Tuesday 26 June 2012

Nice rant

Of course not. We all know that windmills are a self-indulgent and sanctimonious luxury whose purpose is to make us feel good. Had Europe genuinely depended on green energy on Friday, by Sunday thousands would be dead from frostbite and exposure, and the EU would have suffered an economic body blow to match that of Japan's tsunami a year ago. No electricity means no water, no trams, no trains, no airports, no traffic lights, no phone systems, no sewerage, no factories, no service stations, no office lifts, no central heating and even no hospitals, once their generators run out of fuel.

More here

Do train stations still have recycling bins for papers?

I remember years ago - maybe 15 or so - that a big splash was made about the introduction of recycling bins on train platforms in Sydney so that newspaper readers would have somewhere to dump their paper at the end of their journey. In those days, many newspaper readers just left their paper on their seat when they reached their station. Other passengers were free to pick it up and read it, or push it onto the floor. Unfortunately, a lot ended up on the floor, and carriages at the end of the day looked like the aftermath of a university college newspaper fight. The idea of putting paper bins on platforms was to encourage people to carry the paper off the train and chuck it in a big skip. I'm not sure how successful it was, but the rubbish problem was bad enough to make it a decent idea.

I pondered this today as I had to catch a bus, and I noticed that not a single person on the bus was reading a paper. Most were reading something, but it was either a book, a Kindle, an iPad or an iPhone. There was even a solitary laptop. As I had to stand, I had a peek over the shoulders of those with iPads and noticed that all were reading The Australian. Yes, it's a small sample, but I thought it instructive. There was no rubbish on the bus - there were no newspapers to be left behind. Not even a copy of the free Metro commuter paper.

I'm wondering if trains have gone the same way.

Just a thought.


I should have added that, knowing the public sector and how slowly it moves, there will still be bins for recycling newspapers on train stations 50 years after the last newspaper is printed.

Monday 25 June 2012

Fairfax: a short lesson in compare and contrast

Most people would be aware by now that election campaigns in the US are expensive. Obama raised massive amounts of money for his successful campaign.

That money can be raised by a variety of means - taking small amounts from lots of people, or large amounts from a few people. Or a judicious mix of both. Everybody does it. 

But look at how Fairfax portrays things when two candidates do pretty much the same thing:


Obama's 'cool' meal ticket: $15m dinner with Clooney and the stars

As political fundraisers go, it's set to be an "Avengers"-sized blockbuster: 150 wealthy Democrats will dine with President Barack Obama at George Clooney's Studio City home on Thursday night.

Organisers expect to gross $15 million from the party for the president's re-election campaign - the highest amount ever raised at such an event.

High-profile guests including Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire, Barbra Streisand, director-producer J.J. Abrams, producer Nina Jacobson, Creative Artists Agency partner Bryan Lourd and ICM President Chris Silbermann are attending the dinner, which was organized by DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and his political adviser, Andy Spahn.

But the Hollywood VIPs paying $40,000 a ticket will account for just over one-third of Obama's haul Thursday night; the rest is coming from members of the general public lured by an online contest that has astutely leveraged Clooney and Obama's joint star power.

and then there is much cooler assessment from Anne Summers:

Obama losing battle of the fund-raisers

LAST night President Barack Obama attended a fund-raising dinner party at the West Village home of movie stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. Co-host was Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. The price of a ticket was reported to be $80,000 a head.

So while Obama continues to pursue the grassroots online fund-raising that was so successful in 2008, for the really big bucks he is being forced to take his begging bowl to three different and potentially risky sources of funds: Hollywood, Silicon Valley and rich gays.

No one in the know doubts that the President's decision to support gay marriage was made with an eye to the pink dollar. A few days after the decision, a Hollywood fund-raiser hosted by George Clooney and including high-profile gay supporters raised $15 million.

The strategy is risky because it requires the President to be hanging out with the mega-rich at a time when his political message is directed to economically distressed Americans who are striving to return to being middle class. It could easily backfire on him.

Already the now much-united Republicans are trying to portray Obama as more focused on fund-raising than on governing. Given that he has done 160 events so far (compared with president George Bush's 74 at this time in the 2004 race), including six in just six hours in Maryland last Tuesday, it will not be a hard case to make.

So when Obama organises a very expensive and exclusive fundraiser, it is cool and groovy because it involves lots of creative types and gays.

Contrast this with how a fundraiser by Romney was covered today:

Romney donors enjoy lavish weekend away

PARK CITY, Utah: It was the kind of image Mitt Romney has sought to blunt during his campaign for president: a prodigious display of wealth.

At a private weekend retreat, big Romney donors quaffed 1927 port they had brought in for the occasion, mingled in the lobby of a posh resort called the Chateaux at Silver Lake and watched an aerial display of Olympic ski jumpers.

Billed as a ''senior leadership retreat'', the three-day gathering was a reward for the wealthy Republicans who have fuelled Romney's fund-raising, giving at least $US25,000 each or bundling at least $US100,000. Many of the more than 700 who attended had donated much more.

Donors schmoozed with Mr Romney at a barbecue, pressing him on labour regulations and the threat of a nuclear Iran as downhill skiers performed midair flips behind them. They rubbed elbows with Beth Myers, who is running Mr Romney's vice-presidential search, in the packed lobby bar, over $US15 glasses of scotch.

And they mingled with Mr Romney's wife, Ann, during an intimate ''Women for Romney Victory Tea'', held on an umbrella-shaded patio.

Dining on salmon overlooking the site of the 2002 Winter Games' ski jumping contest, donors were treated to an exhibition of synchronised skiers careening down steep ramps and doing flips in the air before landing in a pool. Mr Romney, the donors did not need to be told, led those Games.

Notice the key phrases slipped into the Romney article as attack words - "quaffed 1927 port", "posh resort", "wealthy Republicans", "schmoozed", "$15 glasses of scotch", "dining on salmon" etc etc.

The tickets for the Obama events cost 2-3 times as much as the Romney events. Do you think the rich Hollywood executives supped on château cardboard and sampled vegemite sandwiches with the crusts cut off?

It's little things like this that so annoy me about Fairfax - they can't tell a story without warping it to suit their ideological bent. And they wonder why their readers are going elsewhere for their news.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Fun for all the family

Roger's Profanisaurus.

For everyone who has ever chuckled at a Viz comic.

Finger saving clouds

I've been thinking about digging through the shed and looking for my long fingered gloves - because it's getting cold in the mornings. When the temp dips down to 6-7 degrees, the finger tips start to ache in fingerless gloves.

I was a bit surprised one morning last week when I had to stop after 10 minutes and take my jacket off. It was too dark to read the bike computer temperature readout, so I pulled up under a street light and discovered that it was not the usual 6-8 degrees; it was 14 degrees.

Then I looked at the sky - no stars. We'd had overnight solid cloud, but no rain. No wonder it was so warm.

Whilst I was digesting that, I pondered the fact that global warming models don't include clouds. I know that weather isn't climate, but it does seem a fairly important thing to leave out.

A few photos

What's this? A photo of a sign? Have I gone mad?

With the brightness adjusted, you can just see a couple of joggers running in the bike lane before dawn - with their backs to the bikes. I see this once a week or so - if it wasn't for my super bright headlight, I would have gone straight up the arse of one of them in the dark.

I've seen a big shift in the last few years in the attitudes of a lot of cyclists to being seen. Hi-viz tops seem to be big sellers, and it's rare to see someone without a working tail light - or two or even three.

And here's a whole swarm of joggers doing a pack run one morning. The pack runners seem to have some sort of collective common sense - they rarely run in an annoying manner. They know how to use paths without annoying everyone else.

Oops, forgot to turn the flash off.

That's better.

Thursday 21 June 2012

The impending death of US newspapers

Interesting graph given the ructions in Fairfax this week.

Read the rest here.

What fossil fuel subsidies?

From the International Energy Agency.

Try as I might, I can't find Australia listed on any of the charts in this presentation.

Most fossil fuel subsidies are for petrol in countries like Venezuela and Iran. Yes, coal does get some subsidies, but nothing like what motorists are getting in third world crap holes.

From the SMH today - note the caption on the photo. "On the edge...Coal miners protest in Langreo, northern Spain, after the government decided to cut subsidies to the sector. Photo: AFP"

How many unprofitable coal mines are there in Australia that would close tomorrow if the government removed a subsidy? Answer - zero. Remember the miners strike in the UK when Thatcher was in power? That was all about removing subsidies for coal miners. We don't subsidise fossil fuels in this country - we tax the crap out of them. Anyone who thinks otherwise should look at the numbers on the petrol bowser next time they fill up. 

Blasted flat camera batteries

I couldn't find the battery charger for my usual camera last night, so I took a different camera (same make, different model, slightly different sized battery). Yesterday, the battery in that camera was charged. This morning, when I came under the Harbour Bridge and saw the most spectacular sunrise, I discovered that it was flat. And I mean flat, flat, flat. It normally works if I take the battery out and put it back in again, but even that trick failed this morning. I was reduced to taking some fairly shocking quality pics with the phone. Phone cameras have come a long way, but they are still pretty useless in low light situations like this one. Pity - this photo totally fails to do the sunrise justice.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Wednesday photos

It's been a while since I've put some photos up. I haven't been able to take any morning shots - it's too dark when I hit the road to get a decent shot. And I have to run out of the office door before 5 in order to get shots like these.

Pyrmont Bridge, with the Maritime Museum in the background.

I couldn't work out which shot I preferred more.

Another day, another wingnut behind the wheel. This driver pulled out of a parking spot and then crashed straight into the raised kerb separating the bike lane from the road. By the time I pulled my camera out and grabbed this shot, the car had rolled backwards off the kerb. I thought for a minute that they were going to try and drive right over it. For the first time since this bike lane was built, I was thankful for its existence. Anything that separates me from morons like that is a good thing.

That looks like it hurts

Just in case you thought you were invincible....

A jolly good read for all the family, involving high speed skin contact with asphalt.

If you ride for long enough, at some point, parts of you are going to make contact with the road. It might be your fault; it might not. It doesn't matter - we're all going down at some point.

I have a few slightly less gruesome photos of my own lurking in the family albums. The worst part is not the scraping along the road - the shock tends to numb the pain. The worst part is when the big Maori nurse turns up with a stiff scrubbing brush and a bucket of Dettol and starts scraping all the bits of rock, sand, glass etc out of your skin. By that time, the shock has worn off, and it just plain hurts. And you know that if you want to heal properly, you just have to grit your teeth and bear it.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

The planet needs you to be thin

Oh dear - and those morons at Fairfax wonder why they are slowly disappearing up their own arseholes. I guess everyone was too distracted by the story of Fairfax imploding to notice the dreck that its journalists are still serving up:

OVERWEIGHT people are a threat to future food security, scientists say.

The researchers say the energy requirement of humans depends not only on numbers but average mass. ''Tackling population fatness may be critical to world food security and ecological sustainability,'' they wrote.

Professor Ian Roberts, who led the research, said: ''Everyone accepts that population growth threatens global environmental sustainability - our study shows that population fatness is also a major threat. Unless we tackle both population and fatness, our chances are slim.''

A quick bit of googling uncovered that Ian Roberts is the author of a book called "The Energy Glut: The Politics of Fatness in an Overheating World". Somehow, he masterfully ties together cheap oil and obesity. The solution - well, it's not spelled out in the reviews, but I presume it is something along the lines of expensive oil and being forced to get rid of our cars. Somehow, the SMH managed to miss that angle completely. 

The book description also works in the term "decarbonisation". So I guess you can tell where the author is coming from.

What amazes me is that the book has been in print since September 2010, and the SMH is only just getting around to this "exciting new environmental discovery".

Personally, I liked this review in The Lancet the best:

The fiction, for which disbelief must be suspended in my view, is Roberts and Edwards's charming notion that “We are entering a new era of the bicycle”. They document the rise in obesity in China with increased car ownership and the demise of the bicycle. Improbably this coincided with improvement in activity levels of Cubans, who bought the unwanted Chinese bikes to help overcome their own political and economic crisis. Maybe in Cuba, but, as Frank Zappa said, “It Can't Happen Here”. Nonethess, The Energy Glut is interesting and important, addressing a subject that affects us all, and for which we are all to blame: petroleum's sinister legacy is a reason why we're lazy, but also why we overeat.

You've probably guessed from the title of this blog, and from my many photos, that I ride a bike a lot. However, I am not some matchstick thin supermodel. I am still a large, chunky bloke. And I know from experience that riding a bike can be a pain in the arse - literally - and in many other places. It is not some magic panacea. Plus you'll have to wrest my car keys from my cold, dead hands. Whenever someone mentions Cuba as a role model, I shudder. The last thing we need is a bunch of authoritarian socialists telling us how to manage our affairs.

Anyway, if you're fat, you can now blame Big Oil. 

I pulled this table from a paper that Ian Roberts published. Look at the lightest countries - the ones that we are supposed to be emulating. Do you really want to live like a North Korean?

Ma aching bones

I'm finally back in the saddle after the longest lay off in a year or so. Funny how the muscles can go soft and squelchy so quickly. I was alright after the first day, but today I noticed that my wrists and forearms were sore. I couldn't work out why. I can understand my legs aching - but my arms?

Then I worked it out - I haven't been gripping and leaning on a set of handlebars for a while. The arms and wrists have to settle back in too. They might not appear to be doing much work, but from the aches I am feeling tonight, they clearly do something.

It's good to be riding again - the body needs a dose of natural stimulants on a regular basis. I'm not riding "hard" though - my lungs are still full of crud, and my speed is down about 25% on normal.

One thing I don't miss are the idiots on the bike paths. If I didn't have a really powerful headlight, I would have slammed into the back of a bloke who was riding slowly with his dog on a leash - no lights, no reflectors and the obligatory dark clothing. I saw his greyish mutt before I saw him. Some people think that just because they can see where they are going, others can see them. Nope - doesn't work that way.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Riding and chundering don't mix

Yes, I've been a bit quiet of late on the photo front. That's due mainly to a lack of riding. Can't take photos from a bike if you're not riding around on a bike.

I got a chest/throat infection about a week and a half ago. I could live with that - I've ridden plenty of times with a reduced lung capacity, and I don't overly mind coughing up great gobs of green snot as I ride to work.

What laid me out though was the way my body reacted to the throat infection - the back of my throat became very sensitive, and too much cold air down the throat set off my gag reflex, and I vomited. That happened on cold mornings when I was going up hills, and that is not a good time to be throwing up your breakfast.

The first time it happened, I stupidly kept riding as I threw up in my mouth, and then I suddenly found I couldn't breathe - I guess it was like an asthma attack. I quickly wobbled to a halt and spent the next few minutes doubled over racked by huge coughing spasms. The spasms were quite incredible - they started down around my hips and rippled up through my body, with every muscle clenching fiercely along the way. My back and neck aren't in the best condition, and that was enough to throw my neck out and bring on some appalling headaches. I had a lot of trouble getting any air in between coughing fits.

The quack has put me on asthma medication, reasoning that if my throat stops constricting, I shouldn't have a  problem. I put it to the test this morning - it seemed to work. I had a few small coughs, and that was it. 

It was a beautiful morning for taking photos. Which meant my camera battery was flat.

Monday 11 June 2012

From Guido Fawkes in the UK:

Green Leadership Candidate Waves Nazi Flag

One of the favourites to replace Caroline Lucas as the Green Party leader appears to be a Nazi sympathiser. Pippa Bartolotti was pictured raising the flag of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, a fascist organisation whose members give the Hitler salute, use a swastika as their emblem and base their party anthem on ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’. Well Hitler was a green…

Those greenies - they're such a laugh. I suppose the current lot, being mad vegans, won't be keen on dressing up in very snappy ankle length leather trench coats and the like. But perhaps they should - it would be nice if they showed their true totalitarian colours once in a while.

Another definition of "green jobs"

More from Tim Worstall:

For here is what the US's Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as a green job:
Green jobs are either:
A. Jobs in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources.
B. Jobs in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources.

What this means is that absolutely everyone who works at an oil refinery has a green job. For everyone who does work at an oil refinery is trying to "use fewer natural resources". In fact, everyone who works in anything at all of a capitalist or market nature now has a green job. For all of us are, always, attempting to reduce the resources we use in order to produce our output.

Read the whole thing.

The opposite is generally true in the public sector. Although every incoming government talks about squeezing an "efficiency dividend" from the public sector, it never seems to happen. That's because most public servants are mainly concerned with extracting a larger budget from the Treasury. "Doing more with less" is an anathema to most public servants.

Given that Tasmania is a mendicant state propped up by the rest of Australia, and that whole swathes of the Tasmanian economy are dependent on the largess of mainland taxpayers, the best way to Green the island would be to slash and burn their public sector. Many Greens seem to want the place preserved as a wilderness. Fine. If you cut government support, the place will depopulate within a few years and it will be back to where it was in 1803 in no time.

Perverse Incentives

Haha - these are great:

1. In Hanoi, under French colonial rule, a program paying people a bounty for each rat pelt handed in was intended to exterminate rats. Instead, it led to the farming of rats.

2. 19th century palaeontologists traveling to China used to pay peasants for each fragment of dinosaur bone (dinosaur fossils) that they produced. They later discovered that the peasants dug up the bones and then smashed them into many pieces, greatly reducing their scientific value, to maximize their payments.

3. Opponents of the Endangered Species Act in the US argue that it may encourage preemptive habitat destruction by landowners who fear losing the use of their land because of the presence of an endangered species, known as "shoot, shovel, and shut up."

4. In the former Soviet Union, managers and employees of glass plants were at one time rewarded according to the tons of sheet glass produced. Not surprisingly, most plants produced sheet glass so thick that one could hardly see through it. The rules were changed so that the managers were rewarded according to the square meters of glass produced. The results were predictable. Under the new rules, Soviet firms produced glass so thin that it was easily broken. 

And here's another:

5. Private companies were paid to transport convicts/prisoners from the U.K. to Australia during the late 1700s and the early 1800s.  The first payment schedule was based on the number of prisoners who boarded ships in the U.K.  As you might imagine, there was no incentive to deliver living prisoners to Australia, and many of them died during the trip, due to overcrowding, lack of food and water, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, untreated diseases, etc.  The payment schedule later changed, and was subsequently based on the number of living prisoners delivered to Australia. Result?  Fewer prisoners died during transport.

I'll add one of my own. In About Face, Hackworth described the body count system in Vietnam, and how the pressures to achieve body counts led to all sorts of distortions of the facts. The had a "dich board" at their base, that counted their kills for the month. He climbed an observation tower and was talk to the sniper there about the uselessness of their Vietnamese allies at the checkpoint down the road. The sniper suggested that he shoot a few South Vietnamese soldiers manning the checkpoint, and that they add them to their dich board. He was quite serious about it.

On another occasion, they were digging in for the night and one of the troopers dug up the rotting body of a VC (complete with AK47). He's presumably been buried by his comrades. They duly reported the find as a kill - anything would do to make the numbers for the month.

The whole solar and wind industry is similar to the first case - the rat farms. Wind and solar farms have been built by private industry simply to harvest subsidies.

The term 'Cobra effect' stems from an anecdote set at the time of British rule of colonial India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes. The Government therefore offered a reward for every dead snake. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually however the Indians began to breed cobras for the income.

When this was realized the reward was canceled, but the cobra breeders set the snakes free and the wild cobras consequently multiplied. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Definition of "Green jobs"

Wow, you just have to watch this video

It turns out that according to the administration, “green jobs” include: college professors teaching classes on environmental studies, clerks at bicycle repair shops, antique dealer employees, Salvation Army workers because they are selling used clothing, stores selling rare books and manuscripts, consignment shop workers, used record shop employees, garbage disposal workers, and even oil lobbyists if they are engaged in advocacy related to environmental issues.

I'm amazed they didn't ask about accountants and tax lawyers working in large multinational financial institutions who create and trade in carbon certificates etc. 

If you have a job where you are paid to trawl the internet to promote green propaganda by posting comments everywhere under different names, is that also a green job?

Union snouts in the trough?

Something I didn't know:

My favourite part of the whole thing is that what really, really, pissed off the public sector unions was that he freed the school system from having to buy the teachers’ health insurance through the union run monopoly.

You’ll not be surprised to find that premiums fell for the same coverage: and that school districts actually ended up with more disposable cash within the same total budgets.

This was, of course, such an outrage that a recall campaign must be launched to reverse this terrible attack on the workers’ rights.

Imagine that - unions lining up to line their pockets at the expense of taxpayers.

We have a similar problem in NSW with insurance cover for Ambos and the Police - their respective unions provide their members with insurance for misconduct etc, but it costs a lot more than it should. But it's all OK because it allows the Union secretaries to pay themselves very high salaries and loads of expenses. In other states, Ambos and Cops have been allowed to make alternative arrangements, and funnily enough, their fees dropped by about half.

This comment is interesting:

(although my interest was piqued by the news that the Democrats/Unions got over 900,000 signatures on their recall petition but in a secret ballot only 1.16 million voted for their candidate).

Friday 8 June 2012

The dead hand of state intervention

It's long, but read this very interesting article on the politics of mobile phone companies in China.

It explains quite simply why you can't get an iPhone in China.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Things you won't find me doing these days

Quite awesome what some of these guys can do, on and off the road.

Back when I was a teenager, and we didn't care about the things our parents bought us (like our bikes), I did race blokes on BMX bikes along bush tracks on my road bike. And we setup Evil Knievel type jumps as well, where one bloke would jump his bike over half a dozen of us lying on the ground in front of the jump. It was murder on the bikes. But since I barely weighed 60kg back then, I never remember any wheels breaking under the strain.

And we jousted at night on the bikes with burning rags dipped in metho on the end of broom sticks. Whilst wearing our safety thongs.

Monday 4 June 2012

Funny things happen when you slash solar subsidies

The Spanish market went from being the largest in the world, at 2.7 GW, in 2008 to installing 17 megawatts — a drop of 99 percent — after subsidies were slashed and a cap on new installations was imposed.


Fancy that! It really shows that solar power = subsidies + sunlight.

Electric car burnouts!

From here:

A Zotye Langyue/Multipla EV serving as a taxicab burst into flame Monday afternoon in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, prompting the city to halt all electric taxis on safety concerns.

