Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Alternative Gas Stations

Heard this this morning on my clock radio: new gas stations in Surrey must now include infrastrucutre for supplying at least 1 alternative fuel source. According to the story, this would be hydrogen, electrical charging outlets, and compressed natural gas.

While I don't think hydrogen vehicles are anywhere near road-worthy and likely never will be (a few buses may be kicking around, but there are very few serious efforts anymore to get this technology commercialized for SOVs - it is simply too difficult and too expensive), I think electrical outlets and CNG will probably start seeing some use in the next decades. Although I'm not convinced that conventional gas stations are the best place for these things, because I think the way we use cars is going to be changing rather drastically.

Anyways, a fast-DC charging station costs around $30,000. The US is already starting to roll them out nationally at BP and ARCO stations, but charging typically takes about 30 minutes (enough charge to go 100km) so it's a bit of a different scenario than pulling up and getting a fill up while your windshield is being washed. There are some technical challenges with the charging stations - you can't charge more than one car at a time, and the large power spikes induced by the fast charging pose problems for the grid if there are many charging stations in a region. Some batteries don't handle fast charging well either. Seems to me these types of stations are best suited for fleets, or shared vehicles that have a "home" somewhere, rather than at a gas station. Unless gas stations start offering coffee shops with WiFi so you can hang there for 30 minutes...

I wonder if they're also considering the "battery swap" business model that's being pioneered by businesses like Better Place? These stations are a lot more money (factor of 10!), but you get a full charge (a new battery, in fact) in about a minute. This gets around the grid issues, because the stations slow-charge banks of batteries. This model may have a better future, although getting traction beyond a few demonstration projects is going to be tough.

Other alternative fuels: there are already CNG fueling stations around. CNG is basically methane, which burns cleaner (ie. far, far fewer haze-producing particulates, nitrous oxide and sulphur compounds) but will of course release CO2. That said, you can clean up and sell biogasfrom landfills and cow poo (like Fortis is doing now) - it's basically interchangeable with CNG then - thereby reducing the CO2 footprint (by burning biogas, you're recycling current carbon, not re-releasing ancient sequestered carbon). Apparently it's not a big deal to convert a regular car to CNG, although you do lose your trunk space. There are plenty of CNG buses around already; the tanks are on the roof.

If we are serious about reducing oil use, this type of infrastructure rebuild will need to happen on a very large scale, and it won't come cheap. Like almost all of the currently feasible "green energy" options out there, the problem isn't technical - it's economics. The real problem is that we've built our economy on a very, very cheap energy source - oil - and changing that will have some major economic ramifications. Especially in the transportation sector. I seriously doubt that our love affair with the private automobile has much of a future.

(I'm on a ...) Tramway to Hell

I went to Translink's consultation session on the proposed SFU gondola last week Wednesday at Cameron Elementary in Burnaby, because I'm interested in options for connecting Queensborough to the Quay in New Westminster. Who knows, a gondola might be an option, right?  After the session though, I was sure feeling in the mood for some aggressive rock 'n roll...

Man, I so do not envy Translink their jobs.

Since my experiences with the UBE sessions, I thought I was inured to hostile crowds. Boy, was I mistaken. I've never, ever, experienced the likes of the NIMBYism that went down in that gymnasium. After a short presentation by Translink, audience members began shouting over the moderator, demanding changes to the agenda so they could "ask their questions with their neighbours hearing them, right now!" Clearly there were a lot of people in the audience violently opposed to this project. But the atmosphere they created effectively shut down any reasonable exchange of views.

But I suppose this is not too surprising, given the community's eruption a few years back when Kinder Morgan started doing some unannounced thinning along their poorly documented pipeline right-of-way.

I suspect the open house at SFU the next night had a more receptive audience.

