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?