Feds Approve Cape Wind

Posted: April 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Energy, Massachusetts, Sustainability | Comments Off

Cotuit View

U.S. Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar announced the approval of the Cape Wind project today:

Cape Wind Associates, the developer, said it planned to begin construction of the 130 turbines about five miles off Cape Cod by the end of the year, even as the main opposition group announced that it would immediately file a lawsuit in an effort to block the $1 billion project.

See more on wind power in Massachusetts

(Image from Cape Wind Associates)

Which Big City Has the Greenest Transportation Profile?

Posted: January 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Sustainability, Transit, Transportation, Travel | Tags: | 3 Comments »

When I was in San Francisco in October, I met Chava Kronenberg, a bay area transportation planner and Metro Boston native. During our conversation she commented Boston’s quite extensive alternative transportation profile is often overlooked in national discussions. Instead, usual suspects like Portland, Oregon get all the credit for their green transportation systems. I decided to take a look at several transportation metrics to see just how green Boston was among big cities. Could it be the greenest city in America, as she claimed?

The three measures I chose were the overall percentage of workers using transit, bikes, and walking to work. I limited the analysis to the largest 30 “places” in the U.S. Census and used data from the 2006-2008 American Community Survey. Technically this is sample data, but I did not calculate margins of errors since for large cities they are generally small. Also, there’s an extensive and heated debate about exactly how green transit is. Most studies I’ve seen conclude busy buses or trains emit less pollution (including CO2) per passenger than private vehicles, but I won’t wade into the debate here. Here’s what I found.

For overall transit ridership to work, New York City (55%) and Washington, D.C. (37%) were winners, with Boston in third at 32% with San Francisco (32%) and Chicago (26%) rounding out the top five. Since this metric is for the center city only, I think Boston’s getting a bit short shrift. The region’s truly expansive commuter rail system (it goes all the way to Rhode Island — see below) carries an average of over 138,000 riders a day, more than all but two other similar systems in the nation — New York and Chicago. (Source: APTA ridership report (PDF))

Boston Commuter Rail

SmartBike is up and runningWhat about zero-pollution biking? On this measure, the top five are Portland (4.7%), Seattle (2.5%), San Francisco (2.5%), and D.C. (2%) (which launched a bike-sharing system in 2008) and Denver (1.7%). Boston is only a few slots down at #7 with 1.2%. However, the city only recently saw the light and began pursuing bicycle planning aggressively. In fact, in the past it has been named one of the least bicycle-friendly cities in the U.S., although despite this bad reputation ranks way above dozens of other large cities.

The city’s 2009 State of the Hub report (PDF) reports 15 new miles of bike lanes (up from 0 in 2007), 500 new bike racks, a new bike map, and plans for a new bike sharing system moving forward. I should note plenty of smaller cities have larger shares of bike commuters. If Minneapolis were on the list, it would rank second with 3.5% of its commuters biking to work. If it were included, Boston’s neighbor Cambridge would be 5.8%, easily topping Portland.

Walking is another green mode available to most travelers, often overlooked for more exciting trains and bike facilities. However, making a city walkable can be tricky, as it depends on a subtle combination of good public facilities, urban design and density, and mixed land uses. On this measure, Boston tops the list at 14%, with Washington, D.C. just behind at 11.7%, and the rest of the top five New York (10.1%), San Francisco (9.52%), and Seattle (8.6%). It turns out some of the factors that make Boston such a bad city to bicycle — congested streets and a dense street grid — make it excellent for walking. Walking is so popular the city boasts an active walking advocacy organization — WalkBoston — and extensive trail networks along the harbor and through parks.

Next, I created a composite score for all three indicators. For each indicators, the cities were ranked with 1 going to the city with the highest (best) value and 30 to the worst. I then added the rankings together, weighing each equally. The lower the resulting score, the better. This score gauges the diversity of the mix, and isn’t an objective measure of pollution output. In this measure, Washington, D.C. ranks first with a score of 8, San Francisco and Boston tie for 2nd at 11, and Seattle fourth with a score of 15. New York, strong on transit and walking, falls to an overall place of seventh due to it’s low biking score (16th with just 0.7% of commuters reporting biking).

