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Hot, Flat, Crowded, and Taxed October 12, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, climate, energy efficiency, sustainability, taxes, weird.
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One of my favorite parts of my temporary new job is the commute. It’s between 30 and 40 minutes each way, but all on public transportation. This not only gives me the moral authority to browbeat people about their energy consumption—I’m not part of the problem! I use public transportation! My carbon footprint is only 12 times that of an average Indian, not 14 times!—it also gives me time to read in relative peace and while I am more or less awake. In fact, I am somewhat surprised by the relatively small number of people that read on the Metro. On any given day, I would say that fewer than 20% of the people on the Metro are reading, and most of those are reading that free magazine you can get as you come into the station. What are the other 80% doing? 20% are texting. 20% are listening to iPods. 20% are staring blankly into space. 19% staring blankly into space, listening to their iPods, texting in one hand, and holding the Metro newspaper in the other. 1% are trying to extricate themselves from the Metro doors.

The first book I read entirely on the Metro was Tom Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” I won’t rehash Friedman’s thesis—the best thing America can do for itself and the world is to go seriously Green—Friedman does that just fine. I did want to say three things about the book though. First, I love that the cover is sampled from “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch. Look no further than GoED for proof that they had very good psychotropes even in the 15th century! With publishing margins as slim as they are these days—although perhaps not for bankable stars like Friedman—why pay for cover art? Sample a renaissance painting for free!

Second, one of the things that struck me about “World Is Flat”—HF&C’s predecessor—was Friedman’s own itinerary. Bangalore. Shanghai. Doha. Copenhagen. Sao Paolo. Back to Bangalore. The most frequent refrain in WiF is “I just kept on moving.” Readers of Philly Bluejay know how I feel about business air travel. Friedman may fly more than any person on the planet! This was bad in an absolute sense but not hypocritical in the context of the book—WiF is about globalization. But HF&C is about climate and the Energy Era and yet the itinerary is similar. London. Mumbai. Dalian. Multiple visits to every continent except for Antarctica. I hope Mr. Friedman purchased carbon offsets for all of those air miles! Now, if you will excuse me, I have to fly to San Francisco. For business. Tom, I kid because I love. And because I am a hypocrite.

Third and finally, I want to elaborate on Friedman’s point about the necessity of a carbon tax. One of Friedman’s sub-points is that a clean energy revolution will never truly take off without a clear, loud, consistent and projectable price signal on carbon. The market will not move away from carbon—at least not efficiently and at scale—unless they know what staying with carbon will cost and unless that price is sufficiently high. Short of privatizing the atmosphere, the fastest way to create this signal is by government regulation. And here he advocates a carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Friedman views cap-and-trade as a kind of “hidden ball” trick—a way for the government to limit emissions in a way that does not result in direct costs for consumers or a direct trail of money back to itself. In a perfect world, the government hands out emissions credits, electric utilities buy and sell them amongst themselves and customers don’t see increased rates, and when they do, they don’t see that money going to the government. Friedman claims that this kind of shenanigan hides the true urgency of the problem from people—people are not going to change their habits unless they see how their actions translate directly into costs. I agree. Wholeheartedly. But I think that a better and more accurate way to state this problem is that a cap-and-trade system isn’t an effective price signaling mechanism because it doesn’t behave like a traditional price!

A price is a constant. The price of the first unit of is the price of the millionth unit. With a price, cost is always proportional to consumption and you can safely map out the future. Not so with cap-and-trade. With cap-and-trade, the price of a unit purchased under the cap is far less—perhaps infinitely less—than that of a unit purchased over the cap. And whether a unit is over or under depends on overall demand, not on your demand. Which system do you reckon would be more conducive to economic growth? “Neither” is not an option!