Anyways, here is some background on this project:
  • There is a lot of growth expected up on Burnaby Mountain. SFU student enrollment is growing and UniverCity has a projected population of 10,000 permanent residents. UniverCity is the name of the hilltop community materminded by SFU Community Trust, whose official community plan was approved by Burnaby Council more than 15 years ago. Like it or not, there is no turning back the clock on this. Translink's mandate is to serve these people.
  • Currently, the population is served by an endless stream of articulated diesel buses streaming up and down the mountain. At any given time, there are 20-25 buses on that hill. As a result, there are a lot of fumes, particulates, and noise being generated. There are accidents. There are shutdowns during bad weather.
  • Translink could just continue pushing more and more buses up and down the hill. They've done the financial planning for this and it's their "base case".
  • They've done a lot of thinking about alternatives. But there are severe constraints - the cost has to be less than the "base case" in the long term, they have to minimize impacts on the nature reserve, they have to maintain and grow passenger capacity. These constraints basically kill all ground-based alternatives (extensions of SkyTrain, funiculars, trolleys, etc etc). The only real option is an aerial route - and the best of those is a 3-wire gondola, very much like the Peak2Peak at Whistler (not like Grouse's gondola, or like smaller ski-lift gondolas).
  • They've done a business case for this type of gondola and it is looking very favourable. So now Translink has done some initial route planning - there are some constraints here as well. The route cannot overfly the Kinder-Morgan tank farm (BC Safety Authority rules). The route has to be straight, or it'll cost to much and likely will require chopping too many trees (you need a "midway station" to make the gondola turn a corner).
  • The gondola type they are considering is very stable (can withstand 100kmh winds) because it's attached by 2 wires and not one, can be configured to handle a car every 30 seconds (they can take cars out of service also), will hold 35 people/car, and the cars themselves will be equipped with communication to base. The system itself has highly redundant braking and propulsion systems. I doubt that 20 drunk SFU students rocking the thing could dislodge it from its cables (yes, this was a community concern).
  • The thing slows down so people can walk in, on the level. No stepping up or down. And yes, it'll be fully accessible (including to cyclists!).
  • putting in a gondola will eliminate express bus route 145 but of course not the local routes that serve the hillside communities. The transit time up to the top will be a mere 6 minutes, compared to a 15 minute busride.
I had a close look at the preferred route, which goes directly from Production Way station to the SFU bus loop. Here are some of the facts:
  • The proposed route directly overflies about 10 units in the Forest Grove community. 
  • The route would require 4 or 5 10-storey high poles, which can be placed straddling roads, in the forest, or along roads, but would not be near any homes. This is one thing that Translink wanted feedback on.
  • The gondola would be very high (40m above ground).
  • The operation is effectively silent - electric motors are at the endstations, and the only other noise happens when the gondolas pass over the towers - high in the sky and not near homes.
  • The gondola would not require a "cut line" to be bulldozed (they can helicopter the lines in). Of course if towers were to be situated in the forest this would require clearing some trees.
  • There is an elementary school in Forest Grove. The closest the gondola comes to this building is 100m. It does not overfly the playing fields.
Regarding visual impacts, Translink has done some (not very good, IMO) cartoons of what this thing would look like from the ground. To make things more real, I had a look at Google streetview of the overfly zone. This is a forested community; because of the dense tree cover, your line of sight is a fairly tight cone overhead, unless you are looking down a road or are in a sizeable clearing. So anything in the air will be invisible until it is almost directly overhead. If you are on a road, you might be able to see the gondola as it crosses your path.

{map from Translink's materials. School is in the upper left. Click to enlarge.}

This is a real concern, though, to the people living in the 4-6 complexes right underneath who will see the gondola 140ft directly above them. A good idea for the next sessions might be to provide some photos from ground level from the side streets and yards, looking up to a (scaled) Peak2Peak-sized gondola. The further you get from the route, the more the trees will cut your view.

Another issue here is that the part of the community being spared the noise and fumes from the buses is not the same that being impacted by the gondola. If any of those community members attended, they were likely cowed, as I was, into silence, by the extremely vocal opposition.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cars and energy, part 3

This came across my field of view not too long ago. The top graphic represents the energy use in the US (2009); the bottom, the same for Canada (2007).

