Energy, sustainability, and policy for the rest of us. Read more about The Daily Wogan here.

Enabling Efficiency

This week I’ll be in Los Angeles, CA for a Department of Energy (DOE) BetterBuildings workshop. BetterBuildings is a program in the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division of the DOE that strives to improve homes, businesses, schools, and more by providing funds for energy efficiency retrofits and improvements.

I’m traveling as an employee of Austin Energy. The City of Austin/Austin Energy received a $10 million under the BetterBuildings program to retrofit 4,300 homes, multi-family buildings, and commercial spaces in three years. Our program, and others around the country, are helping the country short wedding dresses recover through energy retrofits.

What makes the BetterBuildings program different from other energy efficiency programs is that grantees cannot hand out rebate checks for upgrades and retrofits. Instead, the money is used to provide loans by buying down interest rates or backing loans from banks or credit unions. As the loans are repaid, the money can be leant out to others, making every dollar last longer.

At the end of the day, folks are saving money on their energy bills while enjoying a more comfortable house or workplace. And money is making its way back into the economy through the hands of contractors and other professionals.

I’ll have updates this week from the workshop and conversations with other grantees. Note that these updates are my own and do not represent an official communication from Austin Energy or the City of Austin (but you knew that already, didn’t you?!).

Stay tuned!

Back on the home front

Alright, I have spent a lot of time recently thinking and writing a lot about the President’s State of the Union here on The Daily Wogan. As part of a mental break, and acknowledgement that there are a lot of important things going on in Austin, I am going to make an effort to discuss sexy lingerie local issues more frequently, starting with this post. Global climate change be damned!

City council campaign season has officially kicked off. Incumbents Chris Riley, Laura Morrison, and Randi Shade are running for reelection in May. I know little about Randi Shade, except her support of Water Treatment Plant 4, which I’ve written about before (here and here), and will no doubt write about again. Chris Riley, on the other hand, gets it; transportation, conservation, urban corridors, etc.

The elections this May are an opportunity to retain council members who understand how Austin should develop and grow in the future. Austin, under council leadership past and present, has been obsessed with growth at all costs. Sustainability, smart planning, and disrupting the status quo – things that Austin used to hold dear – have fallen by the wayside.

Austin has changed dramatically in the past decade. The most visible changes are occurring downtown in the redeveloping urban core. City Council has pushed development over the years, with hopes for economic gains and denser living. But, it’s not clear if Austin is becoming more or less sustainable with its new high-risin’ additions.

Redevelopment of Austin’s urban core might turn out to be a good thing for the city, but I’m not convinced (yet). The city’s development and growth frenzy has it growing upwards and outwards, not an ideal combination. Maybe the urban sprawl would be worse without downtown condos? I’d love to see some data either way.

Redevelopment should be an opportunity to change the status quo and disrupt the current way of doing business. It should be a chance to rethink how people, goods, and information move around Austin. The situation on Rainey Street was a prime opportunity to re-think how an urban entertainment district should function by incorporating alternatives to cars, street parking, and parking lots. But, alas:

The situation at Rainey Street is unique, as the area – once a sleepy residential street, albeit nestled at Downtown’s southeastern edge – was rezoned as part of the Central Business District in 2004, in hopes of incentivizing development near the Austin Convention Center and the since-built Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. But while grander development has stalled, bars and eateries have flocked to Rainey, since CBD zoning enables traffic-heavy cocktail bar or restaurant use without any additional zoning request.

If anything, traffic has gotten worse in downtown Austin in the past few years, and it seems many opportunities to rethink how the development and transportation are woven together have been overlooked or fumbled.

Austin can tout its growth awards all it wants, but it needs to re-think how it wants to grow as a community. Council elections are just one opportunity to voice your support or denounce the current course. Make it count in May.

It’s All in the Definition

One blurb stood out to me last night during President Obama’s State of the Union:

Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.

80 percent is a big number. The Energy Information Administration, the government’s own energy statistical gurus, expect energy consumption to increase by 21 percent from current levels in 2035. And the make-up of our energy sources isn’t expected to change all that much:

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So what did the President mean when he said “clean energy”?

Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.

The President’s energy goals are strangely pragmatic. Assuming that the EIA is even moderately on target, the energy sources of the future are going to be the energy sources of the present. And all are existing technologies that will benefit the United States if there is sustained research, development, and innovation.

We can look to recent announcements for clues about where the President is putting his focus. Last week during President Hu’s visit, Energy Secretary Chu announced a joint partnership with China to research coal, vehicles, and building efficiency. These are areas that the Administration sees as important in the future.

But definitions only get us so far. Policies and actions will determine if we meet our energy goals.

Energy and the State of the Union

On the eve of President Obama’s State of the Union, the White House announced that Carol Browner, the climate czar, will be stepping down:

Browner’s departure comes as the West Wing undergoes a heavy makeover, including the arrival of chief of staff William Daley, a rare outsider in the top echelons of the administration. She was among a number of Obama officials in the recent running for a job as deputy chief of staff. But she will instead head for the exits as Obama looks to buff up his business credentials.

White House aides Monday were mum about what would happen to the Office of Energy and Climate Change except to declare that Browner, a former Senate staffer to Al Gore, believed energy issues would remain front and center for the president.

Her departure represents a preview of the President’s agenda for the next two years. All signs point to a more business-friendly agenda, and a move to the center. Unfortunately, climate change legislation isn’t feasible in the near term – at least until after the 2012 elections.

In fact, the President will be defending his energy and environmental programs from a Republican-led Congress looking to slash spending. Energy and environmental programs will be under a microscope, and some on the chopping block.

It’s up to the Administration to show that its energy and environmental policies are a boon to the economy. The news that the Department of Energy weatherized 300,000 homes and employed 15,000 workers under the Recovery Act is great news, but it’s only a start.

The Administration needs more wins in the energy column as it looks for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It needs to be creative (by using existing laws and regulations), and most importantly, create jobs.

Nothing else matters (politically) right now.

Down the Drain

On Saturday, I tweeted an interesting stat about the amount of energy used to move and treat water in California:

Wow. CA uses almost 1/5th of it’s electricity to move water around #energy #water

The stat came from a peer’s presentation about her research on the linkage between energy and water. Several folks wanted to know a little bit more, so I tracked down the statistic to a report from the California Energy Commission report (PDF). The full statistic is that California uses 19 percent of its electricity to treat and transport water into and around California.

Not only is electricity is used to move and treat water, but water is used to cool the power plants that produce the electricity to treat and move the water. Yikes!

Last year, I flew into San Diego from Austin for the AAAS Annual Conference. As the plane neared San Diego, the desert landscape transformed into green lawns and golf courses – the result of a lot of water and electricity for a region that has neither to spare. Don’t worry, we Texans aren’t any better about it.

As with other things we waste (food, plastic bags, etc.), water is too cheap. As a result, we end up flushing a lot of water and electricity down the drain.

‘United States of Climate Change’

What would the United States look like if the state lines were redrawn based on greenhouse gas emissions of other countries?

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(via NRDC)

UPDATE: Melissa Lott provides some great info about the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions compared to the rest of the world. Check it out at Global Energy Matters!

“Car Charging Network Grows in Austin”

From the Christian Science Monitor:

In many ways, Austin is a forerunner of the electric-car movement. It was one of seven US cities to receive General Motors’s first shipment of its Volt – an electric car that uses a small combustion engine as well as a plug for charging – earlier this month. And Nissan’s fully electric Leafs will be arriving in a few weeks. More than 150 electric vehicles are expected on Austin’s streets by summer.

Those numbers were enough to persuade Austin Energy, the city-owned electric utility, to launch a $28 million federally backed initiative to build an infrastructure to support electric cars. The plan touches on everything from devising optimum in-home-charging practices to setting up charge points citywide. For example, Austin Energy is joining with California-based Coulomb Technologies, a charging-equipment manufacturer, to install 100 to 200 public chargers by the end of 2011.

The trick for a utility is figuring out when and where people will charge their cars. Will everyone charge up at night, during the middle of the day, or when they’re shopping at Whole Foods? But the payoff is that there’s a new market to sell electricity to. You can bet utilities and companies are learning all they can about charging behaviors:

“Eventually we’ll be able to learn how to conduct a symphony of chargers,” says Karl Rábago, Austin Energy’s vice president of distributed energy services.

Could be a beautiful thing.

Kaleidoscope Village

I hadn’t heard about this new cohousing development planned for central Austin until today:

[Kaleidoscope] will be a community of 37 greenbuilt homes on six acres. We welcome people in all lifestages: families, singles, seniors. . . . You are invited to meet with folks who are planning to live at Kaleidoscope Village.

It sounds like a different take on urban living with common facilities and urban gardening. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out. The homes themselves will be Five-Star Energy Star rated, which is what the Department of Energy ranks as “very efficient”.

I wonder if there are plans for water conservation and public transportation.

