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March 23, 2006

Giant Power Sucking Sound

Here's one problem that should be relatively easy to fix:  appliances that use power even when they're not in use.  The Economist has a nice summary of the problem:

Strange though it seems, a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food. For while heating food requires more than 100 times as much power as running the clock, most microwave ovens stand idle—in “standby” mode—more than 99% of the time.

Apparently, somewhere between 5 and 13 percent of residential power is consumed by appliances that nobody is actually using.  Hmph.

Now, the most interesting thing here is that different brands and models of the same kinds of appliance use wildly different amounts of power in standby mode.  One compact disc player may draw 1 watt while idling; another might draw 30.  Manufacturers have little incentive to improve the situation on their own, since they don't pay the power bills; and while energy wonks are well aware of the problem, few consumers pay much attention.

The solution here -- dare I even say it -- seems to be government intervention.  In 2004, California passed a law that imposed limits on standby power consumption. It took effect in January, so that (according to the Economist) "it is now illegal in California to sell a television or DVD player that consumes more than three watts in standby mode." Seems like a pretty reasonable solution to me -- I'll be very interested to see if it works.

(Hat tip to Maarten.)

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March 22, 2006

Seattle's Growing Up

Tower Solid article in the Seattle Times today on the rising building height limits in downtown Seattle.

The article even includes a brief historical note on the 1989 voter-approved height cap following the construction of the super-tall and hideous Columbia Center Columbia Seafirst Center Bank of America Tower BankAmerica Tower Columbia Tower. Seattle's thinking on downtown density has changed quite a bit since then. Instead of constricting development, most are enthusiastic about new development in the city's core--development that is revivifying once-dormant neighborhoods.

Seattleites have change their minds partly because of the dawning realization that downtown density is good environmental policy. It's a superbly efficient use of land (among many other environmental benefits). Over the last two decades, residents watched sprawl devour the Cascade foothills and lowland farms and realized that the salvation for natural spaces was partly in the city.

The article does include once curious bit:

There's scant evidence, however, that the changes would curb sprawl over the next 20 years by pulling more people downtown. Under current or proposed zoning, city studies project about 10,000 new households downtown and 29,000 new jobs in that period. [Emphasis mine.]

That's a non-trivial number of households and jobs, but it's odd--at the least--that city growth projections are the same with or without the height increase.

What's going on here? Are the projections mistaken? Or is the height zoning change just a matter of aesthetics, not a substantive policy to increase downtown density?

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

March 20, 2006

Cascadian Cabinet Member

Idaho President Bush recently tapped Idaho's governor, Dirk Kempthorne, to head the US Department of the Interior, making Kempthorne the highest ranking US official of Cascadian extraction. (Kempthorne was raised in Washington, but he's made his 20 year political career in Idaho.) As secretary of the interior he'll oversee some of the most critical aspects of Cascadia's future: everything from energy security to wildlife management to funding for national parks and forests.

No comments from me (for now), but I though it worth pointing to a handful of the better newspaper articles on Kempthorne's appointment...

More Charm Than Substance, LA Times.

A Collaborative Conservative, Christian Science Monitor.

Bad, Eugene-Register Guard.

Not Bad, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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

March 17, 2006

Plan B at Walmart

Walmart today reversed course on Plan B. Starting Monday, it will begin offering Plan B in all its pharmacies nationwide, as the Associated Press reports.

That's great news, because Walmart controls a huge share of Cascadia's pharmacy market share.

Over the long term, this development may have a bigger impact on our place's future than anything else in the news today.

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March 16, 2006

Sometimes Extinction is Forever

DodoRemember that thing about the ivory-billed woodpecker -- alive in the swamps of Arkansas -- not extinct after all? Well, maybe not so much.

In a new article in the journal Science, renown bird expert David Allen Sibley says that the evidence is insufficient and that the famous video of the bird is actually the rather common pileated woodpecker. Sibley joins Kenn Kaufman and a number of other bird experts in his assessment. In the surprisingly fractious world of birders, I'm sure the debate is far from over, but I'm ready to conclude that the ivory-billed has gone the way of the dodo.

When I blogged about the rediscovery last spring, I quoted a NY Times article on the importance of bread-and-butter conservation. The author argued, "The reason for the astonishing re-emergence of a mysterious bird is as mundane as can be. It is habitat preservation, achieved by hard, tedious work, like lobbying, legislating and fund-raising."

That point is worth remembering. Habitat preservation is not usually the sexiest environmental work there is. There's no technological silver bullet that promises to save the day. And it's aligned against some of the most powerful forces of our times, like road-building and suburban sprawl. But when we don't do it -- when we don't put safety first in our land-use decisions -- we rob ourselves (and our children) of the natural beauty and diversity that we inherited.

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Standing Up for Plan B

In Washington, the PI editorial board stands up for Plan B.

"The Washington State Board of Pharmacy is considering a policy to outline if and when pharmacists could refuse to fill prescriptions due to their personal moral, religious or ethical objections. Here's our suggestion: never."

In Washington, DC, Washington's US Senator Patty Murray does too.

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March 15, 2006

Tides of March

Madrona_1Puget Sound restoration efforts got a big boost yesterday. The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Lands, and People for Puget Sound formed a new alliance with funding from the Russell Family Foundation. Here's how the Seattle P-I describes the coalition:

Their goal is to raise $80 million in public and private funds in the first three years of the project, during which time their focus will be on shoreline restoration work and establishing 10 new parks and protected natural areas around the Sound. They also will develop a decadelong plan expected to cost billions aimed at a recovery of the Sound on the magnitude of projects to save Chesapeake Bay and Florida's Everglades.

The ecological problems facing Puget Sound are troublesome and complex--see, for example, this, this, this, and this--but we're now seeing precisely the kind of serious-minded efforts that can turn things around. And in addition to this new coalition, Washington residents are already fortunate to have the state's Puget Sound Action Team and Shared Strategy for Puget Sound. It's encouraging to see conservation and restoration work that's broadly appealing and well-organized. With this kind of intelligent and careful stewardship, Puget Sound can be restored to a flourishing marine ecosystem--a reminder that the region's natural heritage can thrive alongside many more generations of northwesterners.

Check out more coverage in the Seattle Times and the Tacoma News-Tribune.

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March 14, 2006

Rails to Trails to Economic Development?

Editor's note: Guest contributor Hans Peter Meyer writes on community development issues from Courtenay, British Columbia.

I have a dream, and last year’s “official opening” of the One Spot Trail here in the Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley is part of its realization. The “developed” part of the trail is about 6 kilometres long. It’s a multi-use trail for walkers, cyclists, and horseback riding that parallels Condensory Road for part of its length, making a pleasant diversion through standing second- growth timber, then “ending” where the railway trestle used to cross the Tsolum River. Someday it’ll cross the river and head north.

I use quotation marks because the One-Spot Trail follows an existing railway right of way (RoW) that still stretches from the old log dump south of Courtenay, well into the Sayward Forest 120 or so kilometres north. Some stretches of the old Comox Logging RoW are still visible and in use as civic parkings, alley-ways, or urban walkways. Rural remnants are still walkable in some of the rural hamlets north and south of the city. But most of it is “lost,” buried in backyards or plowed into farmers’ fields, or hidden in the now twice logged-over lands that lie behind the settled strip of land on the east side of Vancouver Island.

There is a happy irony in naming this throughway the One-Spot Trail. The old One-Spot, a wood-burning locomotive, once pulled millions of dollars of timber out of this region. That was yesterday’s version of “rural economic development.” Today, the railway grade offers another type.

The irony deepens. The undeveloped part of the trail, as a relatively “protected” strip of land running through the heart of one of the world’s great forest ecosystems, is today--in places--one of the few places within walking distance of Courtenay where it’s possible to go for a long walk in a big Douglas fir forest.

We are slow on the uptake hereabouts. Maybe it’s living in the lap of so much natural wealth. It’s a commonplace, but three generations ago many people still believed that we’d never run out of first- growth forest. The wealth of timber seemed inexhaustible, and the wealth of work in the woods seemed unending. Now, relatively few people appreciate just how valuable our second-growth forests are becoming. Not in terms of timber, but as places where locals and tourists can get a sense of the former abundance of this place. It’s an aesthetic-spiritual experience, one that more and more people are valuing, as tourists, and as residents.

Living with so much natural wealth, it’s easy to take it for granted. Even to downplay what we have as “only second growth,” a pale shadow of the much vaunted “ancient forest.” For many around the world our wealth is plain to see: clean air and water, great swaths of unpaved and undeveloped lands, an amazingly resilient forest, a hospitable and temperate climate. Even our still relatively small settlements have some charm left to them (though our land use planning and development practices are an example of how little we regard the qualities of “charm” or “aesthetic” experience when it comes to built forms, housing). People who visit want to come back. And they want to deepen their experience of the things we take for granted. Like a walk in the woods.

It’s hard to know how much of an impact a trail can have on a scattering of rural hamlets. But, as tourists look for more active and “natural” ways to experience places, trails--and services for walkers and cyclists generally--start to look like a good and relatively inexpensive infrastructure investment.

About a dozen years ago bicycle touring started to emerge as a tourist activity on the Island’s Saanich peninsula. That area is laced with secondary roads and byways, has a rural agricultural feel, and links with ferries to Duncan and the Gulf Islands. The impression was that these were “cheap” or “budget” tourists. The reality was that they were spending over $100/day on accommodations, meals, and incidentals. Analysis showed that these cheap tourists were worth over a million dollars annually in the area.

Extraction is how we used to do rural economic development. Douglas firs. Salmon. Coal. Currently, we’re extracting raw land for large lot subdivisions. The challenge is do a different kind of “extraction,” to get as much “use” out of our landscape, forests, beaches, mountains, clean air and water, etc without diminishing its ability to sustain the high quality of life of those of us lucky enough to call this place home.

The dream of an extensive Comox Logging RoW trail is only part of the picture. In the backyards and backwoods of every Island community are hidden old railway grades. The Comox Logging RoW crosses several, including the Elk River right-of-way that connected Campbell River to the Quinsam River and Campbell Lakes valleys, the Bloedel Steward and Welch networks heading inland from Menzies Bay, the Rock Bay and Kelsey Bay rail lines that snaked into the White and Salmon River valleys, and so on.

To begin the work of mapping these connections, and then creating partnerships and low-key development may begin generating jobs and businesses in the rural communities that haven’t done well with the passing of yesteryear’s timber bonanza.

The One Spot Trail is only 6 kilometres long at this point, but it’s a great start. Meanwhile, I’m still dreaming. There’s a walk I want to do. From Royston to Sayward. About 130km. With a stop or two at a B&B along the way, at a pub (or two) for a beer. Maybe I’ll even do part of it on horseback. What a way to spend a week on Vancouver Island!

P.S. There is a growing body of research and literature on the economic benefits of trail systems for rural communities. A good place to start is the American Trails website.

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March 10, 2006

Luna Killed


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March 09, 2006

I'm Lovins It

Bad pun, but do read what energy guru Amory Lovins had to say to the Senate Energy Committee yesterday.  The upshot:  saving energy is far cheaper than importing it; and there are novel policy tools that (at least in theory) could break the current gridlock over energy conservation.  To wit:

Size- and revenue-neutral feebates  could speed the adoption of superefficient cars far more effectively than gasoline taxes or efficiency standards, and would make money for both consumers and automakers.

We like feebates.  A lot.  And we're always delighted when Lovins gets a chance to tout them to a high-profile audience.

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