Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Free City of New Orleans

The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg has written a tongue-in-cheek article about all the talk in the south about secession. Like many Northerners, he sees a number of benefits in the proposal -- the South could focus on what Southern politicians seem to believe in (doing away with taxes, getting death row inmates on to the electric chair, etc.), and Northerners could focus on things they seem to believe in (universal healthcare, culture and the arts, etc.).

Frankly, his proposal sounds tempting to me. I especially like the part about my hometown:

New Orleans might have to be made a “free city,” like Danzig (now Gdańsk) between the world wars.

I'm not sure how NOLA would fare after independence (Gdansk did not fare well), but at least we would not have the US government to blame anymore. Having said that, some New Orleanians might prefer the status of a French colony to independence.

Monday, April 27, 2009

China is number one

I am sitting at the Local Renewables conference, and by chance Ms. Oliphant, director of ISES, just said that China was clearly the world leader in renewables in 2008. The Chinese installed some 30% more than the US, which came in second.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Why China and India won't go for renewables

Another incredibly well informed article has been published, this time in City Journal, on why renewables won't get us anywhere - this time because China and India will never go for it:

China and India won’t trade 3-cent coal for 15-cent wind or 30-cent solar.
Of course, wind has cost less than 5 cents for years in good locations, and solar is down to 25 cents now - and will hit 15 cents in Arizona by 2011. But that's Arizona, not China. China will not go for solar - that's why they implemented a plan to boost the domestic solar market on March 26 - a month before that US article was published.

Of course, China will never go for wind. As The Guardian wrote in 2008:

Since 2005, the country's wind generation capacity has increased by more than 100% a year.
Ditto for India, which is the 5th biggest wind power producer in the world.

The best part was here:
It’s often suggested that technology improvements and mass production will sharply lower the cost of wind and solar. But engineers have pursued these technologies for decades, and while costs of some components have fallen, there is no serious prospect of costs plummeting and performance soaring as they have in our laptops and cell phones.
Wow. Does anyone get to write for City Journal? Don't you have to use facts somewhere?

Over the last 20 years, the cost of electricity from utility-scale wind systems has dropped by more than 80%. In the early 1980s, when the first utility-scale turbines were installed, wind-generated electricity cost as much as 30 cents per kilowatt-hour. Now, state-of-the-art wind power plants can generate electricity for less than 5 cents/kWh... (Source)
... prices for traditional silicon-based panels should fall from $3.66 per watt (2007 figures) to $2.14 per watt in 2010, and more impressively, thin-film PV should go to $1.81 per watt from $2.96. When coal, currently the least expensive source of power, is around $2.10 per watt to generate, the expected drop in price for solar will make it far more competitive. (Source)
It took me 25 minutes to research and compose this entry. This is not hard research.

Friday, April 24, 2009

RSS feed for style guide & glossary

I am a bit frustrated with the web interface I use to create this blog. I have to be careful how to enter material scheduled to be published on some future date, lest it go online immediately. And if I resubmit such items, each of them goes through on the RSS feed, which is at best an inconvenience and at worst an embarrassment.

On a more positive note, I have figured out how to set up a spreadsheet at Google Docs in order to publish Petite Planete's style guide and glossary on line. If you are interested, click here.

The best part about it, however, is the RSS feed, which essentially publishes each item as it is entered. Over the next few days, I will be adding the backlog of entries, so quite a lot should be coming through, and by the middle of next week things should be trickling in as they come.

This option is a very interesting new way to both share such information with colleagues and demonstrate online to the general public (specifically, potential and current customers) how knowledgeable you are.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Putzbalkone II

As a follow-up to a comment to one of my recent entries, I took another look at Putzbalkon and found this definition:

Putzbalkone dienen der Wartung von Außenfassaden, die überwiegend aus Glas bestehen.

The client also seemed certain that Putz- refers to cleaning, not plaster, and I am not sure whether plaster is used on external surfaces anyway -- it does not seem to be a very water-resistant material, though I may not be familiar with some common construction component.

More on "renewable" energy

Yet another article that demonstrates how so-called "renewable" energy cannot possibly be renewable has come to my attention. The American Spectator has published a review of an article at Insight, an energy website. I'll focus on the American Spectator.

The bone of contention is all the money we are throwing at wind energy, which as "anybody who understands electricity" (like me) knows only causes problems on the grid. As the article explains:

The major limitation, of course, is wind's intermittency -- its lack of "dispatchability." Quite simply, you can never count on it. You can't even predict it from hour to hour with 100 percent accuracy.
I'm glad somebody finally had the guts to call a spade a spade. I have been in Germany since 1992, and I can tell you that people over here are suffering greatly from all of this wind power. In fact, back in June of 2008, the situation in Germany had gotten so bad that the German Environmental Ministry published its final report on "Improved grid integration of wind turbines" (here is the website in German). According to the report, wind turbines now have to stay on the grid when the grid is destabilized and provide more "reactive power" -- essentially, the turbines have to help make sure that the phases of alternating current remain in pure sine waves so that the grid does not lose power or cause damage to electrical equipment by providing electricity outside of the defined range (see, I told you I understood electricity).

