Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Marc Strassman has published an interview (video) with me about some policies in the US that claim to be based on German (or European) policy, but aren't.

Walking and cycling to school in the US: verboten

This is probably unfair to the monolinguals who disagree with me because they will have a hard time finding similar horror stories in France and Germany because of the language barrier (I can't find any myself, however), but -- pursuant to my previous blog post about walking in the US -- I just came across one report about a schoolchild not being allowed to ride a bike to school and another about a school child not being allowed to walk to school.

In the cycling case, the school actually warned the parents and then had a state trooper come in to greet them one morning to prevent the child from locking its bike up on school grounds.

In the walking case, a number of passersby (in cars) called 911 when they saw a child walking down the road. A policeman picked up the child and drove him to soccer practice -- but also reprimanded the parents and informed them that they could be charged with "child endangerment" if anything happened to the kid.

As I said recently, Americans live in fear. In this case, as in so many others, the fear is exaggerated:

Critics say fears that children will be abducted by strangers are at a level unjustified by reality. About 115 children are kidnapped by strangers each year, according to federal statistics; 250,000 are injured in auto accidents.

In Germany -- and in England, where I witnessed events a few weeks ago -- school kids fill public spaces in the morning and afternoon. It is hard to imagine a school not letting kids walk or cycle over here, and the German police would definitely laugh in your face if you called them to report a child walking or cycling.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Offener Brief

Here's a brief post for everyone in Germany. My colleague Stefan Gsänger has published an open letter, which you can sign, to remind the new governing coalition that there is no popular consensus, and no actual need, for an extension of the service lives of current nuclear power plants.

Feed-in rates: a hard sell

(A version of this post was published at

I am networked with a number of renewable energy activists in the US (and elsewhere), and I really feel for the ones in the US trying to get the most successful policy in the world, feed-in tariffs (FITs), implemented.

The problem in the US is that so many advocates of renewables actually oppose the idea (because it wasn't theirs), and even now that everyone seems to have accepted the empirical evidence that FITs simply are the most successful, one major challenge remains: getting advocates of renewables in the US to understand what FITs are.

This article, for instance, is a terrible assessment. No layperson who reads it will have a good understanding of what FITs are when they are finished with the article:

... utilities would rank bids by price and accept all of the cheapest proposals that their budgets allow. The auction would be repeated twice a year, with the eventual goal of bringing an additional 1,000 megawatts of solar capacity online.

In other words, this system, described as "somewhat reminiscent of feed-in tariffs," is in fact very much like the bidding processes common in current Renewable Portfolio Standards used in the US. FITs differ crucially on two accounts:

  • the price is specified in the law, not set by utilities (who may not want the competition from distributed power anyway)
  • and under FITs, utilities do not get to decide (twice a year, for example) when meddlesome little competitors can set up their systems; rather, if you want wind, a solar roof, or whatever, you get it - utilties cannot refuse grid connection

Under the California proposal, your proposal can apparently be rejected, in which case I suppose you don't get to put solar on your roof, and your community may not get to put those two wind turbines up on the hill outside of town even though the community itself came up with the investments. Instead, economics of scale will mean that giant investors, who can install some project in the desert at a fraction of a cent cheaper per kilowatt-hour than your local community systems would be, will get most, if not all, of the pie. Power production then remains to domain of monopoly utilities (though US policy is strangely held to be market-driven), whereas FITs democratize power production.

From my cursory reading, I do not see that the California proposal has anything to prevent this concentration of renewable power, but feel free to post a comment if I have missed something. As California solar advocate Adam Browning points out, "mid-size solar and other renewable energy technologies of 1 to 10 MW" are the focus of this new proposal. FITs do not, however, focus on midsize systems; in fact, their main selling point is that they ramp up everything, including small, distributed rooftop systems that you, dear reader, can own yourself -- after all, there is no dearth of large projects and project proposals in the US.

Mind you, I don't mind people thinking about other ways of doing things, and it is always possible that someone will come up with a better way than FITs. What I do mind is a misrepresentation of the facts. Our blogger is totally off the mark when he writes about the alleged main drawback of FITs (in which prices are set by the policy, i.e. by policy-makers, not utilities):

Picking prices is hard. Too low, and the incentive won’t work. Too high, and consumers overpay. Also, because different rates apply to different technologies, certain industries can become unfairly advantaged.

Browning agrees: "The difficulty with this approach is finding the right price." Somehow, even solar advocates, who must realize that we would already have renewables if utilities were genuinely interested in them, believe that the same utilities can price renewables better than policymakers. Of course, utilities are going to price things with an eye on their bottom line, not yours, so if you are interested in a solar roof, do you want the price you get for the solar power you generate to be dictated by the people who see you as a competitor?

Furthermore, the idea that applying different rates to different technologies produces an "unfair advantage" is patent nonsense. If anything, applying a single price to all renewables -- the common approach in US policy and apparently what would happen under the legislation proposed above -- means that wind competes with solar, geothermal, biomass, and other fringe technologies like ocean power. Since wind is the cheapest, only wind wins the contract. Part of the magic of FITs is therefore that the same rate of return is calculated for each type of system, which produces (roughly) while level playing field for all technologies -- an investment in wind power will probably not be more profitable than an investment in solar, etc. Will the California proposal do that?

Nonetheless, we hear that pricing is hard. Somehow, the spectacular market crash of solar (but not of wind, and therefore not of all FITs!) in Spain completely overshadows the roughly 50 success stories in the same number of other countries. Actually, it isn't that hard to get prices right at all. Here's the formula:

total system cost / expected kWh + 6-7% profit margin

You then build in a review to take account of changes in system cost (the expected kWh depends primarily on weather conditions, not market conditions). Since prices can be expected to drop anyway for emerging technologies, you can also include an automatic reduction (say, x% lower rates each year) to be on the safe side.

So why do we not have such things in California already? Because they work, and they will cut into the profit margins and planning processes of US utilities, which are accustomed to acting as monopolies. And unlike Germany, the US does not have a government strong enough to stand up to the business world and say, "these are the rules."

Naturally, US renewables advocates are proud of the compromises they have reached with the very utilities who have failed to implement renewables up to now. As Browning himself puts it:

We’ve spent a year on this docket, and will spend a lot of time going over the details of the proposed program to guide our suggestions for further development...

So there we have it: the proposed legislation is Browning's baby, in part. Again, if his policy is more successful than proper FITs, I'm sure all of FIT countries will be happy to copy what California does. But for the time being, I would simply like for folks in California to refrain from calling this proposal an FIT, which it ain't, for the reasons I describe above.

Browing's wording shows one thing: those of us in the FIT camp seem to have won an important battle, for no one can dismiss FITs as a policy success. (Browning has never supported, and probably never even properly understood, FITs.) Now, we must make sure that the policy design behind the acronym FIT is not misrepresented. Otherwise, proposals that are not FITs will benefit from the hype around FITs without actually producing the desired outcome.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Update on changes in German solar rates

Now that it seems clear that Germany will have a new coalition between the CDU and FDP (the two parties least supportive of renewables), it is interesting to recap some of the facts. Spiegel online has published some additional comments in German (I could not find this text in English) about the future of solar rates under the new German government. Even parties on the left clearly support a reduction in the rate for solar in light of plummeting prices. The spokesperson for the Greens (Hans-Josef fell, one of the architects behind the legislation) put it this way:

"Die Einspeisevergütungen sollten sich an der Entwicklung der Solarstromkosten orientieren, die sich insbesondere am Marktwachstum ablesen lässt"

("The rates paid should be based on the current cost of solar power, which can be clearly seen from market growth" -- actually, the cost can be seen clearly from the cost of modules, not necessarily from market growth, but whatever)

And Germany's former (until today) Environmental Minister is quoted as saying that the rates for solar could even be reduced by the end of the year.

