Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Welcome to the UNplanning Journal Archives

Welcome to the UNplanning Journal. You have reached my blog archives, mostly on planning and energy matters. I started this blog in February of 2005, partially out of a former employer's intransigence when dealing with the ramifications of the coming energy crises. I kept updating for more than a year until I decided to move on. This site will not be updated and only sparingly checked. I have put this page up largely to give background to those arriving to UNplanning from one of the search engines. Happy reading.

Here is a rundown of the best UNplanning posts in my opinion:Behind the Journal – This was my inaugural post and still a good explanation on why I am blogging. Read the following posting to find out where I came up with the term UNplanning.

A couple posts looked at how common elements in the built environment will fare in the coming energy crunch. Mauled in America took a look inside the future of the shopping mall. MegaChurched explored what could happen to one of those massive one-stop churching facilities in an energy deprived world.

Food and agriculture was a frequent subject for me to write on. Part of this came from being a planner in an agricultural county and part of this came from my interest on how the food I eat gets to my plate. Our Agricultural Future, Protecting the Food Supply, Passport Cuisine, and That Food Problem all looked at the real hard issue of keeping the Human Race fed over the next several decades. I even took the time to examine an agricultural proposal with little or no chance of success in a low energy world, the Vertical Farm.

Sometimes I would comment on the absurd nature of what gets built today. While I don’t fancy myself as the next J.H Kunstler, some examples of idiotic planning and development need to be ridiculed. The increasing prevalence of the RV Garage and the Suburban High-rise are a good examples of this. Mindless road construction is another. Other times I take on whole urban areas such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans or some of California’s massive New Town developments. I even picked apart some of those so-called Eco-sensitive communities in my Greenwashing post.

Other times I would suggest solutions for the future. Like ruralization. Or a plan that could be crafted for use during an energy emergency (given the reluctance of many agencies to plan ahead or even consider energy in the first place). Some ideas were broad in scope covering an entire region or a particular town. Others were more modest in scope, such as my proposal to retrofit a Wal-Mart into post-peak urban farm, advice for communities not to forget the details, suggestions on how renters could save energy or how we could all just think smaller.

A few posts got me some serious recognition from others out there interested in the future of our world as it pertains to energy. Natural Gas[p], a Conversation with an Energy Insider is one of my favorites and one of my most linked to postings. So was the infamous Conversation with Denial, also known as "how my planning director canceled the energy crisis". Honorable mentions also go to my Peak Oil inspired review of children’s movies and my take on the important events of 2006.

Finally, some posts looked at the planning process itself and the issues most pressing along those lines, such as the importance of transportation. Others contemplated included massive infrastructure plans with no future, Governors without a clue and Oregon’s examination of its own planning process.

Thanks for visiting.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Oregon Transportation Plan

The Oregon Department of Transportation has just finished its public review period for the draft state transportation plan for the next 20 years. This document discusses the state’s vision for the future of transportation in Oregon, laying out goals and policies for transportation planning in this state. Perhaps unique for a government agency, this document discusses Peak Oil as one of the challenges that transportation planner will face over the next three decades.

I touched on this subject
earlier, but here again is ODOT’s take on Peak Oil:

In 2003 the United States consumed almost 20 million barrels of oil per day; transportation used two-thirds of this total. But the world’s supply of oil is finite and demand is rising worldwide. Although experts disagree about when world oil production will peak, even the most optimistic forecasts suggest that it will occur in less than 25 years. Disruptions to the world’s oil supply will likely lead to increasing fuel prices and create economic disruption worldwide.

Well, I took the time to read through the rest of the document and drafted an eleven page response of my own. I officially submitted this to state transportation planners just before the conclusion of the official comment period.

By and large I found a document that started out on the right track (by acknowledging peak oil) but failed to completely acknowledge fully the resulting impacts it would have on all matters related to transportation.

Case in point: Traffic congestion is still seen as the biggest problem in the “meat” of the document, where all of the planning elements are.

If you are interested in reading my full response
click here for the word document or here for a straight text version.

The complete state plan can be read

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Plans that Stink to Hog Heaven

When it comes to Confined Animal Farming Operations (aka. Factory Farming) there are not too many land uses that can rival the ecological, social and resource impacts that these facilities bear upon a community. In spite of that, these facilities have become ever more prevalent as a handful of powerful food conglomerates have brought the promise of improved local economies to poor rural counties across the US. In recent years, many planning departments (including my old one) have had to grapple with this subject.

this in North Dakota:

EDMORE, N.D. - North Dakota is prime ground for growing hogs. "It has lots of agricultural land, lots of grain and lots of open space ," said Kevin Tyndall, a consultant from Canadian hog producer Hytek.

Paul Ivesdal, an Edmore farmer, agrees. "I'd like to see 1 million hogs in our school district," he said. "We could site a hog operation in each township."

That's a lofty goal, considering that Ivesdal has unsuccessfully attempted to get one 21,000-hog operation approved. Viking Feeders LLC, a group of local investors that has Ivesdal as its general manager, is still negotiating with Ramsey County, which wants to impose stricter regulations than the state. Frustrated by a year's delay, Ivesdal said he might move his proposed hog operation a mile north, into Cavalier County. He said Viking Feeders also is considering a switch to a 5,000-sow farrowing operation rather than the 21,000-hog business that finishes the animals and sends them to market.

One million hogs as developmental goal? On a limited aquifer?

At least it makes more sense than this:

FRESNO – California cows parachute into Nevada, after leaving their former pastures and barns “knee deep in crud.”Say, what?That scene is depicted in a tongue-in-cheek marketing film circulated by the state of Nevada to try to attract dairies to move there.“It’s a great environment; not just for cows but all sorts of businesses,” notes Nevada Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt.The short film has been circulating amid farm groups in the nation’s leading dairy state, where milk sales top $5 billion.
As if operating a water intensive land use in a semi-arid region with limited seasonal rainfall makes little environmental sense, operating it in a true desert makes no sense whatsoever.

The real problem with use of factory farming as a developmental tool is the discounting of environmental and social costs of such operations and the lack of consideration given to the resource impacts that such facilities place on their surroundings.

Animals defecate just as we do. One hog alone will produce an average of 17.5 pounds of waste per day. Yet CAFOs are not required to treat their waste to the same level as human sewage. They just have to ensure it stays sequestered on the property until it can be dried and sprayed onto the fields. (Sometimes they fail even at this task). Nor are there any standards when applying the dried wastes back onto the fields. It is one thing to carefully apply treated or composted manure onto a field as needed, it is another thing altogether to apply it wholesale as a disposal option and hope that whatever is growing there will take it up and use it without running off or leaching into the groundwater. As it stands now, run off from the over-application of chemical fertilizers is a known cause of water pollution. Why would it be any different from over-application of dried pig crap? Close concentration of animals likewise creates air pollution as well, particularly from the particulates and volatile organic compounds that originate when so many animals and their wastes are kept in tight quarters.

If someone proposed a land use that resulted in close concentration of one million people in a similarly confined space (and aside from Nazi style concentration camps few such examples even exist) you can be assured that serious provisions would have to be made to handle the inevitable air and water impacts.

Also very much neglected in industrial agriculture as a whole is consideration of social impacts. Factory farming is too often touted as a major investment (in positive terms) for a rural economy. That may be true during construction as well as over the long term for the owner of the operation and affiliated businesses (e.g. dairy equipment vendor). It certainly is not the case for the rest of the region, particularly if meat processing is part of the equation. Like many other menial tasks in this country, meat processing has joined the “race to the bottom” when it comes to pay and working conditions. While butchery has never been a glamorous profession, the jobs in the past were at least were unionized and paid a family wage. Not so any more. Now offering wages barely above minimum wage, meat packers struggle to attract American workers. So these firms have been forced by their own miserable pay scales to turn to immigrants used to even worse conditions to fill these jobs. The arrangement is quite suitable for the packers and CAFO’s; their labor expenditures are relatively low. But people, unlike the pigs or cows, are not warehoused. They drive cars and live in houses and send their kids to schools. In essence, they consume many of the same (limited) resources that we do and in greater amounts than had they remained in their country of origin. They also place additional demands on the community such as the need for free medical care, extra linguistic assistance and increased criminal justice expenditures due to their low level of socio-economic achievement caused by their sub-par employment. Does corporate farming pay for any of this? Nope. That is some “investment” program.

