Friday, November 7, 2008

APA Utah: Oil

Yesterday I posted about peak water. The keynote speaker at today's session was Daniel Lerch, the author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. As you may have guessed from the title of today's post and the theme of the conference, he spoke about Peak Oil.

That term has been around so I won't bore you with a page and a half synopsis. Basically, the idea is that there is a finite supply of oil on earth, oil discovery and extraction follows a curve, called the Hubbert Curve (because it was first proposed by M. King Hubbert in 1956), with production increasing to a point, after which production will fall and cost will increase (because the oil being produced is harder to get [tar sands and oil shale, for example], so more expensive. That, coupled with decreased supply means higher costs). That point is peak oil. There is some debate as to when peak oil will be reached, some say we already have, others disagree. Again, I won't go too deep, instead, I will send you here, if you want.

Daniel Lerch talked about planning after peak oil (he subscribes to the school that says we have passed peak oil, I do too). He brought up some very interesting points. The one I will write about here is volatility.

There are two assumptions we make about oil as a society, but also as planners; Oil will be available and affordable. After peak oil those assumptions are no longer given. The basic idea of supply and demand is at work. With typical supply/demand problems, Tickle me Elmo, for example, production can increase as demand increases. Oil is not the same. There is a discovery/production lag between demand and increased supply and a limited supply in general. This means that oil is volatile.

In a typical supply and demand model the time between now and when oil is no longer economically viable to produce would play out as you might imagine; costs will rise incrementally until we reach the magic dollar per gallon that we cannot afford. This is something we could deal with, we could plan for it.

Unfortunately, oil supplies will oscillate as new stocks are found then depleted which means uncertainty in both the assumption of availability and affordability. Uncertainty is a word disdained by anybody trying to created a long range plan of any sort. How does a city create a budget when prices vary (and more than likely vary wildly) from month to month.

When Hurricane Katrina hit fuel supplies were interrupted for municipalities and counties. When these smaller governments appealed to their state government for assistance they were sorely disappointed. The state fuel reserves were never meant to aid municipal governments, they were meant to keep state emergency vehicles on the road.

But this fuel volatility reaches far beyond local agencies. National and international trade will be affected, how will the economy cope? The recent rise in fuel prices brought with it a rise in food prices as transportation became more expensive and farmers converted their food crops to bio-fuel fields (another post).

Lerch's suggestions of how to effectively plan for the inevitable uncertainty are familiar refrains. He suggested 5 specific necessities, each with their own broad applications and effects:

1) Deal with land use and transportation.
My personal soapbox most of the time. Current land use practices are no longer effective. The idea of "drive till you can buy" shaping residential development will not work. I am afraid that in our increasingly polarized political climate people hear the phrase "lifestyle change" and think the suggestion is that we all live in 200 square foot apartments in 60 story towers and only eat soilent green.

Salt Lake County daily vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2007 was just over 24million. In one day residents and visitors of Salt Lake County drive 24 million miles, that is roughly 50 round trips to the mood - a day. Imagine if everybody lived a little closer to work and took some form of transit at least a couple of times. Put grocery stores closer and I don't think 75% reduction in VMT is unreachable.

I live in Murray and work in Draper, hardly the kind of walkable situation I would like. My round trip to work and back is 22 miles, depending on the route. I can do all but 5 miles of that on transit, two miles from home to TRAX (or TRAX to home) and 1/2 mile from the last 811 bus stop in Salt Lake County to my office (or the office to the bus stop). Usually I will ride my bike those 5 miles. But even if I drive to the TRAX stop I can cut 18 miles of driving out of my day with little effort.

As of now though, for most of us oil dependency is built into the system. On top of that (and I don't mean this to sound accusitory) the most important factor people consider when choosing a mode of transportation is convience. TRAX is full on Jazz game nights not because Jazz fans are a particularly eco-conscience bunch, but because it is easier than trying to find a parking space downtown on game night.

Increasing convience will take a restructuring of transportation planning. The form of our urban areas will have to change. Planners will need to take a critical look at the fundamentals of planning. As with any big change there will some growing pains (or shrinking pains) and a learning curve. This will require mild to moderate changes in lifestyle. Changes which, I might add, actually enhance our quality of life. The kind of cites people like to visit are more compact, walkable cities, greener with less need for a car.

