Smarter parking management is another way to ease city congestion, reduce emissions and raise revenues for transit

If you drive in this city, you’ve probably been in one of these two situations:

Too cheap to pay for parking, you go to a side street and take advantage of one-hour free parking. But having stayed a little longer than an hour, you find a $30 ticket on your windshield.

En route to an important business meeting, you park on a main street. When you pay at one of those solar-powered payment machines you are forced to gaze into the crystal ball and estimate how long your stay will be. You pay for 90 minutes but your meeting goes a few minutes late. You come out and have a $30 ticket on your windshield.

I’ve been in both situations several times. Once I got a ticket after being stuck in a waiting line at Metro Hall. It was a bitter pill—the reason I was there in the first place was to dispute an earlier parking ticket.

Inflexible city parking is also one of Bern Grush’s pet peeves. An outspoken transportation consultant, Grush has been in the pages of the Toronto Star before.

As founder of Toronto-based vehicle metering start-up Skymeter, he has been a vocal advocate of using GPS satellite-tracking technologies and sophisticated software to charge drivers for the number of kilometres they travel, with the fee based on when they drive and where they go.

Earlier this year, I hitched a ride with Grush after leaving a downtown conference. As we cruised across the city, he drew attention to how the municipality was throwing money out the window by undercharging for some parking spots and being too rigid with the rules.

In his view, Toronto could generate millions of dollars a year in additional revenues, reduce vehicle emissions, and make drivers happier by simply managing its parking inventory more efficiently. This could be done using the same technology that Skymeter uses for pay-as-you-go driving.

Free one-hour street parking is a waste, he said, adding that most drivers would gladly pay a reasonable fee for the convenience of such spots. What drivers don’t like is getting ticketed just because they parked for longer than an hour, even if just by a minute.

That’s why motorists often avoid these one-hour spots, and end up driving around the block several times looking for a less risky and reasonably priced alternative – burning fuel in the process.

Why not charge an additional fee beyond that hour, and have the fee increase gradually as more time passes?

If you’ve ever driven a car-share vehicle, you’ll know the technology exists to do this automatically. Essentially, it would be an iTunes-like model. Sign up, put your credit card on file, and get a monthly bill reflecting your parking charges.

No need to dig for change in the glove compartment, and no need to rush out of that restaurant or meeting for fear of getting a ticket.

Like pay-as-you-go driving and pay-as-you-drive insurance schemes, parking fees could also be adjusted for location and time of day – a premium charge for rush hour, for example—to control congestion in certain parts of the city.

The municipality, meanwhile, would no longer need a costly fleet of parking enforcement officers driving around streets chalking tires. The same approach could eventually apply to metered spots on main streets and at Green P lots.

Studies have shown, said Grush, that motorists place top value on four things when it comes to parking: ease of finding a spot, avoiding tickets, convenient method of payment, and reasonable cost – in that order.

“The scheme I describe satisfies all four,” he said. “This approach can bring a lot of value to Toronto – city finances, drivers, congestion, air, sanity and retailers.”

Whenever this idea of GPS-based vehicle tracking comes up, it inevitably draws legitimate concerns about privacy. After all, you’ll have a black box in your car that follows you around all day.

Obviously, securing the data that is collected and following key privacy protection principles would be a minimum requirement. But Grush said another way to ease concerns is to make the service and the added convenience it offers voluntary.

It is human nature – people don’t like being forced to do things, and when they are, most are suspicious. But make it voluntary and no problem, suddenly you’ve got nearly a billion active Facebook users and hundreds of millions of iPhone-toting consumers signing up to location-based apps.

Under Grush’s scheme, it’s best to think of your vehicle as just a big smart phone on wheels, and pay-as-you-park services as just another app that makes your daily routine a bit easier.

I’d sign up.

Now, some might shake their heads and say the focus should be on reducing the number of vehicles on our streets, not making it easier for people to park. True, we need to get more people taking transit, cycling and walking, but cars are here to stay.

The challenge is to reduce their impact as much as we can and accommodate them in a way that keeps the city both functional and a more enjoyable place to live and work.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Sorry Mr. Jevons, your energy efficiency paradox really isn’t

We hear all the time about the virtues of buying more energy-efficient light bulbs, appliances, homes, and vehicles. By using less energy, such things save us money, take stress off the power grid, and help us reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

But there are some who question whether energy efficiency is everything it’s touted to be. Specifically, they point to the idea that there is a large rebound effect to increased energy efficiency. The concept here is that when we use products that consume less energy, we end up using more of the product or using more products – or both.

