Power to the People

Guy Immega

I started this blog writing on climate change but soon became confounded by two obstacles—one, the complexities of the problem and two, as a non-scientist, trying to penetrate the fog of global politics surrounding it.

 To respond to Bill McKibben’s somewhat rosy case for renewables, my friend Peter Yedidia thought to enlist his former colleague on an Africa project to tell us on Zoom why McKibben’s view came up short. We also wanted to know how he looks at the immediate future of power distribution.

 A retired aerospace engineer, Guy Immega has worked for many years on the problems and the promise of renewables and the electrical grid. Per his bio, “From 1980-1985, Guy was the Renewable Energy Coordinator for the Province of British Columbia (Canada). He contracted an engineering survey of small-hydroelectric sites and organized the first wind and solar installations feeding the electrical grid.”

 Guy is still very much involved in the global aspects of electrical power, its distribution, and its economic dynamics. Here is some of what he told us about these issues, a bit edited and shortened.

 We’ve got to stop burning coal. We must stop it. Stop it now. But we can’t because there are some places like India where you can’t stop it. Probably can’t stop it in China either. These countries have economic pressures that make it almost impossible to stop because they need the cheap energy from coal.

Coal is a fossil gift from the past and we simply have to stop burning it. The problem is you’re not trying to compete using solar. Solar has already won, it’s a done deal. There will be a small refinements in solar where it will get more and more efficient, but the efficiencies will be just small percentages here and there.

The solar singularity has arrived. Solar is cheap. Solar is reliable, but solar will not supply a base load. And that’s what you have to compete with. One way to make power available is to build a coal-fired power plant. Another way is to have giant batteries on the grid. Another way is to have all the Tesla cars plugged into the grid at night. You can’t just say buy solar because solar is cheap. That’s a one-dimensional answer to a multi-dimensional problem. So the real issue is what is the cheapest way to maintain the right mix—so you can always turn on the lights, right?

There are a dozen ways that you can smooth the power out, but they’re all expensive and a little bit awkward and not easy to control. So if you want power at night, batteries are still more expensive than coal. That’s the issue. And so we’re looking at dozens of small tricks to maintain stability on the grid. I’m an advocate for the smart grid though there are lots of politics around the smart grid that I don’t pretend to understand.

You need to be able to absorb renewables like wind and solar into the grid. And one way to do this is to ship the power where it’s needed instantly. If you can move the power around with “power wheeling” (it’s an actual technical term) that means that you can ship power from Maine to California cheaply.

And so if a wind farm is going great guns on the coast somewhere, and you don’t need the power locally, then you ship it somewhere else. One of the problems with Hawaii is that the local Hawaiian power grid turns off windmills when there’s too much extra power. When you install a wind farm in Hawaii, you have to sign a contract that you will shut the turbines down when they tell you because their grid gets overwhelmed with wind power and they can’t control it. They have no way to store it. And there it is, the gnarly problem. I like that word gnarly. It’s a gnarly problem—distributing energy easily and smartly.

In British Columbia we were able to wheel power to Washington state, one of our big customers. Do you remember when you had the Enron crisis in California? They were turning off their local power plants and buying our power. Well, it’s ridiculous what happened. British Columbia gouged California and sold power at the highest possible price because California was desperate for electricity and we wheeled it down there and collected the money. And then later California sued. And we had to pay back $750 million of gouged funds. So, you know, that’s another little power morality tale.

I’m sure the coal industry is putting political pressure on Joe Manchin, but this can’t last. If coal doesn’t make economic sense, then they’ll jump to something that does. But the problem is technological at its foundation, and that is cheap energy storage. We aren’t there yet, and nobody’s come along with a magic bullet.

So the fact that discrete elements like solar are cheaper than coal is, well, that’s nice but that doesn’t get us there. And that’s the big gap I see and, for me anyway, McKibben’s article is really misleading. Well, that’s why I was disappointed with it.

