California’s Solar Virtue Signal Could Put Housing Out of Reach

The California Energy Commission (CEC) said, “Eureka, we have a refulgently brilliant idea! Let’s require installation of solar panels on new home and low-rise apartment building construction.” Assuming the California Building Standards Commission ratifies the CEC’s proposal (a purported slam-dunk) it will take affect starting January 1, 2020. Less than two years from now.

”The case for this was extremely strong,” [1] CEC commissioner Andrew McAllister said. “[In] California, we do believe in climate change, we do believe in facts … It’s become clear to all of us it’s the right thing to do and that the marketplace is ready.”[2] the UPI reported.

In light of their actions, what the CEC doesn’t believe in are: 1) carbon-free nuclear power plants, 2) consumer choice, or 3) free markets. California has bent to activist pressure and already closed the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Diablo Canyon’s nuclear power plants will close in 2024 and 2025. When the Commish said, ”[T]the marketplace is ready” he didn’t mean a marketplace where you get to choose what you want. He meant a marketplace where you get to pay for what he wants. He meant delicious gooey Crony Capitalism[3], where well-healed, well-connected lobbyists convince bureaucrats to employ the lobby’s preferred remedy.

According to NPR, “Representatives from construction groups, public utilities and solar manufacturers all spoke in support of the plan, which they’ve helped the commission develop for years,” the AP reports. “No industry groups spoke in opposition.” Of course, no groups spoke in opposition: the benefits are concentrated in a few industries and the harm is dispersed among many lower income people and potential homeowners.

The result is Crony Capitalist Pork. Keeping with the meat metaphor, I have no beef with these groups representing their constituents, but I don’t have to like the result. I like markets to sort out such things. Government’s role is to enforce contracts between individuals and protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. Beyond that, government’s top-down approach hampers market-driven, bottom-up solutions.

And the bottom line to everyone–but especially the people on the bottom economic rung–is it effectively takes money from their pockets to pay for this scheme. Under this program, everything is going to cost more, especially housing. And not just newly constructed housing. All housing will cost more, including rentals. Look for an upturn in people looking for existing homes because they’ve been priced out of building new. This will force prices up. It is obvious that the CEC does not understand supply and demand curves, incentives, or anything from a basic economics course.

Unlike Classical Liberals, Progressives within government are sure they know not only how to diagnose a market problem, but how to “fix” it with a sure fire prescription. It’s like your nosy neighbor telling you what’s wrong with your life and has the answer to help you. Now imagine she has the power to force you to do it. That is what the CEC has done. As Veronique de Rugy writes on Reason.com, “These members of the ‘government within the government,’ produce one freedom-restricting, economy-hindering rule after another without much oversight. These rules take many forms, and few even realize they’re in the making—until, that is, they hit you square in the face.”

Photo Credit: Libertarianism.org

The progressive Los Angeles Times editorial board is all for punching you square in the face. “Of course California should require solar panels on new homes,” An LA Times opinion piece gushed.

The opening paragraph says, getting punched in the face is good for you.

The benefits of solar power are well established. Photovoltaics harness the sun to create electricity, reducing the need for dirtier forms of energy. And residents generate their own power, cutting their utility bills.[4]

There is so much wrong with this paragraph. It begs the question with “The benefits of solar power are well established.” No, the benefits of solar power are not well established. As Michael Shellenberger, President of Environmental Progress notes, If Solar And Wind Are So Cheap, Why Are They Making Electricity So Expensive? “Electricity prices increased 24 percent in California during its solar energy build-out from 2011 to 2017.” And from 2011 to 2017, California, a state whose progressive leadership is committed to renewable energy, saw electricity rates rise to five times higher than the national average. And California is not a one-off in the rate hike department. Germany, Denmark, and Spain already blazed that trail.

The Times editorial goes on to say, The energy commission’s new building standards, which require both solar panels and upgraded insulation, air filters and other efficiency measures, are expected to raise the cost of a new home by $9,500. That’s about half the cost of installing solar systems on existing homes (although tax breaks and other financial incentives can lower the bill). And homes built to the new standards are expected to use 50% as much energy as homes built in 2016 without solar panels….

Yes, the new standards will increase the cost to build homes and apartment complexes. That’s a concern in California, which is in the midst of a housing crisis because it failed for years to build enough homes to keep up with population demand. However, energy-efficiency investments save money over time. The energy commission estimated the new standards will add $40 per month to the average new home mortgage payment, but save $80 per month on heating, cooling and lighting.

The installation cost appears correct though it may turn out to be higher. It is the anticipated savings in energy that they expect that should trouble you. Federal and state governments continue to press for efficiency as a way to save fuel (in order to lower greenhouse gas emissions). And they are usually dead wrong. Too often, government officials do not consider The Energy Efficiency Paradox. Basically, if you save money on one thing, you have money for more of that thing or of something else. If your house is better insulated you might opt to make it cooler or warmer to be more comfortable. You might take a drive to the beach with your savings or buy a bigger car.

And the mandate will be a tax on other rate payers. According to Severin Borenstein,  E.T. Grether Professor of Business Administration and Public Policy at the Haas School of Business writing to Commissioner Weisenmiller, “The savings calculated for the households are based on residential electricity rates that are far above the actual cost of providing incremental energy, so embody a large cross subsidy from other ratepayers. This would be a very expensive way to expand renewables and would not be a cost effective practice…”  In a nutshell, the LA Times editorial board and the CEC cooked the numbers.

The state is spurring innovation and job creation in the clean-energy sector. (California is ranked first in the nation for solar industry jobs at 86,000 — seven times more than the second-ranked state.)

Whenever you hear about government “spurring innovation and job creation” it is to cover the noise of cash being sucked from your bank account. Pork rarely innovates anything. And, the number of jobs is not a good thing. It is the opposite of a good thing for the majority of us—the people paying for electricity and for stuff made with that electricity. The electricity made with solar costs more because it takes forty people in solar to produce the same amount of electricity produced using natural gas. Lots of Jobs per KWH is Bad, not Good. [5]

The Times board sums up their argument with, At the moment, there’s simply no better way to reduce the power demand and greenhouse gas emissions from new residential developments than combining solar power with more energy-efficient designs. The long-term savings, both to homeowners and to the environment, are well worth the up-front cost.

I can think of several reasons for the editorial board lobbing this insane whopper. The possibility that I favor is they have their heads so far up their asses they can’t see more obvious possibilities, such as nuclear.[6] Robert Bryce said in a talk he gave, “There has been a continuing pursuit of density, and, more particularly, power density. And yet now when it comes to energy production, we are told we should go the other way. Toward low power density…. This makes no sense. I’d call it insane but it would be an insult to crazy people.”

In an insult to crazy people, California is requiring a hella-expensive feel good virtue signal and shutting down its power-dense, carbon-free nuclear power plants and replacing them with natural gas and coal (forget the solar panels—they all make power at the same time—driving down the value of the electricity they produce.)

Insane. 

 


Footnotes

  1. No. He lies like a cheap rug. Cardboard suitcases are stronger than this case’s raison d’être. The case isn’t very strong at all. 
  2. Translation: “The fix is in.”
  3. Also known as cronyism, venture socialism, corporatism, mercantilism, or just plain horse droppings. “Unlike in a free market capitalist system, under crony capitalism it is often more profitable for businesses to spend resources lobbying legislators for handouts in the form of grants, loans, or tax advantages, and protections against competition in order to increase their profits.  In turn, the government’s willingness to hand out special privileges promotes the politically well-connected rather than those who seek to earn the preference of investors and consumers based on merit. The gains of such activities usually accrue to the businesses and politicians involved at the expense of consumers and taxpayers.” http://library.intellectualtakeout.org/library/business-and-economics/free-market-capitalism-vs-crony-capitalism
  4. See Footnote 1
  5. Imagine going to Burger King for dinner and, by law, each BK must employ 40 times the people it would normally at $15 per hour to make your meal. The result is one hellaciously expensive burger.
  6. “Of all ignorance, the ignorance of the educated is the most dangerous. Not only are educated people likely to have more influence, they are the last people to suspect that they don’t know what they are talking about when they go outside their narrow fields.”- Thomas Sowell

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Cataclysmic Climate Change

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Damn, I am pissed. I was supposed to be dead by now. Hell, we all were.

Baby-boomers weren’t supposed to live longer than their parents’ generation. Experts expected pesticides and other synthetic chemicals to kill us. We would be killed by the very technology meant to save us—hoisted with our own malathion petards.

Rachel Carson predicted dire cancer consequences from chemicals, primarily DDT, though it might have been ozone or acid rain or cooties. Who remembers? I mean if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. Right? Anyway she said:

“`No longer are exposures to dangerous chemicals occupational alone; they have entered the environment of everyone-even of children as yet unborn. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we are now aware of an alarming increase in malignant disease.” [There wasn’t–other causes of death had dropped]  She expected “practically 100 per cent of the human population to be wiped out from a cancer epidemic in one generation.” [Editor’s note: It didn’t.]

Later on, doomster Paul Ehrlich hedged:

“the U.S. life expectancy will drop to forty-two years by 1980, due to cancer epidemics.”

If the cancer didn’t kill us, according to Ehrlich, the population bomb would by causing a worldwide famine.

But wait there’s more! Because we humans were so damned greedy (present company excepted, of course) forests were being decimated; acid rain falling on the forests would obliterate what forest remained, the earth was losing species at a spectacular rate—though no one could say by how much—deserts devoured fertile land by a mile or two a year each year. Oil was predicted to dry up within a decade making the Mad Max dystopian future look like a Sunday school picnic. And, for our grand finale, the earth was entering a new ice age due to the particulates we tossed into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, thus blocking the sun’s life-giving rays.

We knew that our parents and ancestors had ruined earth for us, and in the Church of What’s Happening Now, we recited our eco-litany:

“The water is polluted and the air is worse. We’re washing away topsoil from our farmland; and what we aren’t washing away, we’re paving over. The more technology we manufacture, the less livable becomes our world. Humans produce too many babies. Our exploding population increases poverty and misery and decreases habitat for every other living thing that we share this tiny and fragile world with.”

Thanks to our parents, we had an overcrowded planet, short on food, short on oil, and global cooling would finish us off (just look at the droughts, the signs are all around us). We were completely, absolutely, and irretrievably, boned.

That was more nearly fifty years ago and we Boomers are still here.

…Well, a lot of us anyway. Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin, and Jimmy Hendrix bit it long ago. And Keith Richards may or may not be dead; who can tell?

Here is what I am getting at: Not only did humanity survive all of those apocalyptic prophecies; life is better than it has ever been.

“In general, life is better than it ever has been, and if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: ‘dentistry’”

– P.J. O’Rourke, All the Trouble in the World

And yet, Apocalypticists keep tossing up more clay pigeons to be shot down by anyone willing to do minimal research. These pigeons are foisted in the name of ‘saving the earth’s environment for coming generations,’ always call for everyone, though not themselves (see examples of diCaprio and Gore, hereafter listed as exhibits A and B), to live frugal and simple lives of less.

Interestingly, they take us for pigeons. One need only get on the mailing list of the Sierra Club, Audubon, or Friends of the Earth, to see that money is their lifeblood and they will tell you the direst or worst-case scenarios to get a transfusion of cash. This tactic doesn’t work on everybody. For instance, if you tell P. J. O’Rourke “By the end of the century, New York City could be underwater,” he will say, “Your point is?”

Catastrophic climate change appears to be the latest pigeon du jour.

Its staying power has been amazing. ‘That’s because it’s Science,’ I hear you saying.‘ So for purposes of argument, let us stipulate that anthropogenic climate change has scientific bases. I agree. I hope you do.

I will further stipulate:

  • Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas,
  • The amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is increasing,
  • The primary reason for the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the burning of fossil fuels,
  • On average, our world is warmer than it was 50 to 150 years ago,
  • Our burning of fossil fuels–thereby increasing CO2 in the atmosphere–has contributed to the warming of our atmosphere.

That, in a nutshell, is the 97% consensus. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising and we are putting most of it there and CO2 contributes to the warming of our planet (for a fascinating write-up on how we know of CO2’s rise, its fossil fuel origins, and the warming, see Brian Dunning’s explanation https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4549).

Easy peasy: throttle up CO2 in the atmosphere to make it warmer, throttle back on CO2 to cool. Kick back. Put your feet on the desk. it’s Miller Time.

Wait there’s more! There’s a whole theory on how global warming works.

Climatologist Dr. Roy Spencer has an understandable explanation at his website (http://www.drroyspencer.com/global-warming-101/). I’ll quote the parts I think are critical to this discussion.

“Global warming theory starts with the assumption that the Earth naturally maintains a constant average temperature, which is the result of a balance between (1) the amount of sunlight the Earth absorbs, and (2) the amount of emitted infrared (‘IR’) radiation that the Earth continuously emits to outer space. In other words, energy in equals energy out….As we add more CO2, more infrared energy is trapped, strengthening the Earth’s greenhouse effect. This causes a warming tendency in the lower atmosphere and at the surface….the lower atmosphere must then respond to this energy imbalance (less IR radiation being lost than solar energy being absorbed) by causing an increase in temperature (which causes an increase in the IR escaping to space) until the emitted IR radiation once again equals the amount of absorbed sunlight….”

Does CO2 control everything? No. It turns out that there are plenty more knobs and these control other stuff. In fact, according to the theory, doubling the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration causes less than one degree centigrade of surface warming (about 1 deg. F). So why the fuss? It’s all about the feedbacks, which are processes, which cool or warm the earth. For instance, evaporation occurs as the sun warms a surface of water. This water vapor may either hold heat or condense into clouds that cool the affected area by reflecting sunlight back into space. Feedbacks are the turbochargers of climate change theory. I had a turbocharged Volvo 240 GT once. It ate transmissions like Orson Welles ate Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks.

Spencer points out that, “clouds, water vapor, and precipitation systems can all be expected to respond to the warming tendency in some way, which could either amplify or reduce the manmade warming….the sum of all the feedbacks in the climate system determines what is called ‘climate sensitivity’.”

It is this climate sensitivity that settled scientists are arguing about. How do the models (and there are more climate models that Zsa Zsa had husbands) test whether they are right or not? I, and others, like the Richard Feynman method:

“In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it…Then we compute the consequences of the guess…to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature, or we…compare it directly with observations to see if it works.”

Has this been done with climate models? You bet your sweet bippy it has.

Here is a graph of 102 model runs for the tropics by Dr. John Christy. The red line is an average, and the blue circles and green squares are balloon and satellite readings. The tropics are “the key region in which climate models respond to greenhouse gas warming with a large and distinct signal.” Dr. Christy testified to congress in 2013. “The focus on the tropics is important because of the consistent and significant warming that climate models indicate should have already occurred as a result of the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases we have put into the atmosphere. It also represents a part of the global atmosphere in which the critical water vapor and cloud feedbacks have major influences. In addition, changes in this region were determined by the EPA [Ed note: EPA is the US Environmental Protection Agency] to be a key line of evidence of greenhouse gas caused climate change. Finally, the tropical atmosphere is also a huge and easy target for modeling projects to hit if the physics are well represented….The comparison shows that the very latest climate model simulations used in the IPCC Assessment released two months ago indicate that their response to CO2 on average is 2 to 5 times greater than reality.” (emphasis added)

The models are, as Bob Euchre said in Major League about Wild Thing’s first pitch, which missed the strike zone by about ten feet, “just a bit outside.”

Let’s go back to Feynman’s method: You guess. You make computations. You predict results. You compare your predictions to your observations. If the predictions do not match your observations, you are wrong. “If it disagrees with the experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with the experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

There is another method and it’s the one that is apparently in vogue (meaning it’s popular, not that it has a spread in the magazine Vogue). It relies on multiple runs of the models. Dr. Kerry Emanuel is a proponent, so he can explain it better than I can.

“[We] have built over the years a hierarchy of increasingly complex models that really are some of the most complicated pieces of software that the human race has ever constructed. They have their origins in models that were built for a much more pedestrian but important purpose, which is weather forecasting. And they are very complex. In the case of weather forecasting, arguably you can test them twice a day and see how well they are doing. With climate, it’s much more difficult to test them because we don’t have that many climate states….We try to hold certain variables constant, like sunlight. And vary another external factor, like carbon dioxide, to see how the system responds….[These] models are not just run once. They are run many times, to try to account for their own internal random variability. And you can find 15, 20, 25 year stretches in all of these projections where the temperature not only flattens out but it actually goes down a little bit. So, if you take the ensemble mean, then it’s correct that the last 30 years, the models have overpredicted the temperature. I might add that 30 years before that, they underpredicted it. And this is what happens when you superimpose natural variability on forced variability.” (http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2014/03/john_christy_an.html)

I encourage you to listen to the whole EconTalk podcast. I came away almost liking Kerry Emanuel. He came across as a decent guy. My take away message for his view that global warming was a threat was that it was a feeling and not one he could produce much evidence for.

My experience is that models can be wonderful tools, but they always, always, always, have to be compared to the observed results. Without feedback from the real world, to refine their designs, the computer models are just mathematical magic eight balls: giving answers down to the ten thousandth decimal point but lacking any accuracy. The climate models are “just a bit outside.”

And to circle back to where I started, they are being used once again, to predict doom to the human race in the not too distant future. To scare us into giving up, repenting for our sins of hubris, thinking we could be like gods, and turning back.

Many [people, even those with digital watches,] were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake coming down from the trees in the first place, and some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no-one should ever have left the oceans.

— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Catastrophic Climate Change is another example of the Precautionary Principle—“don’t try anything new, it might be dangerous.” It’s just another clown in the Rodeo of the Apocalypse.

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The Cost of Coal

A recent tweet trumpeted a report that 250,000 Chinese died in 2013 due to smog from coal (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/12/china-coal-emissions-smog-deaths). The report on the deaths came partly from Greenpeace, of course.

The 5,354 MW Belchatów Power Station in Poland – one of the world’s largest coal fired power stations. Photo credit: Wikipedia

There is little question that coal is dangerous. It is dangerous to mine. Its emissions are a problem; coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. Yet coal is cheap, abundant, and the demand for it is vast. As Justin Lin wrote in 2009 on the World Bank’s blog:

There are roughly 1.6 billion people in developing countries–700 million of whom are in Africa and 550 million in South Asia–who lack access to electricity. Because coal is often cheap and abundant, and the need for electricity is so great, coal plants are going to be built with or without our [World Bank] support.

The question that should spring  to everyone’s mind is “how many died in China from cold or indoor pollution before the electrification that the coal plant brought with it?” The Manichaeistic, black/white premise of something being all good (e.g., Renewable Energy) or all bad (e.g., Fossil Fuel) is at best, uncritical thinking, and at worst, lying.

Greenpeace, the report’s author, is of course fretting about climate change, and its answer is to turn back the clock. I am a luke-warmer in regards to climate change; I think the climate is much less sensitive to greenhouse gases than the Global Climate Models (GCM) that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest. But even a full-throated supporter of climate change, such as Mark Lynas, sees the need for coal in places such as China and India:

The costs of poverty – which includes millions of preventable deaths of young children, lack of access to water and sanitation, reduced livelihood prospects, large-scale hunger and malnutrition, and so on… are clearly much greater than the direct costs of coal burning, and this equation probably still holds even when the future damages from climate change are factored in. – Mark Lynas, 2014, India’s coal conundrum

To be clear, the possible deaths of people due to the burning of coal are regrettable. Scrubbers would ameliorate the particulates that cause the health problems; as China and India get richer their people will become more vocal in their calls for cleaner air. At the moment, jobs, cleaner drinking water, sanitation, and food on the table appear to be of greater importance.

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