Monday, November 3, 2014

Election TIme!

....aaaand it's election time again in the Lower Mainland.

Since I'm a bike commuter, I use "cycling infrastructure" a lot. Translation: I ride on the roads, because there are no separated bike paths anywhere along my commute from New West to North Van. Anyways, I always look forward to HUB's election-time questionnaire, which helps sort out those candidates who have a basic understanding of cycling issues.

Here's a link to their results, with responses from candidates throughout the Lower Mainland.

As far as New West goes, here are the responses (not all candidates responding) to the two questions posed:

[question 1 and responses. Click to enlarge.]

[question 2 and responses. Click to make bigger.]
...we can see right away who really has no grasp of reality on cycling issues....

 One candidate seems to believe that cycling is an "extra" which costs so much that we will be plunged into debt if we even think of painting one more bike lane in. Cycling is not really transportation, in other words. What I do every day to get to work doesn't count and isn't worth spending any money on; it's a cost to society we cannot afford.

Adding bike infrastructure is, of course, waaaaaaay cheaper than adding more car infrastructure. Perhaps we should ask this candidate to clarify her position on road and parking improvements in the City? Also, every car we take off the road reduces wear and tear on the tarmac and increases the health of the population. But, I suppose since these benefits don't accrue in the form of tax revenue to the city, we should simply ignore them in the name of reducing our tax burden. Anyways, the reality is that cyclists subsidize car drivers, not the other way 'round.

Another candidate (who happens to reside at the same address as the one above) really doesn't understand either the purpose or economics of licensing, or of insurance. I've written about this before. Last time we had an election, in fact, when the same candiate had the same position. I guess the candidate has not bothered to educate himself since. Look, insurance isn't there to "pay for the roads". Insurance covers the costs of accidents. And cyclists - when they cause accidents - do not cost the system anywhere nearly as much as cars do (because they do far less damage to other's property). So ICBC sees no financial reason to create bike liability insurance. (All this apart from the fact that most cyclists are already insured.) Licensing fees are not there to "pay for the roads", either. They are there to cover the costs of the licensing administration itself. We invent vehicle licensing because we want to control who drives: a car is a dangerous weapon; a one-tonne steel object flying by at 40km/h. A bike is nowhere near this dangerous. Requiring licenses for bikes discourages cycling (are you gonna get your son Bobby a license???) and the costs of running such a system far exceed the fees collected.

So that's an easy 2 down then.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Scootering Senior


Older gent, dressed in fringed black leather jacket with biker patch on back, baseball cap, and nice cowboy boots, pulls up to my bus stop on one of those "senior scooters". Bus pulls up, he positions himself at the front of the line for the ramp...beep beep beep...down comes the ramp, gentleman scoots onto the bus and we see him get off the scooter and flip up the seats to make room for his device at the front of the bus.  

Then walks to his scooter, lifts it into position, and walks to the back of the bus to take a seat.

The rest of us, waiting in line outside, all glance at each other, incredulous.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

More Modo!


My favourite car-sharing outfit, Modo, has been on an expansion kick into New West lately. There are now 11 cars in New West, and several more within spitting distance (Edmonds, Lougheed). And, with the transit-oriented development being planned at Braid Station (aka Sapperton Green), we'll probably be getting a few more shared cars in the coming years.

When I first joined back in 2003, there was one single car at 22nd St station...I am so so happy with this expansion! It really increases my mobility options.

[map of Modo cars in and around New Westminster]
Vancouver's other car-sharing companies, ZipCar and Car2Go , sadly, do not operate in New West.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Germany, Once Again.

There's a lot to like about Germany. They make great beer, excellent sausages (although apparently **gasp** prices have been rigged thanks to a Sausage Cartel for years), their soccer team is  officially the best on the planet, and their economy is greener than most. So it's no wonder that we look at what they are doing, and think that we should be following suit. Especially in terms of energy supply.

However, as I've pointed out many times now, BC's problems are a little different from Germany's.

