Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sucker Purchase: Solar Panels On The Roof

In case you hadn't heard, Berkeley took only 9 minutes to fill up the slots for its "innovative" program to pay for rooftop solar installations over time using property taxes.

Proponents lauded this measure, which passed handily, for allowing the average homeowner to pay the hefty $28,000 pricetag for a typical system by tacking on only $182 a month to his property tax bill.

On the surface, this seems like a good deal, and some have even suggested that it could be a model nationwide. Sadly, not only is it a bad deal, it's an environmental disaster.

Now I know you're probably expecting me to attack solar panels from the typical conservative non-environmental perspective. After all, rooftop solar panel installations are a key element of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and saving the planet, right?

Not so fast. I realize that the typical liberal narrative is that the only reason solar panels are not ubiquitous is that greedy capitalists are unwilling to foot the bill to purchase them. Instead, they'd rather pay 10 cents a kilowatt-hour or so for dirty coal power. If only they were willing to cut back a little up front, they'd get 30 years or so of emission and cost-free solar power from each panel they purchased!

Here's the problem. No one ever asks why solar panels cost so much more to produce per lifetime kilowatt-hour than do coal-fired power plants.

Well, let's think about it. First, someone has to locate and purify a certain type of silicon. Then, an industrial process must be used to produce a large crystal structure from that silicon material. Finally, since many of the panels produced don't measure up to quality standards, relatively few make it through the process.

What's the common denominator at each step of this process? Energy. It turns out that solar panels require a vast amount of energy to produce -- starting with the bulldozer digging up the silicon, through the energy required to purify it, the energy to produce the crystal and then the wasted energy when panels fail to operate.

So, when you pay $28,000 for a solar panel, most of that money is going to purchase fossil fuels which are burned to produce the energy for making that panel.

When you think about it, this is true for pretty much all alternative energy schemes (with a few exceptions, such as hydroelectric and geothermal). Any time you're relying on a complicated and expensive device to generate your power, it's a good bet that the cost of that device is largely energy-related. So, if the device costs more than the cost of the energy it "saves" you, you're probably wasting energy.

In other words, unless you get $28,000 of energy out of your solar panel, you've probably hurt the environment. Unfortunately, that takes at least 10 or 15 years to do, even with optimistic assumptions about energy production. And, this all assumes your panels don't break.


What rooftop solar panels really amount to is a bet against future technological progress. What you're saying is, "I'd rather burn up $28,000 worth of fossil fuels right now than burn them slowly over time in the hope that things get more efficient into the future."

Also, you're saying you don't think technological progress is likely to produce solar panels more efficiently in the future.

Doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?

The real solution to our energy dilemma is to search for cost effective alternative sources of energy. Cost effectiveness is absolutely critical, because if something makes financial sense it's a good bet that you're getting more energy out of it than you put in. And this should be the gold standard for environmentalists.

Environmentalists need to start thinking like capitalists. A capitalist looks at an investment and asks, "What return on investment can I expect here?" An environmentalist should look at a new energy technology and ask, "What return on energy does this technology give me?" So, if the device costs 1 million kilowatt-hours to build, it better generate far more than 1 million kilowatt-hours over its lifetime.

In my opinion, if you want to save the planet using solar power, you should encourage the government to fund basic research, or throw some money into one of the many nanotechnology-based solar startups throughout the Bay Area. Both of these avenues make sense, because they can potentially find ways to produce solar panels for a fraction of the cost (and therefore energy) required to produce today's panels.

But the worst thing you can do is purchase today's inefficient environmentally unfriendly solar panels.

Let's hope Berkeley's program doesn't become a model for the nation. If it does, we're in for a world of hurt.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nirvana Realized: Oakland At 837 Cops

By now most readers have heard the news that the Oakland Police Department graduated a new class of cops, bringing the total staffing above the magic 800 number for the first time in recent history. At the same time, there's a fair bit of bellyaching that this accomplishment will not make a significant difference to the city.

There also is some discussion of how this feat serves as some sort of vindication for Mayor Dullums. Let me counter that assertion first and then move on to the question of what this will mean for Oakland residents.

Ron Dullums is the political equivalent of a fair-weather fan. The issue with him is not that he didn't manage to survive long enough to witness the promised increase in policing. It's that he did very little to support it -- and indeed opposed it -- until it became clear that it was the only alternative left.

But just as the president frequently gets credit for "running the economy," though he does nothing of the kind, Dullums has received some totally undeserved accolades here. Fair enough. Hopefully it makes him sleep better at night.

But on to the issue of the 837 cops. I'll admit that the first thing I noticed when reading the announcement was these cops' starting salary: $70,000 per year. I'm sure that number ignores the cost of benefits and retirement, which typically adds about 50 percent to a civil servant's cost. So, these cops are cosing us about $100k per year each.

That's quite a price to pay for rookie cops, especially when you consider that New York pays its rookie cops just $36,000 a year.

Sit back and think about that for a moment. Our leaders are chortling that they managed to hire police by offering to pay them double what they would earn in NYC (which, incidentally, has a higher cost of living than the Bay Area).

And, what do you want to bet that Oakland is not rationally reserving money for these officers' retirement pay? Given what we've seen throughout California in recent months and years, I'd be pretty surprised to see anything reasonable on that front.

Still, I'm glad to see the number of police increase, and I continue to support any well-written proposition to increase them further -- provided it uses regressive taxation as did Measure Y.

Doing so is a true win-win for Oakland residents. First, spending money on police will decrease crime.

Now I know that Dullums likes to say things like, "We can't arrest our way out of this problem." I disagree. I think we can and should arrest people like crazy to get this problem under control.

If I were an anti-social element looking for a city to loot, I'd absolutely factor my chances of getting caught into my decisionmaking. As criminals learn that Oakland is serious about rounding up criminals, they will go elsewhere. It's simple self-preservation.

But that's just the start of it. By diverting tax money from liberal social programs to the police -- no matter how inefficiently it is done -- the city is sending out a clear message to the poor: Get Out.

The same goes for regressive parcel taxes which hit hardest those who can least afford them.

This is exactly what Oakland needs to do. Tax the poor and stop spending money to support them. Our city lies at the gateway to San Francisco. We have Bart stations which will whisk a business commuter to Market Street in under 15 minutes. What we need is an environment more conducive to getting those people to live here. That means keeping prices cheaper than San Francisco (we've got that covered, courtesy of the housing crash), and it means making the streets livable.

So, I applaud whatever forces have brought this about, and I hope to see more of the same. May our better-policed city flourish!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting Is A Waste Of Your Time

Rather than submitting a list of endorsements or suggestions for your review this election day, I'd like to suggest that you reconsider the value of even participating in the process at all.

There's been a lot of discussion of various platitudes this election season, as there is every four years. I see people on the television telling me that they expect some resurrection of "hope" or "change" if one candidate or another wins the election. The same thing goes, to a lesser degree, for local elections.

As with most vague statements, these slogans bear little connection to reality. In fact, I've found that most Bay Area people I've spoken with can't even articulate any specifics when I ask how their candidate will affect their life.

If you think about it for a moment, you'll realize that this isn't too surprising. What a preposterous concept for someone to think that some action by the government can give them "hope."

Now, don't get me wrong. I do believe that people are affected by whom they select to lead them. It's just that I believe people make systematic errors by selecting leaders who tell them what they want to hear instead of those who might do something that would improve conditions.

This is exacerbated by the fact that nearly everything government does or can do causes harm. So, when a politician promises to "do something," this nearly always translates to "hurt people." When the government does manage to do something which improves conditions, more often than not it is an accident.

There is an old saw that every urban community and every urban school district is dominated by Democrats. So why then do those in urban areas seem to blame Republicans for the ills they suffer? The same goes for suburban Republican voters.

The bottom line is that voters follow predictable patterns, repeating the same simple mistakes time and again. In this way, politics is just like capitalism. Just as people guide the economy through their largely random purchases, so too do they guide the government through largely random voting patterns.

So, there is largely no point to voting. Doing so wastes your time. Elections almost never come down to a single vote. And, even if "your" candidate wins, you have no concrete or meaningful way to translate that election win into predictable positive consequences for you.

As one friend put it, democracy is the American religion. In church, people pray to a higher power, hoping their conditions will change -- yet nothing predictable ever comes of it. In America, we cast ballots thinking it will make some difference. Yet the vote of any individual is irrelevant.

So why even bother spending time writing about political issues? I have a couple answers to that. First, I believe local politics has a better chance of being relevant to an individual than do state or national politics. Also, just as a matter of statistics, a local blogger might shift enough views to cause one or another proposition to pass. That is why this blog largely focuses on the local.

More importantly, I view politics as an excellent source of good humor. I enjoy watching politicians repeatedly lie to constituents about their plans to "solve" various problems. It is great fun to watch debacles like the Mandela Foods Cooperative.

Of course, the only reason why I can view the terrible actions of our local politicians with such good humor is that none of them really affect me -- aside from taxation, that is. And, as readers of this blog know, I view local taxation as somewhat positive as much of it is regressive, which drives out the poor and improves the community.

If I lived in inner-city Oakland and had to send my kids to the crazy liberals' school-shaped laboratories, I would probably feel different. I'd probably be angry, and I'd probably buy into messages of "hope" coming from above.