Joe Cortright is a Strong Towns member who writes for City Observatory. The following article is republished from his site with permission.


The researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are hard at work on a lot of cool ideas for reducing pollution and promoting greater energy efficiency. They’re figuring out ways to improve photovoltaics and increase the efficiency of wind energy generation, and are a research leader in integrating these renewable energy sources into utility scale energy systems. The staff are also developing biofuels that could one day replace fossil fuels in transportation and other uses.  They have an entire program dedicated to transportation:

NREL research, development, and deployment (RD&D) accelerates widespread adoption of high-performance, low-emission, energy-saving strategies for passenger and freight transportation. Dedicated to renewable energy and energy efficiency, NREL and its industry, government, and academic partners use a whole-systems approach to create innovative components, fuels, and infrastructure for electric, hybrid, fuel cell, and conventional vehicles.

When the scientists working on the tough problems of how to maximize the use of renewables and minimize energy use and pollution are charged with building the place they work, you can bet they’ll put a lot of thought into how to make things as smart and efficient as possible. Their newest building is festooned with arrays of photovoltaic cells to generate electricity on site. They’ve also extensively modeled the daylighting of the building to minimize lighting requirements, and made thorough use of recycled materials.  The building’s lights are mostly on only at night, and only when motion detectors recognize occupants. This $31.5 million building is shooting to be LEED Platinum and even be a “net zero” energy structure.

Net zero, provided you ignore what its used for. (Haselden Construction).

Net zero, provided you ignore what its used for. (Haselden Construction).

But there’s one big environmental (and energy) problem with this shiny new structure:  It’s an 1,800 space parking garage.  Not only that, but (if you’re Donald Shoup, please don’t read this) they don’t charge employees anything to use the garage.  The whole thing strikes us as utterly tone deaf and a flat contradiction to the organization’s mission statement. So, in addition to the lab being located in a suburban office park on the fringe of the Denver metro area, its employees are strongly incentivized–nay, subsidized–to drive their private cars to work.  And that’s exactly what an overwhelming majority of them do.

A giant, free garage encourages energy consumption and pollution

We contacted the Lab to learn more about commute patterns and parking policies.  They shared with use the mode split from their latest (2014) commuting survey.  Not surprisingly, about two-thirds of all workers drive alone to work daily, almost ten times the share that either carpool or vanpool:

  • Drive alone – 65%
  • Transit – 14%
  • Telework – 9%
  • Carpool – 5%
  • Bicycle – 4%
  • Vanpool – 2%
  • Motorcycle/Scooter – 1%
  • Walk – 0%

These figures represent typical commute patterns. As many as a quarter of lab employees telework at least some days, and the lab estimates that telework offsets about 9 percent of commute trips.

We have an abundance of proven technologies that are “high-performance, low-emission, energy-saving strategies” — they include dense cities, cycling, transit, walking and car pooling.

We asked about parking prices for commuters.  Lissa Myers, who is the Lab’s Sustainable Transportation &  Climate Change Resiliency Practice Leader told us: "Parking is free on our campus and we have an abundance of it."

That’s the problem, really.  We have an abundance of proven technologies that are “high-performance, low-emission, energy-saving strategies”–they include dense cities, cycling, transit, walking and car pooling.  But technologies don’t work, or don’t work well if we subsidize people to use energy-wasting alternatives and locate large concentrations of workers in places where they have few alternatives but to drive single-occupancy vehicles.

Location, location, location

Because the lab is located on the urban fringe, rather than in a central, transit served location (like say, downtown Denver) its employees have few nearby housing options that would let them bike, walk or take transit to work. The lab has a Walk Score of 30 (out of a possible 100) making it “car dependent”–the nearest coffee shops, restaurants and grocery stores are more than a half mile away, and generally on the other side of the I-70 freeway, meaning that if employees leave the lab for errands or a meal, its most likely they’ll drive.

Image from WalkScore

Image from WalkScore

Promoting renewable energy (and energy conservation and greenhouse gas reductions) is a matter of both technology and incentives. An agency that’s supposedly dedicated to these tasks ought to do a better job of aligning its policies with its mission. There’s little hope that people will use a non-polluting bicycle or take transit to work, for example, if they have free use of parking.

Excess capacity

We also have to note that the capacity of the NREL garage relative to the size of the institution is enormous. The garage, completed in 2012, contains 1,800 spaces, while the lab has just 1,500 employees.  So that’s about 300 spaces more than are needed to provide one space per employee.  Based on the lab’s mode split, only slightly more than 1,000 spaces are occupied per day (about 975 by single occupancy commuters, about 30 more by carpools if we assume 2.5 workers per carpool), and about 6 spaces for van pools (assuming six workers per van pool) and the equivalent of 8 spaces by motorcycles and scooters (assuming 2 two-wheelers per parking space).  

Aerial view of NREL Parking structure and adjacent surface lot (Google Maps)

Aerial view of NREL Parking structure and adjacent surface lot (Google Maps)

That means the garage has almost 75 percent more capacity (1,800 spaces supplied for about 1,025 vehicles) than is needed to house NREL’s worker’s vehicles–and at a price of zero to the users.  (To be sure, the garage also accommodates visitors, but that doesn’t materially affect our analysis. According to the NREL’s economic impact statement, the lab gets about 25,000 visitors per year, which works out to about 100 visitors per day; if they each needed a parking space for an entire day, that would work out to about 100 parking spaces. In reality, typical demand would be less because most visitors stay less than an entire day and many arrive in multi-occupancy vehicles or via transit or hired vehicles).

It’s only zero net energy if you completely ignore the energy used by the cars it’s designed to store.

Having built the garage, there are powerful bureaucratic incentives to see it as full as possible; that, and employee resistance to having to pay for something that they’ve been given for free, means this problem is likely to persist. It’s hard to say what’s worse: an over-sized garage that’s mostly empty (representing a waste of resources that could be better used for other things, like say research on clean energy) or a garage that’s nearly full of single-occupancy vehicles (because it's free to users).

As we’ve suggested, and as our colleague Tony Jordan reminds us, dedicated parking garages are likely to become big stranded assets with the advent of autonomous vehicles. But it looks like that’s not something that’s on NREL’s mind.  The agency’s construction manager Tony Thornton tells the American Galvanizer’s Association NREL wanted a building that would last  for a 100 years. Whatever they’re planning for renewable energy, it doesn’t look like they expect it to influence car ownership or driving patterns if they expect their parking garage to be around through 2100.

The claim that a parking garage can be “zero net energy” requires casting a blind eye to the structure’s central purpose. It’s only zero net energy if you completely ignore the energy used by the cars it’s designed to store, and if you ignore how building garages and subsidizing their use prompts more driving, more energy consumption and more pollution.


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