Last week I landed back home in San Francisco from a trip to Los Angeles and had a series of experiences that touched on multiple related themes.
First, there were the solar panels on the airport roof. It’s a big airport with a huge amount of roof space and a significant number of panels. The solar installations are part of SFO’s long term strategy to become a net zero energy facility over the next few years with improvements to efficiency, purchasing clean hydro power, and on site power generation.
I looked out the windows at the planes loaded with passengers and cargo coming in from Australia, South Korea, Germany, and Fiji every three minutes. Two at a time, two at a time, two at a time… Every three minutes.
The 440 gigawatts of electricity (that’s 440 billion watts) used by the airport buildings each year is tiny compared to the amount of energy burned by the vehicles they serve. The electric lights, air conditioners, and conveyor belts at SFO may someday be powered entirely by the sun and hydro power. But the planes will continue to burn kerosene for the foreseeable future. Physics and the laws of thermodynamics prevent there ever being a commercial fleet of electric jet aircraft. Biofuels won’t scale if we also want to eat. The cognitive dissonance involved in a net zero energy airport is monumental.
Like almost every other airport in the world SFO has been expanding its capacity continuously for nearly a hundred years. The number of flights around the globe doubles every fifteen years. But steel and concrete for all that construction can’t be manufactured or transported with solar panels. The present economic success of the Bay Area depends on efficient air transport and there are two other major international airports nearby in Oakland and San Jose. The desire to be “green” is laudable. But the larger reality is that our current society can’t function without oil, natural gas, and coal. We absolutely could wean ourselves off fossil fuels. But the culture, institutions, and economy we’d have wouldn’t look like this one.
I got off the plane and headed for BART – San Francisco’s region commuter rail system. I live a couple of blocks from a BART station and I’ve always appreciated the convenience of hopping a train to and from the airport. No parking drama. No traffic on a congested freeway. The train is fast, easy, and cheap. But this time I ran in to trouble.
My Clipper card was low on funds so I went to add value to it at one of the BART kiosks. It rejected my credit card. I noticed the same thing had happened to the person in front of me and then the person behind me. So I tried the next kiosk. Same same. The third kiosk had a paper sign taped to it announcing the machine was out of order. I walked across the platform to another group of kiosks. Same. Then I tried paper money. It kept spitting out my $20 bill. I asked a human attendant in the glass box for help. He said the machine doesn’t take twenties. He took my twenty and gave me four fives. The machine proceeded to spit out each of the fives I tried to feed it. I reached for my cell phone to add value to my card via an app when I stopped. There it was. The little pink icon.
I walked out of the BART station at SFO and in less than two minutes I was in a Lyft. BART wouldn’t take my money. Lyft did. I’m exactly the kind of middle class traveler who has a choice in how I get around and BART dropped the ball. That makes me sad because I want BART to work well. By walking away from the train I was voting with my feet. But I would have voted differently if the system functioned better. As more people like me shift to Lyft and Uber it’s slowly starving public transit of the money – and political will – it needs to be well maintained. And the less well maintained it is the more people will shift to other modes of transport.
Once I was in the car the driver stopped to picked up two more passengers. I requested a Lyft Line carpool to keep the cost down. The other two travelers were an older couple from Colorado on their way to a hotel in Union Square. Cable cars. Chinatown. Little Italy. By the next afternoon they’d be eating clam chowder out of a sourdough bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf watching the sea lions. We were in slow moving traffic and they were chatty. The wife began to complain about evil companies and corrupt government officials fracking for oil and gas near her hometown. I pointed to the planes. “Those don’t get off the ground without oil.” I pointed to the cars all around us on the freeway. “They don’t move without gas. Even the electric ones run on power generated mostly from natural gas fired plants.” There was an uncomfortable silence. “We could all stop flying and driving and they’d stop fracking.” More silence. That’s the unpleasant reality no one wants to acknowledge.
I’m not against renewable power. And I’m not in favor of fossil fuels. I’m simply stating facts. A clean low energy society won’t include airports and freeways full of cars. We have to choose. And so far even the people who say they want the clean energy world keep doing things that guaranty it won’t happen.