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. Read more

Water for our future

Over at streets.mn I have a new post on the importance of water supply planning for the next regional plan.

What does all this have to do with Minnesota?  We have tons of water, right?  Well, on the surface yes, but we’re using our groundwater much faster than it’s being replaced, and that’s a problem.  That was one of the main topics at a Thrive MSP 2040 Roundtable discussion I attended a number of weeks ago, and have been meaning to post about since.  The 7-county region now gets70 percent of our water from groundwater sources, up from 15 percent in the 50′s.  In some places this means we’re reducing groundwater levels by over a foot a year.

NiceRide2012_cyclopath_routing

2012 Nice Ride flows revisited

For the last two years, I’ve mapped the flows of the Nice Ride bikes.  I’ve always been slightly dissatisfied with the results, since bikes were obviously shown taking routes that any sane Nice Rider would never take (Hennepin Avenue between Lake and the bottleneck, for example).  Try as I might, I could never get ArcGIS to prioritize trails, lanes and bike boulevards sufficiently.

Enter the good people at Cyclopath.  Cyclopath is something like a bike route wiki, in that it is constantly updating it’s database of bike routes using ratings from users.  So every street in their database has a rating from bad to awesome (actually 0 to 4).  And this database includes the whole metro and beyond.  Best of all, they were willing to share it!

The latest version of ArcGIS has a new “restriction preference” setting, meaning there are six levels of preference for a link from “Highly Avoid” to “Highly Prefer”.  So I combined cyclopath’s street ratings with these preference settings and got a new and better route analyzer.  Here are the results:

NiceRide2012_cyclopath_routingAs a reminder, here is what the old version looked like:

2012 Nice Ride FlowsA few changes of note:

  • Hennepin is obviously not so popular anymore, save in downtown where there are more Nice Ride Stations.
  • The Cedar Lake Trail got a little more popular, perhaps 500 trips in some locations, since it was a Highly Preferred route.
  • West River Parkway south of the Washington Avenue bridge got a lot less popular (although crossings at Franklin stayed nearly the same).
  • There is generally just a lot less jigging and jogging on small streets as trips tend to condense onto major routes (see the major difference on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul).

Here is a version with a base street map for orientation:

NiceRide2012_cyclopath_routing_greybase

Washington Avenue Traffic Projections

Hennepin County is preparing to reconstruct a portion of Washington Avenue between Hennepin Avenue and 5th Avenue South.  There has been much discussion of this project, in part because the reconstructed road may or may not include some sort of bike facilities.

Today I got an email about an upcoming public meeting for the project, and I noticed the project webpage includes a Traffic Operation Analysis with some traffic projections through 2035.  Hennepin County is projecting a 0.5% annual growth in traffic volumes between 2011 and 2035.

Hennepin County provided traffic volume forecasting information for the Washington
Avenue study area. Several considerations included in the traffic forecasts are:
Minneapolis overall expects to add 36,000 residents and 30,000 employees over
the next 20 years.

  • Closure of Washington Avenue through the U of M, east of the Mississippi River.
  • Construction of the new 4th Street S on-ramp connection to northbound 35W.
  • Reconfiguration of the interchange at Washington Avenue SE/Cedar Avenue.
  • Construction of the Central Corridor LRT line.
  • The impact of continued development in the downtown area including
  • townhomes/condos, office space and retail businesses.

Given the above considerations and through a review of past studies completed within the project area, Hennepin County recommends that the traffic forecasts be based on applying a 0.5 percent per year growth rate (13 percent increase by 2035) to the existing traffic volumes, then adjusting Washington Avenue, 3rd Street S and 4th Street S traffic volumes to account for circulation changes with the future 4th Street S on-ramp connection to northbound 35W.

