There’s (solar) gold in them thar hills!

The Thinker by Rodin

If you own a gold mine, it’s a pretty good investment until of course the gold veins run dry.

But there’s a kind of mine that never runs out: solar gold, you might say. I’ve already gotten a share of this solar gold. For three years, we’ve had 20 solar panels on our roof. According to the obsessive statistics I keep, we’ve generated 20,076-kilowatt hours (kwhs) of clean energy since it went online in June 2016. It’s the equivalent of planting 363 trees.

But twenty solar panels turned out not to be enough. The remainder comes from carbon-free wind energy, but perhaps not much longer. A solar farm is under construction in Gardner, Massachusetts. We’ll probably get the rest from that solar farm when it is operational in March 2020.

The electricity from our house’s solar panels is free, after we recoup the cost of the system, which should happen around 2023. The same can’t be said for this solar farm under construction. We won’t own any of these solar panels. Instead, we’ll be renting them. Unlike our wind energy, for which we pay a 3.8 cents/kwh premium, we’ll get this solar power for less than it would cost to draw it from the grid. So we can go greener and pay less for the privilege.

How this works is that our “share” of the solar farm’s electricity is credited to our electric bill. So if our share generates 500 kwhs a month, presumably we’ll get a $0 bill from the electric company and see that as a credit that we draw from in future months. Of course, we still pay for our “share”. I’ll get into how that is done in a moment.

There are solar farms going up all around us. Land is relatively cheap here in Western Massachusetts, at least what there is of it. A lot of it is set-aside as conservation areas. But areas that have been deforested might as well become solar farms: huge arrays of solar panels that do nothing but wait for sunshine and sell it to the local electric company, National Grid. These solar farms have done the math and basically everyone wins.

  • Society wins by reducing the amount of carbon pollution
  • Electric companies win because they buy the power at a wholesale rate, and mark it up for retail pricing. Also, they don’t have the investment costs of creating new power plants.
  • I win because I get a discount on power compared to what I’d pay National Grid for their retail price
  • Solar farm gets to claim SREC (Solar Energy Renewable Certificates) payments for putting up a solar farm, plus they get the income selling the power to National Grid. These solar farms also make profits from the 15% discount I get compared to National Grid.

Moreover, there are no fields that need planting and harvesting. It’s all passive income. Maintenance costs for solar systems are almost zero. I imagine they might need to replace some inverters from time to time, and build a tall fence to keep people out, but that should be it. In thirty years or so they will probably swap the panels, or if new panels become much cheaper and more efficient, it might make sense to replace them long before then.

What I’d like to do is add more solar panels to my roof. I’ve looked into it but for reasons that look entirely bureaucratic, I’d have to put up a completely new system, with separate pipes, metering, etc. This frankly makes no sense but I’ve found no way around it after trading many emails and a phone call with National Grid. The cost of a separate system compared to adding to what I have amounts to thousands of dollars.

But even so, there’s a limit to the amount of panels I can put up. Realistically, it would be hard to add more than four panels to my roof. Putting more up in my backyard is not an option. First, I may be in a single-family house, but it’s a 55+ community, so we’re technically a condominium. Second, I have no backyard to speak of. I have about four feet of it. Otherwise my “yard” is a steep hill with about a 15% incline. There’s all this plus my new car is a Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid. So it is now drawing energy from the grid too. At least it’s all clean energy.

As we look toward a carbonless future though, it’s clear to me that these solar farms are leading indicators of what 2050 will look like. There will be lots and lots of solar farms. People who have roofs that are reasonably unobstructed will add solar panels. One state, California, requires it for all new construction. With the cost of solar panels continually dropping, pretty much any surface that points toward the sun and is unobstructed will have them. In time, they won’t look like solar panels, but will blend in naturally.

Lots of condo, apartment and city dwellers though will want to buy their share from solar farms. It’s likely that they will save money for doing so … and help save the planet.

In the midst of chaos, plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the midterms

The Thinker by Rodin

In my last post, I intimated that Trump Disorientation Disorder was striking close to home, affecting my wife’s mental health. I’d like to say she’s doing better but at least she’s getting treatment. I doubt she is alone. Every week in this presidency feels like being on a roller coaster in free fall, but some weeks are freakier than others.

This week certainly was one of them. Trump’s cruel policy of separating children from families at the border grew slightly less evil when he decided to rescind this policy, a policy he said could not be rescinded because somehow it was all the Democrats fault. To kind of cap off a freaky week with a bit of humor was this nugget from a Washington Post story. Apparently our “stable genius” president doesn’t know that only Congress can change immigration law. He thought he could do it by decree.

A cascade of awful news is not great politics. Trump apparently thinks that being awful pays political dividends. The dividend he is looking for is to turn out his base in the midterms. He may or may not succeed in doing so. But he can’t win by just turning out his base. He won the presidency by turning out coalitions, including a lot of Obama voters who didn’t like Hillary. Also, a presidential election is much different than a midterm election. In a presidential election, you can win while losing the popular vote, which was his case. In a midterm the playing field is more even. Senators are elected or reelected based on the popular vote. Gerrymandered districts make it harder for incumbents to lose reelection. A recent Supreme Court ruling suggests at least for the moment the court sees no reason to declare these crazily drawn districts illegal. In any event, happy people rarely have motivation to go to the polls, while unhappy people have plenty of incentive.

So the more Trump piles on the unhappiness, the more motivated its victims have to go to the polls. Moreover, Republicans are doubling down on deeply their unpopular policies. Just this week the House narrowly passed a bill that would cut food stamp benefits. It’s unclear if this bill will become law, but we do know that Trump has initiated a wholly unnecessary trade war that’s already affecting blue-collar Trump voters and is likely to affect many more of them as the midterm approaches. Indeed, countries experiencing American sanctions have created targeted sanctions narrowly focused to rile Trump’s prime constituencies.

Republicans in Congress sure have noticed. This is a party of free traders but their complaints to Trump on these tariffs are falling on deaf ears. It’s one thing to target policies affecting people that Republicans don’t like, such as immigrants. It’s another thing entirely for them to affect their own voters.

But it won’t be just them of course. It will be lots of us. Tariffs raise prices while reducing competition. To some extent it’s affected my purchasing decisions too. We are considering adding some solar panels to our system, but panels are now subject to steep tariffs. With no chronic need to buy them, it’s easier to wait until tariffs disappear. The price of panels should drop anyhow but there’s no reason for us to pay a premium now. It’s not good for solar companies however, which are already suffering and shedding jobs. Most of these jobs are steady blue-collar jobs too, likely worked by a lot of people who voted largely for Trump.

If Trump truly wanted to help his base, he would not have put up this tariff in the first place. Solar jobs have been climbing steadily and are almost the ideal blue-collar jobs of the future. As prices decrease, demand for solar will only increase, plus will be replacing a dying coal industry with clean solar power. It’s a no-lose proposition.

This of course is only one of many ways Trump is pissing off his own voters. He and the Republican congress still seem intent on destroying the Affordable Care Act, despite its popularity. He said he was going to replace it with something better that costs less, but hasn’t. So premiums will be on the rise right before the election instead. People are already losing health insurance and rising premiums will price many out of the market too. The lack of a penalty to have health insurance also pushes up premiums. Health care availability and affordability is the top issue right now on voters’ minds. In short, their policy is deeply counterproductive to staying in office.

Trump of course ran on a platform that in many ways sounded quite progressive. He complained about big business and the elites. Once in office though he populated his administration with these very people. Trump’s core voters won’t give up on him, but he will peel away plenty of marginal voters. From special elections over the last two years, it’s clear that voters are voting their pocketbooks, which explains why Democrats have been winning so many of them.

If nothing else, tariffs will have an inflationary effect. We’re likely to see the unemployment rate tick up between now and the election too, most likely due to Trump’s tariffs. Those who are victims may find themselves with less of a safety net to fall back on: less in the way of food stamp benefits and unless their state has expanded Medicaid no health insurance too. These factors will lead to economic uncertainty. It’s hard to say if it will cause a financial crisis before the election, but it certainly might. In any event, despite the tight labor market, most employed Americans have actually lost income during this administration. And since fewer than half of employed Americans have a 401K or own any stocks, they are not profiting from upturns in the stock market.

To me this suggests 2018 will be a wave election that will swing the country decidedly in a blue direction. There are few signs that Republicans can point to that are to their advantage. It’s sure not their immigration policy, which is deeply loathed by all sides. But of course it will be pocketbook issues that will be motivating voters the most, and voters will have plenty of motivation to vote in their best interests.