Saturday, August 29, 2009

Back to "bully"

Recently, I published a post here arguing that German has no word for "bully" because there is no such thing over here. Now, Michael Quinion has published an interesting comment on the etymology of this word. It turns out that German does indeed have the same word, at least etymologically.

"Bully" goes back, he says, to the Dutch boel, which immediately took me to the German Buhl, a word that today only appears in the term Nebenbuhler, perhaps best translated as a rival for a lover's attention. The Dutch word (and the antiquated German Buhl, no longer in common use) both basically mean "lover."

So it turns out that our bully was once a lover. I guess that only goes to show that love and hate are as close as they say. Anyway, if you want the real etymology, visit Michael's website.

Friday, August 28, 2009

German solar firms want protectionism -- finally

I suppose this was only a matter of time: a number of German manufacturers are now calling for a "Buy European" stipulation for renewables subsidies. As I have written here before, Canada, the US, China, and other countries all have such stipulations for domestic manufacturing already, but Germany never has. It now seems that German firms want a level playing field, and the only way to do that is violate international trade rules like everyone else.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fear your neighbor? Call the cops!

One of the most interesting aspects about the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. was something that went completely unreported in the US, though I suspect it would have been the first thing on everyone's mind in Europe: why did the man's neighbor call the cops in the first place?

I imagine that most neighbors would know each other, and if you don't you can probably just walk over and see who the guy is -- at least in Europe. In the US, you might be afraid that the guy is going to have a gun and kill you.

Recently, Bob Dylan was arrested. He was standing in the rain in front of a home with a for-sale sign. The people inside the house did not view the man as a potential buyer (Dylan says he was indeed looking to buy the house), but rather as a crazy vagabond who was walking around in the rain. In the US, walkers are often treated with suspicion, and some suburbs do not have sidewalks at all, though there is a trend to have them retrofitted these days. If you simply want to take a walk in many parts of the US, people will assume that your car has broken down (in which case someone may stop and ask you if you need help) or that you cannot afford one and are destitute. Few people will assume that you are simply taking a walk.

It is unlikely that Bob Dylan would have been arrested under similar circumstances over here in Germany. I contend that the average German who notices a strange man standing out in the street looking at their house would probably not even think the man is especially strange. In fact, I am sure that things like this happen all the time; every time I go outside, there are all kinds of strange people looking at all sorts of things.

I haven't called the police yet, but it would be interesting to see if they would take me seriously at all. I wouldn't be surprised if they asked me, "Someone is standing out in the rain looking at your house, and you want us to come by?"

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Streets and the German stimulus package

As a follow-up to my comments about the (lack of) quality of roads in eastern Germany, there was a recent report about how some of these towns are applying for funding from Germany's stimulus package for the construction of noise-reducing asphalt. It turns out that simple road construction is not part of the stimulus package, but all kinds of environmental concerns are, and noise reduction is one of them.

As a result, some German towns that were not planning to put fresh asphalt over their loud cobblestone roads for lack of funding have now received money from the federal government to put super-quiet pavement in. These special roads cost three times as much as normal pavement, which has brought about much criticism.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - my bike and bags

I am signing off for this series with a brief presentation of my bike and bags. You can see the bike in its original form here. In the picture to the left (incidentally, that's a fellow camper, not me), you can see the bike with all of my bags.

Essentially, I bought the two Moonbiker saddle bags which go over the bike rack. Because you cannot have any front bags on this bike, those bags are made to be as big as the normal front and rear saddlebags for standard bikes.

Above that, you can see a silver case -- the Office 2, a very lightweight, waterproof "briefcase" that I put my electronics stuff in. Above it, the black case is actually a solar bag with a battery inside. It is not waterproof, but whatever you have in there can be charged from the battery, and the solar cells have a peak output of 17 watts. Overall, you should be able to run your laptop from five hours of sun with that solar bag. I mainly wanted it so that my GPS device could guide me the whole day if I needed it to. The solar bag is simply held on using common bungee cords, which are hooked into the four large eyelets on each corner of the bag. Unfortunately, the solar bag has some inside pockets and lining that cannot be removed, and I do not need all those pockets -- it is just extra weight for me.

The green thing that the guy seems to be sitting on is not actually the seat, but rather one of those 2 seconds tents that you just throw up into the air, and they land completely opened up and ready to drive into the ground with stakes. I did not know where I was going to put that circular, flat tent until I realized that it can easily be slid into the space between the seat and the bike rack. I can then tie it on to the saddlebags to keep it from flying off.

