Today is our last day in Italy. Italy is my new favorite country to visit. The people have been uniformly cordial. The food is excellent. The culture is artistically outstanding. The landscape and architecture are very beautiful. There is a constant sense of the presence of a long rich history here. I look forward to returning.
The final week in Italy was spent at a luxurious villa, the Hotel Borgo di Cortefreda, located among villages in the hills of Tuscany between Florence and Siena. This was the accommodation researched by a member of the reunion group, the “Kieler Old Farts”, a group of friends who met while studying in Kiel, Germany, in the early seventies. We’ve met previously in Germany, rural New York, and Las Vegas. The group last met in Reno one year ago. Not everyone who belongs to this circle of friends was able to attend. This time we were only one dozen people, a combination of Americans and Germans. Everyone was fluent in German and English, except for my wife Susan and the wife of another American member. Conversations flowed easily between both languages.
Our group consisted of two physicians, a German teacher’s union consultant, a German government official, and my Norwegian alternative energy expert, Per. All the wives, except for Per’s, were able to attend. It’s interesting that conversations are now turning to everyone’s future retirement plans, as we all are in our sixties. (Susan and I don’t plan to “retire”, since we love our work and continue to build our company, Healing HealthCare Systems.) There was even lighthearted discussion of whether we should/could buy a villa someplace in a warm inexpensive part of Europe to convert into a nursing home and to spend our twilight years together.
Our conversations also included discussions of the current politics in Europe and the US. We compared our healthcare systems. We talked about the futures of our countries, the polarized opinions held by segments of our populations. Not every member of our group is economically secure. Some members were not able to attend because of the costs of traveling internationally and staying in an expensive hotel. Thus, some cannot afford to attend a reunion every year. We will probably continue to meet in the US and in Europe on alternate years, in order to make it easier for those on each continent for whom travel costs are a deciding issue.
Several of our group members had careers as teachers. School teachers in Germany and the US face similar challenges: inadequate funding and a lack of respect for the vital role they play in securing the future. Finland is recognized as the world leader in education, ranking at the top of international evaluations. Korea is second. The US and Germany are unfortunately down the list in terms of student test scores compared internationally.
I’ve written about my Norwegian friend Per in previous blogs about alternative energy. It’s sometimes hard to believe that Per and I met forty years ago. He has lived in Germany all this time. Per is by far the most successful member of our group in terms of economic achievement. This manifests itself by his choice of rental cars, a sporty convertible, and his choice of wines, definitely not the cheaper ones. I’ll discuss the components of his business success shortly.
Healthcare is the industry where Susan and I have worked for twenty years. Anyone who knows us knows that we are vitally interested in the reform of the troubled American healthcare system. (As one opinion writer stated, “The American healthcare system is not about health and is not a system.”) Per pays about one thousand dollars a month for his “self-employed” healthcare insurance, which gives 100% medical coverage with no deductible. His wife, who is an employee, pays much less, because her employer pays half her healthcare insurance costs, similar to the system in America, but with no deductible burden on the patient. They are generally pleased with their German healthcare system. They wonder why Americans allow the profit-driven American system to cost double what Germans pay while excluding millions of Americans who can’t afford the high price of insurance.
A Business Success Story
Regarding Per’s business success, his oldest and primary business is installing industrial-scaled windmills. His windmills are manufactured in Germany and cost about three million dollars fully installed. Germany is the world leader in the production of electricity through alternative energy sources, producing 25% of its energy through a combination of wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy sources. Germany has committed to shutting down its nuclear power plants. At this point, the alternative energy industries employ half as many employees as the German automobile industry (VW, Mercedes, Audi, & BMW). Per projects that as these alternative energy industries continue to grow, their employee numbers will surpass those of the automobile industry within a decade!
Per’s second business is in biomass energy production. This means the conversion of leaves, wood chips, grass clippings, any biological waste, into flammable pellets that can be stored, transported anywhere, and burned for heating or electricity production. The city of Hamburg used to spend millions of dollars to have their bio-waste removed from city streets. They are happy to give it to Per free of charge, which gives him a ready source of biomass for his converters. He is building a fixed conversion factory in his home city of Kiel. He also owns the European patent for a portable biomass converter, in the form of a tractor-trailer, which can be moved anywhere to receive and convert biomass on site into the burnable pellets.
Per’s third and newest business is to offer industrial-scale biomass heaters to business buildings and large residences. His market is to service buildings that have conventional petroleum-burning heating systems that might need to be replaced. Per offers to install a heater-structure next to the building, which is then tied into the existing ventilation system. His heaters are powered by the biomass pellets produced by his other business. And the heater simply has a meter to measure the amount on heat provided, for which the customer is billed. It’s a brilliant business plan built on the ready availability of the pellets produced by his biomass factories and converters.
The Future of Alternative Energy
I would love to help Per get a foothold in the US. But he says that will not be possible until the law changes to stabilize and encourage the American alternative energy market. In Germany, the conventional power companies are required to pay the same standard rate to energy from alternative sources added into the national power grid as they charge for petroleum-based energy. This is not yet the case in the US. Thus, he says, investors will not invest freely in the US market, because they can’t trust the political environment. Obama has supported the advancement of alternative energy development, but Romney professes to only support increased petroleum production, not alternative energy producers. (Drill baby drill…)
The US is ignoring the handwriting on the wall…that petroleum prices are bound to rise as supplies diminish or become more expensive to produce, regardless of the unstable politics affecting Middle East oil supplies, the world’s primary source of oil. When the time comes for the US to try to diversify its energy sources, we’ll be forced to buy our alternative energy components from Germany or China, because the infrastructure of parts suppliers and manufacturers will not exist in the US, because we’re not building for the future like the Germans and Chinese are.
It’s notable that Per is considered a “small-scale independent private energy producer.” The German economy is more “business-friendly” than in the US, though politicians would have us believe otherwise. In the US, alternative energy producers are usually large corporations that depend on government subsidies and tax rebates to establish themselves. Opponents of alternative energy development in the US (primarily supporters of the oil industry) are sabotaging our future when they say that alternative energy will never compete with the oil industry. They ignore the potential jobs that could be created as well as the energy independence possible through domestically produced wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy.