Friday, February 26, 2010

Bad climate data

I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little impatient with the inaccuracies of a group of like-minded people who focus more on climate issues than energy issues. Take a look at this nonsensical chart (from the Guardian), which seems to show that San Francisco will go underwater if sea level rises another two meters, whereas New Orleans will apparently not go under water unless sea level rises another six meters.

I have been to San Francisco several times, and if sea level rises another two meters, you are going to lose the Embarcado, but most of the city will be high and dry. The highest point in the city is nearly 300 meters up, and Lafayette Park is around 100 meters above sea level -- smack dab in the middle of town.

In comparison, Lafayette Park in New Orleans is probably less than a meter above sea level, and I honestly don't believe that any piece of dirt in the city -- including all of the levees -- are anywhere close to six meters above sea level. You have to sit on the roof of the Superdome to get that high.

What a stupid chart.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Happy birthday, feed-in tariffs!

10 years ago today, Germany adopted its Renewable Energy Act, which for the first time starting on April 1, 2000 ensured the profitability of properly installed renewable energy systems. Up to then, the rates offered were linked to power prices, and generally only that one price applied to all types of generators of renewable electricity -- a policy currently still used in parts of North America, where politicians and proponents of renewables have yet to fully understand what makes current German feed-in tariffs (FITs) successful.

But while North Americans struggle to get their heads around the policy, feed-in tariffs have practically taken over the world. According to the World Future Council's Miguel Mendonça, some 50 countries around the world will have implemented FITs by the end of this year. More importantly, no other policy has proven anywhere near as successful in ramping up the deployment of renewable energy systems. As I have written elsewhere, an overwhelming number of policy-neutral studies have found that FITs are the most effective and least expensive way of promoting the large-scale deployment of renewables -- from Sir Nicholas Stern in his Review on the Economics of Climate Change to the International Solar Energy Society. And the number of such studies continues to grow, as the SEMI PV Group’s Policy Principles and Recommended Best Practices for Solar Feed-in Tariffs demonstrates.

Inexpensive? The German government has repeatedly published data showing that expenditures for FITs are far below savings from offset energy imports, lower carbon emissions, and the tax revenue from the domestic market generated. Just this week, the head of Masdar PV estimated that the 4.8 billion euros for feed-in compensation in 2009 led to 6.4 billion euros in savings.

So how do FITs work? On a recent visit to Washington DC, I had lunch with a lawyer involved in the design of Renewable Portfolio Standards in a number of US states. He asked me how I would describe FITs in one sentence. I told him I could do it in one word: democracy. That word, of course, necessitated quite a long discussion, the gist of which was that FITs allow common citizenry to become profitable power generators on an eye-to-eye level with both municipal and investor-owned utilities. In other words, consumers become producers, a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why Germany's Energy Consumer Association (ECA) supports FITs even though they raise the retail electricity rate slightly. The ECA is happy nonetheless because the consumers it represents can become profitable producers.

That is the outcome of FITs, but the explanation still does not tell us how they work. In a sentence: the government calculates a rate of compensation (tariff) for a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a specific type of renewable generator (biomass, wind, solar, etc.) and system size (power from larger systems generally costs slightly less than power from small systems) at a level needed to give such generators a reasonable ROI, and then forces grid operators to pay those rates for all renewable power, with the cost being spread across all power consumers in the country (not just power consumers within that grid). Okay, so the sentence is a bit long, and I kinda cheated with the parentheticals. Sometimes my Bachelor’s in English does come in handy.

I have probably also disgruntled the average American reader; after all, in the above paragraph I say that we should actually pay more for less efficient (small) systems, and we should guarantee profits, both of which seem anathema to free-market economies. And I would actually agree but for one thing: the rest of the energy sector has also always enjoyed guaranteed profits and subsidies for less efficient systems. FITs just let renewables take part in the scheme.

Last month, I was reading up on how biogas could be sold to natural gas pipelines in Germany. Because the price of natural gas fluctuates, but the price of biogas under FITs is fixed, the natural gas network operators proposed that they be able to pass on losses to their consumer base if they had to sell the mixture of natural gas and biogas at a price slightly below that of biogas -- but now get this: if they could sell the mixture at a profit, they wanted to keep all the money.

