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The Euro-Dome

What can the Germans teach us about saving the Astrodome?

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

For years, Ed Emmett has been trying to figure out what to do with the Astrodome, one of the world’s grandest and wackiest-looking civic arenas. This week, he is on an expedition to see another of the world’s wacky wonders, a massive blimp hangar at a former Luftwaffe airfield in Germany that has been converted into the world’s largest indoor rainforest.

The Harris County judge and two aides have ventured seven times zones into the future to witness how the proprietors retooled their defunct steel barrel-bowl dome — one of the world’s largest freestanding structures — and transformed it into a climate-controlled tropical water park extraordinaire. Emmett made it plain that he planned to fund his “fact-finding” trip with campaign funds rather than taxpayer dollars. He also explained that the goal was not to copy the entire concept of the interior, but rather to debrief the engineer and horticulturist about the basics and talk to the folks who deal with upkeep of the dome’s exterior.


An outfit called CargoLifter AG built the domed structure, a dirigible hangar called the Aerium, in 2000. The oblong dome could fit the Statue of Liberty upright and Eiffel Tower tipped onto its side, though perhaps not both at the same time. CargoLifter embarked on “one of the most ambitious projects of German postwar aviation,” according to the German news site WallStreet-online. The idea was to use the hangar as a workshop to engineer a CL160 airship that could handle deliveries of oversized and heavy objects using “lighter than air technology.” The blimp building enterprise declared insolvency in 2002. Investors who had pumped $300 million Euros into the venture were likely deflated when CargoLifter sold the giant tin can to Tanjong, a Malaysian company, for a mere 20 percent of construction costs.

The Tanjong company debuted its Tropical Islands resort inside the Aerium in 2004. Its business model posited that if the resort could attract 1.25 million visitors per year, it could turn a profit. This happened for the first time in 2008, Wikipedia states, but only after Tanjong dropped the entrance fees substantially and added more cabins and huts for overnight guests. The annual reports online, Tropical Islands operated at a loss from 2006-2010, but the loss shrank by 67 percent. Emmett seems to think the place is viable.

See here in case you need to be reminded of the story so far. I’m sure this is a great facility and the entourage will come away with some nifty ideas, but unless they include how to get the damn thing approved by the voters and funded by somebody, I’m not sure how much difference it will make. But hey, good ideas are good ideas, so who knows.


Now this is what I call going old school for Christmas.

Long before parents relied on the powers of Santa Claus to monitor their children’s behavior, their counterparts in Alpine villages called on a shaggy-furred, horned creature with a fistful of bound twigs to send the message that they had better watch out.

Tom Bierbaumer recalls the trepidation he felt every Dec. 6, when the clanging of oversize cowbells signaled the arrival of the Krampus, a devilish mountain goblin who serves as an evil counterpart to the good St. Nick. He would think back over his misdeeds of past months — the days he had refused to clear the supper table, left his homework unfinished or pulled a girl’s hair.

“When you are a child, you know what you have done wrong the whole year,” said Mr. Bierbaumer, who grew up in the Bavarian Alps and now heads a Munich-based club, the Sparifankerl Pass — Bavarian dialect for “Devil’s Group” — devoted to keeping the Krampus tradition alive. “When the Krampus comes to your house, and you are a child, you are really worried about getting a hit from his switch.”

Besides visiting homes with St. Nicholas, the Krampus has for centuries run through village and town centers spreading pre-Christmas fear and chasing away evil spirits. That tradition dwindled across much of Bavaria during the 1960s and ’70s, as postmodern society moved away from its rural past.

But with cultural homogenization spreading across an increasingly unified Europe, a new generation is bringing back the customs that defined their childhoods, and those of their parents and grandparents.

A decade ago, Mr. Bierbaumer, 46, persuaded Munich authorities to stage an old-fashioned Krampuslauf: a spectacle in which the fearsome seasonal beasts run through rows of adorned wooden huts at the Bavarian capital’s oldest holiday market. He saw it as a way to ensure that future generations would share his childhood ritual, which takes place between late November and Dec. 23. At that point, similar beasts, known as Perchta, take over the fun until Epiphany.

