Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Favorite Blog Post of 2009

With another year of blogging drawing to a close, Delaware Liberal has the obligatory poll on the best blogs. So head over and support your favorite wonk. My favorite for best blog post of the year isn't on the ballot. On April 1, we woke up to this post from liberalgeek that caused more than a little consternation among readers:
I just got a press release from NRG announcing that Tom Noyes, Delaware’s most famous blogger and strongest environmental finance guru has been asked to join the board for the owner of the infamous Indian River Power Plant.
Based on the comments, he got some readers, at least for a moment:
Don’t [deleted] DO that to me! Jesus, I almost had a heart attack.
My world nearly fell off its axis. Thank you for a great April Fools joke.
The post foreshadowed the cognitive dissonance that spread around the state when NRG, owner of Delaware's dirtiest coal plant, bought Bluewater Wind. Though for the record, I still haven't been offered a job.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How Media Put a Spotlight on Obscure Points of View

The end of the year and the decade should prompt us to seek greater perspective on events and trends. Instead, what we mostly get are lists, the most inane being Politico's top ten political tweets.
Fortunately we have Nate Silver, who puts the year's craziness into perspective:
But it seems to me that, rather than a change in underlying sentiments -- that is, more prevalence of quote-unquote extreme, alienated, nonmainstream, populist, pox-on-both-their-houses viewpoints -- what has instead changed is that these viewpoints have become much more visible.
Silver points to this New Yorker review of Cass Sunstein's books that describes "the growing power of consumers to 'filter' what they see."
Remember the intense attention given to the PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) activists last year? Talk of these hardcore Hillary supporters filled the airwaves when I went to the Democratic Convention last year. But I saw no more than a dozen or so PUMA types on a street corner a mile from the convention site. As for those in the hall, I never heard anything less than enthusiastic support for Barack Obama, even among the most devoted Clinton delegates.
The internet helped those inclined to join the PUMA movement find like minds, and the news media gave them far more attention than their numbers and influence warranted. At the end of the campaign it turned out that, for all the publicity, the PUMAs had a negligible effect on the election.
The media, old and new, tend to magnify the importance of relatively minor segments of the population, but the broad, underlying spectrum of views on political issues are not, for the most part, subject to the whims of the never ending news cycle.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Paul Krugman's "Big Zero"

Paul Krugman has decided we should call the last decade the Big Zero. In assessing the last ten years, Krugman wields numbers like blunt instruments.
It was a decade of zero economic gains for the average family:
Actually, even at the height of the alleged “Bush boom,” in 2007, median household income adjusted for inflation was lower than it had been in 1999. And you know what happened next.
The decade brought zero gains for homeowners, and less than zero for those who bought towards the end of the boom.
It was a decade of zero gains for shareholders, even though Wall Street has gotten just about all it could ask in terms of deregulation.
And after millions of jobs were created in the 1990s, the last decade fell flat:
It was a decade with basically zero job creation. O.K., the headline employment number for December 2009 will be slightly higher than that for December 1999, but only slightly. And private-sector employment has actually declined — the first decade on record in which that happened.
As for the saying that a rising tide lifts all boats, the biggest economic indicators that rose in the last decade were energy prices, health care costs and the federal deficit.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Marx Brothers and Christmas

Chico Marx is a guileless cynic when it comes to Christmas:
From the movie, A Night at the Opera:
CHICO: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
GROUCHO: Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause, that's in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
CHICO: Well, I don't know...
GROUCHO: It's all right. That's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a sanity clause.
CHICO: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!
YouTube has the scene.
Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

DelaWind Is Looking for a New Partner

As Aaron Nathans reported in the News Journal, DelaWind experienced a setback when Amer Industrial Technologies pulled out of the startup firm. Nathans quoted Transformative Technologies CEO Dennis O'Brien as saying the split was due to "management differences on the timing, priorities and structure of the business." Ahmad Amer put it more succinctly: "I don't like financing."
I talked with John Carney last night; he confirmed that the principal sticking point was DelaWind's financial structure, which would be based on debt supported by tax credits. The fundamental value of proposed business is sound; this was just a bad fit. DelaWind is now looking for a new partner. The advantage of building the towers on Delaware River is too compelling to give up.
DelaWind's applications for state financing and federal tax credits have been set aside for now. The Obama administration announced last week that it intends to add $5 billion to the $2.3 billion federal 48c tax credit program, which attracted more credible proposals than could be funded. So if DelaWind can find another partner, it should get another bite at the apple.
As for Amer's comment that this had become a "political issue," I think that business strategy and financial structure, not political objections, were the deciding factors in the split. It's unfortunate that some have tried to make political hay on Carney's involvement. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would object to 600 or more Delaware steelworkers playing a key role in building the country's first offshore wind power project.
As I wrote back in October, John Carney still plans to leave DelaWind in January, while continuing to work with Transformative Technologies. With Carney out of the picture, maybe the partisan critics will stop their sniping and acknowledge the value of creating hundreds of blue collar jobs in a new industry.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pass It and Fix It

