Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Conventional wisdom, Conventional Energy?

After reading Thomas Friedman's NY Times op-ed "A Quick Fix for the Gas Addicts" I find myself once again amazed and disturbed at "business as usual" in my home country. The fact that General Motors would offer to subsidize cheap gasoline to keep inefficient cars on the road in America is bad enough. That they would spin their market distorting behavior by engaging in Orwellian newspeak, making the offer seem "doubleplusgood" by claiming that their initiative was intended to "give consumers an opportunity to experience the highly fuel-efficient vehicles G.M. has to offer in the mid-size segment" when in fact the subsidy goes to drivers of Humvees and other low performance doubleplusungood vehicles concerns me even more , not so much because this kind of greenwashing hasn't been endemic for decades, but because it seems the doublethink is now affecting policy makers too. And policy makers should know better.
Offering to make conventional fuels cheap -- providing them at below market price -- is exactly the kind of intervention that causes market failure. And it is exactly the kind of intervention we were led to believe the Republican party was against.

Look, I'm non-partisan. I don't vote "Republican" or "Democrat" or "Green". I never have. I've always voted the issues. But I'm inherently conservative, and inherently free-market in my beliefs and I find economic theory (corrected and improved since its origins by attention to full cost accounting) to be a reasonable approach to understanding reality and predicting outcomes. (See Robert Nadeau's Brother Can You Spare Me A Planet: Mainstream Economics and the Environmental Crisis, in Scientific American, for an excellent analysis of how neo-classical economic theory, based on flawed models of physics used by Hermann-Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz, never caught up with or incorporated the improved modles that emerged soon after, keeping much of "the science of economics" in the dark ages until today!)

As fellow worshippers on the altar of economics, I thought that the Republican Party of the United States at least shared with me a belief that we should let the free market operate so that we can reach the kind of near-equilibria that let the invisible hand (occasional nudged by Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, of course!) do its munificent work.

So what does it mean when the proposed "solutions" to our crises, coming out of the people and industries who support Republican politics, start openly messing with the free market, and use obvious lies to support these policies?

Since I don't want to believe that people affiliate with political parties in the same way they affiliate with religions (unthinkingly, by accident of birth), will we now finally see sensible people turn away from supporting buffoons and criminals who have lost the essence of what their party once stood for but who continue to parade about in the party's clothes? Can a majority of Americans who call themselves "Republicans" even see the wolf in the sheep's clothing?

If I had party affiliations, and I called myself a Republican, I would be outraged by the hijacking of my party's symbolic value by "suit- and- tie-terrorists" who are, in essence, flying the party on a collision course with the very fundamentals for which it stands. In the same way that I feel Muslim's should be outraged with what the oil-sheik supported Wahabbis have done to Islam, I think true Republicans should be outraged with what the "oil-chic" supported Bushis have done to the Republican party.

Personally I would throw the book at them.

An Economics Textbook.

Their other "bible".

And I would throw the real Bible at them too.

Neither book is being honored by their behavior. They are not operating from real "conventional wisdom" -- not by conventions agreed upon by Christianity and most other world religions, and not by conventions agreed upon by economists all over the world. They are merely operating in accordance of the conventions of conventional fuels.

Friedman is right to call them (and us) "gas addicts" -- our views have become so distorted by our hunger for cheap oil that we can't seem to see how we are betraying our principles.

Even President Bush himself betrayed the insidiousness of his agenda when he spoke to NATO back in 2005. Our Wadi Environmental Science Center Board of Directors listened to his IngSoc rationalizations incredulously on a television set in the restaurant in Cairo where we were having our board meeting, thinking, "wow, the problem with this doublethink administration ("war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is power") is that he is disarming real conservatives by making it seem as though everything has been thought through and, gee shucks, we're learning from our mistakes, so don't get all upset, keep going with us on this one, we're making progress..."

Bush's NATO speech was intended to make those of us who are conservative think, "well then, as his dad used to say, let's just 'stay the course' because somebody up there knows what they are doing..." Because when you are conservative, you know, you like to conserve your time and energy.

Bush said (and this is taken from the transcript from February 22, 2005)

"The policy in the past used to be, let's just accept tyranny and for the sake of... you know, my cheap oil or whatever it may be, and just hope everything would be okay. Well, that changed on September 11th for our nation. Everything wasn't okay. Beneath what appeared to be a placid surface lurked an ideology based upon hatred. And the way to defeat that ideology is to spread freedom and democracy. That's what NATO understands. That's one of the reasons why... NATO's one of the reasons why Europe is whole and free and at peace, because democracies defeat hatred and suspicion."

If you re-read this three years later you see what it really says (read their lips):

"The new policy is, let's just accept tyranny for the sake of my cheap oil or whatever it maybe, and know that everything isn't going to be okay. Accept that. The way to defeat ideologies based on hatred is to spread freedom and democracy. We know that. But we aren't going to do it. We aren't going to defeat hatred and suspicion, because we aren't really the republicans you thought we were when you elected us. We are hijackers who have commandered your economy and will crash it into your own edifices and institutions. And all for the sake of... YOU KNOW... for my cheap oil or whatever..."

It is like an evil doctor telling you you are going to die because you smoke, then offerring you more cigarettes and saying "just accept it." The only thing that happened on September 11th, as far as this regime seems concerned, is that now we can openly admit that everything isn't going to be okay, but we still have to live with that fact. Market distortions caused by bad policy will cause immeasurable suffering, but, in the Darwinian struggle of life, a few will profit handsomely from all this chaos. Just hope you can claw your way up to the top of the garbage heap. We are no different now than we were when Edward Bellamy wrote his "Parable of the Coach" in Looking Backward, describing a humanity,

"driven by hunger [that] forces brothers and sisters to claw against one another in a vain attempt to gain a seat atop a social transport careening toward disaster."

This is conventional wisdom as defined by conventional energy.

What is the alternative?

Obviously I favor "Alternative Energy" as the way back to true conventional wisdom and conservative values -- the wisdom that says "love thy neighbor as thyself" and honors the inherent conservativism that is within the family. Conservatives should be good conservationists. We should want to conserve our environment. Conserve our resources. Conserve our energy.

How "conservatives" have turned into "wasters" is something I cannot understand. How "republicans" have turned into "enemies of the republic for which we stand" makes my head spin. It makes as much sense as "Islam" and "Muslim" which derive from the word "Salam" meaning "Peace" being reconceived and presented by these same "neo-cons" as as a religion of war-mongering terrorists.

Truly they are "neo-cons". But not conservatives.


How did we let a few wicked people take the good terms we used to use with pride to define ourselves away from the rest of us?

Steven Harris, the author of Sunshine to Dollars who runs, from whom I have bought many interesting books that have helped me build my own solar panels and make my own hydrogen and alcohol fuels, writes about the power of words as spoilers. He wrote in a recent email to his subscribers,

"Those of you who really know me, know that I DESPISE the words 'renewable energy' 'alternative energy' or 'sustainable energy'. I can't stand them, I don't use them, you won't find them on my site. NOTHING 'Alternative" ever ever becomes mainstream. NO ONE wants an 'alternative', everyone by nature wants the BEST, the quickest, the fastest, the most efficient and the cheapest. No one wants "alternative chocolate" no one wants "alternative transportation' no one wants 'alternative milk' no one wants 'alternative girl friend' no one wants an 'alternative pooper scooper' Pretty much every 'alternative' energy project ever attempted as failed...failed bad. Crashed and burned, in flames. So we refuse to use anything associated with the failures of the past, and that includes their vernacular."

Of course, as I'm sure Steve is aware, "Alternative" music has gone mainstream, but that is besides the point.

Most young people, upset with their elders for letting them down and breaking the covenant to preserve life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, eschew anything with the word "CONVENTIONAL" attached to it. So we work at vernacular cross purposes.

Very few people want to be seen as "conventional". And "Conventional" is a particular turn-off when following the main-stream means you are gliding obliviously down the river styx into an ocean of tears.

Alternative is a turn-off when it means being marginalized and freaky.

Perhaps we should redefine the forms of "renewable energy" or "sustainable energy" that are clean, safe, and, by any accountant's ledger that takes all externalities into consideration, economical. We should call them what they really are: sensible energy. Smart energy. Sapient energy.

The kind of energy anybody with common sense would use and promote.

