Welcome. I am the author of Beaufort 1849,
an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina,

and Pearl City Control Theory, an urban comedy of present-day San Francisco.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

California Renewables 37.7%

For ten minutes this afternoon (around 1:10pm on March 30th, 2014) electricity created from non-large hydro renewable sources (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, biogas, small hydro) equaled 8202 Megawatts, or 37.7% of California's total utility electricity demand. This, I believe, is a record.

And it's only March! By June we may see sunny, windy days that reach 50% of demand.

This by and large doesn't include renewable production "behind the meter" such as rooftop solar.  It is likely rooftop solar produced another 3000 megawatts or so. (Rooftop solar generally shows up as reduced demand.)

Now this was just for ten minutes. It is likely over the course of the day renewables will be equivalent to only 20% or so the day's electricity demand. (Edit: it turns out on March 30th renewables fed into California's utility grid were equivalent to 25% of the day's 24 hr electricity demand.) But to put this 8202 megwatts in perspective, 30 states in the US averaged less than 8000MW/hour of electricity consumption in 2013. Of course all those states have much lower populations than California. However, California had the lowest per capita electric consumption of the country last year, followed closely by Hawaii. (Climate has a lot to do with it.)

Both California and Hawaii significantly dropped their per capita electricity consumption from 2012 to 2013, California by 2% and Hawaii by nearly 2 1/2%, due to a combination of efficiency measures and increased rooftop solar.Very little wind power was added in California last year, but a heck of a lot of utility scale solar went on line in the 4th quarter of 2013, and we're seeing the results now.

If you're interested in tracking California's renewable electricity production, follow this link. Another fun link is Denmark's real-time electricity production graphic, complete with little turning windmills.
You can see how they import and export electricity from Norway, Sweden and Germany to balance out their own production when the wind isn't blowing or when it's blowing a lot.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Wrassling Angels: In Memoriam Jeff Shannon

I attended Jeff Shannon’s memorial service yesterday on the site of my old high school. (I say ‘site’ because my high school was torn down fifteen years ago and rebuilt from scratch. Lesson in impermanence.) Jeff died of complications from pneumonia in December. Another lesson in impermanence. The location of the gathering was appropriate because Jeff also attended Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, Washington oh so many years ago. We were in the graduating class of 1979, affectionately nicknamed the “Smelts.” Many of my fellow Smelts were there yesterday. I suppose we are all getting to a time of life when attending funerals and memorial services have begun to regularly punctuate our years.

Yesterday I heard stories about Jeff, many I hadn’t known, from friends, colleagues and family. It was good to have an overview of Jeff’s life and hear tribute from the many people who loved him. But even before his passing, Jeff has long been on my mind.

Two weeks after we graduated from high school (and stayed up all night in the senior grad party writing deep thoughts in each other’s yearbooks) and a few weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday, Jeff went to Hawaii and broke his neck in a diving accident. Spinal cord injury. He was on a trip with other kids from my high school. When the accident happened, these kids saved his life. Jeff spent the next thirty-four years living with the reality of C-5/6 quadriplegia. This, Wikipedia tells me, meant he had some function of biceps and shoulders but little or none of his wrists or hands. And no controllable function in the torso below the diaphragm.

I think I heard about Jeff’s accident a few weeks after it happened, during a rather horrible summer when I was working in a paint factory earning money for college. I was shocked but imagined Jeff would probably get better. Eighteen year olds are, after all, optimists, and I had my own worries and concerns and future ahead.

I have a cousin who has been a paraplegic since the age of twelve, so I had some inkling what life in a wheelchair is like. Physically, at least. Mentally, spiritually, much less so. I didn’t understand why life had meted out this karate chop of fate to Jeff of all people. Even at eighteen it seemed frighteningly random. In the book of Genesis, one night Jacob is beside a stream and some guy comes out of nowhere, attacks him, and they wrestle all night, neither getting the upper hand. In the morning, it turns out the pugnacious thug was an angel. Why did the angel pick on Jacob? Why all night? Why did the angel wrestle and not, say, offer Jacob a nice back massage? Why?

At Meadowdale (doesn’t it sound bucolic, like a land of frolicking sheep?) we all knew, and took for granted, that Jeff was immensely talented. So talented that he could shine effortlessly in multiple areas at once. He could sing. He could dance. He could act. As his brother said yesterday (or was it his sister?) when Jeff got up on a stage, your eye followed him. You couldn’t help it. He was charming. He was handsome. Things came easily for him. He had a future.

He was also quite a writer, even then. I remember during the infamous spring quarter of our last year of high school, when every senior had checked out mentally even if the body was still required to be present, and watching with awe as Jeff sat down an hour before a paper for college prep English was due. In the next forty-five minutes he proceeded to handwrite a five-paragraph essay with a thesis, development and conclusion. When it was done, he turned it in and received a pretty decent grade. It was a paper I’d spent at least six hours on (and typed!) so I was both indignant and envious it came so easily to him. It was clear that writing was already a strength of his, even if the greatest value of that strength was to allow him to spit out a paper pronto so he could dedicate time to other pursuits. (I’m pretty sure if he’d allowed himself a second draft, he could’ve outwritten us all back then.)

So all this talent, all this energy, all this future. And then wham. The metaphoric angel of Genesis knocks him down with one of the biggest body blows life has to offer. Why did it have to be Jeff? It could have been anyone of us. Why did life make that absolutely extraordinary demand of him?

If Jeff’s life were a movie or a novel, the spinal cord injury would be the inciting event, the point where the character moves from routine/normal/status quo into heroic territory where great achievement and great failure become possible. To overcome the presented conflict/obstacle the character must struggle, adapt, change. He (or she) must draw on both internal and external resources, invariably discovering ones he didn’t know he had. In a comedy, the process of defeating the obstacle/resolving the conflict causes the character to grow/develop/experience epiphany and achieve a higher level of existence/consciousness. (In a tragedy the obstacle defeats the hero.)

At least that’s how it works in stories.

As far as I can tell, Jeff did proceed down the hero’s path. With the help of friends and family he faced what he had to, transcended much, and achieved a level of spiritual accomplishment that I haven’t often run across in the days of my life.

