Monday, September 28, 2009

Solar funding debate

Pittsfield should reject solar funding
Berkshire Eagle Letters to the Editor
Updated: 09/28/2009 08:56:21 AM EDT
Monday, Sept. 28

It was announced in the Sept. 22 Eagle that the Holmes Road Water Treatment plant in Pittsfield was one of 12 chosen for the addition of solar power through "stimulus" funds to come through the U.S. EPA. The funds were given to the state to administer the program and Pittsfield thought it was a good idea.

So let's do some math. Even though The Eagle article says the Pittsfield project is "one of the largest," let's assume that all 12 get equal funding. So $185,000,000 divided by 12 projects yields $15 million a project. Now, the federal government writes a $15 million check to the state, which then transfers that check to Pittsfield.

With the "upgrade" (so portrayed by the grant), the facility will save $200,000 a year. We don't have a clue how real these savings are, or what the electricity rate was to generate the savings. Let's just say they are right.

Now, let's do the next step. How long will it take to "pay back" the investment? The investment is $15 million, the savings, $200,000 a year. Disregarding the present value of money, interest and so on, it will take only 75 years for this project to pay for itself. Anyone believe that in 75 years this facility will still be standing?

Are there any CEOs who'd fund this project? Love to hear from you. Having spent 25 years in corporate America, I can truthfully say I never heard of anything this absurd even being reviewed. So why hasn't this program been killed? Seems to me this "grant" ought to be rejected by Pittsfield. And anyone curious about the other 11 projects?

Assuming 40,000 residents of Pittsfield, how'd you like a check for $375 each? How about killing the project and turning the money back to the taxpayers -- and I'm not even a resident of Pittsfield.


Donald J. Dermyer (“Pittsfield should reject solar funding,” Berkshire Eagle, Monday, September 28th, p. A4) is quite correct to suggest that few CEOs would consider the proposed solar project at the Holmes Road Water Treatment plant in Pittsfield, and for the reasons he gives: too long a financial payback. This is precisely why we should not listen to people whose experience is limited to “twenty-five years in corporate America” – their determined focus on short-term profit at the expense of all other human and ecological values stifles clear thinking.

Even Dermyer’s financial calculation ignores a likely increase in electrical rates, which will probably rise rapidly as fossil fuels become scarce, or we properly include their hidden costs in the price. If electricity rates merely double, the investment payback would be only 37 years, for example. I don’t know why Dermyer doubts that the facility will last that long – my house is 79 years old and in good shape.

Moreover, aside from financial payback we need to consider energy payback. The probable energy cost of this proposed solar installation is between 14 months and two years of its annual output, so after that period it will make net energy free of any further fossil fuel inputs or downwind pollution, and with minimal maintenance (no moving parts!), indefinitely. The original photovoltaic cells installed in the 1950s are still generating their rated wattage, so the unit cost per kilowatt-hour, and environmental impact, are by now as close to zero as can be imagined. Thank goodness some entrepreneurs and government research labs were willing to take that risk when the payback wouldn’t show up in the quarterly stock report!

The proposed solar installations are expensive, but they will support manufacturing and installation jobs in Massachusetts, and their scale will help in the long run to bring down the cost of solar electricity (through manufacturing efficiencies and technological advances) so everyone can use it. We need to think about such investments not from the perspective of corporate bottom lines, but rather as would thoughtful citizens of our communities and ecosystem.

Matt Silliman

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Biotic Community

To understand what Leopold might mean by "biotic community" it will be helpful first to view natural objects as comprising a spectrum:

whatever it is that comprises subatomic particles

subatomic particles

atomic elements


inanimate objects

microbes and vegetative life

sentient life

sapient life

Each of these relies on its predecessors for the building blocks of its unique emergent properties, its developmental ancestry, and (importantly) its nurturance and continued existence/thriving. Ecology observes a previously neglected web of interrelationships between these things, most vitally between and among living things, as itself comprising a system, and thus possessing irreducible emergent properties. They term this meta-organismic whole an ecosystem or biosphere. We can in principle gauge its comparative state of health or unhealth by analogy with that of ordinary organisms, so although it almost invariably exceeds our comprehension it is not entirely mysterious to us, and "the good of the biotic community" is a meaningful, if often contestable, quality.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Leopold's Land Ethic

Leopold says in his essay "The Land Ethic:" “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

To think through what this means, we need to examine several key terms. I will list some of them and pose a preliminary (though far from exhaustive) question about each:

"tends" -- Does this term suggest Leopold is advocating a dominantly consequentialist (as opposed to a deontological or virtue-based) concept of morality?

"integrity" -- How shall we understand this term in an ecological context? Is more integration always better?

"stability" -- Likewise, not everything that is stable is healthy from the standpoint of life; think of the moon. How shall we understand stability as a value?

"beauty" -- Even if aesthetics is more than a matter of mere preference, are all beautiful things good for the biosphere? Nuclear detonations? Perhaps these three descriptors sometimes work against each other.

"biotic community" -- we need a much fuller understanding of what this is (including the fact that it's not a big, happy family).