Sprawl’s costs aren’t just in land, but economic development

“The Cost of Sprawl: More than $1 Trillion Per Year, Report Says” – Wall Street Journal

Growth is good.sprawl

Local growth is an efficient tax base generator.
If you widen a highway, it will ease congestion.

In a vacuum.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that widening a highway doesn’t ease congestion. It makes it worse.  As a state widens a highway, local development increases to take advantage of the higher volume of projected business. More housing developments sprout up around retail areas associated with the new and improved artery – increasing the volume of traffic. (Sierra Club white paper)

But there are two trends at work, here. Today, jobs downtown tend to be skilled, white-collar, and well-paid. Jobs out in the suburbs tend to be more retail, construction, and lower paid. And with the rise in more jobs in city centers, living there will become more expensive and limited to only those who can afford it. This is no more true than in places like New York.

Yet, planners are trying to resolve the issue in many cities. “People increasingly desire to live, work, shop and play in the same place, and to commute shorter distances — particularly the young and educated, who are the most coveted employees. So in many cities, both policy makers and employers have been trying to make living and working there more attractive.” (NY Times)

But the imbalance between population and infrastructure remains. Few other cultures on earth desire convenience as much as Americans do. And so drives the need for planners to provide urban dwellers them the cake and their ability to eat it too. Enter the neo-suburb and sprawl.

So, you now live in a single, interlinked strip mall urbanscape. Forget about the absence of parks or green areas, the scattered tax base from the collection of small businesses that can’t support long-term growth. It begins to decay. Your morning walk now takes you along a split six-lane thoroughfare crammed with Big Box retail shoppers and the on-the-go crew who are picking up their egg & sausage muffins at the drive-thru.

This is not just about the environmental effects. It’s about the question of where our cities will be in the future – and where the land falls into that algorithm. Just look outside our nation’s capitol. (Washington Post)

Meanwhile, local and state governments, like that in Tyson’s Corner, VA., continue to do what they feel necessary to adapt to changes in population behaviors.

(courtesy: Charleston, SC)

(Denver, CO) “State may widen I-70 to ease congestion
(Tyler, TX) “New expansion project set for West Loop 323″
(Asbury Park, NJ)  “Parkway widening to restore shoulders, lengthen overpasses”

In a paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto nail the problem. “People drive more when the stock of roads in their city increases; commercial driving and trucking increase with a city’s stock of roads; people migrate to cities which are relatively well provided with roads.” (NBER

There are additional examinations of the issue citing the three most congested cities in the U.S. are that way, precisely because of ‘road-based” development solutions. And it’s not limted to the U.S.: “Meanwhile, China has increased its expressway network from 16,300 km in the year 2000 to around 70,000 km in 2010. Yet the average commute time in Beijing increased by 25 minutes between 2012 and 2013 to 1 hour and 55 minutes.” (City Metric/UK)

Additional research surveys from both sides of the coin continue to flourish on the numbers and impact of population growth and lagging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) says $3.6 trillion of investment is needed by 2020 to meet the needs of growth. The National Construction Association calls for a more free market approach to the problem. Researchers there have also put together their own in-depth report. But, much like the climate change debate, how well advocacy organizations, the business sector, and policy makers agree on a long-term vision may unfortunately rest on the growing direct and existential evidence of doom.

In an earlier blog, I talked about the nation’s desperate need for a cohesive plan to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure by essentially promoting teamwork between local governments and federal officials. It’s a basic observation to be sure. But to not have a long-term vision of what we’re all about as a society is to jeopardize who we will become as a nation. In Australia, the Aborigines believe they do not own the land but are part of it. Therefore, they have the duty to respect and maintain the land. Maybe we’ll figure that out before it’s too late.

GMOs: It’s about world domination, stupid

To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” – National Academies of Sciences

Whether genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are safe for human consumption is not the issue. Instead, the real concern is who grows our food, who protects it, who gets it, and when.

When I worked as a legislative aide in the Wisconsin State Legislature in the early 1990s, saving the family farm was both a big political message and effort. Large corporations, such as Dow, Monsanto, and BASF were beginning to take a great interest in this domestic resource. Back then, Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) – a genetically-enhanced chemical used to increase milk production in cows – emerged as a big issue. It was expensive and only larger farm operations could afford it. Critics said it was unsafe. Private farmers said it was destroying their livelihoods.

The debate surrounding the merit and value of GMOs should focus less on how these foods can be harmful to human health and more on how a large, publicly-traded company can essentially make decisions over who receives food and for how much it will be sold.

Today, there are companies that own both the front and backend of a supply chain, giving them a level of control that may not benefit the common good. “Farming got much more specialized, focusing on tremendous production of one commodity, rather than growing all kinds of veggies and livestock,” a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service report stated.

I watch with bated breath to see when folks let the science take a backseat for a moment and begin talking about the real why behind it all. Why are companies so interested in making food more available Well, they’re businesses.

Man-of-the-Cosmos, Neil DeGrassi Tyson recently said, “GMO producers ought to be able to make as much money as they can,“ while pointing out that we’ve been modifying food for thousands of years. His diatribe startled many of his followers. Among that group, he is an oracle and man of the people – a man to lead society to greater enlightenment.

