ERIC WOLFERT, ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT DIRECTOR
Germany is hardly anyone’s idea of a sunny paradise--its capital city of Berlin sits at a higher latitude than Detroit and Pittsburgh. Yet Europe’s greatest economic power has become a world leader in the development of solar energy, with solar providing nearly 75% of the nation’s energy over periods of several hours and 17% of its total consumption during the first six months of 2014. (By comparison, solar made up a paltry 0.23% of American energy consumption in 2013.) In doing so, Germany has demonstrated that transitioning away from fossil fuels, far from being a painful and expensive process, can actually have a number of positive effects. Its energy grid, far from being unreliable and blackout-prone as many postulated, has been ranked the most reliable in the world since at least 2008, and there is ample evidence that the increased production of renewable technologies is leading to reduced energy prices in Germany and neighboring countries.
Given the European Union’s seemingly endless economic stagnation and the poor performance of austere economic policies since the global recession hit in 2008, cheaper energy prices provide a glimmer of hope for recovery. Furthermore, a September 2011 study from the German Institute for Economic Research found the deployment of renewable energy to positively impact GDP growth in Germany, citing a net increase in private investment, as well as a decline in energy imports, improving Germany’s trade balance. If there is one sincere drawback to the program, it is that increased use of renewable energy technologies has not decreased the use of coal as quickly as many advocates had hoped--though coal use is unquestionably on the decline.
One simple, prominent reason for Germany’s success with renewables comes from more sustained public support for the industries, especially when compared to the United States. German renewable energy producers have taken advantage of a program known as feed-in tariffs, in which the government pays the renewable energy companies a fixed amount per kilowatt of energy produced, thereby incentivizing the companies to expand and produce more.
Similar programs do exist in the United States, but are decidedly more fickle--programs such as the Production Tax Credit are structured in a similar way to Germany’s feed-in tariffs. Unfortunately, they have become a case of political football, with conservative lawmakers often seeking to see the program halted, though some conservatives have rightfully lauded the tax credit for supporting jobs.
The program in Germany may also provide a geopolitical advantage. As Russia continues its rise as a global aggressor under President Putin, many of the nations in the region are dependent upon Russian natural gas imports as a crucial part of their energy supply. The less Germany is required to depend on Russia for energy, the better for German security; it is no wonder that Ukraine has begun to take steps to this effect.
Herein lies a lesson for policymakers in the United States: Consistent investment is key if we are to achieve the economic, environmental, and public health imperative of increasing renewable energy use. German renewable energy providers are virtually guaranteed that the feed-in tariff will provide a consistent source of revenue, even though the amount paid out by the German government has decreased recently as production and cost of the energies has bettered the projections. In the United States, the partisan wrangling over relatively modest programs like the Production Tax Credit has caused inconsistent deployment of renewable energy and often sacrifices jobs at the altar of ideology. Five times Congress has allowed the program to expire, and a corresponding loss in energy output and jobs has followed each time.
According to the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands, German solar energy “over its lifetime uses 86 to 89 percent less water, occupies or transforms over 80 percent less land, presents approximately 95 percent lower toxicity to humans, contributes 92 to 97 percent less to acid rain, and 97 to 98 percent less to marine eutrophication” when compared to coal. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that even in the United States, which leads the world in CO2 emissions per capita and has yet to significantly develop renewable energy, a decrease in the use of traditional energy saves more money on health impacts than it loses on slightly increased energy costs.
Solar energy has, on net, positively impacted Germany’s economy, environment, public health, and national security, and much can be attributed to the feed-in tariffs described above- a relatively simple, straightforward policy. The United States is perfectly capable of following their path, but consistent investment in renewable technologies, as has been seen in Germany for several years now, will be key. Political posturing over a policy that is vital to the economy, public health, the environment, and national security is simply unnecessary and counterproductive.
JACK NOLAND, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
Immediately after I had committed to GW, I searched for a student discount on a Metro SmarTrip card. Plans of exploring this historic city filled my head. Surely there must be some sort of deal for college students, I thought, but there was none to be found.
GW prides itself on its location and opportunities, but fails to fully equip students with the means to take advantage of both by doing nothing to ease the burden of access to these unique jobs and internships. Subsidizing student Metro transportation would allow the university to back up its commitment to community integration and would help to expose and ingratiate students into the city around them.
It’s an open secret that there is a bubble in which GW students live, work, and play. Many students will stay in Foggy Bottom with occasional jaunts to Georgetown, Columbia Heights, or Capitol Hill, and in so doing miss out on much of what makes DC such an interesting place. Easier access to transportation would help expose students to a wider swath of such a diverse cultural and historical city.
Yes, discounted Metro fare would help students get to the nightlife of U Street and Adams Morgan more easily. Lowering transportation costs for students might just make it easier for students to travel to the places they already go. One way to better ensure that such a discount aids students doing unique off-campus work would be to grant transportation subsidies to those who have volunteer opportunities or unpaid internships, especially in underserved communities.
Anyone who has worked an unpaid internship or volunteered around the city can tell you that even with the professional experience and sense of accomplishment that may accompany those opportunities, there are very real costs at hand. This often leads to students having to pay for transportation to and from their work, which, over the course of a semester, or four years, can add up dramatically.
GW can ease this burden on its student body by subsidizing the cost of transportation for those students who demonstrate a willingness to get off-campus and work an unpaid position. Students could fill out a form with their transportation costs to go to and from the workplace, documenting daily and weekly costs of transportation, before having it signed by a supervisor and submitting it. The university could process these applications and distribute cards with the value for each student’s transportation costs on a monthly or semester basis. This puts the burden of researching, applying for, and documenting costs on the students who want the benefits.
Distribution could be done at an event that also provides promotional materials for the wider range of transportation offerings in DC, including information about the robust but perhaps under-utilized bus system. While Metrobus ridership was up in Northwest DC in FY 2013, total ridership is down, especially in southeastern and eastern DC. Getting students to travel to those areas is key to widening their view of the city and its range of experiences. Prioritizing subsidies for students working in underdeveloped areas, as are many parts of southeastern and eastern DC, could help in this regard.
Conversely, a more difficult alternative that would require a good deal of negotiation with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metro, would involve allowing students to use their GWorld like a SmarTrip card. Interestingly, WMATA has just announced a pilot program that would allow the use of near-field communication (NFC) technology to pay at fare gates, along with federal ID cards, and contactless credit and debit cards. Should this program prove successful, GW could work with WMATA to expand the accepted payment methods to include GWorld. The university could conceivably credit students the transportation fare on their student IDs, which would also make it easier to ensure that the students who applied for and received the subsidy were using the transportation and not giving it away or selling it.
It is important to note that GW already acknowledges the financial burden unpaid internships can have. The Knowledge and Action Career Internship Fund (KACIF) provides grants of up to $3,000 for students working unpaid internships. It is a highly competitive process to receive such a grant, but it also evidences the Career Services Council’s understanding of the heightened importance internships have in today’s job market. KACIF is made possible through donations, which is the way a subsidized transportation system would almost necessarily have to work, given the school’s current budget woes. This is a tenuous source for funding, but KACIF is also useful as a precedent for this kind of program. Donors clearly care about student internships, so it is not unreasonable to think that such a program could be expanded. In the pilot stages, the budget for this could be limited to less than $10,000 per semester. This would allow for the gauging of efficacy without significant financial investment. Ideally, subsidized transportation would be overseen by the Center for Career Services.
Some employers offer interns money to cover transportation costs already, and, while laudable, this is something that should be the norm. There is an argument to be made that if GW were to implement such a subsidy program, firms might end their subsidies, passing costs onto the university. This is a legitimate concern, but the smaller nature of this program, at least initially, could largely keep this from happening. Even with the KACIF program’s internship subsidies, some employers still offer paid internships for students.
Ideally, WMATA would implement a student fare for the Metro. In Pittsburgh, the Port Authority of Allegheny County allows local college students to ride the bus for free by tapping their student ID on the farebox. This may not be feasible in DC, given the massive size and budget of the Metro program, but changing costs on the demand side may be reasonable.
Enabling students to work across the city would help lead to more-experienced graduates better prepared to enter the professional workforce. Subsidized transportation could also link nonprofits and programs across the city, especially in underdeveloped areas, with students willing to broaden their view. This double advantage, of creating more active, engaged students with more professional experience, is exactly the sort of benefit GW should undertake. One way to develop these students is to make it easier for them to take advantage of the opportunities that abound in and around DC.
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