Category Archives: Eco-Activism

Demand Destruction from Home

Demand destruction is what coal mining companies, utilities, and anyone who benefits from a centrally controlled power grid dreads.  Why?  Demand destruction represents an existential threat to the entire business model of these entities.

Consider the state of Iowa’s electricity generation mix and my recently installed solar photovoltaic system.  Iowa’s electricity generation mix breaks down like this for April of 2017:

Iowa Energy Chart.gif

In Iowa non-hydroelectric renewables usually equals wind given the relatively low penetration of solar photovoltaic generation.  Another caveat is that the wind tends to blow strongly in the spring and demand for electricity has not spiked with the onset of the summer air conditioning season.

Now consider the impact of a solar photovoltaic system, mine or someone else’s.  When that demand leaves the grid, so to speak, what generation sources do you think will be curtailed?  In order I think it would be coal, nuclear, natural gas, and finally wind.  Why?  Wind turbines do not have a recurring fuel cost, so the cost to retire them does not include a perpetuity of fuel cost baked in which can be a significant driver for an asset with a long life.

In other terms, do you keep generating power by paying to burn a fuel or just harvest the wind for free?  In business school the number one lesson I learned in marketing was to not compete with free.  You will lose every time.

So, as demand disappears from the grid as a result of distributed residential solar the traditional fossil fuel sources are forced to compete with installed and cheap wind power for a dwindling number of customers.  I exaggerate to some degree to get the point across, but in Iowa this may not be such a moot point given the plans for wind power development in the next three years.

Depending upon how you measure it Iowa has more than 6,900 megawatts of wind power providing anywhere from 35% to 40% of the state’s electricity.  This is great news in and of itself, but the state’s two major utilities—MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy—have announced investments for an additional 3,000 megawatts or more by 2020.  Just with these additions—barring any additional activity by other energy players—would bring Iowa nearly 10,000 megawatts of wind power and give the state the capacity to produce more than 50% of its electricity from the wind.  This is without a significant portion of the state’s electricity demand being displaced by distributed residential solar or energy efficiency.

As you can see from the chart that when the wind blows heavily, which it tends to do in the spring, wind is already the largest source of electricity generation in the state.  That trend was true for February, March, and April of 2017. This is only going to grow in the future.

Our homes can be the drivers of change for a cleaner and greener world.

How Much Electricity Will My Solar System Produce?

By the beginning of September I should be generating electricity from the solar photovoltaic panels mounted on my roof.  The system will be comprised of 16 290W panels mounted on a nearly directly south facing roof (270 degrees azimuth give or take a degree for those of you into these things).

Using a variety of calculators online I averaged out the estimates of “peak solar hours” for my system as designed and came up with the following chart to estimate my solar system’s output:

Solar_Estimate.png

The output is based on taking the system size (4.64 kWh) times the peak solar hours and reducing it by an assumed system yield (65%).

The system yield is probably the trickiest number to estimate.  I went as low as 65% because that level would still allow me to meet my annual electricity consumption based on a 400 kWh per month rolling average, which dipped to 390 kWh the past few months and which I hope will drop even further with some forthcoming household changes.

The yield is a function of so-called system losses and general lower production due to siting issues, shade, cloud cover, dirt, etc.  My hope is that on balance I see a system yield in the 75% range.  This would give me a little breathing room above and beyond my average annual consumption.

The worst part right now is the waiting.  The solar installers are ready to go and the panels have arrived but we are waiting on the power company and the city to sign off on the system design.  Every day that I see the sun out shining bright is a day that I feel like I have missed an opportunity to generate clean electricity from the sun.

Beware Solar Panels and Homeowners Insurance

Do you know what has been the hardest part about getting my new solar photovoltaic system put on my house?  Homeowners insurance.

How often do we really think about our homeowners insurance?  For me, not very often.  Like once in fifteen years when I made a claim after a massive hailstorm left almost every house in the area with a need for a new roof and siding.

