We clarify the mechanisms through which rural electrification can contribute to rural development. Through a detailed case study analysis of a community-based electric micro-grid in rural Kenya, we demonstrate that access to electricity enables the use of electric equipment and tools by small and micro enterprises, resulting in significant improvement in productivity per worker (100–200% depending on the task at hand) and in a corresponding growth in income levels in the order of 20–70%, depending on the product made. Access to electricity simultaneously enables and improves the delivery of social and business services from a wide range of village-level infrastructure (e.g., schools, markets, and water pumps) while improving the productivity of agricultural activities. We find that increased productivity and growth in revenues within the context of better delivery of social and business support services contribute to achieving higher social and economic benefits for rural communities. We also demonstrate that when local electricity users have an ability to charge and enforce cost-reflective tariffs and when electricity consumption is closely linked to productive uses that generate incomes, cost recovery is feasible.
Abstract: Microgrids are a rapidly evolving and increasingly common form of local power generation
used to serve the needs of both rural and urban communities. In this paper, we present a methodology
to evaluate the evolution of the sustainability of stand-alone microgrids projects. The proposed
methodology considers a composite sustainability index (CSI) that includes both positive and negative
impacts of the operation of the microgrid in a given community. The CSI is constructed along
environmental, social, economic and technical dimensions of the microgrid. The sub-indexes of
each dimension are aggregated into the CSI via a set of adaptive weighting factors, which indicate
the relative importance of the corresponding dimension in the sustainability goals. The proposed
methodology aims to be a support instrument for policy makers especially when defining sound
corrective measures to guarantee the sustainability of small, isolated microgrid projects. To validate
the performance of the proposed methodology, a microgrid installed in the northern part of Chile
(Huatacondo) has been used as a benchmarking project.
Mr. Jit Bhattacharya has been Chief Technology Officer at Fenix International Inc. since July 2017. Mr. Bhattacharya served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Mission Motor Company until 2014 and previously served as its Chief Operating Officer. He has more than 10 years' of experience in energy storage systems and product development. Prior to accepting the role with Fenix, he worked as a Senior Manager in the special projects group at Apple. Jit is a Berkeley alum and a former co-chair of BERC.
Dennis has focused his career on technology and sustainability policy in emerging and developing economies. His research interests include technology and innovation policy and impacts to resource and rural development, technology transfer and the political economy of land use management. He has led programs with the Paris based International Energy Agency, as an official of the OECD, working with emerging economies on energy technology policy and contributing to the Agency’s analysis of energy, environment and climate policies (specifically working collaboratively with China and other transition economies in exploring long-term clean energy options, including advanced bioenergy, carbon sequestration and negative emissions systems.) Prior to living in Berkeley, he spent five years in France, and seven years in Beijing, China – advising government and industrial clients on sustainability and technology deployment initiatives. He holds a BA in political science (international relations) and a concentration in East Asian studies from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Gathu Kirubi, brings strong analytical skills and demonstrated management experience cutting across renewable energy, rural development and micro-finance. Aside from holding a PhD in Energy & Rural Development from the University of California Berkeley, a premier institution in the field, Kirubi brings to Solar Transitions over 10 years experience in innovation and leadership in designing and managing rural energy projects in East Africa. In 2001, Kirubi won the prestigious Ashden Award in recognition of "leadership and innovation in pioneering the start-up of a revolving fund credit scheme that supports schools and micro-enterprises with energy efficient wood stoves in Kenya.
In addition to consulting on energy and microfinance with a number of organizations including UNDP, Arc Finance, E+Co, and Faulu-Kenya, Kirubi is also a Lecturer at the Environmental Sciences Department, Kenyatta University, Nairobi,where he teaches courses on energy, technology, and sustainable development. His main interests in the project are the linkages between rural access to electricity and income generating activities, including small and medium size enterprises.
This piece by Annelise Gill-Wiehl and Daniel Kammen is featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.
“Each time [the local workers] visit, we gain strength from that. To refill [LPG cylinders]. To continue on,” says Bibi Matunda (or Grandma Fruit as the old woman is kindly nicknamed) at a focus group with a few other families in the Community Technology Worker Pilot Program. In Tanzania, where our research is based, 96% of the population  relies on “unclean” fuels, and the effects of biomass burning and indoor air pollution contributes to 20,000 deaths . Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) is one of the truly clean cooking fuels based on emission criteria set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although LPG is a fossil fuel, there is a net climate benefit to a large-scale switch to LPG for household fuel due to increased efficiency, as well as the benefit of transitioning away from the methane emissions caused by wood burning. Despite a wave of many African countries setting goals for increased or exclusive LPG use, LPG programs face common barriers to adoption of the clean fuel, which include a lack of education/need for household training, household safety concerns and the prohibitive cost.
We looked for analogies in other sustainable development fields that overcame barriers in behavior change and the need for community transitions. Specifically, we turned to the literature on Community Health Workers – local individuals who link their underserved communities to health systems.
Despite the existence of established and proven interventions to improve community health, local health systems are too fragmented to scale up these interventions. This weak infrastructure, combined with the shortage of over 4 million health care professionals and the high cost of training doctors, presented a need for a local worker to fill this health care void. A Community Health Worker (CHW) was implemented at the village level to provide individual care that was effective, culturally appropriate, and economical. The WHO defines CHWs as “members of the communities where they work, should be selected by the communities, should be answerable to the communities for their activities, should be supported by the health system, but not necessarily a part of the organization, and have shorter training than professional workers” . The public health community has overwhelmingly demonstrated that CHWs can increase community development and access to health services. We therefore decided to investigate whether a similar model – a Community Technology Worker (CTW) – could be introduced to aid in the adoption of clean stoves.
This work was piloted in Shirati, Tanzania, a town of ~50,000 on the edge of Lake Victoria, near the Kenyan border. Kubwana and Michire are two sub-villages in Shirati. Kubwana is a larger, electrified trading area with the regional hospital, small shops, and unofficial vendors selling vegetables, fruit, and charcoal. Michire is closer to the lake and has a smaller trading post without grid electrification – some shops have a single solar panel. A local NGO, ReachShirati, helped identify trusted community members, Mary from Michire and Nayome from Kubwana, to each start with 15 households. The local LPG company, Mihan Gas, was brought in to provide a day long safety training to supplement the manuals and explanations we provided on the LPG stove. The women then taught the families how to use the gas stove and provided educational and safety pamphlets in the native language that were supplemented with pictorial content for those who cannot read. They promised to always be available for questions or concerns. Mary and Nayome would check-in weekly with the households to conduct a short survey to gauge fuel use, but more importantly, they continue to provide support and encouragement to the families. After a year of surveys and rounds of interviews, the results show that roughly 80% of families report sustained, regular refilling of LPG cylinders. This is a relatively high rate of adoption compared to other LPG and improved biomass cookstove interventions.
A CTW does not remove all barriers to gas adoption. Economic difficulties and cooking materials stand in the way of full adoption. However, these results do suggest that a CTW does mitigate many of the obstacles through education and maintenance support.
To further bolster the effectiveness of the CTW model and encourage families to refill their LPG cylinder, we are continuing to conceptualize with other disciplines, specifically economics and microfinance. The research is attempting to expand and offer households an opportunity to opt into a savings bank option to promote accountability and a formal financial mechanism.
Our work is not the only clean cooking initiative to reach across disciplines and innovate to reach the world’s poor. There are many prominent ventures on the horizon in clean cooking, such as pay-as-you-cook SmartGas from Envirofit and Inyeryeri’s firewood pellet stove – one of the few biomass stoves to meet the Tier 4 Emission Criteria set by the WHO. These enterprises are combining disciplines with IT & computer science, mechanical engineering, and economics. This cross-disciplinary work is crucial to attack the most pressing environmental and global health issues. As we face a warming climate and growing health implications from the burning of biomass, it is all the more important for the sustainable development community to work together and lean on new ideas and identify proven bright spots, even those from different disciplines. We cannot look for solutions in silos; rather, we must reach out across disciplines and topics to achieve a sustainable future.