What can we conclude from this simple comparison? First, as Chava suspected some very bike friendly places like Portland may not have many transit riders or walkers. Any evaluation that stresses diversity, like this one, will rank them lower than older cities with well-developed transit and street networks. And although it comes as no surprise to me, Washington, D.C.’s high ranking may surprise some. Indeed, it is the result of many factors: excellent “bones” in a good street and sidewalk grid, decisions by city leaders in the 60s and 70s to stop as many highways as possible and invest heavily in transit, lots of government-related jobs concentrated downtown, and a city government aggressively pursuing improvements to bicycle, walking, and transit infrastructure in recent years.

Finally, I think Boston’s high walking score and surprisingly high biking statistics (despite little infrastructure and bad weather) show it is somewhat underrated. But is it the greenest city in America? That’s for you to decide.

Simulating Our Petroleum-Dependent Future

Posted: October 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Energy, Sustainability, Technology, Urban Development | Tags: | 4 Comments »

Snapshot 2009-10-28 23-40-24Computer modeling is a powerful tool for analyzing complex urban systems. Indeed, for decades metropolitan-scale transportation planning has been informed by increasingly sophisticated computer models. In addition, models are commonly used to study all types of infrastructure systems, the urban environment, even possible location of future of urban growth. In fact, I’m building an attractiveness model for future residential development in South Florida in a class this semester.

However, models can have insidious effects. They excel when applied to deterministic systems, where the rules are static and known, but often fail when applied to systems with arbitrary or random characteristics. Even more troubling, models can impede decision-making by hiding their assumptions, introducing bias into the simulation.

In this light, let’s consider a simple model developed by the oil company Chevron. Their “Energyville” game is located the Will You Join Us website, now being promoted through magazine and TV ads that position the company as an energy company interested in finding energy “solutions” and using it “wisely.” Energyville is presented as a neutral challenge: “What energy sources will power your city?” A disclaimer reminds the user that the assumptions are “based on The Economist Intelligence Unit’s assessment of global facts and trends obtained form numerous credible sources.” The warning observes the game makes many simplifications, acknowledging “global forces and technological developments may change current and future assumptions.” The game aesthetics shows a clear influence of the popular SimCity.

Chevron - willyoujoinus - Energyville

Launching the simulation, I begin by placing some wind turbines in the city. After installing three turbines, the limit is reached: “Geographical and other constraints prevent Wind power from providing any more power to Energyville.” Next, I turned to solar panels. Picture 4After just two placed, I get this error: “Unavailable! Solar panels are still too cost prohibitive and inefficient to provide any more power to Energyville.” The only remaining renewable energy source is a massive conventional-looking hydroelectric dam. After installation on the river, most of my city’s electrical needs are met.

All except for the ever-important petroleum. There’s no Better Place-type electric car networks possible here. “Warning! low on fuels,” a message quickly appears, saying I need petroleum for airplanes, vehicles, and mass transit. Only once I put a huge petroleum platform in the ocean could I proceed to the next level.

Chevron - willyoujoinus - Energyville

Before level 2 begins, the simulation presents a policy choice: should I adopt energy efficiency measures that will improve environmental quality and “security,” while placing a tax on economic output? Round two is similar, with a couple surprises. First, my wind farms are in trouble:

Chevron - willyoujoinus - Energyville

Ironically, my attempt at developing renewable sources was thwarted by the very global warming I am concerned with! Next, my solar program is in trouble:

Chevron - willyoujoinus - Energyville

I’m a bit confused by this one. After all, all energy costs money. Solar panels can only be “too costly” if cheaper alternatives are available. What these options are – continued petroleum, nuclear, or some other source, is not explained. In this round my fossil fuels are unaffected by catastrophe.

