Monday, June 24, 2013

Solar, part 1

Medford is doing a community push for solar, which convinced me to take another look at solar for our property. The city’s chosen installer is SunBug, and I’ve gotten a proposal from them.

Choosing an installer is tricky. There aren’t a lot, and most haven’t been in business very long. But since they are going to be messing with your roof and your electrical system, you want someone good. There aren’t a lot of reviews. You can see an Excel file of all the companies who have done projects in Massachusetts in the past few years that qualified for a state rebate program. Brightstar Solar gets great reviews, but isn’t doing installations in Medford. Sungevity was very hard to talk to in 2012, and Next Step Living has frighteningly bad reviews, so I’m skipping those two. I’ve been waiting to hear back from Blue Selenium, and Sunlight Solar is coming next week to do a site evaluation.

Direction matters. South would be optimal. On the map, it looks like our unshaded roof faces ESE. SunBug thinks it’s close enough to SE that we’ll be ok.

Pitch matters. Our roof is 45 degrees, which is a decent compromise between wanting steeper in the winter and less steep in the summer.

With both direction and pitch, I’d expect to find decent curves showing the dropoffs in production and calculators that let you see the results. I haven’t found those yet. But solar companies must be using those.

Shading matters. A little shading can have a huge detrimental effect on production since solar panels are wired in series (both within the panel and in a string of panels). The only shading we really have to worry about would be if the tree in the park next door gets much taller, but the problem is that we don’t have the right to trim that tree if it does. Perhaps the city would like to agree to trim that tree if it starts to shade our solar panels?

Roof condition matters. SunBug told us we have to redo our roof before we can install solar. I expect other solar companies will tell us the same thing. We have no leaks, so this is sooner than we would replace the roof otherwise, but roofs don’t last forever.

The electrical panel matters. SunBug told us we need to install a subpanel or redo our main panel in the basement to install solar. My idea of putting a subpanel in the attic to make this easier is apparently not a great idea because the attic gets very hot in the summer, which isn’t great for the wiring.

The choice of panel matters. We can produce a lot more power if we use SunPower 327-watt panels than if we use typical 250-watt panels. The downside is a bit more up-front cost.

Financial assumptions make a huge difference. What will happen to the cost of electricity over the next 10 years? What’s the opportunity cost of the investment? Is SREC income taxable? (At the moment there’s a good argument that SREC income is not taxable, since it’s less than the cost of putting in the panels. But it makes a big difference if it becomes taxable, since that’s the bulk of the payback over the first 10 years.) How does depreciation on the system work with my home office? Will my insurance cover the solar panels? Will the system increase or decrease the house’s value? (Looks like a modest increase in the short term, but my guess is that it won’t matter in the long term.)

Financing matters. About 2/3 of new systems are leased rather than owned. Since we may want to sell in 5-10 years, and leasing makes that harder, we need to own the system.

The roof geometry of the front of our house is terrible for curb appeal. Will a monolithic solar array on the top section make that better or worse? How will a different roof color affect the appearance, since we can choose a different color when we reshingle?

But I like the idea of having more of our electricity come from solar, and this is the step we can take towards that. It’s not an ideal site, and there aren’t ideal conditions here, but it still may pay off in about 7 years (based on some reasonable assumptions). That’s pretty good.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Not buying it

In “The Health Insurance Shell Game,” Nortin M. Hadler and Janet Schwartz lay out some of the insanities in the way we handle health insurance in this country. But towards the end of their post, they start discussing the fact that some treatment options are less effective or ineffective, and suggest a good way to reduce health care costs would be for health insurance to refuse to cover various treatment options.

We should be offered a “high efficacy option” at lower cost than an “any efficacy option” and no one should be offered an option that indemnifies for interventions that have been studied and cannot be shown to offer a clinically meaningful benefit.
There are a few problems with this line of reasoning. First and foremost is that health insurance already refuses to cover a variety of treatments, as many patients with complex or difficult conditions know, and this has not solved the terrible excesses of health care costs.

I disagree with the notion that we can clearly delineate a large new set of treatment options which “cannot be shown to offer a clinically meaningful benefit.” Evidence-based treatment protocols can provide valuable guidance in prioritizing treatment options in the absence of further information, but many patients are not approaching their health care treatment as a blank slate. You (or your doctor) may already know that the treatment most likely to help an arbitrary individual based on statistics will not be effective for you. A study showing that a treatment is ineffective for many or most people does not establish that it cannot help some specific individuals, and we often don’t have a way to determine which individuals a treatment will help without trying it. Medical studies which insurance companies already rely on to deny coverage are hardly infallible; in fact, they are rife with fraud and conflicts of interest, and results often cannot be replicated or directly contradict other studies. When studies of well-known treatment options are repeated, the measured effectiveness appears to decline without a clear explanation. And when we study placebos, a treatment option which we know cannot have any clinically meaningful benefit, we discover that placebos can have significant clinically meaningful benefits.

But none of this matters when we are working to convince you, the beleaguered consumer, that the reason your health insurance premiums are so high is that there are lots of other people pursuing useless treatments. Those other people are spending their days at the hospital for fun, and wasting your money to do it. And when you are denied coverage for a treatment, you should be grateful because it wouldn’t have helped anyway.

If you buy this argument, I’ve got a great insurance policy to sell you.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Waiting for Godot has so much talking

8:00 am: Arrive at courthouse along with other potential jurors. Building is locked. Moral: Do not arrive early.

8:15 am: Courthouse opens. Anyone claiming to be called for jury duty is sent into the building, skipping security entirely. Social worker is yelled at for trying to enter the building, having stupidly assumed that seeing people entering a building means that the building can be entered by people. Moral: Wait for instructions.

8:30 am: Court officer shows up in the jury room to check people in.

8:40 am: More potential jurors arrive, having been waiting at the front of the building since 8:20 with no instructions from anyone there. Court officer scolds them extensively for not having arrived by 8:30. Moral: Do not wait for instructions.

8:45 am: A potential juror tries to ask a question. Court officer scolds her. Moral: Do not ask questions.

8:50 am: Court officer tells us that the judge will show up at 9:00 to say hi, then we’ll watch a video, then she will send us on break from 9:30 until 10:15.

9:10 am: Judge says hi and leaves, court officer starts the video and leaves. The video trumpets the diversity of the jury pool, carefully showing racial and ethnic diversity. 19 white people in the jury pool covertly glance at the only non-white person in the jury pool.

9:30 am: The court officer does not return. Half the jurors leave, deciding we must be on break now. Moral: Do whatever the hell you want, because nobody cares any longer.

The only reading material in the room is four small signs, four romance novels, a variety of magazines from 2011 and 2012, someone’s confidential juror questionnaire, and court paperwork intended for a defendant.

10:30 am: An attorney and client enter the clearly identified jury room, stare at us for a while, and leave. Nobody speaks.

10:45 am: There is a loud despairing wail from the hallway outside the jury room. Nobody blinks.

11:00 am: Court officer pops her head in to tell us that she is not there to tell us anything.

11:15 am: I greet the person who has been sitting next to me for the past three hours. As far as I can tell, this is the first and only conversation between any of the 20 people in the jury pool. He was on the jury for a federal trial a few years ago that went on for four months.

11:30 am: Someone in the hallway outside the jury room starts sobbing.

11:45 am: Court officer reappears and tells us all to go home.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept

This is how scandals should be addressed: head-on, with clear statements and strong principles.