Friday, December 25, 2009

What Cuba can teach us about farming

When, as an island nation, you find yourself suddenly cut off, your biggest issue isn't oil or electricity. The issue is food. Humans survived for many thousands of years without oil or electricity, but food is essential.

The Soviet Union withdrew its support for Cuba in 1991 and Cuba found itself without the Russian oil, fertilizer, seeds and pesticides that it had become dependant on. They couldn't trade with the US. They were on their own.

What they realized is that even in Cuba's urban centres, you can still grow your food. They set to work putting gardens basically everywhere, growing all sorts of vegetables.

The farms were local and de-facto organic. They simply didn't have access to the pesticides or the fertilizer. Their diet, with an increase in fruits and vegetables, was healthier too.

That lesson, has put Cuba at the forefront of urban agriculture, and has given us a window into what we might look forward to.

Virtually overnight, they were able to shift from an oil and chemically dependant centralized food supply, to a distributed food supply that was automatically organic, met the needs of the people, and put them at the forefront of a resurgence in urban agriculture.

No question it was a shock, but they had the resilience to survive it. Do we? We may get the chance to find out.

Expect peak oil. Expect peak food too. The fertilizers we rely on are derived from petrochemicals. Look at your yard. What bounty has your grass given you?

Start thinking now about a garden for next year. We would do well to make the mistakes while there's still grocery stores around to bail us out.

We've done this before, but we've mostly forgotten how. Victory Gardens helped carry us through WW1 and WW2. We can grow our own food again, and we can shift our food strategy quickly. The shock of the transition will be easier if we start now, rather than waiting for circumstances to force our hand. It's time to grow something, and it'll be tasty.

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Engaged Citizens would manage common resources better than bureaucrats

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Do you fix it?

Suppose you inherited a vehicle. It's paid for, and it's given you years of trouble-free service.

After a while, you take it in for a routine check-up and find out that it hasn't been maintained very well. The coolant needs to be flushed; it needs all its fluids changed; but most importantly the cylinder head gasket is leaking. Fixing it would involve tearing down and rebuilding the engine to replace the gasket. Expensive.

The service rep tells you that to fix everything it's going to cost about what it would cost to replace the vehicle. You can keep driving it for now, but it's a ticking time bomb. You just never know when it's going to overheat and leave you stranded.

Whether you fix it or not depends on a bunch of factors: how much you use it, how you can meet your needs another way, and how long you would like to keep it for.

The scientific community has given us that kind of ominous diagnosis about our spaceship Earth. We can keep driving it for now, but unless we make some repairs, it will fail on us soon.

Government representatives from around the world are meeting in Copenhagen to decide whether to fix the planet, and if so how. It's actually easier than deciding whether to fix the car:

How often do you use the Earth? Constantly.

How easy is it to get another planet that meets your needs? Impossible, we haven't terraformed Mars yet.

How long do you humans want to keep using the Earth? Permanently.

The only rational response here is to do what the science demands without further hesitation. Business as usual is as much a suicide pact as Mutual Assured Destruction was during the cold war. We depend on this planet completely. There are no viable alternatives.

With that in mind, the 'what' is cut and dried: Do whatever it takes to fix it. The 'how' is much more complicated, but it will involve each of us doing everything we can. If Copenhagen fails, there won't be time to wait for big government to save us. We're all in this together. It will be an exciting time to be alive.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

How to fix Alberta Politics

This image was modified, and is also released by me at

The international goodwill Canada earned in places like Vimy Ridge is evaporating. Canadian heel-dragging on climate is being compared to Japan on whaling; not a favourable comparison.

As we've seen with the passing of Bill 50, the current Alberta Government will remove regulatory oversight and mortgage your future if it suits them, despite strong opposition. Rather than representative democracy we are treading perilously close to petro-dictatorship.

In the next Alberta election, we will have a choice about what to do with our government. Dragging the political spectrum even more to the right is not a recipe for the change we need, but dragging it left won't work either.

The system needs a reboot.

It's time for a return to what's important: Genuine civic engagement is essential to a thriving democracy. A change to our voting structure is important because all Albertans deserve a voice at the table.

To make progress, we need progressive systems both inside and outside of the traditional power structures.

First, inside the system, we must bring election results in line with voting. The current 'first past the post' system breeds voter apathy. If you think your riding is decided even before you vote there's little practical advantage to bother. You've already won or lost.

People don't vote because their vote doesn't matter. Changing the system would make their vote mean something, even if they're in a riding that's already decided. Build an Alberta solution based on voting systems like Single Transferable Vote and Proportional Representation.

Changing the system is tough because the existing system benefits those already in power. As citizens we need to demand electoral reform so that we will be more accurately represented in the halls of power.