Repeated playing revealed other game paths have other possible events. In one case, solar panels become more attractive to homeowners due to net metering policies, and two actually make wind power even more attractive due to vaguely specified improved technology or other benefits. If you invest in nuclear it warns you uranium may increase in price due to global demand. Once, a terrorist attack in the middle east tightens oil supply. But petroleum price and supply rarely plays a role in the problem – despite the historical evidence as recently as the summer as 2008 that it can be subject to major price volatility. (Incidentally, I think the game was created in 2007.)

In the end, is this a fair simulation? Despite the capricious nature of some of the factors, most of the assumptions are probably reasonable. Presumably Chevron is too savvy to deliberately plant obvious biases in some of the assumptions, nevertheless I’m sure a serious energy wonk could find plenty to quibble about. However, like too many models, Energyville doesn’t clearly reveal its underlying assumptions, or allow the user to question or manipulate them. Although the limits placed on the speed alternative fuels can be rolled out are probably derived from mainstream sources, history shows change — whether beneficial or catastrophic — can be surprisingly rapid.

Chevron - willyoujoinus - EnergyvilleThis means Energyville misses a major educational opportunity. (Despite it appearing on an educational blog – the only Technorati link to the site.) The flash interface makes it impossible to copy text and contains no links to external sources, and the “about” page lists dozens of unlinked articles, reports, and websites, and no assumption is presented as contested. Although thousands of players may learn a few facts embedded in the game, or gain a vague sense of the benefits and limitations of various energy sources, it doesn’t support serious examination and debate about energy technology or policy. But maybe that’s the point.

> WillYouJoinUs.com

Will Electric Cars Fuel Urban Sprawl?

Posted: January 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Energy, Parking, Sustainability, Transportation | Tags: , , | 6 Comments »

Shai Agassi has an idea so revolutionary it’s convinced venture capitalists to commit hundreds of millions of dollars, major corporations to sign on, and the leaders of countries around the world scrambling to sign up to be the guinea pigs for his new technology. It’s also an idea that, as soon as it is heard by many Americans, causes them to sneer. Perhaps this response should be no surprise, since Agassi’s idea aims to completely revolutionize the quintessential American mode of transport, the automobile.

Automobiles are ripe for re-invention, but progress is halting. Between pure electric, fuel cells, ethanol, plug-in hybrids, and natural gas vehicles, the technology of the sustainable auto of the future is anything but clear. Other, less practical concepts abound. Some urbanists are keen to make the city totally car-free, based around bicycles, walking, and transit.

The Concept

Better Place ChargeAgassi, formerly an executive with the global software company SAP, struck upon what he thinks will become a paradigm shift for the auto. In his plan, owners of electric vehicles subscribe with his company. In exchange for the fees they pay (carefully calibrated to be below the cost of operating a gasoline vehicle) they get the right to swap their batteries at a large network of re-fueling stations, or charge up at special plug-in spots located at work or even their home. The car’s computer shows the way when the charge is low. The company charges the batteries using wind farms, solar generation, and other sustainable sources. The difference between the subscriber fees and the amortized cost of the infrastructure and battery service is pure profit. Countries eager to shift their transportation systems away from petroleum can further encourage a shift to electric technology through tax differentials on the autos themselves. Israel has planned a differential based on environmental impact: electric cars will be taxed at a 10 percent rate, compared with 79 percent on gas-powered cars and 30 percent on hybrids.

What about the notorious range problem for all-electric vehicles? Better Place claims their vehicle, developed by the Renault-Nissan Alliance, will have a range of 100 miles. Roughly 95% of all daily auto trips in the U.S. are less than 30 miles, and over 99% are less than 100 miles. Given a liberal smattering of battery changing stations, the range problem is vastly reduced.

