Thursday, May 24, 2007

Whats wrong with Solar Power

All my life I've been an alternate energy enthusiast. As a teenager I built a 1Kw wind generator in my back yard. It exploded in a blizzard. (cool!) I've build solar heaters, solar cookers and small solar electric panels.

With all the recent articles about cheaper solar cells and such I went on-line and looked up what a home solar system actually costs. Turns out it's not the solar cells that are the big cost. It's the combined system.

Here is the math I did. Currently power is about 9 cents per kilowatt hour from the electric grid.

(Prices and systems from but this is not a cut against them. They just seem to have the best systems and prices.)

First a grid tie system. This is a bunch of solar panels, and a controller, mounts, disconnect and such. Ready-to-go. The system is $14000 but there are rebates so lets say $10000.
The solar cells are 2300 watts raw output. Given a 5 hours average power per day, 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year, it comes out to 3,500,000 watt hours per year. Divide the cost by 3.5 M and you get $2.78 per kilowatt-hour in one year. Of course the system last 20 years so divide by 20 and you get 13.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. Hmm, 1.5 times the cost of grid power.

If the system breaks earlier, or needs repair the cost goes up. One rock from a curious neighbor kid and the cost goes waaaaaay up. Also you can put the $10,000 in a CD and get about $200 per year. In 20 years this is $4,000. You could add this to the system cost so it is $14,000 instead of $10,000, raising the cost per kilowatt-hour, and you'd have the $10,000 left over at the end.

The solar panels are $610 each and there are 18 of them thus $10,980. The controller is $2,500. Since it is a package deal they cut the cost a bit.

Now lets assume the solar cells cut in half in price. The panel price will not cut in half since it includes glass, frames, and such. So we'll guess $3000 off the starting price, and after rebates you would save a bit less. So lets assume $2000 savings. Now the electricity over 20 years costs 11.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. Getting closer.

The same calcs on a battery off-grid system you could run your (very efficient) house on is 26 cents per kilowatt-hour because of all those batteries and power conversion. Here the solar cells base cost is $4880 or roughly half the system cost.

Oh, and don't even think that when you move and sell your house you will get any of the cost of the system back. It might even be viewed as a detraction from the value of the house. So you better live in the same house for 20 years.

The point I'm trying to make here is that the solar cell cost is half to one quarter of the system cost. The power controller and the batteries are most of the rest of the cost.

What will bring down the cost of home solar power will be when the systems get mass produced and the cost of the parts comes down.

The other issue with solar is the complete rejection of solar by utility companies via. regulatory obstruction. Don't think so? Try this article. Then there are the local regulations. The subdivision I live in has a flat out ban on any solar panels and wind generators. The home owners association is a bunch of 'tree huggers' yet ban anything actually ecological because it might not look 'just right'.

There is a bright side to this. These systems are not increasing in cost, while electricity is increasing in cost. If the states pass alternative power friendly laws in favor of solar installations, such as a law prohibiting home owners associations and towns from blocking installations, then solar could succeed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Worrisome Bulge in Mt. St. Helens

The US Forest Service announced today that the bulge in the summit crater of Mt. St. Helens has become a concern. Such an unsightly bulge may be due to the age of the volcano and lower activity rates.

The current weight loss plan include more frequent eruptions, and a reduction in input from the magma chamber below.

A Dexatrim(tm) spokesperson says that this will be their most challenging client. A contender for the weight loss program was the well know Weight Watchers(tm). An unidentified internal government worker was heard to say that 'Weight Watchers was not the lowest cost bidder, and the mountain would be unable to attend the weekly meetings.'

The forest service will be using their aerial water drop planes to dump 500 gallons of Dexatrim per day on the mountain summit.

Geriatrics specialist Dr. Friedman of the University of Utah Medical Center for Aging commented that the 1980 eruption seemed to due to comments by the Forrest Service about the volcano's weight. After the eruption the mountain kept the weight off for a few years and is now gaining it back, plus a little more.

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York commented that she had visited the volcano years ago and taken some pictures. 'It's not pretty to see an old friend let her self go like this, but I'm supportive and she is trying', quipped her highness.

Mt. St. Helens was unavailable for comment as it is currently dormant.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

'Microsoft Sold' is a misnomer

Once again Microsoft touts the 40 Million Vista sold number.

But what does 'sold' mean in this context? Does anyone really buy Microsoft's OS?

Almost never. It just comes pre-installed on the new machine you buy. This is what being a monopoly does for a company. You don't have to sell anything. You just strong-arm the vendors of computers to include Vista, and forbid by contract the sale of XP, and so 'sales' of Vista skyrocket.

So what do the numbers actually indicate? That Microsoft has perfected their contracts to the point that the computer vendor have no wiggle room. XP was adopted more slowly because cautions customers had a choice.

Q1 2007 worldwide PC sales were 62 Million units. Microsoft 'sold' 40 million Vista. That's only 2/3 of the world PC sales, so maybe Microsoft needs to tighten it's legal grip even harder. It would be nice to know what OS was on the other 20 Million units. XP? Linux? Windows 98? Pirated Vista?

The truly interesting news is that Dell is allowing XP on some boxes due to customer demand. (11 Million / .176 = 62 Million)


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

US Software Industry Argues while Rome Burns

As things are now in the USA, Windows will never be displaced by Linux. Windows is simply too entrenched.

Such a monopoly will instead be overcome by becoming irrelevant in some other place, and then that place becoming dominant in some way.

That place will be Asia, and Microsoft knows it. A few years back China and several other Asian nations announced a project to replace the WinTel platform with a non-American platform.
This includes an effort to replace the BIOS-Intel based hardware, and replace the operating system (Red Linux).

The second step will be that China becomes the top economy in the world and can call the shots on an international scale. While the USA will have outdated WinTel platforms burdened by intellectual property fees, China et. al. will have a $50 box (India is talking about a $10 box) that out performs the old WinTel boxes in every measure.

After this the computer hardware and operating system will be truly irrelevant.
This is actually a good thing over all, just a very bad thing for the USA. We will finally have the dream of ubiquitous computers, and they won't be American made.

The other way Microsoft is in trouble is from a further irrelevance caused by
Google's office suite.

Microsoft is acting like they know these things already. They have just announced Vista + Office in a reduced version for $3 in the Orient. This is a desperate attempt to try to keep the Asian countries on Windows.

Violence (lawyers) is the last refuge of the incompetent. - Isaac Asimov -
and so Microsoft brings up the specter of patent issues. This is monumentally stupid and will be detrimental to the future of computers in the USA. While we (the USA computer industry) has hoards of lawyers fight out these issues, the rest of the world will just quietly laugh at us, and innovate. I hate to sound like some McCarthy era nut case, but what Microsoft is doing is Un-American.

I tend to think globally and feel that the whole Us vs. Them is a bad viewpoint, the problem is that the contributions that the USA computer industry could be making right now, is being squandered on the petty battles and skirmishes of irrelevant legal issues.


P.S. Lookout for Africa next century.

Historical Note: The USA used to own the world shipping industry. Around 1900 the USA responded to global competition with extensive tariffs on foreign shipping. The result was a trade battle, that the USA lost, and now ships are built in Greece and Korea.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Ode to DRM

Ode to DRM

A judicially predisposed junta
barraged by puny computer junkies
never had thought,
only sued.

For legal knuckleheads,
in time baited user groups,
first very small,
upgraded greatly
into insurmountable mountains.


After College

A little advice for software engineers just graduating from college. My son who is age 19 just got done with his first year at college in CS. He just started his first real corporate job as an engineer/intern. Sure brings back memories, so a little fatherly advice is in order.

Your in for a big change in how you are treated. All your life you have been surrounded by people that had a major interest in your success. Parents, teachers, etc. This is no longer true. In the post-college world people are looking out for Number 1 and you are expendable. Even that boss that wants to promote your career is doing it because that is what promotes the boss' career. You will only be successful from here on out if you make it happen. In my first job at Westinghouse I was put on the really sweet project that everyone wanted to be on. One employee said to me, 'You are so lucky.' I thought (but had enough tact not to say) I make my own luck.

Outcome Based Education is an big fad in schools, but has no relationship to reality. In business, results matter, and effort plays a distant second. If you try really hard and fail, you may get a sympathetic pat on the back, but you're also silently labeled a looser.

You are now an equal to all those adults around you. It is a real trip the first time you get introduced as Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so. Don't let it go to your head. Having just graduated from college, you have the latest ideas about how to do things. Don't discount the years of experience those boring old guys have. They have seen more computer fads come and go than you even know existed. (Remember 'visual programming' in 1993?) Make suggestions and explain nifty new ideas, but don't be snooty about it.

When you start any new job, but especially your first one, you go through the phases of Initial Enthusiasm, The Doldrums, The Learning Curve, and then Productivity. Just wait out the doldrums and work steady and hard.

The absolute most important aspect of engineering is the interpersonal relationships. It took me 15 years to learn this lesson the hard way. As my sainted father once said, Never Burn Your Bridges. Its amazing how that jerk you worked with ten years ago shows up working for a company you are interviewing with. This works the other way too. It is pleasantly amazing how the people you worked with 10 years ago pull you along into the really good start up companies.

Seek a mentor in the company, not directly above you in the management chain, but higher up, and frequently ask for their advice. A little flatter here will go a long way. They can warn you of covert attacks from older experienced snipers in the company. Also, make relationships with people that have the skills you don't have. If you are a complete computer nerd, make friends with a management charismatic type. That is how great start up companies are made.

Always be loyal to your boss and make the boss look good. If you get a bad boss, have the mentor help you get moved (quickly).

Always keep a resume out on line and up-to-date.

Try to take jobs that are so interesting that the pay is secondary.

Never get a secretary (oops, I mean Administrator) angry. They run the company and can make your life miserable. An occasional bag of candy goes a long way. In fact while were on the subject of candy, do something that is above the call of duty for everyone in the office. I keep a bucket of candy on my desk. It has brought me allot of good will and contacts that otherwise would not have been there. Keep your head up and looking around, not just buried in code. Keep track of the big picture. This makes for a good Halo player, and a good engineer.

Start a contact list right now, even if you're currently 10 years old. Have the name and address and phone number of everyone you ever talk to. It comes in very handy if you suddenly get laid off. I hear that Jimmy Carter's contact Rolodex fill two whole Rolodex.

And the final advice: The only way to be successful is to have ownership. Always keep an eye out and have some kind of spare time start up in the works. Take advantage of being young, single, and uprooted to take risks.