Holistic Thinking About A Local Problem

"Love everyone, and tell the truth." Neem Karoli Baba

In these columns I have presented the perspective of whole-systems thinking based on an interconnected reality. Today I focus on a local issue: Costco. For the record, I have been a Costco member for decades.

The Costco business model is highly dependent on low cost fossil fuels for production, shipping, and customers, at a time when this global model is under stress and may not be viable within a decade. It pulls retail dollars out of the local economy and exports them elsewhere, the opposite of "buy local". While Costco will provide some good paying jobs and increased city tax revenues, it produces nothing new, so these jobs and tax incomes are only redistributed from elsewhere in the region. Despite these limitations, the apparent benefit to Ukiah led to project approval, and construction should start soon.

Ukiah is fortunate to have a publically owned power system, which has reliably supplied mostly renewable power, at low prices, for over a century. Over 70% of our power comes from the geyser fields south of us. This source has a fixed capacity, limited by water injection to maintain steam production. Costco has significant energy requirements: the warehouse is air-conditioned, well lit, and uses multiple large coolers and freezers. To power Costco, Ukiah Muni will need a bigger share of the geysers power, meaning less for others, or additional power from other, perhaps non-renewable sources, will need to be found.

We live at the end of a long power line, with almost no local production. Our power is subject to disruption by auto accidents, fires, storms, earthquakes, solar flares, and cyber weapons. Outages can last from minutes to months, in the worst case. Without power, Costco will lose business, food will spoil, and the gas station won't pump gas. If they have any backup power generation planned, it is probably fossil fueled and limited.

Let's suppose that Costco wanted to be a real asset to the community, more than just a retail outlet. When you install solar equipment, you are paying for decades of electricity up front, with no further cost, since the actual power is free. If Costco in Ukiah installed a minimal solar array and battery storage, they could power their freezers with no loss of product during short outages.

If they installed enough solar panels and battery storage to be energy independent, not only would they not burden the existing power system, they could provide resilient emergency preparedness, a vital asset for the community in a time of need. During the Katrina disaster, ice and gas were in great demand. Costco would be able to provide those essentials, and more, for the long haul.

A further solar expansion would allow them to make a positive energy contribution to normal operation of the community. The large parking lot proposed for this project will contribute to the heat island effect, making the valley floor even hotter as summer temperature continue to increase. By putting solar array shade structures on the lot, that heating is eliminated, and customer's cars will be cooler, reducing auto AC loads. The structures would also protect customers during rain, and could collect rainwater to be stored for irrigation, or slowly released back into the aquifer. This collection would also reduce the amount of hydrocarbon products washed from the parking lot into the local watershed.

The power produced from an expanded array would help Ukiah Muni reduce the non-renewable part of the production budget. The parking lot array might be funded as a joint venture with Costco, Ukiah Muni, and perhaps local solar investment groups. With this as an example, maybe all large city parking lots could be covered with solar shade arrays, helping to move Ukiah toward a zero carbon energy budget, and perhaps inspire other communities to follow suit.

These are possible alternatives to the existing plan. They would require Costco executives, and local leaders to have a collective vision, courage, and awareness that the climate issue needs to be addressed now. Even if we eliminate all carbon emissions today, the CO2 currently in the atmosphere insures a radically hotter future. This optimistic view assumes we still have time to make changes to deal with a critical and imminent problem.