Saving the World, One Rooftop at a Time

  • Posted: April 27, 2015
  • Category: Energy
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At times on that twisted and deceptive road between our Christian beliefs and our actions in our daily life, we might find ourselves in awkward positions. Talking out of both sides of our mouth, not to mention hypocrisy and self-serving piety, are ever-present dangers for those who profess faith in Christ. The prosperous business owner quoting biblical proverbs on prudence and personal probity to the homeless person is never a sympathetic picture. Nevertheless, we Americans, at least those of a certain age and background, do not doubt that our country’s pre-eminence is due to the blessing of Almighty God. But we are just as sure in our hearts that our hard work facilitated God’s blessing upon us.

We have a saying that expresses that belief in a nutshell, “God helps those who help themselves.” While it sounds like it is in the Bible, the phrase is instead a piece of genuine Americana, popularized by that quintessential American, Benjamin Franklin. Though Ben possibly followed his own advice and smoothed the application of God’s help by helping himself to the efforts of earlier writers.

But there is little doubt that the proverb speaks to Americans. It expresses in a tangible way, the American philosophy of life. And that philosophy is nowhere on display more openly and proudly than in California. Since the days of the Gold Rush, California has diligently exploited the great storehouse of resources within their own State, as well as their neighboring states, to help themselves, thereby justifying and explaining God’s bounty.

But in keeping with the tradition of the Spanish Missions that began the European settlement of California, the State’s leaders have always balanced ruthless self-interest with missionary fervor. Perhaps no other State, with the possible exception of Massachusetts, has been more outspoken in defense of secular Christian virtues, namely justice, equality, concern for the disadvantaged and just plain old “good works”. Californians, more than any others in the United States, “wear their heart on their sleeve”, proudly flaunting their good intentions in their public life.

Spending time in California watching their news and reading their newspapers, as I did this winter, is to be thoroughly stewed in a heady mix of earnest true believers intent on saving the world and the pious sermonizing of plutocrats possessing wealth unseen since the era of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Carnegie. California is the land of those who have been blessed by God as they helped themselves. Another State, another place, might be afflicted by humility after consideration of their dystopian politics, their sadly fraying roads, their unassimilated Hispanic enclaves, their insolvent municipalities, their medieval approach to water. Not so California. There is an irrepressible hubris to California’s righteous vision that is above the plebian concerns that trouble the less righteous.

But there is another biblical sounding proverb, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, coined oddly enough by a Catholic and even more oddly a Frenchman, Bernard of Clairvoux. It’s meaning is clear enough. Given the fact that he was both a Frenchman and the prime mover behind the 2nd Crusade, the circumstances of Bernard’s own life most probably explain how he came to that pithy observation.

As the proverb warns, the asphalt on the road to perdition is often a layer rich in righteous intention. Consider the electricity without which California’s sprawling metropolises could not exist, the electricity that enables and allows the exponential growth of those pious plutocrats’ vast riches. The six weeks I spent in Southern California saw the acting out of two separate, though related, dramatic productions. Since it is California, perhaps Marx’s observation about history being first tragedy, then farce is appropriate. As each play contains ample examples of both.

The first is a long running play, but the latest iteration occupied a great deal of space in that ever shrinking part of the Southern California newspapers devoted to serious news. In 2012, the last remaining two units of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Complex were taken off line for refueling and maintenance. Complex systems like power plants and refineries that operate continuously must be totally shutdown periodically, allowing maintenance and upgrades. Industry uses the term, turnaround, to describe this particular type of shutdown. This turnaround, as is the case in all turnarounds, discovered mechanical issues that needed to be fixed. That epitome of California’s good intentions, Friends of the Earth, seized the opportunity to engage in their specialty, guerilla warfare in the law courts supported by hysteria in the media. The legal and political circus that developed ensured that San Onofre would never run again.