All of that luggage space is actually more than I need, especially the two boxes on the top, which were largely empty.

The Office 2 is attached to the luggage rack with a special mounting frame that also holds the saddlebags in place -- they fit like a glove (see the second picture). I would recommend that anyone who gets this bike with those saddlebags should get that mounting frame in addition regardless of whether you get the Office 2 or not.

The whole system stayed on the bike very well over 720 some odd kilometers, including all of that cobblestone, and it can be taken off and put on the bike in just a few seconds.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - the Elbe Bike Path

At the end of my trip, my impressions of the Elberadweg -- by most accounts, either Germany's most popular cycling path or at least in the top three -- is mixed. Culturally and historically, I doubt that any other routes can compete with this one.

But in terms of the actual path itself, I do not feel that it even warrants the name "bike path" in many stretches -- and a number of fellow cyclists I casually spoke with felt the same. Most thought it was a "catastrophe" in parts.

One of those parts is the section around Meißen, where you have to carry your bike over stairs three or four times, depending on the route you take. And speaking of the route you take, there is no single Elbe Bike Path, but instead at least two (one on either side of the river), but each of those often strays off into neighboring villages trying to keep themselves on the map.

The result is chaos in terms of signage. Your average intersection sends you every which way without any indication of the main route. Most people ride along the river either upstream or downstream, so there are basically two directions. I would therefore have expected to find the kind of sign pictured above all over the place, but in fact this was the first time I saw any indication of something like "Hamburg" as a general indication of "downstream". The sign is just outside of Magdeburg, nearly 400 kilometers downstream of Dresden.

Aside from the inability to ride the path without a map just by following the signs (at many intersections, you had to take out your map to see which of the tiny unknown villages indicated was the right direction), the quality of the paths themselves left much to be desired. There were sections of cobblestone at regular intervals, and they acted as a sort of speed bump (see the second picture). They may have even been intended as such because they seem to occur especially often in front of information boards along the way. In rain, I'm sure they are downright dangerous, and they are certainly a pain if you are riding a racing bike or any other kind of bike with a lot of luggage. I imagine that a family with children in a trailer would not enjoy the trip because of all the cobblestones. In the third picture, you can see how cyclists have made their own tiny track to the side of the cobblestones, but with a trailer you would not be able to do that -- you have to go over those cobblestones. And this was a part of the official cycling path that went on for hundreds of meters. The fourth picture shows a longish stretch of modern (not historic) cobbles intended, apparently, to slow everyone down. It's a loud, shaky experience - and totally unnecessary.

Of course, there are a lot of cobblestones in the villages themselves, and some of the cobblestone paths must be historic, but I don't really mind all of that. What I do mind is having cobblestones put down intentionally and then being called a "bike path."

So if I do this route again, I will not do it the way I did it this time -- mainly for exercise. Instead, it will be a cultural outing, where I want to spend a day or two in each town having a look at everything, with the cycling merely being the means of transportation in-between stops.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Potemkin Town Squares

As I completed my cycling trip -- some 722 kilometers in nine days including visits to some cultural/historical sites -- I could not help but notice that a lot of money has been put into the renovation of buildings on town squares in eastern Germany, but that all of these investments have not led to local prosperity. In many cases, the blight starts at the building directly adjacent to the one on town square -- such is the case on the picture to the left, where the building shares a wall with a fancy remodeled building overlooking the town's main square.

The second picture shows an example of a compromise. In this building on a central artery of the old part of the same town -- it's just around the block from the picture above -- a local community project has rented out the bottom floor, and the top floors seem to be completely unused. When you are standing on the street, you therefore have the impression that most of the buildings are at least in use, but a closer look reveals that it is only the ground floor in many cases.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Kornhaus

Das Kornhaus, one of the Bauhaus buildings, turns out to be a restaurant, so I naturally thought it would be a great idea to eat there as long as I was visiting the building.

The structure itself is a good example of the kind of glass enclosure I was talking about in my last post. In the picture to the left, the curved side of the restaurant leads off into a hall in the back.

The eating experience was quite an adventure. First, all of the tables outside (you can see the umbrellas on the patio overlooking the river to the left) were apparently reserved. Since it was not even 6 PM, I asked whether I might have time to have a bite to eat there before the people came, but the waitress assured me that all of the tables were reserved for 6 PM.