Instead of offering uneconomical subsidies to people who use stupid energy (wake up GM!) we should be offering Pigouvian subsidies (taken from the deadweight losses of society and from the uninternalized social and environmental costs of stupid energy through Pigouvian taxes) to anybody who buys a truly Smart Car that uses Smart Energy.

Of course, conventional wisdom dictates that to do that, we need not conservative, liberal or alternative people in positions of authority, but some really smart business leaders and smart politicians. Some Homo sapiens, for a change.

Any volunteers?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Thoughts on Arjun's Murti's Oil Price Predictions

Yesterday I made my usual bi-weekly pilgrimage to the Essen Stadtbibliotek (the public library) to catch up on the news from my home country by reading Time International, The International Herald Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor (the only English reading material in current events they have).

When I read an interview with Arjun N. Murti, the Goldman Sachs Group Oil Analyst who has become famous with his vindicated predictions of oil price spikes, I had mixed feelings.

First, like Murti himself, I was actually delighted by the current trend -- it is about time that oil were properly priced so that it's numerous disadvantages could finally outweigh its artificial price advantage.

In my mind price was the strongest (if most suspect) of only three advantages that oil has ever had compared to other sources of energy. The other two are "high potential energy storage relative to weight and volume" and relatively easy transport as a relatively non-corrosive liquid (though still toxic, explosive and deadly). None of these advantages, in my mind, ever made up for the tremendous negative externalities we've all had to pay for, many of us with our lives.

And now, finally, the price advantage is gone.

Having lived, for the past five years, between the Middle East and Europe, I have seen bookends to the oil price situation I experienced growing up in the United States (the land of "middle priced oil"). And seeing these extremes has shaped my opinion of what different prices of oil can do to a country's true prosperity (measured not by GDP, but by the QOL or other Genuine Progress Indicators).

We have always had heavily subsidized oil in America (when not directly subsidized, it was certainly kept cheaper by direct subsidies to the transportation and highway sectors, to auto manufacturers, to builders and operators of refineries, to builders and operators of tankers, to military careerists who passed the cost of reducing market volatility by "securing supplies" on to the public etc.).

It hasn't done us any good, leading to sprawl, congestion, air pollution, water pollution, poor planning decisions, dependency on foreign oil ("addiction", as Bush, like a latter-day reformed drug pusher or cigarette company insider, recently acknowleged), destruction of habitat and biodiversity... you know the litany.

But living in Egypt (and spending months in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Kuwait) you see the effects of cheap oil in extremis.

Cheap oil comes at a high price:
total disregard for the health and living conditions of the citizenry, a fouled and toxic environment that is painful to spend one day in let alone years, and complete technological and educational stagnation. And I'm only talking about the problems that directly correlate with cheap oil. In Egypt there is absolutely no incentive, other than an undirected and impotent concern for your children's future health, safety, and comfort (never a good motivator for social change, especially if you are one of the bourgeoisie and can pay to move away from your country's problems to some faux "Beverly Hills" on the desert road -- "it's the economy stupid".) In my study area, among the poorest of the poor, gas and oil that are subsidized to be at least 5 times cheaper than world market prices force people to use the filthiest and least efficient technologies, from ancient smoke-belching car, bus and truck engines, to water-heating stoves that coat the walls (and the lungs of the children) with thick black soot.

On the other side of the bookend scale of energy prices, I can attest to the living conditions in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, England, Spain and Switzerland where the price of gas has traditionally been more than 5 times higher than what we paid in the U.S. (even now, with Americans moaning about gas at 3 to 4 dollars a gallon, my wife's family has been used to paying 8 dollars equivalent per gallon, and can't for the life of them figure out what all the fuss is about).

Here in Europe, the land of truly expensive fossil fuels, the breeze outside my window is fresh and clean, the sky is blue, we can drink the rainwater, and swim in the rivers, and the paint on the houses is resplendent with hues of blue and yellow, orange and lime green. This is no small achievement: I am looking outside the window at the town of Essen -- once the capital of coal mining here in the Ruhr region. And whenever we visit the old coal mines (like the Zeche Zollverein, now a UNESCO world heritage site, and the Bochum coal museum) we get frightful reminders of the social and environmental costs that cheap fossil fuels had on this region. A few decades ago all the houses were grey and the lungs of the citizens black. The town had a pallor over it, both physical and pyschological, that reduced productivity. As my father in law, who worked in the coal industry, tells me "people died all the time, and it was unpleasant to go outside. The rich were getting rich, but the poor were getting killed."

But when the cheap coal ran out and the industry shut down, literal breaths of fresh air and rays of sunshine tranformed the town. Today this part of Northern Westphalia is competing to be one of Europe's renewable energy capitals, containing true solar cities called "solarstadts". One town over, in "Solarstadt Gelsenkirchen", Shell Solar has its massive photovoltaic manufacturing facility. A visit there is quite unlike a normal factory visit or a visit to a coal mine. The building is spotlessly clean, looking like a cathedral of glass with building integrated PV, with a central courtyard filled with vegetation and footpaths and fountains. A church like vestibule next to the garden is filled with hands-on exhibits on the clean manufacturing processes of the solar industry.

Around the towns we see apartment complexes, like that of my wife's aunt, covered with smart looking PV panels, with LED signs facing the street telling the public how much CO2 and other pollution their apartment buildings have offset.

From the top of the old Coal Mine tower at Zeche Zollverein you can see fields of majestic windmills, their gentle giant blades sweeping slowly in grand arcs of triumph - the triumph of truly cheap, clean energy.

But this triumph has been paid for by keeping oil and other dangerous fuels properly priced.

Prior to the wonderful price spike situation that Murti says is going to last, Europe kept its prices high through taxation. American's scoffed at the Europeans, but economists with heads on their shoulders could see the writing on the wall: Society could and should internalize the negative externalities and charge "Pigouvian taxes" on industries producing social and environmental bads, turning them into "Pigouvian subsidies" for industries producing social, environmental and economic goods (that didn't magically make Germany superclean of course; "the optimal Pigouvian tax is equal to the marginal social cost of pollution at the socially optimal quantity of pollution", as Paul Krugman's introductory text on Economics points out; it's just that when fossil fuels are priced at a level where cleaner, more efficient industries have a chance to compete, and when startups are given a boost through Pigouvian subsidies so they can quickly ramp up to capture economies of scale, the positive externalities progressively wipe out the pollution and other negative externalities of the fossil dinosaur industries.)

When I look at the spectrum of oil prices and their effects, having lived and worked in the countries with the cheapest oil (the Middle East, Indonesia, North Africa), in America (the country with the cheapest oil in the industrialized world) and in the countries with the most expensive oil (Europe, Japan) I see a clear trend -- the more expensive your oil is, the better your quality of life.

So what are American's whining about?

I agree with Arjun N. Murti - oil between $150 - $200 a barrel is the best thing that could happen to us (that is, if we have the right leadership who understands real, not voodoo, economics!).

It isn't as though expensive oil means real energy itself is going to become ever more expensive or that the true cost of living is necessarily going to go up.

Keep in mind that OIL IS NOT ENERGY. OIL IS JUST ONE FORM OF ENERGY STORAGE. In fact oil is a form of solar energy storage. And it just so happens that burning it to liberate the potential energy contained within its ancient photosynthetic chemical bonds is a really wasteful, dangerous, filthy and inefficent way to go about getting the sunshine back out .
When we do full cost accounting ("from well to wheels" as they say!) oil's first and second order efficiencies are so dismal that there is no way it can compete with other ways of capturing and storing sunshine. That is why at even a paltry $100 a barrel of oil real energy prices are really more likely to stabilize.

Renewable Energy doesn't necessarily go up in price with time, and can even decline, but it does demand a high initial investment and then requires minor maintanenance and replacement costs. The initial investment in R.E. always made it more expensive that oil and gave it an ROI that was less profitable than investments in other industries. So there was little incentive for people who didn't have vision (remember that once oil was in this position, and it took a Rockefeller to see that oil could become profitable if an infrastructure were built around it. Hence we really need a Rockefeller of Renewables, as David Houle points out). But once oil hit $100 a barrel it lost its price advantage.

Even at about $5/watt of installed solar power, for example ($3.50 uninstalled), without any appreciable economies of scale, the solar industry was merely waiting for oil to to roughly double in price from the previous $60 per barrel to be able to position itself as a worthy competitor.

