to their old positions or other jobs in the industry. The average age of construction workers is around 41 years old. The average age was much lower during the construction boom of the early 2000s, indicating that the industry has lost many younger workers. The industry has started to make efforts to recruit younger people, but the product of these efforts isn’t likely to materialize right away. Continue reading “Some Hurdles Hamstring Homebuilders”

The Challenge and Promise of Next-Generation Nuclear Reactors

U.S. start-ups are making headway on next-generation nuclear reactors. But companies worry about the big challenges they face to get new designs up and running in the U.S. That’s the message I heard after spending the better part of a day with nuclear industry insiders in Washington, D.C., at the Advanced Nuclear Summit and Showcase, an event for top nuclear players to tout recent developments and make their pleas to lawmakers. The mood was a mixture of guarded optimism and deep concern over government inaction.

Designs in the works are smaller, cheaper and safer than the current crop of reactors, which account for 20% of America’s electricity mix. Small modular reactors, for instance, can be manufactured at a factory and pieced together at the power plant site. Some novel reactor designs turn trash into treasure by running on spent fuel from conventional reactors in operation today. Other reactors in the works are so small and cheap they could replace diesel generators in off-the-grid areas such as small islands. Continue reading “The Challenge and Promise of Next-Generation Nuclear Reactors”

Trump Wants to Give Churches a Political Role

Churches will play a much greater role in American politics if President Trump and congressional Republicans have their way.

Conservatives on and off Capitol Hill for years have been eager to remove a provision of U.S. tax law that prevents churches and other nonprofits from participating in partisan political activities. Now, with Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, supporters of lifting the six-decade-old ban feel the time is right to act. Continue reading “Trump Wants to Give Churches a Political Role”

Battles Loom Between Tech Companies and Trump

A long series of battles between tech companies and President Trump is getting started. Expect flare ups soon over issues that have been on the back burner, including encryption, net neutrality and surveillance. But it was Trump’s early move on immigration that set off an industry with many immigrant workers, including prominent immigrant leaders such as Google founder Sergey Brin, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

The now-halted executive order banning travel from seven countries sparked swift opposition from the American tech industry. Amazon, Microsoft and Expedia backed the Washington state lawsuit that led to the travel ban being halted by federal judges. More than 120 technology companies, including Google, Apple, Intel and Facebook, joined a friend-of-the-court filing calling the executive order “unlawful” and “harmful to businesses.” No matter what happens to the travel ban in the future, tech companies are in for a long fight over immigration. Continue reading “Battles Loom Between Tech Companies and Trump”

The Road Ahead for Diesel Engines

In the waning days of President Obama’s second term, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a “notice of violation” to automaker Fiat Chrysler Automobiles that certain vehicles the company has sold don’t comply with the Clean Air Act. The specific charge: Pickup trucks and SUVs powered by the company’s diesel V-6 engine produce too much nitrous oxide, and the automaker used software to conceal the violation during emissions testing. The echoes of Volkswagen’s costly diesel emissions scandal were unmistakable. So, is it déjà vu all over again for diesel in America?

Some government regulators certainly seem to think so. Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board, said in a statement that “once again, a major automaker made the business decision to skirt the rules and got caught.” (CARB and EPA work together to test vehicles for emissions compliance and enforce air quality standards.) Considering that VW’s attempt to cheat on emissions rules by programming its diesel cars to run cleaner during lab testing has cost the automaker about $20 billion in various penalties, you can imagine why FCA’s stock price tanked after the news broke.

But is this the same situation exactly?

Let’s start with what we know. First, the EPA’s charges pertain to about 100,000 FCA vehicles: Ram pickup trucks and Jeep Grand Cherokees equipped with a 3-liter diesel V-6 engine. By contrast, almost 600,000 Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche vehicles were included in VW’s diesel cover-up. Two different diesel engines were fingered, spread across more than a dozen different models.