How do I know this? Over the last thirty-four years I’ve only seen Jeff in person a few times. But in the last five years, through the double-edged sword known as Facebook, I have read Jeff’s writings. I was especially enamored with his contributions to Facing Disability.com where he had his own column/blog. I encourage you to read his posts. They are still up. Especially, “Finding Plan B,” “Happiness is A Choice,” and “Mother Nature Wants to Kill You.”

It is in these writings that I see both evidence of his struggles and his achievements. I see that he wrestled his way through the five stages of grief and came out in a place not so many of us ever get to. He did it through day-in, day-out perseverance, guts and courage. (In the end, is there any other way?) Combine this with his enormous intelligence and creativity, and you get the kind of life and achievement he was able to create for himself.

When I speak of achievement, I am not talking about money, or fame, or popularity, or awards. I am not even talking about love. (It’s clear Jeff's heart was open to give and receive love, and that this was an important source of his strength.) What I admire and respect Jeff intensely for was his willingness to undertake a terrifically difficult journey that asked so much of him. That he had a deep enough sense of himself and the universe to understand that the journey was worth the effort. That though he’d been put down on a path far outside his ken, that offered few of the conventional rewards any boy of his age might want, that meant constant physical and emotional struggle, he rose to the occasion and became a man in the process. He wrestled that angel, an angel that fought dirty and mean. And while I wouldn’t say he ever won, like Jacob in the Bible, Jeff did last out the night. He did find joy and meaning and grace and spirit. He did prevail and perhaps was blessed.

I suppose we all wrestle with our night of angels in one way or another. Why Jeff got that particular one is still a mystery to me. But I do see that Jeff was on a hero’s journey that transformed him. I suspect he is still on that journey. I hope in some way, some form, our paths cross again. However, you don't get to choose your angel. It chooses you.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Natural Gas Prices Are Soaring. Here's What You Can Do.

Up, up, up
Though it’s not getting much attention yet, natural gas prices are zooming upwards due to the cold winter the US has been experiencing. (Propane prices have been increasing as well.) If you use natural gas for space heating or hot water, these higher prices will necessarily be reflected in your upcoming utility bills. Though these higher prices are no doubt temporary, fundamentally the cost structure of fracking and drilling for natural gas is such that energy companies are losing money on natural gas plays at current prices and so have dropped drilling dramatically. Though current production is coasting along, some analysts say natural gas won’t be profitable for any new plays until it reaches $6/mmbtu. In November the price of natural gas was at $3.60/mmbtu. Today it is at $5.22/mmbtu.

What can be done to avoid inflated utility bills?

Short term, these might work:
1)  Install a programmable thermostat and actually program it. (It is estimated 40% of people who have programmable thermostats don’t program them.) The benefit to this is that you don’t have to constantly remember to turn the thermostat down at night or when you leave. It does it for you. Add a blanket to your bed and set nighttime temperatures to 60 -62. Drop temperatures while you’re away from home to 55 degrees. Yes, this does save significant energy even though your heater will be blasting for a short while to get temperatures back up when you return or wake up.
2)   Put on a sweater and reduce your household normal temperature two degrees. If your kids are comfortable walking around barefoot in the winter, your house is too warm! (Hello, I tell my kids, you don’t live in Tahiti!)
3)   Don’t light a fire in the fireplace. This may be counterintuitive, but when you light a fire, your natural gas-warmed air flies up your chimney, sucking out far more heat from your house than the fire contributes. However, if you have a fireplace insert or wood stove (even better a high-efficiency one), then burning wood will reduce your use of natural gas rather than increase it.
4)   Install a low-flow showerhead. There are good ones out there that use only 1.5 gallons of hot water a minute. This reduces the load on your hot water heater significantly. Wash clothes in warm or cold, not hot water. Let family members know that pajamas and towels should be used/worn more than once before washing.
5)   If your hot water heater is not insulated, read no further. Go insulate it right now. I mean it. Every home improvement-type store sells hot water heater insulating wraps/blankets.
6)   Feel around your doors and windows for drafts. Get ten dollars of weather stripping material and do what you can to reduce these drafts.
7)   Close off rooms not in use and close off vents to these rooms.
8)   Wear wool. I do this. A lot. The interior temperature of my house is 60 degrees as I write this.
9)  Get some exercise. Raising your metabolism through exercise will make a slightly cooler house still comfortable to you.
10) Consider drying your clothes outside on the line on sunny days.
11) Open your curtains for solar gain during the day; close them for their thermal properties at night.
12) Cooking doesn’t use much natural gas, at least not compared to space heating. In general I wouldn’t worry about cooking, however I do use an electric kettle to boil water and an electric crockpot for making broth.

Medium term

1)   Insulate, insulate, insulate. Best investment you can make. Heat wants to rise, so work on the attic first. Seal off the attic from air movement (insulation prevents heat from traveling, not air, so if air can travel, you’ll get heat losses from that), then make sure insulation is at least knee-deep.
2)   If your house is drafty, get a professional to do a thorough weather stripping.  (Note: if your house is drafty, 70 degrees can feel like 66. And if your house is not drafty, 66 can feel like 70.)
3)   If you live some place crazy like California, your walls may have no insulation in them. I’m serious. Ours didn’t. Blowing in insulation can fix this.
4)   Time to think about the underpart of your house—the crawl space or basement.  If there is no insulation between your warm, comfy house and the cold air beneath it, there will be an energy transfer, which means you’ll lose heat. It may seem silly to insulate the floor from underneath (and in many homes it is often not possible) but if you can, it does work.
5)   Seal your heating ducts or have someone do it for you. Poorly sealed ducts can reduce the efficiency of your heating system by 30%.
6)  Make sure the filter on your heater is not clogged and reducing your heating efficiency.
7)  If for any reason you need to replace your hot water heater, consider a heat pump version, or a solar-powered (with a heat pump back up) version. If you have a secondary hot water heater that is little used, consider putting in an on-demand system instead. Yes, up front costs for these new, more efficient technologies are higher, but some tax credits are still available and you might have local incentives from your utility as well. You’ll get the money back in lower energy costs within seven years even with natural gas at $4/mmbtus. (Faster with higher nat gas prices.)
8)   Double and even triple-paned windows. Windows are expensive, and the walls, attic and the underpart of your house are cheaper and probably more important to address. But if your windows are single-paned and drafty, at some point they will need to be tackled. I am really happy with the fiberglass-framed windows we’ve put in our house. They look very much like wood-framed ones, they don’t need paint, they seal tightly (locking out both noise and air transfer), and fiberglass expands and contracts at the same ratio that glass does, so it is not prone to warping like wood. In general they are more expensive than aluminum/vinyl but less expensive than wood.
9)  If you’ve got your house reasonably tight and live where it’s really cold, consider a heat-exchange ventilation system that reduces energy losses by transferring heat between outgoing and incoming air.
10) Consider replacing any large evergreens on the south side of your house with deciduous trees so you will get a solar gain in the winter but still get shade in the summer.
11) Do not rely on electric baseboard heaters or space heaters. They are wildly inefficient in terms of energy use, and as natural gas prices go up, so inevitably will electricity costs. A heat pump will cost you far, far less to heat your house.
12) If you replace your dishwasher/washing machine, get the lowest water use, highest efficiency-rated ones you can find.