Inside, I ordered some fish, and as I waited I took a closer look at the place. As you can see from the second picture, two of the tables were completely filled with dirty glasses and dishes -- as though the cleaning part of the kitchen had been put out in the dining room. I asked my waitress whether the dish-washing machine was broken, and she just looked at me and said, "No, why?" I told her that I had never before seen a restaurant that put all of its dirty glasses and dishes out in the area where people sat. She smiled as though to say, "I am only an apprentice here," and did not comment further.

I then noticed that there were some dead flies on the windowsill next to my table.

I survived the fish, and as I went outside at around 7 PM, I could not help but notice that most of the reserved tables on the terrace were still waiting on their patrons.

People used to make fun of the service sector in the GDR. One joke had it that restaurant staff, who got paid the same regardless of how many customers they serve, would put up "reserved" signs on most of the tables and send people away so they wouldn't have to work so much. I suppose a little of that survives even today.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Bauhaus

I was so spontaneously exciting to see the student dorm from the mid 1920s that I surprised myself. I studied Bauhaus twenty years ago, and to just turn the corner on my bike - and there it is!

The picture to the left looks like some painting from the era. It is a photo looking upwards in the dorm's stairwell.

The architects and designers at Bauhaus had one thing in mind: improving standards of living for common people. Back then, as one of the original videos shown at the exhibition explains, entire families lived in apartments with only 35m2 (350 square feet). And those apartments were dark, dank, and filthy.

Bauhaus developed both fancy single-family homes for the well-to-do as well as cheaper buildings that look like the kind of slums and high-rises we dislike today. The challenge for us is to realize how progressive all of this was in 1926. Modern architecture comes in large part from Bauhaus.

IKEA also comes from Bauhaus. Walk through the exhibition - with its stackable chairs and metal, egg-shaped tea sieves - and you realize that the only thing IKEA designed was logistics.

Of course, Bauhaus was not alone. Le Corbusier was another forerunner, but in his Plan Voisin he proposed that the historic center of Paris be razed and the kind of crap we hate today be put up in its stead. Even Corbusier's completed work is criticized today for being too large - not on a human scale. The buildings are too high without a lift, and the green space inbetween his buildings remains widely underused. People don't like it.

While Bauhaus did not propose razing Berlin (Speer did that - granite domes for 100,000+ people that modern architects say would have stood, but condensation from all those people would have caused rain to fall from the center of the dome), Bauhaus was not without its faults. Kandinsky (the painter) had his color scheme adapted: red means come in; black, exit; grey, only open door if necessary (toilets and private areas). The use of red for "come in" is, frankly, backasswards, and Kandinsky even varied the color scheme slightly, so you can't even rely on anything - I guess Saussure's sign/arbitrariness dichotomy came too late for Kandinsky.

More importantly, the windows - a major breakthrough for Bauhaus - were also crap by today's standards. Take a look at the second photo - that is the cafeteria today. We take such light for granted today, but it was a revolution back then.

Now look at the third photo: metal on metal. The cold air would blow through these windows uninhibitedly, and closing the window would be a very loud affair. But even the mistakes that Bauhaus made have led to great progress; today, Germany is the leader is glass manufacturing, from optics (Leica) to triple glazing in passive houses (not even available in the US) and the glass platform that tourists stand on over the Grand Canyon.

Hard to imagine, but as the fourth photo shows, Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, had the radiators hung up on the walls where paintings would usually be hung. Due to the metal-on-metal windows, the buildings were nonetheless too cold. And if you look closely, you'll see that the door frames are not the same height, nor are they large enough to walk into. They were designed to enhance the position of the heating radiator when viewed from downstairs. Bauhaus staff were, unfortunately, not only craftsmen, but also artists.

But the building did not overheat; the glass facade is not flush with the floors, but rather set apart so that hot air can rise up the windows and out the top of the building - a sort of glass encasement that we are only now rediscovering (see last photo).

I could go on with photos, but I'll stop here. Visit Dessau yourself. Modernity started in many places, but none had a greater impact than Bauhaus - for better or for worse.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Dessau

Dessau was once, in the 1920s, a major international industrial and intellectual center. It was superbly rich, as its many monuments and parks attest even today.

But if there is one word that describes Dessau today, it would be "empty." Since 1989, Dessau has lost some 25% of its population down to some 77,000 inhabitants - and that is after the conglomeration merged with neighboring Roßlau. The stately street leading up to city hall (see photo) had only two people on it aside from me, and the tourism office was closed - on a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon.