Outside the system, an engaged public is essential to making democracy work properly. It's too easy to be a free-rider, hoping someone else will make good decisions for you, and saving you the trouble. But comprehensive solutions only come out when enough people are engaged in the process. As Bill 50 has shown, being a free-rider puts government policy firmly in the hands of large corporations who know how to work the system for their own ends. Not yours.

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Seven reasons why you hate public transit

1. The shape of the city: North American cities were built around the automobile. People here are spread out, and public transit needs density to be viable. If you hate transit, your city isn't dense enough. Remember, you don't need transportation, you need access.

2. Free Roads, and Free Parking: The government built roads everywhere that you can use for free. In most places you can park for free too. Cities have rules requiring parking spaces when you build a building. This keeps the parking supply high, and parking prices low. Since you're only paying for the driving, and not directly for the roads, you don't feel the full cost of the auto-dependant lifestyle.

3. Traffic: If buses had their own lanes they could beat the traffic and have an advantage over single passenger automobiles. If they have to fight the traffic, they get stuck in the same jams that cars do.

4. Cheap energy: Even at $200/barrel, energy doesn't cost nearly what it's worth. If you paid someone minimum wage to make a barrel of oil's worth of energy for you, it would take them 8.6 years, and you'd owe them $138,000. Hydrocarbons are a bargain. We shouldn't waste them.

5. Learning Curve: If you don't know where the bus goes, or how to let the driver know you want to get off, you simply won't take the bus. You could just drive. Transit systems are complicated. Cars seem much simpler.

6. Missing the bus: Your car leaves when you do. Transit here isn't frequent enough. In Japan, peak times have trains every 2.5 minutes. There's always a train coming.

7. Paying for it: You have to pay every time you take the bus. With a car you don't have to pay to use it. Just for insurance, car payments, parking, gas, repairs and maintenance. None of those payments, however, are made at the moment you decide to drive, so it feels like it's free, but it's not.

What other reasons can you think of? How can we adapt our cities to improve access to the things we want?

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Don't give away the ending

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Don't give away the ending.

If you've ever re-watched a movie like "The Sixth Sense" or "Fight Club", you already know the major plot twist. Knowing changes everything. You can't go back and see it the way you saw it before.

The movie we're living has been good so far. It had a really long boring prologue, but in the last seven or so generations things have really picked up. The cheap energy and explosive food production really moved our story along.

The latest twist in this multigenerational epic is a relatively quiet combination of peak-everything and catastrophic climate change.

Some people figure it out early, others will wait until close to the end. The realization point is different for everybody.

The clue that lets you figure it out might come in the form of a movie, a talk, a child, or any combination of hundreds of little factoids that seep into your consciousness. But once you develop an understanding of the depth of the problems we face it changes the way you see the world.

You can't turn it off either. You may resent, pity, even envy the oblivious masses, but you won't be able to see the world the old way anymore. You know too much.

One clever dodge is not to watch the movie at all. Take the blue pill, and believe whatever you want to believe. Bury your head far enough in the sand so that you avoid having to act.

Revelling in obliviousness, however, isn't a good long term strategy. Like rubbing your eyes, it sure feels good in the moment though.

The other, healthier option is to face up to reality, because reality doesn't negotiate. Take the red pill and put on your helmet. Buckle up. It's going to get ugly, but it's better to be ready. If you can take action now to soften the crash it will go better for everyone.

Once you know, you can clearly see the disaster coming at the end of this movie, but you hope it'll be different. Maybe our heroes will get out of it this time. You know you're pulling for them. Maybe the next generation will stick around for a sequel.


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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Engaged Citizens would manage common resources better than bureaucrats

How many cows would you put on this field?

Garrett Hardin was an ecologist responsible for bringing "The Tragedy of The Commons" to the public eye in his 1968 paper of the same name. In it he describes how as population increases, the notion of a commons as a source of food or as a place for waste disposal must be abandoned.

One example given is herdsmen who keep adding livestock to a finite common pasture to the ultimate detriment of all of the herdsmen.

The herdsmen's problem, as well as runaway population growth and climate change (problems including the private exploitation of a common resource) are problems with no technical solution. To win, you have to change the game.

Enter Elinor Ostrom, an American political scientist. She recently won half of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences "for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons".

She admits in her 1969 paper "Collective Action and the Tragedy of the Commons" that there are no cost-free solutions to problems, although we can achieve social arrangements "that will cost less than the benefits to be derived from such arrangements". The payoffs to working together are bigger than the costs of doing so.

Her work explores how local communities often manage scarce resources better than outside authorities. "Bureaucrats sometimes do not have the correct information, while citizens and users of resources do" she said.

How do you get people involved when it's easier to stay home and trust the people in charge to make the right decision? This is known in economics as a collective action problem. Solving it typically needs most of the people involved to work out a solution. The more people who opt out of the process, the more likely the bureaucrats are to step in with a solution that doesn't quite work.