Since that time, the 2300 MW of base load power supplied by San Onofre for the past trouble free 30 years is no longer. Instead of San Onofre, reserve units powered by natural gas have supplied the missing block of power. The disappearance of San Onofre has not been seen by the customer, except in the pocket book as the replacement power is substantially more expensive than that supplied by San Onofre. However, this substitution has substantially crippled the Southern California electrical system. While the non-operating parts of many utility companies can be rightfully criticized and ridiculed, their ability to supply power to their customers despite the affectations of their political and regulatory masters is something of which they may well be proud.

Power flows, but the system is fragile as it stands. Even more problematic from the standpoint of California’s good intentions is that since the San Onofre shutdown there has been a 35% increase in California CO2 emissions. To say the least, this is a very serious problem for the pious Greens located in the heart of the Global Warming Belt.

The lost generation from San Onofre must be replaced. Even an organic lifestyle in California requires lots of electrical power. Artisanal farmers, unlike the more prosaic laborers on the industrial farms of the San Joaquin Valley, wilt in the absence of air conditioning in August’s heat. Nothing can be done about the increased CO2 emissions, as base load dispatchable power is required to replace San Onofre. California’s golden children, wind and solar power, can’t supply base load dispatchable power. (See The Dispatch of Fallacies on this website.) Another unfortunate circumstance of the San Onofre shutdown is that the shutdown power plant’s site must be restored to pristine condition, allowing for the accommodation of growing populations of sea lions and other First Species. As one might expect, this will be very expensive and someone must pay for it. The utilities faced with this problem are understandably reluctant to foot the entire bill for this hysteria generated problem and balk at moving forward until this issue is resolved.

The problems just keep coming. The new power plant(s) replacing San Onofre have very exacting requirements. They have to be sited on prime real estate, the beach, similar to the San Onofre units that they replace. The power plants must be on the beach because the nearby ocean water provides free cooling which must otherwise be supplied by very large quantities of fresh water. Thus California’s medieval approach to water makes anything other than beachfront power plants simply unthinkable.

Additionally, the new power plants require large high-pressure natural gas pipelines and high voltage power lines, among other infrastructure requirements. As you might expect, all these specific requirements severely limit where these power plants can be sited. As you might expect, there are people living where these power plants can be sited. As you might expect, these people don’t want the power plants there. In an ironic twist and to little surprise, many of the people protesting the new plants supported the shutdown of San Onofre.

As you might expect, a solution will be found. Utilities will get to build their plants at the cost of a future with even higher percentage of lawyers and political fixers in their cloistered executive suites. The customers will get their power, though increasingly expensive. Hiding the on-going cost of the necessary political favors will cause utility power bills to resemble telephone bills even more so than is already the case. Certain members of the regulatory apparatus and various “public activists” will become well-paid “consultants” to the utilities. A solution will be found that makes it profitable for all parties to the negotiation.

The first play, the San Onofre Follies, is a serious drama, Shakespearean in outline, played out by actors on a public stage. The second play is more of a neighborhood production by the local theater group. Charming and neighborly, it has a heart-warming feeling that makes us feel good about our selves. Not only do we get to save money; but we also do a good deed that helps our world. The resemblance of the play to Goethe’s immortal Faust slips past hidden amid the economic calculation and warm glow.

The second play might be titled, “Saving the World; One Rooftop at a Time”. What better way to combine our desires to be good citizens of the world, return to a simpler and more organic way of life and reduce our dependence on large impersonal corporations than to generate our own electrical power? The idea that solar power is the path to a better world is seductive, each home using the sunshine falling upon its roof to power the home. No need for those ugly and vaguely frightening things called power plants.

The idea has power, (no pun intended). California has programs in place that make residential solar power very attractive. A large collection of interlocking subsidies and tax credits, both state and federal, make the idea of roof top solar power sensible, practical and seductive to the forward thinking homeowner in California.

It is no surprise then, that forward thinking homeowners in California are signing up quickly for such deals. In upscale suburban communities, it is the responsible thing to do, for your pocketbook along with being a good neighbor, something in the nature of picking up after your dog and reusable shopping bags. In any case, the typical rusty hues of roof tiles on California homes are being covered over by black rectangles, solar power arrays reminiscent of tulips appearing in springtime gardens.

The broad outlines of the deal seem to be straightforward. The solar power arrays are sized to provide as much power as the house uses. In effect, the homeowner has free electricity. The utility takes the electrical power generated by the homeowner. The utility supplies electrical power to the homeowner. The electrical power generated by the homeowner over the course of a year and the electrical power used by the homeowner over the course of a year balance out to zero.

There are so many advantages to this arrangement. The most immediate and obvious one is simply the economic one. An investment of a few thousand homeowner dollars, allows the homeowner to take advantage of large state and federal subsidies, multiplying the power of that investment, a bit like a home equity loan that someone else pays off.

Another powerful advantage is that air conditioning is now affordable again. In a bow to the practical necessities of power grid management, Californian utilities have previously put in place payment schedules that make air conditioning on those hot Southern Californian afternoons very expensive. As a result, homeowners often choose to endure a hot house rather than run the air conditioner, knowing that the cool evenings will bring relief. With the yearly or monthly power averaging being offered to the homeowner, air conditioning will now be to all intents and purposes free.

Put that together with the opportunity to do some good in the world and it is a very seductive offer. Faust found similar thoughts compelling as well. Economic benefit, quality of life benefit and just plain old doing good, who wouldn’t sign up? Everybody wants to be on the side of the good guys, don’t they? Once more, God helps those who help themselves.

The deal is an obvious win-win-win situation for the homeowner. The deal is an obvious multiple win for the lawyers and political fixer’s in the utility’s executive suite. The need to meet legislative renewable energy mandates, provide reliable power grid management and avoid exponential growth in electrical power rates is increasingly impossible. The first rolling blackout is going to be a media nightmare and everybody knows it. Roof top solar power provides PR cover for the utility when that time comes.

The deal is a big win for the politicians and activists. Anything that puts off the looming head on collision between renewable energy mandates and a melt down of power grids until those responsible for them are retired or have figured a face saving way out of the mess is a big big win. The fact that enterprises profiting from the rapidly growing solar market understand the need to be reliable campaign contributors as well as provide lucrative investment and employment opportunities for the well connected, politicians, regulators and activists is a big win as well.

There is a lot of upside to this deal, but is there a downside? Where is the perdition that we are warned about? It would be a step of cynicism too far to suggest that those benefiting from this deal do not have good intentions, are not seeking the good for the society in which they live. But the fact that they help themselves while doing good simply places them in a long American tradition.

Those of us with a skeptical nature and a yearning to quote Cicero always ask, “Cui bono”? (Latin translation – Who benefits?) We see that many benefit from this deal. Since there are so many that benefit, some much more than others, perhaps one hesitates to ask, “Cui victima”? Loosely translated as “Who is hurt”, or perhaps truer to Cicero’s dry wit, “Whose ox is gored”?

To be sure, not everyone benefits. Electricity will continue to become more expensive. Those without the good sense or means to benefit from the solar power goody bag will suffer. Business concerns that make real things and provide real services are sensitive to costs, including utility costs. They will probably be more apt to move out of state taking their jobs with them. That means the people hurt by loss of their job are most likely to be the people that did not have the good sense or means to benefit from the solar power goody bag. But on the other hand, if those blue-collar working people aren’t sensible enough to know that God helps those who help themselves, they probably deserve what happens.

And, if looked at from an engineer’s perspective, there are certain oxen being gored. If looked at from plant and electrical grid operational staff’s point of view, the herd of oxen shrinks perceptibly. But these technical people are always finding problems. That’s why both engineers and operational staff are kept well away from everyone else in any well-run organization. Both are usually found in less desirable square worn out looking buildings with a minimum of creature comforts in the reception area, well away from the rest of the corporate real estate supplied with California style amenities. Out of sight and out of mind is the thinking of the better sort in the modern corporation. But just to be open minded, perhaps we should look at their “technical” issues.

The most obvious problem is that average power consumption used to size the solar power arrays for the homeowner has very little relationship to the instantaneous power consumption supplied by the utility. On that road trip to Disneyland, the car averaged 45 mph. But sometimes it was driving at 85 mph and other times it was in the McDonald’s takeout lane. The same thing is true about household electrical power consumption. But the electrical grid must supply the power instantaneously at both 85 mph and at 5 mph.

Even the interns on the congressman’s staff understand the relationship between cost and demand. If air conditioning is expensive, people reduce their use. If air conditioning is free, people use more of it. Why set the thermostat at 78, when 68 is so much more comfortable? Someone can always put on a sweater if they don’t like it that cool.

So now the electrical power grid has another power generator, the homeowner, putting electrical power into the system whether the power is needed or not. Of course that power is a help coming in at 2 PM on an August afternoon when all those homeowners with free air conditioning are fighting a 100 degree Southern California sun. Even though the power output of that solar array on the roof is whistling Dixie in a hurricane compared to the fans and compressor in their air conditioner.

That same solar array on the homeowner’s roof is providing power, the same amount of power, at 10 AM on a March morning, along with the full output being put into the grid by all the fashionable wind turbines and giant solar arrays out in the desert. You know, that time when everyone is putting power into the system and nobody is using power.

The power market is like any other market. There are electrical interchanges where electrical power is bought and sold between utilities. You have seen them along the highway, power lines coming into areas with high chain link fences and lots of stark steel shapes.

The homeowner’s solar power array is providing power in excess of the home use to the local utility for large stretches of time when the market price is 1-2 cents/kilowatt. But then for large stretches of time the local utility is providing free power to the homeowner at a market price of 20-40 cents/kilowatt when the home is using substantially more power than the solar array is providing. A classic case of buy high and sell low. This is a small problem for the utility when there are a few homeowners doing this, but the tide is starting to run.

Another issue is a bit more esoteric, one of those nerd things, that engineer’s fuss over. It is a big reason, along with white socks and pocket protectors, for that well documented wide physical separation between engineering and the executive suite. Electricity is not just electricity. Many people understand that electricity consists of voltage and amperes (current). The garden hose you water your lawn with is a good way to think about it. The water going through the water hose is like electricity going through the wire. The pressure of the water in the hose is electrical voltage. The amount of water going through the hose is amperage or electrical current. Even utility executives are comfortable with this simplified explanation, though most politicians do struggle with the nuances.

But engineers keep complicating simple ideas. It turns out that electricity is sexual. It can be AC or DC. It also is the case that electricity gets tired if it has to carry too heavy a load. Engineer’s call this a power factor and use something called “imaginary numbers” to work with. By this time in the discussion, utility executives have left to attend an industry conference in Vail, while middle management’s eyes are glazing over. The politicians of course are already having their second craft whiskey in Vail.

Of course the engineers never know when to quit. In a bizarre twist, it turns out that electricity has ghosts, at least the AC sex does. Engineer’s, those scamps, have decided to name these ghosts, resonant frequencies. But by this time in the discussion it doesn’t matter, the engineers are all by themselves sitting on plastic chairs talking around Formica covered pressed wood tables in windowless conference rooms.

The engineers dealing with these particular problems, electrical sex, tired electricity and electrical ghosts are electrical engineers. Electrical engineers are a special breed and deserve of our respect and understanding for they are very misunderstood and disrespected. Just think of it. Other engineers make jokes about electrical engineers the way that normal people make jokes about engineers.

Much to everyone’s chagrin, large numbers of homeowners generating electrical power raise a bit of hell in an electrical system. A hell that will cause ripples all the way to Vail. It may be that some electrical engineers will be invited to go along next year. Not on the corporate jet of course, but a Southwest Airlines flight to Denver and a economy car/room for the trip to Vail could be put in next year’s budget.

All of those solar power arrays on the homeowners’ roofs are creating the wrong kind of electricity. The solar power arrays create 12 volt DC electrical power, but the utility needs 120 volt AC power. So every solar power array needs a “black box” that does the transgender operation, making 12 volt DC into 120 volt AC. No problem!! Just another market opportunity for Chinese factories and well connected middlemen.

