Home // 2016 // August

Solar Power is a Cool Idea With Lousy Execution

Bow down before Ra!

Photo: AleSpa

I’m intrigued by the idea of solar power, as are many people. Pointing solar panels toward the sun and simply harvesting energy–what a cool concept! So last year I looked into having solar installed at my house and made appointments with representatives from two companies to come out and bid on the project. One was SolarCity, the national firm headed by Elon Musk, and the other was a local company with a good reputation.

My major requirement for both companies’ bids was that I wanted a system that gave me access to the power I generate. That sounds like a natural, right? You have solar panels on your roof or in your yard, just feet from your home. You’d think you should be able to use the power they generate. Well, you’d think that, but that’s not always the case.

For years, most solar installations have been designed to be grid tied–hooked to the electric grid–and dependent on net metering requirements that obligate electric utilities to buy the resulting power. Basically, you install a generator on your property and sell juice to the electric company, but draw your own power for home use from the same grid as everybody else. In a blackout, despite the solar panels on the roof, your refrigerator stops humming just like everybody else’s appliances. You might have a plug or two available to you on the installation, but that’s it. And, of course, once the sun goes down, the panels don’t generate anything. Your installation lowers your bill, but it gives you no added independence.

So, I asked the solar salesmen to bid me on some storage capacity so that those panels on my roof would benefit me directly, not just as a bill-lowering measure. SolarCity had just included Powerwall batteries–basically Tesla car batteries–in its line. The local company had two battery vendors to pick from and offered me a couple of options.

To cut to the chase, there are no solar panels on my roof, a year later. The local company’s bids were very well-considered, very flexible, and between $30,000 and $40,000 based on some variables. From that I’d be able to subtract tax credits, but that’s a big chunk of change. SolarCity’s bid came in just shy of $40,000, and I wasn’t convinced that its battery installation would be worth a damn, because my research on Powerwall capabilities turned up information entirely at odds with the salesman’s vague assurances. The lion’s share of that cost was the batteries; the panels themselves were roughly 30%-40% of the overall expense, but they alone didn’t do what I wanted.

When I said thanks but no thanks. The local company rep was very understanding. The Solar City guy tried to guilt trip me with the following text message.

X from SolarCity here… don’t want to bother you but I did some more research into the politics of solar in AZ since your accountant thought that was what you should base your decision on. It turns out there are laws in place on both the federal and state levels that protect solar consumers after they go solar. There is no chance, according to precedent, that your contract with APS will change after you go solar. They are putting out confusing scare tactics to try and stall people until next year when rates will be higher for new customers. I have a letter directly from APS that they sent to existing solar customers explaining the grandfathering contract which promises NO INCREASE FOR EXISTING CUSTOMERS. So if you want to do the right thing for your sons future… and set a good example… please get back in touch with me so I can show you the APS document which guarantees you are  protected when you go solar for the life of your equipment. Thanks for reading!

If you want to piss me off, try convincing me to give you $40,000 as an expression of love for my son.

But what was the SolarCity guy talking about?

He and I had discussed not just the price, but the fact that the entire basis for making a net metering arrangement pay for itself depended on legal requirements that power utilities purchase power from people who install panels, and assumptions that the details of the arrangement will remain largely unchanged for two or more decades. He’s right that the contract itself is unlikely to change, but there can certainly be added costs in a market in which the buyers are all unwilling and actively lobbying to change the law. A market made by politics can be unmade the same way, and I didn’t want to get stuck with a legacy system based on old legal arrangements–especially since the batteries required to give me some actual energy independence add so much expense.

Why are the batteries so expensive? Well, battery technology has made incremental progress over the years, while the panels themselves have improved by leaps and bounds. Much of that is just technological reality. You can’t make a breakthrough happen. But in the case of solar power the incentives have been legally crafted to encourage grid-tied installations with little thought to storage. The law has crafted a model that depends on an artificial market at the expense of allowing the natural development of a market that would take advantage of solar power’s natural ability to create electricity where it’s needed (which is both convenient and an attractive prospect at a time when there’s growing concern over the power grid’s vulnerability to deliberate attack).

Tellingly, when Britain reduced subsidies, new installations flatlined, demonstrating how artificial the market is.