Germany has a "dirty electricity problem". They used to get most of their electricity from coal and nuclear power. They made a policy decision to change that, and they have changed it dramatically. Not without costs, of course - and those costs are rarely, if ever, discussed in the stories you read in the "green press". This, naturally, irritates me, because glossing over the costs does nothing to educate people about the real-life, difficult trade-offs that such policy decisions require.

One of the major costs of Germany's "energiewende" - which is what they call their renewable-supporting, anti-nuke policy - is the price of home electricity. Germans pay $0.35/kWh for their electricity (important note: industry does not pay those rates. There is no way they could survive if they did. They pay about 1/3 of that.) For comparison, this is almost 5 times what we pay, here in BC ($0.075/kWh).

If we wanted to build a photovoltaic power system here in BC, we'd have to pay similar rates. That's what this stuff costs. Not saying it's bad, it's just expensive. So, the $230 million in tax breaks that the Feds give to coal, natgas, and oil, if used to purchase solar electricity instead (which, of course, we cannot do), would purchase about 660MW/h - enough to power about 60,000 homes. Spending that money on hydro-electric electrons instead would service ~250,000 homes. For perspective, the proposed site C dam would power 450,000 homes. Replacing site C's capacity with a whole bunch of solar panels instead, requires the equivalent of $1.7billion  per year in "tax break money".

Site C represents roughly 10% of BC's total generating capacity. If we were to forego this development and replace it with a massive buildout of solar PV instead, I'm guessing our rates would have to increase by about 1.4 times (10% of my bill would go up by a factor of 5). In other words, the average homeowner would see their bill increase by about $300/yr. And the more solar PV one adds, the higher the price gets: 20% solar? Your bill increases by $600/yr.

So here is the tradeoff discussion:

On one hand:
Maintain our cheap hydro electricity, but we have to flood Hudson's Hope.

On the other:
Eye-wateringly expensive solar electricity, but we'd surely get an installation industry out of this, if not necessarily a solar-panel-manufacturing industry. We'd see a push towards more efficient heating systems than standard baseboard heaters...

 But this tradeoff discussion doesn't even begin to solve BC's real "dirty" problem, which, unlike Germany, isn't dirty electricity. BC's problem is dirty transportation. Germany's solar PV revolution can't help us solve this one. So this entire discussion, and constant referral to Germany's fantastic! stupendous! solar energy system is a fight between one green electricity system and another (more expensive) one. And this is not a fight I care much about; at this point, we are dickering about the price of energy vs. ruining/industrializing landscapes (which happen with wind and solar PV, as well). I would much prefer to see progress in cutting CO2 emissions, which has nothing to do with where BC gets its electricity from.

I'm far more interested in looking at Germany's much cleaner transportation system, and learning from that! Clue: it involves high gas prices to discourage driving. Germans are paying about $2.25/l these days.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

More Big Bad Subsidies

The explicit subsidies we give to fossil fuel companies here in BC are actually not very big, popular noise notwithstanding. Most of the direct tax breaks are from the Federal goverment, and they are "general" business tax breaks having to do with capital investment writeoffs.

Of course, there are other, implicit subsidies that we give to industries. These are embedded in our regulations regarding access, tenure, pollution, etc. I'm guessing it's these implicit subsidies that eco-concerned citizens are really concerned about. But these subsidies are actually hard to put a dollar figure on. So, being my pin-headed, quantitative self, I get riled when people claim it's millions! billions! without backing up their claims.

As an example, consider the mining industry, which arguably is "subsidized" because of mineral rights: private land owners have only surface rights (and no rights to anything deeper than 1m underground).  This means that a mining company can dig up your land for kitty litter and you have no recourse, although you will likely receive some compensation. Most mining companies (and forestry companies, and gas/oil firms) have to pay royalties on the products extracted from the land. One could argue that the royalties are too low, and that therefore this is a subsidy (this was the basis of the softwood lumber dispute a number of years ago), but it is very difficult to set an "impartial, data-driven" cost on such a subsidy - mostly they are set by political means, which means that business-friendly governments lowball 'em and pinko-commie governments set 'em high. The discussions around BC's LNG royalty regime are ongoing.

Most resource-extraction activities take place on Crown Land (ie. public lands). Companies lease the land from the Crown to operate on it, and there are regulations that govern what they can do on the land they've leased. The Alberta bitumen sands, BC's hydro dams and many remote windfarms also fall under this category. These regulations frequently require remediation of lands (replanting, cleanup, etc). The amount of remediation that Joe Public wants done has increased over the years (for instance, in 1910 nobody gave a shit about creekbeds in the backwoods; hence Hydraulic Mining, the evidence of which is still visible around BC today), and of course regulations are slow to follow. So is this a subsidy?  How much of one?

Lots of people complain about the "externalities" of industry that the companies don't have to pay for; CO2 emissions being one of them. Here in BC, emitting CO2 is no longer free. It costs money. Not so in Alberta... So is this a subsidy?

Then, there is R&D funding that is industry-specific. Clearly, over the years, a lot of government-funded, University-performed research into extracting oil from the tar sands in the best way possible (most efficient, least damaging) has been done. This, it could be argued, is a form of subsidy to the tar sands industry. But how big of one? There are professors studying forestry best practises, wind and solar energy as well....are these subsidies to those industries? There was a lot of "help" from government sources to establish the whole of Alberta's oil and natural gas sector, back in the 60's, including setting up the Geological Survey of Canada, which provided tax-payer funded mapping services - not all focused on oil deposits! - for decades. Subsidy? Good? Bad?

full disclosure: I profited directly from these government efforts. My father was a geologist with the GSC in Calgary when I was growing up.

Alberta's oil and gas sector - including the Tar Sands - has been decades in the making. For many years, oil sands development was carried on by Petrocan, which, back in the day, was a Crown Corporation and a child of the energy crisis (and "energy nationalism" - good? bad?). But no longer.  Now, the role of government is in tinkering with royalty rates (setting them high enough for revenue but low enough to attract business), and in establishing a "trained workforce" via targeted university R&D funding (which is what some of those royalties go towards). What has been driving oil extraction for a good decade now is the fact that money can be made selling an international commodity. The oil market is such that the very expensive tar sands stuff is profitable. It's even profitable if there are insufficient pipelines to bring it to market, and if they have to rail-car the crap to its destination.

In fact, one could argue that the government "backed a winner" - helping, over decades, to create an industry that gives people jobs and the government, revenue. The fact that it's a large industry now has created its own problems. And that is the catch with all "government tinkering". Whatever you think you're going to create by "targeted encouragement", it won't be nirvana. The Ontario government is ramping up wind power (over nuclear), and is facing increasing opposition from rural people who don't like the industrialization of their landscape that this entails. Energy production on a large scale - whatever the source - has a large environmental footprint.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tiny Houses...

For a while, I've been following the trend towards "tiny houses". Architects are coming up with cool, very functional dwellings with really small footprints. They are beautiful objects of desire. Of course, it doesn't hurt that these places are always photographed basically empty and with no people inside them (so it is hard to judge the scale - to see how really tiny they are!).

Architectural mags are full of these things, and they come in wheeled versions as well.

Recently it struck me that all these houses are always photographed in rural settings. As in, a tiny house alone on an open prairie, by a lake, in a forest...and suddenly I realized that these houses are therefore not a housing solution at all, really. They don't help people who really need small homes, get housing. I mean, isn't the target market for such tiny homes supposed to be those of us who don't need a lot of space, but don't have a lot of money, either? These folks are surely not going to have the money to buy an acreage or a suburban lot, and plunk down an architecturally-designed microhome on it.

The problem is the cost of land. So if you need to live like this (a "tiny house" on wheels in someone's back yard - I suspect it's the parents'), I really wonder if it wouldn't be more comfortable and a far better investment to use the money to fix up your parent's basement instead, and live there?? That way, their house might actually go up in value, too. You could still live debt-free and without a car! Just sayin'!

Or this (a new "tiny home" constructed on an urban plot). To what problem, exactly, is this a solution?? Read about how the owner doesn't qualify for a traditional mortgage (because the bank has figured out that nobody will want to buy this house if the loan goes into default). I mean, if you have a tiny lot and you need infill, then OK (we've got some of those on a street near us and they are quite functional - but they're bigger than this one). But on a standard lot? Really, build something normal with a basement suite. Srsly.