The logic is compelling. After all, we already use one privately owned network infrastructure on a daily basis, for cellular phones. The subscriber model means most can get phones for very low cost, and a vibrant market exists for new and used handsets. The dashing CEO has been convincing quite a few political leaders, with deals inked to build networks in Denmark, Israel, and Australia, and plans underway for Hawaii and the San Francisco region. The governor of economically beleaguered state of Michigan even took a test drive in the company’s prototype in November. (above)

Urban Effects

In general I’m not as skeptical as some critics. The concept seems sound, particularly for geographically compact regions like Israel and Hawaii. But what will the impact of the Better Place system be on our cities? Some would obviously be positive. Since private vehicles are major sources of air pollution, mass adoption of electric vehicles will result in immediately improved public health and cleaner air. Taxicabs and Zipcars (already leased from designated parking spots) could be converted to clean, all-electric fleets.

When it comes to urban form, the result is less clear. In the words of two Israeli environmentalists:

Car-based transportation requires the building of more highways and roads, new bridges and intersections that would take up land; it also creates the conditions for urban sprawl, which would take up even more land. This is a non-sustainable solution for Israel.

But would it? Conventional urban economic theory holds that that transportation systems increase the spatial extent (and decrease density) of the city if they reduce the cost of transportation. If we assume the network covers the entire metropolitan area, and the Better Place system was less expensive than gasoline cars, it could encourage sprawl and cause new, electric-car fueled traffic congestion on our roads. The networked system might result in a altogether new urban form, both less centralized than the rail-dominated cities of the early 20th century, or the formless sprawl facilitated by the long range of gasoline vehicles. Slightly shorter ranges than gasoline combined with the modern economy could encourage the development of polycentric urban areas, perhaps unintentionally anticipated in this Wired illustration of the Better Place network, where freeways loop strangely around nodes of skyscrapers and no sidewalks are in sight.

Driven: Shai Agassi's Audacious Plan to Put Electric Cars on the Road

In fact, Agassi’s plan could have another unintended effect: boosting the number of cars in the city. In a worst-case scenario, where the network (or tax policies) subsidize the cost of the vehicle and make driving even cheaper than gasoline transport, Better Place could boost rates of auto ownership and distance traveled, exacerbating parking shortages and traffic.

How can we avoid these outcomes? Property pricing parking and abolishing parking requirements in urban areas would help auto owners bear the true cost of their intensive use of urban space and ensure all vehicles can park. Congestion pricing policies could reduce congestion in dense urban areas, shifting travel to more space-efficient transit. Our cities will need continued transit investment.

With the first charging station open in Israel and Renault-Nissan’s vehicles set to hit Israeli streets in 2011, these questions may be answered in just a few years.

> Wired: “Driven: Shai Agassi’s Audacious Plan to Put Electric Cars on the Road
> Economist: “Renault-Nissan’s ambitious plans for all-electric cars
> Better Place

Better Place photos: Renault-Nissan electric car in Denmark, Better Place Israel CEO at the first charging station, Better Place CEO Shai Agassi and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm; Wired Magazine illustration

Wind Power in the Bay State

Posted: October 20th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Energy, Massachusetts, Sustainability | 2 Comments »

Descending into Boston’s Logan Airport last August, I noticed an unexpected element among the rocky islands and weathered colonials. At the end of a narrow neck of land just feet from seaside homes was a massive, commercial-sized wind turbine turning lazily in the wind.

After moving to Boston, wind power seemed everywhere. Setting up the utilities at our new apartment, my girlfriend and I opted for plan that would power our computers and toaster with 100% wind energy at only a slightly higher rate. (The electricity is produced by a New York wind farm so large it featured prominently in a New York Times story about the challenges of wind power transmissions.) On the way to a meeting, I passed a large mill installed alongside I-93 near downtown Boston. At a community meeting, attendees from coastal communities discussed pending proposals in their towns.

I was already familiar with the controversy surrounding a major wind farm proposed off Cape Cod, notoriously delayed by wealthy property owners. A recent story in the Boston Globe described quite a different environment for a farm a bit farther south along the coast. Thanks to astronomical power prices caused by the high cost of diesel for the island generator, the residents of Rhode Island’s Block Island were considering an offshore farm.

Did I unwittingly land in some sort of New England wind paradise? Not exactly. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the few turbines already mentioned unfortunately comprised half of the state’s wind power generation capability. With a total generating power of just 5.32 megawatts, among the states Massachusetts ranks 31st, far behind wind behemoths like California (5,604 MW), Texas (3,162 MW) or Iowa (1,375 MW). Although experiencing rapid growth in the past decade, wind-generated energy comprises only a small portion of energy consumed.

The turbines visible from flights into Logan are known as Hull I and II, named after the small community that owns them. Their story began with a small turbine installed during the 1980s. After it blew down in a storm in 1997, the community-owned power utility decided to install a larger turbine. Success beget success, and in 2006 the Vestas-manufactured Hull II began operations. Local boosters eagerly track the power production online and plans are underway for yet more turbines.

The turbine alongside I-93 was installed at the Dorchester headquarters of a the IBEW 103 union, as a demonstration project demonstrating their commitment to wind power. According to the American Wind Energy Association, in addition to these two others sit atop mountains, and the last is owned by the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, all installed since 2001.

Although Massachusetts has a long way to go before wind would contribute a significant portion of all power generation, there has been interest in renewable energy. Some of the 600 programs in renewable energy funded by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative are shown here in a regional map created by my employer, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council:

Renewable Energy

The local interest in commercial-scale wind power production is no accident. Thanks to geography, the state’s coast enjoys some of the best wind conditions in the country.

Wind Map

Wind Power DetailAlthough there’s all kinds of new websites to investigate wind power potential, the map above from a government report clearly illustrates the issue. When it comes to wind power, the west is king. But unlike the flatlands of the Midwest and South, the New England seacoast and mountain peaks are blessed with high “wind power density,” meaning more proposals are sure to come.

> HullWind.org
> American Wind Energy Association project list
> 3Tier’s Wind and Solar Energy Potential Map
> U.S. Energy Information Agency
> My related post on solar thermal technology

Green Gas?

Posted: August 19th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Biofuels, Climate Change, Energy, Sustainability, Transportation | 5 Comments »

SeQuential Fuel Station

One of the most interesting things that happened on my recent trip to the west coast occurred looking for a restroom. After pulling off I-5 south of Portland, Oregon, I missed the turn-in for a name brand gas station. I noticed another up ahead. My girlfriend Libby was skeptical. I peered ahead. “It has a green roof,” I noticed, “how bad can it be?” Pulling into the station we noticed solar panels, a vegetated bioswale, and sign advertising a variety of biofuels. Inside, a man sat typing on a laptop sipping a cappuccino in a cafe, and the racks were lined with organic foods. It was, as Libby observed, as if we had stepped into the future.

That’s how I visited the self-described “greenest gas station in America.” It turns out the exit was near Eugene, Oregon, and the station was one operated by the SeQuential fuel company. The station was a restored brownfield, the flagship location for the locally-owned biofuels company.

DSCN1141.JPGI’m generally skeptical of biofuels. Although they’re cleaner-burning, their net carbon production can equal or surpass fossil fuels. Nonetheless, SeQuential has taken pains to make their fuels as green as possible.

Using grease from Burgerville restaurants and Kettle Foods (makers of potato chips), as well as other sources, the company produces over five million gallons of biodiesel at their local plant. They boast their fuel recycles waste grease and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by “over 78%.” Their ethanol, sold pure or in blends with conventional gasoline, comes from Eastern Oregon family farmers, and they say growing “canola in rotation with wheat enables farmers to reduce fertilizer and pesticide use and to sustainable increase crop yields.”

SeQuential’s innovation is impressive. Until we can all plug our electric cars into a solar-powered grid, this might be the next best step.

Update: I found this amusing interview with one of the people behind the station on something called “Peak Moment TV,” also this blog has some information about the impact of biofuels on waste grease prices.

