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Monday, July 6, 2009

Efficiency Standards, Unfunded Mandates. . . and Success

Front page of the Business section of the New York Times today notes that old incandescent bulbs aren't fading away; they're. . . evolving.

Why is that? Pressure from CFLs is one piece. But the real push came from the Big Bad Gummint, in the Federal Energy Bill of 2007.

The feds set energy efficiency standards that appeared to make the demise of the incandescent bulb inevitable--starting in 2012, tightening the final screws in 2014. Two years later (and three years early), there's an incandescent bulb on the market that already meets the standard.

This is interesting in that it belies the constant yammering on the right that gummint has no place “interfering in the market.”

Okay, so what what you want is the withdrawal of all subsidies, giveaways, and tax incentives given to the hydrocarbon industries, right?

Hello? Hello? He hung up. I wonder why he hung up.

It's a weird kind of adolescent-doesn't-want-to-clean-her-room argument: “I'll do it as soon as you stop telling me to do it--in my own way, in my own time!”

But when you come back the next day, the pile of damp towels on the floor is even higher.

I don't think regulation is The Answer. But when they talk about “market forces,” a key part of what that means is action to define, and consistently enforce, the parameters of what is and is not acceptable, in both commercial and environmental terms.

I had thought the 2007 bill banned incandescents (and I thought that was the way to go; I stand corrected). Turns out, instead, the bill did what the free marketeers always say they want: set the bar and let the market compete to produce cost-effective solutions.

It has started to do so. Doubtless, we will now begin to see Republicans, en masse, lauding freemarket greentech solutions.

Hello? Hello. . . ?

In other news: I wonder how this happened. It's a mystery. . .

Monday, June 29, 2009

Waxman-Markey Bill Weak and Meaningless

I'd like to find cause for celebration in the recent passage by the House of Representatives of the Waxman-Markey bill (the American Clean Energy and Security Act), but I don't think this is good news. Sadder still, a bad bill is likely to be made worse in the Senate.

Republicans in the House continue their militantly delusional approach to the climate change issue. In today's New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman refers to this as a form of “treason against the planet.”

“If there was a defining moment in Friday’s [Congressional] debate,” he writes, “it was the declaration by Representative Paul Broun of Georgia that climate change is nothing but a 'hoax' that has been 'perpetrated out of the scientific community.' I’d call this a crazy conspiracy theory, but doing so would actually be unfair to crazy conspiracy theorists. After all, to believe that global warming is a hoax you have to believe in a vast cabal consisting of thousands of scientists — a cabal so powerful that it has managed to create false records on everything from global temperatures to Arctic sea ice.”

This rant, Krugman notes, was met with applause, presumably from most of the 212 representatives who voted against the bill (168 Republicans and 44 Democrats—a few of the latter, presumably voting “no” because the bill was not strong enough). Voting breakdown here.

The Republicans, however, are only half of the sad story.

Writing on the op-ed page of the Financial Times, Clive Crook links together President Obama's approach to both climate change and health care reform, in a piece entitled, “Obama is Choosing to be Weak.”

“The cap-and-trade bill is a travesty,” Crook writes. “Its net effect on short- to medium-term carbon emissions will be small to none. This is by design: a law that really made a difference would make energy dearer, hurt consumers and force an economic restructuring that would be painful for many industries and their workers. Congress cannot contemplate those effects. So the Waxman-Markey bill, while going through the complex motions of creating a carbon abatement regime, takes care to neutralise itself.”

On the opposite page, the editors concur, with an editorial titled “Cap-and-trade mess: The US climate bill might be worse than doing nothing.” I think the title is sufficient. . .

This is not “change you can believe in.” This is not change.

The value of Obama's electoral mandate—and his charisma, and his rhetorical gifts—is that it equips him to tell the American public some Inconvenient Truths (Al Gore, btw is in favor of Waxman-Markey; climate scientist James Hansen is against the bill).

But influence dissipates like smoke.

You use it or you lose it. . . and we all lose.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Steamy Skies Over the Northeast

It's the first day of summer, but it's felt kind of summer-ish, in the Northeast for a while now, at least a few weeks. But it's that freakish new kind of summer I'm still not used to.

We are cautioned not to confuse weather with climate, but for going on three years, what I have been seeing, May through August—in Central Massachusetts!—when I look up in the sky is. . . steam.

Yeah, I get that clouds are steam, but this looks different to me.

Ed Koch, who was mayor of New York City for a seemingly interminable period of time (was it only three terms? It felt like more) was famous, among other things for the locution, “I am not a. . .” and you can put almost anything you want in the blank.

It was a “not that I am qualified to comment on this. . . but let me tell you what I think” intro.

“I am not a quantum physicist, but let me talk to you a little about Schrodinger's cat.”

Which is a long winded way of saying: I am not a climatologist, but Massachusetts (and much of the rest of the American Northeast) is beginning to feel tropical to me.

Gray sky full of roiling clouds for days on end—I am a migraineur, and I could write volumes about the pain of barometric pressure—it rains buckets for an hour, the sun pops out for twenty minutes to steam the water off the streets, then we're back in the gray for another 22+ hours and around we go again.

The 21st of June is a three-fer this year: the first day of summer, Father's Day (the 100th anniversary of Father's Day, in fact), and the second day of the annual Clearwater Festival. And the festival itself has its own triple celebration going on: (1) forty years since, now (2) 90 year-old, Pete Seeger (he's that pink blob on the stage) founded a music festival in support of cleaning up the Hudson River—this year (3) 400 years old.

I grew up sailing on the Hudson, in a fourteen foot sloop that my father built, and I've been going to Clearwater since I was a child. India-print skirts, Birkenstocks, and patchouli oil aside, it always feels to me like an annually reconstituted Utopian village.

The Sloop: Clearwater

I can't say what role the Clearwater festival has played in my interest in the formative function of how we name things, but the festival was an early redoubt of “intentional language.” Volunteers working security have “Peacekeeping” on the backs of their t-shirts; those providing assistance to handicapped attendees or musicians sport the tag “Access.” In a related vein, Clearwater was the first place I saw sign language interpreters made a mandatory adjunct to every concert stage.

Perhaps more relevant to what I usually blather about in this space, the festival has been generating (all of) its own (green) electricity for years; they've been separating and recycling the waste from the festival back into the 1970s dark ages of I-have-to-put-my-can-where? and there's something very moving about seeing Pete Seeger tooling around Croton Point Park in his (solar charged) electric pick-up truck.

(A few years back, I was able to intercept him as he left one of the stages and ask how "All of my brothers" had changed to "my brothers and my sisters" in "The Hammer Song." Little piece of Clearwater in my doctoral dissertation--out in readable form from Temple University Press. . . perhaps next spring.)

Hell or high water, we'll be at Clearwater on Father's Day.

How long we stay is a bit of an open question. I've been watching all week as the chance of rain on that day (like on every other gray steamy day this week) keeps climbing. As of Saturday, it was at 70% and rising. . .

Steam-on-Hudson, 6/21/09

Welcome to summer in the tropical Northeast. Don't forget your malaria prophylaxis.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Michael Moore Says, Make Lemonade from GM Lemons

Here's a "letter from Michigan" on the demise of GM, and re-purposing industrial infrastructure to produce 21st Century mass transit and renewable energy technologies:

Exactly right!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How the US Lost the Second World War

Here’s a short unbalanced history of Chrysler: Founded in 1925 (out of the detritus of Maxwell-Chalmers). Buys a stake in Mitsubishi in the 1970s and responds to the threat of Japanese imports by selling re-badged Japanese imports. Is purchased by the German automotive titan Daimler-Benz in 1998; burped back up in 2007. Effectively taken over by Italy’s Fiat in 2009.

So. . . remind me again, because I’m easily confused these days: Who won World War II?

