Friday, October 30, 2009
German solar rates to fall by 11% in 2010
In a way, the announcement is not really news; this policy took effect, after all, on January 1, 2009. To keep the German solar market from overheating, rate reductions were to be stepped up if the market exceeded the threshold of 1.5 gigawatts for the year from October 1 to the following September 30. (The figures for the fourth quarter of 2009 obviously will not be in in time for any law to take effect on the following January 1.) And since hundreds of megawatts were installed in the fourth quarter of 2008, the actual budget for the first three quarters of 2009 was closer to one gigawatt. It turns out that 1,471 megawatts was installed in the first three quarters of this year (which means Germany is installing around 5.5 megawatts per day).
Note also that none of this pertains to the discussion about a possible revision of rates under the new governing coalition -- these accelerated rate reductions would have happened regardless of who won the elections.
Monday, October 26, 2009
11 questions on FITs from Arizona
First, a properly designed FIT ramps up renewables. You then get clean electricity, which not only keeps the environment clean, but also diversifies at your power supply, increasing energy security.
Second, FITs provide a way of unleashing the investment power of citizens. Whereas RPSs have led to a boom in wind, and contracts are being signed for gigantic solar farms with hundreds of megawatts, this capacity is left up to utilities. Citizens can hardly get involved in these giant projects. FITs provide a reasonable (generally 5-7 percent) return on all investments that society deems worthy, so homeowners and communities get roughly the same profit margin as large utilities.
Essentially, utility regulators in the US have been doing the same with utilities for decades; they work out utility rates with power providers to ensure that companies get a reasonable profit even as they prevent price gouging. FITs provide the same kind of safe investment environment to citizens, who do not have any such thing up to now.
The cost of FITs is generally passed on directly to our consumers as a surcharge on the retail electricity rate. Currently, the extra charge is estimated at 3% (see this chart in German showing a breakdown of the German retail rate) of the retail rate in Germany, currently by far the world leader in solar and wind power in per capita terms. Roughly, this breaks down to the price of a cup of coffee or a loaf of bread per month for the average family each month. So for a few dollars a month, you could be the world leader in solar and wind.
Nonetheless, policies that support renewables in the US often stipulate that the impact on the retail rates must be negligible, so a three percent increase must be politically palatable (it is no problem at all in Germany). Americans I speak with are generally concerned about the impact on the poor, but of course the purpose of energy policy is not to redistribute wealth. Protecting the poor is the realm of social policy, not energy policy. But the debate in the US and Germany is quite different, with the many Germans actually welcoming higher energy prices as a way of discouraging that wasteful consumption and encouraging conservation and efficiency.
3) What are the various models of FITs, and what are the main distinguishing features?
See the World Future Council's website.
See #2, but also keep in mind the following chart, which is a projection for future costs in Germany:
This chart basically shows that the cost of German FITs is not expected to continue to increase. Indeed, it will peak in all likelihood within the next 5-10 years at a level only slightly above the current level, and then begin to decline.
Vermont -- but also see Ontario, Canada. And beware of FITINOs: feed-in tariffs in name only. Most onlookers consider California's so-called "FITs" to be FITINOs.
6) Would you recommend a cap on each project, and/or a cumulative cap?
Sure, you could put a limit on how far you want to go, such as 2 GW per year or something like that. Alternatively, you could say that the tariff will either decrease by a certain percentage at the end of the year or whenever a particular ceiling is reached (1 GW or 1 year, whichever comes first).
7) How much solar PV is installed, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the whole: (a) in the world, (b) in the U.S., and (c) in the top 10 states in the U.S.?
Let me answer this question with a comparison: at the end of 2008, the German state of Baden-Württemberg had 25 percent more photovoltaics installed than the entire United States. Baden-Württemberg is roughly the size -- and has roughly the solar conditions -- of Connecticut (image from Wikipedia).
RPSs are targets; FITs, mechanisms. Considered more market-based by many in the US, RPSs are also ironic in that they use penalties and require governmental oversight; FITs require no such regulation or oversight, and there are no penalties. RPSs are also closely related to cap and trade policies, which is also ironic because cap and trade is designed to reduce something (greenhouse gas emissions), whereas RPSs are trying to increase something (renewable energy).
RPSs have also not proven to be very successful anywhere and are not being copied by foreign countries, whereas FITs have completely taken over Europe and are now expanding to cover the globe.
But in the US, you could keep your RPSs as your target and simply use FITs to reach them. NREL said as much in a recent report.
If properly designed, you would become a solar powerhouse, provide your citizenry with a safe place to put tens of thousands of dollars per person, and you could probably be 100 percent renewable fairly quickly. Keep in mind that the conditions in Arizona are especially good for solar, most of which is generated in the afternoon, which is probably when your power consumption peaks. Do you have enough water left to put up new coal or nuclear plants to cover that peak demand?
11) Would a FIT provide a benefit to rural areas, urban areas, or both? Why or why not?
Both. Mainly, if you stipulate -- as Germany did -- that renewable power has priority over conventional power, then homeowners in cities will begin using their roofs to generate electricity, and farming communities will begin using it not only their roofs, but also their land to grow energy crops, set up wind turbines (the land around the turbines can still be used for farming), and possibly for solar arrays on areas that are not arable.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
New coalition bares teeth? Gums?
First, the commissions for "safe" nuclear power plants will be extended. We can now look forward to hearing what the definition of "safe" is. One bone of contention here was the extra profits that plant owners would make off of these completely written-off plants, and it seems that most of the future profits will be taxed, with the revenue being devoted to renewables. If so, then one can only hope that a market mechanism like the current feed-in tariffs will be used. If the government decides to throw a bunch of research money at something, then they are obviously not letting the market decide which technology is best.
The new Environmental Minister is a certain Mr. Nobert Röttgen (and not Tanja Gönner as some expected). Little is known about his stance on renewables; indeed, he seems to have had little to do with environmental issues at all up to now, which only begs the question of what the criteria are for such offices. Our current Home Secretary / Secretary of State Mr. Wolfgang Schäuble, for instance, will be moving to the position of Finance Minister, which makes you wonder how the expertise he gained in domestic security issues over the past four years will help him design the government's finances.
Anyway, Röttgen is mainly known for a rather unsavory event a few years ago. He was appointed head of the German Industry Association (BDI) during his term as a member of the Bundestag, and he initially refused to step down from public office. Essentially, he would have been both a lobbyist for industry and a member of Parliament at the same time. The BDI itself apparently put pressure on him to make a decision, and he chose to stick with his public office.
Unlike the United States, Germany does not have a Department of Energy, with energy issues instead split between the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of the Environment. The Industry Minister is generally opposed to renewables, which industry considers too expensive, so if we are to have any support for renewables, you would expect it to come from the Environmental Minister. Having someone with such close ties to conventional industry as the Environmental Minister is probably a good move for those who wish to keep renewables in check. But let's not jump to conclusions -- Röttgen will be judged according to his performance like everyone else.
The German Renewable Energy Association (BEE) issued a press release saying it is "satisfied" with the agreement reached by the new coalition. In particular, the organization writes:
Wir nehmen das Angebot der neuen Regierung gern an, mögliche Veränderungen am EEG im Dialog mit der Branche zu erarbeiten.
(We accept the new government's invitation to enter into a dialogue with the industry about possible changes to the Renewable Energy Act.)
The BEE complains, however, that not enough is being done in the heating sector, and the coalition does not seem to have fixed the problem. Also, keeping nuclear plants on line will only "stop up the grid" and not allow for the capacity expansion of renewables that would otherwise be possible.
Greenpeace is less enthusiastic. In addition to a number of problems it has with the new coalition's policies related to genetically engineered foods and the automotive/airline sectors, the environmental activists write that the new coalition will throw Germany back "several years" in terms of its leadership in environmental technology. Greenpeace also expects Germany to have trouble meeting its carbon reduction targets under the new policy. But the organization does praise the new coalition's nature conservation policies, which include restrictions on imports of biofuels.
We may know more in a few weeks about specific rates for individual sources of renewable energy, but probably nothing anytime soon.
Friday, October 23, 2009
News on coalition plans for renewables
We shall adopt a revised Renewable Energy Act to take effect on December 1, 2012 with an eye to protecting the competitiveness of each technology... We are committed to solar energy as the most important future technology within Germany... We will have a hearing to begin a dialogue with the solar sector and consumer organizations to determine which short-term changes need to be made to avoid overpayment of photovoltaics.
That is my translation of what is apparently a direct quote from the draft. The article also writes (in indirect speech) that compensation for ground-mounted systems may require that arrays be installed on land that is already paved or otherwise not useful for agriculture.
Overall, it seems that little, if anything, will be changed for the other renewables aside from photovoltaics.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
German media: full court press against nuclear?
I wrote recently that a German weatherman made a completely unnecessary comment that could be construed as anti-nuclear. Last night, things got even more obvious when two consecutive shows reported at length on the trouble we are having with nuclear waste. Both focus on the fact that we do not have a final repository (one that would safely store the waste for hundreds of thousands of years) for this waste anywhere.
The shows, the first of which can be streamed here, discusses how nuclear waste has been simply dumped in the ocean (and some of the containers are already open) by all countries; how Russia is simply sinking its nuclear submarines; how medium- contaminated nuclear waste continues to be legally (!) pumped into the ocean in a four-kilometer pipeline from Le Havre, France, and elsewhere (UK); and is sent to Russia, allegedly for reprocessing, where most of it is simply left outside (apparently, only 20 percent of this waste can really be reprocessed, with the other 80 percent remaining, well, waste); how German repositories (especially Asse) are already leaking and will probably be a catastrophe; and how the Swiss are working on an alternative type of repository that looks promising. The show is 30 minutes long.
And if you thought that was enough, then you might not have been ready for the show that followed. Entitled "Foreign Journal," this show does not seem to be available as a stream at the moment, but you can see here that one of the three topics covered was nuclear waste.
Update: just click on "Strahlende Gefahr" to the right, and the show runs in a pop-up window.
Interestingly, I cannot see any major reaction to the shows. In the US, I would expect such reporting to be criticized as typical liberal propaganda. But in Germany, the public has just elected a coalition that promised to extend the service lives of nuclear plants, and the public reaction seems to be one of honest concern: "Do we really want that?"
Though the German report does not mention it, in the US spent fuel rods are "temporarily" left in pools covered by concrete ceilings on the grounds of the plant itself. We have been focusing on terrorist attacks against nuclear power plants by asking whether such structures could withstand the impact of a large commercial jet. But the pools began filling up decades ago, so we began to put these spent fuel rods in what are called "dry casks" -- essentially barrels left out in the open, protected from above by nothing. You could fly a Cessna into these babies.
As US power company Entergy approvingly puts it, this option of leaving the casks outdoors is "remarkably simple."
So some of our most toxic nuclear waste just sits outdoors in unprotected lots called "storage pads," waiting for us to come up with a safe repository for hundreds of thousands of years...
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Faveread: NYT on life in the crisis
Anyway, I couldn't stop reading this article. At one point, the single 42-year-old author comments:
Most of my married friends now have children, the rewards of which appear to be exclusively intangible and, like the mysteries of some gnostic sect, incommunicable to outsiders. In fact it seems from the outside as if these people have joined a dubious cult: they claim to be much happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a capricious and demented master.
I have compared having children to a religious experience myself, though not quite the one the author describes. It's more like a drug-induced outer-body experience: you have this little creature running around picking up all of your habits, good and bad, and giving you a bit of a mirror image of yourself. It's religious because, in my experience, there is no greater incentive to improve yourself as a person, lest your innocent offspring suffer from all of your bad traits. It's a drug-induced trip because you go through a roller coaster ride of emotions, hear voices all the time, start seeing things that are not there (through the child's imagination), lose sleep, and generally go places you would never go without children, such as playgrounds.
Anyhow, the rest of the series is also quite readable.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Translating notes: bad customer feedback II
Nonetheless, I got this from the (German) client:
Put "Roughly 0.6 gallon [sic] per 100 miles" to keep the counting the same and not cause confusion."
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Translating notes: bad feedback I
I have not had many such clients; I believe that most businesses simply don't have time. But if you are dealing with universities or researchers, in my experience you'd better get ready to defend perfectly good English.
A few years back, I had a bad experience with a German research institute. They criticized several things on each page over the entire 25-page report. I told them to put up or shut up: they were to find an independent expert/translator to review my work, and I would pay for that external expert if the review turned out to be negative. If the review was positive, they would pay me immediately.
The reviewer found a single mistake those 25 pages: I had put "tonic" instead of "toxic" somewhere. The research institute was humbled.
I have not worked for that client again since (the contact was over a translation agency anyway, and I no longer work for agencies), but the experience would certainly have made me look better in the eyes of that client.
Right now, I am trying to educate another of my clients, and the process is tedious. Last month, the client wrote in and asked whether things like "ABC used to be used for XYZ" could not be reworded (the apparent double use of "used" must have been the problem, though the two words are different parts of speech here and actually even have a different pronunciation, with the -s being voiceless in the first word and voiced in the second, at least in my pronunciation). This month, the "corrections" I received included things like:
- "The figure has to be recalculated again" (I had left out the word "again")
- "Mainz at the Rhine" (I had referred to the city simply as Mainz, but notice the preposition -- nonetheless, "Mainz on the Rhine" does not exactly clear up any confusion, for there was none)
- "standard deviance" (for standard deviation)
Having said that, I also got some really nonsensical edits from the publisher of my book "Energy Switch" (but that would be a different blog post), so I suppose it really comes down to the person you're dealing with.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Translation notes: making the Bible less liberal
Others, including some more moderately minded believers, have chimed in on this with some ridicule, so I will only mention one thing that I have not seen commented on yet. When these retranslators delete the tale of the adulteress ("throw the first stone") from the New Testament as part of a campaign against liberalism, they essentially a tribute the modern-day liberal thinking they do not like to previous centuries.
While the story indeed does not seem to have been in the earliest manuscripts, it was certainly there 1,000 years ago, and versions of it were apparently there are only a couple of centuries after the earliest manuscripts were written.
So you see, the church has been suffering from liberal bias throughout its history...
Friday, October 16, 2009
Does solar already pay for itself?
I am in no position to judge whether these figures are accurate. I know that if I heard such a thing from the coal industry, I would be skeptical. But I have also learned that German experts do their math quite carefully, so you really have to be an economist to crack the nut. (Unlike some of the nonsense I am used to seeing elsewhere, which contains bare-faced lies that even I can deconstruct.)