What's really needed in terms of microhousing are things like laneway homes and legal suites, where you increase the density on existing plots of land. Or small - affordable - apartments in cities, which again, increase density. And these are all controversial exactly because they increase density.  So, this explains why tiny houses are marketed they way they are: alone in an expansive landscape, where they are clearly innocent of any controversial density-increasing tendencies.

Don't get me wrong. There is lots to be said for simplifying one's life, for downsizing and doing with less, and if reading magazines that emphasize white space, or staring at nice photos of small homes, helps you achieve that, so much the better. But be aware of what these outfits are selling. Those magazines are there to make you buy shit. Most of the people who build those tiny homes do not actually live in them - they are used as "retreats", rented out to vacationers, or lived in by young couples who abandon them after a year.

So, while I love the pretty houses, and it's great that small houses are now objects of desire with a certain demographic, the real problem is getting them installed, in large numbers, in cities. And that's not something those magazines help with...

Monday, July 7, 2014

Art for New West

What with the controversy surrounding some public art in New West (note: I like 'em. I'm a fan of public art. I even like that stupid Tin Soldier.), I thought I'd give y'all some ideas of what I think would really up the ante for the waterfront.

1. a one-way-glass public toilet:

[outside view of mirror-glass public loo]

[inside view!]

I have actually used one of these, in Basel, Switzerland, a number of years ago. Very disconcerting, I must say. I think it would be an interesting addition to the Quay!

 2. a giant rubber ducky in the Fraser River:

[giant inflatable rubber duck by artist Florentijn Hofman]

There might be some issues deploying Rubber Duck in the Fraser, he'd have to swim around the log booms, but I think it'd be waaay cool!

3. a "kinetic" water fountain (ie. one that moves):

[water fountain / sculpture by Jean Tinguely]
We saw lots of work by the late Jean Tinguely when we lived in Switzerland, they are all wonderful. Nice to sit around in the heat of the day, too. The only problem: kids want to play in them.

4. a giant inflatable red ball that moves around the city:

What an addition to the Parkade this would be, squished between the floors...

5. take some time to smell the flowers...

[just a suggestion...]

I'm not sure this qualifies as "art", but what the heck. I think a few signs like this along the Boardwalk might liven up the scene a bit.

6. Sunshades...
[this is an installation in Portugal]

Nice for the new Pier Park, I think! That red pavillion doesn't have any roof...

I think money spent on public art is never wasted. It gets people thinking. It gets people talking. It gets people visiting and walking around outside!

Monday, June 30, 2014

1960's Lifestyle, Today

So a few posts ago I wrote about going back to a 1960's-level of GHG emissions, which involved cutting 60% of your fossil fuel energy use. It's hard for me to imagine what that would look like. So first I though I'd take a look at a "1960's lifestyle", to see if that would give me some idea of "where to cut". After all, I had quite a happy childhood in the 60's and my parents certainly never complained about it.

So what, exactly, are the differences between 1960 and now?

Hm. Combing the InterWebz, I get (approximate figures for Canada, some extrapolated from US figures):
  • average home size 1200 sq ft in 1960 vs 2200 sq ft today
  • average person-miles travelled by air as gone up by 40 
  • average person-miles travelled by highway has gone up by 4
  • electricity use per capita has tripled
  • total energy use per capita has doubled; fossil fuel component has dropped from 83 to 75% of total
Now, these figures include energy use by industry, divided out over the population. Obviously there are entirely new industries (business travel, telecommunications, data farms, call centers) that didn't exist in the 60's, so that energy use is being added to the bill now.

Taking into account that here in BC, our electricity is green, we only need to worry about the fossil fuel portion if all we're interested in is reducing greenhouse gases. That means every resident in BC would have to:

  • reduce person-miles flown by a factor of 40
  • reduce person-miles driven by a factor of 4
  • reduce home size (most standalone homes are heated by natural gas)
I think most people would have problems with the travel part. We've become incredibly mobile, and huge industries have sprung up around this. Reducing the amount of flying I do by a factor of 40 means basically never setting foot in a plane again. Realistically, this is not going to happen until the price for a plane ticket goes up a lot - and this would have big ramifications to the airline and travel industries. It is not enough for me, personally, to give up flying. Everyone has to do it.

Reducing the driving miles is a little easier for me as I don't use a car to commute. I only drive to do errands on a weekly basis, which is less than 20km/week. And actually, it would not be too much of a hardship to give even this up, too, as I have lots of shops within walking distance of my house. But there are lots of people who live in new suburbs for whom "not driving" is simply not an option. By now, we have designed our cities around the car (and not around public transit), with big-box stores and cul-de-sacs shaping our transportation options.

The average home in 1960 was a 3-bed, 1 bathroom affair with a garage and a den/basement. Living in a smaller home is coming to a neighborhood near you...the soaring price of real estate locally in New West and Vancouver means that many people are living smaller. Still, the "dream" is a bigger home...and my own home is bigger than 1200 sq ft. It's not 2200 sq ft, but still too big! The areas of biggest population growth in BC are in areas poorly served by transit, where a dollar buys you more square footage.

A "60's lifestyle" means you'd also need to cut down on electricity use. The easiest way to envision this is to downsize everything by 2/3 - smaller and fewer appliances, turned off when not in use (not in "standby"), and a smaller house requiring less lighting. The number of electric appliances the average household had in 1960:
  • refrigerator
  • stove
  • telephone (1)
  • vacuum cleaner
  • washing machine
  • iron, blender, toaster, electric frying pan
  • 1 black and white TV
Large appliances cost about $1,500 each (in today's dollars) and a large TV would cost $3,000. There were no microwave ovens. Businesses were just starting to use computers. People did not own leaf-blowers, sit-on lawn mowers, or pressure washers. Not to mention recreational power toys such as jet-skis or ATVs. Automobiles were inefficient by today's (car, not truck) standards, and most households and 1 or two only. Workers car-pooled much more frequently than they do today.

Back in the 60's, there were no smartphones and laptops. Modern telecommunications (read: data transfer via internet) use quite a bit of power - about as much as the home lighting sector in 1960. The energy used is used mostly by the server farms that deliver your data, not by your device itself (which is measured by its battery life). And since those server farms are not usually located in BC, we are using "fossil fuel electricity" remotely - and so can't get a free pass by claiming our electricity is green. Obviously, getting rid of this industry is unthinkable, so we would have to reduce in other areas instead, if energy use is capped in some way - so yes, the appliance list is relevant to us here in BC, as well. Are you willing to pare down to this level?

The biggest difference between living a 1960's lifestyle then and now, though, is the feeling of optimism that abounded. The 60's were a period of increasing economic affluence. People saw their disposable income rise by about 35% over the decade, and our society learned to equate material possessions with happiness. Everyone now knows what "retail therapy" means, and we all indulge every once in a while. The idea that one's children will be better off than oneself is ingrained now (after 3-4 generations of constant economic growth) and it is not so easy to imagine an alternative.It is not the same today. Living a 60's lifestyle today is an exercise is saying "no".

A lifestyle that means less (quite a bit less, judging by the list above) is not going to find many volunteers.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Canada's GHG History

Holy crap. Just discovered this site. Oh man. There's just so much data here! Truly amazing.

What can I learn from playing in this sandbox? 

I've heard from various learned people that if we, collectively, turn the clock back to 1960, we can avoid climategeddon. I guess this means, if we could get ourselves to emit the same amount of GHGs that we did in 1960 as a country, we'd be OK.

So, we need to find out what the GHG emissions look like. Let's check it out, with Google Public Data Explorer!

[Canada's total GHG emissions, from 1960 to 2008]
(I see right away that the CO2 emissions don't capture the whole story; one needs to include fluorine-type gases, nitrous oxides, and methane, which have all been increasing at the same rate. To get the total GHGs, multiply CO2 emissions by 1.3.)

Anyways, our total emissions in 2008 were about 3 times the level in 1960.That means, we collectively need to reduce our emissions by a factor of 3. Well, that's not quite what apparently is required - it's more like a factor of 4 (= 80% reduction) that's apparently needed...but whatever. Let's see how this plays out.

First, let's see how much each of us, individually, contribute to emissions. Important: the graph below includes all GHGs emitted by us as a country. Including that emitted by industry. Here it is:

[GHG emissions per capita]

Now, this is very interesting. We see that the per capita GHG emissions level has remained about constant since 1975! Canada saw a huge increase in per capita GHG emissions from 1960-1975, but only by a factor of 2. This means, that if everyone in the country today were to go back to 1960 levels of GHG emissions (ie. from 16.5 to about 11 on this graph), we would reduce our total emissions by a factor of 2, not three!

The problem is: population growth. A good chunk of Canada's increased GHG emissions has come from population growth

If we were to insist that our total emissions were to stay at the 1960 level for the country as a whole, that would mean that per capita, we'd have to reduce our GHG emissions to 32% of what they are today, to take into account population growth.

What does this mean in terms of energy consumption? Does this mean that we'd have to cut energy use by this huge fraction as well?

[CO2 intensity (kg of CO2 per kg of oil equivalent energy use)]
Luckily, the answer is "no - not quite", because we've gotten better at reducing the CO2 emissions from whatever energy we do use. We've gained about 20% in efficiency, which means that instead of a "32% energy lifestyle", we'd be allowed a "40% energy lifestyle". Woohoo!

To reduce our GHG emissions to 1960's levels, we all need to consume 60% less fossil fuel energy than we do today. That means: in the home, at work, and at play.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Love this article.

As a scientist I've had loads of training in the particular buzzwords of the field. I'm so used to it that I don't even really notice it anymore. But I should - I mean, I've been on the receiving end of a lot of jargon as well. My office uses a lot of management lingo, half of which I don't understand. Although I do try to interrupt meetings to ask "what does OTTR mean?" because I secretly suspect that half the room doesn't know, either.  

note: I don't know what it stands for. Something to do with on-time delivery or something.

Anyways, next time you talk to a scientist who is not making much effort to speak "normal", or you happen to be trying to decipher a science article, you can pull this handy-dandy table out of your pocket to translate.

[science terms, from Somerville and Hassol, Physics Today, Oct 2011]

Oh, and by the way - that's my mouse arrow there, not yours.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cutting Energy Use

I posted recently about the idea of "regression" - moving away from using so much energy, so that a transition to renewable sources can be made more easily.

How would we do this? How could our society use less energy - in particular, less fossil fuel based energy? This question depends on where one lives, obviously. You need to first understand the energy mix where you live. It's also important where your electricity comes from.

I think there are some pretty low-hanging fruit here in BC. I've posted about lots of them in the past. Have a look at my "energy pie" post, for instance. That's where it's obvious where some major gains could be had. The biggest gains would come from sharply reducing fossil fuel use in the transportation sector.

But clearly, our provincial government is not thinking along these lines at all. And, to be quite honest, neither are most municipal politicians, or probably most citizens. We've just had the new Port Mann bridge open, with 10 lanes - the widest bridge in North America - to enable more oil-based transportation. We will shortly be getting into replacement of the Massey Tunnel - and the plans there are for the same: a huge bridge for cars and trucks. New West is tussling with all the surrounding communities to try to convince them that a 6-lane Patullo is a bad idea, but it's swimming upstream the whole way. At the same time, the Tsawassen First Nation (who apparently have bought into our society's obsession with growth and the automobile) is building two new mega-malls which will be completely dependent on car-based consumers. Then, to top it all off, we're facing a referendum on TransLink funding, which is really being set up to fail. This would be, to put it mildly, a disaster of epic proportions. To be quite blunt, we need to back off on the car-dependence, big time, and invest heavily in public transportation - make it fast, convenient, and cheap.

If you are wondering what you can do about pushing for a more sustainable future, I'd argue that this area is the most important, and the most open to public input. Get out there, activists! I hear Get On Board BC is having an AGM soon, they're looking for help in working for a positive result on that TransLink referendum.

The next big fossil fuel user is heavy industry. That means: mining, cement-making, forestry, pulp mills, paper mills, smelters, etc. These businesses are very sensitive to energy prices and you can bet that they will do everything in their power to reduce costs of doing business. A carbon tax drives efficiencies in this sector, but the tax will be frozen at $30/tonne for the next 4 years. Obviously, it needs to go much higher - probably 2-4 times in the next decade or so - but this is likely not in the cards any time soon. This is, unfortunately, not an area in which Joe Public can do much. This is the jurisdiction of the Province, with lots of input from Big Business. Apparently, the carbon tax will be applied to any LNG burned in the province - which is good news, because the new plants will likely require onsite thermal gas plants to produce the electricity required to compress the LNG for shipping.

Residential energy use is, unfortunately, not an area where we can make big gains, here in urban BC. It is, though, where you can spend a little money to "do your bit", although if you rent, or live in an apartment or condo, you probably can't do much. Any money you spend will be "conscience money", because you likely won't see much of a payoff - the Lower Mainland has such a mild climate and our electricity rates are so low, that the return on investment of changes like these take a long time to realize. But if you want to contribute, think "energy star" all the way: your fridge, your furnace, augmenting or replacing baseboards with a heat-pump ("ductless mini-split"), improving your home's insulation and windows, etc.

What that energy-pie graph doesn't show, though, is the energy embodied in your diet. This is quite large, actually, estimated at 15-20% of your total footprint. You can make surprisingly large reductions by avoiding all beef and fish. You don't have to go totally vegetarian, or even avoid dairy or go organic, for a really sizable effect. And, of course, eat local and in-season. That's good for local farmers.

So there you have it: reduce car use, eat less meat, and help get the "yes" vote out in the upcoming TransLink referendum. Not much, is it? Until the government gets its head out of the sand, that's all we can do.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Big Bad Subsidies

The argument goes like this: our Big Bad Government gives away Tons of Money to Big Bad Oil Companies, and that if only they would give that money to Little Renewable Companies instead, we'd be on our way to green nirvana.

In today's episode of Green Myth Busting, let's have a detailed look at that claim.

Well, it's really pretty hard to find numbers on how much our various levels of government subsidize fossil fuel extraction. I recently came across this, though.There's a link in there to Canada, with a report and with actual data. So I had a look. In keeping with the theme of my blog, I'm just going to look at what affects me here, locally, in BC. So that is, BC provincial subsidies as well as the Federal ones.

[coal subsidies in BC, from the OECD report on Canada]

So, BC taxpayers hand over $25.2 million in subsidies (and I'm including supporting Geoscience BC, which is a non-profit) to fund the production of coal. From the BC Government's own statistics, that works out to about $0.91 / tonne of coal produced. 

I should note that 70-90% of this coal is of a metallurgical grade: it is used to make steel. It is high-grade, and too expensive for most buyers to burn for electricity generation. And, since I've already noted that we can't have solar panels or wind turbines without steel, is it fair to target these subsidies? 

Also note that the lion's share of the subsidies is in tax breaks from the Feds, and it's important to note that some of these tax breaks ("accelerated capital cost allowance", "flow through share deductions" ) would also be given to other businesses. Like windmills, for instance. So are these really subsidies that we should be getting angry about? Anyways, on we go, assuming "yes" to both those questions...

Here's the table for petroleum. Now we're into some bigger money. But, most of the tax breaks are federal, and those are mostly to the benefit of Alberta producers, who produce 99% of the oil in Canada. So I suppose I should really only count 1% of those Federal subsidies as going to BC. Then, I've subtracted out those subsidies that go to consumers in the form of fuel tax exemptions. Fair? That would make BC subsidies about $27 million in total, or about $3.40 per barrel of oil produced (here in BC).

[petroleum subsidies in BC, from same OECD report]

...and finally, let's look at natural gas. BC produces about 35% of the natural gas in Canada, the rest is in AB. So again let's split the Federal tax credits along these lines, shall we? That gives us about $180 million in subsidies, or about a nickel per cubic foot of gas produced.

[subsidies to natural gas production in BC and yeah, you know where it's from]

Right. So there you have it:

a buck per tonne of coal,
$3.50 per barrel of oil, 
a nickel per cubic foot of gas.

Works out to about $230 million, here in BC. I am not at all sure that this sum of money would bring about green nirvana. Supporting wind or hydro power here in BC is not without controversy. For electricity sources, a typical subsidy would be a guaranteed feed-in tariff, that would be a few cents per kWh or something. In fact, we can look this up since BC Hydro is the single buyer of 99% of the electricity in this province.

Let's do that math...if 1 bbl oil has the approximate energy content of 1600 kWh, our $3.50/bbl subsidy works out to about $0.002 per kWh. Note that this is very, very much smaller that BC Hydro's current "standing offer" of about $100/MWh for clean energy. $100/MWh is about $0.100/kWh, in other words, BC Hydro currently subsidizes clean energy at a rate 50 times higher than we subsidize oil.

Conclusion: We are already subsidizing clean energy at a rate 50x that of oil. It has not brought about green nirvana. The problem isn't lopsided subsidies favouring fossil fuels. The problem lies elsewhere, with the clean energy sources themselves, which are much more expensive than hype would have you believe. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Our civilization is defined by the oil molecule

That's my husband's favourite saying.

Replacing oil (and by extension, all fossil fuels) is desirable because:
1. using them releases CO2, which is causing global climate disruption, and
2. it is becoming steadily more difficult to find cheap fossil fuels

However desirable it may be, however, it's pretty obvious that replacement will not be either easy or cheap.

Judging by history, bringing online a new energy source (example: coal) and having it displace an older one (example: straw/wood) will take many decades. The bigger the scale of the replacement required, the more complicated, expensive, and time-consuming it is. And the scale of our fossil-fuel use is truly staggering. If you look at history, there have been several occasions when we moved from one source of energy to another: from wood/straw to coal, from coal to oil, from oil to natural gas (still ongoing!) and now into "renewables".

Interestingly, these transitions have all been remarkably recent. Coal came online in 1840 (and still has 50% "market share"), oil in 1915, natural gas in 1930. The natural gas transition, of course, is still going at full speed (think: shale gas - of which there is plenty on the planet). The penetration rate of each new wave is lower (it takes longer), because the scale required for penetration has gotten much larger. Modern renewables are in their infancy, and cannot be expected to scale up to any appreciable energy share for many decades yet.

Each new generation of energy source relies heavily on the previous ones. Each new source requires brand new infrastructure (ex. intermittent solar and wind require massive buildouts of new power lines) that requires using the old power sources to put into place. This is why it is not possible to "get rid" of, for instance, coal. We will be burning coal for many decades into the future. Coal is required to make steel, which is a major ingredient for windmills. And for the machinery required to mine silicon, which goes into solar panels.

This makes it very difficult to imagine what a "sustainable" civilization might look like. Everything around us - modern digital technology, transportation, agriculture, pharma, construction, mining - is based on coal/oil/natural gas, and many of these things simply cannot be done on the required scale by renewable electricity alone. To take one key example: one needs pure carbon to make steel. Today, that carbon comes from coal. Making steel creates a lot of CO2. (In the past, charcoal was used, which is partly why Britain has no more forests. ) Without steel, we would not have our modern society. No internal combustion engines, for instance.

We are trapped in a CO2-generating civilization, and there is no easy route out. Renewables cannot be brought into existence, cannot be maintained and repaired, without continuing along the fossil fuel path for many decades.

The only way out is via regression - cutting energy use drastically and rethinking our commitment to steel, digital technology, and the internal combustion engine. But this is a discussion we are not having. We all want to believe that the next technological improvement will save us, enabling our lifestyle to continue.

Regression means capping our energy use, which can only come about on the scale required by government action. That's what a carbon tax does. It will make steel much more expensive, it'll make car ownership much more expensive, it'll make owning a new cell phone every 3 years impossible. It will make new infrastructure like electric mass transit more expensive. And yes, it will make "renewable" energy much more expensive, too. And that scares people - and no wonder. What about all the jobs?

But we are locked in for the next few decades - and they will get rough as climate disruption starts kicking in. It may well be that the economic consequences of climate disruption are such that we will  no longer be able to afford our energy-hungry society, in which case, the regression will be imposed on us.

Best start planning for that.

Remind me: why are we tinkering with the ALR again?