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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Charlie

This is exactly how I last saw him kind-eyed with pizza breath, taking in a cornfield and Texas-wide blue sky.

He turned to me and said "Oh my god, look at all of this." He was always so perfectly right. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Re: beijing














It's hard to say where I've been over the past couple of weeks. Stepping off the plane and crossing the third ring in the northeast, I said goodbye to capital 'B' Beijing— the headline-grabbing political complication and economic elephant— and embraced lower case 'b' beijing— the lulling hot fuss missing some white keys. A snapped-back umbrella. A place patterned as concentric rings like a game of celestial skeeball. A sprawling, unsubtle, placental Los Tokyo.

I left the wheel to my wife, a maze champ with an inner beijing compass and fluent in the city's logic. All I knew was that at some point I was taking a Great Wall selfie (Badaling offers the best view), meandering the network of hutongs (slender back alleyways and neighborhoods), getting hammered with my uncle-in-law on Sunday afternoon in a private Kill Bill room, eating at a Brooklyn-ey/Berlin-ey place called something I can't remember off of "Ghost Street", eating breakfast buns and tofu soup at Qing-Feng Steamed Dumpling Shop, soaking in the soul-expanding Yonghegong (Lama Temple) with its hidden 5-storey standing Buddha shock-and-awe, and touring the "798" military factory-turned-art gallery/café labyrinth. After overeating homemade dumplings in a cramped 14th floor third ring apartment, my wife's relatives officially became my relatives. After devouring so much meat, I just wanted to be locked in a room with carbs and baby spinach for a month. Beyond that, I couldn't tell you much. Oh yeah, the after-dinner night stroll on Tiananmen. That's it. Oh yeah, hotels don't have floors 4, 14, 24— tetraphobia from the fact that the Mandarin word for 4 sounds like the word for death.

The jostling legs, car horns, corpse-colored bricks, futuristic flyovers cutting across lit Central Business District high-rises, tree-lined boulevards threw me off my scent, the scent of bubbly Yunnan hot pot, crispy Peking duck, noxious fumes, Sichuan peppercorns and cilantro, street lamb sheesh, and the one, no wait, two times I crossed the line— duck feet and duck blood. There was a hint of whirling dervish. Squinting my eyes, I saw a sequined, impossibly majestic, self-contained galaxy. And no telescope would do, only Frank Bascombe's "low-wattage wonder."

I left wanting to take up the accordion. But, this wasn't Paris. It's easy to be forgiven for believing that beijing's parents are half-charming Midwestern bounty hunters. Or that you were in some offstage Milky Way. Or that you were with some master of the universe. Or that you were, in fact, a red blood cell.

There was a different kind of entropy, both clipped and eternal. There was the Temple of Heaven in the south, Temple of Sun in the east, Temple of Earth in the north, and Temple of Moon in the west. These ancient silhouettes guided the eyes of everyone I saw and churned around ringing all the bells until I became more than what I was before.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

India— Energy 2035

With the upcoming UN Climate Summit in late September 2014 and the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015 and Prime Minister Modi's election placing political uncertainty in the rearview, it's time for India, energy-hungry and energy-starved, to cement a long-term energy agenda.


















As the world’s tenth largest economy, India is, and will continue to be, central to the global energy story. While fiscal mismanagement and paralyzed politics have produced a cooling economy following consistent 8% annual GDP growth for two decades, India is on pace to become the world’s third largest economy by 2030, requiring significant energy demands and placing unparalleled strains on global supplies. China and India alone will account for 60% of growth in petroleum demand in the coming two decades. The International Energy Agency projects that India’s petroleum demand will balloon to over 8 million barrels per day, nearly all of which will be imported. Further, India’s growth remains highly inefficient and carbon intensive with each $1,000 of GDP added requiring 3.3 barrels of oil, compared to just 1.1 barrels among OECD nations.

India hosts a unique set of energy characteristics and challenges that cannot be addressed without considering its political backdrop. Unlike China, which practices an aggressive, state-led “me first” energy policy fueled by tens of billions of dollars in fixed investment, India is far more hamstrung, juggling the largest free market democracy in the world and a long history of fractious politics, endemic corruption, and stifling bureaucracy. China’s hallmark infrastructure investment is wholly missing in India, where 45% of the population is still off the grid, relying on firewood and biomass.

China has swiftly become a leader in the world’s solar and wind markets while India lags far behind and will progress far more slowly. While China’s central government unilaterally displaces entire villages to build a hydro plant or a wind farm, India cannot due to significant land acquisition challenges. And, with a population density of roughly 350 people per square km, excavating and building a power plant over five hectares requires displacing and re-locating 20,000 people, not to mention the tangle of conflicting utility, state, land, and coal interests. India’s policymakers will not have the luxury of sweeping mandates and any energy policy the country adopts will be fraught with political quicksand. With untenable fiscal debt and unfavorable foreign investment, India will need to harness new methods of financing, innovative public-private partnerships, and joint venture opportunities.

India's “superpower” growth story has been widely popularized.  But, its energy profile tells a different story— one of a vast, energy-poor nation. Travel to villages and major cities in India today and you will encounter timed blackouts from “load-shedding” and bazaar storefronts lined with gas-spewing generators due to lack of grid access. Let's not forget that in July 2012 a blackout struck 19 states across India's heartland affecting 600 million people.

