Last Appeal for Donations!

We’re in the final stretch for the Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign and if you have been keeping current with the news you know that this holiday season is a lot tougher than in years past with demand for services much higher and contributions across the board a lot lower.

I am making one last appeal for donations to my fundraising campaign, just click on the red kettle in the sidebar or on this link and donate whatever you can spare… $5, $10, $20… it all adds up and makes a huge difference for people in need. As of today I am 50% to my goal and it’s all because of your generosity.

I set a big goal for this Christmas and I am absolutely thrilled that the kettle is within sight of being full.

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The Coming Green Sprawl

A research paper published by the Nature Conservancy is warning of expanded reliance renewable energy leading to a new phenomenon called “green sprawl”. While not critical of renewable energy development the paper’s authors point out that there is another side of the coin to consider as these less efficient means of producing energy resources requires devoting more physical space to accomplish it in.

The stated shift in U.S. energy policies, and the pending Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill,  will require changes in regulatory regimes for land use, and will also likely accompany a shift in power from state and local regulatory agencies to the Federal level. This is inevitable as the reliance on domestically produced renewable energy will demand Federal government oversight at the expense of states rights.

Another policy consequence of renewable energy development is going to be agriculture policy as it is unlikely that corn and soybean lobbies will back off political pressure to develop ethanol and biodiesel mandates as part of our evolving energy policy. With a finite amount of sustainable farm land and the economics of fuel crops over food crops will pull farm land away from food production to fuel production, leading to greater frequency and amplitude of price swings in the commodity markets.

The impact on agriculture policy is particularly interesting to consider when the substantial economic subsidies provided by the Federal government to farmers are taken into account. Will the shift from food crops to fuel crops drive Congress to pump more taxpayer dollars to farmers as an incentive for maintaining food crop production for domestic use and for export? Not only is this plausible, it’s entirely likely as a reduction in food exports would drive up the trade deficit, because the stated goal of domestic renewable energy production is to fuel domestic use.

green sprawl

This study points out what is widely known, ethanol, biodiesel, and burning of biomass for electricity are the most intense land users of all the available options. Essentially the problem is that if energy crop production occurs in land previously devoted to food crops, the resulting distortion of global commodity markets may drive less efficient agricultural expansion in far away places.

Habitat and wildlife disruption is also a consideration here as this report points out that the clearing of land represents only 3-5% of the total disruption imposed by wind turbine farms, with 95-97% of the disruption to wildlife occurring from habitat disruption, pattern avoidance and bird mortality from continuing operation of these turbine farms.

A perfect example of the tension that exists between renewable energy construction and environmental advocates is the recent bill proposed by Senator Feinstein that would create two national monuments in California’s Mojave Desert, which would have the effect of stopping development of 13 large solar and wind turbine projects currently under development. I ask you, if we can’t put a solar farm in the middle of the desert where can we put it?

This habitat disruption is not limited to wildlife either, here in California a landmark bill was signed into law that requires utilities to buy excess electricity generated by solar arrays installed on homes. It is projected that this law will generate a 3x expansion of solar in California.

Consider the implication of a dramatic expansion of solar arrays that reflect sunlight as much as consume it. Homeowners in the many hills of the Bay Area and Southern California could be faced with blinding reflected light as a result. In all major urban areas planning commissions require homeowners and commercial developers to take into account the immediate environmental impacts of their construction, which means that if my downhill neighbor want to a put a bleached white roof and a massive solar array on his roof and the result is a sustained intense glare reflected into my house, there is a process by which I can object and slow down the project with the strong potential for ultimately stopping it.

The report authors were diligent in pointing out that in any of the scenarios they studied, the actual increase in energy requirements by 2030 could be significantly mitigated by conservation measures. Related to that, improvements in efficiency of the full range of renewable energy solutions will also bring improvements.

Under every scenario the Nature Conservancy report considered the land use requirements were eye popping with at least 79.5 thousand square miles of area required by 2030, an area slightly larger than the entire state of Nebraska. Taking into account the transmission grid and supply chain contingencies for committing this large of an area, it is unconceivable that we would develop it as a single or even regional dense energy zone. What is more likely is that energy production would be broadly distributed in areas not accustomed to having these resources located close by.

As the U.S. moves to energy policy that emphasizes renewable energy development, we would be wise to consider the impacts on land use and agriculture policy as well as recognize that the relationship between state and federal governments cannot and should not be trampled in process.

UPDATE: As if on cue the Merc runs a story this afternoon basically reinforcing my post:

“But critics — including some environmentalists — say green energy isn’t always green. In a refrain being heard increasingly across California, they contend the plan to cover this ranch land with a huge solar project would harm a unique landscape and its wildlife.”

There is No RSS Market

Richard McManus writes that the RSS market is in disarray. Specifically what he is saying is that the market for RSS client applications has gone sideways, he isn’t touching the other half of the equation, which is what publishers are doing with RSS.

I wrote about the second half a while back in what was one of the most widely read posts I have ever written, Is Twitter Killing RSS?:

“Twitter provides publishers with several key advantages over RSS, namely the ability to control brand and force traffic back to their monetized site. Of course none of this precludes them from also using RSS to distribute content and there are equally compelling reasons for doing so but if I were to make a prediction it would be that publishers increasingly find primary utility for RSS in the backoffice while de-empathizing RSS for audience acquisition, in the process embracing Twitter as a mechanism for engaging an audience and promoting content at the same time.”

My prediction has largely come true… no publisher is putting emphasis on their front end RSS while there is near universal embracing of Twitter for audience engagement and promotion of content. This is beyond debate at this point, it has happened.

Richard’s point about the RSS client app market has roots in the same observation I made, which is that RSS as a standard has failed to evolve in ways that solve publisher problems. In the absence of meaningful evolution of RSS as a standard, it is no surprise that RSS as an end user application has floundered.

The problem isn’t that the market is in disarray but rather that there is no “market” for something that is, in spite of being free across the board, not growing in end users or with publishers. On any given day there are likely no more than 1 million active RSS users, and half of those are committed to Google Reader which is a pretty good product at this point. This may sound like a large pool of users but it most certainly is not when it comes to formulating a product strategy, and herein lies the fundamental problem that RSS client application providers face, consumer users want a lot and won’t pay for it and enterprises, who will pay, don’t want a specialized product called RSS, they want this functionality slipstreamed into products they are already using.

I still use RSS with enough frequency to be called a regular user and Google Reader has put out some really good functionality to help users discover new and relevant content, a frequent topic for me. However, I would not advise anyone to go out and build an RSS application, even a mobile one, in this market because I don’t believe there is an actual market to begin with.

Smart Meters Part Deux

One of the displays that the smart meter PG&E installed in my home last month is a voltage display, which shows the total system voltage entering my structure from the power pole. This number fluctuates by 5-7 volts each day, which got me mildly curious but it was the supposed accuracy of the meter that really captured my attention so today I took my power panel apart and put a volt meter on the lugs just on the other side of the meter, giving me a reading just adjacent to the meter, about 10″ of 2 gauge cable away from the meter.

The meter is reading 239.3 volts energizing my home but the volt meter (which is relatively new and of pretty good quality) shows 235 volts coming in. I suppose you could get some voltage drop to the lugs but that is a pretty short distance to experience 4 volts.

If there is a technical explanation for what is happening, something other than my volt meter is wrong, then I’d like to hear it but simple readings like this do begin to throw up question marks about how accurate these meters really are.

UPDATE: I just received an email response on the accuracy question from someone who is intimately familiar with this technology, but because I have not asked for permission to publish the explanation with attribution I am doing so while maintaining the anonymity of the person who sent it to me. I have no reason to doubt their intent or expertise so at face value I shall take it.

I just verified that the meters are very accurate. Within 1-2% or better, the multimeter is most likely within 1-2% so you are talking about a difference of

Max =4.8 volt difference at 2% per unit.

If the meter is +- 2% and the VoltMeter is +- 2% then this can easily explain the difference.

IMG_1372.JPG  

Can Smart Meters Succeed on Closed Standards?

Yesterday my pal Tom Raftery posted about PG&E’s smart meter rollout in California and problems customers were experiencing, and he featured some comments that I made during a phone conversation we had.

“It seems that PG&E’s smart grid rollout is woefully under-resourced at the back-end. What PG&E should have is a system where customers can see their electrical consumption in real-time (on their phone, on their computer, on their in-home display, etc.) but also, in the same way that credit card companies contact me if purchasing goes out of my normal pattern, PG&E should have a system in place to contact customers whose bills are going seriously out of kilter. Preferably a system which alerts people in realtime if they are consuming too much electricity when the price is high, through their in-home display, via sms,Twitter DM, whatever.”

To be perfectly clear (hah, an Obamaism!), I am reserving judgement on the reported usage because the meter was installed in November (if I recall correctly) and this is the time of the year, November and December, that our utility and gas usage is considerably higher than in other months due to the holidays. At first glance the electricity seems rather high and from the limited information that is available through their online reports, unexplained drops and spikes are evident without any significant changes in our household patterns.

200912171101.jpg

I will be tracking this data for a few months and comparing to historical monthly reports to look for anomalies, but right now my concerns are growing.

The promise of utility smart meters, at least what utility companies are promoting, is that customers would be able to have access to a wealth of data about their utility consumption as well as opt-in to more granular rate programs that allow you to modify your consumption behavior in exchange for preferential rates.

As you can see from the graphic I included a screenshot of, the data they are providing is certainly not extensive and more significantly there is little I can do to take action on it. There are no notifications or alerts I can set, and quite candidly I don’t have confidence in the reported data. For a reason that PG&E does not explain, there is no hourly data available either, despite having the smart meters for two billing cycles. This is the first component in PG&E’s #fail.

There is a program that PG&E offers called SmartRate whereby customers can opt-in to a voluntary program where they agree to cut back usage on up to 15 days, when PG&E broadcasts an alert, over a 5 month period in the summer months and in exchange PG&E offers these program participants a discounted rate. The problem with SmartRate is that the notification system is suspect, in fact this has been a frequent criticism of the SmartRate program, that customers are not getting the notifications on the selected days and end up paying more, as a penalty, for power as a result.

The entire notion of communicating consumption data is of tantamount importance to smart meter programs across the country. However, this is yet another example of how when utility companies talk about communicating it is not the same as when customers use the word. The focus insofar as utility companies have been concerned is the protocol used for the meter to communicate to the billing infrastructure.

There has been a controversial provision in the Stimulus bill passed this year that requires utility companies using stimulus dollars – taxpayer money – to build out their smart meter networks using standard IP. PG&E, to their credit, is using Silver Springs Networks for their meters, which is an IP based system. However, this is only one component in a much more complex system.

The data streams that these meters are producing should be available to anyone who I, as the utility customer, authorize. Access to this data would allow a network of third party application and service providers to offer products that are of great service to customers. As it stands today, I can only access a limited snapshot of data in a simplistic online display or as a downloadable CSV file.

The Utility Standards Board, which PG&E is not a member of, is promoting exactly this level of interoperability and data access.

It is the entire notion of open and transparent standards that most troubles me with these projects. There is something comforting about a mechanical meter (which the natural gas meter still is, the retrofit procedure only replaces the front panel) because it’s simplicity promotes reliability and consistency. The all digital meters, which the electrical meters are, represent a black box with no ability for third parties to access and verify.

For several years the conversion of our voting system from paper ballots and mechanical voting machines to an all digital system has been plagued by controversy because Diebold, renamed Premier Election Systems and sold to Election Systems & Software, refused to allow third parties to access the system code. This controversy only grew and ultimately Diebold sold off the division because it was tarnishing the firms image.

Utilities today have a similar set of conditions developing. Questions are growing about the accuracy of the electricity meters in particular and it won’t take long for this brushfire to grow into a firestorm that consumes the entire industry. PG&E should address these concerns not by blaming customers but by allowing third party verification of these smart meter systems, access to the code and mechanical details, and data interoperability.

IMG_1372.JPG IMG_1373.JPG

San Francisco, The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.

Normally I would tweet this but this feature in SF Weekly is so extensive and conclusive that it deserves attention.

It’s time to face facts: San Francisco is spectacularly mismanaged and arguably the worst-run big city in America. This year’s city budget is an astonishing $6.6 billion — more than twice the budget for the entire state of Idaho — for roughly 800,000 residents. Yet despite that stratospheric amount, San Francisco can’t point to progress on many of the social issues it spends liberally to tackle — and no one is made to answer when the city comes up short.

[From San Francisco News - The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S. - page 1]

I don’t live in San Francisco, instead preferring to reside down on the Peninsula but how badly SF is managed still manages to massively irritate me. Why you ask? Easy, because the waste, fraud, and abuse in that relatively small corner of the Bay Area sucks resources out of other communities, whether it be Federal grant money that disproportionately ends up in San Francisco, high surcharges applied to travelers at SFO, our aging water system that requires long overdue overhaul and is owned by the City San Francisco, or the simple fatigue that develops when I have to go into SF for meetings or events and am forced to pay exorbitant parking fees and struggle with an inept public transportation system.

Bottom line: SF is the poster child for broken government, it spends richly yet makes little positive impact on anything and we all pay as a result, if for no other reason than bolstering the average persons view that government can’t do anything right. It’s a national embarrassment and few seem to give a damn.

Analyst Reports are Still 1.0

Mary Meeker (yep she’s still rowing that same boat) came out with the mother of all reports on the mobile market:

We decided to create The Mobile Internet Report largely in PowerPoint and publish it on the web, expecting that bits and pieces of it will be cut / pasted / redistributed and debated / dismissed / lauded. Our goal is to get our thoughts and data into the conversation about what may be the biggest technology trend ever, one that may help make us all more informed in ways that are unique to the web circa 2009, and beyond.

[From Morgan Stanley - Institutional Services]

My first thought was these reports really haven’t changed over the years… there’s the same defining the landscape and recalling of history section, coining of terms, the all important “themes” summary, and money shot powerpoint graphics that anyone pitching a mobile app or data startup will immediately have a geekgasm over.

Next let us talk about the reliance on history as a predictor for the future in technology markets. Bottom line, history is written by the victors and ultimately means bubkus for the venture market. Specifically on mobile, who would have predicted that the iPhone would redefine the mobile application market when it first came out? Recall as well that Apple did their best to lock down the handset so that 3rd parties could not build native apps… so clearly even Apple couldn’t predict what was in store.

History doesn’t mean shit and the great companies always emerge from completely orthogonal plays on what all the smart people predict will happen.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a ton of really good data in this tome on the mobile internet… but does it really tell us things we don’t already know, like bandwidth growth for mobile will outpace desktop, apps and data drive consumption, pricing pressures emerge, VoIP will be big, location based services are the new frontier, and socialization of mobile devices and apps is a next wave? These reports are little more than an attempt to define how the market is defined and conversed about… burnish up the faded glory that being a big i-bank analyst used to hold.

I commend MorganStanley on producing a truly impressive 700 slide powerpoint presentation but ask whether or not the effort is worth the expense. I’d rather see a collection of short stories that tie these themes together than the analyst version of War and Peace.

Ring Ring Ring

It’s that time of year, the bell ringing red kettle and a plea for generosity to help those, an increasing number sadly, less fortunate than us.

Please consider clicking on the Red Kettle in the sidebar or clicking on this link to make a small donation to the Salvation Army, an organization that has been doing good work since 1865. This Christmas season is seeing more burdens than usual put on those who rely on organizations like the Salvation Army while at the same time these same organizations are struggling to raise enough money to provide services to those in need. It is critical that all of us dig into our wallet to find that extra $5, $10 or $20 that can be used to provide food, clothing and shelter.

Thanks in advance, I’ve been a lifelong supporter of the Salvation Army and to be able to use my blog as a venue to channel donations is something that is in itself a great gift for me.

Personal fundraising widget for 2009 Red Kettle campaign

California’s High Speed Pipe Dream Revisited

In September 2008 I wrote this:

Don’t you love how the proponents are telling us how much the ticket will cost even though this thing is two decades away from being completed, should the voters be duped into passing this measure. Sure, let’s add another $50 billion in debt that has a payoff price tag of $100 billion to the State’s already current liabilities of $100 billion (which will cost taxpayers $200 billion to pay off).

[From California’s High Speed Pipe Dream | Venture Chronicles]

At the time I received a number of emails saying I was wrong (with varying intensity) yet today I read a report on a new business plan by the High Speed Rail Authority that says:

The average ticket on the bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles is now estimated to cost about $105, or 83 percent of comparable airfare. Last year, the state said prices would be set at 50 percent of comparable airfare and predicted a ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost $55.

As a result of the higher fares, state officials now think the service will attract 41 million annual riders by 2035, down from last year’s prediction of 55 million passengers by 2030.

Finally, the cost of the project — recently pegged at $33.6 billion in 2008 dollars — is now estimated at $42.6 billion in time-of-construction dollars.

By the way, Southwest and Virgin America are both flying to LA for $59 each way… which makes the high speed rail ticket price somewhat of a dubious value.

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