Saturday, July 08, 2017

The Next Wave of the Net Metering Wars

The New York Times has an article about utility efforts to roll back "net metering"* for solar power.

The article is pretty clearly slanted -- utilities aren't making up the free-riding problem. But it's also evident that utility companies aren't just interested in insuring grid stability but want to kneecap solar outright, because it is a threat to the monopoly utility model. In many of the states, rooftop solar is so nascent that it's almost impossible to imagine it poses any serious immediate threat to utility business models.

The fact that very liberal states like Hawaii have rolled back net metering should suggest that there's more to it than just greedy conservatives hating renewable power and protecting incumbent power producers (recall that Hawaii has actually set a 100% renewable power goal they plan to meet by 2045). But the Trump administration and allied conservative state governments are certainly sympathetic to net metering "reform" proposals which are best characterized as "greedy conservatives hating renewable power and protecting incumbent power producers."

* Net metering is the practice where households with solar panels get paid retail price for any excess power they return to the grid. If my house consumes 1,000 kWh of power, and the panels on my roof produce 1,000 kWh of power, my electricity bill nets out to zero. The reason it's a "net" is that, on a minute-to-minute basis, there will be times when my solar panels are producing more than I'm using (and the excess gets sold onto the grid) and likewise times when the panels aren't covering my usage (e.g., when it's cloudy) and I need to draw from the grid. The reason this aggravates utility companies is that my house is still hooked up to and uses the grid (to sell the excess power, to draw from non-intermittent dispatchable power at night or in the rain), but it isn't paying for any of the costs of maintaining it. As rooftop solar becomes more prominent, this becomes a genuine regulatory puzzle for utility commissions. But in most jurisdictions, we're nowhere near the point where it will make a dent.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Root Beer Taste Test

I love root beer. As a non-alcohol drinker, it's the closest thing I get to experiencing the varieties of real beer. And so, for years, I've had a dream of performing a root beer taste test. And now that dream is coming true.

Over the course of several days, I've drank a variety of different root beers -- both commonplace and artisanal. I've given them all a grade and some brief commentary. It's my gift to you, but more than that, it's my gift to me.

* * *

A&W: I bought a bottle of A&W for sake of completion, because I already knew I didn't like it. But its one of the big names in the root beer business, so I figured I had to give it a shot. And to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. I always felt like A&W tasted like it had been left out in the sun for too long, but this was sweeter and crisper than I remembered (although a molasses-type sweetness -- the bottle says "aged vanilla" -- which I wasn't a huge fan of). It does depend on it being fully carbonated -- once the carbonation fades, it start to taste like liquified brown sugar -- but again, not terrible. Still not great though. C+.

Barq's: With all this stress on small, artisanal root beers some may be surprised that I fully expected Barq's to do very well in this challenge. Of the "big three" mainstream root beer brands (A&W and Mug being the other two), Barq's is by far my favorite and is the root beer that is always in my fridge. The famous "bite" isn't anything too extreme, but certainly gives it a personality that one wouldn't expect from a Coca-Cola product. The main downside is that there isn't a ton underneath the bite -- once the snap wears off, it goes downhill really quickly -- but as long as you don't linger while drinking it Barq's is very crisp and refreshing. A.

Mug: Good. Generic, but good. Not a lot to say about this. I last got a bottle of Mug when it came with a Dominos Pizza, and that feels entirely appropriate somehow. B+.

Bedford's: Surprisingly watery. I had tried a bunch of "darker" flavors prior to drinking Bedford's, and when I first sipped it I couldn't quite put my finger on what its distinct flavor was. A full bottle later, and I still wasn't sure, and had no recollection about what it was. There's nothing particularly offensive about this drink, but there's nothing remotely memorable about it either. C-.

Dad's: It was difficult for me to place Dad's flavor (mint? No, that's not right), but it was generally quite pleasant. The problem was there was nothing going on underneath it -- in fact, it was pretty watery. I've heard that some people get "Dad's" as a cute Father's Day gift, and I have to say that it's far better than what one would typical expect for a "gimmick-grade" product. B.

