Tis the Season

A plethora of clothing catalogs keep arriving as a Christmas prelude.  Despite all my best efforts to cancel them, they’ve managed to overcome my objections and clog my mailbox.

I’ve noticed something particularly unusual this year, from L.L. Bean, to Eddie Bauer, to J. Jill:  they are aggressively pushing heavy-weight winter essentials, “crucial cool-weather outfitting,” Forty four versions of quilted jackets – from “ultra-light” to “deep winterweights” to “winter warmer,” to “premium down”, to “Freeheat polyester” to “performance fleece,” with “double fleece-lined.”  Then there are flannel-lined denims galore, thick boots and slippers with a froth of fur or fleece.  The madness goes on. DON’T these retailers have a clue about warmer winters? 

REDUX: "Damn those Congressional Torpedos....full speed ahead"

How might a fractious Congress begin to redress the massive underinvestment in US infrastructure? This was the unspoken question on the table during a panel discussion on “Infrastructure for the 21st Century” held on December 5th at the Kennedy School Institute of Politics’ BiPartisan Program for New Members of Congress. I had a chance to weigh in as co-panelist, the invitation following on the publication of my book Next Generation Infrastructure: principles for post-industrial public works (Island Press 2014).

 Moderated by David Gergen, Harvard’s Edward Glaeser gave an historical overview of U.S. public works, and an economist’s perspective of how we can redress our neglect. Robert Puentes from Brookings Institute spoke to various “disruptive factors”—demographic and cultural—that suggest we have to be even more strategic in planning and financing infrastructure, tailoring public-private partnerships and innovative delivery models. The Honorable Rodney Slater (Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation) made a plea for longer-term surface transportation and aviation authorizations, and the kind of benchmarks and alternative tax structures Congress might usefully put in place. I focused on the fed’s role with respect to water and power issues, especially emerging vulnerabilities due to the “energy-water nexus” (profound interdependencies) and what the Congress might do to promote real advancements in efficiency and resilience across the energy-water-waste sectors.

 Happily, there was a whiff of optimism, along with many tough questions and diverse viewpoints emanating from this room of legislative newcomers. But the takeaway, for me, was the evident willingness to dig deeply into potential solutions. I had some wonderful follow up conversations with Brenda Lawrence, (MI-14th, D), Mike Bishop (MI-8th, R) and Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11th, D) While personally, the highlight was one-on-one breakfast with Rodney Slater, the whole event, including dinner the night before, was an unexpected honor and great priviledge. 

A Bridge Not Far Enough– Missed Opportunities for the Tappan Zee Bridge

Today’s award-winning bridge designs, premiated for their structural innovations, graceful profiles, sweeping approaches and tautly-arched spans are handsome feats of engineering. They share one limiting feature, however: effectively, they are single-purpose constructions. Besides accommodating high-volume vehicular traffic, few of these connectors perform other real consequential work.  They are, in this respect, sub-optimal. Designing for shared use—accommodating multiple vs. single transit modes—offers the opportunities for shared financing and operating savings. Consider the replacement Tappan Zee Bridge, now in construction, a project that just last week was denied badly needed financing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Had the State acted on commuter preferences, accommodating mass transit across this busy Hudson River crossing, instead of postponing that option, it might have a smaller funding gap to fill.

 Successes elsewhere point to the benefits of multimodal crossings. Bangladesh’s Bangabandhu Bridge, for example, a conduit between the eastern and western halves of that nation, is a multipurpose structure that forges a vital link between Southeast Asia and northwestern Europe. It incorporates two-lane carriageways, a dual gauge railway, a high-pressure natural gas pipeline as well as high-voltage and telecommunication cables. These several functions were combined when feasibility studies for each revealed that none were viable independently. In medieval times, the heavily occupied, multipurpose spans of pre-industrial eras (Old London Bridge and Paris’ Pont Notre-Dame) supported dense, mixed-use real estate, responding to the confines of medieval walled cities.  Multi-story houses, shops and civic space topped out these superstructures, bank to bank. Soon, more accretions, utilities such as water-powered mills and water-pumping towers, affixed themselves to these spans.

“Future-proofing” infrastructure by integrating multiple services runs counter to the traditional siloing of infrastructural sectors. However, common sense dictates that multiuse crossings can not only accommodate more traffic modes, but also can incorporate both useful public amenities (bike and pedestrian ways) and even critical utilities. In an urbanizing world, the diversified use of bridges increases real estate productivity. Importantly, such projects can accrue capital cost savings through shared components and/or economies of scale. Co-benefits also include operational and energy efficiencies, shared work forces, and reduced construction-related impacts of noise, traffic disruption and pollution. Sadly, New York State has forfeited these opportunities.


Source: www.hrc.inc

“Damn those Congressional Torpedoes: Full Speed Ahead…..”

This spring, yet another Presidential appeal for fixing the nation’s “raggedy” infrastructure (his word choice) failed to stir a response from Congress. However, bolder moves elsewhere to renew these critical services are reported here. I’m highlighting the following initiatives because they epitomize the new norms needed to “future-proof” our infrastructure. Such strategems are spelled out in my new book, Next-Generation Infrastructure: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works, released this week by Island Press. The book promotes ways to optimize the collective workings of urban systems: green our heat and power; leverage natural resources; improve social contexts; and adapt to a changing climate—in all, how to plan a new wave of public works at lower costs and with crosscutting benefits.

Close to home, one audacious project recently caught my eye. The township of Hempstead, Long Island has erected its very own renewable energy park, featuring wind and solar power, ground-source heating and cooling, electric-vehicle charging, a fuel cell, a net-zero energy office and aquaculture facility. When networked, of these components constitute what my book refers to as an “infrastructural ecology,” specifically, co-located services that cost-effectively share flows of energy and resources in a closed-loop system. Here, for example, wind energy splits seawater into oxygen and hydrogen; the latter is used in a hydrogen vehicle fueling station. Hydrogen in turn runs the fuel cell, which produces reliable electricity plus warm-water to support the shellfish farm. The solar canopy/carport powers the service vehicles and a 60 kilowatt solar field meets all electrical demands at the town’s geothermally heated and cooled office – in all, a terrific ecotourism destination! Infrastructural ecologies demonstrate the first of my book’s five principles for next-gen infrastructure: systems should be multipurpose, interconnected and synergistic.

Another of the book’s precepts is “de-carbonizing” infrastructure. Announced last month, a long-abandoned open pit copper mine and its adjacent waste-rock dump site is getting a high-performance makeover.  When permitted by federal energy regulators, this brownfield, which is situated in the arid landscape northwest of Tucson, AZ., will be transformed into a 100-megawatt solar plant and a 150-megawatt closed-loop pumped storage facility—think “battery.”  In a recycling loop, solar energy will power the pumping of reservoir water held in the pit’s depth to an upper reservoir on the waste-rock site. Here, conventional hydroelectric turbines will churn out reliable power for the grid as the water drops back down into the pit. Where elsewhere, large-scale solar developments in sensitive, pristine desert sites have foundered under environmental litigation, the Sacaton Pumped Storage Facility, a “post-industrial” power plant, will be a model for carbon- and conflict-free “Big Solar.” How might this demonstration-project scale up?  The U.S. Department of Energy recently reported that there are similar disturbed and contaminated lands throughout the States sufficient to house 715 Gigawatts of utility-scale solar power production—60% more power than will be required for the U.S. to be adequately supplied with renewable energy in 2050!

My book concludes with a road-map for state, local, and public-private partners to realize holistic solutions for infrastructure renewal, absent federal leadership. Among other strategies, it emphasizes roles that innovative financing initiatives will play. As a perfect example, the New York Green Bank  was opened for business just this February, with its initial capitalization of $210 million towards it $ 1 billion goal, announced by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo. Modeled on California’s Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank (also the model for Obama’s proposed National Infrastructure Bank), NY Green Bank will be the largest in the nation. Its goal is to mobilize financing for credit-worthy “resilient and clean energy systems.” As designed, it will be a self-sustaining model that will add value to public dollars by leveraging private capital. Projects to be supported by the NY Green Bank include a broad range of commercially proven technologies, including solar, wind and other renewable energy generation technologies; electricity load reduction; on-site clean generation, and similar projects that support the State’s clean energy objectives. 

The above three initiatives are each promising markers on the road-map to rejuvenating America’s critical systems. They inspire hope in me as they suggest we have not lost our capacity for holistic thinking and integrative action.