Thursday, January 29, 2015

Water, Pollution, Electricity Problems? Sewage Could Be the Solution

Earlier this month, Bill Gates made headlines around the world by drinking a glass of water. Five minutes beforehand, it had been human sewage.

The water was made by the OmniProcessor, a self-contained unit supported by the Gates Foundation that is targeted at helping the billions of people in the developing world who have no access to sewage sanitation, and who need clean potable water, electricity, and agricultural fertilizer.

For us in the developed world, it is a great example of how viewing issues as interrelated can turn a whole set of problems into solutions.

Thinking about sewage not as waste but as a resource shifts thinking about four vitally important areas of public concern:
  • How to supply enough clean potable water for people to use
  • How to generate enough electricity to meet rising demand
  • How to handle human sewage as population grows and becomes more dense
  • How to reduce pollution from fertilizer and chemical runoff from agricultural facilities
Right now, each of these is a very expensive proposition. But inventors and entrepreneurs are discovering that if addressed together, these problems can help solve each other, dramatically reducing costs, potentially paying for themselves, and possibly even generating a profit.

Producing safe drinking water and treating sewage costs about $7.5 billion a year in the U.S. alone, and the processes requires as much as 2 percent of total national electricity consumption, according to a June 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy [PDF].

Many of these treatment systems are wearing out, and need investment to be able to continue handle their existing workloads, much less accommodate future growth. The total cost estimate is nearly $700 billion over the next 20 years, according to that U.S. DOE report, which calls for combining elements of national energy and water policy efforts to promote self-sustaining wastewater treatment plants.

The water in sewage can be separated and purified. Bacteria that digest the waste produce methane that often qualifies as a renewable fuel, and can be burned to produce electricity or replace natural gas from deep underground. Left behind are nutrient-rich solids.

Several companies are trying various methods to do this:
These approaches don’t solve every problem relating to sewage, water or fertilizer. For example, the issue of latent toxics and pharmaceuticals in sewage solid waste remains, as does the potential for sewage-generated fertilizer to be applied in quantities that run off and pollute waterways.

But they make strong starts – and more importantly, encourage people to shift their thinking away from trying to solve individual problems, and toward thinking of the world as an interdependent system. Undoubtedly, new policy tools will be needed to help tap the potential of these silo-busting solutions.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Technology Can Help Solve Parking Problems

A Boston Globe investigation last week revealed two important reasons behind the city’s legendary parking woes.

The first, and the main subject of the article, is the city’s failure to manage demand for parking. There is, the Globe revealed, no limit on, nor any fee for, the number of permits a resident can get for on-street parking. One man reportedly “has residential parking permits for 10 cars, including two Ferraris, a Mercedes, and a Porsche” – a surprisingly valuable stable of vehicles to risk on the famously narrow streets of Boston.

More surprising to me, though, was this quote: “‘It's frustrating when you come home from work and have to drive . . . for an hour to find a space,’ said Ryan Kenny, who chairs the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council’s parking committee.”

This is the second reason the article reveals underlying Boston’s parking woes: There is also a supply-management problem.

The North End is one of the most walkable and transit-accessible communities in the country, so its residents are less likely to need to drive than people who live elsewhere.

For those North Enders who do need to drive, they no doubt encounter a limited supply of parking, but that’s a feature, not a bug, of the dense development that makes the neighborhood a cherished destination for tourists and increasingly prized location for young professionals.

The city, however, is not managing the supply well. It can be done.

In nearby Dedham, changes to the parking fee structure – without adding any more spaces – have dramatically improved the situation in the town’s center.

Technological tools – analogous to those that are revolutionizing other aspects of transportation – are also available to help make parking more efficient.

In San Francisco, for example, real-time monitoring from the SFpark system allows people to see which areas of the city have parking garages with lots of available spots, as well as where on-street parking is priced at different rates.

That allows drivers to minimize the time they spend cruising for a space [PDF]. Instead, they can drive directly to a place with plenty of available parking, or know in advance they will need to spend more to secure a spot in a high-demand area.

In fact, Boston itself has made a start along this line in the South End, using similar technology, powered by the Parker app. The app not only knows where available spots are in rea time, but can give a driver turn-by-turn directions to get there.

Solving parking problems takes attention to all three aspects of the problem: limiting demand by either capping the number of permits issued to each resident, charging for permits, or some combination of both; expanding the use of technological tools to better manage the supply of spaces that do exist; and reducing individuals’ need to drive by developing transportation options that reduce the need for individuals to own (and therefore park) cars. Next week we’ll have a new report out exploring the latter issue – watch this space.