"Fixing something that’s broken is better than not having anything to fix." So says Igor Volsky in the Wonk Room, where he has posted this admirably clear graphic on the benefits in the Senate bill as it stands:
Volsky continues, "After all, the choice isn’t between passing this bill or a better bill — it’s between passing this bill or nothing at all." But for those who complain that the bill is half a loaf or worse, this bill offers significant social and economic benefits that can not — and should not — be easily dismissed.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Snow in Copenhagen

Tis the season for climate change skeptics to point out the unremarkable fact that it gets cold in the northern hemisphere this time of year. Media Matters has the roundup of the right wingers who seem to think it's clever to point out that it snowed in Copenhagen last week.
So perhaps I should go back to pointing out the difference between weather and climate.
Weather is what’s happening in a specific place at a specific time. Weather changes moment by moment. Climate encompasses the entire planet and changes slowly.
Given the considerable resistance among some to accepting the data on global warming, let's try another approach.
Imagine a large frozen object, such as a glacier or polar ice cap. When such an object remains roughly the same size over a long period of time, one could conclude that the temperature has remained in equilibrium. If such a large frozen object were to start shrinking, one could conclude with confidence that additional heat were being applied to said object.
So for those skeptics who question the charts depicting global temperatures rising after more than a thousand years of relative equilibrium, I would ask, what of the shrinking glaciers and ice caps?

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Data on Global Warming

Last week a regular reader raised some questions about the significance of the data presented in this chart:
The reader's comments:
I find that chart not very meaningful. First off, the Y-axis has a span of only a few degrees F, so small changes are made to appear artificially large. Second, and more important, reliable global temperature data prior to the 20th century is just about non-existent. That is why proxies, such as ice cores and tree rings are used.
Let's take a look at these two questions. The range of the chart is narrow, but is not artificially so; it encompasses all of the data. The significance of the data is found in the recent departure of temperatures form the narrow range that prevailed for 1,300 years. In contrast to the the cumulative weight of these data, the skeptics who repeat the canard that the earth is cooling rely on data from one anomalous year to make their point. Clearly something very different has been happening in recent years, and it can't be attributed to sunspots (another explanation skeptics offer), which follow an eleven year cycle.
As for the techniques of using ice cores and tree rings, scientists use direct measurements to calibrate the indirect data. Overall, we are looking at many thousands of measurements, collected by teams of researchers all over the world. Again, this is why science relies on peer review of data and conclusions.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Joe Biden's Memo on the Clean Energy Economy

Joe Biden has presented a memorandum to the President on funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for promoting a clean energy economy:
Recovery Act investments in renewable generation and advanced energy manufacturing of $23 billion will likely create 253,000 jobs and leverage over $43 billion in additional investment that could support up to 469,000 more jobs, putting us on track to meet the goal of doubling our renewable energy generation, including solar, wind and geothermal, in just 3 years.
According to the memo, ARRA funding, along with leveraged private sector investment, would double our renewable energy capacity from 27.8 gigawatts on January 1, 2009 to 55.6 gigawatts in 2012.
Talking Points Memo has the full memo.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Energy Savings and Market Mechanisms

Last week Charlie Copeland praised Delaware's Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) as a promising approach to promoting energy efficiency, noting that "the SEU uses market-based solutions — not additional mandates and regulations." He was right about the SEU using market mechanisms, but overlooked the obvious point that these market mechanisms, and the SEU itself, are established by legislation.
The SEU is partly funded by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (or RGGI), which conducts quarterly auctions of renewable energy credits or RECs. The latest auction of RECs is expected to net $1.6 million for energy programs; legislation adopted last year mandates that 65 percent of the proceeds go to the SEU.
One might think of RGGI as a smaller version of the cap and trade regime being considered by Congress, which itself is modeled after the successful system that reduced SO2 emissions that cause acid rain. A properly structured cap and trade system leads to the most cost effective solutions to reducing emissions, and promotes technological innovation that drives down costs even further. This is an example of the effective use of market mechanisms to achieve environmental objectives.
The market for RECs depends on setting renewable portfolio standards. In this way RGGI is the mirror image of the proposed cap and trade regime: RGGI established a market for RECs, while cap and trade would create a market for carbon emission allowances.
Copeland noted results from the SEU's Appliance Rebate Program, which got up and running earlier this year. The program has generated annual energy savings of 323,826 kilowatthours as of last month. The caption on the graphic rightly reads, "Small steps, adding up." The amount saved comes to 0.0029 percent of Delaware's energy usage in 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Delaware has a long way to go to meet the energy savings targets (15 percent electricity and 10 percent natural gas by 2015) established by Senate Bill 106, which wisely doesn't mandate the means for reaching the targets.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jack Markell and the American Wind Energy Association

On Monday, I took note of Jack Markell's speech last week to the American Wind Energy Association conference, where he proposed a transmission backbone to orient the grid to renewable power instead of delivering electricity from coal power.
Cassandra at DelawareLiberal has posted a video of his talk.
Right now wind power developers are facing enormous costs for hooking up to the grid, which is already facing the need to upgrade for reasons of reliability and flexibility. Instead of proposing transmission projects that would make it easier to ship in power from the coal mines and power plants in the Midwest, we should be reorienting the grid to favor wind power that can be built a few miles off our shore.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Peer Review and Climate Change

In covering the uproar over the meaning of the stolen e-mails on climate science, the New York Times sensibly checked with the scientists:
In recent days, an array of scientists and policy makers have said that nothing so far disclosed — the correspondence and documents include references by prominent climate scientists to deleting potentially embarrassing e-mail messages, keeping papers by competing scientists from publication and making adjustments in research data — undercuts decades of peer-reviewed science.
Peer review is what makes science so robust. Results are tested to see if they hold up. For instance, the claims of cold fusion that grabbed headlines twenty years ago were never replicated.
The data showing the earth is warming above historical levels have been published in thousands of peer reviewed papers.
This chart from the IPCC incorporates many thousands of measurements spanning centuries using a variety of methods. The skeptics are trying to make the most of the stolen e-mails of a few scientists, but the cumulative force of the data eventually overwhelms the personal views of any particular scientists or skeptics. As Ronald Reagan once said, facts are stubborn things.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Maryland Buys Power from Bluewater Wind

Not long after the governors of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia announced an agreement to work together to promote offshore wind, we have seen Maryland take a meaningful step in that direction. The Maryland Energy Administration has announced the purchase of renewable energy from four sources, including 55 megawatts from Bluewater Wind:
The University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents and the Department of General Services recently approved the award of four renewable energy projects which will produce over 20 percent of the institutions and state agencies annual electric needs. The contracts will also further the State’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint 25 percent by 2020.
The awards will be made to US WindForce for a 55 MW on-shore wind energy project, Constellation for a 13 MW solar project in Central Maryland, and BlueWater Wind for up to 55 MW of wind energy as an extension to the proposed Delaware off-shore wind project. A separate award under a small business provision will be made to Synergics for 10 MW as part of its Roth Rock development in Western Maryland.
This purchase increases Bluewater's contracted customer base by about 25 percent.
Memorandum of Understanding calls for the states to work together to smooth the way for adoption of offshore wind power:
1. The Parties will coordinate potential common electric transmission strategies that recognize the benefits of regional planning and deployment of transmission services and which could reduce cost for the Parties’ ratepayers.
2. The Parties will develop strategies to encourage sustainable market demand for offshore wind power, including state and regional policies and incentives that can be used across state boundaries for the benefit of the industry as a whole.
3. The Parties agree to work collaboratively in fostering federal energy and regulatory policies that further the development and use of offshore wind resources and in communicating our collective concerns to Congress, the Executive Branch, and its various agencies.
Last week, Jack Markell called for the creation of a transmission backbone to overcome grid congestion and deliver offshore wind power to the East Coast.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Jack Markell on Renewable Energy

Last week, Jack Markell presented his thinking on renewable energy to the American Wind Energy Association conference in Boston. After mentioning the need to reduce energy imports and reduce carbon emissions, Markell turns to the wind energy resource off our shores:
Countless studies and reports have shown that the U.S. has sufficient renewable resources to provide much of the energy needs of this nation. Too often these conversations have focused on wind in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, solar in the Southwest, geothermal in the west, or smaller distributed solutions.
The problem with this analysis is that a vast amount of our nation’s electricity consumption is on the East Coast—a region previously believed to lack a utility-scale renewable solution. We have half of the population of the nation. We pay some of the highest energy prices. We have a congested grid. We have some of the worst air quality. Our rates of asthma and lung disease are higher than other regions and we emit more greenhouse gases… and we are also in the midst of the most severe economic downturn in generations. We need an energy solution that works for the East Coast—and one that can be developed rapidly.
Markell pointed out that this wind resource is aligned with the concentration of population and industry along the East Coast, a point that wind power advocates have noted repeatedly. He noted that an offshore transmission backbone may help deliver offshore wind power to the grid.
Aaron Nathans of the News Journal reported on this idea yesterday.
Markell referred to the policy he set for including externalities such as health and environmental costs in energy planning. He also mentioned joint action among East Coast governors to push for rapid review and approval for offshore wind projects and incorporating them into the grid:

Last month, I was proud to coordinate with my colleagues Governors O’Malley, Kaine, and Corzine to submit comments to FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], the first that FERC has received to specifically request directing PJM to begin planning for the renewable energy transmission infrastructure necessary for offshore wind.
Markell covers a lot of ground in the speech; to get the big picture, read it for yourself.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Obama's Analytical Governing Style

New York Times columnist David Brooks presents an interesting contrast between the passionate Obama campaign and the analytical Obama administration:
Many Democrats are nostalgic for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — for the passion, the clarity, the bliss-to-be-alive fervor.
I remember that fervor, but even in the midst of the enormous crowds, one could always see the cool underneath the passion. Brooks points to the lengthy review that led to the decision to deploy 30,000 more troops as an example of his cool governing style.
Obama, on the other hand, cloaked himself in what you might call Niebuhrian modesty. His decision to expand the war is the most morally consequential one of his presidency so far, yet as the moral stakes rose, Obama’s emotional temperature cooled to just above freezing.
I would guess he meant Reinhold, not Richard, Niebuhr. Reinhold Niebuhr was distinctly not a christian triumphalist, but thoughtful and measured in his musings about the role of Christianity in a secular society. Niebuhr is also known as the author of the famed Serenity Prayer, which a prominent skeptic now acknowledges. But I digress.
Brooks believes Obama's governing style is more suited to mid-course corrections than his predecessor could seem to navigate:
The advantage of the Obama governing style is that his argument-based organization is a learning organization. Amid the torrent of memos and evidence and dispute, the Obama administration is able to adjust and respond more quickly than, say, the Bush administration ever did.
Obama's speech on Afghanistan was not one of his most memorable, and contained no ringing calls to arms. As Mario Cuomo said, "You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

CBO Reports the Stimulus Is Working

The Congressional Budget Office yesterday released a report finding that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) has had a significant impact on the economy:
CBO estimates that in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States, and real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.2 percent to 3.2 percent higher, than would have been the case in the absence of ARRA (see Table1). Those ranges are intended to reflect the uncertainty of such estimates and to encompass most economists’ views on the effects of fiscal stimulus.
As I noted last week, the New York Times reported that economists have reached similar conclusions:
The Times quoted Mark Zandi of Moody's as saying that without the stimulus, "G.D.P. would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent."

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Reorganizing DNREC

Last year Bill Lee and Charlie Copeland proposed that DNREC be split into two pieces, drawing a line between Natural Resources and Environmental Control. It seemed an odd time to propose creating a new cabinet department, but one can give Lee and Copeland credit for putting forward a substantive proposal.
Now Copeland, having given
a News Journal article about DNREC's reorganization a cursory read, has decided that the department's reorganization is vindication of last year's campaign proposal. Copeland writes:
DNREC Secretary, Colin O’Mara, has agreed that DNREC needs to be divided.
Actually, DNREC would not be divided under O'Mara's proposal. Its divisions would be realigned and consolidated, which is quite a bit different from breaking the department into two pieces. There may be common points in Lee and Copeland's idea and O'Mara's proposal, but they would look very different on an organizational chart.
One problem I've heard raised with O'Mara is the way permits are handled piecemeal without much concern for a facility's overall environmental impact. Hopefully, this proposed reorganization would provide a more centralized consideration of the cumulative impact of a facility's operations. Consolidation of regulatory divisions could also make life easier for permit applicants, by providing something resembling one stop shopping for a variety of permits.