A Lack of Imagination When it Comes to Energy

There seems to be an important element missing from many of our national debates:  Imagination.  Newt Gingrich hinted at it a few months ago in one of the Republican primary debates with his (admittedly tone-deaf) promise, “By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.”  Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a spirited defense of NASA, explores the same theme in the following video entitled “We Stopped Dreaming:”


Nowhere is this lack more noticeable, I think, than in our discussions about energy:  how we produce it, its role in our economy and our lives, its role in keeping America competitive, and the trade-offs we’re willing to make to keep it affordable.  This is true for all energy sectors, whether we’re talking about coal-fired power plants or electric cars, wind turbines or gas refineries.  Time after time, when I enter a discussion about where we are vs. where we should be, there is a resistance to imagination, to considering  what could be.  This is particularly a shame, I think, because so much of America’s national spirit and mythmaking is based on the idea that we constantly challenge assumptions and limitations – that we innovate, and create, forge new markets and, ultimately, lead the world.  How much of this is precisely accurate is another story, but it’s indisputable this has been a significant part of our national self image since the Founding.

And yet, think about some of the objections you hear to any attempt to innovate our energy markets (if this is the kind of thing you are inclined to talk about):  Try to move away from coal…well, China is just going to buy it anyways, why bother?  Encourage massive shifts to electric vehicles…well, oil is fungible, other people will buy it, so why bother?  Build bike friendly cities…well, no one will ride a bike, why bother?

It’s not that there aren’t legitimate objections to some of these ideas, or that there are places or situations where their application simply isn’t feasible – it’s the lack of imaginative vision, the sense that, if this great thing can’t be applied here, then what can?  It’s as if we can’t even imagine a world powered by clean, homegrown energy, a country of walkable cities where we get to know our neighbors again, energy markets that free up American ingenuity and markets so that we can surge back into economic leadership rather than being shackled to foreign oil fields and dirty coal – that is getting more and more expensive to extract – even as our competitors invest in more diverse energy sources.

A generation ago, our parents and grandparents were told they would be driving flying cars through cities of skyscrapers while robot butlers served them meatloaf in a pill, and out of that vision came the world we now live in – more boring in some ways, more amazing in others.

What is the flying car of our future?  Something with marginally better gas mileage?  Wider roads that, hopefully, won’t take you on scenic tours of the blasted ruins of Appalachian coal fields?  An iterative remodel of the same SUV we’ve been driving for a decade?

We need to start imagining again.  Big.  Huge.  Ridiculous.  We need to imagine solar panels on every roof, cars that run on water, treadmill sidewalks, whatever it takes to get us excited about our cities and our future.  If we don’t imagine big, how are we going to accomplish anything other than mediocre?

TDM, the Local Economy, and Behaving like Victims

WSLS had an interesting story earlier this week concerning the impact of high gas prices on the local economy.  I can’t find the video online, but the gist of it is summed up in this question posted to their Facebook wall:

People are spending less money on other things as gas prices rise, which is why high gas prices are hurting local economies. One Economics Professor says, “By my estimates for every 10 cents that a gallon of gasoline goes up, that takes about 7 million dollars a month out of the local economy.” So, what’s your take? Are you consciously spending less on other things as gas prices continue to rise?

If you follow the resulting comment thread – indeed, if you follow any discussion that stems from energy prices – you will see a lot of “I have to’s.”  I have to drive the kids, I have to drive to the store, I have to drive to work, I live in the country and have to drive to this and that and the other place.  Of course, all of these are perfectly reasonable and legitimate needs, but I would argue that people are using the wrong verb here.  Maybe a lot of them actually do have to drive to wherever they’re going, but many of them simply have to get there.

Thinking about it this way – not, “How expensive is it for me to drive to where I’m going,” but, “What is the best way for me to get where I’m going” – could save you a lot of money.

We should treat transportation decisions similar to other buying decisions – it’s reasonable, in good times, to eat out more; in lean times, you cook in.  In good times, you take vacations; in bad times, you hang around the house.  In good times, maybe you can afford to drive more often and farther; in bad times, maybe it’s time to carpool with a coworker or take the bus once a week.

It doesn’t have to be a life-changing decision.  It doesn’t even have to be a long-term decision.  But it is a decision.  Despite what oil companies and automobile manufacturers might want you to think, no one is required to drive everywhere all the time by themselves.  You can choose to share a ride, leave the car at home, bike to the store, etc., in the same way you make any other household budget decision.

Further, WSLS’s story makes the excellent point that money spent on higher gas prices are dollars not spent in the local economy.  I’ve always touted the savings that TDM can create for local governments by reducing traffic demand, congestion, road maintenance and building, and so forth, but it’s important to recognize how it frees up money for consumer spending locally.  Might it help someone try to carpool once or twice a week if they knew not only that there were saving money, but that more of their money was going to their friends and neighbors and less to multinational corporations and foreign governments?  I hope so.

The Roanoke Times offered a op-ed earlier in the week, also on the subject of gas prices.  It ended with the following consolation:

Americans should not despair, but the best anyone can hope for are smart policies and investments in technology that create future energy stability.

Maybe, but this misses the point.  We can sit around and hope, I suppose, or we can step up and take action now by reconsidering our habits, changing our behavior, and refocusing where we choose to spend our money.  We’re not victims, here, unless we want to be.

And, yes, of course, there are many of us who, for one reason or another, do need to take every trip in a car, who are subject to the whims of the oil market, because of a past decision we made about the kind of vehicle we bought, or where we wanted to live.  However, those are choices we made at the time, and we can’t really complain if they turned out – maybe even just temporarily – to be bad ones, or to have unforeseen consequences.  In these cases, the best anyone can hope for is not to wait for national energy policy or international energy markets to make us feel better about these choices, but rather to simply make different choices in the future, or accept that the cost of bigger cars and longer commutes is always going to be less money in your pocket and more subservience to volatile energy markets.

Libyan Politics, Roanoke Gas Prices

Muammar al-Gaddafi | Wikipedia.org

In the midst of a tenuous, nascent U.S. economic recovery social and political unrest in a far-flung country once again sends our own energy markets into turmoil:

After the biggest one-week rise in oil prices in two years, weekly gas prices increased 6 percent according to the Department of Energy today….  Crude oil futures traded at $97.10 a barrel in New York amid the revolt in Libya. As unrest continues in the Middle East, investors did not seem assured that Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries would be willing to compensate for lost production.

Locally, we don’t have much influence over federal energy policy.  We can’t control the global energy markets that supply our insatiable demand, except insofar as we actually reduce our demand.  Every trip you take that burns fuel has some part to play, however minuscule, in the complex web of worldwide energy policy.

We can be victims of the fluctuations of those markets, complaining about sharp increases in gas prices and the impacts on our home budgets and business bottom lines, or we can make smart decisions about our fuel use that protect us from those fluctuations and invest more dollars in local economies rather than foreign dictatorships.

This article at Grist.com makes the strong case, for example, that investing in bicycling is better not just for health and emissions, but for the local economy, taking money that would have gone to international oil companies and keeping it in the community.  The same can be said for transit, telework, etc.:  anything that reduces the amount we spend on oil and turns that into money spent on local goods and services is not just a win for reducing the demand for foreign oil, but also a win for local businesses, local jobs, local governments, and our neighbors.


Volunteers for Energy Seeking Energy Assessors

Volunteers for Energy, a program of the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission, is seeking part-time retired, volunteer engineers to perform energy and sustainability assessments at businesses, nonprofits, governments and industries in the greater Roanoke region.  These assessments provide specific strategies for organizations to cut their energy use, reduce waste, and implement other energy and environmental practices such as recycling programs, transportation demand management, and green energy, and are provided free of charge.