The situation is no different in any other energy sector in any other country. Indeed, the power grid in the United States was built up around the concept of natural monopolies; it does not make a lot of sense to have separate power companies set up competing grids in one area. So power companies have long been regulated in the US to prevent price gouging, but in the process they are also essentially guaranteed a profit. (See Power Struggle: the hundred-year war over electricity by Rudolph and Ridley.)

FITs open up that option to everyone, from businesses large and small to communities and homeowners, though a paradigm shift is involved: the profit margin is no longer based on the investing entity, but rather on the type of generator. In the US, power companies are guaranteed a profit (and do not compete with each other), but gas has to compete with coal and nuclear - so granting profits to solar, wind, and biomass as FITs do is a new approach in that respect. But FITs fit in well with our historic way of protecting the profitability of energy producers.

What about subsidizing inefficient systems? Well, carbon capture and storage (CCS) would reduce the efficiency of coal plants even if it works, and we are still pushing for that. Moreover, the US government (and the same holds for the EU) continues to dump billions on the coal industry -- 3.4 billion dollars in the stimulus package alone over 10 years -- although the coal sector has been profitable now for some 200 years. Peabody Energy, the largest privately owned coal company in the US (it claims to make up some 10 percent of electricity generation in the US), posted an EBITDA of 1.29 billion in 2009 on revenues of 6.01 billion US dollars. I'm not an economist, but that sure looks like a 22 percent profit margin to me. (If so, then you know why conventional power companies are not interested in renewables, where the profit margin is below 10 percent even under FITs.) More importantly, this single company's profits are roughly four times greater than the money for the entire coal sector in the stimulus package per year.

What on earth are we subsidizing them for at all then? The same holds true for the oil industry and the nuclear industry -- but I'll spare you the details. My point is that the very companies that oppose guaranteed profits for renewables already get much greater profits on the current market and are still subsidized. These guys could fund CCS and other research out of their pocket money – and CCS might never work.

We already know that – and how – lots of types of renewable energy work, with wind power being the cheapest, but the most intermittent, and solar (intermittent, but generally with peak production coinciding with early afternoon peak demand) being the most expensive, though solar prices continue to plummet with no end in sight. We also already know what the best way of getting more of these generators on the ground is: feed-in tariffs. At least, most of us know that in countries ranging from Slovenia and the Netherlands in Europe to Argentina and Brazil in South America, China and India in Asia, and Algeria and Kenya in Africa – and as of April 1, 2010, the UK.

Is the US not the leader in solar and wind without FITs? In solar, no -- at the end of 2008, the United States had approximately 25 percent less photovoltaics installed than the tiny, cloudy German state of Baden-Württemberg (approximately as large as Connecticut and probably just as sunny…), and Bavaria has even more solar than Baden-Württemberg. In wind, the US is the clear global leader, though only in terms of absolute installed capacity. As a percentage of its electricity supply the US may not catch up with places like Germany and Denmark for decades. The US currently gets some 1.5 percent of its electricity from wind power, compared to around 7.5 percent in Germany and 20 percent in Denmark. The US goal is currently 20 percent wind powered by 2030.

But there is one other thing that makes the US renewables market fundamentally different. Almost all of those wind turbines are owned by power companies, not citizens. Wind farms with hundreds of megawatts of capacity are put up in the US, and they are generally owned by a single company, such as the Horse Hollow Projects or Shepherds Flat, which will be the largest in the world when it is built. The situation is no different for solar, with US power companies planning to put up individual projects with hundreds of megawatts. US policy shuts out the little guy.

Meanwhile, in Germany most large wind farms onshore have a splintered ownership structure, with shares held by a number of companies and countless local citizens. And the lions' share of installed photovoltaic capacity is spread across countless small roof systems financed by homeowners themselves. FITs guarantee them a 5-7 percent ROI if their systems are installed and serviced properly. If you are in the US, go ahead and find out if you can install a photovoltaic array on your home and turn a profit on it. If you can’t, demand FITs.

If you are in California, you may be told that the state has feed-in tariffs. In a way, that is true, but they are similar to the ones that Germany had in the 1990s, and they proved ineffective for solar. The rate was linked to power prices and not differentiated according to the specific needs of a particular type of generator. The mistake is being repeated elsewhere, such as in New Brunswick.

