Tesla Solar Panels: One Year Later

I wrote a long post last year about our saga getting solar panels installed on our house and approved for activation by the local electrical utility.1 While the panels were installed in the spring of 2018, we weren’t able to turn them on until August 2018. So one year later, how is it going?

Pretty awesome, to be blunt. In July 2018, our last full month on the grid, we used about 1 ,200 kWh of electricity from the utility, costing us about $286 in charges2.

This July 2019, our solar panels covered all of our electricity usage (in a massive heat wave) and generated an excess of 500 kWh to put back in the grid, generating a credit of $100. The Tesla solar panel lease is about $130, meaning we paid about 1/10th the amount for electricity this July over last.

Our current total credit balance for the year is about $450 so far and if current trends match last year’s, we should be on track to cover most, if not all, of our winter usage.3 I am very, very happy with this.

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I’m an Expert at Working from Home

I have worked from home part-time (i.e. telecommuting) or full-time for 12 of the past 23 years. I’ve done so as a single guy and as a married guy with homeschooled kids about. I’ve done so as a full-time virtual worker (i.e. no home office), as an employee of an organization where I worked several days in the office and several at home, and as essentially a sole proprietor (not really, but close enough). So I have some experience with the idea.

I did the commute to work from the suburbs to Boston, from suburbs through Boston to the other side, and from suburb to suburb and I have absolutely zero desire to get back in my car every single day and sit in that mess five days per week. This is why I wholly support the new focus by those in both government and the private sector on encouraging more telecommuting.

When I worked for Mass. Citizens for Life, I was required to drive into the office in Charlestown three days per week, which was torture, because I sat in stop-and-go traffic on the way in and on the way out, sometimes taking more than two hours to get home, and it was completely unnecessary. There was nothing in the office that I needed to be there for. For most of my time working there, only one other employee worked in the office and we had completely separate functions. Some days we said hello and goodbye. Most days I didn’t do a single thing that I couldn’t do from home, often more efficiently because I have a better computer at home. And yet, every day I drove in I contributed to traffic congestion and pollution and the consumption of gasoline and took up a spot in the parking lot and so on.1

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Too Many Cars? Private Enterprise Could Fix That

Around here we call Cambridge the “People’s Republic” for a reason. The city’s politics veer somewhere to the left of Leningrad circa 1985. So when they set out to reduce car ownership in the city a few years ago it had a decidedly liberal bent … and the predictable outcome. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A few years ago, Cambridge set a goal to reduce car ownership out of environmental concerns and started by trying to encourage people to go without and instead rely on buses and bike routes and the usual stuff that works for singles and small households, but not larger middle class families. The gentle carrot approach didn’t work as much as they’d hoped so now they’re going for a little less gentle approach of limiting the available parking, on or off street. And if that doesn’t work…. can taxes or “congestion fees” or any number of punitive steps be far behind?

Unfortunately, Cambridge’s policies seem to assume that most people who live in Cambridge work in the city or in neighboring Boston and don’t really venture outside those cities for anything. Of course, if you have five kids like we do, you’re already a pariah in the PRC so complaints about schlepping kids and their stuff around or wanting to visit family in the ‘burbs or go on vacation or even just go to the grocery story once a week fall on deaf ears. Instead, you get suggestions that maybe you should pay for Instacart or Uber or Zipcar or a bunch of other expensive services that still aren’t quite aimed at big families or the poor for that matter.

Still, there’s a future coming in which there may be a way to reduce car ownership without onerous regulation, but relies on private enterprise to fill some of the gap. That’s because we’re very close to having autonomous electric vehicles available. Read More and Comment

The Higher-Ed Bubble is Bursting

I’ve said for years that the higher education bubble is about to burst and it’s now coming true. All over New England over the past couple of years, small colleges have started closing due to falling enrollments and financial pressures.

The causes vary: Tuitions have risen to the point of ridiculousness and orders of magnitude faster than inflation in order to fund bloated administrative bureaucracies. Falling birth rates over the past several decades due to birth control and abortion have been exacerbated by falling populations in New England due to soaring cost of living. An increase in politically correct nonsense on campus in and outside the classroom to go along with the increase in expense have left people wondering whether there’s a value in a college degree compared to just getting a good job out of high school.

Sure the big schools like Harvard and MIT aren’t going anywhere. Harvard’s endowment is so big they could stop making students pay tuition and stay in business for several decades. But the small to mid-sized colleges, which there are more than you think, are in trouble. In 2015, there were 4,627 degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States, according to the US Dept. of Education. That’s an average of nearly 100 per state. Here in New England there are more than 250, 102 in Massachusetts and 50 clustered around Boston. that number is getting smaller by the year though.

Does the world need that many business and marketing majors, art history and pool management majors1 every year? Meanwhile, good jobs as electricians and carpenters and plumbers and factory workers paying good money without requiring four years of tuition that turns into crippling debt are staying empty.

We’ll all be much better off once the bubble is burst and the dying off is done. The schools that will remain will be healthier and hopefully more young people will realize that success in life doesn’t automatically start with a college degree.

  1. A real degree at Salem State University.

More Nonsense about Free College

Progressives/liberals are obsessed with the idea of free college for everyone, probably because it’s an electoral winner. What it is is another trillion-dollar boondoggle. Here’s the latest proposal from the op-ed pages of the Boston Globe.

Marcella Bombardieri of the Center for American Progress pushes the group’s new plan that would give free in-state public college tuition, room, board, transportation and other expenses to students from families that make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Middle-class families would pay up to 10 percent of their income. Upper income would pay 20 percent. (There’s nothing to indicate what they mean by “middle” and “upper”.) If they go to private schools or out-of-state public schools, they would pay “slightly higher.”

For their part, schools would be given golden handcuffs of promises of more federal and state funding in exchange for certain guarantees of quotas filled and “benchmarks” reached, i.e. “teach this in this way and enforce these social engineering rules, follow these government mandates, etc.”

What would be the cost of this little plan? Just $60 billion per year, they claim, a pittance compared to … name your big federal program here. But of course, the real cost would be more than that. Way more than that. Why?

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My Solar Power Odyssey with Tesla and National Grid

You’d think in this time of “green” everything and climate change, in a state where liberal do-gooders hate oil and coal and love solar, that it would be easier to go solar. Last September, I wrote about our solar power struggles to that point, but little did I know that our struggles were only just beginning.

To recap: In February 2017, I responded to a Google promotion that connected me with several different solar providers who provided some initial information. I selected Vivint, but we hit a snag and so I turned to Solar City (which has since become Tesla). That was in June, 2017. We had some back and forth over the summer getting the system designed and paperwork completed and by September, we had a signed agreement.

But then we hit a snag. National Grid wanted us to pay to upgrade the local transformer for more capacity. Since the Tesla business model is to lease the panels to me at a fixed rate and then sell excess electrical power back to the utility to offset nighttime draw from them, the local transformer has to be able to accommodate more power than usual. And because there were already several solar installations in my neighborhood, my installation would put it over the top. So National Grid wanted $3,500 for the new transformer. From my point of view, the new transformer benefits National Grid (upgrading their infrastructure) and Tesla (so they and other solar companies can sell more installs in my neighborhood), so why should I be expected to subsidize multi-million and billion dollar corporations? So I told Tesla that they had to pay for it and if they didn’t, I was walking away.

Tesla agreed without much hesitation, but then National Grid said it would take 12-28 weeks to get it done. Care to guess how long it took? Yes, six months. Which seems to be par for the course as in everything having to do with the utility took the long end of the estimate or more. (You can see my previous blog post on this situation here.)

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Skip College, Go to Trade School

I’ve been beating this drum for years. More young people should consider skipping college, learn a trade, and start life without a crushing burden of debt for a degree you never needed. The Wall Street Journal has now noticed a trend, profiling the new generation of students who don’t opt out of college because they don’t have the grades, but because they want to take a different path.

In 2009, the last year for which data is available, 19% of high-school students were concentrating in vocational subjects, down from 24% in 1990.

Even as more students enroll in college, “40% to 50% of kids never get a college certificate or degree,” said Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. And among those who do graduate, about one-third end up in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree.

Why go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt (in some cases, hundreds of thousands), to end up in the half that don’t finish anyway or the large percentage who don’t end up using all the expensive “book learning”. And let’s not forget the crazy classes and ideological indoctrination and crazy bacchanalian libertinism.

Meanwhile, the kids who apprenticed or went to a trade school or got vocational training are out there earning good salaries and getting their lives started without crushing debt.

My older brother Bernie never went to college, but he owns his own business driving a tractor trailer and is quite successful, much more than I will be having gone to 4+ years of college. That path will be one of the options my children will explore.

Solar Power is in Reach, But the Old Dinosaur Still Stands in the Way

Men installing solar panels on a roof

We finally have an installation date for our solar panels from Solar City/Tesla. As you may recall, we started this odyssey at the beginning of last summer (2017) and signed the paperwork in July. But our local electrical provider, National Grid, had told us that we couldn’t put them on their grid because their local connection equipment wasn’t up to snuff.1 They said that an upgrade would take 16 to 20 weeks!

So nearly six months after that, the upgrade has been done and now our solar panels are scheduled for installation in mid-March. But that doesn’t mean they will be running by then, because after the installation we have to wait for National Grid to inspect them to make sure they are connected to their grid properly. The current wait time is running 10 to 11 weeks. When all is said and done, we’ll have waited almost a year to get up and running on solar, nearly all of that time due to National Grid’s foot-dragging. And because they’ve dragged their feet, they will have sucked an extra $3,600 out of us.

Of course, the electric utilities don’t like everyone going solar because not only do they lose the money for the electricity they were selling us, they also have to buy back any excess electricity we generate. But it didn’t have to be this way.

In fact, they could have avoided all of this if they had been a forward-looking innovator instead of a backward, too conservative monopoly more interested in the status quo. Imagine if the electric utilities themselves had gotten into solar leasing instead of letting companies like Solar City and Vivint take over. National Grid already owns all the infrastructure and has relationships with all of its customers. They could show up one day and say, “Hey, let us put solar panels on your roof and cut your bill in half. It won’t cost you a dime.” Sure, on the one hand, they get half of what they were getting. On the other hand, half is better than none. Even better, they don’t have to buy back the extra electricity: It’s already theirs. And they can then sell that electricity to other customers, having created more capacity in the grid without having to build expensive plants or buying from a regional cooperative.

But old, comfortable companies, especially those with monopolies, don’t think like this. No cable company could have invented Netflix. No bookstore chain could have invented Amazon. No record label could have invented iTunes.

So now, I’m left waiting to get my solar panels up and running as National Grid runs out the clock on their monopoly, squeezing every possible cent out of the system. And no one will mourn them when they are gone someday.

  1. We’d actually tried connecting with a different solar company before Solar City, but National Grid said their local transformer that serves our neighborhood needed an upgrade to serve more solar panels. So they had so many solar customers already and before more could be added, they need to upgrade. They told us that we would have to pay $3,500 for the equipment upgrade. No thanks! I’m not subsidizing giant corporations so they can then serve more customers because once the equipment is upgraded any neighbors who want to go solar in the future would benefit too. When I went to Solar City they agreed to pay the upgrade. I wrote about this last September.

The Trash and Recycling Our Family Generates

Recycling center

I am consistently amazed by how little landfill trash our family of seven generates. Our trash company gives us a 96-gallon barrel for trash and two 96-gallon recycling barrels, which they pick up every two weeks. The basic level of service is usually one of each, but we eventually discovered we needed two recycling bins. We could also get weekly pickup if we wanted, but it hasn’t been necessary from a volume standpoint (although in the summer heat, I sometimes wish it was every week) and there is a substantial savings if we go every other week.

And while the amount of trash and recycling varies, in general the amount of landfill trash (i.e. what can’t be recycled) is about one or two 13-gallon kitchen trash bags per week. Meanwhile, I’m often left trying to jam in more and more recycling into the two recycling bins by the day of pickup.

I usually divide our recycling between the two barrels1, with one barrel holding just cardboard boxes and the other holding all the various household paper and metal and glass, mostly from the kitchen. It often works out to about even amounts in the barrels. The cardboard is mainly Amazon boxes because we do so much shopping there, including Subscribe and Save on things like large boxes of paper towels.

Of course, there’s a third kind of trash I have to deal with, namely all the things that I can’t put in the barrels, like broken bicycles and a broken wheelbarrow and very large cardboard boxes that have to be broken down before they can fit in the recycling bin and even then only in pieces over time so as not to monopolize it. For that stuff, I think I will begin to do an occasional Bagster pickup, as needed. I had one last year when we had our floors redone and I managed to put a bunch of other stuff in there too.

A valid question is how we manage to divert so much from the landfill. Certainly, our trash has changed over the years. For one thing, we no longer (for now anyway) have lots and lots of diapers as we did for almost a decade. We also don’t subscribe to a paper newspaper (I’m iPad subscription only now), which took up a ton of space in recycling.2 We also try to re-use food waste in other ways as well. We save chicken bones and vegetable ends for making stock and put other kinds of vegetables and food in our compost. Melanie even saves orange peels for making marmalade and old bananas (so many overripe bananas) in the freezer for smoothies, breads, and chocolate ice “cream” for Lucy.

We are by no means perfect at this. Nor are we especially militant about it. And there are recent questions about whether household recycling makes as big a dent in the landfill problem as we think. But it makes me happy anyway to do what I can to show that big families are not necessarily the resource hogs that some people say they are, that in fact big families can have a light environmental footprint compared to, say, a twenty-something childless couple living in a hip downtown loft.

  1. This is not a requirement of the trash company; just something I started doing on my own as an experiment.
  2. Although junk mail continues to be a substantial amount of recycling.

Solar Power Struggles

My brother had solar panels installed on his house by SolarCity about 3 or 4 years ago now, right near the beginning of the new leased solar panel trend. In the past, you had to buy a solar panel setup outright, often at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars outlay. Even with tax credits and electric savings, you wouldn’t see a return on your investment for years. But the new solar panel leasing allows you to get panels on your roof for a low monthly fee. You don’t own the panels, but maintenance is taken care of by the vendor and, in our case, we’d save about half off our utility bill.

This seemed like a good deal so we contacted my brother’s salesman, but because of a number of distractions we never followed through. Earlier this year, I saw something from Google about going solar where I could enter my information and several different solar companies would contact me about their services. I did and heard from one, Vivint. They gave me their pitch, which outlined what’s involved and how much we would pay.

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