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Change is hard – with great technology comes great upheaval

23 Apr 2014

carcharger

For the last 60 – 70 years, we have lived in an era of significant stability.  That seems to be over.  We’ve all seen how the internet has changed certain businesses (music, newspapers and bookstores).  Technology can be a huge boon but it can be quite disruptive.

The transition from gasoline to electric or hybrid vehicles has been somewhat bumpy as governing bodies struggle with whether dealerships are required and how to pay for roads when less (or no) gasoline will be used.  This is a growing issue as more electric and hybrid vehicles take to the road and as the condition of our Michigan roads continues to cry out for repairs.

As I’ve blogged about before, recent rhetoric suggests that Oakland and Macomb Counties may declare their independence from the DWSD.  With both counties now spending money to evaluate their options, what happens next is less clear. Given that DWSD has apparently not set its rates high enough to cover all the infrastructure improvements needed over the next 5 – 10 years, it is possible (although perhaps unlikely) that a Macomb-Oakland system might actually cost less to develop, construct and operate than the DWSD system.  Such a separation could lead the DWSD to owning over-sized water and waste treatment systems relative to their customer base and the oldest waste and water lines which are likely most in need of repair.  Given DWSD’s well publicized collection issues, this has to be making the investment community nervous as reflected in two investment firms’ recent subpoenas.  This much turmoil would seem to make the DWSD’s recent RFP less appealing than usual.

as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess

Finally (for the moment), we have seen many advances in the development of solar energy – some of which we’ve discussed on this blog – while those are exciting, they, like changes to gas driven cars and changes to 100+ years of centralized water and sewer systems, challenge the status quo.  For over 75 years, utilities have generated and supplied the electricity and natural gas that we consume in our homes and businesses from centralized points. As part of the deal, those same utilities have maintained the infrastructure needed to both generate and transmit gas and electricity.  So, what happens when people can start generating electricity on their own roofs?  Some hail it as a triple win (saving money, the environment and societal benefits) but most solar generators stay “on the grid” and as a result sometimes are contributing electricity to the grid and other times are drawing on the grid.  Under most systems, including Michigan’s, smaller generators can sell their electricity back to the grid at the utility’s retail price – so called “net metering.”

The ability to sell excess power back at the retail -not wholesale- price, raises the question of who pays for the infrastructure necessary to provide the electricity to those on the grid.  Utilities argue that those installing solar are not paying their “fair share” of such costs.  There are those who say that the price of electric service includes roughly 50% for non-generation expenses.  Some experts argue that there is no such “cost-shifting” occurring because there are savings on power plants, transmissions lines, lost energy as well as the ability to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals without utilities having to make the capital investment.  This is a tough debate and is not something easily reduced to 60 second soundbites and at present is being decided on a state by state basis.

Ultimately, the challenge of existing infrastructure combined with legacy costs makes the transition in technology and improving efficiency much harder and far more political than a “free market” would prefer.  But, as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess.

Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day -  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

Of polar vortices and Great Lakes

30 Jan 2014

Photo courtesy of Space Science And Engineering Center- University of Wisconsin - Madison

Provided courtesy of Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), University of Wisconsin-Madison

A recent report tells us that evaporation isn’t well understood and that we may see more of it in the fall and early winter than in the summer.  According to the report, the relative humidity plays a bigger role than the temperature and as we know, it’s awfully dry in the winter. One quote from that report is staggering – “a 1-day loss of 0.5 inches of water from the total surface area of the Great Lakes represents a volumetric flow rate of 820 billion gallons per day – nearly 20 times the flow rate of Niagara Falls.”

The repeated polar vortices we have been experiencing have provided greater ice cover and, thus, there should be a later start to the evaporation season this year.  The Great Lakes are reportedly 62% covered in ice, which already ranks this winter as 17th most coverage in the last 40 years. 1979 had the highest ice cover at 94.7 percent.

Weatherwise, this high ice cover may mean less lake effect snow, colder days, less runoff when the snow melt comes (although it’s been a very snowy January) but again, less evaporation.

It’s certainly better (waterwise) to be here than, say, California, where Governor Brown declared a drought emergency which likely will have significant impacts on farming and the foods eaten across the United States.  This could be good for Michigan farmers.  2014 is already shaping up to be an interesting year for water and the Great Lakes.

Water, water everywhere.

29 Jan 2014

Picture006Did you ever think about where your water comes from and what may be in it?  I have a good friend who never thought about the fact that there was a finite amount of water and that certainly some of what came out of his tap had, at some point, likely passed through someone else’s bladder. What that means is that treatment of wastewater has an impact on drinking water quality and the public health.

We’ve recently learned that the DWSD and the local counties have been trying to work out a deal to “regionalize” the Detroit Water System – thus far – to no avail.  Also, just this week, rumors have surfaced that the DWSD may be cutting 40% of its staff – a reorganizing of the system which, if successful, could lead to lower operating costs, lower borrowing costs and may make a multi-county regional deal more likely. If not, the system could be back in trouble.  There have also been rumors of a possible sale of the system or that the Detroit Emergency Manager might strike some sort of deal without Oakland and Macomb counties – which hold many of DWSD’s customers.

This is a big deal because the DWSD supplies drinking water to 126 communities in southeast Michigan, other than Detroit, serving roughly 40% of the state’s population.  The system is one of the Country’s oldest, dating back to the 1830′s and the infrastructure issues involved are huge, given that the system has five water treatment plants treating water from two intakes in the Detroit River and a third in Lake Huron. As we reported earlier, because the DWSD was able to achieve compliance on the other *ahem* end, it was finally let out of what was then one of the oldest ongoing lawsuits in existence.

However, wastewater treatment plants (which discharge treated sewage) don’t always clean everything out of the water and that failures to catch chemicals like pharmaceuticals, can have impacts downstream.  Sometimes, the chemicals get caught by accident without the operators even knowing it! A draft MDEQ report also tells us that there are problems in Michigan’s rivers (some of which may have been there all along and better testing is just now bringing it to light) with higher levels of pathogens of the sort our sewers and septic systems are supposed to eliminate.  While the City’s drinking water meets federal and State standards, those standards don’t test for everything that winds up in the water.  We’ve come along way from the 1969 fires on the Cuyahoga and Rouge Rivers, but we’ve still got a long long way to go.

As far as drinking water, one hopes that the treatment deals with every possible chemical and pathogen but we know that it does not. With a need for infrastructure upgrading and impending staffing cuts, the time seems right to strike a regional deal that benefits everyone in both the short and long terms. Let’s hope the region can pull this off. Sound water and wastewater systems are important for both our health and our economy.

Insulation update

7 Jan 2014

If you see these, you likely need more insulation

If you see these, you likely need more insulation

Two years ago, we added significant insulation to our attic and the walls of our house. We haven’t seen any icicles since.  I know how much kids like to throw snowballs at them and how pretty they can be. However, they can cause significant damage when melting snow gets trapped behind “ice dams” and they are a signal that heat is escaping to the roof through attic – heat that should be staying in the house.

I know that the investment we made insulating the house hasn’t paid for itself yet, but every little bit helps, and it’s nice to know that the energy I’m buying to heat my home is staying inside as long as possible rather than rushing up through my attic, particularly while we deal with the polar vortex.

Will 2014 be the year that Michigan Brownfields take off?

30 Dec 2013

brownfieldFor the last 20 years, we have seen the innovative and aggressive Michigan brownfield liability and redevelopment laws move redevelopments forward.   While some of these projects have been big, all of them have been what I like to characterize as “low hanging fruit.”   This makes sense because, for all the incentives available, at the end of the day, if you rehab a building that no one wants to occupy, the incentives available won’t make the difference.  While not easy to redevelop, these sites have been redeveloped while other major environmental sites (either very large, very contaminated or in less desireable locations) continued to lay fallow.

So, it is logical that downtown Detroit and areas of Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids and Lansing have seen major brownfield redevelopment pushes and that smaller projects in outer ring suburbs with sound economies have also benefited from the State’s brownfield programs.

But now, we have some major projects that are not “low hanging fruit.”  The Packard Plant is paid for and soon will be owned by a Brazilian developer with big plans. He calls it the “best opportunity in the world” and he sounds serious.  Work on the long-stalled Uniroyal site is reportedly moving forward.  DTE recently sold its Marysville Michigan Plant to a St. Louis developer with experience in Brownfields.  There has been talk for years about Detroit looking at Turin Italy as a model for post-industrial redevelopment and the TV show, Morning Joe recently came to Detroit to tout its urban revival.  I saw this article about the creative redevelopment of a Spanish cement plant, and now I wonder whether we will see this sort of investment and creativity in Detroit and southeast Michigan brownfields which are not the easiest of sites to redevelop.  If so, it will be a very exciting time in Michigan.  Michigan clearly has the supply; now it is time to see if there is sufficient demand.

Lake Erie – loaded with plastics?

20 Dec 2013

t1_11246_1533_LakeErie_143_250mPoor Lake Erie – as it is downstream from farms and wastewater treatment plants in Ohio and Michigan, it’s an algae magnet;  with its shallow and warm waters it is a good habitat for Asian Carp and now comes word of one more problem heaped on poor Erie’s shoulders.  As I blogged about this summer, there is a serious concern regarding “microbeads” from consumer products are winding up in the Great Lakes.  As Lake Erie is downstream of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario, that concern all flows toward Erie.  A new report from SUNY indicates that there is more plastic in Lake Erie per square foot than even the Pacific Plastic Gyre.    How does one know if the products (which can include toothpaste!) you buy have these microbeads?  Look at the label – if you see  Polyethylene, Polypropylene, Polyethylene Terephthalate, Polymethyl methacrylate or Nylon – the product may have an issue.  There’s an App - that scans the UPC bar codes and looks for microbead ingredients to warn you. I am trying it out but, thus far, it hasn’t recognized many products.