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April 20, 2006

We've Moved! Cascadia Scorecard Weblog is now the Daily Score

Dailyscoreicon55x40_5Dear readers: We've moved! And changed our name! And gotten a facelift and upgrade!

Short story: Go to the Daily Score to get started on the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog's new home.

Longer story: Big news from Northwest Environment Watch. First, we're not Northwest Environment Watch anymore. We're Sightline Institute. Get the full scoop on the name change here, and rest assured that we've only changed our name--not our mission.

Second, we're also debuting a schmancy new website that we intend to be a phenomenal resource to exactly the kind of outspoken, active Cascadians that have been frequenting this blog (ie, you).

This includes a new home for the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog, and a new name: The Daily Score.

Same authors, same type of content, but--we hope--much more usable and searchable. (All 1100-plus posts from this blog are archived on the Daily Score, and the whole site is powered by a search engine on steroids--really.)

Two important notes about commenting:

1. Commenting now requires that you register with our site, a very quick process.

2. If you've been receiving any email updates from Northwest Environment Watch, you are already pre-registered with sightline.org. Go here to get your password.

3. Sorry, but we weren't able to transfer over any of the comments from this blog so we encourage you all to repopulate the Daily Score with your two cents.

Please continue to read the Daily Score, post your comments, and let us know what you love and hate about sightline.org and the Daily Score! (You can email elisa@sightline.org or ask_us@sightline.org.)

Thanks for sticking with us for the past two years!

- The staff at Sightline.

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 19, 2006

Rush Hour, By the Numbers

Sorry to be so Seattle-centric...but this post about Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct got me thinking. If the Viaduct is closed--whether for construction of a tunnel or a new aerial highway, or to make way for green space and a surface street--what happens to rush hour?  Does traffic in downtown Seattle get hopelessly snarled, and stay that way for at least 3 years?  Or do city transportation have some reasonable options for keeping people moving through the downtown core, even without a Viaduct?

Traffic studies show that the Viaduct carries about 105,000 daily trips. But most of those trips are at off-peak times when the surface streets have plenty of extra capacity. Sure, a trip along the Viaduct-less corridor would take a little longer than it does now; but the steet grid could easily handle the load.

But at rush hour -- particularly the afternoon -- there's precious little extra capacity on the city streets. So the thorniest problem that traffic planners will have to face will be accomodating rush hour trips on the street grid and I-5, during the busiest part of the day.

So, how many trips is that, exactly? And what are the options for dealing with the added load?

Earlier this week, the helpful and responsive folks at the Seattle Department of Transportation sent me some data that may help shed some light. As far as I can tell, it boils down to this: without the Viaduct, transportation planners will have to figure out how to accomodate the equivalent of 11,000 rush-hour car trips through the busiest part of downtown. Can they do it?

First, the data. (Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you're not a traffic geek.) Each year, the city collects data on traffic flows on the major arterials around Seattle, including the Viaduct and its on- and off-ramps. The data include figures for average weekday traffic, plus the traffic volume during the one-hour morning and afternoon peaks. Based on those figures, it seems like there are about 12,000 total vehicle trips on the Viaduct during busiest one-hour afternoon rush hour peak.

Now, without a Viaduct, some of those peak-hour trips will take quite a bit longer -- so people will shift their trips to other times of day, other modes, or forego them altogether. Based on published estimates of how much an increase in travel time decreases travel demand, it looks like demand for car trips may drop from 12,000 trips to 10,000 during the afternoon peak hour.

But some of those trips already begin or end in the Pioneer Square-to-Belltown corridor. A car that currently gets on at the Belltown northbound exit may have travelled through Belltown or downtown. So the peak number of cars added to surface streets after the Viaduct is closed will be somewhat less than 10,000.

To get a finer-grained look at where the traffic problems might be most severe, you can break down the trips on the former viaduct corridor into zones--Belltown, Downtown Core, Pioneer Square/Stadium, etc.--and look at the actual increase in travel demand in each zone. To me, it seems that the real pinch occurs in the Downtown Core--roughly, from Yesler in the south through Stewart in the north, and Alaskan Way on the west through Boren on the east. That area is already pretty packed during rush hour. With no Viaduct, peak-hour travel demand will increase by somewhere between 6,100 and 7,200 trips. (Note, this is a somewhat conservative estimate -- I'm assuming that some former Viaduct trips will "disappear"--i.e., move to other times or destinations--because they'll take too long; but I'm not assuming the same for trips already on the surface streets.)

