Are Solar Panels a wasteful way to go green?

Last week I wrote about what I consider the main goal of green electricity efforts, namely to stop burning coal. You can do that, to some extent, by removing demand from the grid in places where the grid is coal-heavy. Even in other places, removing demand from the grid will be fairly effective at reducing the production of greenhouse gases.

Update: Since this article a flood of cheap solar panels from China has been changing some of the economics discussed here. I have not altered the article but some of its conclusions deserve adjustment.

No matter what you do — conserve, or put up solar or wind — your goal is to take power off the grid. Many people however, consciously or unconsciously take a different goal — they want to feel that they are doing the green thing. They want their electricity to be clean. This is actually a dangerous idea, I believe. Electrons are electrons. In terms of reducing emissions, you get the exact same result if you put a solar panel on your house than if you put it on your neighbour’s house. You even get a better result if you put it on a house that’s powered by a coal plant, so long as you also reap the benefit (in dollars) of the electricity it makes.

People don’t like to accept this, but it’s much better to put a wind turbine somewhere windy than on your own house. Much better to put a solar panel somewhere sunny than on your own house. And much better in all cases if the power you offset is generated by more by coal than at your house.

However, the real consequences are much deeper. The following numbers reveal it is generally a bad idea to put up solar panels at all, at least right now. That’s because, as you will see below, solar panels are a terrible way to spend money and time to make greener electricity. Absolutely dreadful. Their only attribute is making you feel good because they are on your roof. But you should not feel good, because you could (in theory, and I believe with not much work in practice) have made the planet much greener by using the money you spent on the panels in other ways.

The true goal is to find the method that provides the most bang per buck in removing load from the dirty grid.

Keep reading to see the math and a spreadsheet with some very surprising numbers about what techniques do that the best.  read more »

Naked Singularities and Antarctica

In the first part of Daybreak, we are told that the Colony is in the accretion disk (a reasonably close orbit) of a naked singularity. Naked singularities are an unsettled question in physics. Some don’t think they can exist, others say they can. Here is an explanation from Scientific American written from the pro side.

Such singularities, if they exist, are still massive and have a deep gravity well, but the singularity is not covered by an event horizon. There may be an event horizon present (black hole,) but it is outside it.

The presence of such an object seems important. You just don’t throw one of these into a show if you don’t intend to use it. A black hole or singularity is highly powerful and destructive. So it may exist just to provide a destructive tool, something that can be used to even the odds in the otherwise futile attempt to attack something as large as the Colony.

That’s not so easy. Because singularities and black holes have such deep gravity wells, you can’t just push the colony into one, any more than you could push the Moon into the Earth. Once in orbit, you are very stable, and in fact absent friction you would stay there forever. Pushing something in orbit around a massive object into the massive object is actually harder to do than pushing something far away that is not in orbit, as counterintuitive as that sounds. If you were still in space, and you wanted to put something into the sun, you would just drop it. From the Earth, in orbit around the sun, it would be much harder to get something to go to the sun.

Near a massive object, there are strong tides on anything that is as large as the colony. This is to say, the gravitational force on the close part of the colony is stronger than the force on the distant part, resulting in a net force that would be trying to tear it apart. The colony would have to be strong if it is subject to such tides. However, if there were such tides, you would find the close and far ends of the colony regularly pelted with rocks which would be orbiting at different speeds than the colony as a whole is. If the rocks are still with respect to the colony, tides are not strong.

That one can jump to the mouth of the colony opens up one of the scientific issues with all forms of teleport. The colony has vastly different gravitational energy, space curvature, kinetic energy and angular momentum than ordinary flat space. BSG FTL jumps, however, seem to somehow account for all that, ignoring important rules of conservation. When they jump near a planet, they seem to jump into orbit around it, rather than watching it zoom away.

Many SF stories that have FTL jumps, by the way, make it a rule that jumps can’t do this, they must be done from relatively flat space to relatively flat space. You can’t jump near anything. They do this not simply to be more accurate. Limiting jump technology is a good idea as it can be a plot killer. It’s good to make it hard. If you have it, anybody can escape from anything, anybody can get into anything, and anybody can put a bomb anywhere. When Galactica jumped into the atmosphere in Exodus, it was wicked cool, but also generated a lot of plot holes. Why don’t they do this all the time? Why do colonial ships even have the ability to fly in space, if they could just jump from atmosphere to atmosphere? Why don’t they just jump nuclear bombs next to targets in the middle of battles? Better not to have to ask those questions.

