Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Small Difference One Little Letter Can Make

To improve my Finnish language comprehension, I’ve been gradually reading through one of my kid’s old lukio (high school) textbooks in history. This sluggish task is made easier by the fact that, in general terms, I already know most of the subject matter. It does help.

So, I was initially a bit confused when I ran across the following sentence about developments in Cuba and the fates of political dissidents (“toisinajattelijat”) there:

Kuubalaisia toisinajattelijoita tuomittiin 2003 pitkiin vankeusrangaistuksiin yhteistyöstä Yhdysvaltojen kanssa.

I understood the individual words well enough and the overall meaning of the sentence, at least the first part. What tripped me up was the word for “cooperation” (yhteistyö). You very often see this word used in the sense of “in cooperation” (yhteistyössä). (The inessive suffix –ssä denotes “in”.)

My first thought was to take that as the meaning for the word in this instance, in which case, the sentence would translate to:

Cuban dissidents were sentenced in 2003 to long prison terms in cooperation with the US.

What? “…in cooperation with the US”? That certainly sounded odd. When did that happen?

After a more careful re-reading of the sentence, I realized my mistake. The word is actually yhteistyöstä, not yhteistyössä, as any idiot could plainly see. 

Unlike -ssä, the –stä suffix, which is used in the elative case, denotes “from” or “about” something, or in this case “for” something. 

The correct translation...

Cuban dissidents were sentenced in 2003 to long prison terms for cooperation with the US.

...makes much more sense.

A tricky language, this Finnish, when a single-letter substitution – buried in a 12-letter word – can turn the meaning of a sentence topsy-turvy.

Side note: the Finnish word for “dissident” (toisinajattelija) is a compound word literally meaning “otherwise-thinker”. I like how plain and descriptive that is. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Machine Politics

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m preparing to vote in Finland’s parliamentary election for the first time.

In the past, I haven’t honestly paid enough attention to national politics here to have a clear idea which party would be my natural political home. In the US binary system of Republicans versus Democrats, my choice has always been much more clear cut. For someone who is severely liberal, as I like to think of myself, there is only one way to go.

In Finland, however, with almost 10 viable parties, some more major than others, I’ll have to give the matter a bit more thought.

In past city council elections, I’ve voted for the Green Party, out of  if nothing else  a vague sense of shared philosophy and the hope that it could affect more eco-friendly policies at the city level.

Of course, when it comes to the broader national government, there are other issues beside waste disposal or public transport to consider.

It often seems that Finland is a very consensus-based country, with no contentious issues seriously polarizing the population. For example, unlike in the US where the two parties are diametrically opposed to each other on government’s role in health care (the Republicans vowing time and again to roll back Obamacare), no credible party in Finland, on the left or the right, would advocate anything as radical as dismantling the state-run healthcare system.

To be sure, there are differences between Finnish parties on other issues, for which the two parties in the American system would be practically indistinguishable, such as the role of capitalism in the economy. (Despite what a Tea Partier would tell you, Democrats are no socialists.) I assume the tiny (only 0.05% of the vote last time) Communist Workers’ Party – For Peace and Socialism (that’s its name, Kommunistinen Työväenpuolue – Rauhan ja Sosialismin Puolesta) truly does want to toss capitalism onto the dustbin of history. You can’t say that about Hillary Clinton.

Still, this Finnish election cycle seems unusually lively, with more placards along the roadside, advertisement on buses, commercials on TV than I ever remember seeing before. Perhaps it’s just because I’m trying to pay more attention, but my sense is that this election is seen as more crucial than most.

Since my command of Finnish still isn’t up to following the political discussions on TV or even always in the print media, my impression of the issues that might make this election so urgent (or seem so urgent) is a bit vague, and perhaps totally incorrect.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three.

I can’t say whether Finns vote with their pocketbooks any more than anyone else, but the economic situation of any country is always an issue. And the situation in Finland isn’t sterling at the moment. In fact, it’s dismal.

Unemployment currently stands at a tad over 10%, not the highest it’s been since the start of the Great Recession, but still up two percent since the last election four years ago and three percent since the summer. Clearly, not a good trend.

