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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RBC smartphone review

Really cheap and full-featured smartphones arrive in Africa.

For your weekend edification, I bring you a smartphone review. I have not actually seen or touched the phone in question, for reasons that will become evident, so I am going entirely on Web information.

The phone is a basic model sold by transnational South African mobile telco MTN. It’s the Mobicel Astro, and retails for 449 rand or $33.

This is not the cheapest on the market. MTN will sell you this for 249 rand or $18. Vendors sensibly avoid the term “smartphone” for such handsets. They don’t run a full mobile OS and are limited to browsing and, crucially, messaging and VOIP with WhatsApp. The Astro is recognizably from the same genus as the iPhone and its many emulators.

Here is a table comparing the Astro to the original and the latest iPhone.

I leave out the infinite variety of apps they can all run. Here are a few; I mark with an asterisk the ones where the smartphone does as good a job as a purpose-built device, for the others it’s second best, just as with a Swiss Army knife.

*Phone, *calculator, *clock/timer/alarm, *calendar/diary, *geolocator, *messaging device, *notebook, camera, recorder, compass, flashlight, Web browser, word processor, spreadsheet processor, music player, video player, photo viewer, UI for plug-in sensor, game console.

Some quick takeaways.

1. The specs of the Astro are at least as good as those of the original iPhone in every respect, at under a tenth of the price.

2. Apple has not given its customers any price gains, and has even raised prices.

3. Technical progress since the first iPhone has been modest. The $1000 iPhone XS has just two significant new functions over the 12-year-old original: the selfie camera (which the Astro has) and the biometric ID (which the Astro lacks).

Now of course Apple fans will say: iPhones are better made; everything works better and faster; the A12 processor chip in particular is a monster that can run a battleship; the image quality from the camera is of a different order from cheap phones. All true. I maintain that the main revolution was all in the original iPhone, and the Astro matches it.

The Astro and its competitors are far more important devices in their social impact than an incremental status display like the iPhone XS. In Africa the Internet means mobile, outside a few lucky cities. Mobile phone penetration is 44%: more than one per family. A third of these phones are smart, or 250 million. Cheap handsets will speed this up.

Much of this impact is good: better access to information on health, prices and technology, for one. But we have seen in the well-educated USA and UK the hacking of major elections by manipulation of social media. In the Rwandan genocide 0f 1994, the Interahamwe only had old-fashioned radio to work with. Their successors will have Facebook and Twitter.

The Brexit ship of fools

A try at an update on the evolving Brexit chaos.

Eight days to B-day on March 29! For amoral political junkies, it’s sheer heaven. The last fortnight at Westminster has been the most exciting since May 1940, if not quite as important. You could only keep up by 24/7 liveblogging. I can’t manage it, so consider this a Brexit open thread.

Last time I looked (ten minutes ago) the state of play is this:

Continue reading “The Brexit ship of fools”

Swarthy Levantines Fighting

I wouldn’t dream of attributing Rep. Ilhan Omar’s concern about Palestinians to her having loyalties divided between the US and a Muslim caliphate, so I don’t accept her attributing Jews’ concern about the survival of the Jewish state to our having loyalties divided between the US and Israel.

If by any chance this analogy helps the Congresswoman grasp why her criticism has been taken ill, that would be swell; because otherwise we Dems are engaged in a pointless display of “Let’s you and him fight.” [Almost] needless to say, it wasn’t Jews who decided to blacken her name by connecting her with 9/11 in a scurrilous poster; it was West Virginia Evangelicals who voted for Trump. So let’s keep eyes on the prize here: most people who hate Jews hate Muslims just as much, if not more, so don’t give them ammunition by talking about the divided loyalty of any subgroup of swarthy Levantines.

That canard—not criticism of Israel—is the anti-Semitism we’re complaining about. (The ‘divided loyalty’ smear has gotten quite a workout in American history: because he was Catholic, John F. Kennedy was accused of being in thrall to the Pope.) Yes, Bibi is awful and should be in jail; yes, AIPAC represents the most retrograde right-wing notions about how to protect Israel. No, I don’t have to endorse BDS to acknowledge Likud’s shortcomings, any more than you (Congresswoman) have to get up every morning and say “9/11 was terrible” before you can be listened to about American policy in the Middle East.

As it is written: in a democracy one should neither give offense lightly, nor take it. I’m prepared not to take offense, provided you’re prepared to acknowledge that you might have given offense without meaning to. I realize you’ve already done this once, after your comment about Jews’ financial power, and that repeated demands for apology are irksome; but perhaps that will give you pause the next time you get ready to stereotype people—allies on every other subject—with whom you disagree.

The Queen of Hearts

A lament on Brazil’s election of Bolsonaro, with tips on what to do.

Brazil has just elected a charismatic far-right loon, Jair Messias (sic) Bolsonaro, as its next President. Political junkies can study his campaign website and programme (pdf download), but these documents are more than usually irrelevant. His extraordinary rise from the backbenches in Brasilia has not been based on policy – zero-based budgeting, anybody? – but on tricolour smoke and mirrors, spread by WhatsApp.

A press summary of the programme indicates that there is very little of substance in it. Economy: austerity, privatizations. Taxes: cut (though most Brazilians will find any cuts are taken back by the ideological shift to a capitalized pension scheme). Corruption: lock ‘em up (PT politicians that is). Crime: a free hand to the police to shoot suspects; easier access to guns (I am not making this up). Environment: open up the Amazon to agribusiness. Foreign policy: follow Trump. Education: back to basics, national anthem. Rights of indigenous peoples, LGBTQ, lefties: what rights? Inequality, poverty: fear for the worst.

Bolsonaro has had two careers, both in the public sector. The first was in the army, which he entered aged 16 as an officer cadet. He left in 1988 (after 17 years) as a captain – an ignominious exit rank for a career officer. Brazil was a military dictatorship until 1985. For the first part of his career he was regularly being passed over for promotion by the men responsible for running this dictatorship: presumably not on grounds of ideological deviation. His superiors’ assessments of his capabilities did not change under democracy. He entered politics and sat for 30 years as a isolated backbencher, only known for incendiary remarks in favour of torture and dictatorship. He does not appear to have any serious interest in public policy; the core programme could have been assembled over a weekend in any bar frequented by right-wing blowhards.

The character in fiction that Bolsonaro best matches is neither Brecht’s Arturo Ui  nor Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel but Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’

Now he is leader of a country of 210 million. How come? Continue reading “The Queen of Hearts”

Read it here before it happens (Khashoggi)

Mohammed Bin Salman: We are shocked—shocked! that a rogue band of operatives misunderstood my idle reflection (“will no one rid me of this turbulent journalist?”) and committed this terrible crime.  We are not surprised that the group included Qataris and Persians.  All will be beheaded publicly tomorrow afternoon at 3 and their bodies put through a brush chipper and into my shark pond.

[Twelve schlimazel expat laborers are rounded up off the street and executed]

Trump: As I expected, the vengeful Democrat fake news press mob—the greatest, most mendacious, most treasonous mob any president has ever faced–was wrong again, and if some patriots should exercise my rally advice on them it’s really their own fault.  I talked to my good friend Mohammed Bin Salman this morning; he bought three condos right there on the phone, and he firmly denies he had anything to do with this unfortunate event, just like Putin, Brett, and, um me, and that should be enough once and for all.

I might add that the people who expect some of my strongest supporters (and funders) to give up $10 billion in arms business, while there are still working hospitals in Yemen patching up Houthi children to grow up into radical Islamic terrorists,  over one foreign brown fake news scribbler for the failing Washington Post, are the kind of people who don’t want America to be great, and that’s why we need to save the Republican congress next month.

Donald Trump, MS13 operative

Donald Trump talks about MS-13 more than any other NGO (no, I haven’t got actual numbers to support this), and it’s not surprising. He loves American exports, and MS13 was made in USA prisons and delivered to El Salvador; its cruelty and misogyny is surely a level of aspiration for him. So it’s not surprising that he and his catspaw Sessions have signed on as actual MS13 operatives, now delivering escaping victims back to them (and all the other Central American gangs)  for rape, enslavement, and murder. Even when they’re in court trying to get asylum.

I wonder if he has a deal for docile immigrant employees in his hotels…

Museums behaving badly

I love museums. Science museums, history museums, art museums; there’s nothing like looking at real stuff in person. Whether it’s an antique automobile, a big old beetle in a case, or the Ardabil carpet in the V&A, being able to walk around it, get close, and engage on my own time is one of my top-level pleasures.  I’m sure I learned as much natural science in the American Museum of Natural History as a child as I did in school; whenever I’m traveling, I make a beeline for local museums.

The affection is not entirely requited in art museums, mainly  because so many of them transparently disrespect me (and all the other visitors) by pointless, insouciant, arrogant stinginess with the information that makes the art accessible.  This weekend I was at the Huntington, the Getty Villa, and LACMA in LA. The Huntington and the Getty do a pretty good job with long, informative labels that provide context, history, and some guidance about what to attend to in the works on display, but LACMA left me really steamed.

A featured exhibition was several galleries full of contemporary political art by Iranians that reached back to the Shahnameh for analogies and references, a show with appropriate local interest (there are lots of Persians in LA, including refugees from before and after the shah’s overthrow) and in any case an interesting and fruitful concept.   You should go and see it, but unfortunately you will miss a lot unless you’re already hip to recent (and ancient) Iranian history, and can read Farsi. The labels were tiny and short and one after another very political work full of incriptions, signs, and text in Farsi was untranslated. One faceplant in particular seemed to sum up art museums’ worst instincts to make not only the typical visitor, but almost any visitor, feel unqualified and inadequate.

The work, by Koushna Navabi, is a couple of dozen rings in different metallic finishes with the same portrait, a little over an inch each way:

This is the entire label we were offered:

Know whose portrait this is? Only because I’m old enough to almost remember the period, and spent some time in Iran after the coup that overthrew him, I recognized Mohammed Mosaddegh, about whom Wikipedia says “Many Iranians regard Mosaddegh as the leading champion of secular democracy and resistance to foreign domination in Iran’s modern history. Mosaddegh was removed from power in a coup on 19 August 1953, organised and carried out by the CIA at the request of MI6.” In  the oppressive regime of the shah and his SAVAK secret police that followed, Iran’s oil remained in the hands of western oil companies and their US and British protectors. Of course by 1979 this arrangement went off the rails because the Iranians had had enough of it.

Any of that useful in engaging with this work? Or is the (I presume) affectionate but rather obscure pun in the title all you needed? I hung around and asked at least a half-dozen visitors if they knew whose portrait was on the rings; none had any idea. Here’s what the curator thought she was doing with this show; I’m sure her middle-east specialist colleagues were impressed, but an exhibition like this is a lot of work: I guess she just didn’t have a minute to actually think about the visitors who would walk in the door.

Coal crash in India

New coal plants in India have crashed to under 5 GW a year.

To cheer you up from a news diet of Trump, a chart from IEEFA of new generating plants in India:

 

Coal fell off a cliff two years ago. The coal additions in 2017-18 (India uses an April-to-April fiscal year inherited from the Raj) were only 4.2 GW. Coal Plant Tracker still reports 39 GW of coal under construction (with 97 GW suspended and a staggering 476 GW cancelled since 2010), but it’s very likely that much of this is walking dead. IEEFA predicts the real pipeline is 10-20 GW, after which no more will (I infer) ever be needed.

You don’t often see turning points advertised in neon like this. India has had since 2003 a modern split electricity market as in the UK and Texas, with a monopoly national grid, monopoly state distribution companies, and competitive generation. So you got a coal bubble, and a coal crash – far more dramatic than in dirigiste China or quasi-socialist USA. It’s pretty certain that the owners of the few plants coming online are not happy bunnies, and their shiny new assets are born lossmakers. India has large surplus capacity (the power cuts come from the rickety grid), so the average coal capacity factor is below 60% and heading down. New solar can beat existing coal on price by 20%, so it’s only going to get worse.

Indian banks have up to $38 bn of bad loans to power companies (Merrill Lynch). Modi’s government is business-friendly to the point of cronyism, so some sort of bailout will be arranged. It is even more voting-farmer-friendly, so the bailout will not be perfect. Gautam Adani will remain a rich man, but not as rich as he is today.

“Insane” ≠ “insensé”

Macron did not just call Trump crazy.

The Guardian, today (my emphasis):

Noting that Trump had also pulled the US out of the Paris climate change accord – another commitment of the Obama administration – Macron said such frequent changes in the US position on global issues “can work in the short term but it’s very insane in the medium to long term”.

Did Macron really mean to call Trump’s policies insane, that is crazy, indicative of a serious mental disorder?

No. Gratuitous insults to a head of state you want things from are stupid and counter-productive, and Macron is not a fool.

I’m sure that he was self-translating “insensé”.

The online Larousse dictionary  gives the meaning as:

Qui n’est pas conforme au bon sens, à la raison : Projet insensé.

The correct English is therefore “senseless”. That’s still rude, but not a personal attack.

Macron’s English is very good, though not quite as good as he thinks. My French is excellent – not boasting, just a fact, I worked with it for 32 years. But neither of us are immune to mistakes, especially of nuance, and most especially of nuance in hard words. Consider the minefield around “nigger”: now completely taboo for non-black English speakers, but I understand acceptable ironically between black friends. Foreigners wouldn’t guess that French “con” is somewhat less offensive than “pute”, while the reverse is true of their English equivalents.

There is a good reason why the interpreters and translators who work for foreign ministries, embassies and international organisations are highly paid and equal in status to administrators. It is very hard to get translations of sensitive material exactly right, and Google Translate is not there yet by a long chalk. *

* Google Translate suggests the literal and meaningless “pas par une longue craie. The fixed phrase “loin s’en faut” does the job, but I don’t know a more picturesque idiom. It has the advantage of the disapproval of the stuffy and idle Académie Française.