Friday, February 13, 2009

the winds of change

As reported in the business daily E15 yesterday, the amount of wind power produced in the Czech Republic doubled from 2007 to 2008. That is excellent news.

In 2008, wind-generated energy supplied approximately 170,000 people with power. Still, wind power comprises only less than one percent of the total energy production in the Czech Republic.

Michal Janeček, the president of the Czech Wind Energy Association (ČSVE), estimates there is potential in the Czech Republic for manufacturing enough wind power to supply about 4 million Czechs with energy. In a country of just over 10 million people, that would be quite a large slice of the pie.

However, as stated on the ČSVE website, wind energy is the cheapest, but simultaneously the least-well compensated and least-funded renewable source in the Czech Republic.

According to the European Wind Energy Association, of which the Czech association is a member, "the European Union has set a binding target of 20% of its energy supply to come from wind and other renewable sources by 2020. In order to achieve this 20% energy target, more than one-third of the European electrical demand would have to come from renewables, with wind power expected to deliver 12-14%."

Can the Czech Republic live up to this standard? Last year, the amount of energy from all renewable sources combined was at approximately 4 percent of total energy production, while one third of energy was supplied by nuclear energy. Compare the numbers to Sweden, where clean energy sources account for 40% of energy production, Latvia where the rate is 35 %, Finland with a rate of 29 %, and Austria with a 23 % renewable source energy production rate.

According to E15, by the year 2010 the amount of renewable energy produced in the Czech Republic should be raised to eight, then by 2020 to 13 percent of total consumption. Those numbers are lower than the goals set by the European Union, but we have to consider that the Czech Republic is one of the smaller land-locked countries with not as much land mass and as many resources available as some of the other European countries.

The Czech Republic is also a relatively population-dense country, so the reality is such that wind turbines are never too far removed from "civilization." According to the green lifestyle-oriented website, the energy giant ČEZ plans to invest into wind energy. One of the company's first project is the planned construction of a wind farm in the Stříbro area. The people near the future site of the farm, however, are opposed to the project.

A study of the attitudes of Czechs toward wind turbines as part of the landscape was released last October. The study's results showed that local residents' support of wind energy projects tends to be much stronger once they have one to three years of experience with wind farms in their area than before the start of a new construction project. Therefore, the study concluded that "the rate of support for wind farms rises based on personal and direct experience with such projects in operation." When people lack information about wind energy projects, negative attitudes seem to take root. Some of the common concerns are: disruption of the feel of the landscape, the danger of ice chunks chipping away from the turbine, the interference with satellite signals, noise levels, and negative impact on birds and animals. Once given information and time, though, people eventually do warm up to this source of energy in their backyards. Still the eyesore issue is a big one whether before or after the installation of wind turbines.

Interestingly, about half the opponents of wind farms said they would support such a project if their region received economic benefits as a result. Surprise, surprise.

Wind energy will likely continue to be harnessed in increasing quantities in the Czech Republic, however, it will be in the hands of private companies, which tend to deregulate and inflate prices as time goes on. Let's hope the local people have a say and reep the benefits that can be associated with switching to renewable resources.

If interested, here is an overview and text of Czech legislation pertaining to curbing global warming and to government benchmarks and support for renewable energy sources.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hooters: the dis-ease spreads to the Czech lands

It's official. The papers report Hooters will be opening up restaurants in the Czech Republic. The brief paragraph in E15, a business daily today described Hooters as a restaurant with a "relaxed beach kind of atmosphere." How about telling it like it is to those who don't yet know: scantily dressed Barbies bouncing their big boobies and "bootielicious" butts in boozers' faces. One of Hooters' jingles is "add a little spice to your life." How about "add a little sauce to your entree of breasts?"

If I told you that Hooters' mission is:

to provide a family of hospitality and services that achieves excellence and enhances lifestyles of all who come in contact with the Hooters brand

Would you believe me? It's true. But here is the juicier part of their mission statement:

We are committed to providing an environment of employee growth and development so that we can provide every guest a unique, entertaining dining experience in a fun and casual atmosphere delivered by attractive, vivacious Hooters Girls while making positive contributions to the communities in which we live.

Employee growth, I can imagine! Not to mention patron growth, if you know what I mean. Wow wow weewah! My mouth waters at reading the bit about positive contributions to the communities by the attractive, vivacious Hooters Girls just being who they are. Fabulous! Truly.

Where I lived in the U.S. prior to moving back to the Czech Republic, Hooters billboards were vandalized to point out the sexism and objectification of women inherent in the advertising and profit-making of Hooters.

Hooters, by the way, is a privately held company which sells franchises and doesn't disclose information about its earnings. Its profits last year were supposedly just short of one billion dollars. The company with the exclusive franchise rights to run Hooters restaurants in the Czech Republic is Na Zdravi Ventures, "the brainchild of six U.S. and two Czech partners" -- predictably all men -- with background in finance, investment, construction and manufacturing. And now a new venture in pimping, thinly disguised as gastronomy. "Na zdraví!" or "To health!" as the Czechs would say, clinking their glasses of bubbly together to seal a new deal.

When Hooters was about to open a restaurant in the U.K. last spring, feminists protested, arguing that the brand "normalises the sexual exploitation and harassment of young women," as the Guardian reported last year. An additional argument put forth by the protesters was that the restaurant would encourage the spread of the sex industry in the surrounding area, which had already happened in Nottingham, the first, and so far the only, site in Great Britain.

The Guardian article continues:

Hooters girls in the US have to sign a contract that reads: "I hereby acknowledge and affirm that the Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and that the work environment is one in which joking and innuendo based on female sex appeal is commonplace." It continues: "I also expressly acknowledge and affirm I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements or work environment to be intimidating, hostile or unwelcome." Quite how it is possible to affirm this before you've started your job is anyone's guess. As Carol J Adams, an American academic who has written extensively about Hooters, says, "What this document is making clear is that the women at Hooters should expect to be sexually harassed, and put up and shut up." A Hooters spokesperson denies this, saying that the company has a "model programme" for reporting harassment. "All signing the document means is that we have taken the time to give [the waitress] the full picture of the Hooters concept," he says.

Not surprisingly, a number of sexual harassment lawsuits have been filed over the years by former Hooters girls, following a notorious case against the company in Florida in which the plaintiff alleged that she had been subjected to "an endless torrent of sexually inappropriate remarks, demands for sex and uninvited touching that created a situation in which no reasonable woman would have continued to work".

Will the Czech feminists react? And to what effect? Oh, I almost forgot. In the Czech Republic, feminism is still a bad word and being called a feminist is about as harsh as being cussed out by any other awful nasty name. That's how much work needs to be done.

I have noticed that in the past fifteen years, the Czech Republic has toned down its in-your-face sex-for-sale displays quite a bit. I remember still in the nineties, the Prague city bus drivers' dashboards plastered with stickers of naked and topless women posing like there's no tomorrow. Porn magazines were everywhere and prostitutes roamed the streets completely inconspicuously. All that has definitely tampered down. Though, sometimes just walking down the street on a warm day, Prague seems like one big Hooters with perfectly manicured, mostly naked, fake-tanned blonds, going about their everyday business while "incidentally" advertising their assets.

So, Hooters will probably be a hit with the hetero men here. One Czech paper summarized Hooters' marketing goal as targeting the male parts of society. Male parts is right. From the Hooters own website:

Sex appeal is legal and it sells. Newspapers, magazines, daytime talk shows, and local television affiliates consistently emphasize a variety of sexual topics to boost sales. Hooters marketing, emphasizing the Hooters Girl and her sex appeal, along with its commitment to quality operations continues to build and contributes to the chain's success. Hooters' business motto sums it up, "You can sell the sizzle, but you have to deliver the steak.”

Sex appeal sells even during recession, which the Czech Republic has entered for sure. And with unemployment numbers rising fast, especially among the freshly-out-of-school crowd, Czech girls will probably be lining up at the door, especially in areas outside the capital, where the unemployment rate is the lowest. What a relief. Even the Czechs will get to experience the sizzling end-result of an American "growth leader's" vision: a playful combination of boobs and meat, golden-fried, or better yet smeared with a generous serving of Barbie Q. sauce.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

live for today, forget tomorrow: the state begins gutting social security

Last June, as part of a sweeping state finance reform, the Czech government approved a new tax cut for employers and employees alike. As a result, employers are able to divert less of their revenue -- specifically 1.5 percent less -- toward the state social security fund. The employer's contribution to the fund has been lowered from 8 to 6.5 percent of the employee's gross earnings. Employees' social security payroll tax rates have been cut as well from 12.5 to 11 percent.

These changes have just gone into effect this January, and for the first time this month, workers will see a difference, albeit a miniscule one, on their paychecks.

It behooves to say that the social security fund covers disability and unemployment insurance as well as retirement, the largest slice of the pie.

