Archive for category Energy

European Union as a Model

For three years I have been running in place in terms of my research.   It’s not that I haven’t worked.  I’ve delved into new literature and even did some writing.    I’ve blogged about it here and here.   Yet somehow, despite lots of notes, books read and false starts, I’m left where I started – lots of ideas and ambitions, but no clear research strategy.

How do I restart my research?   My last publication was in 2009, when I shifted to this “new project.”   The final draft of my last major work, German Foreign Policy: Navigating a New Era, was sent to the publisher on April 3, 2003, the day my first son was born.     With young kids I purposefully cut back on research, but now I have a desire to write and produce but progress is elusive.

The problem is that I lacked a clear center.   The themes have been shifting- the changing nature of sovereignty, the impact of the communications revolution and social media, the profound challenge created by energy and environmental crises, the dysfunctional nature of economic policy throughout the industrialized world and the shift of power and influence from the West towards countries like China, India, and Brazil – whew!    How do I come up with a clear framework?   At times I think I have a track and then somehow it goes astray.

So I started to think.   What is the point of my research, why am I motivated to move away from examining German foreign policy?    The answer is because I feel myself lucky and intrigued to be living in an era of real crisis and transformation (the theme of this blog).   As a social scientist I find it fascinating to be on the planet at this time, watching as one era folds into another, bringing about profound change.

Watching the political discourse, its clear in the attacks on Obama that many people are lost in the 21st Century, trying to understand it through a 20th Century anachronistic lens

A motive of mine is to focus on what I see as the biggest barrier to successful navigation of this period of transition – old thinking.   Old thinking is everywhere!   When I see someone call Obama a “socialist” or a “Marxist,” I shake my head in amazement — can’t they see how obsolete looking at the world in those terms has become?   When people argue against globalization, talk as if a fossil fuel based economy is sustainable or speak of American power as if it still has the force it did in the last century, I realize “old thinking” dominates much of the political discourse.

That’s true in the US, but not so much in Europe.   I’m surprised by how Americans dismiss the European Union.   When the Eurocrisis started a couple years ago bloggers said things like ‘bye bye Euro’ and a few dismissed the possibility that the EU could survive.   I realized they were imagining people in the EU to be thinking about politics just like they were – with ‘old thinking.’  This is especially true from Great Britain and the US, the two former hegemonic powers where old thinking remains strongest.

E pluribus unum?

Yet within the EU, new thinking has already become entrenched.   The EU achieved the goals set by the Kyoto accords without harming their economy and are cutting ambitiously moving forward.   Germany plans to be off fossil fuels by 2050.   Military power is considered best used for humanitarian interventions sanctioned by the UN and not raw pursuit of national interest.  Sovereignty has already been replaced by subsidiarity, and globalization is taken as a matter of course.

That’s it – the European Union needs to be the center of the research.   All policies and issues connect, and it takes me back to a literature I know well and have been studying since the 80s – European integration!   Moreover, I think there needs to be some work done really stressing the revolutionary, positive and sustainable aspects of the EU at a time when people want to prematurely embrace its demise.   The fact the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize this year only adds to its relevance.

The Euro crisis opens the door to analyze the global economic crisis, its causes and the way out.  The EU’s strong focus on human rights, the environment and energy opens the door to address those issues, including the diversity between France’s embrace of nuclear energy to Germany’s (apparent) rejection of the same.    The diverging paths of the US and EU since the Iraq war, including questions about the future of NATO, open the door to discussing terrorism and the nature of war/conflict in this new era.   Issues involving Islam and the West are profound in Europe.   The whole package requires a new theoretical approach to politics, building on the neo-liberalism and identity theories of the 20th Century.

That necessarily includes the impact of the information revolution ranging from the internet to social media and beyond.  But with the EU as the core, I can now envision how it will fall into place, including how all the work I did the last three years is not for naught — I simply needed something to center it.   To find that I went back to my roots as an academic, a focus on Europe and the EU.   In fact, my concluding chapter in the book on German foreign policy has those very arguments which I can build upon.

Of course!  The answer has been in front of me all the time.   I thought I had to venture away from my specialization to look at media and change.   The key is to integrate these ideas into what I’ve already been doing.   Time to get writing!


Invisible Obama

After the Eastwood debacle at the Republican National Convention, a number of people have suggested that Eastwood was more effective than the media give credit.   He said what people are thinking, veered from the slick, scripted propaganda show that conventions represent, and may help Romney more than hurt.

To me, that’s nonsense.   This distracted from the Republican message, overshadowed Romney, and solidified an image of Republicans as out of touch angry white people.   While some see a populist battle cry in “we own this country,” others see a rich white guy talking to a group of wealthy Republican activists.

Clearly, the meaning is in the eye of the beholder.  Still, Clint’s skit may give the Democrats a clear message moving forward: the Republicans are running against an imaginary Obama that isn’t there.

This is true about almost all the Republican rhetoric about the state of the country and the convention.  While I see a slow recovery from a deep global crisis thirty years in the making, with President Obama charting a course to adapt to a very different world, the Republicans talked about us losing our freedom, with Romney even saying something utterly remarkable: that if we re-elect President Obama he can guarantee that our future will not be as good as our past.

“To the majority of Americans who now believe that the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this: if Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right.”

Think about that.   Let that statement sink in.    He’s not saying that he has a better plan, or even that four more years of Obama will mean we’ll lose time in solving the problems, he’s making an ominous statement that re-electing Obama would deal a fatal blow to the country, we’ll lose our freedoms, we’ll decline, and the future will be dark and bleak.

At the end of his speech he ridiculed Obama’s concern for global warming by mockingly saying “he promised he’d stop the oceans from rising and heal our planet,” feeding into the Republican image of Obama as some kind of global internationalist that doesn’t care about what effects real people.

As wildfires rage, storms brew and drought spreads, is climate change really a good subject for a snarky laugh line?

When I look at President Obama, I see a pretty effective leader who governs left of center (but more center than left), dealing with a global economic crisis that continues to impact countries from China to the US.   No President could magically fix the US, but given Senate filibusters and two years of GOP control of the House, he’s not been able to implement much of anything.    The idea that we have to “save America” or that Obama is a dangerous failure is simply bizarre.

Yet, I’m sure many believe it.   Part of it is simply a difficulty dealing with the demographic and cultural changes sweeping the country (and the planet).    The country is less white, more diverse, more secular and open to change than before.   Issues like gay marriage shock some people and if they look nostalgically back to the 1980s, well it is a very different country.   And those demographic and cultural trends are increasing in pace, regardless of who wins this year.

Yet I lean towards fiscal conservatism and agrees with many Republican critiques of government over reach and the danger of creating a psychology of dependency if social welfare programs are not designed to spur people on to take initiative and succeed.  I also worry about debt (both public and private) and building a sustainable economy.   The Republicans own that issue, right?   Obama’s passed the stimulus and increased debt to GDP ratios, after all.

But to me, it’s not that clear cut.   Most debt was run up during booms by Republican Presidents, while Obama’s stimulus was, I think, necessary given the situation in 2009.   Without it, I think we’d be mired in a much deeper mess, probably with negative GDP growth rather than +1.7%.    Moreover, tax cuts on the wealthy caused much of that debt, and even Ben Stein, a Republican, agrees that it’s a fairy tale to think tax cuts magically increase new revenue enough to overcome the loss of revenue they entail.

Amazing that the GOP has built a campaign and a convention theme around a statement that they admit was taken out of context – Obama correctly said that infrastructure, the legal system and other things needed for success were built by others. This makes it seem like Romney is building his campaign on lies and distortions.

The GOP talks a good game on the economy but they haven’t backed it up — quite the opposite.  Their policies created this mess, though the Democrats share that blame.   I know some of my views are against many Democratic ideas;  I want to restructure entitlements and social welfare programs to make things sustainable for the long run.    The two sides have to come together.   I think Obama wants to do that, I think many Republicans want to do that.   The extreme anti-Obama rhetoric to me reflects a core of the GOP that is holding their party hostage — and I fear what they’ll do if the GOP has total power.

Finally, I am convinced global warming is a serious problem, that we need to work on alternative energies, and that there is a role for government to assist the private sector in such ventures.   Some will fail (the US space program had numerous disasters and failures before hitting the right stride), but this is necessary.   I can’t fathom the antipathy to such programs or the (to me) mindless adherence to the free market (even though it’s not really free since big business and big government are in bed together) that is used to blow off such concerns.    On both global warming and energy the right seems to blow off science and evidence for ideological purposes.   That’s scary.

Tomasky notes that this could work as a theme: the GOP is arguing against a fictional invisible Obama (love this pic from George Takei!)

So to me, my “reality” and experience of President Obama and the current situation seems grounded in objective evidence.   I agree with Michael Tomasky that the key for Obama is to battle the myths spread by the GOP, or the “imaginary Obama” that the Republicans have constructed.  I know enough about psychology to know that like all humans I’m pre-disposed to avoid cognitive dissonance and look for evidence to back up what I believe.    But try as I may, I cannot see the invisible Obama that Clint Eastwood and so many Republicans view so clearly.


Four Years In

The complex (and mostly private sector) causes of this crisis defy soundbites and thus are not really a part of the current political debate.

Although in retrospect the economic slowdown that continues across the globe to this day started sometime in 2007, the realization that we were entering a period of intense economic crisis became undeniable back in September 2008.   The world stood at the brink of a collapse of credit and a spiral into severe depression.    Various fiscal and monetary stimuli helped ward that off, but many of the core problems remain:

1.  High debt levels in the advanced industrialized states from both government and private sector actors.    US total debt is near 340% of GDP, about $50 trillion.   In comparison total global government debt is just under $50 trillion.    Total global debt is at $190 trillion, or about three times the global GDP.   So this is a global problem, and it’s not primarily government debt that’s to blame.

A fetish with government debt has caused people to overlook the fact that the problem is total debt — global debt to GDP ratios are quite high

2.  Shifting demographics in the advanced industrialized states which will require a modification of retirement pension schemes and other reforms in order to stay solvent.

3.   An imbalance between consumption and production, with the former focused on the advanced industrialized states of Europe, the US and Japan, and the latter in emerging markets such as China, Brazil, and India.

Consumption rose to unsustainable levels after 2000, even as production declined – the era of consumerism was a fools’ paradise.

4.   Environmental factors involving global warming, over population, chemical poisons and other results from over a century of unprecedented material economic growth.   We don’t know how bad all this will be, but those who dismiss or minimize the danger are living in a fools’ paradise.

5.   Potential problems with natural resources, particularly oil, water, and minerals needed in order to maintain economic growth.    Energy shortages are the most visible (and have been experienced in small doses), but crises involving water and in the near future other valuable minerals may define the next century.

Political leaders are still trying to grapple with how to handle this transition.   There are no easy solutions.   Despite the election year rhetoric, no President would have fared any better than Obama on the economy – this is a global, structural crisis that defies quick policy fixes.     The two favorite solutions are dubious.   From the left you get the Krugman School that points to the need for a massive stimulus of trillions of dollars to retool the economy and get the country moving.     On the right there is a call for less government regulation and less spending.

Less government spending will slow the economy, and in fact slows it faster than tax hikes would.   Less regulation might be good in many sectors, but in some such as the financial sector it was the cause of allowing things to get so bad.   The housing bubble (which helped fuel the growth of private debt) is directly attributable to lack of regulation of derivative markets and the collapse of effective financial regulation in general.    Government regulations on small business may choke innovation, but lack of regulation of big corporate actors that buy government favors and transcend borders has been fatal.

This chart shows the problem, a massive increase in debt from 2001 to 2008 (not government debt, total debt). This is a private sector crisis, not created by governments.

Government stimulus would cause a short term spurt, but the evidence is strong that once you reach about a 100% debt to GDP ratio the increased debt does more harm than the good done by the stimulus.   In Japan goverment debt soared to 200% of GDP without stimulating growth.   Moreover, unless its directed in a manner that is assured to improve productive capacity and build the economy the money could end up going into consumption of foreign produced goods or risky financial speculation.   In short, if not done right a stimulus would leave us no better off but with much more debt and a deeper structural crisis.

So four years in, here’s my assessment of where we are – an ambiguous assessment, I admit!

1.   Gloom and doom has been overstated.   This is a long term crisis, but not the collapse of western or global civilization.  We have fiscal and monetary tools to avoid collapse or depression era numbers.

2.  Debt levels in the private sector are down significantly (total US debt has gone from about 375% of GDP to 340%).   That paying down of debt is a big deal — and is also one reason the stimulus from more government debt didn’t do more.  In a best case scenario this will continue and level out and over time economic conditions will improve.  However, the old “normal” of very low unemployment, easy credit and consumerism was built on sand – we won’t go back to 2006.

3.  Big structural issues – especially demographics, energy, water and global warming — remain unknowns.   Demographic change is less dangerous than global warming.     Demographic problems can be solved through reform of pension systems and a growing economy with more reliance on technology.  Ultimately too many people is more dangerous than too few.   We are seeing a start of a transition from fossil fuels to alternatives, and relatively large natural gas supplies suggest this could be a stable rather than sudden transition.   Global warming can make all these problems worse, however, and very little has been done on that front.   That remains the gravest threat facing humanity.

4.  Inflation is coming.   An odd aspect of this whole crisis is the way deflationary fears have overshadowed inflation fears despite weaknesses in major global currencies.   On the plus side, the ability to pay down (private) debt despite low inflation rates is a very good sign that we don’t need to inflate our way out of this crisis.   However, to keep the Euro viable loose monetary policy will be embraced by the ECB to handle Spanish, Italian and Greek debt.   The Federal Reserve may engage in another bout of “quantitative easing” (akin to printing money).   This shouldn’t yield a currency collapse or hyper-inflation, but robust inflation rates of 5 to 10% probably will occur and create new difficulties.

5.  The weatlhy are not always job creators.   The growth of debt in the last ten years have yielded a growth of wealth for the investor class.   This has not been earned through job creation but easy money schemes built on debt – the very thing that threatens the global economy.   It was built on bubble money that yielded no productive gains; this kind of easy money at low tax rates is part of the problem, not the solution.

All told, I’m more optimistic now than I’ve been any time in the last decade about the future of the economy.   I think we’re still five years away from emerging into a new kind of global economy and there are still difficulties and pain to endure.   We’re four years in, and at least four years from the conclusion.   But there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

The real crisis is the gap between the first world and third world; while globalization is improving conditions in some areas, most of Africa and much of Asia still faces intense poverty


The Time of Transition

A piece of the fabric of space-time fractured in my office today and a description of a course to be offered in 2279 slipped through. Weird, that.

It is the year 2279.     Here Professor Hubert Morgan talks about the popular history course on the era of transition from 1985 to 2065 when somehow the global system survived a series of crises without collapsing.   Instead, the basis for the peaceful global union we have today was forged.

We look back at the era as one of instability, riots and fear that we luckily managed to survive – students in this course learn to understand the era through the eyes of those who actually lived through it!

People come to the course with a variety of expectations.   They know that this was the era of globalization, economic crisis, the collapse of the sovereign state as a system of governance, intense global warming, energy crises and famine, but they also know that the story had a happy ending.   Not only did they solve their problems through a mix of technological ingenuity, political creativity and adaptation, but they forged an ongoing era of peace, known as the Global Union.

In my course I try to as much as possible get them to experience that era the way the people living through it did — not knowing for sure what was happening, finding it hard to let go of old concepts and ideals, and fearful of the future.

Students get hands on experience with old technology such as this mid-1980s version of a “personal computer.” Now seen as ancient and archaic, these machines were the gateway into the information revolution that changed the world.

We start at 1985 – the year when both globalization and the information revolution started to take off.    We spend time there, learning about the culture, the state of the world, the films (students especially enjoy one called “Back to the Future”), the games, and the music.

Students laugh when they see the 1985 game “tetris,” which looks much like the exercises two year olds engage in to develop spatial cognition. “It’s surprisingly addictive,” one student grudgingly noted.

People choose various media experiences – that was the age of motion pictures, television, and the emergence of music on compact discs – large cumbersome devices that nonetheless opened the door to the era of digital music.  The idea is to immerse themselves in this strange but fascinating past before heading onto the roller coaster of the next eighty years.

Students take awhile to understand ideology.   Ideology is now seen as a kind of mental prison forcing people into stagnant modes of thought, but politics was ideological in those days.   Students need to understand the bizarre “Cold War” and why it was so difficult for people to think outside narrow political or national boundaries.  It’s not that people were stupid or bigoted, they simply saw that world of ideology, ethnicity and states as natural.

We also explore why warnings on the growing economic imbalances, the loss of oil as a major energy source, and global warming were ignored and even denied.   One student described it as “cultural group think.”

I think the part that often most startles them is the “trips” to virtual farms to see how animals were treated and food produced.   Even though they know it’s not real, when talking to the farmers the odors, inhumane treatment of the animals and the way in which chemicals and other additives are simply dumped into the food chain sometimes makes some students physically ill.   Of all the things that make life 300 years ago so wretched, most say food production is the biggest reason they wouldn’t want to go back!

Nothing prepares students for the virtual tours of chicken farms, and immersion into the food and chemical culture of the era. “How could they eat what was treated so barbarically?” students ask. The answer – most people never gave a second thought to where their food came from, or how it was manufactured.

Of course, the worst part of that era — 2015 to 2045 — can’t help but grab attention.  Looked at as a thirty year “era” it’s easy to understand it and figure out why things worked out the way they did.   In our course we try to accentuate the uncertainty people living through that era experienced – they truly feared global instability, mass warfare, disease and even human survival.

As global warming rendered huge sections of the planet virtually uninhabitable due to drought and disease, many thought that humans would fall back into savagery and chaos.

We follow the side stories of the scientists, politicians, thinkers and cultural icons that strove to keep civilization together and built ties between the impoverished suffering states of Africa and parts of Asia with the technologically advanced people in Europe and North America.    Students recognize how fragile these connections were, especially early on, and how easily they might have been destroyed by fearful nationalism and bigotry.    The wisdom that global cooperation was necessary was a hard sell only on!

In 1901 the first “gusher” at Mt. Spindletop in Texas helped usher in the age of oil – cheap, transportable and extremely efficient energy. A whole society was built on cheap energy, and when oil became scarce by the 2020s people feared collapse.

The final era is that of consolidation, from 2045 to 2065 when the Treaty of Global Union was signed and most of the severe problems of the 21st Century were solved.     This includes the new economics in which the ideologies of capitalism and socialism were jettisoned for a pragmatic approach that combined ideas from all, but focused on human liberty and opportunity as the core values.    Massive debt was wiped out as all old currencies were simply abolished and the world started a new with a global currency and blank slate.   In retrospect all that seems to have been inevitable, but students learn how gut wrenching and scary it was while the issues were debated.

In the course we trace how the information revolution led to the capacity to massively decentralize government and bring it closer to the people, making possible a “Global Union” of core shared rules but little centralized power.   They realize how odd such an arrangement would look to an early 21st Century human so used to seeing centralization and de-centralization as mutually incompatible.

The new science of energy, food and climate is perhaps the most intriguing.  We all learn it as natural, and look back at the materialism, consumerism, pollution and poisonous chemicals as a barbaric aspect of the old era.   In this class students learn how that was taken as natural, and how dramatic the change in thinking was — so dramatic that absent global catastrophe it might never have happened.

The virtual trips to the era are life like.  It is as if we have traveled back in time, our ability to use holography to create worlds that appear completely real to our senses makes this possible.

The past comes alive for students with hyper-programmed holographic technology — something imagined (albeit in very crude form) back in 1987 on a show known as Star Trek.

This course reminds us of crises caused by the era of greed, corruption, materialism, lack of respect for the environment and pursuit of pure self-interest without regard for the common good.   By learning about the past we can better understand our present, appreciate what we’ve accomplished, and remind ourselves that humans do best when we understand we share a common destiny, both with each other and with our planet.


If Only We Had Listened Then

On July 15, 1979 President Carter returned from nearly two weeks at Camp David to give a speech that would be remembered as a highlight — and some might say a lowlight — of his Presidency.   The speech is often the subject of such caricature that it gets remembered as far different than it was.   Called the “crisis of confidence” speech, it got morphed into the “malaise” speech (though Carter never used the term) and was trashed by his opponents, both Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

At the time of the speech it was well received.   His approval ratings jumped from 25% to 35% in the week afterwards.   In that speech he said America was at a cross roads.   He painted two visions of the path forward:

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.

The first path was one with a mistaken notion of freedom as being all about self-interest and distrust of community.   That path would lead, he warned, to crass materialism, narrow self-interest, and an unsustainable economy.   It would be a rejection of the values that made America great in favor of individual pursuit of people trying to get whatever they could, looking out only for their own bottom line, and justifying any injustices with a claim that if the market provided that result, it must be OK.   As Carter warned:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.  But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.

The second path was one leading to energy independence, a focus on alternative energies, and a renewal of the American community.   For Carter this was a moral issue.   America’s future depends on the American people putting values ahead of greed, and coming together to face a world where we had become susceptible to oil shocks, facing economic uncertainty and realizing that the government couldn’t solve America’s problems.   He called the country to come together and take a long range vision of what is needed, avoiding the temptation to turn to cheap and illusory solutions.

If you don’t want to watch the speech, you can read it here.

Instead the US choose to follow another path, put forward by Ronald Reagan who defeated Carter in 1980 and promised Americans they could, as the beer commercial said “have it all.”

Reagan’s vision was seductive.   First of all, Reagan was a good man and people trusted him.   He clearly believed what he said.   He also was telling Americans what they wanted to hear.   The problems we face aren’t ones of values and the need for difficult choices.   All we need to do is cut taxes and let the American people shine and we’ll be that “shining city on the hill” once again.

When Reagan came into office he removed the solar panels Carter had installed on the White House.    He cut taxes.   The economy grew.   But yet, it was indeed an illusion.    The economy would have grown no matter who had been elected, deep oil price cuts injected massive amounts of money into the economy.   The recession that was so bad in 1980 had been induced by Paul Volcker’s monetary policies; once inflation was tamed, that and lower oil prices were a certain path to ending the recession.

But Reagan and the Democrats — this was a bi-partisan illusion — then engaged in a massive build up of debt.   US government debt to GDP ratio went from 30% to 60% in the 1980s.   That hyperstimulated the economy and started us down the road of having an unsustainable debt-based consumer economy.   Consumer debt started to rise too.    Total debt (private and public) had tended to hover around 150%.   In the 80s that debt zoomed up to over 250%.   The economic boom associated to Reagan was simply a country charging on its credit card, going into debt, and thinking things must be good because they could buy so much stuff.

Of course this continued.   Government debt growth slowed in the 90s, but private and consumer debt kept soaring.   Debt and low taxes on the wealthy produced not jobs via trickle down economics, but bubbles as investors chased the dream of “something for nothing.”   Americans both left and right thought that the good times would last forever, even as debt mounted to nearly 400% of GDP overall (public and private).

Now we’re in a crisis of massive debt, fears of long term energy crises, and no clear way to get back on the path of sustainability.    It’s led to wars and our political system, once the envy of the world, seems defined by partisan pundits who too often see compromise as something for only the weak.   Given that the US system can only run via compromise, it’s a path towards political stagnation and fragmentation at a time when we need to come together.

If we had listened to Carter in 1979 and saw the country’s problems as rooted in a weakening of the core values of community and sacrifice in favor of consumption and greed, we might now be in a much better place with a far better future.    Yet we didn’t.   But we can still learn from Carter’s words.   Our problems are primarily about values and ethics, not about economics and policy.   Focus there first and come together as a country true to our core principles — values shared by the left and the right — and we can start to rebuild the American dream.


Geothermal Update

The heat exchange unit, which sends warm or cold air to the attic where a fan then sends it through the house

Last June I blogged about our installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system in our house.  (The link is to one of the final blogs, go earlier in the week to see the process).   Now seven months later it’s time for an update.

It is winter.   You can’t tell by looking out the window because we are barren of snow.  That is exceedingly rare for December 30th and has destroyed my plans to spend the week skiing with the boys here in town.    We did get a two inch snowfall on December 23rd that melted on December 26th.   Maine without a white Christmas would have been an abomination!

So far the geothermal system gets a mixed review.  It does a quick, reasonably silent and comfortable job heating and cooling.   It’s nice that air doesn’t blast out of the ducts; it’s even hard to tell when the system is running.    As expected, there isn’t a lot of heat being pushed to the basement, so while we keep the upstairs at a comfortable 68 when we’re around, the basement is usually a good five or six degrees cooler.   We do have a space heater we use sparingly (and we could turn on the oil heat if we really wanted the basement toasty).

We don’t seem to be saving as much money as we hoped to.   We haven’t seen any help from our desuperheater, designed to provide hot water.    I expected better from something called a ‘desuperheater.’   It is supposed to augment our boiler, which now is used only for hot water and back up heat.   The goal was to burn 15% of the oil we used to, but it’s more like 30% –  which is pretty much what hot water costs anyway!   The boiler acts as if the desuperheater isn’t there.

To install it we not only had to deepen our well from 360 feet to 840, but dig up the front lawn to connect a second pipe for returning the water. The well provides both domestic water and geothermal.

I plan to increase the temperature of the water sent from the geothermal unit to the hot water supply.   I originally set it to 125 instead of 150 out of fear that water too hot would burn the kids.   I think the water sent would mix with cooler water so I’ll experiment with that.  If the kids start suffering 2nd degree burns I’ll turn the temperature back down.

The other issue is electricity.   Unfortunately our electric bills haven’t been consistent.   Despite the new use of ‘smart meters,’ a device which sends information on usage to the company so CMP can lay off meter readers, we seem to be getting a lot of estimated bills or wild fluctuations from month to month.

The total cost of the system was nearly $40,000, though we do get a third of it back in tax credits (thanks, Uncle Sam!), making the final cost about $28,000.   To pay it back in 10 years we’d need a savings of $2800 a year (I didn’t even need a calculator for that one!).    Last year we paid $4500 for heating oil.   This year we’re likely going to pay about $1200.    That puts us at a savings of $3300 before the electric bill.   The electric bill used to be about $120 a month.   For people outside Maine that sounds like a lot, but we have expensive electricity in Maine — even the Governor complains about that!

In summer the cooling didn’t increase the cost much, but last month’s bill spiked.   If that continues (one month is hard to go by with electric bills, you have to average them out), we could be looking at $500 more for the three  coldest months, and  probably about $700 more for the rest of the year.   Even that is suspect because we had two dehumidifiers pumping water out of the year non-stop this summer since my wife got concerned that there is too much mold in the basement air.   I thought it added character to the atmosphere but her sinuses disagreed.