But the price increase on oil has to remain stable (a lot of the profitable solar industries that showed such promise in the 1970s tanked in the 1980s when Reagan's policies brought the pump price of oil down again; each time entrepreneurs have gotten a leg up in the solar industry a new wave of price crashes made them lose their shirts and bred reluctance to play again).

With oil staying at any price over $100 per barrel, renewable energy is now a safe a stable investment, and can assume its proper role in the energy mix that sustains our economy. Economies of scale are kicking in and new R and D is driving the price of renewable energy down and down and down, following a kind of Moore's law for energy.

Won't that be a hoot -- anticipating that next year your energy bill will be LOWER than this year!

So what's to worry?

My ambivalence comes from the way the market is reacting to the high oil prices and what is happening on two fronts:

1) In powerful countries that are still addicted to oil, like America, companies will use the spikes in price to justify raising the prices of all other commodities, claiming that "everything depends on oil". Paul Krugman, in his lecture in Essen the other night, pointed out that while the productivity of our economy has expanded to heights never before imaginable, almost none of that wealth has trickled down into the pocket books of consumers. Instead it has clotted in the bank accounts of the very very very rich (which is why they are very very very rich). There is enough surplus to keep commodity prices down even as oil prices go up, but the oil companies and their cronies are keeping almost all of it, and not reinvesting in infrastructure.

The result will be (and maybe this is part of "the plan"!) that prices of glass, cement, copper, aluminum, steel, silicon, thermoplastics and other vital components of the safe and easily built renewable energy industry will be too expensive to buy for us to build the necessary renewable energy infrastructure that will keep real energy prices stable or indeed make them go down. And this could mean that the only energy industries that can capture the necessary investment for growth will be the ones already subsidized by huge aid packages (i.e. the deadly and complicated nuclear industry).

With irresponsible nuke pundits like Jesse Ausubel claiming to be "green" and actually arguing against investing in what he disparages as renewable energy's "vast infrastructure, such as concrete steel and access roads" for "environmental reasons", even using platforms like New Scientist to state that "Renewable are not Green" and can 'rape' nature, we are at a very dangerous crossroads!

2) The oil dictator club (Iran, Venezuela, the Saudi's etc.) will continue to take advantage of the high price of oil and gain disproportionate power over world affairs. With no incentive to give their own people access to decentralized power (of any kind, political or technical) and more power on the world stage, they could force us all back into dependency on centralized command and control (which is what addiction to centralized energy sources, like oil, coal and nuclear, creates the conditions for). See Thomas L. Friedman's excellent articles on "green is the new red white and blue" and petro-dictators causing imbalances of power for more on this topic.

These two fears explain why I am ambivalent, and am having mixed feelings about Murti's predictions. I am afraid of how the market, controlled by folks whose minds are caught up in the inertia of the zeitgeist conspiracy of business as usual, is going to react to this otherwise blessing of more expensive oil.

If we want a free market economy with diminishing prices instead of diminishing prospects, we need to move fast and invest money into RE Infrastructure now, while the building blocks of a renewable energy economy are still within reach. If it gets too expensive for entrepreneurs to build the solar cities we need, the entire energy situation could get hijacked by the oligarchs who are sequestering our investment capital for their own purposes (Krugman estimates about 20 families control most of the world's wealth).

On the other hand if we build our solar cities now, tons of downstream benefits will flow.

If we can acheive an economy primarily supplied by renewable energy, I predict we are going to see some interesting things. For one thing, in the future THE PRICE OF OIL WILL DROP AGAIN. And this time it will STAY low. Why?
Simple economics, the law of supply and demand. Once most domestic, civic and industrial energy is supplied by renewables, even if we don't shift our transportation fleets completely off of oil, we will still have plenty. More than enough actually. Enough so that oil will once again seem abundant.

The DOE says that around 28% of our energy goes to the transportation sector, and of that 96% comes from petroleum. Fine,supposing we were to keep it that way. Suppose we were to continue to use oil in our hybrid engines, or in our hydrocarbon fuel cell engines, or our hy-boosted turbo combustion engines. Supposing we were to simply use cleaner variants of our beloved fossil fuels (turn them into hydrogen if you like and sequester the carbon), and more efficient ways of turning the stored energy into kinetics, but nonetheless were to keep powering them with oil.

Why not?

With 72% of our energy demand completely freed from oil dependency, and our car, boat, bus, truck and plane engines engineered to the highest achievable levels of Carnot efficiency, we will then have a greater supply of oil than we have demand for.

By the laws of supply and demand, the price of oil will naturally drop. (It is VERY easy to supply a city with solar and wind power -- using landfill and other garbage-gas powered micro-turbines for peak load backup and to stabilize fluctuations -- since the principal need is for electricity. Electricity is easily supplied by such renewables. I know this because I lived off grid near downtown Los Angeles for 3 years using renewables I installed myself).

When the price of oil reaches an all time low, and when oil is considered "just another fuel" in the energy mix (and one that finally must be considered on its own merits - its costs being finally fully accounted for and weighed against its marginal beneift, having to compete fairly for the first time with gaseous and liquid fuels from many many sources, some biological, some fossil) the oil dictators will collapse in a puddle of their own filthy muck, screaming like the wicked witch of the west "I'm Melting, I'm Melting".

True Democracy can finally expand and spread and realize its promise to the world, this time PROVING that it is a better system. And we'll have nothing but blue skies...

But only if we move fast and act now.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Deliberate Deliberations with the author of "The Accidental Theorist"

(Sybille and T.H. flank Paul Krugman for a photo after he signs a copy of the European edition of his and his wife Robin Well's basic Economics Text for them. Krugman was on a speaking tour of Germany)

An Accidental Theorist, according to Paul Krugman, (paraphrased by Berkeley reviewer J. Bradford DeLong) is "someone who does not think issues through, but who just looks at surfaces without peering into depths or thinking coherently and whose thought is thus shaped by implicit, unexamined theories of which he is not conscious".

At Solar CITIES, we agree with the ancient Socratic maxim that" an unexamined life is not worth living" and we try to emulate Socrates' "Apologies"
(Apologhma) : Ironic Modesty, Questioning Habit, Devotion to Truth and Dispassionate Reason.

It's hard!

So where do you turn in these troubled times to avoid the fate of becoming an accidental theorist and helping maintain the status quo? Particularly when most of the media is so insidiously spun (by so many $pin doctor$) and so shallow?

Where do you go to peer into the depths and develop your consciousness of the flaws of implicit theories?

Fortunately, Sybille and I had an opportunity tonight to hear and speak with Paul Krugman himself when he came to Essen, Germany to talk about his new book,
"Nach Bush. Das Ende der Neokonservativen und die Stunde der Demokraten", a.k.a. the German edition of "The Conscience of a Liberal".

We thus had the chance to think through some of the deeper issues of our time, contemplating what life will be like "After Bush" ("Nach Bush") and how we can avoid falling back into the neoconservative dogma trap, which Krugman explained, has basically been controlled by about 20 powerful families, and which, for their selfish benefit, has impoverished and hurt billions.

I had my favorite question all prepared on an index card to ask during the question and answer session:

"Hi Dr. Krugman,

I'm a Ph.D. student of Urban Planning at UCLA doing solar energy development work with the urban poor in Cairo at a time when Egypt is undergoing massive privatisation.
In your book, The Accidental Theorist, you talked about a new model for intellectual property in the digital age. You suggested an economy in which we didn't waste money trying to enforce anti-copy protectionism but sought instead to add value through the provision of tangibles that accompany digital products which, themselves, are freely distributed.

"Could the same model apply to the transfer of technology designs? Is there a way we could use your model so that development ideas can get to the poor and to relief agencies faster, without patents delaying the spread of vital technologies, but without destroying incentives for inventors and innovators and companies? If so, how might we go about it?"

Fortunately, Sybille and I got a chance to ask Dr. Krugman the question directly when we caught up with him after the talk.

He was charming. I explained to him that his idea about giving away digital products for free but adding value to them through product placement, embodied hardware, celebrity endorsements etc. had so intrigued me and my cohort of students when I was taking economics at UCLA that it had led to endless and intense debates (particularly among those of us who were also artists and musicians and film-makers). He chuckled and said "I wrote that sort of tongue in cheek and set it in the future to get us to play around with the idea. I didn't know if it would be taken seriously, but glad to hear it had an impact."

