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Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Small but much appreciated" victory for public transportation in the final House Simulus Bill

After the disappointment of learning that only 1.2% of the stimulus bill would be dedicated to public transportation, I reached out a policy analyst at Building America's Future, a coalition led by Governor's Ed Rendell and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Mike Bloomberg that is lobbying members of Congress to increase funding for our nation's infrastructure improvements.

Here is his response:

"Yesterday could have been worse. Initially the transit number was at $9 billion, but an amendment sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler to add $3 billion was passed yesterday with the final bill, so the stimulus package included $12 billion. A small but much appreciated victory for public transportation! "
NY Rep Jerrold Nadler's amendment was, in my opinion, the most significant of the few amendments that were actually approved, as it added $3 billion to the original $9 billion appropriated to public transportation. I feel a little better now.

We are not done though. If you want more funding for renewable energy and public transportation please write, call, or email your US Senators!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

So far the Stimulus Bill looks like a major disappointment

Change may have happened at the top, but both the lower and upper houses of our Congress still suck. If you peruse The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 you will see many pork projects brought to you by House Democrats and a huge amount of the bill dedicated to tax cuts, brought to you primarily by Republicans, who year after year fail to provide any ideas for our economy beyond tax cutting. According to Talking Points Memo, the Senate draft looks even more disappointing.

Here is brief summary of my problems with the House Stimulus Bill:

  • Too much pork!! Way too much going towards pork projects and programs that have nothing to do with economic stimulus (billions for student financial aid, energy assistance for seniors, and a number of pork projects like the $200 million revitalization of the National Mall)
  • Too much (approx. $300 billion) going towards tax cuts or credits, most of which will not creates jobs or stimulate the economy
  • Far too little going towards rail and public transportation projects (only $10 billion) and a disproportionate amount going towards highways ($30 billion)
  • Only $18.5 billion going towards the DOE's energy efficiency and renewable energy projects
Okay okay, so are there any good parts to the House Bill? Sure. Energy wise, despite such a small portion of the bill going to the DOE and renewable energy, there are some good projects that will advance our clean energy economy, and even help clean up our producers of dirty energy. Here are the highlights
  • $8 billion for the DOE's Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program
  • $4.5 billion for modernization of our electricity grid (smart grid!)
  • $2.4 billion for Carbon Capture and Sequestration demonstration
  • $2 billion for the DOE's Advanced Research Projects
  • $1 billion for the Advanced Battery Loan Guarantee Program
  • $600 million for Plug-ins and Hybrid vehicles for the Federal Government's Vehicle Fleet
  • $600 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's climate sensors and climate modeling technology
  • $350 million for the R&D and evaluation for improvements in energy generation, transmission, regulation, use, and storage, for military installations, military vehicles, and other military equipment (An energy independent Military?)
Total for energy related projects: $20.7 billion

Sunlight Labs extracted the appropriations from the bill into a spreadsheet, where you can view the stimulus funds appropriated to each department. They were baffled that they were only able to find $356.4 billion in appropriations within the text of the bill. Where is the other $475 billion? Well, $300 billion of it is going towards tax cuts for individuals and businesses. I think some tax cuts for small businesses makes a lot of sense, but additional tax cuts or tax rebates for individuals? Last year's tax rebate showed that the any positive impacts due to the fiscal stimulus checks were both minimal and temporary, and now we are going to try to tax cut our way to prosperity again? We need to start building things again!

***Please note that Obama has stated to House Republicans that he "had no pride in authorship of the current bill. " THANK GOD Obama isn't as clueless as some of the idiot House Democrats. Good god - don't these people realize that it is time for change instead of the same old bullshit in our politics and legislation?!

Obama could bring us this stimulus package, the first major piece of legislation during his presidency, in two ways. He could pull a George W. Bush and simply rubber stamp a bill produced by his own party. The other option is to do the right thing. He could make both parties put country first by working together to draft a bi-partisan bill that will create jobs, improve our infrastructure, and put us on the road to energy independence. That is the kind of change we need! If Obama wants to turn this stinker around, and improve his already high approval rating, he will do something audacious. He will veto this dog shit of a bill when it gets passed in both the House and Senate. He will piss off the members of his own party by demanding that they remove the funding for the pork projects, and he will ask them to replace some of the tax rebates /cuts with tax cuts for small businesses, which will show some love to the Republicans.

NOTE: Pennsylvania is slated to receive $22.07 billion of the stimulus money, with a little over $2.3 billion going towards the state budget shortfall. I would bet that Governor Rendell makes sure that the North Shore Connector gets that $120 million it needs in order to be completed.

