So why can’t I go out and buy an electric car today?
The truth is I can. Kind of. Recently I promised to write about the lack of reasonable choices for full electric solutions. It’s time.
First the good news. There is more and more news about electrics hitting American streets, including the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. The bad news? These cars always seem just out of reach or ridiculously expensive. We’ll see in a year or two if we have some real choices.
In the meantime, we occasionally get to see an electric car in a parking lot and we all walk up to it and marvel. But if you’re like me and don’t have a lot of friends with Teslas, most of the electric cars you’ve seen up close are glorified golf carts such as the GEM.
Why is this? Because without proper safety equipment, the law limited many of these Neighborhood Electric Vehicles to roads with posted limits of 35 mph or less and the speeds limited to 25 mph. Weak! There is a Medium Speed Vehicle classification as well and many NEVs can be modified to go 35 mph. But the crux of the issue remains the same. Electrics are at a power disadvantage compared to internal combustion-based cars and thus have a harder time pushing the weight of all that safety equipment around. This might be the second greatest irony of Ralph Nader’s life.
Now don’t get me wrong. This safety equipment has been a positive development. It’s probably saved my own life and lives of many people I know. And no wants to scrape brains off car batteries, so of course safety laws make sense.
But we already have various classifications of vehicles. For example, motorcycles are already allowed on public roadways, including highways. No one would argue that they’re safer than a large SUV in a collision. People accept the risk and the law requires the minimum safety equipment such as helmets and headlights. Should people who want to drive electric cars should be allowed to accept some larger amount of risk in exchange for some loosening of safety requirements? Or should larger vehicles pay more in taxes and in insurance rates since they’re doing more damage?
I’m not sure what the solution is, but it’s obvious that we’re in a vicious circle right now where vehicles continue to get larger and heavier to defend themselves from other large, heavy vehicles. Would we even need, for example, side impact air bags if cars had evolved to be smaller and lighter in stead of bigger and heavier? As bumpers get heavier, more padding and beefier car frames go up in defense. At some point this has to stop.
That’s why this news today came as a welcome development:
TACOMA, Wash. – Two Washington legislators are looking to move golf carts from fairways to roadways. A bill by Rep. Tami Green of Lakewood would let people drive golf carts in bike lanes and on sidewalks throughout the state.
I’m not sure about the sidewalks part, but this is the future. I can easily envision cart paths separated from normal roadways for longer distances and allowed anywhere cars are allowed on roads of 25 mph or less. Recently on a trip to Catalina Island, I tooled around in a golf cart, mingling with traffic just fine. (OK, a little scary at first, but it was fine once you get used to it.)
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it’s clear to me that the dynamic we’ve been operating under for decades needs to shift. My job is a relatively short 9 miles from my house. I drive to work since I sometimes need to drive during the day, although I carpool, which definitely helps keep the carbon down. But it just feels silly to haul all this metal around everywhere I go. So it’s not going to be enough to simply replace gas engines with electric motors. Cities need to adapt now to face a gas-free future. Those that don’t face up to this procrastinate at their peril.
When we talk about using “green jobs” to leverage our way out of our hollow economy, this is what we’re talking about.
An idle 320-acre Ford Motor Co. plant, which during its 52 years of operation assembled 6.6 million Lincoln Continentals, Ford Thunderbirds and other vehicles before halting operations two years ago, is getting reincarnated as a renewable energy equipment manufacturing park.
How cool is that? And if you’re even remotely aware of the extent of Detroit’s decay then you’ll be delighted at this news.
From the Earth2Tech article, it sounds like it’ll be more than just a straightforward plant, leasing some of the space to other companies and will have a training center, presumably to gear up the workforce for this new industry. And worth noting that the deal was dependent upon government involvement (ie, money), all of which I’m sure will come back to it in tax revenues as their devastated economy kicks into gear again.
Nice job, all around!
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.
Throughout the presidential election campaign, we endured endless ads from two unusual sources. One was the endless loop of “Pickens Plan” ads and other other was the heavy rotation of nonsensical “We” ads.
