The Efficient Little Engine that Could
I’m back in the Bay Area, finally, after far too much travel. Tonight I got to read my son a bedtime story in person, instead of via Skype, and had this revelation: Did you ever notice that in The Little Engine That Could, all the unhelpful engines are male, while the Little Engine itself, the one that finally saves the day, is female? Apparently I’m not the only person to have noticed this; there’s a hot academic debate about whether the fact that the female engine is the one that carries toys to the children is sexist, or whether it’s actually an example of “pioneer feminist lore.” I prefer the latter, personally.
If I were less sleep-deprived, I’d come up with a clever transition sentence here about steam engines, coal, and carbon emissions in the transportation sector… As readers know, I’ve been focused on transportation lately, and wondering how California is going to reach our climate goals given that over 90 percent of the sector is currently powered by petroleum. Plans like that just adopted by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which just voted unanimously to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, will depend on our finding a path out of our current oil dependence and toward a more sustainable transportation solution.
This week brings good news on that front: Just this morning, a broad coalition of environmental and public health groups launched Charge Ahead California, a campaign to put one million electric vehicles on the road in California within ten years. The campaign has a strong emphasis on low-income communities, and will focus on policies like EV car sharing, battery charging infrastructure in multi-family buildings, and stronger incentives for EV purchase.
It’s critical to focus in on working class and low-income Californians as part of a broader transportation strategy. On average, according to a 2004 PPIC study, low-income Californians spend nearly 20 percent of their household budgets on vehicle expenses. If these households could switch from gas-powered vehicles to EVs it would significantly reduce those costs: as I wrote this week in a blog for the Wall Street Journal, electricity is far cheaper per gallon than gas (just $1.65/gallon in California according to DOE’s “eGallon” calculator).
But while EVs are a huge step forward, they’re not the only answer. The fact is that despite major improvements in range, and steadily declining prices, EVs still aren’t a realistic option for many low-income Californians. In particular, those families living in more rural parts of the state – many of whom have long commute times, little extra cash on hand, and poor or nonexistent credit – aren’t going to be queuing up for EVs any time soon. We’re planning to focus in on possible solutions for these Californians in the coming months, even as we enthusiastically applaud the efforts of the Charge Ahead campaign.
(Note: as a city planner by training, I also have to put in a plug here for ditching the car completely and getting on a bike, if you can. Bike commuting is becoming more common in the U.S. but it’s still not exactly mainstream, and it can be downright controversial. Two pieces this week illustrate the ongoing bike/car divide: Daniel Duane’s New York Times opinion piece, “Is it O.K. to Kill Cyclists?”, and H.F. Buckley’s diatribe against Alexandria, VA bike lanes in the Wall Street Journal. Both are worth a read.)
Other climate and energy issues of interest this week (with apologies to various artists):
- Blame It on the Rain: If current trends continue, 2013 will be the driest year on record in California. San Francisco received just under 4 inches of rainfall, an all-time low. California’s economy is water-dependent, as is our low-carbon energy strategy. We need water to power our hydropower stations, and when there’s less water and less hydropower, cities like SF have to turn to natural gas and other electricity sources. As a result, our emissions go up – as they did in 2012.
- Like Water for Fracking: Fracking may be even more water intensive than previously believed. National Geographic found that oil wells in the Bakken shale in North Dakota need water not only for the initial frack, but also need significant amounts of “maintenance water” to keep the oil flowing.
- Here Comes the Sun: EDF and the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation just released an awesome “atlas of investment potential” for solar energy in the Los Angeles area. I’m proud to say that my former CAP colleague Jorge Madrid was a driving force behind this effort.
- Demon Alcohol: The Associated Press recently put out a damaging story on the hidden environmental costs of ethanol, which is on the hot seat as Congress debates whether to roll back the federal Renewable Fuel Standard.
- After the Hurricane: The international news this week is dominated by Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines and has been a focal point in coverage of the ongoing climate negotiations in Warsaw. The Philippine delegate to the UN, Yeb Saño, linked Haiyan directly to climate change in an impassioned speech to the international delegation. While the science behind his claim may be questionable (it’s hard to link any one extreme weather event to climate change, though their frequency and intensity is clearly linked), the passion and urgency is clear.
See you next week!