2) Tackle private energy consumption.
City governments are starting to convert to hybrid vehicle fleets and CF light bulbs. Most stoplights are LEDs. But government consumption is only part of the equation. Emissions from cars are also only a part of the problem. Numbers from the Department of Energy show that 75% of Utah carbon emisisons come from commercial buildings, electric power, residential buildings and industry. Buildings, and the power needed to run them contribute more to carbon emissions than drivind, by a long way. Emisisons like that come from some form of fuel, largely natural gas and coal.

As with reshaping our cities, changing private sector energy use is essentially a question of will. Building codes require vent fans in bathrooms and GFI outlets near water. Why not requre more efficent heating, cooling, and insulation? Why not require a percentage of energy be generated on site? When cities give large tax breaks to corporations so they will locate in their bounaries why not requre their facilities to be net energy producers?

The technology is available. Institiuting it is a matter of will.

3) Attack the problems piece-by-piece and from many angles.
As with most problems, there is no panacea. The phrase Lerch used in his presenation was "there are no silver bullets, but there are many silver BBs." Energy is a complex problem. Land use is a complex problem. The world is complex. It will require us to look at every angle, and will reqire a myriad of partial solutions. Again, a matter of will. For all of our glaring inadequacies and blatand idiocy, the human race is extremely intelegent. I have no doubt we can solve our ills, we just have to want to.

4) Plan for fundamental changes and make fundamental changes happen.
Our society is interesting. For most of history people could not avoid problems that were sure to affect thier daily lives. Part of that is because their daily lives were fairly simple so problems were not easily avoided. We have the interesting opportunity to live in a time when our lives are complicated enough that many problems we face are hidden and a time when we have a nearly endless variety of entertainment options to distract us. I think about energy everyday. However, I do not think less of people who don't. Because the problem is so complex, and we do have the distractions it is easy to not see the immidiacy of the situation.

We can take a cue from any 12 step program here: the first step is admitin (realizing) you have a problem). Educating citizens, stakeholders, leaders etc etc, is the first step. I have some insulated coveralls. On the inside tag there is a warning, "Caution, these coveralls isulate from heat as well as cold. Use caution when working around flame or sparks as the wearer may not know they are on fire." How do you know to stop, drop, and roll if you don't know you are on fire? When we know we are in trouble, we will act.

5) Build as sense of community.
If number one is my soapbox, this is my favorite. Lerch used the example of a woman who was attacked in a neighborhood somewhere in New York who yelled for an hour before she died. When neighbors were interviewed by the police later they all said they thought someone else would take call the police. In this situation civil inattention went a step too far.

It is easy to feel insignificant in our cities, it is easy to feel like someone else will take care of it, whatever "it" is. Life in a community is different. A member of a community feels a sense of responisibilty to the rest of the community. More importantly, a member of a community feels like they can change something that broken, they are empowered.

Technology will only get us so far. It is the socical aspect of our society that will make all the chages possible. It might take a catastrophy to get people moving, but we might be able to get things moving and avoid a catastrophy.

It was a very interesting lecture. It is easy to see gloom and doom, but the good is there too.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

APA Utah Water

Today was day one of the Utah APA Conference. The topic for the conference was "Peak Planning: Planning today for a resource constrained tomorrow."

I volunteered at the conference, partly to network, partly to see some of the sessions without paying the $100 fee, and partly because I like volunteering. I am not sure how it happened, but ended up picking up the keynote speaker, Meena Palaiappan, (who, by the way, is a very nice person) from the airport and dropping her off after the sessions.

She is from the Pacific Institute, a "nonpartisan research institute that works to advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity." Her presentation focused on peak water.

Peak water? you say. I've heard of peak oil, but peak water? Come on, the earth is a closed system, we have "x" gallons of water and we won't run out because the only thing water does is change form and location, it never disappears.

True. We have 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water, 35 million cubic kilometers of that is fresh water, 70% of which is locked in ice* (a good reason to keep up with the global warming thing, let's unlock all that ice!). So easily accessible water is a limited commodity.

But we are humans, we have a pretty good track record of finding technological solutions to problems (At the height of WWII the majority of gas used by Germany was synthetic, which is another post for another day), so we ought to be able to use some of the other 97% that is salt water.

Enter economics.

The reason we use oil from all over the world is because we can sell it at a high enough cost to justify the expense of transportation, not just in our cars either. Petroleum is used in manufacturing things like plastics and fertilizers, so it is cost effective.

Water, on the other hand, is not cost effective to transport relative to its price. On average, Utahans use about 200 gallons a day** (daily single family household use, that includes outside use). Imagine paying 2.50 for a gallon of water when we use 200 gallons a day.

So if we won't ever run out of water, and it is theoretically possible to get more water when we run out in one location, what exactly is peak water?

Peak water refers to the point at which a) ground water is being used at a rate above recharge potentials b) water must be transported and ceases to be economically viable and c) peak ecological water. Peak ecological water is a much more immediate concern, basically, "[the] point of water use that causes serious or irreversible ecological damage—and eventually reduces the human and social welfare provided by water."

So while we won't ever really run out of water, we can use it and pollute it to the point that its benefits to humanity are consumed.

If you sit on a burrito the burrito still exists, but not in an edible state.*** Thus it is with water. We can use it to the point of unusability.

This post is exceedingly long already, so I'll tie it up with my favorite slide from the presentation
"The water 'crisis' is not the result of a lack of water, resources, money, or brains. It is the result of failing to use water, resources, money, and brains effectively."*

[I'm not sure how to cite a powerpoint on a blog, or if you even need to. But just in case:
* Meena Palaiappan Presentation to Utah APA, 11/6/2008
**Western Resource Advocates
***That is all me]

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Cart

Now, I don't mean to get all sentimental, but I had kind of a big day last week. The 29th was my very first public meeting as a planner.

I have been to public meetings, planning commission meetings, town hall meetings, city council meetings - but I attended them all as a member of the public. This was my first experience from the inside.

As I have mentioned before, my firm is working on a small area plan for the future BRT station at 3500 South and 5600 West. MAX, the 3500 South line, is already operational as a mixed traffic BRT route, with the dedicated right of way and stations under construction. The 5600 West line will be completed as a center running BRT route from 2700 South to 6400 South by 2015.

That means the intersection of 35th and 56th will be one of the best serviced intersections in the Wasatch Front with two high quality transit lines.

Our job is to help the cities along the 56th West route implement land use strategies now that will boost ridership when the line is in place. This meeting was the beginning of a dialogue between West Valley City and the residents of the area to discuss the what the future might look like.

The meeting took the form of a (mild) charette.* We spent the first hour giving the meeting attendees a crash course in transit oriented development planning and an overview of the area, with an explanation of what BRT is. That was followed by a brainstorming session. Everybody was given slips of paper and was asked to write down what they liked/disliked/wanted to see change/etc about the area. The answers ranged from "higher density" to "open space" to "better lighting." We then gave everybody green and red dot stickers so they could vote on the ideas they like or didn't like.

When we had a sense of what the public wanted, our pencil man extrodinare, Greg Haws, started sketching plan view renderings on fodder while the attendees gave suggestions.

We ended up with a couple of good scenario stars, one more office and retail heavy, one more residential heavy.

It was exciting to see maps I had made on the tables and the walls, to see the land use analysis I had done in the presentation. I have to admit, I got a thrill when someone asked a question and the table looked to me, cus I was an official.

There are some things we would have done differently in hindsight, but overall I think it was an effective meeting.

We have another one on the 19th of the month where we will be unveiling our fleshed out scenarios and looking for feedback. Feel free to come.

*Charette is the French word for cart (I think). Way back when, architecture students in France were much like any student today, procrastinators. At the end of the old tyme equivalent of the semester the professors would pull a cart around the school. When the cart came to you, you had to put your project on, completed or not. Students would then walk beside the cart and finish their projects, on the cart.

A modern charette is an intensive brainstorming and work session, where images are drawn up on the spot and at the end there are a series of somewhat fleshed out possible scenarios. A good example of this is the plan for the Cottonwood Mall redevelopment. The plan was created in a little over a week. Planners and architects stared with a blank slate, worked nine straight 18 hour days, and finished with the current plan.