Tag Archive for: environment

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By Mary English 

On January 5th of this year, Kansas City’s largest utility, Evergy, announced plans to update the Hawthorn coal-burning power plant with a solar field1. This will be a 10-MW solar array which on average can power roughly 2,000 single family homes a day. This move is seen as a hopeful sign for activists pressing for Hawthorn’s closure. 

This a textbook example of the term that has been gaining traction in recent years: environmental justice. The plant’s potential closing, if it happens down the road, falls right in line with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definition which in brief is: “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” 

The Hawthorn plant is located next to neighborhoods with lower incomes who have borne the brunt of power generation and other industries’ negative impacts on the metro’s air quality. There is much more work like this in our region and around the country that needs to be done. (For a fantastic, if irreverent, report on some other examples of environmental justice wins and losses see the Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode broadcast in May on this subject 2.) 

However, as I like to say, these are “no-brainer” examples of immediate changes needed for a more fair and just society for our entire region. There are many other ways our fellow residents suffer from environmental injustices, however, that are hidden from view from those not directly involved in this subject through work or activism.  

One such example presented itself in a recent policy argument in one of the cities that make up our metropolitan area. And as our metropolitan’s city-center – Kansas City, MO – is in the middle of a similar policy discussion currently, I want to talk in more detail of how this is relevant to the discussion over environmental justice. 

I’m talking about the policy decisions over upgrading building energy codes. Kansas City, KS, just passed a “new” energy code. New being in quotation marks because—due to the residential portion of the codes passage being heavily amended—it’s safer to classify it as “Meet the New Code, Same as the Old Code.” 

Recently I discussed the many ways better energy codes positively impact our work and home lives 3. Since writing that piece, Kansas City, KS, decided to punt any marked improvement to their residential energy code, taken from the 2018 iteration of the International Energy Conservation Code 4 (IECC) (fortunately, the amendments in the commercial code were removed).  

Their reasoning was based on the fear-based excuse that it will price lower income earners out of buying a home. (Since both Missouri and Kansas are on the “home rule” law, every city council in our metro area is in charge of picking their own building codes. Currently, better mostly unamended 2018 IECC codes have not produced this problem in both Columbia, and St. Louis, MO. New-home building permit-pulls in both of these cities have risen since the codes’ passages, in fact 5.) This argument, however, is prevalent; and can be a winner with policymakers because it packs an emotional punch related directly to the American Dream. 

I want to expand on this idea. The American Dream as defined by this reasoning is all about owning your own home, apparently, even if said home is built with out-of-date technology and therefore not as durable, comfortable, and healthy as it could be for the residents. The code that Kansas City, KS, just passed, like most of the rest of our metro area’s cities, is based on a home-building process that is decades old. Following this argument that everyone should be able to buy a house, why don’t we just throw up some wood slats and tar paper like they did in the olden days and call it good?  

We don’t, of course, because it’s a ridiculous notion. Updating the energy code incorporates what we know now about how building efficiency is connected to human health and mental well-being. It’s not enough just to have four walls, a ceiling and roof and call it good. We must make sure that our structures are not also making us sick and poor. As humans have made great technological advancements over the last 100 years, we’ve incorporated them into minimum building standards as part of the social contract with the citizenry.   

And that—the social contract—is really what Environmental Justice means to me: keeping this important contract up to date and fair for all. When people are driving over our bridges, riding roller coasters, eating packaged food, just to list a few, they are doing so with the understanding that the laws protect them from injury or death. (And yes, bad energy codes in the most extreme examples can lead to both of these things 6) 

Environmental justice means that the social contract should apply to everyone—not just those that can afford a custom-built home that fixes all the flaws contained in the current energy code in our region. Roughly half of our residents are renters. Don’t they deserve a home that isn’t prone to mold growth and discomfort due to poorly installed insulation and insufficient ventilation?  

And if you want to argue that home buyers matter more for some reason, then why should they be subject to buying a “ready to wear/ off the shelf” new home that has been built with out of date and flawed technology? People don’t generally think about the health and safety aspects of homebuying because they assume policymakers and administrators have their backs covered in relation to the boring stuff. 

And yes, insulation and air sealing are boring. As an industry professional for 15 years, trust me, I get it. I have audited hundreds of homes in this metro area—many built under the same old technology that is still alive and well in most of our townships—to have just a small portion of homeowners follow through and pay to upgrade their houses. They’d rather have new kitchen cabinets or light fixtures. A home is an emotional extension of ourselves and most of us have only so much money to spend on upgrades. Insulation is going to be picked last if the house is seemingly livable enough with a few space heaters and added blankets in the TV room. 

For families with children that suffer from childhood asthma caused by energy inefficiencies, however, and who don’t have the means to choose from a list of home upgrades, where is their signed social contract to the American Dream? 

It could be right here in Kansas City if we had the will to implement solutions for our buildings’ occupants. As I type this, the news that a new climate mitigation spending package may finally be put before Congress for passage has broken. It includes the largest climate action spending in American history. This is great news for our cities that are trying to right the wrongs of discrimination, inequity in our infrastructure spending, and neglect of previously redlined neighborhoods in general.  

With this funding in mind, here is my dreamed-up short list of solutions: 

  • KC area municipalities should all pass at a minimum the unamended 2018 IECC or, better yet, 2021 commercial and residential codes. 
  • Implement a minimum energy performance standard for our commercial buildings 7 —including multi-family residential—with a deadline to reach a threshold of energy performance. 
  • Create a funding process to help homeowners with lower incomes spend money on the boring stuff like insulation, air sealing and better HVAC systems. Additionally, this process should be kept simple and accessible (too many of these types of programs in the past haven’t been.) 
  • Modify any tax laws to eliminate gentrification or landlord abuse through raised rents, as money gets poured into revitalizing previously neglected communities. 
  • Indirectly related: increase the minimum wage to something to live on with dignity and respect in a 40-hour work week. 
  • And, finally, invest in jobs training to create a work force that can be there to do all the work contained in the above solutions.  

 

When 2020 was upon us in full force and we all went indoors to sequester ourselves to work and live 8 we were experiencing a what is called a collective trauma. Many of us lost loved ones. And there was a window into our fellow humans’ suffering and those whose situations were worse – or better off – than our own.  

But there was a sense that we were entering a new era for the better perhaps. Our offices closed, pollution dropped and you could actually smell the fresh change in the air. The conversation around buildings turned to health, building management, and ventilation.  

That time has come and gone unfortunately as we’ve been pushed back into business as usual. The deep class divide remains unchanged and buildings are just one way that divide manifests. Energy code will not impact the ability to own a home. It impacts the ability to live and work in a healthy environment though. 

Kansas City could be a leader among cities on how to update the social contract with its citizens by offering better buildings, which goes along with cleaner power generation, infrastructure, and thus cleaner air.  

To me, that means Environmental Justice really can just be called Justice. Living with decent, healthy and equitable shelter should be considered a civil right, in my humble opinion. 

But what does “Environmental Justice” mean to you?  

 

Update: note that an earlier version of this blog incorrectly stated that Hawthorne plant was being shutdown by Evergy. This was inaccurate. It is a plant that environmental justice advocates have been requesting get on the list of plants to be closed. The solar array that Evergy is building is next to Hawthorne, but it does not preclude Hawthorn from being close permanently. 

Footnotes

1 https://www.powermag.com/evergy-to-build-solar-array-at-kansas-city-coal-power-plant-site/ 

2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-v0XiUQlRLw 

3 https://metroenergy.org/2022/06/energy-codes-for-our-future/ 

4 https://codes.iccsafe.org/content/iecc2018 

5 Public data received from codes departments in these cities. 

6 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/families-sue-buildings-owners-bronx-fire-killed-17-people-rcna15384 

7 https://www.imt.org/st-louis-passes-first-building-performance-standard-in-the-midwest/ 

8 Wellnot all, some of us were luckier than others. Our healthcare providers and grocery store labor to name twowho kept up their end of the contract by working through brutal shifts and dangers to their health pre-vaccinedidn’t get to shelter in place. But that is another, albeit related, blog 

There’s a lot to like about electricity from hydropower.  It produces zero emissions.  It can respond quickly to sudden increases in demand.  A dam can also protect against floods, store water to fend off drought, slake the thirst of cities and irrigate cropland while generating clean energy. 

The Age Of Dams

Dams can even serve as sources of national inspiration.  In the depths of the Great Depression, building Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam) didn’t just provide thousands of desperately needed jobs.  The project made news.  It was the biggest dam ever tried, built in a searing desert environment.  Vital engineering problems were solved with construction already underway.  And it was proof that even during tough times, Americans could undertake big, ambitious projects and succeed.  10,000 spectators turned out in 102-degree heat when FDR dedicated the dam in September 1935, a job completed under budget and two years ahead of schedule.

Hoover Dam – Arizona/Nevada

Hoover Dam marked the start of what some have called the Age of Dams.  From the 1930s through the early 1980s, America built thousands of large dams.  Some are truly huge (like Grand Coulee on the Columbia), some just garden-variety big.  These structures rerouted rivers, irrigated vast areas of land, and made desert cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas possible.  There are now about 100,000 large dams nationwide, 5,500 of them 50 feet high or taller.  In 2019, America’s 2,400 hydropower dams generated 274 billion kilowatt-hours, a shade under 7% of all of our electricity.  So, given all the benefits dams can provide, why aren’t we using more of this clean energy source?

Location, Location Location

It’s complicated.  As implied above, only a small minority of dams provide power, and the biggest dams are federal projects.  For these dams, there’s a kind of legal division of labor between multi-purpose dams providing power, storage and irrigation, and flood-control dams.  Flood-control dams can generate power, but that’s not their main purpose.  Example – the vast Fort Peck Dam in Montana has a volume of 96 million cubic meters, and generates 185 megawatts of power.  Grand Coulee Dam has one-tenth the volume – 9.1 million cubic meters – but maximum electrical output of over 7,000 megawatts – 37 times more than Fort Peck.  Different rivers, different sites, different designs – and different reasons for being.  Fort Peck was designed for flood control, with some generation capacity.  Grand Coulee was all about power.  Could existing dams be retrofitted to generate more power?  Possibly, but at high cost, and at the expense of other missions they’re required by law to fulfill. 

In a sense, geography is in control.  There are only so many rivers that are big enough to dam.  On each of those rivers, there are only so many sites that make sense. Even then things don’t always work out.  A case in point – Optima Dam.  Sited on the North Canadian River in Oklahoma, Optima was completed in 1978, after 12 years of planning and construction.  Today Optima Lake is effectively empty.  The North Canadian was once fed by underground water from the Ogallala Aquifer.  But over time, farmers have pumped so much water from the Ogallala for irrigation that there’s now nothing left for the river or the reservoir.  Beyond extremes like this, nearly all the best locations were developed during the Age of Dams.  What sites remain are, for the most part, remote, expensive or potentially dangerous.

Approaching An Age Of Extremes

There’s also maintenance.  Dams look massive and unchangeable. But they’re subject to the ravages of time like we are (it just takes longer).  By 2020, more than 70% of all the dams in this country were more than 50 years old.  Really big hydropower dams like Hoover, Bonneville or Shasta are regularly inspected by federal authorities, but they’re the exception to the rule.  And even these kinds of massive structures are now being put to the test by more extreme weather events.  Oroville Dam in California faced disastrously sudden melting of a heavy snowpack in 2017. The result was an overloaded spillway, 200,000 residents evacuated and a repair bill north of $1 billion.  The May 2020 dam failure in Michigan and the collapse of Spencer Dam in Nebraska during 2019’s intense “bomb cyclone” are  examples of what can happen to older, smaller systems facing extreme stress without regular inspection.

Finally, dams have finite lives.  They may endure for centuries, but in the end, all reservoirs will fill with sediment.  In the Sierra Nevada, in hard rock terrain, a dam might endure millennia.  But in much of the American West, where soils erode easily and where flash floods roll car-sized boulders, it’s different.   Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado was completed in 1963. It created a reservoir that could hold 27 million acre-feet of water.  Today that reservoir – Lake Powell – can hold about 24.3 million acre-feet when full. That missing 10% – enough to cover 2.7 million acres with one foot of water – cannot be replaced, because there’s mud and sand where water used to be.  The original capacity of Lake Mead, behind Hoover, was 32 million acre-feet. Today it’s down to 25.8 million – a loss of almost 20%.  Ongoing drought, like the Colorado River basin is now experiencing, also limits electricity a dam can produce.  The deeper the water above the turbine, the greater the energy output – and vice-versa.  As reservoirs fall, so does potential power output.  In a region where entire states depend on these dams and lakes, and the power they produce, these physical limits are becoming visible.

While the big picture may look a bit bleak, boosting clean energy output using existing infrastructure may be possible – while stabilizing the grid at the same time.  At peak generation, California solar and wind power output is now so large that the state at times is forced to give away electricity.  What if that renewable energy could be used to pump water from the Colorado back up behind Hoover Dam to generate more power?  In effect, this would use the dam as a kind of battery, without the need for actual batteries.  It wouldn’t be cheap.  The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which supports the concept, estimates a cost of $3 billion, but these kinds of retrofits may be a path forward for enhanced hydropower generation and a more reliable electrical system.