Firefighters rushed to the scene in minutes but couldn’t do much as the car quickly turned into a big fireball, and then ashes and an empty, back shell. No one was injured; the driver and two passengers in the vehicle got out in time.

They've got a nice little collection of burning or burnt out electric buggies.

It pays to check the sources

The post before this one was all about a Bloomberg report on solar power. The references at the end of the paper go for three and a bit pages. Just for kicks, I've had a trawl through them to see how many are good old fashioned peer reviewed papers in respected published journals. We know that the IPCC has relied on a lot of dodgy grey material that was purposely generated by green organisations and their hangers-on. So I went down the rabbit hole. There's just over 100 references - I had a look at a sample in the last post, but I didn't really dig into them.

Here's one I will dig into.

Seba, T., 2011. Is Solar PV Already Below Grid Parity? cleantechies.com.

Here's a link to the article. From looking through lots of other referenced papers, this article seems to have been used as the basis for declaring that solar is below grid pricing in certain markets. How much trust can we place in this article then? Well, let's start by having a look at the profile of Tony Seba. Note that he's the author of a book about solar power.

The blurb about the book states:

The Energy industry will make $382 trillion over the next 40 years. In this seminal book, technology strategy guru and visionary Tony Seba reveals market opportunities worth at least $35 trillion of that vast market by 2050. He shows why solar is the only clean energy source that can scale to meet global needs—and explores the disruptive characteristics that make solar technology inevitable.

Tony is clearly not in the pay of Big Oil. You can also:

Watch Tony Seba being interviewed on TV about “Solar Trillions” and “Solar Energy Business Opportunities”

Don't forget to collect your free set of steak knives.

Tony's article is essentially a mass of conjecture rather than hard, declared facts. He's claiming that solar is now at grid parity in California because a few small solar plants are apparently supplying power at below the 2009 Market Reference Price. We don't know the actual price the solar supplier is getting - the contracts are confidential and all the juicy bits like prices have been redacted. So all we have is guesswork and conjecture. It might be good guesswork and conjecture, but it's still guesswork and conjecture. Until someone un-redacts those contracts, we don't know anything for sure.

What we do know is this:

  • Southern California Edison, by law, has to buy a certain amount of renewable power. It doesn't buy it because it wants to - it buys it because it has to
  • SCE signed a deal with Axio Power to supply power from a solar plant
  • Axio Power was bought last year by MEMC
  • MEMC must be doing something really horrible - have a look at their share price over the last few years.

One thing that took me a long time was to discover whether this solar project was costing and whether it was receiving any subsidies. I couldn't find anything explicit, but with a bit of guesswork and conjecture...

Wind and solar industry trade groups worked together on lobbying for the extension of the grant program, which covers 30 percent of the costs of renewable energy projects (not just solar and wind, but also other forms of renewable electricity). Wind projects have received some of the largest awards from the grant program.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment funded the program, which was originally set to end by Dec. 31 this year. Wind and solar companies said the program was expiring too soon because the economy hadn’t recovered as quickly as expected.

Seems Mr Seba forgot to mention that inconvenient truth - would this project be able to supply power at "grid parity" if that 30% subsidy was removed?

And let's not forget that the states (such as California) also throw subsidies around:

One of the drivers encouraging solar power is the program California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law in 2006, which created a $3.35 billion solar program to install 3,000 megawatts of solar photovoltaic systems.

I wonder if they also tapped into a program like that as well? Funnily enough, no one is saying anything public about the level of subsidy - it's all very hush-hush.

One thing is for sure though - you can't claim grid parity if your prices are artificially lowered by subsidies.

Reconsidering the economics of solar power

It's been suggested in comments that I have a good look at a technical paper from Bloomberg called "Reconsidering the economics of solar power".

So I did.

For starters, just note that most of the co-authors of this paper are employed by companies or organisations that have a vested interest in pushing solar power. I'm not saying that's bad - I'm just saying, is all. I'm happy to read research from Big Oil and Big Coal, so why not read what Big Solar has to say as well? 

The paper itself is quite interesting, but the best bits are in the footnotes (which no one ever reads - they're great places to bury information that you need to disclose, but you don't want anyone to actually take note of).

For starters, the price of solar panels has fallen rapidly over the last few years. This is partly due to the growing scale of manufacturing, partly due to plumetting cost of silicon feedstock (from $450/kg in 2008 to $27/kg in 2012), partly due to improvements in manufacturing techniques and technologies and partly due to a flatlining of demand due to countries like Spain going broke. Supply greatly outstrips demand. Supply is over 50GW per year and demand is only 26-35GW. That great crashing sound you hear is solar manufacturers going broke. This is acknowledged in the very last paragraph of the paper - a great place to bury bad news, as very few people ever grind through a report to the very last paragraph.

"Current PV module prices are considered by some to be below manufacturing cost, and consequently, as unsustainable, in large part because several leading non-Chinese firms in the industry have recently announced losses, cutbacks or massive write-downs or filed for bankruptcy"

PV modules did cost up to $4.00/W in 2008. They're now below $1.00/W - at the factory gate. Prices at the factory gate in China have fallen as low as $0.85/W (before tax etc). However, that's because:

Note that sub-$1/W is largely seen as significantly below actual manufacturing costs -- First Solar is an important exception and thus the benchmark -- and is therefore unsustainable for many if not most manufacturers.

And you can see the impact of that price war in this share price chart for First Solar:

If it's unsustainable, that means one of two things. Either manufacturers need to cut their costs further, or enough of them need to go broke to allow prices to bounce back.

