It’s impossible not to be moved by the horrible events in Haiti. And it gives us a lot to think about in terms of sustainability.
And in Haiti, the complete lack of sustainability shows wherever you look right now. The obvious lack of building codes contributed to many deaths, insufficient airport and port construction work is delaying rescue and the health care system was marginal to begin with.
Which is not to blame the Haitians. Their situation was brought about by ages of poverty caused by exploitation by richer nations. But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn from this incident.
One of the biggest lessons is going to be about how to help poorer countries over the long term and to be more more proactive.
Partners in Health has a long history in Haiti and has learned that it’s more effective to be an aid organization that integrates closely with the community and works with existing structures to build lasting success. Good article here. I made my donation today. You can donate here.
And, of course, my favorite part is that they’re building solar-powered rural hospitals, which of course means they’re able to operate off the shaky power grid.
Which is one of the lessons we can bring home to the U.S. Hospitals here are required to have backup generators on-site to help them get through power outages. However, these are fossil fuel-based generators (usually diesel). If we face a fuel interuption AND a major disaster, the hospital could be out of commission relatively quickly. A solar power deployment on hospital roofs could greatly extend the hospital’s usefullness during a disaster (and maybe even save some money by generating power in the meantime).
And just another thought on how we deliver aid to poorer countries. Just as it’s cheaper to go to the doctor before you need to head to the emergency room, it’s cheaper for richer countries to invest in vital infrastructure over time and in smaller amounts than delivering buckets of expensive relief aid after these incidents. This rescue effort could have been much more efficient and less expensive had the airport, port and electrical system been supported better over the years. Something to think about for other vulnerable countries.
There are many other lessons and ideas coming out of this terrible tragedy. But for now, help where you can.
I get questions:
Nick, what are your thoughts on this article in the NYT about the downside of electric vehicles? I thought that they more than a 40mpg range. We’re gonna have to develop cars that don’t need gas at all:
It’s a great question. As I mentioned in the past:
I see plug-in hybrids as a critical transitional component of the move toward sustainability because they offer the trust of being able to reliably cover some distance with the sustainability of electricity.
In other words, the gas-assist engine isn’t as much a range-extender as much as it is a confidence-extender. Getting stranded alongside the road is probably one of the greatest American fears specific to our culture. I believe that fear has by far been the biggest support the foreign car manufacturers ever had. American companies continued to turn out low-quality, unreliable crap while Americans increasingly turned to Hondas and Toyotas. So it’s not a fear to be taken lightly and it’s pure genius of Chevy to go with a small engine that simply recharges the batteries. (Traditional hybrids combine electric and gas engines for power.)
So this gas-assist concept is designed to create trust in the vehicle so you might consider buying it.
However, the real crux of your question relates to what you described as the “40mpg range”. And this is a common point of confusion.
Note the details from the NYT article:
G.M. engineers say that a fully charged Volt is capable of 40 miles of purely electric driving before the computer calls for the generator, which has an output of 53 kilowatts (about 71 horsepower), to start and sustain the battery’s minimum charge level — the “extended range” operating mode.
In other words, it can run for 40 miles on the battery, then the gas is used to recharge the batteries (while you’re driving). That’s different than mpg or miles per gallon. I’m not sure what they’re saying the total range of the car would be and a cursory search around the Internets didn’t turn up anything. In other words if you filled up the gas tank and took off down the road until it died, how many miles could you go? Not clear.
But maybe it’s somewhat irrelevant. It’s being sold as a commuter car and that should allow it to get most of us to work and back home every day and possible even some trips to the store before you’d need to plug in. That means the gas engine might never kick on for many of us.
Right now the main agenda for the U.S. is to build out an infrastructure that can support the Volt and cars like it. My commute is less than 10 miles. I could actually get by with a full electric car if there were currently some reasonable choices, something I’ll post about soon. Supporting electrics with plug-in stations along the highway, at work and along city streets will be desperately needed. If the Volt can help us reach the critical mass needed to force the building of that infrastructure then bring it on. Then, eventually, we may not need gas at all.
Lately here in Seattle there has been a lot of discussion about transportation issues and solutions. A lot of them surround a big transportation tunnel issue, which I hope to post on very soon.
All of this discussion got me to thinking about the right solutions for some of Seattle’s own issues. And, interestingly, it seems like so often in our cities, the most commonly used, cheapest, cleanest and healthiest system is forgotten: walking. In Tokyo, famous for squishing people into cramped trains at rush hour, walking is one of the best ways to get around.
Before I get to that, though, here’s how I think about transportation issu es. Basically there are four levels:
- Movement of very long distances: Cross-country or between countries. In the U.S. this basically means flying. There is a car and a train option if you have a few daysto kill, but generally if West coasters feel the need to visit the East coast, they’re buying expensive plane tickets.
- Then there are mid-range distances. I define these as distances you could drive, but would rather not if you had another choice. To me, that’s generally anything over three hours, but it’s a line everyone chooses for themselves.
- Next you need ways to move across cities. Typically that’s going to be a subway or light rail system of some sort. Until recently, Seattle was strictly a bus or car city, which means a lot of people drive very short distances. Our light rail system opened this summer but until it expands, we’re still pretty reliant upon either cars or buses here.
- Finally we have very short distance movement, or simply walkable distances. And, again in Seattle people tend to use cars for distances that could be walked. There are probably many reasons for this, but a few would include the weather (often wet) and it’s quite hilly here in places. It can also be rather slow as we wait at large intersections for cars to pass (in the rain). And goodness knows, a Seattlite would NEVER DARE cross an intersection when the red hand is showing.
It’s not hard to apply sustainability principles to these various levels and realize that a healthy, efficient transportation system would include high-speed rail between cities (like Japan’s). This covers your long-range and mid-range distances as the collection of mid-range jumps would take you very long distances. Then, in cities, you must have a fast, clean transit system to move people from one side of the metropolitan area to the other. Finally around each stop, you need an easy way to move people around that small vicinity. And walking is the best way to accomplish that.
Of course, there is a possible gap between the subway stops and distances that could reasonably walked (it can be pretty hard to get a subway or light rail to go everywhere you need it to). That’s the role of buses (hopefully electric) in my opinion: Relatively short, simple runs, fleshing out some of the gaps to give everyone good access to each area of the city.
The pictures above are meant to help illustrate what I think is a great vision for cities supporting a walkable environment. These are all from Tokyo and show an innovative way to look at moving about the urban environment.
One of the things I really liked about this approach was that it took the sting out of some of the hills. Often rises that grew over a long horizontal distance were crossed in a series of platforms so over some distance you wouldn’t realize how much you’d climbed. In other areas, gentle slopes let you stroll along naturally as you went up some height. There were also some escalators and elevators that helped you along and often these were inside buildings and they seemed to use the escalator as the draw to get people near shops. Sort of the walking equivalent of putting your sandwich cart near the train station.
Now certainly there are plenty of typical cement city sidewalks in Tokyo. What’s interesting is how it’s all integrated together. So you might see a sidewalk continue down a street, with an option to go up stairs. The stairs could take you another direction or to a path that meets with a train station. Or that meets with another sidewalk network. It sometimes made it easy to get lost, but of course locals were loving it.
Often these walkways were like small parks. They would be very nicely landscaped and extremely pleasant areas to walk along. Lots of benches and at lunch time in business districts you’d see many folks outdoors enjoying the fresh air.
It was interesting to me how they integrated the sidewalks with the buildings. They’d wrap around buildings, dropping up and down to meet various entrances with lots of stairs down to the ground. You could walk along a level sidewalk as the ground drops away below you. You would then enter buildings at a relatively high floor. Take an elevator down or up to another area. Simple concept, very well executed.
My favorite part was that these elevated sidewalks didn’t stop for cars. Raised high above traffic, it made a huge difference how quickly you could cover long distances. Here in the U.S. we will typically build pedestrian bridges over busy streets or intersections. There’s a big one near the Rainier and MLK intersection, which locals will recognize. But I would say that well-intentioned pedestrian bridge is a failure because it’s still a nightmare of people running across the street. Taking the bridge is not done because it’s a lot of stairs and will definitely take longer.
Now the big negatives of these elevated walkways are probably the costs and the issues of integrating with existing buildings. On the other hand, retail business would welcome the extra foot traffic and the costs are obviously going to be much less than any transit system involving moving parts, such as a train or bus. So not only should we not compare the costs to those systems, there may be some savings by eliminating some other transit costs.
Final thought: It’s rainy here in Seattle, which discourages walking. But what if our version of this approach included a cover along the edges to keep you out of the rain? And, and while we’re at it, how about we throw some solar panels up there? Seems doable to me. When can we start?
