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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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.

Lots of Feelings, but Little Thinking Doom Penguin

This is where we are. A couple of guys thought they were saving the world by stealing an endangered African penguin from a South African aquarium and setting him “free”. But what they’ve really done is doomed the penguin, who was born in captivity and has never learned how to fend for himself in the wild, and set back the breeding program designed to save the whole population.

The law of unintended consequences strike again. Relying primarily on their emotions and their own sense of self-righteousness, these low information do-gooders have only made things worse. How often do we think that because we have read something online or feel strongly about it, that we’re now experts qualified to talk about it.

I see this all the time in the anti-vaccine crowd or the anti-GMO crusaders and the rest, who become so intransigent in their self-imposed partial ignorance that they reject the truth when presented to them.

Thanks, guys, for killing the penguin you were trying to save.

Tornado Town

A fascinating look by FiveThirtyEight at Moore, Oklahoma, and whether it’s really a tornado magnet or whether it’s just had a bad run of luck in the past 20 years, getting hit by more EF4 and EF5 tornadoes than just about any place else. The article is a combination of probability analysis and people’s experiences.

Tornadoes fascinate me, as someone who’s never lived near Tornado Alley, because I don’t understand how you can just live with the possibility of a tornado coming through a wiping out everything.

One of my college roommates was from central Illinois and he would tel me that he was scared of hurricanes because they’re so big that you can’t really get out of their way. Meanwhile I would say that hurricanes are generally not so powerful that they destroy everything they touch like a tornado does. It’s all what you’re used to, I guess.

Why My Local Electric Company Won’t Install Solar Panels on My House

Two summers ago, a salesman came by the house to pitch installation of solar panels. It was one of those new companies that instead of selling you the panels, leases them to you. You pay a monthly fee that is supposed to be less than your electric bill. In return, they do all the work of installing and maintaining the panels and replacing them. They also make money selling the surplus electricity back to the electrical grid and by getting the tax rebates from the government.

It’s not a perfect system. For one thing, some companies don’t disclose all the costs. And some homeowners have been put in a difficult spot when they try to sell their homes because the new owner has to agree to take over the lease and has to qualify on credit. And, by law, they can’t install battery backups so when the sun isn’t shining, at night or during storms, you have to draw from the grid, which also removes another big bonus of solar that when the power lines are down you still have electricity.

But overall, it’s a step in the right direction for the “green revolution” and for renewable energy in America. So why aren’t the big electric utilities leasing solar panels and putting them on homes across America themselves? In fact, all of the major players are smallish companies, newcomers to home residential power.

Like many mature industries facing disruption from new upstarts, rather than using their vast resources to innovates, instead they hunker down and use external forces—legislation and lawsuits, for example—to maintain control. They’re using their clout with public utility commissions to create extra fees for solar power producers. They also play both sides against the middle, on the one hand pushing the passage of the aforementioned laws that prevent the use of battery backups and then claiming that by lowering their own rates while still relying on the grid at night, the solar companies are raising the costs for the poor and minorities.

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Through Bella’s eyes

overgrownwildflowersyard

I love seeing the world through Isabella’s eyes. I try to take a walk each morning and occasionally one of the kids gets up with me and wants to go. This morning it was Isabella’s turn and finally she’s old enough and tall enough that she doesn’t slow me down too much and has the stamina to go as far as I usually do.

As we walk, she sees things I don’t see when I’m by myself. I see a lawn overgrown with weeds. “Oh daddy, the people who live there must be very happy to have their lawn full of flowers,” she says.

I see a seedy, rundown house. “What a beautiful light shade of blue that house is,” Bella says.

I see an abandoned lot full of trash. “When summer comes this space will be full of flowers. I remember the wild roses from last year,” she says.

I see weatherworn garden gnomes. “I can picture how beautiful those statues were when they were new,” she says.

For Isabella, the world is bright and fresh and new and full of hope. It’s a place where you see the beauty first and ignore the ugliness. Or where what we define as the ugliness is really just beauty in another form.

The Lord sees us as a 7-year-old girl sees the world: Not for the ugliness we see, but for the beauty in what we truly are and can be.

The weather isn’t worse over the past 100 years

Dallas in Snow 02.08.2011It used to be called “man-made global warming,” when we were told that our greenhouse gas emissions were causing the ice caps and glaciers to melt, the seas to rise, our summers to get hotter, and our winters less snowy.(Before that, of course, it was the coming global ice age. And before that it was the coming population bomb when the number of people in the world would be greater than the amount of food the world could produce.)

Then when skepticism of “global warming” rose in the face of evidence that the world had experienced other cyclical warm periods in pre-industrial times; that in fact the world was just coming out of a period of unusual cooling in the 19th century; that some warming-alarmist climatologists were in fact falsifying their data; and that we were experiencing unusually cold and snowy winters in many places, they changed the term to “human-caused climate change.” The alarmists retorted that “weather isn’t climate” against the obvious evidence of harsher winter storms (never mind that every time a summer heat wave hits we’re treated to cries of “See? Global warming!”). They also said that on average globally and year-round, climate temperatures are on the rise, which causes all storms to become more intense, including winter storms. Thus, they claim, unusually cold and snowy winters are evidence of rising temperatures.

However, research using new supercomputer models of global climate since 1871 reveal that in fact, the weather is not getting harsher and more extreme. In fact, the weather, on average, is about the same since 1871 even though atmospheric CO2 has doubled in the past 100 years.

That’s right, no one is denying increased so-called “greenhouse gases”. The real question is whether those greenhouse gases actually cause the climate to change in any significant way, and whether other natural causes—such as cyclical changes in Sun activity, for example—are the real drivers of climate change.

So what?, some may ask. Shouldn’t we take draconian steps to decrease our carbon emissions just in case? Not so fast. All of the proposals for reducing emissions to the levels that the global warmists demand would have catastrophic effects on our economy and on the lives of billions of people around the world whose carbon emissions are part of their steep climb out of abject poverty. In addition, the global warming mindset—the belief that we’re in a period of higher temperatures all around—is having public policy effects that are already causing drastic problems.

Witness the thousands stranded when Heathrow skimped on de-icing supplies and let five inches of snow ground flights for two days before Christmas. Britain’s GDP shrank by 0.5% in the fourth quarter of 2010, for which the Office of National Statistics mostly blames “the bad weather.”

Arguably, global warming was a factor in that case. Or at least the idea of global warming was. The London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation charges that British authorities are so committed to the notion that Britain’s future will be warmer that they have failed to plan for winter storms that have hit the country three years running.

On the other hand, it is the very prosperity of economically powerful countries that ensure that no matter the weather, lives and property will survive much better. When Cyclone Yasi hit Australia, it was their very prosperity that allowed them to have just one confirmed death from the storm. Compare that to every single cyclone that hits Bangladesh, which is quickly followed by news reports of thousands killed. Likewise, when an unusual ice storm hit Dallas last week, the city was inconvenienced certainly, but its economic prosperity allowed it to continue relatively unscathed. But compare to the dozens who died in Bangladesh and Nepal last winter when temperatures fell to as low as just above freezing.

The sad reality is that for some global warmists, the result is regrettable, but necessary, because for many of them it is the very overpopulation of the economically depressed nations that is the greatest threat. They don’t see human life as special and worthy of dignity and human beings as made in the image and likeness of God. Instead, they see us as pests on back of Mother Earth and competitors for the scarce resources that the relatively wealthy First-World alarmists want for themselves. (I would say “and their progeny”, but many of them view children as parasites as well.)

The bottom line is that no one really knows whether the climate is really worse today than at any time in human history; if it is worse, whether it was caused by human activity; and if it is caused by human activity, whether there’s anything we can or should do to reverse it. What we do know is that attempts to flail at the problem have been ineffectual at best, and have done more harm than good at worst.

Photo by YiowMade – http://flic.kr/p/9gNm1o

Mother Nature—and the Gulf of Mexico—is tougher than you think

This about sums up my attitude toward climate change chicken littles who constantly predict that Humanity— and usually the United States specifically—is in imminent danger of destroying the environment á la “The Day After Tomorrow,” i.e. a massive worldwide destruction any time now. In fact, Mother Nature is a tougher broad than that:

But two lessons rise to the surface here. The first is to never underestimate the power of ecosystems to absorb shocks and adapt to change. While we should not treat Nature with reckless disregard, we should also not dishonor her by intimating that she stands in precarious balance, perennially on the brink of human-caused collapse. As ecology continues to develop as a science, I expect that it will be the extraordinary resilience of natural systems that will become the prevailing acknowledgment.

The second lesson is that we must demand a sense of perspective when dealing with issues of environmental concern. The natural inclination when faced with torrents of extremely focused media coverage is to extrapolate broadly to “the ecosystem” at large. Hysteria and fear do not make for good policy, however. An inability to properly understand ecological sensitivity leads to dire predictions which fuel misguided regulatory reaction.

This sensible attitude from Paul Schwennesen follows his apt illustration of the so-called “catastrophe” in the Gulf of Mexico. Without letting British Petroleum or the Obama administration off the hook, he shows that dire predictions of ecological collapse are over-wrought and that such over-reaching can lead to bad policy.

Picture your neighbor’s pool. Unless you live in Malibu, it’ll contain about 6,000 gallons. That’s the “Gulf” for purposes of discussion. Now go to your garage, get a quart of oil and pour it in when he’s not looking. Pretty good sense of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, right?

Nope, not even close.  Put a drop of that oil onto a sheet of paper and carefully cut it in half. Now do it again and toss that quarter of a drop into the deep end. Even this quarter droplet (about the size of the comma in this sentence) is about 10% too large, but NOW you have a sense of what 4.9 million barrels of oil in the Gulf looks like.

Now that we’ve grappled with the issue of scale, let’s look at the aftermath of this ‘catastrophe.’ According to the government scientists, seventy-five percent of that sliver of a droplet has now evaporated, been eaten by microbes, skimmed or burnt. (This estimate is in dispute, but every day the released oil is being reduced to get to that figure, if not beyond it.)

[Link via Tom Peters]

 

Book review: “Fragment” by Warren Fahy

I just finished reading a new science-fiction novel by Warren Fahy called “Fragment”. They can it an eco-thriller and it’s about an isolated island in the South Pacific, thousands of miles from the closest land that has been biologically isolated from the rest of the planet for 500 million years. Thus evolution has proceeded along a very different path, one that has resulted in an ecosystem so deadly and invasive that even one creature from it could result in devastation for every other organism on the planet. Of course, some folks stumble upon this island and the rollicking ride ensues.

By the third page of this book I had a pretty good idea of how it would end. Oh, not the details, mind you, but the overall arc mainly because it follows the predictable path trod before it by Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park”, the “King Kong” movies, and even Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lost World.” In fact, “Fragment” falls squarely in the family line of novels that arose after the era of the Victorian Enlightenment, in which Man thought he had had conquered nature and was now its master. Inevitably, novels like Doyle’s rejected that hubris to show that however much Man thinks he’s in charge, Nature always triumphs. Or if it doesn’t, maybe it should.

Such thinking is even more fashionable today among those who warn of humanity’s dire effects on the environment, and so Fahy takes up that banner. He does so very well with an entertaining and fast-paced read that includes one big twist and lots of scientific talk. (I’m not expert enough to know whether the science is accurate, but I can say it’s not so convoluted that a layman can’t follow. Or you can skip it and still enjoy the story.)

And yet, it’s still the Nature Triumphs over Man formula. You have the deadly but shadowy reveal of the “monster,” the disastrous first encounter by our hero, the retreat and then plucky advance, the dupe who blusters and is then lost, the villain who hopes to exploit Nature and his inevitable gruesome yet poetic demise, the heroic ending. If you’ve seen Spielberg’s movie, you can track the plot points even as the details change.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the story. It’s a pageturner as you follow along the hero’s progress and wait to see what new creation emerges from his fertile imagination. If you expect a popcorn-cinema experience, a good beach novel, then you’ll be satisfied. But don’t expect any innovation of the genre as it plays out strictly by the numbers.

A couple of additional points: The novel’s protagonists are not religious. They are scientists with a penchant for seeing religion as an anthropological construct or superstition. And the one or two religious minor characters in the book are just that: superstitious and hostile to science. It’s not fatal to enjoyment of the book, but it would have been interesting to see how a faith-filled scientist—one who sees science as an aid to his faith and vice versa—would have approached this island.

And as you might expect, the character development is somewhat lacking. Most everyone plays to the stereotype: The TV producer who cares only about ratings, not one whit for the human beings she lives with, the conniving mustache-twirling villain, the blockhead soldier, the oblivious scientist who lets his fascination lead to his death, and so on. Not to mention the Skipper, Gilligan, and Marianne. (I’m only half-joking.)

You won’t read this for a discussion of the philosophy of science or a good debate over man’s place in the universe. You will read it for the fast-paced action scenes and the fascinating flora and fauna of Henders Island.

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