All posts by Philip Pryde

Seawater Desalinization

A seawater desalinization plant is currently being built in Carlsbad, to provide an additional source of potable (drinkable) water for the county. Is this a good idea, or a bad idea?

Those who support it stress the importance of securing additional water supplies for the county that are locally available, not threatened by major fault lines, and constitute a reliable and renewable resource. The Carlsbad desalinized water plant meets these tests.

But those who are skeptical about this potential new source point out the possibility of damage to marine ecosystems near the intake and outfalls, the high cost of the process, and the fact that high-volume desalinization plants require a lot of electricity.

So, who has the better argument?

At this point in time, I have to give a nod to the proponents. Yes, it is a rather expensive water supply, but there are no more cheap sources. Any other possible new source will be equally expensive. And while certain potentially adverse effects to the ocean can be identified, the majority opinion seems to be that these are not likely to be unacceptably significant.

And there is no question that we will most likely need this water in the future. Our current northern California imported supplies (from the Feather River via the California Aqueduct) clearly can’t be considered sufficiently reliable under extended drought conditions, such as at present.

The Carlsbad plant has been approved and is under construction. Let’s monitor its operation carefully, and after a few years we should have the data we need to evaluate the plant, and a much better idea of its positive and negative attributes.

That will inform us as to whether we should consider building more such plants, or not.

Geography Rules

First, full disclosure time. For 32 years I taught environmental policy courses in the Department of Geography at SDSU. But that’s not why this little essay is entitled “Geography rules”. It’s because, well, quite often geography does rule.

For example (and an excellent example): With its magnificent harbor, why didn’t San Diego become the leading commercial port (and thereby largest city) in southern California, instead of some other large sprawly city a little ways to the north of us?

The reason is simple: geography. More specifically, mountains.

In the 1870s and 1880s, San Diego and Los Angeles were vying very hard to be the western terminus of a southern transcontinental railroad (San Francisco had already won the Golden Spike race to host the west end of the first transcontinental line). Bountiful trade, new workers, and regional wealth would reward the winner of that southern route competition.

And the winner was: L.A. Why? Because it was easier to build a railroad from the east to Los Angeles, as it could use the relatively gentle grade through Banning Pass. And this is where it was built. The steep mountain front to the east of San Diego was an insurmountable barrier to building a railroad, and no operating line exists directly from the east to this day.

Sure, San Diego could, and soon did, build a connection down here from the L.A. line. But just going straight on westward to L.A. was much simpler. OK, L.A. had no harbor. Picky, picky. You can always build one of those, and they did.

And then, just to add injury to insult, the spur route down to San Diego from San Bernardino County was washed out in the flood of 1891, and was never rebuilt.

Sooooo, L.A. got the railroad traffic, and with it the sprawling metropolis, the grid-locked freeways, the identity-challenged suburbs, the eye-stinging smog, and Donald Sterling. Oh, wait. We didn’t want any of those things anyway.

Sometimes, a nice little mountain range through the middle of your county makes you a livability winner in the long run. Tough luck, L.A. Geography rules.

Solar Energy

Solar energy is (finally!) becoming very popular these days, with individuals, businesses, and energy companies all embracing whichever form of solar energy is most appropriate for their needs. Overall, this is a very good thing, but some forms of solar energy are more benign, and more desirable, than others.

Let me briefly mention here two of the very best forms of solar energy. One is commonly termed “rooftop solar”, where individuals or businesses put photovoltaic panels on their home or workplace roofs. Photovoltaic (“PV”) panels are made up of numerous small “solar cells” that are capable of converting sunlight directly into electrical energy. One photovoltaic cell doesn’t produce very much electricity, but a dozen or so panels on your roof can produce enough power to meet the needs of the average household (depending on how many people live under the same roof with you, of course). The roof of a very large “big box” or department store can produce an impressive amount of electricity.

“But wait!” (as they say in the TV ads), there’s a second big benefit as well. With the sun’s rays (and heat) hitting the solar panels instead of your roof, your roof (and the attic or rooms under it) will stay cooler, since they are now in the shade of the panels. Thus, the solar panels help keep your house (or office building) cooler, and thus reduce your air conditioning bill as well. Such a deal!

The second “can’t lose” form of solar energy is called “passive solar”. There are a great many variants of passive solar, but perhaps the most common involves designing a house in such a way that solar energy will come through large glass windows in the winter months, and hit a dense, dark colored, heat-absorbing wall. At night, the wall will re-radiate the stored heat throughout the house. A system of ducts, and maybe a small circulating fan, might be needed too. This is not the best system for southwest deserts or the rainy Olympic Peninsula, but over most of the United States it’s a great energy saver. It is most economical to install a a passive solar system when a house is first being built, as retrofitting can be very expensive. Many books have been produced about passive solar systems. If you’re thinking of building a house, it’s well worth looking into.