At the same time, Schott Solar has told Berlin's Solarpraxis (again, in German) that a number of companies are working with the German government on a revision of the rates paid for solar. Interestingly, Solarpraxis reports that "the focus is on equal treatment with Chinese competition" ("Dabei gehe es vor allem darum, eine Gleichbehandlung gegenüber der chinesischen Konkurrenz zu erreichen..."). Under Chinese law, systems that receive special compensation have to be 70 percent domestic; similar requirements are found in legislation all over the world, including Canada and the US, but Germany has never had such requirements in its renewables policy.

Schott Solar also said it was concerned about the entire debate being sold as questioning the principle of feed-in rates themselves. Indeed, Spiegel Online is guilty of causing some of the confusion itself. Statements like "das Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz wackelt" (the Renewable Energy Act may topple) and "Inzwischen aber wächst die Kritik am aktuellen Fördergesetz parteiübergreifend" (Now, criticism of the current law is growing in all parties) are completely misleading; actually, all five political parties represented in the Bundestag support feed-in rates. People are talking about changing a single rate in the law -- the one for solar -- not the principle behind the law, and not any of the other rates for other renewable sources (wind, biomass, etc.).

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Emissions trading works in Germany

I have never been a fan of emissions trading, but the signs are becoming clearer that the current European design actually works. As I wrote recently, Germany is on to the way to meeting its targets quite easily, as is the EU as a whole.

A few weeks ago, we saw a good example of the impact that carbon trading is having when a German court ruled that construction of a new coal plant must be stopped. One reason was that local land planning regulations had been violated; specifically, they stipulate that new coal plants can only be constructed if the overall effect will be lower carbon emissions -- i.e., an old plant has to be taken down. The court argued that it is

... nicht ansatzweise sichergestellt, dass das Kraftwerk, das selbst einen erheblichen Ausstoß von Treibhausgasen verursachen wird, insgesamt zu einer Reduzierung beiträgt

(... far from certain that the power plant, which will itself have considerable greenhouse gas emissions, will lead to a reduction overall.)

E.On, which has already invested roughly 600 million euros in the coal plant, is apparently appealing the case, in which one of the plaintiffs was a local pig farmer and the other was Germany's main natural conservation group (BUND).

Even though the last word may not have been spoken in this case and E.On will probably find a way to continue, can you imagine a farmer and a group of environmental activists defeating a large multinational energy conglomerate in a US court?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Greenpeace discovers PR for nuclear

I'm not sure if this one has been reported in English much yet, but Greenpeace (Germany) just released a PDF (in German) of a public relations firm's proposals to sell nuclear power to the public -- in the week before elections for the Bundestag.

Presumedly, this disclosure is supposed to reveal how manipulative supporters of nuclear power are. For instance, the consulting firm has the following suggestions for conservative, pro-nuclear politicians:

  • refrain from aggressively promoting nuclear; support it only when you are asked
  • start off statements in support of nuclear with confirmation of a commitment to renewables
  • talk about nuclear as a "bridge technology"
  • play on Germans' "widespread, handed-down fear of Russia" (a large source of natural gas for Germany)

In a way, all of this is indeed very manipulative, but somehow I don't find it all that surprising. If I were a PR guy, I probably would have made the same recommendations. And if I were simply to describe what has been going on, I would have come up with all of the above -- which only goes to show that the recommendations have been heeded.

I'm not saying that these proposals are not manipulative; I'm simply saying that, like all PR, they are intentionally manipulative, and they are not particularly pernicious -- we are not talking about open lies and falsification like the kind of crap we have in the US with death panels and Kenyan birth certificates. This is not Karl Rove.

What's more, I really don't think that my side is completely innocent. Recently, I complained about the misleading argument that nuclear power actually produces as much carbon emissions as a modern natural gas combined cycle plant. Since that article was published, that completely misleading statement has been popping up in comments on various websites, much to my dismay. Do we really want to win the argument with falsifications?

We also have to keep in mind that, prior to 9/11, no one was really talking about nuclear plants as potential targets for terrorist attacks.