You know, we hear the dire forecasts—basically that if we don’t get off our ass, we’re going to be hopelessly behind and never catch up. But given the current state of affairs, you could have said that a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago. Now with all the attention focused on the war in Ukraine, how many people are really paying any attention to that IPCC report yesterday?

Yet that report is such a big shock that nobody knows what to do with it. We’re being told that doom awaits us, and nobody has a solution. If you look at the numbers what the IPCC has been advocating is emissions control. So they’re saying we have to stop burning fossil fuels. All very good, and emissions control is the restraint necessary, but nobody’s doing enough of it.

Nobody’s keeping up. Canada is not keeping up with its commitments. You know, India is going to burn coal because it’s pulling itself out of poverty with coal and they just won’t stop. They will not stop burning coal. And so we’re going to have problems clamping down on emissions. And what will happen is you’ll have more and more wild and extreme weather events. Another reason to stop burning coal is that we can’t further acidify the ocean. Ocean acidification is a huge problem, and cooling the climate won’t stop that.

There’s so much coal in the world that it’s infinite. I’m using coal as a metaphor for fossil fuel. It’s the dirtiest, it’s the nastiest, and it’s the most abundant. Germany decided that nuclear was bad, and they would switch off all their nuclear power plants.

And so they put up some wind farms in the North Sea. Good for them, but that’s not enough. They’ve got to have Russian oil and gas and this is a big problem now with Ukraine in the picture. So they have to get off oil and gas and they want to get off nuclear. So what they do is burn coal. They have huge coal mines in Germany, and coal is keeping the lights on and industrial Germany alive.

So I guess what I’m saying is take it piecemeal. I don’t know of any other way. We had to find as many small fixes as possible. In World War II they had victory gardens, people growing vegetables in their backyard. That was a little piecemeal solution to an agricultural crisis. Conservation is good, finding ways to use less energy, but that’s not enough either. It’s just part of the mix. We need top-down solutions, too. That includes large scale storage—grid scale batteries. We need wheeling of power on a smart grid. We need to use every trick to make it possible to absorb more clean renewable power.

Finally, the IPCC should reconsider geoengineering solutions to actively cool the climate. But that’s another topic.

Politics Visits the Dismal Science

A lot of people, myself included, avoid serious dealing with economics. You hear their gurus make pronouncements clouded with jargon, impenetrable concepts, and fixed ideas. They frequently disagree and like to argue. Many disdain the world of politics, though that is a living part of economics.

Now Larry Summers, the king of controversy, has joined with Ezra Klein on his show in a long but surprisingly enlightening discussion about the present inflation, how it developed, and what to do about it. This may be intimidating to some of you, yet very illuminating if you choose to get into it.

The problem both of them confront is the heavy downside of the strong U.S. economy. Both seem to agree that Biden’s American Rescue Plan was needed and welcome. But “it ran the economy hot.” Notwithstanding obvious benefits to the labor market, Summers believes, our virulent inflation resulted. Planners seemingly ignored the long-term consequences of runaway demand.

And the doctor who prescribes you painkillers that make you feel good to which you become addicted is generous and compassionate, but ultimately is very damaging to you. And while the example is a bit melodramatic, the pursuit of excessively expansionary policies that ultimately lead to inflation, which reduces people’s purchasing power, and the need for sharply contractionary policies, which hurt the biggest victims, the most disadvantaged in the society, that’s not doing the people we care most about any favor. It’s, in fact, hurting them.

For Summers this echoes and replays what happened in 1982, when Paul Volcker came in and instituted draconian reforms that finally tamed record inflation, though at the cost of a recession. There was outrage among many of the lefties, but the medicine worked. Now, once again, demand is out of whack, meaning too much money chasing too few goods. Ezra Klein seemingly accepts this but asserts that supply disruptions have played a role too: Ukraine and China and Covid have had their effects.

