Dumping solar panels

We were invited over last May by our friend Thomas for a long weekend with his family in the Black Forest area of southern Germany. As we drove around the rolling countryside and woodland, I was surprised by the number of houses, with roofs covered with solar panels – see photo below. Green energy was really taking off. Why couldn’t we do the same in the UK?

He explained Germany had got into production of photo voltaic cells for the panels at an early stage. As a result a number of companies had started producing the panels and generating new jobs in the area.

It was great for the German economy, but the good news had been quickly followed by the bad news. Chinese companies began ‘dumping’ panels at such low prices that local companies couldn’t compete and collapsed. It was alleged the price of the Chinese panels was the result of large subventions from local and provincial Government.

Last weekend a story In the New York Times International (28 July 2013), “Europe and China agree to settle solar panel fight” provides a follow up. The EU trade commissioner reported that a deal had been done with the Chinese to settle for a minimum panel price of €0.56 for every deliverable watt; and that as a consequence no tariffs would be charged on Chinese panels.

It sounded OK til the EU manufacturers angrily pointed out that this was the same as the ‘dumping’ price of the panels now being sold by the Chinese. They promised to sue in the courts.

In the US meanwhile tariffs have already been slapped on the import of ‘dumped’ Chinese panels; and China has retaliated by announcing plans to put on 50% tariffs on polysilicon from the US and South Korea, from which the panels are made.

It’s clear that the Chinese have offered substantial incentives for solar panel production, including the provision of huge loans from state owned banks. As a result their production costs are a quarter of what they were five years ago and the industry represents over 6% of all Chinese exports to Europe.

It’s clear too that a solution is needed, but hammering out compromises on environmental and trade issues is tough work. Retaliatory tariffs won’t help the US, the EU or China. Who’s betting on how this will end?

Banning the plastic bag

It’s hard to get away from them. They’re a ‘convenience’ item used by shops and especially supermarkets round the world. We take them for granted, without thinking about their disadvantages.

Usually that is, but here in Seattle, where we are staying just now, with our daughter Chloe and her husband Henry, things are different.

Plastic bags are easily discarded, hard to recycle when mixed with other items and disfigure the environment, as they never rot down. In New York amazingly 100,000 tons of them are disposed of in landfill sites every year at an annual cost of $10 million. (Source: New York Times, 18 May 2013)

Over the years we’ve been visiting Seattle, we’ve often been offered a choice of paper or plastic bags at the supermarket checkout. In 2007 the City Council tried to introduce a 20 cents charge on each bag, but the American Chemistry Council financed a referendum in the city, which voted out the ‘bag tax’.

Times change though and attitudes too. When a new scheme was proposed in 2011 by the City Council, it went through unopposed (New York Times, 20 December 2011) and was implemented exactly a year ago on 1st July.

Plastic bags are now outlawed in the supermarkets and shops of Seattle and a minimum 5 cents must be charged for each large paper bag. The purpose of this is to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags. Full details of the scheme can be found here.

“Is it working?”, I asked Sarah Jane one of the assistants at Trader Joe’s supermarket this week. “Yes, we’re seeing a big difference”, she replied, “we now have to order in 50% less paper bags than a few months ago; and of course plastic is not allowed.”

The new law has been successful with us too! The photo opposite shows our return to the house with four reusable bags, full of food and produce from Trader Joe’s for the week.

Several other US cities have already or plan to adopt similar schemes. Could a scheme like this work in the UK? Do we also need a change of culture to recognise the need? Comments or information on this question would be very welcome.

USA and green targets

For months there’s been accumulating evidence that targets suggested in Copenhagen in 2009 for CO2 emissions and energy diversification are being quietly sidelined by Governments and companies alike.

With the recession hitting economies across the world, the focus in Europe has shifted to reducing debt levels and painful cutbacks in public services. With lay-offs common and unemployment at high levels, green activists are having a hard time to make their voices heard.

Arriving in the USA last week to meet our new grandson in Seattle, we had little confidence that things would look that much different here.

But we were in for some surprises. The first came on Day 1 with a knock on the front door. Two young men from Environment Washington were there to seek support for a campaign to get a vulnerable area of the Cascade mountains incorporated into two adjoining national parks; and show Jim McDermott, local member of the US House of Representatives the strength of local support.

“Why two of you?”, I asked. “That’s an easy one”, said Max, who had already persuaded me to join the campaign with a $15 contribution. “We have got 43 new graduate volunteers out on the streets this morning and I’m showing one of them, Ryan how we do the canvassing. You’ve been a great catch!”

Environment Washington is a NGO running local campaigns on environmental issues, and is affiliated to Environment America. I was impressed by the numbers involved and the time they were spending on door knocking to gain support for local environmental issues. Think global, act local!

But the next thing that got my attention just after that knock on the door, was a trailer appearing on the front page of the NYT (20 April 2013). President Obama was planning an announcement shortly of new regulations to limit carbon dioxide omissions from existing and future power plants across the country – potentially a highly significant move.

This afternoon the NYT report of his speech at Georgetown University earlier today (June 25th) came through on the web. Stating that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction”, the President made clear his view that the effect of human activity on climate change was beyond doubt.

Measures to limit greenhouse gases from power plants will be put in place as well as federal monies spent to promote renewable energy supplies and support areas damaged by the new weather conditions. The actions will be introduced via executive orders to avoid spoiling action in a divided Congress.

The details have still to be worked out and opposition is certain, but this is a bold and welcome move, which has been widely supported. Five experts including Al Gore and Christiana Figueres, executive director of the UN’s climate secretariat have written in The Guardian 25 June in strong support.

