From Garbage to Gas

Landfills and sewage treatment plants are an overlooked source of clean energy – but a boom in bio-methane might be coming.

What was once the I-95 landfill near Lorton, Virginia, is now dozens of acres of rolling green fields – dotted by more than 200 metal pipes emerging from the grass.

The pipes are wellheads for natural gas, and they are collecting the methane generated by more than 10 million tons of decomposing garbage dumped by Washington, D.C.-area residents over the course of 30 years.

A vacuum pump draws the gas from underground, through the wellheads, and connects it to roughly 14 miles of pipeline that run throughout the landfill. Under each wellhead, says Mike Malfitano, an environmental technical specialist for Fairfax County, “there’s a three-foot bore hole that goes 110 feet down into the waste mass.”

Although it closed in 1995, county officials expect the landfill to keep emitting gas for at least the next decade. On its best days, says Fairfax County environmental engineer Chris Meoli, the landfill generates 2,000 cubic feet per minute of gas – enough to create 4.9 megawatts of electricity. It’s more than enough to power the Noman M. Cole wastewater treatment plant three miles down the road, saving the county as much as $500,000 a year in power costs, according to a 2015 county report. What’s left over is sold to the grid.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills are among the nation’s largest sources of methane, accounting for nearly one-fifth of all methane emissions generated by human activity in 2012. That’s why advocates of landfill gas projects like the one in Fairfax County say these efforts have enormous environmental benefits – first, by capturing harmful methane emissions that would otherwise contribute to climate change and second, by replacing more carbon-heavy fuels for power and transportation.

Moreover, there’s no shortage of garbage. According to the group Energy Vision, Americans dump about 250 million tons of municipal solid waste per year – including 70 million tons of food and yard waste. It’s a clean energy opportunity the nation is literally throwing away.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…


Fixing Food Deserts, One Grocery Store at a Time

Alabama joins a growing list of states promoting supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods.

In and around Birmingham, Alabama, fast food is more than easy to find.

A search for “fast food” on serves up a smorgasbord of options, including Chick-Fil-A (20 locations), McDonald’s (38 shops), Taco Bell (24 stores), and Church’s Chicken (19 outlets), as well as multiple locations for Hardee’s, Krystal, Burger King, Captain D’s Seafood Kitchen, Bojangles, Sonic, Whataburger, Wendy’s, Subway and Jack’s.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, are much scarcer. The grocery store chain Aldiboasts just three locations in Birmingham proper, while the more upscale Fresh Market chain owns just one store.

In fact, according to a report by The Food Trust, large swathes of Alabama are “food deserts” lacking access to supermarkets with fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthier foods. Nearly 1.8 million Alabama residents – including half a million children – live in low-income areas without adequate access to full-service groceries, the report concludes.

“People are traveling 10 to 20 miles outside their communities to purchase food,” says Jada Shaffer, campaign manager for the non-profit VOICES for Alabama Children, which commissioned the study along with the Alabama Grocers Association.

And that’s assuming people have transportation. More often than not, Shaffer says, families are relying on what’s nearby: gas stations, convenience stores – and fast food.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Alabama has among the highest obesity rates in the country. More than 32 percent of Alabama adults are obese, while 35 percent of children are overweight.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

Growing numbers of benefit companies pursue both purpose and profit

30 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation legally recognizing “triple bottom line” businesses.

Among the many dozens of delivery vehicles that hit the streets of Portland, Oregon, every morning, B-Line’s colorful “cargo trikes” stand out.

Looking something like pedicabs on steroids, the company’s electrically boosted but human-powered vehicles can haul up to 600 pounds of goods. Every morning, B-Line’s fleet of eight trikes deploys itself across Portland, delivering organic produce, coffee and artisanal bread before switching to parcel deliveries for the remainder of the day.

The company calculates that since its founding in 2009, when it began with just two trikes, it’s made more than 10,000 deliveries and – more importantly – reduced carbon emissions by an estimated 350,000 pounds.

“We aim to be a more environmentally and social friendly delivery service for inner cities,” says company founder and CEO Franklin Jones.

More than that, B-Line is legally obligated to pursue its social mission. Along with a growing number of socially-conscious businesses across the country, B-Line is a “benefit company” with special legal status under state law.

