More news on the damage from solar power

For those panels to pay off, the regulators need to keep rules in place for a decade or two. Not a good bet. Image courtesy of
For those panels to pay off, you are betting the regulators will keep rules in place for a decade or two. Not a particularly good bet. Image courtesy of


Two articles last week on disruptions from solar power. Illustration why it’s not wise to make it decade-long bet on residential rooftop solar. Also, a video surveillance system that might, perhaps allow getting an accurate count on the tally of bird deaths at Ivanpah.

7/26 – New York Times – Why Home Solar Panels No Longer in Some States – Friendly suggestion for your consideration: Don’t place $20,000 on a 12 year bet that politically driven government regulators won’t change the rules.

The story of one specific man in California is used to illustrate the danger of betting on stability in government rules.

In California, electricity rates have been structured so that there are four tiers of consumption. To punish heavy residential electricity users, prices in tiers three and four are steep, running as high as $.36 a kilowatt-hour for tier 4 with PG&E. To protect most folks from rising cost of electricity the lower two tiers were set low, resulting in a cross-subsidy.

That’s how rooftop solar pays off. Putting in a specifically calculated amount of solar can provide enough electricity to keep you away from tier 4 and probably out of tier 3. In that set of circumstances rooftop solar is a great deal, particularly since there are extremely heavy subsidies of the installation costs from the federal and state governments.

The net effect of this is a cross subsidy from people who do not have rooftop solar to the people who are rich enough that they can afford the panels.

Built into that arrangement is a bet that runs for 20 years that this stacked rate system will stay in place.

Also built into that arrangement is a bet that there will not be a radical breakthrough in technology which might make current rooftop solar technologically, economically, and practically obsolete. That is a topic for another day.

That tiered system does not reflect the different value that electricity has at different times of the day and in different volumes. Regulators in many states are making changes to adjust for the heavy cross subsidy as well as the distortion between actual wholesale value of the electricity compared to the prices charged to customers.

As a result, three states have already made changes to the system, with Nevada and Hawaii having stopped giving residential customers credit at retail rate and in Arizona retail customers are now paying a demand charge. In early 2016, 10 other states are considering changes that would undercut the current cross subsidy to residential solar, according to the article.

All PG&E did was change the time of peak demand, which affected the cited homeowner (I don’t quite understand how peak time affected pricing, which is something I still need to learn about). The net effect is to change the bill this homeowner will pay. He expects that instead of a 12 year payback the $20,000 panels put in place to charge his (coal-fired) electric vehicle, the panels will never pay for themselves.

Let me explain that again. It will take 12 years for this homeowner to recover the cost of the panels. Out to that point, he would spend less by not having the panels at all. Only after the 12 year point would he expect to have cumulatively paid less with the panels than without.

Tip: don’t make a 12 year bet on regulators keeping rules in place that favor you.

7/29 – Daily Bulletin – Video surveillance could help reduce the impact of solar towers burning birds – Actually a better title would be Video surveillance could help get an honest count of solar towers burning birds. The video system, if it works and if it is installed and if it is used, will not reduce by one wing the tally of birds killed at Ivanpah.

USGS is evaluating whether a video surveillance system might allow for more accurate counts of the birds toasted at the Ivanpah solar plant. Results from a pair of 10 day test runs back in 2014 are being assessed. The theory is the video system could identify almost all of the killed birds and more importantly pick up birds who were wounded but still able to fly away before they die. The theory continues that the system would be able to distinguish between insects and birds based on the heat signature as the critters combust. I’m assuming the system would also count the number of birds that are incinerated.

Staff at the wing-toaster facility conduct counts of identified dead birds and reports those tallies each month. Their reports assert 6,186 birds were killed in the last year.  The decomposition was common enough that the biologists were only able to identify that 1,145 were killed from burns and 1,355 from hitting mirrors.

Here are a few factors to keep in mind as you consider the staff only acknowledged around 6,000 bird fatalities:

  • First, the survey of dead birds is only covers out to about 300 feet from the towers, which ignores birds who were not killed immediately, thus dropping further than 300 feet away.
  • Second, when I read two of the reports, I learned the surveys are conducted over a couple of days and are only performed about two or three times a month, meaning any birds carried off by coyotes and kit foxes in the week or more between counts aren’t counted.
  • Third, the tally of dead birds on the ground obviously cannot include birds that were incinerated, leaving no remains to be found on the ground, which is a known condition.
  • Fourth, the tally doesn’t even consider mortally wounded birds which were able to fly beyond the perimeter of the facility, keeping in mind that doesn’t really matter whether birds land near the perimeter or outside the fence because only birds landing within a couple hundred feet of the towers are ever counted.

That means the tally of dead migratory and other protected birds is far greater than 6,000. Nobody, I mean nobody, has any idea of the actual tally.

In the accounting world we have a phrase for that methodology: auditing with your eyes closed.

The video surveillance system might allow, perhaps, maybe, tabulating the death count with eyes open.

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