Green Energy and Suffering Texans

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The frozen Great Plains landscape. Photo: Mark Bjelland

The suffering in Texas this past week has been horrendous. Snow and ice storms led to massive pile-ups like the 133-vehicle crash in Fort Worth that left six dead. Then an Arctic air mass plunged southward, dropping temperatures to levels one might expect in Alaska. Then, the power went out for millions as a series of power plant failures led to rolling blackouts. Four million households were plunged into darkness, many without functioning heat in uninsulated homes while temperatures dropped to single digits or lower. Hundreds suffered carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to heat their homes with kitchen stoves, barbecues, or by running cars in attached garages. City water plants struggled with low pressure as residents ran their faucets to prevent their pipes from freezing, leading to boil water orders that affected nearly fourteen million Texans.

Not surprisingly, the partisan finger pointing started long before the lights came back on. A National Review headline on February 15, 2021 proclaimed, “Green Energy Useless During Cold Snaps.” Fox News commentator Sean Hannity interpreted the failures as an indictment of renewable energy while his colleague Tucker Carlson mocked, “The windmills failed, like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back arguing “that it was failures in coal and natural gas that contributed to the state’s power shortages.” Defenders of renewable energy shifted the blame to poor planning by Texas Republicans with opinion pieces like this one in the New York Times: “Texas Could Have Kept the Lights on.” Brad Plumer’s Feb 16, 2021 New York Times article took the offensive on behalf of green energy: “A Glimpse of America’s Future: Climate Change Means Trouble for Power Grids.” Plumer argued that the Texas deep freeze was an example of the crippling weather unpredictibility that global warming would unleash. The competing interpretations only added to the confusion. After evaluating these competing claims I suggest four different lessons for energy systems from the recent suffering in Texas.

  1. The failures in Texas are not an indictment of renewable energy supplies but a reminder of the need for resilience, redundancy, and advance preparation for extreme weather. All types of electrical generation suffered equipment failures this past week in Texas–coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, and solar. Based on data in a February 17, 2021 news release from the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), I calculated that 60% of the lost capacity came from thermal generation plants (coal, natural gas, and nuclear), and the remaining 40% from wind and solar installations.
  2. Weather extremes happen but it is human nature to take the easy way out and skimp on preparing for extreme events. People, institutions, and systems in northern climates are better adapted to cold extremes while those in the Sun Belt are better adapted to extremes of heat and humidity. The most deadly heat waves in the U.S. have occurred in the Midwest not the Southeast where heat and humidity are predictable parts of summer living. Texas’s power plants are not enclosed and that helps dissipate heat in the summer months. In cold climates, power plants are enclosed within buildings and despite even colder temperatures, power plants hummed along in places like Minnesota and the Dakotas.
  3. Energy systems are the most complex and most foundational components of contemporary society. Therefore, energy transitions are slow. We are vulnerable to disruptions because we are in the middle of three energy transitions all at once: 1) shifting from electrical generation by coal which can be stockpiled for an entire season to natural gas which relies on just-in-time delivery and competes with home heating uses, 2) shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources of wind and solar that are intermittent and can be interrupted by snow or ice, and 3) electrifying our buildings and transportation fleet. When it comes to energy systems, we need sources that are diverse and reliable as we transition to a greener, more renewable supply.
  4. Reliable infrastructure systems can lead to individual complacency. We trust that our lights and cell phones will always work, that heat comes from the furnace, and safe water from the tap. When a devastating ice storm hit the St. Lawrence Valley in 1998, it caused greater devastation to Ontario dairy farmers than to their Quebec neighbors. The reason was that the electrical supply had always been more reliable in Ontario so farmers had not invested in backup generators. When we lived in Point Roberts, Washington where extended winter power outages were common, my family learned the importance of backup heat sources, candles, and lanterns. As a society and as individuals, that sort of backup planning is sorely needed.

New Edition of Introduction to Geography

IntroGeog16e_preferredcoverThe 16th edition of Introduction to Geography will be released in early 2021. I moved into the lead author role for this edition. I was joined by Dr. David Kaplan of Kent State University who is editor of The Geographical Review and outgoing president of the Association of American Geographers and by Jon Malinowski who is a professor of geography at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The founding author Art Getis told me that his goal in writing this book was to give young adults the concepts and content they needed for engaged citizenship. We’ve done a massive update and yet kept that original vision alive. Students assigned this book will come away understanding and appreciating the world in all its complexity, diversity, and interconnectedness. I love working on this book because everything is so interconnected: basic earth science, climate change, renewable energy, population growth, globalization, natural hazards, agricultural change, borders, migration, urbanization, and sustainability.