So, there I am a customer of fifteen years with one claim to my name looking to switch insurance providers.  Why?  The company I had been with does not insure homes with solar panels installed on the roof.  Ground mount installations would be fine.  Even an installation on a non-attached garage would have been fine.  However, mounted on my west facing attached garage roof was a bridge too far for the insurance provider.

How far?  Like no consideration at all of insuring a home with solar panels even with a policy rider or similar insurance vehicle.  Like no consideration for the fact that I was a long term customer with multiple policies.  No way, no how.

The problem with all of this is that the solar installer requires a certificate of insurance to begin an installation.  If your insurance company will not insure your home when it has solar panels you are forced to switch providers with all of the relevant switching costs and hassle in order to begin the installation.  Consider it another hassle or hurdle to the broad installation of solar panels across the United States.  Every impediment is a step backwards on the path to a cleaner future.

This is the challenge for distributed rooftop solar.  Balance of system costs and hurdles, e.g. those costs and impediments that are not directly attributable to the PV panels or related hardware, will be what determines the ultimate penetration rate of distributed solar.

Signing on the Dotted Line for Solar

The contract is signed.

By September I will have a solar photovoltaic system on my roof generating electricity for the next twenty five years or so.  I consider it my fairly large middle finger to anyone who wants to keep digging coal out of the ground and burning it like some bad parody of the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

The system will be installed on a west facing (almost exactly 270 degree azimuth for those of you into that sort of description) roof that is a large single pitch with no protrusions.  Due to my relatively low electricity consumption the maximum system allowed the power company was under 5 kWh.  My system will be composed of 16 SolarWorld 290W panels for a total of 4,640W.

Gross system cost is $2.35 per watt installed.  The applicable federal and state tax credits take that figure down to $1.29 per watt.

Based on the system size, orientation, and projected system losses I figure that this system will generate slightly more than my annual electricity consumption assuming no changes in consumption patterns.  This would all get thrown out the window if I traded in my truck for a Chevy Bolt.

The most frustrating part is that if it were not for the various hoops that the power company makes everyone jump through this process could have been completed in weeks if not days.  Now that the cost for the solar panels and inverters have dropped so dramatically the biggest impediment to widespread adoption will be the balance of system costs and the permitting hassles.  Although my power company is obligated to allow me to install solar panels and the feed that power back into the grid via net metering it is their intention, in my opinion, to make the process as onerous as possible in order to deter other people from signing on the dotted line for solar.

This is the first step in the newly coined #myPersonalParis where I am going to control as many aspects of my life to align with a significantly reduced emissions footprint as possible in solidarity with the Paris climate accord which our dear leader decided was too onerous because…reasons?

What are you doing?

My Personal Paris

The U.S. government will not save us from climate change.  The signs have been apparent long before Donald Trump took the oath of office and handed over the U.S. government to fossil fuel interests in a manner so brazen even Dick Cheney would blush.  The final nail in the coffin of the possibility of leadership from the U.S. government came with the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

Make no mistake, the Paris climate accord was not going to be the tool with which to save the world from man-made climate change.  It was a first step in codifying a structure with which to address the issue in a constructive manner.  The current President of the United States does not understand constructive problem solving since it cannot be manhandled into a monosyllabic tweet at five o’clock in the morning.

The Paris climate accord was limited, but it was a start.  Just getting everyone to the table—save for Syria and Nicaragua at the time—was a major accomplishment.  Just getting everyone to agree that man-made climate change was a problem and that we should act was herculean.  We all can agree, however, that the Paris climate accord did not go far enough to address the problem and it does not include forcing functions for countries that fail to live up to the commitments made to the world.

Regardless, the framework of the Paris climate accord is irrelevant for those of us in the United States.  This does not mean that we have to sit idly by and watch as the world tries to address the problem.  I surmise that at this moment in history most of the tools that we need as a civilization exist for us to combat climate change and secure the future of Earth as a viable habitat for humanity.

Consider the following chart of the sources of carbon emissions in the United States:

totala.png

As an individual we have a hand in every slice of the pie with a more direct impact on some more than others.  It is our job as residents of the planet to figure out how we can meet or exceed the goals of the Paris climate accord without the agreement of politicians in Washington D.C.

