Friday, January 25, 2013


Most good ideas, or at least groundbreaking ideas, are just the combination of two or more normal ideas from different disciplines.  The person who had the good idea just happened to be the one exposed to both normal ideas and wondered if there might be a connection.  So, in order to get a good idea, a person needs to be interested in diverse things, and lucky.

One such good idea, at least in my opinion, garnered enough interest from my friends that they said I should start this blog.  So here it is.

Problem/Idea #1: Dirty Fuel Oil

Maybe a year ago, I read this article or one similar to it.  In case you don't have time to read it, here's the main points:
  • Years ago, most of NYC was heated by furnaces that use heating oil.  
  • They chose it because "bunker oil" was cheap, so people tolerated the fact that it was very sooty and gross.
  • Then it stopped being cheap.
  • Then people started to care about air quality.
  • Most buildings in NYC have either switched to cleaner oil, or natural gas for heating.
  • Many hold-out buildings remain, mostly because they lack the funds to switch.
  • Many of those hold-out buildings are Public Schools.
  • The conversion to cleaner oil costs only $8000, but doesn't solve the problem of using no-longer-cheap and still-not-very-clean heating oil.
  • To convert the boiler from heating oil to natural gas usually means an asbestos abatement, which means shutting down the school for a while, and about $1M to do the conversion.
I read this article (or one like it), said "wow, that's an interesting problem," and then reached for another soda.

Problem/Idea #2:  Hurricane Sandy

I live in an area of Manhattan that, for one week, was given the name SoPo:  South of Power.  Most of Manhattan below 39th street lost power around 9pm on Monday, the night the storm made landfall, and remained that way until just before 5pm on Friday.  Most.  Not all.  In particular, one of the NYU faculty buildings still had power.

I learned this fact because I am friends with a couple who live in that building, and they were both out of town during the storm, so they offered to let me stay there while they were gone.  As a result, I was able to maintain a pretty high level of comfort while nearby millionaires wandered about aimlessly searching for a hot shower and cell phone reception.

How did this one building have power when no one else did?  Well, that building has a CHP (Combined Heat and Power) Co-generation power plant.  It's basically turning the idea of a boiler upside down.  instead of just heating water, A CHP generates electricity, and uses the waste heat to heat water.  So your primary goal (hot water) is now a byproduct.  These power plants can be made small enough to service a single building.

Problem/Idea #3:  Planning a Roller Derby Bout ahead of a Hurricane

One of my hobbies is refereeing roller derby.  Our roller derby league had a bout scheduled for the Saturday before the storm was due to make landfall.  The bout was scheduled to be at City College of New York.  Once it seemed clear that the storm was headed our way, the college contacted us to let us know that the gym where we normally hold bouts was being set up as an evacuation shelter, and therefore no longer available for our bout.  We scrambled to find a new location, and ended up canceling the public bout.

The Good Idea

We should allocate some disaster relief funds from Hurricane Sandy toward removing all oil fueled boilers in public schools, and replace them with CHP power plants.  The reasons are as follows:
  • Public schools are relatively evenly distributed throughout the city.
  • Public schools of all levels already serve as emergency shelters, and most still have Fallout Shelter signs that were already quaint back when I was in school.  Current schoolchildren must consider them in the same category as hieroglyphics and cave art.
  • The school system isn't going to find money to do this on their own.
  • Parents are more likely to tolerate disruptions in the children's school if it is something that helps assuage a recent and pressing fear.
  • Asbestos is bad, and eventually it all needs to be carefully removed.
  • Asbestos abatement is a labor intensive job.  I've had friends who did it.  It's also low skill, so it doesn't take long to train people to do it.  In effect, it becomes a small jobs program.


Nothing here is all that revolutionary.  I just happened to be exposed to a few separate ideas (Schools still use heating oil, Schools are used as emergency shelters, Cogen facilities can create oases of civilization when the power goes out) that when finally exposed to another idea (Federal funds would be coming for disaster relief) gave birth to a Good Idea.

I've approached some people who have connections that could actually help implement this idea.  I welcome any further connections to help it become a reality.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why This Is Here

This blog is here because I spend a good deal of my leisure reading time on the topics of history, futurism, and urban planning.  Friends who get me started talking on any of those always seem a bit surprised that I've thought about the subject that much, and eventually ask why I don't get involved in that professionally (run for office, become an urban planner, etc).  The short answer is there is no money in it.  I have a career I already like (database programming), and it affords me a comfortable living in a very expensive city (Manhattan).  To switch careers now would involve years of school and acquisition of credentials just to enter a very crowded job market.  It's also possible that making it my career would take away the joy of the subject(s) for me.

So this blog exists primary to unburden my friends with my urban planning geekery, and maybe some of my ideas will catch the eye of someone in a position to act upon them.