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What can we do to ensure cities are sustainable now?

February 2, 2011

The other day the captioned question was asked of me. I thought my reply would be of interest. Forgive me if the last part of this discussion seems vaguely familiar.

A rather complex question, which might have a simple answer! Before presenting suggestions for “what to do,” it is necessary to level the playing field by looking at what we mean by “sustainable.”

This is not to be pedantic, but to ensure we are all talking about the same thing. If you know the meaning of “sustainable,” please skip this section.

If a misunderstanding of “sustainability” actually exists, the culprit may be the the U.S. government itself. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) 2007 Sustainability Report, defines “SUSTAINABLE” as: in the sense of an organization and its operations, is the simultaneous and balanced pursuit of economic viability, environmental health, and public responsibility over the long term through appropriate investment decisions and operating practices. Note, NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy’s (“DoE”) primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

Not to criticize NREL’s 24 page report, but the first hint of sustainability comes on page 6. Page 2 shows a nice picture of a wind turbines and talks mostly of their renewable energy programs. On page 5 is a picture of Former President George Bush’s visit to NREAL with an associated paragraph which mentions a goal of “sustainable building standards.” Finally on page 8 is there some possible meat to sustainability by the title “Energy Use” with this opening sentence “NREL facilities are relatively new having been constructed since 1990. Further, they have been designed to be highly energy efficient.”

On the other hand, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “SUSTAINABLE” as:
1: capable of being sustained
2a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
2b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods.

To further underscore the confusion with this word, Wikipedia defines “SUSTAINABILITY” as the capacity to endure. In ecology, the word describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well-being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.”

Maybe I am not well informed, but to me, for a word, not to mention one as important as this, to have a universal meaning it should conjure up a mental image. These definitions don’t cut the mustard.  It is assured that if I say the word “chair,” a picture comes to mind. Your picture will most certainly be different than mine, but I am sure the image has 3 or 4 legs, a horizontal plate the size of your behind, and a upright plate about the size of you upper torso.

If you want something to have meaning, why can’t these definitions at least include the word “efficiency” or even on a higher order to make it more precise use the phrase “energy efficiency”! In this context, efficiency simply means what one gets out of something for the amount used. Using car engines as an example:

Wikipedia defines “Engine efficiency as the relationship between the total energy contained in the fuel, and the amount of energy used to perform useful work.” It also states “Modern gasoline engines have an average efficiency of about 18% to 20% when used to power a car. In other words, of the total heat energy of gasoline, about 80% is ejected as heat from the exhaust, as mechanical sound energy, or consumed by the motor (friction, air turbulence, heat through the cylinder walls or cylinder head, and work used to turn engine equipment and appliances such as water and oil pumps and electrical generator), and only about 20% of the fuel energy moves the vehicle.”

In typical parlance, the automotive industry produces inefficient internal combustion engines. Hypothetically speaking, should there be a technological breakthrough allowing the engine to run at 80% efficiency, this efficiency improvement would have wide ranging implications towards sustainability. Needless to say, this would be a step in the right direction by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the trade imbalance.

It’s true that the term “efficiency” does not preclude the use of environmentally energy sources. But it is a step in the right direction towards understanding what needs to be done and that is to “CONSERVE.”  Use of energy efficient sources of energy is an entirely different matter. To me this is covered under “renewable energy.” I do not propose having two separate camps. Yes, they need to be combined for a holistic solution. But the approach to each is somewhat different. A city can only allow new buildings to be highly efficient and LEED’s certified. But to force the owner to build a self-owned behind the meter solar, wind or geothermal power facility is out of the question for America. These renewable energy sources have to make sense, financial sense that is, to the owner.  

This leads us to finally address the question. At this point in time, to have the owner, be it a residential, commercial, industrial or public entity to become energy efficient and use renewable energy, takes but one thing “A Cohesive Long-Term Energy Policy.” It may be asked why this is necessary, in a free economic society, adoption of anything should be market based rather than a function of policies of subsidies. Well, all know this is not the case in America. Subsides abound and are common place. In fact the renewable energy industry is not playing on an even field. In many case, payback for the capital expense is somewhere along the lines based on other commodities, such petroleum.