It certainly did. As proof, I noticed that I had no qualms about buying another hard copy of his Economics text for 56 Euro (nearly 80 dollars) just so I could have it signed by him. Even if it existed for free on-line, the event, his presence, the ability to create a memento and a memory, and have something to carry around and underline and scrawl notes in, all would make buying the actual book well worth it.

Proof of Krugman's concept for how to handle copyright in a digital globally connected world.

Does he lose if poor Egyptians in the slums of Cairo can download parts of his book for free?

Not at all -- instead he builds a kind of brand loyalty.

This model is, in fact, very robust. It is how the science fiction author David Wellington has become rich and famous. Wellington wrote a book called "Monster Island", a hair raising contemporary zombie survival horror novel about a UN weapons inspector and some Somali child soldiers who come to a zombie infested Manhattan to try and find AIDS medicine at the UN building, since they are dealing with two plagues in Africa -- the Zombie plague and the AIDS plague at the same time. Wellington posted his book chapter by chapter as a blog and it created such a following that he was picked up by Running Press and published in the main stream. Today the book is translated into several languages, is available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon and all the other major outlets in paperback, and he has two sequels (Monster Nation and Monster Planet) and several other best selling novels out.

But all of his works can be found and read FOR FREE on his website,
So if they are free, how does he make a living? Why isn't he in the poor house?

Because Paul Krugman is right.

People want information bundled in a value added product of some kind that they can hunt down, bag and carry home. It's in our genes.

I started reading "Stadt der Untoten" (the German translation of the novel) for free, and then stumbled upon a hard copy on display (beneath a human skull and some false gravestones) at the Mayersche Buchhandler in downtown Essen. For the first three days, when I went jogging, I would then stop off at the book store and grab the book from the display table and catch my breath by sitting in one of the comfy chairs they provide and reading a few chapters -- for free. By the fourth day, I had to have my own copy.

Nobody stopped me from reading at the bookstore. Nobody made me feel uncomfortable. The Krugman theory bears out -- let people have access to free information and they get attached to the embodiments of that information. People don't just want information in their heads, they want to make it "real", to hold it and touch it and interact with it. Homo sapiens greatest gift, as tool making semiotic organisms, is to make ideas tangible.

And, because we are social, political, impressionable, mystical animals, we want the creator to bless the work and to lay hands on it. We want to "personalize" information, and we will pay for that too!

This is why Krugman predicted that free mp3s will not destroy the music industry. Like his signed economic textbook, a signed copy of a CD you can hold in your hand, or a CD with a cool graphic cover and a neat booklet inside with photos and gossip about the creator, is worth the ten or fifteen bucks we shell out.

And, as he told us tonight, "companies like Apple are clever in that they embody the software in really neat hardware, so you want their cool new product." In economics that's alot of what branding is all about.

So what about the idea of making another kind of digital technology -- life saving technology designs for the other 90% -- freely distributable? What would the consequences be if companies holding patents on world saving environmental technologies made the designs and instructions freely available to everyone?

I was disturbed when Utility Consultant Frank Di Massa and I were visiting the Platforma Solar Research Station in Almeria, Spain a few weeks ago and were told we could not take pictures of a great new technology for making concentrated thermal power cheap. It was a German invention being field tested at the site in Tabernas, and it used an array of cheap, table sized flat mirrors, each on its own pivot about a meter from the ground, focussed underneath a suspended tube of fluid about 5 to 10 meters above. By avoiding the cost of expensive curved mirrors, it promises to bring the total cost of solar thermal energy way down.

I'd show you a picture but they wouldn't let us take any because it is still "secret".

Right. Megafauna like the polar bear are going extinct, sadly forced to be the canaries in our coal (and oil) mine, tens of thousands die from erratic weather events, and while we are being told that solar energy is STILL too expensive to replace fossil fuels, an invention that could change that equation and save lives is still "secret".

That is why we need a new economic model for how to make important inventions as easy to replicate as mp3s.

And we need to do it fast, and we need to do it so that there are incentives for people to make even more and better inventions!

Dr. Krugman said nobody has really thought this one through yet. He said he could see a new model evolving for art, but that the problem was that standard economic thinking -- the surface thinking of so many accidental theorists and a few deliberate ones who don't question dogma use-- suggests that if the intellectual property of the Alexander Graham Bells and Thomas Edisons and Walt Disneys and Steve Jobses of the world is not protected by patents and copyrights, there will be no incentive to innovate and invention will grind to a halt.

Even introductory Economics texts like the one I had signed by Krugman, states,

"The justification for patent and copyright law is clear... If inventors were not protected by patents, they would gain little reward from their efforts... and if inventors could not expect to profit from their inventions, they would not incur the costs of invention in the first place... in some industries, patents... are the principal incentive for invention." (Krugman, Wells and Graddy, 2008, p. 540-541)

But could it be that this is just another unexamined shibboleth necessary to be part of the economics in-group? What if its wrong? Totally and irresponsibly wrong?

Could it not be that Homo sapiens simply has an URGE to invent, to make new things, just as we have innate urges to eat, to explore, to make love? Is it not possible that people would simply continue inventing because they can? The same way we climb Mount Improbable because we can, and the same way we invented the wheel and the mousetrap, long before there were any legally protected copy rights?

And given that the time and materials do have high financial and opportunity costs (and I know that only too well, trying to innovate better, cheaper solar collectors in the slums of Cairo) isn't there a way to make making things profitable even if we give away all the know-how for free?

In our all too brief discussion Dr. Krugman and Sybille and I touched on a conversation Sybille and I had at a trade show recently with the inventor of a solar hot water system that uses silicone tubes instead of copper:

Given the incredible inflation of copper prices recently our entire Solar CITIES project is threatened, we explained -- copper has tripled in cost since we started the project and with the fall in the US dollar and our fixed US AID budget we are struggling to build the number of systems we promised the community and budgeted for.

We have reduced our use of copper by using smaller tubes and by redesigning our systems, and we have cut costs by using recycled plastic for the boxes and the water tanks, and by innovating a way to use recycled polypropylene pipes that we get from a Zabaleen neighbor of Hanna's. But it isn't going to cut it if copper keeps going up.

So we discussed a way to replace the copper with silicone as specified in an invention from a professor in Freiburg. This German professor is the patent holder and he is a very kind man, but of course he can't just let us start producing his invention in Cairo after all the money, time and effort he put into his invention if there is no way for him to get a return on his investment. So how do we make this a win-win?

One way I suggested we might do it is to apply Krugman's model for artists to inventors -- make them celebrities, and embody their designs in products that people with money want to buy after "advertising" them in the slums and ghettoes of the world. This is what the book "Design for the other 90%" suggests anyway -- that products that can help the poor be made with the same effort and attention as those advertised in GQ. And then they can be made as desirable and sleek and sexy as the products targeted to the rich 10% of the planet, with the poor providing the endorsement and credibility.

In an era of carbon credits and climate change, inventors could make their money not so much by maintaining the temporary monopoly that guarantees producer surplus from ALL the uses of their idea, but by producing the upmarket tangibles that are complementary goods to the basic life saving inventions whose designs and techniques they give away for free. And they would get paid to endorse big-ticket development projects, going on speaker tours, and "invention signing tours". They would give away ideas to the poorest in society, help the poor prove that their technologies work in the toughest conditions and then go on the road adding value and tangible product as things get mass produced for the more lucrative middle and upper class markets.

Very few of us on this planet have thought all this through enough, certainly not well enough to put anything into practice. But Dr. Krugman was kind enough to entertain these unorthodox, mostly unexamined ideas and let them percolate a bit tonight , and said he would cogitate over it.

That was enough to encourage me and keep me going. It only takes a little for those of us who can't help inventing, even without financial incentives.

As Krugman said tonight about how overt conspiracies work that keep good things from happening (like the neocon takeover of the US government), "all you need is a bunch of interlocking institutions pushing a coordinated agenda... fulfilling the purpose of the machine... you can win elections by changing the subject ... by creating weapons of mass distraction... by engaging in dogwhistle journalism that puts out messages that only the select can hear...".

