Electric Cars

In case you just couldn’t get enough of alternative energy, I thought I’d talk a bit about electric cars in Norway. Before coming to Norway, I think the most that I’d ever interacted with electric cars had been from spotting the occasional Tesla and being forced to watch the film Who Killed the Electric Car? (my English teacher had clearly failed to lesson plan that day). But this all changed when I moved to Norway. In Norway, I see electric cars everywhere.

Cars are expensive in Norway. They have very steep taxes, registration fees are exorbitant, and toll roads are everywhere. And while I initially thought that gas would be cheaper in Norway due to the oil industry, I was very much mistaken. Like most things in Norway, gas is quite expensive.

But things are quite different if you own an electric car. Most of these expenses disappear largely due to government intervention and the government’s desire to be environmentally friendly. Norway has been supportive of electric cars since the late 1980s. In 1990, the import tax on electric cars was abolished and made permanent in 1996, and a slew of economic benefits have been introduced since then. Electric cars do not have sales tax or the standard 25% value added tax (VAT), and they are exempt from road and ferry tolls and parking fees. Electric cars are free to charge and are subject to cheaper insurance. They are even allowed to use the bus lanes. In 2012, Norwegian government pledged to keep these financial incentives until 2018 or until 50,000 zero emission vehicles are on the road, whichever happens first.

It’s no wonder that the electric car is popular, since overall they are much cheaper than your average car. In fact, I’ve even seen a Tesla taxi around Trondheim (Tesla prices start at 105,500 USD). As things stand right now, there are about 37,000 electric cars registered in Norway, over 5,000 charging stations, and electric cars are responsible for about 6-12% of vehicle sales every month in Norway (Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association). It’s clear that electric cars are growing increasingly popular and increasingly practical.

But like most things, not everyone thinks the electric car is God’s gift to earth. As more and more electric cars join the roads, there are more and more critics. More cars on the road translates to more congestion–particularly in the bus lanes. Electric cars are about 75% of the vehicles in the bus lanes and can often clog up traffic. A fact that bus drivers and commuters are unhappy about. Although the number of charging stations is increasing all the time, the government has not quite been able to keep up with demand. Electric car owners complain that there are not enough charging stations and people who drive regular cars complain about how they still have to pay for gas. And although these are all valid concerns, I think the thing that troubles people most is what will happen when these financial benefits end. Many worry about the collapse of the electric car market, and it’s not an unjust concern. But I suppose there is nothing to do but to wait and see. I doubt that much will happen in my remaining time in Norway other than having a few more charging stations pop up around town. For now, my new goal is to simply catch a ride in the Tesla taxi.

Oil and Alternative Energy

Oil is something that is very salient in the minds of Norwegians, and it is oftentimes something that can literally dominate the Norwegian landscape.* I’ve seen more than my fair share of Statoil offices. 

Yet Norway has a convoluted relationship with oil. This makes sense when you consider that Norway is one of the countries at the forefront of encouraging environmental change; yet it is a country that has nearly a fifth of its gross domestic product (GDP) based on the offshore oil and gas industry. Oil is the resource that propelled this once cash strapped nation into spectacular wealth. A fact that Norwegians are acutely aware of. 

Oil was originally discovered in Norway in 1969, and the government has taken great care to manage this resource and the resulting wealth ever since. Norway’s oil wealth was originally used to develop Norway’s poor infrastructure and was then used to pay off the country’s debt. Once this was completed in 1995, the Norwegian Petroleum Fund was established. The fund was created to invest in the wellbeing of future Norwegians and to help support the country’s aging population. Considering the objective of the fund, its name was later changed to the Government Pension Fund. 

The fund itself has its own fascinating restrictions. Fund managers are only allowed to invest the fund in businesses outside of Norway in order to safeguard the local economy. Furthermore, funds can only be invested in ethical companies and countries. For example, companies that have a poor environmental track record or countries that have human rights violations cannot be invested in. A portion of Norway’s annual budget can come from the Government Pension Fund, but this portion caps out at a measly four percent. Granted four percent of a $845 billion is still pretty sizable (Reuters).  

The fund is one of the things that very clearly demonstrates the long term view that Norwegians have adopted towards oil. Aware that their oil supply is finite, Norwegians are stockpiling their wealth in preparation for the day when their oil runs out. In the meantime, they have adopted a responsible approach towards trying to create a more responsible and ethical world, even as they harm the environment through the oil industry. Everyone is aware of the irony.

Outside of oil, Norway is committed to combating climate change. In 2007, Norway pledged to become carbon neutral and have zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although Norway has fallen in Yale’s Environmental Performance Index,** it is still doing quite well and was ranked 10 out of 178 countries in the 2014 rankings (the United States was 33 in case you were wondering). Almost none of Norway’s energy comes from fossil fuels. An impressive 56% comes from renewable energy sources and about 99% of its total power production is hydroelectric (intpow). Norway has even figured out how to burn trash to create energy (BBC).

Working at NTNU this past semester has also shown me that a significant percentage of my generation is dedicated to working in alternative energy. In my course, Academic Writing and Communication for Engineers, a significant number of my approximately 110 person class was writing their engineering theses on alternative energy. In their weekly writing, many of them would write about the importance of finding an alternative to oil. Most of these engineers were focused on hydropower or wind power, but there were also a few working on solar power. Even my students who were planning on going into the oil industry spent some time writing about reducing the environmental impact of oil.

