Given the fact that everyone else in the Questionably Civilised World seems to be giving themselves a forum to vent their fury at the injustices and indignities we're being subjected to on an almost daily basis the last thing the world needs is another semi-political blog, but I can't help myself.
With the sheer volume of such rantings out there, and the fact that practically nobody reads these pages, once I decided to set out on this little venture it seemed to make sense to hive this bit off as another annexe to the Little House of Concrete rather than adding political and socioeconomic commentary to the main site and risk losing what few readers I might actually have.
So, in the unlikely off chance that there's anyone out there who is actually interested, welcome to the People's Republic of the Little House of Concrete, the title of which is probably a fair indication of where we're coming from.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Little House of Concrete Goes Solar (4)

The Critical Reader might be inclined to ascribe the subject matter herein to the non-arrival of Those Log In Details. This particular diatribe, however, was always going to be the middle entry in a trilogy exploring what's possible, what might have been and some possible implications for the future.

We've already established that the system that now sits on the roof of The Little House of Concrete will look after the day to day power consumption. That's fine. We've also established, at least in my mind, that we're not going to get out of paying a substantial power bill. Not as big as it would be without the solar, but still a significant expense.

That's going to continue thanks to the quirks that went in when the national grid was set up a few years ago.

Now, I might not have this quite right, but I reckon I'm not far off the money as I wind the memory back to a dimly remembered discussion on the radio a few summers back. I am as I've noted elsewhere, inclined to watch the cricket on the radio. The regular January/February heatwave down south back prompted discussion about how to meet peak demand on the couple of days when temperatures in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide climb towards (or into) the forties.

On those days, the demand for power goes up through the ceiling and beyond, and there was as I understand it, the very real possibility of brown outs. Predictably, and quite understandably, that's something politicians at the state and federal levels are keen to avoid. Having the air-con cut out while you're sweltering is the kind of thing that might stick a voter's mind, and might just prompt a vote for the opposition.

It's not too hard to envisage the minister responsible for the power supply going to the advisers and asking what can be done to avoid brown outs. It isn't too hard to envisage the response. It was probably along the lines of It can be done, but it'll cost you.

There's another issue lurking in the background here, the ongoing tendency of governments at all levels to dig themselves out of their current financial hole by selling something off. The state governments haven't all succeeded in selling off their electricity businesses, but they've all tried.

So, along with the avoidance of brown outs you've got the cost of creating the capacity to meet peak demand and the cost of maintaining the system over large distances. And when you want to sell it off you need to persuade the people with the cash that it's a good investment.

I mightn't have that exactly right, but that's a large part of the gold-plating of the electricity grid. It needed a good bottom line to persuade those institutional investors that shares in the power grid were a good buy that would yield a decent return.

The power bills went up. Governments change. The other mob gets the blame. The new government says something along the lines of we wouldn't have done it that way, but that's the way it is and it's out of our hands.

But you can't help wondering if it really had to be that way.

The answer to that question, of course, is that you're looking at something implemented by people working their own murky agenda, so it probably did.

What follows may be seen as a diversion, but it goes down here so I can invite other people involved to refresh my memory. It's a rather sore point that ends up having some relevance given that phrase people working their own murky agendas.

At the beginning of 1997, I had a change of year level and classroom at The School on the Hill. Where I'd previously been upstairs in B Block with Year Six, I was now downstairs in The Pandemonium with a Year Four. The Pandemonium, for The Inquisitive Reader, was the demountable known as I Block referred to by my good friend Bart the Prickle Headed Degenerate as The Condominium. I reckoned Bart was getting ideas above his station, hence the revision of the nickname.

I wasn't particularly chuffed by the move since my new room was in the lee of B Block, which stood substantially between me and the prevailing sou'easters. Upstairs in B Block was, I knew from experience, a rather cool location. I suspected The Pandemonium would be a sweat box.

I was even less chuffed when The Rifleman (a.k.a. the Principal) turned up on the doorstep to advise B Block was about to be demolished. It would be replaced by a new, wider ultramodern brick structure. My immediate response was that this would be noisy and dusty, and The Pandemonium could do with some airconditioning.