Paul Krugman, however, held out the hope that we could actually use the same techniques for making sure good things start to happen and continue happening in the days "Nach Bush", because, he told the German audience, "America has changed for the better" even if the politics are still lagging. The benefits of higher productivity that have accompanied the technological revolutions of computerized globalization and freight containers (to name just a few of the innovations he pointed out in the post 1973 world) can now be shared with the rest of humanity.

But we will need to be very deliberate in how we go about getting those technologies and benefits to the people.

We can't afford to be "accidental theorists" anymore!

Monday, May 19, 2008

The true costs of nuclear power



I've been variably delighted, surprised and disturbed by the reactions I've gotten to a little video on Solar Air Conditioning that I threw together for my on-line distance learning class in "Environment and the Psychology of Behavior" , a class that had less than a dozen students that I taught from Egypt for Mercy College, New York last year.

Just before starting the course, I had taken a trip to UCLA to meet with my Ph.D. advisors and, through my friend and colleague Angel Orozco, whom I went to UCLA with and lived at the Los Angeles Eco-Village with, I had the opportunity to meet up once again with Solar Engineer Les Hamasaki at the Debs Park Audubon Center, where he has built a solar airconditioning system for the whole complex.

Les Hamasaki let me videotape him explaining how his system works on my little Canon Xapshot camera (the only camera I had with me) and when I got back to Egypt I edited the little snippets together with some narrated footage of the air conditioners on and around our apartment in Cairo and put some background music to make it fun. Then I posted it on Youtube for my students:

Solar Air Conditioning:

In the past year, my spontaneously produced video has received 46,056 views -- by far the largest audience for anything I've ever posted (certainly the largest "class" I've ever had as a teacher!) The only other time something I have done has been seen by that many people was when we played a Circus Guy Musical Goodwill Ambassador Program concert at a festival in Morrocco two summers ago.

Nearly 50,000 views for a youtube video on Solar Air Conditioning. Wow. It may not seem like much to those of you who post gossip videos about Paris Hilton or whatnot, but for an educator used to small classes, that's alot! My next most viewed videos, on Geothermal Power and The Immune System, rank in at only 17,849 and 16,576 viewers, respectively. If I ever get time and a budget, I know what I'm going to make a proper video about!

That is delightful. Just shows you that people around the world really are interested in solar energy in general and solar air conditioning in particular. And judging from the nice comments and emails I've been getting, a surprising number want to put their money where their mouths are and take the next step to help us all move rapidly away from fossil fuels and nuclear power plants.

All that from a little youtube video made for a handful of distance learning students. Shows how youtube has changed the way we share information and shows how education is being democratized.

What has been disturbing are the number of really nasty comments I've gotten from that short video post. Some disparage solar power in general, others defend old air conditioning technologies and suggest I'm some kind of "commie" for exploring the benefits of solar adsorption chillers, and some are upset that I dramatize the life-threatening effects of blackouts (the fact that people have died in several recent ones notwithstanding). Some tell me that solar power is too expensive to do the poor any good, and accuse me of being elitist, apparently not aware that our entire Solar CITIES project is conducted of, by and for the so called "have-nots", and that the urban poor of Cairo are the most excited and appreciative people I have met when it comes to experiments to make use of their ubiquitous sunshine, no matter how experimental and expensive these systems seem today. The truly "poor" seem to get it, citing how the costs of all technologies, from computers to power plants, always come down once they are mass produced and economies of scale kick in. The poor are no dummies.

But many of the people leaving comments for me on youtube apparently are. Or they have another agenda...

Ironically, the most virulent attacks I've gotten from my video are from people who are offended that I criticize nuclear power. They write comments putting down the solar option, attacking me personally and making up facts to defend the spotty track record of nuclear power plants.


But I have a completely unsubstantiated conspiracy theory about this:

I'm thinking (tongue-in-cheek here for all you folks who take things TOO seriously!) that the nuclear lobby is secretly behind all this.

Yesiree Bob, I'm thinkin' they take a portion of their massive PR budget and pay people to sit at home and google all those of us who have blogs and youtube posts that support solar and other truly renewable energy solutions.

You ever get one of those emails telling you you can make lots of money from home simply by surfing the web? Ever wonder what the job really entails? Hmm.

I be thinkin' the nuclear lobby (no doubt with full approval from Senator McCain, who probably talked the scheme over with George W. when they were celebrating his birthday together on the ranch instead of seeing what they could do to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina) is hiring people to mess with the only democratic and uncontrolled forms of media we have (MySpace, Youtube, Blogspot etc.) , and use them to discredit solar and push nukes. I'm thinking these folks are hired to hunt us down and when they find us, to write negative or disparaging comments and flood our sites with disinformation as part of their campaign to make it seem as though nuclear power is a viable solution to our climate change crisis.

Sound far fetched?

What, you don't think the nuclear industry and its cronies in big industry and big government who are all sharing a piece of this swindle pie are doing everything they can to keep the scam going? You don't think they're capable of such shenanigens?


I approach this as I do most conspiracy theories -- with a healthy dose of salt, but buttered with the question, "if I was rich and powerful, and alot of the NPV of my riches and power came from fooling the public into supporting massive subsidies for constructing or re-liscencing nuclear power plants, would I, could I conceive of hiring people to discredit non-nuclear options and to pass disinformation on to the public wherever and whenever I could?

If I began to see that people were turning more to the democratic channels of information, such as youtube and the blogosphere, and turning off to the industry-controlled media, would I, could I conceive of blitzing those channels with disinformation?

If I were as evil as Dr. Evil, would I, could I, plan such a strategy?

For "one million dollars"?

I leave the answer to that up to you (nyeh, eh eh)!

But if you don't believe that internet shills exist, read this post from "The Escapist". And if you want to read a good "fiction" novel about the Internet Shill Marketing phenomenon, read William Gibson's new novel "Pattern Recognition" (Gibson, my cyberpunk friends know, invented the genre with "Neuromancer" and "Johnny Mnemonic".)

Shills exist, hecklers in the internet crowd. All there needs to be is a profit motive...

(This week the International Herald Tribune had a front page article saying "Italy Signals turnaround on Nuclear Power". From the headlines you get the idea it is a fait accompli. But if you actually read the article you find that the voters aren't agreed and that "
'new regulation and strong agreement on the plan within the country' would be needed." The article itself actually contains more reasons why going back to nukes is a stupid consideration than a viable energy strategy -- not least of which is the fact that nukes take 20 years to liscence and build, by which time we could easily have tapped into Italy's abundant geothermal power, built plenty of safe, clean, solar power towers, exploited the abundant wind, wave and tidal power and replaced so many inefficent motors and pumps and lights and other outdated technologies that Italy would be swimming in a surfeit of power! So which shill is being paid off to get these misleading headlines on the front page?)

In parting, since I grow tired of arguing against nuclear power (which one energy spokesman called "the stupidist most dangerous way to boil water ever invented" and another called "a catastrophic oversized tea kettle), especially having visited the solar power towers and thermal concentrators in Spain, which do the same job with absolutely no risk, I will simply reproduce the wonderful article that Christian Parenti published in The Nation, since he says everything I would want to say, and everything that Amory Lovins said on the Charlie Rose show, and does it better than I could possibly do.

Why reproduce it here, and not simply give you the link to the article on "The Nation"?

Well, because if there were only one copy out there on the net, and I were rich and powerful and got much of my macho prestige, my political clout and my Net Present Value from ensuring the future of nuclear power in my country and convincing people it was our new "green" solution to global warming why I would ______________!

(fill in the blank!)

Hope others of you will help replicate Parenti's memes, and help ensure we never let nukes have any kind of renaissance since, after reading about the recent activity in Iran and having listened to Egypt's recent declarations, I'm not convinced economics will ever defeat wicked people's rush to "let the atomic Djinn out of Aladdin's lamp".

What Nuclear Renaissance?

By Christian Parenti

This article appeared in the May 12, 2008 edition of The Nation.

April 24, 2008

"If you listen to the rhetoric, nuclear power is back. Smashing atoms will replace burning carbon-based coal, gas and oil. In the face of a disaster movie-like future of runaway climate change--bringing drought, floods, famine and social breakdown--carbon-free nukes are cast as the deus ex machina to save us at the last minute.

Even a few greens support nuclear power--most famously James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory. In the popular press, discussion of nuclear energy is dominated by its boosters, thanks in part to sophisticated industry PR.

