Low-carbon energy, land use and community planning

At Energy Collective, Jesse Jenkins looks at the land use impacts of three low-carbon energy sources: solar, wind and nuclear. On solar:

According to the MIT authors, powering 100 percent of estimated U.S. electricity demand in 2050 with solar energy would require roughly 33,000 square kilometers (sq-km) of land. That’s if we spread solar panels evenly across the entire country. If we concentrate solar production in the sunniest regions, the total land footprint falls to 12,000 sq-km.

Those sound like big numbers. On the one hand they are. Massachusetts (where I reside) spans about 27,000 sq-km, for comparison.

On the other hand, the United States apparently devotes about 10,000 sq-km of land just to golf courses. And as the infographic illustrates, it’s agriculture and forestry that truly drives humanity’s footprint on the natural landscape.

In reality, no one is calling for 100 percent solar energy. Even the most bullish renewable energy advocates typically envision solar providing less than half and usually no more than a quarter of U.S. electricity. (See: “Is There An Upper Limit to Variable Renewables”)

If solar provided one-third of Americans’ electricity, it would require just 4,000-11,000 sq-km.

In other words: with an area no larger than the amount of land currently devoted to golf courses, we could power a third of the country with solar energy.

solarpvlanduse

The above is only assuming greenfield development. And wind:

Powering one-third of the country with wind farms would thus truly impact only on the order of 1,800 sq-km, of which only roughly 600 sq-km would be permanently removed from production.

That’s an almost trivially small amount of land, equal to only 6 percent of the land area wasted, er, devoted to golf in this country.

If well sited and co-located on already disturbed and productive agricultural lands, wind farms could thus fuel a sizeable fraction of America’s energy demand without expanding the human footprint on the land in any meaningful way, except aesthetically.

So, on a national scale, the potential land use impacts of really high proportions of renewable energy doesn’t look like a barrier. But most energy projects will have neighbors, and they may not like the look of solar panels, or the loss of borrowed views.

Additionally, putting solar near the busiest parts of the electrical grid, where it can have the most benefit, may conflict with local communities’ plans for future development. A solar farm will probably pay far less in property taxes than residential, commercial or industrial development.

Both of these local conflicts may mean that a significant portion of future solar needs to be co-located with buildings (on the roof), parking lots and other developed areas to minimize land use conflicts and/or reduce transmission costs.

Land of 9,999 Lakes

The final version of the Met Council’s “Feasibility Assessment of Approaches to Water Sustainability in the Northeast Metro” has been released.  I posted my thoughts about this study before, but here are more rantings mostly pulled from my twitter feed.

The study says conservation of water is probably cheaper, but that’s not in this study, and we’ll get to it later (date 2015 TBD). From the study:

The alternatives evaluated should be viewed as examples. The best option for moving forward may be a hybrid of the examples considered in this study, and could involve approaches that were not considered in this study. For example, communities in the northeast metro could utilize less expensive approaches. These might include conservation or stormwater reuse to reduce groundwater pumping before making large-scale investments in alternative infrastructure solutions. Such a plan could couple these less expensive options with aggressive monitoring of groundwater and surface water, and set triggers for further action in the event these less expensive approaches are not effective.

So, we didn’t analyze the best and cheapest options, but we went ahead and did some demand forecasting so we could size some pipes anyway.

Households in many of the communities in the study area pay less for potable water each year than a family might pay towards their smart phone bill each month.

Water rates, from page 6 of the study

Water rates, from page 6 of the study

My household only has two smartphones, and we pay about $140 per month.  Add a few teens to the mix, and you get the point.  Water this cheap is obviously a triumph of civil engineering (and socialized infrastructure costs), but will likely make meaningful attempts at conservation difficult.

The study expects water consumption to grow 56% by 2040 while population will grow 37%.  Historically, population growth in Minnesota has outstripped increases in (permitted) water use.  From 1988 to 2011, population in the state grew about 24% while water use increased only 12%. Like electric utilities, water utilities nationally are also struggling with declining sales. The Met Council study doesn’t present any data on water usage trends in the study area communities (that I found).  I’m not sure why they are projecting this large increase in water use per capita (perhaps they are planning for many more golf courses?).  If any enterprising reader wants to dig in to the DNR data, trends for the counties included in the study area could be produced.

Searching the study for the words “grass” or “lawn” yields zero results.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the study doesn’t really attempt to analyze what the end use of water is in the study area, although looking at the “peak usage ratio” hints that a lot of it is landscape-related.

For just the operating costs of each alternative infrastructure solution (not including capital costs), you could pay each household $30 to $422 each year to use less. Annual operating costs of the alternatives vary from $1.3 million to $20 million.  The study area will include 189,470 people in 2040.

In other parts of the country with water supply issues, homeowners are paid to turn turf grass into water-efficient landscaping.  In the California Bay Area, homeowners can get a rebate of $1 per square foot for lawn removal.

For the some capital cost as the medium-priced option in the study, homeowners could be paid to remove 6 square miles of grass at a rebate cost of $1 per square foot. Plus they could be paid to remove 129 football fields-worth (7.5 million square feet) in every future year for the equivalent operating costs of that option.

Photo: Sprinkler, Creative Commons licensed by flickr user Shaylor

All the ways we subsidize growth

Over at streets.mn, I reflect on a recent event I attended, ““Kicking the Habit: Unsustainable Economic Growth” that featured streets.mn contributor Chuck Marohn delivering his Strong Towns message.  I focus on one issue that is featured prominently in the Strong Towns narrative: intergovernmental transfer payments which subsidize growth and potentially hide the true cost of development.

