Solar panels failing after six years

Why let the amateurs at the power company generate and deliver power in exchange for a monthly subscription fee when you can go into the power generation business yourself?

A local friend (and MIT PhD in EECS!) put solar panels on his roof six years ago, responding to the massive government handouts on offer at the time (thanks, fellow Massachusetts taxpayers!). Roughly half of the panels have now failed, casualties of squirrels, UV light, etc.

Given the rising cost of labor (a bundle of wages and health care expenses), will it turn out that America’s big rooftop solar experiment was a colossal failure from a total lifecycle cost perspective?

Already it seems to me that single-family homes are unaffordable for a typical family because the cost and challenge of bringing contractors in to maintain all of the systems has been growing every year. Adding an electricity generation plant on the roof makes this problem worse.

Related:

Full post, including comments

If you build it, the cars will come…

Boston traffic, 9:26 on a typical weekday morning, going into the Central Artery, the result of the $15 billion Big Dig:

Bostonians generally say, of the project, “It was expensive, but worth it.” They cite the improved aesthetics of downtown, even if travel times are now actually worse (see “The worst gridlock in the US is right here in Boston,” Boston Globe 2019, for example). I’ve never heard anyone note that we didn’t pay for the project and therefore it is no surprise that we are happy with the result. If the Feds taxed citizens of Indiana and used the money to buy us all Teslas we would certainly say “Even at $120,000 per Tesla X, that was a great value.”

I entered the above traffic jam just as I was coming from a meeting at a charter (public) school. They’re trying to construct a building for about 500 learners. Most of their students are from families on welfare and therefore the proposed location is in one of Boston’s lowest income neighborhoods. Nonetheless, neighborhood groups are opposed to the school, citing concerns over traffic congestion. (Any seed of local opposition gets enormous financial support from the Boston Teacher’s Union, the charter school folks said.)

Separately, here’s the traffic picture from a recent Easter Sunday at lunchtime. I had expected traffic to be lighter than usual, since folks would be settled in with family and carving the ham, but the highways were jammed.

San Francisco edition, from a Facebook friend who works early morning nursing shifts:

Related:

  • https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2006/04/02/personal-solution-to-traffic-jams-motorhome-and-driver/ : “Plenty of rich folks in California, however, do spend more than $100,000 on a car. And during this past week they get onto the highways blocked off by civil unrest and demonstrations against restrictions on illegal immigration. What would be an intelligent way to spend serious $$ on ground transportation? How about a $120,000 diesel-powered 40′ motorhome? It wouldn’t be as much fun to drive as a BMW M5 and it would certainly be difficult to park in the city. You solve both problems by hiring an illegal immigrant to act as your driver. You send him to schoolbus driver school for a few days and let him sleep on the fold-out dinette in the RV at night. Now when you go to the beach, it will still take the same two hours at 5 mph on the clogged freeways that it always took, but you won’t care because you’ll be at home. You can read in an easy chair. You can do some writing at the dinette table or refer to your files. You can make phone calls and take notes. You can watch TV. With a mobile phone data connection, you can use the Internet. You can take a nap in the bedroom in the back. If you get hungry, you can fix yourself a grilled cheese sandwich in the kitchen. You’re at home in your second house, so waiting for friends or traffic jams isn’t anywhere near as annoying as it would be if you were in a car.” (The post from 13 years ago was about Los Angeles, but I think it shows that every social issue that affects California eventually disperses to the rest of the U.S.!)
Full post, including comments

American creativity

“How Luxury Developers Use a Loophole to Build Soaring Towers for the Ultrarich in N.Y.” (nytimes):

Some of the tallest residential buildings in the world soar above Central Park, including 432 Park Avenue, which rises 1,400 feet and features an array of penthouses and apartments for the ultrarich.

But 432 Park also has an increasingly common feature in these new towers: swaths of unoccupied space. About a quarter of its 88 floors will have no homes because they are filled with structural and mechanical equipment.

Many of these towers stay vacant most of the year, so their owners are not subject to local and state income taxes because they are not city residents.

This ties in nicely with “Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same” (Bloomberg):

Los Angeles architect Tim Smith was sitting on a Hawaiian beach, reading through the latest building code, as one does, when he noticed that it classified wood treated with fire retardant as noncombustible. That made wood eligible, he realized, for a building category—originally known as “ordinary masonry construction” but long since amended to require only that outer walls be made entirely of noncombustible material—that allowed for five stories with sprinklers.

By putting five wood stories over a one-story concrete podium and covering more of the one-acre lot than a high-rise could fill, Smith figured out how to get the 100 apartments at 60 percent to 70 percent of the cost.

the buildings have proved highly flammable before the sprinklers and walls go in. Dozens of major fires have broken out at mid-rise construction sites over the past five years. Of the 13 U.S. blazes that resulted in damages of $20 million or more in 2017, according to the National Fire Protection Association, six were at wood-frame apartment buildings under construction.

These are definitely some of our smartest citizens!

Full post, including comments

New Yorkers figure out the best place to park millions of immigrants…

… and it turns out that the answer is not “New York.”

From the virtuous Editorial Board of the New York Times, “California Has a Housing Crisis. The Answer Is More Housing.”:

California finally is beginning to consider solutions to its housing crisis that are on the same scale as the problem.

The state is desperately in need of more housing. Home prices are the highest in the continental United States, and population growth continues to outstrip construction.

The city of Los Angeles calculates that 43 percent of its developable land would be opened to higher-density development. For wealthy cities like Palo Alto, the Silicon Valley community that abuts Stanford University, the legislation could increase permissible density virtually everywhere. Palo Alto has two commuter rail stations, but like much of suburban California, it has long resisted construction of anything but detached, single-family homes.

The state’s population continues to grow; the question confronting policymakers is where to put those people.

Did they forget about quality of life? That a resident of Los Angeles might spend five hours per day commuting through traffic jams? That California city-dwellers might have to travel for 30 minutes or more to find a green park? The existing Blade Runner-type crowding is acknowledged, but it turns out to be a good thing for Mother Earth:

The bill also is a necessary piece of the response to another crisis: climate change. Cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles — landscapes of tall buildings, concrete and traffic-clogged streets — are the most environmentally friendly places for human life on earth. The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has calculated that the residents of California’s core cities use about one-fourth less carbon per year than the residents of the surrounding suburbs. Better yet, the residents of California’s cities use less carbon than the residents of any other large American cities because the temperate climate limits the use of air-conditioning and heating.

It is time to rewrite the rules: The solution to California’s housing crisis is more housing.

(Do we believe this? These “are the most environmentally friendly places for human life on earth”? A resident of Los Angeles generates less CO2 than someone who lives in Ethiopia or Madagascar? (Wikipedia per-capita CO2 emissions) Or maybe they are saving the planet by sending healing vibes?)

Readers: Does it show a lack of self-awareness to publish something like this? Saying that people on the other side of the country need to suck it up and wait a few more hours in traffic every week for the good of Planet Earth?

Full post, including comments

Malthus was right, but it is real estate, not food, that is limiting?

From my 2008 post about A Farewell to Alms:

[economics professor Gregory] Clark starts with a defense of Malthus. In most societies at most times in human history, Malthus was right. The population expanded until everyone was living at a subsistence level. Given an improvement in technology or health care the long-term result was not that people on average had an improved standard of living, but rather a population of increased size living at an even lower material standard. You had to be robust in filthy Europe to survive infections, but even an underfed weakling was relatively safe from disease in hygienic Japan and China. The consequence was that China and Japan were more densely populated and strikingly poor by European standards right up to the Industrial Revolution.

Population growth combined with personal income growth is an anomaly, according to Malthus and Clark. The U.S. population has been growing steadily in recent years and our average inhabitant is no better educated than before. Politicians stand up and angrily ask why average personal income hasn’t grown. The real question is why average personal income hasn’t shrunk.

The past 100 years hasn’t fit Malthus well, perhaps due to the Green Revolution and tapping into fossil fuels on an industrial scale for the first time. But maybe Malthus is being proved right by the real estate market?

As noted previously here, a friend said that his daughter was “making a ton of money” at Goldman. It then transpired that the young woman couldn’t afford an apartment on her own, even spending half of her after-tax income. The “ton of money” was entirely captured by Manhattan landlords, reducing the young lady to the same standard of living as an entry-level office worker in Manhattan circa 1960.

“Affordable Housing Crisis Spreads Throughout World” (WSJ, April 2, 2019):

Across 32 major cities around the world, real home prices on average grew 24% over the last five years, while average real income grew by only 8% over the same period, according to Knight Frank, a London-based real-estate consulting firm. Economists say it is striking that affordability has worsened even during a period of global prosperity over the last six years. But income growth has been unable to keep pace with a rapid run-up in home prices.

Americans often blame local policies, e.g., zoning regulations, for the inability of today’s median-income urban residents (among a population of 330 million) to afford what would have been considered a normal-sized apartment back in 1970 (U.S. population 205 million). But the WSJ article shows that the trend is consistent almost everywhere in the world. Tokyo is a notable exception, which the authors attribute to a free market in housing (why not to the lack of Malthusian population growth? Japan has roughly the same number people today compared to 30 years ago).

Readers: What do you think? In 1910, Haber and Bosch came up with a clever trick for a dramatic boost in agricultural production. So it looked like Malthus was wrong. But there haven’t been any clever tricks for boosting the production of housing, so we’ll have 8 well-fed urbanites sharing a 2BR apartment originally built to accommodate 1-2 people. Can we rely on robots to get us out of this? Human population can expand exponentially while maintaining a high standard of living because solar-powered robots will be able to build residential skyscrapers at ridiculously low prices?

Related:

Full post, including comments

City rebuilding costs from the Halifax explosion

Catching up on 2017 must-reads for Bostonians, I recently enjoyed The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon.

The main story is familiar, but worth retelling.

All explosives require two components: a fuel and an “oxidizer,” usually oxygen. How destructive an explosive is depends largely on how quickly those two combine. With “low explosives,” like propane, gasoline, and gunpowder, it’s necessary to add oxygen to ignite them and keep them burning. If a fire runs out of oxygen, it dies. Another factor is speed. The rate of the chemical reaction, or decomposition, of low explosives is less than the speed of sound, or 767 miles per hour. In contrast, a “high explosive” combines the fuel and the oxidant in a single molecule, making each one a self-contained bomb, with everything it needs to create the explosion. To ignite, a high explosive usually requires only extreme heat or a solid bump. Once started, the dominoes fall very quickly, ripping through the explosive material faster than the speed of sound.

“She had a devil’s brew aboard,” Raddall states of the Mont-Blanc, a perfect combination of catalysts, fuel, and firepower. The ship’s manifest included 62 tons of gun cotton, 250 tons of TNT, and 2,366 tons of picric acid, the least understood of the chemicals on board, but the most dangerous.

After the shipwrights had so carefully built the magazines, hermetically sealing each compartment, and the stevedores had packed it all systematically, the French government agent operating out of Gravesend Bay received a last-minute order from his superiors in France to pack what little space remained on Mont Blanc with urgently needed benzol, an unusually volatile fuel, the latest “super gasoline.” The stevedores followed orders, swinging 494 barrels containing 246 tons of the highly combustible accelerant into a few unused spaces belowdecks, on the foredeck, and at the stern, where they stacked the fuel three and four barrels high and lashed it with canvas straps, a somewhat slapdash approach compared to the thoroughness with which the shipwrights had built the magazines. When the crew walked past the drums on deck, they could smell the unmistakable reek of the benzol. With the final addition of the benzol, Mont Blanc now carried an impressive array of the most dangerous chemicals known to man at that time. While benzol can’t match the pure power of gun cotton, TNT, or picric acid—all high explosives—what the stevedores probably didn’t know when they stacked the barrels of benzol on deck was that the airplane fuel needed only a spark to ignite, while picric acid doesn’t explode until it reaches 572 degrees Fahrenheit, and TNT does not detonate until it reaches 1,000 degrees. But by making the last-minute decision to store most of the fuel on the deck and the TNT and picric acid below, the crew had unwittingly constructed the perfect bomb, with the easy-to-light fuse on top, and the most explosive materials trapped in the hold below.

Canada had a much larger stake in the war than did the U.S.:

Halifax sent 6,000 sons to the Great War, roughly a quarter of its male population. It seemed almost every home had sent a brother, a husband, a father, or a son. The Great War drained the town of its able-bodied young men and left behind women, boys, girls, and men too old or infirm to fight.

One question worth pondering is why more people didn’t chicken out and escape to the U.S. They knew what the trenches were going to be like:

When fresh recruits got to Halifax, they frequently made a beeline for any place that sold alcohol, where they met soldiers who had been recently discharged, were on leave, or were about to head back to the trenches. They told the recruits stories so horrifying that they might have been tempted to think they were exaggerating. The experienced soldiers knew the average infantryman lasted only three months before getting wounded or killed, so they were determined to make the most of their time on the safe side of the Atlantic. Their hard-earned fatalism fostered a devil-may-care disposition and all the elements that came with it, including scores of prostitutes from across Canada and bootleggers so fearless that they set up shop in the downtown YMCA—which was probably not what the YMCA’s benefactor, Titanic victim George Wright, had had in mind when he wrote his will. During the war years, Halifax experienced a spike in venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births. Local orphanages had to expand.

The Mont-Blanc makes it from New York to Halifax without incident, but before the sailors can go to the YMCA for a drink, there is a low-speed collision with another ship. The author describes the impact that resulted in the explosion as entirely the fault of the Imo‘s captain and pilot (see Wikipedia for a quick summary, but I highly recommend this part of the book). More than 10,000 people were killed or wounded. The book covers this staggering tragedy, but this post is about the physical destruction and the estimated cost of rebuilding:

The explosion destroyed 1,630 buildings and damaged 12,000 more, leaving some 25,000, almost half the population of Halifax-Dartmouth, without adequate housing and dangerously exposed to the elements.

After the fires had been extinguished and the wounded tended to, Colonel Robert S. Low assembled an army of carpenters, masons, plumbers, and electricians to rebuild the city, which had incurred more than $35 million in damages in 1917 U.S. dollars, or $728 million today.

It cost only $728 million to rebuild a whole section of a city. Our town will soon spend $110 million to renovate/rebuild a school that can hold only about 600 students. I talked with a guy recently who is involved in a $1.5 billion project to create 2,700 “affordable” apartments here in the Charlestown section of Boston (story). That’s $555,555 per apartment (less than 1,000 square feet on average) on land provided for free (city already has a housing project on the same footprint). Presumably these will be higher quality than whatever was built in Halifax in 1918.

[Note: poor people who are selected by the housing ministry to move into one of these apartments would actually be rich almost anywhere else in the world if they could only get their hands on the $555,555 capital cost as a direct grant instead of as an in-kind service! If they could also get their hands on the monthly operating cost and combine that with interest on the $555,555 they would be able to enjoy, without working, a middle class or better lifestyle in many of the world’s beach destinations.

How about folks who work at the median wage? That’s about $23/hour in Massachusetts (BLS) or $46,000 per year. NerdWallet says that someone earning this much in MA can afford a $258,500 house if he or she has saved $60,000 for a down payment, has a top credit score, and spends $0/month on food and other non-housing expenses. Zillow says $274,416 on a nationwide basis. So a dual-income couple in which both partners earn the median wage wouldn’t be able to afford one of these units without a taxpayer subsidy, even if landed were free and the unit were sold at zero-profit construction cost. The U.S. has apparently become a society in which Americans can’t afford to live like Americans!]

Maybe costs are lower up in Canada? Yes, but only a little:

Instead of drifting back into another long sleepwalk, Halifax has been accelerating, spending $11.5 million in 1955 to build its first bridge across the channel, another $31 million to build the second, right over the Narrows, and another $207 million in 2015 to raise the first bridge a few meters so container ships could get all the way to a dock in Bedford Basin. The city has spent $350 million to build a boardwalk along the bay and $57 million for a shiny new library downtown, an architectural centerpiece CNN judged to be the ninth most beautiful library in the world.

How about some other costs? A survivor of the explosion gets “$100 to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1919”. That’s $1,500 in today’s money, less than 1/30th of current tuition. He marries an American (same word “marriage” used, but really a different activity in those days before no-fault divorce):

Shortly after that invitation, Barss asked Helen to marry him. She said yes, but asked him to keep it between them until February, “so that if either of us wanted to get out of the deal, no one would be hurt.” Further, if Barss’s professors found out he was getting married, which med school students were forbidden to do, he could be expelled. “My father liked Joe & asked if he were a Republican or a Democrat,” Helen wrote. “He said he was a Canadian and voted for the man—Father said ‘If you ever live here and have anything or hope to have anything, you’ll be a Republican in self defense.’

Maybe it is good that this guy died before Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed their latest tax plans!

I found the numbers in the book sobering. If we wear down the infrastructure that we have or if perhaps it is destroyed for some reason, it doesn’t seem as though we could afford to rebuild it.

More: Read The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism

Related:

Full post, including comments

Now that the road network is useless, why aren’t subway system operators rich?

The other day I had to be in downtown Boston for a 9:00 am meeting. Our road network melted down circa 2005 and there is no way to know if a 20-mile trip from the suburbs will take 45 minutes, 1.5 hours or longer.

I decided to do the 15-minute drive to the Alewife parking garage, which required about 40 minutes when started at 7:30 am. As there was no way to know how long the next phase of the journey would be and I was going to fortify myself with a Dunkins coffee (sold right in the station, unlike other transit systems that try to discourage eating/drinking), it seemed a prudent time to use the restroom in the massive building (replacement cost $200 million?):

Note that at least one plumbing fixture and the only soap dispenser are missing.

This is where the trains start so I was able to get on and find a seat. At the first stop, Davis Square, enough people got on to completely fill the car:

Nobody could get on at Porter, Harvard, or Central. Only after some biotech slaves go out to stream into the new towers of Kendall Square did the train have enough room to accommodate folks waiting on the platforms. (I later learned that the pro tip for those commuting in from Porter or Harvard is to head outbound to Alewife first and then come inbound.)

I made it to my destination on time and was wrapped in an atmosphere of comparative calm:

(Of course, I criticized them for their cisgender-normative prejudice in assuming that it is only “mothers” who might want to use a room for feeding babies. See “Breastfeeding as a trans dad: ‘A baby doesn’t know what your pronouns are’” (Guardian), for example.)

As the monopoly owner of the only means of reasonably fast and reasonably reliable transport between 7 am and 7:30 pm in the Boston area, I would expect that the MBTA’s financial condition would improve every year as the roads deteriorate. Shouldn’t they be able to extract huge $$ from desperate riders? If they want to preserve the low-cost-but-can’t-get-on-the-train option they can do that at the current fare ($2.25 or $2.75 depending on how it is paid for; see https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/01/09/our-local-public-transit-system-spends-more-than-a-year-of-revenue-on-cash-registers/). But they could also run VIP trains in between that cost $10/ride.

Subjectively it seems as though the trains are packed to the point where they couldn’t get a single additional rider on. Yet, from November 2018: “T notes: Ridership, even at peak times on Red Line, continues to decline”. Maybe they are running fewer trains per hour?

Readers: How is it possible that a system that has an amazing irreplaceable paid-for-100-years-ago asset (the tunnels) can’t be profitable in an environment of ever-worsening surface traffic jams?

Related:

Full post, including comments

New York City without Amazon

I’m just back from working with a team at an 850-lawyer firm (as an expert witness in a software and hardware patent infringement case). Despite the top pay, none of the associates were able to afford living in Manhattan. Most lived in New Jersey and would cross the Hudson River by train or bus every day. An associate who lived in Jersey City said that a PATH train on at least one line came approximately every four minutes and that he could take either line to get to work. Awesome, right? “I usually can’t get on, though,” he said. “The trains are already full when they get to Jersey City so there is at most room for 3 additional passengers.”

Given his experience of infrastructure pushed to its capacity limit, of course I couldn’t resist asking what he thought about migration and population growth. He said that he was “neutral” and had no opinion on the merits of expanded immigration.

Crosstown traffic was predictably horrific and made worse by construction. The city definitely needs an Elon Musk tunnel every five blocks.

Starbucks was packed at 9 am in Midtown, with 50+ people in line at both the Starbucks and the Starbucks across the street from the Starbucks. Maybe this is a peak hour phenomenon? Every retailer in New York could make money with a coffee robot in the corner, assuming that the quality were guaranteed consistent?

I am not sure that the packed-like-sardines public transit riders of NYC will mourn the loss of Amazon HQ2!

Full post, including comments