But most importantly, CAFOs perpetuate the energy and resource intensive nature of industrialized agriculture. These facilities consume huge quantities of fossil fuel energy directly or indirectly by their operation. Envision the entire process from feed growing to waste disposal and you can better understand this. A New York study found that 77% of all energy consumed the average NY dairy originated from fossil fuels (and that neglected to consider the fossil fuels embodied in the supplied feed). A cow will use on average 200-400 KW of electricity over the course of a year while your standard large dairy may consume more than one megawatt in the course of one day. In recent years some have begun to recapture some of the methane to power generators, but in most cases they fail to break even on their own electrical demands, let alone generate additional electricity. Other livestock operations may demand less electricity or fuels to run, owing to the absence of milking facilities but are nevertheless, large energy consumers. Factory farms also consume large quantities of water as well, which calls into question the wisdom of their location in dry areas such as Central California, the upper Great Plains or Nevada. Dairy farming in particular is pretty insidious in its water usage where by the water is pulled off out of depleting aquifers and exported out of the area in the form of milk and meat. Furthermore, by reducing the price of meat to the consumer, they encourage increased consumption which consumes ever more resources in turn. This is a no-brainer really.

Once these resources are depleted, then what? Run the whole system on bio-fuels, bio-gas, solar power and thermal depolymerization? That’s pretty doubtful.

Thanks to cheap and abundant fossil fuels, asinine agricultural subsidies and price supports, suspect environmental standards, governmental acquiescence to unfettered immigration to keep labor costs low, extreme concentration by a small number of agri-businesses and the overall inability to consider the costs beyond the next fiscal year we wound up with the factory farm as the model of “modern agriculture.” For the reasons, discussed above, it is a faulty model and one with a questionable future. Quite simply, the pursuit of CAFO’s by strapped jurisdiction makes little sense now and almost none in a world of declining resources.

Yet here we are, approaching crunch time while still moving full speed ahead in pursuit of cheap meat. My former jurisdiction (the nation’s number one dairy county) was hesitant to even consider some form of cow cap, lest that interfere with the ag interests. Review of dairy projects failed to even consider the issue of resource consumption by the proposed operation or cumulatively. No doubt, the same attitude is replicated elsewhere in the US. Too bad the idea stinks as much as one of these:

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mono-Railing for all the Wrong Reasons

Transportation planning is not a field predisposed to radical changes. Planners and engineers routinely propose ideas to solve current and future problems with ideas that have worked in the past. Pragmatism probably plays a big part in this; after all, if you are going to devise a solution that will cost one hundred million dollars or more, you damned well need to make sure it will work. Change, when it does occur is evolutionary in nature.

That said, transportation history is littered with countless radical visions for the future of travel. Some ideas were just ahead of their time. Others were straight out of the world of science fiction. As expected, most were indifferent to the issue of energy.

It is always interesting to watch when “old” visions of transportation are periodically resurrected. It is even more amusing when a science fiction author is the one resurrecting the idea.

Earlier this month Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451 fame
wrote in the LA Times:

SOMETIME IN THE next five years, traffic all across L.A. will freeze.The freeways that were once a fast-moving way to get from one part of the city to another will become part of a slow-moving glacier, edging down the hills to nowhere.


In recent years we've all experienced the beginnings of this. A trip from the Valley into Los Angeles that used to take half an hour — all of a sudden it takes an hour or two or three. Our warning system tells us something must be done before our freeways trap us in the outlying districts, unable to get to our jobs.

As this passage makes clear, Mr. Bradbury is apparently unaware or incapable of understanding that due to Peak Oil, traffic is the least of our concerns.

If anything, the traffic situation five years hence will be better—not worse.

That fact notwithstanding, Mr. Bradbury opines that the solution to LA’s gridlock is a monorail system. Apparently this is not a new idea. Four decades ago he advocated the very same thing.

More than 40 years ago, in 1963, I attended a meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors at which the Alweg Monorail company outlined a plan to construct one or more monorails crossing L.A. north, south, east and west. The company said that if it were allowed to build the system, it would give the monorails to us for free — absolutely gratis. The company would operate the system and collect the fare revenues.

Obviously this never came to pass. In all likelihood, nothing will transpire this time around either. The past year has not been kind to monorail enthusiasts. Seattle’s on-again, off-again love affair with the Monorail is definitely off. In November of last year, voters turned down a proposal to construct what would have been North America’s first (and only) citywide monorail system.

Then to add insult to injury, later that month the only two monorail cars on the city’s existing segment collided with each other on a poorly designed stretch of track wide enough for only one to traverse at a time. The system remains shut to this day for repairs.

Apparently nobody told Ray.

Compared to the heavy elevateds of the past, the monorail is virtually soundless. Anyone who has ridden the Disneyland or Seattle monorails knows how quietly they move.They also have been virtually accident-free. The history of the monorail shows few collisions or fatalities


At this point, I must say that I have no bias towards or against monorails. As it becomes increasingly clear that our petroleum-fueled transportation system is doomed to run out of gas, we most certainly need creativity when devising whatever transportation solution or solutions to turn to next. We cannot keep throwing transportation ideas that may have worked in the past such as bigger roads or new light rail systems, without really considering whether or not it will continue to work in the future.

We also should not resurrect ideas from the past without a proper justification for doing so. Bringing back monorails to reduce traffic created by poor land use decision-making will not solve LA’s perceived future of gridlock. Without fixing the underlying land use patterns and continued demographic growth, any new capacity created by this system will consumed by the growth in population (particularly in those areas not located near the network.)

At the same time, a monorail proposal for LA will do little to insulate or assist the metropolitan area from the coming era of shortages either. Los Angeles’s real problem is that it exists far past the natural carrying capacity of its region. Contrary to what Bradbury may believe, traffic congestion should be the least of the area’s worries. Keeping the lights on, the water flowing and even the population fed is a far greater concern.

This scenario is of course down the line a little bit. Barring a near-term, catastrophic collapse of civilization, changes in how we move ourselves about can and should be made. We honestly do need to overhaul our transportation system. All options must be on the table, whether the idea is considered “mainstream” or not.

What is more important though is that any transportation plan for the future be holistic in nature. Transportation planning is more than technology application; it is also about land use planning and behavior modification as well. Address all three together and you have the makings of a real plan.

Monday, February 13, 2006

One Year of UNplanning

A glance at my Blogger homepage this past week informs me that I have officially been at this for over one year now. Over the past twelve months I have explored a variety of subjects (mostly) related to the role of energy in the planning sector. Some were drawn from personal experience and others from research. My former employer was the subject of a number of these postings. Current events provided subject matter for the rest.

Here is a rundown of the best UNplanning posts of the past year:

Behind the Journal – This was my inaugural post and still a good explanation on why I am blogging. Read the following posting to find out where I came up with the term UNplanning.

A couple posts looked at how common elements in the built environment will fare in the coming energy crunch. Mauled in America took a look inside the future of the shopping mall. MegaChurched explored what could happen to one of those massive one-stop churching facilities in an energy deprived world.

Food and agriculture was a frequent subject for me to write on. Part of this came from being a planner in an agricultural county and part of this came from my interest on how the food I eat gets to my plate. Our Agricultural Future, Protecting the Food Supply, Passport Cuisine, and That Food Problem all looked at the real hard issue of keeping the Human Race fed over the next several decades. I even took the time to examine an agricultural proposal with little or no chance of success in a low energy world, the Vertical Farm.

Sometimes I would comment on the absurd nature of what gets built today. While I don’t fancy myself as the next J.H Kunstler, some examples of idiotic planning and development need to be ridiculed. The increasing prevalence of the RV Garage and the Suburban High-rise are a good examples of this. Mindless road construction is another. Other times I take on whole urban areas such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans or some of California’s massive New Town developments. I even picked apart some of those so-called Eco-sensitive communities in my Greenwashing post.

Other times I would suggest solutions for the future. Like ruralization. Or a plan that could be crafted for use during an energy emergency (given the reluctance of many agencies to plan ahead or even consider energy in the first place). Some ideas were broad in scope covering an entire region or a particular town. Others were more modest in scope, such as my proposal to retrofit a Wal-Mart into post-peak urban farm, advice for communities not to forget the details, suggestions on how renters could save energy or how we could all just think smaller.

