Corruption of the Bureaucracy Watch

The Washington Post had a great story which reported that:

Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sent an all-staff email Friday afternoon in an apparent effort to repair damage from an unusual Sept. 6 statement that sided with President Trump rather than agency weather forecasters.

I have obtained a copy of the email and have posted it here. It states that:

Scientific integrity is at the heart of NOAA’s mission and culture, and is essential for maintaining the public’s trust.

Of course, for the government to function properly, all of its component parts must act with integrity. Thus, the NOAA story is but a subpart of the much larger story of a broad-based attempt by the Trump Administration to undermine the integrity of the federal bureaucracy by the Trump Administration.

Going forward, I will attempt to focus on similar examples of this corruption. One question that I would pose to those contributors to the RBC who are from the UK: Is the bureaucracy there under a similar attack? If it either is or were presented with similar pressures, is it institutionally more resistant?

Financing hydrogen iron

A wonkish plan for problem industries in the energy transition.

We know how to make the electricity supply renewable. We know how to make land transport electric. Both are on track. But there are four problem industries where things are not so clear.

These estimates are not all for the same year and not strictly comparable, but they are good enough to make the point that to reach net zero emissions, the four sectors (together 20% of global fossil emissions) cannot be ignored.

The challenges are distinct but they have common features.

  1. Very plausible technological pathways exist to decarbonise. But these are not mature, and for the moment they are far more expensive than BAU.
  2. There is no guarantee or strong expectation that technical progress will ever eliminate the cost barrier, in contrast to electricity and land vehicles.
  3. The industries are typical of modern capitalism: they are international and oligopolistic, with a lot of trade, a handful of large companies, and a myriad of small ones.
  4. Their products and services rarely have plausible substitutes. (We shall see later on why this matters).

Points 1 and 2 mean that the issue for public policy is not R&D (pace all the Democratic presidential hopefuls) but early deployment.

Recall how we got to cheap wind, solar and batteries. It wasn’t a carbon tax, since that does not exist anywhere in the pure form. Partial cap-and-trade exists in the EU, but it has only just started to bite, after giveaway initial allocations. It was done by subsidies for early deployment to create economies of learning and scale:

  • In the USA, tax breaks for wind, solar, and electric cars; renewable obligations at state level.
  • In Europe and China, tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory privileges for electric cars.
  • FITs and ringfenced auctions for wind and solar generation in Germany, other European countries, China and India.

The costs of FITs have been large in the past, though the cumulative liability (in Germany for instance) has now almost stopped growing as the few surviving FITs are near market rates. Well worth it of course, especially if you aren’t a German consumer.

The same principle holds for our four problem industries. Carbon taxes are politically toxic, and a coordination nightmare in globalised industries. So what’s the workable second-best kludge?

I’d like to float a possible solution. I’ll take steel as the example. The principle extends to the others ceteris paribus.

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Weekend Book Recommendation: Tales from the Society for the Preservation of Preposterous Absurdity

If we cannot help, we may at least hinder

I have written here before of my love for books that employ a bonkers narrator to deliver absurdist humor, and I have another gem of that cut to recommend this week. A perfectly ludicrous set of adventures are related in this collection by the is-he-a-genius-or-has-he-just-gone-spare Dr. Martin Smotheringdale, President of the Society for the Preservation of Preposterous Absurdity. Smotheringdale introduces the reader to a strange society via a series of investigations into mysterious problems, which through diligent effort he usually manages to make worse.

The hilarious stories in this book are reminiscent of Douglas Adams in being suffused with high-end scientific nonsense, from quantum kittens to a clowder of Schrodinger cats to black hole spaghetti makers. This reflects the day job of the author, Professor Shane Darke, an eminent addiction researcher whose work I have cited on many occasions (including in this interview by my fellow RBCer, Harold Pollack).

