Author Archives: admin


The January 2005 commuter rail disaster in Southern California (train hit an SUV, 25 dead) points up a serious passenger rail safety problem; one we think can be greatly reduced without much trouble or cost:

To save time and space, many commuter trains operating back and forth along linear routes run forward one direction, backward the other. The way it works is that the last car is equipped with a cubicle and controls so that during each return trip the engineer controls the engine from this cubicle, driving the train “backwards”. This is a good practice, as it saves the hassle of moving the engine from one end of the train to the other twice every round trip and eliminates the need for huge turn-around track loops. But it makes the train more vulnerable to derailment in the “push” mode. When the train is running in the “pull” mode (engine first), the weight and shape of the engine tend to push obstructions out of the way.

Most death, injury and property damage resulting from auto-train collisions (at least to the train) can be avoided if the train does not leave the tracks. This can be accomplished by shielding the train and its wheels from the debris that gets under same and causes derailments. Hence the “CarCatcher”.

The vulnerability of an unprotected leading passenger rail car is illustrated thus:


When a train running in “push mode” hits an automobile, the latter or its debris tends to roll under the exposed train wheels, lifting them from the track:


(Once a set of train wheels leaves the track, it rarely returns to same).

To minimize the event of derailment in train-car or other track-obstruction accidents, we propose the CarCatcher, a device that might look a little like this, or a lot prettier:

Fig. 3

The CarCatcher would attach to the rear of each train, using the regular coupling supplemented by a horizontal brace or shock absorber assembly. We picture a kind of cross between an old-fashioned cow catcher and a snow plow. The device could be painted to suit its train, and could be designed in several styles to match or complement the design of the train—-modern, retro, etc. As illustrated below, the device would push the obstruction and its larger pieces of debris off the tracks, helping to keep the train on the rails.

Fig. 4

The potential market for the CarCatcher consists of every train in the world that operates in the push-pull mode.

Cost would of course be variable, since we envision several sizes.  The design and shape of the CarCatcher will have to allow for train size and weight, the engineer’s clear view of the tracks ahead, and perhaps to which side one might wish to shove the obstruction. We think the most expensive model we can imagine might cost less than some pickup trucks.  Being a New Mexico group, of course we would like to see the CarCatcher designed and built in New Mexico for sale here and everywhere else.

In summary, this thing is not likely to do much good if a semi or another train gets stuck on the tracks, but many rail-auto accidents are caused by an inattentive or suicidal driver driving something small enough to be diverted by one size or another of CarCatcher.  This device might even improve the outcome for the affected auto and occupants.  We think that the potential savings in lives, limbs and property promised by the CarCatcher more than justifies its cost and possibly strange appearance.

PO Box 4268
Albuquerque, NM 87196


Train Safety Editorial

Congress Doing Something Solid

In the aftermath of several multiple-fatality train wrecks in the last few years,  Congress, with unheard-of efficiency, mandated the implementation of a train safety system called Positive Train Control (PTC), to be in place nationally by the end of 2015.  Most readers are at least dimly aware of this, and also of the fact that Congress has extended this deadline through 2018.

Despite being a modern-passenger-Rail activist, I consider this three-year delay a good thing.

PTC is a GPS- based technology for monitoring trains and stopping them automatically in the event of a train being where it should not be; like on the same track as an oncoming train.  It is very complicated and very expensive. Several railroads, such as the BNSF Railway and California’s Metrolink. have, to their credit, started installing PTC ahead of Congress’s mandate.   But besides its cost and complexity (many billions of dollars and a similar number of electronic “moving parts”), PTC is a one-size-fits-all solution that may not be needed in shorter or less crowded Rail corridors.  It’s also useless at spotting some serious and common dangers, like obstructions on or damage to the tracks ahead of the train.

Other Possibilities:

In the hope that this three-year delay will buy some time for more discriminating thinking about rail safety systems, I offer here a list of possible alternatives, most of whose components have been on the shelf for several years and need not be exhaustively field-tested from scratch.

—  CTC (Centralized Train Control).  In this system, routing decisions are under the control of a dispatcher at a principal station. Not too unlike air traffic control.

—  ATS (Automatic Train Stop), which stops the train in the event of a broken track, an unresponsive operator, an earthquake, or if the train blows through a Stop signal.

—  Dead Man Switches.  Two common types (for controlling industrial or workshop equipment) are those you stand on or hold closed in your hand.  If you fall down, drop dead, or are otherwise inconvenienced, the switch is automatically released, shutting down said equipment.  Another type is on a kind of timer so that, if you don’t slap it with your hand every 30 or so seconds, it stops the train.

(NOTE):  Our own Rail Runner Express is equipped with these three systems. Others include:

—  Off-the-shelf video cameras along the tracks, the spacing to be governed by visibility, track curvature, density of nearby infrastructure, and the like. These cameras would serve a high-resolution color monitor located in the cab of each locomotive, and would inform the engineer (and the dispatchers and local emergency-response personnel) of any vehicle or object stuck on the tracks, any vandalism being committed on same, or just plain washouts.

—  LIDAR and Radar in conjunction with, or instead of, said cameras.  This variant might be very useful for use at night or in rough, low-visibility weather conditions.

—  Drones.  Yeah, I said drones.  These little double-edged swords could fly in front of every train, either under the control of the engineer (or the conductor, or the second engineer that every long-distance train should carry), or possibly tethered electronically to the train.

—  Lasers.  Somewhat like the old photo eyes, these would be aimed just below the level of, say, a subway platform.  If anything roughly human-sized (like a human) falls or jumps off the platform, the body would cut the beam, triggering an alarm in the train cab or an automatic link to the brakes.

—  Handcars.  This one may be unnecessary or downright goofy, but an unmanned radio / video-equipped handcar running roughly a mile ahead of a hazmat train on less-crowded corridors would be an almost sure-fire canary in the coal mine.  If something happens to it, hit the brakes.

This list is rather arbitrary.  In actual use, we would probably see different combinations and variants of these, depending on the route, the surrounding terrain, traffic density, etc. Most or all of these could be programmed to hit the brakes automatically, or serve as “dashboard”   instruments to warn the operators.

On many North American routes, especially in the West, there is almost no danger of a train-to-train collision, simply because there are not all that many trains.  But track obstructions, washouts, vandalism, and possible terrorism are occasional facts of life, and just as destructive.

Should the glorious day ever arrive in North America in which our long-distance tracks once again host a quantity of passenger Rail traffic not seen since the advent of lavishly-subsidized road and air infrastructure, then it might be time to take a fresh look at the high-tech, high-end, benefits of PTC, in addition to the above  options.  By then, we’ll more likely need it. But then again, we’ll be more able to afford the investment.

Hazardous Rail Cargo Safety

Dec 20, 2013

(Letter To Officials, Advocates And The Public)

Just re-stating the position of Rails Inc on improving train and public safety in the wake of the disaster at Lac Megantic, Quebec, and of other hazmat train incidents:

Retro-fitting old tank cars and improving the new models are both essential jobs, and must of course be pursued without further delay. But let’s not leave out a simple, quick to implement, and possibly cheaper deterrent to these horrific events:

Never leave any en-route train, especially a hazmat train, unattended.  Not for one second.  Ever.  Besides stopping a runaway before it becomes a runaway, this common sense procedure greatly reduces the chances of theft, hijacking or terrorist attack.

If existing work rules, whether in place for worker safety or corporate profit, allow such trains to be left alone, the rules must be scrapped.

Ideally, hazmat trains would haul a caboose and maybe a well-trained armed guard into the bargain. Such guards could be recruited from the ranks of returned combat veterans.

The costs incurred by these changes are well worth bearing, whether by the railroads or (more likely) their customers. Think of them as insurance premiums.





Is The SW Chief Really All That Important?

19 October 2013

Published in the Albuquerque Journal, November 21, 2013, as:

$ 200M For Rail An Investment

Most of us are at least dimly aware of that long sleek passenger train that stops in Albuquerque twice a day and is not the Rail Runner. This train is Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief, a surviving remnant of our once-near-complete passenger Rail network.

This “remnant” is pretty popular: over 355,000 boardings and alightings in FFY 2012, roughly a third in New Mexico. It’s also in trouble. The tracks from Newton KS to Lamy NM, while still safe enough, are getting a little rough and ragged. The BNSF Railway, which owns these tracks, sees no compelling reason to keep the tracks up to passenger Rail speed standards (80 mph) because their freight trains don’t travel that fast, nor require as smooth a ride. So the Chief is getting slower.

More alarming is that at the end of 2015, the existing basic maintenance contract between the BNSF and Amtrak is due to expire, meaning that one of several things will occur:

1) Said contract will be “inked” in 2014 and renewed in 2016;
2) The Chief will keep running slower and slower and begin losing ridership;
3) The Chief will be re-routed from Newton-Lamy to Wichita-Woodward OK, Amarillo, Clovis and Belen, possibly complicating access to Albuquerque;
4) The Chief will be killed entirely or perhaps become two shorter trains with a long bus connection.

Why should you care?

— Primarily because the Chief is a passenger train. All modern trains, freight or passenger, lead the motorized transportation pack in fuel / energy economy, long vehicle life, long infrastructure life, all-weather efficiency, safety, economic development, public popularity and any other yardstick by which you measure good transportation.

— The Chief carries its numerous passengers not only between LA and Chicago, but between any and all city combinations along its route (over 2200 miles). In other words, the Chief is an excursion, long-distance, luxury, economy, regional and commuter train all rolled into one.

— The Chief is an excellent job-and-revenue-generating way to keep our under-used tracks warm till visionary future leaders wake up and take steps to make those tracks (expecially the New Mexico segment) carry a lot more than two “lousy” trains a day.

Big Bucks Or Chicken Feed?

The amount of money required to upgrade the Newton-Lamy track segment (636 route miles) to 80 mph standards, and to maintain it to such standards for ten years, is about $200 million or maybe less. This sounds like a lot, but under a current proposal, this money would be allocated at 10% per year, split among the BNSF Railway, Amtrak, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. This works out to about $4 million per year per stakeholder; chicken feed when you consider the many benefits of passenger Rail and the dollars we routinely shell out for our continuous street and highway improvements.

Although this funding should be a federal responsibility (after all, the Chief is an interstate operation), most advocates will be happy to see the Chief continued, preferably on its present route, wherever the money comes from. The Chief, and especially its tracks, are among the best investments anybody can make in transportation—-except of course, more bike and foot paths.

What about the Wichita-Amarillo-Clovis route? Simple. It should have a train too. We should not have to choose between these two possible alignments. Although we prefer that the Chief not get re-routed, the more southerly route should also be served (as it once was) by passenger Rail—-Amtrak or somebody else.

The American economy is supposedly driven by Supply and Demand. Rail passenger ridership, like rail freight tonnage, keeps increasing. The Demand is growing. The Supply is not. That $200 million is not a cost; it’s a very wise long-term investment.


The Hyperloop; Our Questions

18 August 2013

Rails Inc believes Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transportation concept to be promising and exciting.  Readers may be aware that this concept dates back to just after the Civil War (ours), when a pneumatic-tube subway operated under Manhattan. The technology of the time was not up to the vision, but the thing actually ran for awhile. Having said that:

There are a lot of questions we feel need to be answered (if this is not already happening) before this system can be built.  Here are some we consider  likely to be raised by the public:

—   How will outside temperature extremes affect tube tolerances, if the passenger pods have to snugly fit the tube?