Here at Moving Like Water, we’re always hot to jump on something that’s new and different. Which is why I’ve been sitting on this from ecogeek for a few weeks now.
The company, Unimodal, is claiming to be developing a new transportation system that is very low cost, better for the environment (runs on electricity, obviously) and maintains the freedom of the car by eliminating fixed routes.
Now I don’t know how realistic their vision is or how advanced the development is, but I know if I was a shark on Shark Tank, I’d be asking “Do you have any sales??”. Because it’s an interesting idea, but it’s hard to imaging a municipality springing for such an untested concept. And while it may be admittedly cheaper per mile than, say, light rail, it would also demand a much larger footprint to fulfill their key benefit: not being tied to a specific route. In order to get where you need to go, SkyTran would need to have a full city map of possible destinations pretty much at the outset. Otherwise, you have an expensive amusement park ride. Which means, I think, that you could have higher start-up costs than traditional rail by needing more miles for a first phase. But I suppose the counter argument to that is that with the same money, you’d serve more area so it may be worth discussing. (Or maybe I’m just cynical due to Seattle’s history of being suckered by monorail system proposals in the past.)
Now one of the reasons I love trains is the same reason my Republican friends hate them: they work as equalizers in society. In countries that rely on transit, you’ll see wealthy businessmen in suits sitting next to boot-wearing laborers, teenagers with headphones and everyone in between. It becomes impossible to pretend that people who aren’t like you don’t exist and it becomes crucial to think in terms of our common interests instead of your personal self-interest. For example, the fantasy that you’re not affected by your neighbors without health insurance becomes impossible when someone coughs next to you on a train. A healthier society is much more immediately tied to a healthier you. It’s easier to pretend to be unaffected by others when you’re sitting high in your SUV above a homeless person at an offramp.
Unfortunately the SkyTran concept retains the separate pod concept of today’s cars, where we don’t need to interact with others and we can speed along ignoring those around us.
Additionally I’m not totally sold on the argument that systems such as this are cheaper. I once had an argument with someone who claimed you could simply run electric trolley buses on a separated (paved) track and not bother with building the full systems required by rail. And it’s not a completely dumb idea. In a way, it’s taking the best part of trains (largely separating them from traffic) and the best part of buses (supposedly cheap) and rolling it out across the system. But personally I think it depends what time horizon you’re looking at. Buses would be cheaper if you talked about a one-year horizon, but would be vastly more expensive if you talked about 100 years. But maybe SkyTran has a chance of making their affordability argument. When even proponents are stuck in the mindset that buses are cheaper, they might be able to convince some leaders this is the way to go.
That’s why I’m sticking with the tried and true concept of integrated train systems. Seattle, where I live, is finally getting its act together on effective transit systems. It’s not the heavy rail system I’d like to see, such as San Francisco’s BART system, but it’ll do. Experienced transit users know changing trains is not that difficult and can be a very efficient method of getting across a city. The trick is having the political will to build the transit systems we’ll need for the future. And if there were a system like SkyTran here, I’d love riding it, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to be built. I’ll be watching it closely, but I don’t think I’ll be investing my money just yet.
Here in Seattle we have a healthy obsession with waste management. We’re nuts about recycling. The simple act of putting an aluminum can in the regular garbage will pretty much make a Seattlite break out in hives.
But some say this fetish may have gone a little too far with the August ballot measure on whether a fee should be charged for each new disposable bag used when purchasing groceries.
Now I haven’t decided how I’m going to vote on this one so you can truly call me neutral right now. On one hand I hate just about everything made of plastic and certainly have no love for plastic grocery bags. On the other hand, the implementation of this rule is pretty dumb. First of all, it’s a fee, not a true tax, so essentially it’s the government telling stores to charge more and then they can keep (some of) the money. I find this approach odd because we’re ALREADY paying for the cost of the bags when we buy food. If you need proof, just note that some stores already give you a discount for bringing your own bag.
I’d feel a lot more comfortable with a straight-up tax that is then used to support effective environmental measures in the city. Instead this fee feels like too much of a buy-off to the grocery stores. And while it may lower the number of bags used in the city, it’s really not going to make much of an impact on climate change. And really, at this point, if you’re not targeting climate change you’re just wasting everyone’s time. Is the bag fee REALLY going to move the needle on climate change or is this about politics and looking “green”? It’s about focus and prioritization.
And that’s why I’m torn. More than likely I’ll probably vote for the measure because I suppose it gets us a little bit closer to where we need to be. But, wow, what else could we be doing instead?
I decided to take a quick stab at some things I think the city could do that would have more impact on CO2 emissions than the bag fee and involve about the same scope as this fee. Here’s my top 5.
1. Modernize the city building codes to address climate change.
Codes across the country have been gradually tightening with respect to energy efficiency but there is opportunity here for Seattle to become a leader. And way too much emphasis is being put on LEED designs where things like recycled tile are allowed to make up for energy usage weaknesses. (Yes, it’s getting better, but it’s not there yet. I have some friends that work in a new state-of-the-art LEED building in Bellevue and they think it’s ridiculous their company can brag about its “green” status because of it’s recycled material usage while there are fans and swamp coolers running in nearly every cubicle.) We should encourage new office buildings to produce as much of their own energy as possible. For new homes, we should at least require they be ready to be add solar/wind to the mix by including wiring for inverters. Let’s require sloped roofs to be oriented to take maximum advantage of solar in the future. You could write books just on this topic, but you get the idea.
2. Ban leaf blowers.
It isn’t just the noise, although that is completely aggravating. They blow around spores, dust and germs, all while spitting out CO2 through the two-stroke exhaust. Read more. Yes, cleaning up leaves and cut grass may take a little longer with this crazy invention called a RAKE, but we are trying to LIVE here! As an added benefit, I’m pretty sure a good portion of my spring allergies are caused by these stupid devices so the sooner they’re banned the better. And we wouldn’t be the first.
3. Separate street garbage.
Yes, we’re totally anal about our home recycling, but Seattle’s downtown city garbage cans are still just one-stop cans. (The ones near my work at least.) If you visit Canada (I thinking of my last visit to Toronto), you’ll see some of the most complex garbage cans in the world, helpfully indicating where to put each type of garbage. But wait, you say, weren’t you just saying this waste management obsession was a misplaced focus? You’re right, but in this case, basic recycling would (I think) save the city quite a bit of processing time and fuel, so in the case of public garbage catching it up to home sorting standards would probably save quite a bit of carbon.
4. Tax bottled water.
OK so you want to attack a big source of plastic and actually have an impact? Let’s fish where the fish are — the water. I have no idea how much bottled water we’re consuming here, but I know it’s a lot. Everything from producing the bottles, trucking it in, driving it home in the trunk and disposing of the bottle has a cost — in dollars and carbon footprint. And that pile of empty water bottles filling our recycle bins is also a potentially big revenue driver for the city. And, unlike the bag fee, it has no impact on lower income residents, unless they’re buying bottled water, and please tell me they’re not. And it’s been done before. Shall we start with 10 cents? And even if that takes awhile, hopefully no city money is going toward buying bottled water for staff.
5. Lower the overhead.
So as we get ready to enter a clean energy century, we have to do some prep-work to get ready. Given that we’re in a very rough job market, I think spending some money on this preparation will never make more sense than right now. And before everyone jumps on my ass for noting that we’re already trying to figure out what services to cut, perhaps this is what we can spend all our bottled water tax revenue on.
Above I mentioned updating our building codes. But that only affects new construction and possibly major remodels. We need to get our older housing (and commmercial buildings) ready for modern energy. Now we can certainly spend a lot of money to generate a lot of power and not worry about it. But until energy generation gets MUCH cheaper, it’ll be much more cost-effective to lower the consumption of energy of each structure and then build out the production side to match. That means windows and that means insulation. It will mean converting oil and natural gas to electric heat. Yes, even natural gas.
So let’s prioritize. If we could come up with a sizable chunk of money, where would be the best place to spend it? The answer is we don’t know until we audit. Fortunately the data should be readily available via our utilities. I suspect through a very basic exercise of applying the home square footage against energy usage, we can target the homes most in need of upgrades. (It’s probably the same way the man tracks down grow rooms.) I believe that the old 80/20 rule applies in most cases and I think we can probably find and tighten up the worst homes within five years and have a massive impact.
Personally I believe if you did nothing but tax bottled water and turn those funds directly into home energy improvements, you’d have a measurable impact on climate change and position the city to take advantage of clean energy expansion in the future.