Meanwhile, the real commodity here is not electricity—or even coal—it’s CO2. It’s easy enough to create a cap-and-trade system for coal or electricity. A CO2-emissions-from-coal exchange would consist of a relatively small number of individually large participants. A cap-and-trade makes some sense in this case. But oil companies do not operate like utilities and so the CO2-emissions-from-gasoline effectively consists of millions of small participants. Cap-and-trade is logistically much more difficult here! And remember, if cap-and-trade were a true pricing mechanism than it would be possible to trade gasoline emissions for electricity emissions. Anything short of a holistic economy-wide cap-and-trade will effectively create a market distortion, effectively subsidizing uncapped sources of emissions at the expense of capped ones. Market distortion—specifically, implicit subsidies for carbon emissions—is how we got ourselves in this mess to begin with!

Perhaps Tom and I can discuss these points en route to Sacramento. Or maybe at the checkout counter at the Whole Foods on River Road. Tom, Text me!

P.S. The cover art of HF&C contains several images from the Paradise and Earth panels of GoED, but none—as far as I can tell—from the Hell panel. Was this intentional? A better cover would have had a sample from “Paradise” on top and “Hell” on the bottom. No?

P.P.S. Another suitable cover for HF&C—although not renaissance and likely not royalty free either—would have been a pair of paintings by neo-Bosch Salvador Dali. Butterfly windmills on top and that-painting-with-a-giraffe-on-fire-which-I-swear-is-by-Dali-but-I-can’t-find-a-link-for-so-now-I-don’t-know on the bottom.

P.P.P.S. Wonder if the Taliban puts this on their recruiting posters.

P.P.P.P.S. If you drop something on an escalator, never shoot your hand down to try to catch it while it’s falling. I’m just saying.

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Little Additional Threat August 8, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, energy efficiency, environment, sustainability.
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There are many scary things about the Deepthroat Horizon disaster. Safety procedures on offshore platforms? Frightening. The overly cozy relationship between “regulators” and the oil industry? Terrifying. 190,000,000 gallons spilled—between 9 and 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill? Mind-boggling. Future prospects for Gulf communities? Cover-your-eyes awful. But the scariest thing about it? It might be over soon.

The static kill procedure seems to be working—no more sexy videos of the gushing leak! Two relief wells will be finished soon. One quarter of the oil that spilled has been skimmed. Another quarter and change has simply disappeared—presumably evaporated. And the remaining 90,000,000 gallons that remain at large—about half of which has been “dispersed” either chemically or by natural water churn— poses “little additional threat.” Little additional threat? Phew. What a relief (well). Game over. Good night. Drive—literally—home safely. Thank G-d we didn’t pass any knee-jerk clean energy bill! Now we can get back to talking about the Iraq withdrawal/unemployment/Charlie Rangel/Brett Favre/Ellen DeGeneres.

Of all the jargon and soundbytes that Deepthroat has given us—top kill, stacked cap—”little additional threat” may be the most sinister. It’s the soothing background to the 20,000,000,000 dollar escrow account, Tony Hayward’s resignation, and the reorganization of the MMS. It’s the lullaby that finally puts us to sleep after four months of building Deepthroat fatigue. We’re tired of thinking about it—too depressing. The media is tired of talking about it—no new angles. “Little additional threat” makes it okay to move on. But is it?

31 years later, Prince William Sound has still not fully recovered from the Exxon Valdez. And Deepthroat spilled at least ten times as much! How exactly can anyone claim that 40,000,000 gallons of oil floating around the Gulf is a non-threat? And what exactly makes “dispersed” oil harmless? From what I understand, “dispersed” means broken up into tiny droplets. Did you know that plastic in the ocean becomes really harmful only after it’s broken down into tiny pellets? Because that’s when small fish can eat it and start pushing it up the food chain! Fish don’t eat plastic cups and rubber ducks and sneakers! They eat tiny pieces of orange and red plastic that look like krill. Fish are not going to get near beachball sized orange globs, but they will get near—and probably try to eat—little orange droplets of oil and dish soap! I’m sure “little additional threat” makes every Gulf resident who earns a living from the water feel so relieved! Who knows, maybe Joe Barton can get the 20,000,000,000 dollar “shakedown” reduced to 5,000,000,000!