The US is lucky it is so well-suited to solar.
Long term
1)   Let’s face it, long term almost all of us will be heating our houses (that have become very well insulated) via electricity with heat pumps. And those of us who live in regions that have above 4 kilowatt-hours per square meter per day solar potential (i.e. most of the continental US and Hawaii—check out the map) are going to end up with solar panels on our roofs. It’s a matter of when, not if. Heat pumps are now available that work in outdoor temperatures below zero degrees, and the technology will continue to improve. Big plus—if you live where it’s hot in the summer, heat pumps also cool! And they are more energy efficient at this than current air conditioners.
2)   If you ever have the opportunity/need to build a new house, be smart and make it zero net energy. Whereas it’s somewhat difficult to retrofit an existing house to be tight enough to be highly energy-efficient, it’s not hard at all when building one from scratch. Use passive solar where appropriate, insulate massively, make it air tight with a heat exchange ventilator, stick some solar panels on the roof, and put in a heat pump for the small amount of heating and cooling you still might need. It will only cost $10-$20K extra, and you’ll have almost no future utility bills. You will be all set for the rest of the 21st century!

Any other ideas to keep natural gas bills low? List them in the comments!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Brilliance of Walking

"Walking in the Hills" Edward Potthast
Walking. So simple. So powerful. So cheap. If you could put the benefits of walking 30 minutes a day into a pill, you'd drive 80% of all medications off the market and make untold billions. That's how great walking is. And you can get this wonder drug for free. Here are fifteen reasons to get out and walk:

1) Weight loss. People who start walking 30 minutes a day at an easy pace of 3 mph lose an average of a pound a month. Running, walking faster, or walking longer will help you lose weight more quickly, but in any event, the pounds you lose by walking even 30 minutes each day are pounds that you'll keep off. Even if you're genetically predisposed to obesity, walking works. Currently one third of US adults are obese; another third are overweight. You don't have to be thin to be healthy, but there is no way to be sedentary and healthy.

"Painter on His Way to Work" Vincent van Gogh
2) Cancer Prevention. One third of cancer-related deaths are due to obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Walking 30 minutes a day cuts risk of uterine and breast cancer in half for women. It cuts risk of colon cancer for both sexes by 60%. Even more extraordinary, walking can stop prostate cancer in its tracks. Men diagnosed with prostate cancer who start walking briskly 30 minutes a day are 57% less likely to see the disease progress. This is amazing. And for women with breast cancer with hormone-responsive tumors, those who walked an average of 30 minutes a day reduced risk of dying from their cancer by 50%.

3) Prevents heart disease. Reduces risk by 40%. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US for both men and women.

4) Reduces incidence of high blood pressure by 40%.

5) Lowers the risk of stroke by 37%.

"Tobias and the Angel" Piero del Pollaiolo
6) Boosts the immune system to fight off colds and flus. And if you do get sick, being fit reduces the number of days you are sick, the number of symptoms you experience, and the overall severity of the illness by 30%. Being fit via moderate exercise is proven to reduce the number of sick days you'll take better than any pill or nutritional supplement.

7) Cuts likelihood of getting type 2 diabetes in half.

8) Good for the heart and circulatory system. Keeps arteries and veins unclogged and functional.

9) Reduces bad cholesterol, regulates blood sugar levels, and aids digestion. (Especially good if done 15 minutes after a meal.)

10) Prevents depression. Reduces depression as well or better than, Zoloft, Prozac or behavioral therapy. This is true no matter your age. Currently in the US, of my age cohort--women between 50 and 65--a full one fourth are taking antidepressants. This is nuts. Walking also alleviates stress and anxiety and helps you fall asleep at night and stay asleep.

11) Combats arthritis and strengthens joints. Eases lower back pain as effectively as a muscle-strengthening program at a clinic. Reduces need for pain medication.

12) Strengthens your bones. Reduces risk of osteoporosis.

13) Helps pregnant women with a host of common pregnancy problems including back pain, constipation, swelling and trouble sleeping. Walking during pregnancy (and during first part of labor) is also proven to result in shorter labors, reduces the risk of gestational diabetes and miscarriage, and makes it easier to get back to your normal weight after the baby is born.

"Couple Walking with Crescent Moon" Vincent Van Gogh
14) Keeps your brain functioning in old age. Reduces risk of Alzheimer's by 50%. Reduces brain atrophy, dementia and cognitive decline. Reduces likelihood of brain shrinkage.

15) Improves health and well-being later in life. Being fit in your fifties compresses the likelihood of experiencing chronic, debilitating illness into the last five years of life rather than the last 10, 15 or even 20 years of life that occurs for sedentary people. 

Of course walking is not the only form of moderate physical exercise that's good for you. Bicycling, swimming, ballroom dancing, yoga, and tai chi are also options, and no doubt there are dozens of others as well. Whatever exercise you choose, you don't have to get out of breath and sweaty to benefit. But you do need to do something that gets you moving and your blood circulating for thirty minutes almost every day. It doesn't have to be all at one time, but just puttering around your house or the office doesn't count.

Why is walking or other moderate exercise so crucial for human health? Part of the answer lies in our lymphatic system. This is the system our bodies rely on to carry nutrients to our cells and cart off all the routine wastes of cellular function, wastes that become toxic if allowed to build up. The lymphatic system also produces and transports white blood cells and disease-fighting antibodies. But this system doesn't have its own pump like the blood system does. It relies on muscular movement to pump lymph fluid around the body. A sluggish lymph system inevitably means a sluggish immune response to disease or infection and can contribute to many other health problems, from swelling to headaches to sinus issues. Without your body's movement the lymph can't circulate and can't do its job protecting your health.

The very best way to get moderate exercise regularly is to work it into your daily routine. Can you walk to work? Can you park a mile away from work and walk the last bit? Can you walk at lunchtime? Is there a store or business you frequent regularly that is walking distance from home? Is there a pleasant place in your neighborhood you can take a walk after dinner?

I hope I've convinced you walking is better than any drug you could take. More tips on getting started:
1.) Baby steps. Set small goals at first--even 5 minutes of walking a day is good! Increase by 2 minutes each day. By the end of two weeks you'll be up to 30.
2.) Get a walking buddy, someone you can meet to get you out and walking.
3.) Get a pair of shoes comfortable for walking so that lack of footwear does not get in your way. (Even a $30 pair of athletic shoes will do.)
4.) Listen to music, though only have an earbud in one ear if walking near car traffic.
5.) Give yourself a non-food reward for walking every day for a week, for two weeks, for a month. Post your progress on Facebook, or even make a chart with stars on your refrigerator. 
6.) If you can, get your exercise in nature. This has proven spirit-lifting benefits even beyond walking.

In my first novel, Pearl City Control Theory, I wrote about city Buddha-mind walking and its emotional and philosophical benefits with little idea of walking's health impact. But I wrote Pearl City way back in 1992, and it was published in 1999, well before the abundance of studies and scientific analyses about walking that appeared this past decade. The reasons to walk are even more pressing now than they were in 1992.

Starting a habit of walking is initially going to take energy and willpower. Be dogged, be determined. After a month, you'll have noticeably more energy, endurance and stamina. You will be stronger. You will see things you've never noticed before. You will get sick less often, your spirits will lift, and you will just feel a heck of a lot better. Happy Rambles!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Some States Are Adding Wind and Solar Capacity Like Crazy! Is Yours?

Some States Are Adding Wind and Solar Capacity Like Crazy! Is Yours?

Some very heartening data has come out of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in their recently released July 2013 year-to-date numbers on electricity generation by state. Some surprising states are adding wind and solar capacity at an amazing clip:  Iowa! Kansas! Oklahoma! Arizona! Nevada! North Carolina! New Jersey! Vermont! Other states are doing little or nothing even when they have excellent wind and sun potential falling in their laps.

Before we examine each state, let’s consider solar and wind potential on a national level. One U.S. news broadcaster of note reported that Germany has installed 15 times the per capita solar generating capacity of the US because Germany is sunnier than the U.S. Ho, ho, ho! One tiny little internet search will show you that Germany gets less direct energy from the sun than any U.S. state except, possibly, Alaska. Which means every U.S. state except Alaska has decent solar potential. In fact, many US states get far more solar insolation than sunny Spain!

Germany is the cold-looking one on the right.
As you can see, our southwest states have very, very high solar potential. This means every solar panel in these places would generate double the electricity that the same panel placed in Germany would. Some of these extremely sunny states are taking advantage of this fact. Some are not.

Onto wind. Here is a map of wind potential and installed wind capacity cumulative to 2012. As you can see, the whole Midwest from North Dakota down to Texas is smoking hot. Absolutely amazing wind potential. And yet some states are taking advantage of this and some are not.

The bluer the windier

Onto the states!

We’ll examine them by census district since that is how the US EIA divides them up.  The EIA numbers only include solar energy produced by utilities and Independent Power Producers (IPPs). We have to look separately to find residential solar installations. In the EIA’s national numbers, the electricity produced by residential solar largely shows up not as production but as reduced demand. Note: generally when I refer to renewables, I mean “all renewables except large hydro” and I will spell out large hydro separately. Also note: in general I’m not a huge fan of nuclear power and would rather not see new nuclear plants built. But in my opinion unless one is in a dangerous area or is falling apart, keeping it going constitutes less of a threat than continuing to burn coal.

New England:  So far in 2013 Maine has increased its installed wind capacity by 12% over 2012, with wind now providing 7% of the electricity it generates. Maine has installed almost no solar. Since Maine exports electricity, if we consider just internal consumption, hydro + renewables covers 72% of Maine’s electricity demand. New Hampshire expanded wind generation last year by 38 %, but the total still comes to a very small amount. If they stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, their internal consumption could be supplied by hydro + renewables + nuclear with still 30% left over to sell to other states. Vermont nearly tripled its wind capacity over last year, but the amount is still pretty tiny. However, hydro + all renewables makes up 40% of the electricity it consumes internally. The state has installed a significant amount of residential solar, making it ninth in the nation for solar capacity per person. Vermont has at least as much wind potential as Maine yet has one fourth the installed wind capacity. 

This data is from 2012.
Massachusetts imports 61% of the electricity it consumes, sucking up all the excess electricity from the surrounding states and then some. So far in 2013 it has doubled its wind capacity over 2012 and almost quadrupled its solar output from utility/IPPS. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much since both are still tiny. It has, however, installed a significant amount of residential solar, making it 10th in the nation in installed solar per capita. In fact, in the second quarter of 2013, it was fifth in the nation for total solar installations.

Connecticut produces about half the electricity it generates from nuclear, almost none from wind or solar, and is a sizable energy exporter. If the state stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, it could cover 66% of its own electricity needs with nuclear + hydro + renewables. Rhode Island produces almost no electricity from wind or solar. It imports a fifth of its electricity and produces pretty much all the rest from fossil fuels. (Sigh.) It can certainly do better.

