The New York Times has two articles today discussing the problems with essential elements of the US infrastructure.
The first is a front page discussion of the electricity grid and how the lack of capacity for electricity transmission is causing problems for renewable energy development. There are plenty of places where wind energy in particular could be effectively and profitably generated–they just happen to be in places where not a lot of people live. The transmission grid structure has essentially remained stagnant for the past two decades and sites with promise for wind generation are not well-served.
One problem that is highlighted in the article is the fact that states have tremendous regulatory power over grid siting, construction, and maintenance as well as over utility prices. Without federal incentives, the article suggests, states with cheap sources of electricity production may be unenthusiastic about price hikes that might accomopany exporting energy to distant states.
The second article discusses the emergent trend in cities to sell off infrastructure to investment banks in exchange for short-term capital infusion. Here in Chicago, Mayor Daley has deployed this strategy, selling off the Chicago Skyway and proposing to sell Midway Airport.
In a similar situation which faces the electricity infrastructure, we are seeing a crisis in the maintenance and expansion of essential transportation amenities in cities and metropolitan regions. As in the case with the electricity grid, this largely stems from the absence of a concerted federal policy to address the problem.
For cities, their only choice seems to look to private capital for financing. While privatizing a highway or airport might temporarily free up municipal budgets for other things, there are numerous problems involved with relying on privatization as a strategy for insuring a functioning transportation network. Elements that may not be profitable for private capital–but which are essential for a functioning network–are likely to be ignored. Additionally, issues of equity are apparent as privatization is also generally accompanied by higher user fees for roads, airports, and transit.
What is missing in both transportation and energy policy is a logical, coordinated, federal policy.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is furthering his ambitions for making New York a more sustainable city by calling for the city to more aggressively pursue local, renewable energy production.
In a speech in Las Vegas earlier this week, he expressed a desire to make the city sustainable in its energy production by pushing wind and tidal turbines and solar power projects. Although, he has backpedaled a bit on his proposal, the idea that you can have smaller-scale energy production by deploying wind turbines on skyscrapers and bridges and solar panels on thousands of rooftops throughout a city is an innovative approach.
Many of the current renewable proposals use the same large-scale industrial mode of thinking that characterizes fossil fuel production: big solar and wind farms in thinly populated western states. These proposals face numerous challenges, the least of which is developing the transmission line capacity needed to move the electricity to urban consumers.
A decentralized, urban approach, however, could be less intrusive and require less massive bits of infrastructure. Having thousands of buildings generating a percentage of their electricity on-site in a city could have tremendous impact in reducing carbon emissions and lowering energy prices.
Cities can also develop larger projects as well. The New York Times local politics blog has an intriguing proposal for turning the recently closed Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island into a wind farm.
Today’s Washington Post has an article on housing prices and development patterns in the region’s Virginia suburbs. Apparently housing prices have fallen most dramatically in exurban areas while sites closer to DC and near transit stops have maintained their value. Exurban communities have little appeal when you can only get around by automobile.
The result has been higher-density development strategies undertaken in suburban municipalities often centered around transit expansion. The article addresses the fact that sprawling development is–in part–a result of an imbalance in the investment of transportation dollars.
With high petrol prices here to stay, the question becomes: when will political leaders adequately address this historical imbalance?
As the US Presidential campaign heats up, candidates are starting to develop more specific proposals on pertinent issues. Yesterday, Barack Obama released his New Energy for America plan.
Here are the highlights as I see them:
- Cap and Trade: He advocates for reducing US greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels. This is an ambitious target and one that exceeds the G-8 agreement last month for a 50% reduction. He also wants to auction 100% of the emissions credits and use the money for research into renewables as well as to provide rebates for consumers to shift to low-carbon technologies.
- Increase fuel efficiency in vehicles by 4% per year and put 1 million plug-in electric vehicles on the roads by 2015. GHG emissions stemming from the transportation sector are significant and it is a good idea to reduce them. However, a shift to electric cars could have the opposite effect since in many areas of the country coal is the major source of electricity. More electric cars would place greater demands on fossil fuel electricity generation. The other problem with these fuel efficiency schemes relates to the current financing structure of higway construction and maintenance. The federal highway trust fund raises revenue by a tax on fuel. With higher efficiency vehicles, there is less revenue raised. Additionally, the costs of driving are lower with greater efficiency which could lead to greater use. Greater use plus lower revenues is not necessarily sustainable. Obama offers little disucssion in how his energy plan would effect this revenue stream.
- He does end the plan with an acknowledgement of the need to “build more livable and sustainable communities.” This is light on specifics, but he claims to be “committed to reforming the federal transportation funding and leveling employer incentives for driving and public transit.” A coherent urban development and transporation strategy would be significant in reducing a dependence on fossil fuels. Obama doesn’t offer such a strategy here, but it is a positive step that he at least acknowledges the connection on at least a superficial level.
Like most politicians, Obama is a bit too bullish on bio-fuels, failing to address the environmentally problematic aspects of their production, the massive subsidies that go this sector through the Farm bill, and the tariffs on imports that artificially rasie their prices.
On the whole his plan is decent–clearly a dramatic break with Bush’s harmful actions and more coherent than McCain’s shifting positions on the topic.