February 27, 2006

The Odd Decouple

This is good news: according to NW Current, more and more utilities are becoming interested in "decoupling" -- which could be the single most cost-effective step I've heard of for encouraging conservation.

Here's how decoupling works.  Utility rates are pretty tightly regulated:  rate structures are dictated by utility commissions and the like.  Traditionally, rate structures link a utility's profits to its sales:  the more a utility sells, the greater its profits.  But that creates a huge disincentive for conservation: if utilities get people to cut their consumption, they cut into their own earnings.  In fact, a private utility that tries to get its customers to use gas more efficiently could actually run the risk of a shareholder lawsuit.

Under decoupling, though, utility rates are structured so that a utility's profit margins can rise when consumption falls.  (In other words, a utility's earnings are "decoupled" from its gross sales.)  This simple change can make it profitable for utilities to promote conservation.  And as a result, decoupling aligns the utility's incentives with the incentives of its customers:  everyone has an incentive to use energy more efficiently.  Northwest Natural, an Oregon gas company, has been operating under a decoupled rate structure since 2002.  One result -- it's shifted staff from marketing (trying to get people to buy more gas) to customer service.  Whee!

Decoupling is one of those nifty little ideas with a huge potential payoff for a seemingly insignificant change.  It doesn't take much to make decoupling a reality -- it relies on a simple alteration to the rules, rather than regulatory strictures or costly upgrades to technology.  So it's nice to see it catching on. 

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February 22, 2006

Back From The Dead

Just as we suspected, Oregon's Measure 37 -- a law that requires state and local governments to compensate landowners for rules that reduce property values -- wasn't actually dead.  The state Supreme court just resuscitated it, after a lower court had struck it down last fall.

The Oregonian has more details and context.

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February 15, 2006

Nativity Scene

Perhaps everyone else knew this, but I certainly didn't: most residents of the northwest US were born outside the state where they now live.  Roughly 53 percent of folks who live in Idaho and Washington, and 55 percent in Oregon, are transplants, born either in another state or country.  (For the record, I'm a wanderer too, born and raised on the east coast.)

For the most part, in-migrants came from other parts of the US, rather than overseas.  As of 2000, only 1 in 20 residents of Idaho, 1 in 12 residents of Oregon, and 1 in 10 Washingtonians were foreign-born. The rest of us came from other parts of the US.  (Of course, there's some overlap here; some folks who were born in, say, Washington now live in Oregon. So there may be quite a few people who didn't move far -- but the Census site where we got these numbers couldn't tell us specifics.) 

British Columbia, on the other hand, has a substantial population of international in-migrants: 1 in 4 residents of the province were born in another country, mostly in Europe or Asia.

I have no larger point here -- other than a bit of surprise that, for a place that seems to have inspired genuine loyalty among its inhabitants, our roots may be a bit shallower than I'd thought.

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February 13, 2006

Pipe bombs

Another plot to cripple the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was foiled recently, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer (via Reuters). A Montana judge gets credit for apprehending the plotter, in Idaho, although Oregon and Washington are the main consumers of oil from Alaskan oil.

A year ago, we released the 2005 Cascadia Scorecard, which detailed the profound vulnerability of Cascadia's energy infrastructure (pdf), including the Trans-Alaska pipe.

The latest plot--which involved blowing up propane trucks along the pipeline, among other acts of sabotage elsewhere--doesn't seem to have been as far along as one in 1999 or one in late 2003. (Both described here (pdf), on pages 30-31.)

The larger story, of course, is that Cascadian officials have done little to secure its energy system in the past year. Pending energy security measures in Washington and Oregon may be bright spots on the horizon.

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February 03, 2006

Polling Portland on Growth

A new poll of residents in Portland's metro region suggests that Oregon's contentious growth management policies are, on balance, acceptable to most folks.

Most Portland-area residents want to preserve farms and forests by squeezing into cities, use cars less than they do now and invest in the quality of water and air.