For example, Ostrom's co-workers organized their kitchen cleanup by insisting that people clean their own dishes, but they also identified someone to do a final cleanup of the kitchen every day. That person got a spatula in their mailbox that morning and passed it on to the next person the following day. (From her NPR Planet Money interview). They manage it themselves, and it works. An outside bureaucracy couldn't easily implement something this simple and effective.

The take-away message here is that citizens need to pay attention to the issues and participate in finding solutions themselves. They are closest to the information and when they work together they can figure out the social organization that works for them and solves their problem.

You might also like Complex issues, no agenda, better meetings.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Please don't cripple the green economy. Stop Bill 50

Premier Stelmach

Energy Minister Mel Knight

Rob Anderson MLA.

First of all, thanks to Energy Minister Knight and Mr. Anderson for getting back to me regarding the Government's position on Bill 50, and special thanks to Richard Marz, MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills who spoke with me on the phone about it. I'd like to take this opportunity to clarify my position.

My previous letter dated October 15, 2009 was intended to provide an escape hatch so that the government could politically extract itself from Bill 50. As I will outline below, there are several philosophical problems which make passing Bill 50 a serious misstep in Alberta Government Policy.

- Bill 50 would remove the role of the regulator, theThird Party Expert panel that would determine whether the power lines are necessary, and whether the costs are justified.

- Bill 50 would provide, in effect, a massive subsidy to existing centralized power plants by reducing the cost of distance. This skews the electricity market and prevents other generation technologies from competing on their merit.

- Bill 50 would prevent adoption of green technologies by artificially depressing the price of centrally produced energy, which would price greener options out of the market.

- Bill 50 would take $8.1 Billion after-tax dollars out of the economy.

I'll discuss these issues in more detail.

Transmission is a subsidy to centralized power, and cripples the emerging green power market

Please bear with me, this is a subtle but important point.

The cost of conventional electricity is divided into two parts, the cost of generation and the cost of transmission. The cost to generate power using local renewables is higher than the cost of generation alone, but reduced transmission charges is one of its competitive advantages. Bill 50 would eliminate this competitive advantage.

Artificially reducing the cost of distance (with sponsored transmission lines) gives an unfair subsidy to the large central power plants, who don't have an incentive to reduce their delivery charges. If a private company thinks it makes sense to build high voltage, long distance power lines, and can secure the land and permits to make it so, then in a deregulated power market that would be fine.

If provincial government pushes this through it will cripple the newborn child that is the renewables market. Distributed renewable generation would take the burden away from high voltage transmission lines. Bill 50 would enshrine centralized power by forcing us to pay for the distance whether we use it or not. It would leave stillborn a clean energy industry that's poised to grow and bring investment and 'green-collar' jobs to Alberta. With Bill 50, the distributed green energy would be priced out of the market.

A large subsidy (or a forced spending, which is practically the same) on transmission infrastructure would constitute a meddling in the market that would reduce the competitiveness (and thus the functionality) of the deregulated electricity market in Alberta. This locks us into dirty centralized power, because since everyone is paying for the additional transmission infrastructure, you won't realize the savings by going to a system that saves you on your transmission bill.

Don't bypass the regulator

The Alberta Legislature is not made up of a panel of electricity experts. Bill 50 would provide the government the authority to approve the need for critical transmission infrastructure. The legislature does not have the expertise to determine which infrastructure is critical. The AESO is only allowed to consider transmission options, and that sets up a situation where if the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails. If the solution isn't more transmission lines, the AESO is incapable of finding it. As a legislature, I expect you to be thorough in assessing options. This includes exploring the less glamourous options like energy conservation and getting the price signals right. Getting the price signals right means avoiding massive subsidies, including mandating particular transmission lines.

The electrical grid is a complicated beast, and despite pressure to the contrary, the Alberta Government shouldn't take control of deciding what power developments are necessary. It is an irresponsible use of Alberta Legislature time and resources to dig into the nuts and bolts of whether these projects are actually necessary. I recognize that there is a lot of money to be made by private companies on the backs of Alberta Electricity users in this regard. But allowing these companies to strong-arm you into spending someone else's money without going through the proper hearings to determine whether it is actually necessary is highly irresponsible.

I also recognize the role of advertising pressure and the media campaign that exists to try to convince people that the grid must be updated. These decisions shouldn't be based on who can buy the most persuasive advertising, but based on the facts of what is best for your constituents, the people of Alberta. If I was a company in danger of losing an $8.1 Billion contract, I'd buy a bunch of advertising to sway public opinion too, but that wouldn't make it right.

Maintaining squeaky clean justification for your decision is important here, and you get that by following the established procedures and going through the regulator, not by succumbing to power company scare tactics and ramming things through.