A few posts got me some serious recognition from others out there interested in the future of our world as it pertains to energy. Natural Gas[p], a Conversation with an Energy Insider is one of my favorites and one of my most linked to postings. So was the infamous Conversation with Denial, also known as "how my planning director canceled the energy crisis". Honorable mentions also go to my Peak Oil inspired review of children’s movies and my take on the important events of 2006.

Finally, some posts looked at the planning process itself and the issues most pressing along those lines, such as the importance of transportation. Others contemplated included massive infrastructure plans with no future, Governors without a clue and Oregon’s examination of its own planning process.

What a year it has been. There have been a lot of good posts made and your suggestions, comments and ideas have been most helpful and appreciated, blogspam not withstanding. Sometimes maintaining this Journal has been an enjoyable and enlightening task. Other times it has been a royal pain. Once or twice I thought I would just chuck this blogging altogether and move onto something else. But I didn’t.

Thanks for reading and here’s to another year of (not too) eventful blogging!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The State of the State (of Energy)

State of the State addresses, much like their federal counterpart are full of lofty goals and optimistic language while remaining ever short on useful specifics. Some speeches adopted overarching themes while others read like a shopping list. Visionary or idiotic (depending on your point of view) author Thomas Friedman provided the vision for not one but two State of the State Addresses this year. Both Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Mark Sanford of South Carolina succumbed to the vision of tomorrow painted by Friedman’s The World Is Flat (piece of) work.

Most addresses contained similar topics deemed most import to each state’s particular electorate. In 2006, the most commonly mentioned item actually had to do with the Iraq Conflict. Virtually every governor that made a speech this year, spoke to the honor, bravery or sacrifice of that state’s soldiers or reservists. After that, the usual hot-button topics of education (always the crowd pleaser), health care, crime and transportation were frequently discussed. Parochial issues relevant only to that particular state were never far behind either. This year, for a change, energy was back on the minds of state politicians as well. 23 of the 45 governors (annual addresses are not required in every state) making State of the State speeches in 2006 referenced energy in one form or another. Even those states not included in this State of the State coverage did posses some links to energy policy articulated recently by their respective governors.

This of course is not surprising given 2005’s dramatic price surges. How each governor addressed the issue differed slightly from state to state. The Unplanning Journal reviewed all of the archived transcripts available at the time of writing (Oregon, Connecticut and Louisiana speeches were still pending) and tried to draw some conclusions.

So after last week’s energy fiasco during the President’s State of the Union speech, the question begs itself: did our governors do any better?

The simple answer would have to be no.

While no governor utilized the President Bush “Addicted to Oil” line and only one (Delaware Governor Minner fixated on price gouging by the oil majors) made a really incoherent proposal in seeking to address the energy issue none really “got it” either.

No one acknowledged the issue of Peak Oil or the fact that North American natural gas supplies have slipped into decline. (Not a big surprise really).

No one discussed or contemplated the long term implications of even continued price increases in the cost of energy.

Not one made the connection that a decline in available energy was not only inevitable, but imminent. Many did at least acknowledge the importance of energy to the economy however.

And finally, not a single governor grasped the concept that unlimited growth (be it economic, transportation-wise or even population) is not possible without an unlimited amount of natural resources to support it.

What the governors did propose generally focused on the following issues.

On the energy production side we had proposals for new:

  • Ethanol/Biodiesel facilities – Twelve state governors cited specific projects or programs to increase biofuel production. Even those governors not speaking this year had ethanol links up such as North Dakota’s.
  • Power plant construction – Mentioned directly by just one governor, several others alluded to the need for increased power plant construction.
  • Oil, gas and coal production – Three energy rich states and an energy poor one called for the stepping up of fossil fuel production.
  • Alternative Energy – The catch all category for increased wind, water and solar power generation was also popular with six governors.

On consumption side there were calls for:

  • Home heating subsidies – While mentioned by just six governors directly (mostly northern ones) it is an issue for all but the warmest states. Most calls were for increased state funding of LIHEAP or other assistance programs.
  • More overall energy efficiency – Discussed or alluded to by a number of governors, most took the form of better building standards.
  • More energy efficient vehicles – Discussed by four governors, alluded to by others.
  • Technology innovation – Echoing Bush’s theme, six governors asked for increased funds to spur innovation to find a technological solution to any energy shortfall we might face.

Let’s examine some of these ideas in-depth.


Ethanol and Biodiesel production was the hands-down winner in popularity, having been mentioned by almost half of the governors that spoke on energy matters. As expected, the Corn Belt governors all touted their states’ contribution to ethanol…

“Three new ethanol plants were permitted last year and two more are in the process. Once these projects are completed, South Dakota will be ranked fourth in the nation in ethanol production with over 600 million gallons of ethanol being produced every year.” Gov. Mike Round, South Dakota.

…or its virtues.

“Ethanol is clean, it’s renewable, it’s less expensive, it helps Wisconsin farmers, and it reduces the demand for foreign oil. Let’s pass this bill, because America ought to be more dependent on the Midwest, and not the Mideast.” Gov.
Jim Doyle, Wisconsin

Never mind the questions on whether or not corn-based ethanol actually consumes more energy than it produces.

Non Corn-belt states advocated other crops or plant matter, such as Gov. Pataki (and President Bush’s) call for switch grass-based ethanol or Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia interest in utilizing peanut shells. Although Louisiana’s address is not scheduled until the end of March, any ethanol proposal from Gov. Blanco’s office would probably echo that of Gov. Lingle’s of Hawaii in utilizing sugar as the primary feedstock.

The fact that so many states are seeking to increase production of liquid fuel replacements to gasoline and petro-diesel indicates a growing consensus that the increasing costs of oil and the growing dependency on foreign producers is not a good thing. Unfortunately none of the proposals sought to reduce vehicular travel or increased efficiency. Most aimed to replace some of their respective state’s petroleum consumption. All would inevitably require large subsidies to work and raise the question of scalability. It’s fine and dandy to replace 5% or even 10% of a particular state’s liquid fuel needs. It is another thing altogether to try and fuel 90 to 95% of the existing vehicular fleet.

Plant Construction.

Only one state governor, Mike Rounds from South Dakota discussed power plant construction specifically (the Big Stone plant). On the other hand, several governors did allude to the need to build more “clean coal” fired power plants. With the increase in natural gas prices, no governor has called for new gas plants, though the Pennsylvanian governor sought an increase in land fill gas fired generation. Interestingly enough, Gov. Carcieri of Rhode Island mentioned the need to increase LNG supplies for his state, something no other governor discussed. No governor discussed the radioactive subject of new nuclear power plant construction.

More Fossil Fuels

No, they are not dead. Not by a long shot. The three governors from energy rich states called for increased oil, natural gas and coal production. Gov. Rendell cited [in a separate, energy related press release] the increased oil and natural gas drilling in Western Pennsylvania and along with Joe Manchin of West Virginia, called for the increased production of coal. (Incidentally, both governors have also called for stronger mine safety protections as well – updated link). Presumably the other coal-rich states of Wyoming and Montana are also in agreement with these ideas. Gov. Rendell also mentioned a new plant about to go online that will convert tons of coal waste into “clean” diesel fuel. Gov. Pataki of New York also reiterated the need for clean coal production.

Then there is Alaska.

This state, which still possesses far more oil than it could reasonably consume internally is still pushing ANWR production. (Given the world status of petroleum production, they will get it eventually …) Additionally, they are making long term plans to finance part of the planned gas line from the Arctic gas fields to Canada and the Lower 48. Assuming the pipeline is constructed, the state would be financially set even after the oil production winds down. Interestingly enough for those of us living in the Lower 48, Gov. Murkowski is also planning this,

[A public relations campaign] “educating the Lower 48 about Alaska’s role in national energy policy

We would also propose having an experienced Alaska communications organization as part of the national effort. We would of course look to our major newspapers, T.V., and radio outlets for their professional guidance. “

Alternative Energy

Although this sector—wind, water and solar powered generation—actually has the best chance at being sustainable over the long term (as long as the sun is shining anyway), only a limited amount of resources are being directed here by the various state governments. While alternative electrical generation will not solve the issue of transportation fuels, it would contribute significantly to the overall energy picture.

Home heating subsidies

To be brutally honest, this program actually encourages wasteful energy usage and does nothing to reduce overall energy consumption. Without the subsidies, fewer people would consume less heating oil, gas or electricity during the winter months. The subsidies allow those consumers that would not ordinarily be able to afford to heat their homes in the winter to participate in the fuel market, driving up the prices. Plus their houses tend to be less efficient and as a result, consume more fuel trying to heat.

This is not to say your poor Aunt Mimi living on social security ought to freeze to death in the winter. Heating assistance is a great social program. It is a lousy energy program. As prices go up, state and federal energy policies and funds really should be directed into making those homes more efficient, and not just for the very poor either. Why continue to pay a huge bill year after year when a one-time investment to improve the unit’s efficiency could lower household bills (and overall consumption)? Make this program affordable to mid-low income residents and free for the poor or destitute. Do that on a national scale and some serious energy savings could be arrived at.

This line of thinking is seemingly lost on most governors. Not one proposed a specific low income energy efficiency renovation program. Instead, most governors called for increased funds to pay the increased monthly heating bills. The leader in home energy retrofitting, the federal government is looking to scale back their current modernization program in response to budget cuts. Aunt Mimi better buy a few more blankets.

In a related note, Georgia saw fit to suspend its sales tax on natural gas and gasoline purchases to soften the price impacts on “average Georgians.” While certainly appreciated by most lower income households, it hardly amounts to more than a one-time band aid in response to rising prices.

Energy Efficiency Programs

Perhaps the vaguest theme from the various State of the State address was the call for increased energy efficiency. No governor focused on any particular program, though a few alluded to increasing the efficiency standards for home construction and major appliances. While efficiency programs were seemingly ignored by the politicians, most states do have existing appliance replacement programs, home energy standards and various tax credits or incentives for a number of energy efficiency measures.

Vehicular Efficiency Improvements

As expected, a number of governors had difficulty separating the very different issues of transportation energy efficiency and overall energy efficiency. When it comes to transportation, fewer efficiency options exist. Never the less, four governors saw to it to point out the need for more fuel efficient cars. Approaches to this goal took one of two tacks, more incentives or better technology.

Governor Napolitano proposed the most novel incentive for increased efficiency.

“Today, I propose that we cut Arizona’s vehicle license
tax and, as an added incentive, we cut it in a way that rewards drivers who
choose to conserve gasoline. The better gas mileage your car or truck gets, the
bigger the cut in the license fee. If a vehicle gets maximum mileage per gallon,
then let’s get rid of the license tax altogether.”

No discussion on what the maximum mileage actually comes out to.

A more proactive stance might have been to penalize (via licensing fees) those vehicles that get worse mileage.

The call for better technology came from both the governors of Georgia (next section) and Michigan.

Governor Granholm (of Michigan) addressed the issue directly. Sort of.

“The Great Lakes States will be the alternative energy
epicenter of America. Since we are the home of the automobile, it is our proud,
patriotic duty to be the state that ends our nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

Our universities are already leaping into the alternative energy
field. At Michigan State University, President Lou Anna Simon is positioning our
state (and her Spartans) to lead the world in the new “bio-economy” – developing
energy and other products from our agricultural sector. Kettering
University in Flint, MAREC in Muskegon, and Next Energy at Wayne State all are
leading in the development of alternative energies. If you went to the auto
show, and I hope you did, you might have seen the national championship solar
car developed by University of Michigan students; it tops out at 80

Once again we have a good example of distinct research programs in separate fields masquerading as a comprehensive energy plan. There is a huge step between a team of engineering students producing an ultra-light solar car and mass production of vehicles at a General Motors plant.

By contrast, the Governor of Kentucky, Ernie Fletcher kept it simple. He just mentioned his state’s role in producing hybrids.


This brings us to the final category, technological innovation. Much like the President, calling for increased technological innovation, several governors championed stepped up research in their own State of the State addresses.

Perhaps the most vociferous in his call for increased research was Gov. Perdue of Georgia.

“You see, in the 21st century global economy we have only
two options. Georgia can lead or Georgia can be left behind.

I want to guarantee you this – as long as I’m your Governor, Georgia is going to

To lead, we must innovate. That means, we must become a State of Innovation.
That means making innovation our competitive advantage in every area of our economy – in our existing industries, in our homegrown small businesses and in the growth industries of the future, such as life sciences and nano-manufacturing.

These are the industries that will cure cancer … improve our food safety and supply … and provide new sources of energy to power our lives and propel our state’s economy forward. “

Unlike other governors, Mr. Perdue offered some details on funding.

“To ensure Georgia’s energy future, I am budgeting $2 million to seed research on developing alternative fuels, such as expanding our BioRefinery program at the University of Georgia.”

While two million certainly sounds impressive, it is less than % 0.001 of the state’s 2004 budget (the last one I could find online). In all likelihood, it is less than the amount of gasoline taxes that the governor suspended during last summer’s hurricane season.

Governor Sanford of South Carolina was less specific in his call to innovate but not in his justification in doing so:

“The State of our State is that we are a state in transition. Thomas Friedman wrote the book, The World is Flat, and his premise is that the world has changed in ways unimaginable to my father, and even to me or you, over the last few years. In this new found “flat world,” for the first time in world history a kid in Hampton County is directly competing with a kid in Shanghai, New Delhi or Dublin.

Now, with globalization and the Internet, you can stay right there and export whatever your brain has to offer to the rest of the world.”

Basically, when it comes to producing ideas we either need to innovate or die.

Unfortunately, none of the governors (or the president for that matter) grasped the concept that technology does not equal energy. No amount of brain power will be sufficient to move that Yukon Denali down the highway. Nor will technology necessarily yield us a solution either. While there certainly plenty of opportunities still out to harness new sources of energy or utilize energy existing sources more efficiently, none address the core issue of continued growth in a finite system. Even if by some miracle, some energy research team out there masters cold fusion, zero point energy or whatever, we will still have new limitations foisted upon us by nature unless we stop growing.

At the end of the day, understanding the natural limits to growth is the most important thing to remember. It is not an appealing message or even an easily understood one. As a consequence, not one governor brought this issue up. Instead we were left with the empty rhetoric of Tom Friedman, techno-optimists and the Ethanol lobby.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Revising Oregon's Planning Goals: an Opportunity?

In the planning world, Oregon is well known for its strict land use measures that have limited the extent of suburban sprawl, particularly on the state’s best farmlands. Whereas other states have seen suburban growth hopscotch across the countryside, Oregon’s cities have long set limits to where growth can extend to. The result has been somewhat denser cities and more open rural areas than would have been expected without such regulations.

These regulations have not been without controversy however. In 2000 and 2004 property rights groups attempted to roll back some of the more arduous restrictions. The most recent attempt, Measure 37 passed in 2004 but was placed on hold pending the outcome of litigation that has now reached the Oregon Supreme Court. Regardless of the outcome, there is a growing public and legislative consensus to re-examine Oregon’s land use regulations, some of which are now more than 30 years old. Along these lines, the [Portland] Oregonian recently concluded a three-part series on the interplay between planning and agriculture, [residential] density and economic impacts. At the same time the Oregon Department of Transportation is in the midst of an update to the state’s transportation plan, Portland Metro and statewide Land Use taskforce will both re-examine long term planning goals beginning this year.

After more than a generation of implementation, altering some of the planning goals to reflect the realities of today and the challenges of tomorrow might not be a bad idea.

These processes could potentially yield downright productive results if today’s political leaders and support staff (planners, engineers, scientists) honestly acknowledge tomorrow’s challenges and properly deal with them. This means focusing on the growing impacts of energy shortages, resource depletion and environmental hazards/climate change and not on how best to accommodate a million new residents or facilitate economic growth.

Like most formal planning efforts, the official plan of action is quite conventionally focused. But signs of sea-change in attitudes are beginning to emerge. As discussed earlier, a statewide office of Sustainable Development now exists. More encouraging is the ODOT’s hesitant acknowledgement of Peak Oil.

Yes, you read that right.

On page I-9 of the Draft OTP (PDF Document) you will find this rather interesting passage.

“In 2003 the United States consumed almost 20 million barrels of oil per day;
transportation used two-thirds of this total. But the world’s supply of oil is
finite and demand is rising worldwide. Although experts disagree about when
world oil production will peak, even the most optimistic forecasts suggest that
it will occur in less than 25 years. Disruptions to the world’s oil supply will
likely lead to increasing fuel prices and create economic disruption

Granted, it is a very cautious interpretation and assessment of the current debate ongoing on the timing and implications of Peak Oil. Still, it is a start.