I think they both agree that the Fed must act soon and strongly. There is really no other instrument to control what seems likely—a long-term inflation of some 6% a year. The politics of all this become pretty obvious. Politico tells us:

Democrats worry about growth-killing [Fed] rate hikes in the middle of a midterm election year. But inflation is even worse for them politically. Recent polls show that price spikes are by far the top concern among voters. An NPR/Ipsos survey showed that 40 percent of Americans are worried about higher prices and 94 percent are aware of rising costs for food, energy, housing and other items.

One aspect of all this struck me. Left-leaning Democrats typically look for immediate relief to help the beleaguered victims (and counter the upcoming threat of the midterms). Bernie Sanders and others have proposed windfall excess profits taxes on Big Oil. Others want to rescind the federal gas tax.

More conservative Democrats like Larry Summers look for longer-term, painful fixes. I’m reminded of the blowback President Biden received for speaking his mind about Putin. He took a lot of undeserved flak for that, much of it from his own administration, which “overreacted and undercut him.” The State Department and the Kremlin both signaled unhappy long-term consequences from his remark.

Not everyone is on the same page regarding Putin, and unfortunately not everyone is on the same page regarding inflation. Summers and Klein did try to bridge that gap in a good, reasoned exchange.

Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

 

Oscar Wilde said this. To which he added, “Moderation is a fatal thing.” I’ve always been a big fan of Oscar’s and once used that quote to justify inordinate drinking and recklessness in college, which in turn led to a year’s suspension and a subsequent turnaround in my life. Oscar’s life ended badly; mine is happily still in progress.

Born in Dublin, he came from a fortunate family and evolved into the major spokesperson for the aesthetic movement in late Victorian England. The aesthetes were a noisy but watered-down offshoot of the French Symbolists, whom I wrote about in a doctoral thesis. Through his pen and his wit, Oscar became known throughout the educated world.

I’ve never made any claim to wit or been part of a movement. I did come from a fortunate family and have written about that elsewhere. Part of growing up in the 1950s as I did was, however, to be seen as educated and clever, and I attempted to fill that bill through love of music and art. As Oscar did, this was an effort to move out of the pedestrian world of business and the common culture that grated on such elegant souls.

But it was important to make this move without much pretension or hype. The last thing you wanted was to be looked at as a pansy or, god forbid, a homo. Since my social tendencies lay in the other direction, I generally fitted in, had lots of friends, male and female, and made the arts the focal part of my “other life.”

Wilde, on the other hand, went out of his way to promote and display his otherness, disdaining convention, writing well, and paradoxically pleasing and even capturing society. His popularity even extended beyond the smart set. Excess does sometimes win out.

The phrase, “nothing succeeds like success” is still current and still accepted. But it’s part of the old culture, particularly the moneyed culture. The common culture today makes it a virtue to have come up the hard way. If you are a politician or an entertainer, the last thing you want to do is admit you came from wealth. Being successful typically means working your way up from being poor or middle class. The classic example is Joe Biden. John Kerry is still mocked.

I smell a lot of hypocrisy in this. Coming up the hard way means you likely had to spend a lot of energy on learning accepted behaviors, on pleasing the powerful, on survival skills. The more fortunate, on the other hand, can (theoretically) earn their success more easily. Yet privilege and success are publicly disdained because our culture continues to value the familiar, the commonplace and the old work ethic.

Oscar knew better. He also said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

“You sound so Putinesque,” she said.

Two hip ladies having lunch were talking—not about the horrors unfolding in Ukraine but about Vladimir Putin, whose personality they found fascinating.

“His big thing is Russia’s return to greatness. There are two problems with that: one, he forgot the costs—in body bags and world opinion; and two, he’s going to lose his Kremlin buddies, who may in fact ultimately do him in.”

“Julia, you sound like a CNN analyst. I want to know how he came to be this way. So I consult my horoscope every week. You know, Putin is a Libra, and here’s what my astrologer said about them: ‘It takes a surprising amount of courage to confess, even just to yourself, that you aren’t where you’d like to be.’ Pass the salad, please.”

“You honestly think he’s going to do that? The grandiose overreacher? His strategic blunders in Ukraine and his basic character flaws will be his undoing. The interesting question is how world leaders were taken in by him for so long. Their blindness to this budding Hitler got us into the mess we now confront.”