Naked Singularities and SF

SF Writers love naked singularities, because the rules of physics break down. They feel they can write anything, use them as a handy plot device, because nothing you write would be known to be wrong. That’s not quite true, but naked singularities have become a standard in the toolbox for writers that want to do FTL jumping, time travel and alternate realities.

Does this mean we’re in for this? I would be disappointed because this naked singularity has been introduced only in the last episode. I don’t like it if a story resolves its problems with something magically powerful, out of the blue, in the last episode. That cheats the audience. Some readers here think there have been hints of singularity based teleportation. They point to the maelstrom from which Starbuck’s body was transported after the viper exploded. They think this suggests a singularity inside the maelstrom. Leaving aside the questions of the difficulty of having that in physics, this show already has teleportation in the form of FTL jump ships, so the OTG hardly needs to bring in a singularity.

Others have wondered if the singularity might be the path to our real universe, an alternate universe from that of BSG. Now the truth is that travel “through” a naked singularity is a concept that SF writers love but which is actually quite difficult to work out in reality, even with the little we know. But leaving that aside, it is writable in the traditions of the SF that uses naked singularities. Would this ending satisfy you as a “wrap it up” ending? I can’t say it would do so for me.

Ron Moore of course, as a writer for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, has a history with magic wormholes, though he didn’t create the setting for that show. To my mind the most satisfactory plot use of the singularity would be as a means to make it possible to destroy the colony, but it is a strange enough object to introduce that I suspect it will be more.


Several have noticed that the land mass shown on the blue planet with sunrise at the start of the episode is Antarctica. It follows the land patterns precisely. The editing tells us this is Caprica. Is it just the graphics crew using some stock images to make it easy to make a realistic Caprica? Or is it a subtle hint that real Earth is out there?

First of all, the land mass is brown, not white. But we saw Earth in “Crossroads” at the end of season 3 and it had normal sea levels. It was not a planet of melted polar ice caps.

Secondly, the stars in the background, which have come to be less and less reliable, are the stars of the solar system, but they are from the Zodiac. As you can figure out, if you were looking at the Earth over the south pole, the stars in the background would be those of the north pole, such as the little dipper and North Star, and the stars around them. The sun, however, only appears in the Zodiac, and it never appears where they show it in this picture. Of course, they have used the Earth stars in the wrong way many times now, but you would think that if they were showing real Earth, they would take some care this one special time.

Finally, the terminator (day-night line), instead of going from polar region to polar region, curves east-west. It does do this in Antarctic winter (July) though I am not sure it ever gets quite like this, with the sun rising in the North, rather than slightly east or west of North.

So, hint of Earth, or graphics dept. borrowing some images?


Something revealed in the comments that I didn’t know. The reason we have seen Anders in a hospital bed or in a tank for all these episodes is external to the show. The actor, Michael Trucco, broke his neck in a car accident and was still recovering when this was shot. He is better now, except for some fused vertebrae, but back then he really couldn’t act below the neck! So Anders the perfect machine, one with Galactica, looks like a last minute addition to the plot, but it’s going reasonably well.

Asian style writing

In the zoom-overs on Caprica, it is interesting to note that four buildings have Asian style writing on them. I don’t think it’s actual asian writing (perhaps those who can read it will tell us) but it is obviously styled on it and reads downwards rather than left to right. In one case, there is a street with three shops with asian style signs, and a 3rd saying “McCool” — it’s quite common for Asian streets to have signs with English words.

On the other hand, Laura’s door says “701” in good old arabic numerals. In Asia they use those as well.

This implies that the Capricans really write with an Asian script. But all papers and signs on Galactica are in English, and read horizontally, not down. Of course we see English because the audience needs to see English, but this is a bit hard to reconcile. Perhaps they just bought the 3-D city simulation from some Asian graphics company and forgot to edit out the signs when they added the Colonial Heavy luxury ships etc.?