Finland has been in a recession off and on for the past seven years, with seven quarters of negative growth (out of 15 reported so far) since the last election. Projections for the next couple of years are for weak growth, at best. Though Finland still retains a AAA credit rating from Fitch and Moody’s, it lost the top rating from Standard & Poors in autumn, sending a minor shock wave through the government.

A recent blog post by Edward Hugh, a Welsh economist and blogger, paints a very dire picture of the future Finland is facing due to something called “secular stagnation”.

For someone like me, who is not an economist and barely a blogger, Hugh’s erudite thesis requires a bit of digestion.

After two readings, what I was able to gleam (or so I think) from it is that the runaway success of Nokia, the bellwether of the Finnish economy back in the pre-crisis glory days, distorted the national labor market (by inflating incomes) to the point that Finland now finds itself uncompetitive against its main trading partners.

The combination of that with a growing population of aging pensioners and a shrinking population of working-age folks threatens to make economic stagnation a permanent feature of Finnish life. That is, at least, without some unpopular and unpleasant changes in government policy, especially related to labor.

Whether Hugh’s post has affected the election campaign in any way, I can’t say, but another economics assessment certainly did create some waves. It was related to another big issue in this campaign – immigration.

As in any country, immigration is a touchy issue here. With Finland’s climate, difficult language, and the current state of the economy, you might wonder there would be any rush to migrate here in the first place.

That said, some 32,000 people moved here in 2013. That’s the highest yearly influx ever, though that’s still only 0.6% of the population (one-fifth of the per capita legal immigration into the US). It has changed Finnish society, no doubt, though to what degree or to what lasting effect might be debatable. Many people I know see immigration as having a neutral or mostly net positive impact on Finnish life.

Others would disagree. And those Finns who feel uncomfortable, even hostile, over the prospect of more immigration have increasingly been drawn to the xenophobic Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset), which upset the apple cart of Finnish politics in the last election with its unexpected success in parliament, boosting the party's presence from 5 to 34 seats.

Since then, the Finns Party doesn’t seem to be softening its stance any on immigration. A paper by a think tank associated with the party made headlines recently when it claimed to show how much immigrants from different countries cost Finnish taxpayers, with those from war-torn third-world nations (Iraq and Somalia, in particular) not faring well at all by comparison. Even if the numbers crunched in this analysis are valid, breaking down the cost of immigration along ethnic or nationalistic lines unfortunately adds an element of divisiveness into the election. Which, I guess, was largely the point.

The Finns Party is also strongly Eurosceptic, which brings us to the last big issue in this election, Finland’s relationship with the EU, Russia and NATO. Well, actually, relations with the EU isn't a big issue. My impression is that support for the EU is still strong among most Finns, despite complications with Greek debt and Russian sanctions. 

A major issue that wasn't even on the horizon four years ago is relations with Russia. In the marathon TV debate Thursday night between leaders of the eight major parties, I kept hearing the word "venäjä" repeated over and over.  

Russia's annexation of Crimea and sable-rattling elsewhere, especially in the Baltic Sea, has also breathed some life into the perennial, but usually peripheral, question of whether to join NATO. 

The current Prime Minister Alexander Stubb and many in his National Coalition Party support NATO membership. Most Finns (57%) still oppose it, though with Russian nationalism and military adventurism on the rise, support for joining the Western alliance has increased to 27% from 16% about four years ago. 

NATO will surely be one of those issues on the minds of voters this Sunday, though there are many others. Which can make choosing the right candidate or party a challenge, especially for me.

Luckily, there is a tool called a Vaalikone (“Election Machine”) published by the Helsingin Sanomat, to help you gauge which is the correct party for you. It’s a questionnaire, covering the economy, laws, society, and world affairs, that attempts to match your views to the positions of different parties. Several of the 30 questions have to do with the role of government in social services and the balance between environment and business. And naturally, there are questions about NATO, the EU, and immigration, but also about the government regulation of taxis, apparently inspired by Uber. That’s an issue I didn’t see coming.