If those figures are accurate that would mean the additional electricity would cost about $1200, or $100 a month on average.   That would make our savings $2100 for the year.   If we can’t improve on that it will take the system as much as 15 years to pay for itself.

So far the system has only malfunctioned once, and Jeff Gagnon Heating and Plumbing was there early the next day to fix what was a minor problem (free of charge, of course, as it is under warranty).   I gotta love Maine — we weren’t able to be home when they could stop by, so we just left the house unlocked.   That’s typical here.   During that time it was nice to have oil heat back up.   We also had a 13 hour power outage in mid-autumn which also required us to use oil.   We have a generator, but it’s not powerful enough to start the geothermal system.   The electrician who worked on the installation just laughed heartily when I pointed to my generator and asked if it would be enough to keep the geothermal going.

Despite that, I still do not regret installing the system.   My wife – a CPA much more in tune with money issues than a dreamy academic like me – isn’t so sure.    But if oil prices sky rocket, the payback time could decrease quickly.  Looking at headlines from Iran, Syria, and the Mideast I find it a bit comforting not to be relying completely on oil.

We have heat going down to the basement through three upstairs closets; so far it's providing minimal but valuable help

I also really like having air conditioning in the summer.   You don’t need it in Maine, but if you’re going to entertain guests, cook indoors, or be comfortable on those hot weeks (and we seem to be getting more of them), it is very pleasant.   We couldn’t have had central air without duct work being done anyway, and that was a chunk of the cost.    We would never have gotten central air for that reason and a few window units would have been a pain.   There is real value to having a cooling system!

Finally, I’m not yet convinced about the cost.   I need more data about the cost of electricity over a full year, and I hope to get the desuperheater to provide more relief heating water.

So the unit works well, we get good heat, and I’m happy with it.   We don’t seem to be saving as much as we hoped for, and the basement stays chillier than the upstairs.   Nonetheless seven months in I’m still glad we did this!   My wife tells me that even if I get a major midlife crisis I’d better be happy with my Ford Fusion for at least another decade — this was my expensive toy of choice.   I can live with that!


Political Pragmatism

You want to make me dictator?  OK, here’s what I’ll do:

1) Slash US military spending, start an orderly but fast withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, leave the NATO alliance, and instead focus on enough military to defend the homeland, and a long range plan of intelligence sharing and operations to counter terrorism and other threats;

2) Abolish the current tax code and create a progressive fair tax that had marginal rates lower than the current ones, but wipes out almost all tax breaks and loopholes.   The new system would be a revenue generator, but would not place a greater burden on families earning less than $125,000 a year;

3) Restructure the health care system to guarantee care to every citizen through state run programs with federal benchmarks and requirements.   States will have considerable leeway how they do this, and we can learn from their different experiences.   Medicare as we know it will be subsumed in this new system.   Costly duplications and pharmaceuticals will not be covered unless absolutely necessary (and generics will be the only drugs covered where they’re available);

4) Social welfare programs would be restructured to be results-driven — not simply transfers of income but actual opportunity creators focused on jobs, education/apprenticeship, and community action.  This would be done with a focus of community organization rather than federal bureaucracy with the idea of building community solidarity;

5) A blue ribbon panel of economists will focus on economic investments that are designed to return the country to sustainable economic production to replace the hyper consumerism of the past thirty years (especially the 00’s).

Of course, I’m not about to be made dictator, and even if President Obama privately agreed with all that, he couldn’t do much to turn it into reality.

The US was founded on the core governing value of political pragmatism.   The founders knew that competing interests and ideals meant that conflict and disagreement would be at the core of the American political soul.   Moreover, they felt that such conflict and disagreement could be good — it could force people to have their beliefs critically challenged, and have to find common ground with people of different interests.   The only way the US can undertake major political initiatives is through compromise.

The right wing of the Republican party and the so called “tea partiers” (at least the radical ones) are the most virulent and dangerous wing of the current anti-pragmatists.  Using that old canard of “standing on principle” (which all too often means ‘calling my subjective beliefs principle and refusing to look at any evidence that might call them into question’) they enthusiastically and with the demeanor of a self-righteous crusader out to slay Satan’s hordes hoped to force the country into a crisis.   They lied to themselves that the US “wouldn’t really default” and that they could somehow bring back fiscal sanity.   They wanted to get their way completely.   If they couldn’t then they’d cause so much damage that the whole system would collapse.   One person equated it to an alcoholic whose life has to hit rock bottom before he changes.   The country needs default and a currency collapse before it will change its habits.

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner learned that if a large enough contingent of such radicals make it into Congress and refuse to play by the tradition of American pragmatism, they can make the entire government dysfunctional.   On the left, a lot of liberals want to reject the agreement for only slightly less insane reasons.   They’re mad that a radical cadre of Republicans could force this down their throat, and believe that they only way to respond is in kind.    The President should do what’s necessary to fight them — risk default, risk a constitutional crisis by invoking a 14th amendment not meant for this kind of case, and go the mattresses in partisan war!

