2010 - %3, February

What's the Deal With the BloomBox?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 2:47 PM EST

On Sunday I watched 60 Minutes do a segment about Bloom Energy, a new fuel-cell startup from Silicon Valley that's supposedly created a revolutionary new energy source. Unfortunately, I was left completely in the dark about how good the technology really is. The BloomBox runs on various kinds of gas, but the primary fuel source for most customers will likely be natural gas, so the obvious question is: does it produce electricity more efficiently than a gas-fired power plant? Today, the New York Times sort of tells us:

Bloom executives said the energy server, which can be installed in a matter of hours, operates at an efficiency of 50 to 55 percent and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 100 percent depending on the type of fuel used.

Mr. Sridhar said the Bloom Energy Server has been generating electricity at a cost of 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt-hour. In California, where Bloom has installed 30 fuel-cell systems, commercial electricity rates averaged about 14 cents a kilowatt-hour in October 2009, according to the latest figures from the United States Department of Energy. Elsewhere, commercial rates averaged 7 to 24 cents a kilowatt-hour.

....Bloom executives said the company spent years developing a proprietary seal made from low-cost materials to prevent cracks and leaks. They estimate that the Bloom boxes will have a 10-year lifespan and that the company will have to swap out the fuel-cell stacks twice during that time. Mike Brown, an executive with UTC Power, a leading fuel-cell maker, said the fuel cells need to last at least four or five years for the technology to be competitive.

Hmmm. I'm still a little stumped. The average price of electricity to commercial customers in the U.S. is about 10 cents per Kwh, roughly the same as the BloomBox. But does the BloomBox price take into account replacing the fuel-cell stacks every three or four years? That's not clear. But even if it does, this suggests that the BloomBox will be a decent — though hardly transformational — power source only in areas where electricity costs are higher than average, not for the mass market. As for greenhouse gas emissions, it's hard to see an apples-to-apples benefit. If you compare a gas-fueled BloomBox to a gas-fired electric plant, greenhouse gas emissions ought to be the same, shouldn't they? The fuel cells don't do anything to the carbon content of the gas, after all. So is the environmental benefit simply the fact that a BloomBox can also run on greener fuel sources, and can do it more easily than most big generation facilities? I'm still a little confused here.

I suppose this will all get sorted out in time and we'll learn what's really going on. But even more mysterious is this:

The byproduct of fuel cells is water, and Bloom has patented and proved a fuel-cell design that could also tap electricity generated by solar panels and wind farms to electrolyze water to produce hydrogen that could be used as fuel in the cell. “That’s the killer app,” said Mr. Sridhar, who said such a product probably would introduced within a decade.

Hold on. They're saying that we can use solar panels to create electricity, pump the electricity into a BloomBox to create hydrogen, use the hydrogen to power a fuel cell, and this is somehow more efficient than simply using the electricity directly generated by the solar panel? My thermodynamics professor would have been scandalized. Am I missing something here?

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'School of Shock' Under Federal Investigation

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 2:26 PM EST

More than two years after Mother Jones published a groundbreaking investigation of the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), a private school in Massachusetts that uses electric shocks to discipline its mentally retarded and autistic students, the federal government is finally looking at the school. The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division says it has opened a "routine investigation" (PDF) of the Rotenberg Center in response to a September 2009 letter signed by 31 disability organizations that contended the school violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

"The initial response of the Department of Justice was that they didn't believe that they could take action because they didn’t believe they had jurisdiction over privately operated facilities," wrote Nancy Weiss of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities. "I suggested to them that they consider jurisdiction under the ADA on the basis that people with disabilities are being treated in ways that are neither legal nor would be tolerated if applied to people who do not have disabilities." Weiss reported that the DOJ couldn't give her an estimate on how long their investigation would take.

This is far from the first time the Rotenberg Center has come under fire for its controversial punishments, called "aversives" which include food restriction, isolation, and physical restraints. Because some children from District of Columbia attend the residential school, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee called for an investigation into the center in 2007, and Massachusetts State Senator Brian Joyce has introduced several laws to ban the use of electric shock devices on students. This is not to mention a damning investigation by the New York State Education Department and statements by then-Governor Elliot Spitzer that the school was "wrong" and he would pull New York students if possible. This could be disastrous for the Rotenberg Center as New York state supplies, and funds, many of the school's out-of-state students. More recently, JRC was fined tens of thousands of dollars for allowing 14 unlicensed clinicians to label themselves "psychologists." Although the House Education and Labor Committee recently introduced a bill that would ban the use of restraints on students, and another which would establish an abuse reporting system for residential schools which could potentially apply to the Rotenberg Center, this is the first real federal attention the school has received. And while disability rights groups are celebrating the DOJ's investigation, if the DOJ decides in the JRC's favor, it will be a major setback. Wrote Weiss, "We can only keep our fingers crossed that this is the first step in righting a long history of wrongs."