Each tale include many drolleries line by line that made me laugh out loud, and the collection is greater than the sum of those parts because the comic inventions build on each other: the poor chap who has his ears reversed in the first tale, the Perpetual Irritation Machine, and the Hypercube, among other off-the-wall concoctions, return for well-timed bows in the tales that follow after the stories that introduce them to the reader. And the best story in the book — The Ghosts of Gridley Gorge — is a joke within a meta-joke that is as brilliantly constructed as anything Evelyn Waugh, Lewis Carroll, or Punch magazine, ever pulled off.

On top of all that, it’s a good buy, just five bucks on a Kindle or 10 to 15 dollars in paperback depending where you look. You can find it at many on line booksellers including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Annals of weird infographics

A Norwegian consultancy comes up with a bafflingly cute one.

This chart, or whatever you want to call it, is from a report on the global energy transition by the big Norwegian consultancy DNV-GL. It’s not wrong or misleading so much as baffling. A new type of Tufte failure, perhaps. For their next effort, I suggest adding animated Teletubbies skiing down the mountaintops.

U.S. Prescription Opioid Consumption Still Leads the World

I frequently hear the claim that “doctors have just stopped prescribing opioids”. The truth is that U.S. doctors prescribe fewer opioids than they did 5 years ago, but the U.S. still dwarfs the world in its per capita prescribing even among the heaviest prescribing nations. For details, see my latest piece at The Washington Monthly.

Cannabis news round-up

Washington teens used less marijuana following legalization. Counterfeit cannabis products stoke black market for California weed.

Posh pot boutiques? Budtenders? Illinois police worry what’s down the road. Your weed dealer will be ok even after Illinois marijuana becomes legal. Lake in the Hills, Illinois village board weighs options for marijuana legalizationNiles, Illinois proposes plan to allow marijuana sales but restrict locations. Illinois suburban school administrators bracing for legal marijuana’s impacts. Naperville, Illinois residents rally against sale of recreational marijuana  Tennessee, whose governor opposes legalizing marijuana, pulls out of Illinois weed business.

Marijuana faces second phase of legalization in small-town Michigan. FBI warns of public corruption threat in Michigan legal marijuana industry. Weedmaps may stop advertising illicit marijuana businesses in Michigan.

Governor Walz wants Minnesota to be ready to roll on legal marijuana. Florida overwhelmingly supports legalizing recreational marijuana. Don’t count on tax revenues from Pennsylvania legal marijuana sales, study says. Locals say balderdash.

Pro-legalization primary challenger slams Rep. Steny Hoyer’s marijuana opposition.  Pot industry underestimates old-school dealers. Trump reiterates his administration will let states legalize marijuana. White House drug officials say legal marijuana is up to states. Nine questions about marijuana legalization you were too embarrassed to ask. Do we really want a Microsoft of marijuana?

Mexico cannabis users eagerly await legal marijuana.  Canadians continues to buy cannabis illegally.

Dominion backs V2G

A big US utility subsidises school buses as grid batteries.

As a rule I don’t post much on renewable technology. The news is of a steady flow of small, unremarkable, incremental improvements that keep making wind and solar energy ever cheaper. It’s the prices that do it. But every so often, something bigger happens. I think it has here:

Dominion Energy Virginia has published a bullish plan to convert 50 school buses in its territory to electric buses by 2020. That’s just the start, as the company plans to add 200 more per year to hit its target of 1,050 fully electric school buses by 2025.
The company has a request for proposals in the works for electric vehicle manufacturers with plans to open the application to school districts in its Virginia territory this Friday, September 5th, 2019. […]
Dominion is excited to use the buses as vehicle to grid (V2G) batteries, and what’s even better is that the company has stepped up to pay the difference in price between traditional diesel buses and the fully electric buses in order to gain access to this new V2G resource.

V2G – vehicle-to-grid – is the idea of using electric vehicle batteries as storage for the grid. If it works, the potential is vast.
In 2018, there were 5.1 million electric cars on the roads worldwide, and 460,000 buses. (IEA Global EV Outlook 2019 ) Taking 30 kwh as a representative battery capacity for cars (Nissan Leaf) and 320 kwh for a representative electric bus (BYD K9), we have a total EV battery capacity of ~300 Gwh. The global light vehicle stock is about 1 billion, so EVs only represent 0.5% of it. But the growth rate is staggering – over 50% per year. The IEA suggests a global EV stock of 130 million in 2030 in its New Policies scenario (reflecting current policy ambitions), not much more than 10% of the stock allowing for market growth. We would then have a global vehicle battery capacity of ~7,800 Gwh, with plenty of upside.

Suppose we can tap a mere 10% of this for V2G. That’s ~780 Gwh. The Bath County pumped storage dam in Virginia, still the world’s largest (though not for long) has a storage capacity of 24 Gwh. V2G at scale would make a serious dent in the firming problem for very large-scale wind and solar. And it’s a very cheap solution compared to pumped storage or grid batteries: the owners of the vehicles will have bought the batteries anyway, and would not need to be paid much to lend them to the grid with appropriate guarantees and at minimal inconvenience.

A schematic illustration how this would work using Dominion’s school buses (my timetable guesses, not their estimates). On a working day:

  • 0000h – 0630 h: charge bus batteries in garage to 100%
  • 0630h – 0930h: morning school run, buses return to garage with average 33% charge
  • 0930h – 1600h: charge bus batteries in depot to 100%; available for V2G but not used much
  • 1600h – 1900h: afternoon school run, buses return to garage with average 33 % charge
  • 1900h -2400h: interruptible charging; >33% of bus battery capacity available for V2G to meet evening demand peak.

That’s for the 200 school days a year. For the other 165 days, the buses just sit in the garage, working exactly as grid batteries.

The scheme depends on the fact that any bus operator will buy a number of identical buses, but these will follow a mixture of longer and shorter routes. On the shorter ones, the buses don’t exhaust the charge. Given that Dominion is subsidising the purchases, they will be able to insist on as much over-capacity as they want.

There are several takeaways from this news. Continue reading “Dominion backs V2G”

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hound of the Baskervilles has a special place in The Sherlock Holmes canon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story is substantially longer than the typical Holmes outing, allowing him to weave two distinct mystery tales together. It’s also remarkable for putting Watson at center stage for a significant part of the book, allowing the sidekick a turn as the protagonist. And last but not least, it has been adapted as a movie more than any other Holmes tale, beginning with a silent version made in Germany in 1914. This week I recommend one of the better adaptations, and the first to be shot in color, namely the 1959 Hammer Films version.

The plot of the book concerns Holmes’ investigation of the ancient, wealthy, Baskerville family, and the curse of a demonic hound which has allegedly brought ruin upon them for generations. Holmes and Watson must solve the mystery about how the latest Baskerville has died, protect the new heir (Sir Henry Baskerville), and also cope with a mentally ill mass murderer named Selden who has broken out of prison and roams the moors near Baskerville Hall. I won’t ruin it for you in case you haven’t read it, but it’s a compelling mystery with more suspense and horror elements than most of Doyle’s shorter Holmes stories.

The 1959 version, playing to the studio’s strengths, puts the accent on the horror elements of the novel. Who better than Hammer to give us fog-shrouded moors and ruined abbeys in the English countryside? Hammer also wisely cast their most reliable stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in the major roles of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, respectively. Cushing’s interpretation of Holmes is true to the book, rendering the detective as eccentric, brilliant, and not particularly warm. Lee’s performance as well as Peter Bryan’s strong script make Sir Henry a more substantial and engaging character than he is in the book. As mentioned, this particular story also needs a strong Doctor Watson, and André Morell is well up to the task. Terence Fisher, an old hand at Hammer, directs as deftly as ever.

