Monday, February 1, 2016

Transportation and Engineering News

Missouri Governor Proposes Funding Increase for Amtrak

The budget proposal submitted by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon included an additional $500,000 for Amtrak, for a total of $10.2 million. Amtrak claims it will need $18 million from the state to install positive train control, as mandated by Congress, on the Missouri River Runner line, with a total cost of $30 million. You can find more about this issue here.

Missouri Legislator Suggests Punt to Counties

Missouri State Representative Bryan Spencer proposed to make counties responsible for the upkeep of certain roads that are currently maintained by the state (these are generally rural, two-lane highways). This would reduce the amount of state-maintained roads by 19,000 miles. The roads in question have been state-maintained since 1952, when they were shifted away from county maintenance. To implement the proposal, the state constitution must be amended. You can find more about this proposal here and here. Most proposals to improve Missouri’s road funding problem involve raising the fuel tax.


Women Take Lead at Engineering Organization

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has nominated two women to the ballot for its president-elect.  Robin Kemper and Kristina Swallow are both professional engineers, and one will be ASCE’s president-elect and eventually president. Kemper provides expertise on construction and professional liability issues at Zurich Services Corporation. Swallow leads a team of public works engineers in Las Vegas. ASCE’s current president-elect, Norma Jean Mattei, will step up to the office of president, meaning the top two offices in the organization will be held by women for the first time in the 164 years it has existed. You can find more here.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Infrastructure & Environment Review

Ameren Missouri Efficiency Program Ends

Unable to resolve differences with state regulators, Ameren Missouri has let its energy efficiency rebate program lapse. Staff of the Missouri Public Service Commission and the state’s Office of Public Counsel believed that Ameren customer overpaid the cost of the program, and opposed a three-year extension. A proposal from Kansas City Power & Light has been approved, and it might serve as a model for a compromise between the state and Ameren. You can read more about this issue here.

Bans on Texting While Driving Introduced in Missouri

Bills that would prohibit or greatly restrict texting while driving have been prefiled in the Missouri General Assembly session that started January 6: HB1542 and SB821. Currently, texting while driving is banned for drivers younger than 21 and for drivers of commercial vehicles. You can find more about these bills here.

Bill Would Add Missouri Highway Commissioners

HB1446 would increase the size of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission from six members to eight. Each of the seven Transportation Department districts would be represented by a commissioner, and an eighth commissioner would be appointed without regard to district residence.

Missouri Legislators Propose Fuel Tax Increase

Two proposals have been floated by Missouri state legislators. One would increase the tax on gasoline by 1.5 cents and diesel by 3.5 cents. Another would increase all fuel taxes by 2 cents. You can find more about these proposals here or here.

As an alternative to the fuel tax, SB645 would redirect 3 percent of automobile sales tax revenues from state general revenue to the road fund.

Flooded Wastewater Plants Release Sewage in St. Louis Area

Wastewater treatment plants operated by the Metropolitan Sewer District of St. Louis have released millions of gallons of sewage into rivers. The Grand Glaize and Fenton plants were inundated by the recent floods in Missouri. The two plants, which combined treat and average of 20 million gallons of wastewater per day, discharge into the Meramec River.

White House Announces Water Strategy

The White House announced a strategy to the sustainability of U.S. water supplies and systems. The cynic in me suspects that these strategies, programs, and actions were things that were mostly in the works anyway, but someone cobbled them together into a seemingly unified program (you can can get the details here). Even so, we need to take a serious look at our water resources, policies and practices. Good policy that addresses today’s water situation is needed, but sustainable water for our nation will come when we have a culture that values water for the many roles it plays in our environment, industry, health, recreation and almost every other aspect of human life.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

All About Missouri This Week

Bill Prefiled to Ban Texting and Driving

Missouri State Senator David Pearce has prefiled a bill that would prohibit the use by all drivers of hand-held mobile phones to send, read or write text messages. Find out more here.

Gubernatorial Candidates Discuss Tranportation Funding (Just a Little)

So far, Missouri’s candidates for governor have provide few details about how the state will pay to maintain roads. Missouri is 7th among the states in the size of its transportation system, but 47th in state funding.

Candidate Catherine Hanaway suggested that the $200 million annually in state fuel tax revenues that is used to fund the Highway Patrol could be committed to transportation. The Highway Patrol would be funded from general revenue, though Hanaway’s plan does not provide specifics about how other general revenue-funded programs would be cut or how general revenue would be increased. You can find more about Hanaway’s proposal here.

The state General Assembly is also looking at the issue. A prefiled bill (HB 1381) would raise the state fuel tax from 17 cents to 19 cents per gallon.

First Woman Engineering Dean at University of Missouri

My alma mater, the University of Missouri College of Engineering, has named its 11th dean, Elizabeth G. Loboa. She is the first woman to hold the position. Loboa has a background in biomedical engineer. Before coming to Mizzou, she held a joint appointment at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.

Highway Commissioner Appointed

Gov. Jay Nixon appointed Hannibal-area lawyer John Briscoe to serve on the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission. The appointment must be confirmed by the Senate.

Springfield Buying Wind Energy

City Utilities of Springfield announced it will be buying energy from a wind farm to be built north of Oklahoma City, OK. The wind farm is being built by Duke Energy Renewables and is designed to produce 200 megawatts.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Energy & Water Update

Illinois Approves Power Line Rejected in Missouri

We previously posted that the Missouri Public Service Commission rejected a power line project called the Grain Belt Express, which would connect wind energy generation in Kansas to users in Indiana. The Illinois Commerce Commission has approved the project, making Missouri the only holdout.  Clean Line Energy, the company behind the project, plans to continue to seek approval either by reapplying to the state or seeking an overriding federal approval.

Texas Utility Offer Free Nighttime Electricity

TXU energy has offered customers free energy at night. This unusual offer is an attempt to shift use from daytime, when wholesale energy costs are high, to night, when prices drop.

Texas may be better able to adopt a program like this. It has more wind resources than other parts of the country, accounting for 10 percent of generation, and wind blows more at night. In addition, the Texas grid operates largely independently from the other grids in the country, so it cannot easily sell and deliver excess generation to the larger wholesale market.

You can find out more about this free electricity program here.

Cardboard Sewers Collapse in Canada

In the building boom after World War II, many Canadian sewer service lines were built of a tar-impregnated cardboard. These pipes have been failing with increasing frequency. Some Canadian cities are facing replacement costs of hundreds of millions of dollars.

It appears that these pipes stood up well until dishwasher became common and the hot water began to soften them. This is an interesting illustration of how we are putting new demands on our infrastructure that could hardly have been imagined decades ago when it was originally built.

You can read more about this issue here.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Transportation & Water Update

New Transportation Director for Missouri

The Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission has selected Patrick McKenna to serve as director of the state Department of Transportation (MoDOT). Presently, McKenna is deputy commissioner of the New Hampshire DOT. He will start his new job on December 7.

He will start his new job at an agency facing many challenges, particularly low revenues.  MoDOT has not significant improvement or expansion projects slated for the next five years because of lack of funding. The agency anticipates it will not even have enough money to fully maintain roads and bridges in the state within a couple of years.

McKenna will be coming from a different environment. New Hampshire raised its fuel tax in 2014. It also has toll roads; Missouri has none, though McKenna has suggested it should be on the table as a way to pay for roads.

You can find out more about McKenna and his appointment in the Kansas City Star, Jefferson City News-Tribune, or St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

California Communities Consider Direct Potable Reuse

The drought in California has led to a discussion of direct potable reuse of wastewater. This “toilet-to-tap” practice involves sending treated wastewater directly to treatment for drinking water. Some Texas communities have already adopted this practice as a response to drought. You can find out more here.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Energy & Transportation Update

Customers Could See Lower Winter Heating Costs

Low wholesale natural gas prices could result in lower heating bills for many this winter. In much of the country, natural gas utilities periodically adjust rates based on the cost of natural gas in the wholesale market. In Missouri, both Missouri Gas Energy and Laclede Gas have lowered rates base on wholesale fuel prices.

Gas price is a significant portion of the variable costs that are accounted for in the rate. Rates also include a utilities fixed costs, such as the cost of pipes and other infrastructure, that do not vary much over time.

The total cost of heating is affected by other factors. In particular, the length and severity of cold periods affects the amount of natural gas used. Even if the unit price of gas is lower, if more is used because there are more cold days or colder days, the total paid for gas could go up.

USDA Grants $2.9M to Missouri for Ethanol Distribution

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Biofuel Infrastructure Partnership granted $2.9 million to Missouri to increase the availability of ethanol. The state anticipates the grant will aid retailers in the installation of 171 pumps for fuels that contain ethanol. You can find more about this grant here.

Ethanol is a type of alcohol used for fuel; for automobiles it is typically blended with gasoline. Missouri requires most gasoline sold to contain 10 percent ethanol, though some vehicles can run on fuel that is as much as 85 percent ethanol (E-85).

$10M Federal Grant to Aid Missouri-Illinois Bridge Replacement

The federal government has committed $10 million to the construction of a bridge to replace the Champ Clark Bridge at Louisiana, MO. The bridge links U.S. 54 in Missouri and Illinois. Illinois has committed funding for its share of the cost, but Missouri is still seeking much of the $30 million needed for its share. You can find out more about this project here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Infrastructure & Environment News

My lack of time to write for this blog has reduced me to a compiler of infrastructure news, though such compilation has always been part of Infrastructure Watch. You can links to several alternative energy articles here.

Google Pledges Investment in African Renewables Project

Google pledged to invest in the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in Kenya. You can find more about this project here.

Low Gas Prices No Problem for Solar

Low gas prices didn’t last long around here (at least they didn’t stay less than $2 per gallon for long). Either way, Tony Randall discusses why low oil prices are not a problem for the continued growth of solar power in Bloomberg.

Renewables Generators Face Distribution Problems

As the U.S. develops renewable energy resources, it is facing a problem: the places where we most want to use the energy are some distance from the places where we are best able to generate it.  States in the middle of the country are becoming involved in conflicts between clean energy proponents and landowners, sometimes turning environmental and energy groups into uncomfortable allies.

Missouri is one state where the issue has come to head. Earlier this year, the Public Service Commission rejected a project that would carry energy from wind farms in Kansas to users in Indiana. The commission determined that the project was not needed, and many of the public comments received by the commission expressed opposition to the project. The company behind the proposal, Clean Line Energy Partners LLC of Texas, is also proposing a line to connect Oklahoma to Tennessee, which faces opposition in Arkansas.

Environmental groups have been supportive of the Missouri project. Missouri’s chapter of the Sierra Club has acknowledged that the Clean Line route avoids many environmentally sensitive areas, and expressed hope that it will help in the move away from coal. The Sierra Club also supported a Clean Line project in part of Arkansas where it was opposing an oil pipeline project.

Supreme Court Hears Demand Response Case

The Supreme Court has been hearing arguments in a case related to demand response. Demand response refers to methods large energy user adjust their use to reduced demand during normally high use times when energy is expensive. Demand response reduces peak demand, evens out energy use, and reduces cost of energy production.

Companies have created markets to trade these reductions in demand (sometimes called negawatts) as if they were power being supplied to the market. When major users reduce shift use or move use to off-peak times, they reduce the need to ramp up additional generating units, and save money for generators. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has enshrined this in regulations that require energy wholesalers to pay for these commitments to reduce demand the same amount they pay for a commitment to generate electricity.

The crux of the argument before the court is the regulatory authority of FERC. FERC has authority related to wholesale energy markets, where commitments to generate might be traded (and FERC rules say a commitment to reduce demand should get an equal price). The utility customers who are making the commitments to reduce demand are buying energy in the retail market, which is regulated by states.  Opponents of the FERC rules say that it is getting into retail markets in which it has not authority. FERC argues that it is the only agency that can effective regulate this kind of trading, and that there is a public good in the demand reductions and efficiencies provided by demand response.

You can find more about this case here, along with a description of how it may become important to small retail electricity users (i.e. almost all of us).


John Oliver Thinks Infrastructure Sexy

Comedian John Oliver featured America’s infrastructure in a segment on his show Last Week Tonight. Obviously, Oliver’s tone is humorous and mocking, but he presents a thoughtful essay on the issue. You can see it on YouTube.

New Environmental Director in Nebraska

Congratulations to Jim Macy, who was recently appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts to serve as director of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. Macy has worked in the area of environmental regulation and compliance for decades, including leadership roles at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

States Take Lead on Infrastructure Funding

Washington senate leaders have proposed to raise the state gas tax to 11.7 cents per gallon over the next three years. The proposal would also redirect a portion of the state’s sales tax to its transportation fund (more here).

Oregon will experiment with a program of fees based on miles driven rather than a gas tax beginning this summer (more here). Many think this is a more rational way to fund highways.

In my home state of the Missouri, the governor came just short of calling for a gas tax hike as part of the state of the state address. Tax Justice Blog has a nice summary of proposals in several other states.

Baltimore Sewers Featured on Radio

The radio program Marketplace featured the Baltimore, MD, sewer system and the issues associated with a large, aging infrastructure (listen to or read the story here). Baltimore is not unique; these problems are plaguing cities across the nation.

San Francisco Opens New Hetch Hetchy Tunnel

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission opened the New Irvington Tunnel. The 3.5-mile, 9-ft diameter tunnel will carry 265 million gallons a day. It is part of the Hetch Hetchy system, which brings water from reservoirs as far away as Yosemite National Park, 167 miles. (Read more about the project at KQED.)

Real-Time Sensor for Bacteria in Water

A device has been developed in Denmark that can detect bacteria in water. Of course, not all bacteria is harmful, so it seems the usefulness of the tool may be limited to screening for now. However, it continuous, real-time monitoring could be a useful screen to determine when additional testing is should be performed or when a contamination event started. If commercial versions of the sensor are affordable, multiple sensors could be placed in a drinking water distribution system to continuously monitor water quality, disinfection effectiveness, and potential contamination.  You can find out more about the sensor here.

Water and Art

Adres Jacque will build a temporary structure that uses plants to purify water in the courtyard of MoMA PS1. Organisms in the structure will glow in the dark to provide light. See this Fast Company article for more information.