Category: Environment

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Think TriMet’s New Electric Buses Run on Wind Power? Think Again.

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet unveiled five new battery-electric buses (BEBs) in April 2019, the sides of which all donned images of windmills and sweeping gusts of wind. The BEBs each cost around $1 million, nearly twice as much as a traditional diesel bus. And these buses are just the beginning: The TriMet board voted last year to replace the entire fleet with battery-electric buses for $1.18 billion by 2040, a $500 million premium over a diesel fleet.

TriMet has been hailed an environmental hero for “riding the winds of change.” TriMet Spokesperson Roberta Altstadt claimed that TriMet was the first in the United States to “operate an electric bus on 100% renewable energy.” Without further research, it would be easy to think that TriMet’s new buses ran on clean wind energy. And that is exactly what TriMet is hoping you would think. But you would be wrong.

If the buses don’t run on 100% wind power, how is TriMet able to get away with saying they do?

TriMet spends $228.75 per month on what are known as renewable energy certificates (RECs) from PGE. RECs are a tradable commodity sold by renewable energy facilities (such as wind farms) to the wholesale market, that purport to represent the “environmental amenities” of certain renewable energy projects. By purchasing the RECs, TriMet has bought the legal right to claim it is using renewable energy; however, the agency has not purchased any energy itself.

This would be like my paying someone else to exercise at the gym for me, and then telling my family and friends I go to the gym. The person I pay reaps both financial and physical benefits while I merely get to pretend I have them.

Supporters of RECs claim the certificates offset fossil fuels and pay for the generation of new renewable energy. However, these claims are not entirely accurate. According to Daniel Press, a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, “RECs do little to reduce emissions in the real world because they have become too cheap to shift energy markets or incentivize businesses to build new turbines.” The income generated from RECs does not come close to the millions needed to construct more wind turbines, which means that RECs themselves don’t offset fossil fuels.

Despite its claims, it would be impossible for TriMet to run on 100% wind power unless it disconnected from the regional mixed grid and hooked up to its own personal wind farm. Even then, TriMet would be forced to rely on other backup power sources due to the volatility of wind generation.

While a wind turbine may be available to produce energy around 90% of the time, the average wind farm in the United States in 2018 had a capacity factor of only 37.4%. The capacity factor refers to the amount of energy produced in a year as a fraction of the farm’s maximum capacity. Wind farms produce electricity when winds reach about nine miles per hour and stop at roughly 55 mph to prevent equipment damage. If the wind isn’t blowing (or isn’t blowing strongly enough), little to no power can be generated.

This poses problems, as the electrical grid requires constant equilibrium or blackouts will result—power supply must meet energy demand. Every megawatt of wind power has to be backed up by an equal amount of traditional, “non-green” sources like coal and natural gas to account for times when wind energy isn’t generated. This would be like keeping a car constantly running at home in case the one you’re driving on the road fails.

Instead of a wind farm, TriMet receives its electricity from Portland General Electric, the same mixed grid your home is likely powered by. In 2020, this mixed grid will be made up of 37% natural gas, 28% coal, 18% hydro, 15% renewables, and 2% purchased power (power purchased on the wholesale market). Since wind only makes up a portion of renewables used by PGE, less than 15% of the electricity used by the “wind” buses is powered by wind. A greater percentage of the electricity used by TriMet’s BEBs comes from coal plants than wind farms.

If TriMet were honest with its riders, it would replace the windmills on the sides of the new buses with coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric power plants. In the name of accuracy, TriMet could place a windmill in the corner, demonstrating the small percentage of power generated by wind farms.

So instead of riding the “winds of change,” keep in mind that you’re just riding a really expensive bus.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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You and Your Car: Portland Public Enemy No. 1

By Micah Perry

Driving around Portland could get a lot more expensive. The Portland City Council just passed a resolution to create an “equitable mobility task force” to study how imposing steep new fees on city drivers could reduce congestion.

Proponents say the fees will help Portland meet its carbon reduction goals. They also claim that, by increasing the cost of driving and parking, low-income residents and people of color will be better off. Ironically, the city itself noted that “65% of peak car commuters in Portland are medium or low income,” meaning any new fees will actually hurt the communities they seek to help.

Fees being considered include increased parking prices, Uber or Lyft surcharges, a mileage tax, and tolls to enter certain areas of the city. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most, as Portland frequently pursues anti-car policies, such as a citywide gasoline tax, a reduction in street parking downtown, and the city’s notorious “road diets,” which essentially create congestion by design.

If Portland truly cared about easing congestion amid a growing population, it would add lanes wherever possible. And, rather than try to tax people out of their cars, the city should reevaluate its approach to transit and create a public transportation system that can be attractive to commuters without having to resort to coercion.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Portland’s Clean Energy Tax: A High Cost with Low Benefit

By Rachel Dawson

In January 2019 the City of Portland implemented a voter-approved a 1% tax on certain “retail sales” within Portland to fund clean energy projects and jobs training. This tax will be applied to retailers with $1 billion or more in total sales, $500,000 of which must be from within Portland city limits. Retailers can pass the cost of the tax along to the purchaser of the good or service. Thus, it is likely consumers—not retailers—will ultimately be paying for it. Once collected, these funds will be administered by the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

Despite claims that the Portland Clean Energy Fund is unique, the energy efficiency projects funded by this tax are already being completed by the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO) and Oregon Housing and Community Services through a surcharge on ratepayers’ utility bills. In some cases, the Portland Clean Energy Fund will be triple-taxing Portland utility ratepayers.

Approximately 40-60% of funds will be allocated to clean energy projects including renewable energy, conservation, and green infrastructure for residential, commercial, and public school projects. At least one half of clean energy project funds must benefit low-income residents and minorities. The Portland Clean Energy Fund will also be used to help Portland meet its goal of using 100% community-wide electricity from renewable sources by 2035.

Many voters believed this tax would only affect large retailers. However, senior deputy city attorney Kenneth McGair admits the tax will affect public works projects and construction equipment wholesalers, as well as disability insurance plans and insurance policies. The only exempt transactions will be groceries, medicine, and health care services. Due to its impact on construction, this tax will increase the cost of taxpayer funded projects such as affordable housing.

While 1% may seem like a small amount, it will add up to millions of dollars when applied to high-cost construction projects. For example, the tax will add an estimated $2 million to Lincoln High School’s $200 million renovation costs.

Voters may be unaware that they are already paying for similar clean energy projects through a surcharge on their utility bills known as the Public Purpose Charge (PPC). The tax rate from the PPC has grown to over 6% for many electric utility customers and up to 5.8% for ratepayers who consume natural gas.

ETO uses funds from the surcharge to support energy efficiency projects for low-income families (low-income weatherization), rehabilitation and construction of low-income housing, above-market renewable energy, and energy conservation and market transformation. Not only will the Portland Clean Energy Fund be completing similar projects to ETO’s, but ETO projects that involve construction, such as their affordable housing and school green infrastructure projects, will now be further taxed to support energy efficiency. Some ETO ratepayer-funded clean energy projects will be taxed to further fund clean energy projects. And many Portland area residents will be caught paying for both.

In addition to the ETO, the Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) agency also benefits from the PPC surcharge to fund additional low-income weatherization projects, arguably the same demographic the Portland Clean Energy Fund aims to help.

One of these tax programs should be repealed: either the Portland Clean Energy Fund or the Public Purpose Charge. Doing so will ensure that Portland residents are not double- or triple-taxed for multiple programs that provide the same services.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Portland’s Ill-Considered Climate Action Tax

By Micah Perry

Last fall, Portland voters approved a new 1% tax on large retailers to help the city achieve the goals of its Climate Action Plan. This measure has had serious consequences for Portland businesses.

Before the vote, proponents of the new tax described large retailers as places like Walmart or Fred Meyer. But, according to Dan Drinkward of Hoffman Construction, the city’s implementation of the measure “has gone beyond the clear intent of the measure as it was communicated to voters.”

Because of the measure’s broad language, many construction companies are defined as retailers and will have to pay the tax. Their clients will ultimately bear the cost increases—clients like Portland Public Schools, low-income housing developers, and the City of Portland itself.

Portland’s schools will especially suffer. The district’s projects have already increased in price because of the tax, with the Lincoln High School rebuild now costing an extra $2 million.

While certain foods, medicines, and health care services are exempt, other necessities like clothing and toiletries are subject to the tax, making Portland’s cost of living even higher, especially for low-income residents.

It would only take three commissioners from the Portland City Council to revise or repeal this poorly-thought-out tax. For the sake of the city, Portland’s voters must call on them to do so.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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SW Corridor Project: A Net Negative for the Environment

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland politicians claim to be concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. That’s why so many of them support TriMet’s proposed 12-mile light rail line from Portland to Bridgeport Village near Tigard. They think it will reduce fossil fuel use.

Their assumptions are wrong.

According to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project, energy used during construction of the rail project will equal 5.9 trillion Btu. Much of this will be in the form of fossil fuels needed to power the heavy equipment. Additional energy will be used to manufacture the rail cars, tracks, and overhead wires.

The EIS claims that the negative environmental consequences of construction will be made up by energy saved from operations of the train. However, the operational savings are so small it would take 61 years to mitigate the carbon dioxide emissions of construction.

2035 Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled and Energy Consumption 

Vehicle Type Daily VMT – No build option Million Btu/Day – No build option Daily VMT

With Light Rail

Million Btu/Day

With Light Rail

Passenger vehicle 51,474,286 249,084 51,415,071 248,798
Heavy-duty trucks 3,389,982 73,132 3,389,288 73,117
Transit bus 100,122 3,546 97,501 3,453
Light rail 19,189 1,247 21,200 1,377
TOTAL 54,983,579 327,009 54,923,060 326,745

                                          Source: Draft EIS, SW Corridor Project

Unfortunately, all of the light rail cars will need to be replaced before then. Building new cars will require more energy, resulting in additional CO2 emissions and a longer payback period.

Light rail is not a solution to a perceived climate change problem; it IS a climate change problem. Any further planning for the SW Corridor project should be terminated.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Our Most Pressing Environmental Crisis Is at Home

By Miranda Bonifield

Oregon’s most pressing environmental crisis isn’t in forests or renewable energy. Our human habitats have been endangered by our restrictive so-called “smart growth” policies. Even when we talk about allowing growth, policymakers tend to favor light rail over people’s real needs. Senate Bill 10, which would require cities like Portland to allow development of 75 housing units per acre in public transit corridors, misses the mark in two key areas.

First, the bill’s attempt to legislate the location of new development won’t improve transit ridership. Despite billions in new light rail lines and mixed-use developments, TriMet’s ridership has been declining since 2012.

Second, the bill removes parking minimums from these developments. This could lower the cost of development, but it could also worsen parking and traffic problems in a city that’s been trying and failing to cut down on automobile use for decades. It’s a mistake to allow denser development while assuming that the people who live here will depend on public transit rather than cars.

Taking the shackles off developers so that we can provide housing is a good idea, but lawmakers need to plan around people rather than trying to stack people into their plan. Transit-oriented development hasn’t worked in the last twenty years. It’s not going to start working today.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Cap and Trade in Oregon: All Pain, No Gain

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The Oregon legislature is expected to pass a carbon cap-and-trade bill this session.

While there is some agreement that climate change can have a negative impact on livability in the Pacific Northwest and throughout much of the world, there has been little attention paid to how little Oregon contributes to worldwide carbon emissions.

Oregon emitted about 65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2017. By way of comparison, total global emissions were about 37 billion metric tons. That means that Oregon accounts for less than two-tenths of one percent of global emissions. About one six-hundredth. That’s tiny.

In other words, even if Oregon were to reduce carbon emissions to zero, the state would do virtually nothing to change worldwide carbon emissions, which means it would do virtually nothing to slow or stop global climate change.

At the same time, the cap-and-trade program would hit the pocketbooks of every Oregonian. An earlier version of the bill estimated the state would sell about $700 million a year of carbon permits, with the costs passed on the consumers and businesses.

Oregon’s cap-and-trade bill fails the basic cost-benefit test: The costs of cap-and-trade to everyday Oregonians would be exceptionally high while doing nothing to stop or slow climate change.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Proof by Assertion

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Many Portland drivers probably wonder why there are so many curb pop-outs on Portland streets. The pop-outs, also called bioswales, are usually shaped like rectangles or triangles and filled with plants, grass, and a drain pipe.

While advocates think the bioswales are important to protect water quality, a new report released by the Portland Auditor shows that there is little evidence to support such claims. The problem is the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services doesn’t have a monitoring plan.

In 2018 the Bureau spent $13 million in construction and maintenance costs for watershed protection, but no one was responsible for oversight. In fact, the Bureau did not even have an inventory to document where it spent money for restoration projects and the goals achieved.

This should not be a surprise. Both the Portland City Auditor and the Metro Auditor have issued multiple reports in recent years criticizing their own agencies for spending money without having systems in place to evaluate results. Those audits have generally been ignored by bureaucratic supervisors.

Unfortunately, Auditors can shine light on waste and mismanagement, but they cannot force changes. Only voters can do that by holding public officials accountable.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of  Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research institute.

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Kate Brown’s Environmental Showmanship Has No Substance

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Governor Kate Brown has announced a legislative proposal that she claims is necessary to “resist” the Trump administration’s changes to federal environmental regulations.

While this bit of showmanship will play well to her base, it has no actual substance. The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission has long had the authority to adopt its own standards that are equivalent to or stronger than federal regulations, and it has done so many times.

In fact, it’s entirely plausible that if federal statutes such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were completely repealed by Congress, there would be no measurable effect on Oregon. The state runs its own environmental programs and doesn’t need Congress or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gov. Brown may find it convenient to manufacture an environmental crisis; but ambient loadings of air and water pollution have been falling for decades and will continue to do so, regardless of who is President. This is a great American success story, driven mostly by technological innovation and a commitment by corporate boards to continually reduce emissions.

We don’t have an environmental crisis, and we don’t need another law. Gov. Brown should stop using President Trump as a prop in her re-election campaign.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Plastic Straw Ban Isn’t Environmentalism—It’s Virtue Signaling

By Miranda Bonifield

What’s the deal with plastic straws?

 Heartbreaking images of sea turtles afflicted by soda straws may be distressing, but well-researched environmentalists know that the best way to save the seas isn’t banning Seattle’s straws. Not only are such bans a disadvantage to the disabled people who rely on plastic straws in their daily lives, but they don’t really clean up the oceans. (For instance, Starbucks’ move to straw-free lids will actually use more plastic.)

It’s estimated that more than a quarter of the ocean’s plastic pollutants originate in just ten rivers in Asia and Africa with insufficient waste management practices. So banning straws and other plastics isn’t environmentalism, it’s virtue signaling.

Expanding the nanny state won’t save the sea turtles. To really take the trash out of the oceans, we should be focusing our energies on promoting effective waste management practices. Organizations like the Asian Development Bank and the Asia Foundation inform local governments and empower local communities to mitigate their waste management problems. Meanwhile, proper recycling, voluntarily avoiding disposable plastics, and community beach cleanups are all accessible solutions for everyday environmentalists.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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