Until recently, wind turbines and solar panels both had to automatically disconnect from the grid completely whenever the grid became destabilized -- after all, these so-called "electricity generators" are not dispatchable -- but it turns out that they can indeed help stabilize the grid, though only at the cost of lower "real power output", which is the wattage that turbines and solar power owners get paid for. In other words, they stabilize the grid in the same way that a central power plant does. Because wind turbines make up such a big chunk of Germany's power supply, they have to help stabilize the grid first, but in a couple of years German law will also force solar arrays of a certain size to stay on the grid and stabilize the flow of electricity when the going gets rough.

That's the price you pay for being a major electricity producer.

The German Association of Grid Operators has published some pretty harsh statistics showing what the effect is of wind power on grid reliability.

The first chart is from this report, which is a few years old, but it is unfortunately the most recent comparative study that this organization has produced. For each country (click on the picture to enlarge it), there are two bars: the left one is excluding "acts of God/force majeure"; the right one, including. As anyone who understands electricity can see, the number of minutes of power outages over the year on the average goes hand-in-hand with wind production. So Germany actually fares pretty well at around 20 or 30 minutes of outages per year compared to countries like France, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain, which have far more installed wind turbines.

The next chart shows the trend in Germany, albeit for just two years -- 2004 and 2005. While you might think that minutes of power outages are actually decreasing as more wind turbines are installed, the latest information available (for 2006) makes the whole issue of the more problematic, as our third chart from this report published in the fall of 2007 shows.

Here, we can see clearly that Germany once again rose above 20 minutes of outages on the average in 2006. Unfortunately, I was not able to come up with a nice colorful chart for the number of minutes of power outages in the US, but according to this report the Electric Power Research Institute puts the figure for the US at 214 minutes. Clearly, Americans know a lot more about electricity than Germans. About 10 times as much, in fact.

While there is no report on power outages in 2007, the German Association of Grid Operators does have the fourth chart in our blog entry on its website. Once again, Germany remains at the bottom of the pack in terms of the number of minutes without power. As you can see, the number of minutes of power outages not caused by force majeure (the ones at least potentially related to wind power) dropped back down a bit closer to 20 minutes on average for the year, but the overall number of minutes skyrocketed because a major storm called Kyrill blew across northern Europe that January, causing five billion euros in damage in Germany alone. In each of those years from 2004 to 2007, wind power grew by more than 10 percent on the average. Clearly, wind is wreaking havoc on the German grid.

Finally, I'd like to come back to the point about "You can't even predict [wind] from hour to hour with 100 percent accuracy." This is a crucial point, and I'm really glad that it has been brought up. The matter is actually much worse than the author suggests. It seems that so-called "wind forecasting companies" have given up trying to predict wind from hour to hour with 100 percent accuracy. This company unabashedly writes:

"EuroWind provides you with accurate 8-day forecasts of the wind- and solar power generation for any country, region, supply area, or wind farm in Europe, the USA, or Canada."
They are not even shooting for hour-to-hour forecasts. These other guys offer a five-day forecast. Would somebody please tell these people we want hour-by-hour forecasts, not eight days and five days?

Of course, neither of these companies put their accuracy into a specific percentage, but we know it's not 100 percent. But other media reports provide a fuller picture, such as this one from 2007 on Germany's ISET in Kassel:

Windgeschwindigkeit 12 Meter pro Sekunde, Windrichtung West. Das Rechenmodell nutzt diese Daten und zeigt, wie der Wind morgen sein wird. Kilowatt-genau. Für jede einzelne Viertelstunde – einen Tag im Voraus.
That translates as: "Wind velocity 12 meters per second, direction west. The software uses this data and shows what the wind will be like tomorrow. Down to the kilowatt. For each quarter hour -- a day in advance."

As anyone who understands electricity can see, the companies continue to miss the mark. They either provide forecasts for the next eight days, five days, or for every quarter hour for tomorrow accurate down to the kilowatt, but they do not provide hour-by-hour forecasts that are 100 percent accurate. 99% maybe, but not 100 percent.

Of course, conventional power plants of all types are 100 percent accurate. They never break down, there are never any unplanned repairs or maintenance work, and there is absolutely no need for backup power plants (= "reserve capacity"). We have always had exactly the generating capacity installed that we need to meet peak demand and not a megawatt more -- at least, not until all of these wind turbines started going up.

In closing, I think the American Spectator's ultimate point is well taken:

In other words, thanks to government mandates and subsidies, wind will be there to throw power onto the market any time the wind blows. This will not replace base load plants but will only drive down prices, cutting into their revenues.... And so coal and nuclear will become less profitable.