So that's the one-hour peak. Over the course of a rush hour that lasts at least an hour and a half, that means that transportation officials will have to worry about accomodating the demand for some 11,000 addtional trips in the busiest part of downtown, during the busiest part of the day.

So, 11,000 extra trips: is that a lot or a little? It's a lot less than 105,000. But in my mind, it's still a lot of trips. The existing street grid may be able to hold a few more cars than it currently does. Some tweaks to traffic enforcement ("don't block the box"), elimination of some street parking during rush hour, and so forth may increase throughput a bit more. Still, even with those improvements, the demand for 11,000 extra trips could really jam up the afternoon rush hour. Even if people eventually adjust to the congestion -- by changing schedules or jobs, or switching to transit -- the early months could be brutal.

But if you add in transit improvements, accomodating 11,000 downtown trips seems much more achievable. The bus system already carries 31,000 people out of downtown during the afternoon peak. So getting 11,000 people to shift from driving alone to the bus would boost rush-hour transit ridership by a little more than a third -- tough, maybe, but not inconceivable.

And in theory, at least, there's ample capacity to handle that many trips in the bus tunnel, which is now closed for service. Once the tunnel reopens, it will be able to handle about 9,000 rush hour trips that right now are travelling on Third Ave. And when light rail starts running through the tunnel, its capacity could grow by a third or more. (To my surprise, it seems that the tunnel may have been underutilized; one estimate, a few years old now, is that the tunnel could carry 18,000 trips per hour (scroll down a bit to find the claim), with everyone seated, in buses alone. If that's really possible, then the tunnel alone would be meet the post-Viaduct demand.)

And then there's Third Ave., which is currently closed to cars during rush hour. If Third reverts to being predominantly a car corridor, it'll handle at most 2,000 vehicle trips during rush hour. But if it's kept closed to cars, and is used to handle an extended bus schedule, it can handle at least three times as many passengers.

So, there are three options -- (1) surface street and traffic enforcement tweaks, (2) adding light rail to the bus tunnel, and (3) keeping Third Ave. as a bus-only street even after the bus tunnel opens -- that could accomodate most, if not all, of the added demand for rush hour trips. If those options are phased in, as the Viaduct is phased out of service, it could be that many folks wouldn't notice much of a change to their afternoon commutes.

Yes, it would be tough to get people out of their cars onto transit. But if city officials have their way -- and the Viaduct is closed for reconstruction -- they won't have much choice but to try. There really aren't many other options.

And, as I've said before -- if a combination of transit and street improvements can keep downtown traffic moving, or at least bearable, for a mimimum of three years, why not see if they'll work as a permanent solution? Why spend billions of dollars to fix a problem that the city's already solved?

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Sims Gets On The Bus

Bus_1Is it a miracle? Can it really be so? Did I just read about a transportation plan that's actually useful and affordable? That can happen soon but also has long-term benefits?

I'm stunned by King County Exec Ron Sims' proposal to increase the sales tax to fund better bus service. For an additional 1/10th of a penny per dollar, Sims believes the county can drastically improve bus service--increasing the frequency and speed of routes and adding capacity to boot. (The Seattle Times reports; the P-I editorializes in favor.)

I have no idea what prompted Sims' outburst of sanity. These days, Puget Sound residents are accustomed to pony up for outlandish schemes of miracle monorails, glammed-out streetcars, multi-billion dollar tunnels, and vast highway expansion measures. (Not to mention problem-plagued light rail, the one transit option that's almost a reality.) Buses, on the other hand, are not especially sexy and they don't come with big-ticket political bragging rights. They're just staid, effective, flexible, and affordable. And--oh yes--they're already working so well that they're over-subscribed, at least in the city.

So on the upside, Sims' bus boosting proposal will improve mobility in the near future. On the downside, it doesn't promise flying saucers or citizen jet-packs, and it doesn't come with a flock of crazy-eyed proponents. (I do have a non-humorous quibble; but more on that later...)

Improving bus service is critical to the continued health of Seattle and the rest of King County too because it makes density work. As the region's density increases it should be able to leverage ever more viable transit--with more people in a neighborhood, it makes sense to run more buses, more often.

This morning as I was shuffling onto the 28 Express--a double-length bus crammed so full that we were standing in the aisles the entire length of the coach and crowding up near the driver--I wondered for the billionth time when Metro would start running twice as many buses. I also wondered why I wasn't on my bicycle. And I wondered whether I should drive more often. I'll bet my not-especially-dense Ballard neighborhood could fill double the buses, especially as more frequent departures tapped latent demand. And as nearly every week reveals new townhouses going up in formerly low-density lots, and condos rising along busy corridors, I wonder if we couldn't fill triple the buses.