“Does Putin have a wife? I don’t even know. Does anybody have any influence on him? The dude was smart enough to protect himself all these years from palace revolts or how much the Russian people are willing to put up with. Looks to me like Putin has worked hard to be a kind of Don Quixote, misled by his romance with the past. People still believe in that kind of fantasy.”

“I’ll have another cocktail, thank you, Gracie. I hope you’re not endorsing this war criminal. He has tried to create a colony of slaves. But he’d rather kill the slaves than free them.”

Music When All Else Fails

I’m lucky enough to have collected and enjoyed some 1,500 records (vinyl LPs) and kept them with me all these years, plus about 1,000 CDs. Most are classical and jazz. Hearing them played back over a good sound system gets you emotionally in tune again. It completes who you are.

I have been living intimately with music all my life. Some of that history is recounted here, but the true story is that I can’t do without it. As a means to counter the fog and depression of war, for me music is unmatched. Everyone needs a break from the violence.

So much TV coverage of the Ukraine war becomes an assault on one’s capability to absorb violence. In our desire to learn more about the war we are surfeited with pictures and accounts that deny the reality of being human. Yet maybe you saw this video of the delightful German guy who came to Ukraine with his piano to play for the refugees.

Or the young girl who sang a song from Disney to refugees in a bomb shelter. It’s a commonplace that music de-stresses people but it is often judged in a political context. In the classical world, think of what Shostakovich went through under Stalin, from popularity to persecution. Or Prokofiev before him. Music under the Nazis was a travesty of art and a triumph of propaganda and kitsch. An estimated 1,500 musicians fled to England and the United States, among them Rudolf Serkin and Arnold Schönberg.

I have a great preponderance of German and Russian music in my collection. Should I give up listening to that as a protest to what Putin is doing in Ukraine (or what the Nazis did)? Of course not. Artworks should always be exempt from politics, even though their authors and practitioners unfortunately are not. Renouncing music, painting and literature for political concerns would be like renouncing our human connection.

In the world of commerce, we have reports of Stolichnaya vodka being poured down the sink. The company is now changing its name to “Stoli,” as if that will fool anybody. Protests only bite when there is a human connection involved.

Culturally, we are now seeing famous Russian conductors under pressure to renounce their homeland or quit music. Tugan Sokhiev “said on Sunday that he would resign from his positions with two orchestras—at the storied Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and in Toulouse, France—after facing intense pressure to condemn President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. . . . ‘I am being asked to choose one cultural tradition over another,’ Mr. Sokhiev said in the statement.”

Artists have often faced dilemmas of this kind: think of Beethoven and his benefactors, or Béla Bártok, the Hungarian genius who fled the Nazis for poverty and exile in the U.S. And there were so many others.

Music is and has always been the highest expression of our common humanity. We need that refuge now more than ever.

Personal Reflections on War and Ukraine

In 1944 I was 10 years old. World War II was raging and I, like some kids, got caught up in following the constant news reports and accounts of the fighting. Movie theaters showed weekly “newsreels” of the battles in the Pacific and Europe. My father’s friend Jack was flying B-24s with supplies for China over the Himalayas. He sent home wonderful photos that I still have of the bases and people of India and elsewhere that supported these missions.

Once again, it’s the civilians who feel the brunt of war. The fighting in Ukraine has focused on the rank and file and their struggle: their street fights, their persistence in the face of Russian atrocities, the million refugee women and children fleeing the violence. The United States homeland was never really at great risk in WW-II. As kids we were fearful, but in the spirit of the time we had immense faith in our military. Years later I explored massive, overgrown 16-inch gun emplacements hidden away on the coast of Rhode Island. The guns were never fired in anger.

Ukrainians are battling Russian tanks with thousands of molotov cocktails. They were also used in Finland in 1939, in Hungary in 1956 and, of course, in WW-II. It’s an old-fashioned and very effective weapon. Flamethrowers and napalm were modern variants used in Vietnam. The U.S. military stopped using them in 1978.

We were never subjected to photos of burned and mutilated corpses in WW-II. Now such images are all too frequently on the internet. It’s an escalation even from what we saw and heard in the Vietnam years. I was teaching and living in New York then, marching in protests, hearing speeches from eminences like Dr. Spock and Norman Mailer. Such protests, we know, did help end the war. But war was still something mostly remote and apart from our daily lives.

The Ukraine disaster has prompted Biden to declare that no U.S. troops will be sent to fight there—a legacy of our involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But social media and the internet now bring the conflict home and may well influence its outcome. Many people see Putin as a madman and comparisons to Hitler abound. Putin’s threats often put Hitler’s bluster to shame.

Since WW-II the U.S. has fought or undertaken and mostly lost numerous foreign interventions. “While the United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.” These interventions have generally failed badly. The media have been relatively kind to various administrations in reporting this. But American geopolitical interference has contributed to the rise of China and, some would argue, the disaster in Ukraine. We are now paying the price for that.

The invasion has pointed up not only the futility of Russia’s strategy but our own. Some old technologies, like molotov cocktails, still work; the old battle plans and interventions do not. This horrendous invasion points up the need for powerful new strategies to avoid conflict. We don’t yet know what they are or how to implement them. And nobody knows the West’s endgame yet except to get Putin out of power.

CNN’s Coverage of Ukraine

For media watchers it’s become almost de rigueur to hate CNN. For someone like me who follows (at a distance) media stories, CNN is by default my major news source. Here in Mexico there are very few other choices for news in English—at least on my cable network: Fox News and Aljazeera are the major alternatives.

CNN’s coverage of the invasion brings to the fore all the good and the irritating things about this news source. For all its faults, CNN still has the reach and the money to provide far and away the best round-the-clock reporting on the Ukraine crisis. Their field reporters are not always sharp and experienced, but most are. The studio analysts are generally worth hearing, with reports from token Republicans and retired generals.

But, my God, the formats they use are deadly, with constant repetitive promos for their people. And they never change. We have been watching the same irksome walk-ons for years of people like Christiane Amanpour, Max Foster, and Becky Anderson. Finally, instead of pricking your interest, they arouse your repugnance. How many times do you want to hear “They can shoot my body but not my dreams.”

Then there are the promos masquerading as soft news. You get corporate CEOs speaking about good causes—meanwhile furthering their company’s PR message. Africa must be filling CNN’s coffers with its constant promotions. It’s become a wholly owned subsidiary of CNN. This stuff is what we used to call infomercials and CNN is chock full of them.

I commented in an earlier post about the network’s so-called talent. They have some fine people, among them Jim Acosta and Jake Tapper (either of whom should take Wolf Blitzer’s place) and Pamela Brown. But Wolfie, like Mike Wallace before him, has stayed on too long. Abby Philips is terrific on empty comments. Anderson Cooper with his awkward delivery is the most overrated anchor in TV. He should stop having babies and take some speech therapy.

After all the Cuomo controversy and then-president Jeff Zucker’s recent demise, the network suffered major losses in viewership. With the Ukraine invasion, however, ratings have greatly improved. Why? Because there is no other place to go for full coverage of the major event of our times. I mock some of their talent but watch CNN at least two hours a day, mostly in the evening.

As I write this, Dana Bash (CNN’s most skillful analyst) is interviewing Sen. Mitt Romney on “State of the Union.” It’s good journalism, and for major news, CNN is still on top. TVNewser points out that

last January was CNN’s most-watched month on record, carried by live coverage of the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol (CNN’s most-watched day in history), as well as the presidential inauguration. The network also finished No. 1 on all of cable television that month, beating MSNBC and even Fox News.

With a corporate shakeup coming, perhaps the network can now turn a new face to the public.

Moving forward, what’s next for CNN when the company falls under the Discovery Channel umbrella later this year? Let’s hear from its soon-to-be largest shareholder, John Malone of Liberty Media.

“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Malone said in an interview that recently aired on CNBC.

Ukraine Was Predicted

Sometimes Tom Friedman blathers and sometimes he speaks the truth. But he often has a sense of history and geopolitics that others lack. He came on strong in The New York Times yesterday about how the U.S. and its NATO allies aren’t just “innocent bystanders” to Putin’s despicable offensive in Ukraine.

In my view, there are two huge logs fueling this fire. The first log was the ill-considered decision by the U.S. in the 1990s to expand NATO after—indeed, despite—the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And the second and far bigger log is how Putin cynically exploited NATO’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders to rally Russians to his side to cover for his huge failure of leadership.

In what now seems like the dreamlike ‘90s Friedman says that the U.S. chose recklessly “to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak.” Bill Perry, Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, later recalled that moment in 2016: “Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.”

Our present disaster, however, has been years in the making. After NATO expanded in 1998, Friedman talked with George Kennan, then and still one of America’s wisest foreign policy professionals. Here’s what Kennan said to him in full, though you should read the whole piece.

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.

We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.

Friedman comments: “It’s EXACTLY what has happened.” We also should note that Putin is living out a distorted view of history, a revanchist effort to restore Russia to its former Soviet glory. How we get into conflicts like this can be as important as how to resolve them.

Grand Delusions about Ukraine and U.S. Power

The mess in Ukraine is part of a broader picture of how U.S. policy has failed for many years to impose a liberal order on the world. Here John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago speaks compellingly about our delusions of power and influence—and how they have led us to the edge of conflict with Russia.

Mearsheimer’s arguments put into perspective what many of us have felt. I urge you to hear him out. You’ll learn what “liberal hegemony” means.

 

Greene’s Gazpacho and Trump’s Toilets

The New Yorker

Yesterday the media reported endlessly on Greene’s continuing and insufferable stupidity and the ex-president’s propensity to flush documents down White House toilets. Hard to wake up to this stuff.

I still read the latest in politics each morning on the internet. This practice had begun to ruin my day so I’ve endeavored to change it. I try to make phone calls and email friends, walk to the bakery, get on my exercise machine. I’m still caught up with our political follies, but no longer to the point of writing about them or hashing them out with friends. It ain’t worth the angst.

Since most people can’t face the enormity of what’s happening in the U.S., the media’s fallback is to divert us with the folly of our political happenings. Politics and the reporting thereof have become a burlesque.

Yet I’ve spent too many years in politics not to take it seriously. It’s very hard to do that now. I mark all the many appeals for funds I get from Democrats as spam. I no longer follow Democrats Abroad. Most of the received opinions about the current crisis—the likely onset of a new civil war, gerrymandering, court packing, and so on—I find repetitious and half-baked. Or they keep telling us about the persistent Congressional standoffs.

So maybe we shouldn’t blame the media for telling us ad nauseum about the crocodile who finally got the tire removed from its neck. Yesterday I was looking for some freaky “good news stories” to write about, like the one about preventing Alzheimer’s with toothpaste. The idea was to lighten up the pervasive gloom about current events. I eventually tossed out that approach after realizing that such stuff was just clickbait. The media thrives on clickbait.

Since I spent quite a few years studying and teaching literature I tried to get back to reading more. That worked for a while but I always gravitated to the current affairs stuff on Kindle and got too absorbed in that. Interesting but invariably gloomy.

So I looked at the shelves of books that I had just unpacked after my recent move. Music, history, fiction, poetry, and culture were there in abundance. Could they be a passage to my recovery from boredom and disgust? The books looked back at me as if through a scrim of non-recognition, even though I had read them all and absorbed much pleasure from many. But I felt little urge to pick them up and explore them again.

Even so, I will do that with a few because they represent old pleasures and insights that were and are valuable to me. Literature is life rendered, after all, and mostly from a simpler and better time. It has always been a refuge for me, and perhaps it will be so again. In times like this, we need our sanctuaries.