There you have it: wind will drive down the price of electricity. Of course, coal and nuclear have never been subsidized, and no government funding is going to the coal sector for its R&D into carbon sequestration and storage; why on earth would the coal sector need government support anyway after 150 years of profitability? But the author's other point should also be heeded. The more renewables we have, the more we will have to run our conventional power plants below capacity, and that will cut into the profit margins of utilities. In my book (see the column to the right), I propose a simple solution based on the German model: pay them. Have some accountants calculate the difference, pass it by the grid regulators, and pass the extra costs onto consumers. That approach works quite well in Germany, where government officials are competent and the business world does not cook its books. I don't see any reason why it wouldn't work in the US.

The alternative, of course, is also attractive - at least as seen from Germany. America, do not throw all of this money at wind power. Wait until conventional, reliable sources of energy -- such as gas, nuclear, and coal -- become scarcer and hence more expensive, and wait until the price of wind power has come down. Germany and a few other European countries will be happy to sell you these products when you are caught in a pinch somewhere between skyrocketing fuel prices and a lack of domestic renewable manufacturing industry. Just stick to iPods and Segways, ok? Let Europe do the unnecessary stuff.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fraunhofer fuel cells

As a follow-up to my recent entry, I just had a phone call with a press spokesperson from Fraunhofer ISE. The main researchers on their fuel cell project are currently in Hanover, but I hope to be able to report more soon.

It sounds like the research institute has merely put a "bioethanol" reformer onto a PEM fuel cell. There is nothing particularly new about this combination -- the only new thing would be if the system worked reliably. I also intentionally put the word "bioethanol" in quotation marks because ethanol is itself an organic substance, so adding the "bio" prefix is a marketing trick unless I am mistaken.

Nonetheless, I hope that Fraunhofer manages to come up with a working system, and I hope that the business community sees the potential of using the combination of fuel cells and battery systems to produce electric vehicles with longer ranges. The press spokesperson said that a number of companies are working on exactly such combinations, including bicycles powered with fuel cells -- that would make them a sort of electric moped.

Anyway, maybe I will know more if I can talk to a researcher next week.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

LED billboards?

An economics writer for the New Yorker has blogged an admittedly funny video, but what interests me most is the following contention:

...some day all billboards will probably be LCD screens, and this video will be an interesting historical artifact.
It never ceases to amaze me how out of sync Germany and the US are. Americans can honestly imagine a world in which all billboards consume energy even during the day. I cannot imagine Germans saying such a thing. The Concorde has been decommissioned, cheap airlines (and all US airlines) are floundering, the world is having to switch to renewables because we cannot produce conventional energy faster, and Americans want battery-operated everything (hey, Europeans, did you know that breast pumps in the US are battery powered? I suppose Americans don't have the muscle power...). I suppose LCD billboards everywhere are the logical, though impossible, conclusion.

Don't expect to see electric billboards everywhere over here. We neither have enough electricity nor enough billboards. See the pics of the Sauerland autobahn here.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

New fuel cells

The Hanover trade show starts on Monday. I will not be attending, but I did get a press release from Fraunhofer ISE about a new "commercial PEM fuel cell with an electric power output of 300W" they will be exhibiting here.

For those of you not familiar with the lingo, these are basically the ones that were supposed to be available in cars no later than next year -- but you can forget about that. I'm not sure what the research institute means by "commercial," but fuel cells are hard to find commercially, at least for consumers.

Nonetheless, such a system combined with a single battery would be preferable to the large battery packs currently available in the Twike, which I wrote about a few days ago. The advantages of such a system would be many, but especially: you could theoretically drive endlessly rather than waiting for your batteries to recharge for 3 to 8 hours, and if you needed more energy, you would not need to look further than the nearest gas station. Trying to find public electrical outlets is quite a challenge these days, as I can attest from experience.

300 watts might not seem like much -- the Twike would need closer to 2000 watts to run normally, and even small cars have the equivalent of 50,000 at least -- but it would be enough to get a Twike moving along with battery power, fuel cells can be easily "stacked" -- in fact, one speaks of "fuel cell stacks." And while fuel cells apparently still cost thousands of dollars per kilowatt of output (this PDF puts the figure at 3000 dollars per kilowatt), if you had even one of those, you could probably make do with only one Lion battery that Twike sells and still have roughly the performance of the full battery pack of five -- and the savings would exceed 10,000 euros. It therefore generally makes sense to use fuel cells with small battery packs instead of large battery packs, provided we can get the fuel cells to work.

Fraunhofer seems to be especially excited because they are using bioethanol, but even if you use normal gasoline in an efficient vehicle like the Twike, it would still make sense because fuel economy would improve tremendously. To give you a ballpark figure, we are talking about literally hundreds of miles per gallon in the Twike.