But Oregonians want their planning and their property rights, too. While more than three-quarters said land regulations protect quality of life and home values, nearly half also said rules hurt too many private property owners.

I don't have much to add here, but there's a bit more about the survey results in the full article by the Oregonian.

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January 30, 2006

Food vs. Shelter: The Planning Debate

In the debate over growth management, it's easy for the parties to forget that it’s never us against them, it's us against us. For just one example, planners must strike a balance between our needs for food (in the form of nearby farmland) and shelter (in the form of decent housing for a growing population). And promoting density, while important in many respects, is not the whole answer to problems of growth.

Oregon's land-use task force is beginning to study what the state’s citizens want, and The Oregonian is running a good series on planning that addresses the balance between desirable housing and fertile farmland. The articles offer some goods insights and they got me thinking.

Density done wrong does no one any good. Urban village development (and their traditional counterparts) must attract buyers, not be foisted on them. A subdivision crammed with more houses is not a real solution. It’s still auto-dependent and segregates homes from shops and services. It adheres to the letter of planning for density, but ignores the spirit—density ought to empower residents with choices, not just wedge people together. Intelligent planning is required to build attractive homes that also offer privacy and a sense of space, as well as easy access to amenities. The point of smart planning should not to force people into the city, but to create more good places there for those who want it.

Even with good density alternatives, some people may still want a house with a big yard. I think that it’s important to offer a mix of housing types, but these larger more distant lots come with all sorts of hidden costs to society: higher costs to supply public services like water, sewer, and emergency response farther out—not to mention negative externalities like air pollution, road-building, and possible watershed deterioration from the added impervious surface. And it’s also important, as The Oregonian article notes, that we preserve farmland and other green places.

And space is not the only reason people may want to move into rural areas: they also may want to be closer to nature. I think it's important to ask how best to connect people to the natural world without sacrificing the very nature they crave. I worry about getting caught in a vicious cycle as people move farther and farther out until there's scant rural land left and our cities are so sprawling that most people must rely exclusively on cars for transportation.

I favor setting aside space within cities for neighborhood parks, community gardens, and large semi-wild areas like Forest Park in Portland, Discovery Park in Seattle, and Stanley Park in Vancouver. Unlike fenced-off backyards, these areas let people connect both to nature and to their community.

But really, I see growth planning and development disputes as a symptom of a larger issue: population growth. Our grandparents could reasonably expect to build a house on a half acre lot outside the city because land was plentiful, but people weren’t. Sprawl and population growth have reversed that equation to the point where we need to change our housing expectations if we want our grandchildren to have access to nearby farms and local produce.

Just a few thoughts sparked by the Oregonian series. Take a read and see what you think.

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January 25, 2006

Peak Oil in Rural Oregon

The Ashland Daily Tidings has an interesting (though brief) article exploring what, exactly, might happen in their corner of southern Oregon if oil prices keep going up.  To me, it's good to see people thinking more about this.  Not just because it will help people prepare for the adjustments that will be needed should oil become progressively dearer -- but also because it might help shift people's thinking about what kinds of transitions might be possible, or even desirable, even if oil prices flatten out or decline.

But I do think that a word of caution is in order -- if energy prices do continue to trend upwards, we're going to have to take a cold and steely-eyed look at our proposed solutions to help people cope.  Some of them, however well-intentioned, just might not cut it.

Note, for instance, this comment by a environmentally inclined local leader in Ashland, who thinks that mass transit would be a great solution for high energy costs in rural areas...

"We [already] have a free bus service, but it doesn’t get you to where you want to go,” he said, noting that it is inconvenient to commute between Ashland and other area towns and that the bus only runs along the main transportation lines.

Most mass transit is based on high-density use, he said. But what Ashland really needs is low density use, he added. He said a system of vans that operate like airport shuttle buses could be the answer.

“Imagine a bunch of little vans zipping around town taking you where you want to go door to door,” he said. “It would be great in our town. The whole key would be a computerized dispatch system” that would alert drivers as to where someone needed to be picked up.

Sounds nice, no?  Instead of driving a car, you just call a van that picks you up at your home and takes you straight to your destination -- and call another one when you need to go home.  Convenient?  Yes. Costly?  Almost certainly -- especially if you have to pay drivers, which is one of the major costs even in dense urban areas.  Energy-efficient?  Not so much, I'd wager, for reasons that should be fairly obvious.

The problem is that it's really, really hard to provide cost-effective, energy-efficient transit service to a population that's spread out over the landscape.  I can conceive of energy-efficient transit between densely populated villages dotting a rural landscape.  (Old European farming towns come to mind.)  But as a general rule, the more elbow room people have around their homes, the farther they have to travel to get to everyday destinations; and the farther they have to travel, the more energy they use to do so.

My point:  high energy prices might do more than force a reconception of how we get from place to place; it may force us to redesign our places.  And--especially for those of us accustomed to both to the solitude of the country and the amenities of the city--a steady rise in energy costs could force a reevaluation of whether we really need so much elbow room.

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January 24, 2006

Looks Matter (To Ecosystems)

Sage2Oregon State University just won a $3.6 million grant for sagebrush ecosystem restoration. That's good news because sagelands conservation always seems to take a back seat to other landscapes. I wonder if the explanation for sagebrush's short shrift isn't surpisingly superficial (how's that for alliteration?). Looks matter and sagebrush just doesn't sell like the prettier places do.

If so, sagebrush ecology is paying the price for its lack of glam appeal. The American West is home to 100 million acres of sagebrush country, but it is a battered landscape. As the AP story today puts it:

Because of the invasion of non-native plants, increasing wildfires and the expansion of juniper woodlands, sagebrush ecosystems have become one of the most threatened land types in the United States, researchers say.

"We are losing sagebrush-steppe ecosystems at an alarming rate, as wildfires fueled by cheatgrass sweep across the landscape," said project coordinator Jim McIver, an associate professor of rangeland resources.

The ongoing tragedy of conservation biology, with its limited resources, is that large attractive creatures--"charismatic megafauna," in biologist-speak, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker--generate most of the hoopla and therefore receive most of the protection. Less sexy creatures are often ignored, though they may be no less critical to complete and well-functioning ecosystems.

Landscapes tend to go the same way as wildlife. People get animated by old-growth forests, coastlines, canyons, and alpine settings. These are the places that we protect in national parks, photograph endlessly, and write volumes of earnest prose about. Big conservation organizations have little trouble "branding" these ecosystems and drumming up the dollars necessary to protect them from depredations. But sagebrush country is another matter.

Sage1_1At first glance the drab dun-colored world can appear desiccated, windy, even lifeless. And for some reason, the aesthetics of sagebrush country are particularly anemic in the car-centered view of the world. I've never encountered another landscape that looks so dull and hostile from a car at 70 miles per hour but that can be so arrestingly beautiful and complex at pedestrian speeds.

Given their lack of superficial appeal, it's no surprise that sagebrush ecosystems are so badly stressed and under-protected. The list of insults is long: invasive species, biodiversity loss, fire suppression, unsustainable water withdrawals, grazing, cattle ranging, road-building, fencing... In many places, sagebrush country is so degraded that some of the most intact landscapes are where you would least expect them: the lands that were formerly part of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Yakima Training Center, a large-scale artillery range, to name just two places in Washington.

It's unfortunate that sagebrush lands are not better preserved because the ecology is worth protecting. They're home to an astonishing array of birds, rare plants, and even the big charismatic critters like elk, owls, porcupines, cougars, and my personal favorite, the sage grouse. (Sage grouse, in fact, may be one of the better simple indicators of overall sagebrush ecosystem health; and, no surprise, grouse numbers are drastically depressed from historical levels throughout most of the West.) Sagebrush landscapes are beautiful too--particularly during the springtime blooms--but to most observers they lack the dramatic flair of other places.

Sagebrush ecosystems should be near the top of the list of good conservation buys. Sagelands shelter rare and endangered plants and animals, they are under-represented in protected areas, they are are often not in high demand for important uses, and the land (or the rights to it) is comparatively inexpensive. In fact, one of the Northwest's recent conservation success stories is the Owyhee Initiative, a collaboration working to protect seldom-visited sagebrush country in southwestern Idaho. It's telling,however, that the group's website mostly advertises the conventionally scenic portions: river gorges and basalt outcroppings.

Sagebrush ecology, and it's comparative lack of conservation, strikes me as precisely the reason why we can benefit from a public biodiversity accounting. I'd bet that dollar for dollar, conservationists--and funders of conservation--could do more good for native biodiversity by protecting sagebrush country than by continuing to help the eye-candy ecosystems.

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January 19, 2006

Mind the Gap

The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations just published its annual job gap study, looking at the share of jobs that actually pay a living wage (defined as one that puts healthy food, acceptable housing, and other basic living expenses within financial reach).  Not too surprisingly, it found that only about a quarter of the jobs in the Northwest pay a living wage for a single-parent family with two kids. (See press coverage in Washington and Idaho.)

To me, this news seems about right.  For a family with kids, the cost of living seems pretty darn high, once you factor in housing, health care, child care, rising energy bills, etc. And many, many jobs don't pay particularly well.  So it's little shock that there are lots of families who have to cut corners to get by.

But as plausible as the figures from the job gap report may seem, they're also hard to square with this claim from a recent article in The American Prospect:

[A]ccording to a 2004 Roper Poll for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, 93 percent of individuals earning more than $50,000 described themselves as doing well -- many as doing very well -- as did 77 percent of those who earned just $30,000 to $40,000.

So...few jobs pay a living wage, but most people seem to consider themselves as "doing well."  Hm.  I don't think this is exactly cause for scepticism about the "living wage" figures -- but it's certainly evidence that there's more here than meets the eye.  Perhaps jobs below the "living wage" are more common for people without families to support, or where one partner in a family earns substantially more than the other.  Or perhaps people are just reluctant to admit that they're not "doing well," even in an anonymous survey.

One thing is pretty clear, though--as a society, we haven't done a particularly good job of measuring how people are really faring economically.  Part of that is lack of attention -- economic statisticians are generally more concerned with aggregate figures for GDP, productivity, and the like, rather than with the situation of real families.  But part is just that, well, it's just really hard to decide how to measure true prosperity. Surveys?  Fancy economics?  Guesswork?  Any one approach is bound to have its drawbacks--which means that you probably have to look at the problem a bunch of different ways, though a number of different lenses, to get closer to a useful answer.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Take That? Take Back (e-Waste)!

ComputersTrue to its state motto, dirigo, Maine is leading the nation in electronic waste management. Yesterday a law went into effect that requires TV and computer monitor manufacturers to take responsibility for the proper disposal of their products.

TVs and monitors need to be recycled because they contain toxic lead and mercury. But only a few states have e-waste programs where those who profit from the products also pay the disposal costs. In California, consumers pay a small fee at the time of purchase to help defray the cost of recycling later. In Maryland, manufacturers pay a fixed annual fee into a recycling trust fund.

While these are great starts, I suspect that neither of these programs covers the full costs of disposal. Maine's law is great because it places the full cost where it belongs: on makers and users of the product, instead of on general taxpayers. In this way it also creates powerful incentives  (read: market economics) for manufacturers to build products that use less toxic materials in the first place and that are easier to recycle at the end of their life.

Here in Cascadia e-waste producer responsibility is still in the works. British Columbia (pdf) intends to have a program in place by mid 2007. Washington has two bills in the current legislative session. And Oregon (pdf) had a bill in 2005 to charge consumers a fee up front, although the bill died in session. Stay tuned to find out what happens with e-waste recycling in the Northwest.

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