Posts tagged ‘Think Progress’

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.

Some Privatization Updates

I just wrote three new articles for the Privatization Blog.

The first looks at which types of public decisions should stay public in a privatization effort

The second looks at implementation issues and learning in privatization

The third acknowledges that privatization efforts can fall into cronyism, but points out that generally in these cases the public alternative falls into the same behaviors.  A great example is prisons, where privatization is derided by folks like Think Progress for the lobbying the prison companies do both for contracts and harsher laws, but they never acknowledge that public prison unions have demonstrated the same behaviors and for much longer.

Owning Solyndra

Kevin Drum makes a pleas for liberals to, in effect, rally around Solyndra and be proud of the investment.  I am sure Republicans would give the same advice to liberals.  I want to look at a few of his arguments.

First, for libertarians like myself, the argument that Republicans did it too, or the Republicans started it, are a non-starter.  In particular, I actually thought the Obama Administration's attempt to blame Bush for Solyndra was an Onion article, since its almost a caricature of this administrations refusal to take responsibility for anything.  Unlike Republicans, I don't see this so much as an Obama failure as a government failure, and I don't really care if it is of the red or blue flavor.

Second, the fact that private investors put their own money into it is irrelevant.  Private investors poured money into too.  Obama was pouring my money into Solyndra, and yes the fact that it is my money makes a difference.

Further, private investors put their money into Solyndra years before the taxpayer did.  It may well have been that they had a reasonable expectation at that time of investment returns.  That is their problem.  Our problem is that by the time Obama put our money into the company, it was pretty clear to everyone in the industry that Solyndra was going nowhere.

Drum and his source, Dave Roberts, attempt to argue that the drop in silicon prices and addition of low-cost solar capacity in China didn't occur until months after Obama's decision to fund Solyndra.  But that is a tortured argument.  In point of fact, everyone in the industry saw this coming - after all, the capacity Roberts describes as coming online in June was under construction months and years before that, and was known to be coming by everyone in the industry.  When I was in a global manufacturing business, we kept up with everyone's plans for capacity additions -- I can't even imagine waking up one day and saying, "huh, a bunch of capacity just opened in China."  (by the way, it is pretty typical of liberals to see prices as a given, rather than as a part of a feedback system where high prices lead to actions that might well lower prices over time).

This timeline is therefore pretty disingenuous

March 2009: The same credit committee approves the strengthened loan application. The deal passes on to DOE’s credit review board. Career staff (not political appointees) within the DOE issue a conditional commitment setting out terms for a guarantee.

June 2009: As more silicon production facilities come online while demand for PV wavers due to the economic slowdown, silicon prices start to drop. Meanwhile, the Chinese begin rapidly scaling domestic manufacturing and set a path toward dramatic, unforeseen cost reductions in PV. Between June of 2009 and August of 2011, PV prices drop more than 50%.

I am sure that this is wildly logical to a journalism major, but someone in business would laugh off the implication that what happened in June was wholly unforeseeable in March.  Want more proof?  The loan guarantee itself is proof.   Years earlier, the company attracted a billion dollars of private capital.  Now it takes a government guarantee to get capital?  And you think nothing had changed with the insider's perception of the opportunity?

A good analogy might be if I invested in Greek bonds today.  And then in 3 months the Greek government defaults and I lose all my money.  I suppose I could craft a timeline that said the default did not happen until months after my investment, but could anyone living right now say that I really had no reason on September 16, 2011 to expect a Greek default?

The real howler in the article is this one:

There was no scandal in the loan process, and there's nothing unusual about having a certain fraction of speculative programs like this fail. It's all part of the way the free market works.

First, I agree there is no scandal here if one defines scandal as something out of the norm.  Republicans want to count political coup on Democrats so they want to say this is fraudulent.  But fraudulent implies that we could find honorable technocrats who could have avoided this problem.  We can't.  This kind of failure is fundamental and inseparable from the act of government trying to pick winners, and would exist no matter what people were in place.

Second, calling this "the way free markets work" is obscene.   Free markets don't use force on investors to make them put money into certain investments.

But more importantly, government loan guarantees go only to those companies who the free market has chosen NOT to fund.  If the free market was willing to toss another half billion into Solyndra, its owners would not have been burning a path back and forth to Washington.  So by definition, every single government loan guarantee in this program is to a company or a technology that the free market, knowledgeable investors, and industry insiders have rejected as a bad investment.  For the program to work, one has to believe that Obama, Chu, and some career energy department bureaucrats have a better understanding of commercializing technologies than do private investors (who are investing with their own money) and industry experts.

Postscript:  I have to also comment on this from the timeline:

February 2011: Due to a liquidity crisis, investors provide $75 million to help restructure the loan guarantee. The DOE rightly assumed it was better to give Solyndra a fighting chance rather than liquidate the company – which was a going concern – for market value, which would have guaranteed significant losses.

The author glosses over it, but this is the $75 million I discussed the other day that dropped the US out of the senior position and guaranteed that the taxpayer would lose everything rather than only a portion of the investment

The notion of giving it more time was absurd.  Even closed with everyone laid off the company is burning a million a week in cash.  How much was it burning when open? And if it was totally clear at this point that the market had fundamentally shifted and the company could not compete, what the hell was the time going to help?  Maybe they were hoping to win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes?  I suppose it could have been to give them time to try to sell the company, but there is no evidence any such discussions were taking place.

In fact, it is pretty clear that the US Government got played with that $75 million investment.  Any private lender who had allowed someone else to grab the senior position for a trivial investment in a company on the express train to chapter 7 would be fired immediately.

And if you want fraud, you might look at Solyndra's summer asset sales.  All the company's assets of any liquidity and value were sold over the summer to Argonaut, who also happens to be the owner of the majority state AND the company who invested $75 million in return for the senior position.  Depending on the sale price for this self-dealing, one could argue that the time the $75 million bought was merely the time needed to loot the company of any valuable assets before it went bankrupt.

Postscript #2:  I have written before about how much expertise about business tends to be claimed by liberal journalists and places like Think Progress.  I had a funny thought trying to imagine the Think Progress business school and what it would teach.  Might be a parody I need to write sometime.

Oil Speculation

This is a bit old, but Powerline had a good analysis on oil speculation.  The short answer:  Think Progress confused, either accidentally or on purpose, the notion of a risk premium with speculation excess.