The dark side of solar

The math isn’t adding up for the local economics of solar farms as reported by the LAtimes.

BrightSource Energy’s $2.7-billion Hidden Hills solar power plant in Inyo County was  first estimated to boost the County;s general fund 17%. But this didn’t factor in the federal solar tax exclusion on property. Fewer than 10 local workers get permanent jobs — just 5% of the construction jobs would be filled by county residents, who are likely to spend their money in Nevada – not Inyo County’s population center in Owens Valley. Improvements to public infrastructure like roads would cost the county $11 million to $12 million. Then in perpetuity would be  nearly $2 million a year in additional public safety and other services paid by tax payers. This reality contrasts with the rosy picture painted by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, who promised 1,000 construction jobs and 100 permanent positions, generating wages of nearly $550 million over the life of the project contributing more than $300 million in local and state tax revenues. Not much discussion of the ecological side in the article beyond the expected higher property values and decreased public access to land as habitat mitigation areas are cordoned off.

“We’ve got county residents living in cargo containers near the solar site, seniors living in trailer parks on fixed incomes — they all manage to pay their 1% property tax fee,” said Kevin Carunchio, the county’s administrative official. “Nobody is outright against these projects on ideological grounds or land-use principles. We don’t think we should have to bear the cost for energy that is being exported to metropolitan areas.”

Then there is the visual impacts:

“Residents will live as close as 600 feet from a heliostat field replete with approximately 170,000 mirrors encircling two 750-foot towers as their neighbor.”

BrightSource maintained that the power plant would not create a significant visual impact. Instead the project has been pitched as a potential tourist attraction, with its twin 70-story towers envisioned as a magnet drawing sightseers to the Pahrump Valley.

Carunchio — who is open to most plans to bring attention to the region — is skeptical.

“I can’t believe that people will drive the long way to Death Valley just to look at the Eye of Mordor,” he said.

Elsewhere in the Mojave:

“Southern California is going to become the home to the state’s ability to meet its solar goals,” said Gerry Newcombe, public works director for San Bernardino County. “That’s great, but where are the benefits to the county?”

in San Bernadino County, the $2.2-billion Ivanpah solar project will be proving a $377,000 annual payment to the county in lieu of taxes. This doesn’t cover the public safety costs.

Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to “crush” opponents of solar projects. At the launch of a solar farm near Sacramento, the governor pledged: “It’s not easy. There are gonna be screw-ups. There are gonna be bankruptcies. There’ll be indictments and there’ll be deaths. But we’re gonna keep going — and nothing’s gonna stop me.” …

“The solar companies are the beneficiaries of huge government loans, tax credits and, most critically for me, property tax exemptions, at the expense of taxpayers,” said [Riverside] county Supervisor John Benoit, referring to a variety of taxpayer-supported loans and grants available to large solar projects as part of the Obama administration’s renewable energy initiative. “I came to the conclusion that my taxpayers need to get something back.”

Solar development isn’t looking as bright as it was – but just contrast this with permanent destruction of groundwater, nearby resident’s health, and green house gas emissions of fracking and the negative impacts of solar still make it the best energy source (other than conservation) we have.  The best place for solar is on roofs and disturbed lands – not intact desert habitat There is a place for large utility scale solar energy development, but it needs to be done wisely, not quickly.

Solar power plants burden counties that host them –


Data of the Day – cooling degree days

We should all move to Bogota to stay cool!

Crank It Up - Graphic -

Data source: Michael Sivak, University of Michigan

From The Cost of Cool, NYTimes, by

Price of Infrastructure

Ben Jacobs asks a basic question in the Washington Monthly: why is infrastructure so much more expensive to build in the US then elsewhere in the world? A great question, but then Jacob fails to follow up with any answers – a clear case of journalistic malpractice, especially when he doesn’t even use original sources, but just relies on second-hand reporting, and ends up comparing apples with oranges. Pity, as this really is an excellent question worth digging into.

So off the top of my head, here are some of the differences that start to pile up costs of infrastructure projects in the US – and no, cheaper labor elsewhere isn’t the primary cause.

The comparisons used up by Jacobs are the California High Speed Rail (US$89b) versus Chinese High Speed Rail  (US$276 billion & counting), and New York CIty’s 2nd Avenue Subway versus London’s Crossrail.

2nd Ave Subway is being dug through  the middle of a vibrant urban core with active business and residents straddling the route, unlike Crossrail which over half are through the still mostly vacant east london docks

As to California High Speed Rail costs, one of the largest expense of the project is that  real estate prices are several orders of magnitudes greater in the Golden State than China (even with corruption and a billion+ more people). There are also significant differences in seismic risks that are present for the entirety of the California route compared to China’s ring of fire – requiring more robust construction. That the China can built infrastructure cheaper is also a myth that has been debunked (WashPo & FastCo). Turns out that most large infrastructure projects in China have significant layers of hidden costs attributed to corruption at all levels of their government, bad accounting practices, and the possibility of  causing the catastrophic collapse of Chinese Banks if there is a default on the infrastructure bubble debts. Then there are the safety shortcuts that are proving to have a high human cost (California has much better oversite, so what was engineered is actually what gets built). Turns out that if we compare apples with apples, the true costs for HSR – no matter where the track are laid – are similar around the world.

