Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Let the Sun Shine In

The clean-energy folks worry that solar is doomed as a result of Donald Trump's election. But maybe not. It's unlikely Trump, a pragmatic businessman, would oppose a technology that could compete in the free market, particularly if there's consumer demand.

There are really two solar markets -- rooftop for individuals and businesses and solar farms for grid-based electricity. Advances, significant ones, are being made on both fronts.

One of the most important, at least for Florida, was the resounding defeat of Amendment 1, an attempt by the utilities to stifle competition. The defeat opens the way for third-party sales of solar, a big step toward open competition with other energy sources.

Lots of things are happening out west. One of the biggest is a plan to build the world's largest solar farm in the Nevada desert. California-based SolarResearch is proposing a $5 billion installation that would generate 2 gigawatts of power using thousands of mirrors to focus the sun's rays on a tower filled with molten salts, in turn creating steam to power turbines.

Less spectacular, but nonetheless impressive, is Texas's move to embrace solar. That's right, Texas! Deregulation broke the stranglehold of state utilities, resulting in a huge free-market surge, the most recent being installation of 450 megawatts of solar power near San Antonio. The Lone Star State is on target to generate 16% of its electricity from renewables this year.

Then there's Tesla's plan, a real headline grabber, to sell solar shingles for roofs. Addressing the ugly look of conventional panels, Tesla is offering solar cells embedded in glass with a color louver film. From the ground they're opaque and look like ordinary roofing. The downside is they're costly because of low energy conversion. They may or may not catch on.

More certain is the big bet in renewables by ten of the world's largest oil companies. Shell, BP, Saudi Arabian Oil and others have pledged to spend $100 million each over the next ten years on low-carbon technology. Total SA, one of the ten, already owns a solar company.

What about technical advances? Here are just a few.
 - Dye-sensitized solar cells have opened the way for "smart" windows, which let light into rooms,  
 while at the same time generating electricity.
 - Multi-layer hybrid cells have shown promise for using both light and heat from the sun for
 generating power.
 - Cells containing perovskite minerals continue to improve in conversion efficiency, now over 20%,
 pointing the way to significantly lower costs for solar panels.

There's even more action in battery research, important for developing affordable units for storing energy when the sun isn't shining.
 - Great improvements have been made in chemical flow systems, low-cost alternatives to
 conventional lithium batteries.
 - Air-breathing batteries with novel lithium electrodes and catalytic membranes may be a breakthrough for greatly increasing storage capacity.
 - Novel electrolytes now under development may allow solid-state batteries to operate at very high and very low temperatures.

All of this is promising, but the hurdles remain high. Shale gas is cheap, and fracking has slowed little. Large quantities are still being produced for grid-based power. (Florida's utilities are betting heavily on natural gas.) As yet, solar can't compete in most states without subsidies.

While it's true that rooftop solar is a winner for businesses -- manufacturing sites, warehouses, large retail operations -- it's less so for homes where resale is often hampered by the conspicuous panels. And vast solar farms have come under fire for "visual pollution." Many feel they're a blight on the landscape.

Then there's the political side. While I doubt the 30% subsidy for solar and wind will be rescinded, the environmental justification will almost certainly go away. In the Trump administration, climate change will not be front and center.

The key is to win the battle in the marketplace, to achieve cost parity with hydrocarbons without subsidies. And it's doable. Technical advances are on a high trajectory and costs are dropping. It's not a matter of whether, but of when. It will eventually happen. Never bet against American ingenuity.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

President Trump? Who'd a Thunk It?

How could we have gotten it so wrong? All of us. Especially the so-called experts, who have lost all credibility. The pundits, the analysts, the pollsters, all those wise men who saw what they wanted to see instead of what was actually happening. And what about the prima donna columnists and talking heads, the supposed shapers of public opinion who thought the voters would follow them like deranged sheep?

But forget about the experts. Few people, period -- Republicans or Democrats -- thought Trump had a chance. I predicted a Clinton landslide. Most people I know followed the returns to see how local candidates and referenda were doing and whether the GOP would hold the Senate. A Clinton coronation was a foregone conclusion.

We were all wrong. House Speaker Paul Ryan summed it up: "Trump's victory was the most incredible political feat I have seen in my lifetime." I'm still reeling.

So what happened? Some voted for Trump, but many more voted against Hillary Clinton. Give credit, if belatedly, to the American people for disposing of this deplorable, lying, corrupt politician. She has what a Democrat friend calls the Nixon factor: She makes your skin crawl.

Clinton aside, some say Trump got there by riding a populist wave against the entrenched grandees, the Washington elite. His was a triumph of timing, of being at the right place at the right time. And that may be so. But I think it was more than that. I think it was also a repudiation of Obama and his failed policies. It was a call for a new start by an outsider who wasn't contaminated by the system, at least not yet.

Whatever the reason for Trump's win, the consequences will be historical. Let's consider a few of them.

  • Clinton will not be able to nominate Barack Obama to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. (Don't laugh. That was being considered.)
  • Our commitments to the Paris accords on climate change, never confirmed by the Senate, will be withdrawn. Global warming will get a fresh look. Science rather than politics will be applied.
  • The Pacific trade pact will be scuttled.
  • Obamacare will be dismantled to the cheers of the 80% of Americans who saw big reductions in their insurance coverage and huge spikes in their premiums.
  • Illegal immigration will be stopped, and legal immigration will be reevaluated.
  • Tax reform will get a serious look, and the crippling taxes on U.S. businesses will be sharply reduced.
  • The worst of Obama's regulations by presidential order will be rolled back, and few new ones will be imposed.
  • The absurd attack on natural gas will stop, and the mindless subsidies on wind and solar will be rescinded. Pipelines will be approved.
  • Our crumbling infrastructure -- roads, rail lines, bridges -- will finally be repaired, a welcome use of taxpayer money.
  • Conservative justices will be appointed to the federal courts, aided by a change to simple majority approval by the Senate.
  • We will have, after an eight-year absence, a coherent foreign policy and a renewal of friendship with Israel.
And all of this will happen in the first year!

Look for a new atmosphere in Washington. Negotiations will flourish and the my-way-or-the-highway mentality of Obama will be relegated to the dustbin of failure. There will be compromises, and government will at last get things done.

Though none of us saw it coming, a Trump presidency will be a welcome change. To my Republican friends I say, if Trump doesn't do everything to your liking, and he won't, just think of the alternative. Think of what Hillary would have done instead. And smile.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Chicago, That Toddlin' Town

"Bet your bottom dollar you'll lose your blues in Chicago, the town Billy Sunday couldn't shut down." (Fred Fisher, 1922)

Billy Sunday couldn't tame the city by the lake -- at various times the country's railway hub, butcher shop and jazz mecca -- and neither could anyone else.

Chicago ages well, and some good things have been happening there lately. So here's a tribute, with all the passion I can muster, to the Windy City, where they do things they don't do on Broadway. Reminiscences are uneven at best, the highlights clear and most everything else airbrushed away. But here goes.

Eons ago I did graduate work in chemistry at the University of Chicago, where my wife got her undergraduate degree. We lived in a fourth-floor walk-up in a building that backed on the Illinois Central tracks. The building shook every time a train went by. Muggings in our courtyard were a common occurrence. Once, while driving a fellow student home, I witnessed a gun battle on Cornell Avenue. You can't make this stuff up.

Chicago was tough then and, I suspect, still is. I remember a wonderful lead in the Chicago Tribune: "The sound of gunfire echoed once again in the ears of Roger Touhy last night" (a notorious gangster gunned down on the west side). The last of the burlesque houses were still open on south State Street, complete with peeling paint, dirty saxophones and top-banana comedians with baggy pants.

Jazz was everywhere -- Louis Armstrong between movies at the Chicago Theater, Dizzy Gillespie at the Blue Note, Jack Teagarden at the Brass Rail. You could nurse a beer for hours and listen to the Dukes of Dixieland. German waiters at the Berghof made change right at your table from pockets full of money. Theater was ubiquitous -- from "The Sound of Music" to "Garden District" to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Severn Darden, Alan Arkin and Anne Meara headlined at The Second City. The Art Institute was free and Ravinia only a short train ride away. A young black minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., mesmerized congregations at Rockefeller Chapel.

But why reminisce now? After so many years. Two reasons.

The first is the University of Chicago, a source of pride for its consistent ranking as one of the world's great universities. But I pay tribute for a much different reason: Chicago is taking the lead in upholding the tradition of free speech on college campuses. If that sounds like a no-brainer, consider what's been going on.

  • Yale students recently fought attempts by liberal faculty to ensure free speech because it wasn't liberal enough.
  • Wesleyan students tried to shut down the campus newspaper for printing an op-ed critical of Black Lives Matter.
  • Princeton undergraduates demanded renaming the Woodrow Wilson School because Wilson, a Democrat, was a segregationist in his youth.
  • Protesters at Amherst College decried free speech because of a lecture that offended their sensibilities.
  • Muslim students forced the University of Michigan to scrap the screening of "An American Sniper," arguing it propagated the myth that terrorism comes mostly from Muslims.
  • Campus riots forced the resignation of the University of Missouri's president because of his alleged insensitivity to racial slurs.
  • A Harvard professor's classroom was invaded by screaming students who didn't like what he was teaching.
Vetoing commencement speakers has become a cottage industry. Recent victims include Christine Lagarde, Colin Powell, Jerry Seinfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had the temerity to criticize Islam. Forget about diversity. Many elite schools demand a lockstep march to the left. Balanced dialogues are savaged. Political correctness reigns.

It may seem surprising that Chicago, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, is leading the fight for free expression. But that tradition goes back many years, reflected in comments by past presidents.

Robert Hutchins: The cure for objectionable ideas "lies through open discussion rather than through prohibition."

Hannah Gray: "It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or evenly deeply offensive."

Chicago's current president, Robert Zimmer, amplified the point: "Free speech is at risk at the very institutions where it should be assured. Invited speakers are disinvited because a segment of a university community deems them offensive, while other orators are shouted down for similar reasons."

Chicago's policy is made clear to entering freshmen: "Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others."

Hail to Chicago. That's my school.

The other reason for celebrating is, what else, the Chicago Cubs! World champions again -- after 108 years! Ending a drought that makes the problem in California look like a warm snap. Exorcizing demons, real or imagined. Lifting generations of self-inflicted misery. Charlie Brown finally kicked the football.

It happened with a lineup of mostly young players who had no sense of history. And it happened in dramatic fashion, as the gods would have it, with the Cubbies overcoming a three games to one lead by the Cleveland Indians, themselves without a world title since 1948. It happened despite some of the worst handling of pitching in recent memory; manager Joe Maddon made one hare-brained decision after another. But none of that mattered. The Cubbies won game seven 8-7 in extra innings. The curse has been officially lifted.

So, for two very good reasons, I lift a glass to Chicago. Van Heusen and Cahn wrote it and Sinatra sang it: "My kind of town, Chicago is." And it is indeed my kind of town. Here's to the Windy City. Bottoms up.