Get a Grip! Swine Flu Hysteria

I sure wish we could figure out a way to harness the emotional energy associated with people's reaction to the new flu virus, and use it to help us transform our society and our world. Or, for that matter, engage our media at that kind of level.

This has been a page 1 story for days now. It is totally out of control and out of proportion. This blog (fivethirtyeight) reported about a study asking people if they knew someone who had gotten swine flu. 3.2% said they did! 3.2 percent!! They backed these numbers out to show that we'd need about 35,000 cases of swine flu for that many people to report they know someone with it, yet there are only a couple of hundred confirmed cases in the US. What is going on?

Here are some facts about this year's ('08-'09) flu season: the non-swine flu that has been circulating since last fall.

- Through its normal sampling testing, CDC has tested more than 25,000 positive specimens for flu, representing 14% of all samples they tested--indicating that literally millions of people have contracted the flu this season.
- 55 pediatric deaths have been attributed to the flu this season
- There have been at least two pediatric deaths every single week since the last week of January
- There were 10 pediatric deaths due to flu the week of February 28 (but no page 1 story; in fact, no story at all that I can recall)
- Just 3 weeks ago more than 7% of ALL deaths reported in the US were due to the flu. That would represent something like 3,000 people just in that one week.
- 13,000 people have died this year from flu
- In 2005, 63,000 Americans died of the flu. 63 THOUSAND!! Where were the news stories?
- Just two months ago 31 states reported "widespread influenza activity."

Today's Washington Post quoted a woman named Beth Pendergast:
"I heard this morning that a toddler died in Texas. And now, suddenly, there's a case in my back yard," Beth Pendergast, whose daughter Danielle is a third-grader at Folger, said late yesterday. "To be honest, my family is scared, and I'm scared. Even though they're taking all the precautions, it's still my child. At this point, there's no way I'm sending her to school tomorrow."

HELLOOO! Did she keep her child home all winter long, too? Children were dieing every week from the flu, and presumably other children in her kid's school had it. At this point there is no indication that this particular virus is either more contagious nor more virulent than the dozens of other flu viruses currently in circulation. In other words, people should take the same precautions and behave the same way now as they do during any winter month when flu is going around. (Be careful crossing the street, too.) This stuff drives me nuts.

How can we get a person like Ms. Pendergast equally engaged on fighting global climate change? In the end, the world her child grows up in will be far more affected by climate change than by this flu virus. And it's likely it will have a greater affect on her child's health and life expectancy, too--not to mention her quality of life as well.

On the other hand, it makes for some mighty fine entertainment and insights:
Swine Flu vs. Financial Panic

LEED Accredited Professional and Green Buildings

I am pleased to report that last week I took and passed the exam to become a LEED Accredited Professional (AP). LEED is the certification system for green buildings created by and managed by the US Green Building Council. There are many programs and certifications for green buildings that have sprung up over the last couple of decades, but LEED is the most well recognized in the United States. By passing the test I demonstrated my understanding of the LEED certification process, the criteria to certify a building and a basic understanding of green building practices and technologies. (Although I will note that anyone with enough time to cram a bunch of information into their head could probably pass the test. . .at least until now: they are currently changing the certification process for the future.)

What the US Green Building Council and other organizations (such as EPA's Energy Star Buildings program) are doing to transform the built environment is critical in the battle against climate change. Buildings are responsible for 35%-40% of greenhouse gas emissions and use more than 60% of the electricity generated in the US. They have an enormous environmental impact. What's great is that the technologies and practices to make a huge improvement in the energy performance of buildings is already out there. Organizations like LEED, with the help of practitioners like me (hopefully), can help accelerate the adoption of those technologies and practices and help transform the buildings sector.

Efficiency Good; Hyperbole Bad

The Monday, April 20 Washington Post included an 8-page "advertorial" insert called Environmental Leadership--presumably in anticipation of Earth Day (not available on line). It included about a dozen guest articles on a wide array of environmental topics. Great! (although one of the advertising supporters is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which promotes the oxymoron "clean coal." You can read more about my opinion of carbon capture and storage here.)

One of the guest writers is Nancy Sutley, the new Obama administation Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Her column runs the gamut, touching on a wide array of environmental issues--the normal rhetoric one would expect--but I stopped when I read this line: "We plan to put a million plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road, dramatically increasing the fuel efficiency of our nation's fleet of vehicles with batteries built in the U.S."

"Dramatically increasing?" Let's do a quick back of the envelope. In 2006 there were 234 million cars and light trucks on the road representing an average fuel economy of 20.30 mpg. Let's make some optimistic assumptions:
- Plug-in hybrids are the equivalent of 100 mpg
- All 1,000,000 new hybrids replace SUVs (average 18 mpg)

If we use 2006 as a proxy, replacing 1,000,000 SUVs with plug-in hybrids, then the new fleet economy rises to 20.38 mpg, an minuscule increase of .08 miles per gallon. Or put another way, an increase of about 425 feet per gallon. Another way to achieve the exact same reduction in fuel consumption would be to reduce the distance each car drives by about 50 miles per year--a 0.4% decrease.

Now don't get me wrong: I am totally in favor of transforming our economy to more environmentally sustainable technologies and systems, but I think a hyperbolic statement like this sugarcoats the magnitude of the challenge in front of us.

Let's put those million vehicles out there, but it's just a down payment. I think it would have been much better to say, ""We plan to put a million plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road, a small but important first step in transforming our nation's fleet of automobiles"

Smart Grid Requires Smart People

The "Smart Grid" is an enormously popular topic these days. I just ran a Google News search on the term "smart grid" and it returned almost 2000 hits (roughly the same number as a search on "ted kennedy"). The Obama administration has pledged at least $4 billion to funding the "smart grid."

What exactly is the smart grid? Well, it's one of those terms that's pretty broad and includes a lot of concepts. . .and can mean different things to different people. Basically, as I understand it, it's the combination of technologies and data management that will allow operators and users of our electrical grid to have better information about what is happening to the electricity that is passing through the grid or that they are using. That can include everything from simple home-based meters to multi-million dollar software for utilities to manage second-by-second transmission and distribution of electricity. Lots of companies are working hard to put the technologies and other tools out there that will make the "smart grid" work.

The rhetoric we hear often attributes significant environmental efficiencies to the smart grid. What's important to realize is that making the grid smart does not automatically make it more efficient. You need smart people and smart policies to combine with the smart grid to achieve any transformation. Better information by itself is not a goal, but merely a means to help achieve our goals.

Here's a real-life example. About 10 years ago I had a friend who signed up for time-of-use rates through his local utility (time-of-use rates do not require a smart grid, but many of the stories I read in the media suggest that the smart grid will make these more common). He paid much lower rates at night and in the winter and higher rates during the day and in the summer. What he found was that his off-peak rates were so low that it made sense for him to leave his lights on all night to help warm the house. Since his utility primarily burned coal as its baseload fuel, he was fuel switching from natural gas to coal by being "smart." In the process he was actually increasing pollution.

Without policies that send the right pricing signals to utilities, they could easily design "smart" rates that actually move generation away from higher priced peaking natural gas plants (and even higher priced renewables) to lower priced coal and nuclear.

I'm all for the smart grid, but not without smart people and smart policies to make sure that the information that it provides actually serves the purpose of reducing emissions and encouraging efficiency and cleaner generation.

Carbon Capture and Storage: A Solution?

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is constantly in the news these days. A Google search on that phrase returns 1.2 million hits. There are cheerleaders and detractors on both sides of the technology, many with very strong opinions.

A very quick primer on CCS:
Carbon capture and storage is a technology--still in its infancy--that can capture CO2 emissions at the source (typically a power plant). It captures these emissions, liquidizes the CO2 and stores it in underground formations. Usually the underground storage is the same as where oil and gas has been extracted , which supporters argue will be able to store the CO2 for millenia. Wikipedia does a pretty good job of explaining it.

The point of CCS is to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning fossil fuels by capturing them. Other major strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions include: reducing the need for energy in the first place (efficiency and conservation); replacing fossil fuels with other sources of energy (e.g., biofuels, renewables, nuclear), and biological sequestration (e.g., forests).

There are currently no commercial-sized CCS power plants in operation anywhere in the world, and critics also point out that the investments in CCS would have to be enormous to scale it up enough to be effective. However, I am in favor of continuing to invest in CCS; here's why.

As I opined in my post on nuclear power, climate change is happening way faster than scientists expected just a few years ago. The challenge is enormous, and our response to date has been insufficient to the challenge. At this point in time we need to go down every pathway, trying every strategy and investing in all the possibilities. We do not have time to scratch our heads over a perfect response to climate change; we need to do it all. On every front: renewables, efficiency, international agreements, alternative fuels, etc., we are coming up short compared to what is required to slow down and reverse the dangerous buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere (I like the Climate Progress blog for the role it plays in educating about the severity of the climate crisis).

I do not believe that CCS should be used as an excuse to continue burning as much coal as we do now (or even more as the coal industry would like us to accept). Just the opposite; I believe we need to slow down and eventually stop the burning of coal. CCS needs to be developed as a solution to the main problem--not an excuse for not doing other things. On this point, I am closely aligned with the Union of Concerned Scientists viewpoint as outlined in this report.

I very much like the idea of developing CCS as a way to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. When the technology is developed, it could be applied to biomass power plants (sometimes referred to as Bio-Energy CCS or BECCS). The CO2 captured would then result in a net reduction in CO2 from our atmosphere, essentially carbon negative (first the trees or plants remove the CO2 as they grow, then we capture that and store it away when we combust it for energy). That's something we have to do if we believe, as I do, that we already have too much in our atmosphere. Just slowing and stopping greenhouse gas emissions will not be enough; we also have to go backwards and reduce the 200-plus-year buildup of them.

So that's why I support CCS. If the fossil fuel industry can be used to help us develop the technology so that we can deploy it later in ways to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, then I want it--and we need it--to happen.

Congestion Charge, Commuter Tax and Metro

Dc_traffic(Rerun - Originally posted Nov. 17, 2007) Last week a Washington Post reader named Bill Suffa wrote a letter to Dr. Gridlock in which he suggested that:
1) a congestion charge is essentially nothing more than a commuter tax and,
2) that Metro would be incapable of handling the extra ridership that would be created if a congestion charge for the district (or a portion of it) were enacted.

On point 1, I suppose he's essentially right, although "commuter" would include anyone who enters the congestion zone regardless if they are a resident of DC or not. My personal opinion is I don't see a problem with that. If the District wants to charge people for using its infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) then why not? Would it be good policy? Personally I think it would be, but others will disagree. There would be trade offs between raising money and driving away business, maintaining and improving infrastructure and irking suburban commuters, environmental advantages to reducing car traffic and other benefits and costs. I don't pretend to know what the right balance for the District would be, but I do maintain that they should have the right to decide for themselves, and I would suggest that if Fairfax County or any other jurisdiction wanted to charge for the use of its infrastructure, too, it should have that right.

On point 2, the challenges facing Metro have been written about a lot. Just recently it was reported that ridership has grown by 70,000 riders per day over the last 5 years (WMATA press release). Crowding on the system is getting worse despite new rail cars and eight-car trains being introduced. Mr. Suffa has experienced this himself, as have thousands of other riders. I doubt anyone would disagree with the statement that Metro service can be improved and capacity needs to be increased.Congestion_sign

London put #'s 1 and 2 together. A significant part of the reason London was able to enact a congestion charge was that they simultaneously invested more money into buses and trains to make it easier to travel in London without having to drive in. It was part of the plan.

Newnats_aerial_581x376We can take a lesson, too, from the new Nationals Stadium. DC was able to float more than $600 million in bonds to finance the stadium from taxes that haven't yet begun to be collected and will continue for many years. London collects an estimated $244 million per year from its congestion charge and estimates for DC start at $60 million per year. Using similar financing rates to the stadium deal (and assuming between $60 million and $244 million per year were collected), if the congestion tax were dedicated to WMATA, bonds could be floated for between $900 million and $4 billion--money that could be put to work immediately to make significant improvements. Using the stadium strategy would allow for starting the improvements in advance of instituting the congestion charge, increasing the capacity needed before it is required.

Land-Use Transformation to Reduce Teenage Deaths (a Personal Plea)

I am terribly saddened by the death of my brother's and sister-in-law's niece, 16. She died last week, several days after a severe car accident that was survived by the three other teens who were in the car. She was a passenger in the rear seat. I don't know all the details of the accident.

There are, of course, reams and reams of statistics on teen driving accidents and scientific research in neurology and sociology that try to explain some of this. Many states have taken actions such as progressive licensing, driver training, seatbelt laws, and more to protect our teenagers essentially from themselves and their friends--and not without some results. Teenage driving deaths have declined over the last fifteen years.

However, thousands of teenagers continue to die in car accidents every year, and teens will always be more likely to have accidents than others no matter what we do, because of their inexperience as drivers and their not-yet-completely-developed judgment. This second point is not a criticism of teenagers; it's a neurological fact. When it becomes personal, though, all of this information is meaningless. My family has lost a loved one, a piece of our lives that cannot be replaced.

Everywhere I read about the teenage driving "epidemic" (if it were a disease killing thousands of teenagers every year, imagine the response of our government), the solutions are always about changing licensing, rules, training, parental responsibility, etc. Never do I read about changing society so that teens (and others) just don't need to drive--or as much.

A significant part of this problem lies in the way we have created our urban and suburban forms. Teenagers want to have fun; they want to be with their friends; they want to take advantage of things going on in and around their schools and communities. In most communities, however, the only way they can do these things is to drive or be driven. This blog is about transformation--primarily to reduce our environmental impacts. But transforming the way we develop our communities will provide so many additional benefits, too.

If our teens could easily walk or take the bus or rail to where they want to go. If they could safely bike to their friends' houses and to the local shops and theaters. If the fun stuff they want to do was accessible to them. I believe not only would that improve the quality of their lives--and their parents' lives, but it might save hundreds of their lives, too. Somehow we have to change the culture, too. Driving is cool to many teens; I can't change that in the short term. In the long run, though, perhaps we can.

The way we design and develop our cities and our transportation systems has to change. We are not on a sustainable path: not environmentally sustainable, not culturally sustainable, not economically sustainable. My brother's niece is gone. . .forever. Another 10 teens will die today in auto accidents. As the father of a 15-year old, I'm not in favor of limiting our childrens' opportunities as a solution (one of the criticisms of raising driving ages and graduated licensing). Instead let's re-create our land use forms and our transportation systems in ways that make our lives better AND safer AND less resource intensive all at once.

R. S. vT., may you rest in peace.

War on Drivers forces capture Kensington, MD; Weiss counterattacks

The ongoing "War on Drivers" (WoD) in the DC area took a major turn last week, as WoD forces captured Kensington, Maryland. They've announced plans to destroy all automobiles, furnishing every resident with free bicycles and walking shoes instead. An immediate counter-attack, led by General Eric Weiss of the "Not-Til-You-Pry-It-Out-Of-My-Cold-Stiff-Hands" (NTYPIOOUMCSH, pronounced Nitty-pyoo-miksch) expeditionary forces and and with tactical support from the VDOT Third Armored Road Repaving Division, bombed Clarendon with a flurry of unsubstantiated studies indicating the need for four new elevated freeways crisscrossing the county but not actually leading anywhere.

NTYPIOOUMCSH encountered resistance on their rush from Virginia to defend Kensington by numerous bottlenecks on I-66. Weiss remarked, "See, this is what we mean! If we can't even get our Hummers and Expeditions where we need to in order to engage the enemy, then it just proves our point. This is all-out war!" However, his forces took to the local roads in Arlington, and executed a coup-d'etat against Arlington's Governor-of-Urban-Canopy, Christopher Zimmerman, who took refuge in the Pentagon City Metro station—a safe location the NTYPIOOUMCSH forces were not aware even existed.

WoD forces, strengthened by the fresh air and exercise they were now getting, began spreading their influence to the south, and met with a friendly ally in Bethesda, where similar battles were also being waged. The WoD forces were aided by the significant mobility advantages provided by the secret Metro tunnels, bike paths and pedestrian connections that do not appear on NTYPIOOUMCSH's Goggle maps.

As usual, the on-line community was instantly engaged, and updates on the war can be found on the WoD supporters' Facebook page: "Make 'em walk 'til they blister" and twitter at ntypioumcshsucks. Countering in cyberspace, the enemy created their own Facebook page: "Get outta my frickin' way" and are also tweeting at outtamyfrickinway.

It's still too early to tell how the war will end, with each side claiming to hold the high ground and unwilling to back down until the other side quits moving about in an "uncivilized" fashion. Both sides had tentatively agreed to peace talks by former President Jimmy Carter, but negotiations broke down over disputes as to whether he would travel to the region by car or Amtrak.

(Photo by Jason Means.)

(cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington)