Thursday, May 29, 2008

Honolulu's energy use: what the media missed in Brookings report

The Brookings Institution announced that Honolulu residents use less energy any other major U.S. city and Hawai'i's news media cheerily announced the results, without inspection.

(Image: Brookings Institution's map of city energy use.)

But there is a very dark side to the Brookings data that both daily newspapers missed entirely.

There is also a huge transportation fuel use flaw in the Brookings study.

And the Hawai'i media failed to explain clearly the key reason Honolulu's residential energy use numbers are low.

The Dark Side: Honolulu's use of energy and its carbon footprint grew at nearly 10 times the national average for major cities, up 10.24 percent from 2000 to 2005, according to the Brookings Institution study.

The Missing Side: If you want to go 100 miles out of town and you live in San Francisco, you generally drive, and your gasoline use is counted by Brookings. If you want to go 100 miles out of town in Honolulu (say, to Līhu'e or Kahului), you fly, and Brookings doesn't count that at all.

One Key Difference: Honolulu does so well in these calculations not because we are such good stewards of our energy use, but because of our subtropical climate. We don't use heating oil. Brookings ranked Honolulu first in the nation for its low use of residential fuels.

What it all means is that this study isn't comparing apples with apples, but you only got a hint of that in major news media coverage.

There are certainly worse records than Honolulu's 10.24 percent overall five-year increase in combined residential and transportation energy use for residential and ground transportation, like Dallas-Fort Worth's 11.05 percent and Chattanooga's amazing 48 percent.

But the majority of America's 100 top cites did far better than Honolulu, many of them cutting their emissions. Bakersfield cut its emissions by nearly 11 percent. Portland cut by almost 5 percent. San Francisco by 3 percent.

That's not the news you saw in the major Hawai'i media this morning. The Star-Bulletin declared Honolulu the nation's greenest city. The Advertiser called it the “best U.S. city” for its carbon dioxide production. The Advertiser's account did include a little useful perspective in the form of quotes from Sierra Club's Jeff Mikulina and the Department of Health's Laurence Lau.

Beyond the city-by-city comparisons, the Brookings report says that, nationwide, the picture is not good:

“America’s carbon footprint is expanding. With a growing population and an expanding economy, America’s settlement area is widening, and as it does, Americans are driving more, building more, consuming more energy, and emitting more carbon. Rising energy prices, growing dependence on imported fuels, and accelerating global climate change make the nation’s growth patterns unsustainable,” the organization says.

The Brookings city-by-city statistics are available here:

The Brookings report policy brief is here:

A Brookings table of energy use and emissons is here:

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate