Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not April Fools: a car from IKEA?

For those of you who do not speak French, IKEA France and WWF France had announced some kind of car deal that would be better for the environment. Rumor had it that this was basically car-sharing and possibly with electric cars. It would have been quite a feat indeed had IKEA managed to come up with an electric car that could be recharged at any of its stores and rented on some sort of membership basis.

But yesterday, just in time for the deal not to be confused with an April fools joke, IKEA took this site live. Some will, no doubt, be disappointed because IKEA intentionally made this out to be the presentation of a new car called Leko. After lifting the curtain, the French presenter says:

"You don't see anything? But it is there: the Leko. It is the car you already have -- or the car you do not have. The concept is much bigger than a simple automotive concept."

The site is a platform for carpooling to IKEA stores. (I wonder where you will put your new Billy shelf once the back seat is full of strangers.) While car-pooling is great, car-sharing is an even better idea. It would be great if we could cut the number of cars in our towns in half by sharing them (statistically, your average car sits around 95 percent of the time), and it is also great when you can simply walk outside and take exactly the car you need (a van for large groups or transport, a small car for efficiency). There really are no drawbacks to car-sharing -- or at least there would not be if it were implemented on a grand scale.

One of the main obstacles in German car-sharing programs is that you cannot join with your own car, so everyone who already has a car and would like to join faces the same membership fees and usage fees as those who join without a car. Your only option is to sell your car.

IKEA's new car-pooling proposal is not a new idea in France, and Germany has long had Mitfahrzentralen. Before the days of the Internet, students would post their messages on a central bulletin board somewhere at the university, and everything was done informally. Later, offices opened up where you could call in your request for a small fee (roughly a few dollars), and you would share gas costs with the other people.

Too bad IKEA's new idea is an old one. It would have been interesting if their platform had included the option of contributing your vehicle in a car-sharing scheme. Incidentally, in Germany and the US, Mercedes is now testing a kind of car-sharing with only Smart cars. Maybe one day they will include vans and 5-seaters...

Modern business models

Petite Planète is a translation agency that could not have existed when I got my masters degree in 1992. The team of nearly 10 people is spread across various parts of Germany, England, and even down to a Scotsman in Portugal. All of the work we do takes place over the Internet, which is essentially our shared office space.

While some people like to check out of the office completely on vacation, I prefer to take my business with me for an hour or so a day in order to get more weeks on the road (I have been averaging around 10 weeks of travel in the past few years). A mobile Internet connection is crucial for this purpose.

Unfortunately, the European Union still primarily consists of independent countries, so a cell phone contract in Germany does you little good in any other European country. Life is much better in this respect in the US, where you can take your cell phone anywhere from Florida to Maine to Oregon and still pay the same rates.

In Europe, you generally pay at least €7-€9 per megabyte in a foreign country. A simple MP3 with three megabytes would then cost me somewhere between €20 and €30 -- for that price I could buy two CDs.

In the past few weeks, I have therefore been considering a roaming offer that Deutsche Telekom offers to business customers. It's not good -- you pay 75 euros a month for 150 megabytes of traffic with a minimum of three months, and that is on top of your normal monthly subscription rate -- but it's the only European data roaming offer out there.

I decided to get an iPhone and sign onto that extra European package for the three summer months. The whole thing was going to cost me 59 euros x 24 months plus two summers of roaming at 225 euros a pop, putting me around €1800. Quite a bit of money for me, but at least I get a fancy cell phone and a bit of protection from explosive roaming rates when I am traveling.

But Deutsche Telekom will have none of it. The salesperson at the shop told me that I am not a business customer because Petite Planète is not registered with the Chamber of Commerce here (we don't have to be). Actually, the salesperson had never even heard of that EU-wide data roaming package (I am getting really tired of knowing more than salespeople), but a call to a supervisor revealed that Deutsche Telekom had discontinued that rate a few weeks ago, so I can't have it. Nonetheless, the offer is still advertised online for business customers. There is no indication on the website that freelancers do not qualify as businesses. When I suggested to the salesperson that it might be his job to get customers like me to switch to Deutsche Telekom from another provider, he informed me that he had to "follow the rules" ("ich muß nach Vorschrift arbeiten").

No problem, I thought, I'll just stay with my current provider (o2) and buy the new Google Android cell phone. But the salesperson at a local electronics shop told me that this mobile phones home even when you are in a foreign country, and the function cannot be disabled. So even if you switch off all of the Internet connection settings on your Google phone, you will still probably have to pay more than €100 simply for crossing international borders within the EU. The Google cell phone was made for the US market, where roaming is not an issue. As a workaround, Deutsche Telekom has advised its German customers to leave their Google phones at home -- there is no software patch at the moment.

All of this is going to save me a lot of money because I am going to refrain from buying a new cell phone, and when I am abroad I will simply look for a café with free WiFi -- it's an inconvenience I would paid good money to get around, but European providers do not seem to want my money.

I don't understand current business models these days. I recently bought a large Cinema display from Apple, and when the thing got here it only had one port -- some newfangled thing that did not connect to my eight-month-old MacBook, much less my Vaio laptop. Apple's German hotline confirmed that there is no adapter on the market. The new Cinema displays apparently only connect to the new generation of MacBooks released last fall. So I had to return a €900 display because the manufacturer only provided a single connector that will serve less than 0.1 percent of the laptop market.

UPDATE: My colleague Tim send me this link about the EU's new policy: "The wholesale price of data roaming will be capped at one euro per megabyte from July 2009, falling to 80 euro cents from July 2010 and to 50 euro cents from July 2011." Still, T-Mobile's (retracted) offer for 150 MB at 75 euros is still better.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Letter from Las Vegas about Mars

Over the weekend, I received an email from Las Vegas, New Mexico (not Nevada). The sender is a radio talk show host who had me on his show a few years back. He says that a large wind farm is planned in his area, and the project has caused some commotion. Someone from his community apparently asked him to take a look at the Mars Hill project in Maine in an e-mail that included the following comments:
I believe noise is a design problem that could be fixed, and until this issue is cleared up, these turbines (GE 1.5 +MW) do not belong in populated areas. Because of lack of research, we do not know what a "safe" distance is... Industrial wind turbines are not quite the easy, clean green answer we have been told they are. Corporations stand to make HUGE profits off of them with subsidies provided by taxpayers.
I took a look at this video online to see what the issue was. The first thing I noticed was that the video starts with the "noise" from rotating turbines, but then switches to a street scene with the noise of trucks rolling by. It wasn't clear to me which was worse. I have been arguing for years -- and I am not the only one -- that you cannot hear a wind turbine if a car drives by.

The rest of the video also seems quite unconvincing. The people are interviewed in their living rooms, and it seems perfectly quiet there. And if you take a look at at 5:15 on the video, you can hear the bell on the front porch clearly, but I couldn't make out any swooshing of blades. The video seems to document the complete inaudibility of the wind turbines on the front porches of these homes. Where exactly are these turbines heard? Directly underneath?

Don't get me wrong: I am not trying to belittle the people on this video. But we should keep two things in mind. First, wind turbines are new, and people have the tendency to actually perceive them, whereas we take so many other things for granted -- such as the constant noise from traffic that surrounds us. (A few years ago, I decided against buying a house in southern France partly because of all the scooters that passed by.)

Second, the US is indeed mainly leaving renewables up to utilities, whereas European policy has allowed common people to invest in renewable generators. For years, I have been saying that NIMBYism is more likely to occur when communities see large projects coming at them. If the community does not directly benefit from the wind turbines on the hill, then they are only affected by the sight and sound of them.

The solution is quite simple. We have to involve communities, not only by allowing them to have input into the project up front (the video talks about how little community input there was, and all of it apparently occurred after contracts had been signed), but also by allowing them to invest and financially benefit from such projects. If each of these homeowners on this video had been allowed to chip in and buy a share of the project in installments of, say, $5000, they would see these turbines completely differently. And in these days of financial crisis, they would probably wish they had put more money into those turbines.

You can imagine how that community would feel about the prospect of a follow-up project.

I close with the view from my desk over Freiburg, Germany (click to enlarge photo). You will notice a large number of buildings with solar roofs in addition to four turbines on Rosskopf Hill in the background - the first leading from the Rhine Graben to the Black Forest. Locals cycle and hike up to the base of these turbines, which are a community project.

Remind me to post a video of these turbines from underneath -- and the video I took of that house in southern France with a scooter buzzing by outside.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Germany announces fulfilment of Kyoto target

I do not belong to the rather large group of environmentalists who call for change in the name of lower carbon emissions -- the reasons would require quite a long post on their own, so we'll skip that for now.

But I see today that Germany's Umweltbundesamt (UBA -- more or less the country's Environmental Protection Agency) has announced that, contrary to widespread expectations, Germany will in fact reach its Kyoto target, which it currently even surpasses. Whereas the Germans needed to reduce their emissions by 21 percent, they have actually done so by 23.3 percent according to the press release I got today.

Critics will say that part of this "success" is merely the result of a collapsing industry in the wake of the financial crisis. They have already long been saying that Germany was only even roughly on target because emissions from the former German Democratic (= communist) Republic were calculated in -- and these critics are right.

So overall, this success is mixed: on the one hand, Germany is a leader in renewables and efficiency/conservation, but there is no denying that the modernization of Eastern German industry puts Germany in a special role.

The good news is that pundits will not be able to truthfully say that no country has met its Kyoto targets. Of course, they will say it anyway, but it will be false.

As an American living in Germany, I am prouder of another fact: Germany is a net importer of waste, which, ironically, environmentalists here are actually complaining about.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mojo ain't workin'

It is only my second post, and already it seems clear that I could probably fill this blog with daily entries about the nonsense published.

Mother Jones is a magazine of hard-hitting investigative journalism. So when I added its RSS feed to my Google Reader yesterday, I was surprised to find this article, which claims things about photovoltaics that simply aren't true.

The author is a certain Julia Whitty, and she apparently claimed last year that, "In recent years new photovoltaic technologies have nearly doubled the efficiency of solar cells". Unfortunately, the efficiency -- the amount of sunlight that the cells can actually turn into electricity -- did not change much at all from, say, 2005-2008, at least if we are talking about the polycrystalline and monocrystalline cells that make up around 90 percent of the market. And if we are talking about thin-film cells, then efficiency has increased, though not by nearly 100 percent for any of the technologies.

I can only guess that she is talking about something else, such as perhaps wafer thickness; since the beginning of the millennium, solar wafers have thinned out from 300 to around 180 microns, so perhaps Ms Whitty meant that we can make nearly twice as many cells from the same amount of silicon. But the industry speaks of wafer thickness here, not efficiency.

In her recent article, Ms Whitty harkens back to a long disproven misconception when she writes, "the ratio of energy the panel produces over its useful lifespan compared to the energy required to manufacture it sucks" (her emphasis). Solar panels once faced criticism that it took more power to make them than they ever output. Nowadays, even Wikipedia knows that solar panels, which generally have warranties of 25 years these days and are expected to run longer than that, provide an energy payback within just two or three years. Perhaps that still "sucks" (since Ms Whitty does not tell us what the energy payback is in numbers, we just have to take her at her word), but it's a lot better than the energy payback of roofs without solar, especially the black shingles on most American homes, which heat up the attic considerably in the summer, thereby drastically increasing the need for air-conditioning.

The other misleading claims are more nitpicky -- for instance, the MIT study she refers to does not seem to be in any way the "first," but perhaps Ms Whitty is not aware of the plethora of literature in German on the production processes for solar cells. As someone who translates this material every day, I would agree that the industry sees all kinds of potential ways to streamline production processes. But saying that current efficiency levels "suck" doesn't seem to do the subject justice.

Ms Whitty closes with an admonition: "Take heed bright green environmentalists." One can only hope she will start to get her facts right at some point.

Friday, March 27, 2009

No conflict between ecology and economy

The world does not need another blog, and I do not have time to write one. Nonetheless, I was a bit frustrated a few days ago to read something in the New Yorker (one of the best publications in English incidentally) with uninformed ideas about energy policy, so I wrote to the author. I got no response and decided that if I'm going to waste my time writing letters to the editor, I might as well put this stuff online. If nothing else, it might be read by passers-by.

Mr Owen's article contains quite a bit of outdated thinking. He writes: "the world’s principal source of man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity." I thought greenhouse gases emissions came from our consumption of fossil fuels, not prosperity. While prosperity has historically gone hand-in-hand with fossil fuel consumption, there is no direct parallel: France relies very heavily on nuclear power and has much lower greenhouse gas emissions than, say, the UK, though prosperity is roughly equal. Looking forward, a switch to renewable energy will be necessary to maintain prosperity as a fossil fuels become scarce/expensive and will, as a pleasant side effect, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, Mr Owen asks this question without giving us an answer, even though other countries tell us the answer: "How do we persuade people to drive less—an environmental necessity—while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars?" Germany managed to do just this by incrementally raising the tax on gasoline over a period of five years. As Mister Owen and others have pointed out, raising fuel standards only lowers demand, which in turn lowers prices, which in turn makes it cheaper for people to drive more. So do it the other way around: raise the price of gas and let people figure out how they want to react: by switching to more efficient cars or using other modes of transport.

Finally, "green jobs" is not a zero-sum game. In Germany, the nuclear sector makes up almost as much of the country's energy supply as all renewables together, but 280,000 people are employed in the renewables sector compared to only around 7,000 in the nuclear sector. More importantly, the oil jobs that Mr Owen fears will be replaced are not all domestic. The macroeconomic benefit of replacing oil imports with domestic green jobs is one of the best selling points for renewables.