If you were watching your friend's house while he was on vacation, and you decided to rewire his house on his dime, it would be important to have clear third party analysis that such rewiring was necessary, otherwise he's not going to be pleased about the extra expense that he will be stuck with for a long time to come. When it's $2230 from the Alberta economy for every man, woman, and child in the province, it pays to have third party proof to show whether it's necessary.

Widget Factory Example

If I were to build a widget factory in the Northern Alberta, but my widget customers were in the south, it would be ridiculous for the government to demand that everybody pay for my transportation costs to deliver the widgets across the province.

If instead I were to build my widget factory close to the customers, it might cost me more (land costs for example) but it would cost less to deliver the widgets to my customers, as a responsible widget factory owner I would look at the costs of transportation and the costs of building near my customers and find the sweet spot.

If the government steps in and says I can build my widget factory in the cheapest place and that they'll take care of my transportation cost, there is an incentive for me to be inefficient with my resources.

You can't expect to retain the efficiencies of a free market with such meddling. Passing Bill 50 would lock in these inefficiencies.

Bill 50 is functionally a tax increase

The government would decide to spend the money of electricity users (practically everybody), without regulatory approval or oversight.

So, Bill 50 is a government bill:

-where the money goes straight to private companies

-where the need hasn't been proven at a regulatory hearing

-that destroys the competitiveness of a growing green-tech industry

-that locks us into centralized carbon-intensive sources of power generation

-that drains after-tax money from the Alberta economy.

No responsible government can pass this bill.

Please note that I don't object to upgrading the electrical grid, but please do so in a way that grows a smart grid much like the energy stimulus in the US did.

There's a solution. Developing the smart grid will put us on a much firmer footing to move into the future, rather than keeping us locked in the past. The smart grid isn't just for individuals. Industry will benefit from it too.

Build a smarter grid. Not a bigger one.

Please note, I don't have any financial interest in any solar or distributed energy technology or business. I'm a private citizen who wants a cleaner, greener tomorrow. I believe that Bill 50 is an expensive misstep that would actively work against a greener tomorrow and cost the Alberta economy dearly.

Thanks for your time and attention,

Aaron Holmes



Minister of Environment Hon. Rob Renner

Richard Marz, MLA

Dr. David Swann MLA

Frank Oberle, MLA Peace River

Saturday, November 14, 2009

EROEI: Bang for your energy buck

When investing money, people look for a good return on investment. Armies scour the markets trying to figure out where they should put their money so that they'll get the highest return on their investment. You can do the same thing for energy.

Energy return on energy invested (EROEI) measures the bang for your energy buck. This number will play a major part in determining our energy future because we gravitate to the technologies with the biggest energy payoffs.

Back in the 1930s oil was close to the surface, easy to extract. The EROEI back then was about 100:1. They got 100 barrels of oil for each barrel's worth of energy they put into extracting it.

Of course they extracted the easiest oil first, and so as time went on, they needed to invest more and more energy into extracting the oil. Middle Eastern oil these days gives back at about 30:1. North American oil is at about 10 or 15:1 and declining.

Tar Sands oil runs at about 1.5:1. For three barrels of oil coming out of the tar sands, it uses two barrels worth of energy (including lots of natural gas). Fully two thirds of the energy obtained from the Tar Sands is being used to operate itself. When you think about how much energy is there, divide that amount by at least 3, because of the energy it would take to recover that bitumen.

When the EROEI for the Tar Sands goes below 1:1 it won't be sensible to keep going, because then it will take more energy to extract the bitumen than you get from it. That would be like paying somebody a dollar to give you ninety cents. You can't stay in business doing that for very long.

Ethanol is already below 1:1 and only happens because of government subsidies, largely to corn producers.

For comparison, solar's ERoEI is about 5:1 and wind is about 4-10:1. With technology, those numbers are improving, while the fossil fuel numbers keep going down. Energy conservation has an even higher payoff. The cheapest energy source is the one you don't need to use.

When you're looking for a source of energy there are lots of factors to think about, but Energy Return on Energy Invested is one worth paying attention to.

Further reading: Why EROI Matters.

You might also like The Gap Between Knowing and Doing.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Price, Cost, and Value.

Is it worth it? That's the question we face every time we make a buying decision. The reasonable answer is that if the value exceeds the cost, then it makes sense to pry open the wallet. If it costs more than it's worth to us then it doesn't make sense to buy it.

So what? While price is simple, cost and value are both complicated moving targets. Here's how.

Suppose you want to buy a hamburger. How much does a hamburger cost? A typical fast food chain would set the price somewhere around $4.

Hold it for a second. See what happened there? It's a mistake that gets made all the time. We asked about the cost, but answered the question in terms of the price. Cost is so much more complicated, and confusing the two can get us in trouble.

