Cabbage Patch iPad

26 04 2011

The thing that pushed me over the edge this week was a fine blog  post by Elisa Wood.  My comment was that Gavin Newsom’s list of jobs created by resources including coal, nuclear, wind, solar, and EE, does not include return on investment.  Only EE has return on investment for the end user.  All other sources cost the end user, not save the end user money.  But this is not the topic of the day.

I am not a tech geek.  I just want things that are stable, reliable, and relatively fast and snappy.  I will pay for it.  I have long been out of college and therefore, time is scarcer than money so just give me something “fast” and reliable and I’ll gladly pay for it.

I also do not need, and in fact I do not want the latest and greatest thing.  Take Microsoft, which hasn’t had any substantial improvement to the Office suite for ten years – since they added the right-click menus.  It has become more stable and reliable in the past 15 years as reports we wrote used to become corrupted out of the blue and you couldn’t open them ever again.  Congratulations for this achievement!

I am not a Microsoft basher but I don’t think they have innovated (if I may use that as a verb) hardly a single thing.  Operating systems with graphical interfaces, mice, spreadsheets, word processors, web browsers, databases, and you name it; they didn’t develop any of these things and they comprise their bulk of gazillions in revenue and profit.  Microsoft is good at taking others’ ideas and packaging and marketing them, creating monopolies and crushing any competitors, or simply buying them out.  Like I said, I’m no Microsoft basher.

Apple on the other hand has been a major innovator with the Mac, Mac operating system, the iPod, and then really, really with the iPhone.  When the iPhone first came out, I thought “what is the big deal?”  It doesn’t even have buttons.  Then I experienced it as we work with clients who use them exclusively.  I look at my Microsoft kludge of a phone (again Microsoft following, not innovating) and think, wow, the iPhone is about 100x better.  (I now have a Motorola Droid which in many ways is better than the iPhone if you ask me, so my tech world is whole again)

At an AESP conference, I was fortunate to win an iPod touch, which is essentially the iPhone without the phone.  Other AESP-drawing winners of GPSs wanted to trade and I said get lost.  I’m giving this to my wife to replace her crappy iPod wannabee.  The iPod touch gave me hands-on experience with greatness.

Apple has built such a cult following that if they introduced a turntable, the iTable, people would camp out for a week just to be the first to get their hands on one of these 1960s makeovers.  They have already done this – it’s called the iPad.  It’s a ridiculous widget.  Why is it ridiculous, Jeff?

First, because it isn’t a serious business tool (yes, I will get to the consumer thing later).  Thinking we could use one of these possibly for field work surveys, I asked one of our iEverything business partners what he thought of this.  He said, no, it isn’t going to do well with spreadsheets or databases, if they can even be used at all.  It doesn’t even have ports like a USB connection for goodness sake.

Second, I was on a plane headed for somewhere sitting next to a guy watching a movie on an iPad.  I enlightened him by saying, “You know, they make these things that have a convenient platform to prop the screen up reliably for hands free movie watching.  You could just sit it on your tray and sit back and enjoy the movie.  It’s called a laptop computer.”

It’s a large version of a phone without the phone.  It’s a small computer with no capability.

Perhaps most ridiculous, I recall an article in The Wall Street Journal covering the various ways iPad owners can transport their iPads.  One solution was like a fanny pack with a big pouch in which you would carry the iPad along the small of your back.  Good grief!  Don’t use a computer bag.  That would reveal the stupidity of this device.

Conclusion: It’s a clunky, slippery, doohickey that is too large for your pocket, to small for a computer, and you can do little productive work with it.  The second conclusion is, Steve Jobs is a genius for generating a brand that will get people to buy anything with an i in front of it, by the hundreds of millions.

How do we do this with energy efficiency?  It has to have a strong element of “look at how great and cool I am”.  I suggest a web-based application that shows how rich you are becoming, in real time, as a result of your EE genius.  In one pane it would mimic a bank teller slapping down dollar bills as you stuff them in your wallet.  Once you accumulate a bulging wallet full of bills you trade them in for a hundred dollar bill.  You let the hundreds pile up on the counter.  After a while you swap currency for gold bullion and that starts stacking up on the counter.

In another pane you have a lot full of Prius and electric vehicles with dead batteries in front of a big box store called “Renewables R Us”.  As you accumulate enough savings and equivalent emissions of these cars / energy sources, King Kong circa 1976 walks onto the scene thumping his chest and roaring.  He picks up an electric vehicle and tucks it under his harm like a football and stomps off, maybe stepping on a couple screaming shoppers making their way to the store as they drop their iPads.  This would represent the equivalent Priuses taken off the road. Next time, Kong comes by but this time tripping on a Prius and falling face first crushing a dozen Nissan Leafs.  After doing the ceremonial thump and roar, he rips a solar panel off the roof and throws it across town, like the subway cars in the movie… followed by stomping off and squashing a few more shoppers.

The app should be exclusive to new chosen makes and models of devices and they are provided by the EE program as part of the incentive.  The devices are sleek and unique so everyone knows, that guy is cool and smart.  The devices would have functionality of iPods, phones, and laptops so they aren’t just a worthless status symbol.

So the next time you are sitting at the gate or in cattle class, your device is screaming – “look at how cool I am” while the inferior, insecure me-too stooge is gawking on, thinking, “Man that guy has some device!”

Copyright 2011


As gasoline prices are clicking past $4 across the country, citizens are crying to the feds to do something.  So what are both the President and Speaker talking about?  Eliminate subsidies for oil companies – as though this will bring down prices!  Again, politics rather than logic rule in Washington.  Prices are high and therefore the oil companies must be punished and somehow reducing profit will lower prices.  Good Grief! – popular with the lemmings but thinkers know better.

P.S.  I believe the “subsidies” they are talking about are tax breaks for depleting wells, which sounds to me like depreciation for assets of depleting value – like our office furniture and computers.  Anyway, let me say that subsidies should go, across the board, but office furniture and computers are the price of doing business and obviously affect profit so depreciation isn’t a subsidy, unless you’re a political hack.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Wind Energy and the Utility Business Model

20 04 2010

The masses want power on demand without interruption or failure.  They want it at a practically negligible cost and more so every year, they want it without emissions or other unpleasant byproducts.

In the upper Midwest, energy without emissions means wind energy.  Wind energy sounds great.  It’s “free”.  No emissions.  But it comes with a load of drawbacks compared to conventional sources of coal, nuclear, and natural gas.

First, utilities can’t count on it for peak load generation.  I searched a while for this and found nothing but the bottom line is there is no guarantee there will be any generating capacity from wind on a peak summer day.  Therefore, wind generation offsets zero conventional generating capacity.  It is essentially like buying an electric car for lower emissions but you have to keep your conventional gasoline-powered car for longer trips.

Second, wind generation is expensive.  At a cost of about $2,000 per kW nameplate generating capacity it is very similar to a coal-fired plant.  However, a quick analysis with a reliable online calculator indicates that the capacity factor, which is the average percent output of the turbine, is only about 30%.  (the wind doesn’t always blow 48 miles per hour)  This puts the installed cost of wind generation near triple the cost of conventional coal generation.

Third, the cost of wind energy doesn’t end with the fifty by seven foot deep wad of concrete supporting each turbine.  Wind farms are far from Midwest population centers because that’s where the wind blows and this puts them out of site of the people who want it but don’t want to look at it (or pay for it).  This requires substantial transmission costs with substations to step up voltage and transmission lines that run a minimum of $1 million per mile of transport – and this is for building transmission lines on farmland where it’s physically easy to do and there are no lawsuits because people in these areas have better things to do than file lawsuits to stop transmission construction.

Fourth, on average the wind blows the least when it is needed the most, in July and August.  On average, turbines deliver roughly half the energy in July and August compared to the winter months.

When these unpleasant facts are factored in, wind generation benefits boil down to eliminating fuel costs, which are a tiny fraction of conventional generation, and no emissions or other waste products.

What brings this to mind is this article recently published by the Cedar Rapids Gazette.  Alliant Energy / Interstate Power and Light has a rate case pending for a 14% rate increase to pay for the added wind generation capacity and the installation of a $188 million nitrogen oxides and mercury scrubbing system for their old Lansing plant.

One guy comments, “but I just don’t understand why you expect us as customers to pay for all these upgrades — the wind farm, all your safety upgrades and so on.”  Well who else is going to pay for them?  It isn’t going to come out of shareholders’ hides.  Utilities don’t build this stuff to make more money!

Utilities are fully regulated monopolies in Iowa and many other states.  Their ability to grow revenue and earnings is very limited.  Essentially, it is limited to load growth within service territory by existing buildings and by attracting new business with new facilities to their service territory.  In exchange for having a captive customer base, regulators, in this case the Iowa Utilities Board must approve changes in rates, which essentially translates directly to regulating profit.

Wind power and pollution controls cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars but add virtually no revenue or profit.  These upgrades wouldn’t occur but for public pressure and policy coming out of Des Moines and other state and federal capitols.

These expenses can’t come out of earnings because utilities need to raise capital to pay for this stuff.  To raise capital, they have to offer a competitive rate of return commensurate with the risk involved; thus, the rate case for higher prices.

Like Tom Aller, President of Interstate Power and Light, I am not denigrating or advocating green power and moratoriums on building conventional generating facilities.  The public just needs to know this stuff adds a lot of operating cost and the business model of utilities requires rate increases to fund these things.  If customers don’t like it, they better get involved in the political process and not let the Sierra Club have a monopoly of political ears.

By the way, the reason environmental organizations like Sierra Club are a big turn off to me is they are often political first and environmentalists second.  They are opposed to this rate increase.  Why?  Their mission is “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.”  I don’t see anything in there about controlling income in the private sector.  Moreover, the guy’s statement flies in the face of their mission statement anyway.  Higher prices mean less energy consumption, so why is he opposed?  Could it be… politics?  Or is he a “do as I say, not as I do” greenie?

What’s the Game?

1 12 2009

Hypothetical:  Our company has about 40 employees.  We’re going to split into 4 teams and have a tournament.  What’s the game?  We have cyclists, runners, a guy who thinks he can play golf, a guy who throws hammer but not when I’m around, skiers, people who fish, people who hunt, play cards, Sudoku, video games, Frisbee golf, and play board games.  We’ve played softball games (poorly) when the economy was good.

We have people who were born when I was in college.  We have people who were in college before I was in the first grade.  Female, male, burley, squirrelly, short, tall, and I’ll just leave it at that.

What’s the game?  Downhill skiing?  A century bike ride?  Marathon?  Pinochle?  Trapshooting?  Ice hockey?  Mini-golf?  Bumper cars?  Crossword puzzles?  Pong?

Have you figured it out yet?

I’m talking about cap and trade.  What are the rules and which companies and individuals are going to benefit and who is going to get creamed?  How on earth can this be developed equitably?  For years I’ve been proclaiming that when this bill is debated, it will be the mother of all lobbying efforts.  Yes there are bills already out there.  I spent 2-3 hours browsing Waxman-Markey until I was on the cusp of a seizure.  If you dare: I read peoples’ synopses of the bill and those aren’t clear either and they tend to be all over the place.  Regardless, this thing won’t go into law as written anyway.  There are other competing bills.  Whatever we end up with, if anything, will be “lobbied up” beyond recognition.

How does the game start?  Apparently, a large portion of the credits would be given away with a few being auctioned off by the government.  Do the freebies get distributed to the companies with the best and highest paid lawyers and lobbyists?  (the answer, at least in part is, for sure)  Does everyone get credits according to the trailing year’s energy consumption?  What about the misers who are already very efficient?  What about companies that have a legacy of spewing lots of emissions and are on the verge of building or buying a bunch of new plants or efficient equipment (such as certain utilities that tend to favor it)?  Will they get hit with a windfall profits tax?  Can I just take my money I’ve made with my manufacturing plant and quit and sell my freebie allotment on the “free market”?

Let’s get back to the portion that will be auctioned.  The energy market is very inelastic; that is, consumption changes little with price in the short term.  Sales of things that are necessities such as energy have little dependence on price.  For example, there is practically no relationship between gasoline prices and consumption.  When prices are high people keep driving, complain, and have less money to spend on other things.  Therefore, I would surmise that this auctioned portion is going to cost A LOT.  The EPA projects credits will cost $11-$15 per ton to begin with.  This is on the order of a penny per kWh – maybe 10% of energy cost.  This is either (1) not going to move companies to do much for energy efficiency or (2) at a more likely much higher cost, move companies to do something.  Something will include some combination of energy efficiency, raising prices on products and services, or offshoring to some “rogue” country like China or Mexico that has no cap and trade.

My interpretation from Waxman-Markey is that cap and trade applies to major energy users and distributers only, as far as I can tell: electric and gas utilities, petroleum, chemical, cement, silicon, aluminum, and other very energy intensive industries.  It seems to me if we wanted an effective “market based” solution, this would apply everywhere carbon is consumed.  What are electric and gas utilities going to do to reduce carbon?  Electric utilities will move away from carbon fuels over time – renewable, and realistically nuclear.  Gas utilities will… Gas utilities will… Sorry gas utilities.  Your days are apparently numbered.

Cap and trade sounds great because it sounds like a “market based solution” to reducing greenhouse gasses.  It reminds me of when we were considering designing and building a new office building for our company.  It was all fun and interesting until the hard reality of finding a decent place to build in or near downtown.  My guess is this dreamy cap and trade idea will hit a brick wall when it comes time to set up the game and rules.  I would suggest a different and more reasonable and realistic approach.  Next Time.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP