Category Archives: America

…on the Entrepreneurial State

With the next Canadian federal election less than a year away – and undesirables like Wayne Gretzky soon to be purged from the voter lists – I’ve been getting a lot more fundraising emails lately. As of mid-December I’d received nineteen in eighteen days. It was like a Christmas advent calendar, but in my email inbox! (Like a beleaguered Silician storekeeper, I paid my “protection money” and now they’re leaving me alone. :) )

Politicians are often derided for their short-term thinking, which is probably a fair criticism. If you ballpark an election cycle at roughly four years, newly-elected officials might take a year to learn the ropes, a couple years trying to be effective, and then a year trying to get re-elected. Judging by how successful those old Soviet and Chinese Five-Year Plans typically were, that might not be quite enough time…

The kind of decade-scale industrial policy used so effectively over the past half-century by Japan and South Korea (and Singapore… and Taiwan… and to an extent in Norway) typically occurred when these countries were dominated by one political party. This political stability may have allowed government and industry to set effective long-term plans without fear that a few years on, a new Prime Minister would reverse course on everything.

Of course, one-party dominance is no guarantee of long-term economic success – as evidenced by Mexico, parts of both the American South and South America, and … Alberta. As recent history shows, our neighbours would rather stay a Saudi prince’s whim away from economic catastrophe, than raise sales and income taxes to build up a treasury to buffer themselves from the ravages of the resource cycle. It’s as if they’d read Aesop’s Fable about the ant and the grasshopper, and concluded the grasshopper was the role model!

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How Trinity Western University (unintentionally) promotes divorce


Trinity Western University has been in the news recently, as law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia voted to not recognize lawyers trained at the religious university’s soon-to-open law school. These two law societies – like your blogger and the vast majority of Canadians – recoiled in horror at the university’s community covenant (“covenant” is just a fancy way of saying “contract”) clause forbidding students from having sex outside straight marriage.

While discriminatory and immoral, TWU’s policy is not illegal. If I understand correctly, several years ago the Canadian Supreme Court agreed with the BC Civil Liberties Union that, as a private university which does not receive government funding or subsidies, TWU’s right to a discriminatory code of conduct trumps attendees’ right to sexual equality. (After all, people can choose not to attend that university.) Part of the ruling apparently included the statement that the Court found no evidence that TWU’s 21st-century-BC sexual ethics actually affect the behaviour of their 21st-century-AD graduates, once they enter the “real” world. Which is comforting, and de-fangs some of my concerns.

So, while I find its policy abhorrent, legal precedent tells me TWU must be allowed to have their own law school. On the flip side, the ruling also means that an atheist group could found the “Richard Dawkins Law School” with a community covenant forbidding students from engaging in religious practise, as long as they don’t take public funding either. (In a terrible case of “do unto others…” Dawkins has argued that religion is a form of mental illness, in the exact same way religious fundamentalists have argued that homosexuality is. While the guy’s a scientific genius, he’s as religiously illiterate as the people he rails against.)

As a semi-related aside, the Moral Majority movement started when the US Federal Government threatened to withdraw tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University, a religious college which forbade interracial dating. Until the year 2000. Which was forty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. As recounted by the Episcopal (Anglican) priest Randall Balmer, the Moral Majority’s founders quickly realized that – this being the 1970’s, not the 1870’s – no one would fund a group committed to keeping black boys away from white girls. So they made abortion their central issue.

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British Columbia hits 1,000 EV’s (and gov’t drops support)

image of Tesla Model S’s at a rally, from Consumer Reports


British Columbians have now purchased more than 1,000 plug-in electric vehicles. Add in low-speed neighbourhood electric vehicles and owner conversions, and the number will be a bit higher.

As of Jan 31, 2014 Polk research (now a division of IHS) had tracked 912 plug-in electric vehicle registrations in BC, representing about 1/6 of all PHEV registrations in Canada to date. British Columbia has about 1/8 of Canada’s population, so the numbers are largely in line with what we’d expect from the demographics.

Polk’s data doesn’t include the Toyota Prius Plug-in, Ford C-Max Energi or Ford Fusion Energi, however. Vehicle registrations for these plug-ins, is lumped in with sales of the regular hybrid versions. And through the end of 2013, these three models enjoyed Canadian sales of 594 units.

Assuming that BC represented 1/6 of these sales (being 99 vehicles) then British Columbia’s plug-in population has hit four figures. At the end of January, sales would have been on the order of 912+99 = 1011. And that doesn’t include any Prius Plug-in, C-Max Energi or Fusion Energi sales in the province in January.

Add probable sales in February to the mix, and we should be comfortably above the 1,000-car mark.

As always, my spreadsheet tracking plug-in sales in Canada and the U.S., and other related data, is at:

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Back from Happy Hawaii


Synchronized phoning, coming soon to a summer Olympics near you…

Trivia note: Swedish supergroup Abba’s “Why did it have to be me” was originally titled (and lyricized) as “Happy Hawaii”. But those of you who also secretly bought the 4-CD ABBA box set without admitting it to your friends, already knew that! :)

We recently returned from Hawaii where we met up with most of Aya’s family. And wow, if their plan was to leave Japan behind, was that ever a bad choice. There was so much Japanese signage in the tourist-area stores, that I felt like a Chinese tourist in Richmond! At one of the local mall’s food courts, one of the store’s signs was in Japanese only; their menus were Japanese with English subtitles!

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The losers of Superbowl XLVIII will be…

Francis facepalm

Religious moderates.

Here’s my reasoning.

After the game, someone on the winning team, exulting ecstatically, will say “God was on our side” or words to that effect. It’s as sure as a post-touchdown two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, if the team is still down by a pair.

This will lead humorists and atheists alike to mock the athlete’s egocentric theology, along the lines of the great “God-Man on the Gridiron” cartoon from a few years back. Which will inspire angry rebuttals from offended fundamentalists.

Religious moderates are the collateral damage in this snake-vs-mongoose battle, bitten by both sides.

I’ve read aggressive atheists argue that religious moderates “give cover” for fundamentalists, by making religion seem respectable. The faulty reasoning is that if the only religious people around were crazed fundamentalists, no one would ever be converted to religion, and humanity would break the chains of irrational superstition forever. I find great humour in such atheists’ irrational belief that we could one day cure ourselves of our own irrationality. :)

I’ve also listened to religious fundamentalists classify religious moderates as pseudo-apostates, who have fallen away from the authentic faith the fundamentalists (naturally) perpetuate. The flawed logic here sees moderate religious views are seen as a kind of “gateway drug” to the godless secular atheism, the rise of which has led to, uh, the lowest crime rates in the U.S. in fifty years. This misplaced ethos is aptly captured by the misplaced priorities of God-Man’s sidekick Fan-Boy in this cartoon here.

The book Freakonomics popularized the incorrect idea that crime rates in the U.S. dropped because abortion was legalized. (Given the machinations of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan et al, one would be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a golden age for white-collar crime.)

The strong factor actually seems to have been reduction in kids’ lead exposure. Another economist found that in each of nine countries he studied, violent crime rates fell off a cliff, about twenty years after their respective governments phased lead out of gasoline. But his publications weren’t best-sellers. :)

Basically, religious moderates get fragged by both sides.

Back, briefly, to the Super Bowl

Though I’m an atheist, I’m sincerely glad so many football players are religious.

Statistics and psychological studies show that religious people are more generous than heathen like me. And the religious are particularly generous towards fellow worshipers, and others in their faith-defined “in-group”.

As an atheist, I value this factoid. It’s dangerous to think one is morally superior to one’s occasional opponents. So in a sense, I want to believe that some of the people who disagree with me, live with more upright selflessness – whether it’s a fact or fiction, the idea itself should keep me from developing a caustic arrogance about myself or my “side”.

Considering how much head trauma an NFL player will suffer in his career, after he retires and the symptoms start to show, he’s almost certainly going to need help. A lot of help. Possibly, very expensive help. For years and years afterwards.