Friday, April 17, 2009

My new portable

Recently, I wrote about my trials and tribulations in attempting to get reliable, affordable mobile internet access. During my research, I saw that T-Mobile is offering Sony's new P-series along with five gigabytes of traffic via WWAN (a SIM card) within Germany for just under 40 euros a month. I was interested in that unit anyway, so I thought I would take a look at it. Off the shelf, the machine costs 1,000 euros, but T-Mobile sells it for 600 if you sign up for their mobile internet package for 24 months. In other words, for around 1,560 euros you get the tiny laptop/UMPC/netbook (or whatever you want to call it) and 24 months of mobile surfing.

The folks at the shop had no idea about the machine and even gave me inaccurate information, which no longer surprises me. But they did tell me I could return everything within seven days (or 14 -- they were actually not even sure about that) and get my money back if I was not satisfied -- no questions asked.

I will not be taking the unit back. In fact, I have been hoping for such a deal for several years now. The laptop has a pretty decent keyboard, but I have managed to install Dragon NaturallySpeaking on it, and it works quite well. I will not be using the device to work from my office, but rather to proofread the work of colleagues when I am on vacation or on one of my annual bike trips. This week, I have had it with me and have used it for more than 30 minutes at a time and found it to be quite a pleasure.

One thing that few reviews mention is the "instant-on" Linux operating system. I was especially interested in this aspect because it takes so long for these slow netbooks to boot Windows, especially Vista, which this unit runs on. Online reviews explained that the embedded Linux OS allows you to quickly boot and open a browser to check e-mails, etc., which is exactly what I wanted, but it turns out that WWAN is not actually accessible via Linux. In other words, if you want to boot quickly and go online from Linux, you have to have access to a WLAN. Of course, the whole purpose of WWAN is being able to go online from anywhere without having to look for a WLAN, so I will probably not be using the instant-on Linux OS.

Fortunately, the machine boots almost immediately from the save-to-RAM mode and within about two minutes from save-to-disk. I can live with that. So when I am on my trips, I'll flip this baby out, order some food and drink, and by the time I have settled in, the machine will be ready to go.

I highly recommend the Sony P-series to anyone who does not want the performance compromises of (even larger, incidentally) netbooks (Eee PC and all the rest), wants something that will literally (!) fit into your back pocket, but cannot imagine dealing with the tiny screens and keyboards of PDAs for more than a few minutes.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Support for German policy grows in US

Add the National Review to the growing list of journals in the US that are openly calling for the implementation of a policy based on Germany's Renewable Energy Act.

RE = 2.2 jobs lost

All too rarely, someone comes along with an idea whose simplicity seems to cut right through the complexity of an issue with the ease of Occam's razor. A new report (PDF) entitled "Study on the effects on employment of public aid to renewable energy sources" by a team of researchers headed by Prof. Gabriel Calzada Álvarez at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos has just done such a thing -- they have found a simple formula proving that for each of these "green" jobs created, 2.2 jobs are lost.

But before we get to the formula, we should discuss the general context a bit -- and as someone who does not know much about the Spanish energy market and does not speak Spanish, I am grateful to Prof. Álvarez et al. for his accurate and detailed explanations.

As some of you may already know, Spain put a ceiling on its subsidies for solar at the end of September 2008 because, as everyone agrees, the situation was getting completely out of hand. As the study puts it:

Even with subsidy schemes leaving the mean sale price of electricity generated from solar photovoltaic power 7 times higher than the mean price of the pool, solar failed even to reach 1% of Spain’s total electricity production in 2008.

Of course, that situation would not have remained so for long since PV apparently grew by 100 percent in 2008 after growing by 100 percent in 2007. Not good. Just to give you an idea of what we are talking about: assuming that photovoltaics will make up 1% of Spain's electricity supply in 2009 and were to continue growing at 100 percent per annum, solar would cover 128 percent of Spain's electricity consumption by 2016.

But solar is already a problem in Spain. "Renewable technologies remained the beneficiaries of new credit while others began to struggle," the study's authors write, adding that "electricity retailers are forced to buy all the ['green'] electricity." You need look no further than the recently published annual reports of some of Spain's biggest electricity firms to see how detrimentally impacted they were. For example, the Red Eléctrica Group’s profits only rose by 17.7% in 2008, and Endesa posted a measly profit of €7.17 billion in fiscal 2008 (PDF).

Solar is not the only problem -- Spain has been throwing money at wind, but as the authors put it:

The rate of development of this technology has remained comparatively quite calm.