In an effort to jump-start a "nuclear renaissance," the Bush Administration has pushed one package of subsidies after another. For the past two years a program of federal loan guarantees has sat waiting for utilities to build nukes. Last year's appropriations bill set the total amount on offer at $18.5 billion. And now the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill is gaining momentum and will likely accrue amendments that will offer yet more money.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects up to thirty applications to be filed to build atomic plants; five or six of those proposals are moving through the complicated multi-stage process. But no new atomic power stations have been fully licensed or have broken ground. And two newly proposed projects have just been shelved.

The fact is, nuclear power has not recovered from the crisis that hit it three decades ago with the reactor fire at Browns Ferry, Alabama, in 1975 and the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. Then came what seemed to be the coup de grĂ¢ce: Chernobyl in 1986. The last nuclear power plant ordered by a US utility, the TVA's Watts Bar 1, began construction in 1973 and took twenty-three years to complete. Nuclear power has been in steady decline worldwide since 1984, with almost as many plants canceled as completed since then.

All of which raises the question: why is the much-storied "nuclear renaissance" so slow to get rolling? Who is holding up the show? In a nutshell, blame Warren Buffett and the banks--they won't put up the cash.

"Wall street doesn't like nuclear power," says Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. The fundamental fact is that nuclear power is too expensive and risky to attract the necessary commercial investors. Even with vast government subsidies, it is difficult or almost impossible to get proper financing and insurance. The massive federal subsidies on offer will cover up to 80 percent of construction costs of several nuclear power plants in addition to generous production tax credits, as well as risk insurance. But consider this: the average two-reactor nuclear power plant is estimated to cost $10 billion to $18 billion to build. That's before cost overruns, and no US nuclear power plant has ever been delivered on time or on budget.

As Dieter Helm, an Oxford professor and leading economic expert on energy markets, has found, there never has been and never will be a nuclear power program totally dependent on the market.

Sixty years ago, the technology was swathed in manic space-age optimism--its electricity was going to be "too cheap to meter." While that wasn't true, nuclear power did serve a key role in the cold war: spent nuclear fuel rods are refined for weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium. That fact aside, rarely has so much money, scientific know-how and raw state power been marshaled to achieve so little. By some estimates, an investment of several hundred billion dollars has led to a US nuke industry of 104 operating plants--about a quarter of the global total--that produces a mere 19 percent of our electricity.

In fact, the sputtering decline of nuclear power has been one of the greatest industrial failures of modern times. In 1985 Forbes called the nuke industry "the largest managerial disaster in history."

Atomic optimism run amok caused the largest municipal bond default in US history. In 1983 Washington Public Power Supply System abandoned three nuke plants in midconstruction. The projects were plagued by massive cost overruns--one infamous section of piping was reinstalled seventeen times, safety inspections were blatantly ignored, incompetent contractors were allowed to continue work and on and on. When the project finally died, unfinished costs had ballooned to $24 billion, and the utility walked away from $2.25 billion worth of bonds.

That project, like many others, drowned in the financial riptides of rising interest rates that were the central feature of the "Volcker recession" of the early '80s. (That was when Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker smashed inflation by jacking the Fed's interest rate from 8 percent in 1979 to more than 16 percent in 1982.) But nukes were also killed by the corruption and incompetence that so often plague large state projects, like Boston's Big Dig, the New Orleans levees, space-based weapons systems and Iraq's reconstruction.

Another reason atomic energy is so expensive is that its accidents are potentially catastrophic, and activists have forced utilities to build in costly double and triple safety systems. Right-wing champions of atom-smashing blame prohibitive costs on neurotic fears and unnecessary safety measures. They have a point in that safety is expensive, but safety is hardly excessive--details on that in a moment.

More important is the fact that nuclear fission is a mind-bogglingly complex process, a sublime, truly Promethean technology. Let's recall: it involves smashing a subatomic particle, a neutron, into an atom of uranium-235 to release energy and more neutrons, which then smash other atoms that release more energy and so on infinitely, except the whole process is controlled and used to boil water, which spins a turbine that generates electricity.

In this nether realm, where industry and science seek to reproduce a process akin to that which occurs inside the sun, even basic tasks--like moving the fuel rods, changing spare parts--become complicated, mechanized and expensive. Atom-smashing is to coal power, or a windmill, as a Formula One race-car engine is to the mechanics of a bicycle. Thus, it costs an enormous amount of money.

Worldwide, about twenty nuclear power plants are being built, but most are in Asia and Russia and are closely linked to nuclear weapons programs. Japan and France have large nuke programs, but both countries heavily subsidize their plants, use a single design and built their fleets not to make profits but to ensure some minimum strategic energy independence and, for France, to build an atomic arsenal.

Even if a society were ready to absorb the high costs of nuclear power, it hardly makes the most sense as a tool to quickly combat climate change. These plants take too long to build. A 2004 analysis in Science by Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, of Princeton University's Carbon Mitigation Initiative, estimates that achieving just one-seventh of the carbon reductions necessary to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at 500 parts per billion would require "building about 700 new 1,000-
megawatt nuclear plants around the world." That represents a huge wave of investment that few seem willing to undertake, and it would require decades to accomplish.

None of this has stopped the Bush Administration and Congress from channeling more money toward nukes. The current push to build nukes began in 2002, when the Administration launched its Nuclear Power 2010 program, which sought to spur construction of at least three major nuclear power plants. Then came the US Energy Policy Act of 2005, which offered three major forms of subsidy. New nuclear power plants could get production tax credits, federal loan guarantees and construction insurance against cost overruns and delays--together worth $18.5 billion.

The notion that nukes make sense and are the version of green preferred by grown-ups is being conjured by a slick PR campaign. The Nuclear Energy Institute--the industry's main trade group--has retained Hill and Knowlton to run a greenwashing campaign.

Part of their strategy involves an advocacy group with the grassroots-sounding name the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. At the center of the effort are former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman and former Greenpeace co-founder turned corporate shill Patrick Moore. (Moore is also a huge champion of GMO crops, which are notorious for impoverishing farmers in developing economies and using massive amounts of pesticides.) The industry also places ghostwritten op-eds under the bylines of scientists for hire.

All the major environmental groups oppose nuclear power. But the campaign is having some impact at the grassroots: the online environmental journal Grist found that 54 percent of its readers are ready to give atomic energy a second look; 59 percent of readers feel the same way. In other words, people who understand climate change are feeling downright desperate.

But even the Oz-like magic of corporate spin, public subsidies and presidential speechifying have their limits. In late December the man whose name is synonymous with sound money turned his back on nuclear power.

Warren Buffett's MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Company scrapped plans to build a plant in Payette, Idaho, because no matter how many times its managers ran the numbers (and they spent $13 million researching it), they found that it simply made no sense from an economic standpoint.

South Carolina Electric and Gas has also suspended its two planned reactors, citing costs as the key factor. But the company says, "We remain very upbeat about the future of nuclear power."

If a nuke plant breaks ground soon, it will likely be NRG Energy's double-reactor plant, set to be erected in South Texas. But that one has also been delayed.

The fact that new nukes make little economic sense does not mean that old nukes are not profitable. In fact, these nightmarishly complex radioactive boondoggles have recently been turned into cash cows. Utilities achieved this remarkable transformation the old-fashioned way--they used socialism.

Beginning in the 1990s, most American energy markets were deregulated one state, one region at a time. In the process many old utilities were broken up into different firms: some generated power, others sold it, still others handled transmission. One of the crucial details of deregulation was allowing utilities to pass on to rate payers the "stranded costs"--the outstanding mortgage payments of their nuclear power plants.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this occurred in California. In 1996 the State Assembly passed legislation--written by utility lobbyists--that allowed Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric to hold rates high as prices dropped nationally. The two utilities were on target to receive $28 billion over four years. This money would pay off the stranded costs of the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre atomic plants. Halfway through the deal the California power crisis hit and deregulation was put on hold--utilities were forced to stop selling off their assets, and third-party speculation in energy markets was halted. But the state floated bonds to mop up the remaining stranded costs.

Similar deals were struck across the country. Once unburdened of old debts, the nuke plants--now having relatively low overhead costs--became valuable assets. A new generation of firms began buying them up. By 2002 ten companies owned seventy of the nation's 104 reactors. Among the big players in this game are Exelon, Entergy and Dominion Resources.

