Effect of eclipse on solar farm

Yesterday’s eclipse prompted me to go look at the day’s power production from the University of Illinois’s solar farm.

Just eyeballing the graph, I’d estimate that eclipsing 94% of the sun reduced power production by about 94%.

The solar farm is exactly one mile north of Winfield Village. Jackie and I got a tour of the facility a couple of months ago and I got some pictures besides the one at the top, but haven’t gotten around to writing my solar farm post yet.

What cell phones teach us about the power grid

Back in the day the telephone network was a regulated monopoly. As long as the phone company kept the regulator happy, they were permitted to earn rate of profit on their investment. This resulted in a couple of interesting effects.

First of all, the company was incentivized to invest more in infrastructure: The more they invested, the higher their profit (which was a regulated rate times the size of their investment). This is very different from an unregulated company, where investment is viewed as a cost.

Second, while keeping the regulator happy was always a complex dance, the regulator tended to focus on a few key metrics, one of which was network uptime. This incentivized the phone company to use that large infrastructure investment to produce a network of extreme reliability.

And that network was reliable. In my personal experience with wired phones in that era a wired phone always had service: For two decades as a youth I had literally 100% success picking up a phone and getting a dial tone. Likewise, calls did not drop. Service was rated in nines: 99.999% uptime was 5 nines, 99.9999% uptime was 6 nines.

Of course, that sort of reliability is impossible with cell phones. They move around. Worse yet, they go places where radio signals simply can’t reach.

Cell phone reliability is pretty darned good—let’s call it 98%, as long as you’re not trying to get service in places where nobody else cares if there’s service (the middle of the desert, the middle of the ocean, etc.). But people are not surprised when they find a spot where there’s no service, nor are they surprised if a call drops when elevator doors close or they drive into a tunnel.

This is not to say that cell phone service is bad. My point is simply this: To get the advantages of cell phones, people have accepted a drop in telephone service reliability from six nines down to less than two.

I think this is particularly of interest because I see a potential parallel with the power grid.

The big problem with solar and wind power is that they’re crappy at providing baseline power, for obvious reasons: nighttime, cloudy days, calm days, etc.

If you want a power grid to provide five or six nines of availability, you really need to have enough fossil fuel (or nuclear) generation capacity to provide a large fraction of your total power needs—at least 80%, probably more if you don’t have considerable diversity in your renewable sources (both diverse sources: solar and wind, and geographic diversity: the wind is always blowing somewhere and the sun shines different hours different places).

But just as people learned to get by with less than two nines of phone network reliability, people could certainly learn get by with a less reliable power grid as well.

Thinking of household use, there are certain things that really need fairly reliable power (refrigerator, freezer, furnace), but beyond those few things, we only require a high-availability grid because we’ve set things up with the expectation that it would be there.

Just two or three modest changes to the way we use power could easily accommodate a less-reliable grid.

The easiest one would be for each household to have a guaranteed level of power—enough to keep your food fresh, your pipes unfrozen, and a couple of lights turned on—and then make additional power available on an as-available basis. Alternatively, you could go with a market-based measure where power was cheap when it was plentiful and expensive when it was scarce. A third option would be to distribute the resiliency, with each household providing its own backup power storage or generation capability.

My point here is not to solve the issues for a smart grid, but just to make this point: For a big enough payoff—like the payoff of a internet-connected supercomputer that you can carry in your pocket—we would accept a considerable downgrade in reliability from our power grid.

The payoffs from renewable energy arguably are that big. (In particular, not rendering the planet uninhabitable for humans. But that’s a payoff that’s uncertain and diffuse, with the gains—especially the early gains—going to people other than the ones who need to make the sacrifices.) But there are payoffs to everybody: less particulates in the air, fewer pipeline and tanker spills, fewer truck and rail accidents hauling coal and oil through towns and cities, fewer worker deaths in the coal-mining and oil-drilling industries. And then there are the cost savings: Renewable power has the potential to be very cheap and very reliable in the out-years, once the infrastructure has earned out its initial capital costs.

It might well be worth getting past the idea that the power grid should provide near-perfect reliability, given the payoffs involved in accepting a bit less.

Funding the capital costs of household solar power

I was reminded yesterday that I wanted to mention Property Assessed Clean Energy, which came up in the course I’m taking on electric power. (What reminded me was Tobias Buckell’s post about how the real issue for photovoltaics is the capital cost of installing the capacity, which he mentioned in reference to a rather interesting article on issues with solar feed-in tariffs.)

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is a clever idea for funding homeowner investment in solar power. The way it works is this: The municipality raises money with a bond issue, then lends it to homeowners to invest in solar (or potentially wind) power generating capacity. That investment is then paid back to the municipality over 15 or 20 years via an assessment on the property tax bill. The money is easy for the homeowner to pay back, because the debt repayment is funded by savings on the power bill.

The property tax assessment stays with the house if it is sold, which is reasonable because the photovoltaic system or wind turbine stays with the house as well. This means that the capital is available quite cheaply, because the money is very likely to be paid back.

The really big win of PACE is that it greatly reduces the biggest financial risk that a homeowner takes when making an investment in solar power—the risk that he or she will end up having to move before the rather long payback period, and end up being on the hook to pay the loan back, without enjoying the benefits of the lower power bills.

The problem is, even though about half the states have laws authorizing some form of PACE, the whole scheme has been blocked by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which instructed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac not to underwrite mortgages on properties with a PACE assessment.