We must not forget to incorporate the most important aspect from both CHWs and CTWs – the human contact of local outreach. In theory, reach and scale are easily and quickly attainable even without physical visiting. However, even companies like Envirofit, who pursue large-scale cookstove deployment mostly through IT-based communication, admit that “while investing in training resources increases costs, it also increases adoption”.
The advantage of this model for cooking over an IT-based solution (i.e. text message education or reminders) is the flexibility and resilience inherent to a human-led initiative. Human workers can respond and adapt to the specific issues of the household and provide helpful advice; an automated text message is easily ignored and cannot adapt to specific circumstances. Households are more likely to adopt improved stoves if they have had prior exposure to a trusted individual or organization promoting the product. Additionally, these local trainers could be utilized to solve other community problems, such as water and sanitation technology or mini-grids. An interdisciplinary solution can be employed to solve a multitude of disciplinary problems.
The focus group reiterated the importance of community between the CTW and the households. For example, one woman said, “we have become friends, we greet each other, you find out what the problem is and you help. If there is a problem, we find a solution.” As the women of Shirati support each other within this program, so should the fields in sustainable development. Beyond an expanded study that couples this model with a savings bank as mentioned above, this work could become a strong private-public partnership. Mirroring the CHWs in Tanzania, LPG companies could coordinate their village LPG dealers with local governments to adopt this model, empower their communities from within, and work towards clean fuel adoption for decades to come. Community-based outreach and interdisciplinary solutions are invaluable in the effort to provide access and ensure adoption of clean energy for cooking and beyond.
 Clean Cooking Alliance, “Tanzania,” 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.cleancookingalliance.org/country-profiles/41-tanzania.html. [Accessed: 30-Oct-2019].
 G. Health, “Community and Formal Health System Support for Enhanced Community Health Worker Performance A U.S. Government Evidence Summit FINAL REPORT Content,” 2012.
 Envirofit, “COOKING IN ONE MILLION KITCHENS: Lessons Learned in Scaling a Clean Cookstove Business,” 2015.
For a recent article in The Beam, on gender, technology and cooking, click here.
This article by Grace Mbungu and Daniel Kammenwas featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition.The challenge of providing clean cooking energy services to over 2.7 billion peopleand 850 million or more without reliable electricity services worldwide is a daunting challenge. However, this is a battle that must be won, with no one left behind. The failure poses enormous burdens and risks to human livelihoods and general wellbeing. For example, the health impacts of exposure to indoor and ambient air pollution resulting from the production and consumption of biomass and fossil fuels are known to be the largest driver of the burden of disease worldwide. Moreover, the unsustainable production and consumption of biomass and fossil fuels undermine the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and climate change mitigation efforts underscored in the Paris Agreement.
While there is progress in this campaign, efforts to date have remained largely technocratic and often simplistic. This is perhaps no surprise given the excitement and potential that improved cookstoves, lower and lower cost of solar panels and other energy-related technologies have shown in other parts of the world. However, technological stand-alone approaches are often ignorant of the complexity of energy access challenges, especially the individual and contextual factors that limit their acceptance and effectiveness, especially in poor and marginalised communities.
The trap of singular approaches to energy challenges
When it comes to designing energy access solutions for the poor in the Global South, singular and often disconnected opportunities are presented or highlighted. For example, the current energy access discourse has electricity access in one box and cooking energy access in another different box. Rarely are these two processes seen as connected and complementary. However, singular approaches present a missed opportunity no amount of technological innovation could solve. Instead, such gaps warrant a holistic understanding of the challenges and opportunities within local contexts, as well as strategic approaches to account for the diversity of needs and to take advantage of available opportunities.
Multiple and diverse needs
Energy needs are not sought in isolation, and can therefore only be understood and addressed in the broader context of other unmet and emerging needs. However, while current cooking energy solutions address important environmental and climate change goals, they underestimate the struggles faced by households in many parts of the world to achieve broader individual and social needs. In the end, however, end-users have been known to prioritise immediate and existential needs and not the astuteness of technology itself. The reality is that immediate and existential needs are not in conflict with the need to protect the environment and mitigate climate change. However, acceptable and effective energy solutions call for honest reflections on current and past interventions, collaborations with all relevant stakeholders, and a depth of research that has been lacking, especially in the cooking energy access discourse.
"At the local level, men, often not involved in cooking activities within the household, dominate the sector as energy service providers."
Energy production and consumption are inherently human and societal affairs
While technological development is primarily a scientific endeavour, the individual and social acceptance, demand drives, and access dynamics are social and contextual in nature. For example, despite the Kenyan government effort to regulate the production and distribution of charcoal, its dominance in both rural and urban areas has become difficult to unsettle. This is strong evidence that clean cooking and climate energy solutions are not only about technological development or progressive and climate-friendly policies but instead are also about having a willing and able coalition on the ground to implement them.
Design and implementation of energy access solutions
Whereas the development of cooking energy solutions has been predominantly dominated by technocrats, their implementation has also been dominated by external aid and charitable organisations. At the local level, men, often not involved in cooking activities within the household, dominate the sector as energy service providers. We see this image often: a room full of women and children, a man is on stage demonstrating the use and value of biomass improved cookstoves.
The importance of direct and meaningful involvement and empowerment of first-hand users ( mainly women) to become the face and voice of change processes was demonstrated by the BBC news in a story on the Water Wise women initiative in Jordan. It showed that despite the efforts by the government to address water waste from leaking pipes, progress was only made when women got involved in the process. The engagement of women as water stewards was crucial because they were the primary water users within the household and hence knew best where the leakages were, which saved time and human resources. An added advantage was the empowerment of women with income-generating activities and financial independence to address other everyday needs. Hence, the empowerment of women as producers, consumers and custodians of cooking energy services can prove instrumental in the cooking energy access processes, because it has the potential to generate interest among women beyond the household circles, improved service provision, and empower women with skill and income-generating activities needed for the sustainable access of clean cooking energy solutions. Hardware lessons are often country and region-specific, but the need to empower both stove suppliers and end-users to create useful stoves and viable economic and distribution models for stoves that people truly want is the goal of virtually every local to global organisation and agency.
Use context, in-built conditions, and immediate living environments
The ultimate goal of pursuing universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable energy is to improve the quality of life and general wellbeing of current and future generations. While technological improvements play an important role in meeting these objectives, their effectiveness is limited if implemented in inappropriate social and environmental conditions. For example, it is difficult to imagine how the use of biomass improved cookstove (ICS), or any clean cooking energy solutions, could be effective in enhancing health and general wellbeing of the residents of Kibera, under the current environmental and housing conditions. Overall, these examples demonstrate that technological-only focused energy access solutions and simplistic development approaches are unfit for addressing the ever-evolving energy and other complex global challenges.
Grace Mbungu is a junior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. Her research focus is on the social dimensions of energy access and transitions in developing country contexts.
Daniel Kammen is a professor and Chair of the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also a professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy, as well as in the Department of Nuclear Engineering. Kammen is the Founding Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (http://rael.berkeley.edu). Kammen has served as the Chief Technical Specialist for the World Bank for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, and as Science Envoy for the United States Department of State. He is a contributing partner to The Beam.
Meet the Laos Energy Modeling and Policy Analysis (Undergraduate!) Team:
The focus of this inter-disciplinary and inter-university research group is to develop sustainable energy, water, and land-use scenarios for Laos, and to work with local stake-holders on the costs and benefits for communities, the nation, and the regional commerce in energy, water, food, timber and other commodities.
Aaditee Kudrimoti Bio: Aaditee is a fourth-year at UC Berkeley studying political science and public policy with a concentration in energy, development, and international relations. Aaditeeis originally from Tucson, Arizona, where she began to develop an interest in international environmental affairs. At UC Berkeley, Aaditeeis working on projects in the political economy of Chinese development finance, rural electrification, and collective action. Aaditeehas become especially interested in how the rise of renewable technology is influencing energy diplomacy around the world. She hopes to pursue a career in academia and public policy and work on governance tools to build the bargaining capacity of LDCs against MNCs, foreign state-owned enterprises, etc. on the subject of FDI and other types of investment. She sees SWITCH-Laos as having the potential to serve as a critical tool in assisting the increase of the Lao people’s bargaining power over FDI in the energy sector and thus their autonomy in determining their own economic development. Outside school, Aaditee’s interests include dance, food journalism, and cooking.