So I'm all for Sims' bus proposal. All for it. I just hope that it doesn't get swamped by the headline-grabbers like the Alaska Way Viaduct tunnel, the regional transportation improvement ticket that voters will see this autumn, and all the other kooky multi-billion dollar career-makers. I'm hoping that local leaders--and local voters--remember that bus service works and it's a bargain.

Now a quibble. Why sales taxes? Most King County residents are already paying 8.8 percent and sales taxes are regressive, falling hardest on those who can least afford them. That's a problem, I think, in a county that's struggling with affordability issues. (Admittedly, some of that regressivity is mitigated because the higher taxes pay for bus service, which is especially important to lower income folks.) Wouldn't a better way to fund buses be something ingenious like a fee or tax based on the value of cars. Something more or less exactly like the monorail fee? *

* Yes, I know that such a tax/fee would require enabling legislation from Olympia. Enable it already. It has a host of benefits: it's progressive (because owners of more expensive cars pay more), it's nicely symmetrical (because it provides an incentive to switch from car to transit), and it's deductible from federal income taxes. It's also potentially localizable, meaning that your car tab renewal fee could pay for transit in your neighborhood. If West Seattle gets drastically better bus service, then West Seattle car owners could pay the bill. But if you live in Duvall and don't see many buses anyway, your fee could be proportionally lower. In any case, it would probably be far, far cheaper than the current monorail fee that's just about to expire.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

April 17, 2006

Dead Man Walking


(Editor's note: See two other posts in series, "Carless in Seattle," and "A Mile From Home.")

Transit and walking are time consuming. Most people are just too busy. That’s obvious, right?

Well, as my family begins the ninth week of its experiment in car-less living, I’m finding a few flaws in that logic. Here are two.

1. Time spent on transit is different from time spent driving. People vary, of course, but for me, transit time is a pure gain over driving. I don’t enjoy driving. I’d rather read than listen to music or talk radio. And I can read without queasiness on all forms of transit. For me, then, car time is a waste of life, but transit time is living, and I’ll happily choose a 30 minute transit trip over a 15 minute car trip. For me, driving is time consuming.

2. Just so, walking doesn’t consume time, for different reasons. In fact, walking creates time. For one thing, if you walk for transportation, you don’t have to go to the gym as often.

More profoundly, walking gives you time you wouldn’t otherwise have at all. Walking makes you live longer, as Clark posted here. The largest ever study of the subject found that walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week, adds 1.3-1.5 years to your life, on average. (More vigorous exercise adds even more.) On reasonable assumptions (detailed below the fold), this relationship means that for every minute you spend walking, you get three back.

Time spent walking, then, is utterly free. It’s time you would have spent dead.

Nowadays, when I’m walking, I get a little pleasure in the thought that I’m cheating death, that every minute I spend afoot is an extra moment of life.

Boring, wonky, calculation notes:

My assumptions—which I’d appreciate some astute blog reader checking against the original journal article that reports the study on which Clark posted—are that you have to walk 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for thirty years to get the 1.3-1.5 year lifespan bonus. I made up the 30 year figure (too busy to read the journal (wink)).

Then I calculate 30 minutes x 5 (days) x 52 (weeks) = 7,800 minutes of exercise per year x (guess of) 30 years = 234,000 minutes of walking, repaid with 1.4 years or 736,000 minutes of added life. That’s about three minutes extra for every minute you walk.

Note that even if have to walk five days a week from birth to age 90, you’re still getting every single walking minute back, though you wouldn't get three.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

April 14, 2006

Toxic liability


With the introduction of flat screens and HDTV, Americans are expected to toss over half a billion analog TV sets and computer monitors--containing thousands of tons of lead and other persistent toxins--in just the next three years.

This fact, combined with the momentum of e-waste legislation at the state level, means a new (big fat) liability has reared its ugly head on electronics companies' balance sheets.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged on the recent passage of e-waste legislation in Washington State. This week’s edition of Business Week covered the issue too, mostly by patting Hewlett-Packard Co. on the back for being an industry leader on the issue (HP was involved in helping draft and pass the Washington legislation). HP believes a proactive approach to e-waste will translate to bigger profits and a wider range of product offerings. Love all that.