Maybe I’ll also be surprised by the results I get from the Vaalitkone. We’ll see, though I'm pretty sure the “machine” won’t be telling me I should be voting for the Kommunistinen Työväenpuolue on Sunday. Too bad for them. They could probably use the votes.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Vaalit 2015: Not Any Given Sunday

On Sunday, Finns go to the polls to elect a new parliament. And so will I.

I have voted here several times. As an ulkomaalainen (foreigner) with permanent resident status, I had been eligible to vote in municipal elections for years, which essentially means I’ve been allowed to cast votes for Helsinki council members. This would largely be unheard of in the States, where outside a few places like Chicago, apparently, folks need actual citizenship to vote in any election, no matter how local.

Actual citizenship is a strict requirement for taking part in national elections in Finland as well. For that reason, until now I haven’t had much cause to think about which candidate, or even which party, would best match my politics. Now, as newly minted Finn, I do.

Deciding which party or candidate to support will be the hard part. The voting itself is made easy here, in some ways much easier than in the States. That, of course, should come as no surprise.

Both the red tape associated with voting and the practicalities of elections are much simpler.

In the States, Election Day is always on a Tuesday, a regular weekday when, obviously, most people have to go to work. The choice of Tuesday as a day for voting is a weird leftover from the 18th century, when Tuesday was presumably seen as more convenient for farmers, which most Americans were at the time. It gave folks from the far corners of the county enough time to travel into town. Also, it didn’t interfere with the all-important church going on Sunday or the also important market day on Wednesday. Maybe it allowed those rural farmers to – in one trip – exercise their right to vote on Tuesday and then stay in town to sell their produce the next day – if they had sobered up enough.

Often in the past, Election Day in America was also a good excuse for some heavy partying. I recall hearing a story, from my grandfathers’ time of almost a century ago, of Election Night revelers riding mules through the courthouse in my home county.

Those kinds of rowdy hijinks on Election Day are long gone, though a much more subtle, even subversive, species of hijinks seems to reemerge now and then.

Anyway, the fact that working folks have to take time out from a busy day to vote seems inconvenient enough. As outmoded as Tuesday voting might seem, it’s written into the Constitution, and so it will never change. Sadly.

In Finland, voting is always on Sunday, a day when most people don’t punch a clock or go into the office. Likewise, most don’t ordinarily go to church, so religion doesn’t interfere with voting, and vice versa. It’s a much more leisurely, practical approach, if you ask me, generally making it easy for Finns to make it to the polls on Election Day.

Some can’t wait that long. Ten days before the election, I happened to step into the library in Oulunkylä, a northern Helsinki neighborhood. I was at first a bit perplexed why the periodical section of the library was unusually crowed with older folks just standing around. Then I realized they were actually queuing to vote in the library’s activity room.

It was the second day of advanced voting, which is arranged on seven dates before the actual election. Around Helsinki, early voting is possible in some 35 locations, mostly libraries or post offices, but also in a shopping mall. It seems a popular enough avenue for Finnish voters, and as far as I know, not the least controversial.

Unlike in the States, that is, where in some minds increasing the opportunities to vote is considered unfair to certain groups. The logic of this escapes me. Or maybe they think it’s too fair to certain groups. That sounds more like it.

Last October, a predominately Democratic county in Georgia, one of the 33 states that allow early voting, experimented with opening a polling place in a mall on the Sunday before Election Day. At the time, it was roundly criticized by state Republicans, apparently for making voting too easy for the local black community, and led to proposed legislation to correct this by reducing the number of early voting days from 21 to 12, explicitly excluding the Sunday before election. The bill was recently defeated.

To be somewhat fair, however, even 12 days is perhaps better than Finland’s seven. Still, making a point of reducing voting opportunities doesn’t appear to be a very democratic impulse, which is surely why it comes from the GOP.

As anyone who knows US history will remember, similarly non-democratic impulses were prevalent in the past, even institutionalized, especially in the South. I’m talking about using voter registration as a means of voter suppression.

In the US, voter registration is done on the county level, and in the Jim Crow South prior to 1965 local white officials put up as many barriers as possible to prevent blacks from taking even this first step for voting. People died, were murdered, for daring to help ensure US citizens could register to vote, black citizens, that is. And this in the country that styles itself as the role model of democracy.

Well, that was long ago. I would hope that unfair registration practices have never been used as a political weapon in Finland’s past. Chances are, registration has always been automatic and universal, just as it is now.

About a month before this year’s election, I received an ilmoituskortti (literally “notification card”), essentially confirming that I am registered to vote. I didn’t have to take any action to register. It happens automatically, just as it does for all Finnish citizens of voting age (my 19-year-old daughter also got registered, automatically). As I said, universal registration.

Of course, one big reason Finland can register every voter unsolicitedly is that everyone here is already in a government database. Whenever you relocate in Finland, move to a new town or address, you are required by law to register with the local police. It simplifies things.

People in Finland would see this as an easy way to ensure you’re properly integrated into the social services system and that the government can send you stuff, like ilmoituskortteja and tax returns. People in the US (at least some) would see it as an easy way to ensure the government can find you when it’s time to confiscate your guns. Those black helicopters have to know where to land, after all.

To me, this gap in mentality between the practical and the paranoid speaks volumes about the differences between the two countries.

A couple of weeks after the black helicopters my registration notice arrived, I received an unexpected official-looking envelope with the somewhat imposing letterhead of the Ministry of Justice. I was a bit startled and almost thought for a moment “This is what deportation looks like.”

Instead, it was a welcoming letter for first-time voters, along with a small pamphlet with some basic information about the process. It’s almost as if they are encouraging people to vote. As it should be.

The basics for a national election is just the same as for the municipal ones I’ve participated in before. At the polling place, you give your name and present a photo ID. The poll worker checks your name on a list, hands you a blank paper ballot with only a circle in the middle, which you take into a booth and mark with the number of your candidate. You fold the ballot to hide your choice, have the poll worker stamp the ballot, and then drop it in a box. No hanging chads here.

As I mentioned, a photo ID is required. This is another area that, in the States, can lend itself to election hijinks. But, frankly, I’m puzzled why this should be an issue.

In recent years, Republicans have pushed for stricter ID requirements for voters in order to counter what they claim is the problem of voter fraud. This is seen by many Democrats (no doubt, correctly) as an attempt to discourage voters who are more likely to support Democrats (namely, blacks and other minorities). It’s a weird issue.

First of all, the “issue” of voter fraud seems like a bald-face excuse, since many studies have shown that fraud based on identity is rare, apparently outnumbered by the cases of legitimately registered voters being turned away at the polls for lack of an ID.

At the same time, I see no reason why voters shouldn’t have to prove who they are. In other words, the motivations of the Republicans are cynical and conniving, but I have no problem with the “solution” of a photo ID requirement. After all, folks have to show an ID for many transactions that involve money, why not also for casting a vote?

While most Americans already have a photo ID in the form of a driver’s license, not all do, so there is the argument that requiring those citizens to obtain an ID just to exercise their constitution right is unfair.

That might be true in cases of some citizens – used to showing up at the polling place with nothing but their word to vouch for who they are – haven’t been given enough notice to get an ID (which some states do provide for free). Maybe I've lived in Finland too long, but it seems that requiring all citizens to have an ID shouldn't be such a huge deal.

I seem to recall the last time I voted in person in Georgia a few years ago, I had to drive back to my parents’ house to fetch my passport before I was allowed to vote at the volunteer firehouse down the road, even though some of the people there knew me. I don’t recall that it particularly bothered me.

Anyway, when I go to vote at the schoolhouse near my home on Sunday, I’ll be sure to take along my driver’s license. But first, I have to figure out who gets my vote. That’s the subject for another day, and it probably involves a vaalikone (“election machine”).

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Georgia Power

The Central American nation of Costa Rica was in the news recently because it did something probably no other nation has done before. 

The country had managed to generate all the electricity it needed for the first 75 days of this year without using a drop of petroleum. It other words, it went almost three months relying only on renewable energy sources for its power. That is impressive for any country, and a big step toward Costa Rica’s goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2021, a target that is remarkable in itself.