In Minnesota, we build roads really well. If you look at the metro area, we’ve created a system where despite wide differences in job and housing density, commute times are virtually the same whether you live in Dahlgren Township or Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. We also have a semi-famous regional government that makes connection to the same wastewater system easy, no matter where you are in a 7-county region that includes both farms and skyscrapers. All these things (and more) are made possible by shared resources, often collected from one area or community type, and sent to another with a different character. Somehow we’ve determined that this is a good thing (for ease of access, equity, environmental protection, political will, etc) As I listened to Chuck I thought, “you’d really have to remake how local governments interact if you wanted to promote (or even test) the idea that our “most productive places” should be differentiated from our least productive.

I won’t attempt to figure out how this can be done. But I think it’s valuable to think about all these “transfer payments”. There are more than most people ever think about. So, here goes:

Read the rest.

Yglesias discovers the comprehensive plan

Matt Yglesias, Slate writer and MOU (market-oriented urbanist), laments Minneapolis’ NIMBYs (emphasis mine):

…if each NIMBY group gets its way, then the “push the costs onto other people” plan becomes self-defeating. Others bear the costs of your NIMBY actions, but you bear the costs of their NIMBY actions. What’s needed is a citywide institutional framework that leads to a less-dysfunctional outcome where valuable projects are allowed to go forward.

Perhaps some sort of community visioning session that combines a look at projected growth, market forces, neighborhood desires, externalities of development, transportation impacts, and comes up with a mutually-agreed-upon document that can guide regulatory land use controls?

Or perhaps he means, as a friend emails, a comprehensive plan and zoning code that aren’t influenced by residents/stakeholders? 1) Good luck and 2) that kind of defeats the purpose.

See my early screed about MOU “solutions”.  MOUs claim market forces can unlock better outcomes for our urban areas, but the big barrier is really one of better process and collaborative decision making, which gets short shrift or no shrift at all in these posts.

Thrive MSP 2040 is live

The Metropolitan Council has officially kicked off their public engagement campaign for the 2040 regional plan – called Thrive MSP 2040.  I know you don’t like the name, but pay attention because this plan will eventually shape all the regional policy plans (growth, transportation, housing, natural resources) and set the requirements for individual community comprehensive plans.

No modern planning process is complete without some an interactive “ideas” website, and Met Council has theirs. I submitted some ideas, which I think you should vote for.

Central Corridor HIA shows risks, opportunities

Policy Link, Take Action MN and Isaiah have released a health impact assessment for the coming Central Corridor light rail line.  In my opinion, this seems more like an economic impact assessment, but the argument can be made that economics drives health.

My summary of the findings:

  • Jobs in the corridor will increase, particularly retail and office.
  • Population and housing will increase.
  • Jobs with skills matching those of current residents will be low-paying.  Higher wage jobs will increase too, but won’t be available to many current residents.
  • Low-skill, higher paying jobs (in manufacturing, for example) will be forced out.
  • Commercial rents may rise, forcing out small/independently-owned businesses.
  • Additional density could be in the form of housing affordable to current residents, but not without careful planning.
  • More people walking and biking is good, but existing pedestrian conditions are “hazardous”.  The city (St Paul) has some plans to address this.

I question comments like this: “The reduction in allowable densities east of Lexington Parkway along University Avenue, however, will help to reduce the pressure on existing small and minority-owned businesses in the east submarket.”  I understand the issue of redevelopment pushing out existing businesses (they might not be able to afford rent in new mixed-use buildings), but isn’t density good for any business (save auto dealers)?

The report also has five policy recommendations for creating a healthier environment moving forward.  Here’s my (very abbreviated) summary:

  • A modified inclusionary zoning ordinance.
  • Codify affordable housing goals in the Traditional Neighborhood zoning category.
  • Give a density/height bonus or reduced parking requirements to developments with affordable housing component.
  • Allow temporary parking lots on vacant lots during construction.  In theory, this would help businesses during LRT construction.
  • A local hiring action program giving preference for construction jobs.

What this seems to leave out is any recommendation on how to incorporate small businesses into new development.  Is it impossible/very difficult to program space in new mixed use developments for small/independent businesses?  Do developers only want chains?  Are rents simply too high?  Has any city every adopted an affordable commercial space policy to set aside a certain portion of commercial space for smaller businesses?  Smarter folks than I surely must have thought about this.

LEED ND regional suitability analysis going national

Regular readers know I’m interested in how to use LEED ND as a tool for assessing regional development suitability.  I’ve been tardy in relaying news about good work being done in other regions.  Back in January, Jason Woycke contacted me about replicating the analysis for King County, in the Seattle region.  Jason is the President of Cascadia Planning and at the time was a Masters student in the planning program at the University of Washington.

The Cascade Land Conservancy was Jason’s client for the project, and according to Jason’s website, the maps will “help the Cascade Land Conservancy visually communicate the need for careful planning of where growth should be accommodated in the region and where growth should be avoided”.

Jason finished the analysis (I think near the end of spring semester 2011), and it looks great.  He generously agreed to provide me with a copy of the full report, which you can see here (large pdf).  Jason was awarded the UW Department of Urban Design and Planning 2011 Professionals Council Outstanding Professional Project Award for his work.

The analysis Jason used for King County appears to be very similar to my approach for the Twin Cities – focusing on the Smart Location and Linkage prerequisites.  I don’t believe any of the Neighborhood Pattern and Design prerequisites were included, which is a minor difference between the two approaches.

Is Chicagoland next?

More recently, I’ve heard from another aspiring urban planning masters student who is exploring the possibility of replicating this analysis for the Chicago region.  If this analysis happens, it will be complete in spring of 2012.