Going solar, part 3: Installation

Once the paperwork started, I learned that our house was sufficiently old that it would need to pass an energy audit to qualify for Austin Energy’s incentive programs. I completely understood the reasoning, too. If you want to save money and cut energy consumption, efficiency measures are almost always the most cost-effective thing you can do. So before you even think about solar power, you should make sure you’ve sorted out all of the following:

Going solar, part 2: Economics and hardware

Costing a solar system is complicated; there’s just no getting away from that. So I’m not going to present a detailed cost breakdown; instead, I’ll outline a few of the complexities. First of all, solar panels vary in efficiency. Higher efficiency panels generate more power per unit area, but they also cost more. So do you buy more panels, buy better panels, or aim to use less electricity? Similarly, the inverter which turns DC electricity from the panels into AC has a certain capacity and efficiency, and there are lots of companies making them to all kinds of specifications.

Going solar, part 1: History and practicalities

The first working solid state solar cell was developed in 1883 by Charles Fritts. Just 1% of the solar energy hitting the cell would be converted to electricity, and the cell was made from selenium with a thin layer of gold, making it far too expensive. It wasn’t until the development of silicon semiconductor junctions in the 1950s that solar cells started to become economically practical. Bell Labs developed a silicon-based solar cell with about 6% efficiency in 1954.

New Orleans [updated]

Let’s enjoy a few compassionate thoughts from the right-wing libertarians. First, Becky Akers, columnist for Lew Rockwell of the Center for Libertarian Studies: The day after the hurricane, Louisiana’s Governor Kathleen Blanco ordered New Orleans evacuated—again. Yep, folks facing a flood several fathoms deep without electricity, potable water, or food are too stupid to leave on their own. Good thing the Nanny Kate tells them what to do. […] Nanny’s sending buses, boats and helicopters after all the silly little citizens who didn’t know enough to come in out of the rain.

Katrina and the waves

So it’s a total disaster in New Orleans. Three levees are breached, one of them has a hole over 150 meters across. 80% of the city is under water up to 6 meters deep. The entire city is without electrical power or water supply. It’s estimated that it will be 9–12 weeks before they can even get rid of the water, much less get the city habitable. Interstate 10 is broken chunks of floating concrete; there’s no route into the city for trucks and other major vehicles.

Aggregate this!

Tom Tomorrow has his panties in a bunch over the outrageous behavior of Internet users. He was shocked this week to discover that some people were reading his published web log using special purpose web log browsing software (aka “news aggregators”), rather than the software he wants them to use (a web browser). Worse still, the miscreants were skipping the ads! Quel horreur! It rather reminds me of the CEO of Turner Broadcasting, who declared that skipping TV ads using fast forward was “stealing the programming”.

Do PowerMacs dream of electric bills?

People often wonder if they should turn their computer off, or leave it on but put it into “sleep mode”. I decided to do some analysis a while back, here are the results. If you look up the specs, a Sawtooth Power Mac G4 in deep sleep uses about 4 watts of electricity. In MA you pay $0.04823 per kWh, so it costs 4 / 1000 kW * 24 hours * 365 days * $0.


To finish off the day, we had a power cut at around 22:30. It continued until 05:30, so we had to try and sleep through one of the most stiflingly hot nights this year without the benefit of any air conditioning. Consequently I am feeling a little delicate this morning.

The invisible hand at work

As a response to the (deliberately manufactured) energy crisis in California, some of the electricity distribution companies began offering special contracts to encourage corporate customers to be more efficient. The deal was: They’d get a cheaper electricity rate, if they agreed to cut their usage by 15% when asked to do so during peak time shortages. If they failed to do so, they’d have to pay extra-high premium prices. This is, of course, rational market-based pricing of goods—as the theory goes, people who need lots of electricity when it’s in short supply should pay more, and the way to encourage efficiency and flexibility is to give it a financial incentive.

Seat bee sate

Well, here I am in San Francisco. Or at least, the Sheraton near SFO. Tomorrow I get to go to a meeting, then back to the airport. At least this hotel has high speed Internet access. It even has electricity, for the moment at least. Still, it’s weird to be here. Lots of things look like they do on TV. The license plates, the palm trees, the big flat buildings that almost appear to have congealed on the sides of the hills, the scattered pieces of retrofuturistic architecture, the spaghetti tangles of freeway…