The Munich Krampuslauf celebrates the history of the custom, including the artistry of the hand-carved, hand-painted masks. Advocates of the ritual say reviving it is important because American Christmas customs, which they see as more commercialized, have made their way into the German holiday.

Only old-fashioned Krampus, mixed with their cousins, the Perchta, are allowed to participate in the Munich runs, held on the second and third Sundays before Christmas. To join the run, they must be dressed in wooden masks with horns and goat or sheep pelts, and carry bells and switches — though only for show.

Upholding the seasonal ritual is of “absolute importance,” said Günter Tschinder from Lavanttal in Austria’s Carinthia region.

“This is a tradition that our great-grandparents were already doing that must be handed down to the next generation,” said Mr. Tschinder, a member of the Höfleiner Moorteufel from Carinthia, one of 27 groups that participated in Munich this year. “But properly handed down, as it was 40, 50, 60 years ago, not with a lot of commercialization, like from Hollywood films.”

This just makes me happy. Also, “Old Fashioned Krampus and The Perchtas” will be the name of my Scorpions tribute band. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Solar power for Houston

The city of Houston will go solar for some of its energy needs.

Under a 25-year proposed agreement being announced today, the city of Houston will buy power for its buildings from the plant, which will be the largest solar plant in Texas when it’s completed in July. Its 10-megawatt capacity — which will be online only during daylight hours — will provide up to 1.5 percent of the city government’s power needs.

NRG, which won the contract to build the plant through a bidding process, will front the $40 million to build the plant on 70 acres of land at the site of the existing T.H. Wharton power plant near Texas 249 and North Beltway 8. The plant will use thin-film photovoltaic solar panels manufactured by First Solar Inc.

The city will pay 8.2 cents per kilowatt hour for the first year of the contract, but that can change over time and will be based on a combination of factors. For example, the contract prices solar power at 19.8 cents per kilowatt hour, but what the city pays will incorporate lower-price natural gas power when the sun isn’t shining.


CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipally owned utility, signed a deal this summer for a 14 MW solar plant to be finished by the end of next year.

Austin Energy signed a deal with a solar power plant developer this month to build a 30 megawatt plant. That facility should be up by December 2010 , a spokesman said.

And Southern California Edison is planning two large solar projects with a combined 550 MW outside of Los Angeles for startup in 2015.

But the projects are not without controversy. Solar-generated power costs more than other kinds despite the free fuel source. In Austin some businesses and residents expressed concern over estimates that getting more power from renewables, including wind and solar, could increase bills by 22 percent by 2020.

I love me some green energy, but if cost is an issue it’s going to be a political negative for these initiatives. Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too hard to overcome as the technology improves and becomes more widespread, and Andrew Burleson has some ideas on how to make the best use of solar power:

As solar technology improves, however, building-integrated solar installations will make more and more sense in the Southwest, because they can provide a big additional spike of energy right when our energy demand is spiking – when it gets really hot in the summer. These systems are much cheaper if their purpose is only to absorb the afternoon demand spike – no batteries are needed for that.

Right now the biggest thing holding back solar tech is the cost of the cells. As that cost goes down it will quickly become practical for businesses to amortize the capital cost of the solar cells in the construction of their buildings, and then be protected from the huge energy bills we all pay in the summer months.

This is the great thing about distributed solar. If we use it right it provides extra boosts of power when they’re needed most. This means we can run a more fuel efficient central plant with less total capacity required. The reduction in energy demand spikes would also help stabilize fuel prices, which benefits everyone. That, to me, is the most concrete long-term justification for solar investment. The sooner we can truly stabilize our energy supply, the better of we’ll all be.

Recall also that the city of Houston can make it easier for people to install solar cells in their homes. Matt Yglesias also notes that Germany, not exactly someplace one associates with sunshine, is a leading user of solar energy. We can do more, and over time we will need to do more. No time like now to get started.