We must hope that Obama can push this one through. If he can, this may become the issue for which he is best remembered when he leaves office at the end of his second term. More details and comment on the speech can be found on the Environment America website.

Laptops for Nepali schools

Seven years ago we went trekking with our son Barney and daughter Chloe through the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunaan, China. We marvelled at how as travellers we were able to communicate with the outside world.

The photo below shows Barney with his Blackberry high above the mighty Yangtze River, conferencing ‘on the hoof’ with colleagues in Beijing. The photo opposite of all our mobile communication devices was taken at the Halfway Cafe in the gorge and features in my book ‘Digital Nations in the Making‘, published in 2006, on the uses of technology with adult learners.

Yesterday provided an exciting follow up to all this, as we met up with Chloe and her partner Henry at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road. She had stopped over in London on her way from Seattle to Katmandhu in Nepal, where she plans to set up a technology project with an initial three primary schools.

Fortunately Barney has helped here by arranging for Orbitz Worldwide (NYSE:OWW), the online travel company in Chicago where he works, to donate ten reconditioned Thinkpad laptops. These are ideal for piloting this learning through technology scheme in the high mountains of Helambu.

We ourselves had already transported five of these laptops across from the US two weeks ago and Chloe brought a further five with her.

The Nepali partners in the project will include two of Chloe’s students whom she taught in 1993 at the village school in Shermathang (3,000 m). They now work for local NGOs there and are keen to explore with the schools and children the environmental and sustainability issues which affect upland communities in the Himalayas. The laptops provided by Orbitz Worldwide will be of particular help for the teachers.

The photo above shows Chloe yesterday with her iPad, displaying a picture she had taken 19 years ago of a young girl at the school, sowing seeds brought from the UK. It will be useful as an information resource as they visit the different schools.

There’s plenty to organise for the project like ensuring the children carry out a census in each area and checking that each of the schools has reliable electricity. Internet connectivity is another hurdle to overcome – a problem familiar for adult education bodies in the UK even now.

The challenges facing the project are considerable which is why the New York based Explorers Club – where Chloe is one of the youngest members – has agreed to loan one of its coveted flags for the expedition.

“Does everyone get one”, I asked her. “Oh no”, she replied casually, “you have to put up a good case. Best known perhaps is the flag, which Neil Armstrong took to the moon. He’s one of our members you know.”

The photo opposite shows Chloe and Henry displaying the flag at the Wellcome Collection. If you are interested in finding out more, making a donation for the project or helping in some other way, drop me a note at ian@lakelandbelvedere.com

Our thanks to the Wellcome Collection and staff for their help and provision of space for us to meet and plan arrangements for the project.

Seattle: the tunnel & the mayor

It will be 1.7 miles long under the heart of downtown Seattle, pass under 158 separate buildings, has been in the planning stages for a decade, will require a payment for each journey undertaken and cost in all, with additional works over $3 billion.

Sounds like a good plan to clear the city of some traffic and pollution and encourage more use of its public transport system? You’d think so, but the building of this 56 feet wide underground tunnel up to 200 feet below the surface has been one of the most contentious projects in the city since settlers first landed at Alki Point in 1852!

At the root of the issue has been the future of the city’s two-storey six-lane Alaskan Way, built in the 1950s, which with adjacent rail tracks dominates the city’s waterfront onto Elliot Bay.

Imagine how the Embarcadero area in San Francisco has changed since this photo below was taken 10 years ago when a major renovation programme was just taking off. Then you can get a idea of what Seattle is now missing and what the waterfront could look like with the Alaskan Way removed.

The Alaskan Way viaduct is an ageing structure, but what brought this to the City’s full attention was the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake in 2001, which left many residents scared and parts of the viaduct seriously weakened as this video clip shows.

The Washington Department of Transport had to carry out urgent repairs but eventually determined that an ‘outside of the box’ solution was needed to confront the city’s transport infrastructure problems. This was to involve the construction of what would become the world’s largest deep bore tunnel, with behind it a new sea wall to hold back the waters of the Puget Sound. After all the delays, a new dawn beckoned!

The snag came when The State House of Representatives decided in 2009 that any costs over $ 1.8 billion would have to be met locally in Seattle. Although the Seattle Port Authority agreed to contribute $300 million for the project and additional monies were to be recouped from users of the tunnel, the issue became highly politicised in April 2009.

Newcomer Michael McGinn, who’d been involved in local campaigning in the city, decided to run for the post of Mayor and fought a successful campaign – in which opposition to the construction of the tunnel was a key element – and was elected.

Just two years later in Feb 2011 when the Seattle City Council voted 8-1 in favour of the tunnel, Mayor McGinn vetoed the decision, only to have his veto overridden by the City Council, again by an 8-1 majority. The Mayor responded by announcing a referendum on the issue, which resulted in a 60% vote in favour of the scheme and a defeat for McGinn. His populist politics had lost the day and the Mayor had now to back down and support the tunnel.

As the story in The New York Times (19 August 2011) last year put it: “the results will be one of the more ambitious public works projects in the country and a remarkable urban transformation.”

In October last year, demolition of the southern end of the Alaskan Way commenced as these photos on flickr show in great detail. It’s good news for Seattle, its residents and its visitors but the story shows too the danger of having an elected Mayor, who may get into a head-on fight with an elected local council.

Voters at next week’s referendums on the issue of electing mayors for some of England’s big cities should think carefully about this experience of costly long delays and political indecision in Seattle, before putting their X in the YES box for having elected mayors!