Monday, December 28, 2015

Online Shopping's Increased Popularity Causes Extended Shipping Delays

Just in December alone, it is expected that United Parcel Service will deliver a total of about 420 million packages in the United States while its competitor Federal Express will deliver about 228 million. The U.S. Parcel Service is also in the game, expected to ship about 545 million packages this month. All together, they will be shipping a huge amount, almost 8% more than they did at this time last year. According to Samantha Masunaga, in her L.A. Times article, this dramatic increase in the number of people and retailers needing to ship packages is due mainly to a recent increase in e-commerce.

This year, many retailers offered Black Friday deals on their websites, essentially giving their customers a choice. They could come into the store on Black Friday and shop, finding deals and purchasing items to take home with them immediately. Or, they could shop online, earning the same deals and reduced prices as in the store, and have the item shipped. Sensibly, many customers chose the second route, choosing to wait a little bit longer for their item rather than braving the hectic battle in the store on Black Friday. While this online integration by the retailers helped to keep Black Friday running more smoothly in stores, it came as an unexpected hit among shipping companies, whose predictions were far surpassed, which led to many delays on deliveries.

With the holidays approaching, shipping companies were getting even more overwhelmed with many more orders than in previous years. Because of that, they began telling customers that there would be no assurances that their package would arrive before Christmas unless they used the higher-cost options, like two-day or overnight shipping. Even those options were not perfect. UPS's on-time delivery rates for two-day and overnight delivery have varied throughout the month, ranging around 97%. Basically, when it comes down to it, even the more expensive options are not a guarantee, so consumers should plan ahead and order far in advance if they want to make sure their item arrives in a timely fashion.

Cyber Monday sales exceeded expectations, reaching $3.07 billion, which was 16% more than last year's sales. During Black Friday, about 103 million people got their deals online while 102 million preferred to do their shopping in brick-and-mortar establishments. Online purchases this year, especially during its final months, soared higher than ever expected, which is why shipping delays occurred. While shipping services were prepared for higher demand than in previous years, they could hardly know exactly how much the demand would increase, so the explosion of e-commerce's popularity caught them off-guard. Even for many online merchants, this year's demand was surprising. For several retailers, popular items ran out very quickly, and some even experienced crashes on their websites due to the increased traffic.

Most people in this day and age have a smartphone or some other way to get online while on the go. Because of this, online shopping may be easier and more appealing than having to go to stores and hope that they have the item you want in the correct size or color or style. It is simpler to just go to a website, type in exactly what it is you want, and order it. Over the holiday season, about 25% of e-commerce shopping was done via a mobile device. Our society's increasing dependence on new technology could be a reason why retailers have integrated more of that same technology into the shopping experience, making it easier and faster for potential customers to shop with them.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Federal Reserve Hikes Interest Rates - First Time Since Great Recession Began

For the first time in seven years, since the Great Recession began in 2008, the Federal Reserve has decided to start raising its interest rate. When the recession began, pushing the interest rates as close to zero as possible was necessary to help the nearly crippled economy. The Fed raising their rates could be seen in a positive light, as a sign of confidence that the economy is getting back on track. To others, it could be a preventative measure in preparation for a future economic downturn. Jim Puzzanghera and Don Lee discuss the implications of the rate hike in their recent article in the L.A. Times.

What was seen by some as a vote of confidence in the recovering economy helped investors to feel more confident, which in turn led the Dow Jones average to rally and close up about 224 points, a substantial increase. When the Fed decides that the economy can handle an interest rate increase, this helps the average person to believe that they can more easily trust the economy to keep their money safe. This leads to more investment, which can help the economy even more on its path to recovery. When people believe in the power of the economy, it is more able to grow and meet their expectations.

On the other hand, the increase of the interest rates might be an indication of future trouble for the economy. When the economy is struggling, when the market crashes or a recession hits, the Federal Reserve is able to lower interest rates, which can lessen the impact of the economic downturn. However, if the rates are already near zero and a recession begins anew, lowering the interest rates will have no effect because they are already too low. So, if the Fed raises the interest rates now, the government can start building up revenue so that if and when the economy slows again, they can lower interest rates and pump money back into the economy to give it a jumpstart.

This decision by the Fed, although seen as "historic" by economists, will likely have little effect, at least for the time being. The benchmark federal funds rate, which affects consumer and business loans, has only increased by 0.25%, and the Fed has promised that increases in the future will come slowly. Loans on automobiles and the interests rates on credit cards will probably begin to rise slowly in the coming months, and mortgage rates have already risen slightly. Small businesses, which have been more affected by the Great Recession than their larger competitors, have shown support for the raising of the interest rate, seeing it as a step on the way to a more stable economy. After all, at this point, a quarter of a percentage point does very little to harm business growth and could do much for the future of the economy.

The rate hike has been viewed by many as the turning point for the economy. It may signal an end to the worst of the recession and a new beginning for the economy. The rates, which will grow slowly, at first, are expected to reach 1.375% by the end of 2016, which is pretty low in the grand scheme of things. In fact, the interest rate was over 5% before the Fed started lowering it due to the Great Recession. By some measurements, unemployment is down to 5%, which means that the rate hike could be necessary in order to reduce inflation. Out of fear for issues in the global economy, the Fed decided not to raise rates in September, but since then has decided that the rate hike is exactly what the US economy needs right now.

Some economists believe that the increase is a ploy by the Fed to simply fulfill a promise that was made to raise the rates by the end of the year. Whether this was the Fed's intention or not, it doesn't matter because the rates have gone up and will continue to increase. All agree that the interest rates, when increased again, should go up slowly, so as to not stifle any economic growth that they may cause. While some still fear that the rate hike is a way for the Fed to handle "negative shocks" in the economy, the Federal Reserve Chairwoman, Janet Yellen, assures the American people that the economy appears to be stable for now. She believes that the economy will continue its growth in the future and that the American people should see the rate hike in a positive light.

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Faraday Future to Break Ground on Billion Dollar Nevada Plant in 2016

Like its competitor, Tesla Motors, electric car start-up Faraday Future has decided to open up shop in Nevada. Faraday Future, a new, relatively small rival to the other electric car producers, was debating among California, Nevada, Louisiana, and Georgia for their billion dollar production facility, but eventually made their decision and will start construction in the beginning of 2016. a main factor influencing Faraday's decision was an offered package of over $300 million in tax incentives by Nevada legislators, According to company executives, this wasn't the only reason, though, and a more detailed analysis of the choice is made in Chris Kirkham's and Ivan Penn's L.A. Times article.

Faraday Future, which is branded as an electric car company, has not yet produced an electric car. One of the company's founders and primary backers is Chinese media mogul, Jia Yueting, who has a net worth of several billion dollars and is ranked as China's 17th-richest person. Many of Faraday Future's top executives previously worked for Tesla and luxury car companies like BMW and Porsche. As such, they have quite a bit of experience with electric vehicles and the selling points behind them. The market for electric vehicles, while it is still undetermined based on Tesla's sales over the past decade, has the potential to grow larger, especially as people become more environmentally conscious and try to find ways to be more energy efficient.

Nevada legislature offered similar perks to Tesla Motors a year ago. With the help of $1.3 billion in tax abatements, Tesla began work on a $5 billion factory outside of Reno. While Faraday only received a $335 million deal, that is still nothing to scoff at, and will go a long way toward creating more jobs in Nevada and producing vehicles that rely more on renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels. These deals, which might look to some like a waste of money on the part of legislators, can actually be quite beneficial to the state as a whole due to the production of jobs and the increase in goods for export to other states and other countries. The money in tax incentives that Nevada is providing to these companies can be earned back many times over by increased productivity over the long-term future.

Faraday's business model must be pretty sound for the state to take a risk and invest in them and in the hope of domestic growth in the future. Faraday doesn't just get the $335 million immediately; they have to prove that their company is moving forward. According to legislators, Faraday will not receive all of the tax abatements and other promised perks until it has invested at least $1 billion toward construction of the plant. Even without help from the tax incentives, Faraday's investment could pay off very well in the long run. As gas prices stay low, more individuals are going back to larger SUVs, since they can better afford to fill up the tanks of such automobiles. However, if and when gas prices rise again, people will be more interested in the fuel efficiency of electric vehicles and hybrids. So, as companies like Faraday and Tesla start getting ready now, they may be able to have their production running smoothly by the time demand for electric vehicles increases again.

While the tax incentives helped Faraday to make their final decision of Nevada, there were aspects of the other potential states that could have made them better choices. California, Louisiana, and Georgia all have direct ocean access, which means that they have ports and, therefore, make shipping and receiving of products and parts much simpler. Between California and Nevada, the latter has more wide-open spaces in which to build large factories. All in all, Nevada, which lacked direct access to seaports, still provided close enough access to make shipping of parts not too much of a nightmare in transportation. Highway 15 provides Nevada an almost direct route to the West Coast's ports, which, when combined with the tax incentives, made Nevada a better choice for Faraday's base of production. While we don't know whether California's legislature offered similar tax incentives to convince Faraday to choose the Golden State, in the end, Faraday made its choice, taking the best deal for itself while also benefiting the state of Nevada.

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Friday, December 4, 2015

New Credit Card Chip Technology Makes Debut as Holidays Approach

Have you recently noticed having a longer wait when checking out at various stores? Part of the reason is that there were more people out shopping, in preparation for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Another reason is that checkers are having some difficulty getting used to new systems designed to deal with the new "chip" credit cards. In Samantha Masunaga's L.A. Times article, she describes the new type of credit card, the reasons why it was created, and how its creation has affected shoppers.

While everyone expects longer lines around holiday times, analysts expect that the new credit cards may make lines extra long this year. Starting October 1st of this year, many new credit cards began to come equipped with a small metallic chip. This chip, which makes purchases safer and fraud harder to commit, has also caused something of a headache in that it has forced merchants to install new terminals that are able to accept the new cards. Since it is expected that 70% of cards will have the new chip technology by the end of the year, most merchants and card issuers have found that they should jump on the bandwagon.

While shoppers and checkers are all still trying to get used to the new card chips, leading to confusion and a longer wait time, eventually, as the chips become more common, it is expected that the lines will go back to normal. In all, though, customers seem to be taking the longer lines in stride, understanding that the increased security is worth a little bit more of a wait. Because it makes it harder to create a fake credit card or steal another person's information, the chip in the credit card helps to reduce identity theft and fraud.

Major retailers like WalMart, Target, and Home Depot have already transitioned to new technology that can accept chip cards, but some smaller companies are yet to complete the transition. However, by 2017, all merchants, including gas stations, will be forced to adopt new terminals that can accept the chip cards. Some shoppers have admitted to avoiding using their new chip cards, at least for the time being. While the difference between a chip card and a standard magnetic strip card can be as little as a few seconds, a delay of a minute or two can be caused by someone trying to swipe a chip card. If the mistake occurs several times throughout the day, the seemingly insignificant delays can add up. Because of this, many people not accustomed to the new technology try not to use it, so as to avoid causing a hold-up in the checkout line.

Some merchants claim that they argued with credit card companies about releasing the new cards right before the holidays, out of fear for potential back-ups. They would have preferred to start the new cards in January or February when customer traffic is less and slightly longer lines would be not as noticeable. Unfortunately, credit card companies chose to issue the new cards late this year. On the positive side, customers will be able to get plenty of practice over the holiday season and learn to use the cards properly. Some stores claim that delays are unnoticeable, others state that lines are only slightly longer, and customers have reported some even longer delays. Either way, even if the issue is minimal, use during the next month or so will provide shoppers with the chance to master the new technology and keep even minimal delays reduced in the future.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

Some Stores Find Black Thursday Not As Profitable in the Long Run

Where several stores have decided to push up their Black Friday sales earlier on Thanksgiving day, many others are doing the opposite, closing their stores for the entire holiday in a show of support for those shoppers and employees who wish to spend time with their families. In her L.A. Times article, Samantha Masunaga investigates some of the deeper reasons behind the closure, as well as the financial implications for the businesses.

Over the past couple of years, Black Friday sales have been starting earlier and earlier. Historically, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving and is a time when people can get good deals on new electronics like video game systems, televisions, and handheld devices. Until relatively recently, Black Friday started around midnight on Thursday night (technically Friday morning) and continued throughout the day. As companies began to realize that Black Friday sales brought in a lot of income, they started opening as early as 8 or 9 PM on Thanksgiving itself, enabling the sales to last longer and bring more customers into their stores.

This year, though, some companies are pushing it even earlier, some as early as 5 or 6 PM on Thanksgiving, which cuts family time pretty short for employees. In opposition to this, many slightly smaller companies are choosing to remain closed all of Thursday, with a belief that the few extra hours will not make much of a difference in the long run. Companies like Staples, Gamestop, and H&M have announced that its stores, headquarters, and distribution centers will be closed for the holiday. This decision, while upsetting to some potential shoppers, could potentially lead to greater loyalty among other customers who see that the companies care about enabling their employees to spend time with their families on the holiday.

Furthermore, many of the smaller retailers have come to a realization that opening their stores earlier for Black Friday doesn't have so much potential for profit. Analysts have shown that larger retailers, who can more afford to purchase big-ticket items in bulk for very reduced prices, are helped by a longer Black Friday, but that the smaller stores don't stand a chance trying to compete. So, this year the smaller retailers are concentrating on building goodwill and encouraging customers to shop online, then are opening up on Friday with their Black Friday sales. Statistics even show that those stores that opened early on Thanksgiving had a reduce in sales of about 11% over the rest of the weekend since those people who shopped on Thanksgiving were less likely to come back later.

Large companies may find out eventually that starting Black Friday on Thanksgiving does not positively affect them to the required extent to make a sizable profit. After all, when employees work on Black Friday, especially the portion of Black Friday that falls on Thanksgiving day, they get paid a higher hourly rate. At some point, the stores will reach a point at which sales are maximized while costs are minimized, at which point they will try to open their stores at that sweet spot every year. Because they continue to open ever earlier, it appears that they have not yet found that perfect time. Maybe they will eventually go back to being closed during the entire holiday, whether due to a lesser profit ratio or a surge in public opinion. It's hard to tell, so we will just have to wait and see.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Roofers and Contractors Overbooked in Preparation for El Nino Winter

After months of drought conditions throughout California, homeowners are rushing to get their houses prepared to withstand the expected onslaught of the upcoming year of El Nino weather. Many of these homeowners are coming to realize that their roofs should be patched up or replaced before the "above-average" rainfall begins. The National Weather Service predicted that the Los Angeles and San Diego areas this winter will have about a 60-69% chance of "above-normal precipitation," which is a huge wake-up call for Californians who have experienced very little rain over the past couple of years. Ronald White, in his L.A. Times article, investigates the current rush to get ready for the winter season and the strain it has been putting on various businesses.

While many people are seeking roofers for long-overdue work on their roofs, other workers, like gutter repairers and tree trimmers, have also reported that 10 times the number of requests for their services have been made this year than the last. while the increased demand is great for business, many have been unable to keep up with demand, leaving property owners disappointed. Many homeowners have even reported difficulty getting an estimate for potential work, let alone getting contractors to their home to get the work done. Many roofing and construction companies have full waiting lists through March, but an appointment that late won't really help a homeowner trying to prepare for the El Nino winter.

Even arborists and tree services have full schedules, booked by homeowners and others worried about whether draught-stressed trees fall in the winter, potentially injuring people and destroying property. Companies like the Your Way Tree Service go out and check trees for health, as many are already dead due to disease, wood rot, or lack of water. The tree service determines whether trees are healthy enough to withstand the winter, and, if not, they fell them safely so that rough winds won't do it later.

Finally, there are those people who plan to use the rainfall later, when El Nino is over. Even they have been having trouble finding experts to install rainwater storage systems on their properties. Not only are some of these specialists booked, many others are unwilling to start work in L.A. until the demand has died down somewhat. However, they still encourage homeowners to keep calling. Eventually, they will be able to get through to a professional who is able to help them. Everyone right now has to turn away business because they simply don't have enough manpower or hours in the week to get work done for everyone.

Steve Lang, of the Roofer Contracting Association, warns homeowners against desperation. He assures them that they will eventually be able to get an appointment with a professional who knows what he/she is doing. His warning is this: hiring an unknown contractor or roofer to do work on your home could end up costing you much more in the long run, usually due to shoddy work by an inexperienced roofer or other kind of worker. He reminds homeowners to look for licensed professionals. Just because someone claims to be a roofer doesn't mean that their work will protect your home from the coming winter's rain. It is far safer and more cost-effective to be patient and wait for someone who knows what they are doing.

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Friday, November 6, 2015

San Francisco's Anti-Airbnb Proposition Narrowly Fails

Short-term home or apartment rentals, usually through online platforms like Airbnb and VRBO, have been steeped with controversy in recent months. Some cities have even tried to ban such rentals while others have embraced them wholeheartedly. Most recently, San Francisco put forth a proposition to limit the ability of landlords to use such websites for renting their property. Tracey Lien, in her L.A. Times article, discusses how Airbnb affects both landlords and tenants, and how this new Proposition F may affect the city.

The controversy behind services like Airbnb is mainly one of a fight between a capitalist economic theory and one in which people deserve fair treatment. On the one side, tenants in San Francisco fear that the increasing prevalence of Airbnb will eventually lead the owners of their rented homes and apartments to evict them in favor of the larger sums paid by short-term renters. It is these tenants who would vote for the proposition since it limits landlords' use of Airbnb and their ability to turn normal rentals into short-term ones quickly. The proposition aims to prevent or at least slow down the conversion of apartment buildings into pseudo-hotels.

Some see it differently. While services like Airbnb could convince landlords to evict tenants in favor of the faster income, the free market could take care of any issues that arise from it. Eventually, if enough landlords raised prices enough to match the rising demand by tourists, ten the average worker would not be able to afford to live in the city. If workers are forced to move out, then business and regular city work will grind to a halt, When the economy halts in such a way, tourists will not want to visit, which will force landlords to lower their prices back to normal rates in order to get tenants. While this situation could probably work itself out, Proposition F aims to avoid it altogether.

Even for some landlords, Airbnb has uncomfortable implications. One Balboa Park resident, who had only ever rented his units out on a long-term basis voted against Proposition F. He worried that his tenants might use Airbnb to rent out his unit for short-term stays, a concept that he wasn't completely comfortable with. However,different from many tenants, he said that he would have voted yes on the proposition if he was in their shoes for that same reason: the ability to rent out the apartment in which one is living while out of town for short periods of time.

Unfortunately for those passionate about the topic, voter turnout for the proposition was extremely low. In-person votes were in the low hundreds, and mail-in votes reached about 9,000. In the end, Airbnb beat the bill, but even while celebrating, the San Francisco-based company expects further assaults in the near future. They believe that the proposition failed mainly due to its highly specific and extreme stance regarding the short-term rentals. Even so, the vote was close, with about 45% of voters supporting the proposition. Airbnb fears, rightfully, that behind the scenes, lawmakers in places like Los Angeles and San Diego may be getting ready to start the fight all over again.

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Friday, October 30, 2015

New Glass Technology Creates Thinner, More Durable Screens

Millions of people in the United States and around the world own smartphones, devices that can cost as much as $800. A huge fear among such individuals is that they will drop or otherwise break their phone, especially its most fragile component: the screen. Dozens of iPhone and Android users break their screens every day, to the extent that there are stores that have been opened specifically to repair smartphone screens and make other repairs. According to Tracey Lien's article, in the L.A. Times, a company called Corning Inc. has a way to make broken screens a thing of the past.

Where windows, soda bottles, and automobile windshields are made of various types of thick glass such as the common soda lime, Corning Inc. has been working on thinner, more durable alternatives for the past several years. Two of Corning's current projects, Willow Glass and Gorilla Glass, are far less breakable than classical glass, and can be made as thin as 0.1 millimeter, In a demonstration, Waguih Ishak, one of Corning's Research Center Directors, showed how a piece of normal glass could be cracked pretty easily whereas even when he exerted his full force on a piece of Willow Glass, he couldn't even leave a scratch.

Glass is formed by the superheating of sand, found mainly on coastlines where it has been created by the erosion of ocean waves on rocks. Glass has been made for thousands of years, and some archeological evidence even shows that ancient Mesopotamian civilizations had found a way to make a form of glass. Corning Inc., however, has advanced so much further than the primitive and brittle glass made accidentally as a byproduct of metalworking. Their products are so thin and flexible that they are able to be rolled up for shipping. Razor-thin willow glass can be shipped in rolls around the world for use in smartphones, televisions, and, one day, maybe even space shuttles.

As Ishak states, while plastic can become yellow and deteriorate, glass won't deteriorate. Furthermore, plastic is far more permeable than glass, meaning that a water can pass through a plastic screen on an electronic device in mere hours where it would take billions of years to pass through glass. So, it seems that Corning's creations really are breakthroughs in the field. A substance that is impermeable to water, can bend without breaking, doesn't deteriorate with age, and is crack and scratch-resistant seems almost too good to be true.

Lien's interview with Ishak provides us with a lot of information on their process while still keeping Corning's trade secrets. For the past few decades, the process involved superheating sand and other materials, then letting it slide down the side of a trough, allowing gravity to form the fused liquid into solid sheets of Willow Glass. Once the sheets are formed, a secret blend of chemicals are used to protect the glass against cracks and scratches. Recently, Corning came up with a method that involves using a roller to make the glass sheet even thinner than what gravity can do, enabling the glass to reach a minimum 0.05-millimeter thickness.

According to Ishak, however, 0.05 millimeter is by no means the thinnest they could make with future advancements in technology. The thinner they can make the glass, the more room there is for a bigger battery, which will extend usage time. Ishak dreams of the day in the not-so-distant future when the the technology inside the device catches up with the glass and allows designers to make smartphones that can fold or tablets that can be rolled up like a piece of paper. Ishak admits that this technology is not around yet, but is certain that when the electronics are ready, Corning Inc. will be on the team, bringing the world the newest technologies of the future. Even so, more durable and longer-lasting electronics are nothing to scoff at, and Corning certainly seems on its way to great things.

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Friday, October 23, 2015

Google to Offer New "YouTube Red" Subscription-Based System

Where YouTube once made all of its income through advertisement sales, the Google-owned company is planning to make a big change. Starting next week, YouTube will be providing an option for viewers to pay $9.99 per month to be a part of a service called YouTube Red. As described by Saba Hamedy and Paresh Dave, in their L.A. Times article, this service will not only remove advertisements from most videos, thereby enhancing the viewer's enjoyment, but will also provide the ability to download content and stream music from Google Play.

YouTube, which first opened in 2005, grew in popularity very quickly and as purchased by Google a year later. Since then, while videos on YouTube get millions of views per month, Google has found that the well-known site is not quite the money-maker it might have been expected to be. Analysts believe that this is because YouTube is free, in general. Artists, musicians, instructors, and entertainers can upload videos for free, and people around the world can watch, like, and comment those videos for free. Only videos with advertisements provide any sort of income to YouTube and the maker of the video.

Now, with YouTube Red, Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc., expects to make far more money from the site without increasing advertisements or drastically changing its currently free setup. Analysts YouTube Red has great potential to become hugely profitable, but only if YouTube finds a way to overcome competition by Facebook, Vimeo, and Snapchat, among several other competitors.

Furthermore, will it really be worth it to viewers? Is the removal of ads, even on top of the addition of all kinds of new content by such YouTubers as The Fine Bros, Lilly Singh, and Pewdiepie, really worth the $10 per month that it will cost. YouTube tends to be targeted more toward teenagers and younger Millennials, so that would also mean that subscription to YouTube Red would probably fall under the jurisdiction of viewers' parents, who may not be willing to spend money on that which used to be free.

Much of the new content will be produced by well-known YouTube stars, who, unlike so-called "traditional actors," tend to come up with the content in their own videos. Many such stars started out with comedy or singing shows, filmed in their bedroom, and since have accrued hundreds of thousands of subscribers. It is these individuals that YouTube Red is going to use to try to pique the interest of potential viewers.

Market research company EMarketer believes that the growth of YouTube's ad revenue will slow over the coming years, which would make now the perfect time for the company to move away from advertisements and toward other forms of income. Many wonder, however, how this new system will affect the YouTube stars, some of whom are making a comfortable living off of payments from advertising sponsors. Will they be willing to give up that security to be a part of this new project? Hamedy and Dave seem to conclude that with YouTube Red, the stars will have more opportunities to create newer and better content that previously would have been cost prohibitive. YouTube executives believe that the stars will see the project's potential and will happily sign on to be a part of this new system.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

Young Adults: Halloween's Growing Demographic

While Halloween was once considered to be mainly for children, statistics show that it has become a major consumer holiday, celebrated by plenty of Millenials and young adults. In fact, it is expected that this year, American will spend approximately $6.9 billion on Halloween and everything it entails. James Peltz, in his L.A. Times article, discusses how spending on such festivities has increased drastically over the years.

It is expected that over 157 million Americans will be participating in the festivities this year. Whether that includes purchasing candy to pass out to trick-or-treaters, or carving a pumpkin and wearing a costume, consumers will be spending a lot of money on their night of fun. The average price per consumer will be around $74, dramatically up from the $48 they spent a decade ago.

Spending, while high on Halloween, is still nowhere near the level during holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, etc. However, for some businesses like costume shops and amusement parks, Halloween provides a significant portion of their yearly revenue. Most of the pumpkins grown in California are used for Halloween, thereby providing a reliable source of income for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

Some costume stores like Party City and Spirit Halloween open specific stores only for the six weeks preceding the holiday, thereby getting the most bang for their buck. Even though Party City has year-round stores, Halloween is their biggest season, bringing in about 25% of their annual sales. Even "Knott's Scary Farm" and Six Flags' "Fright Fest" have been known to encompass 15% of the total number of visitors to each amusement park in a given year. American consumers spend over $2 billion in candy alone per year. Generally, Halloween has become very profitable for an array of different kinds of businesses.

Even while consumers reuse decorations and costumes purchased in past years, they can't avoid spending on perishable items like food, candy, and fresh pumpkins, Research has even found that as involvement in social media has grown, so too have holiday-related costs. People share costume ideas via Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, alerting friends to sales at certain stores. Even more so, young adults, especially Millennials, tend to participate as a group, purchasing matching costumes and attending themed parties, all of which can be shared around the world by social media.

Peltz sees that nationwide spending on the festivities has doubled in the past 10 years. He believes that it is quite likely due to the technological era in which we live. As new devices and new movies/television shows enter our world, we have so much more to use in the celebration. Sure, kids are still participating in the holiday, but Peltz shows that Millennials make up the largest proportion of participants, and he believes that this trend will continue to hold true for many years to come.

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Friday, October 9, 2015

Disney Prices Soar Due to High Demand

Back in 1955, when Disneyland first opened its gates, the one-day admission price for an adult was $3.50. After inflation adjustment, that price would be about $31 today. While that admission price included only 8 ride tickets, extra tickets could be purchased for 35 cents each. To put that in perspective, If a visitor to the park wanted to go on every single one of Disneyland's original 38 rides, it would have cost about $65 in today's money, a stark contrast to the current admission price of $99. In his article, Michael Hiltzik of the L.A. Times investigates some of the reasons why Disney's prices have so greatly outpaced inflation.

Most recently was an increase in the price of Disneyland's unrestricted annual pass, from $779 to $1049. This nearly 35% increase has even the most loyal customers accusing Disney executives of greed, especially since very few new attractions have been added to the park which might help make visitors consider the raised price worthwhile. According to Hiltzik, however, the decision to raise prices is probably not greed-based. Hiltzik believes that Disney's reasons are far more logistic than economical.

Even though Disney's average price of $99 for admission may seem high, especially when measured against the inflation rate, Disneyland still has thousands of visitors per day, from Southern California as well as the rest of the country and the world. Unfortunately, since Disneyland is a park on a limited plot of land, they have a maximum number of guests they can accept at any given time. Sometimes, especially during summer and the holiday season, when people have time off of work and school, Disney has had to close its gates and turn away potential customers simply because it was at maximum capacity.

Hiltzik thinks that this may be why Disney is continuously raising prices to seemingly outrageous levels. Since the $99 cost doesn't seem to be enough to reduce demand, Disney may be raising prices in the hope that people will have to save up money longer and therefore not come to the park as often. While it is not Disney's intention to force customers away, when the park can only house a certain number of people without causing a fire hazard, it needs to find some way to reduce the demand while still maintaining income.

This demand-controlling measure, while upsetting many customers, is not likely to reduce demand as much as some might think, says Hiltzik. While Southern Californians, one of Disneyland's target demographics, may reduce their visits, analysts expect that tourists and other visitors will still bring in enough for Disney to make the same amount of money, if not more, than before while also preventing overcrowding. It's a win-win situation for Disney and for those who can afford the higher prices. As the prices go up, the amusement park will have fewer people, thus enabling visitors to be able to go on more rides and see more attractions without waiting in long lines.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Grocery Chain Haggen's Bust May Have Little Effect on Competitors' Prices

Grocery chain Haggen Inc., which spent approximately $1.4 billion last year in a dramatic expansion along the West Coast, was forced to file for bankruptcy this month, undoing everything it had accomplished over the past several months. While Haggen believed that its buy-outs of several dozen Albertsons, Vons, and Safeway supermarkets would help the Northwest-based company grow, in Shan Li and Andrew Khoury's L.A. Times article, it is explained why their business plan may have been flawed from the start.

According to experts, Haggen's purchases were doomed to fail from the beginning. Not only was the cost of purchasing and converting 146 supermarkets of various brands remarkably high for the 18-store chain, but Haggen's prices were seen as too high for the quality of produce being provided. According to the founder of DJL Research, a research firm specifically for supermarkets, no one believed that Haggen had any chance of success with their large acquisition.

Analysts go on to claim that Haggen's prices were determined too much by the prices already in place at the purchased supermarkets. Instead of doing their own research, they chose prices similar to those of rivals like Albertsons or Safeway. Haggen is known for its higher quality meats, seafood, and organic produce, which would normally be reason enough to qualify higher prices than their competitors'. However, complaints from customers seemed to all point to less than fabulous service and produce of lower quality than advertised.

Perhaps the lack of proper business planning in the stores was due to the stresses Haggen experienced because of the buy-outs. Albertsons, one of the former owners of some of the stores, broke off their tenuous business relationship shortly after the purchase. Albertsons opened lawsuits against Haggen, stating that $41 million worth of inventory had not been paid for, and in response, Haggen sued Albertsons, claiming that the competitor was consistently working behind the scenes to push Haggen out of the market. Perhaps Haggen's legal struggles interfered with its ability to run its newly obtained markets properly, Now that Haggen plans to pull back and keep only its 37 stores in Washington and Oregon, its reputation for high-quality may one day be restored.

For the over 8,000 Haggen employees in California alone, the bankruptcy will hit hard, The Local 324 United Food and Commercial Workers Union is rightfully upset, especially after having filed recent grievances against Haggen for layoffs and reduced hours. For others in the community who do not work for Haggen, however, economic analysts and regular shoppers alike do not expect to be affected by the closures. Since there is enough competition going on in the community, between Ralphs, Wal-Mart, and other stores, they believe that prices will not likely rise significantly. Who knows? In the end, perhaps Haggen will earn enough money from the sale of the closed stores to get back on their feet in their Northwest home base.

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Rising Insurance Costs in High Fire-Risk Areas

When a home is purchased with a mortgage, using a loan from a bank, the bank will always require the homeowner to get insurance in order to make sure their investment is protected to some extent. Insurance, while a necessity, can be a costly addition to one's monthly or yearly bills. Since an insurance company wants to stay in business, it charges higher rates to provide insurance to individuals in high-risk areas: flood zones, fire zones, earthquake centers, etc, so that it will have the money to pay off claims involving fixing or rebuilding of affected properties. For people like John Stoffan in Samantha Masunaga's L.A. Times article, the costs of fire insurance in drought-parched California make the state almost too costly to bear.

The Stoffan family, whose Northern California home survived various wildfires around Yosemite National Park throughout the years, is finding that their insurance rates may actually be the reason they finally jump ship. The house itself, as well as the county in which it is situated, are considered to be "high-risk" for insurance companies. Even after having installed fire-resistant plants, developed "buffer zones" of areas without any plants surrounding the property, and created holding areas to keep thousands of gallons of water on hand, insurance companies have doubled rated in the past year.

The past four years of dry conditions have made things worse for those living near large forests. The combination of summer temperature and lack of water can turn a forest into a raging wildfire with the merest spark. Because of this risk, home-owners like the Stoffans, no matter how many preventative measures they take, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They need insurance to have a mortgage to own a home, yet the insurance rates are unaffordable and getting worse. What is their alternative?

While all are hoping for a good winter to break California's dry spell, many are considering moving out of the area altogether. Others have found more creative options to reduce their insurance costs. Some people, like Alpine's Mollie Jacques, have been able to find significant discounts by using insurance companies based in other cities. For Jacques, her choice to switch to an insurance company 100 miles from her home saves her over $700 per year. Some homeowners have even been refused insurance completely and have been forced to use the California Fair Plan Association to have some, albeit limited, coverage.

Communities are coming together in these fire-prone areas to try to make their homes and surrounding land as safe as possible. Since insurance companies determine rates through statistics involving fire department preparedness, water supplies, and availability of emergency communication. With the help of the California Fire Safe Council, a nonprofit organization, such communities are able to purchase wood chippers and other machinery to help clear dry brush and other flammable material. The more prepared a community becomes for a wildfire, the better rates insurance companies will provide. It comes down to economics. Insurance companies will charge a lot of money for taking on a huge financial risk. The more you lower that risk for the insurance company, the less money they will require you to pay.

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Friday, September 4, 2015

Drought Conditions Prevent Ability to Store Sustainable Energy

For companies like Southern California Edison, the drought is taking its toll on their sources of sustainable energy. When water stored in artificial lakes high in the mountains is released, it flows down to turn hydroelectric turbines and convert the water's kinetic energy into electrical energy for use by consumers. This system only works when the water is available for use. Because of the drought, water levels have dropped so far that the hydroelectric system has been put on hold for the time being. According to Ivan Penn, in his L.A. Times article, the hydroelectric power is not the only source of power being lost due to depleted water reserves.

Renewable resources are those that are considered to be constant in nature, that will always be available on Earth. Sunlight, wind, and water are some examples of such resources. You may ask, “Why is water considered 'renewable' if a drought can reduce the amount available?" This is due to the fact that, while a drought reduces the availability of water in specific parts of the world, the amount of water available throughout the entire world remains relatively constant. 

As more and more research comes out showing the negative effects that coal and fossil fuels have on the environment, as well as the rapidly diminishing supplies of such resources, both government agencies and private corporations search for a more sustainable alternative. Wind and solar energy seem to provide the greatest return on investment, to the extent that many homeowners have installed their own solar panels to harness the Sun's natural power for themselves. Unfortunately, power companies have yet to find a way to store excess energy. Just as blackouts and power reductions can be caused by too little power being produced, too much power can overload the power grid and damage everything connected to it.

Edison has a system that, in non-drought times, would be quite effective in storing excess energy for later use. when the water has flowed down the mountain and through th3e turbines, it ends up in another manmade lake. When their solar panels and wind turbines collect more energy than can be used by consumers, the excess energy is used rather than given away at negative prices. The energy is used to power pumps that bring the water back up the mountain and stored back in the starting lake. In this way, "energy" can be stored, though not in the classical sense.  Since energy can only be converted, not created or destroyed, the excess energy is converted from electrical to mechanical (pumps) to potential (water on top of the mountain). Then, when the energy is needed again, the water is released from the lake and the potential energy becomes kinetic, then electrical once again. 

At nighttime, stored energy is needed to make up for the fact that no solar energy is being collected. While Edison's energy storage system, of course, has loss associated with it, since all processes lose some energy as heat, it is better than the alternative in which excess energy is given away to competing companies in order to prevent overloading of the power grid. However, drought conditions have everyone at a loss. How else can the energy be stored in an economical, efficient, and environmentally-friendly manner?  

As Penn points out, it's not as if we can control Sun or wind on command. Renewable energy sources are great and have become more utilitarian and widely used in recent years, but it seems that the most effective use of researchers' time would be to find a better way to store the energy.  If renewable, sustainable energy can be stored and easily accessed, then there would be little reason to use fossil fuels and other degradative materials as energy sources. As such, solar, wind, and hydroelectric power are arguably the best and cheapest energy sources, but they can only live up to their true potential if scientists find an effective way to store the excess. 

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Devaluation of the Yuan Affects California's Economy

To shopping centers throughout the Southland, busloads of Chinese tourists are a necessary and regularly expected source of income. Especially in summer months, some places like the Beverly Center get an average of 70 such buses per month, full of tourists ready to spend. Shan Li, Samantha Masunaga, and Andrew Khouri wrote recently in their L.A. Times article about how recent devaluation of the Chinese yuan could have positive and negative effects on various California businesses.

Where 2.2 million Chinese tourists to the U.S. spent nearly $24 billion in 2014, 12.6% more than in 2013, many expect that such spending will likely slow down in the coming months. Up until recently, tourists found that their money would stretch much further on brand-name products in California than in China, but as the yuan loses value, that is beginning to change. Furthermore, even as a decrease in tourism hurts stores and shopping centers, it also affects sales on a larger scale. For certain luxury brands, like Coach, a decrease in sales to tourists leads to a decrease in earning, which causes stock prices to fall.

The current economic trifecta in China (slowing of the economy, devaluation of the currency, and a crackdown on political corruption) has led tourists to become more careful with their spending, according to Li, Masunaga, and Khouri. However, they point out that while the yuan loss in value hurts local retailers, it can actually be quite helpful for importers. For U.S. businesses that import Chinese products, the devaluation of the yuan means that the dollar stretches much further than it did before. Since importers will take advantage of this situation and increase purchasing, experts predict that California's ports will get plenty of use in the coming months. This will help to provide jobs for dockworkers, truck drivers, and warehouse workers.

Unfortunately for exporters, such positive outcomes are not likely. They are expected to suffer far more than local businesses due to the fact that import taxes in China can range as high as 20 to 30%.
Some tourists who come to the U.S. regularly anyway to visit family or send their children to summer camp may continue shopping in the U.S. for such luxury goods, but it wouldn't make economic sense for Chinese companies to continue importing American goods when the value of the yuan is so far outweighed by the value of the dollar. Costs would be much higher, especially on top of the exorbitant import taxes, and so it would be unlikely that American exporters would find business improving while the yuan's devaluation continues.

As Louis Glickman once said, "The best investment on Earth is earth." Analysts expect that as the yuan's value continues to plunge, Chinese investors will slow down the purchase of American products and focus on American real estate. Since the dollar remains relatively steady, many such investors will prefer to "park" their money in a building, rather than hold onto the quickly-devaluing cash. The increasing prevalence of property investment could help to dull the effects of the reduction in retail. However, economists warn that China's economy is connected to our own. If China's economy starts to fail, then that won't be good news for the U.S.

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Friday, August 7, 2015

Changes to FCC Regulations May Help Reduce Robocalls

The National Do Not Call Registry, run jointly by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, was designed to be a way for consumers to avoid sales calls. Unfortunately, due to new technologies, so-called telemarketers have found ways to go around As Jim Puzzanghera discusses in his L.A. Times article, most people dislike receiving annoying and commonly fraudulent phone calls on a daily basis, which is why the FCC has proposed new regulations that could help consumers only receive the calls that they want.

The agencies receive about 150,000 complaints per month about robocalls, but there's not much they can do about it. Once your number is on the Do Not Call Registry, telemarketers are, in theory, not allowed to call you. However, as witnessed by many on the list, these calls still come through. By using internet-based phone numbers or routing calls through other countries, telemarketers are able to circumvent the law and contact those on the Do Not Call list. Until recently, consumers had to tell callers, in writing, that they no longer wish to receive sales calls. Under the new regulations, the calls can be stopped by asking the telemarketer "in any reasonable way at any time" to stop.

In addition to making it easier for consumers to stop sales calls on their end, the FCC's changed regulations will allow and encourage telephone providers to offer robocall-blocking tools to their customers. While robocalls can be annoying to those receiving them, they can also be costly. Some calls and texts rack up charges on a monthly phone bill. Many times, phone providers keep a significant portion of the fees charged by such third-party message services, a practice that has led companies like Verizon and Sprint to court in recent months. If the calls and texts were blocked in the first place, such charges would not be an issue.

Under the new rules, even if a company had previously received written permission from the owner of a phone number to make sales calls, the robocaller has to stop immediately once they find out that the phone number has changed ownership. In this way, the new owner will not have to be bothered by calls that were authorized by a previous owner. The new rules, however, apply to certain companies and not to others. For example, computerized calls from banks or hospitals are allowed if they are designed to help the consumer. Calls about possible fraudulent activity on a credit card or about medication refills are not considered"robocalls" in the classical sense by the FCC.

While law enforcement is working toward catching illegal telemarketers and putting a stop to some of the sales calls. the FCC believe that the most sensible way to stop the calls is directly at the source. If phone providers were to offer to their customers the variety of new services available to block such calls, consumers could at least avoid calls from the most notorious telemarketers. Some lawmakers worry that the new regulations could be harmful in that they prevent surveys and demographics studies from being performed on the general public. On the other hand, many consumers find survey-takers to be just as annoying as telemarketers. Altogether, these regulations could be a way to give consumers what they want. Stopping illegal calls and making consumers happy are the top responsibilities of the National Do Not Call Registry, and these new laws may help them fulfill their purpose.

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Friday, July 31, 2015

How to Build, Maintain, and Repair Credit

Credit is a necessity in this day and age. Without a good credit score, it can be almost impossible to get a loan, buy a car, or purchase a house.  But what can you do if you have little to no credit? How can you get started? Well, according to David Lazarus, in his L.A. Times article, stepping into the world of credit scores and debt payments may not be as difficult as it seems.

Lazarus' sources show that over half of all American consumers have subprime credit scores. 26 million consumers have no data on file with credit companies and 19 million have information that is so outdated that it is almost useless by lenders. These Americans are unlikely to get a loan at all, and if offered, the rate on the loan will be much higher than those provided to others with better records. Lazarus focuses on two main problems: an inability to begin establishing credit and difficulty improving a low score.

There are a few types of loans that are designed to help new borrowers to start to build credit. A credit score is based on borrowing money and paying it back. So, the easiest way to establish credit is by getting a credit card from a store or a bank and using it. The key to the card is to use, not overuse. Build credit by having a balance on the credit card and paying off the balance on time each month. In this way, a lender can see that their money is in good hands. In general, when a lender gives you money, it is because you have a history of on-time payments. In fact, some credit reporting companies such as Experian and Equifax consider monthly rent payments in calculating a credit score.

After you have shown that you can handle a credit card, other loan options, such as "credit builder loans" are available, Such loans, which tend to be less than $1,000, are offered by credit unions as another path by which borrowers can show that they can be trusted. This type of loan is very interesting in that it is based specifically around building credit, rather than providing a borrower with needed money. With a credit builder loan, a designated amount of money is locked in a savings account by the lender. When the last payment has come in from the borrower, the money is released. While it would be just as easy for someone to save up their money by putting a designated amount aside each month, this "loan" allows a saver to build their credit score in the process.

As for those who have already borrowed more money than they can pay back, Lazarus assures them that all is not lost. However, do not let it get so bad that debt collectors come calling. Once the collectors show up, a mark on your file appears that will stay for up to 7 years, affecting your credit score and ability to get a loan. To avoid collection agencies, you can try working out a payment plan with your lender. Contact your creditor immediately if you think you will be behind on your payments.

If your score has already taken a hit, recovering can be difficult, but not impossible. Lazarus suggests that the first step is to get a copy of your credit report and begin paying off outstanding debts. As you pay off more debts, potential lenders tend to trust you more and more. After 7 years, the black mark on your record will disappear, which will bring your score up, but what can you do in the meantime? The best thing you can do, according to Lazarus, is just get your finances in order and avoid accruing more debts. Other than that, he assures those with bad credit that with enough time and good financial planning, things will get better.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Foreign Purchases of Some American Businesses Face Government Examination

7/20/15 - The Committee on Foreign Investment, an agency through the United States Treasury Department, is responsible for deciding whether to approve or deny any attempted purchase of an American company by a company based in another country. Some such buy-outs are simple and easily approved. Others, like the purchase of Micron Technology Inc., as discussed by James F. Peltz, in his L.A. Times article, require much more discussion and consideration.

The Committee on Foreign Investment only tends to take issue with purchases when they may affect national security. For example, in 2005, a major Chinese oil company called CNOOC Ltd. made an offer of $18.5 billion to purchase Unocal Corp., a California-based oil company. Politicians took issue with this proposed buy-out because they feared that foreign ownership of the American oil provider could possibly cause major problems for the future of American energy security. Eventually, due to complaints and protests regarding the deal, CNOOC Ltd. decided to retract its offer.

More recently, another Chinese company, Tsinghua Unigroup Ltd., has reportedly been preparing a $23 billion offer for the purchase of Micron Technology Inc., a major manufacturer of dynamic random-access memory chips. While Micron claims that no offer has been received yet, Peltz’s sources believe that the deal may not go through anyway, even without interference from the Committee on Foreign Investment. Micron’s stock prices in December were at $36 per share, and while those prices have dropped throughout the year, analysts still believe that the expected offer of $21 per share will not be enough to convince Micron to sell.

Were such an offer proposed by Tsinghua Unigroup and accepted by Micron, it is unlikely that the sale would be approved without a struggle. The Committee on Foreign Investment would have to come up with some pretty compelling reasons to grant approval for a state-owned Chinese country to gain control of one of the only major American producers of memory chips, found in so many devices from smartphones to personal computers. Memory chips are everywhere, in the public sector and in the government, and the change in ownership could pose a security risk, especially after the large number of recent cyber-attacks that have been traced back to China.

Having spent over $200 billion, last year alone, on importing integrated circuits, China, like other Asian countries, wants to become more independent and work on developing its own network of memory chip production, rather than continuing to purchase from America and other countries. Unfortunately for them, they will probably not achieve this goal through a purchase of Micron. Between the Department of Defense’s responsibility to protect national security and Micron’s high stock prices, it is more than likely that this Micron deal will end the same way as Unocal Corp.’s did.

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Developments in Desalination Technology Have Huge Benefits for California

6/5/15 - With the water shortage in California reaching frightening levels, private companies and governmental entities alike are searching for a solution. Desalination, while not a complete solution to the problem, may help to lessen the effects of the drought and provide more fresh water for public consumption. Through a process called reverse osmosis, desalination plants remove salt and other impurities from ocean water, thereby converting it to freshwater. Tony Perry’s article in the L.A. Times looks into the pros and cons of desalination on the environment and the economy.

San Diego County, referred to as “the Silicon Valley of desalination,” is a major hub of water reuse as well as the birthplace of commercial reverse osmosis. Over 3,000 workers are employed by dozens of companies to construct the membranes required for the desalination process. For the members of the International Desalination Association World Congress, a large point of interest in San Diego County is a $1 billion desalination plant currently being constructed in Carlsbad. This plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, is being designed with help from Israeli experts in the field, who plan to remain involved with the plant after it has been completed.

San Diego County officials hope that an upcoming tour of the Carlsbad plant by the International Desalination Association will help to dispel some of the concerns raised by critics of desalination. Environmentalists fear the damage that desalination can cause to the oceans and surrounding ecosystems. The water intake systems can kill fish, and the highly concentrated brine left over after the removal of fresh water from the seawater can cause pollution. However, Poseidon Water, the company in charge of building the plant, claims that they have a way of reducing fish kills and have a plan to dilute brine before disposal, thereby reducing environmental issues.

Energy efficiency can be a big problem for many desalination plants. The entire process requires a large amount of energy to pump water, perform the reverse osmosis, and purify the liquid. The Carlsbad plant is being built at the Encina Power Station and, by using the same water intake system, energy usage can be reduced significantly. Many newly developed technologies are helping desalination plants to become more efficient and even helping reduce costs. Although the cost of water from the plant will be higher (prices are expected to rise on average by $5 per month), San Diego officials still feel that the trade-off is worth it, since this water will be unaffected by droughts throughout the rest of the state.

The San Diego County Water Authority has already promised to buy the Carlsbad plant’s water for the next 30 years, with a goal of having desalination provide over 7% of total water consumed within the next 5 years. Other desalination plants have been proposed, but between lawsuits and getting permits from the federal government, it is not likely that such plans will reach fruition anytime soon. While desalination plants have some environmental and economic drawbacks, Perry concludes that they pose the greatest chance for California to regain control over its water supplies. After all, the Pacific Ocean is a source of water that has little risk of running out.  

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