The bigger disappointment is that the swell of clean-energy sentiment seems to have crested and crashed with no real long term effect—an energy bill with real teeth! There is nothing sadder than opportunity lost. And with “little additional threat” and the midterms coming, I smell a Republican backlash against clean energy and for the oil industry? After all, “even the worst offshore drilling accident in the history of the world didn’t turn out to be such a big deal!” [Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, Gingrich Oct. 2010]

But here is a way to think about Deepthroat and clean-energy/energy-efficiency going forward—this is courtesy of energysavvy.com via Lane Burt@switchboard.nrdc.org. I am going to redo their math, because it doesn’t seem quite right to me, but even the much more conservative numbers I come up with are compelling enough. The average American home (AAH®) uses 11,000 kWh annually. Let’s say that an energy efficient home uses 8,000 kWh. That’s a 27% improvement—not drastic, and certainly not “zero-energy.” So an AAH wastes about 3,000 kWh a year which works to about 200 gallons of oil—one gallon of oil will get you about 15 kWh of electricity. So 1,000,000 AAHs waste about the same amount of oil a year as Deepthroat spilled—that’s 1% of all AAHs as there are about 100,000,000 of those. Now, let’s say that making an AAH energy-efficient costs 20,000 dollars. Making 1,000,000 AAHs energy-efficient would cost 20,000,000,000 dollars—that’s the same amount of money as in the BP disaster relief account. Suppose BP set aside this money to retrofit AAHs rather than to pay for cleanup/relief/compensation. That one time investment would effectively save the equivalent of one Deepthroat spill—every year in perpetuity! It would also save EEAAH owners 1,000,000,000 dollars in energy costs a year—essentially paying for itself within 20 years. Without the environmental/stock-price/public-relations damage. And no additional threat.

P.S. Summer-of-Brett 5.1. The increasingly-pathetic-looking-yet-in-reality-perfectly-rational Minnesota Vikings increase Brett Favre’s 2010 salary from 13,000,000 to 16,000,000 plus 4,000,000 in “achievable bonuses”—that’s right, kids, 1,000,000 dollars per game! Undoubtedly pleased by this sycophantic plea, Brett announces that he is “still undecided,” that he “wants to play health permitting,” and that “this isn’t about the money.” Of course it’s not about the money, it’s about the incessant ass-kissing! Or maybe its about the sexting.

P.P.S. Summer-of-Alex 6.0! In case you haven’t heard, Alex Rodriguez—aka ARod aka ARoid aka AHole—hit his 600th career home run yesterday, joining Barry “Bobblehead” Bonds, Henry “Hank” Aaron, George “Babe” Ruth, Willie “Willie” Mays, Sammy “JackO” Sosa, and Ken “Junior” Griffey. Despite its apparent magnitude, the accomplishment was met with a collective yawn. Here is a nice piece about the milestone by ESPN’s Rob Neyer. The picture in particular is fantastic.

P.P.P.S. Fringe with a better actress.

P.P.P.P.S. SPOILER ALERT! A question for people who have seen “Inception” and “Dreamscape“—a mid-80’s less sophisticated Inception with Dennis Quaid and Kate Capshaw. Anyways, in Inception, if you die in a dream, you wake up. In Dreamscape if you die in a dream, you die in real life. So which is it?

P.P.P.P.P.S. I’m sorry I missed your birthday, POTUS BO! This would never have happened if we were Facebook friends!

The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief June 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in Africa, books, China, clean energy, climate, economy, energy efficiency, environment, society, sustainability, transportation, water efficiency.
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I just finished Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. It’s an account of what we’ve already managed to do to the planet (just frightening when you stop and take stock), what changes we are already locked into (nauseating), and how we can cope with this new planet (alternatingly depressing and ispirational). It’s called “Eaarth” because it describes a planet substantially different than Earth. Personally, I would have named the book “Eartch”. First, it’s Earth + c. Get it? If not, never mind. Second, Eartch sounds like vomit whereas Eaarth just sounds—or at least looks—Dutch. Then again, if anyone knows something about living with climate change and dealing with a rising sea, it’s the Dutch. I still prefer Eartch, though. If there is one talent I have it’s naming things. Whether it’s giving people nicknames. Putting a name on a project. You name it. Actually, I name it. Bill, you should have consulted me!