The rest of the document is rather conventional in its approach to transportation issues facing the state, many of which will be superceded in importance by the growing shortage in liquid fuels. If few high-mileage vehicles hit the market over the next three decades or the Hydrogen Economy fails to materialize, worries about traffic congestion in 2020 will be for naught. On the other hand, a greater push towards rail transportation driven by the relative energy advantages held by trains over trucks could exacerbate rail congestion. The point here is the plan as currently written, fails to connect the dots between energy and the rest of the transportation sector.

Energy availability has yet to even enter the realm of conventional land use planning decisions.

It fails to register on most discussions of residential neighborhood design. (Though the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in California does consider [energy] from a pollution standpoint.) Read my post on this here.

More importantly, it is absent from any discussion on appropriate agricultural policies. Conventional agriculture—as we well know—is highly dependent on fossil fuel energy. Many producers today are likewise dependent on financial subsidies to produce. The whole system is geared to produce the maximum amount of output at the lowest possible costs by the fewest number of farmers. Many local agricultural protection policies and zoning criterion reflect this. As average farm sizes have marched upward over the past several decades, so has the typical minimum farm size requirement in most county zoning codes. Most farm bureaus will derisively view farming operations of less than 40 acres as unviable or hobby-only. This may well be the case if that operation is conventional in nature. However many highly productive farms engaged in biodynamic principles will occupy far less than 40 acres and still be profitable or at least viable when part of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangement.

As overall energy costs rise and supplies become physically scarce, more farming operations will have to transition from high-capital intensive operations requiring huge parcel sizes to much smaller, human-scaled operations. As a result, agricultural planning criteria ought to be flexible enough to encourage the growth of micro-farming on as little as 5 acre parcels, without encouraging the proliferation of rural ranchettes by non-farming individuals. Whether or not a particular area makes this transition from mega farming to micro farming may well determine how well the urban population will survive.

It remains to be seen how well Oregon as a whole will fare over the next three decades. The good news at least they are listening. But will they understand?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Big Plans, Bad Ideas

Two big-state governors have hit the headlines last week with grand plans for the future. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a massive infrastructure construction program, while in New York, George Pataki has called for a renewable energy program. Both plans were developed by comparatively moderate Republican governors with an eye to the challenges of tomorrow. Unfortunately for the residents of these states, both wind up missing the larger point.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s infrastructure plan, called the Strategic Growth Plan (or SGP) is the larger and more complete plan of the two. This plan envisions spending as much as $222 billion over the next ten years on various infrastructure projects statewide. $68 billion of that is projected to come from voter-approved General Obligation bonds, with the remainder of that coming from other state and federal sources along with new user fees. Infrastructure projects funded by this project would occur primarily in three areas: transportation, education and water (flood control and water supply improvements).

Unveiled during the annual State of the State address, this proposal seeks to address years of deferred construction on basic infrastructure needs as well as lay the foundation for future growth. It is no secret that state funding for roads, water systems, flood protection and schools has not kept pace with decades of population growth. Most of California’s major freeways and aqueducts were built decades ago when the state had less than half the population it does now. Equally important is the growing realization that several million people living in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Delta areas of the state are highly vulnerable to catastrophic, New Orleans-style flooding. (Similar to what the Times-Picayune covered for New Orleans, the Sacramento Bee has highlighted the vulnerability of Delta flood protection strategies). Addressing that issue alone will cost tens of billions of dollars.

The SGP is an actual proposal that should be taken seriously. The odds of electoral success for this plan are higher than Schwarzenegger’s 2005’s Special Election initiatives. Unlike the governor’s previous partisan attacks on left-leaning interests, this plan has a broader (if only cautious) appeal to members of both parties.

From a conventional perspective, Schwarzenegger’s plan makes a lot of sense. If the California is to grow and prosper over the next two decades, it is imperative that the infrastructure (transportation, education and water supply systems) be in place first.

Unfortunately for the state, the SGP is woefully inadequate for meeting the challenges of the future. For starters, this plan spends virtually nothing on improving the energy infrastructure of California. The California Energy Commission (CEC) has already recognized numerous shortcomings in the energy production and distribution networks of the state. Adding 10-15 million more residents (and jobs) with little to no attention to the energy details will be a recipe for disaster. Spending billions to build highways, aqueducts and schools will mean little if the state cannot keep the lights on, natural gas flowing or the gas stations full.

As it stands now, California’s electrical grid is highly dependent on natural gas to operate. Though the state has significant hydro, solar and wind generation capabilities, up to 40% of the state’s electricity is provided by natural gas fired generators. As natural gas supplies wane, price and supply pressures will seriously impinge on the state’s ability to keep the lights on. The botched deregulation and subsequent regulatory fixes have not helped matters. Most of the state’s gas generation is in the hands of for-profit energy companies. While most of them supply electricity to the grid under short and long term contracts, none are obligated to continue to do so when those contracts are up. As prices escalate, so will the costs of continuing those contracts? Will the energy companies continue generate electricity if it becomes more profitable to re-sell their natural gas futures on the commodities market? Will they upgrade older, inefficient plants? Will anyone build new ones? Can the state and the investor-owned utilities be able to negotiate long term contracts (for stability) in an unstable economic environment? What will that do to the retail price of electricity? If natural gas generation is out, what will take its place?

These are some very hard questions that need to be answered. The natural gas and electricity situation has the power to grind economic activity to halt across the state. The only thing the CEC seems to be planning for to head off this crisis is to build LNG importation terminals plus efficiency measures.

Nor does the Schwarzenegger remotely consider the liquid fuel implications of his SGP. The SGP (as currently proposed) directs 48% ($107 Billion) of the total $222 Billion package towards transportation projects. Of that only $4.5 billion go toward funding transit and pedestrian projects. California’s preliminary high speed rail planning efforts would be halted if this plan were enacted. At the same time, over half of the transportation project (and close to a quarter of the entire SGP) will be used to build new roads across the state. Billions more will go to repair existing ones. This huge mismatch in funding allocation between road construction and transportation system funding belies a continued dependence on easy and affordable motoring and trucking. Only in a future where transportation costs remain an insignificant proportion of household and business expenditures would this plan make any sense.

Nowhere in the transportation package is there any investment in alternative fueling systems. Arnold Schwarzenegger is well known for touting the hydrogen highway. Logic would dictate the SGP would at least contain even modest funds toward building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure to at least somewhat justify such a massive road building venture.

In reality this project would waste massive amounts of financial, raw material and labor expenditures to build a transportation network with no future.

Oil production will peak (if it hasn’t already) and start to decline in the next few years. Gas and diesel will get much more expensive. With 95% of the state’s transportation fleet dependant on liquid hydrocarbons (and nothing in the works to replace it) driving will get more expensive. So will trucking. At a certain point that would devastate state’s economy, reducing the amount of traffic regardless of how many new roads would be constructed.

In light of that fact, any proposal to build thousands of new lane-miles should be a non-starter. If the governor really was serious on making massive amounts investments on the future of transportation, he would propose a transportation package that emphasized transit expenditures over road construction. He would encourage local jurisdictions to stop making land use decisions that further the dependence on the automobile and retrofit what was already built. Furthermore, he would propose a plan that simply would necessitate less travel to begin with. Fewer vacation trips, fewer work trips, fewer shopping trips and so on. Instead California residents have been left with an infrastructure plan that gambles on the hope that somewhere in the next 20 years someone invents something to replace oil.

At a $107 billion, that’s one heck of a wager.

The rest of the SGP, while well-meaning is worthless without a stable source of energy. Where will the additional megawatts come from to pump ever more water from one end of the state to the other? As it stands now, close to 20% of all of California’s electrical production is consumed by moving water from one place to another. (This includes all aspects of the water system from well pumping to sewage treatment). How will the state be able to afford continual levee upgrades? What use will continued educational investments mean if it becomes unaffordable to transport the kids to the schools (not to mention heating and cooling them).

The real problem with the Schwarzenegger’s Strategic Growth Plan is that it represents the conventional approach to planning: rear view mirror planning. Every element of this plan is based on past trends carrying on into the future and making strategic accommodations for them. Growth (in every sense of the word) is presumed under the SGP. Whether it is the number of new schools, highways or water systems that will be funded or economic or the population projections that underscore the need for it, the only trend apparent in the plan is upward.

Given the fact that most Californians owe their continued existence to an infrastructure system that has already artificially extended the natural carrying capacity of the land to support tens of millions of people, is it really a good idea to be promoting more growth?

