Category Archives: environment

Questions about the northeast water supply plan

Over at streets.mn, I ask some questions about the Met Council’s new northeast metro water supply plan.  Here is a big one:

Where is the conservation alternative?  The cost and feasibility of  reducing water use are not analyzed as part of the report.  Building nothing and simply asking/incentivizing/requiring people to use less may be the cheapest option.  According to the report, water use in 2010 was 92 gallons per person, per day in these communities. The ratio of peak day demand to average day demand ranges from 1.7:1 in Forest Lake to 5.9:1 in Lexington.  The report hints that this is “mainly attributed to irrigation and outdoor water use needs”.  Sprinkling lawns in other words.  Many options exist for conserving (potable) water – from retrofitting toilets, sinks and showers, to using captured rainwater to irrigate, to simply paying people to remove lawns and replacing them with low-water alternatives.  For the cost of the alternatives to serve all northeast communities with new water supply (~$600 million), you could pay every household over $1,400 to remove lawn, and keep paying them $40 every year after that.  Without an analysis of conservation alternatives, this report seems inadequate.

Read on.

Streets.mn podcast – Towards a Sustainable Minneapolis

Yours truly spoke recently with Bill Lindeke on the streets.mn podcast about Minneapolis sustainability initiatives (my day job).  We had an interesting discussion about measuring sustainability, greenwashing, and my solar tinkering.

You can find the audio file here, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.  You really should, Bill does a great job with it.

leverBigCorners

Planet levers we can pull at home

leverBigCorners

At Ensia, Jon Foley explores how we can break the cycle of climate inaction:

Frankly, we cannot afford to waste more time in a state of denial, saying that maybe this time our national leaders will wake up and take the problem seriously. We need to look for leadership and solutions elsewhere.

More importantly, we need to match our climate solutions to situations where leadership is still effective. We need to find targeted, strategic opportunities to reduce emissions, matching solutions to effective leadership.

But just where are those targeted opportunities?

In the search for effective climate solutions, we need to look for what I call planet levers: Places where relatively focused efforts, targeted the right way, can translate into big outcomes. Just like a real lever, the trick is to apply the right amount of force in just the right place, with little opposition.

In the search for planet levers to address climate change, we should look for ways to significantly cut emissions that don’t require grand policy solutions, such as carbon taxes or global cap-and-trade schemes, or the approval of the U.S. Congress or the United Nations. We need practical solutions to substantially cut emissions that work with a handful of nimble actors — including a few key nations, states, cities and companies — to get started.

Focusing on cities presents a particularly good set of levers to address climate change. Cities represent a nexus point of critical infrastructure — for electricity, communications, heating and cooling, and transportation — that are already in desperate need of improvement, and shifting them toward low-carbon “climate smart” technologies is a natural progression. Done right, most of these investments would improve the health, economic vitality, efficiency and livability of cities. Most important, most cities largely avoid the partisan gridlock of our national (and some state) governments, making them an excellent place for making progress.

I agree with Jon that cities are a good place to focus, not only because they have “functioning governments” that aren’t deadlocked, but because they have some key policy levers that can be pulled without a great deal of opposition, without getting a huge number of actors involved (creating potential for gridlock or slow movement), and that could have significant emissions impacts in a short time period.

Here are some of the local climate levers I think we can lean on locally, mostly at the city level.

Community choice aggregation (CCA)

The deregulation of electric utility markets is usually associated with some bad outcomes.  However, it can have positive benefits as well.  Since July of this year, over 58,000 residents and over 7,000 small business customers in Cleveland have received a 21% savings on their electricity bill AND received electricity from 100% green sources (50% wind, 50% hydro) through the Cleveland Municipal Aggregation Program.

This type of program is made possible by the fact that in deregulated electricity markets, cities can act as bulk purchasers for all or many of their community’s electrical customers.  This large buying power allows cities to negotiate good terms – like low rates and high renewable percentages.  These programs also don’t require the dismantling or purchasing of local investor-owned utilities.  Six states allow CCAs, and to date eight cities have used this authority to secure cleaner, more affordable power for their residents.  Most allow customers to opt-out and stay with their existing utility if they choose.

A program that requires electric customers to basically do nothing and could reduce the city’s greenhouse gas footprint 3% seems like a pretty good lever.

Note: state legislation is required to make CCA a reality.