As I understand it, the issue is that the property tax assessment (like property taxes in general) are senior to the mortgage in the event of a default. But if this regulation is legitimate, the federal mortgage authorities can regulate all municipal activity. They could ban mortgages on houses where the municipality is funding public art through a property tax assessment (or on houses where the municipality isn’t funding public art). If this principle stands, municipal governments will have to do whatever the mortgage authorities demand, or else only people rich enough to pay cash would be able to buy a house in town.

There’s a group called PACENow that’s working various paths to get the prohibition reversed.

Children and Power

Just as my brother’s kids figured out (see his post Children and Power), I figured out in about third grade that teachers had surprisingly little power over me: they lacked the tools to compel me to do anything I didn’t want to do.

Oh, they had tools that could make things unpleasant for me. But once I figured out that the unpleasantness that they could impose was limited and bearable—and, in particular, less unpleasant than spending large blocks of my time doing busywork—their ability to control me was just about zero.

I did make some mistakes, as is to be expected when important decisions are being made by someone that age. I figured out almost immediately that busywork was pointless, and started refusing to do it. It was only when I got to college that I figured out that the truth is more complex: only most busywork is pointless. (In particular, learning the multiplication tables and learning how to spell the common words in the English language are both worth doing and inevitably involve some busywork.) But there was so much pointless busywork, and I lacked the perspective to separate the pointless from the pointy.

Either of two things might have saved me a lot of grief later:

  1. Elimination of pointless busywork from the curriculum. (Then I’d never have gotten the idea that it was pointless in the first place.)
  2. Someone that I trusted to clue me in as to which few bits of busywork would eventually turn out to have been worth my time.

The first didn’t exist, even though I went to an elementary school that stood head and shoulders above others in treating students like people.

The second is a bit more complex and subtle. There were people I trusted, but I think they hesitated to admit that most of the busywork was pointless (because doing so would undermine the teachers) and probably didn’t know which things I wouldn’t be able to just pick up along the way. (For example, my dad picked up spelling along the way, and never needed to learn how to spell by laboriously memorizing the list of letters that makes up each word the way I did.)

Looking back, I marvel at just how adversarial the whole school system is, even for a student who was bright and not inclined to be disruptive.

Here’s an example: I remember a set of first-grade arithmetic drills done with pictures of counting sticks. Our worksheets would show pictures of sticks, which we were supposed to count. When the number of sticks was large, they’d be grouped into batches of 10. But my experience with school was that it was an adversarial process. To my mind (as a bright first-grader), it seemed extremely likely that the worksheets would group the sticks in batches of 10 for a while—just long enough that we’d lulled into taking it for granted—and then would start printing some groups with 9 or 11 sticks. Then any student who had gotten so lazy as to not check each group would get the problem wrong and be mocked for being so stupid and trusting as to not count out the sticks in each bundle.

Imagine what I must have gone through—imagine how teachers must have treated me in the months leading up to that point—to have made me expect that. (I certainly wouldn’t have expected such trickery from most of the other people that I interacted with.) And those were good teachers! I shudder to think about kids who have to suffer with bad teachers.

Kids who learn early that their power is greater than they imagine will end up making things harder for themselves in some ways. But I still think they come out ahead. I’m glad it’s a lesson I learned early.

What renewable energy really looks like

Tobias Buckell just posted about Portugal’s push into renewable energy. He links to an article claiming that 45% of Portugal’s grid electricity now comes from renewable sources, and that they’ve managed this with just a 15% increase in electricity costs. Making the (somewhat unlikely) assumption that one could get another 45% increase for another 15% increase in price, he suggests that it would be totally worth it:

I’d take a 30% hike for energy independence and no money being sent to terrorists in a fucking heart beat.

Frankly, I would too. In fact, I’d be willing to pay a lot more than that. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it would cost a lot more than that—more than most people would pay.

First of all, Portugal was already paying about twice what we pay in the US for electricity. The 15% bump was on top of that. Second, Portugal had substantial untapped sources of hydro power. The US doesn’t.

Either of those, I expect, would doom the project. The first makes it unaffordable—I’d be willing to pay 30% over double what I’m paying now for electricity, but I doubt if very many other people would. The second makes it impossible—we have a lot of untapped wind power, but that comes and goes. Use of wind power will grow, but even with a much better grid (to distribute power from where the wind is blowing to where people are using it), you need something more reliable for baseline power.

But neither of those is the real problem, which is that the US uses three times as much electricity per person than Portugal does. (13646 kWH  versus 4663 kWH per capita in 2005, data from the World Bank.) If you look at the historical per capita energy use in each country, you can see that both countries have shown steady growth—but Portugal is only up to about where the US was in the early 1960s. (And, sadly, following right in our footsteps.)

So, to shoot for the Portugal model we’d have to:

  1. Cut our energy use by two-thirds,
  2. Double the price (plus 30%), and
  3. Either invest vast additional sums in the grid (perhaps $100 billion) or accept brownouts when the wind wasn’t blowing.

Again, I’m totally up for that. My electricity consumption is probably already two-thirds below the US average. My typical electric bill runs just about $30; I’m sure I could stretch my budget to cover $70 if the payoff was no more carbon in the air and no more sending buckets of cash to people who hate us.

But based on the way people actually behave, I’m forced to assume that most people would rather burn the planet and fund terrorists than turn off the AC, downsize the car, and pay up for organic, locally grown food.