No matter the spin the media gives these changes and the promises that the pension portion of the government fund will remain untouched, the tax cuts reek of a backdoor effort to bankrupt the social security fund in order to force its privatization, a goal the right-wingers and big-wig financiers such as the IMF, have been pushing for, not without opposition.

Originally, in addition to lowering the social security tax rates, the government promised to lower income tax, but the Minister of Finance Miroslav Kalousek fought against it, citing that those in the higher income brackets would be the hardest hit since the lowest earning individuals already don't pay taxes. Instead, the government opted for reducing social security tax rates for both employers and employees - this in exchange for eliminating a whole host of other tax cut incentives in the process.

I find it fascinating that the tax cuts have already been planned since June, well before the global financial crisis hit Europe. Then they were "sold" to the public as extra money in the pockets for just about everyone, other than the self-employed.

Since the financial crisis has hit, the tax cuts have suddenly become the government's way to help boost the economy and prevent lay-offs, which are now taking place at a record high.

However, the correlation between tax cuts and reduced lay-off rates just hasn't been proven. And as far as helping the regular folk with these tax cuts, most will not really feel much difference. With rent and electricity prices up sharply as well as record personal debt, there is doubt that people will go wild spending the pitiful extra sum of 150 to 200 crowns (which equates to roughly $7 to $10) per month.

If indeed the social security fund is getting gutted out, in part because of this tax reform, the timing couldn't be worse for the working people. The financial crisis is hitting the Czech Republic hard. Retirement funds are already stretched thin, considering the population is aging fast and there soon won't be enough people in the workforce to replenish the fund for the next generation. Perhaps a pension reform to compensate for that fact is in order, but is privatization the answer? Certainly lowering social security tax is not.

Clearly, however, the direction the big players in the government are taking is clear: cutting government spending, slashing state and regional budgets, continuing privatization of public assets, which leads to more profits for the lobbying parties. Whether the last remaining state-run domains will be sold out and securities such as pension and quality, affordable health care pulled from under the people like a rug, remains to be seen. May the people put up a good fight.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

out with the uranium?

The Czech Republic has some of the largest uranium deposits in the world - eighth largest in the world, it is estimated. The mining of uranium, used in the nuclear industry, dates back to the mid-19th century in the Czech Republic. After World War II, uranium mining was of significant interest to the Russians. In fact, the Czech Republic was then the only source of uranium for the Soviets, who controlled its extraction and imported the Czech uranium exclusively until the fall of communism in 1989.

The two dominant types of mining technology have been used here: conventional underground mining (much of it done by political prisoners in the 1940s and 1950s as forced labor) and in-situ leaching with sulfuric acid. In a nutshell, the method consists of injecting a leaching liquid, in this case sulfuric acid, through wells into the ore deposit, and then pumping uranium bearing liquid from other wells.

In-situ leaching supposedly reduces the possibility of accidents and radiation for the miners, but the environmental risks are great. Unfortunately, the Czech Republic can attest to the detrimental environmental risk of uranium leaching. As a result of the uranium extraction, whole aquifiers have been contaminated. Just imagine: over the approximately thirty-two years of the chemical leaching of uranium, more than 4 million tons of sulphuric acid and other chemicals had been injected into the ground at North Bohemian in-situ leaching site of Stráz pod Ralskem.

The chemical leaching of uranium has been put to a halt in 1996, though uranium extraction continues using different, "remedial" techniques. Meanwhile, the contamination of ground water endures and the company responsible for government-mandated clean-up is the same company that polluted the area and still, as the only uranium mining company operating in the European Union, continues to extract uranium to this day.

The plans are for the state-run mining company DIAMO to close shop permanently in the foreseeable future. However, with the hopes of earning a good fortune some day when commodity prices rise again as they did up until 2007 before coming down sharply, and with the push for energy self-sufficiency spurred by the recent natural gas shortage caused by Russia turning off its supply to the West, DIAMO has approached the Czech government with a request to continue mining. The deposits could, according to the director of DIAMO, supply the Czech Republic with enough nuclear energy for the next 150 years. At present, The Czech Republic has 6 nuclear reactors generating about one third of its electricity.

Many locals are opposed to the continued uranium extraction, passionate about water quality over profit and afraid of radioactivity. The ministry of environment agrees the extraction must end soon. We will see who wins out in the end. Before the contract is renewed, I'd bet that following the latest trends, the state-run mining company will be privatized. Australia's Uran Ltd has already expressed interest in conducting the uranium exploration and extraction operations in the Czech Republic. So far, their offer has been rejected by the ministry of environment. In my opinion, it's only a matter of time...