SHARE:
Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged Joseph Wilensky

Missed opportunities combatting climate change

Posted December 23rd, 2019 to Blog

I recently watched part of the Hancher Auditorium parking lot ripped up and repaved at the University of Iowa. With the university community well aware of the impacts of flooding, I was surprised by the missed opportunity to rebuild the parking lot with more water retention features like bioswales or permeable pavers. We know that heavy rainfall impacts in Iowa will only grow as climate change accelerates.[1]

At the same time, I realized these types of interventions are expensive and perhaps outside the routine maintenance budget. So I turned my attention to other ideas for the campus: solar power opportunities and the university’s pledge to combat climate change through renewable power generation. Surely such an ambitious proposal would have resources enough to invest in solar power generation.

In 2017, UI President Bruce Harreld announced a goal to increase the university’s use of renewable resources for power and steam production and reduce coal firing for steam and energy production, and entirely phasing out coal by 2025.[2] This laudable goal addresses climate change, makes the university’s operations more sustainable, and improves air quality in Iowa City. Why not enhance this goal with solar panels?

The President’s message noted that the university would rely on a combination of biomass firing for renewable resources to hit a target of 40 percent of energy production by 2020. The university has pursued various options of biomass to be fired alongside coal for the time being (and presumably to be fired by itself once coal is eliminated). These options are:

      • Oat hulls, the byproduct of industrial processes, currently sourced from Quaker Oats in nearby Cedar Rapids. This fuel source is readily available, and by reusing formerly discarded ingredients the UI can prevent methane emissions from decomposition while burning a carbon-neutral fuel.
      • Miscanthus grass,[3] a non-native, but non-invasive grass, is often used for biomass around the world due to its high energy content and quick growing nature. The university has planted a few collection areas and buys harvest from local producers.
      • Energy pellets, another industrial byproduct that can be fired alongside coal. Like oat hulls, adding another use to an already ongoing industrial process is more sustainable than burning a non-renewable fuel source.

On its face, this strategy seems like an innovative use of natural ingredients that are carbon neutral and close by, obtainable from regional industry and agriculture.

But it’s still only 40 percent of the plan. Where does the remaining 60 percent come from? Natural gas,[4] which is “cleaner” than coal firing for particulate matter and CO2 , is readily available, and adds a power predictability that is hard to get from some renewable resources. But should natural gas be 60 percent of the university’s energy portfolio, when renewables could play a bigger role?

The university’s Office of Sustainability mentions, but dismisses, greater use of wind power and solar power. Both are mentioned as being implemented in a limited fashion on campus as demonstration projects for research purposes, but said to be too resource intensive (land and money) to fully replace other energy production methods for campus uses.

The message is a concern. If a complete replacement strategy were a qualifying criteria, why would it not apply to biomass firing sources as well. If not, why would the UI not consider solar and wind as a smaller scale, partial contribution to the university’s energy portfolio?

Other universities, including Maryland and Michigan State[5] have both solved cost concerns with public-private partnerships and power purchasing agreements. Indeed, UI researchers already note that the kilowatt cost of solar is below that of more traditional production requirements in some states, with the implication that similar cost comparisons will become more attainable through the country.[6]

Given the similarities between the UI and Michigan State (MSU) — both large public universities in the Midwest with similar climates and both governed by a quasi-public Board or Regents — the MSU example with solar power may prove fruitful. MSU followed the lead of several U.S. universities (including UC San Diego[7]) in deploying solar panels above parking lots on campus.

Solar could bring several benefits if installed at the Hancher lot, beyond power generation. Besides vehicle protection, it could offer research opportunities on solar generation, grid distribution methods, and power storage mechanisms for engineering faculty and students.[8]

Indeed, the University of Iowa already has experience in similar solar deployments. Its Facilities Management department already operates a solar power charging station for university vehicles, just on a much smaller scale.[9] The university has many surface parking lots that could reduce ongoing university expenses by harnessing the air rights just 10 feet above existing lots.

If this isn’t incentive enough, the university is ranked eighth in the Big Ten Conference for green power generation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.[10] Surely Hawkeye pride can carry us to be No. 1. Forget Hancher. Perhaps the lots around Kinnick Stadium could be ground zero for a Hawkeye solar project — with a slogan ready to go: America Needs Solar.

[1] https://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2019Research/190905-Floods-Climate.html
[2] https://now.uiowa.edu/2017/02/ui-announces-it-will-be-coal-free-2025
[3] https://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/sites/www.facilities.uiowa.edu/files/wysiwyg_uploads/hawkeyecampusmiscanthus.pdf
[4] https://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/energy-environment/renewable-energy
[5] https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2019/msu-helps-big-ten-achieve-largest-collective-green-energy-use/
[6] https://dailyiowan.com/2018/03/19/solar-energy-lights-up-on-campus/
[7] https://www.borregosolar.com/commercial-solar-systems/university-of-california-san-diego
[8] https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2017/construction-begins-on-msu-solar-array-project/
[9] https://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/sustainable-energy-discovery-district
[10] https://www.epa.gov/greenpower/college-and-university-challenge

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. He was an intern at the Iowa Policy Project during the fall semester 2019.

Differences in Disaster: A series of observations

Posted December 21st, 2019 to Blog

Part 3: It all comes down to equity

Public policy to deal with flooding involves a lot of big-ticket items that carry big implications for the future of communities that, by choice or by economic necessity stand in harm’s way.

This issue all comes down to one of equity and equality.

Matt Kinshella graphic, source info below*

Equality would ensure every community is provided the same resources and consideration regardless of their characteristics. But, as we have discussed, providing the same resources to a community that has less opportunity and ability to recover as one that is well positioned to do so results in the outcomes we have seen: Wealthy communities become wealthier while poorer communities fall further and further behind.

Equity calls for alleviating these disparities to create the opportunity for equal recovery rates and outcomes among disparate communities.

How do you do that? The following suggestions are a few items that will work toward leveling the playing field.

      • “Rebalance” mitigation efforts with an emphasis on community impact and vulnerability rather than up-front economic loss, the latter putting higher-value properties ahead of those less able to cope on their own.
      • Put more flexibility in FEMA guidelines to ease community burdens and allow for a creative use of funds.
      • Better direct Community Block Development Grant funds to the best place for mitigation efforts — not necessarily within the damage area, but outside if needed. Flood mitigation is best placed upstream.
      • Keep state funds flowing pending the arrival federal aid, which might be delayed after a federal disaster is declared and Iowa stops processing and paying disaster claims.

While these suggestions won’t fix everything, they offer a start to a discussion that needs to start now. Policy makers and recovery agents must take into account social vulnerability and community impacts to a greater extent than they already do if we are to break the downward spiral poor communities find themselves in following disasters.

Previous:
Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently
Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.

 

* Graphic credit: Matt Kinshella; culturalorganizing.org blog, “The problem with that equity-vs.equality graphic you’re using.” Copyright Paul Kuttner

Differences in disaster: A series of observations

Posted December 20th, 2019 to Blog

Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

In the first post about findings from my recent report for the Iowa Policy Project, I outlined impacts on low-income residents who have few options than to live in a flood-risk area, and few resources to cope or rebound.

Sand barriers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa Flood Center picture.
Photo: Iowa Flood Center

So what about preventing floods? Mitigation measures are great but are usually expensive and may be best positioned well upstream of the location where their protection helps most. Most people look to state or federal grant assistance in funding mitigation projects, but with resources being scarce — and they’re always scarce — a funding criterion has been established to assure mitigation measures must protect at least as much economic value as they cost.

On its face, this benefit cost analysis sounds quite reasonable, but it has a few consequences that, even if unintended, can be foreseen.

Consequence One: If you only spend the big bucks to protect the big bucks, then communities that may be best positioned to recover without help are given greater resources with which to protect themselves.

Consequence Two: How do you value the cost of displacement, lost economic opportunity from missed jobs, extra commute times, uninsured property loses, community fragmentation? Some of this can be valued, some cannot, and most of it is only clear after a disaster. This makes it hard to implement mitigation when funding justifications must happen first.

Consequence Three: Assuming you justify and pay for mitigation measures, have you just increased the value of the protected land to the point that current residents are suddenly priced out? Gentrification can be spurred by improved environmental and hazard risks as much as it can through beneficial tax codes, new transportation links or economic development incentives.

Previous, Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently
Next, Part 3: It all comes down to equity

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.

Differences in Disaster: A series of observations

Posted December 19th, 2019 to Blog

Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently

I’ve just wrapped up a paper on the different outcomes people experience following a disastrous flood destroying their world. Not only is a family’s experience different from the world they lived in prior to the flood, but depending on who they are, a lower income family’s experience can be profoundly different from that of a family of greater means.

It’s not shocking to hear that the poor in America live in a different world than anyone else, but Americans living in poverty are more likely to die in a disaster event and less likely to recover after one. Additionally, when Americans living in poverty recover, they usually recover worse off them they were before disaster struck. This is not the case for the well off. The well off tend to increase their net worth following a disaster.

Why is that? First, and most obvious, if people can afford to live in areas not prone to disaster, they usually choose to do so. Beach-view mansions in Malibu notwithstanding, people don’t usually build their home in known flood plains if they can afford to live elsewhere.

So if you’re located in a dangerous area, you usually can’t afford not to be there. Disaster strikes, the flood waters have started to recede and in preparing to rebuild you look to disaster recovery assistance to help you out. But there’s a problem. Disaster recovery assistance doesn’t come quickly, especially assistance from the federal government. This delay presents a real problem for those unable to absorb the cost of replacement shelter, replacement clothes, increased commutes to work (assuming the job is still there following a disaster).

The delay leaves people desperate for help , willing to jump on any assistance money that appears (even if doing so bars them from participating in larger programs later) or willing to sell their home or property to opportunistic investors who do have the ability to wait out assistance program delays. Having sold, or having grabbed available funds, you are worse off than you were before. Some with more resources can to weather the paper storm that follows an actual one, and come out better than they were before.

Next, Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.