Well, right on the heels of the ultra-coolÂ Tesla Model S announcement the other day comes word that Detroit Electric had made a strategic partnership to mass produce full electric cars. The very plain-looking sedan may look boring, but according to the spec sheet, it does 0-60 in 8 seconds and boasts a top speed of 112 mph.
The battery pack will come in two options: a short-range and longer range. The short range should get you about 112 miles (which you could do in one hour at top speed – heh!) . The long range version can make it nearly 200 miles on a charge.
The price is much more reasonable than the $50,000 Tesla. It’ll start at $23,000, which is a price for a product launch. Launch is planned for early 2010 in Europe, with the U.S. market hopefully to follow very soon after. 2010 may indeed be the Year of the Electric Car.
Sounds sweet, right? So what’s the downside? Just this: Don’t be fooled by the name. This isn’t an American company (although it does have a long and storied American history) and the cars won’t be built here. So. Incredibly. Frustrating. Still, that’s no reason to boycott since it puts it in the same boat as just about every other car right now, but it sure feels like a big lost opportunity.
I’ve long been struggling with my light bulbs. And the bulbs have been winning. I think it’s critical we get off standard incandescent bulbs, yet widely available alternative of CFLs leaves me cold. And yellow. I’ve hated the weird color they give off and the delay when switching them on. Plus in my old house (I just moved) the CFLs would last half the time of my standard bulbs (admittedly could be related to the older wiring in that house or the quality of the brand I’d purchased). And they contain loads of poisonous mercury.
Now I have to admit, CFLs have been making big strides lately and I’ve been swapping out standard bulbs in the new house with CFLs. I’m experimenting with whether I can put a 75-Watt level CFL into an fixture labeled as maximum 60 watt. My theory is that the CFLs burn cooler and therefore are not a fire hazard. Plus Mr. Tight-Watt agrees!
I tried it recently in a three-bulb fixture, being careful to purchase “instant-on” bulbs with an Energy Star label. These were manufactured by GE. A little more money, but sooo worth it! I’d say the light from these new bulbs is just as good in terms of quality as incandescent and the instant-on feature neutralizes one of the most annoying things about florescent lighting.
So I’m actually pretty happy with light bulb situation when, what’s this? An LED bulb is finally hitting the market that is as bright as a 60-Watt bulb. And only consumes 8 Watts? Yes, the Geobulb is now for sale.
Given that the bulb retails for $115, it’s being marketed as a long-lasting (10 years) replacement bulb for hard-to-reach areas. While I may buy one as an experiment, it obviously makes no sense to buy a bulb at that price. But it’s one to watch and a sign that our path to a clean energy future may be closer than we think!
Oh, and since we all need to get a lot smarter in buying bulbs instead of buying for fire safety (max 60 Watt, etc.) we need to start buying in Lumens. The Energy Star Web site has a handy table for comparing different products on a Lumen basis.
|Energy Use for
Light Bulbs (Watts)
|Energy Use for
common ENERGY STAR
qualified CFLs (Watts)
|25||250||4 to 9|
|40||450||9 to 13|
|60||800||13 to 15|
|75||1,100||18 to 25|
|100||1,600||23 to 30|
|125||2,000||28 to 40|
|150||2,600||30 to 52|
I’ve been beyond busy lately which has naturally affected my blogging frequency. But this just couldn’t wait: The Tesla Model S pictures and specs are out. And it’s sweet. Oh, so sweet. I must have one.
For those of you who haven’t been waiting anxiously for the Tesla sedan to be announced, here are the basics:
- 100% electric
- 300 mile range
- 0-60 in 5.6 seconds
- Seats 7 (this I have to see)
- Plug into any normal outlet
- Looks sweet
Drool, drool, drool.
Regular readers know I believe that a fully electric car is a key building block to a sustainable society and, particularly, to solving the global warming catastrophe. We have an existing road infrastructure that’s not going away any time soon and a generally car-dependent lifestyle. I’d love and prefer to see a move to mass transit but it’s just not realistic in the near-term. With a 300 mile range, the Tesla Model S could become the commuter car of choice. The range will give you the confidence to drive it to work or on a short trip without worry. Drive to work, drive home and plug in for the night. Now if I could just pop a windmill on the roof to provide the free power, I’d have my freedom, baby!
I’d be remiss to not point out the bad news: $50,000 price tag (yikes!) and not available until 2011. Oh well, gives me some time to save up.