Many of the old plants went for a song. A particularly disturbing example of this is Vermont Yankee, a thirty-five-year-old reactor purchased by Entergy seven years ago for a mere $180 million. That's about half the price it would cost to build an equal-sized coal plant or wind farm.

Now Entergy is trying to run the power station as hard and as long as possible. In 2006 it received approval to increase power output at the plant by 20 percent. This "uprate" means the plant operates with 20 percent more pressure, heat and flow. And in just one year it earned Entergy $100 million in profits. Over the last decade, almost all US nuclear power plants have received uprates, but few match Vermont Yankee's full-throttle, 120 percent capacity.

Just after the uprate, one of Vermont Yankee's twenty-two cooling towers collapsed. That's right--it crumbled and fell over. Entergy officials said the collapse "baffled" them. The plant's spokesman, Rob Williams, admitted that "our inspections were not effective enough." Reached by phone, Gregory Jaczko, a commissioner at the NRC, admitted that the collapse "didn't look good." But he went on to reassure the public that the plant is essentially safe.

Now Entergy is petitioning the NRC to extend its operating license so that it can run the old plant for twenty years longer than was intended. Nationally, forty-eight facilities have had their licenses extended. In fact, despite critics' arguments that aging plants pose serious dangers, no license renewal requests have ever been denied.

"The NRC falls all over itself to facilitate the industry," says Ray Shadis, a consultant who has worked for both environmental groups and on NRC panels and research projects. The Project on Government Oversight and other watchdog groups point to a revolving door between the commission's staff and the nuclear industry. To take just one example, in 2007 former commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield joined the Shaw Group after spending his last months on the commission pushing to ease restrictions for precisely the type of construction activities that were the Shaw Group's specialty.

Diana Sidebotham, an antinuclear activist in Putney, Vermont, twenty miles north of the Vermont Yankee plant, thinks Entergy and the NRC are courting disaster. In 1971 Sidebotham helped found the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, and she has been trying to shut down nuclear plants ever since. Her hillside farm looks out over the ridge lines of the Connecticut River Valley.

"One of these days a plant will blow," says Sidebotham, with just a touch of a genteel but steely New England accent. "And when it does, it will cause a great many deaths and widespread suffering, not to mention extraordinary economic damage."

Accidents do happen. In 2002 the Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant in Ohio was forced to close for two years after inspectors found a football-sized corrosion hole in the reactor's six-inch-thick steel cap. The plant was very close to a major accident. Repairs cost $600 million.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama says he opposes any more relicensing of old nuclear plants. His rival Hillary Clinton has stopped just short of saying that. However, as was reported by the New York Times, Obama has close ties to the nuclear industry, particularly the Illinois-based Exelon, which has contributed at least $227,000 to his campaigns. Two of his top advisers have links to the firm, including his chief strategist, David Axelrod, who was a consultant for Exelon. Obama voted yes on the 2005 Energy bill, which lavished subsidies on oil, coal, ethanol and nukes; Senator Clinton, like almost half the Senate Democrats, voted against it. The Obama campaign says that as President he would not cut nuclear subsidies, only that he would boost subsidies for green power.

Activists like Sidebotham say the real issue is not how to build more nukes but how to handle the old, decrepit plants and their huge stockpiles of radioactive waste. Most of the atomic plants in this country are reaching the end of their life span; seventeen have been decommissioned. And increasingly the question is what to do with the accumulated waste--the extremely radioactive spent fuel rods. This is dangerous stuff. If exposed to air for more than six hours, spent fuel rods spontaneously combust, spewing highly poisonous radioactive isotopes far and wide. This spent fuel will be hot for 10,000 years.

Since 1978 the Energy Department has been studying Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a possible permanent repository for atomic waste. But intense opposition has held up those efforts. In the meantime, the partially burned uranium is stored at the old power plants, in pools of water called "spent fuel pools." Lying near great cities, on crucial river systems, in small rural towns, these pools are potentially a far greater risk than a reactor meltdown. Scenarios for how terrorists might attack and drain them range from driving a truck bomb to crashing an explosive-laden plane into them.

Just after 9/11, when security at nuke plants was supposed to be high, lead pellets started raining down on the containment structure and guard shack at Maine Yankee, in Wiscasset. (The plant has since been decommissioned.) A group of four men in camouflage, armed and intent on killing, had infiltrated into a swamp and were firing weapons from somewhere in the reeds. This "cell" turned out to be four local duck hunters who had no idea they were hitting the power plant.

Their foray against innocent mallards proved just how easy an attack could be. Activists demanded, and got, a safety review, which led to a shockingly blunt NRC document called "Report on Spent Fuel Pool Accident Risk," or NUREG-1738. The report found that containment structures, such as that at Vermont Yankee, "present no substantial obstacle to aircraft penetration." According to the NRC, a fire in the spent fuel pool at a reactor like Vermont Yankee (which stores 488 metric tons of spent fuel) would cause 25,000 fatalities over a distance of 500 miles if evacuation was 95 percent effective. But that evacuation rate would be almost impossible to achieve. The NRC claims to have the threat of terrorism under control, but for reasons of national security it can't explain how. And after 9/11 it admitted, "At this time, we could not exclude the possibility that a jetliner flying into a containment structure could damage the facility and cause a release of radiation that could impact public health."

Humanity's Faustian bargain with atomic power is a story still in its early stages. No one knows how long nuclear facilities will last or what will happen to them during future social upheavals--and there are bound to be a few of those during the next 10,000 years.

This much seems clear: a handful of firms might soak up huge federal subsidies and build one or two overpriced plants. While a new administration might tighten regulations, public safety will continue to be menaced by problems at new as well as older plants. But there will be no massive nuclear renaissance. Talk of such a renaissance, however, helps keep people distracted, their minds off the real project of developing wind, solar, geothermal and tidal kinetics to build a green power grid."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

On the Impact of "Urban Planning Research: NPR Report on Environmental Action in Old Cairo by UCLA's Culhane" by UCLA Professor Randall Crane

(UCLA professor Randy Crane, who for years has been teaching his Global Environment classes about the Zabaleen Recycling community, brought his students to Egypt in 2006, and gave his approval to his advisee, Thomas Henry Culhane, to work with Hanna Fathy's Zabaleen community as part of his Ph.D.

As a result of this institutional support,
when T.H. wrote and won a US AID small infrastructure grant as the "Ph-Do" part of his Ph.D., Hanna Fathy was hired to be "green-collar job coordinator" and "solar hot water system construction trainer" in the Solar CITIES project. Hanna is shown below with T.H. at a dinner at the Marriot hotel with the National Public Radio team, Liane Hansen, Davar Ardalan and Ned Wharton.

On the impact of "Urban Planning Research: NPR Report on Environmental Action in Old Cairo by UCLA's Culhane" by UCLA Professor Randall Crane: What it has done for us in Egypt

Today we got great news from our Solar CITIES green-collar jobs coordinator and solar energy trainer, Hanna Fathy:

"hi thomas
congratulations , the agha khan foundation agreed to continue the project and i will start working tomorrow; i just called amira and she said they say ok for all the systems and they have chosen new places. we almost finished another two systems -- one in the church and one in Maarof 's home. there are many boys want to work with me! oh there are also many people sending me emails and offering to help with money -- do you think that's a fact or no? i cant believe it! did you contact sharon and cicel (of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, who visited Hanna recently)? i want to know what their opinion is!
bye Hanna"

After a month of uncertainty, wondering if the project would move forward due to the snags I reported earlier, it seems all is well in the city of the sun.

Al Hamdu Li'Allah!

God be praised!

Evidently Hanna is excited and happy, as are the young people from Roh El Shabab who are in this fledgling environmental technology training program.

As Solar CITIES' co-founder, I would like to thank all those of you who followed our story on National Public Radio and have been following our posts on this blog and on T.H. Culhane's and Andy Posner's and James Dean Conklin's and Marcel Lenormand's Youtube Channels, and I would particularly like to thank those of you who so kindly wrote letters of support for our project to bring "a million solar roofs" to the slums and informal communities of Cairo.

Whatever combination of professional media exposure, grass-roots internet information sharing and on the ground community advocacy made this latest success occur, it is testimony to the way that we, as a global community of stakeholders can all work together to support step by step hands-on efforts to tackle climate change, poverty and environmental degradation.