When you shrink by 25% in less than 20 years, you lose those who have a reason to go: young people with jobs elsewhere. The elderly, the unemployed, and families with reasons to stay are left behind. The effect is thus much worse than merely losing a quarter of your people.

Dessau's demise may have begun as early as 1932, when it became the first major city to put the Nazis in power. The silver lining to this is that the people at Bauhaus, which I will discuss tomorrow, had some advance notice of what was to come. Many emigrated in 1933 and had illustrious careers elsewhere, mainly in the US.

According to the tour guide, Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, apparently received a letter from the locals Nazis in 1932 (he was no longer the director at the time) saying Bauhaus could stay alive, but not with Jewish or women students. (Bauhaus was a forerunner in integrating women). Gropius responded by informing his colleagues and pupils of what was afoot in time for the changes that came in 1933.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Wittenberg

Wittenberg is a town of some 48,000 people, but its main street is much longer and more prestigious than Freiburg's Kaiser Josef Street - though Freiburg has 220,000 inhabitants.

The town's two main churches probably have lots of stories to tell. The City Church (top photo) was obviously hidden behind the ritzy homes of burghers at some point - one wonders how that could happen, but their priorities seem clear. The other church (bottom) is the Castle Church, the one where Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the church door, an act generally considered to be the start of the Reformation. Luther's "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" now surrounds the tower in golden letters.

Wittenberg did not seem that empty, and it turns out that the town has "only" lost some 8% of its population since 1989. Neighboring cities have lost as much as 30%.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Torgau

One reason why the Elbe Bike Path is so popular is, no doubt, its cultural significance. Rather small towns turn out to have been the site of major events.

Torgau has only 20,000 inhabitants but was the site of the meeting of US and Soviet troops near the end of WW II.

And if you are thinking of attacking Hartenfels Castle, beware of the bears in the moat.

The restaurants on the main town square were not overly full, but also not empty. But as you can see from the first image to the left, the main shopping street leading to the fountain on the main square was more or less barren, and the street to the left of the picture suffered from blight a block away from the picturesque square.

My favorite part was probably the butcher's on that shopping promenade. As the signs on the second picture to the left explain, you can get "lung, udder, ox tail, pickled ham, liver, heart" and "fresh brain" there.

I don't know anyone who would be able to make a dish out of any of that - outside of France.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Meißen

Meißen is a truly fascinating little place, and the stream of tourists along the Elbe River is enough to fill up the local guesthouses (Pensionen).

Nonetheless, I was once again the only eater in Das Goldene Fass, a wonderful restaurant recommended by my hosts. And the road to the restaurant from the guesthouse was largely vacant. Even with such fantastic views of the historic town center across the river, the balcony on the picture to the left was attached to an uninhabited apartment. Meißen suffers from blight along some of its best streets.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Elsterwerda

Before I actually hooked up with the Elberadweg (Elbe Bike Path), I passed through some less touristic towns. One of them was Elsterwerda.

I spent the night in the Hotel on Denkmalsplatz (Monument Square). Since there was no monument in sight, I asked around and also looked at Wikipedia to see what the deal was - and found a gold-starred entry in German for the town, including a photograph of the original (restored) monument.

The original one commemorated the dead in the Franco-German War. It was destroyed in a storm and restored, but later replaced by an anti-Nazi monument, which later gave way to a statue of Karl-Marx (all of this in around 100 years). Marx was put in a park in 1994, and since then there has been no Monument at all at Monument Square - not even the bushes are there anymore. There is no trace.

The building in the picture at Wikipedia is the hotel I stayed at. Its history is as varied as the monuments. After several people tried to keep the hotel alive, a Vietnamese family took it over in 2003 (the GDR had a modest Vietnamese population out of solidarity with fellow communists). It seems that the chef, the father of the family, has had a stroke, for the restaurant is now Greek, and the Vietnamese family has set off a tract of the hotel as their own living space, as I found out by losing my way and stumbling on the elderly man with very slurrred speech in a wheelchair. The Greek restaurant obviously lacks the money to remodel, so you eat Greek in a Vietnamese ambiance (I actually ordered something Indian when I realized the "Greek" cooks were Indian).

At breakfast, the Vietnamese lady who runs the half of the hotel that's left (and I seem to have been the only guest and was the only person in the restaurant, too, when I left) asked me the usual questions: where are you going, how far do you cycle a day, etc. But unlike the perfunctory chatty politeness of most hotel receptionists, her interest seeemed genuine, as though she were trying to fathom being out there on the road just going for going's sake, not knowing where you will sleep the next day. Or maybe I just read too much into it and imagined her to be trapped in her situation with a floundering hotel to run and a sickly relative to care for.

Whatever the case, a lot of people are just trying to hang in there.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - streets

Although I have been back to the former GDR several times since my trip back in 1993, I have never been here for long. I am now cycling down the Elbe River.

One of the things I happen to have recently heard about (it made national news here) was that some communities lack the money to properly tar their roads. It seems that roads are a matter for state governments, not local communities.

One village had therefore resorted to drastic means: they collected a special tax based on local property ownership and paved one lane down the middle. Eastern German towns often still have very old cobblestone roads that are noisy and hard to navigate, as any cyclist can tell you. So they spent one million on at least one lane rather than the four for the proper road.

I doubt I was in the village that made the news, but it looks to me like a number of villages over here have resorted to the same tactic for cheap road building, though perhaps not for financing. In the picture at the top, you can see three things: 1) where the funding ended; 2) how rough the going is over the old cobbles; and 3) how a side part was provided, possibly to allow people to ride bikes over the street where no pavement was provided.

And in the picture at the bottom, you can see a bikepath - officially part of the Elbe Bike Path - next to the old cobbles. The path is easily wide enough for a car. Who would criticize the locals for driving on the bike path when no one is looking - and for asking for special funding for that bike path so they could get their street paved with funding available from other budgets?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Newsweek calls Germany "techonophobic"

In a rather uninformed article, Newsweek says that Germany suffers from technophobia, mainly because it rejects genetic engineering and nuclear power. The article makes it sound like Germany is no longer on the cutting edge of technology.

You would therefore not expect Germany to actually produce more patents per capita than the United States, but in fact all of Europe clearly outperforms the US in this respect, at least according to these figures.

Newsweek basically completely misunderstands the mindset over here by attributing opposition to certain technologies to a general fear of technology overall. In fact, Germans are the leaders in certain areas, as the article itself points out:

German companies remain world leaders in information and alternative-energy technologies, and the hurdles they face have more to do with a lack of venture capital than technophobia.
But the article's conclusion does not follow:
Already, a small but rising majority of Germans say the decision to shut down nuclear power was wrong.
That is simply wrong. Germany has not opted to "shut down" nuclear power, but rather to decommission its plants after 32 years instead of extending their lifespan to 40 or 60 years, which is being considered in countries like the US and the UK. Furthermore, since the previous governing coalition under Schroeder passed this legislation, Germany has been split right down the middle, such as 46 percent for and 46 percent against the current decommissioning schedule, with eight percent undecided (that is not a majority).

By focusing on a presumed fear of technology, the article fails to realize that the people who are in favor of IT and renewables are the same ones who are against genetic engineering and nuclear. So there is no battle over here between (on the one hand) technology advocates in support of renewables, nuclear, genetic engineering, and IT and (on the other) people who are afraid of all of these technologies. Rather, an informed public -- the likes of which Newsweek probably cannot imagine -- is debating the pros and cons of everything.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Academic careers dwindling

I know that the chance of getting a professorship in the humanities, especiallly foreign languages, has plummeted since the end of the Cold War, but now a new book says things are not much better in the sciences:

“the chance of a PhD recipient under age 35 winning a tenure-track job has tumbled to only 7%”

Under 35? So what happens to those over 35?

Of course, PhDs in the sciences could always get jobs in industry, but the article says that such people are often considered overskilled and inexperienced.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

US looking for new ways to fund RE and EE

As Brad Plumer of the New Republic reported recently, some communities in the US are looking for ways to help people invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency - things like solar roofs and weatherization. The problem is that Americans tend to move every six or seven years on the average, and their investments in upgrades to property are then "stranded" because the value of these investments lasts for 20 or 30 years.

The idea, which the New York Times has also covered, is that local communities will provide upfront funding, which will then be repaid through property taxes. In that case, if you move and have to sell your house, you can pass on the debt easily to the buyer:

The debt typically stays with the property, rather than the individual, so homeowners who reckon they’d be selling their homes inside of a 30-year repayment period aren’t dissuaded from participating.
It is true that the mobility of Americans is an obstacle to such investments. I don't have the figures for the average number of years it takes for Germans to move, but a city official here in Freiburg told me last year that none of the 58 units in Freiburg's "Solar Settlement" have come up for sale at all, and I believe they have all been up for roughly 10 years now.