A few things about McKibben. First, he looks remarkably like someone I used to know—Boyd Multerer, who’s now the GM of Xbox Live. Second, he—is—almost—as—fond—of—m-dashes—as—I—am. —. Third, he uses colloquial phraseology like “Whatever, dude!” and “get real.” Fourth, he pokes fun of Tom Friedman in a loving kind of way. Which is great. Famous people need to rib each other more in print in this way. Just so they don’t start taking themselves too seriously. One of my fears is that I will not be famous enough for someone to rib me in print. That’s actually my third biggest fear—right behind climate change and alligators. The really great thing about McKibben poking fun at Friedman is that he is a lot like Friedman. Except that he is primarily an environmentalist rather than foreign affairs journalist. And he lives in a small town in Vermont rather than in an 11,000 sq. ft. house in Washington, DC. And he doesn’t have an awesome moustache. Now that the NFL draft is over, McKibben may take a spot on Mt. Crushmore, alongside Gregg Easterbrook, my mother, and POTUS BO. Tom Friedman can be Crazy Horse.

Onto Eartch. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and read it. There is no excuse not to. It’s not very long, you’ll finish it in a few days. If you don’t have a copy and don’t want to buy one—good for you for repressing your consumerist instincts—I will lend you mine. If you don’t know how to read, have someone who does read it to you. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t like what this book has to say. But it will change the way you think. And maybe the way you live too.

So what is it that makes this book different than other climate change books? Basically, it has a different—and sadly much more realistic and grounded—arc. It doesn’t paint some speculative dystopian future, and then turn around and say “if we all stop driving right now, we can stop short of the cliff.” The basic message is that there is literally no way to avoid going off the cliff at this point. Society as a whole—and Western society specifically—is going to end up in a lower place than it was. What we do from here on and how quickly we do it will determine how low we go and how gentle the decline. It’s a bitter message, but it’s strangely reassuring. It feels like the fifth stage of grief.

Let’s start with denial. Americans tend to discount climate change because few of the extreme weather events that are its supposed signatures have happened in the U.S. And if it doesn’t happen in the U.S., it doesn’t actually happen. But stuff like this does happen. On a fairly regular basis these days. Eartch doesn’t prognosticate or speculate. It mostly talks about things that have already happened or are currently happening. There is no need to extrapolate or at least not to extrapolate very far. What’s currently happening is bad enough. And the worst thing about it is its unpredictability. Society is largely built on predictability. No predictability, no society as we currently know it.

If there is something to be angry about right now it’s that we’ve wasted the last 30 years. 31 years ago, POTUS Jimmy Carter delivered his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he laid out his vision for America’s—and the world’s—energy and environment future. No more dependence on foreign oil. Alternative fuels. Conservation. Personal responsibility. Coal. The speech was delivered from the Oval Office, a few dozen feet underneath the White House solar panels. We should’ve listened then. We didn’t want to hear any of it. 18 months later it was “Morning in America.” The solar panels came down. Everything was de-regulated and we started off on a 30 year oil-fueled growth bubble that only exploded 18 months ago. Our last good chance to avoid the cliff was 1980. There is no avoiding it now.

Bargaining. Good luck with this one. To quote Leonard Nimoy on “Fringe”: “physics is a bitch.” And it’s not the only one. Chemistry and biology are too. For a long time, the accepted “safe” level for atmospheric CO2—”safe” meaning supporting stable hydrological cycles that bear some resemblance to the current cycles—was 450ppm. Guess what? That number is actually closer to 350ppm. And guess what else? The current concentration is over 390ppm and even stopping it at 450ppm is going to be extremely. On second thought, I think we are going to have to skip this stage and go right to depression.

There is a lot to be depressed about. Climate change means the end of stability and the likely end of meaningful economic growth as we’ve known it. The social pyramid scheme which is economic growth has gotten too top heavy and the earth is collapsing under its weight. The end of economic growth means a reduced aggregate standard of living as we have come to define it. Fewer choices. Fewer material possessions. Less mobility. If there is any justice in the world—and that’s a big if—Western standards for these will need to drop substantially if those for developing countries are to rise to humane levels. We need to accept this.

Acceptance is a strangely liberating thing. Would a society in which we consume fewer resources and have fewer material possessions as a result be a bad society? Would a society in which we traveled less, lived a more local life, be a bad society? Would a society in which some aspects of globalization were reversed and some of our choices were limited by our geographical location be a bad society? Would a society without substantial economic growth, half of which benefits the top 1% anyways, be a bad society? To para-quote Po Bronson, “Freedom is not having unlimited means. Freedom is the knowledge that you can live whatever your means.” We need to re-calibrate our mindset. To redefine success—you know what they say, “If at first you don’t succeed.” We need to redefine prosperity and progress as something other than economic growth. If we do that, it will be easier, mentally, to buckle down and get to the enormous task at hand. And maybe if we do that, we will have Eaarth rather than Eartch.

Thanks Bill.

P.S. How stupid do you have to be to take out a loan at an 85% annual interest rate? Full credit if you answered Eddy Curry. Partial credit if you answered Antoine Walker.

P.P.S. Another Bluejay sighting. But this one wasn’t in Philly. It was in Columbus Circle in DC.

Rouge, Rally, Roundtable, and Ralph May 2, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, economy, energy efficiency.
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Regular readers of Bluejay—yes mom, I’m talking to you—may have noticed a break in the usual post-per-day or two-posts-every-three-days routine. It isn’t blogging fatigue. At least not on my part. Although I suspect my readers—yes mom, you again—are getting somewhat fatigued reading everything that comes from my brain, through my fingers, and to WordPress. To quote the immortal Lenny Dykstra “Reading tires the batting eye.”

So after a ten-day break, Bluejay is back. With a somewhat different sort of post. Bluejay is not “personal” blog a la Twitter or Facebook status update stream. I haven’t use it to report on daily activities and don’t plan on doing so going forward. Bluejay is a dumping ground for rants, diatribes, and other commentary, a chance for me to practice non-technical writing, and a form of release. But I am taking a Twitter-like detour to talk about “how I spent some of my Bluejay vacation.”

Mrs. Bluejay and I spent last weekend and Monday in our nation’s capital. Say what you will about what goes on inside the various buildings of Washington, DC, but the buildings themselves are beautiful. The wide sidewalks and the metro make getting around without a car pleasant. And the radial state-named avenues that occasionally give you glimpses of the Capitol are a nice touch too.

We stayed at the Hotel Rouge, one of the Kimpton eco-friendly hotels. Eco-friendly may make it sound like the rooms are lit by candle and the toilet-paper is yesterday’s Washington Post. But Rouge has electricity, soft toilet paper, complementary wi-fi for Kimpton network members. The only discernable eco-friendly members are somewhat dimly lit hallways and a parking discount for hybrids. Woot! Rouge is optimally located a few blocks off of Dupont Circle and one block down 16th from the embassy of Kazakhstan. Chenqui! Next time you travel, please consider staying at a Kimpton hotel. And please be sure to mention Philly Bluejay.

On Sunday, Mrs. Bluejay and I attended the Climate Rally on the National Mall. The epicenter was a concert stage featuring pep talks by various environmental celebrities and occasional music. The headliner was Sting but we were already back at Rouge by the time he showed up. The rally was not heavily attended while we were there, with nearly a 1:1 ratio of porta-johnny’s to ralliers. The most notable attendees were two women standing naked in a wrap-around shower as part of a PETA display, another man dressed as a polar bear, and two Navi on stilts. Many people walked around with “Kill Vampires” stickers and it took some time before we realized that the stickers were referring to vampire currents which electronics draw even when purportedly “off.” The most interesting part of the rally was the EPA P3 competition tent in which groups from different universities presented Phase I results of their green research projects and competed for Phase II funding. Most of the projects were directed at developing countries and involved gravity only water purification and treatment, or low-tech production of methane—not for release into the atmosphere, for capture and use in cooking and heating as an alternative to wood—using anaerobic digestion from various forms of biomass. Apparently, a mixture of cow and goat dung is especially productive. Who knew! I asked the presenters about adding human excrement to the mixture. They hemmed and hawed and then said that a group at a different university was looking at this. Ha! I wonder whether either group won Phase II funding.

On Monday, I attended a symposium on energy-efficiency organized by the ACEEE. The symposium was held at the University of California, Washington Center—ummm, yes—serendipitiously on the other side of the circle from Rouge. There were talks by Robert Ayres, Marylin Brown, Tom Casten, and several other energy-efficiency notables as well as a panel discussion involving representatives from ARM, Dow Chemical, and Verizon. Did you know that Dow consumes as much petroleum annually—both for energy and for stock—as Kuwait produces? You do now. Every other presentation had the McKinsey mid-range greenhouse gas abatement graphic on it. And I think I was the only one in the room who hadn’t read the actual report. I’m doing it now, by the way. If you look at this grahpic, the most striking thing about it is the “residential lighting” bar, ostensibly referring to CFLs but maybe also to LEDs. People, if we all replaced conventional incandescent bulbs with CFLs, we could save about 100,000,000 tons of CO2 per year at an average cost of -90USD per ton or -9,000,000,000USD. That’s right. We would save 100 millions tons of CO2 and9 billion dollars. Why is this potential still left on the table? Don’t tell me it’s because of mercury. Coal-fired power plants produce more mercury than in all the CFLs that will ever be made. And if you have small children and are afraid that they will break a bulb and drink the mercury out of it, buy LED lighting instead! Anyway, the symposium and many of the attendees I met were both quite interesting.

As it turns out, the event following the ACEEE symposium at the University of California, Washington Center was a book signing by Ralph Nader. And so I met the man and got a signed copy of “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” I didn’t mention that I am still somewhat bitter about the 2000 election. Although in fairness, aside from that debacle, Ralph has been using his powers for good. Mrs. Bluejay—who was off to her own machinations for the day—was jealous. Jeez, it’s not like a got a signed book from Patti Stanger!

P.S. Speaking of blogging as release. Having seen Randy Pausch’s blog, (here is the last lecture if you haven’t seen it), followed the slow death of a husband of an acquaintance through her blog (I can’t find it anymore, I think she took it down), and now reading about this woman’s journey/blog, I am coming to the conclusion that blogging—if nothing else—may be the best way of coming to terms with terminal illness.

P.P.S. Offshore windmills may ruin vistas and kill many birds, especially if placed along migration routes, but they will not ruin as many vistas or kill as many birds as British Petroleum. As if Louisiana hasn’t been through enough.

P.P.P.S. I’m sorry, what’s wrong with these austerity measures? Especially, when the alternative is being picked up at auction by China?

Scaling Up North Carolina April 9, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, energy efficiency, politics, society, sustainability, transportation.
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North Carolina is a brilliant state. One all states should strive to emulate. They have Duke. They have a mini-Silicon valley. They have NASCAR giant deep-fried turkey legs. They sent noted racist and segregationist Jesse Helms, who once held a 16-day filibuster to stop the institution of the federal MLK holiday, to the US Senate for five terms. Now they are sending Kay Hagan, a Democrat! A red state turned blue! Also, I have many friends who live down there. And did I mention the giant deep-fried turkey legs and greased pig races?