Twin Cities’ Woes II: Maps of Inequality

 

The sometimes violent protests that have rocked Minneapolis in the ten days since George Floyd’s death in police custody have shocked a nation that viewed Minneapolis as a bastion of liberal, progressive, and inclusive values. It is true that Minneapolis has not had a Republican mayor since 1973 (and he only served for one day) nor a Republican City Council member since 1997. Minneapolis’ current 13-member City Council is composed of 12 Democrats and 1 Green Party member and boasts two transgender African Americans. On the other hand, the Minneapolis Police Department has been criticized for racial disparities in the use of force. Less well known is the fact that Minneapolis’ urban geography was shaped by both racially restrictive covenants created by private housing developers and redlining of neighborhoods based on land uses and the class, ethnicity, and race of its residents. Redlining was a byproduct of the New Deal administration’s efforts to support homeownership through the creation of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). The HOLC’s maps both reflected existing inequality and inscribed it into the urban DNA. The HOLC ratings turned on and off the flow of mortgage capital and had a devastating effect on areas rated “hazardous” (coded in red). To find out more about the HOLC and redlining in the Twin Cities there is an excellent StoryMap by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity and a good book to read is Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law. Together, restrictive covenants and the HOLC maps encoded racial prejudice and socioeconomic inequality into the urban landscape. Racial covenants were invalidated by the 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court ruling and discrimination in lending based on the racial composition of neighborhoods ended with the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Still, their residue lives on. As urban geographers are wont to say: cities are marked by both continuity and change. Thus, I created two maps that combine the government’s ratings of neighborhoods for mortgage lending with the areas of greatest property damage in the recent protests. The riot damage has been focused on the Lake Street commercial corridor while redlining only applied to residential areas. What I see in the maps is that the areas of greatest damage are zones of steep social gradients where the historically red-lined areas of South Minneapolis intersect with the “better” parts of the city. I’d love to hear other interpretations.

George Floyd died at the intersection of Chicago and 38th Street in HOLC zone B-16, just five blocks east of red-lined zone D-6. The 1934 HOLC notes describe B-16 as follows: “A mixed class of residents live here consisting of business, professional, salaried and laboring people. Homes are of frame, stucco and brick with stucco predominating. There are many duplexes and apartment houses… Considerable rehabilitation is needed. Scandinavian people predominate in this area especially east of Chicago Avenue.” Of Zone D-6 the HOLC wrote in 1934: “This area running north and south along 4th Avenue South was once a very substantial and desirable area for homes about 40 years ago. A gradual infiltration of negroes and Asiatics has occurred on 4th Avenue South, beginning at approximately Franklin Avenue moving south to approximately 38th street… development of 4th avenue, south of 38th street, have [sic] been very slow because of the continued colored trend southerly and the fact that the street car runs into the loop in Minneapolis through the heavily populated colored section. Fifth Avenue on the east and Clinton on the west of 4th avenue are affected by a large colored population on the avenue.” 

Protests Ground Zero: Minneapolis’ Lake Street

 

Minneapolis bills itself the City of Lakes and Lake Street is one of its most important corridors. It is also the street most damaged by the recent violence that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer. Growing up in south Minneapolis, my friends and I all knew that Lake Street was where it was at. We rode the Number 21 bus up and down Lake Street and cruised it when we got our driver’s licenses. It was where went to shop for food, clothes, and all life’s essentials. It was and is a major transit corridor and automobile thoroughfare, stretching from the Mississippi River at the eastern edge of Minneapolis to the Lakes District in the west. Most of the properties along Lake Street developed between 1900 and 1930 when transit was still dominant and automobile use was more recreational. The protest damage was worst around the 3rd Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department, near the corner of 27th Avenue and Lake Street. That corner has a rich industrial and commercial history and is one of the city’s many post-industrial spaces.