It’s another reason the small Central-American country enjoys an especially good reputation as an eco-friendly país. I would love to visit there someday.

I was curious to know more about how exactly Costa Rica did it, and what it would take other for countries to follow suit. Happily, Vox Media ran an article that probed the background to Costa Rica’s success, but also explained why it won’t be easy for most of the world’s other nations to replicate it. And that is a shame.

In its green-energy campaign, Costa Rica is starting from an admittedly advantageous baseline of relatively low electricity consumption and not one, but two, sources of plentiful renewable energy: water and the Earth itself.

According to Vox, almost 80% of Costa Rica’s power comes from four hydroelectric dams. That’s a huge chunk of green energy right there. Also, usually heavy rainfall allowed the country to forgo oil for as long as it did by keeping the floodgates cranked wide open.

Another 12% of the country’s electricity comes from geothermal sources. Sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire does have its perks. 

A pie chart presented in the Vox article (from the local utility Grupo ICE, dated 2009, presumably a normal year) also shows that only 7% of the country’s power comes from “thermal” sources, which I can only conclude means “burning oil or coal”. Using fossil fuel for only 7% of your electricity needs is enviable in anyone’s book. I wish all countries could manage that. 

As the Vox article goes on to point out, most can’t. And I would say this is especially true for the US, sadly the world’s 800-pound gorilla when it comes to wasting energy.

Wondering exactly how feasible it would be for the US to follow Costa Rica’s example, I dug into the Internet for information on how America produces its electricity. I found a surprising good site, maintained by the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), complete with an interactive infographic map displaying every spot (it would seem) in the US where electricity is produced. It’s actually pretty cool.

As a thought experiment, I decided to focus on my home state of Georgia to see how it stacks up against Costa Rica. I'm not saying Georgia is representative of the US as a whole. In fact, it might be a rather poor role model.

It’s not always possible to make exact comparisons, however. For instance, I couldn’t come up with data on how much electricity Georgians actually consume. Let’s say, though, for the sake of argument that it’s the same as for America as a whole, namely 1511 watts per person. That’s seven times the consumption of an average Costa Rican (210 watts). (Finns consume even more, 1795 watts. This is, after all, a cold country with a lot of saunas to heat.)

Obviously, Costa Rican society happily gets by with much less electricity than Americans are used to. I doubt anyone in the States would put up with that kind of austerity.

It would be hard for most to even imagine it, but you can try it at home. Begin your week using electricity as you normally do – up until half past midnight on Monday night, then nothing more for the following six days. Air conditioning only one day a week. It’s the kind of hardship that would, for Americans accustomed to the good life, certainly spark a revolution.

While Americans probably could never reach Costa Rican levels of low energy use, there is surely waste that could be eliminated (right off the bat, Las Vegas comes to mind). Still, I’m not holding my breath for the average Georgian to cut back on any use of electricity.

Using the EIA map, it is much easier see how Georgia produces its electricity, and from what sources. I realize, of course, that just because power is generated in Georgia, doesn’t mean it stays in Georgia. The ownership of power plants and distribution their output is no doubt a complicated issue in the real world, an issue way above my pay grade. For simplicity sake, I just imagined that Georgia had nationalized all power generation within its borders and kept all the electricity for its own use.

The Energy Information Agency's impressive infographic map of the Lower 48.
Easy to see where the solar power is.

First of all, Georgia has two nuclear power plants, accounting for about 13% of the state’s generating capacity. That’s about average for the US. Costa Rica, apparently, has no atomic energy.

Both Georgia and Costa Rica depend on fossil fuels for some of their power, but to radically different degrees. Georgia burns hydrocarbons (about half coal, half natural gas) for 75% of its electricity, about the same proportion as Costa Rica happily derives from water. Likewise, the share of generating capacity in Georgia from hydroelectric dams is exactly the same as Costa Rica’s capacity from petroleum – seven percent.

If your image of Georgia is the flat piney woods or farmland that covers most of the state (and you’re not wrong), you might be surprised there is any real potential for hydroelectricity there.