Having said that, I still do not see what the benefits of this new idea in the US are. Why is it not possible to simply add on the value of whatever improvements are made to the house when the house is appraised? And is it really that hard for Americans to get a low-interest loan for such things?

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Economist on Solar

(Hat tip to Tim.) The Economist, which is known for its position on photovoltaics (too expensive), has published a video interview with an Israeli researcher. The interview contains a number of inaccurate statements, some of which come from the interviewer, and one of which comes from the interviewee.

The first quite telling mistake that the interviewer makes is speaking of "silicone" instead of "silicon -- though I cannot be sure that the English do not pronounce both of them the same. I know that the English researchers I have spoken with would refer to the former as the stuff used in breast implants and the latter as the stuff used to make solar cells. It's really a beginner's mistake.

The interviewer also says that "Jerusalem... gets up to 800 watts of energy from the sun per square meter." I have no idea what he is referring to here. Even Freiburg, Germany, easily peaks at over 1000 watts per square meter, and I would assume that the figure is easily double that in Jerusalem. It could even be close to triple the figure in Freiburg.

And then there is the statement by the researcher herself, Renata Reisfeld, that solar power currently costs 30 times as much as standard electricity. This cannot be. The cheapest prices I have seen for coal power are around three cents per kilowatt-hour, which would put solar at 90 cents per kilowatt hour. Gainesville, Florida, currently only pays 32 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar power, and that still provides a profit. And prices are plummeting. Market researchers generally agree that that price will be cut in half just in another three or four years.

Reisfeld is not working on new technology, but rather one that has been around -- albeit marginally -- at least since the 1970s. I asked a German researcher working in the same field as her, and he said that Reisfeld is indeed a solar pioneer who has been in the field for a long time, and he agreed with her that this new technology is getting ready to hit the market.

So if you want a glimpse of a new type of solar panel -- these will be called "solar collectors" -- you can listen to the video to get the technical description, but be careful about some of the other claims...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Todschlagargument = thought-terminating cliché?

The German word in my title is commonly used; the English is the corresponding entry in Wikipedia. I do not find the English to be very common (I had certainly never heard it before), but the cursive part of the following definition is exactly what the German means:
Thought-terminating clichés are sometimes used during political discourse to enhance appeal or to shut down debate.
A White Paper has been published on feed-in tariffs (FITs), and the title says it all: “Feed-In Tariffs: Are They Right For Michigan?” As readers of my blog already know, feed-in tariffs are the mechanism used in all countries where renewables (and not just wind power) have been ramped up considerably. No country has been successful with another policy.

The only thing left for critics to argue then is that, "It may work there, but it won't work here." In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about American exceptionalism, but a closer look reveals that every country thinks it special. I'm not sure what each country calls its own sort of exceptionalism, but Germans have been debating their "special way" for some time now.

But back to the white paper -- this thing is a doozy. starting with this Todschlagargument from a "solar energy advocate in California" (Adam Browning):
There is nothing particularly magical about a feed-in tariff as a policy model. The main driver in supercharging markets is the amount of money thrown at it, not the structure of the policy instrument. If you want to replicate Germany’s growth, don’t get caught up in replicating their model. Replicate their budget.
Factually, that analysis is completely misleading. Germany does not have a budget for solar that can be replicated at all. If the price paid for the various forms of renewable energy is not right, then there is no market, so there is no budget -- if nobody invests, no "budget" money is spent. Likewise, and more importantly in the context of comparisons with countries like Spain and elsewhere, Germany has no ceiling on this alleged "budget." There is no amount of megawatts or a particular figure in millions of euros that could be reached for the policy to end. So the US consultant has completely misunderstood the nature of German policy, and the American White Paper has repeated that misunderstanding.

Think of it this way: even assuming that we simply could call the amount that Germany spent last year on solar a "budget," if we were to invest that amount in the US (or several times that amount to reflect the larger size of the US) in a system of upfront bonuses, which Americans seem to prefer, there would be little incentive at all to pay attention to proper installation and maintenance. If, for instance, you get a government bonus for 70 percent of the purchase price and your meter runs backwards after that, then the amount of electricity produced is not the main factor in the return on your investment, which is largely paid for at the outset. In the German system, you get paid a premium by the kilowatt-hour, so you get paid to make sure that there is little or no shading, that you do not install panels on the north side of the building, etc.