Second, VW eventually admitted wrongdoing. So far, FCA is disputing the charges. Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne has been typically outspoken in his denial that FCA attempted to circumvent the law. “There is nothing in common between the VW reality and what we are describing here,” he said in a media conference call shortly after the allegations were made, according to the Detroit News.

There’s no way to know right now exactly what FCA did or didn’t do. But some informed speculation is possible. I checked in with Bill Visnic, editorial director of mobility media at the Society of Automotive Engineers, to get his take.

The dispute between FCA and government regulators could come down to “semantics,” he says. Perhaps the automaker’s engineers tweaked their engine management software so that their diesel vehicles could just barely meet emissions limits while maximizing their fuel economy ratings. (The systems that diesel engines require to control emissions of nitrous oxide and other harmful pollutants tend to reduce mileage.) And perhaps FCA programmed their vehicles to throttle back those control systems during certain driving situations, on the grounds that the components need to be protected in order to last as long in real-world driving as federal regulations require. Maybe that resulted in vehicles that FCA engineers believed were fully in compliance, but which government regulators determined were cutting corners.

If so, that wouldn’t be quite the same as VW’s deliberate attempt to foil emissions tests with software that the company knowingly installed. Visnic’s scenario probably wouldn’t be such a black eye for FCA, especially if noncompliant vehicles could be brought up to snuff with a simple software upgrade. Of course, he adds, it could also turn out that FCA did in fact knowingly cheat and tried to cover it up, in which case the company’s legal and reputational woes could be substantial.

Market Impact

What about the bigger picture of diesel’s future in the U.S.? The technology has long been touted as a way to significantly improve fuel economy, especially in the trucks and other heavy vehicles that American drivers tend to favor. Diesels have long outperformed their gasoline cousins when it comes to mileage. And their low-rpm brawn makes them effective at hauling heavy loads. But Senior Analyst Jessica Caldwell notes that diesel “has always been more of a niche” option for tech-savvy buyers. Only VW had systematically marketed diesels to American buyers, and now the company has pulled the plug in favor of advanced gasoline and hybrid engines.

But there are signs that other companies want to step into the void left by VW. Mazda has announced plans for a diesel-powered version of its popular CX-5 crossover SUV. GM is readying a small diesel for use in its Chevy Cruze compact and GMC Terrain crossover. Perhaps most tellingly, Ford just unveiled plans to offer a diesel in its F-150 pickup, the best-selling vehicle in the country. Given all of these product plans, “somebody doesn’t think diesel is dead yet,” says Visnic. Those companies know just how badly VW was hurt by its diesel scandal, and they are proceeding anyway.

Chalk it up to fuel economy rules. The federal government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards get more stringent every year, and automakers are running out of low-cost ways to boost gas mileage. Lightening a vehicle or making it more aerodynamic can yield small efficiency gains. Installing a diesel engine in that same vehicle could be a game changer, with mileage improving by 10% or more.

Of course, automakers will keep working on other fuel-saving strategies, too: Everything from making cars lighter to offering more of them as electric or hybrid models. And the industry is already hinting that it would like to see President Donald Trump relax the CAFE fuel economy rules to reflect the fact that Americans are buying pickups and SUVs, not fuel-sipping compacts. But some version of CAFE is here to stay, and carmakers can’t afford not to invest in anything that might help them hit their efficiency targets. At least for now, that appears to include diesels.

Trump’s Tenuous Relationship With Congress Will Evolve

President Trump’s success, ultimately, rests with his ability to work with Congress. And while his relationship with Republicans who control Capitol Hill has gotten off to a rocky start, expect things to smooth over in the coming months as both sides work toward advancing common goals.