At Chicago Avenue, the enormous 1928 16-story Sears store and catalog distribution center acted as the street’s center of gravity. Lake Street was lined with brick commercial buildings, including many early 1900s automobile showrooms. In the latter third of the 20th century as Lake Street businesses lost customers to suburban shopping centers, the street went into decline. The stretch from 4th Avenue to Bloomington Avenue came to house Minnesota’s largest collection of sex-related businesses. But in 1990, Ferris Alexander, Minnesota’s king of porn, was convicted of tax evasion and had to forfeit his empire of Lake Street porn shops, adult movie theaters, and sauna/brothels. Four years later, the hulking Sears store closed. This great empyting out, however, created the stage for Lake Street’s recent revival. In the past two decades, Ethiopian, Latino, and Somali immigrants filled Lake Street’s empty storefronts and created a prosperous, vibrant, and colorful commercial street. The industrial rail corridor that parallels Lake Street one block to the north became the award-winning Midtown Greenway while Hiawatha Avenue got the Blue Line with a major LRT station at Lake Street. Derelict industrial properties along the greenway were converted to apartments, creating a dense base of customers for the new businesses. Then the 2020 riots came and destroyed or damaged hundreds of commercial buildings along Lake Street. Once again, local residents will need to pull together and rebuild this remarkable corridor.

 

Twin Cities’ Woes

Four hundred years of oppression of African Americans, four years of a divisive presidency, and four months of a pandemic and massive unemployment created the explosive conditions. Another police killing of an unarmed African American citizen was the spark. The protests at the site of George Floyd’s killing at 38th and Chicago Avenue South and at the home of Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, were peaceful. I saw protesters with brooms sweeping up at the end of the night. But in the ten days since George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer, 370 buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Now a single human life is worth far more than buildings, money, jobs, and businesses. But we can also mourn the 64 completely destroyed buildings that include the funky Town Talk Diner and Gastropub, two post offices, a Wells Fargo bank, four auto parts stores, two Latino dance clubs, two Ethiopian restaurants, a Bangladeshi restaurant, A Native American youth and cultural center with irreplaceable oral histories of the American Indian Movement, and dozens more immigrant-owned businesses. I created a graduated symbol map with the size of the symbol roughly proportional to the extent of damage. My map suggests two main concentrations of damage: around the 3rd Precinct and 5th Precinct headquarters. In Minneapolis, the damage follows Lake Street while in Saint Paul it follows University Avenue. I used to bank at the now-destroyed Wells Fargo bank at 31st and Nicollet Avenue and during high school I waited for the bus at 27th and Lake next to the now-destroyed three-story brick building that housed the Paraiso Lounge Latin dance club. These losses are just more salt rubbed in our collective wounds.

Meatpacking and COVID-19

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There have been reported shortages of meat in grocery stores and news stories about meatpacking plants temporarily shutdown due to COVID-19 cases among workers. But mapping the geography of the meatpacking industry is complicated by data confidentiality rules in Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. The places where meatpacking is the biggest industry in town are the places where the BLS suppresses the data in their quarterly employment and wages data. If they didn’t, anyone could look up the number of workers and total payroll for a plant. The BLS only releases data where the number of firms in an industry is sufficient to protect company privacy. However, using a report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor, news stories, and corporate websites, I was able to map the 33 largest meatpackers in Minnesota as of 2014. Set alongside the population adjusted rates of COVID-19, the relationships are pretty striking. My two cautions are that the relative size of meatpacking plants is based on limited information and that systematic testing for SARS-COV-2 within plants likely boosted total numbers.

A Spark interview on Good Places for All

My book Good Places for All is the subject of an interview in the latest edition of Calvin University’s alumni magazine Spark.

Here’s an excerpt:

Spark: What inspired you to write this book?

Bjelland: When I arrived at Calvin University in 2013, I was overwhelmed by the many students, alumni, and colleagues who were deeply invested in making their communities better places for all. I got to teach students who had taken Lee Hardy’s “New Urbanism” course and were on fire for city planning. When the Congress for the New Urbanism held its national meeting in Detroit in 2016, there was a large gathering of Christian architects, housing developers, and city planners, many from Calvin University, who wanted to connect their faith with their work as place-makers. Within that group, there was a hunger for books offering Christian perspectives on places and place-making. That’s when I decided I needed to write this book.

Spark: If so many Christians are already involved in doing good work in our communities, what new perspectives did you hope to offer?

Bjelland: Well, you are certainly right that individual Christians and faith-based groups are doing amazing work. So, one thing I suggest in the book is that everyone find a way to join in the ongoing work of faith-based affordable housing providers like Habitat for Humanity. But where I felt I could contribute was in helping readers better understand the underlying systems and structures that shape our places. If we want to cultivate good places, we need to know how laws, housing markets, local government, finance, and territorial boundaries shape our communities.

