Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Crazy World of Green Energy

 The world is full of ironies. And nowhere are they more abundant than in the wacky world of clean energy.  

Like the Omanis using solar power to recover oil from the desert. That’s right. Green energy is being used to produce a fuel that is anything but green.

Shell and Total, a French energy firm, are installing a 1,000-megawatt solar unit to generate steam for thinning Oman’s heavy oil, making it easier to recover.

Such enhanced-recovery techniques are old hat, but using the sun to coax out more oil is not. The Omani experiment is being closely watched. A cost-effective outcome will almost certainly spawn other “hybrid” operations. (Even super-green California is using solar in its oil fields, albeit on a small scale.)

Then there are the windmills, those large, noisy bird killers that blight the landscape. Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders wants to cover the country with them, tens of thousands of gigantic wind machines.

National Geographic reported that meaningful conversion from fossil fuels would require 156,000 offshore windmills and 328,000 land-based turbines, occupying a space the size of North Carolina.

That’s a lot of acreage and, not surprisingly, there’s been pushback. Here’s the irony: Nowhere is the pushback greater than in Sander’s home state of Vermont, where officials worry that a proliferation of the huge turbines will kill the tourist industry. Vermont State Senator John Rodgers, a Democrat, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “Destroying the environment in the name of climate change is moronic.”

And speaking of climate change, the recent Paris conference produced its own set of ironies. Many of the same countries that offered to cut greenhouse emissions are racing to install coal-fired power plants.   
·      China added a remarkable 39 gigawatts of coal capacity in 2014.
·      The Philippines is set to open 23 coal-fired plants by 2020.
·      India is expanding coal usage at a steady 5% a year.
·      Vietnam plans to double its coal plants by 2022.
·      Japan is building scores of new coal plants in the aftermath of Fukushima.

And how about our local situation? Florida is called The Sunshine State but ironically generates nearly all of its electricity from hydrocarbons. The Solar Choice constitutional amendment, which would have cleared the way for free-market rooftop installations, never made it to the ballot.

In the meantime, the utilities are adding more gas-fired plants, the latest a $1.3 billion installation in the Okeechobee area. And they’re doubling down by building pipelines to bring in more natural gas. Florida sunshine is apparently for suntans, not photovoltaic power.

And what about stripping the Amazon rain forest to grow more corn for ethanol? After all, burning ethanol is good for the environment.

My favorite irony is electric cars. The self-righteous claim they are saving the environment by driving electric cars. There are no exhaust fumes, right? The cars run on batteries. But the energy in the batteries has to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is, for the most part, coal. Coal still provides nearly 40% of America’s electricity.

So my tree-hugging friends are, in fact, driving coal-powered cars!

What’s next? Maybe windmills to power fracking or tidal energy to run offshore oil drilling? It’s a wonderful world of ironies.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Florida - Where Education is "Adjusted"

 I thought I had seen it all. Sleights-of-hand to hide mediocre performance.

But a recent guest commentary in the Naples Daily News broke new ground. The writer conjured up great advances in Florida public education by the simple trick of normalizing test scores.

Here’s how it works.

You take raw scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – an actual measure of what has been learned in math and reading – and you “adjust” the scores for differences in economic background, race and native language skills.

A study by the Urban Institute did just that and found, voila, Florida grade-schoolers aren’t so bad after all. The raw scores of fourth- and eighth-graders, which allow direct comparison to other states, pegged Florida at 30th in the country. When the scores were “adjusted,” Florida jumped to 4th.

The writer’s conclusion: Florida teachers are doing a wonderful job and deserve more money. (Florida ranks 40th in teacher salaries.) Perhaps they do deserve higher pay. But not because of manipulated test scores.

There’s no question our teachers face real challenges. The Hispanic population is large and growing. English is seldom the first language and there are big cultural differences. The barriers to learning, particularly in the lower grades, are considerable.

But at the end of the day, you can’t claim success by jiggering the data. Learning is absolute. Math knowledge, science knowledge, history knowledge cannot be “adjusted.” The raw scores are what matter.

When college admissions officers look at applicants, they’re not interested in “adjusted” scores. And they shouldn’t be. The college dropout rate for poorly prepared high schoolers is notoriously high.

When employers, particularly in competitive businesses, look for new hires, they don’t shrug because someone’s resume has been doctored to account for demographics. Employers want to see evidence of real knowledge, not “adjusted” knowledge.

This seems self-evident, but in these days of social awareness and tolerance for almost everything, you have to hammer home the obvious.

As a retired chemist, I can’t conceive of putting together a team of demographically challenged scientists to compete in the world market. Their knowledge base can’t be “adjusted” upward. It’s there or it isn’t.

Perhaps school ratings are unfair and teacher evaluations need new criteria and minorities should be given extra help. But there’s no way Florida’s mediocre ratings can be winked aside. We are, in fact, 30th in the country in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. No manner of manipulation can change that.   

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Go to College - Anywhere

 I’ve got a string of grandchildren about to run the college gauntlet. One is in college now, four will enter over the next eight years and two more will start after that.

So I, along with thousands of other parents and grandparents, have a real interest in higher education, 21st century style. An interest in quality, cost, graduate-school access, employment opportunities and, of course, earning power – the pot of gold at the end of it all.

College costs are through the roof. Think $35,000 to $50,000-plus per year, before loans and scholarships. Chances of getting into top-tier schools are very slim, one in ten or worse. And even if you are admitted, getting the major you want is not a slam dunk.

The entry process is beyond stressful. High-schoolers must get super grades, blow away the SATs, have eye-popping extra-curriculars and project a world-saving persona worthy of Mother Teresa.  

With requirements like that, where do you start?

A good place might be the marvelous article just published in the Wall Street Journal by Eric Eide and Michael Hilmer of Brigham Young University. It’s the best two-page primer I’ve seen in a long time.

The authors, drawing on metrics from 7,300 college graduates, reported two major and rather surprising findings:

·      In STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math), the undergraduate school matters little. Graduates from mid-tier colleges earn just as much after ten years as graduates from elite schools.

·      In business, social sciences and the humanities, the undergraduate school matters more. Prestige counts. Earnings are clearly higher after ten years if you graduate from an Ivy League school or the equivalent than if your degree is from a lesser college.

The most popular fields for today’s students are health care and education. The fields with the best job prospects are engineering, computer science, finance and accounting. (My collegiate granddaughter is combining engineering and finance. We’ll see.)

Eide and Hilmer drive home the point that students needn’t mortgage their futures to ensure good earnings. Engineering graduates make the same on average after 10 years – $135,000-145,000 – whether they come from a top-flight engineering school or a mid-tier college. The same applies for science majors, even computer scientists.

The take-home message: Don’t cut your wrists if you can’t get into MIT or Penn or Cal-Berkeley. You’ll do just as well in earnings with a science or math or engineering degree from a lesser school. And you’ll save a ton of money.

Even the flip side of the story – that the Ivies carry more weight in the humanities and social sciences – is encouraging. The authors found the differences in salaries after 10 years, while real, were not all that large, 11 to 14%. In education, the difference in earnings between the elites and less-selective schools was only about 8%.

Though not covered in the Eide/Hilmer study, an earlier survey showed that graduates who went on to obtain advanced degrees – J.D., M.S., Ph.D., M.D., etc. – all did well in terms of earnings regardless of their  undergraduate school.   

All of this says education is important, but where you get it may not be as important as we once thought. Good news indeed.