The article goes on to expose those companies and sectors that are dragging their feet –notably the TV sector (and, oddly, Apple Computer, counter to their progressive image). Here’s the passage that struck me most:

“But manufacturers have many concerns, including the fact that take-back laws such as Maine's allocate costs based on the weight of the junk consumers return. Consider the implications for big picture tubes: A company like LG Electronics, which owns the Zenith brand, could end up being responsible for heaps of old Zenith TVs, even though LG's market share is relatively small. And IBM, which has abandoned the PC market, might still be forced to recycle millions of machines bearing its logo. "They're really discriminating against legacy manufacturers," says coalition spokesman David A. Thompson, director of Panasonic Corp.'s Corporate Environmental Dept. "New market entrants have no waste stream. They're getting a free ride in Maine and Washington."“ (emphasis added by me)

How much do you want to bet that when LG bought Zenith (or whatever company owned Zenith at the time), there was no line on Zenith’s balance sheet that said:

Long-term liability: toxics installed in millions of homes; cost unknown and potentially enormous.”

And how much do you want to bet that the next time LG--or any other growth-by-acquisition minded electronics company--goes on a buying spree that it’ll be looking to put a number on that liability? If it doesn’t, then someone ought to be fired. All of the sudden what looks like a great deal could be a complete lemon.

And how does a would-be acquisitionee lemon-proof its balance sheet? Put safety first by getting rid of toxics in its products, and quick.

And how does a savvy investor in the high-tech market reduce risk in their portfolio (while likely also increasing returns)? Dump the stock of companies that aren’t taking the toxic liability issue seriously.

My guess is that HP saw this way in advance, and they’re spinning what could have been a huge liability into a market advantage. Well good for them. It’s a start.

This is part of why I love the market--it’s incredibly dynamic and responsive. And we as a society have both the ability, and the responsibility, to make it fair--to make it work for us, and not against us.

Last observation: one flaw in using component weight as the factor in allocating costs--if you’re a company producing an electronic with fewer toxics in it, you’re penalized the same as a competitor with similar product that’s highly toxic. Hopefully Washington can still design its program in a way that measures what matters. That is, it should allocate costs based, at least in part, on the actual toxic burden, and not just the overall weight of the components. (Anyone know any more about this?)

(And incidentally, I find it ironic that the legacy manufacturers are saying that the new entrants are getting a “free ride”--isn’t that what the legacy manufacturers have been getting for the past 50+ years?)

Thanks to EdP for alerting me to the article.

Posted by Christine Hanna | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 13, 2006

Power Roundup

There have been a couple of interesting energy stories in the news for the last few days.  First, from BC comes this story, about what happened when the provincial electric utility asked for proposals to ramp up generating capacity in the province:

Green power projects, including small hydro and wind facilities, comprise the overwhelming majority of private-sector bids submitted to BC Hydro in an ambitious call for new sources of electricity for British Columbia...more than twice the amount Hydro was expecting when it issued an open call for tenders last December, and equivalent to about 10 per cent of B.C.'s existing electricity supply.

Now, obviously, not all of that capacity will be built, at least not at first; but it's still a promising development that so many green-power proposals were tendered. The bigger news, perhaps, was that not a single new natural gas power plant was proposed.  Not one.  Apparently, the high and fluctuating price of natural gas is making it harder for such plants to pencil out.  What a change from a few years ago, when, in the wake of the 2001 power crisis -- and despite all the press attention that new wind farms got -- the Pacific NW added 17 times as much generating capacity from natural gas as from wind power.

And then (hat tip to Matt Leber) comes this news:  the Seattle Steam company, which generates heat for a number of the buildlings in the downtown core, is planning to switch from natural gas burners to wood. At some level this is troubling; burning wood for energy didn't do the forests of New England any good.  But Denmark has had good success with heat & power plants that run from biomass; so perhaps this isn't something to worry about yet.  To add to the good news, Seattle Steam is considering adding combined heat-power facility to its other downtown plant. They're massively efficient, since the residual heat that's left over after the electricity is generated is used warm local buildings.  If a combined heat-power plant designed right, less than 10 percent of the energy is wasted, compared with 40-65 percent for conventional plants.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Brazilian Whacks

It's interesting to see what Jaime Lerner -- the legendary mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, who created a world-class bus rapid transit system on a shoestring budget -- had to say about Seattle transportation, in a question-and-answer session with the Seattle P-I:

Is there a way to create dedicated bus lanes in a cramped city like Seattle?

"There are many ways, many corridors where you can have a really good system. ... Sometimes you think, 'Aaah we don't have enough space.' ... There's always a good solution."

How long does it typically take to set up a bus rapid transit system?

"You can build in two years a good system. It's not difficult, because it has not too much public works. It's very simple.

I tend to agree: bus rapid transit is far more viable than most people think.  It's cheaper, faster to deploy, and more flexible than rail.  Now that Seattle's monorail has been - uh - derailed, it's a solution that's worth considering for the corridor that the monorail was designed to serve.

And then there's this:

Some people say that if the viaduct were replaced with nothing but a surface road, heavy traffic along the waterfront would ruin it. Do you agree?

"If you provide good alternatives for public transport, you won't have traffic problems. ... Can you imagine how much better the city could become with 30 percent less of the cars running in the street? It's very easy. The main issue is having good public transport and after, if it's needed, the wall to protect the waterfront -- I don't have the answer to that. But definitely it's not the viaduct."

Seems as if the P-I editorial board may be inching towards the same conclusion.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Mossback's Catch-22

Another week, another anti-city screed from the Seattle Weekly's Knute Berger. There's lots to pick apart in this week's column by "Mossback," but I'll restrain myself.

According to Berger, increasing density won't address sprawl on the urban fringe because:

Big growth in downtown Seattle won't be a sponge for regional growth. In fact, it will likely drive additional growth in the region—just look at the San Francisco Bay Area, which has sprawled endlessly despite San Francisco's higher densities and incomes. A Seattle boom will generate more sprawl and more density, in part because we don't have the strict growth controls in place to truly limit it.

Berger's argument is a lovely compliment to sprawl industry flaks whose mantra is: we can't have growth controls because there's nowhere to build in the cities. But Berger doesn't want density because the growth controls aren't strong enough. No density without growth controls; no growth controls with density. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle.

The obvious solution that Berger overlooks is that increasing density can indeed help corral sprawl. Can density solve the problem all by itself? Of course not. Does that mean density is worthless for controlling sprawl? Again, of course not. Growth boundaries on the urban fringe are important too; and so is smart planning. (That is, density is a necessary condition of growth management, but it's not a sufficient one.)

Definitive proof that density reduces sprawl is hard to come by, but I can get close.

Check out this report, using Census data to track growth in 14 US cities during the 1990s. The cities that do best at controlling sprawl are also the ones boosting their density. Take Portland, Oregon. If Portland had grown like a typical city in the study--that is, if newcomers to Portland had spread out in the typical low-density fashion--the Rose City would have swallowed an additional 150 square miles of rural land. How did Portland spare so many farms and forests? A paired combination of density and growth boundaries. Seattle--with weaker growth controls during the period and anti-density Bergers in the mix--did worse than Portland, but not nearly so badly as places like Charlotte or Nashville.

Berger's argument is, in any case, weirdly perverse. He implies that density will actually speed growth into the Seattle region because--why?--people find density appealing? If people like density enough to move here, I suppose one strategy to prevent growth would be to outlaw density. Or we could try a massive urban uglification campaign, perhaps driving away current residents to boot. Even easier, we could just get rid of cops and fire departments and see how the region grows then. That'll show 'em. 

Truth is, I actually agree with Berger sometimes. I just wish he would stick to making claims he can support instead of getting carried away (see here and here, for instance). He's right to caution against damaging Seattle's historic and architectural legacy. And he's right to remind us, in a general way, to preserve the best of the old while we build for the future. But ranting about paying for parking (in urban neighborhoods, fer gosh sakes!) or "privatizing" sunlight by permitting skyscrapers (no, I'm not making that up) sounds less like civic smarts and more like incoherent ranting.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Toxic (Press) Releases

Good news about pollution?  The US EPA says so.  This Washington Post story makes it seem like the US made great strides in reducing toxic emissions in 2004.

The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 4 percent from 2003 to 2004...The agency said releases of dioxin and dioxin compounds fell 58 percent; mercury and mercury compounds were cut 16 percent; and PCBs went down 92 percent. [Emphasis added.]

DioxinusNow, the fall in dioxins in particular seemed like pretty big news.  But it also struck me as a bit suspicious.  So I looked into the numbers a bit. 