As such, if I want the best for an NFL player when he retires, I would want him to be part of a large, supportive faith community. (I would also them to have access to single-payer universal healthcare, to prevent medical complications from bankrupting them or any other American, but hey, that’s just my Canadian perspective.)

Sadly, all light casts shadows

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious fundamentalists, there’s a downside to their generosity – while they’re more generous to members of their in-group, they tend to be more hostile to members of out-groups. (As the authors of this paper explain, religious fundamentalism combines the benefits of religious pro-sociality with the defects of authoritarian intolerance.)

In our day and era, gays are a favourite scapegoat of so many Christians who must otherwise be well-meaning people. This despite the fact that the centurion’s servant whom Jesus healed, was probably the soldier’s teenage gay lover, and He seemed fine with that. (Actually, all this really proves is that liberals can proof-text the Bible to argue what they want, as skilfully as conservatives.)

Still on the NFL, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team after the 2012 season, several months after he expressed his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. While his stats were middle-of-the-pack, he claims to’ve gotten pushback from some members of the coaching and management who were particularly opposed to his opposition to, uh, bigotry.

[update: from this ESPN report, it looks like Kluwe may have been a bottom-dweller in some stats important to the Vikings, and as such, he may be less of a martyr than a mediocrity whose time was up. Keeping in mind that being a mediocre NFL punter is still someone in the top 30 or so at that position in the world. I edited the last sentence of the following paragraph to reflect this.]

To their credit, the Vikings have launched a formal investigation. And it’s entirely possible that the Vikings thought they could get a better punter for less money. Sadly, given the religious views of some members of the Viking staff and management, there’ll always be the question of whether faith-based reasons may have partially influenced the decision to cut Kluwe.

I’m hopeful that by the time Leo grows up, things will change and there’ll be comfortably out athletes. No doubt there will still be other social prejudices still to overcome – I may be an atheist, but I’m hardly a utopian.

And Warren Moon

To end with on football, I remember when I first found out that CFL and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a tough time becoming a quarterback in the 1970’s, because of an apparent social inertia in football culture that blacks didn’t become quarterbacks.

University football teams would convert high school prospects to other positions. This wasn’t only a football thing either; there was a strong anti-European sentiment in the NHL, until pioneers like Borje Salming proved that Europeans were just as good – and just as tough – as North Americans. (Hockey’s last remaining Europhobe can be found on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner…)

When Moon finally got to be a starting quarterback, he led his college team to the Rose Bowl, and was the game’s MVP. And he still didn’t get drafted. So he played in the CFL, where he was part of an Edmonton Eskimos team which won five straight championships. Then, finally, the NFL came calling.

The thing that shocked me the most was that the NFL’s antipathy to black quarterbacks – and the NHL’s reluctance to give Europeans a shot, for that matter – was recent enough that it I was alive for the back end of it!

I do hope that, as a society, our definition of “in-groups” keeps growing, so that one day Leo can tell his own kids that, as frustrating as the day’s social issues may seem, he too was alive at the back end of this long-standing social inertia, which swiftly, satisfyingly dissipated, soon thereafter.

(As for why I chose the Pope, that’s another post. While they’re hardly religious progressives, the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of evolution, and its almost two-thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting parts of the Bible allegorically instead of insisting it’s all factually accurate, mean that by my amateur classification, they go in the “moderate” pile. Moderates whose hierarchy has shielded countless pedophiles from the law for decades, yes… but moderates none the less.)

The 1-2-3’s of EV market share in the US

My article on the 1-2-3’s of electric vehicle adoption in the U.S. went up on GreenCarReports on the weekend. The commentary went through a title change – a procedure familiar to many famous writers, and many more of us unknown mediocrities. :)

About fifteen years after a publisher’s first impression of Jane Austen’s First Impressions was as negative as its heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s first impression of Mr. Darcy, she rewrote the title (and, oh yeah, parts of the book) in the trochaic verse style, giving us Pride and Prejudice. Which is not to be confused with the similarly-titled literary masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  :)

The article involved breaking U.S. vehicle sales in 2013 by make and model, done by Tim Cain at, then looking up manufacturer’s suggested retail price for each and every one – done by me. After that, it was a straight-forward (albeit time-consuming) matter of making macros to do my bidding – in this case, slicing up the sales statistics by price point and vehicle type.

The 1-2-3 in my original title referred to the fact that, if one excluded trucks and crossovers/SUV’s (since the Toyota RAV4 EV is the only electric vehicle offered in those categories, and then only in California) then electric vehicle market share turned out to be:

– about 1% of passenger cars (again, excluding trucks and x-overs/SUV’s)

– about 2% of passenger cars with a base MSRP of $20,000 or more

– about 3% of passenger cars with a base MSRP of $25,000 or more

And way up in the nosebleed section of the luxury car market – where “high” might not just refer to the prices* – Tesla got about 17% of the passenger car market among vehicles costing $62,400 and up. (Tesla’s Model S costs $62,400 after U.S. federal incentives.)

Name-dropping Edwards Deming

One fun aspect of the article was that I was able to weave in references to W. Edwards Deming, the Godfather of statistical quality control. It’s the latest addition to my list of occasionally-Canadian cross-references, including:

– the Innovator’s Dilemma and Kleiber’s Law (both from this article)

– GM’s old philosophy of “a car for every purse and purpose” (here)

– Canada’s on-again/off-again aspirations to annex Turks and Caicos (here)

– and Wayne Gretzky getting traded to the Los Angeles Kings (here)

And the writer’s cut

Verbose babbler that I am – Scrabble players and spelling bee champions alike might say I verge on “logorrhea” — I came in a couple hundred words over target. Or, as I like to think of it, “overachieved”. :)

As a result, the following was originally present just before the Slimming Down U.S. Sales heading.

– – – – – –

As is so often the case for plug-ins, hybrid vehicles offer an apt comparison. In 2012, hybrids claimed about 3.1 percent of the U.S. auto market, and 1.5 percent of the worldwide auto market. (1.2 million of 81.8 million vehicles.)

On the surface, this looks grim – fifteen years after the Prius premiered, hybrids remain in the low single-digit percentages. But better context comes when we focus on Toyota: in 2012, their third-generation hybrid technology was in a full 16 percent of their sales – almost one in every six cars they sold!

This added context helps us understand that bureaucracy, not technology, kept hybrid vehicles marginal: if corporate priorities had been different, there’d be far more hybrids on the roads today.

– – – – –

Fortunately, content is highly recyclable (as many a plagiarist and plagiarism victim is aware) so hopefully I’ll have a chance to deploy the above when I wind up 122 or so words short on an article. :)

– – – – – –

* being a lefty, I’m predictably happy about the fact that the U.S. seems to be easing up on its War on Drugs, which as Matt Taibbi recently noted, is a war waged mainly against the non-wealthy and the non-white.

But it was probably predictable that this would happen, because the winners of the past four Presidential elections were the candidates who’d done cocaine in their youth. (Obama wrote about it in his autobiography, and GWB has avoided making outright denials and was allegedly arrested for possession in 1972.)

The last time someone who’d never used the drug was elected President, Microsoft was king of the world, and Apple was almost bankrupt. Oh, how things change…

If Republicans and Democrats alike have been willing to fund-raise, campaign and vote for candidates who’d done hard drugs, it’s hard to imagine their attitudes towards drugs and drug users wouldn’t soften. And maybe, just maybe, that can lead to legal priorities more focused on prevention/rehabilitation, than on punishment.

Heck, if the U.S. can close enough jails currently crowded with non-violent drug offenders, that might give them a good excuse for that perennially popular bipartisan American activity, lowering taxes! :)

The quest for the golden meme

Golden mean image sourced here.

It’s been a pretty good month, in terms of writing. Over at GreenCarReports, I had my piece on September EV sales in Canada, a Canadian Thanksgiving-centric story riffing on the country’s nationwide EV charging network, and discussed what our EV drivers do, to get through Canadian winters.

Topping that off, Corporate Knights will be running a piece of mine, in an upcoming issue!

Innovator’s Dilemma, Toyota edition

Coolest of all, though, was a Jeff Cobb story in, which referenced my article on Toyota’s Innovator’s Dilemma with Electric Cars (GCR version here, bonus blog notes here).


It’s nice to think you’ve contributed to the public discourse, or helped “frame” the conversation around a topic one cares about. Even though you may well be one of several like-minded people who came up with the idea independently. :)

The surveillance state as an auto-immune disorder

Another example of converging memes — or maybe, just maybe, someone else reading me and liking my talking points — comes from The Guardian, which ran a comment-is-free column which included the line:

“The American body politic is suffering a severe case of auto-immune disease: our defense system is attacking other critical systems of our body.”

One of my mid-summer blog entries — The surveillance state is an autoimmune disorder — used imagery to that effect. To my elation, that piece actually got picked up by a few financial blogs, whose curators thought the metaphor apt.

“In this sense, [the surveillance state’s] behaviour maps to that of an immune system that has been hijacked by an autoimmune disorder, and is treating the body’s own cells as invaders. The main difference is that the surveillance state exists at the societal level, while autoimmune disorders exist at the individual level.”

…and we wrap up in “Bloom” County…

My biggest contribution thus far — the closest I’ve come to a “golden meme” — has been a line from the McKinsey piece I coauthored, which read:

“…an expansive transmission grid dominated by a few central power plants is vulnerable to disruption from both natural phenomena and human malevolence.”

Basically, if you have a few centralized power plants, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters can have catastrophic consequences if they strike at the wrong place(s). Ditto if saboteurs were to strike target those key bottlenecks. But if your grid is fed by thousands of locations spread across a wide geography, it’ll be harder to knock it offline, because no single bottleneck or node will be as crucially important as in a centralized system.

Bloom Energy adopted it as one of their key talking points, as evidenced on their website and elsewhere. Which I found annoying as a fuel cell engineer at one of their competitors… but which I found delightful, as a writer! :)

Their business resiliency page mentions natural disasters once, and disruption twice:

Bloom 1

A few select press releases (e.g. March 2012) also leveraged my work. Eagle-eyed readers will note the use of vulnerable … disruptions … human [intervention] … natural [disaster]. The talking point was repeated in numerous media outlets, as a quick Google search revealed.

Bloom 2

The earliest Bloom Energy story I could find which references the “distributed grid is less vulnerable to terrorist attack / natural disaster” factor is this Dec 2009 story from The Atlantic, titled Who Needs The Grid?

Bloom 3

Since electron-democracy was published in March 2009 — nine months before the article in The Atlantic — and, carrying the McKinsey imprimatur, would likely have been passed along to Bloom, I’m pretty confident that I know where that talking point came from.  :)

It’s possible that Bloom could have simultaneously come up with this phrasing and framing on their own (the meme equivalent of convergent evolution) and I’m okay with the uncertainty. In the end, it allows me to blithely assume that my creation has enjoyed its biggest success, in others’ hands. Kind of like how so many Canadian artists and athletes eventually move to the United States, I suppose. :)

Passing Gas – EV’s now outnumber gas stations, in America


My latest piece is up on GreenCarReports, here. It’s where I sourced the photo from. :)

And yes, putting “Passing Gas” in the title was deliberate. Hey, it’s catchy!

From what I can tell, electric vehicles also outnumber gas stations in Japan as well. Alas, Canadians are somewhat behind our American and Japanese (and no doubt, Norwegian) friends in this regard – from the data I’ve been able to collect in my database, we only have about 2000 plug-in electric vehicles versus about 13,000 gas stations.  You can’t win ’em all.

…but as long as you can win Olympic Gold in ice hockey, by and large, the losses everywhere else are largely tolerable.  ;)

The surveillance state is an autoimmune disorder

Reaching into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”…. in our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

First, a short medical analogy.

Autoimmune disorders

Autoimmune disorders (Wikipedia prefers autoimmune diseases) occur when the body’s defenses — antibodies — no longer distinguish between healthy tissue and harmful cells. Instead of focusing on the dangerous antigens, they attack the body itself.

Type 1 diabetes is an example, where the patient’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing regions of the pancreas. Blood insulin levels drop, making it more difficult for cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, leaving elevated blood glucose levels, and all the associated problems of diabetes.

Multiple sclerosis is another example, where the patient’s immune system attacks their nervous system. Localized physical inflammation occurs, which causes nerve damage, which impairs sufferers’ quality-of-life.

These autoimmune disorders occur on the individual level.

The hygiene hypothesis

In medicine, the hygiene hypothesis suggests that allergies could be thought of as a sort of autoimmune disorder, brought about by excessive cleanliness (!).

The general idea is that our immune systems developed over millions of years in the, um, virulent and filthy conditions that characterized most of human existence until the arrival of modern sanitation. Given this, our immune systems have evolved to be hyper-vigilant.  After all, until recently, even minor flesh wounds could be fatal, if they got infected.

One theory posits that if our immune systems aren’t kept busy fending off microbial, bacterial and viral attacks when we’re young, they overreact when they encounter benign intruders (e.g. pollen), or even healthy human cells, mistaking these for existential threats. It’s the medical profession’s equivalent of the “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” argument…!

The generally agreed-upon workaround is to make sure kids wash their hands before eating and after using the washroom, but to otherwise roll around in dirt, play with animals and so forth. The former steps help keep children safe from more dangerous microbes, while the latter keeps their immune systems busy.

Stranger still, medical researchers are exploring the treatment of autoimmune diseases by deliberately infecting patients with parasites!  Reasonably benign parasitic worms which co-evolved with humans and co-existed with us until the advent of modern hygiene, are introduced to the body.  Improvement comes when the immune system stops attacking healthy body tissue, to focus on beating back the parasites.

Unfortunately, the immune system sometimes resumes attacking the body after it beats back the parasites, meaning that periodic reinfection may be necessary. In helminthic therapy, you don’t take vitamin supplements, you take parasite supplements!

Societal-level autoimmune disorders

I think the recently-revealed excesses of NSA / PRISM / surveillance state can be best thought of as a societal-level autoimmune disorder. Human society has almost certainly become dramatically less violent over time, and that’s a very good thing. Especially for those of us who’re members of ethnic groups who’ve historically been the victims!

Meanwhile, for a roughly fifty-year period in the 20th century, an enormous American security apparatus evolved, to address the perceived existential threat from Soviet Communism — and, uh, stamp out any less-than-solidly-pro-American governments in Latin America and other strategic parts of the world. (We should try to be objective, eh?)

With the threat of Communism now gone, the vast resources of American society’s “immune system” have become focused on terrorists — individuals who can cause damage and suffering, but who cannot and could never pose the kind of existential threat of an invading army. This is a good thing: we want to be safe from those who cause us harm.

But like a white blood cell which indiscriminately attacks other cells in the body — not just the harmful antigens — the NSA has effectively wiretapped everyone in the world. Given that in the normal course of law, courts must be convinced of reasonably-probable wrongdoing for wiretaps to be granted, the NSA is essentially treating everyone as a suspect.

In this sense, its behaviour maps to that of an immune system that has been hijacked by an autoimmune disorder, and is treating the body’s own cells as invaders. The main difference is that the surveillance state exists at the societal level, while autoimmune disorders exist at the individual level.

The price of freedom…

If autoimmune disorders can be prevented and/or treated by allowing the body to be exposed to lesser pathogens, this might hint at the path out of the surveillance state. If citizens accept that to maintain their major freedoms, they must accept that minor acts of violence might succeed, the recently-revealed excesses of the NSA could be curbed. A government which tracks its people’s communications, by the very act of doing so, subtly impairs their freedoms of conscience and expression.

The above is a bit abstract, so I’ll close with a couple closer-to-home examples.

1) Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush made the comment to the effect that “[terrorists] hate us for our freedoms”. In doing so, he both oversimplified and mischaracterized the motives of such attackers, which relate more to the various humiliations of Western colonization, and the despair of resolving or overcoming the injustices they perceive.

But if Osama bin Laden hated us for our freedoms, then restricting those freedoms through the surveillance state gives him exactly what he would have wanted! (Political violence — such as terrorism — is successful when it causes the victimized government to bend its policies in the desired direction.) If for no other reason than thwarting bin Laden, it will be important for us to rein in the surveillance state.

2) brings us back to the “pull quote” at the start of the post.

Reaching deeply into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. It’s been misattributed to many Great Men in American history, among them Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, though it seems to’ve been a British actor who first formulated the phrase.

In our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

[July 25 – light editing to summarize the conclusion at the outset. – Thx for the tip, Bob!]

Steven Chu’s “Time to Fix the Wiring” at four years

Former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s recent resignation — his farewell letter is here  — is no doubt celebrated in the fuel cell quarters as passionately (or more so) than it is mourned in the rest of cleantech.  Early in his term, Chu infamously argued (infamously, at least, to fuel cell enthusiasts) that fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV’s) needed four miracles for commercial success, namely:

  1. most hydrogen comes from natural gas (so why not just use that as a fuel?)
  2. improvements in hydrogen storage were needed
  3. fuel cells needed to improve
  4. there was no distribution system in place

While many of my colleagues were hostile to Chu — some more than others (an inside joke) — I was largely unfazed, as Ballard had by then moved on to “everything except automotive fuel cells” in light of the commercialization timelines.  (Which reflected points 3 and 4 above.)  And Chu seemed open-minded towards stationary fuel cells.  From the MIT Technology Review article:

“I think that hydrogen could be effectively a “battery” in the sense that suppose you had a way of using excess electricity–let’s say a nuclear plant at night, or solar or wind excess capacity, and there was an efficient electrolysis way of turning that into hydrogen, and then we have stationary fuel cells. It could effectively be a battery of sorts. You take a certain form of energy and convert it to hydrogen, and then convert it back [into electricity]. You don’t have the distribution problem, you don’t have the weight problem. In certain applications, you don’t need as many miracles for it to happen.”

Chu, ARPA-E, and solar

Many people have already written panegyrics to Chu’s departure, Climate Progress and Grist among them.  Even coming from the fuel cell industry, I think on balance he deserves a lot of praise for carrying out the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to fund next-generation energy research.  Even if he did get a bunch of things wrong, among them the prediction that solar needed breakthroughs to achieve commercial viability.

“But Chu noted that solar power, for one, is still far too expensive to compete with conventional power plants (except on hot summer days in some places, and with subsidies). Making solar cheap will require “transformative technologies,” equivalent to the discovery of the transistor, he said.”

In the past four years, it’s gotten there in Germany, is on the cusp in Australia, and is probably already there in several sunnier climes.  The cost-reductions in that industry have come almost exclusively from economies of scale and the nearly-universally-applicable cost-learning, or experience curve.

Mind you, given my political leanings, I’m generally supportive of government-driven industrial policy.  :)  Societies generally last a lot longer — centuries longer — than any individual businesses, so it makes sense that societies may want to fund projects with a payoff too far out for individual businesses to care about.  That said, I support the notion that “moonshot” projects should ideally have partial private-sector funding, so that business people have skin in the game, and can search out ways to commercialize achievements made on the way.

An intro to “Time to Fix the Wiring”

The above provides good context with which to revisit the essay Chu (and one of his underlings?  :)  ) wrote for a McKinsey & Company series on the future of energy, exactly four years ago today.  This was part of their “What Matters” umbrella, which covered energy, biotech and other topics.

They’ve since taken the series offline — I suppose they need to keep things fresh — but I was able to get permission from a McKinsey representative to reprint the essay below.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and in this case renewable energy has progressed far beyond his Olympiad-ago assessment.  Solar’s costs have come way down, as noted above; renewables may be now viable for 40% of a grid instead of  25% he cites, and some of the geothermal breakthroughs he discusses, can probably be borrowed from the shale gas fracking industry.

All in all, the essay is a reminder to environmentally and stewardship-inclined alike, that the clean energy sector has come  astonishingly far in four years.  I’ll delve into further detail when I continue my series on our renewable destiny. :)


Time to fix the wiring

By Steven Chu

26 February 2009

Imagine that your home suffers a small electrical fire. You call in a structural engineer, who tells you the wiring is shot; if you don’t replace it, there is a 50 percent chance that the house will burn down in the next few years. You get a second opinion, which agrees with the first. So does the third. You can go on until you find the one engineer in a thousand who is willing to give you the answer you want—“your family is not in danger”—or you can fix the wiring.

That is the situation we face today with global warming. We can either fix the wiring by accelerating our progress away from dependence on fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, or we can face a considerable risk of the planet heating up intolerably.

The need to act is urgent. As a start, governments, businesses, and individuals should harvest the lowest-hanging fruit: maximizing energy efficiency and minimizing energy use. We cannot conserve our way out of this crisis, but conservation has to be a part of any solution. Ultimately, though, we need sustainable, carbon-neutral sources of energy.

It’s important to understand where we are now. Existing energy technologies won’t provide the scale or cost efficiency required to meet the world’s energy and climate challenges. Corn ethanol is not a sustainable or scalable solution. Solar energy generated from existing technologies remains much more expensive than energy from fossil fuels. While wind energy is becoming economically competitive and could account for 10 to 15 percent of the electricity generated in the United States by the year 2030 (up from less than 1 percent now, according to the US Energy Information Administration), it is an intermittent energy source. Better long-distance electricity transmission systems and cost-effective energy storage methods are needed before we can rely on such a source to supply roughly 25 percent or more of base-load electricity generation (the minimum amount of electrical power that must be made available). Geothermal energy, however, can be produced on demand. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report suggests that with the right R&D investments, it could supply 10 percent of US power needs by 2050 (up from about 0.5 percent now).

Coal has become a dirty word in many circles, but its abundance and economics will nonetheless make it a part of the energy future. The United States produces more than half of its power from coal; what’s more, it has 27 percent of the world’s known reserves and, together with China, India, and Russia, accounts for two-thirds of the global supply. The world is therefore unlikely to turn its back on coal, but we urgently need to develop cost-effective technologies to capture and store billions of tons of coal-related carbon emissions a year.

Looking ahead, aggressive support of energy science and technology, coupled with incentives to accelerate the development and deployment of innovative solutions, can transform energy demand and supply. What do I mean by such a transformation? In the 1920s and 1930s, AT&T Bell Laboratories focused on extending the life of vacuum tubes, which made transcontinental and transatlantic communications possible. A much smaller research program aimed to invent a completely new device based on breakthroughs in quantum physics. The result was the transistor, which transformed communications. We should be seeking similar quantum leaps for energy.

That will require sustained government support for research at universities and national labs. The development of the transistor, like virtually all 20th-century transformative technologies in electronics, medicine, and biotechnology, was led by people trained, nurtured, and embedded in a culture of fundamental research. At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—part of the US Department of Energy and home to 11 Nobel Laureates—scientists using synthetic biology are genetically engineering yeast and bacteria into organisms that can produce liquid transportation fuels from cellulosic biomass. In another project, scientists are trying to develop a new generation of nanotechnology-based polymer photovoltaic cells to reduce the cost of generating solar electricity by more than a factor of five, making it competitive with coal and natural gas. In collaboration with scientists from MIT and the California Institute of Technology, yet another Berkeley Lab research program is experimenting with artificial photosynthesis, which uses solar-generated electricity to produce economically competitive transportation fuels from water and carbon dioxide. If this approach works, it would address two major energy challenges: climate change and dependence on foreign oil producers.

In the next ten years, given proper funding, such research projects could significantly improve our ability to convert solar energy into power and store it and to convert cellulosic biomass or algae into advanced transportation fuels efficiently. Combined, this would mean a genuine transformation of the energy sector.

The world can and will meet its energy challenges. But the transformation must start with a simple thought: it’s time to fix the wiring.

This article was originally published in McKinsey’s What Matters. Copyright (c) McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.