Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Idle hands make light work

And on the first day, the Voice in the Sky said: Let there be light.
So the Israel Electric Corporation sent round a team of ten: 1 light engineer, 1 electrician, a retired switch operator, his mate, the tea boy, the trainee, the PA, a union official to check that all was ok, and two extras, as ordained by clause 4.5(1)a of the Israel Electric How to Employ Anyone Manual. And they looked and they hummed and they hahed. Or even haahed. But mostly they hummed.
Eventually the engineer wrote a detailed report and had it sent to the New Lights Division, which read it, proofed it, photocopied it, analyzed it, sat on it, chewed it, and then put it into practice.
So finally, on the 245th day, there was light.

Of course that was just my little joke. I mean, whoever heard of an IEC engineer writing a report, and having a new light installed all within 246 days?

The Israel Electric Corporation, now there’s a sly one. They’ve been very quiet recently. Why make a fuss when they seem to be getting their way without much of a struggle, and the Bolshie workers at the Israel Railways are hogging all the limelight?
But I do believe our electricity utility needs a closer examination, just for the fun of it.
Your electricity bill, my friends, is about to leap. Yes, we’ve managed to get the cost of cottage cheese down, and even cartons of milk are facing competition. But electricity? Not bloody likely. We’ll have to wait for the next revolution for that one.
Come next Sunday, my blogpals, you will see your electricity bill leap by almost 9%. Yes, 9%. Halevai we should all be enjoying 9% pay rises. Inflation is running at just over 2% (thanks Stanley) on an annual basis, so what gives the IEC, a monopoly, the right to up our prices by more than four times the inflation rate?
It’s the price of oil, moans the IEC. That’s the problem. Higher oil prices, and a supply of gas from Egypt that keeps stopping every time revolutionary bandita, Mustafa Leak, has a tantrum.

Electricity does not grow on trees, it needs to be generated from some other form of energy - wind, sun, coal, oil, gas. The IEC has a supply of gas from Egypt, but apparently that’s not to be relied on. And when the gas gets turned off, the IEC has to turn to coal (expensive and very dirty, and not found naturally in Israel) or oil (also expensive, terribly difficult to remove if you get it on your overalls, and also not found naturally in bulk in Israel).
Now the IEC can’t just up prices, like so. Any change in its tariff has first to be approved by the Nameless Inefficient Committee of Mostly Politicians or Other Obsolete Penpushers, or NINCOMPOOP for short. So, the IEC, grumbling about high costs, unreliable gas supplies etc., goes running to NINCOMPOOP, (ok, so its real name is Public Utility Authority: Electricity) claiming it needs to raise prices by 37% just to keep solvent. Well 37% is over the top, even for a statutory monopoly, so after a chop here, a back-scratch there, a fuel tax jiggle somewhere else, approval was given for an 8.9% rise this year, followed by another rise in 2013 and another in 2014.

But where’s the incentive for the IEC to trim its fat? Why doesn’t the state set a price rise for electricity at say 3% (or the rate of the inflation), and tell the company to plan ahead and think of ways to make the company more efficient, less wasteful. It can be done.
When I was working on a building site in Jerusalem many years ago, we had to call in the IEC to move an electricity pylon. About five people turned up, and while two did the job, the rest sat on the side and counted their pensions or pointed at someone who actually did something for a living and laughed.
There is talk of changes in the electricity monopoly, but you’ll find that the IEC can dig its heels in fairly firmly when it likes.

It took them years until they agreed to what’s known as net metering. In some countries, anyone can generate their own power, typically using solar panels. Usually you end up generating more than you need (or at least, more than you need at the time, because electricity cannot be stored). So the sensible thing is... wait for it, you’ll like this... you sell your surplus electricity back to the electric company! Your electricity meter goes the other way! This is known as net metering, and only several years after it was common practice in Germany (where they don’t even get enough sun for the solar panels), the IEC is now allowing the same thing here. Reluctantly.

The IEC had also set up a secret fund to finance all their happy perks: the holiday gifts for their workers, the free electricity for employees (current and retired), that sort of thing. But this was an illegal hoard, and last week the state ordered the company to take 90% of the funds from this kitty, and put it in with all the rest of their cash. 90% of what? How much do you think the IEC - barely able to scrape by, what with the high cost of oil and gas etc. etc.- had stashed away in this fund? TWO BILLION SHEKELS.
Think of that when you get your bigger bill next month.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

O Wondrous Combustion Engine, Hallowed Be Thy Name

As an elderly couple are walking along the street in Tel Aviv, they notice a parking space. The woman steps into the space, stands firmly in the center of it, spreads her arms wide, and says to her husband “Quick, Bernie, I’ve found a parking space. Go and buy a car!”

That’s a smasher, isn’t it? A classic. It cracks me up every time. And that’s just one. I’ve got loads more when they came from. (Where did it come from? It may have been from inside a Xmas cracker, or, possibly from last week’s Purim party, where the jokes flowed like cava, and the cava flowed like... Well anyway, we had so much to drink, as is traditional for the festival of Purim, that jokes like the one above seemed hilarious, and everyone looked gorgeous).

Now if you’ve finished drying your eyes after that hilarious opening, let’s take a sober look at the shortage of parking spaces in our major cities, or, as is known in municipal circles, the council’s transport policy.
What exactly is parking? (A little too philosophical for this time of morning? Possibly. In that case, skip ahead to the joke at the end). Parking is a requirement (for those with cars), an irrelevance (for those without), a waste of space (for city planners), a cost (for everyone), and a subsidy (for tax-paying non-car-owners). I was once rung up by some market surveyor, and as an introduction to several mind-numbing questions, I was told that the subject would cover “Tel Aviv’s transport and parking policy”.
But parking is not transport, and it’s not a policy. Parking is a symptom of a lack of transport alternatives. We could just as well refer to the Ministry of Health and Burial of Operation Failures.
And yet many councils around the country, still stuck in the 1950s, believe the car is the answer to everything.

Today's riddle: How many parking spaces are there at Wembley Stadium? You know, Wembley, in North London, THE premier venue for football events and rock concerts too. The newly rebuilt stadium is state-of-the art, which means each seat has plenty of leg-room and there are umpteen toilets per person, so you should never have to wait long (bearing in mind that you'll be wanting to go at exactly the same time that several thousand other football fans want to go). It is England's national stadium, and the second largest in Europe. Seating and standing together, the stadium can hold 105,000 spectators. So, back to today's riddle, how many parking spaces are there in Wembley Stadium's official car park?

Now whilst the right side of your brain is thinking that one out, let's see what Tel Aviv has recently done for its residents. To great fanfare, the council sent to me (paid for by my money) a leaflet with an achingly funny title “I came, I saw, I parked”. It lists all the latest changes that will make parking easier. I can now park in several more official car parks at night for free, and at others at a whopping 75% discount. It lists similar benefits and perks for the car-owner. If only my council spent as much time, effort, money, thought, care and loving attention on the non-car owner, on those that use alternative means of transport!
On the contrary, it is practically the aim of the council to encourage us all to have cars.
Have you heard the one about... (no, sorry, I was going to tell a joke, but it would have been quite inappropriate)... have you heard about what’s known in Hebrew as תקן חניה (teken chaniya) or “the parking standard”? Basically it’s a requirement when you plan to build a house, an office block, or whatever, that the plans must include sufficient car parking spaces. Or else you don’t get the building permit.
Who determines what is “sufficient?” Good question, my blogfans, you are on the ball this morning. Who indeed?
One friend had a house built in some small town near Jerusalem, and it included a drive with one parking space. The council rejected this. He would have to include two parking spaces to get the permit.
David Azrieli, a seasoned Canadian businessman and mall owner, designed the towers (named after him) in downtown Tel Aviv. He chose the location well, at a transport hub, on top of the Hashalom train station. The original plans included a car park with plenty of spaces. The council (an unseasoned business operator and non-mall owner) told him the car park was too small, and he had to add several hundred more spaces to get his building permit.

Room for one more? Photo:

So are you getting the picture? If the government and local authorities spent as much time, money, and thought, on public transport as they do struggling to find more car parking spaces, we could, by now, have had a public transport system comparable to the best in the world. Then maybe we could dispense with the cars, and not even need the parking.
Wembley Stadium, if you were still thinking about it, is well served by London's transport system. It is accessible from three stations, served by three Underground rail lines, two overground lines, and a national rail link. More than 7 bus routes stop in the vicinity. And which is why Wembley, the rebuilt stadium, opened in 2007, has no official car park. It is, as they say on their website, a public transport destination.