Steven Cohen is the executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and a professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
One of the best ways to meet the commitments laid out in the climate deal and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be to gradually replace fossil fuels with other forms of energy that are renewable and do not damage the environment. To do this, we need to dramatically increase investment in basic and applied renewable energy research. The goal of this work is to make renewable energy commercially viable. We need breakthroughs in solar cell and energy storage technology that make renewable energy less expensive and more convenient than it is today. The batteries in electric cars need a range of 1,000 miles rather than a few hundred. Home energy storage systems and solar cells must become smaller and less expensive. The technology must be so attractive that it drives fossil fuels from the marketplace.
One of the most significant moments for clean energy in the past few weeks was announced even before the Paris talks began: Bill Gates, along with more than 20 other billionaires, established the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a private sector group committed to investing in renewable energy technologies. Promising more than a billion dollars of investment, this is the largest clean energy fund ever created. According to Coalition investor and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, "progress towards a sustainable energy system is too slow and the current system doesn't encourage the kind of innovation that will get us there faster." I couldn't agree more.
Gates, Branson, Zuckerberg and more launch Breakthrough Energy Coalition https://t.co/8HN1Efyxzv via @SustainBrands https://t.co/JSd27lIXA2— GCCA (@GCCA)1449558009.0
While the private sector has the resources and cash to invest in renewable energy technologies, it can't do it alone. Joining Gates' effort, twenty countries, including major carbon emitters like the U.S., India and China, pledged to double their investment in renewable energy technology by 2020. This public-private partnership “will be a critical step toward limiting global warming," the White House said.
Public-private partnerships have been around since the start of the U.S. and exist at all levels of government. Basic science and technology has historically been funded by the U.S. government and taken place in national and university laboratories. When the technologies matured, some were released for commercial use. Perhaps the best example is the personal computer, which has shrunk significantly in size since the 1970s and has dramatically increased in computing power. A product used by billions of people worldwide began as an investment by the U.S. federal government, in order to develop better missile guidance systems for the U.S. Department of Defense and smaller on-board computers for NASA's space program.
Local government interest in sourcing renewable energy in the U.S. is clear. Many cities, including New York City, have made pledges to increase their renewable energy use and this week San Diego became the largest American city to legally commit to 100 percent renewable energy.
According to the New York Times:
“With a unanimous City Council vote, San Diego, the country's eighth-largest city, became the largest American municipality to transition to using 100 percent renewable energy, including wind and solar power. In the wake of the Paris accord, environmental groups hailed the move as both substantive and symbolic. Other big cities, including New York and San Francisco, have said they intend to use more renewable energy, but San Diego is the first of them to make the pledge legally binding. Under the ordinance, it has committed to completing its transition and cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035."
Eventually, every state in the U.S. will have to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's clean power regulation requirements. This will be difficult to do with current energy technology. Government must fund the basic research and enough of the applied research to demonstrate potential profitability. One good piece of news is that it appears that in exchange for lifting restrictions on oil exports, the favorable tax treatment of renewable energy in the U.S. will not end in December of 2016. Ending that tax expenditure would have slowed down the growth of the solar and wind industry and have an immediate and dramatic impact on the production of greenhouse gases.
At some point, technology will take over. Fossil fuels will eventually be driven from the marketplace by something better and cheaper, but we first need the investment in basic and applied research to make that happen. The transition from an economy based on the one-time use of finite resources to one that relies on renewable resources requires a sophisticated, high-powered public-private partnership. The commitments made by Gates and the White House are a good start and there are many other signs that the transition from fossil fuels has begun. The speed of that transition, however, will depend on creativity, consensus and cash to be completed.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
Through net metering programs, homeowners who have installed solar energy systems can get utility credits for any electricity their panels generate during the day that isn't used to power home systems. These credits can be "cashed in" to offset the cost of any grid electricity used at night.
Where net metering is available, solar panels have a shorter payback period and yield a higher return on investment. Without this benefit, you only save on power bills when using solar energy directly, and surplus generation is lost unless you store it in a solar battery. However, net metering gives you the option of selling any excess electricity that is not consumed within your home.
Generally, you will see more home solar systems in places with favorable net metering laws. With this benefit, going solar becomes an attractive investment even for properties with minimal daytime consumption. Homeowners can turn their roofs into miniature power plants during the day, and that generation is subtracted from their nighttime consumption.