Everyone has to figure out how they will act on a “personal Paris.”  Unlike almost any other time in recent history we have the tools to make meaningful change at a personal level.  Solar photovoltaic systems are cheaper now than ever and make economic sense in almost any market in the country.  Electric vehicles are now more common than ever before and accessible to a larger share of the population that at any other time in the short history of the technology.  Commuting can be reduced or eliminated via bicycling or telecommuting or just becoming an early retiree like all those couples living in vans on Instagram.

My point is that we have a plethora of options in order to address every slice of the emissions pie pictured above.  If you have the discretionary income there are options.  If you have extra time there are options.  If you need to save money there are options.  As I stated earlier, unlike any other time in recent history we have the tools available to use to make meaningful change.

We need to take responsibility for our actions and act in a correspondingly restorative way.  We need to become the change we want to see in the world.

China’s Environment is Screwed and so is its Economy

China’s economy may be a growth miracle, but the externalities associated with that growth are certainly coming home to roost.

The infamous smog, that wonderful concoction of airborne pollutants and atmospheric conditions, made well-known during the run-up to the Olympics in 2008 has not gotten better. It’s gotten worse.

Recently, the U.S. embassy in Beijing—which has become a trusted source on the quality of the air in China—reported that its air quality index measuring so-called PM2.5 particles hit 545. A number greater than 300 is considered immediately hazardous to one’s health. The visibility in the city is expected to be reduced to less than 500 meters.

What does that look like? Here you go:

B7Xq5FSCEAAEWit

Granted, the smog gets worse in the winter as atmospheric conditions and increased heating burden mix to create this lovely toxic stew.

However, the long term trend is that China’s air is so messed up that it will inhibit long term economic security. Why? People will not want to live there.

Businesses will not be able to locate themselves in China because no one will want to work there or will demand what amounts to hazard pay in order to relocate. Don’t believe it? Coca-Cola is offering its employees a so-called “environmental hardship allowance” for expatriate employees.

Panasonic is doing the same thing.

For Republicans or anyone who believes that air quality is a luxury remember that people like to breathe clean air. The lack of clean air will impact the economic viability of companies and countries. It looks like China is going to be the laboratory for this particular experiment in free market thinking. Here is to hoping the invisible hand of the market slaps the libertarians in the house.

Sea World is Getting Hammered

On November 13th I captured this chart:

SeaWorldThis is the price and volume of the stock SEAS on the New York Stock Exchange. SEAS is the ticker symbol for SeaWorld. Needless to say, it is not a comfortable place to be if you are in investor relations right now. On that same day the current low is less than half of what the 52-week high had been. ($16.77 per share on November 13th versus a high of $35.30 on February 26th). Brutal.

The great thing about a company being publicly traded is that SEC requires a lot of information to be filed—granted it is in a sometimes archaic format—and institutional investors as for a lot of additional information if you want them to open their huge purses. All of this information floats around the tubes of the internet waiting to get sucked up and analyzed by eager parties. Like me.

I have little or no love for SeaWorld. The documentary Blackfish and books like David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity just confirm long held suspicions that ocean animals belong in the ocean. These animals are not performers.

So, it is refreshing to see that there are direct impacts to people being upset about the practices at SeaWorld. How upset? If you look at the quarterly numbers released recently people are pissed and voting with their feet. Attendance at the parks—which include the infamous SeaWorld parks, Busch Gardens theme parks, and some other random parks—was down 5.2% compared to the same quarter in 2013, which is bad, but revenue was down an astounding 8% during the same period comparison.

These are horrific numbers. The executives of SeaWorld and the analysts gave them a pass on the real reason and stuck to the usual lines of weather, competition, blah…blah…blah…

The fact is that people do not want to patronize a business that is a deadly place to work and that holds animals captive in such deplorable conditions. We dislike zoos that are squalid, puppy mills that are exploitative, and marine parks that are pathetic.

If you are someone who is passionate about this issue please keep up the pressure because the impacts are being seen. People are staying away and, as a publicly traded company, we can see deep into the belly of the beast when it comes to results.