If you’ve been near a TV at all during the last few months, you’ve seen both of these ads. In some ways the similarities are more telling than the differences with these ads. Both are focused on sustainability in their own way, both claim to be demanding renewable energy and both at least seem to be aimed at moving opinion leaders toward their approach.
But what are these plans and organizations all about? You certainly can’t tell from these 30 second ads. I decided to take a look.
The We campaign is being run by the WeCanSolveIt.org group, founded by Al Gore (full disclosure: big Al Gore fan here and I joined the group when it was first organized). The We group’s goal is to get the U.S. to 100% clean electricity in 10 years. The goal is so aggressive that you could be forgiven for assuming that their position is nothing more than a clever use of the Overton window. I, however, think it is an attainable goal. And, like Al Gore would probably say, it’s a goal that we can’t afford to miss. Sadly it is an expensive goal as well; although we could certainly use some infrastructure spending in America to kick-start our economy.
I’m excited about We because it puts our focus where it should be: moving to electricity for energy wherever possible and creating that energy with clean, renewable sources. And for those of you who are regular readers will note, that means you’re not burning anything. The technology is here today, but it’s not the cheapest energy in most cases. For example, let’s say you wanted to move your house to solar. You would probably pay something above $20,000 on panels and an inverter. Plus you’ll likely need a new furnace if you live in a colder part of the country. With an electric bill of, say, $100ish per month, you’re looking an incredibly long payback. There’s no way to move massive numbers of people to these solutions with those economics. This is why RE<C is such an important concept. In fact it’s the entire basis of this Web site.
Which brings us to the Pickens Plan.
Now I’m doing my best to give the plan an honest look, but readers should note that I’ll never forgive this sleazeball for financing the Swiftboat ads against John Kerry in 2004. Simply disgusting and immoral.
So with that bad taste in my mouth ignored, let’s look at Pickens. T. Boone PIckens rightly highlights the fact that our foreign oil consumption has risen for decades now under both political parties. He doesn’t mention how much money he made off that oil importation, however. His plan calls for a bold move to renewable energy, such as wind. But, as you’ve seen in his commercials, he notes the “technology isn’t there yet. We need a bridge.”
His bridge? Natural gas, or as he calls it, CNG. CNG stands for compressed natural gas (don’t kind yourself into thinking the C stands for clean. It doesn’t. Now natural gas does work in cars. Governments and taxis have used it for years. Now, what you may not know is that Pickens is the largest shareholder in Clean Energy Inc., a natural gas distribution company. Stations are already popping up around the country.
So is this “bridge” really just a bridge from your wallet to Pickens’ bank account? Hard to say, but it’s clear Pickens stands to make a fortune. Not that I mind someone making money from their ideas. I’m a proud capitalist and nothing would make me happier than making money by driving greater sustainability. But is there something else going on here? This Business Week article seems to show that there is. It seems Pickens is snatching up midwest land and driving toward a pipeline pointed toward Texas. For oil? No, this time water. Could Pickens be getting ready to step on the drinking water hose? Yikes! Could the plan to build a massive wind farm in the midwest actually be a water rights grab? I’m sure I’m not qualified to say, but the speed at which Pickens’ wind power plans were shelved puts quite a bit of weight on the wrong side of the scale.
From a marketing perspective, kudos to Pickens for a very clear, powerful marketing campaign. I’m a member of We, have seen dozens of their ads and still can’t figure out what their core message is. Do they want volunteers? Investors? Donations? I can’t tell! Weak! Pickens also shows how shooting some video of yourself in front of spinning windmills can’t help but make you look like an environmental hero. It’s a lesson John McCain used quite a bit during the campaign.
So the bottom line? Pretty simple, really. They just have different goals. Al Gore’s We group is 100% about climate change issues. He wants us to drop the carbon output of this country and fast. And rebuild our economy in the process. Pickens, if taken at face value, is focused on escaping the clutches of middle eastern dictators. An admirable goal, but one that is also solved with the We approach. Unfortunately, if Pickens’ plan were to work, it would actually extend the climate change challenges by extending the timeframe that our economy is based on burning a natural resource. Add in the worries over water issues and with Pickens you have the exact opposite of sustainability. Just more short-term corporate thinking from a billionaire.
