Friday, January 29, 2010

RIP, Howard

Howard Zinn was one of the few Americans who, like me, was appalled at the US's response to 9/11 from Sep 12 onwards. It was one of those moments, like the Gulf War in 1991, when I felt nearly completely out of touch with my fellow Americans. It's a lonely feeling.

So thanks for speaking out, Howard. I wish there were more like you.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

English is the lingua carta

Remember me saying that I don't look forward to seeing our new EU Energy Commissioner in the media?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Myths about FITs

The World Future Council has published a useful PDF debunking a number of myths about feed-in tariffs. Disclosure: I reviewed the publication and had some input into the content.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The tyranny of the minority

While the recent election in Massachusetts is widely being taken to mean "Democrats have to govern in a country that is essentially center-right," in fact the secret to Republican success at least since the Dawn of Nixon's southern strategy has been strong rural support because rural areas in the US are over represented. Or as the Atlantic's James Fallows puts it:

... the 41 Republicans in the Senate come from states representing just over 36.5 percent of the total US population. The 59 others (Democratic plus 2 Independent) represent just under 63.5 percent... Let's round the figures to 63/37 and apply them to the health care debate. Senators representing 63 percent of the public vote for the bill; those representing 37 percent vote against it. The bill fails.

Something is going wrong when 37 percent of the population can force their will on 63 percent.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The future of PV manufacturing between China & Germany

The current issue of neue energie (disclaimer: Petite Planète translates the English issue) contains an interesting article (see "Made in China") about Chinese PV manufacturer Yingli. While there has been some discussion over here in Germany about predatory pricing and a lack of environmental and labor standards in China, the German magazine has words of praise for Yingli, which it finds to be perhaps the most modern manufacturer of all. On one particular production line, the author reads the manufacturer labels (my translation):

Rena, Manz, Centrotherm, Roth & Rau, Baccini – all highly regarded names in photovoltaics, and all manufacturers from Europe

Perhaps this is the market we are moving to -- more and more finished products (solar modules and possibly the solar cells contained therein) from China, but Chinese manufacturers may continue to use production lines developed in Europe.

The English edition of the article may be made available online in a month or two; the German article will probably go on line once the next issue is published.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Official new German PV rates announced

German Environmental Minister Röttgen has announced the proposals he will make to the German Parliament:

  • a 15 percent reduction for roof systems starting on April 1
  • a 15 percent reduction for field systems starting on July 1, but that reduction will increase to 25 percent if arrays are to be installed on "valuable farmland"
  • rates will automatically decrease by an additional 2.5 percent (over the automatic annual reduction of around nine percent) if more than 3.5 gigawatts is newly installed within one year and by 5 percent if more than 4.5 gigawatts is installed
  • in return, the automatic reduction will itself decrease by 2.5 percent if the market does not install 2.5 megawatts, with that decrease rising to 5 percent if the market falls short of 2.0 megawatts.

Overall, the government has a target of three gigawatts of newly installed capacity per annum. The new figures do not take effect until approved by the German parliament, though that is expected to take place in February.

It is too early to say exactly how the changes will affect the German market and German manufacturers in particular. Solarworld's CEO has already said the changes will only affect small companies, not his, while Hans-Josef Fell -- the Green politician who co-authored (along with the SPD's Hermann Scheer) the original law that provided feed-in tariffs for photovoltaics -- has come out saying that Chinese firms will benefit the most. The German CEO of Masdar PV agrees that foreign manufacturers will now manage to drive some small German manufacturers out of the market.

Unsurprisingly, Photon Magazine welcomes the reductions (they also called for rates to be lowered further a few years ago), though Photon believes that one-off reductions should not be linked to the market volume in any particular country because the market is global. It should be noted, however, that the point of having one-off reductions based on volume is to keep the burden on domestic consumers in check, not take account of a global market.

From an American perspective (my perspective), the debate over here has been quite professional, and the proposals certainly fall short of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is what would happen in the US. No stop and go policies over here, and other countries will first have to get up to one gigawatt -- a third of the German target.

Perhaps the most bizarre statement came from Christian Democrat Michael Fuchs, who said, "The greater the rate reductions, the faster the market will grow." ("Je stärker die Förderung für die Anlagen sinkt, umso stärker wächst auch der Markt.") So if we pay nothing for PV power, everyone will want to spend money installing PV arrays?

Recommended reading on the transition to renewables

The world is certainly not bereft of books telling us how we need to prepare for climate change, etc. But my colleague Miguel Mendonça informs me that his recent book co-authored with UK filmmaker Herbert Girardet, which just went on sale, has now also been made available for free as a PDF download - "we would like to get the word out as far and as fast as possible."