Community solar (solar gardens)

Most people in Minnesota (some say only a third) have a roof that is good for collecting solar energy.  Shading, orientation, structural integrity, and ownership structure are just a few of the potential barriers to putting solar on roofs.  Matching the demand for solar with the supply of best locations, developed at a large scale for efficiencies, is something community solar or solar gardens can do.  These programs could be a powerful climate lever.  According to Midwest Energy News:

Minnesota's first community solar project in Rockford, MN. Image courtesy Wright-Hennepin Cooperative.
Minnesota’s first community solar project in Rockford, MN. Image courtesy Wright-Hennepin Cooperative.

The idea is to let customers who can’t or don’t want to install solar panels on their own rooftop instead buy individual panels in a nearby solar development. The electricity generated by a customer’s panels is credited to their utility bill as if they were installed on their home or business.

New legislation makes this possible in Minnesota.  In Colorado, where the program has been in place since 2012, 9 megawatts of solar was sold out in 30 minutes.   That’s roughly the equivalent of 3,000 single family home-sized systems.  Time will tell if this demand by project developers translates into strong demand by consumers.

Solar gardens generally require state policy change (except in the case of a municipal or cooperative utility), but don’t require thousands of people making individual installation decisions, hiring contractors, finding financing, etc.  A smaller number of experienced installers can do big projects with (theoretically) lower costs, supported by community interest.  Customers can buy-in to solar projects at whatever level they choose (usually bound by a minimum and maximum) but can skip all the installation headaches.

Capturing waste heat from the sewer

This one is my favorite.  There is a large supply of wasted heat flowing directly beneath our feet all day because we’ve literally flushed it down the drain.  One estimate says we’re flushing away 350 billion kWh of energy each year.  That’s more than 35 Minneapolis’ worth of energy every year.

Neighborhood Energy Utility, City of Vancouver
Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek Neighborhood Energy Utility

Sewer waste heat recovery systems, or “sewer thermal”, work just like ground-source heat pumps to pre-condition air or water before they are used for heating and cooling (don’t worry, no sewer water or gas gets into your air conditioner).  In the Olympic Village neighborhood of Vancouver, sewer waste heat provides 70% of the annual energy demand of a district heating system (natural gas provides the rest).  National Geographic has a good overview of the growing attention being paid to sewer thermal.

All major cities have large sewer mains collocated with the highest density development. Tapping this waste heat resource would require digging up those pipes, but it can be done much more easily in conjunction with large new redevelopment projects.  And generally, there are few actors: wastewater utilities control the pipes, cities control the right of way.

Making energy use transparent

According to the EPA, the commercial and residential sectors were responsible for 40% of US greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels (which is itself responsible for 79 percent of emissions) in 2011.  And in most major cities, it’s the large buildings (usually commercial buildings) that are associated with half or more of the energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions.  Making these buildings more energy efficient could be a significant climate lever, but that requires knowing how they are performing now and motivating action from their owners and managers.

Nine cities in the US (and many more internationally) are addressing building energy use by making energy usage information more transparent.  Building rating and disclosure policies (typically enacted by cities) require large buildings to use widely adopted benchmarking tools to measure their energy performance, and generally require them to disclose this information, along with a score, to the public.

NYCenergyuse

In New York City, one million residents can now see how much energy and water their apartment buildings consumed.  In total, over 2 billion square feet of real estate in New York City is now benchmarking building energy and water performance each year.  This information isn’t just for tenants, building owners and managers, real estate professionals, and energy service providers can all use this information to improve the performance of the building stock.  In 2012, in their first report on benchmarked buildings, New York City estimated that:

If all comparatively inefficient large commercial buildings were brought up to the median energy use intensity in their category, New York City consum­ers could reduce energy consumption in large buildings by roughly 18% and GHG emissions by 20%. If all large buildings could improve to the 75th percentile, the theoretical savings potential grows to roughly 31% for energy and 33% for GHG emissions. Since large buildings are responsible for 45% of all citywide carbon emissions, this translates into a citywide GHG emissions reduction of 9% and 15% respectively. Much of this improvement could be achieved very cost-effectively through improved operations and maintenance.

An EPA study also showed that buildings doing benchmarking reduce their energy usage.  An analysis of 35,000 large buildings over three years showed that these buildings showed a 7 percent average energy savings.  Many of these policies are very new (NYC has only reported results for two years), so time will tell how increased public scrutiny of energy performance influences energy use.  But ask any building professional, and they will tell you that the first step to improving efficiency is measuring what is currently being used.

LED streetlights

Streetlights typically account for a significant portion of the electricity used by a city government enterprise.  For Minneapolis, its 31 percentNavigant says up to 40% can be typical.  Water treatment (for drinking) and wastewater treatment are two other major sources of energy use for cities or regional government entities.

Streetlight retrofits can often be done by a city itself, if they own the lights, or by the utility, which is also sometimes the owner.  Retrofits can be quick (a few years), and the paybacks, both in greenhouse gas emissions and cost, can be significant.

LA's Hoover Street before and after LED lighting retrofit. Image via Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting
LA’s Hoover Street before and after LED lighting retrofit. Image via Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting

Los Angeles recently completed the world’s largest swap-out, replacing 140,000 lights.  Los Angeles estimates it will save $7 million in energy costs and $2.5 million in avoided maintenance costs (LEDs can last as long as 20 years, versus the standard lights 6).  The project will be paid off in seven years.  New York City, Las Vegas, Austin Texas, San Antonio, and Eden Prairie, Minnesota are all switching.  For cities in the metro that don’t own their own lights, Xcel Energy is testing 500 LED lights in West Saint Paul, and could set a new rate for cities once the test is complete.  Initial results are showing energy use is cut in half, while the quality of the light has improved.

These are some examples of “levers” I think can be pulled relatively quickly, and without a great deal of political wrangling. And maybe more importantly, they can be done at the local level, usually by cities.  Cities are demonstrating they can and will move on climate, breaking what Jon calls the “cycle of climate inaction”.

There may be other strategies which are essential to addressing climate change, but which require engaging many more stakeholders and/or take significantly more time (an example might be residential building energy retrofits).  These strategies may be just as critical, often because they may address issues besides energy and climate – like environmental equity.  But if we want to work on a timetable that’s anything close to what they experts call for, we should identify and prioritize these short timeframe, high-impact levers we can pull at home.

Home solar update

Dead battery!
Dead battery!

The battery was totally dead this morning (11.4 volts) after about 16 hours powering the freezer.  The charge controller indicated the panel was charging the battery for about 4-5 of those hours, but it was extremely cloudy.  I turned off the inverter and reconnected the freezer to grid power (it’s nice to have a backup to the backup!)  After charging all day today, the battery is up to about 60%.  I hope I didn’t do any permanent damage to the battery.

My estimate of the charge time was pretty close, but my estimate of running time for the freezer was pretty far off.  I don’t think I calculated any loses from the inverter, which the internet tells me can be 15% or more.  It was also a hot day, hotter than when I measured my freezers usage initially, which could have had an impact. Next time I’ll definitely be measuring the total watt hours used (I forgot to hook up the meter) so I can try to estimate what was lost to the inverter.

One more day of charging before I do any more experimenting.

In praise of the prairie

DSC00975

As part of the “Our Fair State” series going on at streets.mn this week, I’ve posted a short photo post praising the western Minnesota prairie.

When most people think summer in Minnesota, they think north: lakes, coniferous forests, large noisy black birds.  But Minnesota actually has four biomes, and I would consider the prairie grassland the most neglected when we engage in communal nostalgia for Minnesota summer.  Luckily, we have some great parks on the prairie where you can see a little of what Minnesota might have been like before settlement.  And it’s beautiful.

The greenhouse gas benefits of autonomous vehicles

stanley side view (2005-023-040)

Autonomous vehicles may bring a myriad of benefits, but I anticipate that one of the largest may be the actual reduction in the total size of the vehicle fleet.  Eventually autonomous vehicles will allow “whistlecar” service, and whether fully autonomous or not would, this service is likely to fundamentally change the ownership model of automobiles.  Like present-day car-sharing services or taxis, a whistlecar subscription would mean one car could serve the needs of many people, instead of remaining parked most of the day waiting for its one owner to return.  Once you’re done with a car, it can drive off and serve someone else in the vicinity, drive to a charging station (if it’s electric), drive to a garage for service, or perhaps even deliver packages.  When you can subscribe to an on-demand travel service available 24-7 (and eventually cheaper than owning a car), many people will choose not to own.

Setting aside all the other benefits of autonomous vehicles for the moment, I’ll explore just this one: the benefits of a reduction in the car fleet.  And in a limited way: the greenhouse gas implications of this reduction in vehicles. Continue reading The greenhouse gas benefits of autonomous vehicles

“Disruptive challenges”

The investor-owned utilities themselves think that things are about to change dramatically, drawing comparisons to industry disruptions like those faced by regulated airlines, the phone company monopolies and RIM.  Mostly these disruptions will be driven by distributed renewable energy, but also by energy efficiency and market changes.