But Georgia does have mountains and rolling plateaus, with numerous rivers making their way to either the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico, all with some potential for turning falling water into electricity. Many of these have long been dammed to form 30 or so lakes (reservoirs, really; there are no natural lakes of any size in Georgia), prized not only for power generation, but also bass fishing, water skiing, that kind of thing. 

My birthplace in Georgia sits at the tail end of a mountain range, the Blue Ridge, a long water divide that curves down from North Carolina. 

North of that unbroken ridgeline, water soon slips over the state line, flowing northward, eventually into the Tennessee River. Some of that water is impounded by a dam I’ve driven over hundreds of times on US 76, the main highway threading through Georgia’s northern-most counties. 

The road used to run across the top of the dam, allowing a nice view of Blue Ridge Lake, stretching back toward the mountains. The modern road, however, now passes below the dam, giving a view of the dam itself, not nearly so scenic but with a certain antique character. It was built in the 1930s by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the massive federal government program for bringing electricity to the impoverished Appalachian region as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. It worked.

While TVA, the largest public utility in the US, operates 29 hydroelectric dams in half-a-dozen states, its presence in Georgia is relatively small. Blue Ridge Dam, together Georgia's other TVA dam (I’m not counting a third one that sits across the border in North Carolina), contributes only two percent of the state’s hydroelectricity.

On the south side of the Blue Ridge divide, it’s a different story. Here the mountains are drained mostly by the Savannah and Chattahoochee, both longish rivers that travel the length of the state, marching to the sea (so to speak) and both important to Georgia’s energy needs.

The Chattahoochee (the “Hooch”) is interrupted by at least nine dams along its route to Florida. The much shorter Savannah and its tributaries encounter another ten dams, most straddling the border with South Carolina, some almost piggy backing behind each other to form an almost continuous impoundment of water. The Savannah makes up more than a third (34%) of Georgia’s hydro capacity, even after you subtract South Carolina’s share.

The Hooch’s share, even if you include the dams on its “little sister”, the Flint, is only about a quarter (24%), and the rivers that arise in the Piedmont to eventually form the languid Altamaha generate even less – only ten percent.

The rest, almost a full third (31%), comes from just two dams on an entirely different river system, the Coosa. One of those, I know well.

Georgia's many petroleum-powered generating plants. 

When I was in the seventh grade, our teacher put a paper on our classroom wall explaining about the massive dam that was being built on the edge of Gilmer County, my home county. I recall that, according to the paper, the dam would be completed in 1975. At the time, to my young mind that seemed far in the future. It was six years. In fact, the dam was finished in 1977 after 15 years of construction.

The site was perfect. Just to the west of my county, the Appalachians proper come to an abrupt end. Along a high escarpment running north-south, a region of 2000- to 4000-foot peaks gives way to a broad, flat valley less than 1000 feet above sea level. Reaching this unexpectedly flat valley is a fast-moving stream, the Coosawattee River, escaping the mountains through a 400-foot gorge.

Or, at least it used to. Plugging the mouth of that gorge with an immense amount of rock and dirt is Carters Dam, the highest (445 feet) earthen dam east of the Mississippi. (Fontana, a concrete TVA dam in North Carolina, is higher.) Eleven miles (18 kilometers) of the Coosawattee were flooded to create a 3880-acre lake, the deepest in Georgia and the source of a significant slice of renewable energy.

I grew up a mile and a half from the Coosawattee. Nothing but woods and a single road separated my house from a bend in the upper part of river, not far downstream from civilization.

“Far from civilization” nicely sums up my memories of the Coosawattee, at least the parts we visited further downstream. I grew up in an outdoorish family. We were always going somewhere in the mountains camping, fishing, hunting. As a kid, I followed my father for miles through hollows and along ridgetops, up one icy creek after another. But, somehow, of all those places far from any road, no place felt as isolated to me, as cut off from civilization, primitive even, as “the River”.

The river was reportedly the last place in the county where it had been possible to find what my father called “Indian deer”, the remnants of the original white-tailed deer population that lived in Georgia when it was still Indian land, before European settlers took their devastating toll on both the deer and the Cherokee.

