Planet levers we can pull at home


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.


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.

All the ways we subsidize growth

Over at, I reflect on a recent event I attended, ““Kicking the Habit: Unsustainable Economic Growth” that featured 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.

A challenge to the market-oriented urbanists


Josh Barro, over at City Journal, makes some good points about the real contribution of subsidies to the auto/transit war.  However, I’m disappointed that this is yet another example of “market-oriented urbanists” (MOUs) admiring the problem without proposing a solution.  Barro, like others before, posits that local political decisions about planning and zoning laws are standing in the way of market operations which would achieve beneficial results for us all.  If only we would just change the dang zoning, dense housing would rise, rents would fall and transit would become a more attractive travel mode (in this world there are few, if any, externalities of dense development, a position we’ll take as given for the rest of this post).

Understanding the impacts of restrictive zoning on rents is important. But every time I read one of these change-the-zoning posts, I can’t help feeling that I’m watching the discovery of a concept (densifying urban areas) that smart growth advocates and planning students have known and been advocating for a very long time.  Clarence Perry dreamed up the “Neighborhood Unit” in 1929 in an attempt to address the nation’s rising automobility and associated externalities (the Neighborhood Unit called for at least ten units per acre). There may be more market demand now for dense, transit- (or stuff)-oriented development, but the issues are the same.

More calls for density based on market forces, fine.  But what almost every single one of these articles seems to lack is any robust exploration of how zoning rules are adopted, enforced, and changed and what exactly the author proposes as an alternative.  Barro, after spending eight paragraphs detailing auto vs. transit subsidies, says “Cities should allow dense development…but locals tend to oppose greater housing density.”  Solution? None given.  Barro states, “A much smarter approach…allow looser urban zoning”.  Got your fairy wand ready for waving?  Me neither.  I haven’t yet read Matt Yglesias’s “The Rent is Too Damn High”, probably the pinnacle of pundit-driven, change-the-zoning rallying cries, but every reference to it I read talks about “regulatory framework” not public process or neighborhood preferences.  Do away with parking minimums, unrestrict maximum heights, reduce setbacks.  All fine. What’s the roadmap? How will Yglesias, Barro or Lee move these changes through the court of local landowner public opinion?  The public process piece is mostly overlooked.

Zoning laws are made by men and women and enforced by same, often times by existing landowners who are risk- and change-averse.  How often has this scene played out across America: 1) Developer buys property 2) Developer decides that in order to make profit, he/she must build something that is larger than zoning allows 3) He/she goes to neighborhood board/zoning board to ask for rezoning or variance 4) Neighbors howl that the building is too tall/will generate too much traffic 5) Zoning board caves or developer backs out 6) Project doesn’t get built or is downsized.  The other process to change local zoning happens like this: 1) City decides to update their comprehensive plan (and zoning to implement) 2) A public process occurs and 3) density is usually restricted in some or many places to less than the market might bear (especially in existing single-family neighborhoods). This is how zoning law gets made in America.  There is no single authority, no dusty bureaucrat simply refusing to pull the magic zoning lever that will unleash the benevolent market forces.  Its individual homeowners and developers showing up at public meetings, testifying, and sitting on advisory boards.  Its elected city councils voting based on the feelings of their (loudest) constituents.  Future residents don’t typically have much of a voice.  This is local democracy in action.

Do the MOUs suggest making land use authority more regional and less local as Yglesias hints at in his NYT interview?  They will encounter some strong resistance from some other “libertarians”.  Do they suggest some changes to the local public process used to adopt/change zoning rules?  If so, I haven’t read any detailed proposals yet.  Andres Duany, famous architect and urban planner (and not someone I would classify as a MOU), has proposed citizen juries, but I’m not aware of many other proposals.  Do they propose abolishing some or all local land use authority and process?  They will likely meet strong resistance from all sides, conservative and liberal alike.

So my challenge to the MOUs is this: stop writing about rent-spiraling zoning.  We get it, in some places developers can’t build as tall as they want/rents are too high.  This is the easy part.  Start writing about public process.  What changes do you propose to local government decision-making processes that would speed development and/or make the costs and benefits of planning and zoning decisions (especially the long-term ones) more plain?  This is the hard part.  Public sector planners have been working on it for quite some time, and haven’t really come up with a great solution yet.  We could use your help.

Update: Josh Barro has in fact proposed some solutions, to which he pointed me.  I don’t find any of these particularly realistic, except perhaps moving towards more rental (which is still a long shot).  None of these are process solutions either, more like total structural shifts.  He actually mentions abolishing local land use authority which I mention above, but ultimately talks himself out of it.

The rise of the new groupthink

The New York Times has an interesting article about the downsides of too frequently working in teams and/or not having enough solitary work time or space.

SOME teamwork is fine and offers a fun, stimulating, useful way to exchange ideas, manage information and build trust.

But it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers. Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.

I find this particularly relevant in working in the public sector, where it is anathema to the current trends to make decisions independently or trust the detail work of “technical experts”.  Current trends seem to be towards trusting in the ultimate wisdom of the group.  Humans are not built to resist the downside of groupthink.

The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

The article notes that the internet and electronic communication may provide an antidote for groupthink.

The one important exception to this dismal record is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better. The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work. This is why the Internet has yielded such wondrous collective creations. Marcel Proust called reading a “miracle of communication in the midst of solitude,” and that’s what the Internet is, too. It’s a place where we can be alone together — and this is precisely what gives it power.

Can we talk about adaptation?

In an example of local action to address climate change, 4 diverse Florida counties have banded together to mitigate climate change and protect themselves against the changes that are already happening.  They’re successful because the impacts can already be seen in Florida:

It didn’t hurt, says Murley, that “we live under constant climate events.” Much of South Florida is crisscrossed with drainage canals, built to turn swampland into solid ground. The canals were built at a time when sea level was lower; now, during particularly high tides, or in the aftermath of heavy rains, the canals can’t drain properly into the ocean. “We get water backing up along the beaches,” he says. “People see that and they ask officials, ‘What’s going on?’”

Rising seas have also begun to have an impact on drinking water, as the salty ocean forces itself into underground aquifers. City planners all along the coast are now laying out plans to retreat from the contamination by drilling new wells further inland. “The point,” says Murley, “is that you can do all sorts of adaptation [to climate change] without using the term” — raising coastal roadbeds, for example, in the name of highway improvement rather than climate adaptation, even though that’s what it really is. The pumps installed by the South Florida Water Management District on some of the region’s canals to handle backups during high tide or torrential rains are another good example.

Planners and elected officials are going to have to talk about climate change, whether they say the words or not.

Australian carbon tax set to pass

Lake Hume at 4% - 6531

Australia will soon pass a nation-wide carbon tax.

Under the legislation, about 500 of the biggest carbon-emitting companies in Australia will pay a price for each tonne of carbon. Most of the biggest emitters are electricity generating firms, mining companies and heavy industry manufacturers.

To compensate households, the government is cutting income taxes and boosting payments such as pensions and other benefits, as well as offering various lump sum payments.

The average household is expected to pay about $9.90 a week in extra living costs, including $3.30 on electricity.

However this will be offset by an estimated $10.10 in extra benefits and tax breaks. The Australian scheme will cover about 60 per cent of Australia’s emissions, making it the most broad-based in the world.

John Quiggin, via Matt Yglesias, has some analysis.

While the proposal is far from perfect, there’s a lot to like about it. The price of $A23/tonne is comparable to that in the EU, and should be enough to promote a wide range of reductions inCO2 emissions. Importantly in the Australian context, it should (with the support of some addition funds to allow the closure of existing power stations) end the use of brown coal (lignite) as a fuel. Brown coal produces about 50 per cent more emissions per unit of energy than anthracite (black coal), and Australia has lots of it. There will also be an incentive to continue the shift away from black coal in electricity generation and towards a combination of gas and renewables. Equally important, in the long run, will be improvements in energy efficiency. This is where price-based measures really shine, as compared to purely regulatory interventions – there are all kinds of ways to save energy and it is hard to predict, in general, which will be best.[3]

The other side of the proposal is what to do with the revenue, and in this respect the current measure is a big improvement on the emissions trading scheme that failed to get through in 2009. That scheme gave greatly excessive compensation to large emitters in a way that encouraged them to stay in operation. While the business compensation in the current scheme is still excessive in economic terms, it’s a sensible compromise politically. More important is the use of the bulk of the proceeds to raise the income tax threshold from (around) $6000 to $20000, thereby taking a million or so people out of the income tax system[4]. That’s a measure that will be hard to reverse, given that the Opposition has pledged “in blood” to repeal the tax if it win the next election.

This proposal seems, in basic terms, similar to the CLEAR act in the US.  No complex trading scheme, but a tax on polluters with a portion of the proceeds going back to the public to offset increased costs.  For a number of reasons, Australia is more vulnerable than other countries to the changing climate.  This Rolling Stone piece is an eye-opener.

With nine degrees of warming, computer models project that Australia will look like a disaster movie. Habitats for most vertebrates will vanish. Water supply to the Murray-Darling Basin will fall by half, severely curtailing food production. Rising sea levels will wipe out large parts of major cities and cause hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage to coastal homes and roads. The Great Barrier Reef will be reduced to a pile of purple bacterial slime. Thousands of people will die from heat waves and other extreme weather events, as well as mosquito-borne infections like dengue fever. Depression and suicide will become even more common among displaced farmers and Aborigines. Dr. James Ross, medical director for Australia’s Remote Area Health Corps, calls climate change “the number-one challenge for human health in the 21st century.”

The cost of suburban development in Edmonton

The City of Edmonton has completed a study of the long-term fiscal impact of new suburban development.  The results are not good.

Suburban sprawl will cost the City of Edmonton and its taxpayers much more than it provides in revenues.

New neighbourhoods do not pay for themselves, and the financial gap is staggering. Over the next 30 years, just 17 of more than 40 developing and future neighbourhoods will cost the city more than $500 million more than they provide in taxes, user fees and other revenues.

This includes one neighbourhood with a relatively high concentration of commercialindustrial lands, which will provide net revenues over $400 million. If we ignore this one and only look at the planned residential neighbourhoods, the red ink is close to $1 billion.

It gets worse. After the first 30 years, the annual net cost goes up as aging infrastructure needs to be replaced. The net cost rises to over $100 million per year, every year. So the following 30 years will cost us over $3 billion. If you ignored the commercial neighbourhood, over those 30 years the bill would hit almost $4 billion.

I’ve looked, but I can’t seem to find the actually report.  The closest I can come up with is this presentation about the report.  I also can’t seem to view the city’s zoning map because they require some weird SVG viewer.  If anyone else has better luck, let me know.

Is cutting Metro LGA fair?

I rarely delve into politics here, but when the time rolls around to decide how we fund government services, it’s hard to avoid.  Right now is that time at the Minnesota Legislature, and proposals are starting to surface about how to plug the $5 billion deficit hole.  One such proposal, from the Republicans in the House, targets metro cities and counties for big cuts in Local Government Aid (LGA) while preserving it for communities in greater Minnesota.

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