Under this legislation – variations of which have also been adopted in 29 other states and the District of Columbia – businesses choosing to be “benefit companies” must include a social purpose in its charter, adopt a third-party standard and prepare an annual report for shareholders assessing how well it met its social goals.

Continued at the Washington Monthly...

One Man’s Crusade to Make Congress Work Better

Ban incumbents from campaigning against each other, says Sen. Joe Manchin, and require a five-day workweek.

Earlier this spring, speculation was mounting that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin would be leaving the Senate to run for his former job as governor of West Virginia.

Polls showed Manchin to be a heavy favorite, were he to become a candidate in 2016. An April 2015 survey, for example, showed Manchin with a 66 percent approval rating in the state and a 30-point lead over state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the leading GOP candidate.

But at the end of April, Manchin made a surprise announcement on Face the Nation: “I’m going to stay and I will run for reelection,” he said. “I know that the Senate is not working the way it was intended to and the way it’s supposed to. But I’m not going to stop fighting to make it work.”

Since coming to the Senate in 2010, Manchin has worked hard to cultivate a reputation for bipartisanship, including a high-profile effort with Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey to expand background checks on gun sales. National Journal’s 2014 vote ratings put him squarely in the center ideologically, ranking him the 54th most liberal senator and the 46th most conservative.

“A party line vote doesn’t mean anything to me,” Manchin says. “If I can’t go home and explain it, I won’t vote for it. And a lot of this stuff doesn’t make sense.”

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

How to Fix High-Poverty High Schools

Affluent high schools have three things lower-income schools lack, says a new study.

A recent report from the nonprofit Pell Institute found jaw-dropping disparities in college-going and college completion rates based on a student’s family income.

Among students from households in the bottom income quartile (those earning less than $34,160 a year), just 45 percent go on to college – and only 9 percent eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. Among students from households in the top quartile, in contrast, 82 percent go on to college and 77 percent graduate.

Now a new report from CLASP helps shed light on why such glaring gaps exist. It also offers a blueprint for the specific resources that high-poverty schools need to help more students prepare for and succeed in college.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

A Practical Path Toward a Carbon Tax

Rep. John Delaney’s carbon tax plan would fund rebates for low-income families, help displaced coal workers and lower corporate tax rates. But its best virtue might be bipartisan appeal.

In advance of global climate talks set to continue in Paris this November, the United States announced an ambitious goal last fall: to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade.

According to the White House, achieving this target would require the United States to roughly double the current pace of reductions in carbon pollution. In 2013, U.S. carbon emissions totaled nearly 6.7 million metric tons – making America the world’s second-largest producer of carbon emissions after China.

Across the political spectrum, experts increasingly agree that the most direct and efficient way to reduce carbon is to put a tax on it. In British Columbia, for example, per capita fuel consumption has dropped by 16 percent since a carbon tax was introduced in 2008 – compared to rising consumption in the rest of Canada. The province has also continued to enjoy a healthy rate of economic growth at 2 percent per year. As an op-ed in the Globe and Mail put it: “It works.”

Where there’s less agreement is how to structure a carbon tax – and most importantly, how to spend the money it would raise. According to Yoram Bauman and Shi-Ling Hsu, imposing a British Columbia-style tax of $30 per metric ton in the United States would raise as much as $145 billion a year. It’s a tempting sum of money, particularly for progressives with a growing wish list of domestic spending priorities.

But some argue that the only politically feasible way to pass a carbon tax in the United States is to keep it “revenue neutral” – meaning that every dollar raised in revenue goes toward rebates or other tax cuts.

That’s also the approach in British Columbia, where carbon tax revenues were expected to total $1.2 billion this year. Officials have used the funds to pay for rebates to low-income families (equal to $115.50 per adult and $34.50 per child) and to lower taxes on individuals, companies and small businesses. A report by the nonprofit Clean Energy Canada concluded that revenue neutrality “has two very important up-sides: it helps bring the business community onside (or at least, it keeps that community from going too far offside), and it makes the tax difficult to remove once it’s in effect.”

Among U.S. champions of a carbon tax, proponents of a similar “tax swap” include Democratic Rep. John Delaney (MD-6), who introduced carbon tax legislation this spring. “If you want a carbon tax put in place as soon as possible, you have to embrace a carbon tax that has an opportunity for bipartisan appeal,” Delaney says. “We’ve seen a lot of proposals where the revenues are used by government any way they want. People don’t really trust that, and certainly not my Republican colleagues.”

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

Why Can’t You Text 9-1-1?

9-1-1 needs to move into the Internet era.

In today’s Internet-enabled world, most people take for granted their ability to communicate with just about anyone, anywhere, and by any number of means – voice, text, email or through social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

But one essential communications service remains largely trapped in the landline era: 9-1-1.

In many parts of the United States, 9-1-1 is still rooted in the landline-telephone-based infrastructure that gave the system its start in 1968. The texts, videos, images and data now integral to rapid-fire modern communications are beyond the capacity of most 9-1-1 systems. While a concerned citizen could snap a photo of a fleeing suspect on her smartphone and post it to Facebook, she likely can’t share that same photo with a 9-1-1 dispatcher. As of November 2014, just 152 counties in 18 U.S. states even had the capability for citizens to text to 9-1-1.

But a few jurisdictions – such as Iowa and Vermont – have made the leap to Internet-enabled 9-1-1, known as “Next Generation 9-1-1.” The potential rewards include not just better public safety but cost savings in the long run.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

Open Data, Better Cities

What Works Cities, a new $42 million initiative, will help cities use data to improve performance and policy.

In San Francisco, foodies seeking adventure (but not food poisoning) can see health inspection scores along with reviews while browsing for restaurants on Yelp.

In Louisville, Kentucky, asthma patients can sign up for “smart inhalers” to help the city map where asthma attacks are most common, discover the triggers and shift policies for cleaner air.

And in New Orleans, city residents can visit a site called BlightStatus to track blighted properties in their neighborhood and look for property code violations.

Across the country, efforts like these are awakening cities to the potential of open data as a way to transform citizens’ experiences with government and to improve both policymaking and performance. Seizing on this momentum, Bloomberg Philanthropies recently launched a $42 million initiative – What Works Cities – to help 100 mid-size cities get better government through data. Already, more than 100 cities have applied.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

Ending Banking Deserts in Texas

“Banking development districts” and “savings lotteries” could help more Texans open and use bank accounts.

In the parts of Dallas known as South Dallas and West Dallas, west of the Trinity River, many neighborhoods could rightly be called “banking deserts.”

“You see a handful of bank branches, a Chase drive-through or an ATM kiosk in a strip mall,” says Texas State Rep. Eric Johnson, whose district includes these areas. “You don’;t see any – or very few – of the smaller community banks or credit unions.”

But what these neighborhoods do have in abundance, says Johnson, are what he calls “lower-tier” financial services providers: payday lenders, title lenders, pawn shops, and check cashers.

Dallas is, in fact, among the most “unbanked” cities in America, and Texas is among the most “unbanked” states. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), more than one-third of Dallas-area households – about 36 percent – either have no bank account at all or rely mostly on check cashers and other non-bank providers for financial services. These households are what the FDIC calls “unbanked” and “underbanked.” Statewide, nearly 4 in 10 Texas households – or about 38 percent – fall into one of these categories, compared to about 27 percent nationwide.

But Texas might now be on the path to reversing these trends. In May, Johnson successfully led the passage of legislation that could put Texas at the forefront of improving access to mainstream financial services. Better access to banks, Johnson hopes, would also mean better access to mainstream financial products such as home mortgages, small business loans and lower-cost consumer credit – all of which are in short supply in many parts of Dallas and Texas.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

How to End Gerrymandering

Every state should have an independent redistricting commission, says Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper.

Many observers say Illinois’ 4th Congressional District resembles a pair of ragged earmuffs. Intended to capture Chicago’s Latino population, the district carves out two roughly symmetrical disks in the heart of the city, connected by a narrow stretch of I-294.

The district is often cited as a blatant example of “gerrymandering” – but it’s legal. A federal court rejected a challenge to the district map in 2011. And districts that look like Illinois’ 4th Congressional District are increasingly common. With the help of proprietary programs such as Maptitude and access to household-level data, states can now draw districts to their liking with uncanny precision.

As one result, the number of competitive Congressional districts, according to the Cook Political Report, dropped from 164 in 1998 to just 90 in 2013.

“It’s gotten so bad that you could say politicians elect their voters, not the other way around,” says Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN).

Continued at the Washington Monthly…