One of the things we can learn from NC is how to better utilize resources, specifically by time-multiplexing them in extreme and novel ways. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle area is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Roughly 20 people move to the area every day. One of the results is that schools are overflowing and the county can’t build new ones fast enough to meet the growing demand. Their solution? Cut the school year into continuous 12-week chunks. Kids go to school for nine weeks and then have a three-week break. Now chop up the classes into four and rotate such that at any time only three-quarters of the kids are going to school. The overcrowding problem is solved or at least pushed back. And school facilities aren’t sitting around idle during the summer months. Brilliant! Of course, this creative solution creates problems for working parents, who now can’t send their kids off to summer camp for months at a time but rather have to occupy them somehow for three-week periods four times a year. But guess what? A whole cottage industry has sprung up to fill in this gap.

Which brings me to my point. And yes, it usually takes me 250 words before I get to my point. Why don’t we apply this strategy much more broadly to improve utilization and reduce peak load on all sorts of resources? Why don’t we spread out and stagger work and school schedules, at any granularity–in the course of a day, during the week, or during the year as NC does–to a greater degree than we already do? Middle-schools, high-schools and elementary-schools start and finish times are already staggered so that the same fleet of school buses–by the way, why aren’t school buses hybrid?–can run triple duty. Why aren’t more things staggered this way or some other way? Specifically, why isn’t the entire American workforce staggered this way?

Hear me out. What if all businesses moved to a rotating nine-week-on/three-week-off work schedule, effectively furloughing one quarter of their employees every three weeks? If every business did this, i.e., effectively operated at three-quarter capacity, there would be 25% less commuting traffic, 25% less peak load on electricity, and so on. Of course, everyone would get paid 25% less too. But before you say “I don’t want to earn 25% less”, wouldn’t you agree to do it if you could also work 25% less? I would! I understand that I live comfortably above the poverty level and a 25% reduction in income for me is not the same as a 25% reduction in income for someone below 2x. But if you are furloughed from one business 25% of the time, there won’t be anything to stop you from filling that gap at another business.

Of course, there would be 25% less economic output also, so I am not really suggesting this. And this is where the second part of the plan comes in. Forget about 25% less traffic and 25% less peak electrical load. We have to give those back. What if to ramp back up to full capacity, every business hired 33% more workers? Wouldn’t you agree to earn 25% less if you worked 25% less and lived in a country with essentially no unemployment? I would!

I’ve never run a business, and I can see some downsides. The ratio of benefits to salary would increase. It would, but not as much as one might think, and even less if health insurance reform goes even further and costs go down. Employer taxes and contributions to retirement plans are proportional to salary. Any maybe a nine-week-on, three-week-off rotation would create too many project disruptions. Maybe if you are that kind of business, you could furlough at a finer granularity, rotating one quarter of your workforce out four out of the five weekdays. Either way, the upside seems much bigger–a healthier, better-rested, and more productive workforce.

If I started a company today–and I am not–I would try to run it this way. And since I am not, perhaps I will just start doing this in my current place of business. See you in three weeks!

P.S. Not to make an inappropriate soapbox out of tragedy, but 25 people would never be killed by a wind turbine or solar panel explosion.

P.P.S. What a shame. Republican pundits are calling Stupak the first casualty of Obamacare. But that’s ridiculous. Stupak is not a casualty of Obamacare. He’s a casualty of the mindless anti-abortion movement which doesn’t realize that what Stupak actually did was force an executive order to enforce the current restrictions on abortion coverage on the passed health care bill. The anti-abortion movement should hold up Stupak as a hero. If not for him, Obama would have gotten someone else on board without the abortion language amendment. All this shows is that, again, the abortion issue in this country is primarily a tool for political evil wielded by the right. That is all.

P.P.P.S. Thank god Stevens waited to retire until there was a Democratic congress and president! Thanks, J.P. It’s a great last act.