Ten years ago, Germany saw the shortcomings of such approaches and revamped its policy considerably, with proper FITs for solar being added in 2004. Since then, dozens of other countries have further tweaked the policy. Some included FITs for small wind turbines, which Germany only recently added. Germany now seems to have decided that it does not want photovoltaic arrays on farmland, a move that even a lot of people in the solar sector applaud. France likes solar arrays that are the roof themselves, rather than just on top of the roof. Perhaps the most important revision has been adjustments that take account of inflation, an important change in these days when governments might be tempted to combat debt with high rates of inflation.

The evolution of feed-in tariffs is by no means over, and they will continue to be crucial to the success of renewables for the foreseeable future. After all, while some believe that no policy at all will be needed once grid parity has been reached -- the point where solar power costs the same as retail electricity -- such people fail to understand that feed-in rates for biomass, wind, etc. have always been below the retail rate. So once solar becomes cheaper than retail electricity, we will need properly designed FITs to ensure a proper ROI even as we prevent price gouging -- just as US regulators continue to do with monopoly power companies.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

German military hazes

A while back, I wrote here that German does not have a word for "hazing" and that that was one of the things I like about this country.

In the interest of fairness, I should point out that the German military is now in the news for hazing, which is called "Initiationsrituale" (essentially "initiation rites"). It seems that soldiers have been made to drink excessive amounts of alcohol, crawl under chairs, and eat raw liver until they throw up. Some were also closed up in their own lockers and forced to sing. For the worse thing, follow that link.

Pretty bad, but have a look at what went on recently in the US military here and here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Saltwater = macroeconomics

I often say that one of the main problems with the US economy is the predominance of microeconomic thinking. For instance, renewables may be expensive, but that is the microeconomic view -- maybe they are cheaper than energy imports macroeconomically?

The New Yorker has published an interesting report about economist Paul Krugman's political turn, and it includes this explanation:

Freshwater economists—who live near lakes, particularly at the University of Chicago, but also in Rochester and Minneapolis—are more likely to insist that macroeconomics be based on microeconomic foundations, which is to say that one should study large phenomena like recessions and inflation as functions of the behavior of many perfectly rational individuals... It isn’t that freshwater types believe that actual people are perfectly rational—they just believe that making that assumption enables a more rigorous economics than is possible without it. After all, while there is only one way to be perfectly rational, there are an infinite number of ways to be irrational, and how do you choose? It all begins to look awfully arbitrary.

The explanation at the end is also quite interesting -- some economists tend to focus on the rational individual because they simply cannot model irrational masses. The article goes on to explain that Krugman himself is famous as an economist for his ability to mathematically model things that other economists have failed to model but non-economists consider obvious.

So the distinction I make is actually one commonly accepted in economics. I thought I had come up with it myself.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

American flies plane into building because of law against "Scheinselbstständigkeit"

A few days ago, a guy flew a plane into a building in my old hometown of Austin, Texas. It seems that the man, an IT expert, was protesting the IRS, which was going after him after he failed to file his taxes one year. Specifically, he seems to have been upset about some law which he believed forced him to become an employee, thereby prevented him from staying a freelancer; he apparently thought he would make more money as the latter.

The New York Times quotes a man who says that the law from 1986 "has ruined many people’s lives" and adds, "Many software engineers and other such professionals say that the law denies them the opportunity to become wealthy entrepreneurs." Sounds like a pretty bad law.

But then I saw that the perpetrator had also written this as an explanation about why he did not file his taxes:

"To survive, I was forced to cannibalize my savings and retirement, the last of which was a small IRA. This came in a year with mammoth expenses and not a single dollar of income. I filed no return that year thinking that because I didn't have any income there was no need," he wrote.

That's absolutely batty and made me wonder what exactly this guy's income had been over the years -- had he been clearing 100,000 and now he is complaining about not having money because of the IRS? An attempt to find this out quickly led me to another article explaining what exactly the law is: what the Germans call Scheinselbständigkeit (if you read German and want to know about the situation here, see this), which could be loosely translated as "phony freelancing." Essentially, the government tries to make sure that companies do not simply categorize otherwise full-time employees as freelancers in order to get out of of various payroll obligations (such as health insurance and fringe benefits). But if that is what we are talking about, then workers would actually want the government to protect them. Which is why this other article claims:

The reality is that many employers are using the tax code to push their tax burdens onto de facto employees, and to avoid a whole host of laws that require they offer benefits and refrain from discrimination.

The author goes on to add:

Full disclosure: I worked for an employer on and off for several years that recently became notorious for having engaged in the practice of classifying employees as independent contractors. Being classified as a full-time employee when, indeed, I worked full-time for that employer would have significantly reduced my tax bills and provided me with a series of other benefits that I then lacked.

So there you have it -- this murderer in Texas paid far fewer taxes and had better benefits as an employee rather than a freelancer. If he had no money one year, it was because he had been fired and could not find work as a freelancer, not because of the IRS.

I am tempted to write that I can hardly think of anything stupider, but actually I can think of at least three things that compete: 1) I recently wrote of the American who claimed to have governmental insurance, said he liked it, but was against health care reform because he doesn't want the government involved in his health care; 2) the debate about whether this murderer in Texas was a terrorist, "simply" a criminal, or possibly even a hero; 3) the general rage that Americans seem to have against each other and their own government -- a rage that is not limited to the Tea Party on the right, but (as the support for this murderer shows) also on the left. Robert Reich recently voiced his concern about these fringe elements getting together in what he called the Mad As Hell Party, which would unify renters and ravers across the political spectrum.

Honestly, Germany could not be further away from the US here in a few respects, but in one respect the two countries were eerily close: on the very same day, a 23-year-old German walked into his old school and began killing people because of the bad grades he had received years ago. But that is where the similarities end, for no one in Germany made the news for any support of that murder, nor was the German murderer presented as evil incarnate -- the media spoke of his "distressed psychological state." Clearly, a person who does such a thing is troubled, but that does not mean the person is inherently or always evil -- it means that things had unfortunately gone terribly wrong, so you wonder how it could have been prevented. There is no talk of heros or evil madmen.

And of course, as I also recently wrote, Germany will have none of this talk about lower taxes, thank you very much. No rage against the German IRS here, just thousands of tax evaders confessing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Accurate maps

I have been watching some of the videos at TED, some of which are truly fascinating, but actually a lot of them are somewhat underwhelming (Jamie Oliver's is pretty lame; he acts likes pizza is killing us and completely leaves out exercise -- want healthy kids? Build walkable cities). For instance, this guy talks about how the Japanese see streets and blocks differently, which is interesting enough, but then he says that a map with North and South reversed "is also accurate" (at 2:18).

As you can tell from the Petite Planète logo, I am quite familiar with maps that have North and South switched around. The problem is that this guy picked a map that does not have the equator in the middle.

While every map, as a two-dimensional representation of something three-dimensional, has to distort somewhere, the equator is simply a line of splitting the Earth into a top and bottom half -- or, as Wikipedia puts it:

... it is an imaginary line on the Earth's surface equidistant from the North Pole and South Pole that divides the Earth into a Northern Hemisphere and a Southern Hemisphere.

There are various ways of stretching the polar extremes to fill up two-dimensional maps, but moving the equator towards the South Pole does not help in any case; if anything, it causes another completely unnecessary problem by making the northern hemisphere look much larger than the southern hemisphere.

My favorite representation is the Peters map, which stretches things so that land mass is roughly equivalent. If you are looking at a map that seems to suggest that Greenland is roughly the size of South America, you are not looking at a Peters map (map source: Nasa).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

German coalition can't agree with itself

On top of an unbelievable discussion about welfare reform in Germany (the Libertarians want to reduce welfare payments, while their coalition partners, the Christian Democrats, will have none of it), we now have an argument about solar on farmland.

The libertarians (FDP) want to move the focus of feed-in rates from building-integrated systems to ground-mounted systems, including those on farmland. They correctly claim that such systems are cheaper and will therefore bring the price of solar down faster (which may not necessarily be the case, but I'll skip that part here for brevity's sake).

The CDU counters that even disused farmland should not be covered with solar panels for 20 years and that it makes more sense to use available roof space.