However, a module is not the only cost of a solar system. You've also got all the bits and pieces that are required to wire it together and plug it into your power system, and the labour and transport costs and taxes involved in getting it from a Chinese factory to your roof. According to Bloomberg, these costs (which include installation) average $1.85/W across all countries. Bigger, industrial scale systems that aren't roof mounted can be down around $1.43/W. However, there is no breakdown on a country by country basis, so we don't see what the costs are like in a high labour-cost country like Australia versus say Indonesia. Or Malawi. Or Texas, where you can make use of illegal aliens (the Mexican kind, not the probing kind).

As one solar installer noted here:

Our installed PV costs for simple, common asphalt rooftops are running under $4 / watt right now. But Bob - you are right in that the majority of the cost of a solar PV system is now becoming labor / project management costs. There are currently many time saving fasteners and solar equipment advances being used. It just takes a long time to crawl up on a randomly different roof, lay it out, and put in the roof support structure (flashed, water proofing...). These steps take human intelligence, variable problem solving skills, craftsmanship and TIME.

Labour costs aren't coming down soon - unless a recession really starts to bite. 

The paper then delves into a lot of mathematical blather about the LCOE (Levelised Cost of Electricity). LCOE is defined as:

The cost of electricity generated by different sources is a calculation of the cost of generating electricity at the point of connection to a load or electricity grid. It includes the initial capital, return on investment, as well as the costs of continuous operation, fuel, and maintenance.

The paper notes that Solar LCOE dropped from $0.32/kWh in 2009 to $0.17 in 2012, but the footnotes disclose that "some LCOE figures from the US quoted in this paper may be post-Federal tax rebates and may also include local capex rebates in some cases." So take those numbers with a pinch of salt.

The paper also promotes a power auction in the US where 9 of the 11 winning bids were solar, with the highest price being 9c/kWh - but the footnotes again state that "federal tax credits likely make these prices look lower than they would otherwise be". So again, be generous with the pinch of salt.

In another paper, "BNEF identify the most important determining factors of the levelized cost as being capital costs, capacity factor, cost of equity, and cost of debt", and "the loan repayment method is one high-impact assumption."

So in other words, you can fiddle (ie, lower) the LCOE by providing capital grants that lower the apparent capital cost, providing low or zero interest loans on very favourable repayment terms that dramatically reduce the cost of debt and making the loan repayment method appear more favourable. 

Also, "capital-intensive renewables, such as PV, are more sensitive to electricity prices, risk adjusted interest rates, maintenance costs and insolation levels"

Again, that's financial-speak for saying you can make a PV project look more palatable by removing the sensitivity to electricity prices by setting fixed, very high prices for PV power (like the Labor government did in NSW), and again, supplying soft loans (like Obama did with Solyndra - that worked out well, didn't it?)

The very last footnote in the paper notes that "Early 2012 Japan decided that solar will receive JPY 42/kWh for 20 years". The yen is currently worth about 1.3 cents Australian, which means the Japanese are paying 54.6 cents per kWh for solar power. Gee, that sounds attractive to me. Not.

A lot of spade work appears to be going on with the aim of redefining what "grid parity" means:

"Depending on the scale of the PV project, grid parity normally refers to the LCOE of PV by comparison with alternative means of wholesale electricity provision – often an inappropriate metric as discussed previously. While for large-scale PV, these alternatives may indeed be assessed as alternative wholesale generation projects utilising different technologies, for small-scale domestic or commercial PV systems, the appropriate alternative should be the purchase of electricity at a relevant residential or commercial tariff. The latter case is where grid parity actually took its name – such PV applications are not competing against wholesale generation but, instead, the delivered price of electricity through the grid."

As for reaching grid parity:

"Contrary to the view that the arrival of grid parity is still decades away, numerous studies have concluded that solar PV grid parity has already been achieved in a number of countries/regions"


"Calculations ... suggested that grid parity of wholesale electricity in Germany will occur around 2013-2014."

What isn't mentioned there is that electricity prices are now so high in Germany, the country is de-industrialising, with companies moving to countries with cheaper power. Remember that power from horrible coal and nuclear plants enters the grid at between 4c and 6c per kWh. That's why the solar industry is desperate to change the definition of "grid parity" to the price the consumer pays - which has in turn been inflated by the cost of subsidies for solar, wind, geothermal and biomass projects and our old favourite, the "carbin tax".

A paper cited in the References takes us to the US Energy Information Agency:

The average retail price of electricity in the United States in 2010 was 9.88 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). The average prices by type of utility customer were:

Residential: 11.6¢ per kWh
Transportation: 11.0¢ per kWh
Commercial: 10.3¢ per kWh
Industrial: 6.8¢ per kWh

The three states with the highest average price of electricity in 2010 were:

Hawaii (25.12¢ per kWh)
Connecticut (17.39¢ per kWh)
New York (16.31¢ per kWh)

Those with the lowest average prices in 2010 were:

Wyoming (6.20¢ per kWh)
Idaho (6.54¢ per kWh)
Kentucky (6.75¢ per kWh)

On average, electricity prices are highest in Hawaii, mainly because most of the electricity there is generated with fuel oil. Idaho usually has the lowest prices mainly because of the availability of low-cost hydroelectric power from federal dams.

When claims are made about solar being price competitive in certain markets, just remember that they are cherry picking the most expensive markets, like Hawaii. No mention is ever made of places like Wyoming.

A lovely graph is included on page 13 showing projected LCOEs for a range of countries - Australia is shown as having a solar LCOE of around 21c/kWh. But in the footnotes to the graph, it assumes a weighted average cost of capital of 6%. This is laughably low - it should be at least 8-10%, which would have a major impact on the LCOE. You can of course fiddle your WACC by throwing in grants, subsidies and low interest loans.

I grabbed the following graph from a 2005 report (cited in the references) from the International Energy Agency. Don't worry about the costs so much - what it shows is the LCOE assuming a 5% discount rate and a 10% discount rate. See the big differences? What this shows is how you can get any result you want by fiddling with the financial assumptions. 

Solar is price competitive in some markets:

"Data from IRENA now indicate that grid-connected PV in Africa has already become competitive with diesel-generated power, with an LCOE between $0.30 and $0.95/kWh, based on size, local diesel subsidies, and pilferage. BNEF concludes that falling costs in PV technology mean that solar power is already a viable option for electricity generation in the Persian Gulf Region, where it can generate good economic returns by replacing the burning of oil for electricity generation"

Yep, if you're paying $0.95/kWh for power in Africa, solar starts to make sense. Except you probably need to keep that diesel generator in order to provide power at night - unless you've also invested in a hideously expensive storage system. Or maybe Africans just don't need power at night.

And of course the footnotes provide this gem about their calculations from the Persian Gulf:

"As long as the unburnt oil is valued at the international selling price, rather than extraction cost."

Given that it costs the Arabs bugger all to extract the oil, I'd say they'll be burning a lot of oil to generate power for a long time to come. Unless of course the Arabs don't need power at night either. Plus I had a look at the paper it cited - they fail to mention that the calculations were done on a laughably small 1MW plant, and that the "cost of lowering CO2 emissions are accounted for" - weaselspeak for cranking up the LCOE of an oil fired plant by adding a hypothetical carbon price.

As for solar being "cheap" in India - it is cheaper than having your own diesel generator. A diesel costs 17 rupees per kWh, whilst solar can do it for 8.78 rupees per kWh. And what about coal fired power? 4 rupees per kWh. However, why do so many Indians have diesel generators? Because they don't have enough coal fired power plants, so their grid is really unreliable. The solution for a poor country like India would clearly be to build a lot of cheap, coal fired generation capacity - but they've been suckered into expensive solar like so many others. "India’s solar industry has benefited from tax breaks and a guaranteed government buyer of its cleaner power."

And solar doesn't make those diesel generators disappear entirely:

Acme Telepower Ltd., a Gurgaon- based company converting sites for Viom Networks Ltd. and Bharti, estimates the panels can cut the diesel running time of a rural tower to eight hours a day from 22.

I had a look at the references too - I bet no one ever bothers doing that. One of the first references is:

Baillie, R., 2011. Solar closes in on grid parity. Renewable Energy World.

I'd never heard of Renewable Energy World, so I had a peek. It turns out the authors were a bit selective in what they chose to quote from Mr Baillie (I'm guilty of the same thing, but at least I'm open about it):

When grid parity is going to be achieved is another tricky question, and varies greatly from place to place. Again according to Ernst & Young, retail grid parity may be reached generally between 2012 and 2015 with, for example, the US to the fore and the U.K. having the prospect of parity in 2015, if retail electricity prices continue to rise.

Get that last bit - solar will become competitive if retail electricity prices continue to rise! A huge proportion of the UK population is currently in a state of fuel poverty, and it's only going to get worse. Cold kills more people in the UK than car crashes - old poor people who can't afford to heat their homes. And this is seen as a good thing? Only the completely demented and fanatical could fail to see the problem here - that freezing pensioners to death is not a good policy outcome.

However, if solar is judged by the harsher test of wholesale price parity, then it is not expected to be achievable until about 2030 in Italy — with concentrating solar power (CSP) achieving parity a few years earlier, between 2025 and 2027 in California and Spain, the company believes.

Unless those countries and California go broke in the meantime, and all those lovely subsidies evaporate. In the comments, it's noted that electricity prices in California are now around 30c/kWh. Ouch. And California is in the grip of a terrible recession and companies and residents are fleeing the state.

Other forecasters offer different estimates that would result in grid parity happening sooner. UN expert Sven Teske, a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s recent report on renewable energies as well as renewables director at Greenpeace, says the EU is on track for solar grid parity as early as 2017. Teske says that on current trends he expects Spain, Italy, France and Germany to reach grid parity by 2015, but that progress could be endangered by market uncertainty over the future of these nations’ FiTs.

Yes, there is good reason for uncertainty over their FiTs (feed in tarrifs) - going broke generally concentrates the mind wonderfully. And note who he quoted as the expert here - the renewables director at Greenpeace.  

And I don't hold out much hope for Germany continuing to pour money into its solar "money pit" - again, from the References, I found this paper by Bjorn Lomburg - Germany's sunshine daydream:

One of the world’s biggest green-energy public-policy experiments is coming to a bitter end in Germany, with important lessons for policymakers elsewhere.

Germany once prided itself on being the “photovoltaic world champion”, doling out generous subsidies – totalling more than $130 billion, according to research from Germany’s Ruhr University – to citizens to invest in solar energy. But now the German government is vowing to cut the subsidies sooner than planned, and to phase out support over the next five years. What went wrong?

There is a fundamental problem with subsidizing inefficient green technology: it is affordable only if it is done in tiny, tokenistic amounts. Using the government’s generous subsidies, Germans installed 7.5 gigawatts of photovoltaic (PV) capacity last year, more than double what the government had deemed “acceptable.” It is estimated that this increase alone will lead to a $260 hike in the average consumer’s annual power bill.

According to Der Spiegel, even members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s staff are now describing the policy as a massive money pit. Philipp Rösler, Germany’s minister of economics and technology, has called the spiraling solar subsidies a “threat to the economy.”

Unfortunately, Germany – like most of the world – is not as sunny as the Sahara. And, while sunlight is free, panels and installation are not. Solar power is at least four times more costly than energy produced by fossil fuels. It also has the distinct disadvantage of not working at night, when much electricity is consumed.

In the words of the German Association of Physicists, “solar energy cannot replace any additional power plants.” On short, overcast winter days, Germany’s 1.1 million solar-power systems can generate no electricity at all. The country is then forced to import considerable amounts of electricity from nuclear power plants in France and the Czech Republic. When the sun failed to shine last winter, one emergency back-up plan powered up an Austrian oil-fired plant to fill the supply gap.

Oh dear. Read the whole thing.

Anyway, that was fun.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Short bites

Renewable Energy Receives 82X More in Tax Preferences Than Fossil Fuels, Adjusted for Output

The glorious geothermal revolution!

A short cafe rant

I had a day off this week. It wasn't my idea - I was laid low by a pretty awful headache. I get these things occasionally - they're the lingering after effect of being knocked off my bike by a car years ago. They range from "I'm dying in agony - give me morphine now and knock me out" down to "This hurts so much I can't think clearly, but I can perform basic functions". Thankfully, this one was at the lower end of the scale, so I crawled out of bed around lunchtime and decided to take some air - a gentle stroll around the neighbourhood generally does wonders.

I decided that I would stroll up to a new cafe nearby. I was that whacked out that I can't even remember what it was called, but it came highly recommended by some friends. The cafe has a reputation for doing excellent sweet things, so I thought it would be worth the walk.

The place was quite small - you could seat maybe a dozen people inside and the same again outside. The menu was pretty simple too - although I had a hard time making any sense of it (my head hurt too much). I can normally scan a menu and make my selections in 5-10 seconds - it took me a good two minutes to figure out what I was going to have. My brain was simply not operating at all.

I ordered the quiche and salad and then set about explaining to the waitress what I wanted to drink. Or more exactly what I did not want to drink. I told her I wanted a drink that contained only ingredients A, B and C. I did not want it to include any of D, E of F. I was quite clear on that, and repeated myself three times to be sure. The barista even came over and asked me if I wanted two doses of A or one. At that point, I was fairly sure I was going to get what I wanted - a combination of A + B + C. I know from experience that some cafes don't stock C - although it would be present in every kitchen in the country. Small cafes with limited storage can't stock everything, and I'm used to that. But if they don't stock C, they usually come right out and tell you at the point of order that you can't have it as we don't stock it. In that case, it's time to order something else to drink.

So what did I get?


No C. It turned out they had C, but they still managed to stuff it up. I took one sip to see if it was as bad as expected. Yep - it was awful. Everything I didn't want was in that glass. I pushed it aside and went back to contemplating how sore my head was.

What I couldn't understand is that it should have been quite clear to the waitress that what I ordered looked nothing like what she was delivering. The place was not busy - there were maybe 10 customers there during my stay, and only 4 new ones appeared after me. Yet she still delivered it. I should have pulled her up at that point and pointed out that it looked nothing like what I wanted, but my brain was a puddle of slowly cooling porridge, and it took me an eternity to put two and two together and work out that I was looking at my worst nightmare.

Then the quiche arrived.

Quiche for me is a very safe thing to order. My travels have taken me to a wide range of eateries across Australia, and one thing I have discovered is that no one stuffs up a quiche. I've had rare steaks burnt to a crisp. I've had "fresh" salads served straight from a tin. I've had "home made gourmet" meat pies stuffed full of gristle, gravy and chunky lengths of artery. I've had fish and chips that have consisted wholly of deeply fried batter and completely soggy chips. I've eaten some appalling cafe and pub food across this country, but I've never been dudded with a quiche. 

Then the quiche arrived.

For starters, it was not a quiche as one would normally expect. I'm used to get a big slab of quiche - a fat triangle of eggs and ham and things in pastry. This was more like a vol au vont. It would have been a meal fit for a supermodel on a diet. For me, it was little more than a snack. 

Then I bit into it.

It was almost wholly lacking in salt - and I'm not a salt person. My parents went of salt when I was a kid, so I'm used to minimal salting of dishes. I've convinced the cook at a cafe where I regularly breakfast to cut back on the salt on my eggs (I'm sure he now spits in them instead). But even my taste buds recognised that salt was needed here, and there was none to be found.

And then there was the "side salad".

It consisted of a few small leaves of mixed lettuces, perhaps half a tomato in slice, half a dozen slices of cucumber and the smallest wedge of cheese I have ever seen. If we had a mouse problem, and I was baiting traps, I'd ensure that the mice got a last supper that contained more cheese than that "salad". And to top it off, it was undressed. And there was no salad dressing to be seen anywhere. No a drop of oil or vinegar had ever touched those parched leaves - and they desperately needed a bit of sexing up.

The quiche was small, but the price was small as well, so I can't complain about the value for money. But I'm used to getting something 3-4 times the size for twice the price. If you were looking to actually get fed, it was a waste of time.

So I went to pay the bill.

The barista asked how my drink was. I explained how it was nothing like I had asked for - in fact it was everything I wanted it not to be. At that point, he could have done one of two things:

  • offer to make a fresh one, which I would be happy to pay for
  • apologise, and remove the offending item from the bill
He offered to make me a fresh one, but I was too far gone by that point, and declined. 

So he rang up both items on the bill. $5 for the totally screwed up drink, and $6.50 for the smallest quiche in Christendom.

Frankly, I didn't mind paying for the drink disaster as it gave me free reign to vent my spleen over this experience. 

On the way out, I had a look at the sweet stuff on display - it did indeed look excellent. As bad as my first visit was, I'll be back to sample the stuff behind the glass at a later date. And next time, I'll front the barista and tell him how I want things - A+B+C, and nothing else.

My head still hurts just thinking about how hard the simplest things can be sometimes.