I don’t ask this out of xenophobic pique. It’s just. . . interesting.

The typical explanation for the post-War industrial success of Germany and Japan is that the war destroyed aging and outdated industrial infrastructure and required companies to start over from scratch. Devastation wrought desperation as well; producing high quality, efficient products was taken to be a matter of personal survival as much as national pride.

The US, meanwhile, brimming with national pride and Victor’s Hubris (cousin of the guy who wrote Le Miz), was spared domestic war damage, chased efficiency experts like W. Edwards Deming out of the country (to Japan, BTW, where he was paid rapt attention) and continued to make cars in Model T barns into the 1970s.

There is ongoing jousting about what killed Chrysler and GM and, to a somewhat lesser degree, lamed Ford: piggy executives, regulatory meddling, the Great Recession, insurmountable “legacy” costs, fat cat unions. My vote goes to “stubborn inefficiency,” on a variety of fronts, with “na├»ve indifference” a close second. European and Japanese auto makers have had a variety of goads to efficiency for decades: from the basic space constraints in “Little Europe” and “Island Japan” to war-ravaged infrastructure to consistently high fuel taxes over a period of many years now.

The Adam Smith purists (who seem to have done a pretty spotty and shoddy job of reading the works of their deity) fulminate about the corrosive effects of industrial policy; that’s silly: Germany, Japan, and South Korea have, for the most part, pursued effective industrial policies; for the past few decades, we have pursued short-sighted, crony-crippled industrial policies.

And the howls of protest from the likes of GM have evolved (one might better say “pirouetted”) more to the tune of momentary convenience than to long term coherence: for most of the 20th Century GM was at the vanguard of fighting off the Stalinist Specter of National Healthcare (The Canadians are coming! The Canadians are coming!); more recently, they’ve stripped their gears shifting into reverse, and started lamenting the competitive disadvantage of being saddled with a workforce with business-supported healthcare and pensions.

It’s a blow to the pride of any (Honda-driving) American, to watch one of our flagship industries finally realize the seriousness of its wounds and fall over. Sadly, I do think that “what’s good for GM is good for America.” And that’s downsizing.

But “good” doesn’t necessarily mean easy. . .

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Zeus, Hera, and the Other Utilities

I've been looking at the swath I tore out of my kitchen ceiling (maybe six feet, by one foot) for more than a week, the underbelly of the house, or of the upstairs bathroom anyway, exposed.

Makes me aware, every day now, of the power of water (and of the odd reticence, where I live anyway, of people to do home repair work, or to give estimates, or to return phone calls. . . But I digress).

In a very real sense, the utilities that residents in advanced industrial countries take for granted, amount to a channeling and a taming of elemental forces: water, fire, energy. Modern life is based on our capacity to bend these forces to our collective will. And that works. . . except when it doesn't.

As when a gas leak takes out a neighborhood or a water main failure turns a Manhattan intersection into Old Faithful or an ice storm snuffs out the electricity for a few days (or weeks).

And of course, there are the smaller scale, end-user issues, little glitches in our own home utility networks. I've become sufficiently respectful of the cost of failure in most of these areas that I don't do much home plumbing work anymore. You only have to be wrong by a drip; add those up and down comes your ceiling (not my fault this time, BTW). I'll do a little home electrical work only under very circumscribed conditions.

(Having checked three times that the circuit is off, having donned rubber-soled shoes and kitchen gloves, my overactive adrenal gland still flinging hot drops into my icy stomach with the precision of a metronome. . . But I digress.)

Americans in particular are generally indifferent to efficiency.

Sometimes we talk about that as the legacy of continental expansion. (Don't like it here? Not enough land/water/oil/gold? Move.)

Sometimes we view it as an artifact of post-WWII boomer hubris. (Limits? Hell, we're not even going to age! Now where did I leave my ginkgo bil-whatever-it's called?)

But it seems to me that there's a moral or spiritual dimension to this as well.

I'm ambivalent writing that.

I more often view religion as a force for oppression than for liberation, for irrational rather than rational behavior. (As an atheist, married to a pagan—“Mommy prays to the shrubbery”—with a militantly anti-religion daughter, well it's complicated.) But wouldn't we slow our resource usage (perhaps drastically) if you had to say grace every time you turned on a faucet, threw a switch, lit a stove—a replacement for the physical penance we had to do when warmth or cooking meant gathering and chopping wood, when water meant a trip to the well and back with a bucket?

I'm not advocating for that, for what would amount to a mass conversion to something close to Greek or Roman polytheism—though the sandals would be cool. But a reduction in resource usage can't be achieved only through efficiency, regulation, and a more rational alignment of economic incentives (all of which we still desperately need).

We need to look inward as well as outward, to recognize our own failings and obligations (no guilt, no shame, just looking, just taking inventory) and our strengths as well. If religion does this for some people, fine by me. I'm more comfortable with behavioral economics, or a sort of secular spirituality, willing to admit that I have a problem, convinced that we are not powerless before our resource addiction.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bigger Better Power Grid? Maybe Not

The US electricity grid has been attracting a lot of attention lately—and even some new funding, including some folded into the recent federal stimulus bill. Why not? It's old, it's creaky, it's unreliable; it's been suffering from insufficient investment for a couple of decades now.

Particularly if we are going to make increased use of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources—like wind and solar—it makes sense that we should be upgrading the ability of the national system to store energy, to move it around efficiently, to enhance real-time communication and meaningful data sharing, between both utilities themselves and between utilities and their customers. The grid needs to be bigger, stronger, and smarter.

Or does it?

Let's start with “bigger.”

I worked in data communications for most of the 1980s, which was a lot like working for a power company. Most of what I did had to do with installing or maintaining terminals that were hardwired to centralized mainframe—Big Iron—computers. When you needed computing power, you plugged in to this utility—and hoped that the system was up, that there weren't too many other users, that no one was doing anything computationally intensive.

Then came the IBM PC, in 1981, and the first Apple Mac, in 1984. Pretty soon, you had more computing power on your desk (in your cell phone, in your watch) than it had taken us to reach the moon.

The build-out of global computer and communication networks has added a huge degree of resilience to our access to computing power. I'm not connected to one machine by one wire. While network problems occur all the time, they are largely invisible to us. The broadband connections that we use are dynamic and, for the most part, “self-healing.” If I have problems with my computer. . . well, we have more computers than people in my house—or there's my office, or the library, or Kinkos.

Mainframe computing hasn't quite died. But it has certainly diminished in importance.

So why should I get my power from a central location?

I would suggest that this has more to do with “installed base,” entrenched interests, and habit, than it does with an objective assessment of how best to provide electricity to the country.

We're told we need a bigger, newer, “reinforced” power grid to do things like move wind energy from the plains and solar energy from the deserts to cities on the coasts. I'm not sure about that. Distributed power production has many of the same benefits inherent in distributed computing. We might do better to have power markets and collectives than to rely on the benevolence of industrial conglomerates (recall Enron and Grandma Millie).

I'd like to see solar shingles—or thin film photovoltaics—as the only thing we ever put on southern facing roofs, going forward; retrofitting, certainly for government buildings, would also make a fine jobs program. For residential power, coastal areas could supplement this with offshore wind and wave energy. Cheap availability of wind power in the middle of the country might be just the incentive we need to revive American industry.

A smarter grid does make sense to me (or a smarter network of smaller power networks, loosely interconnected). Every building ought to be producing, as well as using, energy. A number of systems have been developed to use the batteries in electric cars for energy storage and load balancing. In a system designed at MIT, for example, your car would make ongoing calculations about when to enter the electricity market, as either a buyer or a seller.

It has been said that we are asking a 19th century power grid to deal with 21st century problems, and that the answer is to upgrade this older technology.

Perhaps we should instead adopt, or develop, 21st century solutions.