But, Tyson is a scientist, not a businessperson. He’ll be the first to admit that, and this isn’t just about public health. Society needs to be aware of the global impact a company can have on food availability when decisions are based on the bottom line.

Take Monsanto, for example. This behemoth is a typical global corporation with its fingers in virtually every level of the supply chain of food production and distribution. It develops the seeds, grows the crop, protects them with patents and pesticides, and distributes the food. Both here and abroad, they’ve brought the supply chain full circle via a framework of farms that cultivate these seeds. It’s all protected under intellectual property law, and farms that use another variety of seed are penalized. That’s a good deal of control. In fact, some governments from around the world have been looking at it this way for years. And it has been coming to a head, recently, in countries, such as India:

courtesy: The Hindu
courtesy: The Hindu

“The ease with which a transgenic technology allows corporations to claim ownership rights over seeds makes it attractive to them to hype why the world needs GMOs and seek control over entire food chains — from production to marketing — jeopardising the livelihood security of farmers,” a farmers’ group wrote to the Indian government.

This now becomes a geopolitical issue over control of the food supply, and subsequent control over how populations view their governments and whether it has their interests at heart.

It’s here where we see the GMO food lobby, emerging markets, and rising political protests. So, the debate here is not whether GMOs are safe. They likely are. The debate is about feeding the world’s neediest, but doing it with tremendous caveats. You can’t put a label on that.

Old trash is treasure? Landfill mining

Did you know just 4 percent of Swedish households put their garbage into landfills? In fact, Sweden’s recycling program is so successful that they actually run out of garbage and have to buy it from other countries just so the government can provide electricity to its 9.5 million residents.

Unloading garbage in Sweden
Unloading garbage in Sweden

That tid-bit might make garbage a bit more interesting for you. But, for others? Old garbage can be down-right fascinating.

That’s the case for a few folks slated to speak at the 2014 Global Landfill Mining Conference this November in London. They can’t wait to dig this stuff up.

So, what exactly is landfill mining?

Simply put, it’s digging up waste from a closed landfill and either recycling or reprocessing items that were once thrown away as, well, garbage. But, if you can get it out of the ground, there are a number of ways to give garbage a second life. Plastics can be reprocessed, metals can be repurposed, and certain organic materials such as wood can be used as fuel for power plants.

Earlier, I told you Sweden doesn’t have enough garbage — but that’s a unique issue. The United Kingdom only manages to put half their garbage into landfills — they’re simply running out of space. It’s a common European problem, and it’s led the English government to launch a landfill mining program. But officials admit it won’t bear fruit for at least 20 years.

It’s not only a question of time — it’s a question of economics and politics. Short-term costs around landfill mining operations are high, and the return-on-investment is woefully low for a while. That lack of instant gratification is fueling political push back from those who say there “must be” other technologies that can save the day much faster.

Time and speed, though, are actually part of the problem. Our garbage heaps didn’t appear overnight. They took generations to grow, and they continue to expand exponentially. It simply isn’t possible for a quick-fix solution to properly address an issue that’s been left unchecked for decades.

Don’t throw your hands up in defeat yet, however. There’s promising news in the United States as politicians make small steps toward overall answers. As expected, business interests are resisting, fearing any changes will adversely affect their bottom lines. But at least the conversation is open.

Yes, this is a quick look at one of many solutions to waste and sustainable practices. But, garbage, for one, is a dire problem that we must address so our children and grandchildren can see the result. Isn’t it about time we give a good, hard look at the long view?

Green Planet Catering …Trickle Down Weather

A short video I did for a great Raleigh, NC-based sustainable small business. What happens when your sustainable farm/garden gets too much rain? Owner and Farm Manager Daniel Whittaker discusses the trickle down effect of 11.5″ of excess rain over the month of June in 2013. Massive challenges were overcome with proper planning and hard work. Although the company lost at least half its crops, the fall season is looking promising and the financial status of Green Planet has never been better.

Inventions dying on the vine of a decaying infrastructure and energy policy

This week, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) committee issued 11 recommendations to the U.S. government on how to successfully market its renewable energy technologies to the world. The panel has set a goal to DOUBLE renewable energy exports in the next five years. Recommendation No. 10? Encourage foreign investment.  Hmm.

Edison in his lab

Call it being in favor of the Smart Grid, if you want. How can the United States foster green energy innovation when its own communities can’t effectively use what gets invented. Thomas Edison would have been frustrated.

The scandal surrounding the Solyndra default is still being investigated, but the general opinion is it had more to do with a faulty business model than anything. I wonder who reviews those things in the government.  Perhaps that’s the problem.

Sir Richard Branson

Private industry keeps looking for opportunities within the gaps, but without a comprehensive energy policy that rests on infrastructure modernization, progress moves at a snail’s pace. Long-term and flexible infrastructure + governmental support = jobs. As Richard Branson is taking up the reins in the post-NASA human space race, so, too, did T. Boone Pickens, the Warren Buffet of energy. Both envisioned filling a gap and profiting.  But one was in space. The other was on terra firma, filled with decaying infrastructure, global market variables, and a culture addicted to oil.