{click to enlarge. Credit to Lawrence Livermore labs and the DOE, under whose auspices the work was done.}

{click to enlarge. Credit to Lawrence Livermore labs and the DOE, under whose auspices the work was done.}

I like the clear visualization this gives of what type of energy goes into what final use. You can see that petroleum - the dark green box at the lower left - goes mostly into transportation.So really, weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels is primarily about rethinking transportation.

What is also simply astounding is the "rejected energy": this is a euphemism for wasted energy. There's a bit of explanation here, but basically there are losses at all the points in the energy-use chain: during the production, transmission, and use. Mostly the energy is lost as heat. And you can easily see how wasteful the transporation sector is!

Because we waste such an incredible portion of the energy we generate, we have to over-build our generation and transmission systems - and by a large factor.

One-Way Car Sharing

A nice article came across my Google Reader screen today, care of the SightLine Daily. The article talks about changes in the car-sharing world, with new business models being tried out and lots of new (and bigger, corporate-sized) players entering the market.

One of the things described is a new model being tried out in the car-sharing world: one-way sharing. This has already come to Vancouver, with "Car2Go", which has launched with a "join free" promotion.

Car2Go is basically like those bike-share programs so popular in many European cities: you see an empty vehicle, and you get in a drive away. No need to book. Return it to any "designated parking spot". You pay per minute of use, or up to $13/hour (which is quite a bit more than what Modo charges  - I pay $3/hour plus $0.25 /km as a member, and a more expensive "casual member" rate is $7.50/hour with 150 kms included). Looks like their insurance coverage is similar to Modo's - $5M in liability. I'm not really sure that the "return it to any spot" approach is really that useful; my way of using a car is to go somewhere to do something, and then come back to the same spot. It's nice if that spot is near my house. I can't really think of a scenario where I'd ditch the car halfway through a journey; seems too much like a spur-of-the-moment joy-ride kind of concept. Even Car2Go's own advertising sounds a lot like conventional car-sharing, with scenarios involving planned trips ("going to the Grouse Grind", a hot date, etc etc) - no different from any other car-sharing adverts I've seen.

Anyways, since the pickup/dropoff places for this service are all in Vancouver, I doubt I'll be making use of this anytime soon. There are no cars anywhere near me - and since I can't book ahead, I can't reserve a car to make sure it's there for me when I arrive. But it may be of interest to some. I guess if there were a fleet of these stationed around New Westminster I might join...

Friday, May 20, 2011

Carefree? OMG!


I couldn't make it to Translink's last "report out" session regarding the UBE, but I met friends coming out of it just as it was ending...and we went for a celebratory beer at the Fireside Pub (karaoke, anyone?).

The long and short of it is that Translink backed away from the UBE. It is no longer up for consideration. That, and the whole North Fraser Perimeter Road. Gone. Not on any planning radar.

Apparently the main reason was that there was no community support.

They listened. I had not expected them to do this, but they did. My faith in Translink has been somewhat restored.

But the real work, of creating a forward-thinking transportation plan for New Westminster, now needs to start in earnest.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cars and energy, part 2

I want to do some thinking about electrification of the transportation grid. After doing a bit of wiki-research it appears that electric motors are far more efficient than gas engines. So instead of using 75 GJ to drive your average 20,000 clicks, it'll only take 25 GJ. This sounds quite promising, especially here in BC where virtually all of our electricity is CO2-emission free. So what are we waiting for?

But wait! According what I've read, BC Hydro is already a net power importer (note: we make money on this though, since we can sell our excess - when we've got it - high, to folks sweating down in California, and buy what we need on the cheap from Alberta or Washington, so it's all good, right?). So...how much extra electricity are we talkin' here? I mean, if we switch over all our cars and trucks and everything?

Well, Google to the rescue again, there's this great website from NRC that gives an in-depth breakdown of Canada's energy use. Very instructive. If you spend some time in the numbers, you'll find that BC uses 156 PJ (that'd be peta Joules, or 10e15 Joules) of energy, per year, on average (all figures 2008). This is for home heating, watching the playoffs on TV, cooling the beer, etc. A further 125 PJ is used in what NRC calls passenger road transportation, which I read to be driving ourselves around. Finally, we find that 120 PJ get used on freight shipping - shipping stuff we want to ourselves. Now, I think we can safely assume that these latter two categories currently run mostly on gasoline and/or diesel. So electrification of the transportation sector would mean we need to find an extra (125+120)/3 = 82 PJ of electrical energy from somewhere - that is, if we just keep things going exactly the way they are.