I also wondered whether Greenpeace had this report some time ago and only now released it in order to have a last-minute impact on the elections. That would certainly have been manipulative. But Jan Haase wrote me back saying that Greenpeace had actually received the printout of the report by mail anonymously at the beginning of September. Now, you can only wonder who leaked the report.

Strangely, a similar thing happened back in 2005, when some members of the Green Party released some PR stuff that the CDU had been suppressing; the material criticized the energy and climate policy of the Schröder coalition, and some of the material did not sound good just a few weeks after Katrina (I wrote about it in German back then).

If we are going to have last-minute disclosures of embarrassing material demonstrating how the other side has been trying to manipulate the issue over the past few years, we need to be careful lest we open ourselves up to charges that the timing of the disclosure is itself manipulative.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Back to Dylan & Gates

Three people read my blog! At least, that is my conclusion after getting comments from three completely different people, one of whom I'm not sure I have ever met, to this post from several weeks ago.

Basically, my contention was that Americans are suspicious, if not outright scared, of strangers, and that Europeans aren't.

Dorfy wrote that you cannot generalize because "our country is so large and so varied." I have said similar things many times, and there undoubtedly is a kernel of truth to it: generalizations, by definition, always miss the mark. In turn, there is a sliver of truth to caricatures, and that is what makes them effective.

On the other hand, the United States is actually incredibly homogenous given its size, so I would actually argue that culturally, linguistically, etc. there is more variation in relatively tiny Great Britain than in the US.

The same could be said for other European countries. Take Spain, which currently has at least three regions (Basque, Catalonia, and Galicia) that seem to want their independence. The German spoken in Bavaria, Switzerland, and northern Germany is mutually unintelligible (much more than simple things like you wont yo' po'boy dressed?); you can't get Bavarian Weißwürste here in Freiburg at all to my knowledge, and the northern Germans eat things like herring for breakfast, which I have not seen here in the south yet.

All of these national differences take place within an area roughly the size of Mississippi.

But back to my other contentions. The movie Crash was received over here as an example of how car culture actually isolates people, and we only get to know each other we get out of our cars -- which was held to be true both in Europe and the US, though car culture is more widespread in the US.

As chance would have it, the New Yorker has just published this review of a series of photographs taken by a Frenchman in the 50s, and the picture of a lunch counter at a drugstore (shown on the website) provokes the following comment:

Every stool is taken; the customers are waiting for their orders, two of them clasping their hands as if saying grace. Half of them look straight ahead, like drivers in dense traffic; not one seems to be talking to his neighbors... this broken togetherness would have been bewildering to one who grew up amid the café society of Europe, with its binding hubbub.

I am reminded of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, though that painting admittedly depicts the mood right after Pearl Harbor.

Amsterdam famously has apartments with very large windows directly at street level. The most surprising thing, however, is that the residents do not put up curtains and close themselves off, but rather seem to want to put their living rooms on display -- as though to say, I have nothing to hide, and I bet your living room doesn't have such lovely wood paneling. (Read this.) Amsterdam practically invites passersby to peep in.

So when it comes to a fear of strangers, Europe simply cannot compete with the US. We are not afraid over here in the old world. In the US, I have been accosted several times by beggars, who were downright aggressive and seemed to be threatening me with violence if I didn't give them something. In Germany and France, you tell punks on the street that you are not donating, and they wish you a nice day -- I kid you not.

Having said that, a few years ago I wrote about how Americans are much more open to meeting new people in all situations, whereas you mainly meet new people in Europe through your existing friends. Returning to the photograph from 1955 mentioned above, in the US you can walk into a greasy spoon and sit at the bar, and there is a chance that your neighbor will talk to you. But Europeans don't have greasy spoons and instead go to cafés with their friends. I guess if you don't have any, you're just not going to make any, which explains why Americans are much more open to mobility than Europeans are.

Interestingly, the author of that New Yorker article does not buy the interpretation that the Americans at the drugstore lunch bar will not speak to each other:

Maybe they just came off a noisy shift, and could use a minute’s peace; maybe they’re simply tired and hungry; maybe, with a grilled-cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee inside them, they might warm up, and, if the man with the camera returned in half an hour, he would walk into a perfect storm of yakking.

