Uncertain: Film Review

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On a boat on the river

Misty-lensed view of off-grid living

Like a flower growing out of a crack in the wall, the southern town of Uncertain sits on the border between Texas and Louisiana, so named because early surveyors couldn’t be sure to which state this out-of-the-way burg actually belonged. The population, mostly poor or in some way seeking to avoid the law, hovers in the double-digits — 94, according to a sign on the city limits, although it seems that residents are either dying or leaving faster than they can be replenished.

Like a documentary version of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” complete with the looming threat of a surreal environmental catastrophe (in this case, an invasive fern-like plant called salvinia that’s “swallowing up” the lake and suffocating the fish), “Uncertain” focuses on a handful of these locals, individuals whose fates mirror the town’s name. In another director’s hands, the residents might be labeled “eccentric” and condescendingly depicted for laughs, but Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands approach this touch-and-go community with curiosity and humanism, capturing what feels like a deciding moment in a series of struggles so remote, they would otherwise escape our notice entirely.

Finally trickling into a few theaters — and iTunes — nearly two years after it premiered at the 2015 Tribeca film festival, where its directors won the Albert Maysles Documentary Director Award, a movie like this isn’t apt to inspire any spontaneous pilgrimages (it’s hard enough attracting audiences to visit the town vicariously on screen). “Uncertain is not on the way to anywhere,” says the local sheriff. “You’ve either got to know where you’re going or be lost to find it.”

Those who have come to Uncertain are generally trying to escape something — the law, mostly. They are haunted, at any rate, which makes for an evocative portrait of several rugged souls whom the directors met after setting out to learn what they might find in a town with such an intriguing name. To join them is to step back in time to a place that looks positively primeval (the swamp-like Cabbo Lake is shrouded in mist and the thick grey moss that hangs from surrounding cypress branches), where barely-employed locals spend their time hunting and fishing, or else trying to forget their troubles at the town bar (or in the case of the opening scene, passed out drunk in a drifting rowboat).

Instantly fascinating, the film’s various characters speak in a thick Texas drawl, sometimes so strong that they require subtitles to understand. Now in his seventies, Henry recalls how the other black folk in town resented him for having white friends, calling him an “Uncle Tom,” which blew up in an altercation where he shot another man in the face. Roughly a generation younger, recovering addict Wayne was also responsible for taking another man’s life, albeit under very different circumstances (the film even includes video of his arrest). He invites the filmmakers along for late-night hunting sessions, as he stalks a wild boar with his muzzleloading rifle. A scruffy white kid covered in amateur tattoos, diabetic Zach doesn’t see much future in Uncertain (where people “retire at 21,” he says) and decides to try his luck in Austin.

Visually, this gorgeously photographed film (lensed by McNicol himself) recalls the work of Cannes-anointed documentarian Robert Minervini, albeit a gentler view of marginal American lives than those seen in “The Other Side.” Though shot digitally, the footage goes a long way to suggest the organic texture of the lakeside community: the muggy, mosquito-filled air; the eerie serenity out on the water, or in the woods; the old bait shop with its peeling paint job. The line between animal and human, nature and civilization, seems especially porous in Uncertain. In one scene, with the aid of night vision, we observe as a half-domesticated raccoon spends his evenings indoors, curled up next to the family dog.

With the support of Daniel Hart’s almost elegiac score, the filmmakers distill the coarse poetry in their surroundings, giving voice to the suspended dreams of the locals. Their situation may not be hopeless, but it’s far from easy, and the filmmakers search the salvinia problem for a metaphor of some sort, finding an imperfect one in a scientific project to control the spreading water weed via the introduction of weevils. Residents worry whether the solution may have come too late. “It’s sad to see that the only place like this is going away,” says one, as we wonder what will become of this town and its citizens. I guess that’s Uncertain for you.

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German Energy Industry in Painful Transition

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meme2Handelsblatt Global Edition

Germany’s massive push into renewable energy has a dark side. As green policies drive up the cost of power, entire industries are shrinking.

Germany is a world leader in green power is by now familiar. Much less familiar is the price the country is paying for it, not just in cold hard cash, but in growing losses and dislocations across the entire economy.

A vast economic upheaval began when Germany launched its energy transition that simultaneously phases out all nuclear power, winds down coal and other fossil fuels, accelerates the push towards alternative sources of energy, and builds the new grid infrastructure to make it all possible.

The losers include once-stalwart utility giants like E.ON and RWE that are struggling with rising debt and falling shares. Manufacturing companies, from chemicals maker BASF to carbon fiber producer SGL Carbon, have shifted investments abroad, where energy costs are often a fraction of Germany’s.
Losers include laid-off workers in these industries, but also millions of ordinary consumers. Their utility bills have skyrocketed, largely driven by subsidies for eco-friendly fuels. As much as the transition creates new jobs building wind turbines, farming biofuels or installing solar panels on rooftops, the changes are cutting a deep swathe through other parts of the economy. Germany’s “green” revolution has a dark shadow.
The reengineering of Germany’s economy is of course deliberate. When the environmentalist Green party first began co-governing at the national level in 1998, Berlin quickly drafted plans to exit nuclear energy. Generous subsidies to support wind and solar power, tacked on to consumers’ electricity bills, got their start in 2000.
Already struggling to expand renewable energy fast enough to compensate for the nuclear phaseout, Germany had to move even faster after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s surprise decision to accelerate the shift just days after the news from Fukushima. Now, the country is rushing to replace what was once 35 percent of German electricity generation by 2022.

Hit hardest, of course, are the traditional utilities. After all, the energy transition was designed to seal their coffin. Once the proverbial investment for widows and orphans because their revenue streams were considered rock-solid — these companies have been nothing short of decimated. With 77 nuclear and fossil-fuel power plants taken off the grid in recent years, Germany’s four big utilities — E.ON, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW — have had to write off a total of €46.2 billion since 2011.
RWE and E.ON alone have debt piles of €28.2 billion and €25.8 billion, respectively, according to the latest company data. Losses at Düsseldorf-based E.ON rose to €6.1 billion for the first three quarters of 2015. Both companies have slashed the dividends on their shares, which have lost up to 76 percent of their value. Regional municipalities, which hold 24 percent of RWE’s shares, are scrambling to plug the holes left in their budgets by the missing dividends.
Thousands of workers have already been let go, disproportionately hitting communities in Germany‘s rust belt that are already struggling with blight. RWE has cut 7,000 jobs since 2011. At E.ON, the work force has shrunk by a third, a loss of over 25,000 jobs. Just as banks spun off their toxic assets and unprofitable operations into “bad banks” during the financial crisis, Germany’s utilities are reorganizing to cut their losses.
E.ON is spinning off its problematic fossil-fuel operations in a new company called Uniper. The utilities have also been calling on Berlin for fresh subsidies to keep idle power-generating capacity on standby – to jump in whenever the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

The corporate pain goes far beyond the utility giants. Suppliers to the power industry have also been rocked. Germany’s largest industrial group, Siemens, specializes in turbines, power plants and electricity infrastructure. Parts of that business have collapsed.
“I do not have a single order from Germany,” Siemens chief executive Joe Kaeser recently said about the company’s gas turbine business. “Not today, not next year.”
It’s the second major hit to Siemens from Germany’s energy policies. Siemens once built all of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants, and many more abroad. But after Ms. Merkel’s Fukushima decision, the company gave up its nuclear division and spun it off to the French company Areva. Today, Germany no longer has a nuclear technology industry.
Last year, Siemens also moved the global headquarters of its oil and gas business from Erlangen to Houston, and has been producing gas turbines in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 2011. Mr. Kaeser said Germany’s energy policies will lead Siemens to “reallocate our resources, as painful as that is.” The first to feel the brunt have been the company’s workers; since May 2015, Siemens has slashed 4,500 jobs.
“Several years ago, about one fifth of global demand for gas turbines was in Europe,” said Udo Niehage, Siemens’ head of government affairs in Berlin and representative for the energy transition. “Now, though, the energy transition that’s taking place not only in Germany but in many European countries has significantly reduced our business with fossil fuel power stations in Europe and in Germany, it is almost at a standstill.”

A further cost of the energy transition is the building of power lines to transmit energy from the north to the south of the country. This could prove expensive and controversial, Mr. Niehage said. “Ultimately, we can’t say what it will cost to bury the cables – it depends on whether the ground is stony or not,” he said. Building the power lines throughout the country will lead to more protest, he noted.
Mr. Niehage predicted that by the end of the decade, with a better investment climate, gas power stations may be built again. “There’ll also be a greater need for security of energy supply in southern Germany because of the delays in the completion of the electricity highways. Also, we won’t be able to just “borrow” power station capacity from our neighbors because they’re planning to undertake similar activities.”
There has also been a quiet but noticeable exodus of energy-hungry manufacturing abroad, not with dramatic plant closures but with an inexorable shift in investments. Automaker BMW and SGL Carbon, which produces carbon fibers for BMW’s lightweight E-series electric cars, built their latest $300 million carbon fiber plant in Moses Lake, Washington, because of “competitive energy costs,” the companies said at the time.
Chemicals giant BASF also chose the U.S. for its largest single investment ever, a $1 billion propylene factory in Freeport, Texas, to take advantage of low energy costs. In the U.S., industrial customers pay less than half the German rate for electrical power, according to the OECD. The difference between gas prices is even higher.
Not only are jobs disappearing, so is knowledge. “There’s definitely a brain drain in terms of conventional power plant production,” said Matthias Zelinger, energy-industry expert at the German Engineering Federation (VDMA), an association that represents manufacturers. “Companies might start just moving their manufacturing to China but eventually the engineering and development follows,” he said. Eventually, he said, knowledge related to fossil fuel power will disappear from Germany.

Klaus-Dieter Maubach, chief executive of renewable energy operator Capital Stage, said he experienced the loss of expertise when he worked at E.ON.
“I once helped to build a power plant of 1,100 megawatt in Rotterdam. I still remember it was a huge challenge to find enough people with the appropriate welding skills. Why? Because no one had been making such large plants for decades,” Mr. Maubach said.
Eventually, he said, knowledge related to nuclear power and fossil fuel power will disappear from Germany. “When students know that investments in coal and nuclear power will no longer be made they lose interest in these subjects.”
The result, industry experts like Mr. Zelinger say, is that Germany loses entire branches of industrial engineering in which the country has traditionally been strong, and which are still growing dramatically in the emerging markets.
Ordinary consumers have seen their electricity bills double since the introduction in 2000 of a renewable-energy levy, slapped on every household’s electricity bill to subsidize the owners of wind turbines and solar panels. The total cost has risen from €0.9 billion in 2000 to €23.7 billion last year, and will likely hit €25.5 billion this year.
Consumer advocates warn that a growing number of German families can no longer afford their electricity bills. Some 350,000 have had their power cut off, up 13 percent from 2011. The inefficiency is shocking: the renewable energy produced by €25 billion in electricity-bill surcharges this year will only be worth €3.6 billion on the market, according to the economics ministry.

No one knows what the final bill will be. The green-power surcharge on electricity bills has already cost consumers €188 billion since it was first introduced in 2000 – or €4,700 for each of the country’s 40 million households. The nuclear shutdown will cost another €149 billion by 2035, according to a Stuttgart University study.
The latest cost involves the vast new grid infrastructure necessary to connect new offshore wind farms in the country’s stormy but sparsely populated north with the energy-hungry south. Because of citizens’ outrage over new high-voltage lines crisscrossing the landscape, plans are now to run them under-ground, a novel experiment with long-distance transmission.
These costs, too, will be tacked onto electricity bills, while large industrial users will be hit with another €370,000 to €990,000 each year, according to the government. Altogether, the cost of Germany’s energy policies will reach €1.15 trillion by 2050, according to a Fraunhofer Institute study. Others say the costs will be even higher.
Ironically, the move away from nuclear power and towards renewables has left the climate losing out, too. Unlike in other European countries, German energy policies have always been more focused on ending nuclear power rather than concerns over the climate – nuclear power emits no CO2, after all.
As the country moved swiftly to wind down nuclear power, utilities fired up their carbon-spewing coal generators again, leading to higher emissions in 2012 and 2013. Total emissions have barely budged since 2008, despite the massive wind and solar buildout.
Adding to the bitterness about lost jobs and disappearing industries are big doubts if the changes even make sense. “Germany has set itself extremely ambitious targets but I don’t think the global climate is determined here,” said Michael Denecke, an official with Germany’s union of mining and energy workers. “Germany is responsible for 2.7 percent of global carbon emissions, so we’re fighting over nanograms here while in China, they’re building coal power stations every other week.”

As the country plows ahead with its far-reaching energy policies, the future is uncertain for companies and consumers. “Industry has become fearful and skeptical about the political debate,” said the engineering association’s Mr. Zelinger, adding that companies need to be able to plan in the short and longer term.
More unknowns are ahead.
“There was a lot of initial euphoria, when we achieved the first 5 percent in the switch to renewables,” he said. “But reaching 50 percent is harder and a lot needs to happen.” The technical and economic challenges are enormous, Mr. Zelinger, though adding that there are many positive aspects to the energy transition as well.
Why aren’t more Germans complaining? The energy transition remains popular, with strong support in the political parties and leading media. Most of Germany’s current power brokers came of age in an era of fervent anti-nuclear protests, so in a sense this is the culmination of a generational project.
/// “Most Germans also see the energy transition as positive for the environment.”// .
Most Germans also see the energy transition as positive for the environment, even if Germany has negligible influence on global CO2 emissions. And the vast amounts of money that have been mobilized have created new jobs, new companies — and new power centers to advance the cause. For the companies and workers on the losing end, speaking up can seem like tilting at windmills — or the zeitgeist.
Another reason why the losers of Germany’s energy transition have kept mostly quiet could be that they, too, have been bought off. Utility workers can now retire as early as age 52 and receive 80 percent of their pay. In the past, layoffs on the scale of what is now happening at the utilities often caused a national scandal. Instead, union leaders have kept largely silent.
Arthur Oster, a former RWE manager who had to shrink the payroll at a coalmine that supplied the company’s power plants, said there were no conflicts with workers. “Reducing the number of jobs went pretty well,” Mr. Oster said.
As the costs and stresses on the German economy mount, however, things may not always stay so quiet.

WHY IT MATTERS
Germany’s prominent push toward renewable energy has become a familiar topic, but the price companies and consumers are paying for it is not.
FACTS
Germany is shutting down nuclear power by 2022 and simultaneously shifting to 80 percent renewable energy by 2050.
The Fraunhofer Institute estimates the shift to cost €1.1. trillion. Other estimates are substantially higher.
The average German household has paid €4,700 to subsidize wind and solar energy since 2000.
Germany is shutting down nuclear power by 2022 and simultaneously shifting to 80 percent renewable energy by 2050.
The Fraunhofer Institute estimates the shift to cost €1.1. trillion. Other estimates are substantially higher.
The average German household has paid €4,700 to subsidize wind and solar energy since 2000.

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Off-Grid living on British TV

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off-grid in North Devon - animals make the money while you sleep

Friends with benefits – Simon and his menagerie

Channel 5, the smallest UK channel, is featuring a British off-grid family next month as part of a series which usually visits pioneers around the world.

The show will feature Simon Dawson and his wife Debbie at their smallholding in Barbrook, near Lynton, Devon for a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Speaking about the experience, former journalist Simon said:: “It was rather surreal. There were times that we were lying in bed and texting people saying ‘guess who we have sleeping on our sofa’.

Throughout the seven-day adventure,  the Dawsons were followed by a nine-strong camera crew, who followed their every move .

Although before filming began Simon said he was not daunted by the prospect on being constantly on camera, he said it took “a bit of getting used to”.

“I didn’t realise it would be all day, every day,” he said.

“Even when we were driving we were still being filmed.

“But after about day three you get used to it.

“It’s really weird how they just became a part of life.

“It was even weirder when they went and I kept wondering ‘where is everyone?’.”

Viewers will also meet the menagerie of animals living in and around their house – small chicks in the kitchen, a beautiful Great Dane on the sofas, pigs, chickens, horses and geese on the land. The 12 beautiful black Berkshire piglets born last year will have grown up by now but will still provide plenty of comic moments.

Have a read about Simon’s antics on his own blog and look out for his next article about dairy farming for the first time in Devon Life soon.

http://theselfsufficientwriter.blogspot.com/

As part of Ben Fogle’s series of New Lives, the episode will air on December 3 at 9pm.

 

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