Thursday, October 15, 2009
New article of mine at Grist.org
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Spanish solar collapse
There has been a lot of talk in the U.S. about the collapse of the Spanish solar market this year, commonly held to have been a solar bubble. However, few U.S. commentators seem to understand the Spanish market enough to go beyond the standard quip that the Spanish were simply throwing too much money at solar—and that feed-in rates were the culprit. A closer look reveals what Spain’s real problems were, and where those problems could happen in the U.S. as well.
With feed-in rates, the extra money required to make renewables profitable generally does not come from a governmental budget; rather, costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher retail electricity rates. But the particularities of the Spanish electricity market prevented these extra costs from being passed on. At the beginning of each year, the Spanish government sets retail power rates. If, say, the price of natural gas skyrockets that year, the Spanish government later reimburses power providers and grid operators to cover the difference.
In this way, electricity rates are kept artificially low, with part of the cost being covered by taxpayers. And since just about every country, including Spain, is running a budget deficit, the Spanish are having future generations subsidize current electricity consumption. The Spanish are well aware of the problem. As Industry Minister Miguel Sebastián put it, the practice is “irrational and untenable.” Spain has responded by starting to phase out the entire system. By 2013, it is to be done away with altogether.
This “energy deficit” has risen to 14 billion euros since 2000 (around 300 euros per Spaniard), and renewables were not the only cause, with energy prices rising in general over the past decade, but there can be no doubt that the spike in solar in 2007 and 2008, when the solar market grew by a hundred percent each year, took Spanish budget planners by surprise. As the decree that revised the solar rates put it, “Energy sources under this special regime constitute a risk for the system’s sustainability because of their effects on power prices.”
The changes include not only a ceiling on the amount of solar that can be installed, but also the addition of a registry, which will also cover installed wind capacity. Up to now, the government has not kept close tabs on how much is actually put in the ground; that task was largely left up to industry associations. Now, you have to enter your project in the registry so the government can tell you where you are in the line—whether you can connect your project to the grid this year or not and get this or that rate. For instance, the various regions of Spain are quite keen on expanding renewables, and it turned out that they cumulatively had a target for wind power of around 40 gigawatts by 2010. But Madrid has specified a national target of only 20,155 MW for that year. The registry will be one way that the central government will be able to rein in the regions in terms of wind power.
Similarities with the U.S.
Although Spain’s situation is unique, there are a number of overlapping spots. Most saliently, renewables policies in the U.S. often specify either that the investments in renewables must not raise the retail rate or not by more than a certain level. Also, though Americans believe they are living in a freer market than Europeans do, utilities and governmental regulatory bodies also work out retail electricity prices in the U.S. American utilities, whether private or public, are considered “natural monopolies.” As such, the government regulates them to prevent price gouging, but in return the utilities are guaranteed a certain profit margin. Call it price fixing.
So while critics of feed-in rates do not seem to like the idea of the government setting prices, we see that governmental pricing did not start with subsidies for renewables. It was there all along both in Spain and the U.S. (but not Germany).
We also clearly see that feed-in rates were not the sole cause of the problem in Spain. Rather, Spain attempted to combine feet-in rates with inflexible, a priori government pricing of retail rates.
What to do?
So how do we stop the U.S. from repeating Spain’s mistakes? To my mind, there are two different ways of addressing this question: the first assumes that feed-in rates will be implemented; the second, that they won’t be.
Assuming that feed-in rates are adopted, costs would have to be passed on to consumers—today’s consumers, not tomorrow’s. And if you want to keep the retail rate in check, you can do what Spain failed to do, but other countries with feed-in rates have done: have the rates decrease not only every one or two years, but also in volume increments.
We all know the policy from car warranties: five years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first. Assuming that you want the rate paid for newly installed solar arrays to drop by, say, five percent each year, you could also have that rates kick in earlier if, say, 500 megawatts had been installed. If you are paying 30 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar, you can get a rough estimate of how much 500 megawatts in good locations are going to cost you. Weather conditions will vary, but your estimate will be accurate +/- around 10 percent for a given year.
You can then also do what Spain has now done and further subdivide those 500 megawatts if you want to ensure that a small number of projects do not take up the whole pie. Go ahead, set aside a couple of hundred megawatts for the countless roofs of Joe the Plumber and his friends.
When companies and homeowners register their systems, they can be told up front where they are on the list. They can be given a window within which they have to connect to the grid, and if they cannot complete their projects on time, those further down in the list will be happy to learn that they will be trading places and getting a slightly higher rate. Planning is thus not only still possible under such a scheme; the surprises it produces are also mostly pleasant.
If you don’t want to have feed-in rates, of course, you can simply set aside a budget for solar, wind, and whatever. When that budget is full, you can decide whether you want to devote more money to renewables.
You will then certainly not only prevent a bubble from occurring, but in all likelihood also fail to meet whatever ceiling you set for yourself. Ask any solar advocate in the U.S., and they will tell you that there is a tremendous amount in the pipeline. So why is it not going in the ground? What is holding up solar in the U.S.? What do our policies fail to do that feed-in rates get right?
While Americans are understandably excited about a couple of high-visibility projects for hundreds of megawatts of solar, the Germans I talk to fail to understand what the excitement is about. “We are going to put up a couple of thousand megawatts in 2009, and a large part of that is loads of rooftop systems with just a couple of dozen panels each,” one German industry insider told me recently.
So yes, the U.S. does run the risk of repeating Spain’s mistakes if feed-in rates are implemented. The conclusion does not, however, have to be that feed-in rates are dangerous. Instead, we need to look at the entire energy policy context and see where Spain and the U.S. are similar—and remember that the policy of feed-in rates was not itself thrown out in Spain. Only the rates were adjusted, and even that only affected solar. Spain still has feed-in rates.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
A visit to Vauban, Freiburg
Let's start with a map of the place (click to enlarge). Here, the white space is a bit misleading. The part to the top left (Uffhausen) is actually another neighborhood, whereas the part to the top right (Gewerbegebiet Süd) is an industrial area; it also happens to be the site of the original Fraunhofer ISE building, Europe's largest solar research institute.
But the part to the bottom below the stream is actually wilderness, and development has been banned there. You will see various things such as the label "Biotop §24 NatschG" indicating that this is a nature conservation area (picture). You will also see a horse and a tent; the area is off-limits for new developments, but it is used for recreational purposes, such as horse riding and a children's "adventure playground."
The black and white dotted line going across the top left is a train connection, and the red line going down the street and looking around near that train line is a tram line. Buses also connect this neighborhood to the rest of the world.
Coming from the center of town, you would travel from the top right (Merzhauser Strasse) to Vaubanallee (Vauban Avenue, "alley" being "Gasse" in German). "Allee" specifically means a tree-lined street, and this main avenue does indeed have gigantic trees that are at least 70 years old running down it. The city specified that, whatever construction was done, these trees had to remain standing.
The first thing you would see in this allegedly car-free neighborhood is an empty plot of land covered with gravel with a bunch of cars parked on it and a strange ensemble of shacks that could be from the Third World. It is a strange way for visitors to enter what is supposed to be a futuristic place that can do without cars, and it is not necessarily a photo the city will of Freiburg would like you to see (although it is the first thing you see upon entering Vauban, it is never included in any official photos of the neighborhood, such as here). Nonetheless, this is the main entrance to the neighborhood both by car and tram/bus.
The story behind this particular plot is interesting. A number of architects involved in the neighborhood planned to put up an office complex year. Vauban was designed as a mixed-use neighborhood, meaning that shops would line the main street (Vaubanallee), and you would have offices scattered around throughout the neighborhood. There are doctors practices, (ironically) a driving school, lawyers offices, various institutes -- most of which have something to do with clean tech, the largest one being the Freiburg branch of the Institute of Applied Ecology -- etc. This planned "green" office complex (on the map, the pale beige strip located just below the intersection of Vaubanallee and Merzhauser Strasse just above Paula-Modersohn-Platz) would essentially be an office complex like the one across Merzhauser Strasse, where the Institute of Applied Ecology is actually located.
In a typical "close the door behind me" response, Vauban residents have begun protesting against every single project that would fill up the few remaining plots left. The green office complex is one of those contested areas. I am not up on the latest developments, but this plot remained contested over the past decade or so because residents want to have it turned into open space for the community, not an office complex.
If we now move further into the neighborhood, we see where Vaubanallee leads straight down to the end along the tram line. If that does not look car-free to you, then maybe it's because of all the cars parked there. Before we move on, take a look at the ditch. That is where rainwater seeps back into the ground. Freiburg is very proud of this aspect; rainwater is not channeled away through some underground sewage system; instead, the rainwater is collected throughout the neighborhood and given time to sink back into the ground.
Also have a look at the tram tracks, which are in the grass. In fact, there is grass all the way into town along this line where the tracks are. Freiburg really tried to keep pavement to a minimum.
Now take another look at the map of the neighborhood. You will notice that there are some U-shaped streets leading off of Vaubanallee to the north and south. Those are the ones where parking is prohibited except for loading and unloading. In other words, you can actually park your car not only in the three parking garages labeled P on the map surrounded by blue, but also on that main road. The space that is probably going to be used most by playing children is the space outside your house, and that is where you will rarely have a car (see this picture, where a car is parked on one of those side streets -- also notice the catwalk connecting the two rows of buildings over the top of the street at the end of that picture; this was an idea that the residents themselves had, not the city).
Notice as well on the map that there are green strips cutting into the neighborhood from the biotope to the south. Residents were able to design that common area the way they wanted with the city's normal budget; the city also handles upkeep of those parks in the same way that they take care of such green space throughout the city. I have provided a few pictures of those playgrounds, all of which are completely different. There is a roughly 3 meter tall climbing rock in one, fairly standard playground equipment in another, while a third is almost complete wilderness with various wooden playground equipment hidden behind the bushes. There are five such green strips used as playgrounds in total.
There were no restrictions on building design. You could use whatever material you wanted, have a slanted or flat roof, and build as wide as you wanted. The only restrictions were that the building could not be more than 13 meters tall, and it had to be a certain distance from the street. In other words, the city gave you a sort of three-dimensional box within which to construct what ever kind of building you wanted. As a result, there are some fairly narrow single-family townhouses in between apartment complexes with 12 units (picture).
Another place where residents successfully protested against a construction project in order to have community space was right in front of this building, which houses a kindergarten, a restaurant, various offices, and a community hall, which is where my daughter's violin teacher has her pupils perform their semiannual concert. On what basically became town square, various events also take place, such as a farmer's market once or twice a week (I forget) and the occasional community event.
The building itself is one of the original barracks. On the map, it is the red building just above Alfred-Döblin-Platz where Vaubanallee has a slight curve. Some of the other barracks were also left standing in the "Studentendorf Vauban" (pic), which is essentially student dormitories. But a number of... shall we say "alternative thinkers" have moved into S.U.S.I., an acronym that stands for "autonomous, independent settlement initiative." These are some of the people who have it set up their shacks on the empty plot at the entrance of Vauban. The existence of this alternative-living sector, which takes up a full four former barracks, is a testimony to the power that citizens have in Freiburg, and the tolerance of city officials. In New Orleans, I'm sure these people would have been given short shrift and harassed until they gave up in desperation; the housing would have been razed. Nonetheless, in calling for affordable housing and fighting what they perceived as "speculation," they also blocked part of what is one of the world's most progressive architectural and urban-planning projects. And they got the part of Vauban that is most prominent.
I won't get into all of the innovative buildings. The principle behind this architecture is that, at German latitudes, the house should face the south with a glass façade (triple glazing, of course -- don't even bother trying to find this in the US, for it is not commonly used there). A ventilation system with heat recovery also ensures not only that all of the heat generated within the house (such as by your body, which gives off the equivalent of 100 watts of heat all the time) remains inside the building, even as filtered fresh air is pumped into the building (pollen, pollutants, etc. are removed in the process). Again, don't bother calling your local shop in the US about this. They won't know what you're talking about (that's what US architects tell me!), but they can sell you an air conditioner.
Most of the buildings in Vauban are, however, nothing spectacular. They merely fulfill Freiburg's old building code, which meant that around four times as much energy is required for heating than a passive house needs. How much is that? German engineers speak of 15 kilowatt-hours per square meter per year. That's roughly 1.5 liters of heating oil per 10 square feet. For a house with 2,000 square feet, you would then need 300 liters of heating oil (roughly 75 gallons) per year. But most of apartments in Germany are closer to 1,000 square feet, so cut that figure in half.
While the side of Vauban west of Merzhauser Strasse mostly contains such "normal" buildings with a few passive house projects scattered around, the part to the east is the one that has drawn the most attention: the Solar Village. This project, which was the brainchild of a single architect, contains only a passive houses with solar roofs. Once you add on the solar roofs, you are probably generating more electricity than the equivalent amount of electricity and heating energy you consume in the building. These homes are therefore called "plus energy" homes; I have also referred to them as residential power plants, though for obvious reasons, real estate agents would not want to use that term.
Although these plus energy homes are certainly state-of-the-art, there is something the city of Freiburg probably does not want you to know. Take a look at the map, and you'll see a sort of white line separating the part that reads "Solar-siedlung" to the north and the other unlabeled part to the south. That white line is simply a path that leads up into the vineyards, which began right where the map ends to the right. The interesting part of the story is that the Solar Village was originally to extend pretty much all the way down to Alte Strasse at the bottom right of the map. What we got was only half of the project.
The problem was that the homes did not sell, so the city, which had reserved that large plot of land for the expansion of this prestigious project, was forced to sell it to other commercial developers, who simply put up normal buildings.
The city should not, however, be too ashamed of this failure, for it is not a problem with passive houses in general. Admittedly, passive houses cost slightly more at the outset and pay for themselves over time, so that they are actually much cheaper over, say, 30 years than a conventional building. But the fact of the matter is that upfront costs can really kill you when you are having to fork over very large sums of money, such as 300,00-350,000 euros for a home. When you are in that range, 20,000 euros can make a big difference.
And yet, the passive houses elsewhere in Vauban sold quite well. The difference was that in the Solar Settlement, the architect was inflexible. He builds all of these buildings as rows of townhouses, so you have to have a multistory apartment (3 or 4 stories, in fact). As a result, you end up with narrow apartments, some of which are only five meters wide (around 15 feet), and you have a staircase going up every floor. Essentially, it's a bit like having a three or four room apartment with one room on top of the other.
In a lot of the other projects to the west, residents could work things out with the architect. For instance, the Solar Village generally consists of blocks of five townhouses that are three stories tall. In the other projects, you could have taken that three-dimensional "box" and split it up with your friends. Maybe you want to have an apartment on the ground floor with access to the garden, and you know somebody who would like to take the two floors above that. You then end up with an apartment 10 meters wide without any staircase at the bottom, and your friend moves in upstairs with two stories on top. But none of this was possible in the Solar Village, and I believe that is the main reason why there were so few buyers. If you then take a look at the color scheme used, you will see that the buildings in the Solar Settlement look a bit unusual, and I'm sure that is not to everyone's taste. Passive houses need not, however, look any different than normal buildings, as all of the projects in the rest of Vauban illustrate.
Overall, Vauban is a dream of a place to live. If you need to drive up to your house and drop off some heavy stuff, you can pull right up to your front door, but for groceries, most people take a bike and use it saddlebags or a trailer. Your kids can not only walk or cycle to school -- which is not really anything unusual over here -- but they can also open up their front door and immediately start playing right out in the street without having to worry about cars. Or they can go to five gigantic playgrounds in the area, some of which are quite unusual. And of course, they can also just go play in the woods.
One of the other stipulations the city had four architects was this promenade -- a series of arcades at the edge of the buildings along Vaubanalle. And on the other side of the street, there is this extra wide sidewalk that I like to refer to as the bicycle autobahn.
You have a tram and bus connection to the rest of the world, so you can be at the Frankfurt international airport from your front door in only 2 1/2 hours. Or you can be in France or Switzerland in about 45 minutes. There is a Döner/Pizza place, a real restaurant, a bicycle shop (that sells lots of recumbents), a drugstore, a school, several kindergartens, a grocery store, and a couple of other shops all within a few minutes' walk. And it takes you about 10 minutes to cycle or ride the tram into the center of town.
I suppose Vauban is one of the nicest places you could live, and we certainly get our share of international visitors. I occasionally accompany urban planners, journalists, and energy experts from around the world -- literally, for we have had people from North America, all over Europe, and Asia -- and I can tell you that these experts are, without exception, very impressed at all kinds of aspects of what has been done over here, including citizen participation. The British in particular repeatedly tell me that they simply could not have such projects because they are required by law to take the lowest bidder in an effort to keep upfront prices down. But the Germans are not slaves to upfront costs, for they understand balance-of-system costs. And they are not about to have their own cities constructed by the cheapest bidders, for they want the highest quality, not the lowest price.
Nonetheless, Vauban would, in principle, be completely easy to replicate anywhere. The buildings are not hard to construct; walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, not hard to design. As a prominent US politician recently put it, "Yes, we can." But as we have seen from this politician's past year in office, "we" all have to really want change and keep demanding it.
The way Vauban has developed is a reflection of what citizens wanted -- right down to its car-free aspects. In fact, because the German building code now requires at least one parking space to be provided for each residential units constructed, residents of Vauban had to negotiate with local government to be allowed to do without parking spaces in front of each home. Now, if you do not want to purchase a parking space, you have to demonstrate each year that though car is registered under your name.
It was the residents themselves of Vauban who called for this policy; citizens forced the city of Freiburg to adopt the policy.
Monday, October 12, 2009
The Guardian on Freiburg
Starting at the top, we have a picture of a man cleaning solar cells "at Solar World in Solar Valley, Freiburg." The problem is that SolarWorld and Solar Valley are not in Freiburg, but rather some 600 kilometers away in eastern Germany. SolarWorld does have a production plant in Freiberg (with an e), which is itself not in Solar Valley (but not far either), so maybe that's close enough for the Guardian. Kangaroos are probably from Austria, too.
Later, the author states that Freiburg was "flatten by Allied bombers in the Second World War and rebuild on enlightened, energy-saving principles," but that is nonsense. The environmental principles began cropping up around 1990, decades after the city had been completely rebuilt.
Things get much worse from there. Proving that a little bit of knowledge is worse than none at all, the author writes that Vauban reminds him of Le Corbusier (a consultant for the UN building in New York), but he obviously has no understanding of what Le Corbusier stood for (take a look at this baby and compare it to this picture taken by a Brit). The problem with that style of architecture was that it was too large for people to manage. You could walk for several minutes and never reach the end of your building, and shops were too far away.
While the author is right in saying, "Because the properties are all the same age, the place lacks character and charm," that does not mean that the buildings do not have a human dimension. It simply means the development is new. You could make such claims about any new project, and indeed I see the following complaint about Prince Charles' Poundbury project: "The controversy over Poundbury has been dominated by its looks." Anyway, as in Poundbury, in Rieselfeld and Vauban, you can go downstairs and walk to the end of your building in about 50 yards. The next shop is probably only a minute away. Not Corbusier.
As one British expert described Vauban and Rieselfeld, "While the blocks tend to be similar in height and footprint, each block looks individual because of the rich variety of materials and colours that are used."
The Guardian author doesn't seem to realize that his own article demonstrates that Vauban/Rieselfeld is a rejection of Le Corbusier:
'From the top floor of every house,' says Daseking, 'parents had to be able to shout to their children in the garden - and hear the reply. It was important to get in touch with the ground.' This limited the height of buildings. To reduce theft, small garages (for those who wanted cars) were built every two blocks, rather than large ones every five blocks. 'From every corner, you could see what was happening in your garage,' says Daseking. 'Criminality had to go down.'
The author then manages to find a resident who argues that "there is little support for a car-free system," which "people don't really accept." I was surprised to read that -- first, because I know a lot of people who live there, and none of them have a problem with the system; and second, because it was the citizens themselves who forced the city to get all the parking spaces away from the houses. When reading this Guardian article, you would think it's the other way around -- it sounds as though a bunch of radical city officials are trying to force residents to do without cars, but in fact the opposite is true.
The car co-op that forced the city to allow people to do without adjacent garages is currently pursuing three cases of people having relatives register their cars, which are then parked down the street. Some 4,500 people live in Vauban, i.e. almost 3,000 households. That sounds like near 99% compliance.
As I have said before, a parking space in the community garage costs 16,000 euros to purchase, not 18,000 euros a year -- but I have talked about that enough. The 18,000 euro figure comes from a clause in the Land Registry, which ties each particular apartment to a parking space, even if the residents have opted out because they do not have a car. In other words, if you sell your apartment and do not have a parking space, you pass on the obligation to the buyer, and the debt is estimated at 18,000 euros in the Land Registry.
The journalist also does not seem to know the difference between photovoltaic solar panels, which generate electricity, and solar heat collectors, which heat up water, when he writes:
These 'collectors' don't heat the properties themselves, since Vauban is supplied by a small local power station, but they feed energy back into the regional grid to make their owners a modest income.
And when he later writes, "the homes also have solar collectors capable of feeding more energy into the grid than they waste," he can only mean "consume" where he writes "waste."
He then finds a resident named Stefan who claims that, if he changes his mind about having a car, "they can take part of our property." I called Stefan to ask whether he said that in whether he stands by the factually inaccurate statement; you can by a car any time you want, but you just have to buy a parking space in the garage then. He pointed out the passage in the Land Registry -- that is what he meant.
Stefan says that he knows of three people with campers that don't fit in the garage. They indeed parked outside of the neighborhood, but apparently an agreement has been reached for such extra large vehicles.