Paying the Price for Plastic Bags

The Austin American-Statesman reports that plastic grocery bags cost Austin taxpayers at least $850,000 each year in clean up and disposal costs. City leaders are wondering how to bag Austin’s bag problem:

Leffingwell said he plans to ask representatives of groups that have a stake in the issue, including small and large businesses, to spend the next six months discussing options for reducing plastic bag use, including voluntary programs and a possible ban.

Here’s an idea: charge folks a small fee for using plastic bags. Washington, D.C. has been charging 5 cents per bag, and seen behavior change dramatically:

City officials said they were surprised so many consumers appear to have changed their habits, bringing reusable bags to carry everything from milk and eggs to shampoo and toilet paper. A city official said the fee has already made a positive impact by reducing the amount of garbage in the river.

“In a town where we talk about trillions of dollars all the time it’s amazing the power a nickel has,” said Christophe A.G. Tulou, the director of the District Department of the Environment, which is charged with spending the bag money to benefit the Anacostia River.

Pickin’ up the PACE

Yesterday, Texas State Representative Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) introduced legislation to bring back PACE financing. PACE, which stands for Property Assessed Clean Energy, would make it easier for homeowners to invest in renewable energy systems for their homes by tying the cost of a renewable energy system to a home’s property value – not the owner.

In other words, a homeowner isn’t stuck paying for a solar PV or water-efficient upgrade even if they move out of the home.

This legislative session is going to be dominated by redistricting and the Texas budget deficit, so who knows where energy bills will fit into the schedule. I have no doubt that PACE financing would make it easier for homeowners and utilities to embrace renewable energy and efficient upgrades.

You can read the bill in its entirety here.

“What Carbon Cycle?”

A new study finds that many college students do not fully understand the basics of the carbon cycle (which is responsible for many things, including plant growth, human growth, and acidity of the oceans, to name a few):

Most students also incorrectly believe plants obtain their mass from the soil rather than primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “When you see a tree growing,” Anderson said, “it’s a lot easier to believe that tree is somehow coming out of the soil rather than the scientific reality that it’s coming out of the air.”

It’s hard to understand global climate change, which crosses both borders and generations, when you don’t understand exactly what carbon does. It’s no surprise, then, that the debate on climate change and carbon regulation is so easily distorted and dismissed.

Nissan Leaf

A Seattle couple’s impression of the new all-electric Nissan Leaf:

It feels good to drive past the gas station.

I imagine it does.

(via the Seattle Times)

“Save Energy, Save Our Troops”

Stephen M. Andrus, a retired Army brigadier general, contributed an op/ed in today’s NY Times about the vulnerabilities the military faces from relying on fossil fuels. His recommendation on how to save lives and money? Efficiency:

For many in the military, improving the situation isn’t a priority. “To hell with efficiency, effectiveness is all I care about,” a finger-wagging superior once told me in Iraq. But keeping our bases and units supplied with fuel endangers not just the lives of many soldiers manning the tanker convoys, it also drains $24 billion a year from the Pentagon budget. The solution: a Defense Department policy requiring all structures in the combat zone be energy-efficient. [...]

An across-the-board Pentagon efficiency mandate would have many benefits. First, it would save many lives: there are casualties in one out of every 24 fuel supply convoys in Afghanistan; 47 drivers were killed there last year. It would save money; it costs taxpayers about $66 million a day for air-conditioning in the war zones.

It would also reduce opportunities for the enemy. Some soldiers jokingly call the fuel trucks “Taliban targets,” and for good reason — they are a high-payoff quarry for insurgents using nothing but homemade bombs. In addition, having fewer fuel shipments would allow NATO to take highly trained troops off convoy duty and use them in combat or, even better, send them home.

To put it all in perspective, the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest consumer of energy, and therefore a big deal. The civilian world has benefited from many military advances. Maybe an energy policy with an emphasis on efficiency will be its next contribution.

Austin Solar Tree

The Dittmar Recreation Center in south Austin (which, as it turns out, is where I learned to swim) has a new addition: a solar tree. The solar array mimics the leaves of a real tree while also capturing sunlight that is reflected off of the concrete.

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The solar tree has a capacity of 2 kW, which, on a good day, is enough to power 20 100W lightbulbs, or two dishwashers.

In addition to providing clean energy for the Recreation Center, the solar tree is a visible display of renewable energy for children and parents. Who knows, the solar tree might set off more than one kind of light bulb!

(via Austin Energy)

Shakedown Street

Bruce McCall offers a satirical take on a vehicle-free New York. Now there are plenty of lanes for baby strollers, traffic agents, and joggers. You can read the lane descriptions at The New York Times.

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