That the gorge of the Coosawattee could have been the last sanctuary for aboriginal deer is easy to believe. It was a neglected part of the county, and the river down there wasn’t easy to get to.

The places we went to on the river could be reached only over some of the most horrendous jeep tracks imaginable, tough even for my father’s old WWII surplus Army jeep, a classic indestructible off-road machine. It always felt like an adventure descending deeply rutted roads through dark, sunless woods to reach the river, then bushwhacking through jungle-like canebrakes to find spots to fish. 

We felt utterly alone down on the river, and I don’t recall that we ever saw another living soul there. Certainly, no sexual predators. Our imagination wasn’t that vivid.

The damming of the Coosawattee was the inspiration for the book “Deliverance” by Georgia poet James Dickey. I didn’t realized this until decades after the John Boorman movie adaption ("Syvä joki" in Finland) of the book came out in 1972, putting the wild nature of North Georgia on the map.

Hydroelectric dams in the Peach State,
many shared with neighbors.

Supposedly, Dickey got the idea when, like the four city-slickers in his story, he and a real-life friend decided to canoe the free-flowing Coosawattee before it was forever submerged under a mass of docile lake water. A companion, arriving to meet Dickey at the take-out, encountered a couple of suspicious locals with shotguns. I swear it wasn’t us. Although I seem to recall once going duck hunting on the river, we were never otherwise armed with anything but fishing poles.

In the book/movie, this encounter spirals into a gripping tale of a fight of survival against the river and the locals, including murder and a rape scene that, for better or worse, has entered the annuals of movie history. (I recently saw a South Park episode in which the scene was reproduced with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as the inbred hicks violating Indiana Jones. Some kind of commentary on the disappointing latter installments of that franchise. Or something.)

In real life, the locals help carry Dickey’s canoe back to the road. No violent confrontation, though I can see how a heightened sense of vulnerability in a place as cut off from anywhere as the Coosawattee could inspire thoughts of a much darker, and dramatic, scenario.

I can’t say how accurately Dickey portrays the real-life river itself, as, to be honest, I’ve never read the book. The movie was filmed on another Georgia river, the cinematically spectacular Chattooga River, with white-water rapids (up to Class VI) that could foil the likes of a Burt Reynolds.

The Coosawattee wasn’t quite like that, at least not the parts I remember. We fished in broad shoals of fast moving water, sometimes wading almost up to our waists. The river wasn’t as dramatic as some creeks we used to fish but it was bigger in terms of volume. A nice stream, but not as scary as the Chattooga.

There was, however, a falls on the river, maybe 10 feet high, which I have a vague memory of visiting on one of our trips. Or maybe I’m thinking of another falls on another river. Anyway, somehow connected to those falls is a dim memory from my childhood of a murder. I seem to recall my parents talking about someone being killed at the falls and dumped in the river, weighed down by rocks. Perhaps that incident somehow found its way into Dickey’s story.

In any case, not long before the floodgates of Carter Dam were closed and the lake slowly begun to fill, we made our own last visit to “the River”. We used to have a photograph from that trip, a picture of the hillsides along the river that had been cleared of all vegetation up to the future shoreline of the reservoir, a reservoir that ended up bringing a boost of renewable electricity to Georgia.

Carters Dam, with the immense pool of lake water behind it, has a generating capacity of some 570 megawatts, a full 15% of Georgia’s renewable energy (but only 2% of the total), just from a single dam. Still, that’s only about half of the output of the mammoth Hoover Dam, which tamed the mighty Colorado. The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State, outdoes them both, with a capacity more than 10 times that of Carters. Then again, the Columbian is much, much bigger river than the Coosawattee.

For Georgia to match the 80% share of electricity Costa Rica produces from water, would take an additional 35 Carters Dams. I’m not aware of any plans to add to the state's hydroelectric capacity by even one. There aren’t that many free-flowing rivers left in Georgia to tap into anyway. The Chattooga is still mostly free. Another one that comes to mind would be the Conasauga, maybe the wildest river in Georgia and just north of Gilmer County. 

Fortunately (from my point of view), the upper reaches of that river are safely encased in the Cohutta Wilderness Area, and are therefore untouchable as a new source of renewable energy. Maybe the lower reaches could still be exploited.

A dearth of solar power in the sunny South? What gives?

In truth, water seems to be the only major clean-energy option that Georgia is exploiting. It does burn some wood for fuel, though that’s mostly related to the state’s extensive timber and paper industry and amounts to only 2% of electricity production.

While Costa Rica might be in a sweet spot for tapping into geothermal energy, Georgia is not. It’s on the wrong side of the country. The 60 or so existing US geothermal power plants shown on the EIA map are all in the West, mostly in California and Nevada.

There is only one place in Georgia, around Warm Springs, where the Earth’s crust is sufficiently fractured to leak enough inner heat to raise the temperature of groundwater. But only enough to build a spa around it. Nowhere enough to spin a turbine.

Costa Rica only gets two percent of its electricity from wind energy. Apparently, that’s more than Georgia, which doesn’t seem to have erected a single wind turbine. The Peach State isn’t a total outlier in that regard. According to the EIA map, wind farms are rare in Dixie.

I’m not quite sure why that is. Of course, compared to Oklahoma (where the wind comes sweeping down the plain), states like Georgia perhaps aren’t all that windy. Still, you would think that along Georgia’s Atlantic coast there would be a reliable enough sea breeze. When I was recently in Copenhagen, Denmark, I counted no fewer than nine wind turbines off shore. Then again, that is one windy city.

Also, you might think that many of Georgia’s mountains and ridgelines would be high enough to catch a stiff breeze.

Further north in the Appalachians, West Virginia and Pennsylvania both have numerous mountaintop wind farms. One, NedPower Mount Storm, operates 132 turbines, 300-feet tall, along a 12-mile stretch of the Allegheny Front, enough to generate about half of Carters Dam’s output.

The only wind farms in the Deep South, and the closest to Georgia, are at Buffalo Mountain, in Tennessee. The lack of serious wind projects elsewhere in the South might be due to the “not in my backyard” curse, to which wind energy seems especially vulnerable. Or, it might be down to economics. (Finland, by comparison, operates well over 200 turbines.)

Still, what is really surprising to me is how little solar power is created in Georgia. According to the EIA website, there are only eight producers of solar power in the state, and some of these seem to be private installations for direct use by property owners. For example, the IKEA distribution center in Savannah is listed as a generator of 1.2 megawatts of photovoltaic energy, thanks to the 6000 or so solar panels the company has installed on the building’s roof. I'd like to think this reflects a Nordic mindset.

As far as real solar farms goes, there seem to be only a couple. The biggest is a 30-MW collection of solar panels in Social Circle, which alone accounts for about half of Georgia's total solar output.

That’s small compared to the massive 390-MW Ivanpah facility I saw a couple years ago while driving from LA to Las Vegas, though to be fair the footprint of the Social Circle farm is much, much smaller.

Georgia might not have the cloudless days of the Mojave Desert, but it is still a sunny place. After moving to Finland, I would fondly recall how the sun seemed to shine in Georgia every single day, not just once or twice a month, like in Helsinki. 

A bright spot in the Mojave Desert. California's huge Ivanpah solar power site.

I'm only partly kidding. Meanwhile, some folks in Suomi are trying to make the most of the little solar radiation we do get. A newspaper printing facility in Oulu has installed on its roof Finland’s largest array of solar panels, some 1600 of them. It’s a start.

As the EIA map makes graphically clear, Georgia could be doing more in solar than just eight sites. In neighboring North Carolina, there are almost a hundred, though to be fair, all seem to be smaller-scale installations much like Savannah’s IKEA facility. Still, the aggregate capacity comes to almost 400 MW, approaching the output of Carters Dam. 

I have to wonder, then, what is it about North Carolina that encourages folks there to lay down more silicon panels? Or perhaps, rather, what is it about Georgia that encourages them not to? To answer those questions, maybe I'll need to dig deeper into the Internet.