I agree. And while Jean-Paul Sartre et al. may have met new people in cafés 70 years ago, it is certainly rare today in Germany and France to talk to anyone you don't know in a café.

So Americans are, I suppose, always open to making new friends -- but they also carry a lot of suspicion with them; in contrast, Europeans may be a tough nut to crack, but not because they think you're a creep.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NYT on my birthplace

I am just now getting around to reading this report from the New York Times on Memorial Hospital in the wake of Katrina four years ago. It made headlines throughout the blogosphere because it allegedly cost 400,000 dollars. It was most interesting for me, however, because I was born there (it was called Baptist Hospital back then).

There are a lot of sad spots in the story, where bravery and selflessness cross paths with desperation, but I don't want to spoil a great read, so I'll just give you this exchange between a doctor named Cook and a patient named Scott, a man who had by that time spent several days in an intensive care unit without electricity:

Cook thought Scott was dead, and he touched him to make sure. But Scott turned over and looked at him. “I’m O.K., Doc,” Scott said. “Go take care of somebody else.”

For the general public, this report is probably worth the 400,000 because it comes during the healthcare debate. How would you like to be one of those doctors are trying to decide who to evacuate in what order?

... medical workers try to divvy up care to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. There is an ongoing debate about how to do this and what the “greatest good” means. Is it the number of lives saved? Years of life saved? Best “quality” years of life saved? Or something else?

As others have pointed out, we already ration our medical services, but under such crisis circumstances decisions have to be made quickly and with little coordination or preparation:

The decision that certain sicker patients should go last has its risks. Predicting how a patient will fare is inexact and subject to biases. In one study of triage, experienced rescuers were asked to categorize the same patients and came up with widely different answers.

I can certainly sympathize with family members whose loved ones were apparently given an overdose of morphine even though, in retrospect, it seems that some of them -- if not most -- might have pulled through. But all of them would not have, and I do not want to be in the position of the doctor who makes that decision (after several days trapped in the hospital under the same conditions as the patients) and then has to take the heat for it.

And then there is this little ditty from someone at the hospital describing the situation outdoors:

“I figured, What would they do, these crazy black people who think they’ve been oppressed for all these years by white people? I mean if they’re capable of shooting at somebody, why are they not capable of raping them or, or, you know, dismembering them? What’s to prevent them from doing things like that?”

New Orleans, there's no hope for you if you can't live with yourself.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

German solar policy after elections

This weekend, Germany holds elections, and it is likely that a coalition between the conservative CPU and the Libertarian FDP will replace the current governing grand coalition (CDU & SPD). In all likelihood, the current rates paid for solar will be reduced.

Privately, I have been saying for several weeks now (if not several months) that few within the solar sector would actually oppose such reductions. Prices for solar panels have dropped by some 30 percent since last September. Companies are struggling to lower their costs to keep up with these plummeting prices, and I am sure that you will find the odd solar lobbyist who says we still need to keep prices up so that companies can work down there stockpiles of inventory that had built up over the past 12 months. But I think most people in the solar industry think a faster reduction in rates next year is necessary.

While some solar firms have gone bankrupt, the strongest ones still seem strong, and the main concern over here in Germany seems to be competition from China, which has not really opened its market. To make things worse, Suntech's CEO (a major Chinese PV manufacturer) recently admitted that it had been selling in the US below cost to secure a market share. Technically, price dumping is illegal, but as the article explains it would have to be demonstrated that US companies are detrimentally affected. In this case, however, it is primarily European competitors that are being squeezed out.

Yesterday, the CEO of Solarworld (a major German manufacturer) responded in a way by saying two things. First, he supports lower solar rates in the German Renewable Energy Act. And second, he thinks it would be a good idea to have environmental and social standards required for any equipment that receives special compensation from German taxpayers -- a requirement that would squeeze the Chinese out of Germany, currently the largest solar market in the world.

