Monday, March 16, 2009

Solar power at home?

Good news for those of you living in Palm Desert, CA your city government has a great program that allows home owners to get financing to install solar panels. Bad news is that the program is so popular that if you’re looking to get in, it’s too late.

The program works like this:

  • Home owner applies for a loan from the city

  • The city approves the loan, allowing the home owner to have solar panels installed

  • The home owner then pays back a portion the cost of the instillation when they pay their annual property taxes

The program is a win-win for both the city and residents. Residents are saving upwards of $500 on their electric bills, and the cost of the instillation can be passed onto future owners of the home should they chose to sell the residence. The city benefits from the program by reducing their carbon emission footprint (as is mandated by California law) without having to build a large scale, expensive municipal solar energy plant.

Palm Springs is a unique location in terms of energy consumption and production. It sits in the middle of a large desert, and extensive energy consumption from widespread and long-season air conditioning make the city something of an energy hog. It is also well suited for solar energy generation, as the city receives on average 350 days of sunshine and is at a relatively low latitude.

The program is not without detractors:

But public financing of solar power also has critics, who say government is essentially subsidizing and encouraging a form of energy production that would otherwise not be cost effective. Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute in Berkeley, who is concerned about the proliferation of the programs, said, “It would be better for local governments to do energy efficiency and skip the solar panels.

“If you count the full-interest cost without the tax subsidy, residential solar panels never pay for themselves,” he said. “We shouldn’t be making it a major public priority.”

Perhaps there would be more energy savings per dollar by improving energy efficiency, but if there ever was a place to try this solar experiment it is Palm Desert, CA. Furthermore this experiment seems to be uniquely American. Instead of undergoing a massive government program, it is driven by individuals and is voluntary. Such programs can be successful for people who don’t “think green” but rather are only concerned with the bottom line (of their energy bill).

Would such a program work in the New York Metro region? Absolutely not. There is too little sunshine on an annual basis to make the program manageable. The New York Metro region has tons of wind energy that could be harnessed, but at the present time wind energy cannot be feasibly generated in someone’s backyard. One could imagine municipal level initiatives being successful in terms of increasing home heating efficiency by improving oil/gas burners and home insulation. But home level alternative energy generation remains unlikely in the New York Metro region for the next few years.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bottle Bill Blues

If you’ve been into a supermarket you’ve no doubt seen signs prominently displayed in some way or shape disparaging the so called “Bottle Bill.” At present soda and beer cans and bottles are covered under the bottle bill, each container requires a $0.05 deposit, which is paid back to the consumer when he or she returns it. The new bottle bill would expand redemption to cover water bottles, energy drinks, iced teas and sports drinks which were not popular when the previous legislation was passed in 1982. The change that is driving such disdain for the bill in supermarkets is that instead of unredeemed deposits being pocketed by beverage distributors, the unredeemed deposits would go to the New York’s Environmental Protection Fund.

The origin of the bill was driven by a desire for a reduction of discarded waste along roads and waterways.

Ten other states also have container deposit programs, despite lobbying efforts against them by the beverage industry. According to the Container Recycling Institute, an environmental advocacy group, these measures have promoted recycling and reduced litter — 66 percent of deposit containers are returned nationwide, compared with 40 percent without deposits.

The current bill seeks to reduce the quantity of bottles currently not included in the deposit program, by providing financial incentive to residents to clean them up. This is important because 2.5 billion bottles of water are sold in New York State each year. As the New York Times reports:

The legislation is also of interest for those concerned about Long Island’s waterways and 400 miles of beaches. Thomas R. Suozzi, the Nassau County executive, said he finally understood the issue after wading waist deep into a bottle-clogged stream at the Roosevelt Preserve alongside the Meadowbrook Parkway during a cleanup effort last summer.

“It was like a light going on in my head,” he said. “There were literally thousands of bottles down there washed in from storm drains and creeks, and all of them were water bottles or nondeposit bottles.”

Ultimately however, the decision to push ahead with the Bottle Bill comes from a need for adding money to the state coffers.

A proposal by Gov. David A. Paterson in his 2009-10 budget plan would expand the bottle law and change who receives unclaimed deposit money. Currently, the state’s bottle law covers carbonated drinks like beer or soda and lets beverage distributors keep the 5-cent deposits not turned in — $93 million a year, according to state estimates. The governor’s proposal would add the nickel deposit to noncarbonated drinks and send unclaimed deposits to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

Depending on who you listen to the amount collected by these distributors, but not redeemed would increase to $118 to $218 million if the redemption program expands to include additional bottles. You can see why supermarkets have been plastering all sorts of notes lobbying against the bottle bill. Don’t feel too bad for the distributors however, as they stand to see an increase from $0.02 to $0.035 on each bottle returned to help provide compensation for the increased quantity of bottles returned.