Here, we clearly see that the libertarians are prone to the kind of MBA thinking that dominates US politics, which is why I always say that "the Democratic Party in the US is closest to Germany's FDP, and that the Republican Party in the US is also closest to Germany's FDP." The libertarians are only able to focus on the price of solar where it is connected to the grid, and their MBA thinking is largely double-entry bookkeeping: money coming in, money going out.

That's fine if you are running a business, but then these folks have no business being politicians running a country (which, incidentally, means that the Democrats and Republicans also need to get out of politics). Politicians would be well advised to think in terms of macroeconomics, not microeconomics; the former is circular, not double entry. Money that leaves definitely comes back to you in some form or another in a national economy, whereas if you are running a bakery, it may not.

In the case of solar on buildings, the question is actually one of democracy. If we only have large arrays in the field, then we end up with corporation-driven investments in renewables, which is what we have in the US right now with solar and wind already. In Germany, ordinary citizens can become involved with installments of 5, 10, or 20 thousand euros.

So the question is not just whether economies of scale make solar slightly cheaper on valuable farmland. The question is also whether we want to allow ordinary consumers to become producers.

Monday, February 15, 2010

German environmental minister wants quick end to nuclear

Things have really heated up over here in the past few days. Germany's Environmental Minister, Norbert Röttgen, came out saying that, if nuclear is a bridge technology, it has also got to reach the other shore quickly.

Fascinating stuff -- the rest of the coalition is now up in arms about his statement, but he is sticking to his guns. And with all of this talk about nuclear being a "bridge technology," Röttgen has done us a tremendous favor by taking this hoodwinking metaphor to its natural conclusion.

The basic idea behind nuclear as a "bridge technology" is that renewables are not ready yet. There seems to be a widespread consensus that power companies do not want to build any new plants; they just want to keep the ones they have up and running as long as possible -- a disastrous idea. I can't think of anything worse than leaving nuclear plants up and running until something actually goes wrong.

But proponents of renewables mainly fear the immediate effect: if all of this generating capacity is left online, and all of it has already been written off, then new technologies which could come online will simply not be able to compete. We are bringing prices down for renewables -- but nothing can compete with decades-old plants that have already been completely written off. The profits are expected to be around 400 to 800 million euros per plant per year.

Calling nuclear a "bridge technology" has therefore been a rhetorically clever way of saying, "We are for renewables, but renewables are not ready yet, so let's keep nuclear until you guys are far enough." The only proper response to this is, "Shut down your damn plants now and get out of the way -- we're coming through."

And now, a conservative environmental minister has effectively done just that.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Faveread: Niebuhr on liberal vs. conservative

One of the most interesting aspects of American politics is the historical shift in meaning of the word "liberalism." Germany now has a governing coalition of Christian Democrats and what Germany calls the "Liberals" (Die Liberalen), and I have to be very careful to translate the latter as "libertarians."

Now, I see that Reinhold Niebuhr wrote an essay some time ago that talks about some of the different trends and manifestations of liberalism in the US, the UK, and France. He specifically focuses on how the original liberals centuries ago were reacting to aristocratic society (which doesn't exist today, so liberalism had to shift its focus to remain pertinent), and he goes on to talk about how different conditions in the three countries led to somewhat different outcomes. He succinctly sums up the shift:

The new conservatism about which one hears so much these days may claim a right to the title of "liberalism" on the ground that its promise of gaining justice through economic liberty is actually closer to the old classical economic liberalism than the new liberalism is. On the other hand if the concern for justice is the primary hallmark of liberalism, those who want to bring economic enterprise under at least minimal control have as much right to this title as those who want to preserve economic freedom.

And although the article was originally published in 1970, it seems right on the mark today:

At this moment, the old debate between freedom and control of economic life has narrowed to a very small difference in emphasis between the Tories and the Labour Party, a difference which has become slight in all modern nations.

In other words, as Ralph Nader would put it, the difference between the Democrats and Republicans is one of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and (Niebuhr would add) that is because our major political parties today are all descendents of liberals (except for the Greens, I would add).

But the most fascinating part comes near the end, where Niebuhr seems to explain why the Republican Party (i.e. conservatives) seem to have so little to offer these days other than patriotism and partisan politics (= filibustering Obama):

There is, unfortunately, no social locus in America for a valid "conservative" philosophy. The more parochial part of the business community is bound to develop a conservatism in which a decadent laissez-faire liberalism in domestic politics is compounded with nationalism.

Of course, the word conservative itself is related to conservation, so another essay could talk about how a truly environmental party would garner support among religious groups and pro-business politicians to protect God's green earth (in the case of the former) and ensure sustainable growth (in the case of the latter). That would certainly be an impressive social locus for the Republicans.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Germans criticize Olympic village in Canada

I don't see that this is making any headlines in English at all, but Hermann Weinbuch (one of the coaches of Germany's Olympic team) is in the news in German complaining about the quality of the Olympic Village in Vancouver.

  • food is being served on paper plates with plastic forks
  • and the walls of the huts are apparently too thin.

We are probably going to have more and more of this as the decades go on. As I recently wrote, it's actually not that easy at all to get served on real porcelain with real metal cutlery in the US (and apparently the same goes for Canada). But North Americans think nothing of having to eat off of throwaway material. Indeed, they even cook with it -- I recently got a photo of jambalaya from a relative, and it was in a large aluminum foil tray that, I assume(d, incorrectly -- see comment below), was thrown away, not cleaned out and reused. (I have personally never made jambalaya in anything but metal pots or porcelain casserole dishes.)

As for building insulation, I froze my butt off in the winter in Spain because houses there are not insulated at all. I also froze my butt off in the winter in the US. Right now, it's way below freezing outside here in Freiburg, but I am cozy warm inside my apartment, and the heaters are only set on 2 (on a scale from 1 to 5).

When people from the South think about living somewhere like Germany, they imagine their own poorly insulated house, not the kind of heaterless homes going up in Germany now.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

New German solar rates taking shape

As I mentioned recently, the German cabinet was scheduled to meet today to further discuss proposals for rates cuts. Word is now trickling out that the cuts will take effect for roof arrays on June 1 instead of April 1, and the rate will be cut by 16 percent, not 15 percent. So essentially, a compromise was reached.

Ground-mounted arrays will have rates cut by 15 percent effective July 1, probably with two exceptions. First, rates may only be cut by 11 percent if the land is not available for use otherwise (contaminated old military grounds, etc.) to encourage such arrays; and second, the rate for farmland arrays has not yet been specified but should be expected to be high enough to discourage widespread investments.

The new legislation also looks like it will include special compensation to encourage "internal consumption" -- which English speakers can basically just think of as net-metering. I will have to look into what the new proposal is a bit further, but it seems clear already that the ceiling for net-metering will be raised from the current 30 kilowatts to one megawatt.

In all of this, keep in mind that the governing coalition still hopes to have three gigawatts of installed capacity each year, several times more than any other country plans, and will actually decrease further rate increases if that goal is significantly fallen short of.

Harpers complains about its readers

I am a regular reader of Harpers online, and last week they posted this on their list of links:

Americans simply must have free news free all the time without ever paying anything for it ever; it’s true–ask Harper’s web editor, Paul Ford: “sometimes people say YOU ARE THE STUPIDEST WEBSITE IN STUPIDTOWN BECAUSE I WANT EVERYTHING FREE RIGHT NOW!”

If you follow the link behind Paul Ford, you find the following:

Paul: So, for strangers to, if you want to read the current issue of the magazine–the one on newsstands–you have to be a subscriber, which costs $16.97 a year.
Choire: That is outrageous.

But what Harper's does not tell you is how stupid their own policy is. You see, I live in Europe and actually wanted to pay Harpers because I read them so much. So I wrote their subscription service an e-mail asking if I could simply have online access for $16.97 a year with no paper copy being sent; subscriptions to Europe cost around three times as much, and I do not need it in the mail.

The answer from the subscription service was no.

So here you have a journal complaining about how readers don't want to pay, but they do not even allow you to pay for Internet access without a copy in the mail. They therefore do not get any money from me, and I do not get full access. This is how they want it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Saints went marchin' in

I honestly never thought I would live to see this.

All those years of watching Archie Manning getting sacked back when I was a kid, and now Drew Brees has all day to throw a pass to every other offensive player except the front line. It was a joy to see. And for once in my life, I knew the Saints were going to kick some ass when they went up 13-10. Knowing the Saints couldn't be beaten with just a 3 point lead in the third quarter - what a weird feeling.

I also never would have dreamed a Superbowl victory could matter this much. Had the Saints not stayed in New Orleans after Katrina, the already underused Superdome right in the center of town might not have been restored at all. German media, which televised the game live, did a special 10-minute segment on the team and the city - and did it well.

As I can attest from my recent visit, the Saints' success this year was inspiring to everyone. People who did not care about football and never really watched Saints games were tuning in. Outsiders should not misunderstand their Super Bowl victory as a frivolous sports event that only distracts from the real problems. The Saints inspired New Orleans this year. It's about more than just sports.

The game made one other thing clear -- New Orleans has a greater sense of family and place than the rest of the US. Peyton Manning is part of the only family quarterback dynasty in NFL history, but the Manning family dynasty is not the only one in New Orleans. The Marsalis family is without a doubt the greatest family dynasty in jazz, but it is also not the only other family dynasty from New Orleans. New Orleanians don't do mobility.

I could also add all of the political family dynasties, but then we end up with all of the corruption and nepotism. For better or worse, that's who we are -- people with a sense of place and belonging.

And for one year, we're number one.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Survey finds overwhelming support for current solar policy

When I heard that a recent survey conducted on behalf of the German Solar Industry Association found that an overwhelming majority of Germans oppose the proposed cuts in rates, I was a bit suspicious -- would a survey conducted by proponents of the cuts find the opposite?

Then, I found the actual question opposed to survey participants on the website of the Institute conducting the survey:

In Germany, solar power has been supported for years with rates financed by a surcharge on the retail rates. In other words, all energy consumers pay. Now, these rates are to be reduced by up to 45 percent within a year. The proposal has brought about some debate. One camp says that a clear reduction in rates for solar power is a good idea because it takes a burden off consumers and solar power does not need so much support anymore. Critics counter that such a drastic cut would endanger Germany's technological leadership and threaten jobs; in addition, the cuts are held to be the wrong signal for climate policy. They therefore call for cuts to be made in smaller increments over a longer time frame. What do you believe? Should support for solar power be cut significantly or in small increments over a longer time frame -- or should it be reduced at all?

The results are quite astonishing:

  • 30 percent of those surveyed do not want any reduction
  • 54 percent want incremental reductions over a longer period of time
  • and 12 percent want the proposed cuts.
In other words, 84 percent of those surveyed are against the proposed cuts, with only 12 percent supporting them (and the rest, I assume, not having any opinion).

The question, of course, is whether the survey question as it was posed skews the results. It does tend to go on a bit about criticism of the proposals, whereas support for the proposed cuts is really given short shrift. I wonder what the results would be if the actual figures for what solar costs had been included in the question. Also, supporters of the cuts could easily have added that the price of standard crystalline panels has dropped by a good 30 percent, but the rates of for rooftop arrays will be cut by less than 30 percent under the proposal. The 45 percent cut only applies to arrays on farmland, which some people don't want.

Nonetheless, I suspect that a lot of Germans are against proposed rate cuts because they would like to have solar on their own roofs -- or already do.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

German solar sector takes to the street

On a day when a general strike in part of the public sector (buses and trams did not run today in Freiburg, for instance) made headlines along with the German government's purchase of tax evasion data stolen from Swiss banks, the solar sector nonetheless managed to get into the hourly five-minute news updates on public television with a nationwide protest against the cuts being discussed.

The political picture is unclear. While Berlin's Solarpraxis somewhat optimistically entitled one report "FDP against drastic cuts in support for photovoltaics," the report merely states that some members of the German Libertarian Party think that a 25 percent arrays on farmland might be too much.

There is also talk of the cuts (scheduled for April 1 and July 1 for roof arrays and field arrays, respectively) being postponed slightly, but apparently the CDU -- the FDP's coalition partner -- would want to have considerably steeper cuts if the dates are moved back even one month. Figures of 17 and 18 percent (as opposed to 15 percent) are being tossed around as possible rate reductions for roof arrays if the cuts are moved back.

The only thing that seems certain right now is that no decision will be reached this week as originally expected when the cuts were announced two weeks ago. In fact, rates for solar power were not discussed this week at the Cabinet meeting, so the matter will have to be taken care of on February 9 and February 24.

