Monday May 05, 2008

ROI for Sun

Not NASDAQ - solar power. The ASES annual solar energy conference is in San Diego this week. The top question I get about my solar panels is how long is my return on investment? I did calculate it before we installed them. At current electricity prices and time value of money they will just break even over their useful life. (And we live near the ocean where morning fog obscures the panels on many summer mornings.) Still, if we had another price shock equivalent to the 1973 oil embargo they would pay back about twice the initial investment, in current dollars. And if we had another price shock equivalent to Kenny-Boy Lay's market manipulation, they would pay back about five times the initial investment. Economically, call the panels zero cost insurance.

Now what's the ROI on an SUV? Our solar panels cost about a quarter to a half the price of a big SUV. Will that Escalade have a productive life of 20 years? And over that time how many dollars will it return to your pocket? Or will it perhaps take more money out of your pocket? For the price of the SUV you could instead buy solar panels, zero out your electric bill, buy a Chevy Malibu (which sits in clogged traffic equally well as the SUV), and have enough money left over to pay for over 200,000 miles worth of gas for it, at $4/gallon.

So why aren't there more solar panels in sunny Southern California? Why is Germany, in the cloudy wintery north, so far ahead of the U.S.? Two reasons: (1) money, and (2) money.

(1) Lots of people don't have the luxury of deciding whether to spend discretionary money on a new SUV or on solar panels; they're deciding whether to pay the mortgage, pay the electric bill, or fill up the gas tank. Ditto businesses hard pressed to show a profitable bottom line. Increasingly solar energy entrepreneurs are in effect buying energy "drilling rights" on rooftops. LA's electric utility Edison is building the equivalent of a new generating plant by putting panels on the roofs of commercial and industrial buildings. The building owners pay nothing, and get a good long term locked in electricity rate. Here in San Diego, Hewlett-Packard is converting its campus to solar power. HP stockholders will pay nothing for it, and HP will get substantial energy cost savings in the future. While they're at it, HP is matching the rebate to their employees who want to put solar panels on their homes.

(2) The recent earth shaking discovery that people are more willing to give goods and services in exchange for money, than to give them with nothing in return. (See capitalism.) The biggest barrier to local development of solar energy in San Diego has been a convoluted rate structure that in many cases actually made businesses that installed solar generators pay more money to use less electricity, than before they installed them. Small wonder that northern California is far ahead of sunnier southern California in solar power installations. Now that crazy rate structure is changing, which could bring a boom in locally generated solar power.

For homeowners in San Diego no change is forthcoming. Germany has all those solar installations because of a rate structure that pays for solar electricity at much higher than market rates. In San Diego you see many solar panel installations like ours covering a small portion of the roof. The rate structure here is fair up to the point that you replace your total annual electricity usage with solar power. Produce more than you use, however, and all the excess is just "donated" to the utility without compensation. So you're okay if your solar installation is a bit smaller than you need, but it's economic madness to make it any larger than you need. If not for this rate structure, our solar panel installation could have produced enough electricity for one or two of our neighbors in addition to our own needs.


Friday Apr 11, 2008

autonomous robots come to San Diego

The International Autonomous Robotics Competition is coming to San Diego in June, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds! Thanks to the San Diego Java Users Group and Wintriss Technical Schools, kids can compete in building and programming robots. The kids will use Sun SPOT which are - of course - the open source robot tool kits. They'll program the robots in Java. Eric Arseneau writes all about the robot competition. I think my boy is a bit young to be writing software, but he's taken me by surprise many times before. Contest or not, he wants me to get him a robot kit, which he thinks I must be able to pick up in the office any day.


Saturday Oct 27, 2007

more good news on San Diego fires

SDG&E restored the power lines knocked out of service by the fires, so San Diego's power crisis is over. We're doing our little part too, with our solar panels restored to full production. That is, I made the trip up on the roof with garden hose, gentle soap, and soft brush on a long pole, to clean the ash off the panels. That was after lots of sweeping and scrubbing the balconies to remove the ash and gain access to the roof without tracking in more ash.

 As I worked I heard music coming from many houses around the neighborhood, jazz, salsa, rock, children's Halloween music, all mixed together in a cacophonic mess - and sounding wonderful! It's the sound of a neighborhood come back to life, happy, and celebrating our escape from danger. And then I felt a drop of rain, then a light sprinkle. It probably won't even become measurable precipitation, but it's great news for the people still in danger from the fires, and the hundreds of firefighters still hard at work.. Though this little rain won't put the fire out, it means high humidity and a welcome change from hot Santa Ana winds.

AT&T is providing free WiFi in hundreds of locations across southern California to help people affected by the fires. I know how important this can be since our evacuation hotel had WiFi which allowed us to get the latest news on the fires and our neighborhood and friends. Thanks, AT&T!



Thursday Oct 25, 2007

San Onofre down

Earlier I wrote that the Camp Pendelton fire didn't threaten the nuclear power plant. But my photo did show the fire burning underneath the power lines, and fire under the lines caused them to shut the plant down. This contributed to the power shortages prompting SDG&E to call for more energy curtailments, and for Sun to take steps to reduce our power load. With so many power lines taken out by the fires, we narrowly avoided blackouts with some help from the Navy.

Here at home I continue better than self sufficient during the peak hours of electricity demand, but by a much smaller margin than usual. With a layer of ash coating my solar panels, efficiency is way down and I'm only generating 1 to 1.3 kW. Soon I'll have to venture up on the roof with a garden hose again to rinse them off, and think some more about my remote solar panel sprinkler project.

All this makes me think that San Diego really could be energy independent, and we ought to be. Start with lots more solar power, and wind power, which have different time-of-day power curves. Add some giant batteries, as developed by E.ON AG. And modernize the natural gas plants to use primarily as peakers in times of high demand. Power lines are great to move energy around for small adjustments in supply and demand, but are just too vulnerable to rely on for a large fraction of the region's power.

how to evacuate a city

The weather continues to be favorable for fire fighting, and the Witch Fire is 20% contained. More firefighters and equipment keeps arriving to help us, so prospects look pretty good. Some areas, like Julian, are threatened if the west wind gets too strong and begins pushing the fire back up the mountain.

Here's a photo of the fire at Camp Pendleton as we drove through yesterday. It was burning right next to the San Onofre nuclear power plant, though I don't think the plant itself was ever in danger. There was fire all along the top of the ridge. This fire is a bigger concern than before because it has split into two active fronts, but so far firefighters are keeping the freeway open in both directions.

More than 500,000 people evacuated our homes in San Diego, more than evacuated from Hurricane Katrina, and over ten times as many who evacuated from the Cedar Fire four years ago. I could grumble over being ordered to leave, only to have the authorities change their mind two hours later. Other than being sealed up indoors to keep most of the smoke out, we would have been fine had we ignored the evacuation order. Many did, although to do so is a (misdemeanor) crime.

Police found the bodies of two people who ignored their evacuation order. Property isn't worth that much. Though these fires are much worse than the 2003 fires, the death toll so far is lower. I think a big part of the difference is the reverse 911 calls to order evacuations of specific areas. Reverse 911 even works on cell phones if you register your number with the county so they'll know what geographic area to associate it with.

Our drive to Santa Ana was remarkably smooth, because targeted areas were evacuated one after another, rather than dumping hundreds of thousands of cars onto the roads all at once. That also meant that fire trucks and other emergency vehicles could get through.

I once tried to evacuate from a hurricane in Houston. After four hours in the car, and burning most of my fuel, we were not even close to the city limits, let alone onto an open highway on which we could have escaped the storm. With no gas stations open, and little prospect of outrunning the storm, we turned around and hunkered down at home instead. Evacuating a major metropolitan area is no easy task, and they did a great job here.

Wednesday Oct 24, 2007

back home in San Diego

We're back home. There was heavy smoke through Camp Pendleton with many fires burning on east side of I-5 and a few fires burning on west side, but road is now open in both directions. The sky here is clearer today than in the Santa Ana / Tustin area, which is the southern most location that is more or less out of the smoke. I hope we can all safely stay put this time. The last I heard the Witch Fire was only 1% contained, but with calm winds and more firefighting resources it seems likely they will be able to contain it, and tomorrow Mother Nature is supposed to help with some sea breezes. In fact right now the wind has already shifted (weakly) to WNW.

I heard Governor Schwarzenneger thanking all the states that had sent firefighting crews to help, and I am certainly thankful also. But he did miss thanking our neighbor city Tijuana which sent 60 firefighters to assist. Gracias!

The Sun campus emergency team has been great with information and offers of support. We even got mail from Jonathan Schwarz pledging Sun's support, and reminding us that family comes first and our Sun colleagues will fill in for us as needed. On the campus alias there are offers to take in people who lost their homes, and Sun has set up a wiki for everyone to communicate regarding the fires, tips, and help. It's a great place to work in good times and bad.



We got the evacuation order Monday night, after having spent the afternoon watching news and deciding what is most valuable in our lives - one car full only. That includes the kid and the cat. Not the computers, but the data. Is your backup current? An hour out we heard a city press conference and they decided to make our area's evacuation voluntary. We kept going to Santa Ana - a 5 star evacuation center. Rated as an actual hotel it would do rather worse.

Monday Oct 22, 2007

San Diego fires

Though many are not so fortunate we are fine. Santa Anas worsened overnight. There are now not 2 but 7 fires. More evacuations ordered. Del Mar fairgrounds near us is an evacuation shelter for large animals like horses from east county. Fire is near Wild Animal Park. I don't know what they could do with rhinos. Schools are closed. Sun campus is okay but employees told to put family first. I'm working from home and watching news and sky. We're getting ash fall but the sun isn't blacked out as it was in 2003.

Tuesday Sep 04, 2007

Sun power on a hot day

Yet another scorching day and another energy curtailment at Sun in San Diego. So in my office the lights and workstation are powered off while I work at home with all the windows open. On Labor Day weekend it hit 110 degrees in the east county and over 90 by the coast. At Legoland the most popular attraction was Soak-n-Sail Pirate Shores that dumps a 300 gallon bucket of water on you.

Yesterday SDG&E hit an all-time record demand of 4,636 MW. Although my solar panels hit their peak production in the early afternoon, already by 8am they were producing twice as much energy as my house was using, and the gap is steadily rising. Peak demand for SDG&E is from 4 to 6 pm. Though that's past the peak of my panels' production, my house remains a net generator of electricity through 6pm when it finally begins drawing power from the grid.

Saturday Aug 18, 2007

New elementary school

photo of schoolWe're all excited here. In just over a week school starts, and we have a brand new elementary school we can walk to. The design, by San Diego architect Frisco White, is both elegant and practical. I took half a day off work to help move furniture, unpack boxes, and shelve books. My sister, a library manager, will probably be amused that I have finally worked my way up in my career to become a library page.


Wednesday Aug 15, 2007

Energy curtailment day

Today is another "curtailment day" here in San Diego. When SDG&E forecasts that peak demand will come too close to available electricity supply, they notify commercial customers who participate in their voluntary curtailment program. At Sun that means that more lights are turned off, and the air conditioning is turned down especially as we approach the peak energy usage time of day in mid-afternoon. Cal-ISO publishes near real-time charts of current and forecast energy demand.

For employees, and email notice of impending curtailment means it's a good time to come to work in shorts and sandals, aka "San Diego business casual." (It reminds me when I lived in Houston, Texas, there was a campaign to persuade businessmen downtown to stop wearing neckties. Open collar, higher temps, lower A/C, big energy savings.)

Another thing a San Diego curtailment day does is persuade more people than usual to work from home. That certainly saves energy for Sun, with more computers and lights powered off, and less human heat load on the A/C.  For the city as a whole it could save electrical energy, not to mention the gasoline saved by the car trips avoided. For instance when I go home to work I don't need air conditioning (I don't even have an air conditioner) because I can just open windows to get a comfortable cooling breeze, whereas this office building has the usual sealed windows and needs air conditioning even on the most pleasant days. The Sun office and my home are both located near enough to the coast to get shore breezes.

But in certain cases might telecommuting cost energy city-wide? Consider a person who usually works in his Sun office cooled by a high efficiency air conditioner using a 4W Sunray. What if he works from home in the East county where temperatures are much higher, using a lower efficiency home air conditioner and using a 300W home PC? Sunray at home looks better and better.

Friday Aug 18, 2006

blogging lawyers

San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre started a blog. Jonathan Schwarz, a big fan of openness, is justifiably proud that our general counsel is the only one in the Fortune 500 who blogs. But I'm afraid that my city just grabbed bragging rights. Our city attorney Michael Aguirre just started a blog of his own, making him unique in the "Census 10." San Diego is the eighth largest city.

Aguirre is a big fan of openness himself, having been elected to the post in order to clean up a city government whose secretive financial dealings and favors handed out among the "good old boys" almost brought down the pension system and drew SEC and criminal investigations. Aguirre is no good old boy, and whatever he lacks in courtesy he makes up for in bluntness, and has made plenty of political enemies across party lines. Among these is the city newspaper which seldom lets a day go by without some article or editorial attacking him. Aguirre's blog should be an entertaining read even for people not captivated by city politics or legal opinions on budget approval processes.

Sunday Dec 11, 2005

San Elijo lagoon trail

We walked through the San Elijo lagoon in Encinitas, CA, yesterday. A sunny winter day is a good time to visit, though it's open year round and a lot of joggers and dog walkers from the neighborhood go there regularly. The San Elijo Conservancy gives guided walks every other weekend, and the volunteers really add to the experience. Now I can say I know what a real pack rat's nest looks like, and it's not exactly like my office. We saw ducks, teal, coots, cranes, sandpipers, and a California gnat catcher - and walked through a cloud of California gnats. On the way out we passed a group of true bird watchers, each one armed with binoculars, telescopes, and notebooks.

It seems like all the lagoons, though protected from development, are suffering from water flow changes that block the periodic floods that used to flush sediment out to sea and rebuild the beaches. Now the water drops sediment in the lagoon. Finally the outlet to the sea is blocked, marine animals can't go back and forth, and finally becoming stagnant. The conservancy raised money to endow lagoon opening by bulldozer each year to let the sea water come in an replenish the lagoon. Many native plants and animals have re-established themselves in the lagoon since this program began. What I can't understand is why every city that opens its lagoon has to go through a legal battle to prove it's good to do, when the arguments and conclusion are always the same, time after time.


I am a software engineer in San Diego, president of the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (, formerly a mathematician and a violist.


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