Essentially, what the Michigan White Paper is arguing is that it does not matter how we throw money at a problem, as long as we throw enough money at it. I find this argument very strange coming from the United States, where "just throwing money at a problem" is common criticism.

Otherwise, the White Paper is a below-average sophomoric attempt at describing the policy it criticizes. I don't really mind if people are of a different opinion, but you do have to get the facts right. When the author claims:
Germany and Spain have had huge percentage increases in solar energy
production, but solar accounts for less than 1% in both countries after 15 years of FIT subsidies.
he is revealing his ignorance of the thing he dislikes. FITs have been around for micro-hydro and wind for nearly 20 years in Germany, but it was not rolled out for solar until the spring of 2000, as you can read in English here. The author's bias is clear in such passages:
Feed-in tariffs are determined by inexperienced politicians...
Actually, in Germany feed-in rates are determined by very experienced politicians who could run circles around the author of this White Paper. I am not saying that US politicians would not screw this up, however. Take a look at Senator Chuck Grassley's Debt and Deficit Dragon, which I cannot imagine happening in the German Bundestag.

The Michigan White Paper also mistakenly writes that FITs "may not co-exist with renewable portfolio standards. Most European countries have chosen to use feed-in tariffs rather than renewable portfolio standards." But I have been arguing the opposite for years: FITs can be a mechanism to meet targets (RPSs). Since this year, NREL agrees.

The White Paper also argues, "In Europe, RPS policy is seen as an alternative, not a complement, to a feed-in tariff policy," but I would say that Europeans do not see RPSs (called "quota systems" here) so much as an alternative, but as ineffective.

The Michigan author is apparently concerned about the poor in the US and thinks that European renewables policy would detrimentally affect poorer Americans:
How many households are likely to finance the investment of a $30,000 solar
PV project which would provide only one third of their electricity?
It always amazes me when Americans are so concerned about how a European policy will affect the poor. I thought Europe was a place with socialist healthcare and welfare benefits that protect the poor, not a place with an impoverished underclass that cross-subsidizes feel-good investments made by the rich.

Anyway, we have "plus-energy homes" here in Freiburg (which I have also called "residential power plants"), so I am not exactly sure where the Michigan author gets the idea that 30,000 dollars of solar panels will only provide one third of your energy. But maybe Americans waste a lot of electricity.

The answer to his question about how cash-strapped American households are to fund solar roofs is quite simple: from a bank. German banks, even the smallest savings-and-loan bank in the community, are more than happy to provide financing to anyone who wants to invest in solar because of the government policy. Americans would no doubt be very pleased to have a safe way of investing their money, which they are already going to spend anyway -- even according to the White Paper's analysis, you are going to spend this money on electricity over the years, whether you are poor or not. A lot of Americans have just lost their portfolios because of the subprime crisis and would probably have preferred to have a safer investment, like solar investments that have been open to Germans since 2000.

Strangely, the Michigan author sees things exactly the other way around:
Feed-in Tariffs can very easily be like cheap mortgages. Subprime mortgage rates were encouraged by Congress to encourage home ownership for everyone.
Nuclear power plants were also encouraged by Congress. The Internet was also encouraged by Congress -- but you get my point.

Returning to the argument that it may be good for Germany, but it won't work in the good old US of A, the author writes:
The electricity markets in Europe are so very different from electricity markets in North America that comparisons can be very misleading. In Germany, electricity markets are competitive inasmuch as consumers can pick from whom they purchase electricity and traditional-type rates are not regulated.
I like the part about "competitive in as much as" because the author does not bother to tell his American readers that they enjoy no such freedom. European electricity markets are much more competitive, offer consumers much more choice (you generally cannot switch power providers in the US), and even allow simple homeowners to produce their own electricity at a profit, which you cannot do in the US. In fact, in the US even communities generally have a hard time investing in their own wind projects. The US electricity market is monopolized with government guarantees of returns -- exactly the kind of thing that FITs offer individual citizens for renewables. In the US, the government regulates private utilities to prevent price gouging; in return, the utilities are guaranteed a certain profit margin. Is this a free market?

The author also mistakenly assesses the German wind market: "However, since wind has been installed in almost all available sites, there is not much prospect for installing new capacity," which does not explain why Germany has continued to install at the same level since at least 2007 (see chart).

