Archive | August 2009

Green power is cheap

Electricity in Ontario comes predominantly from nuclear, coal, and hydro (in that order). For historical reasons people refer to it as “hydro”. Well, I just recently got my bill, which is actually for wind and low-impact hydro – via Bullfrog Power. The bill is for $102, which is for a two-person household for two months (with little A/C use and no lights left on all day). Sounds like a lot? Well, how much more do you think I’m paying to get certified low-impact hydro and wind versus nuclear and coal?

The answer might surprise you: all of $18 extra, out of the total bill of $102. Less than $5 per person per month.

Fully half of the bill is for delivery, regulatory charges, and a debt retirement charge. The regular Ontario hydro rate is currently 5.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), while getting electricity through Bullfrog Power costs 8.7 cents per kWh. Which makes a 34% premium for the power itself, or 17% of the total.

The way this “offsetting” works is that you still pay your local utility, which provides power from the general grid, checks your meter, and bills you accordingly, including the 3 cent per kWh premium. (Or in some cases you pay the premium directly.) On the other end, electricity generating sources sell their power at the fixed Ontario price (5.7 cents) to the grid, getting their additional compensation from Bullfrog. There can be issues with such schemes in general, but Bullfrog looks to be running a professional and well-audited operation.

Unlike generic carbon offsetting, however, this is very concrete: you pay for the certified low-impact generation of just the electricity you use, with little or no hand-waving. In Ontario demand for Bullfrog Power is being met with the creation of new wind farms.

What about businesses that use electricity? In my case above, a 34% premium on one level became a 17% premium on the next level. But in the context of products or services, you have to add in the cost of materials and the cost of labor. Considering that electricity is a relatively small proportion of the cost of most products and services, that 17% premium would be a vanishingly small portion of the end result. I think plenty of people would be happy to pay an extra 1% to ensure that a business was powered by clean electricity. Plus, if that percentage is perceived to be large, there are likely energy savings that can be made to mitigate or eliminate the hit.


Parking lots are worth more than you think

There’s two points in this post, one that is relatively conventional and one that isn’t. If you already know about the high cost of parking, skip to the second one.

So first, parking lots are actually quite expensive. There is the cost of the land, the cost to build them, and then the maintenance cost, which is at least $500 USD per surface parking spot annually. But more importantly, there is also the opportunity cost of what is not in the place of the parking lot: commercial use, retail, residential, public space, anything. By spreading out destinations with asphalt padding, various uses take more space than they inherently need. Most deleterious, however, is likely the social and urban form ramifications of mandated free parking (whether through by-laws or culture). Free parking is part of the larger equation that makes driving very attractive by making most its costs invisible, and it is one of the major building blocks of the sprawl of post-war North America. This high cost of free parking has been written about extensively.

But, in a slightly sinister way, parking lots can be worth more than even the New Urbanist might think. In particular, it may be worthwhile to sometimes let parking lots win against proposed downtown development — especially if that development is not of a high caliber. Once a development or park or any such use is in place, it will be there for decades. Parking lots, on the other hand, are an excellent placeholder (just don’t tell their owners). I think cities may soon be getting caught up in a rush to urbanize, intensify their downtowns, and all that jazz, but in the process may allow too many subpar developments and uses of space. They might also miss out on some uses, such as for public spaces like squares and parks, playgrounds, schools, train stations, or anything that wasn’t easily planned for with the current mindset. When cities realize their missing uses, they would do well to have a strategic stash of parking lots to sacrifice instead of needing to tear down something more substantial.

The recently opened public square in the heart of Uptown Waterloo is a good example. If that parking lot had not been there, a public space in such a central area would have been infeasible to obtain. Development is not always better than a parking lot, because the latter retains possibilities that the former shuts out.