—   How would fresh air be supplied and assured within the pods?

—   Are there any solid energy consumption (“fuel economy”) projections per passenger-mile?

—   How to escape either the pod or the tube itself should the need arise? Different door design for the pods?  Elevators and stairs at every few pylons? How would exit / escape platforms affect the vacuum capabilities of the tubes?  If one pod has to grind to a halt, how to keep it from getting rear-ended?

—   How about windows or transparent tube sections?

—   What about the sound barrier?

—   What about the long-term medical effects of acceleration, deceleration, G-forces, magnetic fields, etc? Would any of this affect, say, pacemakers?

—   Will personal electronic devices work in the pods?

—   How does the Hyperloop compare in cost, efficiency and safety to “Urban” Mag Lev?  For that matter, how far along is Urban Mag Lev?

—   How big a market is there for the LA-San Francisco route with no stops between?  Could San Diego be practically added?

—   Will there be much of a cost or design problem running the Loop in and around freeway exits, flyovers and cloverleafs?







The Albuquerque Rail Yards

18 November 2012

The good news is that the Rail Yards are finally going to be developed. The City of Albuquerque has signed up with a developer called Samitaur Constructs to do this.  And don’t get us wrong; they’re coming up with some pretty exciting stuff; solar panels, green roofs, water catchment, a growers’ market, affordable housing, bicycle access, the Wheels Museum, etc.

The bad news concerns transit. The plans call for an intermodal connection or terminal on 2nd Street SW, for busses and cars.  The Rail Runner is not about to  add a station stop for the Rail Yards, because this stop would be too close to the Alvarado Center (First and Central).  This makes sense until (and unless) the Yards become a truly major destination.  However:

There is no provision at this time for any access to the railroad tracks —-despite the fact that the nearest main line is about six feet from the East fence of the property, and there are at least two spur lines (side tracks) running from the center of Downtown right into major buildings on the property.  This is nuts. It’s a Rail Yard!

Every major city in the North American West has learned that transit means Rail as well as several sizes of Bus.  Seems that we have not. If it’s not in the political or financial cards to set up a Light Rail or Modern Streetcar line as part of this redevelopment, we need to “bank” this possibility for the future.

The most cautious, “conservative” way to do this is to preserve these spur tracks and remodel the buildings they go to so that the Yards could be easily served by Rail transit if and when our local politics discovers the 21st Century.

And should this (literally) millennial event come to pass, we’d start by creating a Rail shuttle between the Alvarado Center and the Yards.  This shuttle would be a short standard gauge modern streetcar (or double streetcar), either new or reconditioned, diesel or electric.  This shuttle, like all modern Rail, would be a great little ride—- fuel/energy efficient, smooth, safe, convenient, and would serve to acquaint the public with the benefits and joys of Rail transit.

Our favorite location for this shuttle would be the track that runs from Downtown into the old brick Blacksmith Building, which to us cries out to become a small Union Station (with all appropriate shops and services).  Our vehicle model is the Doodlebug, a short commuter train that ran between Belen and Albuquerque in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Every place that Rail transit is introduced, even after heavy opposition, it becomes a transportation rock star almost instantly.  Someday we’ve got to join the parade (notice we didn’t say, “get on board”).

To learn more, consult this Web site and also:

To become a part of this planning process, contact:


UNM-CNM-Sunport Transit Study

18 November 2012
     There are plans afoot to improve the transportation and land use picture for the part of Albuquerque bounded by Carlisle on the East, UNM’s North Campus on the North, I-25 on the West, and Gibson SE (and the Sunport) on the South. As with the Rail Yard redevelopment process, there’s a lot of good news and some significant bad news.  And as with the Rail Yard process, the bad news concerns transit.
     The planners are rightly paying attention to parking structures, bus service and bike paths. But at this writing they are not making provision for Rail transit of any kind—Light  Rail, Modern Streetcar or Rapid Streetcar. They’re working the Rail Runner into the plans, which thankfully means they figure it’s here to stay, but the Rail Runner trunk needs some Rail limbs. We think our bus budget should be more devoted to Neighborhood Transit, ie, lots of little busses and vans that go just about everywhere, Scheduled and On-Demand.
     We think the biggest improvements to this neighborhood would be to
1)   Build a network of true separated bike paths—-not painted lines on the street,
2)   Convert 2 lanes of University Blvd between Lomas and Gibson to the exclusive use of transit; preferably Rail transit. If Rail transit is not in the financial or political cards, operate Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in these transit lanes and work like hell to raise money and public consciousness while the busses wear out.
     Most other Western cities, of all political persuasions, understand what a great long-term bargain Rail transit is.  We need to join the parade. To get involved in this process, contact :
The phone number (at the Mid-Region Council Of Governments) is:
(505) 247-1750

Also click LR55 under “Major Studies” on this Web site for an interesting Urban Rail possibility.


Saving The Southwest Chief And Its Tracks

(Or, What Good Are Those Tracks?)

May 2012


As you may have heard, the present alignment of the SW Chief is not assured beyond the next couple of years. At risk is the segment that runs from Newton, KS to Lamy, NM (636 track miles). The BNSF Railway, which owns these tracks, does not need to operate on this route (when they do at all) faster than 45 mph. This means they don’t have to keep the tracks up to the 80+ mph standard desired by Amtrak for passenger trains.  Which in turn means that the SW Chief is slowly getting slower and slower.

Somebody needs to come up with about $ 100 million to restore the track to 80 mph  (“Class 4”)standards and a few more million a year to keep them that way. I say a few more because rails last a lot longer and require much less repair than do roads and highways.

Since this track segment is presently used for very little besides two SW Chief  trains a day, a lot of sensible people (and their political leaders) might reasonably wonder, why the hell spend this kind of money just to keep two trains a day running —- especially since an alternate route through Wichita, Northwest Oklahoma, Amarillo, Eastern NM and Belen will be available for rerouting the Chief should the need arise.

Besides the fact that the Chief is an all-important transportation resource to the three states in question, Rails Inc feels that those tracks are a very attractive resource for anybody — private or public —  who owns and is willing to upgrade them and who can imagine more than a couple of years (or an election cycle) into the future.

Here’s what we mean:

(Adapted From the Rail Users’ Network National Newsletter, Spring 2012):

Several cities and towns along the (Newton KS-Lamy NM) route have passed and are passing resolutions supporting their desire to keep the Chief running where it is, citing the many benefits the train confers on their communities. A New Mexico branch of the SW Chief Coalition (based in La Junta CO) is putting itself together. The purchase by the State of New Mexico from the BNSF of the Raton Pass-Lamy track segment is still in limbo, where it has resided since the Martinez administration took over.

While we don’t believe the tracks are in danger of being torn up and scrapped (although this is a possibility), Rails Inc feels that to save the Chief we need to save the tracks, and to save the tracks we need to demonstrate what a great asset they are. So “with a little help from our friends”, we’ve compiled a list of uses for these tracks — beyond the important function of hosting two Amtrak trains a day.

Those two daily SW Chief trains by themselves justify the existence and improvement these tracks are in need of, but they certainly don’t constitute full and efficient use of the route.

So What Are Those Tracks Good For? 

1)   Hosting the SW Chief, of course.

2)   Hosting future Amtrak Superliner (or similar) service from El Paso to Denver and points North, via Albuquerque, Raton and Pueblo (see our “Rocky Mountain Flyer” material at or Rail magazine, #25).

3)   Establishment or expansion of commuter and regional Rail in the three affected states.

4)   Restoration of rail freight and express. The costs of fuel, tires and asphalt are not dropping.  Private haulers, short lines and entrepreneurs might find this an acceptable risk if they don’t have to buy and own the tracks.  Truckers don’t have to own the roads they run on.