When we buy a more energy-efficient car, we drive more. When we install more efficient light bulbs, we’re more inclined to leave the lights on longer. If the end result is that gains in energy efficiency are offset by increased energy use, then what’s the point?

This dilemma was first explored in 1885 by British economist William Stanley Jevons, which is why the rebound effect is often referred to as the Jevons paradox. These days, critics with mostly libertarian leanings cite it as a reason to discontinue “ineffective” government-funded energy efficiency programs.

The Washington-based Institute for Energy Research, which has reportedly received funding from the likes of Koch Industries and ExxonMobil, made that argument last month in a 43-page report.

“The pervasiveness of energy efficiency rebounds illustrates that attempts to plan or direct energy policy toward desired goals will likely fall short of expectations,” it asserted. “Instead of imposing energy efficiency mandates, energy policy should embrace market prices and disruptive innovations to guide energy to its most valuable uses.”

In other words, policies attempting to phase out inefficient lighting products? Bad. Mandating fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles? Ineffective government meddling. Make power plants cleaner and more efficient? Let the market decide.

The research institute’s study rightly ruffled the feathers of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which this week tried to set the record straight: Claims of 100 per cent rebound, it said, “do not stand up to scrutiny.”

The council released its own detailed report – a kind of study of available studies – that looked at both direct and indirect rebound effects.

Direct rebounds include the example of driving a more efficient car more often, ultimately using up any potential fuel savings. An indirect rebound occurs when money pocketed through energy-efficiency savings is spent on something else, such as a big-screen TV, which ends up consuming more energy – both through its production and everyday operation.

The council didn’t dispute that such rebounds exist, and that they vary depending on the product or action. But it concluded that critics of energy-efficiency programs were grossly exaggerating the size of the rebounds. It found that direct rebounds were generally 10 per cent or less, and indirect rebounds – while “less well understood” – were estimated at 11 per cent.

“Even if total rebound is about 20 per cent, then 80 per cent of the savings from energy efficiency programs and policies register in terms of reduced energy use,” it said. “And the 20 per cent rebound contributes to increased consumer amenities and a larger economy. These savings are not ‘lost’ but are put to other generally beneficial uses.”

On top of this, it would stand to reason that the rebound effect would be smaller in an environment of rising energy prices. Indeed, higher gasoline prices are driving many people to purchase more energy-efficient vehicles.

In this sense, efficiency is being embraced as a way to cope with energy inflation; a way to maintain current levels of consumption, not drive more of it. If gas prices never changed, it might be a different story, but most people just want to be able to drive back and forth to work and keep their gas bill manageable.

Former CIBC chief economist Jeff Rubin has argued that the genesis of the economic crisis we’re currently in has to do with high oil prices, and that reality of rising energy costs will make it difficult for countries – such as the economic basket cases in the eurozone – to achieve the kind of growth they need to recover.

Along this line of thinking, it would seem that greater energy efficiency – with one measure being energy consumption per unit of GDP, or “energy productivity”—represents one way for countries to cope with rising oil prices and achieve the kind of growth that can help whittle down debt and balance budgets.

Greater energy efficiency, in this respect, could play a large role in lifting us out of our global economic doldrums.

I’m sure even Mr. Jevons would agree.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Clean energy technologies? No bubble bursting there. Future is growth, growth, growth

There was a clever headline in the satirical newspaper The Onionearlier this week that wouldn’t be so humorous if it wasn’t true.

“300 Million Without Electricity In India After Restoration Of Power Grid,” the headline read.

The article was referring to the massive power outage across India Tuesday that cut electricity to 670 million citizens, the equivalent of two Americas going dark. Without question, it was the largest blackout in world history.

What was so witty about the headline was how it drew attention to another problem too often overlooked in India. Even when the existing power grid is working fine, there are still 300 million people in that country lacking access to electricity, meaning no basic necessities like refrigeration, lighting, or the appliances we westerners take for granted.

Considering India has the world’s worst air pollution, as researchers at Yale and Columbia universities concluded earlier this year, The Onion’s blackout story carries two important messages: One, the third of India without electricity could benefit tremendously from community-level investments in solar, wind and other non-polluting energy sources; second, the two-thirds who are connected to the grid will now be urging their local and national governments to modernize India’s electricity system.

That usually means cleaning it up, making it smarter and more reliable, and investing in clean technologies — from Canada, perhaps — that make it more robust and efficient.

There are some commentators out there who like to point to very specific events as evidence that the clean energy and technology boom has gone bust. They point to the exaggerated Solyndra “scandal,” which saw the bankruptcy of the solar manufacturing start-up after it received — and had already burned through — funding that was secured via a $535 million (U.S.) loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy.

It makes for great politics, but the reality is that companies do sometimes fail and the public does often have flesh in the game. It’s not unique to clean energy. The loan guarantee program, after all, was designed for high-risk bets. Looked at objectively, the program has actually outperformed expectations. Solyndra and a handful of others are falling stars in a galaxy of promise.

But Solyndra is just the start. Clean energy skeptics point to company closures and the collapse of many solar, wind and other cleantech-themed stocks. They cite how U.S. government stimulus spending for clean energy projects is coming to an end. They flag how several jurisdictions in Europe, which is dealing with unrelated economic problems, are reducing subsidies for renewable energy projects.

The green dream is dead — or dying. It’s the message you get when listening to those, mostly living in a North American bubble, who doubted the vision in the first place.

This cacophony ignores the incredible needs of countries like India, which is already among the top spenders in the world on clean-energy projects, having spent $10.2 billion on renewable energy in 2011. As the blackout suggests, the need to accelerate that spending has grown more urgent.

Japan, meanwhile, is embracing renewable energy in a big way in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. It just launched its own feed-in-tariff program —similar to the one in Ontario —aimed at aggressively spurring solar, wind and geothermal development to help reduce the country’s dependence on nuclear power.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported this month that global investment in clean energy surged to $57 billion in the second quarter of 2012, up 24 per cent from the first quarter and carried largely by a stunning 92 per cent spending increase out of China. Investment is still down year-over- year —2011 wasn’t a great year generally, right? —but it’s on the upswing in 2012, hardly the sign of collapse.

That boost from China is expected to continue, particularly in solar. As part of its 12th five-year economic plan, released in 2011, China originally expected to increase solar installations 20-fold by 2020. Last month it decided to draw forward that target to 2015, when it hopes to have 21 gigawatts of solar power capacity in place —enough to supply all of Ontario on a sunny spring day.

Why is China moving in this direction? Economically, it carries long-term strategic importance. But China’s citizens are also growing fed up with unbearable air, water and soil pollution, so much so that there is a rise in violent protests breaking out across the country.

The reason why clean energy isn’t a fad or a bursting bubble is that global problems such as climate change, pollution, poverty, food scarcity, crumbling legacy infrastructure, and access to clean water aren’t going away anytime soon. Renewable energy and other clean technologies may not be the only solution, but they are a big and growing part of it.

Will nuclear help out? Maybe, but don’t count on it. Jeff Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, a big supplier of nuclear technology, told the Financial Times this week that it’s “really hard” these days to justify the cost of nuclear. “I think some combination of gas, and either wind or solar … that’s where we see most countries around the world going.”

Ontario may want to reconsider plans for new nukes at Darlington.

Fact is, renewable energy costs are falling fast, and that’s part of the reason there are layoffs, profit warnings, bankruptcies and falling share prices in the industry. Subsidies are supposed to gradually fade away, something the fossil fuel industry hasn’t learned after 100 years of handouts.

There was oversupply in clean energy equipment. Weak companies are struggling and some are failing. Those intent on surviving figure out how to innovate, adjust, enter new geographic markets and come out stronger – the cycle is not unique to clean energy.

“Any emerging market will experience growth problems and will have winners and losers. And the losers’ problems do not necessarily indicate the absence of a long-term market,” says Craig Tighe, a partner with global law firm DLA Piper. “Were that the case, the loss of Palm and Handspring would mean that the smart phone market is not sustainable, which is manifestly not the case.”

Growth in clean energy is happening. What’s changing is the pace of that growth and the players who get to benefit.

There’s no bubble bursting here.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.