Although the current governing coalition aims to have three gigawatts of solar per year, which is more than any country has ever installed in any four consecutive quarters (the figures are not yet in for Q4 2009 in Germany), Goldman Sachs has apparently decided that the proposed policy changes in Germany will detrimentally affect the global market. The investment bank downgraded REC, a major silicon manufacturer based in Norway, for instance, but has uprated manufacturers of production equipment -- probably under the assumption that manufacturers will be leaving Germany and needing to set up new production facilities in cheaper countries.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Garnering the rural vote

As I recently wrote, the secret to Republican success in recent decades has been winning elections in sparsely populated areas, which are proportionally overrepresented.

Now, Ken Silverstein reports over at Harper's that Cosmopolitan -- yes, the fashion magazine for women -- was actually at least partly a political journal a century ago, and he provides a link to an article from back then discussing how campaign financing essentially allows the rich to buy political offices. All of that is interesting enough, but what I found remarkable was another passage in that article:

The apportionment of legislators is such that one-eleventh of the population, and they the most ignorant and most venal, elect a majority of the legislature—which means that they elect the two United States senators. Each city and township counts as a political unit; thus, the five cities that together have two-thirds of the population are in an overwhelming minority before twenty almost vacant rural townships—their total population is not thirty-seven thousand—where the ignorance is even illiterate, where the superstition is mediaeval, where tradition and custom have made the vote an article of legitimate merchandising.

A number of things are salient here. First, the author would be lambasted today as an elitist, who shows anti-Democratic disdain for the masses. Nothing particularly unusual about that -- it puts him in the company of our Founding Fathers -- but I find it hard to imagine any mainstream journalists being able to say such a thing openly today. But you could certainly do so in the blogosphere.

Second, it seems that the overrepresentation of rural areas affects all levels of politics, not just Capitol Hill. Yet, I find it hard to believe that the United States is truly that much further to the left than our politicians. It seems clear that the majority of Americans simply do not get what they want from their government more often than majorities in other Western countries, but it also seems clear that Americans are much more conservative in religion and economics (though not culture) than the French or the Germans, to take just two examples.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Obama explains his energy policy to Republicans

The onslaught of YouTube videos here continues, this time with a one-hour Q&A session that Obama gave before a Republican audience.

This C-Span video is interesting for two reasons. First, at around minute 20 he fields a question about energy policy and explains what his goals are. It is not an exhaustive response, and it contains things that I do not agree with, but it does provide a clear overview of some of his crucial stances.

Second, the Republicans in the audience seemed very respectful of Obama, as he does of them. That room is a long way from Tea Parties and "you lie." Let's have another three years of this respectful conduct, folks. As Obama puts it, we need to make decisions based on what is best for the country, not position ourselves to look good after the fact.

Monday, February 1, 2010

An American returns to US to confront US healthcare

A colleague of mine who has spent much of the past 10 years in Germany moved back to the US recently and says he misses German healthcare. Apparently, he cannot pick the doctor he wants; he has to make sure first that the doctor is certified (or whatever) with his insurance company.

I left the US when I was 24, so my contact with healthcare in the US is both scant (those were my healthy years) and a long time ago. Honestly, I have no idea what healthcare in the US is like, aside from recollections about what my father, a pharmacist, said. But I have been hearing in US media that Americans don't want "socialized medicine" of the kind we have over here because they fear not being able to choose doctors. So it surprises me that you already can't choose your doctor in the US.

I am not sure what the situation is in every European country, but certainly you can choose your doctor in France and Germany. I would be surprised if the situation were different in Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, etc., but you have the comments box below if I am wrong.

My understanding is that the US was considering a public option alongside all of the private healthcare, which would have made the US system look a lot like the German system (and a lot unlike the French system). I do not completely agree with my colleague, however, that German healthcare is all that great. Your average German would tell you that we have two types of medicine over here: one for first-class citizens and one for second-class citizens. If you are in the public system, which tries to keep costs down by not paying too much, then the doctors tend to make you wait longer than if you have private healthcare, which tends to pay better, so doctors like it more.

Nonetheless, Americans apparently seem to completely misunderstand both their own healthcare system and what they call "socialized medicine," at least when it comes to the freedom to choose your doctor.