Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rob Hopkins's Urban Challenge

Last month I discussed my suspicions that the transition movement may be just the same old back-to-the-land movement with renewed energy from the peak oil and climate crises. I'm not prepared to dismiss it completely out of hand, but I do think that it needs to let go of its contempt of cities and tone down its agriculture fetish to be truly effective.

I think it's worth quoting in depth the paragraph on page 37 of the Transition Handbook where Rob Hopkins dismisses New York:
If we see climate change as a separate and distinct issue from peak oil, we risk creating a world of lower emissions but one which is, in terms of oil vulnerability, just as fragile as today’s – if not more so – as energy prices rise.

A good example of this is New York, which recently emerged in a study as having one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any large Western city, less than a third of the per capita US average. This is due to the density of living, the walkability, good public transport and the low heating requirements of apartment living. So, from a climate change perspective we can argue that New York is a good model of low carbon living we would all do well to emulate. Now let’s weave peak oil into that mix. What happens to New York in the event of a power shortage, or when the price of importing food starts to rise sharply? New York experienced such a power cut in August 2003, and although it only lasted for a day, its impact was keenly felt. While New York may have a small carbon footprint, it has little or no resilience to declining oil supplies (a concept explored in depth in Chapter 3).

You can read more of that section on the publisher's website.

When I read this, I immediately disagreed with Hopkins's conclusion (which seems to be that cities are doomed and we should all be living in small towns where we can use horsecarts to get our produce to market) but I had trouble defending New York against his specific accusation. The 2003 blackout did point to a particular vulnerability that the city has.

At 4:15 on August 14, I was working in Lower Manhattan in an enterprise that was essentially dependent on the Internet to function, so the boss told us to go home. The subways were non-functional, there was gridlock on the streets, and we didn't even think of taking a bus or a cab. I found a co-worker who lived near me and we walked six miles back to Queens. It took us a couple of hours. At least two car lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge were allocated to pedestrians. My wife had brought our infant son with her to work in the Bronx, and was not prepared to carry him ten miles home. One of her co-workers drove them to her apartment in Harlem, where they spent the night. The next morning they took three buses to get home. Power was restored the following evening.

Our resilience was tested in a less dramatic way three years later, when mismanagement by Con Edison resulted in sections of Queens losing power. At first there were two days of low power (our air conditioner and desktop computers wouldn't work, but the fans and laptops would), followed by a day of no power. At that point, Con Ed brought in several diesel generators in trailers and parked them next to large apartment buildings. Switching the apartment buildings to the generators freed up some electricity for smaller customers, but it took over a month before our generator was disconnected and driven away. In the meantime it was spewing diesel fumes around the clock under our bedroom window, which didn't help our son's asthma any. It was kind of a surreal experience, because in this case the subways were running normally and other neighborhoods had power. We could go work or shop in Manhattan or Forest Hills and it would be just another day with lights and air conditioning, but then we would get off the train and see stores with the lights off and the doors open.

There are two main questions that Hopkins's challenge raises. In both cases we made it through with minimal loss of life and property, but both cases were relatively temporary. What Hopkins is saying is that when peak oil finally catches up with us we will have to make do indefinitely with a much lower energy level. Is it possible to power a metropolitan area of nineteen million at roughly a thousand people per square kilometer without fossil fuels? What is a truly sustainable size and density?

In both cases we had a certain amount of redundancy between electrical, liquid and muscle energy that allowed the city to function at a reduced level while the problem was fixed. When the subways weren't running, there were gasoline and diesel powered buses, taxis and cars to transport those who couldn't walk or bike. When the cables couldn't bring enough power to work our lights, computers and air conditioners, we had diesel powered generators to supplement them.

In some visions of the future of cities, most transportation is powered by electricity, using energy ultimately supplied by sustainable sources. We already have electric subways and elevators, and in the past we've had electric streetcars and trolleybuses. Ultimately, I would like to see most car and truck trips replaced by electric rail and bus, and of course walking and bicycling.

But isn't that putting all our eggs in one transmission basket? What happens if we get another blackout like in 2003, and we don't have any cars or diesel buses to travel in? What if we get a brown-out like in 2006, and we don't have any diesel fuel to generate more electricity with?

Some of the answer is generating power locally, and in fact there are buildings in the neighborhood that have installed solar generators on the roofs and natural gas co-generation systems in the basements, but these only provide a fraction of the electricity needed, and the co-generation requires a supply of natural gas. I suppose we could have a completely redundant system of generators and buses powered by natural gas, but that presumes that we will have enough natural gas available then.

If any of you out there have information or insights, I'd love to hear them. Maybe you think Hopkins is right, and we should all move back to the land? In any case, please assume that we will reach peak oil, and that climate change will make other fossil fuels like "clean coal" and natural gas unsustainable. Feel free to disagree with those assumptions, but they are the premise of this discussion.


Alon Levy said...

I'm skeptical that New York fared worse during the blackout than the small towns in the Catskills.

Does Hopkins talk at all about what happened in the rural areas and small towns? Or is it so obvious to him that those areas are resilient that he sees no need to argue it?

BruceMcF said...

The claim seems to be that if a country attempts to distribute a diverse portfolio of sustainable, renewable power sources through a 20th century distribution grid, there will be problems.

And indeed there would be.

However, one part of the infrastructure supporting reliance on a diverse portfolio of sustainable, renewable power sources are long distance, low loss UHVDC transmission lines, to connect consuming regions with multiple generating regions and to extend the reach of dispatchable renewable power sources for firming supplies. Trying to rely on a high share of volatile renewable power sources without such a long distance network would require a massive investment in otherwise unnecessary power storage infrastructure.

And of course, with a UHVDC connection to a live source of power, a local distribution grid can be brought up for some level of power delivery even if the regional AC grid is down.

And a second part of that infrastructure is a smart distribution grid, allowing real time communication between consuming devices and the power suppliers as to when supplies are less expensive / more available and more expensive / less available.

Combine the two and you have a much more resilient system, even before beginning to deliberately design resilience in.

Unknown said...

I think this is a bigger symptom of the tendency towards standardization brought on by globalization. Obviously specialization and differentiation on a global scale improve efficiency, but it also allows failures to be more catastrophic. You could see the financial crisis as the worst case scenario of putting all your economic eggs in one basket.

I like the way Jane Jacobs talks about this in "The Nature of Economies". Like me, she doesn't just say that all globalization and differentiation is bad and localization is good, but points out how certain costs of globalization aren't taken into consideration. Once they are, then we can come up with rational decisions

Alon Levy said...

Bruce, the claim is much stronger than "The late 20th century distribution grid is inadequate," which is what many infrastructure people say. The claim is, "Cities have no resilience and therefore society should ruralize."

What I've read is that part of the reason behind the blackout is that because massive failures are infrequent and small failures are more common, the bureaucrats have an incentive to prevent small failures only. By the time a major blackout occurs, the person who made the mistake that allowed it may have moved to another job or even retired.

Walter Sobchak said...

Wait, doesn't New York get a large chunk of its power from nuclear power (Indian Point)? This is probably a problem better attributed to the power grid. That 2003 blackout was the same as the 1965 and the 1977 blackout: ConEd trying to isolate itself from the grid and failing. With a modern power grid, New York City should have no problem getting power from nuclear plants in Connecticut, the hydro plant at Niagara Falls, or coal plants anywhere in the region. Tidal plants in the harbor and wind turbines off Long Island should be built for auxiliary reasons, too.

Alon Levy said...

Walter, the 2003 blackout affected most of the Northeastern US plus chunks of Ontario and the Midwest. The ultimate cause was traced to Ohio.

Not everything is about New York.

Jeff said...

A large megapolis like New York does raise some problems in that is draws resources from a large area to sustain it...

I'm not sure if these people are entirely anti-city... but maybe they are just saying REALLY large cities are gonna be tough to keep running. Perhaps, small to medium size cities are more feasible? If they can go that direction, then they could be pro-urban as well!

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your comments, all. Alon, as far as I can tell, Hopkins only mentions the 2003 blackout that one time in order to dismiss the efficiency advantages of cities.

Bruce, as I understand it, you're saying that the 2003 and 2006 blackouts would not have happened if we'd had a modern grid, and that such a grid would provide the resilience that Hopkins says we lack.

I'd still prefer to have an alternative way of powering subways, trolleys and/or trolleybuses. No matter how "smart" the grid, I can still imagine it collapsing - perhaps through a well-written virus.

Jeff, Hopkins at least seems to really be anti-city. All of his work is focused on small towns, and that one anecdote is all he needs to dismiss all cities. Of course, there are many transition people who are not anti-urban; I'll try to discuss them in future posts.

Alon Levy said...

Jeff, the amount of energy needed to move those resources from the catchment area to the city is tiny. Class I railroads are capable of moving more than 400 ton-miles per gallon of diesel. If an oil shocks sends gas prices up to $20 per gallon of diesel, the price of rice from Arkansas in New York will rise by $60 per ton, which is about 4% of the current retail price. Rice is the cheapest food per unit weight; more expensive foods, such as meat, can be railed similar distances while only raising cost by less than 1%.

arcady said...

Yeah, what Alon says. Also, the subways and railroads in NYC did at one point have an alternative source of power: their own power plants. The IRT and New Haven had their own power plants to generate 25 Hz power, and their own distribution grids to get it to substations. Amtrak still has its own separate 25 Hz grid, which is fed both from converter plants that take regular 60 Hz power from the grid, and from a hydro plant in Pennsylvania which has a special generator just for Amtrak.

Christopher Parker said...

Rural areas have blackouts too, due to storms (and less frequently due to problems of the grid). For example, last December folks around here (NH) were without power for weeks. While life in New York is disrupted, in rural areas people die. Plus in rural areas we all have wells which use electric pumps and are reduced to melting snow to drink if there's a blackout.

M1EK said...

The easiest possible retort to the Peak Oilers or transitioners who insist that big cities are doomed is to point out that while rural areas and small towns did exist before cheap oil, so did big cities. The thing that's going away isn't true urban cities, it's suburbs.

This misapprehension about cities isn't helped by the fact that in most metro areas, the dominant living style by far is suburban and exurban - but near-NYC kooks like Kunstler should at least know better.