In some ways this is typical for the House.  It’s always more partisan and rowdy than the stoic Senate.   The President, by comparison, is meant to be a unifying symbol and has to look out for the long term good of the country.   If the US didn’t raise the debt ceiling, and more importantly if the US didn’t show signs of making progress cutting the debt, our credit rating would have sunk.   That sounds bland, but the consequences would have been severe, perhaps catastrophic.   Pushed by their own core constituencies into a difficult situation, they realized they had to compromise.

The compromise is the essence of pragmatism.   No major decisions were set in stone — the cuts they agreed to were agreed upon early on in the process and were probably a minimum to avoid a downgrade.   A no-cut scenario was out of question, without progress on the debt a downgrade was virtually certain.  The bi-partisan commission who will report recommendations includes all the top players, assuring no one can get steamrolled by something like the “Gang of Six” Senate moderates who had true independence.   They rigged the deck further by making consequences for not acting on that bi-partisan committee report painful to both parties.     They had enough votes to allow the more partisan in both parties to complain loudly.  But they did what they had to do.

The left simply cannot get its way in this political environment.   Not only is there no chance for tax increases or a new stimulus, but not cutting deficits will lead to a downgrade with a further drag on the economy.   The right is simply out of touch with reality — they’ll never get entitlement reform and deeper cuts without tax increases and the closing of loopholes.  It cannot happen.

Little was decided with the debt ceiling compromise.  This was an opening skirmish in a political battle that will continue.   The 2012 election will be a war, followed by diplomacy to determine how the relative balance of power decides what kind of policy will prevail.  It’ll be slow, agonizing, and the advantage will shift from left to right quite often over coming years.  There will be emotion, anger, and new compromises and deals that will satisfy no one.

Leaders will be blamed for the political reality they inherit.   Populists will make it sound like an easy solution exists if only the politicians would grasp it.   I don’t know how the future will turn out, who will win in 2012, or where the economy is going.  I do know that if political pragmatism ever loses out partisan warfare of the kind we saw flashes of here, we may shift to a very destructive phase of America’s democratic experience.

The tradition of pragmatism is strong; it is the American way and has been for generations.   Tradition and political culture are resilient, especially in a country this stable and old (yes, in terms of functioning democracies we’re older than European states).   The spectacle was exciting, the anger on the left and right over a compromise neither like is palpable.   But pragmatism won the day, and assures that the battle over the future simply moves to another venue down the line.   That’s what the founders intended.


Geothermal Up and Running!

We won't always keep it this cool in summer, but for the first day running it was nice!

Today was an unusually warm and humid day for Maine in June — upper eighties by late afternoon.   That made it the perfect day to see how well the A/C function on the newly installed and operating system functions.    Unfortunately for the workers they had to work in the heat of the day (finishing in the attic at about 11:00, as the temperature hit 120 there) and couldn’t enjoy the cool air until right before they left.

The desuperheater is supposed to help with hot water, but will compete with the boiler

It was still an intense work day for them.   Any retrofit requires working around the idiosyncrasies of a house not built for geothermal.   Still, they answered all my questions and cleaned up before the left.    One issue is the desuperheater, which sends very hot water directly to the hot water tank when the unit is running.   It can send it at either 125 or 150, though 150 is above the state regulation.  I can set it there, but the installer couldn’t.

The problem is our water was set at 135, meaning that the boiler would still kick on and we’d save little in summer, even when theoretically we should be getting a lot of “free” hot water.  If I set it for 150 that could overcome that, but then there’s danger of severe burns if the kids got under it at its hottest.   I lowered the temperature to about 115 instead, so hopefully that’ll help.   The most efficient way to use the desuperheater is with an electric hot water heater.   In summer it would hardly ever go on, and only sometimes in winter.   If we really want to save we could go that route.

The unit all hooked up and working!

While he was explaining this there was some commotion and cold white “smoke” was coming out of the heat exchange pump.   “I’m stopping it with my hand,” one guy said.   “Move it, you’ll get frostbite,” another responded.  The leader of the crew started to work on it and got everything under control.   Other than that, things went very well!

The pump draws in water from the well, currently about 52 degrees, and takes heat from the house and puts it in the water.  The water is then sent back to the well about five or six degrees warmer.   In essence it refrigerates our house by removing heat rather than injecting cool air — though it feels like the latter as cool air comes from the vents.    In the winter it’s reversed, heat is taken from the water and colder water is sent back to the well (warming up from the earth’s heat as it makes its way back.)

Maintanence on the system is light; this filter has to be cleaned at times. It requires simply turning off the heat pump, shutting water down (domestic water is separate so I only shut down heat pump water), unscrewing, removing, cleaning and returning the filter.

It’s a split level system so heat is sent up from the basement to the attic for distribution.   There are 15 vents upstairs and three downstairs.   Basements stay around 50 anyway, so it doesn’t take as much heat — but we were limited by the inability to do much duct work in the basement.

We'll probably enclose this; the silver pipe leads air from the upstairs fan to the basement, the black ones bring the heat or cold from the basement unit to the attic for distribution. (In Ryan's closet)

The other bit of maintenance is to replace the upstairs filteres every three months.   There are two return vents that suck air out assuring a good flow of air through the house, keeping humidity down as well.   To protect both our air and the duct work, it’s important to filter this.   It’s possible to buy filters you can clean and reuse, though it’s not expensive to just replace them every three months — and our thermostat will remind us when it’s time to replace them.

One of the two return vents sucking air out.

One of the beauties of this form of air conditioning is that it isn’t like the rush of cold air that comes from most central AC systems.   The air flows gently, meaning that the temperature lowers slowly (they measured air coming out was at about 59 degrees, while the return air at that time was at 75).   You don’t have cold air blowing on you, you have to reach up to feel near the vent to tell — but it is effective, the house cooled from 78 to 70 within an hour.

A boring photo, but this is how most vents look. You can dampen them from the key in the middle (or from the attic) to control how much air comes. We have one wall unit downstairs, the rest are all ceiling.

The system is not loud at all.   The heat exchange pump does make noise, but it’s less than what the boiler produces.   The fan in the attic is hardly noticeable.    At least on day one, using the “Cool” mode, it works easily and quietly.    The thermostat is easy to operate.   It can be programmed, and you work from either “cool” or “heat” mode (there is an automatic, but that can switch back and forth and burn a lot of electricity).    We choose to have only one zone to save money, we didn’t see the point of multiple zones, especially if you can dampen the vents individually.

Although this will end my “daily” blogging about the project, I will post periodically about performance and cost — I’ll probably put together a page of posts like I did for the Italy trip.   It’s too early to say if the investment was worth it, or if the system will work as promised.   Yet I was very happy with both Jeff Gagnon Heating and Air Conditioning, and Goodwin Well and Water.   They communicated clearly, did what they said they’d do, were professional, and clearly understood their task (they’re the most experienced at this in the region).   RDM Electric (Ryan Morgan) also did a great job creatively dealing with the electrical needs of the system.

Wow.  I started asking about geothermal possibilities way back in 2007, playing with ideas, but all the time thinking the high initial price tag would keep this theoretical.   At UMF they are now drilling 80 wells for a massive conversion to geothermal for a good chunk of the campus.    For the sake of the economy I hope oil prices drop, but it’s nice not having to worry as much about them in planning next winter’s budget!


The House as a Construction Zone

The party was only starting here -- by 8:30 the trucks were arriving and work getting underway

At one point this morning the electrician’s truck, two Goodwin Well trucks, two Jeff Gagnon heating and AC trucks, a pick up truck from the excavators and a large truck hauling the excavation equipment were all in front of our house.   I had taken the kids to school and had to park up the road a bit — today the construction was in earnest.   Today our yard got torn up, today the house smelled like a construction site, today we got back on well water and are very close to being complete.  Ironically, for the first evening in a week, there are no trucks parked outside the house overnight.

These started popping from the attic at breakfast, which definitely caught Ryan's attention!

Inside the house duct work was all but completed today — maybe one or two vents still need to be hooked up.  The return vents were set (which apparently meant having to work around some tricky wiring).    The electrician also had to be creative — there wasn’t a lot of space, so they had to work around some obstacles.

Connecting the wellhead to the house -- and the drainage pipe is spared!

Outside the excavation work had one important obstacle — the trench we built in 2009!   The path from the well head to the house goes through the trench (which has a pipe going around 3/4 of the house).  It’s not in an important part — it’s near the end on the front side of the house, which had fewer drainage problems.  Still, we wanted to make sure that stayed in tact.  I talked to the excavators, and they found the pipe and dug around it.

The new set up - here the water enters, some going for domestic usage, some to the heat exchange pump

Our old tank - still in great condtion -- anyone want to buy it?

The purpose of the excavation, of course, was to connect the well (and new well pump) to the house.   That took most of the day, but by 5:00 the Goodwin folks had us back on well water, and had connected a brand new pump to a new tank and the heat exchange pump (which is not yet functional).   That means we have a five year old Gould’s pump and a large tank that are still in good shape but not being used.   Maybe we can sell them on E-Bay.

After the excavation - now to reseed our lawn!

The house is a mess.  Construction workers don’t take off shoes, of course, and go in and out of the house often.   Add some mud because water was involved with the well, and then add some smoke from cutting pipe.   It was a busy, hectic day.   Yet the project is on schedule and maybe tomorrow I’ll report that we’re up and running!   Stay tuned!


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Installation Continues…

Some duct work is already up in the attic, though from this angle (holding a camera through the opening and shooting) it's hard to see much detail.

The crew from Jeff Gagnon Heating and Air Conditioning were here shortly after 6:30 AM Tuesday and by 10:30 the attic was getting too hot for them to continue.  They then worked on the set up down stairs, cutting holes for the vents and getting things ready.

One of the closet pipes that will send air down to the basement.

We now can see where our fourteen air vents upstairs (and two return vents) will be located, as well as the four down stairs.   The closet in Ryan’s room has a slightly bigger opening because it will also pipe up the heat to the attic for distribution.   Nothing dramatic today — holes cut in the ceiling, work continuing.

Tomorrow the heat exchange pump may be hooked up to the well and perhaps ready to go! It is located in the basement storage area, near the oil and well tanks

When we got this house four years ago, I didn’t imagine how much work we’d put into it.   A new drainage system in 2009, combined with clearing out some of the back woods for a play area for the kids.  It was a massive undertaking.   More pictures here.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) should be a big day.   Goodwin’s is going to excavate and hook up the well to the house, the electrician is going to get everything wired properly and while they may need to return Thursday to finish up, things are on schedule.  I’m also setting up to chart the costs (electricity, oil used, etc) of energy use this year compared to last year, to see what this actually will save over time.   In that sense it’s an experiment, I’m not really sure what the return will be (and will post updates in my blog).  The house is a mess of course, ladders, plastic covering, and dust everywhere.   Still, the work has been relatively unobtrusive and they’ve been efficient and friendly.    Stay tuned!

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