The author elsewhere states:
It is hard to imagine how any market would operate in an environment where the government requires utilities to use a minimum amount of renewable energy and at the same time requires them to purchase all the renewable energy produced at higher-than-market fixed prices.
Why is that hard to imagine when there are so many examples? Why doesn't he take a look at Germany?

And then there is the argument about the "net effect" of jobs, which the Michigan White Paper got from Prof. Calzada and I debunked in my own special way here.

In the end, the Michigan White paper is right about one thing:
What this [FIT] really means is that it is bad to allow utilities and large scale renewable energy source developers to dominate renewable energy markets.
He concludes that, were Michigan to implement the kind of policies that Germany has, "cooperative members’ [i.e., his customers] annual costs could increase by nearly 50% [by 2020]."

Well, Michigan, I suggest you follow his advice, stick to free-market mechanisms, and not fall for even more European socialist policy. Detroit is doing just fine right now by responding to the market without government intervention.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Free trade and renewables

When I read today that Turkey's Economics Minister personally stopped new legislation for renewables at the last minute recently, I thought the reason must be the one usually given by economists and industrial representatives: renewables are too expensive, it would create a bubble for uncompetitive technology, etc. But that is not the reason he gave.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no information available about this either in English or German, but my source in Turkey tells me that Ali Babaca (whom Wikipedia still has listed as the Minister of Foreign Affairs; he changed positions a few weeks ago) opposes the new legislation to promote renewables because systems would have to consist of 40 percent domestic parts. He says that the World Trade Organization would object.

I wonder if this is all just a ruse, and the real reason is that he just wants to oppose renewables. It seems strange for Turkey to take this position because renewables legislation in the US, Canada, Japan, Korea, Italy, and elsewhere (but never in Germany) contains such stipulations: a certain amount of the production has to be domestic.

I have always suspected that such stipulations were in clear violation of free trade rules, so it is interesting to hear an economic minister of such a large country make that case, even if it is only the ostensible reason behind some fundamental opposition.

Whatever the case, renewables proponents are generally not the ones who have been promoting the imposition of the West's free-trade rules on the world, so they are unlikely to champion the cause of free trade when it comes to renewables legislation. Nonetheless, it is two-faced for the developed world to insist on a certain level of domestic production in formulating its own subsidy policies. We would not allow less powerful countries to do so.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The purpose of literary criticism

I regularly read the Chronicle Review, but I must admit it is pretty much the only contact I have with the world I got my Masters degree in (Germanic languages and literature, with a bachelors in English). I felt even back then that quite a bit of what I was learning was fairly pointless.

Now, the Chronicle has published an article saying basically that literary criticism has added little to our understanding of literature over the past few decades although we have published increasing volumes. In particular, it seems that we now publish more literary criticism than we care to read:
In 2002 the Modern Language Association issued a report on scholarly publishing that cited editors estimating purchases of as low as 200 to 300 units. Remember, too, that standing library orders account for around 250 copies. (That's my guess—also, a few librarians have told me that the odds that such books will never be checked out are pretty good.)
I'm not surprised, but the author goes a bit further when he says: "Better to admit that books by M.H. Abrams, Hartman, and a few others covered Wordsworth's poems for most practical purposes several decades ago." Anyone who is familiar with John Berger's revision of the distinction between "naked" and "nude" in art, which a certain Mr. Clark had overlooked ("Civilisation" is fantastic, though), is a case in point: there is always something to add or revise.

We need literary criticism and professors of literature and languages, even dead ones. We need to have a cultural understanding of each other, and we need people who understand nearly forgotten cultures to keep our knowledge alive. Obviously, they will often disagree with each other about whether our understanding is correct, so we should have that kind of literary criticism.

I remember in my last semester in graduate school (here in Freiburg) a professor who was also in his last semester. This gray-haired man was an expert in medieval literature, and he told his seven listeners in his final class that "it really pays to learn the original old Norse." The man was a legend in his field, but his field was increasingly marginalized in this age of IT, marketing, and MBA degrees. He remained cheerful, however, and probably was amused at the irony of what he had said to such a small audience.

Here's hoping that the University of Freiburg still has at least one professor who is fluent in old Norse. If not, we run the risk of ending up like the Mayans. When tourists visit that part of what is now Mexico, they often ask, "What happened to the Mayans?" Of course, the Mayans are the ones living there today, but they have long forgotten their own ancient written language.