Alex LathemBio: Alex Lathem is a third-year undergraduate at Yale University. He is a physics major with several years of experience using programming languages, including Python SQL, C, and Bash, to analyze scientific data. Previous research projects Alex has worked on include astrometry of near-Earth asteroids and the creation of a Hubble curve through the analysis of Type Ia supernovae. Alex spent the summer of 2019 working on the SWITCH model for China, and is very excited to apply the skills he learned there to a version for Laos. Outside of research, Alex is also interested in music, video game design, linguistics, and history.
Ashley YipBio: Ashley is a second-year undergraduate studying environmental science with an emphasis in global politics. She moved to New Mexico, where she developed an interest in environmental affairs. At UC Berkeley, she is involved in a pre-law association that helped her explore her interest in law and how she may integrate that into environmentalism. Off campus, she is working on a sex education reform project in Singapore with the Ministry of Education. She is constantly exploring the intersection between policy, education, and the environment. She hopes to return home to Singapore and pursue a career in international environmental policy or law within Southeast Asia. Ashley chose to work on SWITCH-Laos not only because greening ASEAN's economic development is essential to tackling climate change, but also because she is familiar with the demographic. She has done research in regards to both urban and rural agriculture in Asia and the US, and led research for environmental management in business operations. Outside of school, her interests include climbing, hiking, piano, and camper vans.
Rachel NgBio: Rachel is a second-year Environmental Science and Data Science major. A Singapore-native, Rachel describes that SWITCH-Laos extremely important to her because it is an important step towards the energy security of Southeast Asia. She believes that the sustainable electrification of Southeast Asia is key to regional grid stability and energy trade. She is pursuing SWITCH-Laos as critical in leading the way towards sustainable electrification. Rachel is interested in the intersectionality between climate change and community, exploring how community based issues caused by climate change can be alleviated through data. Furthermore, Rachel is currently concerned about equal access to education and volunteers weekly as a mentor to elementary school students. In the future, she hopes to return to Singapore and guide environmental change through creating an ecosystem of sustainable communities and businesses. Her hobbies include dance, rock climbing and water sports.
People are dying on the streets of San Francisco: in tents, on crosswalks, and on bikes. While not alike in circumstance nor cause, these tragedies share one similarity: they are entirely preventable deaths, with complementary policies available to prevent them. Quite simply, they involve less horizontal space for cars, and more vertical space for homes. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors doesn’t seem to care.
People are dying in Mozambique and Malawi. Entire cities drowned in the floods from a historic cyclone. The polar ice caps are melting and the oceans are warming at unprecedented rates. Climate change is an impending geopolitical and ecological catastrophe. This, again, is entirely preventable: a necessary but insufficient component of that involves fewer cars and more homes in San Francisco and other urban centers in coastal California. Cities around the world need to drastically cut down on their carbon footprints. But City Hall doesn’t seem to care.
Words and Deeds
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently declared a Climate Emergency, and passed legislation reauthorizing an ongoing Shelter Crisis. But they continue to oppose policies that would reduce subsidized space for private car travel (a corporate giveaway if there ever was one), and add more space for housing. They do not seem to care that their fellow human beings are dying and will continue to die.
San Francisco is supposed to be a Transit First City. Such a policy has been on the books since the 1970s. Yet as recently as last year, Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Aaron Peskin sought to restructure the city’s transportation bureaucracy to seize control over their parking and car traffic regulations. Supervisor Fewer has vocally opposed congestion pricing for single-occupancy vehicles and has been critical of Geary’s Bus Rapid Transit project—because evidently, the private takeover of public street space is fine if done by personal automobiles, but not by charter buses. The Board generally has been slow to take action on traffic safety, but quick to grandstand against factional rivals in both public and private sectors.
