Energy Blog: Wind Power Needs Transmission Line Help

By Andy Silber

The Poorest County in the Country is in the middle of the Saudi Arabia of Wind

The latest rankings show that the poorest county in the Country is Ziebach County, South Dakota. Two Indian Reservations make up this very rural county with a population density of 1.3 people per square mile (as compared to  816 people per square mile for King County). This is a place where more than 60% of the people live at or below the poverty line (a family of four making less than $22,000 a year).

Dealing with generations of poverty is difficult.  It’s hard to imagine what the people of Ziebach County could do to bring prosperity to this windy spot in the middle of nowhere. Wait, did you say windy? There’s power in the wind. There’s money in the wind. There are jobs in the wind. Maybe the Reservation could raise capital and build a windfarm.

Looking at the wind resource map for South Dakota shows that Ziebach County is in the middle of some of the best wind resources in the world. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that South Dakota alone could be home to over 800,000 MegaWatts (MWs) of wind turbines. This could replace about 300 plants the size of Washington’s only coal-fired power plant in Centralia. By comparison, Washington State’s wind potential is less than 10,000 MWs.

South Dakota could support 800,000 MW, but only has 412 MW of installed capacity. By comparison Washington, which has relatively meager wind potential, has 1964 MW of installed wind turbines. The difference is access to markets. Washington’s wind farms are located near existing long distance transmission power lines that can transmit the power generated to Seattle or elsewhere. The windfarm developers didn’t need to build the transmission capacity, they just connected to what was already there. In South Dakota there just isn’t much in the way of transmission lines to connect to. Without the transmission, that wind power is stranded. Looking again at the map of the grid, we see that North Dakota has significant connections to the Minneapolis area and 1222 MW of installed wind power, despite having slightly less potential than its neighbor to the south. It’s clear that the most important element leading to the development of wind power is not wind, but transmission.

In the 1950’s we started to build the interstate highway system, which changed the landscape of this country, allowing goods and commerce to flow more easily. We had state highways that served local needs, but if you wanted to drive from sea to shining sea you needed to cobble together a route from a series of highways.

The federal system eased the trip. Today we need to build a similar system for the flow of renewable energy. The current electrical grid was built to move power short distances, not move wind power from Ziebach County to Chicago, Detroit or Miami. Building such a system would allow us to decommission our fleet of coal-fired power plants, while bringing prosperity to places like Ziebach County.

Energy Blog: Let’s Make Evergreen State Coal Free

By Andy Silber

Help Make Washington Coal Free

The Earth’s climate is changing because humans are burning lots of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. As has been said before, we need to focus on coal for several reasons:

  1. It is the most carbon intensive:
  2. Excluding carbon, it’s the dirtiest fuel around (including nuclear)
  3. It’s the easiest to replace
  4. It is the most plentiful

Below I’m not comparing coal to renewables (which is the direction I believe we can and should go), but with other fossil fuels. When we get to the last point you’ll see why.

Carbon Intensity

This is the most straightforward, it’s just simple chemistry. All fossil fuels contain molecules that release energy during combustion. Coal has more carbon per unit of energy than other fossil fuels, 30% more than oil and 80% more than natural gas. And these numbers assume that the fuel is used in a perfectly efficient plant. The reality is worse; coal plants have a low efficiency (according to one study 31%) compared to 50% at a Combined Cycle Gas Turbine fueled by natural gas. So the electricity generation a typical coal plant (e.g. The TransAlta plant in Centralia) produces creates 3 times the CO2 emission than a state-of-the-art natural gas powered plant produces. We also have a myriad of zero emission options like wind, solar and geothermal.

Coal is the Dirtiest Fuel

Excluding carbon dioxide, coal is still much dirtier than the alternatives. Crude oil comes out of the ground full of muck, but it is refined before we burn it. The mercury and other toxins can be dealt with responsibly. Natural gas comes out of the ground relatively clean (I am comparing it to incredibly toxic stuff, so it’s all relative). It’s also refined before distribution and the results are clean enough to burn in your home with no ill effects.

The scale of the toxins in coal is just much more immense than with other fuels. One example is mercury. Mercury is naturally occurring in coal, which enters the atmosphere when the coal is burnt. Coal powered electric plants are responsible for about 50% of the mercury in the environment. Modern emissions controls can prevent the mercury from going into the air, in which case the mercury ends up in the fly ash, which is OK, unless it isn’t (see below).

Here’s a surprising tidbit, coal plants are more radioactive than nuclear plants.  In addition to the mercury, coal contains uranium and thorium. When the coal is burnt these radioactive elements either go into the air or end up in the fly ash, which sometimes is stored in a haphazard manner, as opposed to the careful containment at nuclear plants. In the best of times the radioactive elements can leach into the ground water. In the worst of times the ash pours into a river after a dike fails.

But wait, there’s more:

And let us not forget the mess we make when we take coal out of the ground. Compare the mess in the Gulf when something went wrong with a normal day in Appalachia.

Coal is the easiest to replace

Currently burning coal generates about half of our electricity, so I’m not saying this is an easy project, but compared to replacing oil, we have lots of alternatives currently available:

  • Efficiency
  • Geothermal
  • Natural Gas
  • Nuclear fission
  • Solar
  • Wind

These are just listed alphabetically and each has their advantages and disadvantages. There are also many technologies on the near horizon (e.g. improved solar, wave and tidal) and distance horizon (e.g. 5th Gen nuclear fission, nuclear fusion) that might help replace coal. One vision on how our region can go coal free is the Bright Future plan, which deals with increasing demand and shutting down all of the regions coal plants mostly through capturing cost-effective efficiency measures. The remainder comes from renewables, predominantly wind, but also biomass, wave/tidal, and geothermal. No significant breakthroughs are assumed, which is a worst-case scenario since vast amounts of R&D money is currently pouring into clean energy technology.

It’s the most plentiful

Though there’s plenty of reason to work to reduce our consumption of oil and natural gas, there isn’t enough of it to really screw-up the atmosphere. This point has been made by others, most notably James Hansen, NASA atmospheric scientist and Columbia University environmental professor. At our current consumption rates we’ll run out of oil in 43 years, natural gas in 167 years, and coal in 417 years.  One can quibble about the exact rates and how big the reserves are, but we’ll start to see a decrease in oil production soon (if we haven’t already) just due to limited supplies (see peak oil). The market will get us off oil, not the climate. Since natural gas has so much lower carbon emissions, it’s less critical that we quickly reduce those emissions. It’s only coal that can cook us.

So it is coal that is King: a horrible despotic, sadistic King that likes to make people suffer. Whether through asthma, mercury poisoning, or climate change, this is one mean King.

So what can we do?

Washington State has one coal plant, the TransAlta plant in Centralia. This plant is the single largest source of pollution in the state. The Coal Free Washington campaign is working to shut this plant down and make Washington “kinda” coal free (PSE is a part owner and customer of the Colstrip Power plant in Montana).

One obvious step is to support the effort to strip the TransAlta plant of millions of dollars of tax breaks. These tax breaks were given to help defray the costs of upgrading the pollution controls on the plant. I’ve never understood these types of tax breaks. If I need to make repairs to my car to meet the emission standards, the state doesn’t pay part of the cost. The plant should stop polluting; either install emission controls or shut it down. The cost of the pollution controls should be included in the cost of the electricity generated, just like it is with wind power (which has no pollution).

The next step is to support the effort to shut down the TransAlta plant. Washington State Representative Marko Liias has submitted a House Bill 1825 to phase out coal by 2015. This is an aggressive timeline, but the recession actually has made it easier by reducing electricity demand. For the short term no replacement is needed.

The most fun step you can take is to join others from West Seattle and elsewhere south of the Alki Bathhouse on Saturday, February 19th from 11 am to 2 pm at the “Washington Paints Past Coal” event. They’ll be music, speakers and even free food (hopefully no mercury contaminated fish). Enjoy the fresh air those downwind of Centralia can’t.

Shutting down Washington’s only coal plant will wipe 10% from our total emissions in one act. That’s what I call a pretty good start.

The Energy Blog – Will Washington State Enable China’s Use of Coal?

By Andy Silber

The Pacific Northwest: China’s enabler to Climate Destruction

We in the Seattle and Washington are doing all we can to reduce climate destroy emissions, right? We have a utility that is carbon neutral: we started the effort for Cities to commit to reaching the Kyoto standards; the Prius/Hummer ratio is through the roof; we recycle and shop at farmer’s markets and on and on and on.

One area where we are pretty good (but not as good as you might think) is the burning of coal. There’s only one coal plant in Washington State, though power is imported to Washington from plants outside the state. We also have a law on the books that makes it impossible to build a coal fired power plant without sequestration (an unproven technology): this law was sited when a permit to build a coal/coke fired power plant was denied. We also have a renewable energy portfolio standard that requires utilities to get 15% of their power from non-hydro renewables by 2020, creating a large market for wind, solar and other clean sources of power and reducing the market for coal and natural gas.

On the federal level very little is happening and part of the reason (or maybe it is better explained as an excuse) is that China is building a huge number of coal-fired plants. China has large coal deposits and it also is importing large amounts of coal from Australia (which is ironic since Australia has already been hard hit by climate change). But China’s industrial maw can’t be fed by just China and Australia, so they’re looking for a way to burn the coal that we aren’t buying anymore. It’s ironic that all of our efforts to stop the burning of coal here just creates a buying opportunity for China.

But we can do something about it. For the coal to get from the mines in Montana to China it needs to cross Washington and there needs to be a port built to handle it. Such a port is purposed for Cowlitz County. All of our efforts could easily be erased by building this port. We all need to contact Governor Gregoire and ask her to stop this from happening.

The Energy Blog – Global Work Party on 10/10/10

By Andy Silber

On Sunday, October 10th, 2010 (i.e. 10/10/10), 1Sky is co-sponsoring a Global Work Party with First, a bit about what’s up with the number 350; it symbolizes the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere that our climate can probably tolerate without catastrophic disruption (we’re already above that, so we have a lot of work to do).

So what’s the Global Work Party? The idea is rather than march or gather for a big photo, we actually do something with our friends, our neighbors, our communities. Hundreds of events are planned all over the world, from tree planting in the Philippines to a bike rally in Dharamsala to cleaning up a creek in Texas. No matter where you are, you can probably find an event that is already planned.

In addition, there’s still time to organize your own. I think a good event has two components: it should build community and reduce CO2 at least a little bit. A good photo opportunity is also nice. There are lots of possible ways to do this: carpool (if you happen to work on Sunday); plant a tree; work on a community garden; and so on.

Here’s an idea that I think incorporates some important aspects. Get 350 Compact Florescent Lightbulbs (CFLs). You can either buy them or you might be able to get the conservation department of your electric utility to donate them. These bulbs are one of the easiest and cheapest way to reduce our electricity consumption, which in the U.S. is the largest source of our greenhouse gas emissions. If you are reading this, I’m guessing that you already have a bunch in your house. But your neighbors may not. So on 10/10/10, go knock on your neighbor’s doors and offer to come inside and screw in a bunch of free CFLs for them. Talk with them about your concerns, about how important it is for us to drastically reduce our energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Talk about what’s happening in your community. If there’s nothing happening, talk about starting things. Go from house to house. Bring a bottle of wine. It should be fun. Invite your first neighbor to join you at the second neighbor’s house. Make it a rolling block party. Have fun!

The most important thing is for everyone to understand that this is but one step, for some the first, for others just another step in years of work. But for no one should it be the last step. Getting people signed up for updates from 1Sky and is a good step, but getting people involved in what’s happening in their community is best.

See you on 10/10/10!

The Energy Blog – A Plug On Your Next Car?

by Andy Silber

Should your next car have a plug?

One of my favorite stories ever on Prairie Home Companion was about a guy who couldn’t take the cold winters at Lake Wobegon anymore. He drove south until someone asked him about the plug hanging from the front of his car. He figured if it was warm enough that someone didn’t know what an electric block heater was, it was warm enough for him.

But starting late this year many people will be plugging in their car far south of Minnesota. Nissan is going to begin selling the Leaf, their fully electric car and Seattle is one of the initial markets.  Not long after that the Chevy Volt will go on sale. Seattle received a federal grant to build a large number of charging stations, some in public and others in the homes of people who buy these cars. Continue reading “The Energy Blog – A Plug On Your Next Car?”

The Energy Blog – Fathers Day on a Wind Farm

By Andy Silber

On Father’s Day my wife asked want I wanted to do. I’m such an energy geek that I told her that I wanted to visit one of the wind farms that are popping up near Ellensburg, WA, just across Snoqualmie Pass from Seattle. So we loaded up our son and two dogs and drove two hours along I-90.

But first some history: in 2002 I founded the energy committee of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club. At this time the nearest windfarm to Seattle was the Stateline project near Walla Walla, over 270 miles away. In 2003 the Sierra Club was contacted by opponents of the Kittitas Valley Wind Project and it landed on my desk. I made it clear to them that I was a proponent of wind power, but they were certain that I would agree with them that this was a bad location for a wind farm, as it would destroy the “pristine wilderness” of the valley. So another committee member and I drove out there to get a tour of the valley from the opponents. The entire time I was thinking about what a perfect place it was for a wind farm. There’s steady wind and power lines running right through a valley that has been filled with farms and ranches for generations. What soon became clear was there were two types of landowners in the valley: farmers and ranchers on one side and urban refuges and land speculators on the other. The farmers and ranchers, especially those who stood to make money on the wind farm, were supporters. All of the opponents had fairly small holdings and were new to the valley. The opponents threw every possible  objection at the project (my favorite was that the wind farm would start fires, something their homes were much more likely to do), but it was just that they didn’t want to look at them. For years the developer worked through the process, including a trip to the state supreme court. The project is now fully permitted, but still not in operation eight years later.

I wanted to return to Kittitas County and see how things had changed for wind power there. Though I couldn’t visit the Kittitas Valley project, another project developed by the same company, the Wild Horse Wind farm has been in operation since 2006, even though it started later. Unlike most wind farms, the Wild Horse project welcomes guests and has a lovely, LEED Gold certified visitor’s center. Though we arrived after the last scheduled tour, one of the tour guides, David Wheeler, was willing to take us out and show us around. We donned hardhats and ventured out into the sun and light wind (by Kittitas Valley standards). He talked about the extensive work they did to protect the native plant species, the solar array that provides most of the energy to power the visitor’s center and the 149 wind turbines that provide 273 MW of electricity when the wind is blowing. While we were there it was what they consider light winds of only 17 mph. Most of the blades were spinning, but the output was only one-quarter of capacity.

Economically these wind farms have been great for Kittitas County. There are 40 people working keeping this wind farm up and running, not counting David and the other tour guides. These are well-paid jobs that can’t be outsourced. And the county not only doesn’t have to hand out tax abatements, but these wind farms are a major source of tax revenues for the county and the state.

All the wind farms operating currently or in construction in Kittitas county can produce about a Giga-Watt of power when the wind is blowing. That’s comparable to a large nuclear power plant. These wind farms cost about $2 a watt to build or about $6 average watt when you factor in that on average they produce about a third of their capacity when you factor in the wind not blowing and maintenance. That’s more than efficiency investments, which is about $2 an average watt, but much cheaper than nuclear which is about $10 an average watt.

But wind does have challenges other than cost and NIMBYs. The big one is integration. How do you keep the electrical grid working when the wind isn’t blowing? The more wind you add to the grid the harder it is to integrate the next Mega-Watt. The other is transmission. Most people live far from where the wind is blowing and it’s going to take a major investment to get the energy from North Dakota to Miami. Wind farms spread across the country help both issues.

So, how did you spend your Father’s Day?

The Energy Blog – War of the Currents Round 2

By Andy Silber

War of the Currents: Round 2

The War of the Currents was fairly fought over 100 years ago and the winner was the undisputed better technology; a technology that has served us well. Electricity has worked its way into every facet of our lives and into almost every corner of the country. To be off-the-grid practically means to be Amish or The Unabomber. It’s so critical that when we had an extended power outage here in Seattle in 2006 eight people died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. So what has changed to make we want to take up arms and fight for the discredited Direct Current?

The first is the increasing complexity of the grid. When most power was produced near where it was consumed the grid was stable and AC fit the bill. But since electricity deregulation an increasing amount of power is produced by Independent Power Producers far from the load they are serving. Sometimes these are distant coal plants near the mine rather than the load (it is easier to move electricity through a wire than coal down a train track) and sometimes it’s a wind farm (most people don’t live near where it’s windy). Large amounts of power rolling from one part of the grid to another makes the delicate balancing act that is required to keep the grid stable much more difficult. This instability can lead to small problems becoming big problems (see 2003 Blackout).

The second reason for re-fighting the War of Currents is that we can now change the voltage of DC currents. Though this has been true for a century, the technology is now good enough to support a High-Voltage DC (HVDC) network across the country. This technology is more expensive, less efficient and less reliable than the ubiquitous AC transformer, but it is now good enough that for long-distance, high-power applications HVDC’s other advantages can be appreciated.

And what are those advantages:

  • Higher transmission efficiency (about 3% loss over 1000 km, about 30% less than with AC). Over short distances the lower efficiency of the voltage conversion dominates and AC is preferred.
  • Ability to carry more power over a given amount of wire, reducing the costs and impacts of towers and wires.
  • Ability to connect power sources (e.g. wind in South Dakota) with power demands (e.g. New York City) that are in asynchronous grids (remember from part 1 about synchronizing grids).
  • Much better underwater, possibly allowing some power lines to be built without any towers or NIMBYs.
  • Superconductors only work with DC power, so the meta-grid could use superconductors or copper.

My vision is that we split the Western and Eastern grids each into 4 smaller, easier to manage grids to increase reliability. These 9 smaller grids (leaving Texas as is) would only be connected by a national HVDC grid. At least initially, each AC grid would have one interconnection to the HVDC meta-grid that would allow it to sell power to anyone in the lower 48. Eventually multiple stations would be preferred to increase reliability.

For instance, during spring runoff utilities in the Northwest have huge amounts of power that they can’t sell.  We could use the existing AC network to get that power to our Meta Grid Hub where it would be converted to HVDC. From there it could be transmitted to another part of the country where it was needed.

Using roads as a metaphor, this is Eisenhower’s federal interstate freeway system. It connects cities, but is not designed to get around cities. There is no need for a new, high tech meter in your home or for your refrigerator to talk to the utility (that’s the city road system). Nothing at your home changes and only the power traders at your utility do anything differently. They will have one more place to sell power (the Meta-Grid) and one more place to buy power (the Meta-Grid). How those transactions work would be complicated (does the Meta-Grid buy and sell power, or only allow those transactions to happen between utilities and provide transmission), but the details aren’t critical to the concept and would only affect a few people inside the utility.

Since most of our renewable resources are in remote areas of the western half of the country (e.g. wind in North Dakota or solar in the Southwest) it is difficult to imagine without this type of grid the eastern half of the country being powered primarily by renewables. No single project is big enough to withstand the challenges of building transmission, and even if it did transmission linking a single source (e.g. a large wind farm in Kansas) to a single demand (e.g. Chicago) is not viable. What happens when the wind doesn’t blow or Chicago doesn’t need the power? The more sources you connect the higher the odds that one of them will be active. The more sinks you connect to the higher the odds that one of them will need your power.

This is not a new idea at all. I haven’t heard anyone else talk about breaking up the large AC grids, but the rest of what I’m talking about here is well within reach of current technology and thinking. It’s only a matter of political will and money. When someone says that we can’t get off fossil fuels without a huge scientific breakthrough, that just isn’t true. Sure more efficient and reliable AC-HVDC conversion or room-temperature superconducting wires 1000 km long at less than $1000 a mile would be useful. Inexpensive energy storage would improved things greatly (I might write an entire posting on energy storage). But there’s no need to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, especially since the perfect tends to be 20 years into the future and always will be.

The Energy Blog – War of the Currents

By Andy Silber

War of the Currents: Round 1

Before there was HD-DVD vs. BlueRay, Mac vs. PC, or Beta vs. VHS there was AC vs. DC. And if you think that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had a rivalry, check out Edison and Tesla, two of the greatest innovators ever and bitter foes in the War of the Currents.  This posting will be a bit more technical than I usually get, but I won’t assume you know anything about electricity and there will be no math.

Electricity is the flow of subatomic electrons through a conductor, like water through a river.  We use two values to describe the flow: voltage and current. Voltage is comparable to the speed of the water. If you know the voltage you know how much energy each electron is carrying (the actual speed doesn’t change). The current tells you how many electrons are flowing past a point.  The total energy carried by the electrons is the Voltage X Current (does that count as math?).

Two Systems – AC & DC

There are two kinds of electrical systems: Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC). In DC the electrons and energy both flow in one direction. It’s a pretty straightforward system, like a river. In Alternating Current the electrons just move back and forth, but energy flows. It’s like an ocean wave, where energy moves across the ocean’s surface and finally crashes on the shore, but the water just moves a short distance back an forth. One more key bit of physics; the energy loss through transmission (getting the electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed) depends on the voltage: for a given amount of energy higher voltage means less energy loss.

In the late 1800 Edison and his company, General Electric, built DC generation systems. There was no simple way of changing the voltage, so transmission was at the same voltage as was needed by the device that was being powered (at this time it was mainly for lighting). If you needed more than one voltage, then you would need extra wires. This meant that the transmission losses were significant and the power plants needed to be close to the demand. This ruled out the use of renewable energy sources (i.e. hydropower) since those weren’t close enough to the demand.

In 1884-1885 the invention of a simple AC transformer allowed power to be converted easily, cheaply and efficiently from one voltage to another, but only for AC power. This allowed generation at one voltage, transmission at another and use at any voltage that the device required.

Edison & Tesla Hail Different Systems

For about 10 years there was an intense rivalry between DC (Edison and General Electric) and AC (Westinghouse and Tesla). Edison claimed that AC was much more dangerous, since at lower voltages the AC electricity going through a person can disrupt the heart rhythms.  He even encouraged the use of AC electricity for executions to discredit the technology. Imagine the current climate change deniers working to have executions performed by hypothermia to prove the climate wasn’t warming.

An AC system was put into operation in 1896 taking power generated at Niagara Falls to Buffalo, NY. This system’s success in transmitting electricity (over what seems like a short distance today) basically ended the War of the Currents. There were some skirmishes, but any real interest in DC ended.

AC Grid Goes Continental

In the ensuing 114 years the AC grid has gone from transmitting energy 20 miles to transmitting power across half the continent. Some have described the North American Grid as the most complicated machine on the planet. It connects dams in the Northwest to homes in Los Angeles and coal-powered plants in Ohio with factories in Tennessee. With a few interesting exceptions where DC is used, it’s three giant AC grids. One grid connects the Western US and Canada, another grid for the Eastern US and Canada and a third grid just for Texas.

Now to mention some of ACs downsides: as I described above the electrons move back and forth. How much time it takes the electrons to move back and forth is their frequency (how fast they move) and their phase is at what point are they in moving back forth. Think of pushing a child in a swing. If you push forward while he’s moving back, then you’ll slow him down (out-of-phase). If you push forward while he’s moving forward he’ll speed up (in-phase). If you’re at different frequencies then sometimes you’ll be in phase and sometimes you’ll be out-of-phase. The implications for the grid is that every power plant in has to synchronize its output in frequency, phase and voltage or the grid becomes unstable. This is very difficult. The loads (e.g. air conditioners, elevators, and everything else) must exactly equal the sources (e.g. dams, nuclear power plants, wind farms) every second of every day. This is how a problem in Ohio in 2003 caused a loss of power across much of the Northeastern US and Southeastern Canada.

Next, why it’s time to refight the War of the Currents.  Continue on with Part 2…

The Energy Blog – by Andy Silber

This is something I wrote several years ago, but the premise is just as sound now as it was then and timely based on the Mayor’s upcoming announcement.

Seattle Transit

Seattle’s current transit capacity is far below what is needed to serve its population. As population increases our current system will fall even farther behind what is needed. But since Seattle doesn’t currently control its transit future, we are unable to grow the system to meet our needs.

I propose that Seattle take responsibility for transit, in cooperation with other entities like Metro and Sound Transit, by directing Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to hire a Director of Transit who would lead a new division charged with providing transit that meets the needs of Seattleites. Their tools would include re-purposing roads (e.g. making one lane of 1st Ave downtown bus only), funding increased Metro service, building and operating a monorail or trolleys or whatever is deemed to best meet the city’s needs.

This proposal doesn’t call out any particular transit solution or funding mechanism. Those will need to come out of study by professional transportation planners and elected officials. All this proposal does is acknowledge that the current system doesn’t work, and must be changed to better meet Seattle’s needs.

Why Metro Alone Won’t Work

King County is one of the most diverse in the country, ranging from nearly Manhattan densities in downtown and Belltown to rural land in the east (see Table 1). This complicates transit planning due to the equity arrangement: when Metro increases service, 20% of the new service is in the Seattle area and 80% to the rest of the county. This leads to two problems for Seattle: we can only increase the total service to the amount that the whole county is willing to pay for and for every $1 that Seattle increases its tax burden only 67 cents is spent in Seattle.

Every transit line has an ideal amount of service, which depends on many factors, but the single best predictor of how much transit an area needs is the density. Seattle’s density is nearly twice that of Bellevue’s and nearly 10 times the rest of the county. Since per-capita transit ridership increases with density, the ideal amount of transit is higher in Seattle than in the rest of the county. But the current funding formula does not give Metro the flexibility of putting the resources where there is demand.

In addition Seattle voters have shown a much greater interest in funding transit, but transit proposals need to be watered down to win enough votes outside of Seattle. So Metro alone can’t provide Seattle with the transit options it needs. Even if the funding levels were changed to represent the population, Metro would still be unable to provide Seattleites the transit options they want and need.

Seattle Bellevue Woodinville King Count King Count minus Seattle
Population (thousand people) 582 117 9 1737 1155
% of population 33 7 0.5 100 67
Density (thousand people per sq mile) 6.9 3.8 1.6 0.8 0.6

Table 1 Demographics for King County (from 2006 from the Census Bureau)

Principles of Seattle Transit

  • Goal of SDOT is to move goods and people, not vehicles.
  • No one should have to watch full buses drive past. If a line is that popular more resources need to be added to that line quickly.
  • If buses are getting stuck in auto traffic, then a grade-separated solution must be sought.
  • When doing cost-benefit analysis, include all costs: include the total cost of driving and pollution.
  • We must reduce the number of vehicle miles driven in Seattle even as the population grows.
  • Seattle should not be penalized by Metro for providing extra service.

Check out Andy’s other blog on 1Sky

    The Energy Blog – By Andy Silber

    The Gulf (between where we are and where we need to be)

    I sit here on a Metro bus (21X if anyone cares) stuck on the viaduct because of an accident. I sit here thinking about the oil spill in the Gulf and the choices we make. Do I take the bus or drive or bike or walk to work? Where should I live? What job should I take?  Should we build the tunnel? Light-rail or monorail or buses or boats for transit? The choices are endless, some small, some large, some personal, some collective. But the choices we are making matter, as the giant oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico should remind us.

    This weekend I went from West Seattle to Rainier Valley for a birthday party. I didn’t even think about taking transit. It’s an easy 20-minute drive or over an hour on the bus. The choice I made (to drive) was based on the choices we make (to have a transit system focused on getting people to downtown at rush hour).

    So I sit on the bus, pecking away on my iPhone, wondering what choices WE (collectively) can make differently so that the choices that WE (as indivuduals) make reduce our oil consumption. Some deride this as social engineering, and if it is, so is building roads, so who cares.

    We need to put the cost of improving transit in the context of the enormous amount of money we spend on cars.

    In the Puget Sound region we spend about $10 billion a year on cars (e.g. gas, insurance, depreciation, road taxes). This does not include the huge costs to the enviorment and national security that comes from buring oil. This also doesn’t include the value of the land taken up by our roads. Sound Transit Phase II is expected to cost about $69 a year per adult, the cost of driving from Seattle to Bellevue and back for a week. For 20% of the cost of driving we could build a Sound Transit Phase 1 every year. For 10% we could build rail from downtown to West Seattle one year, Ballard the next, then Fremont and so on. We could build a small fleet of boats that crossed from Kirkland, Bellevue and Bothel to South Lake Union. We could have very interesting conversations about how to create a world-class transit system (but please, let’s not just talk).

    For just what we spend in cars in 1 year we could build a transit system that was good enough that some people would decide to do without a car because it wasn’t worth the bother and the cost. I’ve lived in cities where it was easy to not own a car (Boston/Cambridge and S.F./Berkeley) and we are no where close to that. Few do without a car here by choice and if so, that’s such a big deal you can write a blog about it. In Boston writting a blog about not owning a car would be like writting a blog in Seattle about what it was like to own a Gore-Tex jacket and hating umbrelles. Sound Transit 2 alone won’t get us there; it provides almost no service around Seattle, but is designed for getting people in and out of downtown during rush hour. Metro can’t do it, because they allocate their growth (when they have any to allocate) based on politics, not demand. As yet, the City of Seattle hasn’t taken a leadership role in creating a working transit system. The investment in transit pays off when people decide not to leave their cars in the garage, but to leave them on the dealer’s lot. A bus pass costs about as much as insurance, saving you all of the other costs of driving.

    Are we destined to continue to be stuck in our cars and buses? I have hope. The Sound Transit 2 vote was overwhellming in favor of building more transit and third ave. downtown remains a bus corridor. But we have a long way to go.