We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
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Tuesday, January 31. 2012
I've always been 'Green'. Not "I recycle and you should stop driving an SUV and if you don't you're evil" Green. I'm more of a constructive 'green'. In my youth I did ecological projects with the Boy Scouts, planting trees, cleaning parks, learning about nature by hiking the Appalachian Trail. I figure it's better to improve than scold, and you should start at home anyway. It's better to be concerned about how you do things and let other people worry about how they choose to live. If people want to be 'green' because they fear Carbon Dioxide, that's their choice and I'm OK with it. I don't agree with them, and I really don't appreciate when they decide their way is better and want to force me to do things their way.
My teen years were marked by two contrived events now known as "The Energy Crisis". Political situations had led to a belief that oil prices would rise forever and we'd run out of fossil fuels by 2000 (technically, we were supposed to hit Hubbert's Peak in 1979 - but Hubbert didn't count on various factors which extended his timeline). All kinds of crazy stories in the 1970's drove many to the point of hysteria. Not dissimilar to what we're being told today, except back then the world was cooling, not warming. It doesn't matter which way the temperature was going, because ecological consciousness was, and is, part of the 'correct' cultural identity. As I matured, I learned it's not just about ecology. It's about efficiency.
As a result of my formative years, I've always had an interest in alternative energy. I've never feared running out of fuel, or worried about Carbon Dioxide run amok. Instead, I was interested in the economic concept of substitute goods. Substitutes and complements are what make markets work. It's the concept that coffee gets expensive so coffee drinkers switch to tea, which is less expensive. I've never known a coffee drinker to switch, but while the example isn't precise, it is accurate.
Prices are a message the market sends to let businesses consumers know when something is in high or low demand, or if inventory is tight or slack. There are a host of other reasons why prices move. Those are interesting, but for this post, they aren't important.
What do prices have to do with being 'green'? Quite a bit, really. Because if 'going green' is to be meaningful at all, there has to be a good reason, a solid economic reason, to do so. It can't just be a political mandate or fear of a fictitious link to otherwise normal human behavior. If we react to non-market based reasoning, we typically have bad outcomes and/or unintended consequences that wind up costing more than we hoped.
When it comes to oil, there really aren't many substitutes. The primary option to send a price signal is to limit how much I use. As a result, the United States has effectively utilized conservation as the primary tool of fighting oil prices. In the 1970's, we were promised that by now there should be other alternatives. There are other options today, but they are generally expensive. Ed Begley, Jr. had a whole show about energy substitutes. But he's relatively wealthy, made money from the show, and the average guy can't make a capital expenditure the way Ed can.
Alternatives aren't bad ideas, they just don't make sense economically because they are capital investments, not operating expenses. Capital investments require huge upfront payments, designed to reduce annual operating expenses and achieve a payout over time from improved overall performance. How many people can afford to pay $36,000 to save $1,800 annually in electricity? How many people want to pay that much upfront to save this over fifteen to twenty years? Not many.
I saw one place which was willing to spend the money recently, a large liquor retail warehouse near my father's. They added solar panels to their roof, covered their parking area (a nice touch when it rains or is very hot) and put solar panels over the parking area. They expect to have a return on investment in 7 years and make money for the estimated 8+ remaining years on the panel lifespan. 15 years is a short lifespan, and the average homeowner can't expect to realize the same kind of return on a much smaller physical footprint. In my neighborhood (and I've looked into this), it would take 15 years for me to break even on a series of solar panels on my roof. Solar panels others may find cosmetically repulsive.
Every now and then some ideas crop up that make sense. I saw one recently when I was on a college tour with my son. It was called "Big Belly Solar Compactor".
All across the campus, trash cans had been removed and replaced with machines. I took a look at the product, made a few calls, and found them quite interesting.
Big Belly allowed the university to make substantial savings on its garbage collection. There had been a five times a week collection schedule which Big Belly altered to a maximum of two days a week. In reality, the cans can communicate with a base, letting them know how full they are, and if they need to be emptied. As a result, a large truck making regularly scheduled routes was no longer necessary. Smaller trucks could do irregular pick ups, on an as needed basis. This meant savings to the budget of the physical plant in fuel. In addition, it allowed the university to manage its manpower expectations, lowering overall wage and pension growth. In speaking with Big Belly they mentioned they usually don't try to sell the headcount savings, given the state of the economy. However, if an organization is expecting to grow its physical plant staff, Big Belly offered the opportunity to limit that growth - a fact which clearly was not lost on the university.
The school knew what it was doing. They had the perfect sale for their books: "Save $900,000 over the next 5 years. After the cost of purchase." Not to mention, as it was a university, they had the ability to sell through the "we're using solar power to reduce emissions" concept to what is likely an overwhelmingly pro-AGW crowd. Big Belly, as a business entity, has had many large wins of this nature. They aren't just successful at universities, but with the Park Service, and cities.
It pleases me that some alternatives make sense and have an easy sale. Not because I'm so happy the planet is going to be saved, but because it shows the market does work when people think strategically and logically about their needs. It shows that it pays to consider any alternative when it makes sense.
