Questions about the northeast water supply plan

Over at, 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.

“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.

Modernization vs. ecotheology

The Breakthrough Institute has an interesting essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus describing the case for “modernization” in our ecological approach versus what they call the traditional view, “ecotheology” which views our modernization as an affront to nature.  Here’s a long quote.  Be sure to also read the responses by Leslie Paul Thiele and Jon Christensen.

The rise of the knowledge economy — encompassing medicine, law, finance, media, real estate, marketing, and the nonprofit sector — has further accelerated the West’s growing disenchantment with modern life, especially among the educated elite. Knowledge workers are more alienated from the products of their labor than any other class in history, unable to claim some role in producing food, shelter, or even basic consumer products. And yet they can afford to spend time in beautiful places — in their gardens, in the countryside, on beaches, and near old-growth forests. As they survey these landscapes, they tell themselves that the best things in life are free, even though they have consumed mightily to travel to places where they feel peaceful, calm, and far from the worries of the modern world.

These postmaterial values have given rise to a secular and largely inchoate ecotheology, complete with apocalyptic fears of ecological collapse, disenchanting notions of living in a fallen world, and the growing conviction that some kind of collective sacrifice is needed to avoid the end of the world. Alongside those dark incantations shine nostalgic visions of a transcendent future in which humans might, once again, live in harmony with nature through a return to small-scale agriculture, or even to hunter-gatherer life.

The contradictions between the world as it is — filled with the unintended consequences of our actions — and the world as so many of us would like it to be result in a pseudorejection of modernity, a kind of postmaterialist nihilism. Empty gestures are the defining sacraments of this ecotheology. The belief that we must radically curtail our consumption in order to survive as a civilization is no impediment to elites paying for private university educations, frequent jet travel, and iPads…

Putting faith in modernization will require a new secular theology consistent with the reality of human creation and life on Earth, not with some imagined dystopia or utopia. It will require a worldview that sees technology as humane and sacred, rather than inhumane and profane. It will require replacing the antiquated notion that human development is antithetical to the preservation of nature with the view that modernization is the key to saving it. Let’s call this “modernization theology.”

Where ecotheology imagines that our ecological problems are the consequence of human violations of a separate “nature,” modernization theology views environmental problems as an inevitable part of life on Earth. Where the last generation of ecologists saw a natural harmony in Creation, the new ecologists see constant change. Where ecotheologians suggest that the unintended consequences of human development might be avoidable, proponents of modernization view them as inevitable, and positive as often as negative. And where the ecological elites see the powers of humankind as the enemy of Creation, the modernists acknowledge them as central to its salvation.

Modernization theology should thus be grounded in a sense of profound gratitude to Creation — human and nonhuman. It should celebrate, not desecrate, the technologies that led our prehuman ancestors to evolve. Our experience of transcendence in the outdoors should translate into the desire for all humans to benefit from the fruits of modernization and be able to experience similar transcendence. Our valorization of creativity should lead us to care for our cocreation of the planet.

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.

Do the Math

The article I linked to earlier by Mims sent me to Do the Math, which I find very intruiging.  It’s written by Tom Murphy, an associate professor of physics at UC San Diego.  He writes about growth, energy and economics, but from a physical science point of view, which is fascinating.  Some most-read posts include Galactic-Scale Energy, Can Economic Growth Last and Sustainability Means Bunkty to Me.

If you only read one post, read Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist.

Act One: Bread and Butter

Physicist: Hi, I’m Tom. I’m a physicist.

Economist: Hi Tom, I’m [ahem..cough]. I’m an economist.

Physicist: Hey, that’s great. I’ve been thinking a bit about growth and want to run an idea by you. I claim that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely.

Economist: [chokes on bread crumb] Did I hear you right? Did you say that growth cannot continue forever?

Physicist: That’s right. I think physical limits assert themselves.

Economist: Well sure, nothing truly lasts forever. The sun, for instance, will not burn forever. On the billions-of-years timescale, things come to an end.

Physicist: Granted, but I’m talking about a more immediate timescale, here on Earth. Earth’s physical resources—particularly energy—are limited and may prohibit continued growth within centuries, or possibly much shorter depending on the choices we make. There are thermodynamic issues as well.

They go all the way through dessert.

He’s also obsessed/extremely dedicated to reducing his personal energy use footprint, and writes about his exploits pinching therms in graphic detail.

The only downside to Tom’s blog is that he doesn’t include full text articles in his RSS feed.  But you should subscribe anyway.

Going green but getting nowhere

A sobering Op-Ed by Gernot Wagner in the NYT.  This link deserves it’s own post.

Leading scientific groups and most climate scientists say we need to decrease global annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least half of current levels by 2050 and much further by the end of the century. And that will still mean rising temperatures and sea levels for generations.

So why bother recycling or riding your bike to the store? Because we all want to do something, anything. Call it “action bias.” But, sadly, individual action does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough. Self-interest, not self-sacrifice, is what induces noticeable change. Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet.

Every ton of carbon dioxide pollution causes around $20 of damage to economies, ecosystems and human health. That sum times 20 implies $400 worth of damage per American per year. That’s not damage you’re going to do in the distant future; that’s damage each of us is doing right now. Who pays for it?

We pay as a society. My cross-country flight adds fractions of a penny to everyone else’s cost. That knowledge leads some of us to voluntarily chip in a few bucks to “offset” our emissions. But none of these payments motivate anyone to fly less. It doesn’t lead airlines to switch to more fuel-efficient planes or routes. If anything, airlines by now use voluntary offsets as a marketing ploy to make green-conscious passengers feel better. The result is planetary socialism at its worst: we all pay the price because individuals don’t.

It won’t change until a regulatory system compels us to pay our fair share to limit pollution accordingly. Limit, of course, is code for “cap and trade,” the system that helped phase out lead in gasoline in the 1980s, slashed acid rain pollution in the 1990s and is now bringing entire fisheries back from the brink. “Cap and trade” for carbon is beginning to decrease carbon pollution in Europe, and similar models are slated to do the same from California to China.

Alas, this approach has been declared dead in Washington, ironically by self-styled free-marketers. Another solution, a carbon tax, is also off the table because, well, it’s a tax.

Never mind that markets are truly free only when everyone pays the full price for his or her actions. Anything else is socialism. The reality is that we cannot overcome the global threats posed by greenhouse gases without speaking the ultimate inconvenient truth: getting people excited about making individual environmental sacrifices is doomed to fail.

What locations in the Twin Cities are eligible for LEED ND: Part 1

In a previous post, I talked about the news that HUD will begin scoring grant applications based on location efficiency, and using the LEED ND rating system to do so.  While it is not yet clear what exactly HUD means by this, we can do our own exercise to look at the ND system, compare it to the existing built environment and see what locations in the Twin Cities might be eligible.

This isn’t just about HUD and their projects, it is a way of determining what the best locations are for new development that would ensure compact, contiguous development that makes the most efficient use of infrastructure and has multiple transportation options.  Or in other words, it’s a method to begin planning a more sustainable region.

Before the analysis, a little background on LEED ND is appropriate:

The rating system is divided into five topic areas:

  • Smart Location and Linkage
  • Neighborhood Pattern and Design
  • Green Infrastructure and Buildings
  • Innovation and Design Process
  • Regional Priority Credit

The first three topic areas have prerequisites, or requirements that a project must meet in order to be eligible.  All the topic areas have credits, from which a project proposer can choose to achieve to meet the various certification levels (Certified: 40, Silver: 50, Gold: 60, Platinum: 80).

While the LEED ND system is long and complex, there is really one topic area of the five in the rating system that deals with location and what land is off-limits versus eligible: Smart Location and Linkage (SLL).  In this topic, there are five prerequisites and nine credits.  For the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to be looking at just the prerequisites for LEED ND SLL, because once you get into credits, you have to start making lots of assumptions about how the project will be designed and what features it will contain.  In addition, the other four topic areas deal primarily with the design of the project, or what is inside the project boundary, something we can’t know until a project is proposed.  We want to know just what locations are at minimum eligible, and that means focusing on prerequisites in SLL.

Read on for the details of Smart Location and Linkage and the results.

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Federally funding for transit projects now to consider “livability”, analysis no longer dominated by cost-effectiveness

The Transport Politic has the best summary of the changes to the FTA’s New Starts program funding.  In analyzing competing projects nationwide, the government:

…will eliminate a policy-making rule that gives projects’ “cost-effectiveness” primacy when choosing how to distribute transit funds. Once the shift has undergone an internal review and been submitted to public comment, the Department of Transportation will give equal weight to livability issues.

Freemark calls out Minneapolis and the Southwest Corridor alignment process as a perfect example of cost-effectiveness uber-alles mentality gone wrong.

Where the cost-effectiveness index goes really wrong is in medium-density cities hoping to cash in on transit as a tool for increasing density and developing a transit-friendly environment. As demonstrated by the Minneapolis example, the index basically forces transit authorities responsible for choosing routes to pick less useful corridors within the inner-city in order to speed commutes from the suburbs. It also requires agencies to reduce spending on lines in order to meet the arbitrary limit imposed by the index, no matter the willingness of local taxpayers to contribute a higher percentage of a project’s construction costs.

Whether the locals in Minneapolis are/were willing to spend more for 3C is, in my mind, an open question, but it does seem clear that a “less useful corridor” was chosen to meet cost-effectiveness guidelines.

What “livability” means is as yet undetermined and will be part of a rule-making process to come.  The FTA press release does state livability issues include “economic development opportunities and environmental benefits”.  I assume this will mean potential for the project to spur development and the environmental impact from reduced greenhouse gas emissions, among other things.

Freemark says this will be a good change, but won’t solve the real problem: a simple lack of funding for transit projects.  Even if a new methodology for ranking projects is devised, their is still a huge gap between deserving projects and federal funds. Streetsblog summarizes Oberstar’s answer: more funding in the next omnibus transportation bill.  There is also a good back and forth about whether these changes are good or bad at the National Journal.  Transit folks basically say “yahoo!” while skeptics seem to doubt that “livability” measures will be based on rigorous analysis.

It seems to early to judge whether this is a good or bad change without seeing the rules that will guide analysis around livability.  The traditional cost-effectiveness measure used a dollar figure.  However, this dollar figure was based on travel time savings, and included no external costs.  If external environmental impact of route choices and their alternatives can be put in dollar terms, wouldn’t that be a perfectly analytical measure for this new livability category?  Economic development potential seems more squishy, but this the same kind of analysis that road project planners have to do when they are considering what property to condemn.

Waxman ousts Dingell for chairmanship – climate change solved?

Rep. Waxman

A long-time advocate of the US auto industry and sometime climate change-lover John D. Dingell was ousted from the charimanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday.  While this is possibly good news for new environmental legislation, it may signal more bad news for the Detroit-based auto industry.  Something big will likely happen given the “change” mantra sweeping Washington, and as this is one important charimanship, according to NYT:

Many lawmakers and lobbyists consider the Energy and Commerce Committee to be the most influential panel in either house of Congress, one that handles, by some estimates, all or parts of two-thirds of the legislation moving through the House. Three committees in the Senate share jurisdiction over bills relating to energy, environment and commerce, all of which pass through the single House committee.

Outside the committee room is a huge NASA photograph of Earth taken from space. Mr. Dingell is fond of pointing to it in answer to questions about his committee’s jurisdiction.