Archive for June, 2010

The Future of Transit?

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

by Lance Meister

I attended a one-day conference  here in Boston on the future of transit a couple of weeks ago.  There was a lot of discussion focused on transit funding, both for the current systems and the future.  There was a lot of sobering information, some bright spots, some interesting tidbits, and one very depressing speech from the head of the US Federal Transit Administration (FTA). 

The sobering information is this:  The seven largest rail transit agencies in the US have a combined $50 billion backlog of maintenance to get to a state of good repair.  Unfortunately, a state of good repair is defined as 2.5 on a scale of 1 (worst) to 5 (best) for maintenance.  Basically a C.  A soon to be released study says that there is a total of $78 billion for all transit agencies around the country.  That’s a lot of deferred maintenance. 

The basic problem is that we are drastically underfunding our public transit and transportation systems.  These are vital pieces of our lives and country, and we treat them like the ugly stepchild.  Here’s one of the interesting tidbits to mull over a bit.  Doug Foy, who has been a key player in the transportation field in Massachusetts for many years, brought up some very interesting statistics.  I’ll paraphrase him as best I can, but this is his analysis and information. 

Think about your cell phone.  How much do you pay to use your cell phone and support the network each year?  $1,000 seems like a reasonable number for many people.  What about electricity?  Or water?  How about your cable TV and internet?  Each of those is probably around $1,000 or more each per year.  Now think about how much you pay to use the transportation system (transit and roads), which is basically supported by the gas tax.  The average person who drives pays about $300 per year.  That’s less than a third of what you spend each year to support and maintain other vital networks and systems you rely on each year.

There’s a huge funding gap for such a vital network, and much of the conference was focused on thinking about ways to address that.  One of the bright spots is that transit is in demand.  People really want to use it.  The trouble is mobilizing the people who care about it, and making it a priority.  Unfortunately, we’re a country that responds really well to a crisis, but long term planning and maintenance is a challenge. 

Transit isn’t sexy.  It isn’t exciting.  It’s hard to communicate its importance to the average person.  It’s also hard to communicate just what it costs to run a transit system.  If the average fare to take a bus or train is $2, the actual cost is between $7 and $9.  That’s a big gap that’s made up through taxes.   We’re not paying what it really costs, and we’re unwilling to fund the system.  Right now, transit systems across the country are cutting back service.  One of my favorite moments during the day was the description of what the people at MARTA (Atlanta’s transit system) did when facing cutbacks.  They went out and painted a big red X on each bus that would be eliminated.  When people saw this, they were mobilized, and the legislature managed to find some money to keep the buses running.

For those of you who live in Boston, think back just a few weeks to the MWRA water crisis.  How often do you think about water?  If you’re like me, not very often.  Probably not until you can’t use it.  The same is true for transit.  Imagine the chaos in Boston if the MBTA shut down.  You may think “I don’t use it anyway, I drive a car and I’ll be fine.”  Sorry to burst that bubble.  Over 50% of all workers in Boston use the T.  There would be mass gridlock without the T.  All those people would have to find another way to get to work.  It’s a vital part of our city, even if you rarely use it.

Now on to the speech by Peter Rogoff, the head of the FTA and the reason why there’s a question mark in the title of the post.  Mr. Rogoff spoke toward the end of the day, and I was really hoping for a rousing speech.  Something to inspire the troops, point to a bold plan from our administration, a great “The Future of Transit” moment.  Instead, what we were treated to was really quite depressing, and truly disappointing.  

I won’t go into detail on the speech.  You can read it if you want.  However, the tone was very distressing.  He basically said we should hunker down, fix what we have, and not expand transit at all.  Oh, and if we do, paint a bus a different color, call it a special bus, paint a line on a road and call it a special lane, and now you have transit.  That’s transit?  As anyone who has taken the Silver Line in Boston knows, a car can instantly defeat that mode of transit.  Also, with the big push into transit-oriented development, who is going to buy a house or open a business next to a line on a road that could be gone tomorrow?

We should be looking at transit as an investment in our future.  It should be a way to meet our greenhouse gas requirements, lead the move to sustainability, and provide mobility, jobs and opportunities.  That’s why I, and many others, work in this field.  I know that my part is very small, but I feel like I’m working toward something that matters and actually helps people.  As silly as that sounds, it actually matters to me, and makes me feel like I contribute something valuable.  Mr. Rogoff’s speech was so disheartening to me that I thought about becoming a hedge-fund manager.  At least that way, while I flail about in a semi-pointless job, at least I’d make some money.

Hopefully that isn’t the future of transit.  I’m still optimistic that we can recognize the value of transit and begin to invest in it at a sustainable level.  While everyone may not see it, or want to acknowledge it, I think the era of the car is starting it’s early stages of ending, and we need to be prepared to meet the needs of transportation in the future.

Mrs. Taylor Returns

Monday, June 7th, 2010

by Laura Taylor*

What an amazing experience Mom Congress turned out to be.  With a packed agenda, the time at Georgetown was indeed hectic.

The event started with an evening reception in the University’s beautiful library.  I met some of the most amazing women ever assembled in one place.  We all had two things in common; we are all Moms and we have all worked to affect a change in education.  I met Moms who are publishers, legislative aids, State PTA Presidents and elected officials.  I was struck by the work being done across our country to help students with special needs and learning disabilities.  I was encouraged by Moms from inner city districts who have fought just to make a safe route for local kids to walk to school.  I was impressed by the diversity in age, social status, race and political savvy.  Most of all, I found 50 Moms who, together as the Mom Congress, represent one of the most powerful grassroots networks I have ever been involved with.

Part of the Mom Congress experience included a town hall meeting with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  The event was enlightening but too short for the many people who attended from the surrounding communities of Washington, DC and Maryland who had hoped to learn what the Federal Budget plans for education would hold for their schools and programs.  The Secretary did indicate that he had recommended an increase in the proposed Federal Education Budget from 1% to 2% of the budget to fund parent engagement programs.  These funds will be limited to Title 1 schools and will only be disbursed for evidenced-based grant funded programs.  It was interesting to hear this commitment after his statement that we know, through research, how influential parental involvement is to student success, but that we have absolutely no research that tells us how to get parents involved.  Parents and education organizations will have a lot of work ahead of them if they hope to obtain a piece of that 2% pie.

One particular highlight of the Mom Congress was the keynote address by National PTA CEO, Byron V. Garrett.  Prior to this event, I had only heard of Garrett and was impressed by what I had heard.  After meeting him, I am even more impressed.  Garrett is the author of “The ABCs of Life” which he so eloquently recited during his address.  It is an alphabet that is worth reading… and repeating.

As for my marching orders; I am more committed than ever to helping students stay engaged and encouraged at school and to remaining an advocate for effective education in California.

*Laura is Administrative Assistant to HMMH’s Sacramento Office.  HMMH congratulates Laura on her ongoing participation in Mom Congress! 


American Wind Energy Association Annual Meeting

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

by Phil DeVita

Steve Barrett and I just returned from the three day American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) annual conference held in Dallas, Texas.  This was my fourth AWEA conference and each year I am amazed by the magnitude of the event with 20,000 attendees and a record 1400 exhibitors! The exhibitors range from developers, consultants, transportation, and turbine manufactures right down to the nuts and bolts of the industry (literally!).   It is truly amazing to see the diverse industry required to support wind energy.


For background, the U.S. is the world leader in wind energy generation with 35,000 MW installed to date.  China is a close second, and will probably pass the U.S. this year in total wind capacity.  For perspective, in 2009 the U.S. installed over 10,000 MW of wind capacity which is equivalent to powering about 2.4 million homes.  The U.S. has been an industry leader, however, initial estimates for the first half of 2010 show a slowdown in new generation, and without a national renewable policy, the outlook is uncertain. 

National RES

The conference highlighted the need for a national renewable electricity standard (RES) to provide certainty for developers, create jobs, and ensure the U.S. continues to be the leader in the wind industry. Some of the factors attributing to the slowdown are:

  • Reduced power demand;
  • Cheaper natural gas prices;
  • Transmission challenges; and
  • A lack of a national RES

A slowdown in new energy projects also casts a dark shadow on future job growth in the sector.  A recent study conducted by Navigant Consulting showed that if a national portfolio standard of 25 percent renewables by 2025 was enacted, a total of 266,000 new jobs could be generated.  Many states have adopted state specific renewable portfolio standards (RPS) which require utilities to purchase a certain amount of their power from renewable sources.  The problem with state RPS’s are some states have already met or will meet their requirements; therefore state requirements will not be enough to drive the industry in the future. 


One of the highlights of the conference was a candid talk by former President George W. Bush who now resides in Dallas.  The president spoke about his energy policies while in office and governor of Texas.  He highlighted the progress the state has made since 1999 when he signed a state renewable portfolio standard setting the stage for Texas leading the way in wind generation.  He also spoke very candidly about his time in office reliving some of the memorable events of his terms such as 9/11, Katrina, and the Iraq war.  The former president also talked about his personal commitment to sustainability where he has installed geothermal heating at his home in Crawford, and his new library at Southern Methodist University will be LEED certified.    He looked very relaxed and comfortable in his life away from politics and gave us a glimpse of his new memoir coming out in the fall detailing some of the major decisions he made in office.

North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan discussed the great strides wind energy has made through the years and the need for a national RES standard to enable the wind industry to maintain momentum into the future.  The senator believes in a diverse generating portfolio including fossil fuels, natural gas, coal and renewable energy.  He feels renewable energy is part of our national interest and we should start divesting from foreign sources of energy.  The senator is hoping to vote this summer on an energy bill which contains a national RES.  The senator also spoke of his frustration over the state of our transmission system and the need to modernize it. Transmission is one of the siting constraints developers face to deliver power generated in rural areas to the load centers. An example he gave was over the last decade, the country has built 11,000 miles of natural gas pipeline but only 660 miles of high voltage electricity lines. 

There was also an interesting roundtable discussion with Governors Chet Culver of Iowa, Bill Ritter of Colorado, and Ted Strickland of Ohio.  The governors highlighted the success stories of renewable energy projects in their state and the benefits of the wind industry in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and bringing jobs to their states.  They also reinforced the need for a national RES to maintain renewable energy development which in turn creates more jobs.

That’s about it from Big D and look forward to seeing everyone next year in Anaheim, California.

It’s Not a Mirage – It’s a Solar Project at an Airport

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

by Steve Barrett

A little less than a year ago, I joined the HMMH team to provide clean energy services to existing clients and expand services in new areas.  Given HMMH’s long-standing and strong relationships in the aviation community, a key element of the plan was finding a way to marry aviation and energy; we thought the best prospects were in solar.  With solar technology expanding in markets throughout the world and public policy incentives increasing under the Obama Administration combined with Airports’ perfect blend of high electricity consumption and unobstructed southern exposures for capturing sunlight, our thinking seemed cogent.  But other than some knowledge of what Denver had done at the Airport’s entrance road at the Democratic Convention in 2008, we weren’t sure if we were seeing a clear future for solar at airports or just a mirage in the distance.

Now I am working with the FAA to write a Solar Guidance Document for Airports that, in part, reviews existing solar projects and provides lessons learned on what has made these projects successful and how they might be replicated by others.  Phil DeVita and I have had the opportunity to meet with five airports (with a sixth coming up) to touch the panels, hear them rotate, and meet the people who championed the projects and continue monitoring their progress.  We have collected information on siting decisions, economics, regulatory process, and operational experience.  We have gathered data to dispel myths and identified steps that were critical to success.  The paths taken have not been the same, but the results have been.  All projects have been an unequivocal success for the Airports providing cost-effective electricity and positive community relations while remaining compatible with the Airports fundamental mission. Here is a bit of what I saw (and heard).

Denver is the leader of the solar-airport movement with two projects built and operating, and a third under development.  Denver has all of the elements that make solar a “no-brainer”: cheap land, state solar incentives, a strong political commitment from the City, and lots of sun.  Each project has delivered cheaper and cheaper electricity while giving the airport deserved recognition as a leader in the field.  There is no reason Denver won’t continue to build solar projects over the next 10 years.  And despite the installation of almost 17,000 solar panels on airport property, there have been no complaints about glare.


Denver International Airport

Denver International Airport

The City of Albuquerque sits in the gold zone for solar energy and has taken a leadership position in the Southwest, including the installation of panels at the Airport.  Its first project, located on an existing car parking structure, is relatively small but it has recently received partial funding from the FAA to expand that system four-fold.  This project will put more panels on four more structures.  Without the land Denver has, the near-term goal at Albuquerque will be to fill up the remaining seven parking structures and generate a substantial amount of on-site electricity from the sun.

The Golden State has been the hub of the US solar industry and many of the major airports have seized the opportunity of sun and state incentives to build projects.

San Francisco International responded to a request sent out by the City to host solar panels.  It would be a good deal for the host – receive solar electricity for the cost of the typical customer rate paid for other electricity sources.  SFO had a new terminal with a flat roof-top tailored made for solar.  The location, being highly visible from the terminal train, also would demonstrate the Airport and City’s commitment to an alternative energy future.  With that project constructed in 2007, the City utility now wants to build a second project on the rental car parking facility and the initial design is underway with construction planned for the fall.

San Francisco International Airport

San Francisco International Airport

Anthony Kekeluwela, a veteran engineer with the Port of Oakland, started talking about a solar facility for the airport in 2005.  His approach was a bit different from the others – why not build solar along the Airports runways in lands that can’t be used for other purposes.  The logic made sense – solar is physically low in profile and can be placed close to Part 77 imaginary surfaces without physically impeding airspace.  He worked with a solar developer who leased the land, built the project, and sells electricity to the Airport.  Today it operates with minimal maintenance and maximum benefit.  And is a working example of a solar system built near a runway causing no impacts.

Oakland International Airport

Oakland International Airport

Fresno’s success story is just as remarkable.  It decided that the Runway Approach Zone, a large area subject to high noise levels from arriving and departing aircraft, was the perfect location for a large solar array.  Because no human occupied land uses could occur in the runway approach zone, airport personnel decided that solar panels would go there.  Fresno worked with the FAA to get the project approved.  Nearly two years after its construction, there have been zero complaints about its placement and Fresno would like to construct a second project.  By the way, the solar facility provides approximately 60% of the annual electricity demand of the airport.

While not all of these projects have been simple, the economic and public relations payback have been substantial.  And all of the airports that we spoke with said they would build another project if they could line up the same economic deal.  Because energy is a secondary purpose, most have not put the time in to construct a follow-on project.  Having this group of projects built and operating, does demonstrate solar at airports is more than a mirage – its good business.