To underscore this notion a recent New York Times article “As Oil Industry Fights a Tax, It Reaps Subsidies” states “But an examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.” In the State of the Union Message President Obama mentioned eradication of these subsidies. If this happens there will be short-term hardship, but on a long-term basis the country and the American people will be the true beneficiaries of this legislation. Let’s hope for once rhetoric will turn into real action, without the polarization that may exist in congress. 

Therefore, “to ensure cities are sustainable now,” the legislative branch of our government turns Congressional Folly into an Energy Policy. As a devil’s advocate that the U.S. lacks a cohesive forward looking energy policy alone has to do is Google “U.S. Energy Policy.”  This results in 42,800,000 hits in 0.18 seconds.  With this many hits either there is a well formulated strategy or it’s so convoluted that not even 40 million hits can adequately cover the turf.  In any event, the top spot fell to Wikipedia with “Energy policy of the United States.”

Firstly, it’s gratifying to know that Wikipedia has a better grasp of our policy than does the federal government. Don’t misunderstand me; I have a tremendous amount of respect for Wikipedia in terms of the quality and quantity of their articles. While this doesn’t seem right, maybe it’s just a function of Google’s search algorithm that suggests more people go to Wikipedia than official U.S. websites to find out what the government is doing.

We will leave Wikipedia and go to the second spot “Energy & Environment, The White House.” Now we are cooking and getting close to getting official information. This off-season “State of the Union” message states: “To take this country in a new direction, the President is working with Congress to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation to protect our nation from the serious economic and strategic risks associated with our reliance on foreign oil, to create jobs, and to cut down on the carbon pollution that contributes to the destabilizing effects of climate change.” 

From Clean Energy Economy, Climate Change, and Our Environment this message translates into a litany of federal programs, such as:
• Recovery Act Investments in Clean Energy
• Appliance Efficiency Standards
• Leadership in Sustainability
• Efficiency Standards for Cars and Trucks
• Making Homes More Energy Efficient
• International Leadership
• Monitoring Emissions
• Climate Change Science and Education
• Climate Change Adaptation
• Protecting our Oceans
• Land Conservation
• Restoring our Ecosystems
• Renewing the Federal Commitment to California’s Bay Delta
Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration
• Great Lakes Restoration
• Mercury
• Reduce Environmental Impacts of Mountaintop Coal Mining
• National Environmental Policy Act

Though not to throw fuel on fire, it is not entirely clear if this is or is not our policy.  In many instances, it takes time to make changes in a rather complex system before realizing the benefits of those changes. But what makes one skeptical is exemplified by the search results of “U.S. Energy Policy 1990.”  This hit brings us to a 105 page report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology titled “U.S. Energy Policy in the 1990’s. This report discusses U.S. energy policy in terms of the associated evolution of energy supply, energy demand, energy prices and the industrial organization of the domestic energy industries during the period 1991 through 2000. This period covers the last two years of the George H. W. Bush administration and the entire Clinton administration.

Though a failure in itself, this high-level approach brings together the essential elements necessary to formulate a true, rather than an ad hoc, energy policy! Basic economic terms like supply, demand and prices are missing in the newly released sequel “U.S. Energy Policy Part II; or is it III, IX, or XX.”

It’s too early to predict the outcome of our so-called energy policy; though skepticism is surely in order. To underscore the notion of an absence of a true energy policy, one only has to look at the 11th hour, 59th minute, 30th second passage of a one year extension of the 1603 Renewable Energy Tax Grant program by the Senate on December 17th.

Considering the Grant Program was set to expire on December 31, this rush to judgment is just another in the long laundry list of renewable energy programs that are quasi-crystalline. This knee jerk approach inhibits strategic planning and industry growth. Regardless, of whether an incentive program is the right thing to do, it must be understood that the grant program was a main driver for the strong growth of U.S. renewable energy in 2010. It is fair to say that passage would not have occurred without the political necessity to vote on the $858 billion Middle Class Tax Cut Act of 2010.

Political suicide or not, proponents of renewable energy and those that desire the U.S. to achieve energy security, economic viability and a cleaner environment must stand together and cheer for this late night but insufficient miracle. 

To say this legislation is part of our strategic energy plan towards sustainability is Poppycock.

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