5)   Excursion trains, both modern and vintage.  Besides their educational and cultural value, they can make pretty good money.

6)   Hosting the field testing of new Rail safety components and other Rail products.

7)   Hosting BNSF trains again, if anything happens to the Transcon.

8)   Not to forget:  Promoting the increased economic development, core-city renewal and tourism (with their considerable employment and tax revenues) that improved Rail transportation always pulls in.

It has also been suggested to us that advocates should compile a list of potential users of these tracks (towns, cities, schools, ranches, tourist attractions, transportation companies, excursion trains, etc) and ask them how permanent and reliable access to said tracks might improve or expand their operations. From this, revenue estimates might be put together to increase the attractiveness of the segment to either private or public potential ownership.

In the short haul, like seeds and range land, we need to “bank” these tracks till we can put them to the full use they deserve. If we’re short-sighted enough to let them go, it’ll be like the late 40’s all over again.  Conventional, High Speed or Mag Lev, the future of this right of way should always be Rail.


Trains Versus Busses In Albuquerque

20 March 2011

(Draft of a speech not yet delivered)

We can now safely declare that the Albuquerque metro area is finally behind more and better transit (although the People in general did beat them to it).  So now the central transportation issue in our region becomes how to anchor this expanded network — Bus or Train?  Most major Western cities have long since answered this one, in favor of the latter.

The title of this piece is misleading. “Versus” is not the right word.  There’s room for both Light Rail Transit (LRT), including Modern and Rapid Streetcar, and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in a complete transit network. But BRT (meaning those custom-built trackless guideways) is a complement, not a substitute for LRT or Modern Streetcar.

There’s some logic to presenting BRT as a stepping-stone to LRT. BRT is better than nothing. But we believe we should quit treating Rail transit like political poison (even if it is). It’s just too good a solution to too many problems.

Modern Rail gets smeared a lot in New Mexico as Liberal or too expensive, and is also held to cost-benefit expectations never applied to other modes.  Any kind of modern Rail is a key component of good transportation, and good transportation is good for everybody. Here’s how urban trains compare to busses:

— Urban trains get 400-500% the fuel / energy “mileage”that busses do.

— Roads last for years; tracks last for generations.

— Ditto for busses compared to Rail cars.

— Rail lines are made out of “greener” materials; steel and rocks, not petroleum by-products (add this to your fuel economy).

— Rail carries 3 to 8 times the people (or freight) per lane-mile as do roads and streets.

— Rail transit recovers more money at the “farebox” than bus transit does.

— Rail facilitates walking and biking, as well as neighborhood bus transit.

— Trains are easier to secure than busses (meaning more effective deployment of police officers). Nobody can afford to put an officer on every bus, but you can do so for a train.  An Urban train operator doesn’t have to try to be a cop; just run the train.

— Rail facilitates the renewal of city centers and older suburbs.

— Rail promotes sustainable and efficient development. Since a Rail line is a lot harder to re-route than a bus line, developers can plan from a reliable permanent transportation anchor (This principle is at least 150 years old).

— Trains almost never get stuck in traffic, and offer a smooth, quiet ride compared to busses.

— Trains don’t spawn tire emission and disposal problems.

— Good multimodal transit saves regular full-time users about $7-800 / month, even after paying their share of transit taxes (This applies to bus-only transit too, but keep reading):

— Rail attracts riders of all ages, colors and economic levels, not just people who have no choice but to ride transit.

And here’s another one:  Rail transit easily complies with CMAQ and other pollution-control concerns; especially if—-as in, say, Calgary, Alberta—-the trains get all their power from renewable sources.

We don’t make this stuff up. Rail is the big “no-brainer” in transportation, energy and land use planning, and just about everybody but us already knows it. Thank you.



The Missing Link In Renewable Energy Production

(While not directly about trains, we think this subject is closely related to them.)