The EPA's Toxics Release Inventory Explorer is pretty simple to use, so it didn't take long to zero in on why, exactly, dioxin emissions fell so much. The basic scoop -- it's not so much that dioxin emissions fell in 2004, as that they spiked in 2003.  The nation's dioxin emissions (at least, those captured by the TRI) in 2004 were comparable to levels from 2000 through 2002.  The 58 percent "decline" was just relative to 2003, which was abnormally high.

Then the question becomes -- what happened in 2003?  Apparently, there was a single wood-preserving facility in Lousiana that was responsible for the 2003 spike.  (I don't know for sure, but I'd guess they landfilled a bunch of contaminated waste.)

So the national "good news" story about dioxins in 2004--a 58 percent decline in releases--turns out to be, if anything, a bad news story about 2003. Or, more properly, it's an artifact of the way the data are reported:  the dioxin "released" in 2003 was likely just transferred from one place to another, in a way that triggered EPA's reporting requirements.

The thing is, it took just a few minutes to figure out that the EPA's press release was, at least in part, full of hot air.  Obviously, reporters are under tremendous pressure to churn out stories.  But I do wish that basic fact-checking was a higher priority for them.  Bum facts passed off as "good news" should be recognized for what they are:  a form of toxic information pollution.

Closer to home, the news seems a little bit better for dioxin trends.  In Washington, Oregon, and Idaho combined, releases to air, water, and land have fallen from 163 grams in 2000 to 46 grams in 2004.  "Off-site disposal" -- transfers for storage or treatment -- has climbed a bit, though.  On net, 2004's total dioxin releases were a bit higher than 2002 and 2003, but have fallen by about a quarter since 2000.  And the three states combined now account for about 2 tenths of one percent of national dioxin emissions, as measured by TRI data.

That said, there are some facilities that escape TRI reporting requirements, and much of the dioxin releases from the region are now from activities such as backyard trash burning.  But the numbers, for the northwest at least, do seem modestly promising.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 11, 2006

Driving With Alcohol

Alcohol can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences, but who knew it could lead to energy independence? Apparently, the Brazilians did. Processing sugar cane into ethanol is expected to help Brazil meet its rising energy demands in a big way. According to an article in the New York Times, officials expect that within a year the country will become fully energy self-sufficient thanks largely to putting sugar in gas tanks.

Brazil's story is encouraging, but it's hard to know precisely what conclusions to draw for North Americans.

We can't buy Brazil's success by importing cane-based ethanol because our current policy regime all but disallows it. The US (and Europe too) slaps stiff duties on sugar imports--to the tune of 54 cents a gallon on cane-based ethanol imports, enough to render Brazilian ethanol at a competitive disadvantage.

We can't copy Brazil's success because our colder latitudes don't support sugar cane. Even Florida is considered only marginally productive for sugar cane and it comes at a horrific cost to ecological treasures like the Everglades. Hawaii produces sugar too, but its land base is far too small to meet American demand.

We can't imitate Brazil's success with northern crops like corn because producing corn-based ethanol is far too energy intensive.

Under the best conditions, corn ethanol yields only about 1.3 times as much energy as is required to produce it. Brazilian sugar cane, on the other hand, can yield 8 times as much energy; and producers think that efficiency can go to 10 times.

And even if we did somehow have access to Brazil's ethanol, our vehicle fleet couldn't take full advantage of it. But Brazil's can: more than 70 percent of cars sold in Brazil are "flex fuel" allowing drivers to alternate between ethanol and petroleum as price (or conscience) directs. Even better for Brazilian drivers, the flex fuel engines don't cost any more than conventional motors.

Sugar cane production is proving to be a boon to Brazil's economy, not to mention to its ecological footprint. (Nowadays, even the cane waste products are getting recycled back into various manufacturing processes.) But cane is not a free ride either: it's often grown on former pasture land and many fear that this will push livestock owners to clear more Amazon rainforest to make room. And cane growers are now pushing for genetically modified versions that will boost energy output and also resist disease and droughts. But GMO sugar cane may pose other unforeseen ecological problems down the road.

For me, the lesson from Brazil is two-fold. First, solving our biggest environmental problems (e.g. fossil fuel addiction and climate change) often forces us into other environmental compromises like deforestation and genetic crop modification. It's frustrating, of course, but real-world problems like energy consumption rarely offer no-downside solutions.

Second, there is not going to be any one-size-fits-all solution to the world's energy demands. Brazil can use sugar cane, but North Americans will have to figure out something else--something homegrown if independence is important. Conservation surely must be part of our effort to ratchet down reliance on oil, but we also must find local technologies and local resources for our energy needs.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack