Solar and Coal in the LA Times

One of my excellent students from USC, David Hale Feinberg, brought this story from the LA Times to my attention. The story concerns a partnership between SolarReserve and Rocketdyne–shuttle engine manufacturers. The technology uses heliostat mirrors to heat up molten salt. I’m still learning about energy technologies, so this is pretty interesting stuff.

Contrast this with the lead story in this morning’s LA Times on mountain top removal. The contrast helps us understand three major lessons about energy and renewables.

First, if the history of the energy industry is any lesson, the Barstow plant is where the future resides: high capital requirements favor existing corporate actors over small-scale, local producers, no matter how much some environmental advocates believe that local businesses are the key to sustainability. If you want faster implementation of petroleum substitutes, energy creation won’t be small-scale production.

Second–again from history–the renewables coming online will be substituted for future energy demand, not replacements for existing energy sources, at least in the short term. New energy supply is not a conservation strategy in the same way that unplugging your electronics is. New supply means that new demand is met via cleaner sources, not that old sources necessarily diminish in productivity.

Third, the mountaintop removal story brings home, at least to me, how our failures in social policy contribute to environmental loss. At a time when everybody is lecturing me on the importance of ‘green jobs’ we don’t have the policy language to talk about transitioning miners from their current livelihood to different employment. This is very sticky problem; these areas of West Virginia are both gloriously beautiful and deeply impoverished, and there are few ready substitute employers. Think about the losses that accrued to tobacco farmers as Americans moved away from smoking in the mainstream.

Americans don’t have the cultural capacity to think about that type of assistance as anything other than “welfare”–a shaming word. And yet, Coase applies here: to those of us who want to stop mountaintop removal, financially supporting their transition to new work can be both efficient and socially desirable even if it takes some time. Moreover, it isn’t as though the activity isn’t valuable: we would need to think about ways to change feedstocks for electricity generation to reduce the demand for coal. In other words, it’s not enough to just want an activity to stop because it is unsightly or environmentally bad.

Star Trek


Bear in mind, I have a life-sized standup poster of Mr. Spock in my office, so watching this movie and commenting on it was inevitable.

JJ Abrams, the director, along with his art directors have an interesting if not particularly hopeful view of future cities. Previous movies have established that Starfleet HQ is in San Francisco–which is interesting, as I can think of no other major US public institution headquartered west of the Mississippi. Starfleet is meant to be global and intergalatic body, so moving it from the traditional geographies of political power makes sense.

While the earth is still populated by the time our young, brash captain Kirk comes along, there are large, unmarked and unexplained crevices running through Iowa (what looks like west Texas in reality), the unnamed capitol city of Vulcan looks like a terrible place (particulate matter) and San Francisco doesn’t look so hot either, although the iconic Golden Gate and Bay bridges are retained.

Overall, a nice movie in the spirit of the Star Trek franchise. They did something here I’m glad they did, if I can chat about human and cultural symbolism for a bit here. For years, I have always grated against the way in which Spock’s mother, Amanda, happily trailed after Sarek, Spock’s father, to a ghastly hot planet full of condescending Vulcans constantly asserting their cultural superiority. This cultural superiority doesn’t go away in this movie: nasty little Vulcan bullies start a dustup with young Spock, and then later the head of the Vulcan Science Academy ostentatiously comments on Spock’s disadvantage (which brings the matter of cultural superiority home to basic racism; logic isn’t a matter of training; it’s a matter of breeding.) Honestly, if the benefits of logic are so apparent and the disadvantage is so real, then none of it needs comment, does it?

The question always raised throughout the series and subsequent films is why Sarek married a human. Here, he answers, and it’s a logical enough answer at the beginning. The question I always had coming up and watching TOS was rather the opposite: why did the beautiful, warm, generous and intelligent Amanda marry Sarek? I suppose it makes sense in the logic of the patriarchy: he’s a good catch financially, and he can provide her with a social mobility she didn’t have as a schoolteacher on earth. But in previous films Sarek is a hard and cold man, unworthy of either her loyalty or her son’s. In this film, he’s a better man even if he’s not human, and Ben Cross (one of my longtime actor-crushes) brings real complexity if not humanity to his character.

Congestion and the walking city

Paul Krugman notes on his blog that while he is favor of NYC’s move to turn Times Square into a walking only area, he’s not sure who the move is for, as “nobody goes there-it’s too crowded.”

Krugman references my favorite quote about congestion from Yogi Berra. As Brian Taylor pointed out in a very good paper in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Berra captured an essential conundrum from urban economics for urban planning newfound efforts to “contain sprawl.” That contradiction comes down to a) congestion is a sign of a successful place within cities (the “it’s too crowded” part), at the same time b) that same congestion and place intensity provides the demand for decentralization–the “nobody goes there” part.

This contradiction makes it difficult to deliver on the “congestion relief” promises that many people make on behalf of compact urbanization— one of the key elements of sustainable city ideas. Los Angeles may be everybody’s favorite whipping boy for auto congestion, but DC, New York, Boston and Chicago all have congestion both on the road and elsewhere: there’s never a seat any Starbuck’s off DuPont Circle, for example, and the sidewalks are uncomfortably crowded in New York at certain times of day. The Mexico City subway or the trains in Japan–or in most global cities other than LA—are simply jammed.

I’m not saying that auto congestion is the same for the environment as these other forms of congestion–it’s not–but as Taylor points out, places that we sustainable urbanists love–like New York–have pretty bad traffic congestion, and that traffic congestion is part of the place’s vibrancy and a measure of its success–not its failure.

Thus our sustainable cities of the future are likely to be crowded–very crowded if population growth continues. Most Americans, even those who live in New York, have no idea what real megacity crowding is like. The the demand for decentralization will grow stronger as we densify, even as we try to pack a whole bunch of amenities into our compact, walkable new developments, so long as there is income and wealth to support purchasing more space in a crowded world.

Taylor, Brian D. 2006. “Putting a Price on Mobility: Cars and Contradictions in Planning,” Longer View, Journal of the American Planning Association, 72(3): 279-284.

Matt Kahn on bad water pricing

Matt Kahn at UCLA is one of those economists whose work I cite quite a bit. His blog is smart and funny and edgy, and he has up a very good post comparing how the LA Department of Water and Power’s pricing regime makes no sense from a sustainability perspective. To wit–he compares the pricing schedule he faces with that of Candy Spelling, TV producer** Aaron Spelling’s very wealthy widow.

The water pricing story in southern California is larger than life with movies like Chinatown out there (great movie), but the DWP’s past attempts at implementing marginal cost pricing should be a case study in implementation for young environmental economists everywhere. To make a long story short, marginal cost pricing was on the table until Valley constituencies–all predominately single-family houses with yards–got out their calculators. The resulting outcry prompted deal-making that, while perhaps reassuring to us lovers of citizen participation, landed us with the pricing mechanism we have now. The basis for the changes revolved around an equity concern–as it so often does–not about people who are actually impoverished, but over the costs to people who are solidly middle class but not affluent per se. In order to protect these folks from what seemed prohibitively high water prices, we struck the deal that Matt discusses, considering usage as a function of lot size and occupancy. The end result bears little resemblance to marginal cost pricing or pricing based on social equity goals.

For people like me who study social equity and justice, the political discourse surrounding most pricing schemes tends to be entirely about equity and yet entirely miss the point about equity. We tend to protect the wrong groups–as in those with some discretionary income if not a lot– from the consequences of their consumption choices because we worry about affordability rather than the proper pricing signals and affordability.

**Aaron was the purveyor of such time-wasting, high-camp glory as “Dynasty” and the original “90210.” O the cat fights! O the shoulder pads! O the gigantically big hair!

Bad bus stop of the week

Bad bus stop
On Figueroa by the LA Live/Staples Center

Hospitable bus stops are among the most important aspects of social inclusion, public space and the sustainability of the built environment. While the area outside of the new LA Live contains copious plantings–oversized, in fact–they have the look and feel of landscape designed to be viewed from a passing car. Moreover, they create a barrier to getting on the bus although there is a space to step through them. What really undermines the stop, though, is no bench. Scanty shade. Little transit information other than labeling the routes that stop here, which are not plentiful.

Keep in mind that this is not some random suburban bus stop. LA Live is supposed to be a major regional destination–the “Times Square of the West.”

Megaregions and Infrastructure

The University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development is hosting an event in June on Infrastructure in the Southwest Megaregion–meaning Los Angeles and San Diego (or, as I refer to us, North Mexico City).

A number of our faculty at USC are interested in megaregions, or just regions more generally. We have well-respected regional scientist Harry Richardson, and in our policy and public administration groups, Dan Mazmanian and Yan Tang come from an environmental governance and sustainability perspective. We have urban planning faculty who overlap as well, most notably Dowell Myers, whose work on demography and immigration informs so many metropolitan growth questions. Eric Heikkila studies urbanization in Asia, with an obvious overlap here.

The mega-cities and mega-regions discussion in the social science and planning research tends to leave me wishing there were more tangible ways we could theorize and measure the effects of the ‘mega’ part of the equation for sustainability. It is quite apparent that we can ratchet up the numbers of any given urban effect here because we are aggregating large groups into the same geographic container–everything is very big, you know, but it has not always been clear to me what new insights we gain here for regional science and sustainability research, other than a pragmatic exploration of the potential size of the congestion and environmental externalities (which, given population growth numbers, are enough to justify the research). But the research in this field is emerging, so I’m going to listen and learn and see where it goes. To wit, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the mega-project literature on infrastructure and development as a form reflexive modernism. Some of my favorite reading thus far:

Altshuler, Alan A. and David E. Luberoff. Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment Brookings Institution Press and Lincoln Institute Of Land Policy 2003

Flyvbjerg,B., N. Bruzelius and W. Rothengatter, Megaprojects and Risk — An Anatomy of Ambition, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Olds, K. Globalization and Urban Change: Capital, Culture, and Pacific Rim Mega-Projects. Oxford University Press, 2002 .