However. The conversion from DC to AC creates the ghosts, those resonant frequencies. The cheaper and less precise the equipment making the conversion, the more ghosts are created and the more powerful they are. Once created, ghosts are almost impossible to get rid of. Ghosts don’t bother electric ovens and air conditioner compressors. But ghosts scare electronics, like computers and “smart” devices, into doing strange things. The only way to protect electronics from ghosts is with very high quality grounding systems. Needless to say, almost nothing in suburbia has a high quality grounding system.

Another problem is electricity’s tendency to get tired. Motors in particular tire out electricity. Every time the refrigerator or the air conditioner kicks on, electricity gets tired. Because the solar arrays make air conditioning so affordable, their owners will be using those air conditioner motors a lot more. When electricity gets tired, otherwise known as a low power factor, it suffers from what might be called tired blood. Again, engineers with that rascally ability to name things call the effect of electricity’s tired blood, phantom kilowatts. Utility type rotating generators can solve this problem, but not so solar arrays.

Phantom kilowatts refer to kilowatts, electrical power, that is not used in productive work. Instead, it appears as heat. Heat in the wires and heat in the motor. The more tired that electricity gets, the more heat that electricity creates. Of course this is a large waste. Just like a leak in your water line, it wastes money and resources. Just like a water leak, phantom kilowatts cause damage and increase utility bills. Motors age more quickly and fail sooner because they run hotter than they should. Wires get so hot that they cause fires even though adequately protected by circuit breakers.

Of course, solutions will be found. The solutions will cost a lot of money because the electrical grid in residential areas was not designed to handle these problems. There will be a great deal of angst, as upscale homeowners are an educated suspicious lot, prone to sudden bursts of altruistic activism when confronted by unwanted intrusions of the infrastructure making their comfortable lives possible. However solutions will be found and the parties to the negotiation provided with what they need to make them happy. Just like in the San Onofre Follies.

Just as the telephone system before it, the electrical system is a highly regulated and politicized piece of infrastructure. As such it is hostage to the political process. A truism of politics is that money buys happiness. It is understood that the process works best if someone else’s money is used to buy the happiness. Make it profitable for everyone who has the power to rock the boat and everybody that counts is happy.

Large monopolistic infrastructures, like the telephone system or the electrical system, can provide very large flows of cash beyond the needs of the system itself once the system is constructed and paid for. Thus infrastructure, whether it is electrical, water, gas, cable or telephone, is a very large temptation for the political class and we should not be surprised when they take advantage of it. The most apt analogy of the utility customer, the individual paying a telephone/electrical/gas/water bill, is the well-worn story of the frog sitting in the water in a slowly heating saucepan on the stove. But there is no cash flow so large that it cannot be spent. The cash flow available to be passed out for political favors and regulatory shenanigans is quite large, but it is limited nevertheless. Eventually the water boils and the frog . . . .

In the interests of the public’s need to know, some back of the envelope calculations can provide insight. What does California’s electricity cost to produce?

  • Hoover Dam on the Colorado River – 2080 MW base load power (approximately the same as San Onofre); put in service in 1936. This power is virtually free.
  • Coal Fired Power Plants in Arizona/Utah/New Mexico – Several thousand megawatts of base load power – average age 40-50 years old. At current mine mouth coal prices these plants generate electricity at around $0.005 per kilowatt
  • Palo Verde & Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plants – combined nominal 6000 MW base load power, generating electricity at around $0.015 per kilowatt

A very large portion of the electricity that metropolitan California actually uses on a daily basis comes from the above sources. Lets be generous and say that on average it costs just over a penny per kilowatt to generate some 15,000 MW of electricity from these sources. The rest of the electricity used, except for those fashionable wind turbines and solar cell arrays, comes from natural gas fired power generation. At current natural gas prices, this electricity costs around 3 cents per kilowatt to generate.

Right now, the cost to the consumer for electricity in California is anywhere from 12 to 35 cents per kilowatt. It looks to me that there are very large amounts of cash available for the taking. One wonders where all the money is going?