Hm. Sounds like a lot. But are we talking a few windfarms here? Or will the new site "C" dam be enough?

...so, once more back to the computer...(how did we live before Google?)...and find that site C is supposed to give us 5100 GWh annually = 18.4PJ. Yikes. Nowhere near enough! We'd need, like, four and a half site C dams to keep driving like we currently do. Uh oh.

{artists impression of site C, care of BCHydro}

Well, not to worry, there's always wind, right? I must admit that I'm not a big fan ... er, supporter... (but that's for another post), but let's crunch the numbers. A big windmill (like they have on Grouse - anyone ever see that sucker running, by the way?) typically outputs a tiny, dinky 0.02 PJ in a year (and here I'm being generous with a 40% capacity factor, which is high - the rest of the time, the wind isn't the right speed to drive the thing). So...that would mean...4100 windmills. Oookaaay.

Anyone driven through southern Alberta recently? Well, it's been turning into a big wind farm. About 600 windmills are there right now. Still just a tiny fraction of what's needed to keep BC rollin'. Just for reference, there are a 16 windmills in the foreground here (those brown specks are the cows):

{windmills somewhere near Pincher Creek, AB}

Multiply this view by, oh, 250. Clearly, what we're talking about here is massive industrialization of the landscape. And I do mean massive. But heck, we can farm underneath 'em, so no worries eh?

And, just because I happen not to be afraid of newkular power, I can let you know that one typical power station generates about double what site C can give, so we'd need only two nuclear plants. Yup. That's the reason they build these things. Plants are typically sited together, like at Bruce (which has 8 plants and is waay bigger than we'd need), see below.

{Bruce, with 8 plants. Thank you, Wikipedia.}

Now, I'm by no means recommending that we pony up for some nuclear plants so we can continue with happy motordom...but I think the picture is pretty clear. We have a huge problem on our hands if we want to electrify our transportation grid, while assuming everyone can just trade up to a Chevy Volt.

{Chevy Volt, with cute power plug. Photo wikipedia}

Now maybe you see why I get so wild when people get all happy about electric cars. Or when the gubmint spends my tax dollars on infrastructure like giant freeways which only serve to further entrench existing motordom. It ain't helping.

Cars and Energy, part 1

I have heard it claimed that it takes more energy to build a car and destroy it, than it uses throughout its life.

These kind of statements immediately get my bogosity antennae quivering, so I've finally decided to do a bit of research.

Energy use by a car for a year is pretty easy to calculate. You find out how many litres of gas you use in a year and multiply by the energy content of a litre of gas (which is, according to the Interwebs, 35MJ / l). So if I drive 20,000 km in an average year and my car gets 10 km/l, that means I will use 70 GJ (that's Giga-Joules) of energy in a year.

Now what about fabrication of that car? This is where things get a little tricky. Do I include the energy used to mine the metal that goes into the engine? Or only in its manufacture? A quick hit o' the Google brings up several densely analytical papers concluding that the average car takes about 70 GJ to make and 5 GJ to dispose of (recycling the metal and glass).

As far as I can tell, these analyses don't include the energy used in mining, just in shaping the metal sheets. So maybe we can bump the number up a bit if we want to account for the mining and casting. Thanks to Google again, it takes 25MJ/kg to make steel, so if you assume the worst case, that a typical 1500 kg car is 100% steel, then you can add a further 37.5 GJ to the energy cost of manufacture - for a total of about 110GJ. (note: if you use recycled aluminum and recycled glass in your car, it'll take less energy to make it).

So t's pretty clear that the main energy use of the car is in driving it around, not in making it. So, it follows that any efficiency you can get out of your car, using less energy (gas) will have a bigger impact on the total energy use than by scrimping during its manufacture.

On a final note, electric motors are much more efficient than gasoline engines - about 3x more efficient. This means that you can go 3x farther on your GJ of energy in an electric car. Or put another way, if you need to still drive 20,000 km, you'll only need 23 GJ of energy to do it. So maybe we should be electrifying our transportation network?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Carefree? Not!

This is a rant about the proposed United Boulevard Extension, or "UBE".

I think this is a really bad idea. And I don't think I'm alone.

And this is after spending a good 20 hours talking about it, listening to my neighbours and to Translink, at the various "consultation sessions" that have been hosted in my community. Heck, you might even consider me the "poster girl" for the events, since a nice picture of yours truly participating was put up on screen at the front of the hall for every session after the first one...anyways.

The UBE is basically a proposal to connect United Blvd, that 4-lane road through big-box heaven over in Coquitlam, to Braid/ Brunette. You know that little wooden bridge that you can take as a shortcut to the Home Despot (sorry, Depot)? That's going to be a 4-lane highway if the UBE goes through.

Why, do you ask? Good question. Never answered by Translink; at least, not at the sessions I attended. The best that I have been able to glean from my various sources is that United Blvd will shortly become the North Fraser Perimeter Road, better known as Translink's Gift to the Trucking Industry, and so, by definition, this connection must be made.

There are, of course, lots of reasons why it actually is a crap idea to make this connection:
  • through-going truckers won't actually use United Blvd, because it has a bazillion intersections, driveways, and now a planned residential condo community. If I were a trucker, I'd use HWY 1. So...who are we building this for again?
  • the current volume of traffic coming over the bailey bridge is tiny. If you replace this with a 4-lane road, you will only add more congestion to already-at-capacity Brunette. So this will not solve congestion. It'll only increase the numbers of cars parked in traffic inside our borders.
  • the best Translink has been able to come up with so far has been a giant 4-lane bridge over the "dip" in the Skytrain between Sapperton and Braid stations. Oh, it'll be "mitigated" by an equally giant wall. And we'll get some trees and water features.
  • whatever option is chosen involves New West giving up industrial land (read: tax base). Hard to see exactly what price Coquitlam is paying for this. It's pretty clear they want the connection so those residents they're planning for can get to work...by car.
  • the UBE is part of the NFPR, which also involves a new Patullo Bridge (at least 4 lanes, probably more like 6), and a 4-lane trucking freeway where Front Street is. The NFPR is required (according to Translink and their simulations) to accommodate the truck traffic that'll soon be zipping between the various shiny new ports and their distribution centers in the hinterland.
  • as previously noted, adding more car capacity does not solve congestion, it creates more of it - and these frustrated drivers will then be ratrunning through Sapperton and clogging up Braid / 8th. These streets currently already effectively bisect New West's communities - they are impossible to cross on foot.
  • whatever happened to Translink's stated goals of prioritizing walking, cycling, and transit? This is about as diametrically opposed to those goals as you can get.
  • we are now experiencing transit cuts - the 155/154 bus routes, ones I use a lot, are now back down to 1 hour evening service levels. The Evergreen Line, which Coquitlam really, really needs, is still not built. Aren't these supposed to be the real priorities?
{Translink's favourite option, looking down Brunette.}
{click to enlarge.}

Very few of the problems identified by community residents during the consultation sessions would be improved in the slightest by the creation of the UBE. Most could be mitigated completely independently of this project. So to present local traffic calming, removing level crossings and mitigating train noise, green space enhancement, pedestrian safety, and bike infrastructure as part of the UBE is disingenuous. How about doing all these things and not building the UBE? It'll sure be cheaper!

What about option "C', one of only 2 ideas really brought forward by the community: close the level crossing to traffic at Braid, so you can't get to the bailey bridge that way anymore? No more backups due to trains, and, they can stop whistling. Yeah, it'll be a bit harder for the buses, but I'm sure we can think of some solution there. I'll happily give up my shortcut to Home Depot! And you know, it's pretty cheap. Oh, but wait, then it's not a connection anymore. Sorry, dismissed.

