Thursday, October 13, 2011




While many of its roads and bridges and hospitals remain potholed or potential hazards whenever the next major earthquake strikes, California and its enablers in the federal government nevertheless remain determined to pour billions of dollars into two types of large infrastructure projects: high speed rail and large-scale solar thermal farms.

Voters approved one of these large investments (high speed rail), while state legislators and two governors have pushed the other (big solar).

But there are many who claim both efforts aim to use outmoded and needlessly expensive technology.

The most obvious problems lie with high speed rail, where even review committees created by the state’s High Speed Rail Commission have concluded that spending estimates in the 2008 ballot proposition that authorized the project were far too low, while ridership and revenue estimates were much too high.

Some in the rail industry say all that could be mitigated with a combination of different technology and a route change that would take the planned bullet trains up the Interstate 5 corridor en route from Los Angeles to San Francisco rather than roughly paralleling State Route 99 through Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced before heading into the San Francisco Bay area.

Rather than building traditional tracks, these people suggest using magnetic levitation (maglev) trains running on elevated viaducts that allow cross traffic to move easily beneath them and never run the risk of hitting pedestrians.

“Bullet trains are obsolete, at the end phase of their development,” says Rick Canine, an executive of Federal Maglev Inc., which claims it could build the California system for about $14 million per mile, rather than the $56 million per mile estimated in the state’s most recent plan.

Canine claims maglev trains would have a top speed of 300 miles per hour in long runs through rural country, while the high speed rail proposition promised a maximum speed of 220 mph, but would actually almost never exceed 190. Maglev trains, he says, could safely go 150 mph in urban and suburban areas, while bullet trains would never exceed 110 in those places.

Yes, Canine has a financial interest in maglev. But that doesn’t make him wrong. Especially since the reality is that maglev trains in Japan have actually run at 360 mph and could go 400. They don’t, though, mostly because the faster a maglev train runs, the more electricity it consumes.

Rather than rails, maglev trains run on concrete beds with embedded magnets that repulse other magnets on skis beneath lightweight aluminum passenger cars. Lack of steel rails is one reason for the lower construction costs.

Then there are the lower maintenance costs of maglev. A 19-mile maglev line in Shanghai, China, for example, used just two weeks of labor in its first eight years of operation, according to a report presented at a 2010 international symposium on maglev. Rails require far more maintenance.

Which makes this is a technology deserving of a far stronger and longer look than the California commission has given it.

Then there’s solar thermal electricity production, being pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the state Energy Commission and the big Southern California Edison utility as part of meeting the state’s newly adopted requirement that one-third of California’s power come from renewable sources by 2020.

Not only will the huge complexes of solar panels now being placed in the Mojave Desert near Barstow and Blythe consume many thousands of acres, they also require construction of hundreds of miles of new power lines, and that guarantees higher rates for utility users than if the solar power were produced closer to where consumers live.

Building those lines will cost billions of dollars, all added to utility company rate bases. A major component of electricity pricing is the “rate of return” (yearly profit percentage) utility companies get on their rate base, the total they’ve spent over the last 20 years on facilities and equipment. The current estimate for building just one of those lines is $750 million and there could eventually be as many as five of them.

It’s true Brown has also pushed for large-scale new installations of rooftop photovoltaic solar panels in Los Angeles, San Diego and other places as another renewable energy source. Expanding that initiative would likely prove far cheaper and more efficient than building the solar farms, even though the federal government has pledged about $6 billion in loan guarantees for the bigger projects.

It all suggests a lack of thorough thought and analysis of the most modern and effective technologies that are now available to California and raises doubts over whether the state and its taxpayers and consumers really should spend more than $60 billion over the next 30 years on technologies already look outmoded.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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