Unnecessary fuel waste + irrecoverable delay = a price too high to pay – 2


In Part 1, I had an apparent brain hiccup when I switched in the word “irrevocable” for the word “irrecoverable” in the title. Ah, to be human. “Irrecoverable” is what I intended to use. I hope you will excuse. That said, there is absolutely no excuse for the amounts of wasted fuel, “irrecoverable” delay and lost productivity caused on account of the latter. It’d be one thing if, with a rise in driving, came a corresponding gain in productivity and improvement in mobility along with a reduction in delay. But this is not the case at all.

Granted, miles driven on American roads over the years, has varied; up some years and down in others. The up-and-down nature of vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, seems to be more a function of changing economic conditions than anything else. When the economy is strong, driving activity increases. When the economy is weak, driving activity tapers off – it’s that simple. And seemingly adding to the problem is population growth, but I would be hesitant to form that kind of conclusion simply because population has continued on its upward trajectory even during the period known as the Great Recession, essentially from 2007 to 2009.

Some comparisons

To bring you up to speed, in 2006, “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It” authors Ted Balaker and Sam Staley observed two-thirds of the nation’s roadways are congested at times of peak demand.1 Meanwhile, in 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers cautioned America’s highways are plagued by a congestion rate of 42 percent.2

One of the most telling indicators is, aside from the years of the Great Recession, travel on American roads has progressively slowed and the amount of congestion and delay along with consequent costs on account of these has steadily worsened. A look at the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard from Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute (TTI) and INRIX, will give a clearer picture.

Starting with Travel Time Index, which is defined as travel during peak demand relative to travel during free-flowing traffic conditions, has grown from 1.09 in 1982 to 1.22 in 2014. The only time this ever decreased was in 2009 when the Travel Time Index was 1.20 dropping from 1.21 in 2008.3 A Travel Time Index of 1.5 means that travel during times of peak demand is 50 percent greater than during times of free-flowing traffic. As an example, a car trip to work that would take 1 hour during free-flowing traffic conditions would take 1 hour and 30 minutes during periods of peak demand.

Then there is hours of delay per commuter. Except for recession years, this has gone from 18 in 1982 to 42 in 2014 matching what it was in 2006, 2007 and 2008, retreating to 40 in 2009 and then staying that way in 2010.4

Tracking similarly over the same period are total delay (in billions of hours), wasted fuel (in billions of gallons) and total cost (in “Billions of 2014 Dollars”).

First, total delay: This rose from 1.8 billion hours in 1982 to 6.9 billion in 2014. Next, wasted fuel: In 2014, 3.1 billion gallons were wasted compared to half a billion gallons in 1982. Finally, total cost: $42 billion in 1982 escalating to almost four times that or $160 billion in 2014. Once again, only during the great recessionary period, 2009 primarily, did we see slight dips in these numbers. The numbers resumed their upward ascent starting in 2010 regarding total delay, wasted fuel and total cost. For the other two categories – Travel Time Index and delay per commuter – their numbers began rebounding in 2011.5

Meanwhile, the congestion cost for trucks in 2014, according to INRIX and the TTI in the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, was determined to be $28 billion.6

Interesting to note is that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the United States reached a peak in 2004. The same goes for per-capita VMT.

In “Amtrak ridership up + road miles heads south = clearer skies ahead,” it is written: “Angie Schmitt, in ‘For Eighth Year in a Row, the Average American Drove Fewer Miles in 2012’ at DC.StreetsBlog.org on Feb. 27, 2013 noted: ‘Last year, for the eighth year in a row, vehicle miles traveled ticked down on a per-capita basis. The average American drove 37 fewer miles in 2012 than in 2011 — a 0.4 percent drop, according to new data from FHWA [the Federal Highway Administration]. It’s a small but significant decrease, continuing the downward slide of per-capita VMT that began in 2004, well before the economy faltered.’

“By the numbers, according to FHWA data, in 1987 and 2007, American vehicle miles traveled were roughly 1.924 trillion and 3.031 trillion, respectively. Contrarily, between the latter year and 2011, miles driven dropped to approximately 2.929 trillion with a slight increase to nearly 2.939 trillion in 2012, a 0.3 percent increase that can be attributed to population growth, according to Schmitt.

“Based on State Smart Transportation Initiative data, on a per capita basis, Americans were averaging around 8,000 miles per year in 1987 to north of 10,000 in 2004. Then the tables turned. In 2012, average per-capita VMT dipped to below 9,500.”

Mobility solutions

There is much debate over what it will take barring a slumping economy to cause congestion and delay to reverse course. This has been extensively written about in books, magazine and newspaper and blog articles like the ones on the Air Quality Matters blog.

There are myriad solutions including better management of traffic; improvement in technology related to traffic being better managed; adjustment in when work is scheduled and in the ways in which people work such as is the case with telecommuting; greater emphasis on alternative forms of transportation, including public transit (employer provided and public) and active transportation (walking and biking); incorporation of subscription car services (car sharing) into the mix; improvement in infrastructure and changes in land use such as in building housing closer to jobs. By no means have all solutions been listed.

The thing to keep in mind though is that without the right kinds of mobility solutions put into place, what with the population, driving, congestion, delay and their corresponding costs growing the way they are, are we to expect anything other than more of the same?

Perhaps the most pointed statement of all is this one from the American Public Transportation Association in its Aug. 26, 2015 “Statement by APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy On 2015 Urban Mobility Report” press release:

“Americans realize our infrastructure needs must be addressed with long-term solutions. While other nations significantly invest in their transportation infrastructure, America now ranks 28th in infrastructure investment and continues to fall behind our global competitors. While we continue to sit in traffic, one has to ask, is this really the best America can do?”

What are the 27 nations ahead of the U.S. in this regard doing that America isn’t?


  1. Ted Balaker, Sam Staley, “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” 2006, p. 74
  2. More on this at: “Air fare: Why top-heavy roadway spending makes little sense” here
  3. Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute, 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, “Exhibit 2. National Congestion Measures, 1982-2014,” p. 2, http://d2dtl5nnlpfr0r.cloudfront.net/tti.tamu.edu/documents/mobility-scorecard-2015.pdf
  4. Ibid, p. 2
  5. Ibid, p. 2
  6. Ibid, p. 1


Unnecessary fuel waste + irrevocable delay = a price too high to pay

Following hot on the heels of the Federal Highway Administration’s report regarding mid-year driving and mileage data, comes the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard from the Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute and INRIX, which details congestion, delay and other important motor-vehicle-related data. It’s not welcoming news.

INRIX and the TTI in an Aug. 26, 2015 press release reported: “America’s traffic congestion recession is over. Just as the U.S. economy has regained nearly all of the 9 million jobs lost during the downturn, a new report produced by INRIX and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) shows that traffic congestion has returned to pre-recession levels.

“According to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, travel delays due to traffic congestion caused drivers to waste more than 3 billion gallons of fuel and kept travelers stuck in their cars for nearly 7 billion extra hours – 42 hours per rush-hour commuter. The total nationwide price tag: $160 billion, or $960 per commuter.”

TTI and INRIX went on in the press release in question to state that, “with a continued good economy,” by 2020, yearly per-commuter delay will climb to 47 hours (up from 42 hours); nationwide total delay will jump to 8.3 billion hours (up from 6.9 billion hours); and congestion’s total cost will soar to $192 billion (up from $160 billion).

Here is some of what the American Public Transportation Association had to say in response.

“Public transportation is effective in saving hundreds of millions of hours of delay and hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel. In fact without public transportation, our current congested roadways would surely be gridlock. In earlier data from the 2013 Urban Mobility Report, it showed that travelers would have suffered an additional 865 million hours of delay and consumed 450 million more gallons of fuel.

“While we face the expiration of federal funding for the nation’s transportation infrastructure expiring on October 29, Americans recognize the urgent need to invest in public transportation for the many benefits it provides, which include economic benefits as well as relief from roadway congestion. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and the Mineta Transportation Institute, 75 percent of Americans support using tax dollars to improve public transportation, and close to 70 percent agree that Congress should increase the level of investment in public transportation infrastructure.

“Americans realize our infrastructure needs must be addressed with long-term solutions. While other nations significantly invest in their transportation infrastructure, America now ranks 28th in infrastructure investment and continues to fall behind our global competitors. While we continue to sit in traffic, one has to ask, is this really the best America can do?”


And, while we’re on the subject, here is one more item of import.

“The Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology in the High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S., January 2006 study concluded, ‘Current projections show that passengers would take 112 million trips on high speed rail in the U.S. in 2025, traveling more than 25 billion passenger miles. This would result in 29 million fewer automobile trips and nearly 500,000 fewer flights. We calculated a total emissions savings of 6 billion pounds of CO2 per year (2.7 MMT [Million Metric Tons] CO2) if all proposed high speed rail systems studied for this project are built. Savings from cancelled automobile and airplane trips are the primary sources of the emissions savings; together these two modes make up 80 percent of the estimated emissions savings from all modes.’”1


  1. Alan Kandel, “Why We Need High-Speed Rail and Why Trains Are Needed Now,” California Progress Report, Nov. 15, 2010. http://www.californiaprogressreport.com/site/why-we-need-high-speed-rail-and-why-trains-are-needed-now

320px-Acela_Express_and_Metro-North_railcar[1]Image above: Connor Harris

Re mid-year driving totals things aren’t exactly looking up

360px-CBX_Parkchester_6_jeh[1]We Americans must love our cars or why else in June 2015 would 261.9 billion so-called “seasonally-adjusted” miles have been driven; 8.7 billion more than in June 2014? That’s an increase of 3.4 percent June ’15 versus June ’14. Driving is also on pace to surpass 2014’s collective 3.016 trillion vehicle miles traveled (VMT) with an estimated total of 1.54 trillion miles logged for 2015’s first six months according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in a press release. Per-capita VMT, meanwhile, according to StreetsBlog USA, is just about where it was in 1997.

“The new data, published in FHWA’s latest ‘Traffic Volume Trends’ report, a monthly estimate of U.S. road travel, show that 275.13 billion miles were driven last June, the most ever in June of any year and the highest VMT for the first half of any year – reaffirming calls for increased investment in transportation infrastructure as demand on the nation’s highway system grows,” the FHWA acknowledged.

Several factors are responsible apparently – among them population growth, an improving economy and fuel being more affordable, according to StreetsBlog USA’s Angie Schmitt. Gas is close to $2 per gallon in some places, in fact, for regular unleaded.

Reported in a previous post was that miles-per-gallon vehicle fuel ratings averaged 27.25. The 8.7 billion extra miles driven in June ’15 over June ’14 means an additional 319,266,055 gallons of gas were purchased. So, just in June 2015 alone an added 6,385,321,100 pounds of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere on account of the extra amount of fuel being burned. Remember: for each gallon of gasoline burned 20 pounds of CO2 is introduced into the air.

Emissions-wise, it’d be better if the amount of carbon dioxide released from motor vehicles decreased proportionately to the increase in driving. But, that’s not what’s happening. That motor vehicle emissions are on the rise overall, this doesn’t paint a very encouraging picture in the least. And, it isn’t just this. Driving-related fatalities numbered 40,000; this is up from right around 32,000 only one year earlier. These are yearly totals.

This all comes in the absence of a long-term transportation funding program being instituted in place of the many extensions that have in the meantime been substituted. These temporary transportation funding fixes have sufficed to tide programmatic transportation funding over. But a long-term funding solution is what is needed.

In California, with some state areas possessing some of the country’s worst traffic congestion and with some of those and other in-state areas having this nation’s worst air quality, well, according to The Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, it will take $5.9 billion per year more or $59 billion over the next decade just for roadway repair and upkeep, Walters repeating what Gov. Jerry Brown said. According to Walters also, and based on information from the FHWA, the physical condition of California’s highways is among the poorest in the nation.

320px-FLV_California_train[1]Immediately, some no doubt are wondering why the Golden State is spending $68.4 billion to build 520 miles of high-speed railway to connect northern and southern California when that kind of money could be better spent fixing the state’s deteriorating roadway infrastructure. This seems to be a commonly held concern.

The federal and state monies being allocated to the bullet train project cannot be used elsewhere; besides, that $68.4 billion sum is the cost spread out over a span of around 15 years out to 2029, which breaks down to an approximately $4.56 billion per-year expenditure.

Meanwhile, again according to Walters, through raised gasoline and diesel fuel taxes generated will be roughly four-and-a-half billion dollars per year for local and state government use. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) this year will have an expenditure of ten-and-a-half billion dollars, a third generated from taxes on fuels and weight fees on trucks with the bulk of what’s left being federally supplied, Walters continued.

320px-Benton_County_wind_turbines[1]While all of the roadway work may result in only a slight reduction in vehicle exhaust emissions, if that, California’s bullet train project, by 2029, the year operations are expected to commence, an estimated annual 29 million riders minimum will be riding emissions-free trains. That’s 29 million yearly travelers that won’t be adding to the state emissions levels from either flying or driving/riding in polluting cars and trucks. It should be noted, however, that Gov. Brown has set a goal of cutting fuel consumption from motor vehicles in state by half by 2030, and that, presumably, will mean average vehicle fuel-efficiency ratings by then will be double what they are now. If both efforts come to pass, this will be a win-win for air quality and the environment considering California’s bullet train system will be operated using 100 percent renewable energy.

All of which should set a course if not a precedent for how and where transportation dollars should be spent, where monies will do the most good (provide the greatest benefit) and in terms of what is being spent on what type of infrastructure project, what will yield the biggest bang for the buck.

Could student lung health stand to be better protected? Yes

Human_respiratory_system-NIH[1] (340x226)I can think of no better place than California’s San Joaquin Valley when it comes to trying to answer the question: Could student lung health stand to be better protected? The answer is, of course, yes. In the Valley, one in five is an asthma sufferer and Valley cities consistently rank among the nation’s worst for both fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 – particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers across) and ozone pollution.

I can’t help but be reminded of the warnings: Air Alerts initiated by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and the news releases related to such at the opening of the school year which, incidentally, was Mon., Aug. 17, 2015 in the Valley. These news releases are a familiar refrain.

In this Aug. 19, 2015 news release the air district writes: “Although May through July 2015 had times of good atmospheric dispersion from passing storms, it also had a number of high pressure stagnation events with soaring triple-digit temperatures, plentiful sunshine and stagnant wind flow that all contributed to the potential formation of high concentrations of ozone.”

“To ensure that this clean air trend continues during the Back-to-School season, the Valley Air District may call Air Alerts when conditions such as increased emissions, high temperatures and stagnant air flows are favorable for ozone accumulation. During an Air Alert episode, which may last several days, residents and businesses are urged to reduce vehicle emissions by driving less, refraining from idling their vehicles, carpooling or vanpooling and avoiding the use of drive-through services. Other measures, such as shifting ozone-creating activities, including lawn maintenance to early mornings, can also help offset rising ozone levels.”

Now I know, logistically speaking, canceling school on account of injurious air pollution isn’t easy. However, on days when there exists thick fog, imposed regionally, are what are known as “foggy day schedules.” Oftentimes, schools are closed until such time that the fog lifts or thins. This is done in the interest of both student and staff safety. But, what about the canceling of school sessions in the interest of both student and staff health? I have coined a term for this even: “smoggy day schedules.”

Why not smoggy day schedules? I mean wouldn’t such a program get the message across that polluted air is a serious issue and one not to be taken lightly? Moreover, when air is heavy with ozone or particulates, by cutting down on school-related driving, while it may not lessen the amount of pollution that’s in the air already, at least school-related transportation activity would not be adding to the problem.

In regard to ozone and smog, it usually peaks in late afternoon when students are let out of school; the time they are on their way back home, to sports practice, other after-school activities or whatever. This is exactly the time when the air pollution problem not be added to, not to mention that student health should also be taken into consideration so as not to jeopardize such, as may be the case with aerobic activity that is being conducted during these times like with track-and-field and cross-country running events. I already expressed how I felt about some Friday night football games in other posts, so I’ll refrain from doing that again here.

As a matter of fact, related to this very thing, on Mon., Aug. 17th, on a day with some of the highest ozone readings of the summer (all Valley monitoring stations except for Edison reported exceedances of the “Daily Max 8 Hr Overlapping Avg Ozone – State Data, Seven Day Display Ending 8/17/2015”), on one local broadcast news segment, the Valley’s sweltering heat and pollution were the focus. A high school football coach was interviewed and I kept hearing how student participation in football practice was being closely monitored and how practice was being made less intense and how water breaks were a regular feature and how this was all being done with student safety in mind. Not one time was there any mention from the same coach of student health. That seemed odd. It can plainly and simply be seen what the emphasis was on.

What schools do a good job of doing on the other hand is displaying hoisted flags on school property reflective of the condition of outside air. These flags are color-coded: green, for good air quality; yellow, for moderate air quality; orange, for air quality unhealthy for sensitive groups; red, for unhealthy air quality; etc. That, at least, is better than no such program at all and it’s a good first step. But, more could definitely be done.

Now I know that cross-country meets are typically held in the fall. I will always have a difficult time getting my head around the idea why this is so. I just cannot understand why people in school districts in positions of authority cannot make a change and schedule these activities for springtime when air quality, as a general rule, is much cleaner, healthier. Furthermore, in its place, maybe less strenuous physical activities could be planned for outdoors during autumn. Perhaps air quality and environmental organizations could approach and work with school district officials in trying to implement constructive changes if such has not already been done.

So, yes, much more can and should be done to better protect student lung health during times when the problem of polluted air is quite pronounced. If I were confident that everything within the school’s power to make student health more of a priority is being done, I wouldn’t be raising the matter now.

Image above: U.S. National Institutes of Health: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

The envelope, please. And Darwin(er) is …

LocationOfHypothalamus[1]I do not proclaim to be the world’s smartest person. If anything, far from it. And, I have to admit that, as an adolescent, I pulled some pretty dumb – and daring – stunts. I would be inclined to believe many teenagers would be guilty of such things. Chalk these up as “testing-the-waters” experiences. I’ll not get into the specifics, thank you very much. But, when someone or people do acts that just defy logic, I believe the awarding of a “Darwin” is highly in order.

That a person near to where I live set their front lawn on fire is bad enough. But, to do this three times total – the third and final time and on account of this the fire department responded to the incident – the first thing that enters my mind is: What was this person thinking?! Did this person not think the situation could get out of hand? That potentiality was probably small. This notwithstanding, there was obviously no regard whatsoever for the damage to the air this action – as flagrant a violation as it was – caused.

If I didn’t know differently I would have sworn this individual was trying to give the term “yard burning” new meaning.

Not long ago I did a story on backyard burning in Santa Ynez in Santa Barbara County (California). This was about complaints by concerned property owners being lodged against those who were burning green waste (clippings, trimmings) close-by. I, for the life of me, cannot figure out why such a practice is even allowed. As for setting lawns – front, back or otherwise – ablaze, as the adage admonishes, “don’t try this at home.”

Likewise, a “Darwin” should be awarded to any school and school district that allows outdoor athletics or sports-related activities/competitions to be conducted when the air quality index (AQI) is well into the unhealthy category and is closing in on the hazardous or even enters the hazardous category. Uh, duh! The “unhealthy” and “hazardous” designations were established for a reason! I have yet to hear of a school or district cancelling a Friday night football game locally on account of unhealthy air. I do know of at least one game that should have been called for this very reason. A news report mentioned that the air was so thick with particulate matter (soot) that it was nearly impossible to see from bleachers on one side of the field to bleachers on the side opposite. I can only imagine what breathing must have been like for the spectators; presumed even worse for the players engaged in physical activity. Is there any amount of pollution in the air where those who are responsible for stopping such a game will, well, stop a game or, is it a case with them, regarding such that “the show must go on!”? I’m just asking. The only evidence I have seen leads me to conclude the latter. Since this was a college game we are talking about here, I can only imagine what were the visiting team’s thoughts.

I would be totally remiss if I did not include in this accounting an incident that I am aware of where a bus full of schoolchildren were being transported home and happened through an area where agricultural field pesticide spraying was transpiring and through drift, the kids on the bus were exposed, several becoming sickened to the point of having to be sent to the hospital for further assessment if not treatment. If I recall correctly, this incident happened near the town of Ivanhoe in Tulare County (California). I wonder if growers in the area where the incident happened are now required to notify area schools or the district when pesticide sprayings are to occur. Seems like a no-brainer.

I bring all of this up in the hopes that those who are in leadership positions when it comes to their own welfare and that of others they lead, that they have the presence of mind to make the correct calls when it comes to better protecting public health from pollution’s dangers. Could it be that Charles Darwin had it wrong in that it is not survival of the fittest, but rather the smartest? In terms of air quality smarts, it seems there is still much to learn.

Incidentally, the AQI for ozone in Edison in Kern County (California) today reached 151 or unhealthy for everyone.

Image above: National Institutes of Health

A wetter, smokier winter on tap from now-forming Pacific El Nino? Could be!

Weather for one reason or another is foremost on lots of people’s minds these days – or so it would seem. I have seen the news reports of late and, in those, the consensus among cited experts is there being a strong likelihood that the west is in for a wet winter. The basis for such predictions stems from warm Pacific Ocean currents moving northward attributed to a phenomenon known as El Nino.

ShipTracks_MODIS_2005may11[1]Apparently, to be influenced this coming winter is the jet stream and in such a way that its targeted path is expected to track predominantly west to east across the U.S. for much of the season, dumping, out west, very healthy amounts of much-needed precipitation and thereby bringing an end to the region’s four-year-long drought or so the thinking goes, at least at this time, anyway. It’ll be awesome if it happens; very disappointing if it doesn’t. Time will tell.

If this is in fact the way things play out, the western air will most assuredly get some much needed relief with a lot of anticipated and hoped-for cleansing. At the same time, it could also mean a longer season for burning wood in fireplaces and woodstoves. If this comes to pass and if conditions work out just so, any air-quality benefit from cleansing weather features like rain or wind, could be partially offset from increased wood-burning activity.

In California, in the San Joaquin Valley, wet autumn and winter weather produces a lot of low-lying fog in between storms. Characteristic of this ground-based fog is the tendency for pollutants to be held close to the earth’s surface. These periods where high pressure builds creating atmospheric inversions, keep cool, moist air close to the ground while less-dense warmer air occupies space atop the inversion layer’s ceiling. Meanwhile, when high-pressure ridges give way to low-pressure centers, a good mixing of the atmosphere takes place and said inversions dissipate. Besides the Valley, such weather conditions as well could be found elsewhere throughout the west.

Now, some may be puzzled as to how this El Nino effect works or why atmospheric changes occur on account of it.

Think of it this way: Warmer ocean currents theoretically precipitate a rise in ocean evaporation. Higher evaporation activity in turn translates to a higher likelihood that concentration of water in the air on this order (think of it as water-logged air), will fall to the land in the form of rain and in the mountain areas as snow. Again, time will tell if this plays out.

Whether we get this much-needed relief or not, finding ways of heating our domiciles other than burning wood when the cool- and cold-weather climes arrive, would be greatly appreciated by at least one person I know – me. I hark back to one Dec. 26th evening in particular in my neighborhood when the air was so thick with wood smoke that there is no question the local air district’s standard for 24-hour fine particle pollution (PM 2.5) of 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air on that date and time was far exceeded, meaning there were blatant violations of the standard then in effect. That standard has since been revised – it is now a “conditional” 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air (with conditions – exceptions – applied, in other words). Needless to say, I went back inside and that is where I stayed.

That said, I indeed look forward to the end of a long-running drought or at least a respite from it, even if it is short-lived, with much-needed precipitation in the form of rain and mountain snow coming. Personally, I can do without the high particulate matter concentrations in the air that so often in the Valley accompanies damp, foggy weather which invariably for those who make the Valley their home will make inhaling air-borne pollutants caused on account of combustion processes whatever the form, all the more probable.

A change in the wind?

It’d be nice to get a breather for a change from what has lately become bad-air doldrums, so routine for winter, in the Valley, especially. I mean, who here wouldn’t appreciate that?!

Even if I have already said it enough, I’ll say it again: we’ll have to wait and see what Mother Nature this coming winter will be up to.

Image above: NASA

The Clean Power Plan: Boom or bust?

The Clean Power Plan goal of reducing carbon emissions from the energy sector and from coal-fired power plants, specifically, by 870 million tons or 32 percent below 2005 levels in 2030, is laudable. To the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in creating such a plan and with regard to seeing it through, more power to ya!

Coal_bituminous[1]As detailed somewhat in the “Clean Power Plan a noble idea, its implementation anything but guaranteed” post of Aug. 10th, as for the CPP being a sure thing, at this early stage it is anything but. Assuming the worst-case scenario – that the plan as outlined is challenged in a court of law and the plaintiffs receive judgment in their favor and an appeal to that judgment in a different or higher court fails to overturn the decision and the challenge stands – what then?

As I see it, power-production-wise it will be more of the same or business as usual and when you think about it, the whole reason for the plan’s creation is to make an adjustment or a change to existing energy-generation practices. Seeking to make positive changes to increase power-plant efficiencies, to produce far less pollution from energy-production processes, both while at the same time lowering costs – operational and consumer, is right-headed as far as I’m concerned.

So, in the event that the Clean Power Plan is defeated, there should most definitely be a Plan B or backup plan, in other words.

A backup plan that I can conceive of is one where the energy end-user; for example, the home owner or business owner, could also be the power producer and that would be by way of on-site photovoltaic (PV) capability (solar panel systems) as is common with rooftop solar-panel installations, just far more of these over time, say out to year 2030 and even beyond.

320px-Giant_photovoltaic_array[1]Add to this endeavor, the building of far more out-in-the-field or field-based solar and/or wind-turbine installations. Some time ago I reported that, across the U.S., between 2010 and 2012, an added 100,000 residences were equipped with solar arrays and that there were 36,000 wind turbines nationwide. (See: “America’s energy future: Coal, gas, solar, water, wind or what?” here). Since then the numbers have no doubt grown.

Incentives and rebates can ease the financial hardship some consumers may be faced with in terms of their buying a personal (for their own use) PV system. Plenty of consumers have already taken advantage of these types of offerings or programs. Barring this, there are leasing programs too, as alternatives to consumers (end-users) owning their own systems.

What’s more, it is expected over time, that new technologies will be introduced to supplement existing means of power generation thereby improving upon what is already in existence or completely supplant it, once again, all in an effort to lower costs, make power production more efficient and, most importantly of all, cut down on pollutant emissions – carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury, what-have-you. Doing nothing at all: not an option.

Lower image above: United States Air Force

Clean Power Plan a noble idea, its implementation anything but guaranteed

As the name implies, the Clean Power Plan has to do with appreciably reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the energy sector and from power plants in particular. It looks as though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be in court defending the plan’s legality. Understand this: regardless of whichever way the court rules, over time there will, invariably, be greater reliance on renewable sources of electricity generation, like solar and wind.

Clean Power Plan nitty gritty

By now you’ve probably heard at least something about CPP. Well, here is more about the plan itself.

“President Obama announced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final Clean Power Plan today, which will cut U.S. carbon pollution from the power sector by 870 million tons, or 32 percent below 2005 levels, in 2030,” the EPA in its Aug. 3, 2015 news release “Obama Administration Takes Historic Action on Climate Change/Clean Power Plan to protect public health, spur clean energy investments and strengthen U.S. leadership,” wrote. “Power plants are the largest drivers of climate change in the United States, accounting for roughly one-third of all carbon pollution emissions, but there were no national limits on carbon pollution until today.

“The Clean Power Plan accelerates the transition to a clean energy future, which is happening even faster than expected—which means carbon and air pollution are already decreasing, improving public health year by year. By 2030, the plan will cut carbon pollution from the power sector by nearly a third and additional reductions will come from pollutants that can create dangerous soot and smog, translating to significant health benefits for the American people. By 2030, emissions of sulfur dioxide from power plants will be 90 percent lower and emissions of nitrogen oxides will be 72 percent lower, compared to 2005 levels. Americans will avoid up to 90,000 asthma attacks and spend up to 300,000 more days in the office or the classroom, instead of sick at home. And up to 3,600 families will be spared the grief of losing a loved one too soon.”

Remember, that is if the plan passes legal muster.

At any rate, “[t]he final rule establishes guidelines for states to follow in developing and implementing their plans, including requirements that vulnerable communities have a seat at the table with other stakeholders,” the EPA in the release added. This plan, to me, though, is more about doing the environment good while at the same time protecting human, animal, and crop and plant health. Those aims, by the way, are noble, for sure.

Furthermore, “EPA is proposing a model rule states can adopt, as well as a federal plan that the EPA will put in place if a state fails to submit an adequate plan. Both the proposed model rule and federal plan focus on emissions trading mechanisms to make sure utilities have broad flexibility to reach their carbon pollution reduction goals. EPA also finalized standards to limit carbon pollution from new, modified and reconstructed power plants.”

A quick review:

As of this moment in time, the energy sector is responsible for producing 30.9 percent of the total. The EPA, through the CPP, is directing the nation’s coal-fired power plant operators to cut their carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. This is the estimated reduction if all goes according to plan.

July ’15 sees better air quality in Valley – is Mother Nature or are humans responsible?

July 2015 in California’s San Joaquin Valley, as far as July’s go, was one of the least smoggy. Though the air quality data is still preliminary, there were no exceedances of the federal eight-hour health standard for ozone on 21 out of July’s 31 days.

So, what’s behind the improvement? Favorable weather conditions such as overcast (cloudy) skies, wind and even rain, all three, perhaps, or, is it something else like tougher air quality rules imposed by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District?

Before getting too, too excited, several key pieces of information.

First, for year 2015 the National Ambient Air Quality Standard that applies regarding ozone is 75 parts per billion (ppb). This was established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Mar. 27, 2008 and it applies to both primary and secondary ozone, averaged over eight hours. So, a reading of 76 ppb or over constitutes an exceedance and corresponds to an Air Quality Index (AQI) reading of 101 or higher.

Next, in looking at data from July 2015, there were a total of 10 ozone exceedance days. The days on which there were no exceedances recorded, incidentally, does not necessarily mean good air quality on those days. For instance, on Jul. 21st, the data reveals that the recorded ozone level was 71 parts per billion (0.071 parts per million). Ozone levels of between 60 ppb (0.06 ppm) and 75 ppb (0.075 ppm) correspond to AQI readings of between 51 and 100, putting air quality in the moderate range.

Now, it is important to consider what Valley meteorological conditions were on each of July’s 31 days. In trying to draw conclusions, weather being an important factor, questions to ask are:

  • On the days with ozone exceedances what meteorological conditions were present throughout the Valley at the time?
  • On the days without ozone exceedances what meteorological conditions were present throughout the Valley?
  • Were there any days where factors other than weather may have played a contributory role in helping to prevent an exceedance from occurring?

This requires further explanation. Say, for example, high temperatures were present, but perhaps motor vehicle activity was subdued as might happen on a Sunday or holiday. As it were, July 4th this year fell on a Saturday. Temperatures by late afternoon in many Valley locations hovered near the century mark. Also during the 4th of July holiday, outdoor grilling activity is typically more pronounced. What, if any, effect did this have? All of this information could help in determining the reason(s) for the general improvement in air quality this July, that is, compared to all July’s, 2008 to 2014, the years with the more stringent 75 ppb ozone standards in effect.

In much of the region throughout much of July, unstable air was present. One source indicated that there was above average precipitation with some areas receiving record rainfall amounts for July and that on most days the weather was unseasonably cool as a marine layer made its way into the Valley and remained until high pressure pushed the marine layer out. It was mainly during these high-pressure, higher-temperature periods that ozone pollution began building and national ambient air quality standards averaged over eight hours were exceeded. Many of these exceedances (eight, actually) occurred during the first few days of the month as well as the last several days of July when temperatures in many locations reached 100 degrees or higher. A high of 108 degrees occurred in Fresno on Jul. 29th. Bakersfield’s high that day was 107 degrees according to this same source. A ridge of high pressure with accompanying high temperatures was present as well for two days in a row beginning on Jul. 16th. Ozone standard exceedances in the Valley also occurred on these days. In all, there were 10 exceedances for the month. This compares with July 2014’s 28 exceedances. In addition, subtropical moisture made its way into the Valley and in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains on more than one occasion. Tropical moisture associated with Hurricane Delores was dumped on the Valley floor on the 18th in the form of showers and thunderstorms and lingered for several days; some areas hit by flash flooding on account of these. July 2015 in the Valley and California, for the most part, was a wet, wild and windy month.

Meanwhile, July ’15’s mean ozone value was 70 ppb (0.070 ppm). Incidentally, the lowest air quality reading in the Valley was for Jul. 9th which measured 48 ppb (0.048 ppm) indicating good air quality. This compares with July ’14’s mean ozone value of 82 ppb (0.082 ppm). Remember, this reflects the average of daily eight-hour (highest) readings, from July 1st through July 31st.

So, in a related The Fresno Bee article, cited was San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Executive Director Seyed Sadredin, who seemed to have pointed to tough new ozone regulations, seemingly more so than cooperating meteorological conditions that made the difference this July compared to others. Although no specific rules were mentioned, it was, however, explained that, if I understand what was emphasized in the article in question correctly, it is as a result of rules requiring businesses and industrial and other sources to scale back their releases, particularly oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) – such as those fumes released from gasoline, paints, solvents and dairy wastes, primarily – that is resulting in Valley air during the summer ozone season gradually getting cleaner. This is the way I interpreted what I read, at least. It remains to be seen how or if air quality for the remainder of the summer and also throughout the early part of autumn is going to be affected.

As it also has to do with ozone, there is one other point to bear in mind: The ozone that is in the stratospheric layer is naturally occurring ozone. This is the ozone layer that helps block the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light radiation from reaching the earth’s surface. Through physical processes some of the stratospheric ozone settles (drops) into the troposphere. This additional ozone into the troposphere adds to the ground-level ozone problem. Even though it in general is at relatively low levels, there is the presence of tropospheric ozone all year round; this in light of the fact ozone (its creation) is a warm-weather phenomenon.

Furthermore, it takes sunlight, heat and the mixing of chemicals in the air such as VOC and NOx to facilitate ozone’s formation. Cloudy skies, blowing breezes and/or rain are the most common conditions which help retard or even prevent ozone’s formation. Add in cool temperatures and the ozone retarding and prevention picture is complete.

Primary ozone is ozone created directly from combustion processes. Secondary ozone is that which is created indirectly, such as when fumes from gasoline (a volatile organic compound or VOC) combines with naturally occurring oxides of nitrogen (NOx) present in the air. The Bee article author mentioned the way in which lungs are damaged from the ozone scourge. There was one reference pointing out the ground-level ozone, when taken into the lungs, induces a chemical burn tantamount, apparently, to a sunburn on lung tissue, although, to be quite frank, I’m not sure I understand that latter explanation.

Quite interestingly, Tuesday’s high temperature in the Fresno region was 83 degrees and while Wednesday’s high temperature was 86, still, good air quality was forecasted throughout much of the eight-county Valley. We’ll take it!


Vehicle-exhaust checking, etc.: It’s all good – or is it? – 2

And now for the other part of the story.

In 2014, in excess of 250 million motor vehicles’ odometers registered slightly more than 3 trillion miles of travel on American roadways. That works out to just about 12,000 miles per vehicle. Per capita, it comes out to a little less than an average 10,000 miles driven per annum.

Hydrogen_station_pump[1]I know of no other country whose peoples love their automobiles the way we Americans do. It is not uncommon for families here to own at least two cars and in many cases more. An interesting statistic is that our vehicles are parked for an average 23 hours per day which means vehicle use is for only an hour per day on average. Imagine, 250 million-plus vehicles getting just an hour’s use daily. The rest of the time these devices are parked. Also interesting to note is that only 40 million motor vehicles on American roads are in operation at any one time.

And, the vast majority of these vehicles – cars, buses and trucks – operate on 135.4 billion gallons of fuel yearly. That’s how much fuel it takes to keep America’s motor vehicles on the go over the course of an entire year.

The good news is that by 2025, the average motor vehicle fuel efficiency ratings will be double what they are today. That’s an average 54.5 miles per gallon compared to the average 27.25 mpg ratings today. That’s a noble goal, indeed.

In California, meanwhile, there is a goal of increasing the efficiency of motor vehicle fuels themselves to double by 2030 that which exists currently. If all of these goals are fulfilled, not only will motor vehicles and the fuels themselves be made more efficient, but so too will fuels and vehicles be cleaner-burning.

That all seems like a win-win until population growth is considered. By 2029, the Golden State’s population is projected to grow to 43.5 million people, up from 38-plus million today. Mirroring California’s population growth, the population of the U.S. as a whole is expected to reach 400 million by 2050. Which means that population in America is projected to reach 332.5 million people in just 15 years’ time.

With a rise in population and with the number of those driving expected to swell as well, the question is if this will be enough to offset by a commensurate amount the quantity of emissions from these sources entering our air. Even if the levels of emissions stay the same that’s still considered an improvement. Even better if there is a reduction and better still if that reduction is significant.

The presumption is that by 2025 and 2030, respectively, if the stated goals are realized, tailpipe emissions should be cut in half. But what to do until that time is the question.

More purchases of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) and partial zero-emissions vehicles (PZEVs) would be nice as would less driving – per capita and overall, but based on current trends, it would be a bit of a stretch to expect per-capita and aggregate driving would be less as would be the growth in public transit use to be considerable.

So, the trick is to make what we are driving at present run at optimum performance levels. This can be done with oil and oil filter and air filter changes at regular intervals. Keeping tires inflated to their proper levels can help also. Avoiding quick starts from stopped conditions as well as minimizing hard braking is all a plus. And, biennial vehicle smog testing as a means of keeping tabs of how a vehicle’s engine is performing over time is beneficial. One and all of the above are valuable tools.

At the municipal level, highway ramp metering and high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) or high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes can also help, not to mention the synchronization of traffic signal lights. Steps that can be taken within a municipality to reduce or prevent traffic congestion and gridlock should be pursued. Managing the flow of traffic using technology-based approaches such as what is employed in Las Vegas, Nevada, it’s all good.

Transportation’s contribution to air pollution being considerable, without effective, positive strategies to counteract the damage to the air from the transport sector and absent drivers taking more proactive approaches, the likelihood that we’ll see gains above and beyond what has already been achieved, seems slim to none. Not one to sugar-coat things, much of the responsibility lies with us to make a positive difference on the road and elsewhere in this regard. We can if we want to. We should want to.