Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Germany, Once Again.

There's a lot to like about Germany. They make great beer, excellent sausages (although apparently **gasp** prices have been rigged thanks to a Sausage Cartel for years), their soccer team is  officially the best on the planet, and their economy is greener than most. So it's no wonder that we look at what they are doing, and think that we should be following suit. Especially in terms of energy supply.

However, as I've pointed out many times now, BC's problems are a little different from Germany's.

Germany has a "dirty electricity problem". They used to get most of their electricity from coal and nuclear power. They made a policy decision to change that, and they have changed it dramatically. Not without costs, of course - and those costs are rarely, if ever, discussed in the stories you read in the "green press". This, naturally, irritates me, because glossing over the costs does nothing to educate people about the real-life, difficult trade-offs that such policy decisions require.

One of the major costs of Germany's "energiewende" - which is what they call their renewable-supporting, anti-nuke policy - is the price of home electricity. Germans pay $0.35/kWh for their electricity (important note: industry does not pay those rates. There is no way they could survive if they did. They pay about 1/3 of that.) For comparison, this is almost 5 times what we pay, here in BC ($0.075/kWh).

If we wanted to build a photovoltaic power system here in BC, we'd have to pay similar rates. That's what this stuff costs. Not saying it's bad, it's just expensive. So, the $230 million in tax breaks that the Feds give to coal, natgas, and oil, if used to purchase solar electricity instead (which, of course, we cannot do), would purchase about 660MW/h - enough to power about 60,000 homes. Spending that money on hydro-electric electrons instead would service ~250,000 homes. For perspective, the proposed site C dam would power 450,000 homes. Replacing site C's capacity with a whole bunch of solar panels instead, requires the equivalent of $1.7billion  per year in "tax break money".

Site C represents roughly 10% of BC's total generating capacity. If we were to forego this development and replace it with a massive buildout of solar PV instead, I'm guessing our rates would have to increase by about 1.4 times (10% of my bill would go up by a factor of 5). In other words, the average homeowner would see their bill increase by about $300/yr. And the more solar PV one adds, the higher the price gets: 20% solar? Your bill increases by $600/yr.

So here is the tradeoff discussion:

On one hand:
Maintain our cheap hydro electricity, but we have to flood Hudson's Hope.

On the other:
Eye-wateringly expensive solar electricity, but we'd surely get an installation industry out of this, if not necessarily a solar-panel-manufacturing industry. We'd see a push towards more efficient heating systems than standard baseboard heaters...

 But this tradeoff discussion doesn't even begin to solve BC's real "dirty" problem, which, unlike Germany, isn't dirty electricity. BC's problem is dirty transportation. Germany's solar PV revolution can't help us solve this one. So this entire discussion, and constant referral to Germany's fantastic! stupendous! solar energy system is a fight between one green electricity system and another (more expensive) one. And this is not a fight I care much about; at this point, we are dickering about the price of energy vs. ruining/industrializing landscapes (which happen with wind and solar PV, as well). I would much prefer to see progress in cutting CO2 emissions, which has nothing to do with where BC gets its electricity from.

I'm far more interested in looking at Germany's much cleaner transportation system, and learning from that! Clue: it involves high gas prices to discourage driving. Germans are paying about $2.25/l these days.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

More Big Bad Subsidies

The explicit subsidies we give to fossil fuel companies here in BC are actually not very big, popular noise notwithstanding. Most of the direct tax breaks are from the Federal goverment, and they are "general" business tax breaks having to do with capital investment writeoffs.

Of course, there are other, implicit subsidies that we give to industries. These are embedded in our regulations regarding access, tenure, pollution, etc. I'm guessing it's these implicit subsidies that eco-concerned citizens are really concerned about. But these subsidies are actually hard to put a dollar figure on. So, being my pin-headed, quantitative self, I get riled when people claim it's millions! billions! without backing up their claims.

As an example, consider the mining industry, which arguably is "subsidized" because of mineral rights: private land owners have only surface rights (and no rights to anything deeper than 1m underground).  This means that a mining company can dig up your land for kitty litter and you have no recourse, although you will likely receive some compensation. Most mining companies (and forestry companies, and gas/oil firms) have to pay royalties on the products extracted from the land. One could argue that the royalties are too low, and that therefore this is a subsidy (this was the basis of the softwood lumber dispute a number of years ago), but it is very difficult to set an "impartial, data-driven" cost on such a subsidy - mostly they are set by political means, which means that business-friendly governments lowball 'em and pinko-commie governments set 'em high. The discussions around BC's LNG royalty regime are ongoing.

Most resource-extraction activities take place on Crown Land (ie. public lands). Companies lease the land from the Crown to operate on it, and there are regulations that govern what they can do on the land they've leased. The Alberta bitumen sands, BC's hydro dams and many remote windfarms also fall under this category. These regulations frequently require remediation of lands (replanting, cleanup, etc). The amount of remediation that Joe Public wants done has increased over the years (for instance, in 1910 nobody gave a shit about creekbeds in the backwoods; hence Hydraulic Mining, the evidence of which is still visible around BC today), and of course regulations are slow to follow. So is this a subsidy?  How much of one?

Lots of people complain about the "externalities" of industry that the companies don't have to pay for; CO2 emissions being one of them. Here in BC, emitting CO2 is no longer free. It costs money. Not so in Alberta... So is this a subsidy?

Then, there is R&D funding that is industry-specific. Clearly, over the years, a lot of government-funded, University-performed research into extracting oil from the tar sands in the best way possible (most efficient, least damaging) has been done. This, it could be argued, is a form of subsidy to the tar sands industry. But how big of one? There are professors studying forestry best practises, wind and solar energy as well....are these subsidies to those industries? There was a lot of "help" from government sources to establish the whole of Alberta's oil and natural gas sector, back in the 60's, including setting up the Geological Survey of Canada, which provided tax-payer funded mapping services - not all focused on oil deposits! - for decades. Subsidy? Good? Bad?

full disclosure: I profited directly from these government efforts. My father was a geologist with the GSC in Calgary when I was growing up.

Alberta's oil and gas sector - including the Tar Sands - has been decades in the making. For many years, oil sands development was carried on by Petrocan, which, back in the day, was a Crown Corporation and a child of the energy crisis (and "energy nationalism" - good? bad?). But no longer.  Now, the role of government is in tinkering with royalty rates (setting them high enough for revenue but low enough to attract business), and in establishing a "trained workforce" via targeted university R&D funding (which is what some of those royalties go towards). What has been driving oil extraction for a good decade now is the fact that money can be made selling an international commodity. The oil market is such that the very expensive tar sands stuff is profitable. It's even profitable if there are insufficient pipelines to bring it to market, and if they have to rail-car the crap to its destination.

In fact, one could argue that the government "backed a winner" - helping, over decades, to create an industry that gives people jobs and the government, revenue. The fact that it's a large industry now has created its own problems. And that is the catch with all "government tinkering". Whatever you think you're going to create by "targeted encouragement", it won't be nirvana. The Ontario government is ramping up wind power (over nuclear), and is facing increasing opposition from rural people who don't like the industrialization of their landscape that this entails. Energy production on a large scale - whatever the source - has a large environmental footprint.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tiny Houses...

For a while, I've been following the trend towards "tiny houses". Architects are coming up with cool, very functional dwellings with really small footprints. They are beautiful objects of desire. Of course, it doesn't hurt that these places are always photographed basically empty and with no people inside them (so it is hard to judge the scale - to see how really tiny they are!).

Architectural mags are full of these things, and they come in wheeled versions as well.

Recently it struck me that all these houses are always photographed in rural settings. As in, a tiny house alone on an open prairie, by a lake, in a forest...and suddenly I realized that these houses are therefore not a housing solution at all, really. They don't help people who really need small homes, get housing. I mean, isn't the target market for such tiny homes supposed to be those of us who don't need a lot of space, but don't have a lot of money, either? These folks are surely not going to have the money to buy an acreage or a suburban lot, and plunk down an architecturally-designed microhome on it.

The problem is the cost of land. So if you need to live like this (a "tiny house" on wheels in someone's back yard - I suspect it's the parents'), I really wonder if it wouldn't be more comfortable and a far better investment to use the money to fix up your parent's basement instead, and live there?? That way, their house might actually go up in value, too. You could still live debt-free and without a car! Just sayin'!

Or this (a new "tiny home" constructed on an urban plot). To what problem, exactly, is this a solution?? Read about how the owner doesn't qualify for a traditional mortgage (because the bank has figured out that nobody will want to buy this house if the loan goes into default). I mean, if you have a tiny lot and you need infill, then OK (we've got some of those on a street near us and they are quite functional - but they're bigger than this one). But on a standard lot? Really, build something normal with a basement suite. Srsly.

What's really needed in terms of microhousing are things like laneway homes and legal suites, where you increase the density on existing plots of land. Or small - affordable - apartments in cities, which again, increase density. And these are all controversial exactly because they increase density.  So, this explains why tiny houses are marketed they way they are: alone in an expansive landscape, where they are clearly innocent of any controversial density-increasing tendencies.

Don't get me wrong. There is lots to be said for simplifying one's life, for downsizing and doing with less, and if reading magazines that emphasize white space, or staring at nice photos of small homes, helps you achieve that, so much the better. But be aware of what these outfits are selling. Those magazines are there to make you buy shit. Most of the people who build those tiny homes do not actually live in them - they are used as "retreats", rented out to vacationers, or lived in by young couples who abandon them after a year.

So, while I love the pretty houses, and it's great that small houses are now objects of desire with a certain demographic, the real problem is getting them installed, in large numbers, in cities. And that's not something those magazines help with...

Monday, July 7, 2014

Art for New West

What with the controversy surrounding some public art in New West (note: I like 'em. I'm a fan of public art. I even like that stupid Tin Soldier.), I thought I'd give y'all some ideas of what I think would really up the ante for the waterfront.

1. a one-way-glass public toilet:

[outside view of mirror-glass public loo]

[inside view!]

I have actually used one of these, in Basel, Switzerland, a number of years ago. Very disconcerting, I must say. I think it would be an interesting addition to the Quay!

 2. a giant rubber ducky in the Fraser River:

[giant inflatable rubber duck by artist Florentijn Hofman]

There might be some issues deploying Rubber Duck in the Fraser, he'd have to swim around the log booms, but I think it'd be waaay cool!

3. a "kinetic" water fountain (ie. one that moves):

[water fountain / sculpture by Jean Tinguely]
We saw lots of work by the late Jean Tinguely when we lived in Switzerland, they are all wonderful. Nice to sit around in the heat of the day, too. The only problem: kids want to play in them.

4. a giant inflatable red ball that moves around the city:


What an addition to the Parkade this would be, squished between the floors...

5. take some time to smell the flowers...

[just a suggestion...]

I'm not sure this qualifies as "art", but what the heck. I think a few signs like this along the Boardwalk might liven up the scene a bit.

6. Sunshades...
[this is an installation in Portugal]

Nice for the new Pier Park, I think! That red pavillion doesn't have any roof...

I think money spent on public art is never wasted. It gets people thinking. It gets people talking. It gets people visiting and walking around outside!