Which Agency is Most Open?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 2:21 PM EST

Which government agencies are most transparent? Which are the least open? The surprising answers are in a new report from OMB Watch, a good-government group that monitors the White House's Office of Management and Budget. The report shows that some agencies, such as NASA, the General Services Administration, the State Department, and the Department of Education, are doing a halfway decent job adhering to the minimum requirements of the "Open Government Directive" [OGD] released by the White House late last year. But even NASA scored only 40 of a potential 57.5 points on OMB's scale, and most agencies did a whole lot worse—including, tellingly, the White House itself:

While agencies did generally meet the minimum requirements of the OGD for the new webpages, several scored particularly low in this review. The bottom five agencies, excluding those that failed to put up any open government page, were the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)/White House, the Department of Agriculture, FDIC, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice... [N]one of the bottom agencies' have Inspector General reports, a link to Recovery Act data, reports to Congress, budget justifications, or performance results that can be easily found from the new webpages. Similarly, several laggard agencies, including FDIC, Department of Health and Human Services, OMB/White House, as well as others, failed to link to public participation tools for collecting input and open government ideas as mandated by the OGD.

You read that right: the White House agency that promulgated the open government plan has trouble living up to the spirit, if not the letter, of its own rules. That's pretty sad.

Glenn Beck, Environmentalist?

Wed Feb. 24, 2010 1:40 PM EST

Is Glenn Beck, right-wing TV superstar and Tea Party darling, a closet treehugger? If you've read his books or watched his show or listened to his radio broadcast, you'd consider such a question insane, even blasphemous. But as our own Kate Sheppard writes, Beck's private views on the environment and climate change are startlingly different from his public stance:

In fact, Beck appears not only to be convinced that global warming is real, but that it's a genuine problem. "You’d be an idiot not to notice the temperature change," he [told USA Weekend recently]. He also says there’s a legit case that global warming has, at least in part, been caused by mankind.

The article also says that Beck has felt compelled to "buy a home with a 'green' design and using energy-saving products." "I’m willing to do anything but use the CFLs," he tells USA Weekend, referring to energy efficient light bulbs. "I put them in once and couldn’t stand the way they lit up the room." These are hardly the words or actions of a hardcore climate denialist.

The comments—made in passing during the course of a longer interview—attracted almost no attention. But they've stirred up a frenzy among right-wingers in certain corners of the web who are horrified to hear their standard-bearer sounding suspiciously like Al Gore. Prison Planet, a news hub for conservative conspiracy theorists, called his remarks "a shocking stab in the back of conservatives who consider Beck to be their anointed leader." A post on the interview provoked more than 200 comments on the right-wing website Free Republic, with one asking whether Beck was "moving to the left," and another saying the news was the "final straw for Beck with me." WorldNetDaily attempts to explain the remarks by musing that they perhaps reflect Beck's "kinder, gentler" side. (In the same interview, Beck also admits to liking liberal celebrity George Clooney, and it's noted that his publicist is Matt Hiltzik, a Democratic heavy hitter who worked on Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.)

On his show, Beck had plenty of criticism of the USA Weekend story. But he didn't raise any objections to the article's portrayal of his environmental views. That must leave his supporters contemplating the possibility that when it comes to climate change, Beck may not really be one of them.

The Press and Reconciliation

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 1:39 PM EST

If Democrats want to pass a healthcare bill, there's only one way to do it: the House needs to pass the existing Senate bill and then the two sides need to agree to a few limited changes. These changes would be passed through both House and Senate via "reconciliation," which allows budget-related measures to be approved with a simple majority. Technically, it's not that hard. But politically, as Bob Somerby points out after watching a CNN report, Democrats start out at a huge disadvantage because the press has basically already adopted Republican talking points to explain how this works:

What the heck is “reconciliation?” So far, we’ve been told that it’s “a controversial parliamentary short-cut”—a “fast-track approach,” a “tactic.” The controversial tactic “would allow Democrats to pass health-care reform without any Republican support.” HOWLER readers may know what that means—but many CNN viewers did not. Who knows? According to what they had just heard, such viewers may have thought that “reconciliation” would let health reform pass by a majority vote among Democrats. More likely, they still didn’t have any real idea how the “tactic” works—although the very first thing they had been told is that it’s “controversial.”

Guess what, kids? That’s loaded language.

The truth, of course, is simpler. The basic healthcare bill has already been passed in the Senate via regular order. The House can pass the Senate bill and President Obama can sign it into law via regular order. Changes to the bill that affect revenues and outlays — i.e., things that affect the budget — can then be tacked onto a budget bill later this year and passed on an up-or-down vote via the budget reconciliation process. Here's a reconciliation primer:

It was created in 1974 as a way of ensuring that annual budgets could be passed without being filibustered.

It has been used to pass the annual budget in all but seven years since 1980. It's a routine procedure used by both Republicans and Democrats.

It was used to pass Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut and both of George Bush's big tax cuts.

It was used to pass welfare reform.

Virtually every healthcare reform of the past three decades, including COBRA, EMTALA, S-CHIP, and others has been passed via reconciliation.

There's nothing wrong with the media reporting that Republicans oppose the use of reconciliation to amend the healthcare bill. Of course they do. But they owe it to their audience to explain that reconciliation does nothing more than allow a simple majority vote to pass budgetary issues and that it's been used routinely by both parties for decades. That's just the simple truth.

The Future of the Economy

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 1:00 PM EST

Paul Krugman says that Martin Wolf is depressing reading today. I should say so. First, he recapitulates the basics: a huge credit bubble has produced way too much debt in the world's rich countries, which means that private actors are busily deleveraging as fast as they can. That is, they're spending a lot less than they make and saving the excess. So now what?

We can identify two alternatives: success and failure.

By “success”, I mean reignition of the credit engine in high-income deficit countries. So private sector spending surges anew, fiscal deficits shrink and the economy appears to being going back to normal, at last. By “failure” I mean that the deleveraging continues, private spending fails to pick up with any real vigour and fiscal deficits remain far bigger, for far longer, than almost anybody now dares to imagine. This would be post-bubble Japan on a far wider scale.

Unhappily, the result of what I call success would probably be a still bigger financial crisis in future, while the results of what I call failure would be that the fiscal rope would run out, even though reaching the end might take longer than worrywarts fear.

....I can envisage two ways by which the world might grow out of its debt overhangs without such a collapse: a surge in private and public investment in the deficit [i.e., rich] countries or a surge in demand from the emerging countries. Under the former, higher future income would make today’s borrowing sustainable. Under the latter, the savings generated by the deleveraging private sectors of deficit countries would flow naturally into increased investment in emerging countries.

As Wolf points out, though, nobody is seriously interested in either of these two solutions. The first requires continued high federal deficits combined with a surge in private investment. The second requires huge capital flows into emerging countries to spur investment and consumption there. Both of these are political poison.

So what's the bright side? That Wolf is wrong, I suppose. Like Krugman, though, I suspect that at most he's a little pessimistic. The next few years aren't going to be pretty, and the political will in the United States to tackle real problems of this magnitude just isn't there. Democrats are too scared, Republicans care only about the electoral blood they smell in the water, and the public just wants to lash out at whoever caused this. Meanwhile, Wall Street is rocking along as if nothing had ever happened. This, not the loss of the public option or a minor compromise on the excise tax, is the real price we're paying for a broken political system.

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Bloggingheads.tv: Corn & Pinkerton on Health Care Summit

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 12:47 PM EST

Once again, Jim Pinkerton and I faced off on the most pressing issues of the cyber-moment for Bloggingheads.tv. Regarding Thursday's health care summit, we agreed that it won't be of much use—to either side. (I explain this further here.) But we bickered over Jim's assertion that the stimulus—and economic recovery—has been stymied by environmentalists and their darn rules, especially when it comes to high-speed rail projects. I asked Jim repeatedly to cite a specific project that has not taken off because of those pesky environmental regulations. Astute watchers will note Jim couldn't come up with one. Comity was restored, though, when we both explained why we enthusiastically support the Demand Question Time campaign. Finally, we mulled Rahm Emanuel's past, present...and future.

Here's the show:

 

 

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Did Blackwater Rescue Alan Grayson in Niger?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 12:35 PM EST

Before joining Congress, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) was the scourge of military contractors, filing dozens of whistleblower lawsuits against companies who defrauded the government in connection with their work in Iraq. In the past, the freshman lawmaker, who's known for his pugilistic style and no-holds barred remarks, has blasted the firms working on the payroll of the US government overseas: "We're not going to let the defense contractors use our money to bribe our government and take it over," he once said. And he has singled out Blackwater (now known as Xe) for special criticism: "We can't let, basically, Blackwater take over the entire government here. We have to draw the line somewhere."

But did Blackwater contractors come to his rescue last week, when Grayson was traveling in Niger and a military coup erupted? It certainly seems that way, considering the prepared testimony of Xe executive vice president Fred Roitz, who will testify later today in connection with a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Blackwater subsidiary Paravant. In his remarks, he stated: "Xe Services, through its subsidiary Presidential Airways, provides aviation support and medevac services to Defense Department personnel in Africa. Just last week, our personnel evacuated a congressman from Niger during civil unrest."

The description certainly seems to fit the dicey circumstances Grayson found himself in last week. As CNN reported:

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida, narrowly escaped harm earlier this week after being caught up in a military coup in the African country of Niger.

Grayson's press secretary, Todd Jurkowski, confirmed to CNN that Grayson was close to the action. "He heard the gunshots. They were literally in the building next door."

The outspoken congressman was in Niger as part of a congressional delegation focused on science, technology and humanitarian relief, according to Jurkowski. When the situation began to unravel, Grayson was taken to the residence of the United States Ambassador to Niger, where he was placed under armed protection.

Roitz offered his remarks in defense of Xe's personnel, who he described as "good corporate citizens," who "support numerous charitable and civic organizations in the region, including the Special Olympics, the USO, the Boy Scouts, and local nonprofit food service organizations."

In his prepared statement, Roitz said that Xe was a changed company following the departure of a series of high-level Blackwater employees and installation of a new management team. "Unfortunately, there were times when the first priority of the former leadership of the company was supporting those missions, even at the expense of complying administrative and regulatory requirements," Roitz said, referring to the firm's work in Iraq and Afghanistan. "That will not happen under the company's new leadership team, which emphasizes core values of honesty, integrity, reliability, and accountability." He also said the company is "in many significant ways, a new company when compared to the old Blackwater."

As for Grayson, if he was in fact saved by Blackwater, I wonder whether the experience has given him a newfound respect for the work of contractors. I have a call in to Grayson's spokesman. I'll update this post when I hear back.

UPDATE: Todd Jurkowsk, Rep. Grayson's spokesman, says the congressman's office is still trying to confirm whether he was in fact evacced by Presidential Airways. "The flight was arranged through the State Department," Jukowski says. "The Congressman did not know, and frankly did not care, who owned the plane.” On the subject of contractors, Jurkowski added, "The Congressman does not deny that there is admirable work being done by some employees of private contractors.  However, he stands by his criticism of companies who have been found to cheat the American people, defraud our government, and unnecessarily risk the lives of members of our military, all in the name of making a profit."

UPDATE 2: Case closed.

Rockefeller Seeking Delay on EPA Climate Regs

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 12:29 PM EST

Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who recently joined the group of legislators expressing concern about pending climate regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, is planning to introduce a bill that would delay the introduction of rules restricting greenhouse gas emissions.

Rockefeller's move comes even after EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson made assurances that the new rules for polluters won't go into effect until next year.  "This is good progress but I am concerned it may not go far enough," Rockefeller said in a statement. "EPA actions in this area would have enormous implications on clean coal state economies and these issues need to be handled carefully and appropriately dealt with by the Congress, not in isolation by a federal environmental agency."

Rockefeller said he intends to draft legislation that "would provide Congress the space it needs to craft a workable policy that will protect jobs and stimulate the economy." His measure, he said, would "set in stone through legislation enough time for Congress to consider a comprehensive energy bill."

Rockefeller didn't indicate that he planned to sign on to an existing bill from Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that would bar the EPA from moving forward on regulations altogether. But his latest move is a sign that opposition to EPA regulation of greenhouse gases is picking up steam on both sides of the aisle.

Our Oppressed Billionaires

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 11:48 AM EST

Sure, you already know this. But it never hurts to post a reminder with a nice graphical memory aid. Nickel summary: the richest of the rich have gotten even richer over the past two decades — 400% richer for the top 400, according to CBPP, in a nice bit of symmetry — and at the same time their federal income tax rates have gone down from 30% to 16%. Needless to say, this is further evidence that America's heirs and Wall Street tycoons, the targets of endless class warfare from liberals and Democrats, deserves to have the estate tax eliminated. They've suffered enough already.

But you come here for more than snark. You want substance. So here's some substance:

The low effective tax rate for the top 400 filers is largely due to the fact that capital gains and qualified dividends are taxed at much lower rates than ordinary income....It is not surprising that two of the largest reductions in effective tax rates for the top 400 filers occurred in two two-year periods (1996-1998 and 2002-2004) that coincided with the capital gains tax cuts enacted in 1997 and 2003.

The second half of this paragraph seems fine: tax rates for the wealthy really did fall starting in 2003, which is almost certainly due to the Bush tax cuts. But the Clinton capital gains cuts took effect in mid-1997. How could they be responsible for a drop that began in 1996? What happened in 1995 to get the ball rolling?