If you value burgers at $6, and they're for sale for $4 you're up two dollars in value for each one you buy. Each successive burger, however, is worth less to you than the previous one. You can only eat so many burgers in a day.

Now you need to consider the opportunity cost. What else can you do with that $4. If you buy the burger you can't spend that money on anything else later. Money is only worth what you can trade it for.

You also need to count the time and cost that it takes you to get to and from the restaurant, and how much exercise you'll need to do to work off all those calories.

So is the hamburger worth it? That depends on how much you want the burger, relative to everything else you could trade that money for.

Did you just finish thanksgiving dinner, because then you'd probably turn down a free burger. If instead you're starving and stuck on an airplane, a $30 burger could be worth it, even though that's much higher than we normally think a burger should cost.

Cost and value are moving targets. It's ok to pay for value, but don't confuse cost and price. They're not the same.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Protect the environment to protect the economy

A few weeks ago, an international group of Greenpeace protesters blocked several of the conveyor belts at the Tar Sands. Thanks to social media and the internet, they were able to broadcast their protest as it was happening.

Like any good protest, there were two kinds of public reactions.

Some people were upset that protesters were disrupting the Tar Sands workers, preventing them from earning their money. Get the protesters out of the way.

Others thought environmentalists need to ramp up their activity to communicate with a provincial Government that won't listen to them. Nobody should be doing this work.

Both reactions are reasonable, and depend on the perspective of the person making the observation.

Neither side is right. Trying to pick the economy instead of the environment is not a choice. You can have the environment without the economy, but you can't have the economy without the environment. They go together. Protesting, however isn't likely to change anyone's opinion.

Let's get to the bottom of this. Countries that take care of their environment do better economically because of the ecological services that intact ecosystems provide. Countries that heavily exploit their environment do economically poorly, because they lose the ecosystem services.

You get a striking image of this at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. You may have seen the image in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. The Dominican Republic side had a forest of trees. The Haitian side didn't. Haiti exploited their trees, and without them their economy collapsed. The Dominican Republic still had their trees, and were doing much better, economically, than Haiti because of it.

In order to keep their trees from being illegally cut they transferred control of protecting the trees from the ministry of agriculture, who couldn't protect the trees, to the military, who did. They had to be that serious about protecting their natural capital and its ecosystem services, but it paid off for their economy.

Environmental impacts aside, the tar sands promise a continued supply of fossil energy, but it distracts us from the real work of getting on with building a sustainable economy. One that has a chance to last.

The tar-sands won't be stopped by protestors, but by economic and environmental reasoning once we realize that we're actually better off without them.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Use electricity? Bill 50 robs you blind

Pastoral scene!
Bill 50 would authorize $8.1 Billion worth of misguided 'upgrades' to the electrical system and pass the cost on to Albertans. That doesn't include the $12 Billion worth of other upgrades that would make these high voltage upgrades useful.
The existing Alberta grid is currently valued at about $2 Billion for the whole thing. These upgrades would cost 4x to 10x the value of the entire grid, and we already have power. Not a good buy.
These expensive upgrades would lock us into an old-style centralized electrical production system, and set the stage for private companies to sell electricity to the US and stick Albertans with the bill for the transmission infrastructure and the environmental consequences.
If Bill 50 passes you will be on the hook for these transmission upgrades in your electrical bill, but that's just the beginning. Everybody else will have to pay too.
Every retail business and every Alberta manufacturer will be paying through the nose for these unnecessary transmission lines. Businesses would then have to charge higher prices for everything, which would drive business out of Alberta. Say goodbye to the Alberta Advantage.
Corporate power plays and sky-is-falling scare tactics are not a responsible way to upgrade the grid.
Instead, build additional generating capacity when necessary in Southern Alberta. Cogeneration plants and small scale renewables can meet the electrical needs of Albertans into the indefinite future for vanishingly less cost. Producing electricity much closer to the demand means far less money would be wasted on transmission.
Install smart grid technology that allows for time of day and demand based pricing. Make it easy for anyone with a few solar panels to sell power to the grid. The grid should be more like the internet, with everyone sharing local electricity, and less like cable TV, where we just sit back and take it. One system unleashes innovation, the other locks us into an expensive, tired old model.
Establish feed-in tariffs, where small-scale producers of green power are paid a premium for their electricity. These are already being successfully used in Europe to jump start the installation of clean renewable electrical supply, like solar electric panels.
The existing power players are invested in the old way of doing business, and they want to ram this uncomfortable, unnecessary pill down your throat. They certainly won't pay for it themselves.
The time for doing things the old way is over.
Tell your MLA that you like the Alberta Advantage. Tell your MLA that you won't be robbed by the utility companies. Tell your MLA to oppose Bill 50.