Back when I finished Energy Switch, I was thinking about writing a book on feed-in tariffs around the world, but Miguel beat me to it, and he has done some excellent work since then as well -- so good, in fact, that I do not see any need to write another book on the topic.

Alas, the free offer is too late for me -- I already bought one for myself and one for some colleagues in New Orleans.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

FDP flexible on tax reductions

As I mentioned a few days ago, Germany's Libertarian Party (the FDP) has been vehemently calling for lower taxes, but Germans will have none of it. Now, it turns out that the FDP has reached an agreement with the CDU, its governing coalition partner, to postpone lower taxes indefinitely, but specifically for 2010 and 2011. The FDP still wants to have taxation streamlined; in other words, loopholes should be closed, and the whole complicated process should become easier to understand. Who could be against that?

Now that the FDP has given up its main political promise, which would have been a terrible idea if implemented, one can only hope that the party's other excellent ideas will be implemented -- things like keeping the government out of our private lives (wiretapping, etc.).

Monday, January 18, 2010


In the days and weeks after Katrina hit New Orleans, one thing really made me, a native New Orleanian, emotional: hearing the local accent on television, one I rarely hear in Europe. I felt like I had personally been hit when I heard everyone talking about "water" in the Orleans accent.

So while it may seem trivial in light of the seriousness of what is going on right now in Haiti, I nonetheless wondered -- given all the various pronunciations I am hearing of "Port-au-Prince" on the news -- how that capital is pronounced. The Germans are mispronouncing Prince to rhyme with the French pronunciation of France (it is closer to a nasal version of the English "prance") in formal French (short audio clip here), which of course is not spoken by most people in Haiti. So I tried to find an example of the local pronunciation and came up with this video in Haitian Creole, where the speaker pronounces the name of the city at around 3:29. It is essentially what is given at Wikipedia: Pòtoprens, with "Prince" sort of rhyming with the English "fence."

In proper French, the -t is not pronounced at the end of Port; generally, there is no liaison after singular nouns. See this old video of the place from half a century ago, in which the narration begins with the French pronunciation of the town's name (though the speaker almost swallows the "au" entirely).

If you are in the US and wish to donate to a relief organization, texting "Haiti" to 90999 will automatically donate 10 dollars to the Red Cross -- this is not an urban myth. Note also that T-Mobile, a German firm, is allowing calls to Haiti to be made at the US rate, not the international rate.

I haven't seen any way to text a donation in Germany, but you can visit the German Red Cross here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New German solar rates reported by Reuters

Reuters reports the German government plans to announce a one-off 16-17% reduction in solar rates to take effect in April and adds:

Additional cuts to the subsidies will be made from 2011 if solar projects amount to more than 3,000 megawatts, said the sources and even more if they total more than 3,500 megawatts. Bigger subsidy cuts are planned for solar equipment on farm land.

A spokeswoman for the environment ministry said no decisions had yet been made. "That is planned for next week," she said.

In all likelihood, a market of three gigawatts would still be the largest in the world next year.

While the German Solar Industry Association (BSW) had been offering a one-off 4.5 percent reduction effective July 1, Frank Asbeck (CEO of Solarworld and BSW board member) stated a few months ago that an additional 15 percent reduction in 2010 would not be a problem.

Berlin-based photovoltaics publisher Solarpraxis writes that analysts from Commerzbank and LBBW (the State Bank of the German state of Baden-Württemberg) disagree. At the much anticipated meeting between politicians and industry on Wednesday, the bankers stated that such cuts would go too far and mainly benefit low-cost Asian competitors and that an ROI of less than seven percent would no longer provide sufficient investment security.

Consumer protectionists have warned that the money being devoted to photovoltaics is too great a burden on consumers, but a large majority of Germans (71% according to a survey reported by SolarServer) continue to support the current policy -- possibly because German law allows people who could once only be energy consumers to become energy producers themselves at a profit. Consumer protectionists may believe that they still represent the German public on this issue, but they may have failed to understand that Germans are no longer merely energy consumers.

From Q4 2008 two Q3 2009, some 2.4 gigawatts of photovoltaics was installed in Germany.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gaux Louisiana!

No, I am not talking about how Louisiana probably has the best solar policy in the US at the moment (though I do talk about that here). Rather, I am talking about a proposal to stop Asian carp from taking over the Mississippi River and, apparently, Lake Michigan. While the northern states are trying to come up with a technical fix, Louisiana has proposed something that I -- a Louisiana native -- also immediately thought of, though the New Republic's Brad Plumer calls it an offbeat suggestion:

Why don't we just start eating Asian carp?

Of course we should eat Asian carp -- it moves, doesn't it? And while I am no fan of carp (it is a bony, somewhat fishy-smelling fish), there is nothing that a little seasoning can't do, as alligator pie demonstrates.