While some of the other local people in the article were incensed by the report, Stefan said it did not upset him. He especially liked the last sentence in it, where the British author points out that Germany is "decades ahead" of the British in terms of citizen involvement in urban planning. And Stefan swore that he did not get drunk with the British journalist and does not know why the man wrote about 12 turbines when there are only six: "on a pine-covered mountain overlooking Vauban, I spot a dozen giant wind turbines."
Stefan also confirmed my personal impression from the people I know in Vauban that there is very high acceptance of the restrictions on cars. He says he personally picked up the British journalist in a co-op car -- a fact the journalist does not mention, though we do read all kinds of negative aspects, such as that people do not like to do without cars, that the city did not get the demographics right, that Stefan's bike was stolen, etc. Nowhere does the British journalist tell us that all of the people he interviewed think the place is fantastic.
Overall, Stefan says he told the British journalist up front not to get his hopes up too high because "Vauban and Rieselfeld" are really quite normal -- a sentiment I would completely support. Nonetheless, the British author seems to have been collecting dirty laundry and trying to be facetious:
- "Like all good Germans, Claudia recycles"
- "It sounds extreme, but Rieselfeld is a fairly extreme place"
- "With his shaved head, bomber jacket and shades, he looks every bit the fortysomething communard." (This was said about a man who volunteered to show the journalist around for an hour at no charge.)
- "It's a brave utopian vision" (that doesn't sound normal to me)
- "Vauban, the radical car-free quarter" (not car-free, but whatever)
- "'This is our local Conflict Resolution Workshop,' says Barbara, without a trace of humour, 'which does a lot of work with migrants'"
- "SUSI - a radical housing association"
Stefan was also surprised to read that he apparently said the following: "some enraged residents have smashed up cars left on the street." When I called him, he said, "Nothing of the sort has happened over here, and I never said that. People leave messages under your windshield wiper asking you to move your car, but otherwise I have only heard of one case of a tire being slashed" -- something that, admittedly, can happen anywhere. Again, Vauban and Rieselfeld are normal.
Fortunately, I have toured these neighborhoods with other Brits and know what the British generally think about Vauban and Rieselfeld. One cameraman from the BBC stood in amazement in one of the passive houses and remarked, "You couldn't get an Englishman to install an airtight window." (Passive houses undergo blower-door tests.) And British urban planners (from Manchester, London, and Guildford) say they simply do not have the flexibility to allow for such citizen input; rather, they have to accept the cheapest schemes from large housing associations.
In my experience, the British reaction is closer to what this blogger wrote:
The list of achievements at Rieselfeld is almost endless and mind-boggling; from a UK perspective, it would be remarkable to achieve but a few of these.
Finally, the British journalist complained about the food, which is simply going too far:
... the 'vegetarian curry' was an abomination: rice with a tin of apricots emptied over it, topped with a heap of overcooked Brussels sprouts.
Sorry, buddy, but I have spent enough time in England to know what the food's like. And I have taken out a number of British visitors to Freiburg, and they were all completely blown away by what I consider to be absolutely run-of-the-mill Freiburg cuisine. One meal at one café does not an overview make. (Though I agree that that café is crappy.)
"The two settlement extensions of Riesefeld and Vauban are so different from anything yet attempted in Britain," wrote an expert in London, that "it is easy to dismiss them as interesting but irrelevant. Yet they tackle some basic issues that apply equally to British cities, including how to attract families to live at high enough densities, and close enough to city centres to avoid depending on the private car, and this they do extremely well." Nuff said.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
The cost of parking spaces
... parking spaces can cost between $10,000 and $50,000 – typically more than the cost of the car that occupies it. High parking requirements can raise the price of homes and apartments by $50,000 to $100,000.That sounds a bit high to me, but he also comes in with a specific example:
A recent parking garage project in New Haven, Conn., for example, cost more than $30 million for almost 1,200 spaces – that’s more than $25,000 per space. If you were to finance it using a mortgage, the actual cost would be over $40,000 per space... roughly $135 a month, or $1,600 a year per space – not including externalities like the air pollution and congestion created by increased trips drawn by cheap parking.
The author's point is that there is no such thing as free parking:
... the total subsidy just for off-street parking was between $127 and $374 billion (for comparison, the budget for national defense that year was $349 billion).... The cost of building all that parking is reflected in higher rents, more expensive shopping and dining, and higher costs of home-ownership. Those who don’t drive or own cars thus subsidize those who do.
All of this sounds convincing, but then there is this misleading part about Vauban, Freiburg:
In Vauban, by contrast, drivers must purchase a parking space in the garages at $40,000 each.
As I wrote recently, these parking spaces cost 16,000 euros apiece, which was only around 12,000 dollars at the beginning of this decade, when most of these parking spaces were sold.
So tomorrow, I'm going to start publishing my wrap-up of Vauban in the hope that all of this completely inaccurate reporting will stop.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
More geothermal quakes
Up to now, such quakes have been reported in Staufen and Basel, roughly a half an hour from here, so this news puts geothermal in a really bad light. Will we have to fear tremors every time we plan such a project?
Correction: I am told that the event in Staufen is not an earthquake, properly speaking. While the earth did move, it basically did so because an underground layer of porous rock began soaking up underground water and growing like a sponge.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Obama wins Nobel?!
And watch Fox squirm. And OMG, this is "Fox Business"!
I can only interpret this as a clear signal from Norway/Europe that we are happy to have this kind of America back. Indeed, despite all of this president's obvious shortcomings, his ratings internationally are astounding.
Translating notes: Rekommunalisierung
The process is called "Rekommunalisierung." But when I look up "recommunalize," I get a lot of references to criminology -- which Germans would call "Resozialisierung," though that Wikipedia entry leads us to the English "rehabilitation."
The problem, of course, is that the same thing is not taking place in the US, where such privatization did not take place on such a wide scale (enjoy the irony of that: while Americans think they are free marketeers and that Germans are socialists, the Germans are the ones who have privatized their energy markets more).
What's a translator to do? Just about anything I thought of sounded a lot like government takeovers of banks.
In the end, I simply used a few descriptive words to explain what was going on, but in the title I had to think of something spiffy, so I reversed the idea of "going public" (when the company first sells shares publicly, aka IPO) and put "going municipal." Of course, the play on words is a bit contradictory because "going public" is something private/privatized companies do, so when they go back to being public utilities, they are municipal, not public -- or something like that.
Since the European Court of Justice had actually ruled on a case cited in the German Wikipedia entry, I thought looking up that case would help, but it didn't. It turns out that the ECJ had a problem with public-private partnerships (PPPs) getting no-bid contracts. There is no mention of "recommunalizing" utilities in the ECJ literature I found; rather, German communities responded to the case by deciding that if PPPs cannot do what they want, then we will have to throw out the private part and make the utility municipal again.
FDP supports German feed-in rates
From page two of the FDP's political platform on environmental, agricultural, and consumer protection issues:
"We will continue to promote the expansion of renewables in accordance with current targets, retain the Renewable Energy Act and the unlimited feed-in priority, and make these subsidies more efficient."There are a number of other points, but I won't go into them -- you can see from the above how much things require explaining. For instance, the "unlimited feed-in priority" means that renewable energy has to be accepted on the grid; if necessary, coal, nuclear, and natural gas plants simply have to be ramped down. (The part about making feed-in rates "more efficient" is a bunch of blah blah blah.)