The Washington Post has a good story on the Democrats who oppose the stimulus plan as is.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Green Inauguration Trip

This past week I made the trip down to Washington DC to see the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama. I had what I believe may have been one of the greenest inaugural trips out of any out of the owner. Instead of driving I carpooled with a friend who was already driving her Honda Civic Hybrid down to the capital. I think we only consumed 10 or 12 gallons of gas for the round trip. While in the capital I utlized one of the nation's better metro systems, I rode both natural gas and hybrid electric buses, and, when I wasn't too exhausted from standing out in the cold all day Tuesday, I made the one mile walk to and from the metro to the apartment I was staying at. Including gas, tolls, and metro fare I probably spent $50 on getting from Pittsburgh to DC and around DC. That's not too shabby. If you don't mind walking once in a while, and if you rely upon a car sharing service like Zip Car when you must have a car, living a car free life in Washington DC is very easy. Besides having hybrid electric buses I noticed that the district had a number of different electric vehicles for security and maintenance. Below is a picture of one of the electric security vehicles I came across while in the National Mall. Like this EV, DC was definitely 100% electric during the inauguration weekend.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Washington DC Metro - is awesome

How nice to be able to get pretty much anywhere around town via the subway here in Washington DC. It's a good thing too, because how would DC be able to function this Inauguration week without a kickass subway system? The metro is expecting over 1 million riders on Tuesday, Inauguration day, higher than the record 800,000+ when President Clinton was sworn in back in January of 1993.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Need a ride somewhere? Check out the Carpool app on Facebook

Chris found Carpool, a really useful application on Facebook

Monday, January 5, 2009

Smart Grid 101

So what exactly is a Smart Grid? According to the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory, in order for our power grid to qualify as a "smart" grid, it must have the following characteristics:

  • Self-healing from power disturbance events
  • Enabling active participation by consumers in demand response
  • Operating resiliently against physical and cyber attack
  • Providing power quality for 21st century needs
  • Accommodating all generation and storage options
  • Enabling new products, services, and markets
  • Optimizing assets and operating efficiently
Technology Review magazine has a great article on why smart grids are a critical ingredient for our clean energy future. Basically, the grid that we have today is pretty much the same thing that Thomas Edison created out of his labs in Menlo Park New Jersey - 110 years ago! The grid was not equipped to handle variable power sources like wind or solar and it was not built with the capability to control electricity usage on the demand side - so that instead of firing up expensive power plants to meet excess demand the grid would have the ability to shut down certain power consumers - or even tap into your plugged in plug-in vehicle's excess power. It may sound far fetched but there are already small scale smart grid projects currently under way throughout the US and countries such as Germany.

If you want a more detailed analysis of smart grids then The Cleantech blog's Richard Stuebi has pointed us to a very informative DOE reported titled "The Smart Grid: An Introduction." A big hat tip to Richard for also listing the following key data points that he was able to pull from the report:
  • The U.S. power grid consists of 9200 electric generating units connected by 300,000 miles of transmission lines -- of which only 668 miles were added since 2000.
  • Between 1988-98, U.S. electricity demand increased by nearly 30%, while transmission capacity grew by only 15%.
  • In the U.S., there were 41% more outages affecting more than 50,000 customers in the second half of the 1990's than in the first half of the 1990's.
  • The average age of a substation transformer on the U.S. power grid is 42 years -- two years more than their expected life span.
  • 10% of all generation assets, and 25% of distribution infrastructure, are required for less than 5% of the hours of the year.

Here are a few things that I want to see from our next generation grid - in no particular order:
  • Easier to hook solar power and other renewable power sources into the grid. Today, if you had solar panels or wind turbines installed at your residence you would have to purchase an expensive converter to change the direct current to alternating current
  • When a tree knocks down one power line it doesn't take down the entire town's electricity with it. This seems to happen on a weekly basis around these parts - and right after posting this I read this headline on the PG "Power restored after crash knocks down lines..."
  • Better analytic capabilities for your home or business's electricity consumption. Smart metering is good but it is still not available in most places. The most easiest and cost efficient way to deliver information to consumers is to put it online. I want to to be able to login to my account and see real time data on total usage along with the appliances that are using the most electricity. This shouldn't be too diffucult but it would require the appliances to be "smart" as well, meaning a standardized identification system by applance category (television, refridgerator, stereo, etc) would have to be determined before this could come to fruition.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Will 2009 be the year of the railroad?

One of my predictions for 2009 is that this will be the year that passenger rail transport is finally brought back from the dead. I've you live or have lived in cities like Chicago or Philadelphia, you may be thinking that the railroads have never went away. But here in Pittsburgh, in Atlanta, and in a number of other cities across the country, the transformation of freight railroads to passenger/commuter rail lines have already been proven feasible, and may only be months away from the first phase of their implementation, as the President-elect has made a point that he intends to stress the utilization of railroads to ease congestion and reduce our reliance on fossil fuel-centric transportation of the highways and airways.

Here is a May 2008 quote from Obama on his transportation priorities:

The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service. One of the things I have been talking bout for awhile is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities -- Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis. They are not that far away from each other. Because of how big of a hassle airlines are now. There are a lot of people if they had the choice, it takes you just about as much time if you had high speed rail to go the airport, park, take your shoes off.

This is something that we should be talking about a lot more. We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don't have better rail service. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn't have high speed rail. We just don't have it. And it works on the Northeast corridor. They would rather go from New York to Washington by train than they would by plane. It is a lot more reliable and it is a good way for us to start reducing how much gas we are using. It is a good story to tell.
So, I think anyone reading this blog will agree that having a President who wants to move our national transportation infrastructure into the 21st century is a good thing, is it not?

Also on the list of transportation initiatives that should interest anyone who is a fan of being able to get from point A to B without the hassles of the airlines - 2009 should be the year we finally learn which region will be the recipient of our nation's first MAGLEV train line. Funding for the nation's first 310 MPH MAGLEV train, which was initiated in the 1990's, was shelved following the 9/11 attacks, but the initiative has been revived in recent years, and despite having a federally funded tunnel to nowhere project already underway our US Senators are still working on bring the first federally funded MAGLEV track to the Pittsburgh region. In addition to the Pittsburgh MAGLEV project, MAGLEV train lines have been proposed for the Los Angeles - Las Vegas corridor, and the Chattanooga-Atlanta corridor (The Chattlanta line). Last but not least, the California High Speed Rail initiative got the approval of voters this past election. The high speed rail will link all of California's major cities and should become the model of how we can implement high speed rail throughout the country.

As you can see by the passenger rail map I have provided below, I think the Pittsburgh region has a number of good commuter rail options on the table. The combination of just a few of them would improve region's mobility by leaps and bounds without a multibillion dollar 54 mile long high speed train that goes from Greensburg to downtown to the airport. But, while I think a high speed rail line around one city, especially one as small as Pittsburgh, would be underutilized, I still think that a MAGLEV train connecting bigger cities or regions (ay the east coast to the Midwest, or New York or Philadelphia to Chicago) to one another, bypassing the highways in a manner similar to the California initiative, would be a good step towards reaching the goal of building President Obama's national high speed rail network. Pittsburgh, with its relative proximity to such a very large chunk of the US population, would be a logical place to start building the Northeast to Midwest line. Starting with a line between Cleveland and Pittsburgh or Pittsburgh and Philadelphia would provide a lot of benefits for the region and those professionals who would now have the mobility that would permit them to live and work in different cities.

I create the Google map below with an assist from The East Busway Blogger, and also the Southwestern PA Commission's report on regional transportation alternatives. The SPC's report has some great statistics on projected ridership and the cost of implementing and operating some of the Pittsburgh region's commuter rail options. Some of these options have already made it into the Pittsburgh Regional Integrated Transportation Plan, or the Pittsburgh Transportation Wiki Project for short. If you have additional ideas please feel free to add them to the wiki plan, and if you would like to include additional ideas for passenger rail lines please create them in Google Maps and email me or leave the URL or your idea in the comments section.

After years of hearing about the wonderful high speed rail lines throughout Europe and Asia, and feeling as though we'll never move beyond highways and air travel, it seems as though we are on the verge of turning a corner, and it feels good.

View Larger Map

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bio-deisel in airplanes?

The BBC reported yesterday on an Air New Zealand test flight of a bio-deisel hybrid plane.

From the article:

One engine of the Boeing 747-400 was fueled by a 50-50 mixture of jatropha plant oil and standard A1 jet fuel.

A Virgin Atlantic test flight in February used fuel derived from a blend of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts.

In Auckland on Tuesday, a range of tests were completed both on the ground and during the flight, said Air New Zealand Chief Pilot David Morgan.

He said the oil from the plum-sized jatropha fruit performed "well through both the fuel system and engine".

Part of the significance of the accomplishment comes from the use of jatropha plant oil rather than more conditional corn ethanol. Cleanbreak provides some context:

Jatropha plants grow about three metres high and produce seeds that contain an inedible oil. The oil can make up 40 per cent of a seed’s mass. The reason Jatropha is considered ideal for biofuel production is that it’s hardy, resistant to drought and pests, and can be grown on land that generally isn’t good enough for food crops. Seriously — this stuff can grow in sand, gravel, even rock crevices.

The partners in the Air New Zealand project have set high standards for the fuel they’re using in an effort to avoid the kind of criticism that has been aimed at corn-based ethanol. “Firstly, the fuel source must be environmentally sustainable and not compete with existing food resources,” according to an airline press release. “Secondly, the fuel must be a drop-in replacement for traditional jet fuel and technically be at least as good as the product used today. Finally, it should be cost competitive with existing fuel supplies and be readily available.” Air New Zealand has said that 10 per cent of its jet fuel will come from jatropha-based biofuel by 2013.

The other bonus, obviously, is that air travel is one of the highest emission producing activities, however it's infrastructure (compared to our nation's automobile infrastructure) is centralized, making it easier to switch over in a short time span. Since air travel accounts for almost 10% of US transportation emissions, this could be a significant reduction.

An added bonus: according to J.P. Morgan Chase (via Cleanbreak), jatropha-based jet fuel could be produced at $43 a barrel. With prices of peutroleum based fuel currently around $60 a barrel, that's a competitve price.