Tuesday, June 12, 2012

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

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There was an article in my local dead tree paper a while back which brought that to my mind. In keeping with good journalistic practice, I invited one of the parties quoted to respond to what I thought was a very simple question. Having received no response, I will let you draw your own conclusions, along with me, as to the veracity of those statements.

The story was a "puff piece". It was not part of any breaking story, merely a down home look at the "wizbang, golly jeeper" happenings around our fair city*.

"(Catherine)Kearney's Nissan Leaf is refueled each day while it sits in a parking spot near her desk at the San Joaquin County Office of Education, which recently installed five charging stations for plug-in electric vehicles. They are among the first free public chargers in the county."
There's that "free" word. Now, were I a big city reporter and not just a lowly blogger, I might have asked a few questions. Maybe something along the lines of "Exactly how much did these stations cost?" or "In tough economic times when there are school cutbacks and teacher layoffs, which part of the county Office of Education budget did this come out of?" and, "Was this the best use of your limited resources?"

And, while it is a nice "perk" for Ms. Kearney to have her electric car charged at no cost to her while she is at work, I wondered not only what it cost to install the charging stations, but what the upkeep on them would be? What are the operating costs?

Here the plot really thickens.

The county Office of Education chargers are attached to a new solar array helping to power the complex. So on a sunny day, when Kearney charges her car, that fuel is direct from the sun - rather than some polluting power plant.

On a sunny day, a solar array charges her car without all that nasty, smelly pollution (unless you count the pollution of manufacturing the array, disposing of the toxic waste by products, the energy it took to manufacture, ship and install the solar array. But, why worry about that? It's free lunch time, right?) That would presume that on less than sunny days, her Nissan Leaf is suckling at the teat of some "polluting power plant"... paying for power from Pacific Gas & Electric, with tax dollars, out of the county's education budget.

Maybe the key word is "helping". We teach that to our kindergarteners as a virtue. But,for the math impaired among us...

The $2.5 million (solar array) project was financed mostly through low-interest loans. Energy savings will eventually pay it off, said Barry Scott, the county office energy coordinator.

"Energy savings will eventually pay it off..." Is this like that lottery for stupid people, where you win a million bucks and they promise to pay you a dollar a year for a million years? I pulled one of my PG&E bills at random to see what I'm being charged for electricity. Depending on what percentage of my "baseline" usage it is, it looks like about 12 to 29 cents per kilowatt hour. Let's assume for the moment that charging electric cars pushes the school district to the maximum residential** rate. (If they get a lower rate, the breakeven takes longer.)

Even rounding the rate up to .333/kwh, to make the math simpler, that solar array would have to generate 7.5 million kilowatts of electricity, plus whatever it would take to pay the interest on the "low interest loans". That's 7.5 Billion watts of electricity for the array to "eventually" pay itself off. (At 12 cents/kwh, make that 20 Billion.)

I asked Mr. Scott about "eventually":
"Would you mind sharing details as to exactly what time frame that is, given the projected and actual output of the system and the current and projected savings against the cost of purchasing power from PG&E?"
Mr. Scott declined to answer. And I don't blame him. I have no idea how much power a $2.5 million dollar solar array puts out on a sunny day. Or how many sunny or partly sunny days they base their return. But, given the fact that solar cells have a limited life span, (Nothing lasts forever, not even your free lunch!), I suspect that even assuming a twenty year life, which I believe is overly generous, that solar array would need to produce 375,000 kwh/year to break even on the principle. Add interest, maintenance and repair, and either that is one honking big solar array (possible visible from space) or the free lunch bunch are pursuing a "green" agenda that will likely never pay for itself, (Gee! Just like "high speed rail"!) and hoping that the education system they are administering will produce enough math impaired people, so as not to question their benevolent overlords.

One criticism of today's reporting, and perhaps part of what is causing the decline in dead tree newspapers, is that we have too few real reporters and too many who just rewrite the press releases given to them. I really would have hoped that a reporter, even one assigned to a "puff piece" would have enough curiosity to ask a few questions, do a little analysis of the numbers and dig a deeper than this. Who knows? Maybe there's even a story in there somewhere? *Sigh*

And finally, if enough of your tax dollars weren't being squirreled down the rat hole, the electric chargers are "free" to anyone who wanders by.

Kearney hopes people driving on nearby Highway 99 will stop by and plug in - if not for a complete charge, at least to "top off" for a few minutes. The office has a café, she said with a smile. "They can have a sandwich, get a few electrons and be on their way," Kearney said.

I wonder if the café offers a free lunch as well?

*Not to be confused with a short story by Robert A. Heinlein with the same name.

**The county may get a break on this, but I was growing old waiting for a reply.

Cross posted at LCR, Lady Cincinnatus , Say Anything


  1. If money is exacted directly from our pockets, it "costs." If fees are exacted from someone else's pockets, it is then "free"....and more times than not, these "free lunches" wind up raising all "food costs" across the board for everyone.

    Thank you for this article.

    1. I believe the phrase TANSTAAFL was coined after the practice of some bars to set out plates of heavily salted eggs and snacks, with the sign "Free lunch". The cost of the eggs and such were, of course, hidden in the price of the beer you would order after you became thirsty.

      Hence, you always "paid" for a free lunch. It was never free.


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