More damningly, a supermajority of the Board passed a resolution opposing State Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50, the most important state policy at the nexus of housing, transportation, and climate change.
The bill needs little introduction if you have followed California news lately. If passed, SB 50 would mandate higher densities around public transit, as well as high-performing schools and job centers, while exempting tenant-occupied housing (including single-family homes), requiring a minimum provision of affordable housing statewide, and deferring its implementation in low-income communities left vulnerable after decades of disinvestment and racial segregation. (Now take a deep breath.)
If you were to believe Supervisor Gordon Mar’s resolution opposing the bill, one might have the impression that the bill aims to throw renters to the wolves, replace fragile communities of once-affordable walk-up flats with towering infernos of five-story skyscrapers, and remake the City into a mere extension of Palo Alto and the Stanford campus. This doesn’t explain why affluent cities like Sunnyvale and Beverly Hills were among the first to oppose it.
“We should increase density, especially near transit, and we should update our zoning to allow this,” Supervisor Fewer said during the resolution’s Land Use Committee hearing. “The question isn’t whether we should build more housing or not—we must. It’s about what we build, how and for whom.” But so far, Fewer has made no proposals of the sort she said the City “should” pursue on density.
Their objections to SB 50 rest not only on a litany of oft-debunked falsehoods, but they are undermined by their utter silence on the state legislature’s many earnest efforts to protect vulnerable tenants and provide more subsidized affordable housing.
While some Supervisors such as Mar have made generally reactive gestures against local tech industry wealth, the Supervisors have otherwise been silent on state efforts to redistribute wealth. They appear to care more about continuing a partisan pissing match against the authors of SB 50 than supporting those same legislators’ efforts to enact progressive tax reform and fund affordable housing. Wiener himself has introduced an estate tax bill to counteract GOP-led regressive cuts in the federal tax code, while SB 50 coauthors Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Asm. Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) have introduced a corporate tax hike for the same reason. Meanwhile, San Francisco assembly members and SB 50 coauthor Phil Ting has introduced a bill requiring local inventories of surplus public land to prioritize for affordable housing. Not a peep from the Supervisors about these bills.
San Francisco was one of the only two counties to narrowly approve the November 2018 rent control reform measure, Proposition 10. While Assembly Bill 36 presents a politically risky new effort to reform the state’s rent control prohibition, where are the Supervisors with their resolution to support it? Perhaps they are just too busy opposing SB 50. AB 1482, from San Francisco’s other Assemblymember David Chiu, could establish statewide emergency rent caps. Where is the Board’s resolution to support this bill? Or how about Asm. Rob Bonta’s AB 1481 to establish statewide just-cause eviction protections? Evidently, opposing SB 50 is more important.
These other bills would limit the legal power of landlords such as Fewer and Mar, while SB 50 could sharply reduce their market power. Their silence on the former, and their disingenuous grandstanding against the latter, is consistent.
The Board resolution’s half-truths and misrepresentations of the bill have been debunkedat length by the Senator and others. The truth doesn’t seem to be the Supervisors’ chief concern, though. It is important to note their hints at a deeper motivation: deciding who gets to live in San Francisco, and exercising the power to hand-pick their constituents.
Concern for Whom?
Local control over land use means that incumbents get to choose “for whom” the City opens its gates—and the historical record quite plainly shows that these choices are seldom, if ever, equitable. Here’s a refresher on a recent quantitative study by UC Merced political scientist Jessica Trounstine, which we have cited before:
The general message coming from Supervisors is as simple as it is false: San Francisco is doing enough. Leave us alone.
Well, is it? According to the City’s Department of the Environment, San Francisco has slowly seen a 36% reduction in net emissions since 1990. Meanwhile, transportation accounts for the lion’s share of those emissions (45% at latest count), though this appears to gradually be decreasing. But these numbers are deceptive.
When I tried to compile a region-wide analysis of transportation emissions from the nine-county Bay Area, I ran into an insurmountable hurdle: the methodology had changed quite drastically around 2012. Rather than merely counting trips at their point of origin, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) developed a simulation of typical trips based on “travel analysis zones.” While analysts believe this data may be more robust, it renders pre-2012 comparisons to the present day essentially useless.
And an important caveat: “Our simulation model explicitly assumes that every worker living in the nine-county Bay Area also works in the nine-county Bay Area. This is, of course, not always true,” says the agency. Well, no shit.
San Francisco politicians sometimes speak as though every district in the City were equivalent to the vulnerable working-class of the Mission District circa 1990, or East Oakland and Vallejo today, where many former San Franciscans have since had to move. The genuine concern over market volatility upending marginalized communities is actually reflected in Wiener’s bill: many such census tracts with concentrated poverty and minority residents are those that Senate Bill 50 will temporarily exempt as “communities of concern.” But in terms of having affluent, expensive neighborhoods that compel longer commutes, the City as a whole has little in common with them. In this respect, San Francisco bears more resemblance to Marin County, a notorious violator of the Fair Housing Act.
By importing their workforces, Marin and San Francisco outsource their transportation emissions. A 2011 report by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH), a co-sponsor of SB50, outlined the climate and social equity impacts of Marin’s workforce and housing disparities. According to the California Employment Development Department and data from the American Community Survey (ACS), over a third of Marin’s workers commuted from outside the county. But in the latest census, San Francisco led the nation in workers commuting from other counties.
San Francisco’s leaders don’t seem interested in reversing this calamity. Its recent approval of the Central SoMa plan, which plans space for over 3 new jobs for every new housing unit, suggests that City Hall is unanimously eager to see booming job growth continue apace. But rejecting state reforms to plan for those workers to be housed nearby—some of whom indeed will earn six-figure salaries and earn the ire of lower-income workers struggling to stay in their homes—is just planning for accelerating displacement.
Nonprofit affordable housing developers don’t build multi-million dollar detached bungalows—they build apartment buildings with units numbering in the double digits, which are prohibited under current zoning in nearly three quarters of the City. Notably, though Supervisor Fewer has called for more affordable housing to be built, her District has not been rezoned for the densities that make it possible.
One would think that elected officials concerned about displacement would be rushing to add more housing to balance out the job growth they approved. Instead, Supervisor Matt Haney bravely stood up for abundant sunshine, leading a unanimous vote in rejecting a housing development on Folsom Street with 25% Below Market Rate homes, because it would cast shade on 18% of the area of a nearby park, for 100 minutes in the afternoon, during the longest day of the year. Haney campaigned on fighting for affordable housing, not against shadows—and if climate change continues apace, his future constituents may wish he had approved some cooling shade.
Under the status quo favored by the Supervisors’ majority bloc, jobs will keep coming, workers will be forced to move out and drive from farther away, and no affordable housing will be built in their tony suburban neighborhoods to balance that out. It’s a transparent sham that the mainstream press and alt-weeklies alike are calling out—but will that make the Supervisors care?
Growth is Good, Actually!
Some local Progressive-branded thinkers have intimated to me that the housing shortage and climate crisis is inherently a crisis of capitalism itself: that growth necessarily brings inequality and destruction. This of course ignores the experience of our most recent recessions, in which all but the wealthiest suffered the most.
It is true that American cities have been strained under periods of prosperity, and emissions have increased as production increases. But a city’s emissions come from its residents, and people make individual choices within their society—they generate emissions per capita that are increasingly a function of their dependence on the automobile. The latest report from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) notes that the bulk of our car trips won’t switch to carbon-free electric vehicles soon enough; we will need to reduce car trips by 25% meet the state’s emission reduction goals. Fewer car commutes, however, does not mean fewer workers.
When a job is lost, the corresponding human being does not disappear. They continue to look for work and consume, though perhaps they will move to a more affordable part of the country with a much larger carbon footprint, such as Texas or Arizona. California loses a taxpayer, San Francisco loses revenue to pay its pensioners and service providers, but the planet does not lose a consumer of resources. So limiting job growth to achieve sustainability, as proponents of the 1980’s Prop M office cap would hold today, is not a real choice we have now.
San Francisco has seen major economic growth along with both net and per capita emissions declining since 1990—but in the transportation sector, it is lagging significantly, as is the rest of the state. Urban infill and transit-oriented development is the most environmentally sustainable way for California’s economy to grow—not the inequitable, sprawling growth that has been the norm for too long.
To understand this complex issue, we turn to UC Berkeley climate scientist Dan Kammen’s work. Critically, Jones, Wheeler & Kammen et al (2018) found that emissions reductions were greater when urban infill development was concentrated within pockets of higher household income. In other words, packing rich people closer together reduces GHG output three times more than simply adding density wherever it is possible.
Infill development is a more potent emissions reduction strategy in rich neighborhoods, the authors argue, such as“most of San Francisco, and the wealthy hillside of the East Bay.” Why? “While these neighborhoods have higher than average carbon footprints, they have lower than average carbon footprints for their income level. Low carbon footprint cities that make housing available at all income levels help share the burden of meeting housing demand, while lessening the impact on the climate across the population.”
This should come as no surprise. Rich people consume more, and can afford the poverty trap of car ownership more easily. When they don’t drive, their emissions fall more steeply. Already, San Francisco workers drive alone at a rate less than half of the national average. And further, research from UC Berkeley’s Terner Center and Urban Displacement Project has predicted that SB 50 will focus more market-rate housing production precisely in the affluent, high-opportunity neighborhoods that exclude it today.
But does this mean our climate solutions should exclude the poor from our booming cities? Of course not.
Take the recent research on Seattle by sociologists Rice et al (2019), which found that gentrification in Seattle resulting from Amazon’s infusion of high-paying tech jobs displaced lower-income residents with smaller footprints out to far-flung suburbs. This describes the status quo in many American cities, not the Smart Growth policy suggested by SB 50 and its proponents. As the authors noted: “In so far as densification paired with climate policy remains limited to parts of cities only, rather than the urban fabric as a whole, evidence strongly suggests that gentrification seriously undermines GHG reduction efforts.”
The goal of smart housing policy and evidence-based climate solutions should be to increase residential capacity in low-carbon urban cores, not a zero-sum, one-to-one replacement that outsources poverty to suburbs that lack a strong commercial tax base to support its safety net.
It should come as no surprise that Kammen’s research on hundreds of California municipalities predicts significant emissions reductions from urban infill development in places like San Francisco. This is not the case in more rural and suburban counties like Stanislaus County, where carbon-intensive sprawl absorbs displaced urban growth.
SB 50 presents a radical departure from the status quo in enabling California cities to grow more equitably and sustainably. It would expand affordable housing requirements to many cities in California that currently don’t have them. It explicitly prohibits the demolition and redevelopment of tenant-occupied housing and recently Ellis-evicted properties (something a statewide rental registry could help enforce), and it targets high-opportunity suburbs that have seen major job growth, but currently lack good transit, to discourage car traffic.
Again, while Supervisor Fewer insisted that she wanted to see more permanently affordable nonprofit housing in her district, she has made no effort to rezone District 1 to allow for the densities at which it can be built. Indeed, in most of the city, it is still illegal to build even the low-rise apartment buildings that pencil out for nonprofits, and SB 50 can change that. It is exactly the kind of policy the world’s top climate scientists and gentrification critics should be lining up to support—which is why Kammen co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times with Sen. Wiener to support it.
The evidence is consistent on averting climate disaster, and on eliminating traffic deaths: people need to drive less, and drive slower. Meanwhile, the City has had data on its High-Injury Network of deadly streets for years, and has well-documented numbers on car commutes comprising the lion’s share of its emissions. Given that it seems to take grisly, well-publicized cyclist deaths to impel the political action for protected bike lanes, what will it take to truly make San Francisco a car-last, Transit First city? Will City Hall wait until the Ferry Building is underwater before acting with any urgency to take some unpopular decisions? What will it take to replace on-street parking spots with bus lanes, or block some sunshine new apartments in western neighborhoods?
In light of all this evidence, San Francisco constituents should all have one question on their mind: do your Supervisors care? We should all be furious that so much evidence suggests they do not—and whatever happens after that, is called politics.