The Rifleman said he'd look into it. He did, and came back with the first round of correspondence in a long-running rigmarole that ran all the way through the construction of the new edifice and for a good year and a bit beyond that. We were, if I recall correctly, dealing with someone in Cairns who'd been placed in charge of the roll out of school airconditioning through the Cool Schools Programme.

There was no way this dude was going to vary his programme. Not even when a particular local issue raised a very ugly head.

It was a brick saw. Which brings in another murky agenda. The new B Block wasn't the only building using that particular design, and the design called for odd shaped bricks that needed to be cut to particular specifications. I don't know how many different particular specifications. But I do know that it required a brick saw to operate from 7:45 to 3:45 five days a week for most of the year.

It was one of those devices that required the operator, according to Workplace Health and Safety, to wear protective earmuffs. Workplace Health and Safety wasn't as generous with the four teachers and the hundred and twenty odd kids within a thirty metre radius of where the thing was set up. Half of them were upstairs in A Block, where they got some breeze along with the racket. The rest of them, along with Yours Truly and The Dragon Lady were battened down in The Pandemonium with the louvres on that side closed to keep out the noise and dust.

When you heard the brick saw start up on your way to work in the morning your first reaction was to turn around and head straight back home.

But eventually it stopped. The new (airconditioned) structure was finished. And an impressive bank of split system inverters blew hot air straight down onto the poor old Pandemonium.

Around eighteen months later, we got out airconditioning. Interestingly, when it arrived, one end didn't seem to chill at all, and the other seemed irrevocably set to Arctic. I was in the Arctic end. I like it cold. I wasn't complaining, though everybody else was (and guess who copped the blame).

But, over those few years in the late nineties most schools across Queensland were airconditioned, and I don't recall sighting a school building anywhere recently that hasn't had the predictable array of inverters outside.

The electricity bills associated with those would have to be huge. Pause, for a moment and consider the possibilities of solar in those circumstances.

W know it wouldn't come cheap. Our experience with the Cool Schools programme suggests the cost would turn out to be significantly higher than it might be when you're hiring consultants to oversee the process.

Still, it should be possible to whack enough panels on the roofs of schools across Queensland to have them all very close to self-sufficient as far as electricity is concerned. And their airconditioning would only be chewing up power between 8 and 4, Monday to Friday, forty-two weeks a year. School based solar would be pumping its pull output into the system on weekends, and on that six week Christmas holiday period.

They could, once they'd been paid off, even be a nice little earner for each school community.

With that sort of network in place, we mightn't have needed the same gold plated electricity grid, and those power bills might, just possibly, be significantly lower.

But, of course, that sort of scenario makes a privatised electricity supply a much less attractive proposition.

But, to me,  the most interesting aspect of all this comes with tomorrow's discussion of some implications for the future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Little House of Concrete Goes Solar (3)

Just over a week into the solar era here at The Little House of Concrete we're still finding out what the system is capable of delivering. That process will become much easier when a certain piece of correspondence containing log-on details arrives. Monday's public holiday is probably the reason it hasn't got here yet.
Until it does arrive we're limited to extrapolating from the daily email reports and wandering around to the switchboard to see which way the little wheel is revolving, how quickly it's going around and take a squiz at the readings on the inverter.
When I got back from the morning walk, the wheel was going the right way at a reasonable clip, and the system was pushing out 1245 KWH, not bad for 7:20 on a cloudy morning.
Or so we assume. Until we get the log on details we're reduced to hypothesis and extrapolation. That's why the thoughts, as I made my way round the regular circuit this morning, turned to what's possible, the way things could have been, and what lies over the horizon.
The first thing to note is that, from the evidence to hand while twenty panels and a 5 KWH inverter cover our usage through the day we're still going to be paying a power bill. That notion takes us off into what could have been and on to the third point, but exploring those topics would result in a lengthy diatribe.
Let's limit ourselves to the actual possibilities.
The first point is that the 5 KWH inverter is the largest unit the Ergon Energy people will allow you to install while you're on the grid, so you're semi-hamstrung from the start.
The second is that once the system goes in, a sparky from Ergon needs to come in and make an adjustment. At that point, your feed in return drops rather dramatically from 30c/KWH to (I think) 9.
If I've got things right so far, we seem to be exporting around 5 KWH each day (actually a bit more, but let's keep it to round figures).
That means until the sparky gets here the return is around $1.50 a day, while once the adjustment has been made it'll go down to 45 cents. Multiply $1.50 by ninety days, and you get $135. I would have liked to be receiving a $135 power bill over the last couple of years. Usually, of course, it has been substantially more.
Go to 45c times 90 days, and you've got a tad over $40. No way that's going to cover the night time usage.
So as you look at what's possible you discard any thoughts of self-sufficiency unless you're willing to go totally off the grid. Or, of course, unless you're off the grid in the first place.
No, from where I'm sitting, the point of the exercise is to see how close we can get. And I have to acknowledge that our situation in The Little House of Concrete has advantages that won't accrue to people who work anything approximating nine to five.
We're in the fortunate position where we can run domestic appliances through the day and the TV, usually, goes off at 7:30. Night time usage is minimal. The big question, down the track, is whether some form of battery storage would deliver enough oomph to run things through the night. In other words, instead of exporting to the grid can we use our surplus to keep us going through the night?
That may well be over ambitious, but I'm also interested to see whether the set up would be able to cover the minimal usage while we're away from home.
And then I want to know whether we can look after ourselves if a cyclone or another emergency situation takes down the grid. One notes that large sections of suburban Townsville were without power for eight days after Yasi, so that's a genuine concern.
Predictably, as noted, when the calculations were being carried out, it looks like we're still going to be paying for power. The question from there is how much you pay.
I've made a start on some of those matters. A batch of my favourite slow simmered Sugo alla Bolognese went through the slow cooker yesterday, and the export figure reached a week-long high. Interesting.
But those log in details will end up telling us a lot more.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Little House of Concrete Goes Solar (2)

Based on a scan of yesterday's blog entry The Presumptive Reader might be inclined to envisage the following scenario.

The departure of the final work truck produces a flurry of activity as doors and windows are closed. Four air-conditioning units are cranked up to Arctic mode, followed by a vision of Hughesy sprawled out in the comfy chair with a cool drink as he announces "This in living!"

There are a couple of reasons why it didn't pan out that way.

One mentions, in passing, that the sum total of air-con action in the week since the panels went on the roof has been a spell of about half an hour when I got back from the walk last Wednesday morning.

For a start, over the lat week the sou'easter has been blowing away nicely, removing the need for artificial cooling. The corner block with nothing to block the breeze continues to deliver.

More significantly, closing the front door means you can't see outside, which has certain implications when it comes to the real powers that be in the Little House of Concrete.

With the door closed there's no way of knowing when Lik Lik and Ninja, having appropriated egress, are desirous of readmission.

I've toyed with various look out through the front door options over the years. While one way glass looks like it might be feasible, until we do something in that regard there's no way of knowing when cats want to come back in.

So that's two reasons. There's a third, which raises some interesting implications when it comes to renewable energy. A cynic would suggest therein lies much of the resistance from the non-renewable part of the electricity generating sector.

Quite simply, having gone solar we're interested to see what it can do and how much of the daily usage twenty panels on the roof and a 5 KW inverter can cover. The theory is that it should cover the lot, but it doesn't quite work like that.

It takes a while to reach full capacity in the morning and it, predictably, tapers off in the afternoon.

Your first reaction, unsurprisingly when you're in an inquisitive frame of mind, is to scale things back until you get a fair indication. And, at the same time, you become more conscious of what you're actually using.

There's a sense of proprietorship (or something) when it's "your" power, and I've found myself being more careful about what I turn on and much more systematic about turning things off. Recharging the iPad doesn't chew up much juice, but I'm inclined to do it when I head off to the Post Office around midday.

The inverter can be monitored through the WiFi network. While we haven't been given the log on details so we can do that ourselves, daily emails provide a bit of feedback on the system's performance. They started arriving on Thursday, with a week by week summary turning up on midnight on Sunday night. Not that I'm sitting up breathlessly waiting for it to arrive.

Burning the midnight oil would be a waste of electricity...

But the first weekly report suggests a pretty solid 25-point something KWH, which doesn't seem too shabby. If I'm reading the daily reports correctly, 5.1, 4.3, 5.2, 5.8 and 4.2 KWH going out since the reports started.

On that basis it "seems" to suggest we're covering our daytime usage, with around 20% of what we generate going back to the grid.