Middle Atlantic:  Though New Jersey has next to no wind capacity installed, it has gone whole hog with residential solar! It has the third highest installed solar capacity of all US states, and 2nd quarter of 2013 it was also third for newly installed capacity. New Jersey imports 14% of its electricity, generates 45% through nuclear power, and has over half its electricity coming from fossil fuels. New York increased its wind capacity by 14% over last year but has done very little in the way of solar. Though it has good wind potential in the western part of the state, it produces about as much electricity from wind as Pennsylvania, a state with far less potential. New York imports a small percent of its electricity, gets 22% from hydro + renewables and 31% from nuclear. With its large population, New York is a high electricity-consuming state.
Pennsylvania is a huge energy producer, generating more electricity than any other state except Texas. It exports 37% of its electricity, a fifth or so going to New Jersey and New York, and the rest likely going south. Pennsylvania ramped up its wind capacity by 50% this year over last. Still, wind makes up just 1.5% of the total electricity it produces. Pennsylvania is a huge nuclear state, second only to Illinois in the amount of nuclear energy it produces.  And it burns a heck of a lot of fossil fuels (mostly coal.) If Pennsylvania didn’t export electricity, it could cut its fossil fuel consumption by two thirds.

Wind in 2000--pretty sparse
East North Central: Illinois is cantering ahead of this pack in terms of installed wind. It increased its wind generation by 25% over last year, and wind now makes up 5% of its total electric generation. This is substantial progress given much electricity this state generates. It also has a small amount of solar. Illinois exports 30% of the electricity it generates. If it didn’t export electricity it could cover 75% of its electricity demand with renewables + hydro + nuclear. Indiana has very good wind potential but it increased wind production by just 10% last year. Renewables make up less than 4% of its energy production. They have no nuclear, negligible hydro and solar, and are a small electricity exporter. Michigan doubled its wind capacity last year, but they are playing catch up even with Indiana. Michigan is self-sufficient in electricity generation with 27% coming from nuclear and 4% from renewables + hydro.

Ohio imports 10% of its electricity, gets very little from wind or solar and 10% from nuclear. I’m depressed just thinking about it. Wisconsin has wind installed at a level comparable to Michigan—a little over 2% of their net electricity generation. They import a small amount of electricity.

Wind in 2012--getting gusty
West North Central:  This is the area of the country where things are really interesting!  Iowa has been installing wind capacity like crazy, and it now generates a full 28% of its electricity from wind. But Iowa is also an electricity exporter. If we only consider the energy Iowa consumes, 35% is generated from wind! This is a great accomplishment. Kansas is also going pedal to the metal on wind. It doubled its installed wind capacity over last year, and is now producing 20% of its electricity via wind. It is also an electricity exporter, so if we just consider its electrical demand alone, 25% is covered by wind. Minnesota ramped up their wind capacity a bit and is now up to 16% of its electricity generated by wind. However, Minnesota imports a full quarter of its electricity, which, right now, means other states burn fossil fuels to make electricity to export to it.

South Dakota and North Dakota come third and fifth in the region’s wind production derby, producing 28% and 15.5% of each state’s electricity via wind. Strangely enough, with all the great wind blowing through their states both North Dakota and South Dakota added no new wind generation capacity this year over last. If North Dakota had as much wind capacity installed as Iowa, and South Dakota as much as Oklahoma, both would have their electricity needs covered entirely.

And then there are Nebraska and Missouri, pulling up the rear of the group. Now Missouri has decent, though not exceptional, wind and solar potential. (Better than New Jersey! Better than Germany!) However, it is moving forward on neither and burns large amounts of fossil fuels in order to be an energy exporter. Nebraska, on the other hand, has fabulous wind potential, just as good as Kansas and probably better than Iowa. (It also has pretty darn good solar potential.) And yet they’ve only installed one-fifth the wind capacity of Kansas, and one-tenth the wind capacity of Iowa. Why is all this beautiful, productive, cheap wind going to waste? Someone is asleep at the switch.

South Atlantic:  This is a region of the country that imports a lot of electricity. The only states that don’t are West Virginia, Florida and South Carolina. Except for little pockets of the Appalachia’s, these states don’t have great on shore wind potential, though offshore is a possibility for most. All, however, have good to very good solar potential. West Virginia has the best wind, and it’s installed a small amount of capacity but could have much more. It exports more energy than it consumes by burning coal. Sunny Florida is number 10 in the US in terms of total installed solar but seems to have flat-lined with little capacity being added. It wasn’t in the top ten states for solar installed in the 2nd quarter of 2013. Though Florida consumes more electricity than any state besides Texas and California, only 2% of its electricity comes from renewables.

North Carolina is doing the best on solar in this sunny region, increasing its utility/IPP produced solar electricity by a factor of six in the last year! They were fourth in the nation in solar capacity installed in Q2 of 2013, and fifth in the nation for total cumulative capacity installed. Adjacent South Carolina, in contrast, has had almost no solar installation activity. Nor has Georgia, even though that state has solar potential Ohio would give its right arm for. Maryland has added a teeny bit of wind but you would think they would want to do more since they are a large electricity importer. The District of Columbia produces almost no electricity of any kind, relying nearly entirely on imports.

Interestingly, per capita, Delaware has the 7th highest solar PV capacity installed of any state (mostly residential), but they are such a small state with so little population, it hardly shows up on the radar. Delaware imports roughly a third of its electricity. Virginia also imports nearly a third of its electricity, and since they are a much bigger state, this adds up to a rather massive amount. Surprisingly, they’ve installed little wind or solar to speak of.

East South CentralAlabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee
Basically a black hole for solar and wind. And yet all four have good to very good solar potential and all but Alabama have some wind potential where their states border the Mississippi river. All the states but Tennessee are electricity exporters; Tennessee is a very large importer.

(Photo: texastribune.org)
West South Central:  Arkansas and Louisiana are two more black holes for solar and wind, both nuclear states, both net energy exporters, both burning lots of fossil fuels. Both have excellent solar potential and even a little wind potential. Texas and Oklahoma are a different story. Texas has the most wind capacity installed of any state in the nation.  However, because it produces more electricity than any state in the nation, wind comes to only 9% of all electricity produced. But this year alone Texas has increased wind capacity 18% over last year, and they increased their--admittedly limited amount--of solar capacity by 25%. Texas exports a huge amount of electricity, second only to Pennsylvania.  They have excellent solar potential, especially in the western half of the state. Oklahoma is playing catch up to Texas, increasing its wind capacity by 38% in one year! They are producing 13% of their electricity via wind, and 20% of the electricity they actually consume.  (They are exporters as well.) Not much solar to speak of, although they, too, have excellent potential.

Feel the desert rays (photo: energy.gov)
Mountain:  These are states that have good to totally astonishing solar potential. Most have good to extremely good wind potential. Arizona is doing the best with solar, as it should because it is one of the best places on the planet for it. Arizona more than doubled its installed solar capacity last year and is second for utility/IPP generated solar only behind California. It also nearly doubled its wind capacity last year. Even after all this, renewables still only make up 2% of its electricity generation. However, it is a big nuclear state and a big electricity exporter. Renewables + hydro + nuclear could cover 56% of its internal electricity consumption if the state stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow. Nevada increased its utility/IPP solar generation of electricity by 68%, and its wind generation by ten fold! Renewables make up 11% of the electricity it consumes, and hydro + renewables makes up 19%. Nevada is fourth in the nation for total solar capacity installed (including residential) and second when considered per capita.

New Mexico eked out small increases in both solar and wind, and is now up to nearly 8% of their electricity generated coming from the two together. They are an energy exporter. Colorado and Idaho both made great strides with wind capacity this year, increasing by 15% and 43% respectively. Wind +solar makes up 14% of Colorado’s consumption, and 13% of Idaho’s. Throw in hydro and you get 18% for Colorado and 59% for Idaho! Idaho imports almost a third of its electricity. Colorado generates close to as much electricity as it consumes.

Montana and Wyoming are two more wind-rich states with good solar potential.  Montana increased wind capacity by 27% while Wyoming increased not at all. Neither state has much solar installed. Montana has a lot of hydro which allows hydro+renewables to supply 94% of its internal consumption. However, Montana still burns fossil fuels to make electricity to export to other states. Wyoming, being the preeminent coal state of the US, burns massive amounts of coal and exports that electricity to other states, including California. Wyoming also uses massive amounts of energy for their mining industry. If their mining industry ended tomorrow, their internal electricity needs would be covered by renewables + hydro, and they would have electricity left over to export.

Utah could and should be a very good wind and a great solar state. It is neither.

A day in California (Fun website to check out!)
Pacific Contiguous:  California continues its lead in solar and is working hard to pass Iowa to regain second place in the wind derby. It more than doubled its utility/IPP solar capacity and increased its wind by 42% over last year. This is on top of already having the third wind largest installation in the US. It also produces quite a bit of electricity by way of geothermal and biomass, so its renewables produce 20% of the electricity it generates. California is very energy efficient and has one of the lowest per person consumption of electricity in the US. However, California is a big, big state with many people, and over the past decades it did not increase its electric generation in proportion to its growing population. This has turned California into the nation’s greatest importer of electricity, snarfing up pretty much all the excess electricity that might be lurking in any of the western-most states. 23% of California’s electricity currently comes from out of state. Some of this is hydro from the Pacific Northwest, but much of it is electricity from coal burnt by our more easterly neighbors. Still, the installation of sun and wind capacity go on, and just last week, in a 24 hr period on an average day in September, California produced 22% of the electricity it consumed via renewables. (solar thermal + solar PV + wind + small hydro+ geothermal + biogas+ biomass) I will guess by next summer California will be up to 25% via renewables.

Oregon and Washington have very good wind potential and they are both ramping up wind capacity, though Oregon more so than Washington. Oregon increased wind generation over last year by 24%, pulling ahead of Washington who increased by only 3%. Renewables in Oregon make up 20% of electricity consumption, whereas in Washington they make up only 10%. But both states have lots of hydroelectric, and both export electricity (mostly to California.) If we just consider these states internal consumption, renewables + hydroelectric make up 99% of Oregon’s electricity and 103% of Washington’s.

Tropical wind (photo: beyondhonolulu.com)
Pacific Noncontinguous: Alaska and Hawaii are their own special cases with difficulty importing or exporting electricity to/from other states. I’m pretty sure both within a decade will be reliant entirely on renewables for electricity, and the quicker they do it, the better off they will be. Alaska has very good to excellent wind potential but minimal wind capacity installed. Solar is tough for them, but it might get to the point that solar in summer alone is worth it. Alaska has a certain amount of hydroelectric and a small population, so hydro + renewables right now makes up 23% of their electricity consumption. If they were to build out their wind capacity merely to the extent Indiana or Wyoming has, they would be self-sufficient in electricity (though they would probably need some pumped hydro storage.) Hawaii has excellent solar potential and very good wind. It increased its wind capacity by 25% this last year but it’s still very small—only 5% of what they consume. They have no utility/IPP solar at all, though they have quite a bit of residential solar and are third in the nation for per capita solar capacity installed. If they built out their wind to the level of Oklahoma and their utility/IPP solar to that of Nevada, they would be in very good shape, though they would perhaps need to have some pumped hydro storage as well.

So that concludes our tour solar and wind in the United States. Some states are leaping ahead; some are sitting on their hands. Who will be better off in ten year’s time? In the last year, the US has gone from 5.5% of its electricity generated from renewables to 6.4%, a much greater increase than ever before. I’m guessing we’ll be up to nearly 8% by next summer. Especially if Nebraska and South Dakota wake up and smell the kilowatts.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why Everyone Who Loves San Francisco Should Clamor for Polk Street Bike Lanes

It’s the space.
Nearly half of San Francisco’s population lives in a quarter of the land, the northeast quadrant of the city. Between now and the end of 2015, San Francisco is likely to gain another 30,000 people, most of them to this sector. This area is already one of the densest in North America, parts of it second only to Manhattan. And it already holds 42% of all San Francisco’s cars (150,000!) If these new people own cars similar to the rates of current residents, they will bring 12,000 additional cars into this quadrant. Even if all these cars have off street parking, how will congested NE streets have room for 24,000 – 36,000 extra car trips each day? Congestion isn’t linear. 8% more cars doesn’t make already congested traffic 8% worse. It makes it impossible. More people in the same square footage means we need fewer cars and less driving. It means we need to encourage people to go car-lite or car-free.