I most especially have to thank my Urban Planning Thesis Advisor, Dr. Randall Crane, for getting this whole thing started. He has been a pioneer in using the power of the blogosphere as a medium for academic and public exchanges about how to tackle difficult planning problems, and without him our on the ground efforts would never trickle up, out and back down, bearing such gifts. (Yes Hanna, I think the offers of financial help for the project are a fact -- people around the world are very generous, and when they find projects they like and people they feel they can trust, they like to pitch in and they like to make meaningful investments in securing a better future for all of us. As Hernando De Soto points out in "The Mystery of Capital", what poor communities like yours need most is often simply to be connected to the rest of the world and all the good people in it. The blog "Urban Planning Research" helped that happen!)

How did it happen, you ask?

To paraphrase Urban Planning Research: The version of this story I like best is the same one my Professor and Thesis Advisor Randall Crane likes best: that a National Public Radio producer saw Dr. Crane's blog posts (Egypt's Zabaleen & Competing Visions of Privatization, Cairo Itinerary, & Medieval Inner-City Redevelopment) describing the UCLA class trip to "old Cairo" in 2006 that Sybille and I hosted, and that connections were made over the past few months that eventually led to the NPR reporter Liane Hansen visiting Solar CITIES' operation in the flesh, resulting in these two reports from two recent NPR "weekend editions," as part of their "Climate Connections: Solutions" series.

In Cairo Slum, the Poor Spark Environmental Change (27 April 2008)

Slow but Sure Environmental Progress in Cairo (4 May 2008)
(Davar Ardalan, Egyptian journalist Sara Abu-Bakr, Laine Hansen, Ned Wharton, Hanna and Moussa on the old Ayyubid Wall between Al Azhar Park and Darb Al Ahmar, looking at one of the Solar Hot Water systems Hanna and Moussa have just finished building)

Producers Davar Ardalan and Ned Wharton and reporter Liane Hansen (who has a following of many millions and has been doing great investigative journalism, telling it like it is for several decades) did such a good job of getting the story of what Dr. Crane's spirited graduate student and his wife are doing, living and working in the ghettoes of Cairo, that people are now connecting with us on a regular basis and suggesting ways we can make this nascent little program grow to its proper stature.

That's the true version of the story.

(The only other version of the story I know is the one where the UFOs we saw on the Alexandria Desert road that night during the UCLA trip to Cairo (from the window of the tour bus, with all Randy's grad students, when we were returning from witnessing the solar eclipse at the famous Library of Alexandria, ) later visited Washington DC and UCLA, abducted Liane Hansen and my professor and revealed that there is a cosmic battle going on between the Reptoids (who want to terraform the earth for their invasion using global warming) and the Grays (who want to help humanity by encouraging the work of UCLA graduate students who investigate energy and water issues in Africa that could help us prevent climate change under Randy's tutelage).

(I think I read that version on Whitley Streiber's journal blog, but I may have had parts of my memory erased and reprogrammed. I think there was also something about Charlie Sheen being involved (playing Professor Crane in the movie version?) but everything is still fuzzy... )

Whatever the truth is, we are grateful for the way things worked out. Who knows - given what happened last time, Dr. Crane's latest post could spawn even more such Amazing Stories (and Science Wonder Stories and Fantastic Adventures Quarterly!), and quickly put an end to climate change and to the use of fossil fuels and to poverty in the middle east... (well... er... at least we can use our program to help reduce domestic consumption so that Egypt can finally eliminate its economy crippling energy subsidies with out adversely impacting the urban poor, and can export its gas and electricity at full market price to bring much needed hard currency into the country!)

But seriously, Solar CITIES has Dr. Crane to thank for putting the whole NPR thing in motion, and for plugging the "Ph.-do" work of his peripatetic Ph.D. advisee, Solar CITIES co-founder T.H. Culhane on his blog.

(Hanna and his brother Ayman work in the Aga Khan woodshop with Solar CITIES colleague, Darb Al Ahmar carpenter trainer Mustafa Hussein on a method Mustafa invented using heavy C clamps to fit the aluminum absorber plates to the copper pipes for their hand-made solar hot water systems. With Mustafa's innovation, what used to take 5 to 10 minutes per sheet can now be done in 1 to 2 minutes per sheet. Mustafa hopes that donors will help them purchase their own table and C clamps so they don't have to work off-hours when the AKTC woodshop is empty).

And it is not just about the satisfaction of being recognized for the mostly unsung labor of love that goes into researching a meaningful Ph.D. that involves living among the urban poor of a developing country and pitching in to help improve their environment and education. It's about putting praxis into practice -- it's about proving the theories we study in our erstwhile ivory towers so that urban planning research moves out of the classroom and into the places its conclusions and policy recommendations are so desperately needed.

For that, we have much to thank Professor Crane and the faculty of UCLA's Urban Planning program for, for being faculty who didn't just teach us about UCLA emeritus professor John Friedman's 1987 book "Planning in the Public Domain: From Knowledge to Action", but encouraged students like us to take that most difficult step -- to boldly go where most students fear to tread -- from Real Knowledge to real Action in the real World!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Solar CITIES Side Show Slide Show: Putting flickr on your blog...

We just added a widget to our blog, which you can see if you look to the sidebar: it's blogspot's new "slide show" feature. So now you can take a photographic tour of the Solar CITIES project without having to scroll through all our posts. Everything is geocoded too, through Flickr, so you can view each photograph in context, taking a virtual Solar CITIES tour!

Good times!

Questions from students:

Q: Hey that's nifty-tricks-up-yer-sleeves-coolo, moyne droog, but whaff I wanna do the same thingamadjigy on moynown blog?

A: No problemo! Because it took some web searching to figure out how to do it, and, as students on a deadline (and a mission!) , we know that the opportunity costs of every hour spent researching something other than things related to your dissertation topic are exorbitant (especially when you are unemployed, are trying to finish your Ph.D. (or climb some other step up your personal "license to live" ladder), and, as we are , expecting the stork to arrive in less than a month!), I want to save you the time I lost, so I can at least feel I'm "passing the torch" and helping increase the marginal revenue product per capita. Er... yeah.

So, to engage in some "information cost reduction" here is a quick summary of the procedure, in case you want to share a slide show on your blog:

1) From your Flickr home page: Click on " Organize" and create a "Set" of the photographs you want to put into your slideshow.

2) When you have added all the pictures to the set you are going to use, click on "Your Photostream" in the top right, and when that page loads, click on the icon of the set that appears on the right side of the page.

3) Scroll to the bottom of the page where it says (in our case) "Subscribe to a feed of stuff on this page... Feed – Subscribe to the set "Cairo Solar CITIES project"

4) Right click on the little orange RSS feed icon (or the word "Feed") and choose "copy link address" to put it in your memory buffer.

5) Paste the link address somewhere (notepad would be fine). In my case it looks like this:

Looks confusing, but let's examine it more closely. Do you see that within that mess of letters and numbers it says "id"? That is your user id! Here, I'll highlight it so you can see it better:

Notice the part I've highlighted in red after the &nsid= which I've put in green? The green part says "&nsid=". It is telling you that what follows is your user ID. Look at the red part I've highlighted,. That is the USER ID for my flickr feed.Yours will have different numbers, but the same format. So you are going to copy that part into your memory buffer:


6) Select the numbers after the = and before the @, along with the @and the Letter and the two numbers after it. In my case it is "26520258@N07"

Now you are ready to paste this into your blogspot widget.

7) In your blogspot settings: Go to Layout.

In layout click on "Add Page Element"

8) When the window opens (see the picture above) , select "Flickr" as your source, and under options select "User". For user name, paste in the Id I showed you above.

Save changes and voila, you are done!

Note that in our Solar CITIES side show slide show we have geocoded each picture so that you can go into a googleearth type map to see where the picture was taken. That should help you get a feel for the Solar CITIES Cairo project and help you plan a Solar CITIES tour, if you want to visit our green collar jobs team. (Flickr uses Yahoo's map, which is older, and shows Al Azhar Park BEFORE it was finished; see above!)

We hope this new slideshow feature will enable all of you fellow bloggers to join us in getting all of your Solar CITIES images out there, showing just how many citizens and cities are going solar, proving that green cities are the future of urbanization, and that we aren't condemned to living on a "planet of slums".

The choice is ours...