The Lines that Divide Us

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

In today’s New York Times, Rebecca Sibilia of EdBuild offers an opinion piece arguing that the multitude of school districts in the United States contributes to many of our K-12 educational problems. She offers hope that in the post-coronavirus world we can address school funding inequalities by re-mapping the territorial boundaries used for funding K-12 schools. She describes the situation near Camden, New Jersey as follows:

This structure may explain the educational geography of Camden County in southern New Jersey, which contains 35 school districts, 23 of which are within a five-mile radius of the city of Camden. Half of these districts serve fewer than 1,000 students apiece, with wide wealth disparities. The median property in Gloucester City School District is worth about $120,000, but four miles away in Haddonfield Borough a median home sells for $500,000. From this wealthy tax base, Haddonfield can raise $13,500 per student, four times higher than what can be collected in Gloucester City.

In my 2020 book Good Places for All, I devote two chapters to the topic of boundaries, fragmentation, and choice. I present arguments in defense of public choice and local control and I present the arguments of critics such as Rebecca Sibilia. I conclude:

Good places need boundaries, but not boundaries that divide haves from have-nots. Good places need dividing lines that are porous and do not isolate the poor.

City Mouse and Country Mouse in a Pandemic

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Source:  “The Twelve Magic Changelings” illustration by M. A. Glen (1907). Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense suffering and dislocation. It also caused people to rethink their location, sometimes in surprising ways. Many of us have wondered whether City Mouse or Country Mouse is safer (I will try to answer that question with some data below). I know of a family that pulled their young adult children back from Manhattan and Los Angeles to “shelter-in-place” at the family home in the Appalachian foothills. Elites have jetted to mountain getaways in places like Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Meanwhile, rural vacation destinations have sometimes told cottage owners to stay away, whether in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or the Jersey shore. Even the #VanLife or #RVlife is not so free and easy anymore with closed campgrounds and locals wary of outsiders.

Below, I have calculated the COVID-19 death rate per 100,000 as a function of the urban-to-rural continuum code for each victim’s residence. Rates in metropolitan areas with more than 1 million residents are ten times higher than in completely rural counties. Maybe the large metropolitan areas are just the first wave and rates will even out over time. But in the absence of effective public health measures as implemented in places such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, or Taiwan, the big city’s advantages of density and connectivity can become disadvantages when it comes to controlling the spread of infectious diseases.

Urban-Rural ContinuumPopulation, 2018COVID-19 Deaths, as of 4/29/2020Deaths per 100,000
Counties in metro areas of 1 million population or more181,720,07148,82526.9
Counties in metro areas of 250,000 to 1 million population69,802,4776,3609.1
Counties in metro areas of fewer than 250,000 population29,544,6621,7565.9
Urban population of 2,500 or more, adjacent to a metro area28,229,5131,5705.6
Urban population of 2,500 or more, not adjacent to a metro area13,170,2955193.9
Completely rural or less than 2,500 urban population, adjacent to a metro area2,136,637703.3
Completely rural or less than 2,500 urban population, not adjacent to a metro area2,553,641512.0
Technical Details: Urban-Rural Continuum codes from the USDA Economic Research Service. 2013 (categories 4+6 and 5+7 combined for simplicity), Case data from NY Times Github, county.csv (4/29/2020), Probable but unconfirmed COVID-19 deaths included for New York City. Population data from U.S. Census Bureau.

Dasymetric Mapping of COVID-19 at the NY Times!

Map from April 20, 2020 New York Times. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html#states

I didn’t intend to become a cheerleader for the NY Times. But the NY Times cartographers are now producing dasymetric maps of the doubling time of confirmed cases of COVID-19. This shows amazing cartographic sophistication and gives a much more accurate representation of where COVID-19 is present and spreading rapidly. Cases of COVID-19 are reported by county by public health departments. Doubling times are computed based on the rate of growth. Since the doubling time is based on a rate, it makes sense to use a choropleth technique. But on a choropleth map, the entire mapping unit such as the county is assigned the same color even though there are places in most counties where nobody lives such as lakes, parks, and industrial zones. In dasymetric mapping, a choropleth map is refined based on where people actually live using a land use map. On the NY Times map, you can see how the population thins as you travel west from the Midwest to the Great Plains. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there are large tracts of nearly uninhabited forest and the map conveys that emptiness. Zoom into Detroit or Chicago and you will see empty gray zones where no one lives such as the Dante-esque industrial complex of Zug Island or Chicago O’Hare airport. Study Nebraska and you will see that the COVID-19 outbreak is concentrated along Interstate I-80 where most of the state’s population and economic activity is concentrated. Both the USGS and US EPA offer dasymetric mapping tools. I recommend the EPA’s dasymetric mapping toolbox for ArcGIS.

San Bernadino County, CA (outlined in black) is vast and mostly desert. Almost all of its residents live in the areas shaded light orange.