Smart Grid Pilot Program Launched

Posted: July 24th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Energy, Infrastructure, Sustainability | 1 Comment »

Over 1,000 D.C. homes are now equipped with smart electrical meters that record their hourly electricity usage, encourage conservation during peak times, and even automatically turn down the heat or A/C when electricity is most expensive. The meters are part of a pilot program starting this week to study how “price signals” can encourage consumers to save electricity by providing them with more information about the amount and price of power consumed.

Power Cents DC Smart MeterAlthough the generation of electricity has been deregulated in Washington since 2001, about 99% of PEPCO customers subscribe to the Standard Offer Service, the rate charged to users who have not selected an alternate source. The cost of the electricity is calculated from the average rate of contracts from power plants, plus an administrative charge and taxes. The rate is changed yearly and only adjusted twice a year. This means that even though the generated supply and consumer demand for electricity can range widely, consumers have little incentive to modify their behavior. The idea is that by charging more to consumers during peak times (or, offering discounts for those who conserve at those times) will save consumers money and help PEPCO reduce the peak demand.

From the PEPCO announcement, here are the three pricing options the program is testing:

Under Hourly Pricing, electricity prices will vary hourly. The prices will be set a day ahead, based on prices in the “day ahead” wholesale market operated by PJM Interconnection, the regional power grid. Prices will be available on the project’s Web site or displayed real-time on “smart” thermostats. Based on recent wholesale market trends, hourly prices are expected to exceed conventional power supply prices only about a third of the time within a year, with lower prices the remainder of the time. Customers will be notified of high priced hours a day in advance through an automated phone call, an e-mail, text page or “smart” thermostat notification.

With Critical Peak Pricing, peak prices will be in effect for four hours on critical peak days, of which there are about 15 each year. These critical peak hours during which higher prices are charged will be limited to about 60 hours per year. Customers will be notified of these events the day before through an automated phone call, an e-mail, text page or “smart” thermostat notification. Prices during the critical peak hours will be substantially higher than conventional rates but will be offset by lower prices during the remaining 8,700 hours of the year.

Under Critical Peak Rebate, participants will continue to pay the same generation charges as the Standard Offer Service charged by Pepco. During critical peak events, however, customers can earn rebates by reducing their consumption below what they would normally have used during those times. Customers will be notified of these events the day before through an automated phone call, an e-mail, text page or “smart” thermostat notification.

Presumably the results from the program will help PEPCO decide which of the above policies to eventually extent to all residential customers. For now the program is closed since the program website reports they received a “tremendous” response from the 1,400 customers invited to participate one year ago. Although there’s not much there yet, one of the project’s sponsors, the D.C. Office of the People’s Council, has launched a blog to track the program.

In South Africa I experienced a related method for encouraging conservation: pre-paid electricity. We would purchase a fixed amount of electricity from an authorized seller such as a supermarket, and they would provide us a confirmation code we would enter into the meter in our rented home. The meter would recognize the code and display the total amount of electricity purchased, and slowly tick down the balance as you used it. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported last year that “A half-dozen utilities are trying prepaid programs now, but that could accelerate quickly.” We found that a conspicuous meter in the kitchen ticking away our money made us highly aware of our power consumption. Participants in the Arizona program described by the Wall Street Journal cut their power usage 12%.

What about consumers generating their own power? Although PEPCO allows consumers to generate power for the grid from renewable technology through their Green Power Connection program, SproutDC pointed out in a previous comment that D.C. does not offer rebates or incentives for the installation of solar power systems like California or New Jersey.

> Power Cents DC
> DC Office of the People’s Council: D.C. Electric “SMART METER” Pilot Program Announcement, Blog
> PEPCO: Residential Pilot to Test “Smart Metering” for DC Electric Customers
> PR Newswire: Smart Metering and Demand Response Pilot Goes Live in Washington D.C.
> Wall Street Journal: “New Ways to Monitor Your Energy Use

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