A decade or so ago when I lived in Chicago, I became aware of a program by the city to replace their water mains — 1 percent at a time. It took a bit of thinking for me to get my mind around the idea. One percent a year? Why not wait until it fails? Wouldn’t that be more cost-effective?
Obviously the magic of one percent is that it’s another way of saying 1/100th. In other words, Chicago would be replacing its entire system every 100 years. Sounded wonky to me and maybe a little boring. Until I began considering the broader implications.
If you can upgrade 1 percent of any system every year AND you build things to last a minimum of 100 years, you’ve created a sustainable solution. This means a budget system that is easier to manage, fewer surprises every year and a more reliable system.
By deferring maintenance to future generations, cities have long taken out loans against the future, betting that some future politician would be the one holding the reins when things finally fell apart. I see this currently in Seattle in decaying roads and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which is only 55 years old!
The situation we find ourselves in as Americans in 2008 is that much of our country’s infrastructure was built during a relatively narrow time frame in our history. If you consider that the materials, technology and budgets of the time allowed, generally, for a certain lifespan. How many more bridges are close to collapse? How many cities have ignored their water main problems and sewer system maintenance? And don’t even get me started on our aging electrical grid.
Now I’m not naive enough to think we can just throw 1 percent of the repair costs of everything in our cities into the city budget and call it good. But the concept behind this thinking is solid, it seems to me. Maybe it’s building certain infrastructure out to 200 year levels and replacing 1/2 percent a year. Or, if you can’t trust that what you’re replacing will last 100 years, you need to increase the amount of the infrastruture you replace each year. Say 2 percent a year and assume things will last 50 years. You get the idea.
The downside is that you have to trust that 100 years of politicians will resist the urge to cut corners and spend this dedicated money on other goodies. Chicago is already having problems. Perhaps codifying into constitutions is the only safe path. I don’t know.
But I do know putting off this kind of maintenance is just putting off the inevitable. And when you have to replace an entire city’s, say, water mains because you procrastinated for decades, people starve.
Bringing this kind of maintenance under control by planning and budgeting for it up-front isn’t just smart. It’s the very definition of sustainability. And creates a healthy, safe city that can last forever.
Always happy to carry the right wing’s water, the blissfully gullible Seattle Times published a piece this week called “How did Reichert get so green?”
The article frames Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Bellevue, Wash.) as an environmental crusader with vast support among the environmental community. I’m here to tell you: don’t be fooled.
I’m a partisan Democrat. A lot of people’s ears turn off when they hear that. They assume that means I vote by brand and can’t judge the person. The truth is that nonpartisans or “independents”Â are nearly always low-information voters. That makes them remarkably easy to manipulate with simplistic news stories and TV ads. Just ask FoxNews.
And manipulation is what this article is trying to do.Â The goal here is to try to muddy the waters and make Reichert seem like a moderate, despite voting in near complete obedienceÂ to his corporate overlords. As if all that mattered was how one person voted.
Let me be even more clear: even if Reichert voted in 100% alignment to the most extreme environmentalist group you could find, he’s still working against the planet every day he caucuses with the Republicans.
By being part of the Republican majority, Reichert gives cover so others in safe conservative districts can destroy the planet. The only vote that matters is the vote that sets the leadership, breaks a tie or overcomes a veto. Since none of his so-called ‘green’ votes were in those categories, they show no commitment.
Even Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, a so-called liberal Republican Senator with the support of the simple-minded Sierra Club, helped solidify a Republican majority that pretty much sold the environment wholesale to the big corporations earlier this decade. Yes, there are sellout Democrats, too, but at least if we hold the committees and leadership we have a chance of stopping some of this insanity.
Don’t be naive, 8th District, vote Darcy Burner and show the Seattle Times what a real environmentalist looks like.
One of the most frustrating things about the political season is watching the leading candidates carve out and then brag about the safest possible positions on the issues.
Scientific American Magazine has put together what they call a Solar Grand Plan focused on getting off foreign oil and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Their path for reaching those goals: solar power. Lots of solar power. They also call for a DC-based transmission system to limit transmission losses and a power storage strategy based on such concepts as pressurized air, something I discussed some time ago.