The next question is whether what goes out generates enough income to cover the cost of what comes in between the time the panels start to taper off in the late afternoon and the time they start to hit their straps again in the morning.

Very little of that probably matters to either of the people who stumbled past here yesterday.

But, on the other hand, a blog entry is a handy way of clarifying thoughts on the matter.

Tomorrow (probably): Further musings on small-scale sustainability.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Little House of Concrete Goes Solar (1)

The Casual Observer, passing The Little House of Concrete and noting the panels on the roof, the sign on the fence and the sticker on the wheelie bin, might be tempted to regard the three items as some form of environmentalist statement. After all, it's not as if I've made any secret of my moderate Left-Green-Republican-Reconciliation-Refugee leanings.
And I do sip the odd Chardonnay (among other things).
But if you're looking for the explanation behind the subject line in this little diatribe, you'll find it in two words: air conditioning.
The Critical Reader might look at those two words and suspect a degree of contradiction, but Hughesy's love of air-conditioning goes back a long way. It might be close to twenty years since I stopped spending the cricket season out in the sun and, far too often, away from the shade.
Old habits die hard, and long-held preferences are hard to root out.
As soon as I could afford to refrigerate my sleeping quarters I did. Since we weren't paying for electricity in teacher accommodation back in those days, I was only up for the cost of hardware and installation. The rattler that went into the window of my westward-facing bedroom in West Street followed me to The Full 360 and on to The Little House of Concrete. When it looked like giving up the ghost, in went a replacement.
And, for a while, it looked like the bedroom was the only section of the LHoC that needed air-con.
For the first few years the corner block, the south-east aspect and blowin' Bowen's characteristic breezes meant it was a very cool house indeed. Probably didn't need the air-con either.
But then, one summer, things changed. Stiff breezes from the sou'east were replaced by That Mongrel Northerly and I sweltered.
Which, in turn explains why a flier in an electricity bill offering a reasonable deal that could be paid off with the power bill had us adding split systems to the living room and Hughesy's office. Not that we use them all that much, but when we need to, we do. Even with Madam's Extension whacked on the back the configuration of the LHoC isn't compatible with northerlies.
And the air-con got a decent workout while the roadworks contractors did their thing along Brisbane Street, to the extent that we always meant to do something about giving the units a proper, professional, thorough servicing.
Prompted by a flier in the letter box, we did., but as so often happens with these things, it didn't stop there.
The same flier also offered what looked like a good deal on split systems, and the rattler in the bedroom was a noisy affair. Why not get a quote on a replacement? And add a system to The Extension as well.
While we're not looking at relocating any time soon, the possibility is lurking there over the horizon, and there are a lot of houses on the market in Bowen at the moment.
A fully-airconditioned property is probably more marketable than one that isn't.
A fully air-conditioned property is also going to attract significantly higher power bills, so by looking at solar we were probably adding to the marketability and doing something about our financial bottom line.
It's not as if electricity tariffs are likely to go down.
And, as things turned out, things looked to be quite reasonable. Even more reasonable if we were willing to have a sign on the fence and a sticker on the wheely bin.
Which is, of course, why they're there.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Thank you Mr Jobs

There aren't too many people who get into a position where they can change the world, and most of the ones who arrive at that point manage to stuff things up, usually because they end up listening to the conventional wisdom as the nay-sayers start gathering around, pointing out what's not actually possible and making helpful suggestions about ways things could be done better.

Whatever other character quirks and personal foibles Steve Jobs may have had, paying attention to the conventional wisdom wasn't one of them.

Over the past week there have been enough column inches filled to make another narrative approach unnecessary, and, in any case, this particular Apple fan boy would rather reflect on Mr Jobs' iconoclastic approach than run through another chronology of achievements.

With the Apple II among the vanguard of the wave of personal computers that appeared on the market in the early eighties you'd have thought the way to go was to conform to emerging industry standards. After all, no one was sure what these things were going to be able to do, so collaboration would have to be better than competition, and you'd want to keep the programmers on side.

Computer programming was, after all, a pretty sophisticated skill back then in the days of the command line interface.

Since I've been on board the personal computer bandwagon for the best part of thirty years I can remember the command line interface. If you weren't around at the time, trust me.

It might have worked, but it wasn't easy to use and definitely wasn't pretty.

Steve Jobs, sighting an alternative in the Rank Xerox laboratory at Palo Alto, went that way, and while the first point and click graphic user interface on the $9,995 Apple Lisa didn't set the world on fire it definitely sounded interesting. I wish I'd kept those magazines to point to the articles...

While Lisa wasn't the actual breakthrough, the first Macintosh was, and from the earliest days of the Mac era there were plenty of conventional wisdom nay-sayers out there trying to convince the public that it wouldn't work.

It's a toy. If you want to get some real work done, you need a PC. That sort of bullshit.

What was undeniable from the start was that there was a substantial section of the market that liked the interface and wanted things to work that way. Jobs was pushed off the board at Apple when the conventional wisdom started taking over (we're talking early days, after all) and for a while there it looked like Apple was on the way out.

Things were, in fact, so serious that Jobs returned to the fold in a sort of welcome back, Steve, everything is forgiven. That involved a buyout of his NeXt project and recognition that he'd need to devote some time to looking after his interests at Pixar.

Things started to change with the iMac, though the conventional wisdom suggested a computer without a floppy disk drive was doomed to failure.

Fifteen years later you'd be flat out finding a program that would fit on a floppy disk.

Actually, you'd be flat out finding software that'll fit on a single CD-ROM...

The iMac bounce, however, was only the first of the iQuartet that ended up putting Apple in the dominant market position the company enjoys today, and it'd be fascinating to find out how far back some of the foresight went.

Take, for instance, the decision to buy out an existing MP3 program, that was relaunched as iTunes. It was out there, and people were ripping their CD collections onto computer hard drives well before the iPod appeared, and when it duly arrived on the market sniffy comments about the majority of music on people's iPods being stolen was probably true, at least up to a point.

There certainly wasn't an easy avenue to buy content for the iPod at the time, and I can't help thinking part of the negotiating strategy as the iTunes Music Store was set up involved reminding unconvinced record company executives that here was a way to make people pay for some of the content they were consuming.

The iMac to iPod/iTunes nexus pointed out another area where Apple was running against the stream. You needed, in the conventional wisdom, to adhere to industry standards that could be run across platforms coming from a number of different manufacturers.

Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? Those voices you were hearing were the voices of people who wanted things to run on their industry standard platforms.

From iPod to iPhone wasn't, when you look back on it, anything major in the quantum leap department, and neither was the step from iPhone to iPad. Each was a logical extension of existing technology delivered on a tightly controlled platform where there weren't major issues with compatibility.

Yes, you could go somewhere else, get something cheaper, maybe even find something that looked nearly as good, but when it came to getting the different bits and prices to play nicely together...

Now, there's been a bit of discussion in various sections of the interweb as to whether wwhat Jobs and Apple have delivered us amounts to a revolution, with subsequent sidetracks into whether this was A Good Thing, but from where I'm sitting the response to those questions is fairly clear.

Revolution? Certainly.

The last twenty years have created a completely new avenue of instantaneous communication and while the process of change is nowhere near complete already we're looking at a telecommunications landscape that's very different from what we had twenty years ago.

Admittedly, we're possibly looking at the sort of landscape that might have happened anyway, but I'd question whether you'd have anything like the interwebs as we know them in a command line environment.

While Jobs and Apple didn't invent the point and click graphic user environment, they saw it and spotted where it might lead.

There's also a strong argument that suggests that we wouldn't be where we are today without a little piece of software called Hypercard, which delivered content with hyperlinks in much the same manner as we click our way through websites today.

Hypercard may not have been the first the first hypermedia application, but it was bundled with all new Macs sold after 1987 until Mr Jobs withdrew support for the program, a move that created a number of very pissed off users at the time.

I had a largish Hypercard project that was nowhere near complete and had absorbed a lot of time and effort which was, effectively, wasted, but I'm convinced that what I learned in the process was valuable once I started playing around with my website and blogs etc.

The decision to kill Hypercard, along with the lack of a floppy drive on the iMac and the impending demise of MobileMe are all examples of the way some of us have been taken, in many cases yelling and screaming in the direction that these dudes had planned. At the time these things seemed like major upsets, but I suspect that they got jettisoned because they'd only slow down progress in the predetermined direction.

Now, you might have reservations about the changes, but you have to admit that they happened. You might not need then right now, but they're there if you want them. MobileMe might be going, and I'm not surec what that means for my old website, but I'll have a gander at the iCloud while I'm looking at the options. It may well be a case of the free blogging environment handling much of that content, so why do you need a website?

As to the question of whether all of this has been A Good Thing, it depends on where you're at, doesn't it?

I spend a good twelve hours a day hunkered down in the Command Bunker, interacting with iMac, iPad and various print materials with an accompanying soundtrack delivered by iTunes drawn from slightly less than thirty thousand tracks that represent the vast bulk of the commercial CD releases I've bought over twenty-plus years.

Yes, it's not the same as having the album's gatefold sleeve there, or being able to read the CD booklet, but then again when I buy something through iTunes there's often the equivalent of the booklet in the digitally-delivered bundle, and, in any case, how much time do you spend reading liner notes while you're working?

Reading a book on your iPad (or, for that matter, a Kindle or equivalent e-reader) isn't the same as reading a hard copy, but when was the last time you took your bookshelves with you when you went on holiday?

And since when (talking the iPad here) were you able to use your bookshelf as a motel room sound system, a photo album and GPS-enabled satnav device?

As for the Good Thing or Bad Thing question, I guess it all comes down to Dominance versus Delivery.

You can look at price, compatibility issues, and every other charge that's been levelled at Jobs and his acolytes over the years, and agree that, yes, they've been at least a little excessive in most departments and there are serious issues in some areas.

On the other hand I spent just under twenty dollars on a hard copy of Ry Cooder's book of Los Angeles Stories just over a month ago. I just hopped over to the seller's website to check in and got a Los Angeles Stories has been delayed. Our staff are currently checking this with the supplier and will update your order within the next 24-48 hours.

And, yes, while it's not lurking among the books in the iTunes Store, there it is over at Amazon's Kindle shop for $9.99, immediate digital delivery. Should've looked there first, shouldn't I?

No, your mileage may, and quite possibly will, vary but some of us owe Steve Jobs a lot.

Thanks, Steve...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

So, fair enough, where are we coming from?

Ah, yes, The Reader will probably be saying, another old leftie who’s looking for an opportunity to bang on about the three Rs.

Well, yeah, but I’ll take exception to the old bit, and point out:

You can’t talk about the Republic without considering the Australian Constitution along the way, and there are any number of areas that need to be addressed in a document that was basically cobbled together with a view to getting the thing accepted in a referendum rather to an eye to issues that might turn out to be troublesome in the future.

I’d like to see the Republic, but I’d prefer to see the Murray-Darling Basin issues sorted out.

Symbolic acts of Reconciliation are all very well, but we really need to do something about the ongoing vortex that sucks in countless millions of taxpayer dollars without delivering anything in the way of measurable outcomes that will actually do something to improve the living conditions of indigenous Australians.

And on the question of Refugees current practices may or may not constitute crimes against humanity, but if they aren’t they’re in a neighbouring post code. They’re also a waste of taxpayer dollars, a blight on our standing in the international community and are doing untold psychological harm to people who, frankly, should be treated as human beings.

But there’s more than those three issues that I want to have a go at.

We’ve got a number of controversial irons in the fire at the moment, and three of them impinge on areas that have had significant impact on my own life, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have definite opinions about:

The tobacco industry and smoking. I’m an ex-smoker whose nose still twitches when I pass someone smoking on the footpath.

Poker machines and gambling. I might not have been an addictive gambler, but I could easily have been and escaped that fate by the skin of my teeth.

Binge drinking and taxation issues relating to alcohol. After all, if I’m not an alcoholic I have an addictive personality and have a long term interest in the Australian wine industry.

The decline in (or more accurately the disappearance of) ideas from political discourse as issues relating to the above matters are pushed onto the back burner or distorted in the daily battle for dominance of the news cycle.

So, given those considerations, the chance to put together eight hundred to a thousand words every so often and clarify my own thoughts on an issue seems a fairly worthwhile exercise.

Your mileage on these matters, of course, may well vary, but, hey, it’s a free country, right?

Or it allegedly was, last time I looked.