The End of the Steampunk Grid

Compound Tandem Horizontal Engine and Dynamo
Compound Tandem Horizontal Engine and Dynamo (1905). This is still how we make electricity.

I just finished reading Alexandra von Meier’s book, Electric Power Systems: A Conceptual Introduction. It’s an overview of how the generation, transmission, and distribution system works, and how it’s worked for pretty much the whole history of the grid, stretching back to the end of the 19th century. More than anything I came away with an appreciation for the gloriously analog nature of the machine. We have a steampunk grid, a massive artifact of the Victorian era, hiding behind and powering our increasingly digital world. This isn’t an engineering textbook, but it’s not exactly meant for a popular audience either. There’s an ongoing stream of complex numbers, calculus references, vectors, matrices, and electromagnetic fields… and without some understanding of them, a lot of the core ideas in the book will probably not come across very well.

At the upstream edge of the grid, we have thousands of gigantic machines, spinning in almost perfect synchronization. Massive amounts of iron and copper, literally turned by steam. They’ve gotten bigger and hotter and more precise and efficient over time, but they’re fundamentally the same type of generation the grid grew up with a century ago.

At the downstream edge of the grid, in large part we have the same kind of machines… but running in reverse, taking the undulating waves of electricity, and turning them back into rotation, through an invisible, smoothly spinning force-field. It’s like magic, but it’s something we’ve all lived with our entire lives. It’s so normal we don’t think about it.

Between these spinning machines we have masses of iron and tightly wound copper stepping voltage up and down, mechanical switches that look like something out of Frankenstein, and very little in the way of instrumentation and automation — at least by present day standards. And with a few exceptions, the electricity really does flow from one edge of the grid to the other in a dendritic network.

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Adversarial Electricity Portfolios

Controlled demolition of a tall smokestack.
Controlled Demolition. (CC-BY-SA Heptagon via Wikimedia Commons)

Can we construct adversarial electricity portfolios made of new zero-carbon resources that undermine the profitability of specific existing fossil plants? Some version of this is already happening, but it’s incidental rather than targeted. The economics of existing coal and nuclear plants are being eroded by flat electricity demand in combination with cheap gas, wind, and solar. Economical storage and dispatchable demand aren’t far behind. But how much faster would the energy transition be if we actively optimized new energy resources to undermine the economics of existing fossil generation?

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Leftist Urbanism and Red Vienna

Thanks to a pointer from Claudia Thiem I found this short exploration of the origins and form of Red Vienna — a few decades between the world wars when the city of Vienna had a robust social democratic government, and almost city-state like autonomy. They decided to implement constructive socialist policies at the scale of the city. But it apparently wasn’t just socialism happening in the city, rather it was a more comprehensive leftist urbanism. I’ve heard a lot about this period, but haven’t found a good English language text to read yet.  If you have one to suggest, please let me know!

Red Vienna seems especially interesting in its contrast to other socialist development schemes. Austrian socialism was explicitly pro-city, rather than romanticizing and idealizing the rural peasant (or yeoman farmer… if you prefer Thomas Jefferson).  What happens when leftists wholeheartedly embrace the city as their platform for change instead of heading back to the land?  There’s so much more opportunity for connection and communication and interaction with each other and the other facets of society in cities — and much more in the way of economic opportunity to work with.

More than social housing: a leftist urbanism

Obviously plenty of other socialist governments built housing in cities — but typically in the deeply anti-urban form of isolated repetitive towers or apartment blocks. In Vienna the socialist project didn’t just happen to take place in the city, it was about re-imagining the city as a platform for equitable living.

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We Need Better Models of Urban Success

After working on issues of urban development and cooperative housing for close to a decade in Boulder, I’ve gotten the sense that the organizational tools and public polices we are familiar with in the US are not up to the task of creating equitable, accessible, evolving, sustainable cities.  We don’t seem to have any model for what urban success is supposed to look like. Either that, or our model of success is horribly inequitable and exclusive, and we’re okay with that. By default, the financing, land use, transportation, and property rights policy regimes in the US turn any successful city into a socioeconomic sorting machine — poorer residents are expelled, as land prices are bid up and the city is socially and potentially physically transformed.

There have to be other, better ways for cities to succeed — for change to happen, and new residents to be accommodated without this kind of exclusion and erasure. But much of the urban development and housing discussion in the US seems to center on giving less wealthy residents the same powers of exclusion enjoyed by richer property owners. This might be more equitable, but it’s still a bad model of urban success. Cities are powerful economic engines, and also perhaps the best available platform and scale we have for creating an ecologically sustainable civilization. We need to allow more people into our thriving cities, and somehow use this demand to facilitate their transformation into places where a high quality of life can be had — by anyone — with very low energy and material resource requirements, without destroying the social and community structures that already exist.