Volunteers should have industrial or facilities management experience with good communications and computer skills and an interest in sustainability and energy issues.  Experience in some technical, educational, or professional fields is also appropriate.  Volunteers for Energy staff provide training and assessment supplies, including all necessary tools.  A stipend is available and volunteers are eligible to be reimbursed for expenses incurred in the assessment process.

Interested volunteers should contact Jeremy Holmes, Coordinator of Sustainability Programs, at (540) 342-9393 or jholmes@rvarc.org.  More information and a volunteer interest form can be found at www.rvarc.org.  Just click the Volunteers for Energy logo.

Volunteers for Energy helps organizations improve environmental and energy management through efficiency techniques that save money.  The VfE team conducts on-site assessments and provides consulting services to businesses and public facilities throughout the greater Roanoke region.  Highly experiences volunteer engineers, scientists, and staff provide clients with innovative cost-saving strategies and resources to meet their goals.  Consulting services are confidential and are provided at no cost to the client, supported by a Department of Energy grant and the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission.

The Regional Commission’s News Tips and Resources

For more information on the Regional Commission, its projects or resources, contact Mr. Wayne Strickland at (540) 343-4417 or wstrickland@rvarc.org.

November, 2010

  • The Regional Commission’s new energy efficiency program “Volunteers for Energy” (VfE) is quickly moving forward to provide free, energy savings assessments to local businesses, industry, and local governments.  Volunteer assessors are being actively recruited and will attend their first official training event on November 30th.  Free assessments to local organizations will begin in December.
  • RIDE Solutions is proud to have been featured in the recent regional marketing effort “A Moving Film,” developed by the Creative Connectors group 81 Reasons to Connect and the NCTC.  The film highlights the role sustainable transportation plays in our quality of life.  “A Moving Film” was sponsored in part by the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission.
  • Staff defined and mapped “green infrastructure” related features for the region.  This mapping effort provided a complete inventory of: protected land parcels, trails, streams, forested areas, and ecologically significant areas.  This inventory can now be used for other planning efforts such as greenway planning, general long range planning, and land preservation efforts.
  • RIDE Solutions has completed its Carshare Feasibility Study for the Roanoke area.  The report concludes there is a potential for carsharing in the Valley if its concentrated on the Downtown area and Hollins, partners with existing carshare provider UCarShare in Blacksburg, and works with one or more local businesses to replace fleet vehicles with carshare vehicles.  Download the complete report from the RIDE Solutions website for more information.

As part of its Cool Green Biz certification, the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission will regularly report on its energy reduction efforts.

As of September 2010, the Commission has reduced electricity usage by 8% compared to the same period the previous year, despite growing Commission staff by three new planners and expanding operations to a previously unused floor of the building.  This has been accomplished largely through an update of our lighting, the expansion of motion sensing light switch in an upstairs hallway, and continued vigilance on the part of staff in shutting down computers and office equipment at the end of the day.  The Commission has now begun capturing vehicle miles traveled information and hopes to report on improvements in employee commute impacts soon.

Regional Commission Awarded Energy Grant

March 2, 2010 – Roanoke, VA – Governor Bob McDonnell announced today that the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission (RVARC) will be awarded $277,751 to develop a pilot energy efficiency and conservation program in the Roanoke Valley and Alleghany Highlands.  The Regional Commission’s proposal was one of 26 applications that were selected for funding from over 150 submissions that came from all regions of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Commission’s new energy efficiency program will utilize retired engineers and scientists to provide confidential and nonregulatory pollution prevention and energy efficiency assessments to businesses and institutions in the region. Volunteer assessors will identify utility cost-cutting measures through on-site energy and water efficiency auditing, strategic energy management planning, technical assistance, solid waste reduction, and project implementation guidance.

No-cost technical assistance and training will be provided to industries, businesses, and public facilities, including K-12 schools and local governments.  The program will be modeled on successful programs throughout the nation that harness the expert knowledge of retired technical professionals, such as North Carolina’s Waste Reduction Partner’s (WRP) program.  It is anticipated that the new Regional Commission program will begin accepting request for energy assessments by Fall 2010.

