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Talking Headways Podcast: Buildings, Transportation, and Power

This week, we’re joined by Roger Duncan to talk about his new book (with Michael Webber), The Future of Transportation, Buildings, and Power. We chat about buildings can get to net zero energy, the changing structure of public utilities in an electric vehicle future, and how different cities around the country can work towards energy conservation based on their local conditions.

If you prefer to read than listen, an edited version of our conversation follows the audio player. For an unedited full transcript (with some typos), click here.


Jeff Wood: I found the discussion of different places really interesting. The differences between what helps reduce emissions in Cleveland versus like Seattle and Austin. So what are the differences between those places? And I also have another question, how can federal policy be written in a way to help each of those individual places reach their goals, but not prescribing the exact same thing for all of them?

Roger Duncan: Well, first as to the differences, of course I'm from Austin, I know Austin's utility fairly well, and we have somewhat of a balanced utility. We have I think close to 35 percent renewables now and another 20, 30 percent or so from nuclear and most of the others, natural gas. And we're working on that. Seattle has almost a 100 percent renewable, they are basically hydro powered and have a lot of wind power coming into their system now. And then the Cleveland area, it is still primarily coal based. And so the point we make in the book is that if you started talking about some technologies that everyone likes, like electric vehicles, for instance, or whether it is changing out light bulls for energy efficiency, or such that those solutions have different impacts and are effective in some areas and not as effective in others, changing out light bulbs in Seattle is not going to be saving emissions because, they're already running on a hydro and wind power. But we should change all the light bulbs in Cleveland, as quick as we can, because it directly impacts the coal emissions.

Electric vehicles are ideal to go into Seattle because it would be running on hydro power, but won't make that much difference in Cleveland and sort of a middle ground in Austin, which has about half and half. So the ideal is, let the regions look at what their renewable energy resources are, their energy loads that they have, their electricity mix or utility mix and such, and give some guidance and help from the national level to help them develop regional energy plans that maximize first their energy efficiency, then optimize for whatever renewable resources they have in that region with energy storage, and then add what they need either transporting in more renewable energy or not.

Now, on the national level, there are some things that can't be done on a regional basis: transmission lines coming from our wind and solar centers cross many states and need to be handled at the national level. And there are some policies like that that can be very helpful to the regional energy plants.

Jeff Wood: It's really interesting, the idea that a certain city has a certain target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I am interested in that difference between light bulbs and EVs, especially in, in a place like Cleveland. I know that you wouldn't be able to reduce emissions in Cleveland because it's still the same amount of emissions, but then there's also like the second layer of things, which is the point source pollution — the emissions from the vehicle in terms of brake dust, all of the particulates, etc. So there's all of these orders of magnitude that seemed like there a part of the discussions as well.

Roger Duncan: That's right. And we're talking about priorities here in terms of what you do first, as opposed to the second and third. We want to change Cleveland's electricity mix to renewables. At that point, you want to reduce the most greenhouse gasses in the shortest amount of time, so you do the light bulbs first, and then you work on getting the vehicles in second in this particular region.

Jeff Wood: There is an interesting part that kind of hints at land use. There's the, the difference in the ability to be zero energy from multi-family in larger buildings and single-family housing, or kind of a low density housing, the ability to be zero energy is easier for the single family. Then it is for say a larger building. I'm curious how those too kind of differences fit into that opposite reaction of land use from a transportation standpoint as better if it's more clustered.

Roger Duncan: Of course, there are trade-offs here. I mean, there is not one solution that meets all the needs. And again, this gets back to the differences in technology, as I point out early in the book in regard to renewable energy and on-site generation, because solar cells and batteries are at the level of technology they are, we are going to be able to have single family homes and small commercial buildings that can be net zero energy from just the amount of sunlight can land and other resources that hit that location, but because of urbanization, most people in the future are going to be living in multi-story residential and commercial buildings.

And you do have some multi-story buildings that are net zero energy today: In Seattle, the Bullit Foundation and Rocky Mountain Institutes building and so forth. But these are still limited to the energy that hits that site. And if you have a high substantial energy load of computers or a restaurant in a building and so forth, you are simply not going to be able to convert enough sunlight to make it zero energy. Now it can still be clean energy. You can still have it be solar- or wind-powered by transmitting in the energy from a wind farm or solar farm outside of the area.

But, it is a cautionary note to all of the people who are advocating that we change our building codes and require, for instance, all commercial buildings must be net zero energy buildings in the future. That's not realistic if you define net zero energy as getting all your energy needs from the building site itself.

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