So while Norway is committed to weaning itself off of oil, it is definitely still a process. The recent fall in oil prices has left its mark on Norway, and an estimated 40,000 jobs are on the chopping block as many oil companies cut back their operations and shut down projects (Bloomberg). The road ahead may be rocky, from what I can see, it looks like Norway is doing a great job of trying to navigate it.

*Random aside: I would say that an industry equally important to the Norwegian psyche would probably be fishing, specifically cod. I cannot emphasize enough the Norwegian obsession with cod. Cod liver oil is the equivalent of the Norwegian fountain of youth and considered a cure all for basically everything. Many Norwegians have a tablespoon of cod liver oil every day, and it’s not uncommon to see or hear the phrase “In Cod We Trust” (as opposed to “In God We Trust”).

**At this point even my competitive Harvard spirit admits that Fale manages to get things right every once in a blue moon.

Is This Country Crazy?

One of the best parts of the Fulbright retreat was being able to shoot the breeze with other American expats (if you are interested in another account, my colleague Lud Baldwin has quite a funny one on his blog). Living in another country will always present a new set of challenges ranging from the mundane to the more complex, and while that is common to expats everywhere, I think that being American presents its own set of challenges. As the token American in most conversations, I am often asked a lot of questions about my home country. In the classroom, I’m asked to go a step further and teach about America. But although Norwegians tend to be too polite to ask me hard hitting questions, it is clear that they are uninterested in the very tired refrain that America is the “home of the free, and the land of the brave.” Not that I would necessarily even provide them with that song and dance.

Since coming to Norway, I have been asked to talk about some of our more controversial topics: immigration, Edward Snowden, the war on drugs, the Vietnam War, our political system. Because most of my conversations about America do take place in the classroom, my role has largely been to try and present America in an unbiased way. To give my students the facts and to clearly articulate the pros and the cons of American thinking and American policy. Yet it is not unusual for my students to be confused. Teaching the facts does not always result in acceptance. I am occasionally left with the impression that they think America has gone crazy.

So this leads me to my title. One of my co-teachers, Maria, who also happens to be an American expat, sent me this article on the Huffington Post. Entitled “Is This Country Crazy?” (yes, I stole her title) the article is written by Ann Jones, a fabulous, if intimidating, former Norwegian Fulbrighter, and it spends some time delving into the American expat experience and the broader perception of Americans abroad. And while Ann does a great job of talking about the ways in which Americans are viewed today, talking to other American expats makes me realize how far back this negative perception of Americans extends. As someone who hasn’t lived in Norway for an extended period of time, it’s been interesting to talk to Americans who have been here since the 1960s. It is from them that I learned that being an American was not something people have advertised in Norway until the election of President Obama. The Vietnam War was highly unpopular in Norway, and if my students are any barometer of popularity, still is. If anything, our reputation only went further south with Bush, although it has recovered somewhat in recent years. And yet…I still wouldn’t necessarily say that we have a great reputation abroad.

Since coming to Norway, a slew of major events have happened back in the United States that I have found difficult to explain:

  • Explaining the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in a country where racism isn’t talked about and crime, much less police brutality, is not a major concern.
  • The midterms elections having the lowest voter turnout in 72 years at 36.3%, while Norway routinely has a voter turnout of over 70%.
  • The Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus.” The article was later questioned for accuracy, but it gives an incredibly damning portrayal of sexual assault on college campuses. And while the reporting was later shown to be inaccurate, that does not diminish the severity of sexual assault in the U.S. People in Norway are rightly horrified when I say that 1 out of 5 U.S. women will be assaulted in their lifetime.
  • The difficulty of implementing Obamacare (it’s on round two in the Supreme Court) and why so many people reject the idea of national healthcare, when Norway has had universal healthcare since 1956.
  • The measles outbreak in the United States and why so many people question vaccines (granted Norway as well as other European countries also have their share of people who don’t believe in vaccination).

These events, and many others, are shocking. But it’s strange to be in the position of an outsider. While I get status updates on these events on my Facebook Newsfeed, that is hardly the same as experiencing them or their reactions myself. I had no civil rights rallies to attend or extensive conversations to engage in over these issues. Reading about these events is not quite the same as living through them. Yet I am the person who is called upon to give a voice to what is going on back home. To explain these events which I cannot quite experience by virtue of being abroad.

This in between, or this sensation, is even well articulated by the very word “expatriate.” “Ex” meaning outside and “patria” meaning country. As expatriates we our outside of our country, yet it is unclear where we are instead. We are stuck. Not quite being a part of our home country and yet not being a full citizen of our host country. And yet we are still largely held accountable for what goes on in our home countries.

I may not have a good answer as to whether or not the U.S. is crazy. Some days it feels as though it is, while on other days it feels quite good to be an American. The only thing I, and the other Fulbrighters, can do is to serve as cultural ambassadors. As representatives of the U.S. government and the State Department, we can only hope that we can explain some of the more “crazy” aspects of American culture and even talk about the aspects that we disagree with. Overall I hope that when I leave Norway I leave people with positive memories of Americans and fewer questions about America.