Category Archives: Energy

We are full of garbage

We’ve all seen the copious quantities of garbage cans that line our streets and trash closets on collection day and it seems almost impossible that anyone could run out of garbage but it’s happened to Sweden. The country has actually run out of trash.

Cities in Sweden burn garbage for the energy to power their buildings and plants; nearly half of the structures in Oslo are powered by the burning of garbage. Sweden’s use of garbage for fuel, coupled with their extensive and popular recycling programs leaves only 4 percent of their solid waste going to landfills. What percent of household trash from the United States ends up in a landfill, you ask? An estimated 50 percent. In fact, one garbage burning plant owner in Oslo has expressed interest in purchasing American garbage. They’re already paying neighboring countries for their trash.

Available data for landfill use in the United States is a little bit old, but nevertheless startling. In 2003, Americans landfilled 2.46lbs of garbage…per person….per day. We have 3,091 active landfills across the states and while we are in no danger of running out of fill, we should consider that we may run out of land.

In the Lehigh Valley, there has been some discussion about the necessary expansion of the IESI Bethlehem landfill that operates off of Applebutter Road in Lower Saucon Township. The expansion would require a rezoning of the nearby area to accommodate waste, but the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission voted against this redesignation.  So, where is the trash to go? The United States recycles 34.7 percent of its Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), burns 11.7 percent of it and discards 53.7 percent. With our population and rate of consumption, this leaves us with a lot of stuff packing our landfills while our municipalities are opposed to expanding landfills.

Should we start burning our trash for energy like Sweden? Try to recycle more? Or should we sell our trash?

What do you think is the SUSTAINABLE solution for the Lehigh Valley?

The Future of Cars

Owning and driving a car, once deemed a core aspect of any American’s life, is now on the decline in this country.

A recent New York Times article titled, “The End of Car Culture” examines how Americans are “buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses.” The hypothesis is that the country has passed its peak driving period and that different modes of transportation are now edging their way into the transportation market that had previously been inundated with personal cars. Even the percentage of individuals that have a drivers license in their teens, 20s and 30s has declined significantly since 1983.

The data that the article used was adjusted for population and found that the quantity of miles driven by Americans peaked in 2005 and has declined since. While some have speculated that the decline in cars purchased and miles driven was a cause of the recession, those declines actually began two to three years prior. There are also other theories to the cause of this trend.

“Different things are converging which suggest that we are witnessing a long-term cultural shift,” said Mimi Sheller, a sociology professor at Drexel University and director of its Mobilities Research and Policy Center. She cites various factors: the Internet makes telecommuting possible and allows people to feel more connected without driving to meet friends. The renewal of center cities has made the suburbs less appealing and has drawn empty nesters back in. Likewise the rise in cellphones and car-pooling apps has facilitated more flexible commuting arrangements, including the evolution of shared van services for getting to work.

Reduced use of personal vehicles has positive results for the environment and carbon emissions. Transportation is the second leading source of carbon emissions (power plants are first). New York’s bike sharing program is growing in popularity as tolls increase and funding that promotes car ownership decreases.

To further support the idea that this trend is more than economic, the age group of those most likely to purchase a car and to have a license is increasingly the elderly. The youth are expressing less interest in cars and more interest in living in communities where a car is unnecessary and the public transit is satisfactory.

The article mentions Bay Area Rapid Transit, a transportation system in San Francisco that optimizes bus routes by looking at frequency of use and land use in the area. Our very own LANta is in the process of studying Bus Rapid Transit for the Lehigh Valley. Their report is part of the Envision Lehigh Valley project and will be released soon. The trend across the country points to the need for multimodal transportation options and this is an important step by LANta. As our population increases in city centers, there is less need for a personal car but short bus routes and safe biking paths are still important transit developments. All of these options are environmentally promising and are sustainable alternatives to individuals relying solely on their personal car.

Corporations Now Reporting Sustainability

While sustainability is usually associated with nonprofit organizations and government planning, corporations have begun to take sustainability seriously and are reporting their progress to their shareholders.

These Corporate Sustainability Reports (or CSRs) are popping up on the websites of major companies like Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Coca Cola, Nike, GE, UPS and Nokia. These reports can include data on carbon disclosures, emissions, water usage and challenges in implementing sustainable growth policies.

CSRs should be transparent and authentic, as they are telling their customers and stakeholders what they are doing to help people, the planet and the economy. Data should be measured comparatively and the corporation should provide a baseline for the statistics that they provide. Sections can include balancing short and long term profitability, management of economic and environmental issues, risks and opportunities.

If you’d like to read some real reports, here is a list from Triple Pundit that ranks the top 10 sustainability reports from the past year. Does your company produce a sustainability report? Will it in the future? Hopefully at least one of these answers is yes!

Inch by Inch, Row by Row, Gonna Make This Community Garden Grow

Sustainable Cities Collective has an intriguing post by John Reinhardt about one possible consequence of rising gas prices. While some in the smart growth community have been writing about increased transit ridership as a result of high energy costs, Reinhardt asks whether those costs might “pique interest in community gardens.”

As food prices rise alongside gas prices, Reinhardt notes that some people may be inspired by the benefits of urban gardening (within the context of high energy costs):

  1. It saves money on food. Some of the gardeners in the Dollar Stretcher community estimate that they save up to $500 per year growing and preserving their own veggies — and eating much better produce at that!
  2. It saves money on gas. A walk to the balcony or backyard to harvest vegetables saves the gas money spent driving to the grocery store.
  3. It saves petroleum. By growing locally (and presumably organic), you’ll be eating vegetables that haven’t been produced and transported with large amounts of petroleum.  In this way, you’re indirectly reducing the demand for petrol and gas.

Urban community gardens have been rising in popularity over the past decade, as Reinhardt notes in his post. Here in the Lehigh Valley, a community garden initiative has been growing for several years.

SUN*LV, which was formed in 2009, “works with organizations and residents to help support existing community gardens and to assist in the creation of new community gardens in neighborhoods across the Lehigh Valley.” They offer a number of resources through their website, including training, a list of gardens in the Valley, and opportunities to support their efforts.

Community gardening is part of a larger local-food movement. Eating local is known to have many benefits — for the environment, for local economies, and for health. Locally grown produce can be sold and consumed quickly after being harvested, instead of being shipped hundreds of miles and left on shelves or in stockrooms for days. Therefore, there is less of a need to use artificial chemical preservatives. In addition, the elimination of those shipping periods means that, unlike with commercial farms, local produce is not harvested until it is fully grown and ripe, and at the peak of its nutritional potential.

Whether the current rise in gas prices will directly lead to an increase in urban gardening remains to be seen. However, community gardens offer a number of benefits — a rise in popularity of such gardens could be a good thing to come out of a bad situation.

“Drive til you qualify”

99% Invisible has an interesting segment up with Lisa Margonelli about the apparent lack of conscious design behind how sprawl, traffic engineering, and gasoline consumption interact. Although the audio portion is disappointingly short(and a bit difficult to follow with the ambient music in the background), the overall message is one that warrants consideration.

It’s interesting to think about the connection between mortgages helping to encourage sprawl(unconsciously, at least) because individuals would look further and further away from the city(see title) for low-interest loans and greater sq. footage, or that gas pumps are designed to look more like ATMs to make the experience of purchasing gas a bit more palatable. How cars are designed to be most efficient at 55mph, but most travel typically occurs in the 30s on local roads with constant stopping, or in the 70s. The amount of waste that goes into moving people is staggering to think about.

99% also makes note of a talk(included below) that Margonelli gave at the TEDxOilSpill forum this past June. A lot of it has to do with how to change U.S oil demand over time, why there’s such a need to, and the difficulty and safety hazards of controlling and cleaning up after an oil spill.