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Germanic Cooperative Housing Resources

I’ve started to lose track of all the things I’ve been reading about housing cooperatives (mostly) in the German speaking world, so I thought I would make a little catalog of resources. Note that many of the articles and organizational websites are in German, but Google Translate is good enough!

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Boulder: 250,000 or Bust

Boulder has a housing problem. If you own your home, and everyone you’re close to here owns their homes, it can seem like Someone Else’s Problem. Or maybe an abstract problem to be solved in your spare time. Or maybe it’s not even a problem — just an unfortunate reality. When you rent, and are surrounded by other renters, it can feel like everyone is just waiting and wondering if they’re about to be sent into economic exile by the next rent increase or employment gap.

A couple of years ago I was at dinner with a group of younger professional types. The topic of housing came up. Those who’d bought condos were giddy — their “investment” was growing by double digits each year! Those renting were despondent. They felt like they’d missed their chance to stay here and be part of the community. It was an uncomfortable microcosm of Boulder’s housing wealth divide, playing out over years instead of decades. We quickly moved on to less divisive topics, but the divisions remained.

There are tens of thousands members of our community who don’t live here. Many would like to, but instead they drive into the city every day. We should invite them to spend the night. People working here should have the option of living here. We can do it without building on Open Space, and without building anything more than 55 — or even 38 — feet tall. If we want to, we can make most of the new housing owner occupied and permanently affordable to middle income folks, and we can do it without a mountain of public money.

However, we can’t do it without changing the city.

We can’t create affordability on a grand scale by moving money from one group of people to another. As He Who Shall Not Be Named has often informed Council: $100,000 per home to make 10,000 affordable homes is a billion dollars, or $10,000 per resident of the city! No linkage fee or tax or city bond can raise that kind of cash. It’s taken Open Space 50 years to spend its first billion.

But we can create massive amounts of durable affordability by allowing people to live modestly and share. Instead of a 5000 square foot monster home, we could allow five 1000 square foot apartments. Instead of a 3 people in a million dollar house on a $500,000 lot, we could have 12 people in five $200,000 flats, with each household paying another $100,000 for land. These numbers are rough, but some version of this strategy can make as much middle income housing as we care to have. And unlike an ADU, this density bonus is big enough that permanent affordability can be required, and still have building more housing be the most profitable option. If we did this on 10,000 single family lots, we could house 50,000 commuting households and put half of the city’s housing outside of the speculative market forever. Low income housing would still need financial support, but this strategy drastically reduces the funding required per home. It also preserves scarce public funds for helping those who actually need it.

We could do this, and we’d be much better stewards of the environment. Instead of long commutes to big houses, many folks might not drive at all, and would live in small homes built to Boulder’s stringent energy efficiency standards. City tax revenues would increase. Mass transit could be convenient and affordable. People who are already part of our community could be part of our civic life. Immigrants might actually feel welcome here. Most people wouldn’t have to worry about being priced out. A Boulder of 250,000 would still be an exclusive enclave — as any desirable place with a population cap must be — but we could choose something other than wealth as the criteria for inclusion.

This wouldn’t be a concrete jungle — it’s the same big houses we’re getting now, on the same big lots, on the same tree-lined streets. But instead of sheltering isolated millionaires, they’d be filled with people who want to share the city. Who would you prefer scraped your house?

We could do this, but we probably won’t. As the capital creeps in and sterilizes this place completely, remember that it was a choice. Remember that we chose to preserve our zoning rather than our community.

Zane Selvans wanders the Earth by bicycle with a laptop, liberating climate and energy data.

The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell

I first came across Jeff Goodell’s writing in Rolling Stone, which published Why the City of Miami is Doomed to Drown in 2013. (Interestingly, the article has since been re-named Miami: How Rising Sea Levels Endanger South Florida.) I’ve referred to that article many times as a case study in the creeping reality of sea level rise, and society’s denial of the issues at hand, so I grabbed a copy of The Water Will Come as soon as I heard it existed. Plus, I get a shiver every time I say the title. It’s almost biblical. Like something out of the Book of Revelations. Messianic and mythic, but… also true.

At the same time, I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s book New York, 2140, set in an amphibious, post-diluvian New York City. (The combo is a trip. It’s almost like they collaborated on the books. I would love to hear a conversation between them about it some time.)

But Goodell’s book begins and ends with Miami, making forays to Venice, the Netherlands, Manhattan, and Lagos in between. It reads like a kind of disaster tourism — the author seeking out people and places in various stages of realization about sea level rise, and presses them into acknowledging what it means for their city, their livelihood, their future. The responses range from denial, to complete freakout, to stoic commitment to place — going down with the ship.

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Truths Win Out

Pretty much immediately after the 2016 election, I blocked Facebook. I didn't delete my account. I disabled the newsfeed with a browser plugin, making the platform an almost write-only medium. Something just felt wrong about it. Like it was too needy, as it slid into and then well beyond tabloid territory. Too engaging, but in a draining, physically sickening way before finally falling asleep to the pale blue glow. It felt strained. Frenzied. Fried. I half-joked that there was a dangerous adversarial AI on the back end and it didn't seem like a good idea to connect to it.

I hadn't been able to bring myself to really connect to the election itself either. I felt bad about it, like I should have been engaged and working on it somehow, but it seemed so weird and extra meaningless. How could this nutty thing actually be important? I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway (partly because we were fighting to keep our cooperative homes and that was tiring in its own way). I turned off the US election because it felt like a reality show. And I don't watch reality shows.

Now we know that there really was an adversarial AI on the other side. It was shepherded or cultivated or mined* by some humans, who were building a giant "vote crazy" knob and cranking it up to 11.

The AI on the other sides is still evolving. What's it learning now? Can it study quietly at its desk without disturbing others? What is it watching and listening to? What does it see and hear? What's it reading these days? What is it preparing for? Is it a seasonal elections worker? Does it get tired? Do we get tired of it?

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Thoughts on The Color of Law

Richard Rothstein's recent book The Color of Law looks at the history of racism in US housing policy. It focuses especially on African Americans, and the constitutionality of these policies in light of the reconstruction era amendments that ended slavery.

Throughout the book, Rothstein makes a big point of the difference between de jure (in law) segregation and de facto (in fact) segregation. The purpose of the book (belied in its subtitle: "A forgotten history of how our government segregated America.") is to remind us that residential segregation did not just happen because private citizens expressed discriminatory preferences. Instead, he lays out the gory details of how government at all levels — through laws, official policies, financing terms, and officially sanctioned lack of enforcement — has enacted de jure segregation for more than a century. This has often included creating and enforcing segregation where it did not previously exist, in the West, and in the northern industrial centers as successive waves of migration from the South took place in the first half of the 20th century. He argues that because this segregation was perpetrated by the government, with the full force of law, we have a constitutional obligation to ameliorate the harm it has done to generations of African Americans.

The book felt kind of like a hybrid between Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (about successive & evolving systems of black subjugation after the end of slavery, especially drug-war mediated mass incarceration) and Kenneth T. Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier (a history of suburbanization in the US). One of the main themes in The New Jim Crow is the remarkable adaptability of our systems of race-based social control. We outlawed slavery, but just a few decades later, Jim Crow was in full force, disenfranchising blacks throughout the south. The Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s outlawed many Jim Crow practices, but it wasn't long before the War on Drugs and mass incarceration had filled the gap.

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Orphaned Wells, Wind Farms and Net Present Value

Wells left behind by industry threaten to overwhelm Western states.

Source: ‘Orphaned’ oil and gas wells are on the rise (High Country News)

A good High Country News story about the problem of orphaned methane wells in Colorado & Wyoming. Well operators “become bankrupt” and walk away, leaving the public to cover cleanup costs. In theory, operators have to put a bond up to get a permit, but the bond isn’t enough to cover cleanup costs. One operator named Atom recently forfeited a $60K bond on 50 wells, which subsequently cost the public ~$600K to clean up.  The same problem exists with reclamation bonds covering coal mines on federal land in Wyoming, except the dollar values are three orders of magnitude larger.

If the bond amounts were much larger, the money vs. time curve of a methane well or coal mine would start to look much more like that of a wind or solar installation, from capital’s point of view. Big reclamation bonds would look like part of a big up front investment, which is then followed by a long trickle of income as the mine or well produces over its lifetime.

You can slosh the costs & profits around through PPAs and other arrangements, but at a basic level, that big up front cost + long trickle of income is the fundamental cashflow time series of renewables too. Even if these different energy investments all add up to the same dollar value, the time distribution matters, because capital often just cares about net present value. (See Dave Roberts’ famous Discount Rates: A Boring Thing You Should Know About With Otters!)
 
From an extractor’s point of view, pushing the reclamation costs into the future makes them unimportant, because they’re discounted to the present. By the time they loom large, the true remaining value of the well or mine is already negative, with cleanup costs included. And the only rational thing to do at that point is to walk away. That’s what bankruptcy is for. But in this case, the counterparty is the public, and we have no upside risk.
 
The public takes on the environmental or cleanup costs of the mine or well at the outset, rather than internalizing those costs within the business decision. To put energy investments without those environmental or cleanup costs on equal footing, you’d need to give them up front or ongoing subsidies. And here we’re just talking about the traditional “environmental” costs — not the climate costs.
 
Half of finance and capital markets is just smuggling money through time. We can pull piles of it back from the future. Or we can exile our debts to the future. From and to those people we don’t think are us. The other half of finance seems to do the same thing with risks, extracting certainty from others, pushing uncertainty onto others, moving uncertainty through time. Trying to keep upside uncertainty, and lose downside uncertainty.