$1.5 Million Allocated to Design a Railroad Grade Separation at Fifth St. & Rice Ave., Oxnard, California
In April 2015, I published an article regarding the March 24, 2015 Metrolink collision in Oxnard, California. That predawn collision injured thirty-three passengers and took the life of Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele. With its daily traffic count of 35,000 vehicles, the Fifth Street and Rice Avenue (Fifth & Rice) grade crossing already ranked as the deadliest in Ventura County. During my April 2015 visit to the site, I noted that the southbound Rice Ave. approach to the crossing remained as derelict as it was prior to the collision.
Since then, I have published a series of rail-safety articles, each of which mentioned specific unsafe conditions at Fifth & Rice. To be fair, Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) completed minor repairs to the traffic warning system and rebuilt a fence destroyed by the Metrolink cabcar during the collision. Now, thirteen months after the latest deadly collision at Fifth & Rice, the busy rail crossing still looks much as it has for decades.
In past articles, I have called out the UPRR, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Rail Corridor Agency LOSSAN, Metrolink, the City of Oxnard and the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) for their sluggish response to the ongoing dangers at Fifth & Rice. Simple upgrades, such as repaving the Rice Ave. southbound approach, restriping its safety lines and adding additional pylons and street-level reflectors have not happened. Inexpensive changes of this type could militate against an accidental turn on to the UPRR tracks. It was just such a wrong turn that led to the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision.
According to evidence at the scene, all of the agencies listed in the previous paragraph dithered, delayed or ignored short-term fixes of the obvious deficiencies at Fifth & Rice. Meanwhile, one person made it her mission to help solve both the short-term and long-term safety issues existing there. That person is Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village). Soon after the February 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision, Brownley stepped up her communications with several agencies, including Caltrans, the CPUC and the Federal Railroad Administration.
In defense of CPUC actions, Dougherty sited $7.4 million in funds allocated to Ventura County in 2015. As the lead agency in the Sealed Corridor Project, Metrolink utilized those funds to upgrade warning and safety systems at three grade crossings in Simi Valley and another in Moorpark. Why Fifth & Rice, the busiest and deadliest commercial grade crossing in Ventura County received no mention or funding is a mystery of bureaucratic communications and cooperation.
In his April 30, 2015 letter to Brownley, Dougherty made the following statement: “The at-grade crossing at issue, on Rice Avenue in Oxnard, is equipped with median islands, quad gates, flashing lights, audible warning bells, and an interconnected traffic signal in addition to the required pavement markings and advance warning signage. Further improvements could be a grade separation. We will work with Ventura County to consider the State of California’s Section 190 Program as a possible funding source for this solution.”
Technically, everything that Dougherty wrote at that time is defensibly correct, but the actual conditions at that intersection are nowhere near as safe as state officials would have us believe. Here are my rebuttals, point by point:
“Median islands, quad gates, flashing lights, audible warning bells” – At the time of Dougherty’s letter, the support structure for the overhead warning lights, known as a crossbuck showed evidence of damage from an earlier traffic collision. Only after I published photos showing the perilous condition of the overhead safety equipment did the UPRR replace the entire unit.
“An interconnected traffic signal” – When a train approaches the crossing, the traffic signals on Rice Ave. turn red. The left turn signal from Fifth St. East to Rice Ave. North also turns red. When a train is present, those signals keep traffic northbound on Rice Ave. from crossing the tracks. Normally, the traffic signals approaching the tracks northbound work as intended.
“Interconnected traffic signal (cont.)” – Southbound on Rice Ave, the traffic signals do not provide adequate safety for vehicles stopping at Fifth St. The distance from the crosswalk at Fifth St. to the railroad tracks is less than fifty feet. As the major truck route to Naval Base Ventura County and the Port of Hueneme, hundreds of big rigs travel south on Rice Ave. every day. Inexperienced or unknowledgeable truck drivers often pull across the tracks and stop at the intersection, waiting there for a green light. While waiting there, the rear portion of a fifty-three foot long trailer overhangs the railroad tracks. If cross traffic prevented an idling tractor-trailer from moving forward in time, an approaching train could easily strike the trailer.
“Required pavement markings and advance warning signage” – On the southbound Rice Ave. approach, the pavement is cracked, rutted and generally worn out. Likewise, the pavement markings appear worn, cracked and faded. On approach to the tracks, there are no road reflectors of any kind, thus making a nighttime approach a disorienting experience for drivers unfamiliar with the intersection. Within a few yards of the tracks, there are two small signs reading, “Do Not Stop on Tracks”. Other than the crossbuck and the faded roadway markings, those two small signs are the only visual warnings for big rig drivers. The overhead crossbuck should include a lighted, flashing sign reading, “Big Rigs Stop Here on Red Signal”.
The cause of the February 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision is not in dispute. Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez mistook the railroad right-of-way for Fifth St. After making an errant right turn, Sanchez-Ramirez drove his work truck and utility trailer on to the railroad tracks. Eighty feet west of Rice Ave., his rig came to rest. Soon thereafter, Metrolink Train Number 102 struck the disabled truck, derailing all of the cars in the train, injuring thirty-three and ultimately causing the death of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele.
With the prevalence of faded or nonexistent roadway safety markings, it is easy to see how Sanchez-Ramirez made that mistake. Almost one year later, an unnamed agency installed one small reflective pylon near the curb, on either side of the tracks. Although intended to warn drivers not to turn on the tracks, the two pylons now appear to be the entrance to a small roadway, thus creating the opposite of the intended effect. To avoid continued confusion, especially at night, the responsible agency should immediately install multiple reflective pylons and a string of road reflectors spanning the railroad right of way.
In December 2015, President Obama signed a $305 billion highway bill, intended to keep our highway infrastructure from deteriorating even further. Within that bill was an allocation of $1.5 million designated for the initial design of a grade separation and highway overpass at Rice Ave. and Fifth St., in Oxnard, California. When no one else could, or would do anything substantial to solve the problems associated with that deadly grade crossing, Rep. Julia Brownley stepped up and secured that funding. In doing so, she created the first step toward ending the serial disaster that is the grade crossing at Fifth & Rice.
On March 29, 2016, politicians, bureaucrats and the press gathered at the Oxnard Transit Center to celebrate the $1.5 million federal grant. As several Amtrak trains whizzed by just a few yards away, representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration, Caltrans, the Ventura County Transportation Commission, the City of Oxnard and Metrolink all spoke about the need for safety improvements at Fifth & Rice. With no half-cent sales tax levy in Ventura County focused on transportation projects, none of the speakers mentioned that it might take ten years to secure funding for the $42 million grade separation and overpass. Still, the conclave and its message amounted to a small step in the right direction.
After the close of the public ceremony in Oxnard, I once again visited the dangerous intersection at Fifth St. and Rice Ave. With news cameras from several Los Angeles TV outlets rolling, a Metrolink official and I watched typical midday traffic at the grade crossing. In less than thirty minutes, a local freight train traveled north and an Amtrak train traveled south along the tracks. In the interval between the two trains, at least one big rig stopped for the southbound signal at Rice Ave. For more than one minute, its trailer blocked the tracks.
Moments later, as the Metrolink representative and I looked on, a late model Camaro approached the tracks southbound on Rice Ave. As the traffic signal changed to amber, the driver sped up to perhaps fifty-five miles per hour. After the Camaro crossed the tracks, it briefly went airborne, and then landed hard in the middle of Fifth St. From there, it continued at high speed. In my mind, I pictured that driver seeing flashing red lights at that grade crossing. Would he have skidded to a stop or tried to drive under the safety gates as they descended? In 2009, motorist Joel Anthony Arias, 20, tried to beat a train to the same crossing. Both he and his passenger died in a high-speed collision with an Amtrak train.
Several days after the ceremony, Julia Brownley continued her efforts to seek interim solutions to the safety problems at Fifth & Rice. In a letter to one of the passengers injured in the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision, Brownley’s staff members wrote; “Ms. Brownley has visited the site, and has been trying to get the state to address the marking issue. In fact, she spoke to CPUC President Picker about the need to improve the markings. At Ms. Brownley’s urging, CPUC sent a team to inspect the crossing. Ms. Brownley requested that our District Director accompany them during the inspection. Our District Director pointed out the deficiencies in the markings, and showed them pictures of other crossings that had new, more visible, reflective markings. We also provided those photos to President Picker. The CPUC team is preparing a report based on that inspection, and we have requested a copy.”
Now, over one year after the death of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele and the injury of dozens more, we begin to see some small steps toward increasing public safety at the deadliest grade crossing in Ventura California. When no one else could or would address rail safety at the street level, Brownley and her staff persisted in their advocacy and actions. On behalf of all who must cross the tracks at Fifth & Rice, I offer special thanks to Congresswoman Julia Brownley and her dedicated staff.
Mismatched Braking Systems on Metrolink Trains Presage Disaster
On October 1, 2015, I wrote about Southern California regional rail passenger carrier Metrolink’s decision to lease forty Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight locomotives. In September 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had notified Metrolink that serious safety deficiencies existed on their Hyundai-Rotem cabcars. The deficiencies involved the February 24, 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision that injured scores of passengers and took the life of Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele.
In Oxnard, the “pilot”, a blade that rides just above track level at the front of each cabcar, had failed in a collision with the work truck. As the Metrolink cabcar swept over the truck, the pilot detached and disappeared into the wreckage. Speculation was strong that the detached pilot had contributed to the derailment of the cabcar and the several coaches riding behind it.
Information from NTSB to Metrolink and then via Dan Weikel of the L.A. Times to the public pointed to structural failure. The steel in both the pilot and its support struts was too porous to withstand the load of the Oxnard collision. In addition, welds between the struts and the pilot showed gaps or porosity that weakened the entire assembly. Confronted with an obvious public safety hazard, Metrolink made a snap decision to place a locomotive at each end of every train set.
On December 31, 2015, I rode on one of the first “double-ender” Metrolink trains traveling from Chatsworth to Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS). It was quite a sight to see a 420,000 lb. BNSF locomotive pulling a five-coach train back toward LAUS. The conductor on the train told me that both the BNSF locomotive and the Metrolink locomotive at the other end provided motive power while operating in either direction.
Citing available statistics for the weight of each locomotive and various Metrolink coaches, I wrote in October 2015, “Riding on four axles, current Metrolink diesel locomotives weigh 280,000 lb. At over 420,000 lb., the six-axle BNSF freight locomotives are fifty percent heavier. A 2015 five-car Metrolink train weighed approximately 460,000 lb. By adding a freight locomotive at one end, each "heavy iron" BNSF train set will weigh 880,000 lb., an increase of ninety-one percent.”
The sole purpose of adding the BNSF locomotives was to assure that any motor vehicle encountered on the tracks would be obliterated. Still unclear was how the braking systems on a double-ender would perform while stopping a 440-ton train. I reflected my concern by titling my October 1, 2015 article, “Metrolink Plans for Live Brake-Tests of BNSF ‘Heavy Iron’ Train-Sets on Commuter Tracks”.
At the Chatsworth Station on March 15, 2016, I discovered the answer to my questions about “heavy iron” and braking safety. The answer is that Metrolink double-ender train sets appear to be unsafe. The newly configured Metrolink train sets are a hodgepodge of engines and coaches. The BNSF freight locomotives are better suited to dynamic (engine) braking, rather than using their pneumatic braking system. Each train set also includes an ill-maintained Metrolink locomotive pushing from the rear. In normal “stop and go” usage between Metrolink stations, both locomotives rely on their pneumatic braking systems.
In between the two locomotives are the heavy, steel-sheathed Hyundai-Rotem coaches and lighter monocoque aluminum Bombardier Bi-level coaches. While both locomotives rely on pneumatic “brake blocks” similar to old-fashioned brake shoes, the Hyundai-Rotem coaches employ outboard disk brakes. Depending on their state of refurbishment, the Bombardier Bi-level coaches appear to utilize various combinations of disk brake and block brake systems.
Each locomotive and coach in any train set connects to its mates with high-pressure air hoses. When the engineer applies the pneumatic brakes, every block or disk in the system activates, creating friction and heat, thus slowing the train. With such diversity in ages and types of braking systems, each wheel-truck may receive a different level of braking power, leading to different stress and patterns of wear.
By Metrolink’s own admission, the agency does not conduct major preventative maintenance or periodic overhauls of its locomotive fleet. The agency prefers, instead, to run its locomotives until breakdown, and then conduct maintenance sufficient only to get a broken locomotive back in service. While allowing its current fleet of locomotives to self-destruct on the tracks, Metrolink is spending $338 Million in taxpayer money on new "Tier-4" locomotives. Metrolink may or may not conduct preventative maintenance on its locomotive braking systems. Since Metrolink does not publish information regarding maintenance of braking systems, no one knows.
In addition to aging and mismatched locomotives, Bombardier Bi-level coaches, are included in virtually every Metrolink train set. With over one million miles of service each, wheels with flat spots are a common problem on the Bombardier Bi-level coaches. On those coaches, some wheel-trucks include retrofits to disk brakes while others appear to utilize the older brake-block systems. With so many mismatches and deficiencies elsewhere, the relatively small disk brakes on the newer Hyundai-Rotem coaches and cabcars absorb much of the total braking load.
With all of the mismatched coaches and locomotives, the easiest way to detect brake wear on a Metrolink train is to inspect the Hyundai-Rotem brake rotors, which ride outboard of the wheels. While conducting a casual inspection of the Hyundai-Rotem brakes, I was shocked to see that every visible brake rotor displayed thermal-fatigue cracks (heat checking) radiating from the hub towards the outside edges of the rotors.
I am not a metallurgical engineer, but I have driven many vehicles that include disk brakes. The Hyundai-Rotem disk brakes are larger and feature pneumatic actuation. Otherwise, automotive disk brakes are quite similar to the Hyundai-Rotem type. After an automotive brake inspection, no competent mechanic would allow me to drive away with extensive thermal damage evident on my rotors. With the heat-induced cracks that I recently discovered on Hyundai-Rotem brake rotors, why are those damaged safety components still rolling on Metrolink coaches today? As Metrolink knows from the deadly Glendale (2005), Chatsworth (2008) and Oxnard (2015) collisions, greater attention to safety might prevent the next Metrolink rail disaster.
One Year After a Metrolink Engineer's Death, Agencies Largely Ignore Rail Safety at Oxnard Crash Scene
In the predawn hours of February 24, 2015, Metrolink Train No. 102 struck a disabled Ford F-450 work truck and trailer at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing in Oxnard, California. Over thirty passengers were injured and Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele later died from his injuries. After a twenty-four hour driving odyssey from Tucson, Arizona to Oxnard, Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez had made a wrong turn on to the Union Pacific Coast Linetracks. After high centering his rig eighty feet from the intersection, Sanchez-Ramirez had turned on his emergency flashers and left the scene.
After the resulting fiery crash of the Metrolink train, police found Sanchez-Ramirez half a mile from the crash scene, in obvious distress. On February 22, 2016, The Ventura County District Attorney filed a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter against Jose Sanchez-Ramirez. Immediately, the Union Pacific Railroad, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Metrolink, the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency, Ventura County and the City of Oxnard all breathed a collective sigh of relief. With charges now filed against the truck driver, they were all “off the legal hook” for their collective negligence.
Union Pacific Railroad owns the Coast Line tracks and is responsible for safety of its railroad infrastructure. The CPUC, in conjunction with Caltrans is responsible for rail safety at grade crossings such as Fifth Street, which is also State Highway 34. Metrolink, which operated Train No. 102, is responsible for maintaining its equipment in safe condition. LOSSAN is a joint powers agency responsible for the overall safety of the second busiest rail passenger corridor in the nation. Ventura County and Oxnard are jointly responsible for maintenance of roadways that intersect with the rail corridor.
For each of the above-mentioned public entities to have remained silent and immobile for the past year is unconscionable. Yet, they all have a perfect excuse. In the case of injury accidents on the nation’s rail lines, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) becomes the lead investigative agency. On March 19, 2015, the NTSB issued a preliminary accident report regarding the Oxnard Metrolink collision. Since then, it has published no further findings.
Until the NTSB issues its final report, the responsible companies, agencies and local governments continue to eschew responsibility for the accident. In fact, each of those entities shares part of the blame for the unsafe conditions or for the faulty equipment involved. Let us look at each entity and its involvement in the collision.
Union Pacific Railroad – For an undetermined time prior to the collision, the Union Pacific Railroad had ignored a damaged steel pylon base that supported the Rice Ave. crossbuck. The crossbuck consists of overhead warning signs and flashing lights that activate when a train approaches. Loose wiring on the vehicle warning gates was visible after the crash. At the time, there were no reflective plastic safety pylons installed to warn motorists from turning on to the railroad tracks.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) – Various CPUC accounts hold over $42 million in federal funding intended for rail crossing upgrades in California. As of March 2015, the CPUC had allocated none of that money for repair of dangerous crossings such as Fifth & Rice. At the behest of Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-26th District), the CPUC promised to investigate conditions at the Oxnard crash scene. If the CPUC has indeed studied the issue, it has published no findings on the internet.
Metrolink – The Southern California passenger rail agency has denied responsibility for the Oxnard collision. Instead, they have deflected legal responsibility while pointing to Jose Sanchez-Ramirez and his employer as the responsible parties. For their injuries on Train No. 102, Metrolink has offered passengers no compensation at all. Instead, they offered a one-month free pass for travel on the Metrolink system. If any injured passenger had accepted such a "payment in kind", would Metrolink have later used that fact to absolve itself of contingent liability? I hate to say so, but I believe that they would.
Late in 2015, the NTSB contacted Metrolink with urgent safety information. The NTSB had discovered an equipment failure on Metrolink’s Hyundai-Rotem Cabcar No. 645, which was involved in the Oxnard collision. From the sketchy reports that came from Metrolink headquarters, we can deduce that the “pilot” on Cabcar No. 645 was deficient. The pilot is a blade-like device designed to clear debris from the tracks, thus preventing derailment. Also called an “anti-climbing device”, the pilot on Cabcar No. 645 had detached during the collision with the F-450 work truck. As it disappeared under the cabcar, the detached pilot may have contributed to the catastrophic derailment and decoupling of the cabcar and the second coach in Train No. 102.
In response to the identified safety threat, Metrolink leased forty freight locomotives from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF). Starting in late 2015, Metrolink began phasing in the use of BNSF locomotives on all of its routes. On outbound trips, a BNSF locomotive trails each train like a caboose. After reaching the end of the line, the BNSF locomotive then heads-up each Metrolink train on its return trip to Los Angeles Union Station. Using this “heavy iron” approach, a BNSF freight locomotive should be able to lift any stalled vehicle or debris off the tracks, thus preventing future derailments.
By its own admission, Metrolink no longer maintains its aging fleet of diesel locomotives. On March 11, 2016, a twenty-four year old Metrolink locomotive caught fire in Pomona, California. With the severity of the damage, it is likely that Metrolink locomotive No. 865 will never go back into service. In an ill-conceived and unsafe plan to save money, Metrolink runs its locomotives until they fail and then repairs them only as necessary to put them back into service.
The recent fire in Pomona calls into question the safety and reliability of the entire Metrolink fleet. If Metrolink no longer performs routine maintenance on its locomotives, do they still test, maintain and repair defective braking systems? Even after the derailment and decoupling of the cabcar and the second coach in Oxnard, inadequate breaking systems allowed Locomotive No. 870 to push the entirety of Train No. 102 well past the Rice Ave. grade crossing.
Finally, there is a question regarding the second coach in Train No. 102. It was a Bombardier Bi-level Coach with one million miles of service. In its final report regarding the 2005 Glendale Metrolink collision, the NTSB formally warned Metrolink. It said that the “fixed worktables” in Metrolink Bombardier Bi-level Coaches had contributed to injuries and possible deaths in that incident. After the 2008 Chatsworth Metrolink collision, the final NTSB accident report described death and near dismemberment when passenger torsos impinged upon similar fixed worktables.
Metrolink has since refurbished most of the aging Bombardier coaches in its fleet. Part of that process involves the installation of new fixed worktables, which have a thicker cross-section. Still, passenger at least maintains that derailed Coach No. 206, in which he was injured, had not been upgraded before the February 24, 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision. That coach, along with the rest of Train No. 102 sits rusting in a Metrolink yard at Moorpark, California. Was the passenger injured by an unsafe, “killer worktable” of the type identified to Metrolink ten years prior? With a quick inspection, the passenger's assertion should be easy to prove or disprove.
By deploying BNSF freight locomotives weighing 460,000 lb., a Metrolink five-car train set now weighs approximately 880,000 lb. As an unintended consequence of this added weight, the obsolete and ill-maintained Metrolink diesel locomotives are now breaking down at an ever-increasing rate. Recently, at the Chatsworth Station, I discovered that Metrolink has secretly replaced some of its own F59PH locomotives with similar equipment provided by R&B Leasing, Inc. (www.rbrailwaygroup.com). As my photos from that station show, Metrolink now has a BNSF locomotive at one end and an R&B locomotive at the other end of some trains. Sadly, Metrolink is becoming an outsourced passenger carrier that can no longer run trains with its own locomotives.
LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency – Managing all passenger train activity on the Coast Line, from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, LOSSAN is a de facto arm of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). With collocation and co-management at its headquarters in Orange, California, the agency pays little attention to Ventura County and beyond. How often does any LOSSAN agency staffer travel on its rail network to visit Fifth & Rice in Oxnard?
LOSSAN staff should make the arduous, time-consuming and oft delayed rail trip from Orange County to Ventura County. There, at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing they would discover gross deficiencies in safety management. Remember, it was there that Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele lost his life in February 2015. For LOSSAN staff, it is time to leave its headquarters and visit the “scene of the crime”. After the site visit, I suggest that LOSSAN make a public report about its findings.
Ventura County and City of Oxnard – The saddest agency on the Southern California transportation map is the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC). With no half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, the commission can do little more than wave its hands and hope for the best. Before and after the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision, the agency called for action regarding safety improvements at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing. They informed us that it was a serial disaster, with death and dismemberment possible at any moment. What did the City of Oxnard and the County of San Buena Ventura do to mitigate safety issues at that grade crossing during the past year? You guessed it… nothing but verbiage.
The tracks in question are in Oxnard, which is in Ventura County. They are part of the Union Pacific Railroad Coast Line. The LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency manages passenger trains upon those tracks. On those same tracks, Metrolink Train No. 102 collided with Mr. Sanchez-Ramirez’s abandoned work truck. With the overlapping responsibilities of the companies and agencies listed above, it is impossible to know which entity did what and when. Among them all, here is what has happened in the past year to fix the problems existing at Fifth & Rice.
Unknown parties have replaced a concrete and wrought iron safety wall, previously destroyed by Metrolink Cabcar No. 645. The loose and ragged wiring on the grade crossing gates is no longer visible to the casual observer. Union Pacific, we assume, replaced the southbound Rice Ave. crossbuck with all new equipment, including LED warning lights and gate-arm flashers. Unknown parties have affixed two (count them, two) plastic safety pylons at the scene. Like two small candles in the night they stand, one on either side of the railroad tracks where Jose Sanchez-Ramirez made his erroneous and deadly turn. To her credit, Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) recently announced that $1.5 million in federal funds has been secured to create a preliminary design for the proposed Rice Avenue railway-highway grade crossing improvement project.
Occasionally, I visit the makeshift memorials for those who have lost their lives at Fifth & Rice in Oxnard, California. It is a place of personal disaster for many people over many years. Sometimes I feel that I am the only interested person who goes there to observe. If the staff of the legal entities responsible for the problem would jointly visit the site, what might happen? If they did, I know that they and their employers would be shamed into action.
Southern California is famous for its disastrous floods, wildfires and earthquakes. In the past fifteen years, all of those natural disasters combined have taken fewer lives than the grade crossing at Fifth St. and Rice Ave. in Oxnard. Union Pacific Railroad, California PUC, Caltrans, LOSSAN, Metrolink, City of Oxnard and Ventura County, it is well past time to act.
Warren Buffett's NV Energy and the NVPUC Conspire to Destroy Rooftop Solar in Nevada
In February 2016, I traveled from Los Angeles to my home state of Nevada. For the past three years, new hires in the rooftop solar industry have been an engine of job creation in the Golden State. Economists up and down California cite the solar industry for its 20,000 new jobs in 2015 alone. Those jobs went mostly to the young and able. Able to sell door to door; able to handle thorny customer service issues; able to mount rooftop solar panels.
As I traversed Interstate I-15 North from the Los Angeles Basin to the Mojave Desert, I anticipated that Nevada, the Silver State, would be keeping pace with California in New Energy production. Arizona, which is Nevada’s more populous neighbor to the east, had already killed rooftop solar in favor of “Clean Coal”, Nuclear and Natural Gas fired electrical production. Surely, the State of Nevada could do better than their troglodyte cousins who live across the dwindling stream of the Colorado River.
