I recently attended a green careers workshop at NC State, where I spoke to a planner who works at the North Carolina Solar Center about how energy issues fit into planning, and what planners should know about green energy. Here’s a summary of what he had to say:

- Planners can address regulatory policies like density bonuses and green building initiatives, which affect energy efficiency and the uptake of renewables.
- Solar and wind access laws and nuisance ordinances can make it difficult for people to use solar panels or windmills. Homeowners’ associations also often restrict such structures, but cities can sometimes override the HOA’s rules.
- He also pointed out that some states (including North Carolina) have adopted renewable portfolio standards, which specify a percentage of energy that utilities must produce from renewable sources, and that planners would be important to meeting those objectives.

On Wednesday I went to Triangle Tomorrow’s conference, “A Green Future for Economic Development: The Dollars and Sense of Open Space.” There were some excellent speakers, including Chick Flink from Greenways, Inc. and Ed McMahon from ULI.

The speakers focused on the economic benefits of open space, and made a compelling case for investing in green space even during a recession. Several different speakers pointed out that the investment in parks and greenways usually pays off, as the the revenues from increased property values and the new business development they spur nearby far exceed the cost.

A topic that came up a few times was particularly apt in these times of political polarization and small budgets: how do you respond to critics, in particular those who argue that they should not have to pay for a public space that they themselves do not intend to use?

One speaker suggested pointing to what John Crompton calls the “proximity effect;” benefits like increased property values accrue to everyone who lives near a greenway, whether they use the space or not. Randy Voller, the mayor of Pittsboro, NC, suggested de-emphasizing politics – he says that in his experience, most people, whether Democrats or Republicans, see the value in preserving open space. Several speakers pointed out the broad support for green space; striking evidence was that during the last election most ballot initiatives for investment in open space succeeded, even as people voted to cut other spending. McMahon advised talking about the ends rather than the means; people are more compelled by the idea of preserving rural lands than they are by zoning.

An anecdote from McMahon struck a chord with me, and the lessons are applicable to dealing with naysayers in many situations. He described a sign he saw outside of a small town; I’m probably misquoting, but is said something like “Welcome to X, home of 6000 happy citizens and three old grumps.” His point was that there are certain people who will object to every suggestion they hear, and sometimes the only solution is to just ignore the grumps. In particular, he warned against trying to convince ideologues – they have already made up their minds, and they don’t represent the views of most people.

Yesterday I went to the unveiling ceremony for Raleigh’s first two electric vehicle charging stations that will be available to the public. The city plans to use stimulus funds to install a total of 25-30 stations in the near future.

Eaton Corporation had a booth displaying several of its charging stations. Most take around four hours to complete recharge a car, but they make a quick charger that can provide a charge in thirty minutes. It will be interesting to see how these sorts of chargers are used once they become more widespread. The regular chargers would probably make the most sense for homes and workplaces, where people can afford the wait. However, the quick chargers still take considerably longer than filling a gas tank. They might make a lot of sense at places like movie theaters or restaurants, where customers typically linger for a while. Would owners of this type of business be motivated to install charging stations as a way to attract customers and hold them captive while their car is charging?

Tesla roadster and other car

I was amused by the contrast between these two cars - a Tesla Roadster and a Gem Ilderton.


Luc Anselin, from Arizona State University, gave a workshop this morning on OpenGeoDa, open source software geared toward social scientists who want something more user-friendly than GIS. Unlike GIS, it doesn’t produce cartographic quality maps. Instead, it is intended to be an easy way to explore spatial data and look for patterns. One of the most interesting features is “brushing,” which allows users to select an area on a map, view a chart of the selected data, and watch the chart change in real time as they move the brush across the map to change the selection. The program also has several data visualization features intended to make patterns easier to identify than they would be on a typical map. A separate program, GeoDaSpace, provides more powerful spatial regression tools that can be used to confirm these relationships. This seems like it would be a fast, intuitive way to explore data.

I spent the day at a conference put on by the Triangle Census Research Data Center at RTI, where I saw several interesting talks. Two speakers that I found particularly interesting were Robert Groves, the U.S. Census Bureau Director, and John Haltiwanger of the University of Maryland. The conference featured the ribbon cutting for the new Census Data Research Center facility at RTI, where researchers will be able to access microdata, the raw census data that is not made public in order to protect respondents’ confidentiality.

Robert Groves’ talk touched on the difficulties of addressing falling response rates for the Census and surveys in general at a time when they lack access to new funding. His solution involved addressing inefficiency in the Census Bureau by asking Census staff to send him their proposals for cutting costs – he received several hundred. He also talked about the conflict between the need to protect the confidentiality of respondents and the need to collect and provide rich data; breaching respondents’ trust could hurt the ability to gather data in the future (there was a lot of anger about the potential for this during the 2010 Census), and he encouraged researchers to see the data as something that belongs to the respondents, not the researchers. He also gave some amusing advice to researchers – don’t assume your research begins and ends with the data, because the data probably isn’t that good.

Haltiwanger gave a talk on the Longitudinal Employer Household Dynamics, which links census data on households to data on employers. This makes it possible for researchers to study things such as the career histories of entrepreneurs from their beginnings as sole proprietors (who make up the vast majority of U.S. businesses), to understand outcomes for employees who change jobs or lose their jobs, and to link census with patent data sets to compare the roles that entrepreneurs and innovators in creating new businesses.

I also learned that the Census hasn’t done a great job of preserving its data, to the point that the TCRDC recently had to get an old UNIVAC computer working to recover data from the ’40s and ’50s.  This is somewhat understandable since maintaining data is not their main mission. Nonetheless, the wonk in me cringes at the thought of all that lost data.