Thursday, April 14, 2005

That Forgotten Element

In planning, much like every other field, energy availability is overlooked or taken for granted. From the identification of ideals to the development of concepts to the formulation of alternatives and on to the adoption and implementation of the final plan, all steps assume that no significant changes in energy availability manifest themselves during the plan’s duration. Any consideration to energy is only given as a response to another problem, such as pollution. Case in point—our General Plan process.

In my county, like many in California, we have two universal concerns and few specific ones. Every plan is forced (by law in some cases) to address those concerns. The two universal ones are water and air pollution. Any planning or development decision must address those two issues. “Is there enough water to support this development?” and “how will this project impact ambient air quality?” are two frequently asked questions. Other questions seek to address a project’s impact on traffic, infrastructure, agriculture (more so in our county), existing neighborhoods and on the socio-economic fabric as well as other variables. Whole decisions and applied solutions are geared around addressing those very concerns. So we ended up with some of the following policy elements that address energy concerns for unrelated reasons:

* Pursuit of alternative fuels as opposed to conventional sources to reduce air pollution.
* Promotion of public transit to reduce traffic congestion
* Density bonuses for developers to build more smaller units to increase housing affordability.
* Promotion of natural gas use over other fuels for air pollution concerns
* Pursuit of “New Urbanism” development principles for aesthetic reasons
* Promotion of biomass industries for economic reasons

The list could go on. In every case above, policy choices with energy implications were made for non-energetic reasons. Some choices do fit well within a paradigm of declining energy availability, while others will make the situation worse.

In the case of the county’s general plan, policy decisions are being made that make not only energy assumptions but also actually affect “energy policy” for the sake of accomplishing an unrelated goal. The general plan efforts to date mostly relegate energy planning mostly toward the economic policy considerations. Thus we end up with policy objectives like “the pursuit of alternate energy industries, such as biomass and solar represents sound planning strategy to diversify the county’s economic base while providing new forms of energy to its residents.” Some consideration is also give to the infrastructure level energy needs, which translates into simply ensuring that new growth can be accommodated by the public utility companies. No consideration on whether any of this can actually be accomplished without violating the laws of thermodynamics has been given.

At the same time, consideration is being given to planning constraints. While policies and scenarios are being crafted, constraints are also being considered. Once again, oft-repeated questions get asked when developing constraints:

* Is there enough water to support this?
* How will this affect ambient air quality?
* Will this affect the agricultural industry?
* Will the local economy support this?

Not directly asked, but ever present of course is “how will this play, politically?” In this county, air quality and water are politically palatable to discuss. The air quality focus was largely forced upon us by state and federal agencies and the water focus simply because, well, this is part of the US Southwest and a lack of water just goes with the territory. Energy on the other hand just does not rise to that level. Part of this is because most people just have not fully comprehended the full magnitude of the problem as the issue has not risen to the same level of consciousness as water, while the other part belies the faith in human progress that we will figure something out before then. Being told that everything they believed would occur will not because there simply will not be enough energy to permit it, is just incomprehensible.

So we carry on like a freight train barreling down the tracks to where the bridge is out. Can, I as the solitary person on staff that is even concerned about this actually stop the train before it is too late? Or am I going to get run over?

Energy, that forgotten element will not be forgotten for long.


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