Despite these weaknesses, a dramatic energy growth story awaits. In terms of oil equivalent per year, India consumes 500 kg per capita, less than one-third of the global average of 1,800, one half of China’s 1,090, and just 6% of the U.S.’s 7,835 kg per capita. With a population headed to 1.5 billion and a middle class swelling to over 500 million by 2025, India is entering its most energy intensive growth phase with energy demand slated to grow by over 400% by 2035. A comprehensive Energy 2035 agenda will need to decarbonize and shift away from fossil fuels, clean up coal plants, implement broad demand-side efficiency and conservation measures, significantly ramp up solar and wind capacity, further open the door for private capital, modernize the grid, and streamline energy agencies, while balancing energy security, below-poverty-line, and environmental interests. 

India’s primary energy mix in 2012 included 44% coal, 22% oil, 22% biomass and waste, 7% natural gas, 4% renewables, and 1% nuclear. In addition to remaining overwhelmingly fossil fuel-driven, India imports 80% of its crude oil requirement, dampening energy security for the foreseeable future. India will need a makeover of its fossil fuel policy, beginning with subsidies. India doled out $39 billion in fossil fuel subsidies in 2011, draining the fiscal budget, skewing the market, bankrupting private suppliers, lining the pockets of bureaucrats, and propping inefficient companies and practices. India would benefit from a gradual and total phase-out of subsidies to oil, diesel, kerosene, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 2020. As one of the world’s top five energy subsidizers, it's time for India to rationalize fuel prices and encourage market-based efficiencies rather than directly curbing consumer prices.

India would benefit from boosting use of off-the-shelf technology to improve its dismal 28% recovery rate of oil and gas to above 40%. With coal accounting for over half of India’s energy mix, the dirtiest of fuels will likely continue to retain a large portion of India’s energy portfolio for the coming decades. Notably, India’s poor quality, high ash content coal is difficult to sustainably extract and export. Despite boasting some of the largest indigenous coal reserves in the world, the country still suffers from domestic shortages, which have hampered electricity generation and forced up coal imports. India should aggressively reduce its reliance on coal to 35% to 40% by 2035, while also investing heavily to improve coal conversion (currently just 30%), as well as in clean coal technologies and expanded transport infrastructure to consumption centers. Legislation enforcing tighter coal plant standards and broader investment in transport infrastructure, primarily in freight rail, which is more efficient that the country’s crumbling trucking and road network, will aid the transition.

To bolster the rural electrification initiative of 2003 to ensure electricity to every citizen by 2012 (years behind schedule), India should align all of its regulatory and industry agencies as well as state governments under one comprehensive, unified energy policy. To boost grid infrastructure buildup and access, India should boost private capital to power generation, transmission, and distribution companies. Unhealthy balance sheets among utilities have produced poor quality, unreliable supply and, unless India invests significantly to scale up installed capacity by more than five-fold, the country will face dramatic regional shortfalls. Part of the solution will be a smarter grid.

Also key to reshaping the energy basket is natural gas. India would benefit from ramping up  gas in the primary energy mix to 20% by 2035 as a bridge to an even longer-term renewables future. In addition to tapping into and developing domestic supplies, India will need to build cross-border and North-South pipelines, as well as build up to ten LNG terminals in the East and West. While a relatively small gas player today, India has the potential to become one of the world's leaders by forging partnerships and bringing in international expertise in recovery and design. Shale gas also offers significant potential, but will likely be stunted by licensing, land, water, and environmental complications.

Renewables and nuclear energy should fill out India’s mix, with a stretch target of 20% share by 2035. While nuclear currently tallies a small sliver of India’s energy production, the country has five reactors under construction with plans to build 18 by 2025 and eventually generate 25% of its electricity from nuclear reactors by 2050. These lofty goals will likely be severely delayed due to up-front capital requirements, a complex and sluggish land acquisition process, waste storage issues, and liability disputes. Moreover, resistance persists post-Fukushima while India implements a complete review of safety conditions across the sector. Notably, India is not a signatory of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Going forward, while India hosts relatively scarce uranium supplies, the country is rich in thorium, a juicy R&D investment target.  

The "X factor" will be India’s ability to successfully develop solar and wind potential. With 3 million square km of tropical and subtropical land and 250 to 300 sunny days per year, India has one of the highest solar potentials in the world. The country is ambitiously planning to hit solar capacity of 22 GW by 2022 up from 2.6 GW today. The goal faces steep challenges– capital costs, land acquisition, and effective transmission. Moreover, it will require dramatic investment, which India could partly fund through savings from the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies. The country would profit from integrating technical know-how and proven policies, including feed-in tariffs, from other successful solar programs. With over 20 GW of installed capacity, India is the world’s fifth largest wind market. In comparison, China is the global leader with over 50 GW. India should look to add 40 GW to 50 GW more wind capacity by 2035, but will share similar scale-up challenges with solar, in addition to noise pollution and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) opposition. Overall, investment in solar and wind can also prove economically beneficial in developing a new manufacturing sector to employ millions of new workforce entrants in the coming decades.

The “fifth fuel” is demand-side efficiency and conservation. While lacking the political ribbon-cutting benefits of gas and renewables projects, in terms of abatement strategies, it remains the lowest hanging fruit, requiring the least up-front cost. Wider-reaching education efforts around environmental impact (e.g., individual carbon footprint) and new efficient technologies would help. Most importantly, the government could substantially scale up investment in efficient public transport and legislate more stringent car and truck tailpipe emissions standards every five years. Additionally, India could encourage broad adoption of LED bulbs, energy efficient appliances, and greener building standards. 

With a slow-moving, underfunded, and fragmented energy supply and demand structure, Modi will be challenged to replicate his solar and price-setting successes in Gujarat on a national scale. Though, with a clear political mandate in place, India is ripe for a shake-up and hungry for a more ambitious, transparent, decentralized, and innovation/partnership-based Energy 2035 agenda.