Edison Had it Right: Save the Light Bulb!

“Edison created a time-tested light bulb that is still the best option for its price,” Brandston said. “Consumer choice is an all-American right. The government has created a light bulb cartel, has crammed the CFL down our throats and the citizens have no antitrust protection.”

That’s renowned light designer Howard Brandston speaking a little truth to the not-so-bright powers that be regarding the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL). I despise the light bulb ban. CFLs are ugly and expensive, their light is poor, they make me not want to read, and they’ve required me to buy all new light fixtures. But these are minor complaints. Here are three absolutely true arguments against the incandescent light bulb ban, in descending order of my disgust:

First, the effort to ban the incandescent light bulb wasn’t all human goodwill and love of the environment. The ban was the result of a hardcore lobbying effort waged by those who stood to benefit. This included General Electric and other bulb manufacturers. Compared to incandescents, compact fluorescent bulbs are more expensive and carry higher profit margins. And their benefits, like Mark Twain’s death, are greatly exaggerated.

Second, CFLs are not clean energy. They are dirty. They contain mercury, and although I’m sure all of us good people are following the EPA’s instructions (insert EPA joke here) to dispose of CFLs with a dedicated recycler, the truth is most CFLs end up in the landfill, where the mercury is just going to accumulate.

Third and finally, this ban is the small and meaningless, which I despise. A ban on light bulbs? Energy conservation has its value, but its place is at the level of the consumer. This is not a job for the federal government, which has bigger things to do. These energy standards, I’m afraid to say, are a waste of energy. They serve as a convenient excuse for lazy members of congress not to take the big, bold steps that need to happen. Of course, the number of pea-sized brains in congress would make a dinosaur blush. So we are left with bans on light bulbs, while our other environmental challenges (other challenges? says member of congress) are ignored.

Look, goodwill gestures have their place. It’s why you buy popcorn from the Boy Scouts, recycle your newspaper, or run a 5k to support a local charity when you already  run that far every other day for free. These things are all good thing for you to do. These are not things that need to be dictated to you by congress. I can take care of my own light bulbs, thank you, just like you can recycle your own glass. You and I can’t, however, do a lot to clean up a power plant’s mercury emissions, or prevent some mining company from blasting the top off a mountain. Yet it’s our habits, our choices, that draw the attention of congress.

You know, we pay for this government. But like the CFL bulb, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Hat tip Instapundit on the story linked at top.

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Why Solar?

Today I want to offer a clear, concise statement on why solar is the only solution to our world’s energy and pollution problems.

(1) Our Sun is an immense nuclear reactor. The fusion of hydrogen atoms occurring within its core releases an enormous amount of energy that radiates through the solar system. Only a fraction of this radiant energy strikes our planet, but so powerful is the energy source that each hour enough sunlight falls upon the Earth’s surface to meet all of civilizations’ energy needs for a year.

(2) The compound that allows us to harness the Sun’s energy and convert it to power is silica. Silica is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

(3) The mechanism by which we convert sunlight to power – the photovoltaic cell – is a near flawless machine: PV panels have no moving parts and therefore are long-lasting and require minimal maintenance. They have zero emissions.

The energy produced by our Sun is free, abundant, constant, and inexhaustible. No other existing source comes even remotely close to matching its energy output. The raw materials to harness this energy exists in abundance. And we have the knowledge to turn this energy into power. And yet…

Always there is an “And yet” with us. We can muddle the clear and confuse the simple. It is a strange habit for a species so advanced.

The problems with solar in United States are political, not technical. Very soon we will overcome the obstacles of solar efficiency and energy storage (begin the video at 6:40). All that will remain is for us to overcome our resistance, our fear, our confusion. We have an energy source 1/10,000 of which can meet all of our energy needs. All that is left for us to do is accept it. The greatest leap forward for society since the invention of agriculture is within our grasp. Limitless, free, non-polluting power will liberate humanity in ways we can’t comprehend.

A Stupid Move on Solar

That title is pretty uncharitable on my part. Jillian Kay Melchior is even more uncharitable, but she sums up my feelings pretty well upon news that the Obama Administration is slapping tariffs on imported Chinese solar panels:

The federal government last week approved a hypocritical trade measure that not only undermines the president’s environmental goals but also increases costs for U.S. consumers.

Most Chinese solar panels will now be subject to tariffs of about 24 to 36 percent, the U.S. International Trade Commission unanimously decided this week. They were responding to an anti-dumping suit filed by German-owned solar-panel manufacturer SolarWorld, alongside six American manufacturers, many of whom opted to remain anonymous.

These panel manufacturers have every reason to be secretive. In protecting their own products from cheaper Chinese panels “dumped” into the U.S. market, they’re screwing over other segments of the U.S. solar industry, including solar-panel installers and companies that use panels as an input for electronic products and will now have to cope with higher prices caused by the tariffs.

Moreover, the tariffs undermine the president’s green agenda. If the U.S. really wants to increase its reliance on alternative energy, as Obama has so often claimed, the uncompetitive domestic solar market could use all the cost-cutting help Beijing can provide.

An unfortunate but not unexpected outcome of last week’s election. There has been a lot of grumbling in the circles President Obama travels about the Chinese dumping cheap solar panels. I had guessed it was only a matter of time before we hit back. I view these trade/protectionist policies as both intellectually silly and economically harmful. Given all the subsidies we’re dumping onto our own solar industries – often with little to show for it – I can’t wrap my mind around punishing the Chinese for doing the same. Especially when the Chinese are providing a product we need at a price we can actually afford.

To be all fair and balanced, here’s Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) complaint in favor of hitting the Chinese. After all, I’m not an expert in global trade. My concern lies in moving the U.S. toward a solar future, and so far, I’m not real impressed with what’s coming out of Washington, D.C. If the Chinese are subsidizing their solar manufacturers to our benefit, well, let’s accept that and see what we need to do domestically to make our manufacturers competitive with the Chinese. Let’s not, of all things, start a trade war that results in escalating prices for solar panels. That’s definitely a move in the wrong direction.

Could Budget Cuts Close 200 National Parks?

Automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect in January could close up to 200 national parks. That’s the assessment from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) as reported by Fox News. These automatic cuts, called “sequestration”, are part of a 2011 budget agreement between President Obama and Congress that will automatically reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years unless the two parties reach agreement on a new budget. Washington has been operating without a budget for the past three years.

But back to the story: Is the proposed $218 million cut to the National Park Service budget a serious threat? Of course it is, but not for the reasons you may assume. This $218 million cut would come from the discretionary part of the NPS budget, which presently sits at $2.7 billion. $218 million is a reduction of 8%, which doesn’t sound like a reason to close 200 national parks. But the NPS, like many federal agencies, spends most of its discretionary budget on employee salaries, salaries that can’t be cut and must be paid. As a taxpayer, you don’t fund the national parks so much as fund national park employees.

The good folks who run the National Park Service will admit (off record) that this spending pattern leaves the agency no flexibility to deal with unforeseen problems and unexpected costs. In fact, it leaves little money for the upkeep and maintenance of the parks. The 22,000 strong workforce of the NPS does a good job, and I’d hate to argue that a lot of them don’t earn their pay. But for many national parks, their annual operating budget barely covers their employee costs. This is not a model for success.

Look, this budget sequestration – a $218 million cut – is nothing compared to the long-term budget situation facing the NPS. Our government is operating with an annual budget deficit of over $1.1 trillion, with a debt of $16.2 trillion ($16,200,000,000,000). And with the rapidly increasing costs of social security, medicare, the new healthcare law, and boring old interest on all that borrowed money, there will be less and less room in the budget for the NPS.

As I’ve written here, reform of the park service is absolutely necessary if it is to survive. There is no doubt that the NPS will have to slim down. But if it can become a model federal agency, an incredibly efficient and effective organization, the NPS will stand a much better chance of fighting for space in future budgets. And if I may offer a challenge: if the NPCA is truly dedicated to protecting and enhancing our national parks for future generations, it could take the lead in promoting the transformation of the NPS. The NPCA is a powerful and respected organization, but the days of lobbying for bigger and bigger park budgets are over. It’s time to change your gameplan, friends.

What Hath Obama Wrought? (A eulogy for solar power)

In February 2009, a newly sworn in President Obama and a democratic-party-packed congress approved an $831 billion economic stimulus program – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – to respond to the recession. A prominent feature of the stimulus bill was a planned infusion of $90 billion into the green energy sector. This $90 billion, in the form of tax credits, direct loans, and other incentives went to support clean energy technology, energy conservation, mass transit projects, and other programs. Of course, the most well-known part of this green stimulus was the government loan program for solar power and electric vehicle industries. President Obama was directing a green energy industrial policy with the goal of giving the United States a clean energy future.

We now know that his attempt at green industrial policy has failed.

Was it ineptitude? Poor planning? Pressure to spend the money that led to sloppy investment decisions? Was the failure an outright example of government graft and cronyism? Is it possible, given the complexities of modern industrial nations, that government simply isn’t capable of directing national economic policy of this magnitude?

Whatever the cause, it is the consequence, specifically for residential solar power, that I fear. I believe we are at a crossroads, a tipping point, for solar power in the United States. Prices for photovoltaics are dropping rapidly, and the pace of rooftop solar installations is gaining steam. Distributed solar capacity is expected to double from 3,536 megawatts in 2011 to 7,000 megawatts by the end of this year. I’m also following stories like this one pointing out that simply removing government red tape could dramatically reduce residential solar installation costs. Soon the price per kilowatt hour between solar and coal may reach parity, which many believe is the tipping point at which widespread adoption of residential solar will occur.

But will we get to this tipping point, given the inevitable political backlash against government-funded energy investment? Amongst our political class, who now is willing to support more spending for solar? I’ll go so far as to say that given the present political environment, the current 30% federal tax credit for residential solar is at real risk of expiring in 2016, if it is even allowed to last that long.

For solar supporters, casting blame does no good. I reckon the voters will hold Obama responsible at the polls. But win or lose, President Obama’s ability to pursue his green energy agenda is irredeemably compromised. Our best option now is to change the debate: we need to move beyond the failed stimulus approach and offer new ideas and new policies for achieving our solar goals. In death, we offer eulogies to praise the recently passed. Let us hope that the eulogy we may find ourselves offering is for the failed policies of one president, and not for our within-reach solar future.

The President’s Agenda: Restoring the National Park Service

This President’s Agenda proposal is one that’s close to my heart. The National Park Service (NPS) is an agency celebrated worldwide for the stunning legacy of natural, cultural, and historic wonders it manages. To those of us on the inside, the NPS is also renowned amongst federal agencies for its quality employees, dedication to mission, and commitment to providing quality to the American taxpayer.

Unfortunately, this once proud, mission-accomplishment-oriented agency is now suffering the same debilitating rot inevitable to all bureaucracies. Sclerosis has set in, and failure is its mistress.Burdened under an Atlasean-weight of rules and policies and paperwork requirements, the NPS is no longer able to respond to its most basic mission requirements, and the national parks suffer (although the park employees, who care the most, suffer above all).

The next president’s goal should be to reorient the entire agency with these fundamental reforms: restore the idea of the ranger-generalist; refocus the mission on the resources and users; and free the agency from meddling external bureaucrats. As a former NPS employee, if given the president’s attention, I would endorse the following workplace reforms:

  1. Liberate park personnel to work in a truly multidisciplinary manner. Presently, every federal job, from plumber to park ranger, is defined (or classified, in bureaucratese) by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). OPM sets qualifications, duties, and pay scales for every position in the NPS, and each employee is constrained by these OPM definitions of work load, performance, and pay. Predictably, the classification schema has resulted in a workforce that is rigid, intimidated by workplace rules, and demoralized by the lack of development and personal growth within the job. The tragedy is that the NPS has some of the best people in government. The next president should waive OPM classification rules for NPS employees and allow the agency to use its people as expert-generalists: employees with technical knowledge in one field who also can perform a wide-range of park-related duties. I’ll explain more in point 2.
  2. Part of returning the NPS toward its historic mission is to bring back the naturalist-generalist. Once we called this the generalist-ranger: Today, I think the NPS would best be served by individuals who reflect the diversity of the NPS mission – naturalists, ecologists, historians, outdoor enthusiasts, and so forth. We accomplish this with two reforms: First, end the emphasis on higher-education credentials in the hiring process. There is no need for a park’s “Natural Resources Manager” to hold a degree in biological or earth sciences. That is but one part of the equation. The NPS should consider other skills, interests, and talents as well. Also, the NPS doesn’t do science; the NPS manages resources and users of resources, and a lot of different educational fields could fill this role (recreation management first and foremost). Second, hiring decisions need to look beyond a narrow set of skills. Today the NPS fills a plumbing position with someone who has nothing but plumbing experience to do no more than plumbing work. This is absurd. In the NPS we need to expect more. The NPS should hire someone with plumbing experience who is also a naturalist (or historian or biologist) by background. The basic rule for filling a position should be this: park resource first, park user second, park discipline third.
  3. Make the NPS a truly interdisciplinary agency by allowing employees to work across the narrow confines of their current OPM-dictated job descriptions. The first employee who utters “it’s not in my position description” in response to a request for work should be fired, just to set the tone. Look, resource and recreation user problems are interdisciplinary by nature. If the NPS is to successfully manage these issues, it needs a workforce that can collaborate across disciplines. This needs to happen on a day-to-day basis; it can’t be limited to the occasional interdisciplinary team meeting.
  4. Further, the NPS needs to end the ‘management by division’ organizational structure in the parks. The departmentalization of park employees by divisions – law enforcement, resource management, planning, interpretation, etc. – is not conducive to a holistic approach to resource management. It also leads to the stove-piping of disciplines up the chain of command, where Washington bureaucrats exercise their control.

These first four points are critical for restoring the NPS legacy and mission, and to developing an agency responsible for managing native resources in a new century. Specialization in job disciplines is important, but roles should not be defined and constrained by that specialty. We need park employees who understand park operations from a holistic perspective rather than the narrow parameters of their OPM-classified job description. I could write on this topic all day, but for now will leave it as said and move on with these additional reforms (sorry the numbering starts over at 1).

  1. Free employees to focus on their jobs. The NPS has followed the path of every bureaucracy in history and burdened its employees under an unmovable weight of work rules and paperwork exercises. Atlases they are, with the weight of every bureaucratic whim and fancy piled upon their shoulders. No wonder moral and productivity suffer. Here’s a start: Eliminate absurd employee training requirements (yes, we know not to look up porn on our computers); end data calls and performance reports; simplify or eliminate procedures that require mounds of paperwork; treat employees as adults and stop the belittling safety regulations. There is so much wasted, unproductive use of employee time in federal agencies that it boggles the mind.
  2. Simplify park budgets. This is another “O” agency issue – the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB, like OPM, has way too much influence, and requires way too much of the park service’s attention in all proportion to the value provided. OPM and OMB – these are bureaucracies overlaid upon bureaucracy, with all the accompanying egos, power struggles, inefficiencies and wasted energies inherent in such a flawed arrangement. Parks do not need 140 or 180 or 220 different accounting codes. They do not need to spend 3 months of the year formulating and reconciling budgets. I promise you I know a budget expert in the NPS who could simplify the budget process within a matter of days, and give us a process that is accountable, transparent, simple, and efficient.
  3. For Christ’s sake, can we give our seasonal employees health insurance? Sorry; this is a personal gripe.
  4. Improve supervision to improve employee performance and moral. The NPS has lousy supervisors. I’m sorry, but it’s true. A lot of good people are shoved into lousy supervisor roles. The chief antagonist is tenure: The NPS promotes from within disciplines, usually based on time served, to fill supervisory roles. These time-servers are then given responsibilities over employees, budgets, and operations with exactly zero training in how to be proficient, let alone outstanding, at this job. Okay, they get a week of training a year. But tenure and a week of training do not generally yield the most effective, dependable, and talented supervisors. Supervision is not about the supervisor, as if some reward for sticking it out. Supervision is about the employee first, and the mission second. The NPS has forgotten this along the way.
  5. Along with improved supervision, move toward more interdisciplinary supervisory structures. A park doesn’t need a distinct supervisor for resources, facilities, planning, interpretation, and so on. A general model should see a park with a strong superintendent and a few talented, well-trained supervisors under him/her to manage the entire park staff. The larger the staff, the more general supervisors. The NPS desperately needs to break from the division mentality, where a supervisor from maintenance leads the maintenance employees, and so on. The entire supervisory approach, again, needs to abandon disciplines in exchange for a holistic and interdisciplinary understanding of park operations.
  6. My final point; allow employees to float between federal land management agencies. If a park needs a hydrologist, and the forest next door has a hydrologist, let the park temporarily employee that individual without going through the cumbersome federal hiring process that, these days, may take a year or longer. Only the federal government could make it so difficult for a federal employee to move between federal agencies.

So, dear future president, these are some of my internal reforms to save the park service from the slow, painful, demoralizing death of so many bureaucracies. The NPS is too important – the parks too important – to allow the government to slowly, layer by layer, build another monument to inefficiency in the form of the park service. Simple steps, simple reforms, and we can make the National Park Service a model federal agency for the new century. Frankly, if we can’t save the National Park Service, then it is time to cash it in.

It’s June 22, 1633 in Italy Today

June 22, 1633 is the date that a Vatican Inquisition passed its judgment against Galileo Galilei for supporting the Copernican Theory of the universe. Today, 379 years after the date Galileo was condemned for being on the wrong side of the church, six Italian scientists and one government official were condemned by an Italian court for being on the wrong side of government because they failed to adequately warn of the deadly 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

And so the Italian Enlightenment dies a second death at the hands of an Italian inquisition.