What Is Net Metering?
Net metering is a billing arrangement in which surplus energy production from solar panels is tracked by your electricity provider and subtracted from your monthly utility bill. When your solar power system produces more kilowatt-hours of electricity than your home is consuming, the excess generation is fed back into the grid.
For homeowners with solar panels, the benefits of net metering include higher monthly savings and a shorter payback period. Utility companies also benefit, since the excess solar electricity can be supplied to other buildings on the same electric grid.
If a power grid relies on fossil fuels, net metering also increases the environmental benefits of solar power. Even if a building does not have an adequate area for rooftop solar panels, it can reduce its emissions by using the surplus clean energy from other properties.
How Net Metering Works
There are two general ways net metering programs work:
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your utility company, and a credit is posted to your account that can be applied to future power bills.
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your home's electricity meter. Modern power meters can measure electricity flow in both directions, so they tick up when you pull from the grid at night and count down when your solar panels are producing an excess amount of electricity.
In either scenario, at the end of the billing period, you will only pay for your net consumption — the difference between total consumption and generation. This is where the term "net metering" comes from.
How Does Net Metering Affect Your Utility Bill?
Net metering makes solar power systems more valuable for homeowners, as you can "sell" any extra energy production to your utility company. However, it's important to understand how charges and credits are managed:
- You can earn credits for your surplus electricity, but utility companies will not cut you a check for the power you provide. Instead, they will subtract the credits from your power bills.
- If your net metering credit during the billing period is higher than your consumption, the difference is rolled over to the next month.
- Some power companies will roll over your credit indefinitely, but many have a yearly expiration date that resets your credit balance.
With all of this in mind, it is possible to reduce your annual electricity cost to zero. You can accumulate credit with surplus generation during the sunny summer months, and use it during winter when solar generation decreases.
You will achieve the best results when your solar power system has just the right capacity to cover your annual home consumption. Oversizing your solar array is not recommended, as you will simply accumulate a large unused credit each year. In other words, you cannot overproduce and charge your power company each month.
Some power companies will let you pick the expiration date of your annual net metering credits. If you have this option, it's wise to set the date after winter has ended. This way, you can use all the renewable energy credits you accumulated during the summer.
Is Net Metering Available Near You?
Net metering offers a valuable incentive for homeowners to switch to solar power, but these types of programs are not available everywhere. Net metering laws can change depending on where you live.
In the U.S., there are mandatory net metering laws in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Most states without a mandate have power companies that voluntarily offer the benefit in their service areas. South Dakota and Tennessee are the only two states with no version of net metering or similar programs.
If net metering is available in your area, you will be credited for your surplus energy in one of two ways:
- Net metering at retail price: You get full credit for each kilowatt-hour sent to the grid. For example, if you're charged 16 cents per kWh consumed, you'll get a credit of 16 cents per kWh exported. This type of net metering is required by law in 29 states.
- Net metering at a reduced feed-in tariff: Surplus electricity sent to the grid is credited at a lower rate. For example, you may be charged 16 cents per kWh for consumption but paid 10 cents per kWh exported. Feed-in tariffs and other alternative programs are used in 17 of the states where retail-rate net metering is not mandatory.
Note: This is just a simplified example — the exact kWh retail price and solar feed-in tariff will depend on your electricity plan.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about net metering and other solar power incentives in your state. You can also look for information about solar incentives by visiting the official websites of your state government and utility company.
Other Financial Incentives for Going Solar
Net metering policies are one of the most effective incentives for solar power. However, there are other financial incentives that can be combined with net metering to improve your ROI:
- The federal solar tax credit lets you claim 26% of your solar installation costs as a tax deduction. For example, if your solar installation had a cost of $10,000, you can claim $2,600 on your next tax declaration. This benefit is available everywhere in the U.S.
- State tax credits may also be available depending on where you live, and they can be claimed in addition to the federal incentive.
- Solar rebates are offered by some state governments and utility companies. These are upfront cash incentives subtracted directly from the cost of your solar PV system.
In addition to seeking out solar incentives available to you, you should compare quotes from multiple installers before signing a solar contract. This will ensure you're getting the best deal available and help you avoid overpriced offers and underpriced, low-quality installations. You can start getting quotes from top solar companies near you by filling out the 30-second form below.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Net Metering
Why is net metering bad?