A real infrastructure plan would look those realities in the eye and be able to mitigate them or at the very least, not make them worse. The state’s future is not dependent on whether the average Los Angelino is able to drive to work in 17 minutes instead of 52. The state’s future really depends on whether it can keep the lights on and the water and food flowing to 10 million people living in an area with naturally occurring resources for only 100,000.

In contrast to Schwarzenegger’s ignorance of energy matters, Governor George Pataki’s recent proposals outlined in his State of the State and other speeches, focused primarily on the issue of energy. Unlike Schwarzenegger’s comprehensive plan, Pataki’s ideas are more free-formed and visionary in nature. In his State of the State Speech, he envisioned a plan that would jump-start investment in “renewable fuels” and “clean coal” and lessen the dependence of New Yorkers on “terror funding” foreign oil supplies. While as laudable as these goals are, serious questions arise on how they would be realized.

Renewable [liquid] fuel proposals in the US typically mean increased ethanol production and Pataki’s ideas are no exception. And any talk of ethanol, particularly by politicians, inevitably boils down to corn.

Though Pataki has not given firm inclinations on pursuing any particular technology, his apparent positioning for the 2008 Presidential Race (and its early Iowa caucuses) is not encouraging.

At the very least, a strong push for ethanol and its cousin, biodiesel should raise some real hard questions before billions of dollars are expended. Foremost among these is whether or not the purported fuel takes more energy to make than it yields in return. Calculations of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) ratios and not economic viability are more important. Just as important is the availability of the source bio matter to be converted into liquid fuels. Careful consideration has to be given on whether or not there is sufficient LOCAL production of bio matter to meet LOCAL fuel demands without harming the ecosystem or jeopardizing food production.

A New Yorker’s right to drive should not harm the health or well being of other people or ecosystems elsewhere on the planet.

This is not to say that any biofuel development is bad. There is definitely a place for biofuel usage in post-Peak Oil planning. What politicians need to realize is that it is no panacea. No amount of biofuel production can compare to the energetic bounty embodied in fossil fuels. Any plan that aspires to replace fossil fuels for an equal amount of biofuels without making any other changes will be doomed to failure.

Other elements of any eventual renewable energy plan that are worthy of incorporation would be increased solar and wind power generation incentives and energy efficiency program funding. While the governor’s speech did not delve into much detail, such a strategy would probably be compatible with whatever Pataki ends up promoting.

Any energy plan that emerges from Albany will be of little use if it is ignorant of basic physics. Nor will it be able to confront the challenges of Peak Oil or natural gas depletion with only supply-side solutions without asking any thing on the demand side. Effective planning would examine both sides of the supply-demand equation. Politics however, has a way perverting good intentions. The best New Yorkers could hope for out of this process would be a plan that brings some additional supplies online while making more efficient use of what we already use everyday. Hardly a great solution, but better than the alternative: a New York State equivalent to 2005’s massive pork-barrel, Federal Energy Bill.

In the end, both California’s Strategic Growth Plan and New York’s Renewable Energy push are superb examples of conventional thought processes. They both seek to plan for a future based on past performances or solutions. Neither makes any attempt to step back and fundamentally question the foundation of those assumptions. Both plans remain blissfully ignorant of the underlying energetic situation. Whether this is a product of political expediency, aversion to making hard choices, or bureaucratic inertia, the inevitable result will be a waste of precious, remaining resources.

The states of New York and California (and countless other governments like them) need to wake up and begin to make meaningful, holistic energy plans that address all aspects of energy usage and conform the rest of their non-energy plans to fit within those parameters. If they fail to do this, any grand plan they do conceive of and follow will be for naught.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Too little, Too late

The sprawling nature of suburban communities has long been recognized to foster a dependence on the automobile over other modes of transport. This dependence has in turn led to two key problems for this country and others intent on following our path: a growing need for more energy sources to power the increase in vehicle miles traveled and a resulting increase in automotive pollution. Both issues are intricately linked and driven by overall growth pressures. As is the case with most things bureaucratic, responsibility for addressing each issue are left to multiple jurisdictions. Each agency treats the problem without consideration to what caused it in the first place. In California, issues of air quality are generally handled by regional air districts under state and federal guidance. Energy related issues on the other hand, have largely remained under the jurisdiction of state and federal energy agency offices.
With that in mind, it is a pleasant surprise when an agency manages to grasp the bigger picture.
In a closely watched move, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District of California recently adopted a new rule that will assess a fee on all future development based on how much—or little—pollution that each new proposal would create. This rule, known as the Indirect Source Rule (ISR), will assess builders a fee based in part on how many pollution-inhibiting features each development will possess. What makes this rule so unique is that it actually focuses on the root causes of pollution, namely land use patterns, road networks and building design. The air district anticipates that by redesigning neighborhoods (placing housing closer to jobs and shopping), improving internal circulation networks (more pathways, less cul-de-sacs) and making housing more energy efficient, smaller amounts of pollution will be generated by everyday activities. Developers that incorporate one or more such elements could see their fee reduced or eliminated. Those that choose not to participate would be assessed the maximum fee. Collected fees would then be distributed for valley-wide air pollution efforts.
Assuming it survives the inevitable court challenge, this rule has a profound energy impact as well: all of the above mentioned techniques that seek to reduce air pollution do so by reducing energy consumption. Even more remarkable is that these anticipated reductions come from fundamental changes in behavior and not from the usual efficiency improvements.
The fact that this air district is even willing to take on this political hot potato in what is a very Conservative swath of California is a testament to awful air quality of the region. Put simply, the air stinks. The San Joaquin Valley has long been a dry and dusty place, prone to long periods of air stagnation. The valley is surrounded by mountains on three sides with only a narrow opening for fresh air at the north. Industrialized civilization has taken this natural bowl and filled it with a fetid stew of factory farm-derived pesticide spraying and particulate matter, vehicular smog, petro-chemical fumes (California’s most productive oil fields are in Kern County) and wood burning particles. It is no wonder that the valley has the second worst air quality in the US.
Most cars are far cleaner than their 1970’s counterparts and few emission improvements are left to implement, logic dictates focusing on reducing the overall number of emitters instead. Since the Air District cannot simply mandate no drive days, they have focused their efforts in reducing the need to travel in the first place, via land use modifications. The ISR is an outgrowth of this.
As good as this regulatory development is, it is way too little too late, to mitigate the coming energy crunch. It probably will not even help reduce pollution levels. For starters, the fee will start out at a laughable $780. Per house. With houses in the valley typically going for $200-300 thousand range, the percentage of the purchase price will be miniscule at best. The only thing more laughable is the Building Industry Association’s claim that it will reduce the affordability of housing in the area. Questions of a housing bubble aside, home valuations have increased by far larger percentages than the fee comprises. It would not be surprising to see builders fork over that fee, pass it on and continue on as usual. To really be serious about reducing energy use (and pollution levels) the fee would have to rise to a level that would spur on alternative development plans. A more draconian suggestion would be to simply prohibit conventional suburban development. Those two ideas would probably stand a better chance at reducing pollution than the ISR rule as currently written.
More importantly, the ISR does nothing to retrofit or adapt patterns in existing neighborhoods. It doesn’t address infill, building retrofits, street circulation improvements or land rezonings. Though construction activity is significant in the San Joaquin, overall reductions in energy consumption as a result of this plan would remain small for many years to come due to the small portion of overall units that are newly constructed.
With 1,100 annual deaths attributable to pollutants and one out of every six Valley children living with asthma, it’s quite understandable that reducing pollution is job number one for elected officials and civil servants alike. In reality, it should be job number three. Pollution and its preceding factor, fossil fuel energy consumption are simply symptoms of ever increasing growth pressures and depict an environment pushed further into overshoot. And overshot it has. Not only is the valley (like many other places) dependant on out of region energy supplies, local surface water supplies have been up to 100% diverted from the original streams to irrigate farms while the aquifer is in an overdrafted condition. The “fertile” soils of this broad alluvial valley have been so overworked, they bear little resemblance to their original condition. Only through massive additions of fertilizer and pesticides do they remain productive. To add insult to injury, the easiest soils to cultivate are lost to development pressures driven by relentless growth. Growth brought on by natural increase, immigration and internal migration (equity refugees) and enthusiastically welcomed by local politicians, retailers and builders.
Any “solution” that fails to address the growth pressure will fall victim to Jeavon’s Paradox, whereby any improvement in energy consumption or pollution production per capita is lost to continued growth. Control the growth rate first before trying to reduce energy consumption. Do both of those and overall pollution levels will inevitably decline.
Unfortunately, the advocacy of energy conservation and reduction is even less popular than trying to clean up the air. “The American way of life is non-negotiable,” remember? The ISR as currently defined will wind up a minor sideshow in the orgy of development ongoing in Central California.
The advocacy of limiting growth is simply taboo. What, fewer people? Less goods? That’s just racist, against God’s will or anti-free market. Whatever your persuasion, it is just wrong…
Perhaps there was a time, some six decades ago when America was flush with cash, oil and a pent up urge to grow, we may have been able to make the ISR rule work everywhere, with great results. Imagine if the Levitts and the like were forced to price in the true cost of auto-dependent suburbia. Would we have ended up in our current position? Probably not. This is not to imply that everything would have been alright either. Oil would still peak, probably later in the future. When that point would have been reached, our public transportation infrastructure and our built environment would be much more up to the task of handling a terminal decline of energy resources.
In the end, any dependence on a non-renewable resource would have left us exposed to the inevitable consequences of depletion. Proper planning for use of a non-renewable resource really ought to begin before extraction begins. Anything else, like the ISR rule is too little, too late.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Bone-headed Planners