Being a Hammer film, the 1959 version also throws in some décolletage and sex in the person of Maria Landi. Bryan’s script also changes her character’s role from what it was in the book, which may be objectionable to Holmes purists. But I found it a refreshing take, and one that gives the film a more jaundiced take on the aristocracy than did the book and other film adaptations of it.

You can watch this worthy adaptation of a beloved novel for free and legally on Dailymotion.

Some other adaptations I would recommend:

The handsomely produced 1939 version with Basil Rathbone as the great detective; the Livanov/Solomin adaptation from the utterly brilliant Soviet cycle of Holmes’ films; the little known Sy Weintraub production starring Ian Richardson; and the justly respected Granada Television version starring Jeremy Brett.

And a few to avoid: The disappointing 2002 version with Richard Roxburgh as Holmes; the yet worse Stewart Granger/William Shatner 1972 television version; and the execrable 2000 version starring the guy who played Max Headroom.

Holes in the ground update

Warren half-way supports my pumped storage plan.

Some random blogger, last month, arguing for a large US investment in pumped hydro storage:

Picking with a pin, a 100 GW initial programme looks reasonable. […] it will cost a ballpark $60 bn. […] Where should the dams go? As a climate justice measure, it has to be Appalachia, since that is where most of the unemployed miners are and will be.

Candidate Elizabeth Warren, adopting Inslee’s climate plan with bells and whistles, earlier today:

We’ll provide dedicated support for the four Power Marketing Administrations, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Appalachian Regional Commission to help them build publicly-owned clean energy assets and deploy clean power to help communities transition off fossil fuels. And we’ll expand investments in smart energy storage solutions and cybersecurity for the grid.

Pretty close. The only thing the Appalachian Regional Commission can usefully spend money on is pumped storage, so Warren’s plan would buy some. However, her plan lacks specificity, numbers, and immediacy. “If you build a Bath County dam here, it will create 1,000 jobs for five years”. She achieves this elsewhere:

I’ll also invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, including ensuring that every federal interstate highway rest stop hosts a fast-charging station by the end of my first term in office.

See the difference?

China is currently building 30 GW of pumped hydro, on top of the existing stock of 19 GW, a shade under the USA’s 24 GW. The programme includes one 3.6 GW megaproject at Fengning which will knock Bath County from its three-decade reign as the world’s largest. Another 6 GW has just been added to the pipeline, taking the future total to 55 GW. The USA is being left in the dust and should aim at a bare minimum to match this.

The ambitious rollout is steered by China State Grid, the huge national high-voltage transmission monopoly. Warren’s plan leaves out a national grid too, merely rebranding FERC, weak tea by her high standards. But it may be good politics. Steering new funding to existing public bodies can be got through Congress by reconciliation. A national grid and electricity market would need primary legislation, a very scarce resource in the Warren (or Sanders or Biden) Presidency.

FWIW, if I were an American Democrat and primary elector, I would focus less on the details of the rival climate plans, and more on the ability of the candidates to get anything done. The plans will converge, as there are few serious ideological divides among Democrats equivalent to those on universal health care. The nearest is on nuclear power. Sanders rules it out; Biden will spend on research; Warren ducks. Fair enough, as the practical question is merely how much money to throw away on new reactor designs that will never be built commercially at any scale. Nuclear is a side-issue, not worth wasting political capital on. It’s more important who the new President would appoint as Secretary for Energy.

Footnote

For aficionados, there’s an interesting machinery-of-government angle. One part of the DoE’s job is minding the nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear waste. These are thousand-year headaches, with no tolerance for mistakes, and highly technical, though they only create major policy issues irregularly. That is why Obama appointed top-flight nuclear physicists as Secretaries. This inevitably creates a pro-nuclear bias in the other side of the job, energy policy. Warren (&c) might consider hiving off the nuclear stewardship job to a distinct non-Cabinet agency with considerable professional autonomy, like the Fed, and a real scientist in the Chu or Moniz mould as head. The Cabinet-level energy and climate czar would have plenty of other things to do, leading a multi-trillion-dollar GND.