A Good Climate/Energy Bill? March 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, energy efficiency, sustainability, Uncategorized.
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If you were to ask the average Joe (e.g., Joe “the plumber”) or Sarah (e.g., SarahP) what the most important issue facing the country today, he or she would say “jobs” (if they didn’t have a job) or “health care” (if they had no health insurance or inadequate health insurance), “immigration” (if they were white and lived in Texas/Arizona/New Mexico/California/Colorado or if they were here illegally), “national security” (if they just saw or read about the Moscow subway bombing), DADT (if they are a hater) or “inability to see Finland from my house” (if they were SarahP).

But the real answer, the right answer, is climate change and/or clean energy interchangeably. Politicians usually deal with short term disasters like (e.g., housing market crashes, failure of “too big to fail” financial institutions) and some medium-term problems (e.g., impending bankruptcy of Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security). They are less apt to tackle long-term problems like climate change, preferring to defer those to future administrations which will be forced to meet them as they reach medium- and short- term status. And this is not just politicians, this is humans. We simply don’t respond to slow incremental change for the worse in the same way that we would respond if that change were abrupt.This is why Dan “Stumbling on Happiness” Gilbert says that climate change is happening too slowly. If it happened faster, we would be more likely to do something about it.

We don’t respond to slow change because evolution hasn’t selected and wired us (or our amygdala) for it. But fortunately, it has given us a frontal cortex which allows us to sit back, analyze, and take rational action. And any rational analysis shows that we can’t really afford to wait to do anything here. Unless we do something relatively drastic in the relatively near future, the effects of climate change will not only make actual living less physically pleasant or tolerable than it is now, it will exacerbate each and every problem we feel acutely today. The economy? Conservative estimates are that nations will have to forfeit 15-20% of their GDP to mitigate direct effects of climate change. Health care? Global warming will push malaria and other currently “tropical” diseases to latitudes and altitudes which are now temperate and free of these diseases. Immigration? Rising sea levels will displace the entire population of Florida, not to mention Bangladesh and about 50% of the population of China. DADT? I guess climate change will not have an impact on that. Although maybe it should. Maybe if climate change affected DADT, Republicans would become more interested in it.

But now there is hope. Maybe. After the health insurance bill, and the jobs bill, and the upcoming bank reform bill, could we actually have a climate and energy bill? And would this bill be any good? I am going to write more about this as more information comes out, but here are the preliminary details of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman clean energy bill. There is a useful side-by-side of this bill, the House ACES bill, and POTUS Obama’s proposal. The best thing I can say about KGL is that it includes a “linked carbon fuel fee” which sounds a lot like a carbon tax. Neither the Obama nor the Waxman-Markey bills contain any mention of a carbon tax, they are both pure cap-and-trade proposals. I am a big proponent of a carbon tax (if you have read a recent post, you know I am in favor of any vice tax) over a cap-and-trade system which I think will be too complicated to enforce, and not very effective at changing consumer lifestyles and behaviors. A “professional” environmental activist told me just this weekend that a carbon tax has “Absolutely zero political legs. None. Negative.” So for now, I will have to satisfy myself with the KGL language which probably isn’t a carbon tax but at least sounds like it could potentially be one. I am sure I will write more about carbon tax in a future post. The thing I found saddest (although I guess that is a relative term) is amount of projected overall investment: $100bn over 10 years according to POTUS, $150bn over the same in WM, and TBA in KGL. Anyways, really people? $150bn? That’s it? $940bn to insure 32mn uninsured Americans and only $150bn to save 300mn Americans from hell on earth? $1tn (is that trillion) over 10 years to save us from imaginary Iraqi WMDs but only $150bn to save us from multiple future Katrinas? $182bn to save “too big to fail” AIG and only $150bn to save the planet? Perhaps the planet is not too big to fail! Hey, we’ll always have Jupiter!

Anyways, expect to hear a lot more from me about this in the coming weeks.

P.S. An American would never do this. Either of it.

P.P.S. On the advice of aquaman 2.0, I have switched routines to 1000 meters followed by 10 100-meter sprints. So far, so good. Although I might be hooking up with a “total immersion” trainer soon.

P.P.P.S. What is the Vegas line on the number of days left in Mike Steele’s RNC chairmanship? 4.5? Give me the under.