Breaking wind
How excited we all were when Mr. Pickens announced his plan a few years ago to wean our country off foreign oil. But with global markets and a lack of modernized utility infrastructure (to actually CARRY said energy somewhere else), Mr. Pickens may have been sunk before even breaking ground for his wind project.

July 8, 2008
Pickens Building World’s Largest Wind Farm
“T. Boone Pickens is warning Americans to use more natural gas and to start using wind power because “the price of oil is never coming back down.”(ABC News)
But then, two years later:
Jan 13, 2010
T. Boone Pickens cuts order for wind turbines, puts Panhandle wind farm on hold
“The energy investor, who made wind power a key part of his plan to wean Americans off foreign oil, said Tuesday he will now take delivery of 300 turbines, which he will use for wind farms in Canada and Minnesota.”(Dallas Morning News)

At least some fine folks in Minnesota may get jobs. Pickens was later quoted as saying the prices for natural gas didn’t come down far or fast enough to make wind profitable. Since natural gas is his forte, one could say he broke even. And, he did it alone. He’s one of a very few who is able.

Sure, we can bail you out
The federal government, via the DOE Loan Programs Office backed a loan of more than $530 million to now-defunct Solyndra, the solar company that went bust about a year after President Obama publicly touted the company as the poster child of America’s commitment to innovation and job creation. Now, the FBI is investigating Solyndra.

The loan program, created in 2005, was designed to eliminate United States’ reliance on foreign sources of energy.  The government is backing and has worked with more than 42 private companies to the liability tune of $30 billion. But much of these are just loan guarantees, not seed or supporting funding for companies to carry out their work. Come Sept. 30, federal monies for the DOE loan program are scheduled to double.

“Under the program, the government doesn’t hand out any money unless the companies fail. The Energy Department essentially acts as a sponsor, putting the government on the hook for the loan should the company default.” (CNN Money)
The fact the federal government is backing loans to private renewable energy companies is laudable. But there still don’t seem to be enough places to implement inventions once they become commercialized.  Perhaps the government should create a division surrounding relevant offices of the Department of Transportation, DOE, mayors associations, governors, planners, etc.   Place it in the Department of Homeland Security, why don’t we. Their mission? To plan a foundation upon which we can utilize, grow, and live with the inventions for which our country and economy is pleading.

Truth is, CO2 storage is still emerging. Are we missing the big picture? And opportunities?

We know that “four out of five dentists” agree that CO2 tops the list of global warming causes and that the leading culprit is, well, us. Proponents of “clean coal” trumpet carbon capture and sequestration as a panacea; but it may be this line of thinking that has detractors and environmentalists up in arms.  CO2 storage and sequestration is still an emerging technology and is still hyped by governments and industry stakeholders as the big solution. But, there are several notable and immediate obstacles to overcome before we can help the environment and save the proverbial whales.

With CO2 storage, you need what some say are a perfect set of geological criteria: You need a limestone bed or some other natural material that will serve as a wall; you need the space to be large enough to make the holding area practical; and you need enough of these spaces around the world to hold all the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. Yes, there are studies looking at so-called deep saline aquifers, which supporters say hold vast potential and could serve as a good tool for mitigation.

But as we look, CO2 continues to rise up into the atmosphere. If this option is to be taken seriously, we must quickly identify and use these aquifers, compatible carbon sinks, depleted oilfields or other places capable of permanently and safely housing large volumes of CO2. At an off shore undersea aquifer off Norway, for example, Statoil buries carbon dioxide extracted from natural gas to reduce its tax liability with the Norwegian government.   But offshore storage, while effective, comes at a heavy cost both in terms of capital and energy efficiency. Last year, I spoke with an executive in Rotterdam from Royal Dutch Shell who told me their northern European operations generate 100 million tons of CO2 yearly.

courtesy CO2now.org

But all this is likely just academic for now. Does the planet actually have enough space to store all this CO2? According to CO2now.org, a non-profit organization advocating the reduction of greenhouse gases, 9.28 billion metric tons of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere by fossil fuel sources, cement plants and land use-change activities worldwide in 2009.  But we’re not innocent either. The average American household spews 35 tons of CO2 into the air every year.  Economic data suggests that those figures aren’t going down.

“Coal is now the largest fossil-fuel source of CO2 emissions. About 92% of the growth in coal emissions for the period 2007-2009 resulted from increased coal use in China and India. If economic growth proceeds as expected, global fossil fuel emissions are projected to increase by more than 3% in 2010,” according to the report.

How can science help? Perhaps with increased government support and public/private relationship brokering.  Any working energy policy must be executed across platforms to be effective. Companies, R&D firms and academia should be encouraged to share new, tested and available technologies in areas such as flue gas cleanup, hydrogen generation and renewable energy tools, as well as waste-to-energy solutions in landfill gas to methane generation.

CO2 capture will certainly have its place in the new energy economy.  But cooperation across industries (and borders) is the only answer and is likely the only way to save those whales.