12 shoppers or one?
Cars take up a lot of room. Parked curbside, a private car requires 200 square feet; in a garage 300 feet. The average car is parked 95% of the time. When actually in motion, the space that just two cars take up can fit twenty people on bikes or 30 people on a bus. When not in use, twelve bikes can park in the space of one car. Parked or moving, cars are a highly inefficient use of public real estate. In the middle of Nebraska this is perhaps not an issue. In San Francisco it is.

A modest 8% reduction in parking in the Polk Street area will affect few people. Already 85% of people come to Polk Street by modes other than car. Maybe this is because two-thirds of households in the neighborhoods adjoining Polk don’t own cars. (ACS data 2009.) Maybe this is because all of Polk Street is on or within a block of a bus line. Maybe this is because half of Polk is within a 15 minute walk of BART. Maybe this is because Polk Street is the geographic center of the NE quadrant, which means potentially half the population of the city can bike to Polk Street within 20 minutes.

It’s the topography.
Hilly SF (source: SFMTA)
San Francisco has hills. Main arterials and shopping neighborhoods are found in the flat parts between them for a reason. Currently there are no bike lanes that extend from Market to the north part of town between the Embarcadero and Arguello. This means there is no safe way for bicyclists to reach a huge chunk of the city. Gnarly hills mean Polk Street is the only north/south route for bicyclists to take for a mile in either direction. (Van Ness is flatter but it’s not an option because it’s part of US 101.) This is why Polk is already the street with the highest rate of biking north of Market between  the Embarcadero and the Wiggle. This is why Polk matters so much.

It’s the economics.
Cars are expensive. Median incomes for the bottom 93% of Americans are declining. Young people, especially new college graduates, have high student debt loads. Streets designed to make driving easy and any other mode of transport miserable mean that anyone who cannot afford a car in San Francisco is miserable, an active form of discrimination against the young and the poor. Biking for transportation is a fifth the cost of taking Muni, 3% the cost of owning and operating a junker car, and 1% the cost of owning any car under seven years old.

Cars don’t help city economics. Of the $9122 a year it takes to own and operate a newish car, 84% leaves the local economy. When people don’t own cars, it frees up their disposable income. People who don’t own cars are more likely to patronize businesses and restaurants close to home than people who drive.

Fears on the part of Polk Street merchants that business will drop if bike lanes are added are unfounded. A study by the SFMTA shows people on foot and on bike visit Polk Street more often and spend more per week at local merchants than those who arrive by car. Both in New York and San Francisco, added bike lanes have resulted in increased business for local merchants. In addition, when bike lanes are added to a street, property values are shown to increase.  Bike lanes help, not hurt, local business and property owners.

Bicycling is also far cheaper to the taxpayer’s pocketbook. Every Muni ride is subsidized by the taxpayer $.61 per passenger mile. Right now San Francisco can’t even come up with funds to keep our buses in adequate repair, and many Muni lines are at capacity. Where will the money come from to pay for extra buses and drivers to service the new people moving in?

On the other hand, encouraging people to drive also costs us. Car drivers cover less than 15% of the direct cost of their city driving via gasoline and vehicle taxes. 85% is paid for out of the general fund. Compared to buses, trucks and cars (that have 100 to 500 times the mass), bikes inflict a micro amount of damage on the road, necessitating little or no repair or maintenance. When cars cause accidents, emergency personnel response and the subsequent clean up are funded by taxpayers. Health and environmental damage inflicted by cars and not paid for by the driver (for example from uninsured motorists, toxic residue, and particulate matter from car emissions) are paid for by the individual injured, the city of San Francisco, or society at large.

What could be
Factoring in the direct costs of driving and the indirect cost of parking, land, crashes, congestion, and health damage due to air pollution (but not climate change or other environment-related costs), San Francisco subsidizes car driving $.53 every mile. Biking only costs $.01 for every mile.

Let’s repeat this. Cost to you, the taxpayer, per mile of passenger transport:
Muni: $.61
Private vehicle: $.53
Bicycle: $.01
Walk: $.00 (or very close. Mostly land costs for sidewalks.)

It’s the convenience.
Easy-peasy electric-assist kid shuttling
If we want people to go car-lite or car-free, it’s far easier for them to do this using a bike for transportation than relying on Muni. For trips under two miles, bikes are as fast as cars, twice as fast as Muni, and four times faster than walking. For trips under four miles, biking is just 5 to 10 minutes slower than driving and equal to Muni or faster. (It depends on how many transfers the particular Muni trip requires.) Though bicycles do get the occasional flat tire, they are far more reliable than Muni in getting you where you want to go. And if you live on a hill or have physical limitations, an ebike makes biking a breeze. (Hill + shuttling children? Electrified cargo bike!) In the Netherlands, bicycling is so safe and convenient most children bicycle to school and seniors bicycle well into their 70’s and even 80’s.

It’s the safety.
Cycling can be quite safe. (aviewfromthecyclepath.com)
Polk Street has one of the highest rates of cars injuring bicyclists of any street in the city. Bicyclists are injured on Polk Street at four times the rate of other streets with comparable numbers of bike riders (Harrison and Arguello.) In 2006, a young woman bicyclist was killed by a hit and run driver on Polk Street. Many, many others since then have had bones (arms, hips, legs, elbows) shattered, on average 20 or so injuries a year. Keeping Polk Street as it is ensures that more deaths and injuries will occur, often to young people under 30 who are sons and daughters of someone and are just trying to lead decent lives on not a whole lot of income. Streets with protected bike lanes are proven to have lower bicyclist injury rates. Surprisingly, streets with protected bike lanes have also shown to have lower pedestrian injury rates. Better-designed streets save lives and reduce our collective health care costs by not necessitating hospital stays, MRIs, blood transfusions, etc.

Data from the Twin Cities
Though most people enjoy bike riding, currently the vast majority of San Franciscans won’t ride bikes because they are unwilling to duke it out with cars in our stressful traffic. Safety is an issue, but it’s proven that stress is the bigger one. Studies show that creating a network of low-stress, connected bikeways (protected, separated bike lanes that cars and delivery trucks can’t continually double-park in) is the greatest single determinant in whether the average person will use a bicycle for transportation. Studies show that the more people bicycle, the more the rate of bicycle injury drops, partly because motorists grow to expect and watch for bicyclists and partly because on streets calmed by bike lanes and lots of bicyclists it's harder for motorists to speed. (Speed kills. The lower speeds are why the more people bicycle, the fewer pedestrian and car driver and car passenger injuries there are as well.) Encouraging bicyclists with their own low-stress space in and of itself produces safety for all road users.

Encouraging bicyclists to ride through a neighborhood also adds safety by deterring crime through more eyes on the street. Motorists speed through neighborhoods noticing little. Bicyclists have no obstructions or blind spots. They see everything.

It’s the health.
Car exhaust is a proven cause of asthma, heart disease, and cancer. Bike lanes provide a little extra room to allow the toxins of car exhaust to disperse before a cyclist must breathe them in. It makes a significant difference. (This is also one of the reasons why at red lights bicyclists wait at the front of your car, not near your tailpipe.)

The more people bike, the healthier they are. Studies show that people who bike to work have fewer sick days and are more productive when they are at work. They also are happier, live longer, have more years of healthy life, and require less dollars of medical treatment each year than people who drive to work. If companies have access to a healthy workforce, their health care costs are lower. This gives these companies a competitive advantage. (Health care costs account for nearly 10% of average employee compensation expense.) In addition, unless they are hit by cars, healthy people have much less reason to visit the SF General emergency room. When people can’t pay for their visit to the SF General ER, we all pay.

Though for half a century Americans have tried to arrange their lives to avoid all forms of physical exertion, it turns out that the human body becomes sickly if it doesn’t get 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. (Studies also show that the more hours spent driving, the more unhealthy you are.) Incorporating this moderate exercise into one’s transportation is the most reliable and least costly way of obtaining it. Creating a physical environment where driving is encouraged while walking and bicycling are kept dangerous and miserable is a tragedy for human health. The city of Copenhagen goes out of its way to encourage its citizens to bicycle for transportation because they estimate they save 42 cents in health care costs for every mile biked.

It’s the energy.
This is so big, it’s hard to know where to begin. If you’re reading this on-line, check here, here and here. Suffice it to say that per capita oil consumption in the US has been dropping and will continue to drop whether we like it or not. This mostly won’t be through greater fuel efficiency, but rather from people going car-lite and car-free altogether. (It’s already happening.) In addition, total energy consumed per person is dropping in the US and will continue to drop whether we like it or not. San Francisco already consumes less total energy per person than almost anywhere in the US. The more San Francisco facilitates its citizens to use less energy, the more economically competitive our city will be and also the more resilient. Cars are huge energy-slurping machines, even electric ones. Making it possible for the average person to live well without a car will protect San Francisco from many of the negative impacts of world net energy decline. Car-intensive, high energy-consuming regions, in contrast, will find themselves mired in economic contraction. Be glad you live in San Francisco where there is some form of transit and people willing to walk and bicycle. (If you live within walking distance of a BART or Caltrain station, you are doubly blessed.) Our transit, biking, walking, and energy efficiency may very well be what allows San Francisco to prosper in the years shortly ahead.

It’s the planet.
This is real. Climate change due to humans burning fossil fuels is happening. Cars and coal are on their way to making much of the planet uninhabitable. The only ones denying it are those making a profit from the status quo or those who get their information from Fox News. If in ten years you don’t expect to be alive, nor any one you love, then, sure, you’ll skip most of the worst impacts. Why be inconvenienced? But if you have compassion for the folks who won’t escape the famine, the refugees, the heat waves, the disease, the extinction of most large mammal species, not to mention the potential utter collapse of civilization, you might feel a bit overwhelmed.

Here’s a deal. For 2013, you don’t need to buy carbon offsets or get rid of your car (unless you’d like to rid yourself of $9000/year of costs.) What you can do to lower your city’s carbon footprint is simply support others who are already trying to live carbon-free. Avoid driving high bicycle corridors like the Wiggle, drive gently around bicyclists when you pass them on side streets, and stop griping that they don’t stop at stop signs. (Yes, bicyclists should absolutely yield to pedestrians and other traffic that have the right of way! But the second you are on a bike you’ll see why it’s sensible and safe to slow down in order to yield rather than completely stop.) And, first and foremost, encourage bicyclists by having your city give them just a little space so that biking does not end up killing them and making their mothers bitter to the end of time. That’s all. Even if you can’t stop driving right now, that’s what you can do this year to contribute. It’s nuts that San Francisco has voted to divest its retirement funds from fossil fuel industries but won’t take the simplest of steps to support those trying to live fossil fuel-free lives.

It’s the future.
Car traffic does not help Polk Street, it hurts it. Bike lanes will bring bicyclists from all over the city to Polk who would not come otherwise. Bike lanes will bring tourists traversing between the Civic Center and Ghirardelli Square/Fort Mason. People like to shop and linger on streets that are pleasant, hospitable and safe, not ones filled with noise, pollution, filth, crime and danger. Because Polk Street is the geographic center of the NE quadrant of the city and a natural place for people to congregate, reduced car parking, car pollution and car noise could cause Polk to absolutely blossom both as a neighborhood and as a destination. 
City living doesn't have to be polluted, ugly and dangerous.

Pay attention to the hurricanes, the droughts, the fires, the floods, the food shortages this summer. Note the riots, the uprisings, and the revolutions. Realize what you do this year and next counts. Your children and grandchildren will remember it. Which side will you stand with, the one speaking for them, or the one that will, without a qualm, sacrifice the future for the sake of not walking two extra blocks? We need to design a Polk Street that will work for the reality close at hand in 2015, not fearfully preserve at all costs (and in the face of all reason) the Polk of 1995.

Protected bike lanes (in both directions) on Polk Street matter. Contact any or all of the following: the San Francisco Metro Transit Authority , the SFMTA Board of Directors, Mayor Ed Lee, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, and/or your own city supervisor. Tell them you heartily support protected bike lanes on Polk Street and the city's fossil-free future.