Several of Virginia’s Planning District Commissions played a vital role in reviewing applications and will continue to manage this program as it moves into the implementation stage.  The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy partnered with the state’s 21 planning districts in order to take advantage of their well-established administrative, project management, and technical support capacity as well as their communications systems and channels with local governments and the local business and non-profit communities.

The funding is provided by the Virginia Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block (EECBG) program, which was established to help local governments, cities and counties implement strategies to encourage energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives.  The EECBG program was initiated as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

More information can be found at http://www.eecbg.energy.gov/

You Say That Like it’s a Bad Thing

I suppose I get why this Wall Street Journal article is taking such a snarky,  critical tone:  The Federal Government has shaved 0.006% off the deficit with savings from things like double-sided printing, emailing documents instead of printing them and redistributing them, combining flights for returning soldiers on R&R.  Such a tiny percentage, such obvious things, it seems a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it?

But wait, what’s this – that tiny percentage translates to $102 million in real savings?  I guess the Journal doesn’t think that’s much money because it’s a tiny percentage of the national deficit, which is sort of an arbitrary number to divide it into.  Why not divide it into the annual operating budget of each agency?  Why not translate it into the number of potential jobs saved (maybe somewhere near 2,000 jobs at a conservative guess)?  At any rate, the point isn’t how the Journal decides to frame the cost savings from these small changes, it that small things can add up very quickly into big changes.

And, sure, it’s easy to make fun of the stereotypical federal agency for missing what would seem to be such obvious things.   But I doubt they’re any less guilty than any other household or business – old habits die hard, and it’s the small, unnotable routines that are often guilty of amazing amounts of waste.  For example, the Regional Commission is going through the Regional Chamber’s Cool Green Biz checklist and there are a ton of things we can change that, now, seem obvious, but didn’t before.  At home, I only recently started starting turning off the power strip into which most of my major entertainment equipment (computer, TV, PS3, etc.) was already plugged into (initial estimates show this is cutting about 1% off my power usage every month.  And despite it being my bread and butter, I’m still really bad about using my bicycle for short trips to the store instead of my car, despite the fact that trips like this make up the majority of trips most households make.

Before the WSJ makes fun, I wonder how much waste paper the newspaper generates?  How many emails do they print, how many desk lamps are left on when no one’s around, how many cell phone chargers stay plugged in while the phones themelves are tucked into a reporter’s pocket?  I wonder how many pennies they could squeeze out of their power bill or copy paper budget if they reexamined their habits?

The federal government is not unique in getting complacent about resource use.   We all are, which is why efficiency and conservation are the easiest and most effective ways to make immediate dents in our energy consumption.  Whether its finally noticing that there’s a Valley Metro stop one block from your house, or deciding that you don’t really need the television on “for background noise,” there is probably some small thing you can do first thing tomorrow morning that will save you money, make your life easier, and make you greener at the same time.

And if the WSJ doesn’t that that $102 million is something to get excited about, I imagine their sister newspapers would beg to differ.

A Question of Efficiency

Last week, I was invited to lunch at On the Rise with James Glass, local developer, real estate guy, cyclist, and all-around creative-type, for an informal discussion of what RIDE Solutions does, the growth of bike culture in the valley, and issues of energy and transportation in general.  Though the conversation pleasantly meandered over everything from domestic energy production to global economics and the true cost of investing in renewable sources, one topic that stood out was the issue of efficiency – both in terms of technology and behavior – and to what extent just making responsible use of the energy we are currently generating could go a long way to cutting our consumption.

That got me thinking about an issue that often comes up when discussing transportation and energy:  the difference between efficient transportation and efficient transportation systems.  That is, the difference between hybrids and carpools.

When I first took the position at RIDE Solutions, we had a significant portion of our website dedicated to “going alternative,” with information on hybrids, electric cars, scooters, motorcycles, etc.  It’s still there, significantly subdued compared to its predecessor, and in the next website update it’s going to come off altogether.  It’s a lot of fun to talk about the whiz-bang excitement of new technologies, and its a worthwhile pursuit to continue making vehicles more efficient, but its my opinion that hybrids (and electric cars, and smart cars, and scooters, and segways) aren’t the answer to the energy problem.  Or, at the very least, they’re a distance second.

Here’s why I think that.

The first is a simple financial issue:  How many people can afford to trade out their cars for a brand-new hybrid?  Even if the infrastructure existed to provide resources for electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, how many people could reasonably be expected to be in a position to swap cars?  My minivan is only five years old and has a ridiculously small number of miles on it; so long as that engine rumbles to life, I’m going to squeeze every ounce out of it I can.  That’s just responsible budgeting.

An automobile is an expensive piece of machinery, and hybrids more so.  Even if every new car coming off the line was a super-efficient marvel of technology, it would still take decades for the vehicle market to turn over enough that everyone will have traded up.

The second issue, and probably the more important issue, is that the energy consumed in our transportation system isn’t just a function of the vehicles themselves, but of the infrastructure and development patterns that come about as a result of their use.  Suburban sprawl is one of these – cheap gasoline made it realistic to abandon the urban core of cities and expand into the suburbs, because it made more economic sense to drive the extra distance for the cheaper land and bigger house.  This not only had the effect of decimating urban centers (many of which, like Downtown Roanoke, are now roaring back to life with a vengeance), but of creating very energy-intensive transportation systems.  People drove farther.  Suburban sprawl made mass transportation options inefficient or impossible, so more people drove alone rather than used a bus or train.  The energy required to maintain the infrastructure increased – asphalt, streetlights, paving, bridges, etc.  The energy required to build and maintain utilities increased:  new water and sewage systems, new power lines, storm water management, etc.  There are tertiary impact as well – the need for more  and smaller schools, services, shopping, etc., and the loss of efficiencies that could be had in denser areas all resulted in more energy consumption, driven by the cheap, long distance commute.

Simply swapping out old inefficient engines for new efficient ones does nothing to address this last problem and in fact exacerbates it, or at least maintains it.  It does not encourage density of development and contraction of suburban sprawl; it does not encourage taking cars off the road by providing optimum conditions for transit and rail, or provide short enough commute distances to allow for biking and pedestrian commuting; and it results in continuing to dedicate enormous amounts of money to road building and maintenance.  Remember, it is the weight and number of cars that wears down and congests our infrastructure system, not their mileage rating.

I doubt one would be any happier stewing in a 30-minute traffic jam in a Prius than I would in my Dodge Caravan, though the Prius owner would be paying a little less for the privilege.

This, in brief, is why RIDE Solutions is more interested in the (admittedly more difficult) realm of behavior change and transportation mode rather than new technologies.  It is, first of all, fairly easy to adopt; carpooling, biking, transit, telework, almost everybody in the region has some access to these modes for at least some period during the week, and rather than requiring a significant financial investment any of these modes will almost instantly save you money.  More importantly for the long term, though, RIDE Solutions (and organizations and advocates like it) sees the biggest gains from addressing transportation energy from the demand side.  Keep the car on the road and make it more efficient and you’ve only addressed one aspect of transportation energy.  Take cars off the road, however, and the energy savings multiply across the system in numerous ways:  no consumption from the vehicle taken off the road, less consumption from the remaining vehicles who can move more efficiently with less congestion, less wear-and-tear on the roads, and so forth.

So, yes, if you absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt have to drive, drive a hybrid or a Tesla or whatever you can get your hands on.  In the meantime, if you’re concerned about energy (and your pocketbook), hopping in a carpool or onto your bike a day or two a week will have a much broader impact, and save you a lot more money, than that Prius.