For more information visit: for the Government of Alberta's info page on this. The Enmax Town Hall series of videos (there's six) explains more.
Calgary Herald: Getting bogged down in a flawed Bill 50.
Feed In Tariffs would jump start renewable installation, providing renewable power without the 'nimby' problem. Ontario is already doing it.
The pushback that they are receiving seems to be working. Alberta's controversial Bill 50 isn't a done deal. The armwrestling isn't over yet. Let your MLA know how you feel.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Curse of Free Parking

Parking spaces are expensive. They are expensive to build and to maintain. They take up valuable real estate and subsidize motorists who need places to stash their car at the expense of property developers and everyday citizens.

Municipalities that set minimum parking requirements for their developments mean well, but they're solving the wrong problem. The problem isn't that there isn't enough parking, it is that the parking isn't properly valued.

Free parking isn't free. The costs are largely hidden, but bringing the price of parking back into balance with its value will help curb urban sprawl, reduce traffic congestion, build a healthier community.

On street parking should be paid. It's a scarce common resource, and charging for it will make it available for the people who most need the parking and are most willing to pay for it. It will also keep people from abusing the common parking in the next step.

Once street parking is paid, eliminate the minimum parking requirements for new developments or changes of use. These requirements artificially inflate the parking supply, which drives down the price of parking. In most places it drives it down to free. This is out of balance, and inflates demand for parking.

Once developers can decide how many stalls to build they'll build an efficient number, rather than the inflated regulated number which leaves most of the parking stalls empty most of the time.

This lean parking strategy will reduce sprawl because the parking doesn't take up so much space. Reducing sprawl increases the urban density, which helps enable viable transit and makes it easier to walk to your destinations, setting in motion a virtuous circle which leads to reduced traffic congestion and automobile dependency.

With a suitable transit system in place, people can get around on transit and join car-sharing programs where they don't need a vehicle of their own all the time, further reducing their costs and their dependance on cars.

Alternate forms of transportation, like walking, cycling, transit and carpooling will do better in this scenario.

Market rate parking would also reduce the amount of expensive new roads required, because there would be fewer cars on the road. This would improve city budgets and therefore reduce your taxes.

It's hard to think of 'free parking' and mandated minimum parking requirements as such a curse. But if you let the market determine the price for parking people will drive less, and the city will ultimately be better for it.

For more information, check out Donald Shoup's paper about this. Lots more detail than I've included here. Hat tip to @bpincott for pointing this out to me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

How to make political hay by revising Bill 50

Dear Premier Stelmach, and members of the Alberta Legislature,

Thanks for your address to Alberta last night. It's nice to get an update on where things are at in the legislature.

In particular, I appreciate your commitment to deliver an advanced electrical grid to Alberta, and I'm writing because I don't want a second-rate transmission system.

I am concerned, however, that you might be missing an opportunity to make Alberta's electrical grid even more advanced.

As I understand it, the AESO isn't allowed to consider alternatives to electrical transmission. As premier, you can and you should. After all, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you've ever seen is cable TV, you'll be blown away by the internet.

If Bill 50 passes, it will be tantamount to (at least) an $8.1 Billion Dollar tax on the Alberta Economy. In your speech last night, you said you wouldn't raise taxes. Even if you let the electrical companies collect the fee, everyone will know that the Stelmach Government was responsible for the tax. Even if individual Albertans can currently afford the added cost on their electrical bill, they would face increased prices as businesses and manufacturers in Alberta raise prices and have to work that much harder to stay in business.

Moreover, increased transmission lines do not, by themselves, generate any additional electricity, so additional generating capacity would be required on top of the transmission in order to deliver the power to Albertans, your constituents.

If you take the generation and transmission problem together, you can let people generate electricity at a small scale in lots and lots of places. This would build in a large amount of capacity and redundancy into the grid, and deliver the power to the people without requiring expensive, long distance, high voltage transmission lines. The distributed generation strategy might have the generation cost more, but the total cost of generation & transmission would be far less, because the expensive additional transmission wouldn't be required.

You could ask the AESO introduce feed-in tariffs, which would pay a large premium to electricity users who put green power back into the grid. This would induce people to provide the additional capacity close to the demand. This could be done for less than the cost of additional transmission lines. Meanwhile, localized 'smart grid' improvements would make it possible for the grid to communicate electrical demand, perhaps paying higher feed-in tariffs when demand is higher.

Feed-in Tariffs are already in use and successful in Europe, and a modern, robust electrical grid would do well to make use of the massively distributed electrical generation that they would provide. You wouldn't even have to build the generation. They would build it themselves.

The Feed-In Tariffs would also jump start the green-power industry, providing jobs for many Albertans installing solar panels and natural gas cogeneration units into people's houses.