As I left Baker, California, I could not wait to see the Ivanpah Solar-Thermal Station, near Primm, Nevada. The Mojave is a large desert, so one must remember that the Ivanpah Valley is still within the borders of California. There, where developers thought that no one would notice, California’s Governor Gerry Brown had authorized the most destructive “green energy” plant in the country. Famous for the displacement and killing of many desert tortoises and the continued flash frying of countless birds, this ill-conceived power plant helps no one other than the old Google Corporation (Now “Alphabet” Soup) and its other ultra-rich investors.
With its three grandiose towers glowing brighter than the sun, Brightsource Energy’s solar folly in the desert is a defining boondoggle and tax-dodge for the rich and infamous. On my outbound trip, all three towers shone like molten pillars of salt. On my return trip, one tower was dark. If you pass that way, do not stare at the lighted towers. More than several seconds of exposure could damage your retinas. Along I-15 there are no solar-thermal warning signs, although there should be. The unearthly scenery at the power plant makes you feel like you are already in Las Vegas.
Several days later, while attending a rally for Bernie Sanders in Henderson, Nevada, I met a (former) crew from SolarCity, Las Vegas. They were campaigning hard for the public to realize that the Nevada Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had recently killed the rooftop solar industry in Nevada. It had also killed 550 SolarCity jobs in Nevada. Through the application of an onerous negative "net metering" structure, the PUC made it impossible for even industry leader Solar City to continue installing rooftop solar.
When one thinks of the West, they often think of sunny Southern California. We also recall that Southern Nevada and Southern Arizona are deserts. Almost anyone could tell you that those two states are “hot, dry and sunny” on most days. As with California, both Arizona and Nevada are perfect places for rooftop solar installations. For reasons of fear and conservative orthodoxy, Arizona killed rooftop solar several years ago.
So, what happened recently in Nevada? Why would the Nevada PUC nix the development of such a natural and benevolent power source? Look no further than NV Energy, the private utility that provides electrical power to 2.4 million of Nevada’s 2.8 million residents. On May 29, 2013, NV Energy announced its acquisition by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company (now Berkshire Hathaway Energy). In other words, NV Energy is now a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. whose chairperson and primary stockholder is billionaire Warren Buffett.
Apparently, Warren Buffett was still smarting from the ongoing decrease of coal shipments on his Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad. With coal in decline all over the country, Warren Buffett seized on solar as easy prey. The rooftop solar industry as we know it is less than a decade old. In a classic “Old Energy” vs. “New Energy” struggle, Old Energy won. “New energy be damned”, I picture Warren muttering under his breath. “Coal and natural gas are the energy stocks of the future”, he said to himself. Whether Warren Buffet lobbied directly or indirectly with the Nevada PUC, they got his message and destroyed the rooftop solar industry in the state.
Think about it. Once you have solar panels on your roof, with minimal cleaning and maintenance, you just sit inside your home and enjoy low cost energy produced by the sun. Under the Warren Buffett, Old Energy scheme, you will sit inside your home and pay for massive coal or gas-fired power plants hidden far out in the desert. Fossil fuel power plants require a steady stream of carbon stock, which in turn creates a steady stream of revenue for Berkshire Hathaway.
With Buffet’s monopoly control over electrical energy in Nevada, there was no contest. As expected, the PUC bet on what they believed was a long-term winner. If that winner created higher consumer costs, increases in global warming and more money for the billionaire class, so be it. Warren Buffet did not acquire his current wealth of $71 billion by playing nice. With his wan smile, the 85 year-old hustler might as well be telling all Nevada electrical consumers to “shove it where the sun doesn’t shine”. In their boldfaced destruction of the rooftop solar industry, that is what he and the Nevada PUC did.
If California and many other states can promote rooftop solar installations as the backbone of a new industry, why should Nevada kowtow to a billionaire and his cadre of wealthy stockholders? If Nevada were to allow a public referendum on the issue, rooftop solar would return to Nevada in a heartbeat. Pro solar advocates collected over 18,000 signatures during the recent Nevada Caucuses. Only days later, a political action committee (PAC) named "Citizens for Solar and Energy Fairness", designed to "advocate for, or oppose" net metering programs filed a legal challenge to the pro-solar referendum. In a recent statement to Politico, NV Energy admitted that it is "supporting" the new anti-solar PAC.
Residents of Nevada, it is time to put an end to this tomfoolery and allow a vote for Nevada to Bring Back Solar.