Trump’s views expressed in many of his early executive actions, particularly those involving trade, immigration and foreign policy, don’t align perfectly with the Republican mainstream, so it’s not surprising he didn’t check first with GOP leadership on the Hill. But looking ahead to big ticket items on the party’s legislative calendar, namely an Obamacare overhaul and tax reform, the sides are in much more agreement; not perfectly in sync, but not poles apart either. Continue reading “Trump’s Tenuous Relationship With Congress Will Evolve”

A Wet Winter Out West Points To A Big Spring for Hydroelectric Power

One little-noticed consequence of the heavy rain and snow falling on California and other Western states this winter: A potential boom in hydroelectric power generation this spring.

Hydropower doesn’t get much attention in the U.S. these days. Unlike wind and solar power, which are growing rapidly, there hasn’t been a flurry of new-dam construction in recent years. Unlike natural gas, the supply of which has soared thanks to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, no technology revolution has transformed the hydropower industry lately. And unlike coal, which has been at the center of heated political and environmental disputes, fights involving hydropower rarely make national headlines because they tend to involve individual dams.

But dams quietly provide a significant chunk of the nation’s power. In 2015, hydropower accounted for about 6% of the nation’s electricity supply: Almost as much as all other sources of renewable power combined. What’s more, 2015 was a year of severe drought for much of the U.S. In earlier, wetter years, dams generated significantly more power.

And 2017 is shaping up to be a very good year for generating electricity from rushing water, thanks to the soaking rains that have hit the Pacific Coast this winter, and the massive snowpack piling up in the mountains from Washington State to California.

Consider: Of the nation’s roughly 80 gigawatts of hydroelectric generating capacity, about one-fourth is  in Washington state alone. Add in Oregon and California, and the fraction rises to almost one-half. So, a wet winter for the West Coast means full reservoirs and rivers swollen by melting mountain snow in the spring. And this season is turning out to be one of the wettest on record.

California, which had until recently been suffering through an extreme, multiyear drought, has been pounded by a succession of heavy storms this winter, bringing badly needed water (along with damaging floods and mudslides). The Golden State’s long-depleted reservoirs now hold about 10% more water than normal for this time of year, according to statistics from the California Department of Water Resources. The water contained in the mountain snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is at the highest level for this time of year in the National Weather Service’s satellite records, which go back to 2004. Snow levels farther north in the Cascades Range of Washington and Oregon are also quite high.

All that rain and melting snow could potentially help the nation’s hydroelectric dams set a new power generation record this spring.

But the devil is in the details. The key to a big year for hydropower is a big snowpack that melts at the right time, says Janet Lee, the executive director of the Northwest Hydroelectric Association. An early warm-up could release too much meltwater too quickly, causing power generation to fall off abruptly later. A gradual melt, by contrast, would keep rivers flowing briskly through spring, allowing dams to make maximum use of all that kinetic energy.

Another wrinkle: Hydropower can fall victim to windy weather, Lee says. During the spring melt, the West’s many wind turbines are also spinning. If high winds cause higher than expected power generation, dams have to throttle back their own output to avoid overloading the electric grid. That is an increasing worry as wind power continues to ramp up across the country. If dams have to divert more water through spillways instead of letting it spin turbines to generate power, that’s both a waste of potential energy and harmful to certain fish species.

But if the winds cooperate and the snow melts gradually, much of the West will be blessed with abundant, low-cost, emission-free electricity this spring.

Moreover, it appears that the rain and snow will continue. The National Weather Service’s long-range forecast includes above-average precipitation chances across much of Washington and Oregon through April. And California is preparing for yet another round of heavy mountain snow later this week: Good news for skiers now and, perhaps, for electric customers later.

Why Future Supreme Court Picks Will Be Hardliners

Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, will be confirmed, but probably not without an unusual step guaranteeing that many future nominees to the highest court by presidents of both parties will be far more partisan than in the past.

Gorsuch, known as a powerful writer who prefers to interpret the Constitution as he thinks its authors intended, was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as a circuit judge. Under ordinary circumstances, he would easily win confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Continue reading “Why Future Supreme Court Picks Will Be Hardliners”