Politically speaking, you are in an excellent position right now to transition to a distributed electrical plan. People have seen the staggering $8.1 Billion figure that they know they will be on the hook for, and they're scared. An option like this is a ray of sunshine on a stormy day. It would look really good to be a leader and a government who was the father of the smart-grid in Alberta. If it's presented as a choice between a bunch of power lines that do nothing but shuttle the power around, or empowering regular Albertans to make money by producing clean power in their own neighbourhood, there's a clear answer. Give the power to the people and they'll love you for it.

Premier Stelmach, please set aside Bill 50, and use the momentum instead to revitalize the electrical system to bring Alberta a truly visionary power grid that functions more like the internet, and less like cable TV. Your constituents will thank you for it.

With hope,

Aaron Holmes

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Three things you shouldn't take for granted

Bees: Bees play a critical role in pollinating crops. Without pollination plants don't produce. Bees are easy forget about because they have always worked for free.

Colony collapse disorder reared its head in 2006 in North America as entire bee colonies disappeared without a trace. The possibility of losing the bees reminded people how important the bees are to modern food production. Food would become both scarce and expensive if it needed to be pollinated by hand. Fortunately the bees still do it for free.

Water: "We never know the worth of water till the well is dry." —Thomas Fuller. Although he was writing in the 1600s, his words are still relevant. Canadians have such a luxurious water system that we wouldn't know how to live without copious amounts of fresh potable water at our fingertips. As you read this chances are that you're within fifteen seconds of a tap that would, at a turn, dispense an endless supply of water. Given the distances that some people have to haul water, our instant access to virtually unlimited drinking water is quite the luxury.

Lots of the water we use is pumped up from underground aquifers. Some aquifers recharge slowly, others (fossil aquifers) don't recharge at all. Groundwater is a limited resource. The more people we have, the faster we will use the water, and the sooner we'll be forced to treat this scarce resource with the respect it deserves.

Time: Perhaps the scarcest resource of all. Time is simple until you try to define it, even though everybody knows what it is.

Unlike money you can't earn more of it. You spend each second as it comes, and when those seconds have passed, they are gone. Live the moment you are currently in as best as you can. These seconds can seem all too plentiful especially when you're bored or waiting for something, but they're ultimately limited. Nobody lasts forever.

What are you going to do with the rest of your seconds? What can you do in the next 60 seconds to make them really count?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The gap between knowing and doing

If you're driving towards the edge of a cliff in the fog, it's good to be aware that that's what you're doing. It's even better to do what it takes to prevent it.

In order to deal with surprises, you have to pay attention. If you don't know you're headed off a cliff, you aren't very likely to do anything to stop it. But simply knowing what's going on doesn't change it. With knowing, however, you have the chance to act and fix the problem before it gets out of control.

For those of you with the 'ignorance is bliss' mindset, try covering up the fuel gauge in your car for a few weeks. You'll either run out of fuel or start compulsively filling the tank. Either way, you'll learn what any GI-Joe fan would tell you: Knowing is half the battle.

But it's only half. If you don't act based on the information, the outcome is the same as total ignorance, and those outcomes aren't very good. Watching your fuel gauge drop down to empty runs you out of gas just the same as not watching it at all. If, on the other hand, we put knowledge and action together, we can recognize when we're low on fuel and act accordingly.

It's simpler when it's just you. You get to decide when you need gas, and if there are consequences, they're yours alone. Getting a group, society or an entire planet to coordinate action is far more difficult.

Being removed from a situation helps. It's easy to give advice to someone far away about what to do, because you have the psychological distance to see problem objectively, and don't have to deal with the short term consequences.

Catastrophic Climate Change is a slow moving but serious threat. It's almost upon us, but we're too close to it to see what we should do. Everyone alive has been steeped in the oil boom. We've forgotten how to live without cheap energy.

Continuing to rely on fossil fuels is like driving toward the cliff in the fog. Nations are fighting over seats in the car and dropping bricks on the gas pedal. We know there's a better option. Will we do something about it?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Fail Early, Fail Often

You aren't making enough mistakes. Don't worry. It's not your fault. You've been trained to avoid them. Instead, you should be seeking them out. Embrace the mistake.

Mistakes come with a stigma attached. From social embarrassment to losing money or property, or the loss of self esteem that can come from failing, mistakes are mercilessly punished.

Fear of mistakes stifles creativity. That's why brainstorming comes up with better ideas than simply trying to come up with good ideas. These days, creativity is more important than knowledge. If your creative ideas keep being crushed as mistakes, you'll give up on creativity remain mediocre. Instead, nurture your creativity. Give your wacky ideas room to breathe. Even if they flop, you'll learn something from them and be better for it.

It's never perfect. Whatever project you're working on, let your ideas out of the cave and into the light. Share them. Get feedback wherever you can.

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If they're any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." - Howard Aiken, computing pioneer.

By sharing your idea, even if it isn't ready yet, you will get valuable feedback that you can't get by staying in your basement perfecting it.

