Monday, November 7, 2016

Conflicted on the Election

Tomorrow is election day.  In some states, tomorrow is the only day to vote (except for absentee); but in the majority you may participate in third world-style early voting.  As you may gather from that quip, we're old school and will be voting tomorrow.

The rest of this is peculiar to Florida and local politics so those of you who are reading in other states are probably not going to be interested.  See you tomorrow.  According to blogger, after the US, the nation that consistently places second as viewers to my blog is France.  Pourquoi?  Je n’ai aucune idée.  I'm sure nothing here will be interesting to readers in France.

I've done all the study and prep that I can for our election, but there are still two things I'm conflicted on: a constitutional amendment and a local ballot initiative to add a 1/2 cent sales tax dedicated to cleaning up one of the biggest estuaries in the country.

The amendment, #1 on the ballot, is usually called the solar power amendment.  You'd think all the ecosexual greenies would all be behind this, right?  As it turns out, the enviro-weenies are almost all against it.  They think it's a Trojan horse intended to kill solar polar.  Why?  It seems to be because the electric utilities have invested a relatively large amount of money in promoting it and the greenies just know the power companies want to enslave their customers and burn more coal.  In fact, if you read a list of who's for the amendment and who's opposed to it (like this one) they're almost exactly the opposite of what you'd think.  Al Gore is against it, along with virtually all the lib icons in Florida.

I had originally decided to vote against it and the reason I wanted to vote "No" is has not been mentioned by either pro- or anti- amendment 1 sites.  To borrow a snippet of the wording from our county ballots, let me give you the phrase that bothers me. 
... and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.
Aside from my general dislike for Florida's tendency to pass constitutional amendments for anything, what bothers me about this the most is what it doesn't say.  What it says, and the full, exact language with definitions is here (pdf warning), is that (1) consumers who don't choose to install a solar electric system are not required to pay for (subsidize) power flowing to solar-paneled homes when it's dark or cloudy or when they're otherwise are not producing enough energy; and (2) consumers are not required to pay for (subsidize) running the electric grid to solar-paneled homes that need to be connected to the grid and are too far from powerlines.

All well and good.

What it doesn't say is that we're not required to pay for installation of the solar panels themselves and that's a significant cost.  We have a backup generator that runs on natural gas.  When we installed it a while after the '04 hurricanes I was very interested in solar panels for many reasons and shopped systems.  My 17 kW generator cost in the vicinity of $8000 when everything is included.  10 kW of solar panels was going to cost over $60,000.  59% of the power at 7 1/2 times the cost.  That $60k included federal subsidies.  I don't want to pay for other peoples' solar panels either way.  Running powerlines out to remote places is expensive, and I don't want to pay for that, but most people are close enough to a power pole that it seems the most expensive thing for most solar panel users will be buying their systems. 

If I were a lawyer trolling for income, the first thing I'd do if this passes is sue the utilities to subsidize installing panels for anyone who wants free money.  I'm sure they'd argue that if the amendment doesn't forbid it, it must be permitted.  

That said, this is one of those cases that maybe shows the best reason to vote for it is by looking at who says to vote against it, and I think I'll end up voting for it. 

The other one I agonize over is to approve a temporary sales tax of 1/2 percent just for our county to implement a $300,000 plan to help fix the Indian River Lagoon.  This one means a lot to me because the River (as we call it) is in sad shape and desperately needs help.  Fishing is another outdoor sport I really enjoy, and in the last couple of years - especially the last year itself - the condition of the river has gotten desperate.  In just this calendar year there have been fish kills, dolphin and manatee kills, brown and green algae blooms.  Clarity of the water column has gone from 6 to 8 feet down to 6 to 8 inches in some measurements.  

Ordinarily, I'd probably vote for this.  Yeah, it bumps our sales tax from 6 to 6 1/2%, but doing nothing essentially makes my boat and fishing tackle worthless.  In the 80s, we used to launch our little aluminum boat out at a nearby city park, go to some spots we knew of that are literally within 5 miles of my door, and catch as many fish as wanted, releasing virtually everything, except for the occasional day we'd take home something to eat.

Let me quickly add that I don't think my neighbors have any responsibility to pay for my fishing, just as I don't feel any responsibility to pay for my neighbors' solar panels.  The impacts of the river go far beyond my personal sport fishing and effect everyone in the county (which largely parallels both of its shores).  The economic benefits add around $200 Million to the county yearly, while if the River were to collapse into a dead zone, that would cost the county more than just the loss of tourism; they estimate a loss of $135 million a year.  Losing $135 Million instead of making $200 makes a $335 Million swing in the wrong direction.   
On one hand, the county instituted a study to determine how to improve things and a plan was put forth (pdf warning).  Unfortunately, they didn't publicize this well enough and I didn't know about it until the proposal was in.  I don't know if they looked for local input.  As a result, after reading those 78 pages, I have misgivings.  The first one is: how do they know this is going to fix it?  Sure I realize these are "professional scientists and experts" in this area, and that frankly doesn't mean much to me.  I think we've all heard the expression that "no battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy" and I fully expect that here.  To borrow another phrase, this time from Donald Rumsfeld, the project is going to face both known unknowns; things they know they don't know, and unknown unknowns; things they don't even know they don't know.  If they get five years into the plan only to find it isn't working, and then need to come back to ask for more money, will anyone in the county believe they know what they're talking about?

On the other hand, because they went off and did this without much discussion from the public I don't know if anyone asked these questions, but is this the best way to fund this?  The majority of the effort has to be to remove nutrients in water runoff, like rain water causing fertilizer runoff (both suburban and farms); they need to replace all the old, leaky orangeburg sewer pipes and leaking septic tanks. Since that impacts all voters, they should be involved in the process.   Is half a cent enough?  Do they need to do a full penny increase?  Would trying to attack the problem faster help or hurt?  Should there be ways to focus the taxes on those who want to use the river more, or who live along the river?  They already pay more taxes because riverfront property is more expensive.  If the river collapses into a dead zone, their property values will collapse.   

The plan focuses on removing organic matter from the river bottom, including dredging muck from the bottom (which, by the nature of dredging, can only affect that spot in the river, not the whole system).  Yet I've read many people over the years who maintain the causeways that cross the river in several places along its 70 mile length in our county impede the water flow and it would help immensely to replace them with bridges.  That would be extremely costly, but does it need to be done? 

The biggest objection I come across to this is that our local politicians are too stupid and too corrupt to manage this.  That could be.  I've already heard that the group that's going to manage the project has been formed and people from around the county with records of unethical behaviors are already in place.  Of course, if we plop $300,000 in one place, that's going to attract grifters like ants to a picnic.

So color me conflicted on this one.  At the worst, I can only say it may not be enough to fix the river and some money will be lost to cronyism.  On the other hand, it's very likely better than nothing. 

One view of one of the fish kills, from March this year (source).


  1. What Amendment One will kill is "et metering" which is the law that requires the utility to buy the excess electricity from a solar user. The utility companies claim that solar users run their electric meter backwards during the day, and consequently many of them wind up with no electric bill at the end of the month. They claim that this is a subsidy, because the rest of us must subsidize those users, because it the cost of transformers and other distribution network costs have to be paid by the rest of us in the form of higher utility bills.

    The problem that I have with this theory is that this is a problem of the utilities' own making. In Florida, it is illegal to have an off the grid home. You MUST connect your home to the utility company, regardless of whether or not you need to.

    For that reason, I voted against it.

  2. Divemedic makes the key point: grid connected, whether you need it or not. While it is possible to have a stand-alone solar system and be connected to "the grid," this leads to grid-tied solar systems which don't do what most people expect a solar system to do, namely, provide power when the grid is down.

    So, grid-tied gets installed - there are outfits that will provide the hardware and installation for nearly free to gain the subsidy benefits - and the homeowner gets reduced power bills, at least as long as the sun shines. Since grid-tied doesn't have storage capacity, between sunset and sunrise one writes checks to the utility.

    Solar, at least solar that really works, isn't cheap, which is why there's so little of it.

    Side note; RE: your NG generator - I assume you possess an propane conversion kit for it, do you not, and a spot in the yard picked out for the tank?

    1. Embarrassingly, no. It's one of those things I thought about doing "some day" but never got to. Some day probably ought to be soon.

      Back to the original point, again, nobody I read covered the topic of metering, or comparing amendment 1 to existing law. Well, one site said that the rights it claims to guarantee are already the current law. It just moves them from protected by statute to protected by the constitution.

      When I was considering solar systems, I'm pretty sure that the feature most places cited for a grid-tied system was to make income selling power back to the utilities. I don't recall a technical reason that a grid tied system can't have storage batteries. Why is that?

    2. I don't recall a technical reason that a grid tied system can't have storage batteries. Why is that?

      My research says "capacity" and "lack of understanding." Most people want lower utility bills, and protection from future larger ones, so the concept of grid-tied sells because that's what GT does.

      There's no technical reason that a battery bank cannot be included in a GT system, except that to work as an independent system the batteries have to be fed first because it's the batteries that carry the load during "dark." That means the meter won't be spinning backward until the afternoon, and on cloudy days maybe not at all. Plus good deep cycle batteries are much spendy,and have only a 5-7 year life span.

      Plus, how that solar-generated power gets used comes into play; GT systems exist to drive the meter backward, "real" solar systems exist to meet power load demand. Big difference - it means storage (more is better, assuming one has the panel wattage to support it), controllers, inverters, and the Really Big One: lifestyle change caused by finite limits on available electrical power. (Example: despite "Energy Star" ratings, common appliances use MUCH more electricity than appliances designed for solar systems, not to mention the convenience factor. I've got a very efficient 25 cu ft Whirpool fridge that draws 112 watts in run mode (locked rotor current - the startup draw - is about 1K watts for 1-2 seconds; I used to know the daily wattage total, somewhere around 4 KW, IIRC), but an 8 cu ft 12 volt SunDanzer chest fridge draws 100 watts per day to run. but a chest style fridge is a PITA to use.

      Grid-tied sits there quietly, reversing the meter to save money, demanding no effort from the "owner."

      Don't know if you regularly hit, but he has only solar for electricity and frequently chronicles the living changes sun-limitied electricity drives.

    3. Thanks for that. The peak of my reading about solar systems was probably 2010 or '11, before we got the generator, so I'm out of touch, but I still remember the saying "the cheapest kW is the one you don't use" and the emphasis on reducing power usage. Besides that, I just never considered spending thousands just to drive the meter backward. The backup system I was planning wasn't even envisioned as GT; just panels and batteries.

      Setting up a system just to drive meter backwards seems like a waste to me, but my emphasis is being able to live comfortably if the SHTF. The generator simply won't get me there. Those are designed to run for 7 days, then need to be shut down for an oil change and maintenance. Can you imagine doing that for a few years? Yeah. Ain't happening. If it really does all go Tango Uniform, a good solar power system can keep you going for the life of the batteries, maybe as much as 8 years. If I get the design of my system right and the S never hits the fan, then I never pay an electric bill again, and that's fine by me.

    4. There's a whole lot to consider with solar, and it centers around the two-ended axle of cost and lifestyle. A friend who happens to be an archtect and designed his son's house included solar in the design (that house is about 40 miles west of you). This was a decade ago (2006), before panels started really dropping in price. Five grand later he has what he calls "the keep the beer cold during hurricanes" system - the panels, batteries and inverter run the fridge, a couple ceiling fans and a couple outlets in key rooms. That's it. I'm sure the batteries have been replaced at least once, probably twice since 2006.

      I've seen generators designed for longer term use - Mercedes makes a 1.5 liter (salt) water cooled diesel 3 cyl for larger boats, coupled to a 30KW alternator - and coupled to a very large diesel truck radiator it works well as a non-boat stationary genset. For the same money today about 15KW of solar & storage can be installed. Standby generators - which is probably what yours is - don't have enough cooling or engine oil capacity to run for too long between maintenance events. NG and LP, however, do run cleaner than gasoline or diesel. Most "home center" gennies call for oil changes every 25 hours; even my water-cooled Honda ES6500 with a large oil pan and spin-on oil filter (uses the same 358cc 2-cylinder engine they put in small 2-person cars in Japan - not quite as big as a Smart Car) specifies 50 hour oil changes. That's 2 days of constant use, 4 days of half-cycle; hurricane Charlie in 2004 knocked out our juice for 5 1/2 days.

      I'm still researching, but I have learned inverters are a system drag - running one sucks up some amount of watts - so it seems a well designed two-voltage system (12 DC and 115 AC) might be an advantage (some appliances - like SunDanzer stuff - are 12 volt because they're designed for purely off-grid applications) but Ohm's Law says low voltage means higher amps and requires large diameter copper, so the closer your 12V fridge and freezer are to the batteries the better. And, don't forget batteries outgas hydrogen and vapor sulfuric acid so they can't go in living space.

      Way back when there were medium size propane refrigerators for off grid home use (RVs and house trailers use small LP fridges); a few brands are still made and they're not cheap, but it's another option for off-grid or for reducing the electrical load on a solar system. I'd assume if LP fridges are made, so are NG, but I haven't researched them.

  3. I have almost never seen a ballot question that should be answered with anything but a solid NO.


    1. Especially a constitutional amendment.

      Caveat: there have been amendments and referendums written for the ballot so that the desired response is to get everyone to vote "NO". It's worth reading them or studying them.

  4. Re: generators and solar power. I have had a series of motorhomes and now a small trailer (19.5'). I have had 2.3 kw generators, 900 watt generators and a assortment of small solar panels. Today I have a 180 watt panel with two deep cycle batteries. Although this does not translate 100% to the issues and demands of a home it is a excellent platform to assess the pros and cons. I could replicate this system (it was factory installed) if I did it myself for under $500 or so. It runs the minimal electric needed for the trailer (mostly the water pump, heater fan, lights and control systems) easily and allows me to use the radio and TV if I choose to. It will also allow me and my wife to use laptops and charge phones, cameras etc. A very minimal system that can do a lot but not anything 'big'. It's there everyday, day after day, no fuel requirement but I do need to get sun for part of the day. I am happy with it. It does not provide enough power for the refrigerator and I can live with that. For a mere couple thousand more I could power the fridge but why? We have discovered how to preserve food without the need of refrigeration. My trailer requires LP to heat it but some RV's do have small wood stoves and I heated my house 100% with a wood stove for years so that too is a non-issue. The big one for some people is air conditioning. I never use it, not in my car or my home. Don't get me wrong, I get it if you lived in Florida air conditioning is required but you can live without it and most certainly can in 80% of the U.S.

    The bottom line is with PV; go small, provide power for a few necessities and a few luxuries and keep it simple. Then it is reasonably cheap and doable.