Local Governments Can Lead the Way, Even on Transportation

With recent volatility of oil and energy prices adding to our country’s economic woes, we’re seeing a renewed focus on community energy planning. Energy planning is often relegated to state and federal policymakers, sometimes to the detriment of communities. Our organization, the Community Environmental Council, has a broad perspective on the pros and cons of the various levels of policymaking because we work on state as well as local energy policy in California.

With volatile oil and gas prices placing increasing strain on every level of our society, what can local policymakers do to help ease the pain?

As you may expect, there’s almost nothing local policymakers can do to make a large difference in the short term. But with record high gas prices over the summer, the one ray of light is that market forces are already bringing about significant conservation and improved efficiency across the board — from commuters climbing on the bus instead of into their SUVs alone, to homeowners installing compact fluorescent light bulbs in great numbers.

While prices have backed down significantly from summer all time highs, due to conservation efforts and the economic crisis, most experts agree this is a temporary respite. When prices return to record levels, as they surely will, market forces will continue to encourage conservation and development of more efficient technology. (Market forces haven’t always been good for renewable energy and/or energy efficiency because of market failures relating to collective action problems, entrenched economic interests, uneven subsidies, etc.).

Local governments can, however, help market forces do their job in a number of ways by promoting good policies and setting an example themselves. Under such policies, local governments can have a significant impact in mid- to long-term. We at the Community Environmental Council recently completed our Santa Barbara County Transportation Energy Plan. It was the result of more than a year’s work by our staff and numerous other environmental and government groups. The focus of the report is how to make a significant reduction in petroleum use in our county by 2020, which is part of our broader effort to wean our region from fossil fuels by 2030.

There is nothing particularly new or ground-breaking in our transportation report. What it does very well, however, is prioritize the possible policy options with an emphasis on identifying the lowest hanging fruit. It also provides an action plan for individuals, businesses and local governments, recognizing that each type of entity has very different options while all being important to finding workable solutions.

Our top six recommendations are, in order of potential impact and importance: ridesharing; more efficient cars; sustainably produced biofuels; mass transit; bicycling; and next generation vehicles (electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles).

Ridesharing is so promising because it saves drivers money and doesn’t require any additional infrastructure. Our roads are full of vehicles that are 80% empty (only one person). High gas prices, desire to make environmental choices, and technology-based ridesharing that uses the internet and cell phones for matches are ushering in a new era of easy ridesharing. School and event-based ridesharing and using social networks to find matches can build community while saving energy. As 15% of commuters already rideshare in our county, this alternative mode can quickly scale up to make an even bigger impact.

More efficient cars like smaller vehicles, hybrids, and clean diesels are experiencing huge growth as market forces shift people out of large vehicles. New 35 mpg by 2020 federal CAFÉ standards may lag behind consumer desire to choose efficient vehicles and states like California are battling with the federal government for even stricter standards. As has been explored in a previous column, the federal CAFÉ standards are largely a sham anyway, so here is another example of where market forces in the era of high prices will do far more than bad policy.

Sustainable biofuels from waste materials or second generation feedstocks like cellulosic ethanol and jatropha or algae biodiesel are very promising, as they can be used in many of today’s vehicles with only modest changes to infrastructure. If any of the hundreds of companies working on sustainable biofuels can produce fuels that use marginal land with little water, energy and other inputs, this option may become very important. It’s clear that corn and soy, while useful for maturing the market and deploying infrastructure, have limited ability to solve our liquid fuels shortages without negatively impacting our environment and social fabrics.

Expanding mass transit can ensure mobility while cutting energy use, and more riders mean more frequent service, overall increased system efficiency, and reduced cost and environmental impacts per rider. In particular, our region has a large jobs / housing imbalance, and as a result of that new commuter buses are experiencing exploding growth. We need to make long-term investments in our mass transit infrastructure and ensure that new growth in our cities is transit-friendly.

Bicycling is the most energy-efficient transportation option ever invented. It has lots of potential to reduce congestion and pollution during shorter trips. Making it easy and safe to bicycle encourages people to get out of their cars and try this healthy and active mode of getting around.

Electrification of our transportation sector with electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) is an important long-term strategy for weaning ourselves from fossil fuels. Electric motors are about two to three times more efficient than internal combustion engines and can utilize renewable energy like sun and wind power. While these vehicles are just starting to enter the market now, we expect many new offerings in the next few years.

Electrification is a key part of our long-term plan to wean our region from fossil fuels, but market penetration by 2020 is unlikely to achieve much petroleum reduction, even in the best case scenario. We are optimistic, however, that between 2020 and 2030, next generation vehicles will lead to a substantial shift away from petroleum and toward renewable electricity as a major transportation fuel.

We realistically expect that our recommendations will result in a bit more than a 40 percent reduction in petroleum demand in our slow growth county by 2020. This is ambitious but achievable — particularly if oil prices stay high. Almost half of these reductions come from our modeling of fleet turnover and higher CAFÉ standards, which are relatively firm projections. Citizens switching over to alternative modes, sustainable biofuels and electrification of transportation all have great potential but much less certainty.

Each region is different, of course, so we urge policymakers and stakeholders to conduct a process similar to ours to arrive at the best recommendations for each community, and then act to incentivize residents to choose more sustainable transportation options. As the peak oil and climate crises get worse, as the best evidence strongly suggests they will, local energy planning will only gain in importance.

Tam Hunt is Energy Program Director and Attorney for the Community Environmental Council. He is also a Lecturer in renewable energy law and policy at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at UC Santa Barbara.

Michael Chiacos is a senior program associate at the Community Environmental Council. His work focuses on the transportation energy sector.

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