P.S. Yes, I know that everyone writes, "Geaux Saints," but the ge- in geaux produces a
voiced postalveolar fricative -- the zh- in the Chinese name Zhou or the second g in garage. We need the first g in garage, ergo no e after it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Faveread: Schneier on security

If you are like me, you are tired of hearing about the attempted bombing on Christmas Day, especially because so much of the discussion -- especially in the US media -- is completely misleading. Don't even get me started on the various claims that we were never attacked while George W. Bush was in office. We are now to get these full-body scanners, even though they would not prevent such bombings.

For a more enlightened assessment, I highly recommend everything that security expert Bruce Schneier has written on the subject, especially his recent post, in which he points out all the things that worked:

The security checkpoints worked. Because we screen for obvious bombs, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- or, more precisely, whoever built the bomb -- had to construct a far less reliable bomb than he would have otherwise. Instead of using a timer or a plunger or a reliable detonation mechanism, as would any commercial user of PETN, he had to resort to an ad hoc and much more inefficient homebrew mechanism: one involving a syringe and 20 minutes in the lavatory and we don't know exactly what else. And it didn't work.

Yes, the Amsterdam screeners allowed Abdulmutallab onto the plane with PETN sewn into his underwear, but that's not a failure either. There is no security checkpoint, run by any government anywhere in the world, designed to catch this.

Importantly, his synopsis is invariably that we will simply have to learn to live with a certain amount of risk without panicking and giving up all of our freedoms:

The real security failure on Christmas Day was in our reaction. We're reacting out of fear, wasting money on the story rather than securing ourselves against the threat. Abdulmutallab succeeded in causing terror even though his attack failed.

If we refuse to be terrorized, if we refuse to implement security theater and remember that we can never completely eliminate the risk of terrorism, then the terrorists fail even if their attacks succeed.

Finally, isn't it rather fitting -- almost poetic -- that a Dutchman would prevent a bombing on a flight that started in Amsterdam? I just wonder why he had to cross over so many other passengers to get to the bomber.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Germany is now #2 world exporter

If you're in America, I think I know what you're thinking -- Germany moved up. But actually, China just overtook Germany as the world's biggest exporter. The Germans held the title from 2003-2008.

Think about what this means for a moment. Measured in terms of US dollars, the value of German goods exported exceeded the value of goods exported by every other country. Note that the figure does not represent a trade balance; imports are not deducted from the sum. Note also that the figure is given in absolute terms, not per capita.

A country with around 80 million people (Germany) therefore managed for six years running not only to out-export the United States, with around 300 million people, but also China, with around 1,300 million people.

Over the past few years, I have been including this fact in my presentations to unsuspecting American audiences (energy folks, and none of them ever knew Germany was #1) in an attempt to impress upon them that, while Americans are very concerned about keeping up with China, Germany has been easily beating China with only one 1/16 of the population. And the Germans have partly been doing so with renewables and energy efficiency.

I suppose I will now have to change those presentations ever so slightly.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

58% of Germans oppose lower taxes

On the radio yesterday, I heard yet another thing that clearly makes Germans different than Americans: a majority of Germans oppose lower taxation. But that's not all -- while the greatest support for lower taxation was found among those earning less than 18,000 euros a year, the greatest opposition to lower taxation came from those earning at least 36,000 euros a year. In other words, the more you earn, the more willing you are to pay taxes -- at least in Germany.

This discussion is taking place against the backdrop of the incredible debt accumulated as the government (read: taxpayers) bailed out banks. The current governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Libertarians has, much like Democrats and Republicans in the US, promised to generate more taxes by "growing the economy" -- so you need to lower taxes in order to increase tax revenue. You know, fighting for peace, fucking for virginity, etc.

One reason why Germans are having none of it may be because the concept does not make sense to German media. Here is a 10-minute segment from the German Nightly News (from Oct 15, 2009), which only lasts a half an hour -- and that is including the weather:

Marietta Slomka, the moderator, totally slams this libertarian politician; she points out that, even according to his plan, they would have to come up with 86 billion euros, and he has only proposed to cut 10 billion from the budget, but if taxes are reduced as proposed he would have a shortfall of 35 billion euros. In other words, if this politician gets his way, he is actually going to increase the debt by 25 billion, not reduce it at all.

The United States would be a different country if politicians were taken to task like this on the nightly news.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Faveread: Clinton review

For some reason, former president Bill Clinton is back in the news. The London Review of Books (do you also find that you are making do quite well with book reviews these days rather than with the books themselves?) presents a rather interesting synopsis of a book showing how Clinton was upset about media attacks on his person, but not about attacks from Republicans -- because they were simply playing the same political game he was:

"Most of all, though, what Clinton liked about his Republican opponents was that he was better at politics than they were."