I don’t feel qualified to speak about hyper-local traffic patterns based on certain street closures and circulation patterns.  That’s traffic engineer stuff.  But here are a few things (and charts) to consider:

  • According to Mark Filipi, who works on regional traffic modeling for the Metropolitan Council, the regional traffic model (based on old comp plan data) projects 0.3% annual growth in total Minneapolis VMT through 2025.  This is lower than 0.5%.
  • Total Minneapolis VMT has basically been falling since 2002, with non-interstate VMT fluctuating around flat growth (all VMT figures from MNDOT).Minneapolis VMT
  • Minnesota total VMT per capita has been falling steadily since 2004 at over half a percent each year, and total VMT has been falling since 2007.  Minnesota VMT and VMT per capita
  • According to the Minneapolis Traffic Count Management System, two of the three traffic count locations on Washington Avenue in the study area show a drop in traffic from their peaks in the late 90’s/early 00’s.  The third shows flat volumes.Washington Traffic Counts Between 3rd Ave & 4th Ave

Does all this mean that 0.5% annual growth rate on Washington Avenue is incorrect?  I’m not sure.  Minneapolis does plan to grow a lot of downtown jobs and housing.  On the other hand, per capita VMT trends have been falling not just in Minnesota, but across the country and world.  In addition, Minneapolis policy makers have stated their goals to shift modes.  It’s troublesome to me that in the “considerations” that Hennepin County used in their traffic forecasts, they didn’t include plans for that mode shift the same way they include plans for development.

Given the severe lack of detail on how the 0.5% growth figure was developed, I don’t think the community should accept any design predicated on that figure without some additional explanation, especially if the capacity needed to accomodate that growth is given as a reason to reject elements that will make this street a livable, vibrant and valuable place, namely, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Cross-posted at streets.mn

How much should utilities pay for distributed solar power?

Close-up of completed project - Gibbs Dairy goes solar

In the energy and climate circles, there is a lot being written lately about the threat to the traditional utility model from distributed, renewable energy sources.  David Roberts has been running a series describing the problem and looking for solutions.  Chris Nelder also has a good read on the topic.

One of the key issues is the idea that utilities want to avoid “stranded assets”, or infrastructure they still have to pay to maintain with a shrinking pool of customers.  As some customers get more power from solar, sales of electricity shrink, leaving utilities with the same distribution infrastructure to maintain using less revenue.  Some utilities, the latest being a municipal utility in San Antonio profiled by David Roberts, argue they shouldn’t pay customers the “market” rate for electricity their customers generate with rooftop solar, but instead should pay them a wholesale rate, or the same as they pay for other electricity on the grid.

The thinking here is that paying the wholesale price will put renewable energy on an even playing field, and help keep the old utility model more financially whole, since wholesale prices are typically much lower than market prices.  For example, the 5-year average wholesale price for electricity in the grid area that serves Minnesota was $53.62 per MWh for the period ending in 2010, according to FERC.  This is for the “peak” time of day, meaning the afternoon, which is also the time solar is most productive.  That’s equal to roughly 5 cents per kWh, which is the unit at which typical household sales are measured.  Last month I paid about 11 cents per kWh to Xcel before taxes, fees and other charges like WindSource.

At 5 cents/kWh, rooftop solar would take a very long time to pay off.  Many fewer people would likely choose to install it.  However, those in the renewable energy world will tell you that 5 cents/kWh doesn’t pay the owner of a system for some of the benefits solar energy has over wholesale electricity.  We should actually be looking at a “value of solar” that includes not just the wholesale energy price, but reimbursement for other values.  There is movement right now in Minnesota to legislate that a true “value of solar” be computed for future projects.  So what other value does solar energy have that utilities might value?

For one, it can be more efficient.  Whenever you transmit electricity or long distances, you lose some due to resistance (heat).  EIA estimates these loses at 7% nationally and 7.4% in Minnesota.  That means utilities are generating more kWhs than are needed to make up for the losses, and thus the customer is paying more for each kWh.  If you’re generating power very close to where you use it, you minimize these losses and the extra generation.  Distributed solar energy should actually be valued 7% above wholesale prices by a utility if you think it will reduce these line losses.  If you include that 7% bump, 5 cents becomes almost 6 cents per kWh.

The other value is the reduced environmental cost of solar generation.  There is plenty of discussion about what the optimal cost of carbon should be, and it all depends on what you adopt as your discount rate.  Here is a must-read on discount rates, also by David Roberts.  If you think that climate change will have a net drag on the economy in the future, your discount rate is likely low, and the optimal cost of carbon gets up into the $50 to $100/ton range.  Carbon levels per unit of electricity produced vary quite a bit across the county, but in Minnesota and parts of the upper Midwest, they averaged 0.738 metric tons per MWh in 2009 (the latest year for which EPA has data).  At that rate, a high carbon tax might add between 3.5 and 4.5 cents per kwh.

If you add all this up, (an economically optimal price on carbon, savings from transmission losses, and a wholesale price consistent with the 5-year peak average), you get a value of solar energy between 9.5 and 13 cents per kWh.  That’s at or above the market rate I’m paying in Minnesota right now.  Check out my extremely messy spreadsheet if you want to see the math.

Keep in mind there are other values of solar energy I haven’t considered in my calculus.  The Minnesota House legislation includes the savings from delaying capital investments in distribution infrastructure, savings from not having to build more generation, fuel price hedge value savings (not having to bet on fuel costs), and the value of local employment generated by manufacture and installation of solar energy.

“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.

2012 Nice Ride Flows

2012 Nice Ride FlowsPresented here without scale or legend, are the Nice Ride flows from 2012.  As with the mapping I did for 2011, individual road segments are thickened to represent the volume of Nice Ride traffic that traveled over them during the year. Bike trails and lanes were favored by the routing software, but since it looked for direct routes, some paths may be under or over represented compared with real-life Nice Rider travel (Cedar Lake Trail versus Hennepin Avenue, for example).

St. Paul is much more vibrant in 2012, with the Lake Street bridge seeing a high volume of Nice Riders crossing to our twin city.  Top traffic segments included the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck south of Loring Park, south of the Stone Arch Bridge, West River Parkway, and the Hiawatha trail east of the Metrodome.

Once again, kudos to Nice Ride for releasing all this awesome data.

“significant risks of derailment at both ends”

Twin Cities Business via Minnpost, has an excruciatingly detailed look at the history of the TC&W railroad and the problems facing potential relocation of said railroad for the SW LRT project.

The goal is that TC&W head west as it does now out of downtown Minneapolis on BNSF rails, but rather than turning southwest into Kenilworth, it would continue past Highway 100 to join the MN&S, heading south through St. Louis Park to rejoin its current route near Louisiana Avenue and Highway 7.

Problem is, the MN&S, which in 1993 looked to TC&W like a long-term solution for a modest amount of additional spending, is now perceived as unworkable by the railroad. The cost of remaking it to fit TC&W’s operations has ballooned from an optimistic $1 million to $70 million or more, and the railroad and others say it presents engineering challenges that may not be solvable within the budgets of the SWLRT project.

In December, the railroad filed its most emphatic objections yet to the SWLRT reroute. Wegner says the MN&S reroute is “a design we intuitively know is bad.” It has “significant risks of derailment” at both endpoints.

In a nutshell, the MN&S, and the proposed connections to it, are engineered for the small CP freight trains that currently use it, not the 100-car trains TC&W runs. The railroad is wary of the undulating MN&S grades, curvature, and proximity to St. Louis Park High School for their potential to insert costly inefficiencies into its operations.

“We have no issue with Southwest Light Rail,” insists Wegner. “But we need to get to St. Paul with the same cost structure as today.”

St. Louis Park officials, concerned about the impacts of the reroute, concur with TC&W. “A lot of the reroute is unfeasible,” says Mayor Jeff Jacobs. He maintains that as currently drawn, the reroute will require expensive noise and vibration mitigation, and the likely removal of 30 to 40 homes. But he says a realistic plan that also functions for 100-car freights will require more expense than the $70 million or so estimated for it, plus removal of additional buildings. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see [the reroute] get to $100 million or above.”

The cost of the freight rail reroute was never included in the evaluation of alternative alignments for the SW LRT project.

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.