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Linking Sprawl and Climate Change

Mark Strozier

(Photo: Mark Strozier)

Transportation is the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in California. So in a state where car culture rules, what will it take to get us out of our cars?

That’s the goal behind SB 375, a bill passed in 2008 that links greenhouse gases to urban sprawl. Under this first-in-the-nation policy, the state’s 18 regional planning organizations must reduce the emissions coming from vehicles through land use and transportation planning. This week, the Air Resources Board is expected to release the draft emission reduction targets that the agencies must meet by 2020 and 2035.

While the chances of getting Californians out of their cars completely are slim, the idea is to reduce the number of miles traveled through more public transit, more “walkable” communities and denser development. (Learn more about that in this Quest story about transit villages).

According to a report released today, that development approach can have some dramatic benefits, considering how California is expected to grow. By 2050, some projections put the population at 60 million, adding seven million new households.

The planning firm Calthorpe Associates looked at those housing needs and ran a number of growth scenarios, in a study funded by the California Strategic Growth Council and California High Speed Rail Authority. They compared a business-as-usual approach of low-density suburbs (30% urban and compact growth) to a “growing smart” scenario with more urban in-fill and transit-oriented development (90% urban and compact growth). While that last scenario may sound like the land of endless condos, according to Peter Calthorpe, it would still be 53% single family homes. Calthorpe calls it “a shift back to what California used to build–bungalows.”

Here are some of the benefits they found for the scenario by 2050:

  • Reduces the number of vehicle miles traveled  by nearly 3.7 trillion
  • Saves more than $194 billion in capital infrastructure costs
  • Saves 19 million acre-feet of water
  • Prevents the release of 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 25% less than business-as-usual
  • Saves California households $6,400 per year in auto-related costs and utility bills.

In-fill development can often cost more than low-density development and this report doesn’t take housing prices into account. Indeed, costs may be one of the biggest challenges for SB 375, since both the state and cities are facing budget crises  and a lull in the housing market.

Under the bill, state transportation funding will be prioritized for projects that meet the SB 375 goals. But according to Hasan Ikhrata, Executive Director of the Southern California Association of Governments (one of the regional organizations doing the planning), financial incentives will be key to reaching the goals. “I think the biggest challenge is to find incentives to help cities, because cities want to do this, but they don’t have the resources to do it without help,” he said.

Japan’s Zero Emissions Fever

Sekisui House's Green First Home-It looks like a normal house, but take a closer look at those roof tiles...yup. PV.

Sekisui House's "Green First" model looks like a normal house--but take a closer look at those roof tiles. Yup. PV.

Since arriving in Japan almost a month ago, I’ve visited a “zero-emissions house,” a house that claims to be zero emissions but really isn’t (more on that later), and an “EcoHouse.” It’s fair to say the housing industry in Japan is going ga-ga over reducing carbon emissions. The obsession began a little over a year ago, when Japan’s largest companies (collectively known as “keiretsu“) came together to build the zero-emissions house.

The home, which purportedly produces zero or negative emissions over the course of its lifetime, was built especially for the 2008 G8 Summit in Toyako, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido (you can see my video tour of the home at KQED’s YouTube site). Originally nestled on a hillside overlooking a lovely lake during the G8 summit, the home has moved to more modest surroundings: It now sits in a drab parking lot outside Sekisui House‘s noisy prefabricated homes factory in Koga, 40 miles north of Tokyo. The home’s greenhouse gas-reducing technology includes:

– A 14-kilowatt solar array on the roof

– A hydrogen fuel cell which generates energy by taking hydrogen from natural gas and using the byproduct, heat, for the home’s hot water supply and space heating during the winter

– A window with photovoltaic (PV) film inside of it

– A ‘waterless’ washer/dryer, and of course, every energy-efficient appliance you can think of.

Kimikazu Kondo, spokesman for Sekisui House, tells me that nobody’s offered to buy the home yet. Until they do, it’ll be sitting in that parking lot, looking a little lonely.

The interior of the Green First Home. If this is prefab, sign me up.

The interior of the Green First Home. If this is prefab, sign me up.

Kondo also showed me Sekisui’s Green First home, the company’s newest prefab. Sekisui estimates that the average Japanese household spends around the equivalent of  $3,000 on energy per year. Kondo told me that if you buy the Green First home, you’ll spend around five hundred. The home’s roof tiles are made of PV thin film. The house has a hydrogen fuel cell, LED lights, etc. When I first toured the home, Kondo told me it was a zero-emissions home, too. But when I asked specific, pointed questions at how they arrived at that determination, he backed down and told me that over the life of the house, it would reduce 70% of greenhouse gas emissions over an average home in Japan. Not a true zero emitter, but not bad.

But I started to wonder how Sekisui House was marketing this home to Japanese buyers. Were they touting it as a “zero-emissions” house, despite the fact that it isn’t? Hmm. Sekisui’s Kondo did take me on a very interesting tour of his prefabricated home factory. I shot a short video there of a machine that punches holes through steel beams.

A control panel inside the Green First home which gives the homeowner information on how much electricity is being generated from the solar panels on the roof. On this day, it was only 340 watts. It was cloudy.

A control panel inside the Green First home which gives the homeowner information on how much electricity is being generated from the solar panels on the roof. On this day, it was only 340 watts. It was cloudy.

Each prefabricated home that Sekisui builds has more than a hundred thousand parts built for it in a factory. They’re actually more durable than your average site-built Japanese home. Prefab homes make up about 15% of the housing stock in Japan. Kondo told me Sekisui has no plans to bring its homes to the American market, but it is now starting to sell them in Australia.