We don't have to be motivated to save the world in order to be 'green'. We just have to be motivated to save money. Providing government subsidies and tax breaks for projects like this isn't the right way to go about it. Credits and subsidies alter motivations and lead to the kind of moral hazard which created the Banking Crisis, or Solyndra. No, the goal is to let individuals discover the way themselves, either through a sense of karmic duty like Ed Begley, Jr., or a sense of economic efficiency that most normal folk seek. This will allow entrepreneurs to do their job properly and develop viable products which people will want, allowing them to profit the normal way - by selling quality and value.
It's not up to the government or groups to mandate behavior. It's up to the market to produce price signals which 'explain' the value of doing something simply because it makes economic sense to do it.
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I'm in complete agreement - perhaps because my B-School professors hammered concepts like efficiency, return on investment, and present-value into my head.
Using less energy at less cost is good business. Dropping money on symbolic "Green" BS is idiotic.
For instance, I love diesel cars and despise hybrids. If the EPA would revise their rules, hybrids wouldn't exist.
It is something like 'Put your own money at risk'. By that I mean perhaps build something and conserve materials.
Maybe use a new technology that uses fewer materials, whether scarce or not.
Economic thoughts are at issue. Going there first usually will be cleaner than not...
For different take on the Big Belly solar compactor, check this out:
I'm certain there are some issues with anything like this. The university I visited, and later called, admitted to some flaws in the system which cost them early on.
However, as is typical with things like this, many of these flaws were worked out. While I was there, I didn't see any of the bins overflowing or broken like the one in the picture.
If Philadelphia is having problems with these, it's likely due to an overzealous use of these systems in regions of the city where they were abused. I can see this NOT being a solution for certain areas and cities. In fact, the Big Belly representative I spoke to was upfront about saying it is not a solution for everyone, everywhere.
At a university, I can see it working very well. You have a particular mindset at work among the student body, there is a concerted effort to contain costs, and there is a limited area to be covered. In a large city, it is probably best to roll it out slowly and in preselected regions where the best returns are likely to be observed.
I agree there are issues with any cost-saving solution. I won't use a lone blogger who found a few busted cans to demolish the idea as a whole. His premise, which is that socially-aware politicians tried to utilize a ridiculous idea to misspend taxpayer dollars, is one I'm sensitive to and generally feel takes place. But that doesn't mean Big Belly, on the whole, is a bad solution. It does mean that politics can think that there is a silver bullet solution to everything. There is never a silver bullet solution to anything.
There are trade-offs. If you manage them well, you can see positive results. Politicians aren't interested in managing trade-offs.
All valid points and well argued. I just wanted to provide a real-world perspective to their use.
Keep up the good work!
Hey folks--can you help me understand this issue?
Who or what is Light Squared? it looks like a huge give away to Dems again, kinda like what they did for Rahm baby. I haven't got a clue what this thing is and why folks are so terrified of this--please help.
I'm opposed to political misuse, misspending, and misconduct.
If a system like this was put in place because 'it's stopping global warming and we have the money to spend, so let's do it', that's not a good reason.
Why would you put a Big Belly in a ghetto?
On the other hand, putting them in heavily trafficked tourist areas (Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, South Street) does make a considerable amount of sense. I'm willing to bet, based on the figures posted on that blog, that Philadelphia put them all over the place without thinking how some portions of the city would misuse or mistreat the containers.
I don't know much about Light Squared. I know there is some question, mostly unsubstantiated, that the company made political donations to Democrats (specifically Obama).
Obama himself invested in the company, though sold his shares at a loss several months afterward. I believe its this kind of association which leads many to believe there is some support from Democrats for the company. Wouldn't surprise me, though I can't see why it's necessarily a Democrat vs. Republican battle. What they are trying to do is probably a good idea, in general. If there is government funding involved, which I am not aware of, then this is probably the dividing line.
There are clearly technical issues with their use of the spectrum, but I'm not an engineer and have no idea what the impact of these issues are. In order to get it approved, they need some help both in engineering and in the political realm.
I'm not an engineer either. But I am directly involved in an industry, aircraft navigation, that relies on GPS signals for its products ability for pinpoint accuracy. LightSquared's slice of the frequency pie, and use of, would, based on recent research by the FAA and the military, completely degrade GPS to the point of uselessness to all present users of same.
So they installed the things and then didn't manage to empty and maintain them. Can't blame that on the device.
No doubt they were thinking the greeny party line, along the lines of "when we buy those people will produce less trash because the bins are smaller, so we can cut the trash runs even further than the marketing brochure predicts".
Not an uncommon attitude among the True Believers in Big Green.
They've a similar problem in the town my parents live in. Everyone was supplied with a new bins. One for paper, one for plastic, one for glass, one for bio degradables, and one for "rest waste". By whatever flawed logic all bins are the same size, except the one for grey "rest waste" which is about half the size.
Total size is less than the old garbage bins used to be.
They've decided to empty 1 bin each week, on a rotating schedule.
And now they're utterly surprised that the grey bins are always overflowing while the rest are only about half full at most, and people are complaining about the stench from their bins that sit in driveways for over a month waiting to be emptied of rotting garbage rather than just a few days.