Frostie: Frostie has a cartoon Santa on its bottle. And it tastes like Christmas! I can't even describe what that means; hell, I don't even celebrate Christmas. But it tastes exactly like what I imagine Christmas to taste like. It's a very particular sort of sweet that's pleasing and wintery and not too strong. That taste overlays a pretty forgettable base, but overall this is a strong entry. A-.

Henry Weinhard's: This has a flavor that I imagine is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. For me, it tastes a little like cough syrup. Now, I have to say that if cough syrup tasted like this I'd be really happy -- it'd make a darn tasty cough syrup! But in the root beer category, that's a downgrade. It does foam very impressively though. B-.

IBC: Tastes like a darker version of Barq's. It has a bite as well, though not as distinctive. The flavor is a little richer, and I can imagine people going both ways on it. But I'm a big fan. A.

Sioux City: One taste of this and I was like "we've got a contender." Two tastes and I immediately recanted. This has a dreadful aftertaste -- truly foul. I'm not sure where it comes from, because it has a very nice taste when it hits your tongue. This must be what drug addiction feels like -- a momentary great feeling, followed by awfulness. D+.

O-So Butterscotch Root Beer: As the name describes. This has a very strong -- I'd argue overpowering -- butterscotch flavor that feels incongruous. Like, I can see how someone might think it goes with a root beer base, but they turned out to be wrong. Root beer is sweet enough as it is, this turned it positively sickly. Would not recommend unless you're a true butterscotch fan (which I admittedly am not). C-.

Red Arrow: Like A&W without the sweetness. This is what I imagine dark beer to taste like. Unfortunately, it lacks the smoothness of A&W. In fact, the more I think of it, the more this tastes like my bad memories of A&W. Not a fan. C-.

Monday, July 03, 2017

For the Left, the Kotel Controversy Shouldn't Be Nyah-Nyah Moment

When the Israeli government reneged on its promise to promote equal space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall -- and moved forward a bill that would further cement the Orthodox movement's stranglehold over conversion in Israel -- liberal Jews in America were very, very upset. They were not shy about denouncing the decision in the sharpest of terms.  The head of the Chicago Jewish Federation said lawmakers who voted for the conversion bill wouldn't be welcome in his city. An AIPAC board member threatened to cut off all philanthropic giving to Israel.  It's fair to say that we haven't seen this much unified fury directed at the Israeli government from mainstream American Jewish organizations in years.

Some anti-occupation activists are rolling their eyes at this -- oh, now you're protesting Israeli government policy. Now, when it's about you, you're suddenly threatening to cut off donations or shun unacceptable Israeli MKs? Where were you when Israel's right-ward tilt was affecting people-not-you -- that is, Palestinians? Where was your consternation and outrage when Israel lets settler violence proceed unchecked or demolishes Palestinian homes for "improper permits" while letting outposts proliferate like wildfire? But now, now you find your voice?

I get this reaction. Really, I do. It's an entirely understandable, visceral response. I even feel it myself, to a degree. I really, really empathize with the cathartic desire to lash out like this.

But being a good activist isn't about doing what feels good or righteous or cathartic. Being a good activist means taking the steps that move the ball forward, even if that means foregoing a good "gotcha" moment. Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, and this is one of those moments.

For starters, the groups engaging in this nyah-nyah reaction generally purport to agree with their targets on the injustice of the Kotel backtrack and the conversion bill. So right from the get-go, there's the ill-advised look of being angry that people agree with you on an issue.

But there's a larger short-sightedness here, that goes more directly to the issue of the occupation and moving the needle on how American Jewish organizations treat that issue. Let me lay it out in simple terms:
From an anti-occupation perspective, anything that makes clear to mainstream American Jews that Bibi is not your buddy is a good thing.
Simple as that. An American Jewish organization that is annoyed at Netanyahu and his coalition partners is an American Jewish organization that will be less likely to reflexively defer to them the next occupation-related outrage that comes down the pike. An American Jewish organization which doesn't trust Bibi's views on matters of justice or fairness is an American Jewish organization more likely  to follow their own instincts going forward.

I've written before about the importance of social psychology in understanding how views about Israel develop and change. One of the most important considerations in how people form their own beliefs is their sense about how their friends, how the people on their "side", perceive the issue. The Kotel controversy is a moment where many American Jews have suddenly come to the realization that Bibi is not "on their side". They're casting about, looking for new allies in the Jewish community that will validate their feelings about how important this issue is and do understand how objectionable the Israeli government's decision was.

This offers a huge opportunity. American Jews are searching for something to do, a way to vent their anger, at the current Israeli government. Right now it's rather disorganized and inchoate, and as a means of protesting the Kotel decision pulling funding from an Ethiopian-Israeli soccer team seems rather far afield. But you know what could make Netanyahu stand up and take notice? If donors and givers and Jewish support started flowing to liberal organizations within Israel that -- by and large -- want religious pluralism in Israel and an end to the occupation.

But that only works if the door is held open. So, in this particular moment, the decision of the anti-occupation left to wag a finger in these Jews' faces and yell "hypocrites" could not be more profoundly idiotic. It is a sign of the immaturity of these groups and their preference for posturing over effective coalition-building within the Jewish community -- a shortcoming that has bedeviled the Jewish anti-occupation left from its earliest days.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

A Muslim in Rural Minnesota

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a gripping profile of a Muslim doctor living in Dawson, Minnesota -- why he moved there, how the election shook his faith in his neighbors, and his reluctant efforts to explain not just what Islam is, but why he experienced the widespread support for Donald Trump in his community as a deep and personal betrayal. It is a compelling and necessary read.

I've mentioned that my fiancée is from Owatonna, Minnesota, and that I regularly am out there visiting her family. Owatonna is about three hours from Dawson (it's in the southern part of the state, while Dawson is out west), but they both are in rural areas that swung hard to the right this election. Owatonna, too, had a hateful incident in the immediate aftermath of the election (a middle-aged man followed a Muslim teenager around a Kwik-Trip and asked "Now that Donald Trump's president, why do I still have to see Muslims? Go back to your own country.").

I don't mean to imply this is just a rural phenomenon -- after all, my very suburban elementary school got tagged with swastikas just before the election. This isn't about playing gotcha, or kick the hick.

But in both the Dawson and Owatonna cases, Muslim community members specifically suggest that there is an extra degree of alienation knowing that many, if not most, of their neighbors, classmates, or colleagues voted for Trump. Voted to put him on a registry. Voted to ban them from the country. Voted to demonize them and consider them all terrorists seeking to impose Sharia law on the country.

Now, frequently they'll deny that. It was about insurance premiums, not race or religion or ethnicity. Put aside the ludicrous notion that Donald Trump is going to make insurance more affordable. There's a deeper problem, for it's a less of a defense than one might think to say "demonizing you, rendering you a second-class citizens, labeling you an enemy of the state -- all on account your faith -- these didn't matter to me." There's a sort of negligence at work here, where people look at what Donald Trump said about their fellow Americans and said "that's not important to me. I'm willing to accept that for the sake of demolishing Obamacare."

This is why there's a sense of betrayal here that goes beyond simply one's preferred candidate losing. When we vote, we are making one of the most consequential statements about not just our own priorities, but our vision of care and concern for everyone in our community and country. It is not and should not be thought of as the equivalent of a consumer selecting their preferred brand of grapes. When people reveal their values in this way -- "I'm not saying I like the Muslim ban, but her emails" -- it is not wrong for those persons whose lives and equality are so grossly undervalued to take exception. And it isn't wrong for them to insist that their classmates, colleagues, and neighbors look them in the eye and be made to reckon with what they did.