Via The Expense of Infrastructure in the US

Now Urbanism

The Chronicle for Higher Education looks at Ecological Urbanism from a weird perspective, and written by Jon Christensen, who recently appeared at the Now Urbanism project at the University of Washington (which gets mentioned at the end of the article).

[W]e ought to be teaching a new generation of students how to balance multiple objectives to increase sustainability from the city core out to the wilderness, along what Andrés Duany calls “the transect.” All along this transect, trade-offs must be made between people and nature. But in our own canvas of urban-planning programs at American universities, we found relatively few programs that offer an explicit and sustained focus on ecology and conservation science. And few programs in ecology and conservation offer any in-depth exposure to urban planning. Integrated programs that teach students both urban and conservation-planning principles will be key to overcoming this deficiency. Moreover, other disciplines should be brought into this vital conversation.

Guess they didn’t bother asking me about what I’m doing at Cal Poly Pomona, or my former colleagues at the University of Minnesota… [But I do take exception for the empty shout-out to Duany – he certainly isn’t the only person with an idea of how cities meld into the rural landscape.]

City River Bridge

[Another post that I've been intending on finishing for a while, but got shelved 
due to my move back to Los Angeles last fall...]

The 2007 I-35W Mississippi Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis has become just one of many infrastructure failures from the past few years.  But here in the Twin-Cities, crossing the River is part of our daily life. The impact of the collapse and rebuilding is still resonating  within our collective memory and in the fabric of our metropolis. Following the collapse, there was a symposium at the University of Minnesota in October 2008 to explore the fallout and implications of the bridge collapse hosted by the River Life project. My colleague and friend, Patrick Nunnally, edited the essays that emerged from the symposium into a book published in spring 2011. I promised him a no-holds bared review, so here it is.

The City, the River, the Bridge: Before and after the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) covers a range of topics from the hyper-local impacts of the bridge closures and detours on the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, to bigger questions about our technological society. Organized into themes:

  1. The Bridge: Object, Metaphor, Process;
  2. The City: Neighborhoods and Transportation;
  3. The River: After the Collapse;

The essays vary in relevance to potential readers and perhaps limit the overall significance of the book by limiting their connections to the larger context.

Not to say that essays about one neighborhoods trauma and hardship, or the specifics of the local political solutions to an engineering problem don’t have a wider societal relevance. But this book is peculiarly Minnesotan in its insistence of ignoring the bigger picture and refusal to make connections with national and international precedence or similar project. (I’ve had many students at the U question why traveling outside the region was important since folks from elsewhere wouldn’t visit Minnesota!)

The one essay that transcends this provincialism is Tom Fisher’s chapter ‘Fracture-Critical: The  I-35W Bridge Collapse as Metaphor and Omen’ (an excerpt/derivation of this essay can be read on Places). Tom connects the failure of the gusset plates to the failure of our financial system, the failure of the levees in NOLA in Katrina, and our culture that cares more about paying the lowest up-front price for anything. He wraps up his chapter by discussing the need to build a more resilient future (which of course gets me all excited).

Over the coming decades, we need to bring together all of the environmental knowledge we have in order to nurture the natural systems we depend on, with all of the ethical understandings we can muster to help us thrive within the material constraints we will face. Of the bridges we will need to build in the process, the bridge in understanding that will help us leave behind our old hubris in order to reach a newfound humility may be the most important of all.

Avoiding fracture critical systems is a significant challenge for the 21st century. Conversely, avoiding unintended failures caused by the increasing complexity of systems is also a rising threat.

There is a good failure analysis of the bridge on Free Republic, and the official MnDOT 35w bridge pages on the history of the bridge, about the collapse.

Thanks to Patrick Nunnally and the University of Minnesota Press for provided the review copy.

Tactical Infrastructures Screening


• A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;
• Implementation of local solutions to local planning challenges;
• Short-term commitment and realistic expectations;
• Low-risk actions which hold the potential for high reward; and
• The development of social capital between citizens and the growth of collective organizational capacity among public, private, and non-profit institutions and their constituents

Project 2: Tactical Infrastructure     
As a process for city-making, tactical urbanism effectively addresses the convergence of three well-documented trends: shrinking municipal budgets, a generational shift to urban living, and the rapid exchange of ideas enabled by advances in information and communications technology.

The public is welcome at our final review and the screening of the student-generated videos for the project on Friday, March 9th, 3-6pm at Cal Poly Pomona, Building 7, Room 203.

LA402L’s Video 1: Eco-Technical Mapping of the Northeastern San Fernando Valley can be viewed here.

Infrastructural Art – Jason Mitcham

Jason Mitcham is best known for animating the Avett Brothers’ video “head full of doubt/road full of promise“.

Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise from Jason Mitcham on Vimeo.

His paintings provide an interesting view of urban landscapes and infrastructure that remind me of William Kentridge’s work without the moral angst of apartheid, perhaps Mitcham’s work expresses the existential angst of modern life with our lack of connection to place.

This Land is Your Land from Jason Mitcham on Vimeo. Continue reading