From a report by the Edison Institute, an association of shareholder-owned utilities:

There are important lessons to be learned from the history of the telephone industry. First, at the onset of the restructuring of the Bell System, there was no vision that the changes to come would be so radical in terms of the services to be provided and the technologies to be deployed. Second, the telephone players acted boldly to consolidate to gain scale and then take action to utilize their market position to expand into new services on a national scale. Finally, and most important, if telephone providers had not pursued new technologies and the transformation of their business model, they would not have been able to survive as viable businesses today. So, while the sector has underperformed the overall market since 2000, and as shown in Exhibit 5, even a leading industry participant like Verizon Communications has not been able to perform in-line with the overall market despite its growth, market share and solid profitability outlook due to the competitive uncertainties inherent in the business. However, those telecom providers that have embraced new technologies and addressed the competitive threats they faced have managed to survive and to protect investors from a “Kodak moment.”

Both David Roberts and Chris Nelder have better and more extensive write-ups of this study.

On compost

Biodegradable cutlery
Don’t you dare throw that in the trash.

At Ensia (formerly Momentum), Bill Chameides tackles compost, or our lack of it.

The thing that really caught my attention was a report on the results of a series of student dumpster dives around campus. After collecting and sorting all the garbage, they found that about three-quarters of Duke’s so-called non-recyclable trash destined for area landfills was compostable—things like food scraps, napkins, paper towels, etc. Based on calculations fromgovernment data [pdf], the national average is closer to 50 percent, but that’s still a lot of compost mostly headed for a landfill.

While I agree with the gist of his post – we should stop sending so much compostable material to the landfill, it makes good dirt – he reaches, what seems to me, a somewhat troubling conclusion (bold emphasis mine):

Right now we send a lot of compostable materials to landfills. If you’ll pardon the pun, that’s a waste. Instead of being treated like trash, compostable items can be converted into organic-rich soil for growing crops. And that could even help slow climate change. The anaerobic decay that occurs in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas that can escape into the atmosphere if a gas-capturing system is not installed. Composting, which is primarily an aerobic process, generates very little methane.

But the real challenge in making a compost economy is moving our compostable trash toward 100 percent. Let’s replace recyclable, petroleum-based plastics with nontoxic, cellulosic, compostable plastics. In addition to making compostable products, let’s make the packaging compostable too.

Now, in that first quote he says half our of current trash is compostable.  That seems to me to indicate that our trash is already fairly compostable, and we aren’t doing anything about it.  It seems our real challenge(s) is/are:

  1. Make sure compost collection is available (far from standard across the country, and certainly not in Minnesota).
  2. Education/coercion (get people to throw it in the right bin).  No small task.
  3. Make sure that ability to process compostable material is available.  This is not a minor issue.  Consider that in the Twin Cities metro, there is one location that processes organic compost.  Many items collected through composting collection regimes can’t simply be thrown on a compost pile, they need specific temperature, moisture and material mixtures to break down properly.  Processing needs to expand if we’re going to get that other 50% composted.

My other issue is with Bill’s conclusion: let’s turn all our disposable products into compostable products.  This is backwards.  If collection isn’t available OR people don’t separate their compostable material properly (and just about universally), the results (for the climate, at least) could be worse.

Consider work done by David Allaway at the State of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.  They looked at the lifecycle impacts of different water delivery systems (water bottles), including PLA (compostable) and PET (oil-based, recyclable) water bottles.  As Bill notes, in a landfill, compostable materials produce methane, which when combined with the upstream impacts of making the water bottle, are worse than just using a regular, oil-based recyclable bottle.

pla-decompose
Green bar – 62% of PLA bottles are diverted from the landfill and composted, the rest go to landfill, where they produce methane during decomposition.

The scenario above, represented by the green bar, shows that even if you’re successful at collecting and composting 62% of compostable bottles entering the waste stream, the emissions from the landfill of the remaining 38% offset any benefits.  This includes “upstream” emissions, like making each bottle.

And this assumes a collection regime is in place.  Every time I see a Twin Cities restaurant trying to up their green cred by offering “compostable” cups or flatware, I check their waste disposal area.  Nine times out of ten there is no “compost” container available.

So, is promoting a conversion of “throw away” products like flatware and packaging to compostable materials a good idea?  At best, maybe.  At worst, well, it could make things worse. I think much more analysis needs to be done, and certainly more collection infrastructure and a highly-effective education campaign about sorting need to be in place.  Of course, composting food waste that’s already in the waste stream is a no-brainer, but let’s take a closer look at compostable products.