Archive for November, 2009

Electric Cars – Stop ‘n’ Swap

It should be clear that the appropriate analogy to the filling station isn’t the recharging station, it’s the battery-swapping station, along the lines of a propane refill.  Now, an Israeli is trying to make this work in Israel and in Denmark:

Better Place proposes building a network of curbside charging stations where owners can top off their vehicle batteries. Agassi’s idea generated $300 million in venture capital and sparked international interest: Cities in Israel and Denmark hope to have the first robotic change stations running in 2011, and the company aspires to expand operations to Australia, Canada, Hawaii and California in 2012. In late September, Better Place signed a deal with Renault-Nissan to put 100,000 electric vehicles on the road in Israel and Denmark by 2016.

I’ve always believed that the only way we’re going to get Americans into electric cars is to extend their range.  Especially out west, where I live, it’s virtually impossible to imagine driving  your car for 100 miles, and then stopping for a few hours to recharge.  That might work for in-city commutes, but too many of us routinely make business or pleasure trips of well over 100 miles, and some even have commutes that long.

If this idea can work in high-density, short-trip areas like Israel and Europe, it ought to be able to substitute in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona.  It’ll be interesting to see what kind of business model he comes up with.  I’d suspect that franchising would be the fastest way to expand, with the quality control issue here being the quality of the battery, and making sure that the station owners weren’t under-charging the batteries.

As with any technology, this isn’t going to happen overnight.  You’d still want batteries that could make it 300 miles or so, a typical tank of gas.  The barriers to entry – read: capital investment – for swapping stations and cars alike remain high.  And, of course, barring nuclear plants, massive numbers of electric cars are going to mean hot summers and cold winters for a lot of people.

But this is clearly the operational model that can work.

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Senate Field Gets More Crowded

BREAKING: Tom Wiens has formally filed papers as a candidate for the US Senate race here in Colorado.

Quickly noted: Wiens appears to have great confidence in his ability to fundraise competitively with Jane Norton, and he has deep ties to the party activists who have been frequent caucus-goers and state Assembly delegates.  He has strength in El Paso and Douglas Counties, both Republican strongholds.  All of this helps him in the primary.

Whether or not the Dems can successfully portray him as “too conservative” is open to question, but I’m sure that will be their line of attack.

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Election Day in Colorado

While lacking the national cache of N-23 or a govenor’s race in a bellwether state (that comes next year), Colorado does have some election activity of its own this year.  With the usual caveats about off-year turnout, here are some of the more interesting races to keep an eye on.

  • In Douglas County, the non-partisan school board race has turned partisan, as the teachers’ unions try to seize control of that body in a heavily Republican county.  The local Republican party has responded by endorsing a slate of four candidates of its own.  Good luck to Dan GerkenDoug Benevento, Meghann Silverthorn and incumbent John Carson
  • In Denver, voters will elect some of the new school board as well.  I’m personally supporting Mary Seawell, who’s a big booster of Charter Schools.  She’ll probably cruise to victory fairly easily.
  • Denver will also decide whether or not to require police officers to impound the vehicle of someone found driving without a license.  Widely seen as targeting illegal immigrants, the law does provide an out for someone whom the officer can determine has a license and insurance, but that hasn’t kept the so-called progressives from emailing energetically about the unfairness of it all.  The state auditor finally got around to reporting on this issue yesterday, as voting ends.  Look for this to fail.
  • And last but not least, my friend Katie Witt is running for City Council up in Longmont, the more Republican area of Boulder County, and we’re all looking forward to a win up there for her.

So while the Tea Party Express rolls into town, CCU has its Governor Canddiates’ Forum, and the Mayor of Jerusalem speaks over at DU, we’ll be watching New Jersey, Virginia, New York, Maine, and Washington State.

And a little action closer to home, too.

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The Very Expensive “New Energy Economy”

There are times when one wonders whether or not the writers for the Denver Post actually read the Denver Post. Then, there are times when one wonders whether is would make any difference if the did.

On October 14, the Post carried an AP story noting that the new German government, a coalition between the Christian Democrats – Mark Steyn’s right of left of right of center party – and the Free Democrats, who actually permit themselves the luxury of promoting free markets now and again, would be cutting Germany’s legendary solar subsidies, which the country had maintained for about two decades. Apprently, subsidizing expensive energy doesn’t look so good during a recession, and Germany is willing to forego the expensive green jobs that such industry creates:

Investors expected Germany to cut back on solar subsidies this year as the recession sapped demand and tightened government budgets, said Benedict Pang, an analyst with Caris and Company in San Francisco.

“During the downturn, the wheels started to come off” in Germany, Pang said. “A lot of solar companies have weaned themselves off of that market.”

Germany has guaranteed renewable energy generators fixed payments for the power they produce to encourage the production of solar panels and several of the world’s leading producers of the technology are based here.

A week and a half later, Bloomberg reported that the Germans had done just that:

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new junior partner in government, the pro-business Free Democrats, approved a four-year coalition program that points Germany toward tax cuts and a reprieve for nuclear energy….

Separately, the government will seek talks with solar-energy industry on possible “adjustments” to avoid “excessive subsidies,” according to the coalition draft.

So naturally, it was a source of much rejoicing when the German company, SMA, no longer able to make money on its home turf, shifted production to Colorado, bringing with it its prize of 300 jobs, at a cost of a mere $12,000/job to the Colorado taxpayer.

Now, that’s not as much as the colossal $240,000 per job – plus the added cost of the actual electricity – that Germany’s worked itself up to. And the so-called “green jobs” trap has been largely responsible for the depth and intractability of Spain’s contractiion during the global recession. Of course, they’re paying about $600,000 a job, so we’ve still got a ways to go to match that.

These jobs are incredibly expensive, as Colorado is about to find out, and apparently don’t survive the end of subsidies.

Let’s just hope that those interim committees take note of why Colorado beat out other US states:

[Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade’s Pete] Roskop said other states were throwing more money for incentives at the company, but Colorado had lower costs for items such as corporate taxes and worker’s compensation insurance.

Then, there are the times when one wonders whether some people ever read the business pages at all.

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Lost to the West

I’ve always been a sucker for the Byzantine Empire. The eastern outpost of what was once called Christendom, the last remnant of the old Roman Empire, slowly melted away on the maps, until in 1453, it gets winked out altogether. (The timing of that fall also fascinates. It would be only 39 years before Columbus would open up the West, at a time when the East seemed to be closing in.) The Empire would never stop thinking of itself as Roman, the Emperors would always think of themselves as heirs to the Caesars.

Because of its descent into chaotic palace intrigue, and its relentless decline, Byzantium doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The fact that it was only a shell for several centuries before its final conquest also cemented its feeble image in Western minds. By 1453, the last emperor couldn’t be crowned for fear of religious conflict, and even said that the city needed a mayor more than an emperor. Despite that decline, the empire revitalized itself three different times, each time altering its character to the political and military environment that it faced. In doing so, it performed two invaluable services to the West.

First, it bought time for Western Europe to get its act together. By the time the Empire lost its breadbasket and source of manpower, Asia Minor, at the battle of Manzikert, Western Europe was on the cusp of the High Middle Ages, beginning to develop cohesive social structures, a revival of trade, and would soon begin to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula.

Second, it preserved classical literature and wisdom. In contrast to currently popular imaginings, it was not the Muslims who preserved the Greek & Roman world for Western Europe, but rather Byzantium. Those works would become the common cultural inheritance of the west, and would greatly inform the Founders as they struggled to create the United States.

I haven’t heard Brownworth’s podcasts, but they’ve been fairly widely praised. So I had pretty high hopes for this history of Byzantium. The subtitle led me to hope that it would take on that myth about who had preserved classical learning, and that it would discuss in detail the relationship between Byzantium and the West. Instead, what I got was a fairly linear history of the Empire, which touched on those subjects.

It’s not entirely fair to judge the book by my expectations, but even on its own terms, it fall short in a number of key areas. The storytelling is uneven. Repeatedly, we’re told that armies are scattered, treasuries are emptied, frontiers broken, and yet as if by magic, the next general is somehow paying men and leading them to victory. Another time, “every citizen” takes turns manning the walls. Every citizen? Really?

Brownworth could also have benefitted from a little editing. Several times, we’re treated to the same turn of phrase within paragraphs. And on one occasion, the details of a succession struggle prove too much even for the author, as he fails to identify one of the key participants. It left me flipping back over the account to see what I had missed. Imperial murders, riots, rampages, coups, and poisonings are difficult enough to follow when you do have a scorecard. And if we’re going to have to plow through them, they ought to have a point. Too often these accounts seem to lead nowhere but the next rebellion.

Finally, there weren’t enough maps. Military history is geography. A few more well-placed maps should have been easy to place. Instead, I often found myself looking for cities on maps from hundreds of years earlier. They might tell me where a city was, but often it was in the wrong context.

One studies history to learn about today, and some lessons do come through. Basil II, perhaps the last great emperor, cemented his power through tactics that would seem familiar to close observers of the current administration. And inheriting a sound empire, his successors tossed it away through infighting, civil war, and counterproductive tax and fiscal policies. Sadly, these resonances are too few and far-between to rescue the narrative.

A couple of years ago, I bought the Teaching Company’s audio course on the Byzantine Empire. While the professor had a little more time to make his points, I thought he covered the material in a more sensible manner, filling in gaps that Brownworth leaves open. If you have the time to read the book, you also probably have time to commute to those CDs. I think you’ll come away having learned a lot more.

In the meantime, I’m still looking for that other history, the one I hoped I was getting.

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