Letting the solar market develop naturally would encourage installations based on its strengths–perhaps a greater focus on battery research–and weaknesses alike. Weaknesses? Yes, a big part of the battery cost in my bids results from the need for oversized storage to accommodate the startup load — often three times the running load — for appliances designed with a grid-tie in mind. If you build a home and install appliances that start slowly and run smoothly — say a small well pump that continuously feeds a cistern from which water flows downhill into a home rather than a larger pump that runs intermittently to a pressure tank — you reduce storage needs. But if you create artificial incentives for a different kind of market, that potential is likely to be overlooked.

Unlike the SolarCity rep, the local company rep was actually a bit apologetic with his bid. He told me that he knew the market was changing and that he thought they’d lost valuable time during which they could have worked to develop a different sort of market by relying on the net metering requirements. I really wish I could have given him my business.

But instead, I installed a generator tied into natural gas. It just makes more sense for my current needs, no matter how cool solar power looks.

Dear Trumpkins and Clintonistas, Your Candidates Are Evil

Choose the form of your destructor!

Corrupt-ilicious or tyrant-tastic?

As I write these words, the FBI is reportedly investigating, after an aborted earlier attempt, Hillary Clinton’s use of the Clinton Foundation to, essentially, peddle access and government positions to generous donors. The revelations are actually just the culmination of a long-festering pattern of behavior that has seen suspicious favors done for individuals and companies including UBS, Uranium One, and the Saudi government.

Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, is busy trying to shrug off reports that his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, pocketed millions of illegal dollars in payments from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party. Trump, famously, has a man-crush on the thuggish Russian strongman and has even gone so far as to deny Russian military designs on Ukraine after Putin seized Crimea. Or maybe the money is unrelated–after all, he praised North Korea’s ruthless dictator, Kim Jong Un and the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of protests at Tiananmen Square without obvious compensation. This is independent of Trump’s attack just yesterday on freedom of the press.

Oh, and both Trump and Clinton have very serious problems with free speech in general.

Let’s face it: These are two of the shittiest creatures to ever to crawl out from under a rock and scurry into American politics, which is saying something, considering that it’s not an industry that brings out the best in people. But even compared to the control freaks, Klansmen, and grifters who have long made their livings by seeking government office, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton bring an unprecedented degree of overt grasping corruption and explicit contempt for the rest of the human race to their quests for the vast powers of the U.S. presidency. It’s no stretch to say that they embody evil in a way that we rarely have so openly rubbed in our faces.

Choose the form of the destructor, indeed.

To their credit, a good many Americans have glanced at what the Republican and Democratic parties left on the carpet and immediately gagged at what they’d stepped in. Clinton and Trump have consistently scored record high unfavorable ratings with voters. But they went on to win the nominations of their respective political parties anyway, testifying to the sad shape of these two senile and creaky organizations. Since then, “a full 13 percent of Americans would rather have a meteor hit Earth than vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” according to pollsters.

And yet…I’m still hearing people say that we have to choose between the psychopath and the sociopath. We must choose the form of the destructor, because it’s irresponsible to vote third party/refuse to vote. They insist that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein can’t win the election (because you shouldn’t vote for them, I guess) and not voting makes you responsible for the the destructor who ultimately triumphs. We must embrace evil, or else the other evil will win.

I think Julian Assange of Wikileaks had it right when he said, “You’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?” Neither for me, please.

Look, you can talk the inevitability of the two-party system all you like, but that doesn’t mean it has to be these two parties. In healthy democracies, political parties rise and fall. In recent years, Canada’s Reform Party competed with and then supplanted the Progressive Conservative Party before changing its name to “Conservative.” Before that, Britain’s Labour Party bumped the Liberal Party out of the ranks of the two dominant parties (though the displaced entity, now known as Liberal Democrats, hung on and is part of the current government as a junior partner to the Conservative Party). Even in the U.S. the Republican Party croaked the Whig Party in the 1850s and took its place. Political parties are private organizations. They live only so long as people see a need for them, and can be replaced when they do awful things like nominating evil people as their candidates for president.

Did I mention that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both horrible human beings and that to pick between them is to choose different brands of malevolence?

Look, if you really just can’t get enough of corrupt-ilicious Hillary or find the Donald just tyrant-tastic, knock yourself out with your chosen destructor. Just don’t act astonished when the rest of us back away with a frozen look of horror on our faces.

Because we’re better than that. And we’re still trying to scrape your candidate off our shoes.