When managed correctly, net metering is beneficial for electricity consumers and power companies. There have been cases in which power grids lack the capacity to handle large amounts of power coming from homes and businesses. However, this is an infrastructure issue, not a negative aspect of net metering itself.
In places with a high percentage of homes and businesses using solar panels, surplus generation on sunny days can saturate the grid. This can be managed by modernizing the grid to handle distributed solar power more effectively with load management and energy storage systems.
How does net metering work?
With net metering, any electricity your solar panels produce that isn't used to power your home is fed into your local power grid. Your utility company will pay you for this power production through credits that can be applied to your monthly energy bills.
Can you make money net metering?
You can reduce your power bills with net metering, using surplus solar generation to compensate for your consumption when you can't generate solar power at night and on cloudy days. However, most power companies will not pay you for surplus production once your power bill has dropped to $0. Normally, that credit will be rolled over, to be used in months where your solar panels are less productive.
On very rare occasions, you may be paid for the accumulated balance over a year. However, this benefit is offered by very few electric companies and is subject to limitations.
It is obvious that the U.S. federal government is struggling to perform basic governance functions and, as I wrote earlier this summer, it is incapable of leading the transition to a renewable economy. Nevertheless, one of the key elements of that transition, the adoption of solar power, is well underway in the U.S. According to a new report by John Rogers and Laura Wisland, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Solar is undergoing widespread and rapid growth in the U.S. ... The amount of solar PV installed in the U.S. grew by 485 percent from 2010 to 2013 ... Solar accounted for an average of 16 percent of electricity capacity installed annually in the United States from 2011 to 2013, and almost 30 percent in 2013.
They note that the price of solar systems has dropped by more than 50 percent since 2007, and that as local government permitting processes become streamlined and as financing options grow, household solar installations are becoming more feasible.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
There are a variety of obstacles to more rapid adoption of solar power. Federal, state and local tax treatment of solar varies by jurisdiction. Incentives are unpredictably phased in and phased out. The absence of smart grid technology and feed-in tariffs makes it difficult to integrate home excess solar power into the grid; utilities know how to send you energy, but they don't know how to take it back.
What is needed is a well thought through, comprehensive renewable energy program with national standards, serious funding for research and development, and clear, predictable incentives for adoption of solar power and other renewable energy technologies. This is far from realistic under the Obama White House and the Tea Party-influenced congress. The president is pursuing a meaningless "all-of-the-above" energy non-strategy and will not push renewables too hard, and the congress does not believe that government has a role to play in promoting renewable energy development and use.
One good piece of news about declining solar energy costs is that the time it will take to amortize a solar installation is coming down. If energy savings fund the cost of a solar array and the amount being saved is growing, the risk of investment is being reduced. Solar installations will pay off faster, even under current conditions. Fortunately, if you invest in today's technology and the payback period is ten years or so, you run little risk of wasting your money.
While the overall contribution of solar energy to national energy use is quite low, the potential of solar energy is quite high. For a few days this past summer, Germany generated more than 50 percent of its electricity from solar energy. In the U.S., it will take a long time for solar energy to reach Germany's levels. While our pace might be called "slow, but increasing rapidly," Europe and China are moving quickly to add solar energy to their power mix. In this country we see similar movement in California. These examples provide an indication of how rapidly renewable energy can be adopted when government policy provides the push that is needed.
The U.S. presents both enormous potential and persistent problems in pushing solar energy. The potential is in our research universities and creative, entrepreneurial culture. The computer and smart phone industry was built on a partnership between government-funded basic research and creative use of off-the-shelf technology by companies like Apple, IBM, Dell, HP and Microsoft. Research funded by the Defense Department, NOAA, NASA and the National Science Foundation has built enormous capacity in university-based research institutions. When coupled with our government's national laboratories and the applied research undertaken by the private sector, we have benefited from a nearly continuous stream of new technologies and new products generated by new industries. As I often argue, that same drive needs to be applied to renewable energy technology. If mobilized effectively, we have the potential to generate transformative technologies in renewable energy.
Unfortunately, we suffer from the persistent problem of our pay-to-play politics. The fossil fuel industry is not blind to the threat that renewable energy poses to their core business. At risk are billions of dollars invested in the technology and infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction, transport and use. At the very moment we need a determined national policy to promote renewable energy, the elected officials who might lead such an effort are in an endless competition for more and more campaign cash. Instead of investing in new solar technologies, fossil fuel companies are investing in politicians who will vote to inhibit the development of these technologies. So far they are succeeding. The "all-of-the-above" energy non-strategy is an example of the fossil fuel industry's success. It is not yet politically feasible for an American president to take a position to aggressively push for the replacement of fossil fuels. The best we could get is an argument to develop every form of energy possible. Apparently, the hope is that somehow, enough alternative energy will make it through the mix to enable renewables to take hold.
American leadership would surely speed the transition to a renewable economy. But America's absence will not prevent that transition. There will eventually be an Apple-Google-Microsoft-Amazon-like company selling us household solar energy technologies. Note that Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are all American companies that went global in the world economy. The energy technology companies of the future may be home grown or they may come out of Europe, Latin America or Asia. The need for low-cost and reliable energy is only going to grow. The planet's need for a less destructive form of energy supply is urgent and is also growing. Engineers and businesspeople all over the world see the demand and are working to figure out a way to generate supply. In a global economy, the old line fossil fuel companies will not be able to prevent the diffusion of new technology once it is developed. Ask Kodak what happens to companies that do not change their strategies to reflect emerging technologies.
I should note that I am not in favor of taxing fossil fuels and having government raise the price of energy, but rather support increased funding in the research and development of alternative forms of energy. I also support using the tax and regulatory system to encourage the installation of available renewable energy technology. While of course the government could stop subsidizing fossil fuels, I consider that more of an artifact of a bygone age than a major impediment to the transition to renewable energy. The goal is to lower the price and convenience of renewables and make fossil fuels irrelevant.
In order of priority I think the U.S. Federal government should pursue an energy policy with these elements:
- Massive funding for research on the basic science and applied engineering of solar cells and battery technology. Significant but lesser amounts of funding should be allocated to other safe forms of energy generation and storage.
- Tax credits and regulations to require increased energy efficiency in buildings, appliances and transportation.
- Tax credits and regulations to encourage the installation of solar, wind, geothermal and similar forms of energy. Higher credits should be provided when current levels of fossil fuel use are reduced.
- A federal grant-in-aid program similar to the highway trust fund to help localities build smart grids, integrated into a national system. The funding for the program would come from a new federal tax on electricity. Feed-in tariffs would be required of state utility commissions in order to receive smart-grid grants.
I am certain there are other policies that can be pursued—these are just the ones I think would be most useful. As Rogers and Wisland found, solar power is on the rise in the U.S. even in the face of indifference from the federal government. Their piece reports overwhelming public support for solar energy and highlights the potential for increased adoption of current technology.
I agree that it is a good idea to push the technology we have, but strongly believe that what we have now is not good enough. The original cellphones were the size of a loaf of bread and look a little silly in retrospect. My hope is that the solar cells of the future will make rooftop arrays look quaint. We need to invest money and brainpower in the search for a transformative energy technology. I think the most rapid path to develop that technology requires the U.S. federal government--but it can be done without it. Even a slow boat can eventually reach the shore.
YOU ALSO MIGHT LIKE
My Columbia University colleagues Bill Eimicke and Alison Miller recently joined me in authoring a new book entitled Sustainability Policy: Hastening the Transition to A Cleaner Economy. If all goes well, Jossey-Bass publishers will release the book in early 2015. Our work focuses on how American government at the federal, state and local levels can work with the private sector to speed up what I see as the inevitable transition to a renewable economy. While there is a lot of action at the state and local level to promote sustainability, the federal government remains inert and pathetic. At the federal level, we see an ossified executive branch that cannot build a website or manage health care for veterans, a legislative branch that has forgotten how to compromise and legislate, and a Supreme Court willing to equate money with political speech.
There are several trends in American politics that lead away from democracy, moderate demands for change and inhibit building a federal government capable of working with the private sector to bring about a sustainable economy. These include unlimited money in politics, gerrymandered congressional districts and the replacement of fact-checked media with the fact-challenged media environment we now experience.
We are starting to see the long-term impact of the Supreme Court's decision to consider political cash donations a protected form of speech. This has magnified the impact of money in politics. In turn, this puts emerging high-tech, but capital-needy, companies at a disadvantage in the competition with old, capital-rich firms attempting to influence rules governing production, finance and taxation. The increased role of money in politics tilts the economy away from creative and sustainability-oriented companies toward old-line and extractive industries such as the fossil fuel business. While the old businesses will eventually give way to the new, the enhanced impact of money in politics will slow down the process.
The need for money also stimulates more moderate politicians on both the left and the right to move away from the political center—where deal making is possible—to the extremes. They need to do this to "activate the base" and win primary challenges. Money is only one of the issues here. National political groups gain media attention and attract money when they articulate extreme positions. And, as now former Rep. Eric Cantor can tell you, turnout in primaries is quite low and unpredictable, and so money is only one part of the equation. The other part is the fact-free media. Political communication has always had a strong dose of propaganda—it goes with the territory—but the weird, endless onslaught of misleading political ads and partisan commentary we see today is relentless and unavoidable. Character assassination, misrepresentation of positions and deception is now the norm as political consultants urge their candidates to "define the opposition before they define you." Normal, rational people are avoiding electoral politics as never before.
It is true that, overall, Democrats win more votes in congressional elections than Republicans, but that Republicans these days are winning more seats. Gerrymandering is part of the problem, but as Sean Trende wrote in his incisive analysis in Real Clear Politics:
One of the most striking aspects of the 2012 elections is that Republicans won their third-largest House majority since the late 1920s while losing the popular vote. Pundits have largely coalesced around a single explanation for this: GOP control of redistricting. There's no doubt that the party maximized its advantage by controlling redistricting in a majority of House districts, but that wasn't really the culprit. The Democrats' minority status has more to do with their "new coalition," which might be good for winning presidential elections but is ill-suited for controlling the House.
As Trende observed, the Democratic political coalition "has become geographically narrow in the past decade, heavily concentrated among urban liberals and minorities who live in densely populated cities or are placed into minority-majority districts under interpretations of the Voting Rights Act that many minority groups pressed for in the 1980s and 1990s." This concentration helps win some state-wide races and national electoral votes, but means that Democrats lose a lot of close races for the House. When Democrats do manage to win in the House, they often win by larger margins than Republicans do, which helps account for their national popular vote majority. Gerrymandering is part of the problem faced by the Democrats, but the other part is that, like the Republicans, they too are less inclined to appeal to those outside of their coalition. Democrats may not be as extreme as Republicans, but they are also less interested in compromise and consensus building than they used to be.
When we look at American politics we need to understand that our legislative branches represent places (districts and states) as well as people. The U.S. is a representative democracy yet by design is far from a pure democracy. Our constitution is designed to facilitate continuity and the translation of economic power to political power, but it is also designed to permit change when absolutely needed. In the past, dramatic change has taken place when the stability of the political system was threatened by the absence of change. These changes took place when the political center accepted them: the reforms of the progressive era, the economic policies of the New Deal, the changes brought about by LBJ's Great Society. Typically, agents of change convince moderates to accept some part of their view. The exception that proved the rule was our Civil War.
In the past, the geographic orientation of our political system has led to moderate politics. In the U.S. system, an extreme party receiving 20 percent of the votes in every congressional district would send no one to Congress. Therefore, the political dynamic pushed candidates to the center where they build the largest coalitions generating pluralities or majorities. The growing presence of moderate independent voters continues that trend in general elections. But the growing importance of low-turnout primary elections has driven candidates further to the extremes. It is hard to believe that Eric Cantor was too moderate for the Republican base—but he was. The Tea Party has less than 20 percent of the national vote, but they have managed to skillfully work the seams of the political and media system to dominate the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. If the Occupy movement had been less politically pure they might have done the same thing on the left.
In our new book, my co-authors and I provide examples of regulations, subsidies, tax policies and government programs that could modernize the economy and stimulate the private behaviors that will be needed if we are to move away from a throw-away economy. The climate problem and the need to decarbonize our energy system is the most visible problem we now face, but it is far from our only challenge. As the people boiling their water yesterday in Ohio could tell you, we need to detoxify the production and consumption of goods and services. We need to protect the web of life in the ecosystems that feeds us. We need to learn how to manage the economic production that enables our life styles without destroying the planet from which we derive all of our material resources.
This transition is well underway in Europe and has begun at the state and local level here in the U.S. At the federal level we have an executive branch that is pursuing a meaningless "all of the above energy strategy," and a legislative branch that does nothing. Perhaps it would be best if they acknowledge the reality of the situation and extend their August recess into the fall.
We need a federal government willing to invest in infrastructure like smart grids and mass transit, and provide predictable tax incentives for renewable energy. We need to modernize our environmental laws to deal with contemporary technology. There have been no major federal environmental laws enacted in the U.S. since 1990. We need to fund the basic science that will lead to the breakthrough technologies that can maintain economic growth without destroying our crowded planet.
To do all of this we need a functional federal government. We need a political process capable of rewarding rather than punishing compromise and moderation. The extremists on the right are happy with gridlock, because their goal is an inactive government. Extremists on both sides make their living off of demonizing people who do not share their views; it's just good for business. The vast and generally apolitical moderate center simply wants to nurture their family, friends, community and planet. They are poorly served by a shrill, dysfunctional national government that is incapable of enacting the policies and programs we need to make the transition to a sustainable, renewable economy.
You Might Also Like
Bike sharing in New York City has had a promising yet problematic start, but there is little question that it is a program worth keeping and expanding. It is clear that the de Blasio administration agrees and, in one of their first efforts to expand former mayor Bloomberg's sustainability agenda, are about to double the size of the city's bike sharing program. Bloomberg's legacy complicates de Blasio's task. As Matt Flegenheimer observed in a NY Times piece on Citi Bike, "Mr. Bloomberg's successor, Bill de Blasio, has been confronted with a ... consequential choice: how aggressively to embrace—and reimagine—a program that remains inextricably linked to the last administration." His answer, fittingly enough, is to expand the program in the city's outer boroughs.
The great virtue of bike sharing programs is that they expand the mass transit system. Photo credit: Wikimedia
Last week, the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Tangel reported on a potential investment in New York's Citi Bike program by REQX Ventures, an affiliate of New York City and global real estate giant Related Companies, and Equinox Fitness. According to Tangel, REQX Ventures:
... is close to hammering out an agreement that could enlarge the footprint of Citi Bike to upper Manhattan, into Queens and further into Brooklyn over the next few years, these people said. The number of bikes would nearly double, from 6,200 to about 12,000. The pact would allow Citi Bike's operator, Alta Bicycle Share Inc., more flexibility in raising the price of the $95 annual memberships, which could increase to $140 or more, these people said. More than 100,000 annual memberships have been sold.
As part of the tentative agreement, REQX Ventures would secure a controlling stake in Alta, these people said, thrusting the Related affiliate to the forefront of a budding industry spreading across the U.S. Alta, based in Portland, Ore., runs bike-share and rental systems in cities from Boston to San Francisco.
As Tangel reports in his piece, New York City's bike sharing program is unique because it does not rely on a public subsidy, although a contract with the city governs the program and has provided access to public space for bike rental stations. The original contract made inaccurate assumptions about the mix of resident and tourist rentals and:
Alta's original contract was ambiguous about whether the company could raise Citi Bike rates without city approval. Because the city wouldn't let Alta raise prices without first lining up new capital, Citi Bike's operator has left potential revenue on the table as it awaits a new agreement, current members renew and new ones sign up. Alta has said its $95 annual memberships were money-losers because riders used the bikes twice as much as projected.
The potential for attracting additional private capital to New York City's bike sharing program is significant and has been a test for the de Blasio administration. If public-private partnership is to thrive around urban sustainability issues, government needs to understand how to work with private developers like Related. Under the Bloomberg administration, that knowledge was assumed to be in place—even if it wasn't always present. Corporate leaders knew that the final decision maker in the deal was someone who came from their world: Mike Bloomberg. They do not know that now; Bill de Blasio has spent his career in public service. However, these early efforts at public-private partnership have begun to set a positive tone for relations between our progressive mayor and New York City's private sector.
Actually, if the current administration can't work with Related, it will be hard to imagine success with other developers. Fortunately, there are clear signs that the new administration gets it. They have already demonstrated an ability to work with private developers on affordable housing. Bike sharing is providing a high-profile opportunity to work with industry on sustainability issues. The success of this deal could lead to other opportunities as well.
Related has long been a leader in green building, and has also understood the importance of public-private partnership in New York City real estate development. Land is a scarce commodity in New York City. For many years, the city's land development has required rules and planning. Related is a very sophisticated player in the political economy of New York City, and is expert at navigating the very complex, but necessary, regulatory process required to build large-scale developments in New York. In that respect, New York's mayors are fortunate. They do not need to deal with a right-wing, anti-regulatory private sector, but with sophisticated companies that understand the need for government to play a central role in developing this complicated city.
It is significant that this leading developer sees the importance and potential in bike sharing. While some of the company's motivation appears to be public service and corporate responsibility, I assume they see the potential for making money here as well. New York City's government and people have an interest in the survival and expansion of bike sharing. Since the city cannot afford to invest its own capital in the program, it needs to attract private capital if bike sharing is to grow and thrive. It is good news to see that the relationship with Related and Equinox is being cultivated by the mayor and his team.
The great virtue of bike sharing programs is that they expand the mass transit system. You can bike to work, but take the subway home. You can bike part of the way to work and take mass transit the rest of the way. While bike commuting is not for everyone, the popularity of the Citi Bike program is undeniable. The problem has been that the rates are too low, the software too buggy, and the system too small. Raising the rates may decrease utilization, but expanding the number of neighborhoods served will increase it.
Bike riding has many virtues as a sustainable means of transport. Its only use of energy is in making and shipping the bikes. It improves public health and enables people to make more efficient use of time by combining commuting with exercise. In a growing number of cities, bikes are becoming a key transportation resource, and an integral part of a city's transportation system. While New York City's use of bike transport is still relatively small, it is growing. According to the New York City Department of Transportation:
New York City doubled bicycle commuting between 2007 and 2011, and aims to triple it by 2017. In New York City, 10% of auto trips are under one-half mile, 22% are under 1 mile and 56% are under 3 miles—distances readily served by bicycle. DOT has completed the City's ambitious goal of building 200 bike-lane miles in all five boroughs in just three years, nearly doubling the citywide on-street bike network while reshaping the city's streets to make them safer for everyone who uses them.
Combined with bike sharing, a system of bike lanes provides the infrastructure needed to support increased use of cycling as a means of transportation. The de Blasio administration's emphasis on traffic safety for drivers and pedestrians holds the potential of increasing the safety of cycling as well. It is true that there are between 50 and 100 days per year when weather conditions make bike riding less attractive and possibly more dangerous; nevertheless, there is significant room for expansion in New York and in many other American cities. The demise of Citi Bike would have been a significant blow to this small but important element of a sustainable transportation system.
The deal to save Citi Bike is a clear and tangible indication of Mayor de Blasio's commitment to expand the sustainability agenda begun by his predecessor. This is good news because it demonstrates that local sustainability initiatives have become a popular and permanent part of the services expected by New Yorkers and ensured by their government.
You Might Also Like
People like to breathe. Rich people, poor people, Tea Party Republicans, progressive Democrats, old people, young people, Americans, people from other countries—all are united in the biological necessities of being human. Water, food and air are all better when they are not filled with toxic substances. The political support for environmental protection is derived from this fundamental fact, along with the equally-fundamental awareness that all of these resources are at risk on a crowded and increasingly interconnected planet.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
In a piece analyzing Gallup's most recent polling on America's attitudes toward the environment, I observed that:
Those under 30 favor environmental protection over economic growth by 60 percent to 30 percent. In contrast, those over 65 years old favor economic growth over environmental protection by 50 percent to 39 percent. Since there is no evidence that someone ages out of environmentalism, it is likely that environmentalism will become a stronger force in American politics in the next several decades.
While there are aspects of Gallup's approach to measuring environmental attitudes that need improvement, they remain one of the best sources of longitudinal (comparing today to the past) data on American attitudes. With the exception of the Great Recession, Americans have consistently valued environmental protection over economic growth. Even during the Great Recession, young people continued to support environmental protection over economic growth.
Nevertheless, Gallup's data on youth environmentalism is countered by more in-depth academic research that indicates that growing materialism and faith in technology has resulted in declining environmentalism among young Americans. Laura Wray-Lake, Constance A. Flanagan and D. Wayne Osgood published a superb study in 2010 of the environmental attitudes of young people. The very careful and rigorous surveys that this article is based on were focused on measuring specific attitudes and behaviors over time, and indicate that young people do not act the way that scholars think environmentalists should behave. They don't conserve energy as much as they might or express pro-environmental views. I do not doubt the findings, or question Gallup's seemingly contradictory findings; a close look at the data indicates that the surveys are measuring different things. However, all of these data support my view that today's young people are more aware of sustainability than young people were fifty years ago and these issues help frame their view of how the world works. Their views of the environment may be inconsistent and difficult to explain, but young people are deeply aware of the issue. They have well-formulated views—that is how they differ from the kids I grew up with.
Americans born after 1970 have grown up in the "environmental era." They have been witnesses to an effort to protect the planet against the assaults of modern economic development. They've heard their parents and grandparents describe development of open spaces in their hometowns and in places they've visited. Congested roads, environmentally-induced illness and images of endangered nature are normal components of the world they understand. This has been part of their perception of the world since childhood. Our growing awareness of nutrition, health and exercise is part of a widespread understanding of the interconnection between the environment and individual wellness, and these perceptions have created a change in our culture.
Environmentalism is less a political perspective than a way of understanding how the world works. I frequently compare it to the changing views of gender, race, homosexuality and what we have come to term "parenting." When I was growing up, being a parent described a stage of your life cycle. Today it is a verb describing the actions involved in raising your children. While racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia remain strong forces in American society, they are less tolerated than they once were. Social and cultural changes during the last half-century have created a profound change in how we live and how we interact with each other. This, in turn, has had a deep impact on politics and public policy. The drive for a renewable economy housed on a sustainable and not-deteriorating planet is a key part of the cultural shift I am describing.
In my view, these social changes create a nearly irresistible force for political change. It may take decades to manifest itself, and the forces opposing these views can often remain in power through the use of economic and military power, but the current of history and social change are difficult to overcome. That is because these social trends are based on technological changes that have transformed our lives and are incredibly seductive.
The technology of transportation, information and communication has helped create a global, interconnected economy. The way many people in the developed world live today would have seemed dream-like to people a century ago. My grandparents lived through changes that resulted in a world they could barely imagine when they were chased out of Eastern Europe at the start of the twentieth century. Ideas, images, goods, services and everything humans can imagine are transmitted and shipped throughout the world. These technologies bring enormous benefits, but also carry significant costs. Traditional community life is endangered, as is a sense of place, replaced by a homogeneous world culture. And of course, the natural resource base of the world economy is also threatened by the wanton destruction of relentless, non-renewable material production.
While few people think about the transformation underway, it forms the backdrop for our worldview. For young Americans, the influence of these new facts is greater, since it is all they have ever known. All have been exposed to the view of a single fragile earth photographed from outer space. Most were not exposed to the casual, unthinking racial and social biases America began to confront in the second half of the twentieth century. Today everyone knows people from different places with different lifestyles. One needs to willfully go off the grid and disconnect the Internet to grow up isolated and parochial—although I recognize that the web also empowers fact-free, delusional discussion. Nevertheless, as I often say, our TV images of family have changed from Ozzie and Harriet to the Cosbys to Modern Family. This is happening at the same time when distinct identities and communities are struggling to survive and absorb the unifying, but sometimes empty, values created by the global economy.
These technological, social and economic changes influence politics and public policy. While there are many feedback loops and interactive effects, the basic chain of causality is this: technological change results in economic change that in turn causes social change. Social change forms the boundaries for political legitimacy and the political agenda and that creates the context for political change.
In the final analysis, people in the developed world like their lifestyles and do not want to lose them. The notion of progress and improvement is being replaced by the more conservative sentiment to retain or sustain what we have. If we achieve some success in transitioning to a renewable economy, we may see a return to the ideology of improvement. The politics of sustainability will have an ideological component—no different from other political dialogues. But the facts of global interconnectivity are increasingly hard-wired into our culture and values. The importance of environmental quality and sustainability is an inescapable part of our shared understanding of how the world works. The political manifestation of that understanding has begun, even though its specific trajectory is difficult to predict.
We do know that people like to breathe, drink water and eat. Preserving the resources needed to ensure sustenance is a requirement of all political processes and governing regimes. You can't have a Tea Party without clean water to brew tea.