The State of Green: A look at the sustainability movement in Memphis

Published July 31, 2012

Memphis Daily News – Published July 30, 2012 by Bill Dries

There are many shades of green.

And the use of the term “green” to describe public policies, business practices and other decisions designed to improve or sustain natural surroundings and our connection with them touches on so many other considerations.

Those considerations are what make the assessment of the state of “green” in Memphis no small undertaking.

Some Memphians might flash on the Overton Park Conservancy or Shelby Farms Park Conservancy when they hear the “G” word used. For others the appearance of bicycle lanes across the county might come to mind as well as the various greenlines inside and outside Memphis that are beginning to connect like branches on a tree.

But the pursuit of green often comes with the considerations of cost and the same challenges that come with bringing any idea or concept to scale.

The infrastructure of green is proving to be just as complex as the traditional infrastructure it is growing alongside.

The Memphis Area Transit Authority’s move to a bus rapid transit (BRT) concept – express routes with fewer stops and fewer forays into neighborhoods – began quietly in December with a 22 Poplar Express route. It was so quiet, it was a factor in the MATA board’s decision to end the Poplar Express effective Aug. 1, less than a year after it started.

“I don’t feel that that was really legitimate,” MATA board member Chooch Pickard said. “I just think that doesn’t bode well for the BRT vision long term if we can’t get our most popular route as an express route. And I think part of the reason for that is that we didn’t market it properly.”

“I can’t disagree with that,” said MATA president and general manager Will Hudson. “All I can tell you is it was a service that was not being used.”

Meanwhile, most of the federal money is secured for an Elvis Presley Boulevard Express bus route to go with changes in the streetscape between Brooks Road and Shelby Drive. A bid for more federal funding to buy more buses was denied by federal transportation officials in a competitive grant program.

But U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis said he worked to move up other federal funding that passes through the state by two years for the Elvis Presley Boulevard streetscape improvements. Cohen also questioned the need for more buses in a session with The Memphis News editorial board.

“I don’t know that that’s something the people in Whitehaven are clamoring for and in need of,” he said. “The reality is if we got that $10 million – $9 million of it at least would have been a check to the bus company that makes the buses in Toledo or Rochester. We would have had no jobs and no economic benefit. We would have had buses we bought.”

Meanwhile, Memphis voters will probably vote in November on a city charter amendment to create a one-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax giving MATA a dedicated and continuing source of revenue. The council takes the third and final vote to put the item on the Nov. 6 ballot at its Aug. 7 meeting.

The revenue, estimated by Memphis City Council member and sponsor Edmund Ford Jr., would be $3 million to $6 million a year.

As the Poplar Express stalled, greenline plans and bicycle lanes have grown like weeds in the summer heat.

The Shelby Farms Greenline has the funding to expand farther east along the old CSX rail line into the old town part of Cordova with plans for a bicycle and pedestrian crossing of Germantown Parkway on the horizon.

Bicycle lanes on the stretch of North McLean Boulevard between Poplar Avenue and North Parkway were marked before there was time for much of a debate about on street parking on the tree lined segment with few side streets. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s compromise was to make them bicycle lanes by day and on street parking by night.

It was a quicker adjustment less than a year after the installation of the only set of bicycle lanes to be widely debated – the Madison Avenue bike lanes.

Since their Thanksgiving installation, on-street parking in and close to Overton Square has been the most visible change in the Madison streetscape. Use of the bicycle lanes has been more noticeable in the square but about the same elsewhere.

The controversy split the business community on Madison, between Cleveland Street and Cooper Street. But this month, those same business owners came together to form the Madison Avenue Business Association, a coalition that came together because of the difference of opinion.

The best place for a state of green address in Shelby County might be Agricenter International. It is the neighbor of Shelby Farms Park and the Greenline that links up with the Wolf River Greenway that is on Agricenter Property.

East of the trail and the pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the Wolf that is part of the trail is the solar array opened at Agricenter International in April. It is the largest tracking array in the state, meaning its panels move with the sun.

Its opening came at the sunset of a Tennessee Valley Authority incentives program that made possible the larger arrays that generate a megawatt of electricity.

“The program has been cut back so drastically. Our system size is capped at five percent of what it was two years ago,” said LightWave Solar Electric LLC founder and president Steve Johnson. The company designed and installed the Agricenter array. “We used to be able to do a megawatt like we did at Agricenter and that was the tail end of those contracts. And now it’s not available anymore. Now we’re limited to 50 kilowatts. That’s 1/20th – 5 percent.”

TVA Renewable Energy Programs Director Patty West said in April the focus has shifted to put a premium on smaller arrays on more rooftops.

“We’re transforming our program so the Generation Partners (program) … is now being focused on smaller systems,” she said. “That’s really to spread it out and get a more distributed generation and more jobs, more opportunities to be dispersed through the valley.”

Johnson said most of the installation LightWave does is commercial, but he acknowledges residential is growing. He argues for a coexistence.

“Why not do both?” Johnson said. “TVA is probably a little behind on the pricing. Solar is actually competitive with nuclear now on the localized cost of energy. It’s much simpler to build and much less risk. We would like to see TVA diversify their portfolio of energy sources. They’ve really helped drive solar. Personally I wish they weren’t backing down so much. They say it’s expensive. But there was just a $2 billion cost overrun on the Watts Bar nuclear plant.”

In one of the fields further north of Walnut Grove Road and the solar array, sweet sorghum crops are growing. A three-year old Memphis biomass company, BioDimensions Delta BioRenewables has moved into a building that once housed a mulch company.

BioDimensions has teamed with development company EPEC to move closer to commercializing the processing of the sugar from the sorghum into fuels. EPEC is more interested in ethanol that the industrial sugar-based products. See our story on that on page X.

EPEC president and CEO Ronald Miller has a perspective that goes back to the late 1970s when alternative energy sources began to be discussed in the wake of the Arab oil embargo. He admits capital investors have been burned and burned badly by investments in alternative energy.

The costs of some of those alternatives are now competitive enough that he believes the effect of rising and lowering gas prices isn’t that much of a factor. But government standards about the amount of ethanol in gasoline haven’t hurt either.

“The alternative energy industries do not control the gasoline distribution system in the U.S. … Unless you have some requirement that they use more alternatives, you could very easily be locked out of the marketplace,” Miller said. “If you’re a company who sees the threat of cheaper alternatives coming into the market, it’s in your best interest to keep that from happening as long as you can. The equalizer out there is the national standard and the amount of ethanol that you can put in a gallon of gasoline which is now going up to 15 percent.”

Not far from the Agricenter array and the sorghum fields is the office of Greene Turbine LLC, whose founder and CEO – Geoff Greene – is working on development and production of what looks like a piece of public art. It is a prototype of a 35-foot underwater turbine he wants to use to produce power in the Mississippi River.

In designing the turbine, Greene has had to deal with water, which is 800 times denser than the wind that powers windmills and has enough power in its movement to break off the blades of a windmill.

“Most people think you can take a windmill, water-proof it, turn it upside down and stick it in the river,” he told The Memphis News’ sister publication The Daily News earlier this month. “The problem is that when they scale it to be bigger, it slows down.”

Greene’s research has already taken him to the river where he’s tested a prototype 18 feet in diameter for about 30 minutes.

Like his neighbors at Agricenter, he is looking for a different kind of green to make the newer green a way of life – capital.