Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dvarim Sheroim Misham Lo Roim Mikan, aka - “Things we see from there one cannot see from here.”

Dr. Sened is a Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis, and former chair of the Political Science Department at Washington University. His main interests are comparative theory of institutions, game theory and mathematical modeling. Dr. Sened teaches Undergraduate and Graduate level courses in the Political Science Department.

In a series of three posts, starting with this one, we will explore, this week the very different approach and attitudes towards clean energy in Europe as compared to shoe we are more commonly exposed to here in the U.S.  Besides some observations regarding these difference we will also discuss the origin of these difference and the policy consequences they entail.


When my generation was in its late twenties – i.e. thirty years ago, there was a very poplar song in Israel by the name of the title of this post.  It states the obvious: there are things one sees from one angle that cannot be seen from another.  This week we will post three consecutive posts that describe the scene of alternative energy from the perspective of the European Union, or at least some European Union leading figures who spend time and energy (pun intended) thinking about these things.  We dedicate this series to our friends and collaborators who have taught us that much.  They are Dr. Rolf Wuestenhagen, the Good Energies Chair for Management of Renewable Energies at the Business School of The University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and his students.

The first post will be accompanied by a short and fun video produced Dr. Wuestenhagen and his students.  The video describes the reaction of the Germany and Switzerland to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and the impact it had on policies in Germany and Switzerland, while having no effect whatsoever on policies here in the U.S.  The second post will be linked to the most recent annual report of the Chair.  This report suggests a vision that is far more optimistic and one that assigns a much more significant role to clean energy in the near future than even imaginable in the U.S. context and debate.  The third post reviews, as an example of sort, one daring policy envisioned by the European Union to generate a significant amount of solar energy by installing large solar fields in northern Africa and transporting the electricity to Europe.  The post was contributed by a Washington University Alum who is currently completing his M.A. in Israel and has dedicated much time to study alternative energy policy initiatives.

So let us start at the beginning.  On a very interesting date, that European date keeping records denote as 11.3.11 (using American date record standards it would appear as 3.11.11), a major Tsunami brought about the meltdown of three nuclear reactor of Fukushima. 

In the U.S. the magnitude and severity of the event was mostly played down pointing to the fact that while the Tsunami caused about 25,000 death no casualties could be directly attributed to the nuclear meltdown.  These efforts to downplay the damage caused relied heavily on a very preliminary study by the World Health Organization (WHO) that suggested that future health damage due to cumulative radiation due to the disaster is also likely to be relatively low.  The researchers who wrote the report  emphasized in their report the preliminary nature of their findings and the high uncertainty involved in trying to predict the future damages at stake.  Yet, the American public barely paid any attention to the incident and quickly forgot all about it. 

The same was not true in Europe.  Within weeks, the German government made the commitment to completely divest itself of its remaining Nuclear Power Plants, used to produce electricity by 2020.   Switzerland made the same commitment to divest itself of all Nuclear production of electricity by 2034.

Why was the reaction so different in the EU as compared to the U.S.  Even within the EU, why was the reaction of Germany and Switzerland so different from the reaction in France who produces close to 80% of its electricity in Nuclear Power Plants? 

The creators of the short video that we link to this post give three reasons: public opinion, politics and cost.  They do not elaborate much on any even though they do articulate the cost equation.  The cost equation is simple, wind and solar energies are becoming cheaper and cheaper by the minute while the costs of fossil fuels and nuclear power are constantly rising.   Unfortunately this equation is not as trivial in the U.S. as it is in Europe.  Coal and natural gas are very cheap in the U.S. while wind and solar require a very high installation cost.  While these initial investments as highly likely to pay themselves eventually with large dividends, they do not do so fast enough for the average investor in the U.S.  Part of the reason is that politicians in Germany and Switzerland have done a better job reassuring the clean energy sector that they will support as long as needed till it matures to be independently profitable, the policy makers in the U.S. have been on again off again in their support of the clean energy sector.

The politics of it is not too complicated either.  Both in Germany and in Switzerland, the green parties play a pivotal role in supporting the government and a true threat to the government when they end up in the opposition.  Gaining between 10% and 20% of the representatives in the respective national / federal assemblies they form a true political force to recon with and can be credited for much of the clean energy policies in these countries.  This power in the hands of the green parties has to do with the multiparty representative governments that characterize the two countries.  In contrast, in the U.S. we use plurality rule as our electoral rule.  It is well know that this rule brings about the convergence of all political powers into two competing parties and making the appearance and / or survival of niche parties like the green parties in Europe extremely unlikely.  While both Republicans and Democrats care about clean energy as we have already stated and illustrate on this blog time and again, clean energy as such is not a top priority for any of these parties.  It goes without saying that the main preoccupation of the green parties in Europe is the implementation of environmental policies with an emphasis on clean energy. 

The public opinion issue is a bit more difficult to trace.  Environmental sensitivities seem to be significant in the U.S. just as they are throughout Europe. Why is the public in the U.S. so much less vocal on clean energy than in Europe is a bit of a mystery for us.  One possible explanation is that the U.S. public is somewhat less informed of these issues than the European public.  We submit the fun video attached to this post in an effort to further inform and educate the debate and spread the information in the U.S. as well as anywhere else our blog is being visited.

It should be mentioned, however, that here too the two party system we have in the U.S. contributes to the lack of interest on behalf of the public at large.  Many of the political issues we are constantly revisiting are spoon fed to us by our politicians.  The two party system we have in the U.S. brings the two parties to concentrate on security and economics and, at times on civil rights issues, and pay much less attention to the environment and clean energy issues.  When the politicians are silent about an issue, the public is much less likely to develop the interest and sophistication needed to influence the debate, let alone the policy.


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