5 April 2009

Renewably-generated electricity—-solar, wind, geothermal and the ocean tides—-is finally gaining acceptance and market share in America.  Put all this together with a similar revolution in the storage and steady delivery of this energy and just maybe some of us will live to see the relegation of the expensive killers Coal and Nuclear (Fission) to their places in history alongside other once-useful artifacts like the buggy whip and the carbide lamp.

There’s no denying that our lives are much easier and safer (and probably more fun) after over a century of reliable fossil-fueled electricity. But, as Olive Oyl once said to Popeye, “Too much is enough!”. We’ve got cleaner choices now.  Renewables have proven themselves.  Which is why writing the following makes me feel a little like the Ebeneezer Scrooge of renewable energy.

Having fooled around with wind generators in the early ‘70’s, and having long tried to promote “green” building (and re-building) as an old-house contractor, I’m naturally delighted with the rise of renewables.  But; as with most Great Issue discussions, sizable gaps reveal themselves. With regard to renewable electricity, most of the everyday buzz centers on two extremes of generating capability: small installations serving one household and great big ones serving widespread millions.

These extremes are but two legs of what should be a three-legged electricity production stool. Let’s gaze at these legs.

The Small Leg:

A power plant on every roof!  How feel-good and self-sufficiently All-American can you get? But, like hybrid cars and political term limits, this attractive notion reveals significant flaws upon further reflection. These flaws include lack of efficiency in labor, materials and invested energy per kilowatt realized; including the energy it takes to make, ship and deliver each set of components. There are other problems with this model:

—-  These home-size systems cost more than most of us can afford, even with generous tax breaks;

—-  They encourage rural sprawl;

—-  Sooner or later (probably later), each and every householder will have to face significant repair and replacement of system parts—-a kind of energy balloon payment.

The Big Leg: 

—-  The bigger and more wide-serving any piece of infrastructure is, the more disruption and damage can be inflicted on its dependents by a single natural disaster or act of war;

—-  Long-distance transmission of electricity is very expensive in materials and land (aluminum and easement acreage), subject to sabotage and theft (aluminum  again) and easily interrupted by storms;

—-  High-tension lines are being linked to radiation hazards;

—-  A lot of power is lost in transmission, “falls off the wires”, as it were. This loss of course increases with distance from the generator.

A Third Leg

There is a third way that gets less attention amid all the trendy buzz; the middle of the scale or third leg: generation at the town or community level. I consider the old power stations at Ratón and Algodónes to be excellent size examples. Use that model, only feed them renewables.

Besides optimizing the expenditure of money, materials, labor, transportation and acreage per kilowatt of delivered energy, there are other advantages to this mid-sized approach:

Environmental justice:  Dirty but supposedly essential industries are disproportionally located in poor and non-white neighborhoods, and the resulting outcry is rightfully growing.  But what if a necessary industry is clean and non-polluting, like a modest-sized solar or wind power plant?  Far from being an environmental justice problem, these things would be a desirable asset to most neighborhoods; especially the mixed-use, live-work communities now coming into their own again.

Ugly? Hell, they look a lot prettier than most necessary structures we put up with all around us.

There’s also a neighborly aspect to this distribution model; an aspect which promotes a sense of community and simplifies business transactions like billing problems and service calls. That billing manager or pole climber might be in your PTA or hang out at your favorite bar.

And to further turn “Not In My Back Yard” upside down, maybe our utility rates could be adjusted for distance from the plant, not unlike transit fare zones, and for analogous reasons. The further the power is sent, the more it should cost; subject of course to hardship, non-profit and essential-service exceptions.

I leave it to the many engineers among us to study and compare these various size-scale alternatives with respect to cost in labor and materials per kilowatt realized, efficient transmission, long-term maintenance and reliability, etc; and I hope somebody takes me up on this. I am no engineer, but my contractor’s gut tells me that by adding this mid-sized mindset to the others, we can avoid many of the dangers and expenses of operating primarily Real Big or Real Small.