While finger-pointing and chest-thumping have been California politicians' most visible reactions to the latest version of the energy crisis, a few local governments are slowly emerging as leaders in addressing the new energy crisis. The most aggressive of these agencies are going beyond simple conservation programs and actually using their existing facilities as alternative energy power generating locations. And some are seeing that by being leaders in alternative energy production, they can gain competitive advantage in all things civic.
The newfound zeal to conserve and produce locally is not really new. Back in the 1970s, California took an aggressive approach to the first energy crisis. Under Jerry Brown's administration, the state constructed an elaborate tax incentive program that rewarded property owners who retrofitted with solar collectors or other devices. The state passed Title 24, one of the most energy-conserving construction codes in the world. A host of local governments passed solar access protection ordinances, and building orientation became a staple of site planning. On all fronts, conservation and personal responsibility were emphasized in policy discussions and they permeated the public consciousness.
But government lost interest. In the post-Proposition 13 era, the emergence of corporate models of governance came into vogue. A series of less environmentally oriented governors and their colleagues in the Legislature even phased out the tax breaks for solar collectors and other energy-saving features. The trend of purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles — and corresponding state regulations requiring fuel efficiency — stalled. Energy conservation dropped away from public discussions. And finally, deregulation was passed. The seeds of our current crisis were sown.
But the harvest may not be entirely bitter. Pat Stoner, resource conservation specialist with the Local Government Commission, is optimistic about local government's potential. "I think they are doing more than we give them credit for," he said.
Nevertheless, one must concede that we could count on two hands the number of cities and counties in the state that are committing themselves to finding their own solutions to the energy problem.
Not surprising on the list of proactive local governments is the City and County of San Francisco, which is tackling the difficult problem of reducing energy demand at small businesses. Most small businesses rent their digs and therefore have a disincentive to invest in lighting and energy retrofits. Whereas large utility companies in the state have managed energy retrofit programs for their largest customers for some time, San Francisco sought and received an $8 million grant from the state Public Utilities Commission to launch their "Power Booster's" program. The program will fund free energy use audits for 6,000 small businesses and retrofit up to 4,000 of them with energy-efficient lighting.
The energy savings will be significant. Small businesses are estimated to consume 22% of the power in the city, and the projected savings of 24 million kilowatt hours annually is expected to provide enough power for 12,000 San Francisco residences.
San Francisco is also planning to expand its role in the power production business. As of late July, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was considering placing a charter amendment before the voters to enable city's municipal utility to invest in solar and other renewable energy infrastructure.
City officials see an opportunity to level the playing field with the traditional energy provision utility companies by (1) guaranteeing the purchase of a stable amount of energy from renewable sources and (2) directly supplying a portion of the city's own demand through a vast retrofit program of public buildings. The initiative could go before San Francisco's voters in November.
Meanwhile, Alameda County just completed a $4 million solar panel retrofit project for the Santa Rita jail in Dublin. The 4,000-panel system will cut energy demand for the facility by 20% — a savings of $300,000 per year.
And things are happening in other parts of the country, too. Most ambitious is Chicago's program. The Windy City has adopted a measurable goal that is both ambitious and admirable: Within five years, 20% of the city's electricity for all public uses – from elevated trains to elevators – will be provided by renewable resources. To help meet the goal, Chicago has teamed with the state and a major utility to build a solar power generating station in nearby Lake Calumet.
Chicago officials say that such initiatives will enable Chicago to become one of the largest "green" cities in the world. Many economic development professionals believe that by simply committing to such policies, cities like Chicago gain important competitive advantages. By showing leadership in resolving infrastructure problems while supporting emerging technologies such as green energy, such localities position themselves as problem-solving initiative takers. That is a good reputation to have if a community wants to develop a range of human cultural endeavors, including business.
Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.
With all of the static energy burning away in today's world, it's no wonder a growing number of communities want to stay in the dark. A handful of communities are working with educational organizations and lighting manufacturers to dim the lights in an effort to limit nighttime lighting pollution.
Whoever said that art imitates life has not visited one of Southern California's neighborhood cybercafes, where, according to some planners and police, the reverse is true. It is in these mainly blue collar, immigrant enclaves where video games and youth culture have combined into a lively and sometimes violent activity, thereby creating the state's latest LULU (locally undesirable land use).
In predictable fashion, cities are responding with ordinances, and businesses are fighting back through the court
After two years of life under the Bush Administration, what we might call the "General Plan" for American is in the midst of a serious update. And it's not surprising that "smart growth" doesn't appear to be on the list.
The time has come to call rail transit a planner's pipe dream. Californians have poured tax money into rail for more than a decade, apparently on a well-intentioned aspiration that if we build tracks, we will ride the train. But according to a U.S. Census report on trip-to-work travel, Californians have not found the train station.
Urban transportation panacea or mobility-oriented snake oil? The Segway Human Transporter is either, depending upon whom you ask. The device either will change the way we get around in cities, or it will be the pedestrian-version of the Edsel. No matter, we should gird ourselves for statewide debates during coming months regarding regulation of the Segway HT (or simply "the Segway").
Among the articles of faith that urban planners hold as self-evident is this: Land use planning is a local endeavor. Many planners even espouse that a town's general plan can influence the "quality of life" through land use regulation. This theory has been at the crux of New Urbanist arguments for revamping development codes.
Though scarcely acknowledged, urban planning is in the midst of a fundamental shift in professional focus. The public is demanding the change. It's a simple idea, as well as an old one: Planners need to understand design. This is because urban planning in America has followed the larger culture into an era where style is substance.
Remember the "see-through" office building phenomenon that hit Houston during the mid 1980s and then Los Angeles in the early 1990s? Well, it's back. This time, it is the Bay Area that is afflicted with empty office buildings.
Desal in SoCal? It may not be as far-fetched as you think. No single resource has had more of an influence on California's development patterns than water. The essential liquid has been pivotal to a range of historical and political conflicts, from the pillaging of the Owens Valley by Los Angeles to the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley by San Francisco.
In anticipation of another raid on local government revenues by the State of California, local government officials have taken a page from grass-roots planning advocates and filed for two versions of initiatives for the state's November 2002 ballot. The "Local Revenue Accountability Act" is spearheaded by the state's leading city, county, and special district advocacy organizations – whose members are the largest employers of urban planners in California.
There are probably no two words that can get a planning commission or community more worked up than these: big box. Any self-respecting planner would agree that the Wal-Marts and the Home Depots of the world present a challenge to good suburban design, but one still has to wonder why so many collective hands are wringing.