New Westminster really needs to have a conversation about what it wants in terms of future development. I'd venture to suggest the following priorities:
  1. no net growth in pavement in our City - if lanes are added somewhere, we subtract lanes elsewhere. Land is precious in this City and we shouldn't be in a rush to pave it over. This goes for left turn bays, parking stalls, truck routes, everything. Add up the square footage of ashphalt, and keep that number constant.
  2. we take all steps to preserve the historic downtown we've got - dare to dream of a European-style, pedestrian-dominated, cafe-and-street-life oriented Columbia Street!
  3. we take all steps to ensure public, pedestrian access to the waterfront in its entirety - from the Industrial Land near Braid down to the Quay.
  4. we seriously start considering alternative goods movement scenarios - trucks during restricted hours, barges, trains, SkyTrain at night. We've got water access, we've got rail, what's the problem? Bureaucratic silos? Lack of vision?
  5. we give some thought to the future, which is looking like it'll have very expensive oil. It's quite likely that the transportation industry will look vastly different in 20 years time. Trucking, airlines, and shipping are likely to be affected - should we be spending money on keeping these industries afloat? Or on providing essential mobility in other ways?
I just watched A People's History of Canada, the episode where BC joins confederation on the promise of a railroad. It seems it was ever thus: the government and the transportation industry in each other's pockets.

**sigh**. End of rant.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Discover Portland! Car-free Holiday No. 1!

We first went to Portland a year and a half ago, just before Christmas, when Amtrak was having a $39 seat sale. We took up their offer and took the family (including 2 teenage boys) down for a long weekend. We had a really good time.

Now, more people have discovered this awesome getaway.

For starters, my colleagues at work are starting to use the Amtrack Cascades train (from VCR to Portland) for business trips. I work in the pulp and paper sector, and there are several mills in the environs of Vancouver (WA) and Portland (OR). So, rather than rent a car and drive down, we now get on the train, and pick up a rental car at the other end to get us to the mill. The train has several huge advantages over driving:
  • the customs are in the Vancouver train station: the lineups are much shorter and the border services staff is much friendlier than what you'll find at the Peace Arch (a big bonus when you're going down for work, with a visa in your passport...)
  • the train has WiFi (at least, the Amtrak Cascades does), so you can actually do some work while travelling (OK, it's not super speedy, but adequate for email and some limited surfing)
  • there's a buffet car with food and a bar, so you can get a beer on the way back home (which is a late train)
  • the train is actually quite comfortable - built to European standards, not some ancient North American rolling stock
Of course, you have to get yourself to the station by 6:15 am to catch the train...but on weekdays, I can get the first SkyTrain from Sapperton station and be there in plenty of time. On weekends or holidays, it's harder - we have to either take a cab, or use our Modo (car share) membership to pick up one of their Main/Terminal vehicles the night before, and drive ourselves back early the next morning.

Anyways, we took our teenage sons down to Portland for the Easter long weekend recently. The train was packed! There's lots of accomodation options in Portland, but we like the Inn at Northrup Station, a funky boutique hotel with fully functional kitchenettes. The hotel is a good 30 min. walk from the station, but it's on the tram line and in a funky neighbourhood with lots of restaurants and a Trader Joe's nearby for all your gastronomic requirements. Do try the Urban Fondue. And there's also the Slabtown BBQ restaurant, for good ole' southern BBQ (with 2 teenaged boys, this is a must-do for us).

 There's a very lively "Saturday Market" along the Wilamette river (pronounced "wil - AH - met"), tons of boutique shopping in a very, very walkable city core. Lots of great bike shops. Tons of brewpubs - although I must say, I prefer our own BC microbrews; I find the Portland beers all a bit too hoppy. And, of course, there's Powell's Books, a fantastic bookstore that both my sons will spend HOURS in. For us, this is a dangerous shop...

The history museum is worth a visit, you might even get a personal tour like we did from a decidedly left-wing guide. The forestry center is interesting. There's an art museum as well, and a zoo, neither of which we have yet checked out. And if you're into music, there's lots to be had on that front also!
In short, well worth a visit (or two...three...)!