Margonelli makes note of an initiative featured on the New America Foundation’s website called STRONG (Secure Transportation Reducing Oil Needs Gradually), which deals with gradually raising the gas tax,incorporating externalities of oil (health costs, environmental degradation), and generally shifting demand away from individual gasoline consumption and towards more sustainable transit choices.

Green Drinks Tomorrow: Tom Kerr on Energy-Efficiency Opportunities in Allentown

The popular Green Drinks Lehigh Valley speaker series continues tomorrow at Allentown Brew Works. This month’s speaker is Tom Kerr from Allentown’s Office of Sustainability, discussing how Allentown residents, nonprofits and businesses can benefit from energy-efficiency programs and projects made possible by the federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Tom will also discuss Allentown’s plans to create a sustainability office for the city.

You can get full details from the Green Drinks Lehigh Valley webpage. This free event is open to the public and begins at 5:30pm.

ARC decision deferred

The results are in from the working group that was assembled in response to Governor Christie’s initial decision to scrap the ARC Tunnel project — and the answer is “wait”, writes Karen Rouse of NorthJersey.com.

Governor Christie has apparently decided to take the weekend to think about which way to go with the ARC tunnel. Admittedly, a weekend isn’t exactly a long time, especially in light how long the ARC will take to complete, but it still adds to the suspense. Gov. Christie taking the weekend to think over the project does suggest he might not have made up his mind already, though the question of whether or not he has been purposefully inflating the cost overruns for the ARC doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Regardless, however, spending on public transit is still a smart bet, even (or maybe especially) in tough economic times. For instance, the American Public Transit Association has researched the impact of spending on transit and found over and over again that, for each billion spent roughly 36,000 jobs are made for a year. These jobs grow out of spending construct the infrastructure as well as operating it, and job growth may even occur in sectors that aren’t directly benefitting from the government spending.

New Environmental Education Center Coming to Lehigh Valley

Saucon Valley School District will soon be home to a new environmental education center. Well, not soon-soon, but plans are underway by the Saucon Valley Foundation for Education Innovation. The Express Times reports:

The nonprofit foundation, organized by parents, community and business leaders, plans to hire the LandConcepts Group to create a $8,950 master plan for the center along the creek adjacent to Polk Valley Road.

Initial lower-cost ideas being floated for the site include student-built birdhouses, tree identification markers, a garden or a weather station with a rain gauge that could be used in the school.

Exciting project and a great new addition to the Lehigh Valley.

NIB Strikes Back

This past Colombus Day, President Obama broached the idea of an NIB (National Infrastructure Bank) again.

What’s interesting is that, in addition to the typical framing of the issue in terms of sustainability, green investment, and smart growth, the announcement came out first with an economic reasoning behind increasing infrastructure expenditures.

And these reports confirm what any American can already tell you: our infrastructure is woefully inefficient and it is outdated.  For years, we have deferred tough decisions, and today, our aging system of highways and byways, air routes and rail lines hinder our economic growth.  Today, the average American household is forced to spend more on transportation each year than food.  Our roads, clogged with traffic, cost us $80 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel.  Our airports, choked with passengers, cost nearly $10 billion a year in productivity losses from flight delays.  And in some cases, our crumbling infrastructure costs American lives.  It should not take another collapsing bridge or failing levee to shock us into action.

While part of this may be an attempt to frame government spending in a positive light prior to the midterm elections, this language may also symbolize a greater effort to establish an NIB. Obama then proceeded to remark that any NIB would be paid for and not increase the deficit.

Yonah Freemark of TransportPolitic isn’t so sure:

The problem is that despite all the hoopla over the President’s new transportation agenda, he has yet to promote a sustainable funding plan for the investments that he has claimed will “pay for themselves” somehow without requiring the increase of any taxes. It’s a fantasy.

There is no secret plan being developed by the Administration: It is clear that the first $50 billion, if approved, would come from general revenues and once again be used simply to shore up the transportation program to ensure that the states are able to continue their work on essential roads and transit projects. Mr. Obama’s appeal to the public about the importance of transportation is undoubtedly actually a plea to members of the House and Senate, who he wants to take the fall and propose tax increases to pay for the project.

The issue’s come up a few times before, and each time Freeman hasn’t been entirely clear on how it’s going to be funded.

The Brookings Institute is also a little murky on the matter, though they have their own suggestions:

 

  • One is looming conversation about the federal debt. The President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the deficit commission) and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force will both release their reports in the coming weeks. A gasoline tax increase that would partly fund deficit reduction (as it has in the past) and partly fund the transportation program may be part of those recommendations.
  • Another is the debate over the Bush tax cuts, which are slated to expire on December 31. That would be the opportunity to repeal the domestic manufacturing deduction for oil and gas production. Such a repeal may be enough to only fund parts of the president’s plan – say, $5 billion per year – but that could be used, for example, to capitalize the national infrastructure bank.
  • And then there’s the transportation legislation itself. The current law, known as SAFETEA-LU, was slated to expire on September 30, 2009. To avoid a shutdown of the program Congress has extended the law five times, most recently through to the end of this year. Few doubt that there will be a “clean” extension that merely continues the current program as is. But with stimulus dollars running out and 37 “governors elect” in cut cut cut mode, Congress can step up and use the extension as a way to address the anticipated shortfall.

So there are funding opportunities available, they may just have to be framed differently than simply funding a NIB. Infrastructure investments aren’t just building a rail line, they’re also a means of employing people and spurring industry into action. Upgrading existing infrastructure and constructing new systems would help employ one of the hardest hit sectors of the economy and be a start on the trillions of dollars that the American Society of Civil Engineers says are needed to bring U.S infrastructure up to par.

  • One is looming conversation about the federal debt. The President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the deficit commission) and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force will both release their reports in the coming weeks. A gasoline tax increase that would partly fund deficit reduction (as it has in the past) and partly fund the transportation program may be part of those recommendations.
  • Another is the debate over the Bush tax cuts, which are slated to expire on December 31. That would be the opportunity to repeal the domestic manufacturing deduction for oil and gas production. Such a repeal may be enough to only fund parts of the president’s plan – say, $5 billion per year – but that could be used, for example, to capitalize the national infrastructure bank.
  • And then there’s the transportation legislation itself. The current law, known as SAFETEA-LU, was slated to expire on September 30, 2009. To avoid a shutdown of the program Congress has extended the law five times, most recently through to the end of this year. Few doubt that there will be a “clean” extension that merely continues the current program as is. But with stimulus dollars running out and 37 “governors elect” in cut cut cut mode, Congress can step up and use the extension as a way to address the anticipated shortfall.

Is the Key to Our Energy Crisis in Silicon Valley?

Well, maybe not the ENTIRE key, but surely some solutions to our energy and transportation needs will come out of Silicon Valley in the next decade. Many entrepreneurs are flocking to the region seeking funding from venture capital companies. NPR reports:

“We think EVs [electric vehicles] offer so many advantages in terms of environment, economy and security that we thought we should put some of our investor dollars into those kinds of companies,” says Dan Reicher, the director of Google’s climate change and energy initiatives.

Google has EV charging docks on its sprawling campus in Mountain View, Calif.

“We’ve built a fleet of plug-in cars,” Reicher says. “These are Toyota Priuses and we converted them after market.”

Google has essentially turned the hybrid Prius into a plug-in so that employees can charge their cars at work. It’s this kind of garage-startup mentality that has given Silicon Valley its innovator reputation.

Sustainable transportation and energy solutions should bring an entirely new economy to the United States, one that will allow the nation to compete better in the global economy. Maybe we can bring some of this to the Lehigh Valley.

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