This proposition seems like a major win-win for New York State tax payers, who will see additional revenue at not real cost and the environment will prosper too. For more information on the bottle bill check out:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Snow, snow go away?

Total snowfall from 8pm March 2nd to 8pm March 3rd. Image from /

Is Suffolk County one major snow storm away from being in serious budget trouble? Since January 1st, Suffolk County has received 25.7” of snow (12” of which fell in one day in early March). This amount is slightly above average for the region, but is not an unprecedented quantity. As the New York Times reports, despite only receiving moderately more snow than a typical season, towns across the county are reeling from the costs of snow removal on town roads and county highways.

In Suffolk County, which was hit hardest by the storm, officials said $2.2 million of their $3 million annual snow budget had now been spent. “We’ve used it on other snowstorms we’ve had, but this one will take the lion’s share,” Mr. Levy said.

A large storm like this one can be worrisome because in most places the snow budget has to last all year — that means not just March, but also November and December.

The timing of snowfall is partly to blame for the high expenses associated with this year’s snow removal, snow storms that hit late at night or on weekends result in increased labor costs due to overtime pay.

Before the storm, Hempstead had already exceeded its annual snow-removal budget of $1.75 million for this year, spending $3.3 million.

Mike Deery, a town spokesman, said this was the first time in five years that Hempstead had exceeded its snow budget. He attributed the spending to the rising cost of salt and the cost of employee overtime when a weekend storm hit earlier this year. Money for snow removal will come from other areas, he said.

It’s hard to imagine blowing a budget by that amount in a winter season, which has been snowier than average but not harsh by any stretches. What would have happened had we had a truly heavy snowfall, say approaching 40” as we did for a number of seasons at the beginning of the 2000’s? Some of the costs no doubt lie in inappropriate use of salt. Is salt needed during snow events or should it be saved for ice storms? Other costs may be inappropriate deployment of labor, perhaps to much effort was paid during some of the smaller snow storms earlier in the season?

All of this leads one to wonder, would more accurate seasonal weather forecasts save towns and counties money? If a prediction could made when budgets were being crafted as to the projected seasonal snowfall, towns and counties would not need to borrow funds to pay snow removal costs. Additionally the National Weather Service has missed a few snow forecasts this season, over predicting snowfall*. No doubt highway superintendents heeding the advice of the meteorologists, and over deploying precious resources for busted snowstorms. This is an interesting example of the value of accurate weather and climate predictions.

* - Interestingly the National Weather Service has been changing the official snow totals at Islip and JFK airports this season, increasing the snow totals, despite the presence of trained weather observers making hourly measurements. Perhaps they are doing this to make their missed forecasts seem less bad?

Chemistry Puns (answers)

Glad to announce we have two winners: Dr. Aaron Beck and Mr. Fabian Batista. You can claim your prize next Monday.
We also had one loser: Santiago Salinas

Here are the answers:
1. Policeman: Copper
2. Have went (very poor grammar): Argon
3. A motto for a well digging company: Boron
4. Holmium X 0.5 = Halfnium
5. To press a shirt: Iron
6. A kitchen work area with a drain: Zinc
7. A ship's kitchen: Gallium
8. The leg joint above the calf: Neon
9. An amusing prisoner: Silicon
10. Ruler of Davy Jones' locker: Neptunium (also accepted Arrrrrrgon)
11. Large building used to store automobiles: Carbon
12. The Lone Ranger's horse: Silver
13. Opposite of hot: Beryllium
14. The name applied to a blond person from Sweden, Norway or Finland: Scandium
15. What do you do before you brand a steer?: Europium
16. Mickey mouse's dog: Plutonium
17. A 2000 pound casket: Krypton
18. A description of beautiful mountains: Arsenic
19. What you do to steak when you barbecue it: Cerium
20. The name of a red flower: Germanium

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Chemistry Puns

Dug this "punny activity" out of my high school chemistry notes. It's pretty terrible and explains why I don't know much about chemistry today. Anyone who e-mails me at with at least 10 correct answers by Friday March 6, 2009 will win a delicious prize. Winners will be able to pick up a home baked treat on Wednesday March 11th in Stony Brook.

With some imagination and a pun now and then, it is possible to use the names of elements as synonyms or substitutes for some phrases. So cesium your pen and name the element!

1. Policeman
2. Have went (very poor grammar)
3. A motto for a well digging company
4. Holmium X 0.5 =
5. To press a shirt
6. A kitchen work area with a drain
7. A ship's kitchen
8. The leg joint above the calf
9. An amusing prisoner
10. Ruler of Davy Jones' locker
11. Large building used to store automobiles
12. The Lone Ranger's horse
13. Opposite of hot
14. The name applied to a blond person from Sweden, Norway or Finland
15. What do you do before you brand a steer?
16. Mickey mouse's dog
17. A 2000 pound casket
18. A description of beautiful mountains
19. What you do to steak when you barbecue it
20. The name of a red flower