("The wind is calm" - get it? Ah, that Spanish humor...) The authors don't provide any figures, but if we take the following chart from the US Energy Information Administration, we see that the price of a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a wind turbine may have fallen by around 90 percent from 1980 to 1990 and by roughly another 50 percent from 1990 to 2000, but it has hardly changed since, while prices for conventional energy skyrocket:

Energy providers are not the only ones detrimentally affected; energy-intensive industry also is. The authors use an excellent example to prove their point: Acerinox. This Spanish firm is one of the largest metallurgy companies in the world. It is exactly the kind of firm you want to have next door: a responsible member of the community that would never accept subsidies itself. Of course, the usual Birkenstock-wearing, muesli-masticating opponents of progress will complain that Acerinox has moved not only to the US state of Kentucky and Middleburg, South Africa (note: I did actually find one mistake in the study -- the authors speak of "Columbia (South Africa)", which does not exist, but you're allowed one mistake over 51 pages, right?), but also to Iskandar Malaysia, one of those free-trade zones that allow global corporations to escape national taxation of all sorts. The website of Iskandar Malaysia even lists the incentives unabashedly:

    1. Corporate tax exemption for 10 years
    2. Exemption from FIC ruling
    3. Allowed to source capital globally
    4. Allowed to employ foreign workers without restrictions

But to be fair, the website also makes it clear that the new commercial zone is not just about business: "Recognising the need for sustainable development, social and environmental issues features heavily on its agenda." The private sector is also involved, as this real estate site from Johor (the very place that Acerinox is relocating to) clearly illustrates:

One of Iskandar Malaysia’s major (although perhaps less known) goals is to create liveable communities that encompass quality housing, adequate facilities, quality services and a healthy, safe and lively environment.

The project is the pride of the Malaysian business and political community because of this very unique combination of commercial interests, environmental respect, and social prosperity for all. As none other than former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad put it:

After the land is sold, the Malays will be driven to live at the edge of the forest and even in the forest itself… In the end, the area in Iskandar Malaysia will be filled with Singaporeans and populated with only 15 percent Malays.

So you see, Acerinox is not trying to evade general European tax law and exploit the natural and human resources of emerging nations; rather, as the Spanish report finally makes clear, Acerinox is trying desperately to escape draconian hikes in energy prices due to subsidies for renewables (except for those price hikes before 2002, which an Acerinox exec in the study specifically complains about - those were before Spain went crazy with renewables and must have some other cause, like skyrocketing conventional energy prices), and the firm has chosen a socially and environmentally responsible tax-free zone in doing so.

Let us return now to the real breakthrough in the study: the simplicity of the argument. Before the authors get to the magic formula, which will probably go down in history as the E = mc2 of the 21st century, they foreground it thus:

… These schemes create a bubble, which is boosted as soon as investors find in “renewables” one of the few profitable sectors while when fleeing other investments.

It is important to note that the authors repeatedly place the word "renewable" in quotation marks -- after all, how can anything be renewable when it costs so much? But the real breakthrough begins when the authors show us how investments in renewables drain investments from other sectors:

… if the government decides to spend taxpayer money on windmills or solar panels, their unseen cost would be all the hamburgers not cooked or any other productive activity that would no longer take place as a result of the state directing resources to windmills or solar panels. Policymakers must recognize that because of government action, other jobs are not created.

Hamburgers! It was here that I began to suspect genius afoot. Since mid-2007, I have probably spent four or five months in Spain, and I can attest that fast food joints are notoriously full there. But it never occurred to me that investments in renewables were one reason why Spain doesn't have more greasy spoons. Probably because I am not able to cut to the quick like a lone team of Spanish economists north of la Mancha, I foolishly assumed that investments in renewables were offsetting investments in other forms of energy, but now I see that any investment binds capital that could be used anywhere.

At this point, is almost too bad that you are reading this blog instead of reading the study first, so if you want to switch now, just click here. The experience is worth it, for the simplicity I have briefly presented is expounded upon in much greater detail in the study, so by the time you get to the formula, the experience is almost religious -- here it is:

I'll admit that it is a bit longer than E = mc2, but the more you look at it, the more you recognize its simplistic beauty. The formula surely deserves a Nobel Prize for cutting out all kinds of real-world factors and getting to the indisputable fact that, over the past few years, the capital invested in each "green" job in Spain could have produced 2.2 jobs elsewhere. And that's not all: other countries can apply this simplistic formula to their own data and probably come up with similar figures, such as 1.8 or 2.8. Newspapers can reprint these easy-to-understand figures, and everyone will realize what a sham "renewable" energy is.

Of course, skeptics will still argue that there is no guarantee that the money not invested in renewables will stay within Spain. The EU itself, complicated thinkers will argue, estimates (PDF) that Spain imports nearly 80 percent of its total energy consumption; it follows, smart-aleck know-it-alls will opine, that 20% of 2.2 jobs is 0.44 jobs - far less than the one “green” job created. But these people miss the point -- such considerations are completely extraneous to the breakthrough simplistic formula above! This money could be used in any sector!

Sure, the usual coterie of card-carrying Greenpeace supporters will probably still joke that you will need to have 2.2 jobs flipping burgers for rich German engineers on vacation in Spain if you want to make as much money as one Spanish solar contractor, but let them laugh -- we know better. Spain is a powerhouse of innovation, and Spanish industry does not need to be told what to do with investment capital. Like the US, Spain can be trusted not to create frivolous bubbles on real estate markets - Spain does not have the highest unemployment in Europe right now because it can't be trusted with money. The only bubble in Spain was the “renewable” one!

Spain does not depend on the excess cash of tourists from innovative northern European countries. Why, tourism only makes up 11 percent of Spain’s GDP. That leaves 89% for innovations that need capital! Ask any German on vacation in Spain, and they will tell you they are not down there because of good weather -- it's all economic espionage!

Of course, as simplistic as the formula above is, there are still aspects that escape me. For instance, if the Spanish already have enough to eat, why do we need to invest in hamburger joints? What about those sides of cattle hanging in Spanish bars and truck stops? And are the authors of the study, who are obviously very concerned about domestic job creation with government funding, also upset about the decades of cohesion funding from the EU to Spain? According to one estimate, Spain was the net recipient of more than 48 billion in funds from the EU for infrastructure projects from 2000-2006, and that funding is set to continue until 2013 even though Spain has reached a level of prosperity that disqualifies it from being a net recipient (PDF). The Spanish government managed to get this extension nonetheless a few years back -- isn't that outrageous? I mean, of all countries, Spain can do without such "help", thank you very much.

In closing, I should mention that the study, which is written in excellent English, seems to address a US audience by repeatedly mentioning President Obama's plans to invest state funding in "renewable" energy. The authors think the timing couldn't be worse:

The regulator should consider whether citizens and companies need expensive and inefficient energy – a factor of production usable in virtually every human project - or affordable energy to help overcome the economic crisis instead.

Indeed, we should wait until renewables become competitive before throwing all this money at them. Thank goodness for this study!

(Disclaimer: Germany will be happy to get those prices for renewable energy down for you. And if you live in one of those sunny, windy places like Spain or the US, you may one day realize that sunlight and wind are free, but the equipment is expensive -- but it will be too late. The manufacturing capacity will be in Germany, and you will be importing expensive equipment. But I live in Germany, so I'm happy either way.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

So much for liberated liberators

A few years ago, back when I more or less got paid to write a blog, I expressed my surprise that such a distinguished journal as The Atlantic would seem to indicate that the US military that defeated Hitler's Herrenrasse was itself integrated. I knew from the tales of Germans who lived through that time that the US military was, in fact, segregated.

Now, I see via Harper's Weekly Review that the BBC recently discovered previously undisclosed memos indicating how top US military leaders reacted to France's request to have French troops, rather than US troops, march into liberated French towns first (the BBC speaks of the liberation of Paris, but I know from my year in Strasburg that the practice was the same there as well).

While US military agreed with French leaders that it was best to have the population at large in France believe see the French army liberating the country, there was apparently one condition:
De Gaulle's division must not contain any black soldiers.

We now have a (half) black president, and people nowadays probably fail to realize how recently we find blatant, institutionalized racism in the US. Having grown up in southern Louisiana and Mississippi in the 1970s, I can attest that the general sentiment then was that blacks should stop complaining -- after all, slavery ended more than a century before.

But recent research has revealed that, in many ways, things actually got worse for black Americans in the decades since the Civil War. I am currently reading this book and have this one on my list. And then, of course, there is the one published just a few years ago that led to this website.

The irony of Nazi Germany's racial ideology is not only that it indirectly led to the creation of a Jewish state, but also that it forced the United States to rid itself of at least the most obvious similarities.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Coffee kitchens and cleaning balconies

During a translation last week, I happened upon SAP's bilingual glossary, which contains a curious entry for something called a "Kaffeeküche". I can easily imagine what this is: essentially, a Teeküche -- a kitchen in an office building where employees make themselves something to drink or pop their lasagna from home into the microwave. I recently had trouble translating Teeküche (which literally means "tea-kitchen"), so I was all the more surprised to find that SAP staff apparently drink coffee, not tea. At any rate, I learned a new German word, which produces some 40,000 Google hits -- roughly a quarter of the number of hits for Teeküche.

Although one prominent online bilingual dictionary claims that the translation of "Kaffeeküche" is "coffee kitchen," I have never heard of such a thing, and the first hits that I come across do not suggest that such a term exists. Whether you use it to make coffee or tea (or heat up lasagna), native English speakers will probably just call the thing a "kitchen."

I came across another bizarre case last month, when I had to translate Putzbalkon. Basically, this German word is a compound noun that could be transliterated as "cleaning balcony"; the only problem is that there is no such thing. You can get an image of it here - and I don't see anything there that I would call a balcony.

After some thought, it occurred to me that we are simply talking about "ledges." I informed the client, who then insisted that we call the thing a "cleaning ledge" -- in an attempt, I suppose, to somehow retain the Putz- part of the German. Hopefully (I have not seen the publication yet), my argument was convincing and the client indeed just speaks of "ledges" in the English. I insisted that the German needed the Putz- bit because the main stem of the word was "balcony", whereas "ledge" is clearly distinct and needs no further descriptor.

Such is the daily work of a translator, even in technical fields.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Good review of bad grammar advice

In a review of a popular grammar book and style guide that is now turning 50, a linguistics professor from Edinburgh discusses where a lot of the nonsense in English comes from. Germans who learn English hardly suspect the chaos they are getting into, and English speakers cannot imagine how straightforward the rules of a language can be.

When I published my first book, it was in German. My copy editor was fantastic, and it was a pleasure working with her. My German is not quite native, and she found several things on every page to improve upon. She also complemented me on my content in the end by saying that she and her husband had decided to put solar on their roof after reading my book.

When I then published the English edition of that book, the process was chaos. My copy editor made all kinds of haphazard changes. For instance, she did not like to have adverbs stuck in-between the components of a present-perfect verb. So if had written that someone "had also proven" something, when I got her edits back, that passage read "also had proven". Puzzled at the time she had taken to make the necessary changes (this stuff was all over the place for more than 150 pages), I wrote to her and pointed out that my way of doing things is not only perfectly correct, but also more common than the changes she had made -- if you enter "had also proven" (you have to put it in quotation marks in the search field to get the exact wording) in Google, you get some 420,000 hits, whereas "also had proven" only produces around 112,00 hits. She also changed my commas frequently, explaining that it was the publisher's policy to get rid of "unnecessary commas" -- to which I could only respond that I, too, did not like unnecessary commas, which is why I had not used any.

Grammar and spelling rules are set forth in stone in German, and while there are a number of cases that seem unclear, there are not too many to count. And of course, native speakers of German do not by any means get all of the rules right. But there is absolutely no equivalent in German for the kind of nonsense we have about, say, split infinitives -- which the Scottish professor agrees is a non-issue: "the split infinitive has always been grammatical and does not need to be avoided." My sentiments exactly, though I would go one step further and argue that there is actually no such thing as a split infinitive in English. The "to" in our infinitives does not actually belong to the verb at all, but rather to the precedent phrase:

I could prove that if I wanted to.
But I am not going to.
I wouldn't bother trying to.

If we actually had split incentives in English, then the sentences above would probably have to be considered "dangling infinitives" or something to that effect.

Finally, though our Scottish linguist does not mention it in his article, I'd like to mention my personal pet peeve: the avoidance of "they" as the first-person generic pronoun in sentences like, "Everyone has to do their own work." I remember learning that such usage was not correct English in eighth grade, and I remember that everyone in my class thought that this new "rule" was pretty stupid.

It turns out that the insistence on "his" in such cases ("Everyone has to do his own work") is, in fact, quite recent and is the result of the kind of crappy grammar books that our Scottish professor is complaining about. German children naturally produce the equivalent sentence with "his" ("Jeder muß seine eigene Arbeit machen"), and in French there is in fact no difference between his/her, with son/sa relating not to the gender of the person, but of the object possessed ("elle a perdu son chapeau" & "il a perdu son chapeau" mean, respectively, she/he lost her/his hat). But at least speakers of those two languages do not learn a rule that contradicts what they grew up saying and introduces something they have not yet produced.

It would be wonderful if we could toss out all of this he/she nonsense ("everyone has to do his or her own work") and just go back to what we all learned as native speakers.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


A new two-seater vehicle presented by General Motors has been getting quite a lot of press over here (see this slideshow in Die Zeit). The PUMA, as it is called, seems to be a kind of enlarged Segway.

When the Segway came out a few years ago, I remember thinking that such vehicles were the last thing that obese America needs. The thing hardly replaces cars -- if anything, it replaces bicycles.

The prototype PUMA reportedly gets "up to 35 mph, with a range of 35 miles". In other words, it, too, will not be competing with automobiles, but rather with bicycles. And although it has two seats, judging from this picture it looks like the driver will be regularly elbowing the passenger in the stomach during basic steering.

I wonder why no one is thinking about producing a true battery-assisted, enclosed (to protect you from the elements) bicycle. Well, actually, people are. Just a few months ago, some researchers in California produce this vehicle, which even won an award. It apparently only costs 4,000 dollars even though it has four solar panels on it. My guess is that those four solar panels would cost 4,000 dollars on their own. The question is whether those panels will actually produce more energy than is required to move them -- if you take a look at the video, you'll notice that the TV journalist is driving down the street in the shade. Overall, the vehicle looks extremely large and bulky, and the price tag is unrealistic.

And of course, the researchers created the vehicle by reinventing the wheel: they claim that all of this is new, but the European Twike has been around for more than ten years. I rented one for a weekend to try it out back in 2001, and I can report that there is plenty of arm and leg room in the vehicle. It is also truly a replacement for a car (rather than for a bicycle) except for long trips; the Twike maxes out at 90 kilometers per hour and can go more than 100 kilometers depending on the battery pack you buy and the driving conditions.

The main drawback of the Twike is the price tag. Without the battery pack, the vehicle costs around 16,000 euros. You have a pretty wide selection of small cars at that price. To make matters worse, a large battery pack will actually double the price. And although proponents of electric cars like to point out that you only need a couple of euros worth of electricity to take you 100 kilometers, they fail to point out that after less than 100,000 kilometers, you will have to replace the entire battery pack, which will entirely nullify any savings.