In another article from the UK, Clinton is quoted as having this to say about how history will remember him -- namely, with two footnotes:
"One is 'They impeached him', and the other is 'He stood up to them and beat them, and he beat them like a yard dog'."

That's a rather Arkansan way of putting it. Anyway, I have long wondered why so many Democrats are so tolerant of Republican hardball:

‘Good ol’ Jesse,’ is all Clinton will say of the poisonous, racist Jesse Helms, who has just called him ‘unfit’ to lead the armed forces and warned him to stay away from North Carolina for his own safety.

It is hard to imagine a German MP threatening the safety of the German chancellor, and even harder to imagine the German media and general public not reacting. But perhaps I now know what game these Democrats are playing -- the same one the Republicans are playing, just with a different strategy. Frankly, I think the game is not worth playing.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's resolution - it's about renewables, not carbon

My New Year's resolution is going to be pretty easy for me: stop stressing carbon. It will be especially easy for me because I do not think the emphasis should be on carbon emissions anyway, and I was not interested in the recent conference in Copenhagen at all.

Basically, I believe we need to ramp up renewables, and doing so would reduce carbon emissions anyway, so if you want lower carbon emissions, you would get what you want. The opposite is unfortunately not true: reducing carbon emissions does not necessarily mean increasing renewables. We can lower carbon emissions by a number of other ways:

  • Nuclear power
  • Carbon capture and storage (at least, if the technology ever works)
  • A whole slew of trading mechanisms involving carbon offsets, carbon sinks, and a lot of other things that will require a tremendous amount of monitoring, oversight, and penalties

Michael Hoexter does a pretty good job of pointing out how all of this carbon trading business is going to be a bureaucratic mess (I wonder how we can even measure carbon emissions today), so I won't go into all of that here. Suffice it to say that carbon trading came about because so many people believe that the market will come up with the best (by which "cheapest" is always meant) solution if left alone. The fact that the perfect market does not exist -- no market is perfectly transparent to begin with -- is rarely mentioned. If so many of us did not see the subprime crisis coming because we did not understand the bank products we had purchased, why do we think that markets work so well? And why do we think that the figures that the US and China will report on carbon emissions will be in any way reliable? (Are they reliable today?)

The issue of monitoring emissions has fortunately moved into the foreground recently, with the focus in English of course on whether China would allow international monitors to audit its published figures -- as though Americans would not game the system, when actually gaming the system is the first thing Americans would try to do (cf. Enron, the current banking crisis, Madoff, S&L from two decades ago, etc.).

I know a way to lower emissions without any kind of monitoring or penalties. And it even entails less governmental involvement than current US/UK policy (PDF), which, while claiming to be "market-based" actually involves approval procedures -- and your project can also be rejected.

The policy I am talking about would lower carbon emissions by switching to renewable energy. You would not need to monitor anything, and there would be no penalties because you would blow past all your targets anyway, instead of failing to reach them.

Granted, there is very little paperwork to be done, so bankers and lawyers will not make a lot of money in the process. We should therefore not expect to see a lot of these people interested in this policy, aside from the basic fact that the policy I am talking about creates investment security (PDF from Deutsche Bank), unlike fluctuating prices on some exchange.

The policy I am talking about is feed-in tariffs.

Twenty years from now, the next generation of political leaders would not have much to talk about when they meet, so they just might forgo another Copenhagen/Kyoto. After all, there would be no need to talk about failure to comply; the focus would instead be on preventing the market from overheating (= renewables growing too fast). And since there is no renewable fuel source to fill up our airplanes with, flying will become prohibitively expensive even if we continue to exempt kerosene from fuel taxation. So this next generation of leaders just might choose to do what they did this time around: convene via the web, such as in Google Wave.

Politicians might then not be able to fly around the world as much to meetings whose pointlessness overshadows their importance. But that would also lower emissions. (Keep in mind that claims about a further increases in carbon emissions are based on the notion that we will actually be able to increase our consumption of oil and coal. My money is on oil production dropping over the next 20 years, though I am not sure about future coal production rates. But the point is that emissions of do in fact drop, even without any carbon trading, when we run out of fossil energy.)

Which leaves us with nuclear. So if you want nuclear power in the future, remember that renewables are intermittent, and we will therefore increasingly need power plants that can be switched on and off quickly, which nuclear plants cannot. And if you still want nuclear, please send me your address so we can put some of these "dry casks" in your driveway.

And if you'll handle the nuclear waste, in return I'll be happy to have solar panels on my roof and windmills on a nearby hill in plain sight, thank you very much.