WSJ on conserving energy in HoustonThe Wall Street Journal recently had a page one article on why conserving energy is hard, with Houston as their case study. A few Houston-related excerpts:
In Texas Suburbs, Conserving Energy Doesn't Come EasyThe whole article is pretty interesting, but it's too long to post here and I think you have to be a subscriber for the link to work. Try here or here for a Google cache of the article.
HOUSTON -- As director of an environmental organization here, David Gresham urges others to cut their use of fossil fuels. It's a tough sell.
At home, in a subdivision on Houston's suburban edge, Mr. Gresham tries to practice what he preaches. That's even harder.
His front lawn is yellower than its bright-green neighbors, because he and his wife don't water it often and don't use chemical fertilizers. His roof's underside is covered with a shiny sheet of metal foil that reflects the sun's heat, reducing his need for air conditioning. All told, his house uses about 40% less electricity than a typical home of its size in the Houston area, his electric utility estimates.
Yet when he requested a metal roof, which would have reflected even more sunlight, his builder said the subdivision allowed only shingles made of asphalt -- a petroleum product. When Mr. Gresham proposed covering his front yard with rocks and native plants that don't need watering, his subdivision's homeowners association told him he had to stick with grass. "It protects their property values," explains Diana Barak, director of operations for PCMI, a Houston firm that helps administer the homeowners association.
The reality is that public policy, the private market and the lure of personal comfort all work against Americans trying to live on less energy. The hurdles are particularly evident in Houston, the self-described oil capital of the world. Transportation accounts for a bigger chunk of the average household's total spending in Houston than in any other major U.S. metropolitan area, a result of Houston's sprawl. A local saying goes that summer is the coldest time in this hot, humid city, because that's when the air conditioners are running hard.
Visits with Mr. Gresham and three other environmentally minded Houstonians offer a sobering look at what it takes to try to live energy-efficiently in one of the world's most energy-intensive cultures. The lesson: It's possible, but it's a slog.
Mr. Gresham grew up in the 1960s and 1970s on what was then Houston's outer orbit. In 2002, he and his wife, Diane Meredith, bought an empty lot in Cole's Crossing, a big subdivision under construction northwest of Houston. That earned him some chiding from his environmentalist friends. One ribbed him for living in "Plasticville." "To a certain degree, she's right," he says.
But the decision was a financial no-brainer. The lot and the three-bedroom house, which has about 3,800 feet of air-conditioned space, cost about $260,000, less than half what he figures a similar house nearer his office would have cost. He has a 50-mile daily round-trip commute, but even the higher price of gas doesn't outweigh his lower mortgage. "There's a balance you have to reach between how much you pay and how much you have to consume," Mr. Gresham explains.
Continuing the theme of saving energy, a separate WSJ article on building better bike paths also caught my eye, but not for anything Houston-related. It talks about bike paths becoming too crowded, esp. with non-bikers, and that pretty serious accidents are occurring. One of the solutions is "traffic calming" for bikes - intentionally designing paths to slow them down.
Now, how much sense does that make? It's already a stretch to ask people to give up their cars to bike to work or run errands, and now you want to slow them down and make them even less convenient? Time for a re-think on that strategy. Separate, parallel paths for bikers and everybody else seems like a better solution - or even just better signage on path safety rules. Lots of federal money headed this direction, and I believe Houston is going after a fair share of it. The bayous and old rail right-of-ways are perfect for bike paths - although I think more of an effort should be made for the paths to dip under bridges along bayou banks rather than crossing the streets, so riders have to stop less often at crossings. I would hope there are no unreasonable liability or safety issues that would prevent this approach, i.e. inattentive bikers plunging into the bayous when they're full after a rainstorm. But our legal liability system is a topic for another time...