Most importantly, this paper -- which is apparently being used as a basis for coalition negotiations with the CDU (it was sent to me by email; I do not know if it is available online) -- clearly states that the FDP will retain the Renewable Energy Act.
I could not find the word "solar" or "photovoltaics" in the document at all. Otherwise, the FDP only emphasizes that Germany has made too many mistakes in the field of biomass/biofuels, so support will be increased, and too little has been done in the heat sector.
If you were expecting an attack on solar, the document is disappointing.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
German Solar Association opposes protectionism
It's amazing -- North Americans complain about using taxpayer money to fund foreign manufacturers all the time, but Germans seem quite content sticking to the free-trade rules that everyone (especially North Americans) have agreed to.
German Energy Consumer Association opposes cuts in solar rates
If you are expecting Germany's Energy Consumer Association, a watchdog organization that regularly takes utilities to court for price gouging (and often wins), to oppose FITs because they also raise electricity rates, then read the following press release (my translation):
October 8, 2009. The Association of German Energy Consumers opposes a drastic cut in compensation for PV arrays. A dramatic reduction in the feed-in rate would be fatal for the PV sector and destroy the momentum of previous years overnight.
The billions paid by consumers to set up the PV sector would have lead nowhere, and the future of the industry would be uncertain.
Over the past few months, prices for PV arrays have fallen faster than manufacturers have been able to reduce production costs. These firms are therefore in financial trouble, and there have already been a number of bankruptcies. In China, two thirds of PV firms disappeared altogether. Politicians need to deal with this situation responsibly.
The Association of German Energy Consumers calls for the feed-in system to be maintained as it has proven to be successful.
CDU opposes strong cut in solar rates
Any sudden change would be wrong. It is true that solar arrays have become much cheaper because the market collapsed. So we do have some leeway to reduce rates. But we have to be prudent about it - it has to be based on a market analysis. We cannot chase after the market by ramping rates up and down every six months. The solar market still needs proper incentives for people to want to install the systems.
If that is the person who will be representing us in the government, we don't have much to worry about. Here's the German original just for the record:
Eine Hau-Ruck-Aktion wäre hier falsch. Richtig ist: Die Solaranlagen sind, weil der Markt einbrach, deutlich billiger geworden. Insofern gäbe es derzeit Spielraum für eine Reduzierung der Förderung. Aber das muss man mit Augenmaß entscheiden - mit einer Marktanalyse als Grundlage. Wir können nicht alle halbe Jahre die Förderung je nach Marktlage herauf- und heruntersetzen. Der Solarmarkt braucht immer einen ausreichenden Anreiz zur Installation der Anlagen.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Faveread: Ursula Le Guin on publishing & reading
I start off this series with an article from February 2008 (you see, it's what I recently read, not what was recently published) by Ursula Le Guin (who, I believe, was a writer in residence at Tulane while I was an undergraduate) on whether we should be worried about new trends in reading.
The writing is fantastic ("Hollywood remakes remakes"), and there are a number of intriguing insights such as:
The Romans ended up letting slaves, women, and such rabble read and write, but they got their comeuppance from the religion-based society that succeeded them.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Green jobs in Germany
In other words, while Americans are preoccupied with beating China, Germany actually does so.
The world is beating a path to German products because Germans have their eye on what the world market wants. And what does the world want? As Die Zeit recently pointed out,
With a 16 percent share of the global market, Germany is at the top when it comes to control and measurement equipment, recycling facilities, and wind and gas turbines... Germany's greentech sector made up around eight percent of the country's gross domestic product in 2007, and experts believe that that share will increase to 14 percent by 2020... Siemens already posts a quarter of its revenue in this sector.
So if you want to know how to beat the Chinese, don't talk theory; just look at what Germany has been doing over the past six years (the figures for 2009 are obviously not in yet).
Monday, October 5, 2009
The weatherman is on our side!
You think Germany is about to throw out renewables and switch to nuclear power now that we have a new governing coalition of the CDU and FDP, right? But here is what you left out of the equation: the German weatherman.
A storm is passing over Germany tonight, and the weatherman started off his report with a map of Germany and some superimposed wind turbines. He explained that the overall output was going to increase drastically over the next 24 hours, producing some 11 gigawatts at times.
How much is that? "As much as 11 nuclear power plants," the weatherman said. (Germany only has 17 left, and one of them doesn't work.)
Wow. I can hardly imagine a more political statement. By God, we've got the weatherman on our side! May the battle for people's hearts begin!
(P.S. I'll try to post a link here to the video of the weather report if it ever goes online.)
Update: ok, here it is. I managed to get this video from the broadcaster itself. It seems that not every weather report is archived online. So the woman I reached essentially made this video excerpt especially for me.
Now imagine not only seeing a weatherman on CBS, NBC, or ABC explaining that heavy winds that night would generate more wind power than half of the country's nuclear power plants can generate, but also imagine contacting the broadcaster, getting an answer, and then having a special service performed for you -- all of it for free, and all of it very quickly.
Impressed with Germany yet?
Everybody thought it was stupid, didn't they?
English is a fascinating language. People have made up rules about not doing things that basically everyone does. We are told that many things that sound perfectly good don't sound good (split infinitives, sentences ending with prepositions, passive sentences, etc.). I cannot think of a single example of such a bad rule in German.
Take the example of the gender-neutral use of "they." Some 15 years ago, I wrote a long-since-lost article for the University of Freiburg's English department's magazine explaining why this is perfectly good English. Now, I see that a linguistics student in the US has just summed up everything quite well, even pointing out that
There has literally been no point since 1400 when singular they went unattested in contemporary English.
Essentially, the gender-neutral he was insisted on by some zany grammarians, who had obviously learned too much Latin, some 200 years ago. The blogger unfortunately does not mention the evolution of the gender-neutral he (which is too bad, because he provides a number of quite impressive references to support the gender-neutral), nor does he point out that everyone basically exclusively accepts the gender-neutral they in question tags, like the one in the title of this post. No native speaker of English can accept "Everybody thought it was stupid, didn't he?"
You could also point out, as I used to do, that other languages have no problem with pronouns that are both singular and plural. German has sie, and Durch zij, both of which can be used to mean that she is and they are (sie ist / sie sind and zij is / zij zijn). French vous and English you are also used both for the singular and plural, though both never take a singular verb. (French actually doesn't even have a difference between his and her: j'ai trouvé son chapeau could mean I found his or her hat -- you cannot know.) But the other blogger actually tries to argue that the gender-neutral they does not have to be thought of as a pronoun at all, if I understand him correctly -- but read it for yourself.
In trying to raise my children in Germany to speak proper English, I repeatedly have to tell them not to say things like "everybody has to bring his own sports clothes," which I cannot imagine sixth-graders in the US saying. It's not native English. In fact, it's a typical mistake that Germans make; there is no option to the German "jeder muß seine eigenen Sportklamotten mitbringen."
In fact, I remember learning not to say "everyone has to do their own work" in 10th grade, and everyone in the class thought it was stupid... didn't they?
Sunday, October 4, 2009
The difference between the US and German politicians
The former eBay CEO [Republican gubernatorial candidate for California Meg Whitman] told an audience at Gen-Probe Inc. in Mira Mesa she would issue an executive order suspending the law that restricts emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, until its long-term economic consequences are better understood.
In other words, as soon as she hits the door, a major piece of legislation is thrown out by decree.
Compare this to what happened in 2005, when the SPD / Green coalition under Gerhard Schröder lost the elections. A grand coalition of the SPD / CDU took office, and many Americans apparently felt (judging from the comments I heard) that Germany's renewables legislation would be thrown out.
Instead, an announcement was made in 2005 that the Renewable Energy Act would be reviewed as scheduled in 2006. In 2007, the initial results were made public, and in 2008 the law that took effect in 2009 was drawn up.
Businesses thus had a full three years and three months between the elections and the date on which the new legislation took effect to prepare for the changes, which were relatively slight in any case -- basically, the system was tweaked.
It would be great for the US to have more consistent legislation. And I had no idea that eBay was the brainchild of dimwits.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
France copies German eco-tax
The US press has made a lot out of Sarkozy's announcement of a carbon tax. As one blogger put it,
By applying a carbon tax to home heating fuels and transportation fuels, France can do what virtually no one else has done: price carbon comprehensively across the economy.
"Virtually" meaning that Germany already did it by implementing an annually increasing tax on fossil fuels from 2000-2003, which directly affected prices at the pump, the price of retail electricity, heating oil prices, etc. I interviewed the man behind the nonprofit, of which I was a member, for Alternet back in 2003.
So happy birthday, Federal Republic! May France not be the only country to copy your good ideas.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Update on Vauban report
Car ownership is allowed, but there are only two places to park — large garages at the edge of the development, where a car-owner buys a space, for $40,000, along with a home...
It is fascinating to read that, only six months ago, she knew that these parking spaces were purchased, not rented, but she is still nowhere near the right price. At the current exchange rate, 40,000 dollars is 27,000 euros, and these parking spaces only cost 16,000 euros. And as I said yesterday, at the exchange rate of 2002, when a lot of these parking spaces were still being sold (construction has largely been completed in Vauban), 16,000 euros was closer to 12,000 dollars.
Hollywood on cycling
The only one that I can add is Flashdance, though the bicycle in that movie does not represent the main character's goofiness, but rather her poverty; she is "rescued" by her handsome boss, who drives a Porsche.
That symbolism wouldn't work over here. I know quite a few European business people with hefty incomes who ride a bike to work.
Tim, an American, had all kinds of stories to tell about other fellow Americans not understanding his desire to walk or cycle. He says that one colleague at an old job in Washington State actually gave him a "mercy truck" because he could not bear to see Tim ride his bike to work any longer. His boss also once refused to have him walk over, a process that would've taken only 15 minutes, and said, "I'll come pick you up." (Tim refused and walked anyway only to slow down traffic considerably because of all the people stopping to help him out.) And when he bought a mountain bike to ride around in Afghanistan, fellow US troops ridiculed him. He says he enjoyed the ride anyway.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Yet another misleading article on Freiburg
Here is the passage that is misleading:
in Germany, I’ve seen... an upscale suburb that had banned cars from its streets; you could own a car, but it had to be kept in a garage at the edge of town where parking spaces cost over $30,000 a year, meaning that few people owned cars and those who did rarely used them for small daily tasks like shopping.
Skip the fact that cars have not actually been banned from the streets altogether; she is more or less right in her synopsis. But 30,000 dollars a year for a parking space?
In fact, these parking spaces cost 16,000 euros -- not for a year, but for good. I just spoke by phone with the woman who handles the management of the Solar Garage, and she says that in addition to the purchase price of "around 16,000 euros," there are monthly service charges of "around 20 euros." Even at the terrible exchange rate of around 1.43 dollars to the euro, I still don't get much more than around 23,000 dollars for that parking space -- and again, just one time, not every year. And when these parking spaces were built, the exchange rate was much different, so if you bought one back when the dollar was worth 1.3 euros, then that parking space only cost you around 12,000 dollars, not 30,000.
The really amazing thing is that the author did not bother to find out whether these prices are remarkable in any way. They are not. You pay 16,000 euros for a parking space elsewhere in Freiburg, too. In nearby Rieselfeld, a less prestigious neighborhood, they go for something closer to 12,000 euros. But I bet you can get a parking space in the town center for closer to 20,000 euros. That's just what parking spaces cost in Freiburg. It has nothing to do with any kind of environmental thinking.
Here's the best part: this article is no better than a lot of the other stuff out there. A few years ago, the Guardian -- a quite respectable British newspaper, not a tabloid -- wrote this completely inaccurate article about these two neighborhoods of Freiburg. Here's what that guy had to say about the price of a parking space in Vauban:
Vauban residents can own a car - but they have to pay €18,000 a year to park it in one of the multistorey 'Solar Garages' on the outskirts of the quarter...
Well, at least he gets one thing right: the Solar Garage (so-called because the roof is covered with solar panels) is at the point where this new district meets the main road, i.e. where it touches the rest of town. So it is not, as our other author put it, a "garage at the edge of town" -- but on second thought, it's not "on the outskirts of the quarter" either really. It's the closest part of that district to the rest of town. And it is only a few blocks' walk away from your home. When you hear the phrase "edge of town," does that sound like you can walk to your car in two minutes?
In Vauban, you can. And on the way there, you will walk by a grocery store, a drugstore, at least one playground, at least two places to eat, and at least one tram stop that will take you to anything else you'd need to reach.
I'm not going to go further into the Guardian article (that will have to be another post) because there really are far, far too many factual errors in it. But there is one other thing wrong in the article written by our New York Times journalist -- who, to be fair, seems to be honestly open-minded. Her mistakes are probably just sloppy journalism, whereas the Guardian guy has a chip on his shoulder (but I'll get into that some other time).
The other thing that needs clearing up is this passage:
A passive house has to be under 2,000 square feet and basically box-like in order to make it energy efficient. “If someone feels like they need more than 2,000 square feet to be happy, well, that’s a different discussion,” a passive-house architect said.
Here, the exact opposite is true. The smaller the house, the harder it is to meet the passive house standard. As engineers Ludwig Rongen and Tom Nabrotzky put it at the last Passive House Conference:
Everyone who has ever dealt with energy-efficient construction knows how important a building's compactness (shape factor) is for energy efficiency.
(Disclaimer: Petite Planète translated the proceedings for that conference, so that is our translation.)
But "compactness" does not mean small. Basically, as you can see from this definition of "shape factor," the larger the "box," the less outer surface you have proportional to the heated interior volume. And the surface is where you lose the heat, ergo: the bigger the box, the better.
I'm certain that the German architect interviewed would agree with that assessment, and I think I understand what he was actually trying to say (keep in mind that he was speaking in a foreign tongue): if people want to have gigantic homes/apartments, it takes a certain amount of energy to heat up that space, so the more space you have, the more heat you need. But while it is easier to heat up a small apartment, it is also easier to heat up a large building consisting of numerous apartments than it is to heat up a bunch of single-family homes with all walls exposed to the wind.
Since 2007, I have been giving tours of Vauban (and Rieselfeld) on behalf of the City of Freiburg or acting as an interpreter with city officials when international visitors, such as urban planners from Singapore or Manchester, come by. So I know first-hand not only the history of this district, but also of its importance on the international stage. Its importance can be overstated, however. Unfortunately, its importance can also be misrepresented, not only by people with an ax to grind (like the guy who wrote in the Guardian), but also by people who actually seemed to like what they saw, like the other article.
I suppose I'll just have to come back to this with a couple of other posts on Vauban.