It's better to find out sooner rather than later that an idea is doomed to fail. Waiting for perfection could improve the chances of success, but feedback from potential customers is more valuable. It's far better to find out that an idea is flawed early. That time could be better spent coming up with a new idea, or adapting to make sure you're solving the right problem.

It's great if you can learn from the mistakes of others, but remaining creative and learning from your own mistakes is powerful and will enhance your development better than always getting the right answer.

Don't be afraid of mistakes. Make them quickly, learn from them and get on to the next idea. Nurture your creative ideas and you will keep having them. Stifled creativity is worse than making mistakes. Making mistakes quickly and learning from them is far more likely to lead to success than trying to avoid mistakes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

City Design: People First

Imagine the city you'd like to live in. Is it lively? Attractive? Safe? Sustainable? Healthy? Of course it is. Everybody wants these qualities in their city, but as you can see from the cities we actually live in, we've forgotten how make them this way.

Cities are habitat for people, so the city should be designed to support the people. These 'people' are human beings who naturally walk upright at about five km/h.

Europeans figured this out. Their tight city designs are murder to drive in, look jumbled from the air, but they are perfectly comfortable as a pedestrian. They had an advantage us North Americans didn't. They were built before the automobile overwhelmed city planning.

Once city-designers started designing for the car, a 110+ km/h ton of steel instead of the five km/h person, the cities lost their charm. Cars demand lots of space and engineering. Pedestrians can endure almost anything, but it doesn't mean they thrive.

If you have any doubts about whether cars or pedestrians are more important, ask yourself whether you'd rather lose your ability to drive or your ability to walk.

For a public space to thrive, it needs to be comfortable for pedestrians. The vast amount of space devoted to the roads relative to the tiny spaces for people reinforce the pedestrian's position as a second class citizen.

Even with well designed cities — cities where things are closer, there will be times when we need to go farther or faster. Rather than the loud, wide, polluting car, use the quiet, narrow, healthy bicycle.

Fixing this will require patience - the road/car system is already established, but we shouldn't build any new car-centric developments. This oil boom is a flash in the pan when you take the long view, and if we want our cities to remain useful, we'd best make them walkable.

If you're developing, it's smart business to design for people instead of cars. With high property values and more units per acre you can make more money.

If you're a city, tight pedestrian centred design will save you money in road maintenance, as well as making your transit system more viable.

If you're a business selling things to people, you want pedestrians walking by your store. People don't shop from their cars.

As a citizen, you get the biggest bang, because you get to live in a vibrant neighbourhood. You can reap the health benefits of walking to access to everything you need. You get the vibrant city you want by designing it for people first.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

How tigers caused climate change

Imagine that you're sitting in a big grassy field with your tribe, and you notice a saber tooth tiger approaching. Immediately, without discussion or hesitation, you would alert the tribe and get everyone to safety.

This crisis reaction has served Homo Sapiens well, after all, we have survived for the past 200 000 years (since the middle paleolithic). Our crisis-management reflexes have been well honed.

It is so ingrained in us that it's hard to even notice unless it is pointed out. It goes like this:

1. Identify an imminent existential threat.

2. Take immediate decisive action to respond to the threat.

3. Endure.

If they didn't respond, they didn't survive or pass on their genes and culture. We are left with a legacy of decisive radical action in the face of perceived imminent threats.

We see this today with the sweeping power of the "Patriot Act" counterterrorism legislation after 9/11 or the speed and size of the financial bailout as a result of the global financial crisis. We are conditioned by long history to respond as if they were tigers.

It is easy for leaders to respond in crisis. Crises are difficult, sure, but everybody understands that action is needed, and that a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. Mistakes are forgivable, because they are better than inaction.

So far, so good, but two hundred thousand years of human history has left us woefully underprepared for the responsibility that comes with being in charge of a planet.

Being in charge means we need to respond to stimuli that isn't so immediate. Rather than just being ready to bail out the boat, we need to look ahead. We need to see the storms, rocks, and icebergs that could sink us and set a course that avoids them.

We hardly notice these threats creep up. More immediate things demand our attention. The big problems continue to grow unabated while we are distracted.

Trying to change without a crisis is hard. People have their own agendas. If there's no tiger then they can do as they like. In a crisis, everybody sees the need for quick action. Like the proverbial frog on the stove, we don't respond to slow growing problems until it's too late.

As the alpha species we have a responsibility to watch out for everything that lives here, not just dealing with the tigers. That means taking action to avoid the long range slow growing disasters, not just dealing with the problems that blow up in our faces.

So how are the tigers responsible? They trained us to think short term. Solving this problem means working against 200 000 years of evolution and looking hard at the future. Then acting appropriately. But we've got the big brains now. It won't be easy, but we can handle it.