Sustainability and the MBIA

greenwashWith Ryan Morton (Community Affairs Director for MBIA) and Kathy Greathouse (chair, MBIA Government Affairs Committee) running for Missoula City Council, it is understandable that the activities of the MBIA (Missoula Building Industry Association) will get some scrutiny.

Take, for instance, a paid advertisement in today’s Missoulian (p. A10, not available online?) written by John Freer, of Riverworks, Inc. Each week, “industry experts from the Montana Green Building Program of Missoula and the MBIA will answer your questions and provide green building techniques, tips and advice”. You can send your questions to information@buildmissoula.com

Now, it just so happens that one of Ryan Morton’s major platforms for his candidacy for City Council is Green Building, so this should be interesting.
Let’s see what the MBIA recommends for reducing carbon, sulfate and nitrate emissions … Hmmm, this is interesting: “Walk …. don’t drive to that BBQ, choose local produce and foods, guzzle lots of organic beer, choose reusable plates, cups and utensils.” All well and good. I particularly like the recommendation for drinking more beer, but I would encourage local brews (Kettlehouse, Big Sky, and Bayern) – none of whom regularly brew organic.

But, how feasible is it to “Walk … don’t drive?” And is MBIA, Ryan and Kathy really going to do what it takes to make walking a REAL option here in Missoula. Because, you know, the building industry has a BIG say in how walkable our new neighborhoods will be. So does City Council.

What would it take to make Missoula an easy place to walk everywhere you need to be? Firstly, and the most green of all, is mixed use zoning – that allows you to walk from your home to your workplace, and then on to the local store for groceries and above-mentioned local beer and back home again. Like a village, everything you need would be close by – your kids school, your hairdresser, your favorite restaurant and bar, the local hardware store, etc. etc. Anywhere you couldn’t walk to, you could use the bus system. You wouldn’t completely do away with your car or truck (which would be for longer trips out-of-town, and for hauling lumber and soil and other big products, etc.), but you’d save $$$ by not having to fill up with gas every week. Oh, and you’d have to have sidewalks and well designed boulevards to make walking through the neighborhood safe and enticing.

Don’t believe it could happen in the U.S.? Check out New York City. Many folks who live in Manhattan don’t own a car. Of course, NYC is more densely settled than Missoula. And greater density is probably going to be required if it is going to be economic for your local Grizzly Grocery or Ace Hardware to be able to stay in business just off a local customer base.

As it turns out, I’m a big fan of Green Building. I applaud the Missoula Federal Credit Union for getting Platinum LEED certification for their new building and for First Interstate Bank achieving Bronze for their new highrise. A little more expensive up-front, but a money saver in the long run. The sort of thing financial institutions should be encouraging.

But, the second biggest thing that MBIA, Ryan and Kathy could be encouraging with green building in Missoula would be smaller houses. Simple really. Smaller houses use less building materials, consume fewer resources in the building or remodeling process, and take up smaller lots (which means less destruction of farmland, open space, etc.) Smaller houses take less energy to heat, less energy to clean, and less materials to furnish.

So, perhaps at the next community forum (DoubleTree Hotel Tuesday, July 21 at 3:30 pm?), when Ryan, Kathy and the MBIA talking up boldly for Green Building in Missoula we’ll hear them calling for smaller buildings in denser, mixed-use neighborhoods. I hope so, otherwise their green building stance might be unsustainable politically.

Reasons to be Cheerful (part 1)

radioactive

There’s lots of reasons to be cheerful. Maybe more nuclear energy will be one. Beginning this series of posts, I can’t help but ponder a number of questions.

Let’s start with nuclear waste. We already have spent fuel rods in storage at 121 operating and decommissioned reactors spread across 39 states of the union. Before we build anymore, I think it would be smart to figure out where all that nuclear waste is going.

But, of course, all that radioactive waste is safe, right? Like the unreported radioactive waste water spill near Godley, Ill. in 2006? Or the Braidwood nuclear plant, also in Illinois, that had been releasing wastewater containing traces of radioactive tritium into groundwater surrounding the plant since 1996? Or the radioactive barium, iodine, cesium, and cobalt that continue to leak from this country’s first nuclear reactor, Fermi? Did I mention it was also in Illinois?

Are we going to put the nuclear power plant in your backyard? Do you feel safe enough to live downstream of one? If not, then will you be happy having nuclear waste being trucked through your community? I can see it now, driving down the Main Street or trundling along the railway tracks … 55,000 metric tones of highly radioactive waste. Of course, those trucks won’t get in accidents and break open, will they?

Market failure

Nearly a week after a nasty ice storm knocked out power in Kentucky, more than 700,000 Kentucky homes and businesses are still without electricity. Currently, it is estimated this storm killed 43, most from hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning.

This alone is outrageous and indicates inadequate electricity infrastructure (i.e. weak power poles), inadequate maintenance of that infrastructure (i.e. not enough pruning of trees away from the wires) and insufficient on-call employees (i.e. not enough repair crews). But, now residents who rely on electric power are being told to evacuate their houses since they are now considered unsafe.

This strikes me as a classic example of the failure of a free market. I would guess that the residents couldn’t, at any cost, buy more dependable electricity. In the rush to greater profitability corners have been cut and there is nothing the consumer can do about it. Except seek greater government regulation.

Are there some things that are so important, so expensive to compensate for after the fact? Is your health and safety more important than allowing companies free rein? Would we be better off with a transparent and accountable government agency?

Let us not forget the Bay City, Michigan man who froze to death inside his home just days after the municipal power company restricted his electricity because of unpaid bills. Now I’m sure we don’t have the whole story, but it would appear Bay City Electric Light & Power didn’t value his life at more than $1,000 (his unpaid electric bills). As a business they have every right to refuse service to those who don’t pay. But, perhaps the provision of electricity can’t be left to the profit motives of the market?

The costs of these sorts of market failures, when utilities fail to invest sufficiently in maintenance or crews to rapidly repair damages, are still born by all of us. They don’t go away. In Kentucky, there have been millions of dollars lost from damage to homes, spoiled goods, and forgone productivity. And they have had to call out every single one of their National Guard members. We all pay. It just isn’t factored into the price we pay for electricity.

When we get injured by a faulty product or when there is a breach of contract, we would normally have the right to sue for recompense, damages or negligence. Utilities, however, are often protected from such recourse. They are a protected industry. Which is probably fine because otherwise nobody would want to take on the risk of providing our electricity, water, sewer, etc.

It all adds up to a colossal failed market. De-regulation of essentials doesn’t work.

Just because its cheap, doesn’t make it clean ..

Toxic Coal Ash Spill in Tennessee

That’s the toxic coal ash spill from last month in Tennessee (photo courtesy of The Knoxville News Sentinel). It is a typical hazard of the burning of coal for electricity. All that fly ash has to go somewhere. All around the nation, more than 124 million pounds of toxic heavy metals is typically stored wet in similar empoundments. Those surface empoundments (also known as “wet dumps”) contain heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium, mercury and thallium. Coal ash has poisoned surface water and groundwater supplies in at least 23 states. Coming soon to a drinking water supply near you?!

Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 129 million tons of waste per year, making the waste from coal combustion the second largest industrial waste source in the US. The EPA has been studying what to do about the storage of coal combustion waste for 28 years. Apparently, it was considered too expensive to regulate as a hazardous waste!

Which suggests to us a bigger question about clean coal. Can we afford it?

This is not a trivial question as we take seriously efforts to reform our energy infrastructure. The cry is for clean, green technologies and even bona-fide climate change experts such as James Hansen suggests that this will have to include nuclear power and coal-fired power plants. But, the technology is expensive and following a long seen pattern of the nuclear industry, the coal industry is looking for a handout. Clean coal is never likely to provide power as cheaply as dirty coal plants.

So, the question has to be if clean coal is the best infrastructure investment that this country could make. Let’s put aside nuclear power for another time, and focus on the other alternatives – wind and solar. Both are well established and well studied technologies. We know the patterns by which the wind and the sun wax and wane, and so we know that we will have to store the power from the windy, sunny times for nighttime and cloudy days. That’s means storage – and that’s where an awful lot of R & D could usefully be put. Let’s figure out affordable solar thermal storage and let’s get to work on adiabatic compressed air storage. The Europeans are on to it. Why aren’t we?

Could it be that the wind and solar power industries don’t have as good a public relations operation as the coal power industry and the nuclear industry does? Maybe, then the recent illustration of the overall expense associated with coal and nuclear, particularly with their disposal of the waste products, will factor into the question of where the infrastructure investments should be made. Just because its clean doesn’t make it cheap.

Who you gonna call?

I was disappointed, though not surprised, that neither Obama or McCain would answer Jim Lehrer’s question on how they would pay for the $700 billion financial rescue package. It’s a hard question to ask during a political campaign, which is all the more reason why we wanted to hear an answer.

In response, though, we gained a considerable insight into the candidate’s character. Obama waffled, and repeated his priorities. McCain let out a howler, or two.

McCain suggested a spending freeze. Only he exempted defense expenditures, homeland security, and veterans affairs. Sounds good, until you think a bit beyond the simplistic portrayal of Tax & Spend Liberals. I’m guessing that McCain isn’t proposing freezing social security payments (which are increasing, not just with the cost of living but also with more retirees), and he sure doesn’t want to penalize Medicare and Medicaid patients. No-one wants the AARP upset! And, I’m pretty sure that McCain doesn’t want us to stop making our payments on the national debt. That one’s going to go up. I wonder if he wants to cut into FEMA’s budget to assist with hurricane damage or the Forest Service’s budget to fight fires? No, probably not.

Problem is, once you’ve taken all those things off the table there isn’t much left.

Then, he suggests that we should build 45 new nuclear power plants. Putting aside the costs of transporting and storing all the nuclear waste (45 new nuclear waste plants? One coming soon to a backyard near you!), how is he going to pay for them? A single new nuclear plant costs a bit more than $2.2 billion. Forty five times that equals over $116 billion. Others estimate a new plant costs around $13 billion a plant, which would be $585 billion. Ouch!

Now, skip the fact that the Federal Government has already given more than $100 billion in research and development to the nuclear industry over the past half century. It appears that private investors aren’t terribly excited in getting involved in building new nuclear plants. (That’s compared to the renewable industry — including wind and solar — that last year attracted $71 billion in private investment.) So, either we’re going to end up paying for it, or we’ll be providing loan guarantees covering 50 percent of the cost of building them. Senators Lieberman and McCain’s Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2007 (S.280) suggested just that.

How exactly is McCain going to pay for all this, and his tax cuts? (Remind me how much those tax cuts will cost. $100 billion over five years? $200 billion? $300 billion?) Maybe it’s time to call MythBusters!