It seems likely to me that both of these changes are actually going to be made German law.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What solar will cost in Germany

In recent months, there has been a lot of talk in the English-speaking world about what PV will cost Spain and how we need to be careful not to ramp it up too fast. There is no doubt that photovoltaics is currently the most expensive source of renewable energy, but the question is whether the figures being tossed about are accurate.

In Germany, a skeptical economics institute (RWI) recently calculated that Germany would be forking over 77 billion euros for photovoltaics over the next 25 years. But a few weeks ago, Claudia Kemfert, probably Germany's leading economists specializing in renewables, pointed out a number of mistakes that had been made in the study -- and corrected that figure down to 50 billion euros. She also pointed out that the annual figure was around two billion euros, less than Germany will be spending per annum subsidizing domestic coal production up to 2018.

Two main things were overlooked in the RWI study. First, because photovoltaic electricity offsets conventional electricity, the study subtracted 5.2 cents per kilowatt-hour (the estimated cost of conventional power) from the cost of photovoltaics. The problem with this is that solar does not offset just the cheapest baseload power, but also power purchased on the spot market at peak times; after all, solar power is primarily produced around lunchtime, when power consumption first peaks each day. The correct figure, she argues, would therefore be seven cents.

Second, because so much solar power in Germany is distributed across small systems on rooftops, the grid is used very little -- indeed, distributed PV actually apparently has a stabilizing effect on the grid. As Kemfert points out, Germany grid operators estimate the savings this year already at 45 million euros. The skeptical study reportedly does not take that effect into account at all.

The RWI study is therefore roughly 50 percent off the mark according to her calculation, i.e. solar is not that expensive.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

MBA, not PC

During the 1990s, there was a lot of hullabaloo about political correctness, a thing that simply did not exist. I remember picking up a couple of books on political correctness back then, and all of them were actually attacks on it. One of them had even been originally published as a series of satires in Playboy magazine, and another had actually made up most of the things it was complaining about and attributed to them to the fictitious "Hyphen Society." To this day, I have failed to find any book or campaign that genuinely supports political correctness.

Granted, there was some laughable pamphlet from some liberal arts college I had never heard of that honestly attempted to tell undergrads how to avoid sexual harassment, but any such things that did crop up were ridiculed -- they had no power over me, much less over the culture at large.

What did have power over the culture at large was microeconomic thinking, with more and more people getting MBAs -- and fewer and fewer people studying English (and foreign languages), where most of these allegedly pernicious gender studies and the like were taking place.

Now, an English professor in the US has published some figures showing the relative shift in influence from the early 1970s to the early 21st century:

In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent.

The rise of business majors is especially unfortunate because MBAs are taken to be economists. In reality, they are more bookkeepers than economists. When you get an MBA, you learn essentially to run a business, and that entails balance sheets -- income versus expenses, assets versus liabilities. The thinking is in/out, not circular.

For society at large, this thinking at the level of an individual business is inappropriate. Money circulates in a society, so the consideration of the cost of something is different in macroeconomics than it is in microeconomics. In microeconomics (MBA), you want to lower costs because you lose that money, but in macroeconomics that money is not (necessarily) gone -- it depends on how you spend it. A company may want to lower wages to cut costs, but a government might want to raise the minimum wage to keep consumer spending up.

But the most pernicious thing about MBAs as opposed to macroeconomics is the relative lack of discussion about society altogether. While I am not naïve enough to believe that macroeconomics is purely about ethics, the entire discussion is at least attempt focused on finding a way to keep the national economy healthy, whereas MBAs are just about making money yourself. Is it any wonder, then, that we have things like Enron and the current banking crisis?

The problem, therefore, is not that the influence of politically correct humanities, but rather the increasing influence of MBA thinking. Even a shift towards macroeconomics would help. I'd be willing to bet that very few Americans who have studied "economics" have actually focused on macroeconomics. Though I cannot find any figures right off, I bet almost all of them are MBAs, i.e. microeconomists.

The situation is the same in Germany, where the University of Freiburg is the only one in the country that offers a PhD in macroeconomics.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Who's responsible for what?

A former speechwriter for George W. Bush has just published his memoirs, and an excerpt was put up online at GQ. At one point, the author remembers how former President Jimmy Carter was the only one who was willing to help out Bush at the beginning of the financial crisis a year ago:

It was just one more humiliation. First the administration had had to seek out Carter’s help, and then the White House had been schooled on the economy by the president who’d brought you gas lines, an energy crisis, and high unemployment.

How is it that Carter is responsible for the gas lines and energy crisis of 1979, but no one ever talks about the gas lines of 1973, which happened during the Nixon administration? Often, there is talk about whether the sitting president was just there when something happened or whether that person's politics helped bring about the event -- was George Bush Senior just the rooster that crowed when the Berlin wall fell, or did his policies help bring about that change? Was there something special about Bill Clinton's economic policies, or would any president elected in 1992 have had the same success because the Internet was about to boom anyway?

In the case of Carter and Nixon, I'm afraid the evidence is not good -- for Nixon. While Jimmy Carter faced a revolution in Iran that was not directly related to any of his policies (though it was indirectly related to US support for the Shaw of Iran over several decades, including his administration), Richard Nixon reacted to the crisis in 1973 (brought about by US support for Israel) by instituting price controls in a step that seemed to fly in the face of general Republican policy. As energy group Daniel Yergin once put it, these price controls were

not the handiwork of left-wing liberals but of the administration of Richard Nixon, a moderately conservative Republican who was a critic of government intervention in the economy.

So if Carter is responsible for the economic downturn at the end of his term, the case is all the stronger for Nixon to be held accountable for what happened in 1973.

And while we are at it, why are Bush and Cheney so rarely held accountable for the attacks on 9/11? As Harper's Scott Horton put it yesterday:

Defenders of former president George W. Bush now focus their efforts on claims that he enhanced the nation’s security. There aren’t many objective metrics for assessing security, but there’s only one they use over and over again: 9/11 did not recur on his watch. One weakness of this argument is that 9/11 did not occur on the watch of any of his predecessors, either.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Solar jobs in Baden-Württemberg

Germany consists of 16 states, and Baden-Württemberg is the one furthest to the southwest. It is also the one where I am living -- in Freiburg, which claims to be the solar capital of Germany.

Actually, there is not much here in terms of industry, most of which is found in Germany's Solar Valley (here's an article from the New York Times from two years ago on that). Nonetheless, as the state's Economics Ministry made clear a few weeks ago, photovoltaics has created a large number of jobs in this state:

  • 1,350 in the manufacture of silicon, cells, modules, and other components (such as inverters)
  • 4,025 jobs at suppliers
  • 3,450 solar contractors
  • 470 wholesalers
  • and 660 researchers

That's around 10,000 new jobs. A total of 3.4 billion euros was made in the sector last year, and that figure is expected to rise to 3.6 billion this year and to 5.5 billion by 2012 -- all of these are figures from the Economics Ministry, which is probably skeptical of the sector overall.

Incredibly, Baden-Württemberg alone had 1,074 megawatts of solar online at the end of 2008, producing around one billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. In comparison, the United States had a total installed PV capacity of only 800 megawatts at the end of 2008, a full 25% less than tiny Baden-Württemberg -- a fact that the US solar sector likes to hide by claiming, "Installed solar power capacity in the United States rose by 17 percent to 8,775 megawatts in 2008" -- but that figure includes all kinds of solar, including pool heating, etc., none of which is included in the figure for Baden-Württemberg.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thomas Friedman sings my song

In an article at the New York Times, Friedman wonders why an American solar firm has set up so many plants abroad, mainly in Germany. His answer:

... their governments have put in place the three perquisites for growing a renewable energy industry: 1) any business or homeowner can generate solar energy; 2) if they decide to do so, the power utility has to connect them to the grid; and 3) the utility has to buy the power for a predictable period at a price that is a no-brainer good deal for the family or business putting the solar panels on their rooftop.

Excellent synopsis! At present, American citizens are largely unable to invest in renewables and get a return on their investment at all. Instead, utilities are required by law in most states to get a certain share of their energy production from renewables. Community-driven projects are few and far between in the US, so Americans can only really invest in solar companies on the stock market if they want to become part of the act...

I have also written here several times about the criticism of "green jobs," and Friedman comes in very nicely on this one:

If you read some of the anti-green commentary today, you’ll often see sneering references to “green jobs.” The phrase is usually in quotation marks as if it is some kind of liberal fantasy or closet welfare program (and as if coal, oil and nuclear don’t get all kinds of subsidies). Nonsense. In 2008, more silicon was consumed globally making solar panels than microchips...

I suppose I should not be too surprised to read this from him. After all, he is the guy who said many years ago, "If you want to drive a Hummer, go to Iraq." But it is nonetheless always nice to see some content that could have appeared in this blog in the New York Times.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

All you need to know about US politicians...

.... was summed up recently by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell:

Cheney is the kook leader. But [Nancy] Pelosi and [Harry] Reid are such feckless leaders they haven’t got any spine. We have no leadership in the legislative branch on either side of the aisle.

So the Republicans are frat boys who are loyal only to themselves. And the Dems are spineless careerists who cannot lead even if you give them both houses of Congress and the White House.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Before I get back to my usual ranting, I have a follow-up for yesterday's post. It occurred to me that that explanation of the correlation between spending money and happiness goes a long way towards explaining why people who have children generally find the experience so enriching, though in monetary terms the situation can only be seen as impoverishing.

Being able to provide for my children's needs -- and a sufficient part of their wants -- is one of the most rewarding things in my life, and I am sure that not being able to do so would be equally devastating.

Monday, September 14, 2009

He's baaaack... and happy

In my first day in the office after three weeks on the road (thanks to Eva for the mobile Internet access in the UK), I stumbled across the following in an article at the Boston Globe:

... when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people. When it comes to happiness, none of these decisions are right: The spending that make us happy, it turns out, is often spending where the money vanishes and leaves something ineffable in its place.

Yesterday, I took my usual jog along a nearby stream, around a pond, and out to the margins of the Rieselfeld neighborhood overlooking the wild natural edge of Freiburg, where development has been banned. As I followed the path through the rows of trees in the park, past the rabbits in the bushes, I could not help but think of the beauty of the English Gardens I saw on my three-week trip to England, especially Bowood and Stourhead. Though Freiburg's parks pale in comparison to these unique English gardens, somehow those English landscapes were so beautiful as to project themselves onto my mundane jogging route.

The model new housing development in Rieselfeld attracts urban planners from around the globe, and I often act as an interpreter on such visits. My colleague Stephen brought me to Prince Charles' development, called Poundbury, near Dorchester. Both developments are intended to be special in some way, and both have raised some eyebrows. But I jogged through Rieselfeld with different eyes yesterday.

In the wake of global economic turmoil, I stood in a banking high-rise in the middle of London's Canary Wharf and talked to my friend Andrew about his fears he had this year of losing his job, which he really likes. It was interesting for me to stand in one of the centers of the banking world that has caused so many people so much grief over the past year and see things through the eyes of a guy I met 10 years ago under much different conditions. The world he works in is an attractive one, indeed. Too bad it is run by people who no longer live in a society with the rest of us. But I could certainly see that world from his perspective, and it looked enviable.

I blew a lot of cash on this trip -- probably more than on any trip before, with the exception of my trip to New Orleans four months after Katrina, when the city only had 20 percent of its population and I left 20 dollar tips in an effort to pump some modest funding back into my hometown. So when I read that article at the Boston Globe, I realized that I had done the right thing spending so much money on spending time with other people in England. Aside from some T-shirts, I have little to show from my trip, but it somehow changed a part of me. Maybe it was all the smiles and common experiences along the way. And hey, even 1000 kilometers from home I still had six people singing happy birthday to me!