Archive | June 2013

Future Farm Energy?

Defeat of the Farm Bill last week can hurt energy programs sooner than food stamps or commodity prices will feel effects. Read more in Midwest Energy News:

A combine retrofitted to capture corn stover on display at Iowa State University. (Photo by eXtension Farm Energy via Creative Commons)

A combine retrofitted to capture corn stover on display at Iowa State University. (Photo by eXtension Farm Energy via Creative Commons)

Future of Farm Bill energy programs remains uncertain

by Kathiann M. Kowalski

Unless Congress passes another law or extends the current one, several federal renewable energy programs will end on September 30. . . .

Read more…

Climate Change: Deal with It

President Obama’s much-heralded climate change speech got lots of applause this afternoon—from the moment he invited all to remove their suit jackets, through multiple references to Apollo 8,until he ended with “God bless the United States of America.” If you missed the broadcast on Georgetown University’s website, you can read the text here.

While the president’s plan is ambitious, it’s not self-executing. The president can use executive order to put some parts into action, such as setting White House goals for renewable energy. However, reaching those goals will take time. Likewise, the president can tell the Environmental Protection Agency to set carbon emission limits for both existing and new power plants. Yet the rulemaking process takes time, and then there those rules will likely face challenges.

Similarly, the idea of preparing to adapt to climate change is wise. Indeed, much of the country’s infrastructure already needs work. However, most of those steps will take time too.

In short, the president’s plan won’t take effect overnight. But reactions to the plan didn’t even need to wait until overnight. By late afternoon, I received press releases from a variety of organizations, including the Ohio Environmental Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Americans United for Change, Trout Unlimited, the New York Attorney General’s office, various mayors, and the Heartland Institute.

The Heartland Institute is a free market policy advocacy organization. Its spokesmen say action on climate change is unnecessary because there hasn’t been any warming over the last 15 years. “The restrictions are unnecessary because global temperatures have remained flat for the past 15 years, proving alarmist climate models predict far too much warming and have no basis in reality,” says attorney and policy advocate James M. Taylor. Heartland’s science director Jay Lehr likewise claims there’s “clear evidence that the planet has not warmed in the past 15 years while carbon dioxide has increased.”

If you look only at the last 15 years, that seems to be true. However, as Peter Sinclair has previously noted, one can cherry pick various short-term periods over the last century to argue that global temperatures are going up, down, or staying the same. What matters are long-term trends.

Moreover, Sinclair explains, using 1998 as the benchmark is critical to this kind of argument. El Niño made that year extraordinarily warm. Thus, several years after it were cooler—allowing for the plateau noted by Heartland’s spokespeople. What matters much more is the trend over time—and that shows a warming trend.

You can watch Sinclair explain in the “Party like it’s 1998” video he made as part of his Climate Denial Crock of the Week series. Granted, Sinclair’s series title makes it clear that he’s got a particular point of view. However, he uses NASA data in his explanation. And his view is the consensus of 97 percent of all scientists who express a position in published work in the field.

Also, it’s not enough to look at just the last few years and say the rate of climate change is slower than previously predicted. The last few years have included some of the hottest on record, along with a slew of extreme weather events. And the overall trend is still upward.

While worldwide emissions keep increasing, United States policy actions have generally been very limited. When it comes to climate change, says The Economist, “the world still needs to deal with it.” That could keep us all out of hot water.

Getting Back to the Point

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Power Tower: Image copyright held by Kathiann M. Kowalski

“Get to the Point: Cedar Point.”

This was a 1990s ad slogan for Cedar Point Amusement Park–site of some great fun times over the years with our family. Yesterday my husband and I got back to the Point after an absence of some seven or eight years. We had a great time visiting with friends. But there were a few unwelcome surprises.

For starters, some of the old standby rides are gone.

White Water Landing was an early water ride that poured a stream of water into the boat at the top of a hill before sending you down with a splash. When my kids were younger, they’d sometimes hide under the boat’s hull to escape getting wet. Now the Maverick roller coaster takes up the ride’s space in Frontierland. My husband tried riding Snake River Falls instead, but gave up when it became clear that the wait would be more than an hour in 90-degree weather. Had he gotten on, he would have been totally drenched. It’s physically impossible to ride Snake River Falls and not get soaked to the skin.

Demon Drop is gone too, dismantled after a 27-year run and reassembled at Dorney Park. I can’t say I loved the feeling of being strapped in and pushed off a cliff. But the ride made for a great sidebar in one of my early Odyssey articles about microgravity. The ride’s space is now part of the snaking, sprawling queue for the Gatekeeper roller coaster.

Changes in the ride line-up are one thing. Times change, and you want new rides to come along. Cedar Point is on a peninsula, so there’s only so much land available.

Besides, engineering advances can make for some spectacular rides. Just compare the Millennium Force’s smooth swift ride to the shakiness of the Blue Streak. Alas, being on the verge of heat exhaustion made us pass on the 90-minute wait for the Millennium Force. We did get on the Blue Streak without any wait—though the seats seem much narrower than they did 20 years ago.

Changes in the queue system are much harder to accept. Now there’s a “fast lane” for most popular rides. If you’re willing to pay about twice the regular admission rate, you can get a wristband along with your entry ticket. That lets you bypass lines on about 20 popular rides. On the one hand, that’s good for folks willing to shell out lots of money and good for company coffers. It’s not so good if you’ve paid a mere $45 or $55 for a regular admission ticket and have to wait extra long while others get to go ahead—even on the bumper cars.

Even the opening of Cedar Point’s day has changed. Years ago, we’d get there just before the park opened at 10, listen to the national anthem over the loudspeakers, and then race like crazy to whatever ride the kids wanted to try first. Now there’s early admission for anyone staying at park resorts, and extremely long lines for the plebes who drove out for the day. And no, the national anthem didn’t play.

I realize much of this is part of living in a capitalistic society. And I suppose from the park’s point of view the alternative might be raising prices across the board. At least this way the people who are willing and able to pay top dollar pay the most.

On the other hand, it’s sad that families have to pay about twice as much if they want a good shot at getting on all the popular rides in one day. Now the best alternative seems to be going on a chilly weekday in early May or maybe playing hooky on the last Wednesday or Thursday of August once Ohio schools are back in session.

Besides, Cedar Point’s mantra was always to have orderly queues with no line-jumping. You couldn’t even leave the line for a drink or have someone save a space for you without the risk of being ejected from the park. Now the current system encourages line-jumping—for a price!

Don’t get me wrong. My husband and I had a great day. But sometimes progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Get the point?

Patently Obvious?

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

You don’t own me. I don’t own you.

Today the Supreme Court unanimously struck down patent infringement claims by Myriad Genetics on the location and sequence of certain genes. Those genes, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, have a statistical correlation with breast and ovarian cancer.

Groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy” the requirements of the patent law. As Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the Court’s opinion:

“Myriad did not create anything. To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention. “

The Court’s opinion stressed that it does not apply to alterations of the genetic code. Nor does the opinion cover ways people may invent for working with those genes.

In my view, that’s the right result.

For patients, it can help bring down the costs of genetic screening. That could help people who, like actress Angelina Jolie, want to know more about their chances for certain kinds of hereditary cancers or other diseases.

More broadly, the case can help lower the cost of genetic testing. That could help determine which medications are likely to help patients with a variety of conditions, ranging from cancer to psychiatric disorders and more.

More generally, the Court’s decision leaves the scientific realm of discovery wide open. That encourages scientific exploration and inquiry.

Finally, from a legal and policy perspective, the Court’s decision rightly confines the patent law to inventions, while leaving lots of room for innovation. That’s what the law says, and that’s a good thing.

After all, you don’t own me—and that includes my DNA.

A Bright Idea

light bulbDo you shop for Energy Star appliances? Do you switch out hard-to-reach incandescent bulbs for longer lasting compact fluorescents? Maybe you’ve even had an energy audit done for your home and gotten rebates for follow-up projects.

Steps like these can cut your home’s energy bills. If they’re part of your utility’s energy efficiency plan, they might also lower your area’s electric capacity rates.

When grid operators like PJM Interconnection buy capacity, utilities can bid energy efficiency into the process in much the same way that natural gas, nuclear, or other types of generation get bid. Energy efficiency thus becomes a commodity. And the whole process saves consumers money.

Find out more in my article today for Midwest Energy News:

FirstEnergy’s Ohio customers to save millions from energy efficiency

Score One for Cleveland’s Parks

Cleveland’s debut appearance on The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore® index earned it 25th place among the United States’ 50 largest cities. The group’s ranking of 2.5 out of 5 park benches is pretty respectable when you consider that Cleveland is only the country’s 48th largest city. The ranking also highlights the importance of methodology for any survey or study.“[T]he city is doing a lot of things right when it comes to parks but still has room to grow,” says Pam Carson of The Trust for Public Land (TPL) in a press release announcing the results.

(c)Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c)Kathiann M. Kowalski

While Cleveland beat the national average by a good margin, TPL’s methodology doesn’t provide the whole picture. TPL’s city profile shows that it only considered the actual city limits. Unlike some cities in the group’s survey, Cleveland hasn’t expanded and swallowed up surrounding suburbs. Thus, TPL didn’t include the Cleveland Metroparks. More than 22,000 acres make up that system of parks surrounding the city.

Indeed, the TPL survey seems to leave out even some parks that are clearly within city limits. TPL’s “park facts” shows Rockefeller Park as being the largest park with 130 acres. While that may be the largest city-owned park, other parks within Cleveland are definitely bigger. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has 165 acres. And Cleveland Lakefront State Park has 419 acres.

The next time you see any study or ranking, go behind the numbers. Look at the methodology. Consider what’s included or excluded. Also ask what factors in the ranking could skew results.

And take time to enjoy the parks wherever you live—whether they’re included in a particular organization’s survey or not.

For my part, I’m heading down to the Metroparks for a short hike this afternoon. Where will your adventures take you?