One immediately jumps to the conclusion that California utilities are making obscenely high profits. But a quick look at their publicly traded stocks show that investors perceive California utilities as below average investments. This investor sentiment is a good indication that California utilities are not highly profitable and are not expected to be so in the future. Perhaps they are spending large sums of money on new power plants? A brief look at the power plants listed above shows that most of California’s power comes from plants nearly as old as I am. Not a lot of new construction going on. But these electrical grids have been in place for a long time and California is the home of political activism. Interest group happiness has been for sale repeatedly and it has gotten expensive.

The amusing part is that the California ratepayers haven’t even seen the real bills to come due for those fashionable wind turbines and solar power arrays out in the desert. We can laugh at California politicians and regulators enjoying craft whiskeys in Vail. But they are smart people and understand that the real costs of their renewable energy programs will cause political fire. The politicians and lobbyists understood the need to back load the costs and have done so. All those junkets to Vail weren’t totally devoted to the appreciation of fine craft whiskeys. By the time that the real costs become apparent so much will have been done that it is irreversible.

Don’t underestimate the social engineers who are driving this hi-jacking of the electrical power grid. They are smart and shrewd people. They realize that the educated and articulate upper middle class suburbia is a group new to the utility negotiation process. A group that could both cause trouble and have the ability to derail the Green Power train. While they approve and support Green politics, upper middle class suburbia might decide to renounce their allegiance when the Green Power train starts to cost them money. And so as the long history of utility regulation and its approach to solving problems makes clear, upper middle class suburbia needs to get something out of the deal. I am sure some smart young fast rising staffer came up with the idea, “shelter at least some of them from high electrical rates and satisfy their desire to be green”. As a cool idea, it ranks right up there with McDonald’s Happy Meals.

So we are left with modern day California. The engineering giants of earlier ages gifted the citizens of California with enormous supplies of perhaps the cheapest electrical power available on the entire planet as well as prolific rivers of fresh water. At the same time, God has blessed them with abundant supplies of easily accessible local oil & gas and almost limitless expanses of prime farmland situated in the most benign climate in the United States. Perhaps nowhere else on Earth are all of the ingredients for a prosperous and happy life in such abundant and inexpensive supply. Is there a closer approximation in our world to the Garden of Eden than California?

Yet perhaps nowhere else on Earth, outside of a warzone, is there such apprehension over hidden unseen dangers, over a future that might unfold. California’s thinking on public policy is driven by fears of a warmer climate, fears over the dangers that might lurk in their food, fears over the accumulation of plastic bags in the ocean, fears of the dangers in child vaccinations to name just a few.

And so California continues in its tradition of earlier times and is a beacon for good intentions. California leads the fight to keep the north countries frozen in ice. California leads the fight to limit showers so that the Delta Smelt is not inconvenienced. California leads the fight to return food production to the peasantry. California leads the fight to stop childhood vaccinations so that the sounds of whooping cough might once again be heard. California leads the fight to stop modern convenience so that there might once more be reasons for neighbors to shame one another.

But lets not jump to conclusions. Is California really any different than every other up scale community in the United States? Perhaps it is just that, true to past history, what happens in California today happens in the rest of the United States tomorrow? If we choose to chuckle at or turn up our nose at the plight of California, it is best not to do so in front of a mirror.

Benjamin Franklin and Bernard of Clairvoux have had their say. But perhaps it is someone else who understands most clearly the concerns troubling America’s prosperous and forward thinking citizens. Jesus of Nazareth had this to say to about the concerns troubling the prosperous citizens and leaders of his own time and culture. When we look at the things that concern our leaders and ourselves today, his words give us pause:


“You blind men, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” Matthew. 23:24







One Response to “Saving the World, One Rooftop at a Time”

  1. Rex Rinne says:

    a blissfully entertaining and challenging article, written in such a way that even this “non-engineering layman” can begin to grasp the increasingly complex selfish realities of our latest impulse “thoughts” and self-perceived “needs” driven society when it comes to “clean” energy. Taken out of its eternal spiritual context, another passage of God’s Holy Word seems apropos. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” Proverbs 14:12

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