Solar Photovoltaic Tariff Wars

[This is a post from Edward Louie, a MS student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Tariffs are normally imposed to protect and support domestic manufacturing, in particular emerging industries, by disincentivizing the purchase of imported equivalent products. The higher market price encourages greater supply of the domestic product. Neoclassical economists tend to view tariffs as regulations that distort the free market.  They argue that tariffs help domestic producers and the government via increased revenue and taxes at the expense of consumers, and they artificially shield an industry from competition, delaying collapse, but also slowing the innovation needed to be competitive. Tariffs only make sense if the financial gain by the government and increase in domestic demand outweighs the efficiency loss from reduced overall demand due to higher prices.

Throughout the 1990s and into the mid-2000s the cost of solar panels has decreased at a snail’s pace remaining at 3 to 4 dollars a watt that is until 2008 when Chinese manufacturers began mass producing solar panels with low cost labor on an economy of scale. Since 2008, the price of solar panels has plummeted breaking the one dollar per watt barrier in 2011. Beginning in 2012, the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed a 31 percent tariff on solar panels imported from China. The tariff was imposed when several manufacturers of solar panels in the U.S. (including SolarWorld and six others) complained to the Department of Commerce that Chinese factories are subsidizing manufacturing costs in order to flood the market and kill off competition with below-market price panels. These complaints came after several solar manufacturers in the United States and Germany filed for bankruptcy, while the market share of Chinese panels rose to nearly two thirds. However, more than 700 other firms, organized under the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, opposed the tariff. The opponents, which include manufacturers, installers and others involved in the solar industry, argue that the tariff will make solar energy less affordable. In 2013 the tariff wars continued with China imposing a 6.5% tariff on U.S. solar polysilicon suppliers. American companies defended their low prices, attributing them to inexpensive hydroelectric power. The European Union also imposed a tariff on Chinese solar panels and Chinese glass used to make solar panels.

Tariffs on solar panels will likely backfire and actually hurt the U.S. solar industry because 52% of U.S. solar jobs are in installation, another 18% in sales and distribution, and more in polysilicon manufacturing (the raw material of solar panels) (Lubin, 2012). In the midst of these tariffs, the average installed price of solar panels in the U.S. has continued to fall. However, it would be a large step backwards if this trend were to fall victim to escalating trade wars. Only time will tell if these tariffs have a positive or negative effect on the U.S. solar industry. With the U.S. solar industry continuing to grow, it may be difficult to identify out the percentage of additional growth or decline that could have been realized had these measures not been implemented. In today’s highly globalized world, it is often difficult to know for certain which economic policy tool to use and its effects and unintended effects.

Inside Job – Where are they now?

[This is a post from Brent Burns, a PhD student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

After seeing Inside Job, a documentary detailing the global financial crisis of 2008 through research and extensive interviews with financiers, politicians, journalists, and academics, I was curious to see how the accused perpetrators (banks, economist, etc.) are doing today as we approach 2014, so I did a Google search on “2008 financial meltdown where are they now” and found some good, yet concerning, updates.

In September of 2013, Allison Fitzgerald from The Center for Public Integrity published Ex-Wall Street chieftains living large in post-meltdown world, detailing the current luxurious lifestyles of five of the worst Wall Street offenders partially responsible for the 2008 meltdown.  The article discusses leaders from Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Merrill Lynch, describing how each of the leaders made off with hundreds of millions of dollars, as the majority of the nation’s middle class lost their life savings and homes.

Brayden Goyette, from ProPublica, wrote another good article in October 2011, Cheat Sheet: What’s Happened to the Big Players in the Financial Crisis, describing some of the political and government figures involved in the crisis.  For example, Larry Summers went on to serve as Treasury Secretary and was almost nominated to serve as head the Federal Reserve for President Obama.  The Guardian’s Rupert Neate provides one of the best summaries with his August 2012, Financial crisis: 25 people at the heart of the meltdown – where are they now?. This article reviews the bankers, politicians, and others involved in the crisis and their current lifestyle (as of 2012).  Judging by the S&P 500 index (a leading indicator of investment returns) for the companies headed by the individuals referenced in the article, the year 2012 was a good one: the index has increased 27.42%.  However, the gains experienced by these companies has not translated into good times for all. To illustrate, Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot’s 2011 article, It’s the Inequality, Stupid graphically displays the inequality growth in the United States over the past 30 years.  The recent stock market gains have only increased the gap and rewarded those who helped cause the 2008 crisis.

After reviewing what has happened to those responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 and how they were financially rewarded for their poor (and some would argue, criminal) performance, the prospects of a sustainable economy are very dismal.  There has not been any deterrent to the behavior which led to the 2008 meltdown.  Without any criminal prosecution, it’s only a matter of time before the next financial crisis happens.  In January 2011, Glenn Greenwald from the Guardian wrote The Real Story of How ‘Untouchable’ Wall Street Execs Avoided Prosecution. In summary, the Department of Justice and the Obama administration never even tried to prosecute, which is a failure of justice.  Right now, banking and political leaders are leveraging new loop holes to maximize the profits of few at the expense of the many, without fear of any personal consequences.

Sustainability discourse in Islam

[This is a post from S.M. Mizanur Rahman, a PhD student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Scientific study encourages us to rationally approach the universe and establish the relationship of humans with nature in a positivist way. Theological trends however approach the entire relationship based on metaphysical or transcendental forces that control the whole universe. Although there is a sea of difference among approaches to science and theology, successful works that explain the influence of religion on human beings with a sound scientific approach are not rare.  For instance, Max Weber through his pioneering work ‘Protestant Work Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism’ described how the motivation of Biblical text encourages and influences people’s morality in the work place and results in material success in the west.

Like Christianity, Islam has also rich Koranic text that establishes the ecocentric approach that puts human beings at the center of nature as khalifah (steward), yet ties  them to work along with the system of nature as amanah (protector). In the words of Allah, animals and birds are included in the same community of human beings, Ummah;(6:38).Therefore, when using the natural world, the Koran warns human beings of extravaganza  by stating “eat and drink [freely], but do not waste: verily, He does not love the wasteful!(7:31)”.

The second most important source of Islamic ethics is the sayings of the prophet.

The prophet predicts the dire consequences (hell) of a Muslim woman who had put her cat locked in the house until death and a prostitute (who is usually denigrated in Islam) woman is predicted to go in the paradise as she quenched  a dog’s thirst (Gar, 2002; Volume 3, Book 40, Number 553). Regarding tree plantation, the prophet said that if someone is holding a plant before the last moment of his death, his duty is to finish planting it before he dies.  Regarding just distribution, the prophet states that Allah (God) will not talk to one of three kinds of people who will withhold extra water that hinders natural  growth of grass along the banks of  a downstream water body.  grass in the downstream (Volume 3, Book 40, Number 543). One of his companions was doing ablution (washing hands, face and feet before praying, which is an obligation) within a full stream of water. The prophet asked him to reduce the flow of water and told him that you will be held accountable for what you spend beyond that what you need, even in the occasion of worship.

The environmental dimensions of Islam have implications in the Muslim world, related to encouraging behavior of the people that would promote conservation, preservation, and protection of nature and discourage consumption and exploitation of nature.

Thus, Islam has orchestrated a sound ecological management system that is based on the transcendental values in the contemporary discourse of environmentalism. As some experts point out, the lack of contemporary environmentalism may have a pure secular origin (Qadir, 1992). When promoting a healthy ecosystem, an all encompassing framework is needed that is based on sound scientific reasoning and also on transcendental values.

References:

  1. Smith, Gar. 2002. “Islam and the Environment.” Earth Island Journal, Summer, 26. http://search.proquest.com/docview/213828849?accountid=28041.
  2. Baker, Iljas. 2003. “Book Review: The Environmental Dimensions of Islam.” The Environmentalist. 23 (1): 97-98. http://search.proquest.com/docview/221762473?accountid=28041.
  3. Quadir, T., (2013),Traditional Islamic Environmentalism: The Vision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Press of America, ISBN-13: 978-0761861430

Wendell Berry: Writing the Poetry and Economics of Ecological Responsibility

[This is a post from Katie Snyder, a PhD student in Rhetoric and Technical Communication here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

As far as I can tell, there’s not much conversation between economists and poets of late. This is unfortunate, in a way, because both are so closely attuned to the inconsistencies of human emotion. Economic news reporters, for example, will discuss “nervousness” in the market, or “optimism,” as if “the market” had feelings of its own. Poets, at the same time, are deeply concerned with emotive experience, adhering to schemes of rhythm and sense.

But it’s hard to find someone who can engage intelligibly in economics and poetry at the same time — harder still to find someone who can articulate a meaningful relationship between these two in the context of current ecological crises. Maybe there are more examples than one, but Wendell Berry is the best I can think of at this point.

Berry, now 79, is a poet and farmer, among other things. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, and winner of myriad writing prizes and awards, he’s taught and farmed and served as a local activist for most of his life. His writing is lovely and unexpected. Read, for example, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

Last spring Bill Moyers interviewed Berry as part of an ecologically-themed conference at St. Catharine’s College, located outside Louisville. The interview aired in Oct 2013 on Moyer’s program, and highlights the pragmatic and humble logic of Berry’s perspective.

Berry argues, for example, that it should be little wonder that the industrialized world finds it increasing difficult to keep human beings “employed.” He says that one of the two goals of industrialization was to replace people with machines, and points out that we’ve met this goal quite successfully—though politicians are loathe to make that connection. Berry says its his job, because he has “no power,” to call out this kind of inconsistency.

The suggestion that he has “no power” should be clarified however, because he believes that “the people” have power if they choose to take it, and that ecological damage can only be reversed in local and long-term schemes developed by communities who are devoted to their land. It is out of this commitment to rehabilitation and reclaiming that he advocates for the 50-year farm bill.

The bill proposes to move away from monoculture and return more crop diversity and more people to rural lands. Berry admits this proposal would take patience … and faith … and hope. But he is adamant that we must try. Even in the face of impossible odds he says,

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not. The only thing we have a right to ask is, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?’”

And while these are philosophical and spiritual and ethical questions, Berry points out that they are also very pragmatic economic questions. Toward this end, he is intensely critical of modern capitalism. He argues that its “natural logic” is to take as much as you want, by whatever means you can devise—and this logic is simply unsustainable.

Berry’s love for, and obligation to, nature plays out in his economic perspectives as much as in his poetry.  He says his writing gives an account of “precious things,” most of which are now in danger of falling away. His hope is that we can again begin to see the world in terms of its preciousness—its sacredness—rather than simply in terms of its immediate economic value.

Is Population a Threat to the Environment?

[This is a post from Mayra O. Sanchez Gonzalez, a PhD student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Is population growth a threat to the environment? My first answer to that question without thinking too much about it would be: Yes, because more people means more depletion of natural resources to support them. I am sure Paul Ehrlich will agree with me, because the Earth’s capacity to support a human population is finite (Ehrlich, 2009). I also think that the organization World Population Balance may consider me one of its members because they believe that overpopulation “is a root cause of resource depletion, species extinction, and rising poverty” (WPB, 2013). To support this statement they present some news, articles and a global population number updated every second. Another organization that might consider me as part of its membership is How many?. This organization states that “population growth is a root cause of many environmental and social problems” (HM?, 2013) and presents a long list of many issues caused by population growth, as well as a second-by-second tally of the number of people in the world.  At the moment I write this, we are 7,148,513,537 people on this planet, and by the time I finish writing this line the number will change because we gain 140 new babies every minute. These numbers, statistics and information make me feel overwhelmed and motive me to answer yes to the question that I presented before. However, when I start to think more deeply about the relationship between population and environment, I realize that it is very complex and that my answer cannot be simply Yes or No.

It is a fact that more people consume more natural resources, however not everybody consumes the same way. For instance, people from developed countries consume more resources than people from developing countries. One example of this is the United States. The US has only 5% of the population of the world but it consumes 25% of all world energy (Mazur, 2010). Also, sometimes developed countries go to developing countries to consume or pollute their natural resources because they want to conserve their own or because they have almost exhausted them.

It is not just the amount of natural resources that people consume, it is also about the reasons behind this consumption. These are important because they are shaped by different needs, values and beliefs. People from developing countries might consume resources because they need them to survive, whereas people from developed countries might consume resources not only to survive, but also to have more luxuries or feel more comfortable or to have the newest technological device available, such as cell phones, computers and cars.

I believe that the complex relationship between population and environment should be addressed with different strategies. For instance, we should educate people about the connections between the environment, population, consumption, inequity and human rights, considering different social and cultural contexts. We can emphasize women’s empowerment, so that they can make free decisions and can have free access to services such as contraception. We should also create policies that consider the complexity between the population and the environment. Finally we should support the consumption of local foods, goods and services.

However the most important is to start with ourselves by changing our life styles; it is not enough just to read, discuss, write, and think about these issues if we are not able to change the way we live now. We must think and act in a more sustainable way. We can start by adopting the three R’s strategy in our lives: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. If we are able to do this in our daily life we are definitely contributing to a sustainable present and future for people and the environment.

References

Ehrlich, P. R. & Ehrlich, A.H. (2009) The Population Bomb Revised. The electronic journal of sustainable development, Vol. 1(3), pp. 63-71.

Mazur, L. (ed.) (2010) A Pivotal moment. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Dollarocracy and transitions to sustainability

John Nichols and Robert McChesney have a new book out, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. They discuss the many problems created by the infusion of massive money into our elections, particularly the erosion of locally-produced journalism (replaced by political ads) and the impact of that loss on the ideas that we discuss in our society. In their recent interview with Bill Moyers, I was struck by something that John Nichols said:

“Dollarocracy has the ability to animate dead ideas. You can take an idea that’s a bad idea, buried by the voters — Dollarocracy can dig it up, and that zombie idea will walk among us.”

This has profound implications for the ability of communities and regions to begin their transitions to more locally-based sustainable systems. When we are forced by the interests of wealthy elites and corporate interests to discuss (and defeat) the same bad ideas over and over again, it leaves us no time to discuss the transformative ideas that will lead us to more economically and environmentally sustainable systems. When we have to discuss the solvency of Medicare in every election cycle, we have no time to discuss local heath care cooperatives. When the national conversation about the continued malfeasance of Wall Street distracts us from the benefits provided by our local credit unions, we have a harder time supporting our Main Streets.

National conversations will always be important; we talk about ourselves first and foremost as Americans. However, the volume of national discourse has overwhelmed our local discourse, and we need to focus more attention on our ailing communities and what we can do to strengthen them, especially against the winds of monied outside interests.

Living Sustainably? The case of burning wood

The coming of the colder weather means that the wood stove in my living room has been brought back to life, and I have spent several nights already this fall watching the fire flickering through its glass front. I, like many of my neighbors and I presume many other residents of the UP, burn wood at home as a source of heat. Although there’s another heating source in my home (propane), I prefer to use the wood burning stove. Yet I’ve recently been reading up on the down sides of burning wood, and have been contemplating what it means for living sustainably.

There’s a lot of science out there about the harmful emissions from burning wood. One report claims that it could be as harmful for you as cigarette smoke or as toxic as what comes out of a diesel tailpipe. Apparently, some physicians in Utah have even proposed banning wood burning stoves in the state (although at least one Utah resident is starkly opposed). The Environmental Protection Agency has set emissions limits on wood burning stoves, and recommends using only newer, more efficient, EPA certified stoves. Yet despite concerns about their negative environmental impacts from emissions, people are arguably driven to burn wood for heat for economic reasons – it’s less expensive than other, fossil-fuel derived heat sources.

The appeal of a wood burning stove, for me, goes beyond economic considerations. Burning wood for heat means that the individual or family seeking heat becomes entirely responsible for their own comfort. Instead of having to pay a monthly bill and rely on a system of technical experts, invisible technologies, and far away bureaucracies, burning wood for heat requires that we rely on ourselves. Burning wood as a heat source mirrors, to me, what energy expert Amory Lovins said long ago when contrasting energy systems on the “hard path” and the “soft path” – it puts energy usage into the hands of the user, making us reliant on our own knowledge, experience, and participation.

At least, that’s always been my experience with using wood as a heat source. Perhaps I would feel very differently about it if I’d ever had to pay for wood to burn, instead of relying on resources on my private property. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to land with suitable wood to burn, a real issue of justice that I would be remiss to ignore. Nonetheless, when I look at the flickering firelight in my wood burning stove, I can’t help but contemplate how we define, measure, and pursue sustainability. Is it just about emissions calculations? Do issues of ownership matter? I am interested in pursuing alternatives where individuals and communities can take more ownership and be more responsible for the resources we all depend upon – like clean water, healthy food, and enough energy to provide for our needs and comforts. Does the concept of sustainability captures my concerns about social organization or community resilience, or do I need to look elsewhere for a concept that more accurately represents my interest in ‘sustainable’ living?

The price of gold and the loss of forests

“Everything is connected” is something we say so often in ecology that it often loses its meaning. However, this new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences really exemplifies the real world impact of these connections.

Skyrocketing gold prices, driven mainly by speculators, has spurred an epidemic of illegal mining (and consequently deforestation) in the Peruvian Amazon. These mines are dangerously close to a major river system, increasing the risk of mining pollution entering the Madre de Dios River watershed. Mining and deforestation often go together, as we know very well here in the UP.

Greg Asner and his colleagues used remote sensing imagery to detect these mines and measure deforestation caused by them. The images themselves provide a powerful message. Each hectare lost to mining can support hundreds of tree species, and thousands of animal species which depend upon them. The loss of these forests and risks of pollution are difficult to calculate, and therefore difficult to balance against the fluctuating value of the gold retrieved from the mines.

UP Landscapes exhibit at the Beaumier Center at NMU

A new art exhibit, “U.P. Mosaic: A Working Landscape and its People” will open this month on the Northern Michigan University campus. Although the information is not yet up on the Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center‘s webpage, you can find details about the events on opening day (October 26th) through the Marquette Monthly magazine. The exhibit will run from October 26 through January 15, 2014, and will be open 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday.

Happy new semester! Happy planet?

As we move ever closer to the beginning of the fall semester, I am struck by something I read recently about how we think about – and measure – aggregated well-being. My hope is that all students can feel happy and secure in their experiences here at Tech, as I hope for happiness and security for all human beings. But how do we measure conceptions of well-being? At a national scale, “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP, for example US GPD) is a pretty typical measure, which considers the total sum of economic activity. But, as a recent article in US Today highlights, GDP is a measure of total economic activity. It doesn’t differentiate between wealth concentration and wealth distribution or “good” versus “bad” expenditures (such as the economic exchanges that happen in when we work to recover from national disasters). Furthermore, it by definition cannot consider any type of exchange that is non-economic, such as a mother’s care for her child,or the non-economic value that comes from growing vegetables in your yard, or myriad other things. GDP certainly can’t consider ecological impact, which others have attempted to capture in the ecological footprint measure.

The article presents an alternative means of measuring aggregated well-being, called the Happy Planet Index (HPI). The website for HPI says it’s about “measuring what matters” – “the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them.” This measure includes life expectancy, as well as a nation’s ecological footprint, and the resulting data in terms of ‘who’s happy’ (i.e. which nation’s score best using this alternative measure) may surprise you.

I’m not ready to say the HPI captures everything that matters, and leaves out everything that doesn’t, when it comes to considering aggregated well-being. Yet I do think it’s important for us to ask ourselves, what does it mean to live well, at both a personal and a social scale? As we embark on a new semester, and for some an entirely new chapter in life, can we ask ourselves: what makes a happy student, a happy campus, a happy person, and a happy nation – and can we work toward promoting happiness and well-being in a way that is intentional and holistic, filled with purpose to promote everything that matters and forget everything that doesn’t?

For all of you: Happy new semester, and happy planet.