Their plan could provide 69 percent of the U.S.’s electrical needs and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.
In contrast, both Barack Obama’s plan and Hillary Clinton’s plan call for 25 percent of renewable energy by 2025 as well as several other focus group-tested positions. Now, you say, getting 25 percent of the way there by 2025 isn’t bad and gets you well on your way toward the SciAm goals. I don’t disagree. Except that it would leave you 44 percent of the way to go in 25 more years. Again, not necessarily impossible but my take is that there’s plenty of room for the candidates to get a little more aggressive here.
Now the SciAm plan omits some other opportunities that exist out there. Namely the huge potential of wind and tidal power, which has great potential in various areas of the country. Additionally, the article does hint at the needs for each region to provide for themselves, but I think that issue is underplayed. I would have no problem, however, with a solar system as a “jump-start” while we work toward a distributed system over time.
In other words:
Step 1: Derive all energy from U.S.-based sources.
Step: 2: Move all energy sources to renewables.
Step 3: Separate each region and have each area provide its own power, for example, the northwest should be on its own grid, the southwest, the center of the country in one or two sections and then the northeast and southeast.
Step 4: Separate each state. I live in Washington and there’s no reason Washington state couldn’t provide all of its own power. If it has excess, it could sell the remainder to other states that are suffering dips, but each state would take care of itself first.
Step 5: Each city should take care of its own needs. Same goes for counties. Seattle, where I live, should be putting together plans to generate enough power for itself. It’d be great for a progressive place such as this to be the only one with its lights on when the larger regional grid collapses.
Step 6: Next I’d love to see each neighborhood take care of their own needs as well. Imagine (relatively) smaller windmills hovering over city parks generating enough power for just the few hundred or thousand homes in the area.
Step 7: Last, but not least, it would be wonderful to see each home and business also taking care of itself. You can buy power off the grid if you need it, or provide 100% of your own power.
This graduated system of self-reliance provides the total freedom I think we all crave, as well as the indestructibility of the Internet. I think this could be done in 10 years. It’s like the old saying: You can do anything you want, just apply money. But if you compare the costs of this kind of a plan with what we’ve pissed away on the Iraq debacle, it’s obvious money shouldn’t be an obstacle.
As prices drop and technology advances, I believe all of these solutions will be advanced at different rates across the country, but it’d be great to also see more focused long-term thinking from our leaders.
The media and Washington, DC seem to have finally figured out that the Bush economy is completely broken. Anyone paying attention could tell that it’s been limping along with artificially generated cash from refinances and low prices stemming from Chinese products. Getting an influx of cash (basically a loan) from one’s home pumps a lot of moneyÂ into the economy. Then look at how cheap the basic needs of living are these days. Food is ridiculously cheap. Basic clothing needs (socks for example)Â cost far less today than they did even 10 years ago as a percentage of income. How is this possible? Lots of reasons that I’m not qualified to understand, let alone explain, but it’s pretty easy to see if you follow the money that business tax breaks have created massive corporate profits and government debt. China is raking in the dough while their people are overworked and underpaid.
No one rational thought any of this was sustainable. But game theory takes over and suddenly we’re all trapped in a system we can’t escape from. But finally the word “recession” has hit the media and the government is spooked. Enter the inevitable stimulus package.
Naturally Bush wants more goodies for his corporate masters. Democrats are wanting to hand out checks as a tax rebate. The figure being discussed is between $100 billion and $150 billion. Should be about $500 and if you make $85,000 or more it’s not for you. To me, this is crazy. We’re already bankrupt and they want to print more money? This is nuts.
The right move in my opinion is to take a page from FDR’s book. We don’t need more cheap calories zipping through our system without building us up. We need healthy, nutritious calories. Work with nature, not against it (including human nature).Â People want jobs, not a handoutÂ that won’t last a month.Â $100 billion would go a long way toward building a new industry. And it would save homes and businesses even more as they spend less on utlility bills. And that wouldn’t be for a month or two. It’d last forever.
Â Special Thanks to Connor Robinson for the wonderful picture.