Posts tagged ‘solar’

The Wrong Way to Sell Wind and Solar

A reader sent me this article on renewables by Tom Randall at Bloomberg.  I would like to spend more time thinking about it, but here are a few thoughts. [Ed:  sorry, totally forgot the link. duh.]

First, I would be thrilled if things like wind and solar can actually become cheaper, without government subsidies, than current fossil fuels.  I have high hopes for solar and am skeptical about wind, but leave that aside.

Second, I think he is selling renewables the wrong way, and is in fact trumpeting something as a good thing that really is not so good.  His argument is that the decline in capacity factors for natural gas and coal plants is a sign of the success of renwables.  The whole situation is complex, and a real analysis would require looking at the entire power system as a whole (which neither of us are doing).  But my worry is that all the author has done is to demonstrate a unaccounted-for cost of renewables, that is the reduction in efficiency of coal and natural gas plants without actually being able to replace them.

Here is his key chart.  It purports to show the total US capacity factor of each energy mode, with capacity factor defined as the total electricity output of the plant divided by what the electricity output could be if the plant ran full-out 24/7/365.

capacity factors

First, there is a problem with this chart in terms of its data selection -- one has to be careful looking at intra-year variations in capacity factor because they vary a lot seasonality, both due to weather and changes in relative fuel prices.  Also, one has to be hugely suspicious when someone is claiming a long term trend but only shows 18 months of data.   The EIA can provide some of the data for a few years ahead of his table.  You can see it is pretty volatile.


I won't dwell on the matter of data selection, because it is not the main point I want to make, but the author's chart looks suspiciously like cherry-picking endpoints.

The point I do want to make is that reducing the capacity utilization, and thus efficiency, is a COST not a benefit as he makes it out.  Things would be different if renewables replaced a lot of fossil fuel capacity at the peak utilization of the day (the total capacity of a power system has to be sized to the peak daily demand).  But the peak demand in most Western countries occurs late in the day, long after solar has stopped producing.  Germany, which relies the most on solar, has studied this and found their peak electricity demand is around 6PM, a time where solar provides essentially nothing.   Wind is a slightly different problem, because of its hour to hour unpredictability, but suffice it to say that it can't be counted on in advance on any particular day to provide power at the peak.

This means that one STILL has to have the exact same fossil fuel plant capacity as one did without renewables.  Yes, it runs less during the day and burns less fuel, but it still must be built and exist and be staffed and in many cases it still must be burning some fuel (even if producing zero electricity) to be hot and ready to go.

The author is arguing for a virtuous circle where reductions in capacity factors of fossil fuel plants from renewables increases the total cost per KwH of electricity from fossil fuels (because the capital cost is amortized over fewer kilowatts).  This is technically true, but it is not the way power companies have to look at it.  Power companies have got to build capacity to the peak.  With current technologies, that means fossil fuel capacity has to be built to the peak irregardless of their capacity factor.  If these plants have to be built anyway to cover for renewables when they disappear during the day, then the capital costs are irrelevant at the margin.   And the marginal cost of operations and producing power from these plants, since they have to continue to exist, is around $30-$40 a MwH, waaaay under renewables still.

In essence, the author is saying:  hurray for renwables!  We still have to have all the old fossil fuel plants but they run less efficiently now AND we have paid billions of dollars to duplicate their function with wind and solar plants.  We get to pay twice for every unit of electricity capacity.

Environmentalists are big on arguing that negative externalities need to be priced and added to the cost of things that generate them -- thus the logic for a carbon tax.  But doesn't that mean we should tax wind and solar, rather than subsidize them, to charge them for the inefficiently-run fossil fuel plants we have to keep around to fill in when renewables inevitably fail us at the peak time of the day?

By the way, speaking of subsidies, the author with a totally straight face argues that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels with this chart:

solar costs


He also says, "Wind power, including U.S. subsidies, became the cheapest electricity in the U.S. for the first time last year."

I hate to break it to the author, but a Ferrari would be cheaper than a Ford Taurus if the government subsidized it enough -- that means nothing economically other than the fact that the government is authoritarian enough to make it happen.  All his chart shows is that solar is more expensive than coal and gas in every state.

And what the hell are those units on the left?  Does Bloomberg not know how to annotate charts?  Since 6 cents per Kw/hr is a reasonable electricity cost, my guess is that this is dollars per Mw/hr, but it is irritating to have to guess.

Is This REALLY What Environmentalists Are After?

I have seen this story all over the place, touting some Indian airport that will, gasp, entirely power itself with solar.  Look at the picture environmentalists are bragging about.  The solar panels to power a few buildings cover perhaps 10x or more of the land taken up by the buildings themselves.  They paved paradise and put up ... a solar farm.

airport solar

Heisenberg's Theorum on Green Energy Measurement

Theorum:  A media article on a wind or solar project will give its installation costs or the value of its energy produced, but never both.

Corollary 1:  One therefore can never assess the economic reasonableness of any green energy project from a single media article

Corollary 2:  For supporters of green energy, there is a good reason for Corollary #1.

When "Pro-Science" Environmentalists Fall For Idiotic Technologies: Solar Roads Edition

I am mostly inured to being told I am "anti-science" for thinking manmade global warming will be less than catastrophic.  In debate situations (which are increasingly rare, since most colleges where I do most of my speaking no longer want a second side in climate discussions) I usually can demonstrate I know a hell of a lot more about the science than my opponent in the first 3 minutes or so.

But the whole "pro-science" pose of environmentalists is especially funny when they get really excited about some very stupid technology.  Environmentalists' support for corn ethanol is a good case in point.  Most of them have retreated on this, and the media has pretty much allowed them to pretend they were never really vociferous supporters of this technology that most now consider (and I considered from the beginning) to be environmentally damaging.

Here is the new, latest, greatest example.  From Think Progress, where else, but the story has been reprinted all over the hip environmental Left:

The World’s First Solar Road Is Producing More Energy Than Expected


In its first six months of existence, the world’s first solar road is performing even better than developers thought.

The road, which opened in the Netherlands in November of last year, has produced more than 3,000 kilowatt-hours of energy — enough to power a single small household for one year, according to Al-Jazeera America.

“If we translate this to an annual yield, we expect more than the 70kwh per square meter per year,” Sten de Wit, a spokesman for the project — dubbed SolaRoad — told Al Jazeera America. “We predicted [this] as an upper limit in the laboratory stage. We can therefore conclude that it was a successful first half year.”

De Wit said in a statement that he didn’t “expect a yield as high as this so quickly.”

The 230-foot stretch of road, which is embedded with solar cells that are protected by two layers of safety glass, is built for bike traffic, a use that reflects the road’s environmentally-friendly message and the cycling-heavy culture of the Netherlands.

In the US, we pay about 12 cents a KwH for electricity  (the Dutch probably pay more).  But at this rate, in 6 months, the solar sidewalk has generated... $360 of electricity.  Double that for a year, and we get $720 of electricity a year.

How much did the sidewalk cost?  The article doesn't say.  You will find this typical of wind and solar articles.  If they quantify the installation cost, they will not quantify the value of power produced.  If they quantify the power produced, they will never quantify the installation cost. This article says the installation cost was $3.5 million, though I suppose one should subtract from that the cost to build a similar length concrete bike path, but that can't be more than $100,000 for 230 feet.  They say they are getting 70kwh per year per square meter, which is $8.40 worth of electricity per square meter per year.  Since regular solar panels - without all the special glass overlays and installation in the ground and inverters and wiring - cost about $150-$200 per square meter, you can see this is a horrible investment.

Part of the reason this is a bad investment is that solar panels are simply not efficient enough and cheap enough to be cost effective -- I think they will be someday, but not now.   But this project has special problems:

  • The panels are actually in the ground with people driving over them.  Honestly, could one actually choose a worse spot for a solar panel?  This installation location, vs. say a roof, adds incredible cost to toughen the panels for wear.  Also, it increases their maintenance costs and likely reduces their life.
  • Even worse, the panels have to sit flat on the ground, which is not the most efficient place for them.  Panels are most efficient if tilted at an angle and (in the case of Holland) facing south.  Further, they are more efficient up in the air where they do not get shaded by trees or buildings.

This is just stupid, stupid, stupid.  Perhaps if solar becomes more efficient and we have run out of space on every roof in the world, one might possibly maybe (but probably not) consider this.  But despite the inherent inanity of this idea, look at all the articles on Solaroad -- Think Progress, the Huffington Post, Engadget, Tree Hugger, Extreme Tech, NPR, Sustainable Business -- they all have multiple, gushing, unrelentingly positive articles about this.  Look at all the positively fawning comments on Think Progress.  I can't find a single article on the web that is even slightly skeptical.

 Update:  A reader sends me this epic video takedown of this stupid idea.  He did this in advance of the article today.  He finds it to be complete BS, despite the fact that he overestimates electrical production by a factor of 2.

OK, I Relent: I Will Support A Carbon Tax If Y'all Will Stop the Torrent of Stupid

President Obama is preparing to unleash a Colorado-River-sized torrent of stupid.  He wants to spend tens of billions of dollars on goofy green energy projects that will have an indiscernible affect on world temperatures but will have a very robust effect on some crony bottom lines.   Here is one example:

As part of President Obama’s plans to combat climate change, the White House announced a program on Friday for the U.S. Department of Energy to train 75,000 people to work in the solar power industry by 2020, many of whom will be part of a military veterans jobs initiative called Solar Ready Vets.

Seriously, is the training costs of workers really a substantial portion of a solar installation?

Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, which publishes the annual National Solar Jobs Census, said that Obama’s announcement will not likely increase the size of the solar industry’s workforce but will instead ensure that the industry will be able to find highly skilled workers to fill jobs.

“We’re experiencing difficulty finding more skilled and qualified workers to install and do design work required,” she said, adding that the industry’s workforce has a “skills gap” as well-trained electricians and other workers go back to other construction jobs as the economy gains momentum.

I will translate that trade-group speak for you:  We like to pay our workers less than similarly-skilled construction workers so we lose a lot of skilled workers to higher paying construction companies. This program will not add any net employment to the economy but will help us keep wages lower by increasing the supply of qualified workers.

I can't help but think of Henry Ford, who famously raised the wages of his employees substantially.  The fake story is that he did this so all his workers could buy his product.   The real reason he did this was that he had horrendous labor turnover problems.  Like the solar industry, he was training folks who then left for higher paying jobs.  So he had to raise his wages to retain trained people.  How history would have changed if Ford had instead been able to call Obama and ask him to have the taxpayer pay to feed him with new, trained workers so he wouldn't have to raise his wage rates!

Seriously, did a bunch of technocrats get together and study the whole solar industry and come to the conclusion that solar installation skills were the keystone problem that was holding back the whole industry?  Of course not.  The solar industry will sink or swim based on panel costs and efficiencies.   What happened is someone said, "well the public always seems to like job training programs.  Those poll well."  And then they called the solar crony association or whatever it is called and they said, "sure, we would love to have taxpayers pay some of our training costs.  Thanks, we will be very supportive." And then someone said, "well, won't the Republicans pitch a fit over this?" And then someone had the brilliant idea of making it a veterans program -- "Republicans love soldiers, that will help defuze their opposition."  And an expensive crony giveaway was born.

About 5 years ago I said I would be willing to accept a carbon tax whose proceeds were used to reduce various labor tax rates (e.g. social security).  Substituting an energy consumption tax for a labor consumption tax was probably at least neutral and maybe even a net positive.

Now, I want to come back to that idea.  I don't believe any more than I did then that CO2-driven global warming will be catastrophic.  In fact, I am more confident than ever that while CO2-induced warming is a reality, the sensitivity of temperatures to CO2 levels is relatively low.  But please, I am willing to fully support a carbon tax that offsets some other existing tax if only we will stop all this stupid crony useless green energy stuff.  At least with a carbon tax, the markets will reduce fossil fuel use in the most efficient ways possible.  As opposed to programs like this one that will reduce fossil fuel use not at all but will cost a lot of money.

New Business Opportunity: Lolo's Eagle and Waffles Next to Large Solar Plants

From ReWire via Anthony Watts

A test of a solar power tower project in Nevada resulted in injuries to over one hundred birds, the federal government is reporting, though the project's owners say they've fixed the problem.

On January 14, during tests of the 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Tonopah, Nevada, biologists observed 130 birds entering an area of concentrated solar energy and catching fire. That's according to Rudy Evenson, Deputy Chief of Communications for Nevada Bureau of Land Management in Reno.

Evenson suggested that the birds may have been attracted by a glow the concentrated solar energy created above the project's sole tower.


According to Evenson, workers testing the plant moved approximately a third of the project's ten thousand mirrors to focus sunlight on a point 1,200 feet above the ground, approximately twice the height of the power tower at Crescent Dunes.

The test started at 9:00 a.m. on January 14, Evenson told Rewire. By 10:30, biologists working on the site began noticing what have become known as "streamers," trails of smoke and water vapor caused by birds entering the field of concentrated solar energy (a.k.a. "solar flux") and igniting.

By the time the test ended for the day at 3:00 p.m., biologists had counted 130 such "streamers." A subsequent test on January 15 reduced the number of mirrors aimed at the focal point above the tower, said Evenson, and that apparently ended the injuries to birds.

Oops.  It is amazing how solar gets a pass on things that other industries would be hounded into bankruptcy over.  ExxonMobil was fined by the Feds for 85 bird deaths at the company's natural gas facilities.  These deaths were spread out over 5 states and over 5 years.  This solar plant killed at least 130 birds in one location in 6 hours.  ExxonMobil was fined $7000 per dead bird.  Anyone want to bet on what the solar guys will be fined?  Vegas has set the over-under at zero.

The Graveyard of Cronyism

Phoenix businesses add hundreds of jobs every week.  However, the only jobs that every get subsidized are in sexy businesses.  That is because the subsidies themselves make zero sense, from an economic or public policy standpoint.   The point is not to create jobs, but to create press releases and talking points for politicians and their re-election campaigns.

And there is little that is sexier to politicians spending taxpayer money to get themselves re-elected than solar and Apple computer.  Which brings us to this plant in Mesa (a suburb of Phoenix), which I am calling the Graveyard of Cronyism.


This plant was built by First Solar to build solar panels.  I would have to quit my day job and work full-time to figure out all the ways this plant was subsidized by taxpayers -- special feed-in tariffs for First Solar customers, government tax breaks for solar panel purchases, direct government subsidies and grant programs for solar panel purchases, the DOE loan guarantee program for solar... etc.  In addition, the City of Mesa committed $10 million in infrastructure improvements to lure First Solar to the site.  I can't find what economic development incentives there were but there must have been tax abatements.  In addition, the company was promised a further $20 million in economic development funds from the County, but fortunately (unlike most such deals) the funds were tied to hitting employment milestones and were never paid.  First Solar never produced a single panel at the plant before it realized it had no need for it.

More recently, Apple and sapphire glass manufacturer GT Advanced bought the empty plant from First Solar.  And again there was much rejoicing among politicians locally.  Think of it -- Two great press release opportunities for politicians in just three years for the same plant!  I never feel like we get the whole story on the development deals offered for these things but this is what we know:

Brewer and the Arizona Legislature approved tax breaks related to sales taxes on energy at manufacturing plants. The state also put the Apple/GT plant into a special tax zone that pays a 5 percent commercial property tax rate. Most Arizona companies pay a 19 percent rate this year and an 18.5 percent next.

[In addition,] Apple was slated to received [sic] $10 million from the Arizona Competes Fund for the Mesa factory. The Arizona Commerce Authority — the privatized state economic development agency which administers the $25 million sweeten-the-deal fund along with Gov. Jan Brewer — said neither Apple nor GT Advanced (Nasdaq: GTAT) have received any money.

Well, it turns out that artificial sapphire sounds really cool (a pre-requisite for crony deals) but it is not so great for cell phones.  Apple went another way and did not use the technology on iPhone 6 -- not just for timing reasons but because there are real issues with its performance.

So a second crony buys the plant and does not even move in.

What's next?  I am thinking the best third tenant at the sexy-crony nexus would be an EV battery plant, or even better yet Tesla.  It is too bad Fiskar motors went out of business so soon or they would be the perfect next crony fail for this site.

Thank God For Scientists: "Unexpected Link Between Solar Activity and Climate Change"

Without scientists, we would never be apprised of the fact that the behavior of the sun affects how warm or cold it is on Earth (emphasis added)

For the first time, a research team has been able to reconstruct the solar activity at the end of the last ice age, around 20 000–10 000 years ago, by analysing trace elements in ice cores in Greenland and cave formations from China. During the last glacial maximum, Sweden was covered in a thick ice sheet that stretched all the way down to northern Germany and sea levels were more than 100 metres lower than they are today, because the water was frozen in the extensive ice caps. The new study shows that the sun’s variation influences the climate in a similar way regardless of whether the climate is extreme, as during the Ice Age, or as it is today.

“The study shows an unexpected link between solar activity and climate change. It shows both that changes in solar activity are nothing new and that solar activity influences the climate, especially on a regional level. Understanding these processes helps us to better forecast the climate in certain regions”, said Raimund Muscheler, Lecturer in Quaternary Geology at Lund University and co-author of the study.

My snarky tone is a bit unfair here.  While the sun seems an obvious candidate as a major climate driver, changes in its actual energy hitting the Earth have always appeared small compared to what would be needed to explain observed temperature changes.  This team hypothesizes that the changes in the sun's output have effects on atmospheric circulation that have a larger than expected impact on temperatures.  Henrik Svensmark explains it a different way, hypothesizing that cloud formation is heavily influenced by cosmic rays, and higher solar activity tends to shield the Earth from cosmic rays, thus reducing cloud formation and increasing temperatures.

Skeptics find this sudden realization that the sun affects climate to be kind of funny, since they have argued for years that higher temperatures in the late 20th century have coincided with a very active sun, probably more active than it has been in hundreds of years.   Climate alarmists have denied any influence to the sun.  Sun deniers!  This absolutist stance may seem odd, given that most skeptics (despite what is said of us) actually accept some amount of warming from CO2, but here are these folks who wrap themselves in the mantle of science that deny any effect from the sun?  The problem that warmists have is that higher climate sensitivities, on the order of 3 degrees C per doubling of CO2, greatly over-predict past warming (as I demonstrate in my videos, see around the 59 minute mark).  If anything else whatsoever other than CO2 caused one iota of the warming over the last 50 years, then this over-prediction just gets worse.  In fact, warmists have to assume crazy high levels of aerosol cooling -- that go beyond what most of the science supports -- to make their forecasts work looking backwards.

Equal Protection Under the Law?

Equal protection means that the same law applies to everyone, at least in theory.  But compare these two stories:

1. Exxon fined $600,000 for 85 bird deaths in five states over five years

Exxon Mobil has agreed to pay $600,000 in penalties after approximately 85 migratory birds died of exposure to hydrocarbons at some of its natural gas facilities across the Midwest.

The fine amounts to about $7,000 per dead bird.

The oil company pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of waterfowl, hawks, owls and other protected species, which perished around natural gas well pits or water storage areas in Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas over the last five years....

“We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife, even the largest of corporations,” said David M. Gaouette, the United States attorney in Colorado, in a statement accompanying the Justice Department’s announcement.

We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife... except if we are politically-favored solar companies with strong ties to the Obama White House

2. No fines for solar power plant that may be killing 28,000 birds a year

A common sight in the sky above the world's largest solar thermal power plant is a "streamer," a small plume of smoke that occurs without warning. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the source of the smoke is a bird which has inadvertently strayed into the white-hot heat above the plant's many reflecting mirrors. Because the BrightSource Energy plant near Ivanpah uses supercritical steam rather than photovoltaic energy, the sun's heat is reflected off more than 300,000 mirrors to a single point, which is used to drive a steam turbine. The downside of that, of course, is that it's lethal for any wildlife that strays into the picture -- a problem that was recognized well before the facility opened, but now the government has gotten involved.

Government wildlife inspectors believe that insects are drawn to the highly reflective mirrors, which in turn lures local birds to their doom. BrightSource feels that the issue has been overblown, claiming that only 1,000 living creatures will die in a year, but the Center for Biological Diversity believes the actual figure is closer to 28,000. The US Fish and Wildlife service is pushing for more information and an accurate calculation of the deaths before California grants the company any more permits for solar plants.

You can see from the last line that the Feds don't seem to be even considering a penalty, but are just considering whether they should permit such plants in the future.  If the 28,000 figure is correct, this company should be getting $196 million in fines (the Exxon rate of $7000 per bird)  if there was any such thing as equal protection.  Even the company's admitted figure of 1,000 a year is almost 60 times as high as Exxon was penalized for, despite the fact that Exxon experienced the deaths across hundreds of locations in five states and this is just one single solar plant.

The same alternate standard is being applied to the wind energy industry, as I wrote a while back here.

LMAO At the Nerve of Solar Companies. Please Don't Corrupt The Term "Free Market" By Trying to Apply it to Yourselves

Our public utility APS wants to enter the rooftop solar business.  As a ratepayer and taxpayer, I have deep concerns about this because of the numerous ways this venture could end up with various hidden subsidies.

However, I find it simply hilarious that current rooftop solar providers, including #1 subsidy whore and crony capitalist SolarCity.  Here is what trade group Arizona Solar Energy Industry Association wrote in an email to me today.  I have highlighted some of the bits that got my blood boiling this morning:

In an unprecedented announcement that took the solar industry by surprise, Arizona’s largest utility, APS, announced that it intends to begin competing directly with Arizona solar installers. APS announced Monday that it is seeking permission to spend between $57 and $70 million -not including its profits- of ratepayer money to install solar on the roofs of homes in its service territory and to compete directly with solar installers of all sizes.

The idea of our members who compete in the free market today having to all of a sudden compete with a regulated monopoly is frightening. How would you like it if the government just stepped in and started competing with your business?” said Corey Garrison, CEO of Arizona based Southface Solar and treasurer of Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association (AriSEIA). "APS has proposed subsidizing certain customers that allow it to put solar on their rooftops while the free market gets no more utility subsidy and actually gets charged for going solar."

It has been well publicized that APS spent much of the last year in a battle with the very industry it now seeks to dominate. Throughout 2013 APS urged the Arizona Corporation Commission to install a huge monthly tax on those who would put solar on their roof. It has also been reported that APS urged the Department of Revenue to institute a new property tax on rooftop solar panels that are leased to customers.

“After spending a year misleading the public with well-publicized lies and misdirection, APS seems to think this is a good time for it to be rewarded with an expansion of its monopoly franchise” said Corey Garrison

Unlike rooftop solar companies that must compete with each other on a level playing field, APS earns a guaranteed rate of return off of its assets including these proposed rooftop solar installations. If approved, APS would be permitted to advertise its solar product in its customer bills and to use its customer lists to market and sell, all with employees paid for by ratepayers. Unlike traditional, free market rooftop solar which is paid for only by the customer that installs the system, APS will be asking all its ratepayers to pay the cost of, and guarantee its profits on, each of the systems it installs under this program.

This is a massive expansion of the monopoly into an area that is well served by the free market” continued Garrison, “what’s next; will APS ask to sell electric cars or ovens or some other set of goods or services?”

This is hilarious.  The rooftop installers in AZ lost some of the subsidy from power companies (e.g. APS) over the past years but still get a myriad of subsidies for themselves and their customers.  We will use one of the larger installers, SolarCity, as an example.  This is from the SolarCity web site:

Federal, state and local governments offer incredible solar tax credits and rebates to encourage homeowners to switch to renewable energy to lower their energy usage and switch to solar power. The amount of the rebate subsidy varies by program, but some are generous enough to cover up to 30% of your solar power system cost.

The federal government allows you to deduct 30% of your solar power system costs off your federal taxes through an investment tax credit (ITC). If you do not expect to owe taxes this year, you can roll over your credit to the following year.

.... Some locations have additional incentives to make solar even more affordable.  SolarCity will get the most for your project

SolarCity is committed to helping you benefit from every federal, state and utility rebate and tax credit available for your energy upgrade projects.

Navigating through government rebate programs on your own can be intimidating. SolarCity will identify all of the qualifying tax credit and rebate programs for your system and file the required paperwork for you. We will even credit you for the state rebate upfront so that you do not have to wait for the government to send you a check later.

This language is a bit odd, since in most cases SolarCity captures these credits for themselves and then passes on the savings (presumably, but maybe not) to customers via lower power costs, exactly the same model APS is proposing.

Customers, however, must sign a contract agreeing to cede "any and all tax credits, incentives, renewable energy credits, green tags, carbon offset credits, utility rebates or any other non-power attributes of the system" to SolarCity. The tax credits are passed on to its investors, which include the venture-capital firms Draper Fisher Jurvetson, DBL Investors and Al Gore's Generation Investment Management LLP.

The description by solar installers that they somehow represent the "free market" is simply hilarious, given the dependence of their industry on taxpayer subsidies (either of the installers or the customers).  SolarCity admits that their business would actually never be able to operate in a free market:

SolarCity officials, including Musk’s cousins and fellow Obama donors Lyndon and Peter Rive, acknowledged the company’s dependence on government support in its 2012 IPO filing. “Our business currently depends on the availability of rebates, tax credits and other financial incentives,” they wrote. “The expiration, elimination or reduction of these rebates, credits and incentives would adversely impact our business.”

A more recent SolarCity filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission notes: “[The company’s] ability to provide solar energy systems to customers on an economically viable basis depends on our ability to finance these systems with fund investors who require particular tax and other benefits.”

Rooftop installers also have their business buoyed by government mandates that power companies pay residential solar producers 2-3x the going wholesale market rate for any electricity they put into the grid

SolarCity also benefits from "net metering" policies that 43 states, including California, have adopted. Utilities pay solar-panel customers the retail power rate for the solar power they generate but don't use and then export to the grid. Retail rates can be two to three times as high as the wholesale price of electricity because transmission and delivery costs, along with taxes and other surcharges that fund state renewable programs, are baked in.

So in California, solar ratepayers on average are credited about 16 cents per kilowatt hour on their electric bills for the excess energy they generate—even though utilities could buy that power at less than half the cost from other types of power generators.

This was the battle referred to obliquely in the press release above.  The electric utility APS wanted to stop overpaying for power from these rooftop solar installations.   Rooftop installers fought back.  In the end, a fixed charge was placed on homeowners to account for part of this over-payment, an odd solution in my mind that seems to have ticked off both sides.

So the supposedly "free market" rooftop companies are competing successfully with regulated utilities because they got Federal, state, and local subsidies; are exempted from things like paying property tax on leased equipment that every other business has to pay; and get a mandate from the state that utilities have to pay double the market price for their power.  Is it any wonder that a regulated utility, which is no stranger to cronyism and feeding at the subsidy trough, might want to get a piece of that action?

ASEIA, you are welcome to duke it out for first spot at the trough with APS, but don't corrupt the word "free market" by trying to apply the term to yourselves.

Are You Desperately Worried About Global Warming? Then You Should Be Begging for More Fracking

Charles Frank of Brookings has looked at the relative returns of various energy investments in the context of reducing CO2.  The results:  The best answer is natural gas, with nothing else even close.  Solar and Wind can't even justify their expense, at least from the standpoint of reducing CO2.  Here is the key chart (Hat tip Econlog)



Note that this is not a calculation of the economic returns of these types of power plants, but a relative comparison of how much avoided costs, mainly in CO2 emissions (valued at $50 per ton), there are in switching from coal to one of these fuel sources.  Natural gas plants are the obvious winner.  It remains the winner over solar and wind even if the value of a ton of CO2 is doubled to $100 and both these technologies are assumed to suddenly get much more efficient.   Note by the way that unlike wind and solar (and nuclear), gas substitution for coal plant yields a net economic benefit (from reduced fuel and capital costs) above and beyond the avoided emissions -- which is why gas is naturally substituting right now for coal even in the absence of a carbon tax of some sort to impose a cost to CO2 emissions.**

I was actually surprised that wind did not look even worse.  I think the reason for this is in how the author deals with wind's reliability issues -- he ends up discounting the average capacity factor somewhat.  But this understates the problem.   The real reliability problem with wind is that it can stop blowing almost instantaneously, while it takes hours to spin up other sorts of power plants (gas turbines being the fastest to start up, nuclear being the slowest).  Thus power companies with a lot of wind have to keep fossil fuel plants burning fuel but producing no power, an issue called hot backup.  This issue has proved itself to substantially reduce wind's true displacement potential, as they found in Germany and Denmark.

There is no evidence that industrial wind power is likely to have a significant impact on carbon emissions. The European experience is instructive. Denmark, the world's most wind-intensive nation, with more than 6,000 turbines generating 19% of its electricity, has yet to close a single fossil-fuel plant. It requires 50% more coal-generated electricity to cover wind power's unpredictability, and pollution and carbon dioxide emissions have risen (by 36% in 2006 alone).

Flemming Nissen, the head of development at West Danish generating company ELSAM (one of Denmark's largest energy utilities) tells us that "wind turbines do not reduce carbon dioxide emissions." The German experience is no different. Der Spiegel reports that "Germany's CO2 emissions haven't been reduced by even a single gram," and additional coal- and gas-fired plants have been constructed to ensure reliable delivery.

Indeed, recent academic research shows that wind power may actually increase greenhouse gas emissions in some cases, depending on the carbon-intensity of back-up generation required because of its intermittent character.


** Postscript:  The best way to read this table, IMO, is to take the net value of capacity and energy substitution and compare it to the CO2 savings value.

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The first line is just from the first line of the table above.   The second is essentially the net of all the other lines.

I think this makes is clearer what is going on.  For wind, we invest $106,697 for $132,030 $132,030 for $106,697 in emissions reduction (again, I think the actual number is lower).  In Solar, we invest $258,322 for $69,502 in emissions reduction.    For gas, on the other hand, we have no net investment -- we actually have a gain in these other inputs from the switch -- and then we also save $416,534.  In other words, rather than paying, we are getting paid to get $416,534 in emissions reduction.  That is not several times better than Solar and Wind, it is infinitely better.

Postscript #2:  Another way to look at this -- if you put on a carbon tax in the US equal to $50 per ton of CO2 that fuel would produce, then it still likely would make no sense to be building wind or solar plants unless there remained substantial subsidies for them (e.g. investment tax credits, direct subsidies, guaranteed loans, above-market electricity pricing, etc).  What we would see is an absolute natural gas plan craze.

Climate Alarmists Coming Around to At Least One Skeptic Position

As early as 2009 (and many other more prominent skeptics were discussing it much earlier) I reported on why measuring ocean heat content was a potentially much better measure of greenhouse gas changes to the Earth rather than measuring surface air temperatures.  Roger Pielke, in particular, has been arguing this for as long as I can remember.

The simplest explanation for why this is true is that greenhouse gasses increase the energy added to the surface of the Earth, so that is what we would really like to measure, that extra energy.  But in fact the vast, vast majority of the heat retention capacity of the Earth's surface is in the oceans, not in the air.  Air temperatures may be more immediately sensitive to changes in heat flux, but they are also sensitive to a lot of other noise that tends to mask long-term signals.    The best analog I can think of is to imagine that you have two assets, a checking account and your investment portfolio.  Looking at surface air temperatures to measure long-term changes in surface heat content is a bit like trying to infer long-term changes in your net worth by looking only at your checking account, whose balance is very volatile, vs. looking at the changing size of your investment portfolio.

Apparently, the alarmists are coming around to this point

Has global warming come to a halt? For the last decade or so the average global surface temperature has been stabilising at around 0.5°C above the long-term average. Can we all relax and assume global warming isn't going to be so bad after all?

Unfortunately not. Instead we appear to be measuring the wrong thing. Doug McNeall and Matthew Palmer, both from the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter, have analysed climate simulations and shown that both ocean heat content and net radiation (at the top of the atmosphere) continue to rise, while surface temperature goes in fits and starts. "In my view net radiation is the most fundamental measure of global warming since it directly represents the accumulation of excess solar energy in the Earth system," says Palmer, whose findings are published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

First, of course, we welcome past ocean heat content deniers to the club.  But second, those betting on ocean heat content to save their bacon and keep alarmism alive should consider why skeptics latched onto the metric with such passion.   In fact, ocean heat content may be rising more than surface air temperatures, but it has been rising MUCH less than would be predicted from high-sensitivity climate models.

Global Warming Updates

I have not been blogging climate much because none of the debates ever change.  So here are some quick updates

  • 67% to 90% of all warming in climate forecasts still from assumptions of strong positive feedback in the climate system, rather than from CO2 warming per se (ie models still assuming about 1 degree in CO2 warming is multiplied 3-10 times by positive feedbacks)
  • Studies are still mixed about the direction of feedbacks, with as many showing negative as positive feedback.  No study that I have seen supports positive feedbacks as large as those used in many climate models
  • As a result, climate models are systematically exaggerating warming (from Roy Spenser, click to enlarge).  Note that the conformance through 1998 is nothing to get excited about -- most models were rewritten after that date and likely had plugs and adjustments to force the historical match.

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  • To defend the forecasts, modellers are increasingly blaming natural effects like solar cycles on the miss, natural effects that the same modellers insisted were inherently trivial contributions when skeptics used them to explain part of the temperature rise from 1978-1998.
  • By the way, 1978-1998 is still the only period since 1940 when temperatures actually rose, such that increasingly all catastrophic forecasts rely on extrapolations from this one 20-year period. Seriously, look for yourself.
  • Alarmists are still blaming every two or three sigma weather pattern on CO2 on global warming (polar vortex, sigh).
  • Even when weather is moderate, media hyping of weather events has everyone convinced weather is more extreme, when it is not. (effect explained in context of Summer of the Shark)
  • My temperature forecast from 2007 still is doing well.   Back in '07 I regressed temperature history to a linear trend plus a sine wave.

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Solar Update

The economics of large-scale solar projects still don't work without massive subsidies and mandates that consumers pay above-market rates for solar power.

Congratulations to Nature Magazine for Catching up to Bloggers

The journal Nature has finally caught up to the fact that ocean cycles may influence global surface temperature trends.  Climate alarmists refused to acknowledge this when temperatures were rising and the cycles were in their warm phase, but now are grasping at these cycles for an explanation of the 15+ year hiatus in warming as a way to avoid abandoning high climate sensitivity assumptions  (ie the sensitivity of global temperatures to CO2 concentrations, which IMO are exaggerated by implausible assumptions of positive feedback).

Here is the chart from Nature:

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I cannot find my first use of this chart, but here is a version I was using over 5 years ago.  I know I was using it long before that

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It will be interesting to see if they find a way to blame cycles for cooling in the last 10-15 years but not for the warming in the 80's and 90's.

Next step -- alarmists have the same epiphany about the sun, and blame non-warming on a low solar cycle without simultaneously giving previous high solar cycles any credit for warming.  For Nature's benefit, here is another chart they might use (from the same 2008 blog post).  The number 50 below is selected arbitrarily, but does a good job of highlighting solar activity in the second half of the 20th century vs. the first half.

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Want to Save The Ice in the Arctic?

I wrote below about Chinese pollution, but here is one other thought.  Shifting Chinese focus from reducing CO2 with unproven 21st century technology to reducing particulates with 1970s technology would be a great boon for its citizens.  But it could well have one other effect:

It might reverse the warming in the Arctic.

The reduction of Arctic ice sheet size in the summer, and the warming of the Arctic over the last several decades, is generally attributed to greenhouse warming.  But there are reasons to doubt that Co2 is the whole story.   One is that the sea ice extent in Antarctica has actually been growing at the same time the Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking.  Maybe there is another explanation, one that affects only the northern hemisphere and not the southern?

I don't know if you have snow right now or even ever get snow.  If you do, find some black dust, like coal dust or dark dirt, and sprinkle it on a patch of snow.  Then come back tomorrow.  What will you find?  The patch of snow you sprinkled in dark dust melted a lot in comparison to the rest of the snow.  This is an albedo effect.  Snow takes a while to melt because it reflects rather than absorbs solar radiation.  Putting black dust on it changes that equation, and suddenly solar radiation is adsorbed as heat, and the now melts.  Fast.  I know this because I run a sledding hill in the wintertime, where snow falls on a black cinder hill.  The snow will last until even the smallest patch of black cinders is exposed.  Once exposed, that small hole will grow like a cancer, as it absorbs solar energy and pumps it into the surrounding ground.

By the way, if you have not snow, did the experiment for you.  See here.  Very nice pictures that make the story really clear.

So consider this mess:


Eventually that mess blows away.  Where does it end up?  Well, a lot of it ends up deposited in the Arctic, on top of the sea ice and Greenland ice sheet.

There is a growing hypothesis that this black carbon deposited on the ice from China is causing much of the sea ice to melt faster.  And as the ice sheet melts faster, this lowers the albedo of the arctic, and creates warming.  In this hypothesis, warming follows from ice melting, rather than vice versa.

How do we test this?  Well, the best way would be to go out and actually measure the deposits and calculate the albedo changes from this.  My sense is that this work is starting to be done (example), but it has been slow, because everyone who is interested in Arctic ice of late are strong global warming proponents who have incentives not to find an alternative explanation for melting ice.

But here are two quick mental experiments we can do:

  1. We already mentioned one proof.  Wind patterns cause most pollution to remain within the hemisphere (northern or southern) where it was generated.  So we would expect black carbon ice melting to be limited to the Arctic and not be seen in the Antarctic.  This fits observations
  2. In the winter, as the sea ice is growing, we would expect new ice would be free of particulate deposits and that any new deposits would be quickly covered in snow.  This would mean that we should see ice extents in the winter to be about the same as they were historically, and we would see most of the ice extent reduction in the summer.  Again, this is exactly what we see.

This is by no means a proof -- there are other explanations for the same data.  But I am convinced we would see at least a partial sea ice recovery in the Arctic if China could get their particulate emissions under control.

Update:  Melt ponds in Greenland are black with coal dust


A Typical Clean Energy Boondoggle

Master Resource looks at the California Valley Solar Ranch

In a realistic appraisal of the CVSR we should note the following:

· An investment of $1.6 billion 250 MW breaks down to an extravagant $6,400,000 per megawatt.

· The Solar Ranch covers 1,500 acres.

· The CVSR is projected to produce 482,000 MWh per year, implying an operating capacity factor of around 22%.

· Given a reasonable appraisal of the value of 482,000 MWh per year, it is not possible that the solar panels will be able to provide a return sufficient to pay back the $1.6 billion investment within their functional life (not even close), even when ignoring annual operating and maintenance costs. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost (see Updated CSVR Cash Flow).


A much more viable alternative to a solar generation facility, although not the only one, is a plant using natural gas. A natural gas combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) facility capable of 250 MW would have required less than one-fourth the capital investment, would be capable of making four times the electricity per year at 88% capacity factor, and would fit on a single acre.

Also, a CCGT facility could have been located closer to the point(s) of actual use of the electricity, and could provide dispatchable energy which could be increased or decreased as demand fluctuates; something the solar facility is incapable of providing.

So why is this project even happening?  Because most of the project was funded by a taxpayer-gauranteed loan.  And then many of the players got direct subsidies and tax breaks.  And finally the electricity from the project gets bought at an above-market subsidized rate.



It turns out that the US is one of the few industrialized nations to meet the terms of the Kyoto protocols (reduce CO2 emissions to 1997 levels) despite the fact we never signed it or did anything to try to meet the goals.

Thank the recession and probably more importantly the natural gas and fracking revolution.  Fracking will do more to reduce CO2 than the entire sum of government and renewable energy projects (since a BTU from natural gas produces about half the CO2 as a BTU form coal).  Of course, environmentalists oppose fracking.  They would rather carpet the desert with taxpayer-funded solar panels and windmills than allow the private sector to solve the problem using 50-year-old technology.

Update On My Climate Model (Spoiler: It's Doing a Lot Better than the Pros)

In this post, I want to discuss my just-for-fun model of global temperatures I developed 6 years ago.  But more importantly, I am going to come back to some lessons about natural climate drivers and historic temperature trends that should have great relevance to the upcoming IPCC report.

In 2007, for my first climate video, I created an admittedly simplistic model of global temperatures.  I did not try to model any details within the climate system.  Instead, I attempted to tease out a very few (it ended up being three) trends from the historic temperature data and simply projected them forward.  Each of these trends has a logic grounded in physical processes, but the values I used were pure regression rather than any bottom up calculation from physics.  Here they are:

  • A long term trend of 0.4C warming per century.  This can be thought of as a sort of base natural rate for the post-little ice age era.
  • An additional linear trend beginning in 1945 of an additional 0.35C per century.  This represents combined effects of CO2 (whose effects should largely appear after mid-century) and higher solar activity in the second half of the 20th century  (Note that this is way, way below the mainstream estimates in the IPCC of the historic contribution of CO2, as it implies the maximum historic contribution is less than 0.2C)
  • A cyclic trend that looks like a sine wave centered on zero (such that over time it adds nothing to the long term trend) with a period of about 63 years.  Think of this as representing the net effect of cyclical climate processes such as the PDO and AMO.

Put in graphical form, here are these three drivers (the left axis in both is degrees C, re-centered to match the centering of Hadley CRUT4 temperature anomalies).  The two linear trends (click on any image in this post to enlarge it)

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And the cyclic trend:

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These two charts are simply added and then can be compared to actual temperatures.  This is the way the comparison looked in 2007 when I first created this "model"

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The historic match is no great feat.  The model was admittedly tuned to match history (yes, unlike the pros who all tune their models, I admit it).  The linear trends as well as the sine wave period and amplitude were adjusted to make the fit work.

However, it is instructive to note that a simple model of a linear trend plus sine wave matches history so well, particularly since it assumes such a small contribution from CO2 (yet matches history well) and since in prior IPCC reports, the IPCC and most modelers simply refused to include cyclic functions like AMO and PDO in their models.  You will note that the Coyote Climate Model was projecting a flattening, even a decrease in temperatures when everyone else in the climate community was projecting that blue temperature line heading up and to the right.

So, how are we doing?  I never really meant the model to have predictive power.  I built it just to make some points about the potential role of cyclic functions in the historic temperature trend.  But based on updated Hadley CRUT4 data through July, 2013, this is how we are doing:

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Not too shabby.  Anyway, I do not insist on the model, but I do want to come back to a few points about temperature modeling and cyclic climate processes in light of the new IPCC report coming soon.

The decisions of climate modelers do not always make sense or seem consistent.  The best framework I can find for explaining their choices is to hypothesize that every choice is driven by trying to make the forecast future temperature increase as large as possible.  In past IPCC reports, modelers refused to acknowledge any natural or cyclic effects on global temperatures, and actually made statements that a) variations in the sun's output were too small to change temperatures in any measurable way and b) it was not necessary to include cyclic processes like the PDO and AMO in their climate models.

I do not know why these decisions were made, but they had the effect of maximizing the amount of past warming that could be attributed to CO2, thus maximizing potential climate sensitivity numbers and future warming forecasts.  The reason for this was that the IPCC based nearly the totality of their conclusions about past warming rates and CO2 from the period 1978-1998.  They may talk about "since 1950", but you can see from the chart above that all of the warming since 1950 actually happened in that narrow 20 year window.  During that 20-year window, though, solar activity, the PDO and the AMO were also all peaking or in their warm phases.  So if the IPCC were to acknowledge that any of those natural effects had any influence on temperatures, they would have to reduce the amount of warming scored to CO2 between 1978 and 1998 and thus their large future warming forecasts would have become even harder to justify.

Now, fast forward to today.  Global temperatures have been flat since about 1998, or for about 15 years or so.  This is difficult to explain for the IPCC, since about none of the 60+ models in their ensembles predicted this kind of pause in warming.  In fact, temperature trends over the last 15 years have fallen below the 95% confidence level of nearly every climate model used by the IPCC.  So scientists must either change their models (eek!) or else they must explain why they still are correct but missed the last 15 years of flat temperatures.

The IPCC is likely to take the latter course.  Rumor has it that they will attribute the warming pause to... ocean cycles and the sun (those things the IPCC said last time were irrelevant).  As you can see from my model above, this is entirely plausible.  My model has an underlying 0.75C per century trend after 1945, but even with this trend actual temperatures hit a 30-year flat spot after the year 2000.   So it is entirely possible for an underlying trend to be temporarily masked by cyclical factors.

BUT.  And this is a big but.  You can also see from my model that you can't assume that these factors caused the current "pause" in warming without also acknowledging that they contributed to the warming from 1978-1998, something the IPCC seems loath to do.  I do not know how the ICC is going to deal with this.  I hate to think the worst of people, but I do not think it is beyond them to say that these factors offset greenhouse warming for the last 15 years but did not increase warming the 20 years before that.

We shall see.  To be continued....

Update:  Seriously, on a relative basis, I am kicking ass

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When Environmentally Sustainable Actually Was Sustainable

Many of your know that my company operates public parks.  So I see a lot of different approaches to park design and construction.  Of late I have been observing a trend in "environmental sustainability" in park design that is actually the opposite.

The US Forest Service has built more campgrounds, by far, than any other entity in the world.  For decades, particularly in the western United States, the USFS had a very clear idea about what they wanted in a campground -- they wanted it to be well-integrated with nature, simple, and lightly developed.  They eschewed amenities like pools and playgrounds and shuffleboard.  They avoided building structures except bathroom and shower buildings.  The camp sites were simple, often unpaved with a table and fire ring and a place for a tent.  They used nature itself to make these sites beautiful, keeping the environment natural and creating buffers of trees and natural vegetation between sites.   I have never seen an irrigation system in a western USFS campground -- if it doesn't grow naturally there, it doesn't grow.

This has proven to be an eminently sustainable design.  With the exception of their underground water systems, which tend to suck, they are easy to maintain.  There is not much to go wrong.  The sites need new gravel every once in a while.  Every 5-10 years the tables and fire rings needs replacement, hardly a daunting task.  And every 20-30 years the bathrooms needs refurbishment or replacement.  The design brilliance was in the placement of the sites and their integration with the natural environment.

Over the last several months, I have been presented with plans from three different public parks agencies for parks they want to redevelop.   Each of these have been $10+ million capital projects and each one had a major goal of being "sustainable."   I have run away from all three.  Why -- because each and every one will be incredibly expensive and resource intensive to operate and of questionable popularity with the public.  Sustainability today seems to mean "over-developed with a lot of maintenance-intensive facilities".

What each of these projects has had in common are a myriad of aggressively architected buildings - not just bathrooms but community rooms and offices and interpretive centers.  These buildings have been beautiful and complex, made from expensive materials like stainless steel and fine stone.  They have also had a lot of fiddly bits, like rainwater collection and recycling systems and solar and windmills.  They have automatic plumbing valves that never seem to work right.  The grounds have all been heavily landscaped, with large lawns that require water and mowing, with non-native plants that need all kinds of care.  Rather than a traditional sand pad for tents they have elaborate wooden platforms.

The plans for these facilities are beautiful.  They win awards.  In fact, I am increasingly convinced that that is their whole point, to increase prestige of the designer and the agency that hired them through awards.  But they make no sense as a recreation facility.  In 10 years, they will look like hell.  Or sooner, since one agency that is in the process of spending a $22 million bond issue on 5 campgrounds seems to not have one dollar budgeted for operation and maintenance.

These things actually win awards for sustainability, which generally means they save money on one input at the expense of increasing many others.  One design  got attention for having grass on the roofs, which perhaps saved a few cents of electricity at the cost of having to irrigate and mow the roof (not to mention the extra roof bracing to carry the load).  I briefly operated a campground that had a rainwater recovery system on the bathrooms, which required about 5 hours of labor each week to keep clean and running to save about a dollar of water costs.

Classic Partisan Thinking

Kevin Drum writes

On the right, both climate change and questions about global limits on oil production have exited the realm of empirical debate and become full-blown fronts in the culture wars. You're required to mock them regardless of whether it makes any sense. And it's weird as hell. I mean, why would you disparage development of renewable energy? If humans are the ultimate creators, why not create innovative new sources of renewable energy instead of digging up every last fluid ounce of oil on the planet?

I am sure it is perfectly true that there are Conservatives who knee-jerk oppose every government renewable energy and recycling and green jobs idea that comes along without reference to the science.  But you know what, there are plenty of Liberals who knee-jerk support all these same things, again without any understanding of the underlying science.  Mr. Drum, for example, only recently came around to opposing corn ethanol, despite the fact that the weight of the science was against ethanol being any kind of environmental positive years and years ago.  In fact, not until it was no longer cool and caring to support ethanol (a moment I would set at when Rolling Stone wrote a fabulous ethanol expose) did Drum finally turn against it.  Is this science, or social signalling?   How many folks still run around touting electric cars without understanding what the marginal fuels are in the electricity grid, or without understanding the true well-to-wheels efficiency?  How many folks still run around touting wind power without understanding the huge percentage of this power that must be backed up with hot backup power fueled by fossil fuels?

Why is his almost blind support of renewable energy without any reference to science or the specifics of the technologies involved any saner than blind opposition?  If anything, blind opposition at least has the numbers on their side, given past performance of investments in all sorts of wonder-solutions to future energy production.

The reason there is a disconnect is because statists like Drum equate supporting government subsidies and interventions with supporting renewables.  Few people, even Conservatives, oppose renewables per se.  This is a straw man.  What they oppose are subsidies and government mandates for renewables.  Drum says he has almost limitless confidence in  man's ability to innovate.  I agree -- but I, unlike he apparently, have limitless confidence in man's ability to innovate absent government coercion.  It was not a government program that replaced whale oil as an illuminant right when we were approaching peak whale, it was the genius of John D. Rockefeller.  As fossil fuels get short, prices rise, and people naturally innovate on substitutes.  If Drum believes that private individuals are missing an opportunity, rather than root for government coercion, he should go take up the challenge.  He can be the Rockefeller of renewable energy.

Postscript:  By the way, it is absurd and disingenuous to equate opposition to what have been a series of boneheaded government investments in questionable ventures and technologies with some sort of a-scientific hatred of fossil fuel alternatives.  I have written for a decade that I long for the day, and expect it to be here within 20 years, that sheets of solar cells are cranked from factories like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia.

Solar False Advertising

I saw this at Flowing Data -- this is apparently a chart prepared by some sustainability group at MIT to map solar potential of different sites in Cambridge, MA

Look at all the sites marked "excellent".  I have news for the brilliant folks at MIT.  Even the best, flattest roof facing south in Cambridge, MA still rates a "sucks" for solar potential. (source)

Even with massive state and Federal subsidies, those of us who live in the bright red areas find that roof-top solar PV is still an - at best - marginal investment with very long payback times.  We all hope to change this in the future, but there is no way a city like Cambridge with approximately half the solar insolation we get in AZ is going to have "excellent" roof top solar PV sites.

If You Just Loved The Solyndra Technology... will love this too.  Solyndra used cylindrical solar cells nested inside a u-shaped mirror to concentrate sunlight to get more power per square inch of solar cell.  The problem is that all that extra shaping and mirrors added cost, and only made sense if solar cells were expensive.  After all, if solar cells are cheap, if one wants 20% more output, it's easier to just increase the solar cell area by 20% than to add all the concentrator rigmarole.

Well, dreams die hard, and here is the latest idea -- spherical concentrators.  These things have huge spheres and tracking motors, all for a 35% increase in efficiency.  Methinks that just adding 35% more PV cell area is going to be cheaper, but this could well be yet another flytrap for Obama Administration officials, who are to sexy-looking new technologies like a degenerate wagerer at the track is to a hot tip.

Lessons From the Corporate State

In my younger, more naive days, I would have drawn the following lesson from this story:  "Never create a business plan predicated on subsidy checks from the government.  They may stop at any time."  I still think this is mostly true, as FirstSolar is finding out.  But my sense is that a range of folks from GE to Kleiner Perkins still get their checks.  So one may cynically rewrite the rule: "Never create a business plan predicated on subsidy checks from the government unless you are confident you have the political connections to guarantee and expedite the payments."

It seems like local solar company perfect power tried to feed at the government trough without actually having sufficient clout in the corporate state.  Bad idea

About 100 Arizona homeowners who paid $4,500 up front for solar-power systems fear they may never get their rooftop panels after being left waiting for months by the installation company.

Angry homeowners are demanding their systems or refunds. The company, Perfect Power Solar, is blaming the delays on federal government red tape.

Perfect Power owner Lynn Paige said the company has cash-flow problems because energy grants that were supposed to provide substantial funding of the solar systems aren't being approved quickly enough. She pledged to deliver the systems or refund all customers by the end of the year.

Treasury officials would not comment on the situation. Government e-mails sent to Paige suggest Perfect Power's grant applications were incomplete. In them, officials point to problems with submissions and warn of potential denials.

Industry experts and owners of other solar companies in Arizona said that the grant program is fraught with risks for solar companies and that some built business models based on future payments from the government without the financial reserves to cope with delays. They describe the situation as a high-tech gamble that some companies lost.

Residential solar-power systems cost $15,000 to $40,000. The Section 1603 grant program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, offered developers cash to offset 30 percent of the costs. Although the program was not available to homeowners, some companies tapped the grants to sell residential solar systems as leases. A company would install and own the system, then lease it to a homeowner.

Program rules required developers to complete installations before they could apply for reimbursement. But funding was not guaranteed, and even after systems were built, the government delayed approval of some applications and denied others.

If this was one of Kliener Perkins' companies, for example, Ray Lane would just call the White House and get his money released. If your solvency depends on continued flow of taxpayer cash, you better have the clout to keep the money flowing or you are likely to get hosed.  Bureaucracies tend to have default answers of "wait" and "no".  Those are the answers average people without pull are going to get.  The "yes" goes to those who cut through the red tape from the top.  These yeses, like the ones to Solyndra, only make it more likely everyone else get the "no" answer, as the agencies need to show they are being particularly diligent to offset the impression of sloppiness they get from the Solyndra-type cases.

Retroactively, the company's leadership has figured this out, that to survived at the government trough, they have to go political

Paige has asked customers not to file complaints or talk to the media about problems the company is facing.

"It has been very unhelpful ... that a few customers have chosen to write very negative letters to the BBB," she wrote in a May e-mail to customers.

Instead of filing complaints, Paige said, customers should write to Arizona U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl to request their help in freeing up the government grant money and to pressure the Treasury Department....

That month, the BBB revoked Perfect Power's accreditation and gave the company an F rating. The company had 16 complaints filed against it the past year. The registrar shows four open complaints against Perfect Power; a fifth complaint was listed as settled or withdrawn.

Forget about the customers.  Let's just focus our attention on our two Senators.

I Like to Hear This

In the past I have been critical of First Solar, like I have most solar companies, for having business models that were almost entirely dependent on huge government subsidies, particularly in Europe.  When these go away, the businesses start to crash.

I have not had time to dig into their financials to look for shenanigans, and to parse out how much is still dependent in some way on either direct subsidies of solar projects or incentives that cause utilities to buy solar electricity at above market rates, but First Solar reversed their large losses to a profit in the last quarter.  I am not sure if this is BS or not, but I like this attitude if true:

The company's cost per watt is the lowest in the industry, but it increased slightly during the quarter, to 72 cents per watt, because of the under utilization of its factories. If the factories had run more, the cost would have gone down, officials said.

Hughes said First Solar is making headway on its plan to target regions of the world with ample sunshine and a need for electricity, where solar power can compete without subsidies that make it cost-effective when compared with traditional energy sources.

Those places include Australia, India, the Middle East and other regions, he said.

That would be terrific.  I would love to see a solar boom driven by real economics and not taxpayer largess.