A big city needs more in the way of environmental emphasis

Big projects may be off the table in tight financial times, but a city like Seattle with an environmental-minded mayor should step in more modest ways. How about building sidewalks and encouraging electrical conservation?

Crosscut archive image.
Crosscut archive image.

A sidewalk in the Columbia City neighborhood: Significant areas of Seattle, particularly in the north and south ends, lack sidewalks.

Big projects may be off the table in tight financial times, but a city like Seattle with an environmental-minded mayor should step in more modest ways. How about building sidewalks and encouraging electrical conservation?

Crosscut archive image.

We have learned over time that the things we all can do to reduce negative impacts on the environment make up a diverse menu. We can make some painful changes, and some easy ones. Some might have a significant impact, some might have very little impact at all, and sometimes its hard to know the difference.

It's like that with government, too. But we know there are some real changes that can make a difference, because sometimes we can see the results. So here are two things the City of Seattle can do, from different ends of the environmental spectrum, that can make a difference.

Spring is approaching, the din of the viaduct debate is mercifully declining, and Seattle still has an officially environmental mayor. So we, as a city, ought to do some environmental stuff. Maybe not things that will put us in "the forefront of sustainability" — that's political rhetoric, not reality. And certainly not things that cost money — the City doesn't have any money. But there are things we can do that reflect Seattle voters' expressed interest in shrinking our carbon footprint and improving transportation.

So here's a proposal for two initiatives: building sidewalks and introducing marginal cost pricing in City Light rates.

Each of those actions would have a demonstrable impact on reducing auto use and encouraging energy efficiency. Neither need have any impact on the budget; both are well understood and have been implemented for years by Seattle's neighbors; and both can be accomplished with modest bureaucratic effort.

These are not lofty goals, but then it doesn't make sense to aim too high. For instance, there are urban heating and cooling districts, like the successful seawater heat-pump system serving large sections of Stockholm, or, on a smaller scale, Vancouver, British Columbia's recent sewer heat recovery project. But those aren't good models for us. Seattle isn't Stockholm, budgets are tight, and dealing with issues like urban heating and cooling requires slow and painful adjustments of entrenched interests.

Sidewalks and marginal cost pricing are achievable, and neighboring cities have been doing them for enough years now to give us some confidence going forward. It's the low-hanging fruit category (green, but ripe):

  • Sidewalk construction. Walking is good for us; it's useful for those who don't own or can't manage a bicycle; and it gets cars off the roads.

Sidewalks also increase property values. Tacoma has been building sidewalks for years, and it doesn't cost them any city money — they are built with Local Improvement Districts in areas where property owners have agreed to pay off the cost over time.

It's not just Tacoma doing this. Cities all over Washington state use local improvement districts. Kent,  Bainbridge Island, and lots of other cities much smaller than Seattle manage to make the structure work. In fact, much of Seattle's existing network of sidewalks was originally built using local improvement districts, and some of us old-timers still remember that the Aurora Bridge was financed using a local improvement district, along with the former Waterfront Trolley, and, for a modest piece of the cost, the downtown bus tunnel.

If Tacoma can do it, we can do it, we can build sidewalks.

  • Marginal cost pricing for large electric customers. It involves establishing a baseline of historic usage, then agreeing on charges that start off low but escalate as a company approaches or exceeds its previous electric requirements. 

This one sounds a more complicated that it is. Marginal cost pricing means companies save a lot of money by using less electricity and pay a lot more if they don't conserve. A customer that figures out how to save electricity saves a lot of money. It's a way of using the market to push conservation, and there are a lot of well-developed models for implementing marginal cost pricing, and lots of successful examples of how it works in practice.

Happily, one of the most relevant examples is BC Hydro, a utility several hours to the north of us, that has been using marginal cost pricing for years. It doesn't mean any particular customer pays more than under the current rate schedule — just that there is a strong incentive to conserve energy.

Seattle City Light notes, correctly, that marginal-cost pricing is difficult to implement for residential and small business customers, because it can unfairly penalize different patterns of use. That's the reason that BC Hydro began the program with its large customers, and has broadened the application as the rules for avoiding inequities have become more reliable. Because so much of electric demand comes from large and medium-size customers rather than residences, the utility says that 90 percent of its overal usage will be under conservation-encouraging rates once it completes the addition of medium-size accounts to the marginal-cost system. 

Marginal-cost pricing doesn't cost money; it saves energy; and there are experienced consultants in Vancouver who have helped design the transition there. We could do this here, too.


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