The real advantage of the Twike right now is that it would allow everyone to get some exercise while they make daily trips. No other vehicle I know of that is commercially available does that. I just wish the thing could be mass produced so that at least the price excluding batteries could be brought down drastically.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Letter from France about the, uh, future

The main focus of this blog is how one country does not know what the other is doing. As an American living in Germany, I am always surprised to hear Americans talking about how they plan to do this or that because the other thing is not a good idea -- and of course the other thing works fine over here. The other way around is not quite the same: Germans are not oblivious to what we do in the states, but rather monitor it as closely as they can, but they also have their eye on the rest of the planet, so misunderstandings do occur.

Which brings me to the e-mail I got today from an old German friend who once played baritone sax (those things are big) with me in 1996/97 in Strasbourg. He sent me the following scan of an article in a French newspaper, in which the journalists have apparently come up with a house that is "100 percent ecological." They have thought of everything. Click on the two pics to enlarge.

Who else but the French could start off an article with the statement, "Solar panels have a long way to go aesthetically"? The journalists should, however, be credited for having come up with a rather exhaustive to-do list. In a strange twist of aesthetics, they include wind turbines and make absolutely no comment about how they look; do the French protest against solar roofs but not against the visual impact of wind turbines? I am told, however, that small wind turbines are not a good idea. They require regular servicing, so if they are set up in your yard somewhere, you will have to take that tower down probably every year. If you install these things on your house, it may cause structural damage to your home, which the architects never designed to support a small wind turbine during a storm. Finally, large wind turbines are much more efficient than the small things, so if you want to get some of your electricity in wind, buy shares of a local community project (note to Americans: if that last piece of advice doesn't make sense to you, it's because US utilities do not allow citizens to invest in community wind projects -- you'll have to change your law). But don't take my word about small wind turbines -- take Paul Gipe's. He tested just about every small wind turbine on the market in the 1990s, but today he works to get the big ones put up.

Otherwise, the text makes clear what the picture does not: those panels are not just photovoltaic (to generate electricity), but also solar thermal to produce hot water. So you would have to have two different types of solar panels on your roof, which may be what the French are complaining about -- or you can wait until "hybrid PV/thermal panels" (PDF) become commonplace.

The French round off the package with thoughts of rainwater recovery, heat pumps, compost, etc. It sounds pretty progressive to me -- pretty progressive for, say, 1995. The article says this house is "not a myth, but technically possible." Imagine reading an article about how battery systems in cars could be made bigger to support the vehicle's drive train with electricity in order to lower gas consumption. Hmmm...

Let me look out my window here in Freiburg and see what I find -- ah, there it is... and there, and there. Whole neighborhoods of homes that do without heating systems altogether because they are "passive houses" -- put solar on top and you get homes that produce more energy over the year than is consumed inside the house ("plus-energy homes"). These things have been up here for around 10 years, and the concept is almost 20 years old.

In conclusion, it is always amazing to see how one country -- in this case, the French -- can fail to look across the border to see how the living is greener.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Germany's Castro

In the past few years, I have been thinking about visiting the states with my kids (currently eight and 11), but horror stories about the way foreigners are treated by immigration officials make me wary. While my daughter does have the right to a US passport, my son is from my ex-wife's previous relationship, and I have not adopted him yet. So he would have to enter in a separate line.

Back in 2003, I wrote this article (in German) about a sister-in-law who was almost sent right back home because she did not have the address of her American friend who was picking her up at the airport. Similar reports are quite common in Europe, and almost everyone I know seems to know several people who have had trouble.

I was hoping that things might change under the Obama administration, but there is no sign of that yet. A few days ago, German media reported that Cem Özdemir, current co-chairman of Germany's Green Party and a man of Turkish descent, was held up and questioned for an hour with his wife Pia Castro as described in this article in Germany's most prestigious weekly newspaper, Die Zeit. It must be remembered that the Green Party is not a fringe element in German politics like it is in the US -- the Green Party was part of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's coalition, and Foreign Minister Fischer was a member of the Green Party.

The most disappointing thing, perhaps, is that there has been literally no reporting in the US about this event. All I could find online in English was an article from this Turkish website. So while the issue is apparently being followed over here both in Turkey and Germany, Americans are oblivious to the way foreigners who try to enter the country are treated -- and judging from the lack of media coverage on this issue (imagine the uproar if a US congressman had been held up and questioned for an hour at the Frankfurt international Airport) Americans will remain oblivious for some time.

I cannot imagine putting my 11-year-old boy through such an interrogation after an overseas flight, when he will be suffering from jet lag and probably be both hungry and thirsty, with me and his sister not able to communicate with him while he is held incommunicado and possibly sent home alone -- and no one is informed of his whereabouts during any part of this. Until I hear that things have improved significantly, we are not coming. Get your act together, America.