In recent years there have been a number of jurisdictions that have made intelligent planning decisions by moving away from the postwar model of suburban development. Salem, Oregon is apparently not one of them. The planning department there is pushing a proposal to require all new development INCLUDE garages and larger lot sizes.

I couldn’t believe it, but there it was in the paper.

Proposal would require garages for new homes in city
Councilors likely won't vote on the plan until January
CRYSTAL BOLNER Statesman Journal
December 6, 2005
Every new residential home in Salem will be required to have a garage if the Salem City Council approves proposed changes to the city's residential-design standards. City councilors discussed design standards at their meeting Monday. They likely won't vote on the proposed changes until January. The proposal includes increasing minimum lot sizes on flag-shaped lots from 4,000 square feet to 5,500 square feet and requiring every residential home built in Salem to include a garage.
"The intent is to try to make infill lots more compatible with the neighborhood," said Vickie Hardin Woods, the city's community-development director. With current lot sizes, homes are squeezed onto flag lots, Woods said, creating large numbers of streets filled with tiny homes. The change would allow a bigger number of larger homes.
The council also discussed whether to make it illegal for residents to convert garages into second dwellings and using garages for extra bedrooms and family rooms. Woods told members of the council that she receives four to seven complaints per year about homeowners who have converted garage space into living space.

The council decided that it would stay silent about the issue. Councilor Dan Clem opposed the idea entirely. "There are people with growing families who need that space," Clem said.
From a conventional planner’s perspective, this policy change makes planning more difficult by making alternative proposals for new development or retrofits harder to implement. What generally works today may not work in the future. As hard as it may be to believe, the local developers are not enthused by the proposed changes. According to the TV coverage on this issue, it will prevent them from offering minimal lot-size houses and other offerings that could house more individuals at lower costs. Some developers there had been constructing projects that would qualify as smart growth.

It is certainly a strange day when you find developers in support of smart growth (albeit not vigorously) and the planning department in opposition.

Of course given the magnitude of our looming energy crisis and sheer unlikelihood that every household will continue to afford to own two (or more) vehicles, Salem’s proposed change is even more asinine. Likewise, the inclination to increase lot size will do little to help the city adapt to changing circumstances. An extra thousand or so square feet of lot size will not come in the least bit handy when it is occupied by a driveway and garage. These changes are just another example of an inability for many local governments to think outside the box. Most planners are just fine with developing their future plans based on past trends. In many cases, suggestions to the contrary are met with open hostility.

Whether Salem decides to mandate garages or not, in the grand scheme of things it will probably not matter much. The city’s ultimate prospects for the future are dependant on how well the greater Willamette Valley adapts to the consequences of Peak Oil.

Monday, November 14, 2005

But don't forget the details...

Much discussion has gone into what an ideal post peak community should contain to remain sustainable over the long haul. Food production, raw material access, community organization and other aspects have been covered in detail here and in other locations on the net. This post looks past the basic needs to the community extras; those things that would make life more pleasurable or comfortable.

Public Square
The Spanish colonists to Latin America got this one right. When laying out towns and cities, they left a central plaza—usually next to the church and government building—where citizens could gather, exchange goods, or simply relax. It was and still is a communal shared space in many Latin American cities, where push cart vendors hawk refreshments, children play, lovers meet, and the elderly play dominoes and while away the time. From time to time markets or fairs are held and goods and ideas exchanged. Ideas that occasionally lead to rallies, riots or revolution, all occur within the confines of that simple space. These spaces are highly underrated and missing in most new “communities.” The food court at the local Galleria Mall will not cut it. As our world and worldview begin to contract, local gathering points become increasingly important to maintaining one of the neater aspects of civilized living.

Recreational Sports
Physical activity is generally beneficial to one’s health and engaging in hard work is one way to go about this. However, it is not usually pleasurable. Sporting activities on the other hand can be. Assuming some free time would be available to individuals in the future, recreational sporting events should be held. No, this doesn’t refer to those occupations held by a small number of highly compensated individuals. Rather, loose assortment of teams and leagues could be formed much like the corporate softball or bowling leagues of today. It would provide yet another way for members of a community could bond with each other, engage in some healthy competition and stay active.

Tree lined streets
Trees make the neighborhood. Some cities have this down now, others need to do some catching up. As we slide into our low energy future and are forced to walk and bike more, what is more enjoyable on a hot summer day—walking along sidewalk beneath a canopy of leaves in the shade or sweating it out in the sun? If we ensure more than a few of these trees are fruit or nut trees we could also gain another food source as well.

Oktoberfest. The Thanksgiving parade. Street Scene. Art on the Boulevard. These are some of the many community events that occur just about anywhere. These, like the public square are also underrated. They bring people together for a reason other than work or shopping and can add a pleasant element to just about anyone’s life. Sure the festival may celebrate a nut or a bird or an eccentric fool but it brings people together with an unspoken message “relax, chill out and have a good time.” A more involved festival gets people, particularly the participants, excited weeks ahead of time and gives them something to look forward to. Events that add food and drink to the occasion enrich the sensory experience. When combined with good music and some dancing, all five senses are stimulated. None of this needs expensive or intensive equipment either. Just some open space, a theme and a bunch of involved people and away you go.

Community Information and Learning Center
This complex sounding title really refers to a library that doubles as a place of continuing education. The retention of information is one half of the continuation of knowledge. The other half requires its transmission. For the most part that is accomplished via schooling of children. But education needn’t be complete at adulthood. People of any age should be able to learn new practices, crafts or theories when desired. It could be as formal as your current degree granting college institution of today or as simple as a how-to-knit class. Ideally this location would continue to be connected with the outside world, but as the jury is still out on the fate of technology, at the very least an information repository would continue to maintain and transmit the existing knowledge base.

Public Transport
Unless the community is 100% walkable, (e.g. less than 10 minutes walk from any point in town) some form of public transit would be a good idea. It could be as regimented as a street car or train system to as simple as a horse pulled wagon with seats. Planners need to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to problem of moving people from one point to another. Cuba has demonstrated a number of innovative means of public transport, many of which people in this country would no doubt turn their noses up at. Although it is unclear how far technology and industry will regress back to, there is no reason why people should remain stuck at home.

City Comforts
The final category here is what I broadly define as “City Comforts” after the book written by David Sucher. In his highly illustrated book, David describes well over one hundred items, structures or design elements to humanize the urban realm. These range from the mundane such as pavement selection to the complex like design criteria. Any town or community that can employ as many of these features as possible will be far more pleasing to the eye and comforting to the body. If you have time, be sure to check out his site for more information.

None of these elements described in this posting are essential. We probably could live without seasonal festivals or a soccer league. As long as the basic human needs are being met in a community without the assistance of fossil fuels or consumption of non-renewable resources, the settlement is by definition, sustainable. But why merely exist when, with a little enlightened planning you can really live.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Depletion and the Children's Movie

Energy depletion is not normally something one thinks of when watching children’s movies. The subject itself is hardly ever considered in grown-up movies and aside from Oil Storm and the upcoming Syriana, the topic of energy has usually only played a peripheral role in most plot lines, if at all. Yet it is some children’s movies that tackle the issue of depletion head-on, often without even knowing it. The subject is just out of view, behind the dastardly villain and the deserving hero(ine)s, a convenient plot device that moves the story forward. Three children’s movies in the past few years tackle this challenging subject, albeit with metaphorical references and cartoon characters. Unfortunately for the kids watching these movies (and others like it), the message being taught is not the correct one.

The Care Bears:
Big Wish Movie (2005), a direct to video production from Lions Gate, allegorically discusses the subjects of energy usage, depletion and pollution from the perspective of those good-natured, but not too bright creatures of Care-a-Lot. Superficially the movie tells the story of Wish Bear and her pal Twinkers, a magical star that grants a seemingly unlimited number of wishes. Wish Bear proceeds to make her life more comfortable and curry favor from her Care Bear pals by asking Twinkers to do this or that. Well, as it turns out, not all of those wishes were as they seemed and it soon became apparent to the other denizens of Care-a-Lot that Wish Bear’s wishes were having some unwanted side effects. Wish Bear becomes distressed that her actions are not being welcomed as favorably as she thought that they were and wishes for some new friends that would appreciate her wish powers. These new Care Bears were not at all Care-a-Lot material and through typical cartoonish shenanigans, they acquire Wish Bear’s source of power, Twinkers and go on a wish binge of their own. Eventually two things happen: poor Twinkers finally gets tired and can no longer keep up with the wish requests and all of the bear’s wishing starts to take the “caring” out of Care-a-Lot. The new bears’ McMansions, cars and factories (no I am not making this up, they were really in the movie) start to blot out the sun, stink up the kingdom and turn the colors to gray. When the Care Bears belatedly discover their actions have caused this mess they ask Twinkers to undo it. Unfortunately Twinkers is all wished out and cannot help. So the bears roll up their sleeves and do it themselves, cleaning up Care-a-Lot and learning how to “care” for them selves and not relying on little Twinkers. At the end of the movie, all is well in the Care Bear world, Twinkers is healthy again (and sparingly used), the new Bears apparently getting along and everyone presumably lives happily ever after.

The Big Wish Movie pretty much encapsulates much of the story behind oil and repackages it into a cute and cuddly form. What basically happens in this storyline is the lead character discovers a new and potentially limitless form of energy (much like petroleum or natural gas) that can do pretty much anything desired of it. The downside to its usage is that it also creates some unwelcome impacts. At first these are mostly annoying in their level of significance (replacing manually performed tasks with artificial means without any consideration to those performing it) but as usage increases, eventually these build up to cause serious impacts to the characters’ environment (air and noise pollution). Pollution and ill will grow to the point where all involved realize there is a problem. At first, there is some disagreement to the severity or ultimate solution, much like the debate between our scientists and our economists. Regrettably for the characters in the movie at this point of recognition, the source of energy can no longer keep up with the demands placed upon it, forcing the characters to solve their problems by themselves. Just like the bears in the movie, it is only at the point of Peak Oil production that we have figured this out for ourselves as well.

This movie covers the first half of petro-industrialization well. However as it is only a movie, and children’s one at that, the allegory fails to accurately depict what will happen next. The Care Bears are not bound by the laws of physics so their solution of do-it-yourself will not cut it for us. Nor will giving our oil fields a rest result in their regeneration. The reality is that oil will not regenerate in our life times and no level of human effort can come closed to the energetic expenditures offered up to us by oil and other fossil fuels. We will not solve all of our own problems with our own human powered efforts. In fact we probably will not even be able to sustain our total numbers, let alone repair our damages. The Care Bears, as dim as they are, were smart enough not to depend on Twinkers for their own sustenance and survival.

The next movie, Barbie:
The Princess and the Pauper (2004) by Mattel looks at depletion from a more economic and geo-political point of view. Briefly, this movie is presumably set in medieval times where everything is human or animal powered. The story opens with a worrisome problem for the queen of this modest sized kingdom: her gold mines are depleted and there is no longer any source of revenue to sustain her country and her lavish lifestyle. This sets off a frantic scramble whereby she offers up her daughter, Princess Annaliese to her neighboring (and still wealthy) kingdom, soon to be ruled by Prince Dominic. With the two married, the kingdoms could be merged so that Princess Annaliese’s country could continue to be sustained while at the same time maintaining the wealthy lifestyle the royal family is accustomed to. This plan is thwarted by the royal advisor Premenger’s scheme to take over the kingdom for himself in a sanitized-for-children kind of coup d’tat. By gaining control, Premenger could rule in absolute with the financial support from the stolen gold from the mines he was originally put in charge of. His plans were ruined by the Princess, her servant, an indentured seamstress and Prince Dominic when they exposed his treachery and at the same time discovered a completely new source of income, purple gems. The princess was not forced to marry Dominic and there was no unification. Both kingdoms prospered and the princess and her pauper friend the seamstress both found love with their respective love interests and lived happily ever after.
A new natural resource is discovered
prolonging the party

This movie is the only one not directly related to energy. At no point was any of the character’s existence or well being threatened by declining energy availability. This movie does however deal with the implications of sole dependence on one source of income based on a non-renewable natural resource and the potential damage that it may wreak on a particular region, state or country. Aside from Norway, most oil producing countries have not been particularly blessed by their apparent energetic “richness”. Most are despotic and once their source of revenue dries up, so does their standing in the world. Beyond the world of energy, mining and extraction activities in general have had a long and storied history of turning outposts into boom towns before collapsing once their resource was depleted. Time and time again there were gold, silver, guano, platinum and other mineral rushes that lead to fabulous wealth for all involved. When those sources were gone it forced a scramble for alternative sources of income. Some managed and diversified their economies. Some were absorbed by wealthier neighbors. Others simply collapsed. This movie takes the easy way out. It finds a way for all involved to continue the party and postponing the inevitable day of reckoning. In other words, it presupposes that something else will come along and *poof* that will solve our problems without us having to make any hard decisions. Unfortunately for us at this point, it is highly unlikely another form of higher value energy will be developed to offset our dependence on fossil fuels, no matter how much the market may demand it. Barbie tells us a good story. Don’t expect ours to have such a happy ending though.

Finally, no children’s movie discusses energy more than that of Pixar’s

Monster’s Inc. (2001). This movie literally encapsulates today’s energy debate from a suppy-demand standpoint. The story starts out with the following premise: monster civilization has advanced to the point where its energy demands were no longer being met by supply (in this case the screams of children). Demand for energy to fuel their cars, houses, and the other trappings of an industrialized lifestyle continued to increase while at the same time the supply was leveling off or even slightly falling. In other words, they were reaching the point of Peak Scream. To deal with it, the energy company where the protagonist, Sully worked for was trying both legal and illegal technical research to boost energy supply. While most of the movie covered the inevitable results arising out of technical research gone wrong, the quest to solve Monstropolous’s energy crisis continued. Eventually Sully and his sidekick Mike Wysoski stumbled upon the fact that children’s laughs were ten times more potent than screams and just in the knick of time averted a collapse. Monstropolous was saved from rolling blackouts and the riddle of Peak Scream was solved by laughter. No discussion of what would happen when monster civilization reached the point of Peak Laugh however.

This movie’s plot line was definitely novel, something that you would expect out of Pixar. To actually discuss energy issues directly and in an upfront manner stands out from your usual damsel in distress, animal love story, or prince/princess tale. The fact that it is a children’s movie is all that more remarkable. What is not remarkable is the solution arrived upon. Peak Scream—while potentially debilitating for Monster Civilization—was ultimately not a problem as monster ingenuity, technical advances and market necessity led to the discovery and implementation of a new, higher valued (energy dense) source of energy. Like the Princess and the Pauper, this movie falls back on the very commonplace thought that somehow, somewhere we will figure something out to solve all of our problems. The only difference between the two movies is the role of technology. Monsters Inc. writers simply figure that any energy related problem will have a technical solution.

Children’s movies can play an important role in teaching kids about important elements and topic matters that adults face each and every day. Most lessons naturally focus the human relationship aspects, such as manners, good versus evil and the like. Many however will stray into broader subject matter including war, the environment and in this case depletion. As lamentable as each movie’s resolution to the issue of depletion was it is understandable. The writers of each movie are no doubt working off the commonly assumed aspects of human progress and are guided by the principles of child story telling: every one lives happily ever after.

If only it were that easy.

Energy production made easy...

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