Thursday, February 26, 2009

How's this for tasteless?

It's a good thing that the Canberra Times is trying to add sense to the debate surrounding bushfires and prescribed burning ( article). But the Google advertisement, placed over the headline, seems a bit tasteless to me. Here's how it presented in Firefox ...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Solar component prices in Australia

Further to my post the other day about solar prices, I have conducted a brief study.

I should at the outset make it clear that this is not comprehensive. I did not include every solar system component from every outlet, because that would take ages and nobody's paying for this. This is a brief, personal study. It does, however, indicate that a more complete analyst's study would be valuable: perhaps if the solar industry is under scrutiny, prices might fall.

And I'm not going to name names. I don't have the resources to fend off companies who, under criticism, decide to launch legal attacks. But I will nominate the best-price sources for a few items, since I suppose nobody's going to object to being identified in that way!

It should also be noted that the prices I worked with were published on February 19 and February 20, 2009. Prices move, and may not be valid by the time you read this.

This study covered system component prices from 12 online suppliers in Australia.

In this small study, I have focussed on a few core solar components: solar panels, batteries, regulators, and inverters. I have ignored hardware such as frames, and I haven't had time to add chargers to the list.
I have not included eBay prices in this small study. It's often difficult to identify the manufacturer of equipment sold on eBay, which makes it impossible to assert the validity of even a small study.

I have focussed on components from “name” manufacturers. For solar panels, these include Sharp, BP and Kyocera. For inverters, the prices cover Lantronic, Selectronic, Powertech, YK and X-Power. Batteries include Fullriver, Rolls, Trojan, Crown, Concorde, Federal, Exide, Remco and Lifeline (because of the huge price difference in battery technology, I focussed mostly on lead acid batteries). Regulator manufacturers include Steca, Morningstar and Plasmatronics.

Finally, methodology needs to be explained. Panels are different sizes, batteries have different capacities, and regulators and inverters are designed for different loads. To normalise these, I calculated the following parameters:

Panels – Price per rated watt of output power.

Batteries – Price per rated amp-hour of capacity at 12V (allowing comparison between different battery voltages).

Regulators – Price per rated amp output for 12V regulators.

Inverters – Price per rated watt of continuous output.


Panels – The price per rated watt of output ranged from $7.72 to $11.92, so the most expensive panels are 154% more costly than the least expensive. The best price per watt in the study was available from Solaronline for a Sharp 180W panel.

Batteries – Cost ranged from $131.68 per rated Ah up to $665.71 per Ah, making the most expensive batteries more than five times the price of the cheapest. The cheapest battery was a 202 aH Federal battery available from Australia Wide Solar. Difference in battery prices should, however, be treated with caution, since this does not take into account expected battery lifetime nor the different level of maintenance required for different battery designs.

Regulators – Price per Ampere for 12V-capable regulators (this includes 12 / 24V dual-voltage models) ranged from $6.17 to $11.18, a range of 181%. The best price was for a Steca 30A regulator from Energymatters.

Inverters – Inverter prices showed the greatest variation of any of the core components studied, from $0.31 per continuous watt output up to $2.50 per continuous watt. It should be noted that there is high variability in the features offered by different inverters; however, even within brands, the highest price may be double the lowest price for the same unit. The best price was for a YK 1500W, 12V regulator from Solar Online.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Quick observations on the solar industry

I've just spent a piece of today costing out solar systems for home use, because soon I'll be starting to build a holiday shack on a little plot in the Southern Tablelands.

I settled on price per watt as a handy benchmark because it was easy to calculate, and there were some surprises.

The first is that the price variations are huge - the most expensive at retail are twice the price of the cheapest, even though I found the range of brands available quite small (so it can't be put down to the old "quality" standby excuse for high prices).

The second is that eBay isn't a great place to buy solar. Only a handful of prices on eBay for stuff that was sold were much below normal retail, and many of the cheapies could not be identified by brand.

The third is that I went back over some old prices, courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback machine, and have come to the conclusion that the solder industry knows a boondoggle - courtesy of government subsidy - when it sees it. So much for saving the planet; we're really about stripping the punters, and who's going to notice a price hike when the government's picking up 2/3 of the tab?

Finally, I really hate the sorts of companies that run the same business under 20 domain names just so they can drag Google searchers. Once I've dismissed someone as overpriced, I'm not going back under some other domain name.

I will be able to put together a solar system I can afford, but the industry doesn't make it easy. Three out of ten, solar industry, and try giving up the extra fat and getting rid of the ripoff merchants.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Let's burn a few social media straw men

Perhaps it's the insecurity born of being the new kid on the block, but social media experts are full of criticism of journalists for not understanding or embracing social media. Their critiques are almost exclusively built on straw men, and I figure it's just as well to identify these.

1) Journalists don't use Twitter.

That's odd, because I know a bunch of Twittering journalists. In my immediate experience, journalists have grabbed Twitter with enthusiasm. Some journalists do, some don't, but that's not surprising; Twitter is still a minority activity – a couple of million users out of a billion Internet users.

2) Journalists don't understand how to get stories from Twitter.

If it was true yesterday, it won't be true tomorrow. Journalists pick up story leads and tips wherever they happen. Just because they prefer selling their output to a paying customer such as a publisher, rather than spilling their livelihood in 160 characters for free, doesn't make the journalist clueless.

3) Journalism is old media

I know quite a few journalists who avoid the term “journalist”, because they've bought the new media fan's cry that journalism is old media. Actually, journalism is an activity. It's something that people do, and the activity is easily differentiated from both the medium (old or new media) and the business model. Avoiding a word because some idiot uses it as a term of abuse means you've accepted the other person's mindset; you're defining yourself in their terms, instead of your own.

Generally, those who say journalism==old media publishing reveal their own lack of understanding. The journalist can exist in a huge range of places that aren't in (say) News Corporation or Fox, and always have.

4)Twitter is the best / only place for contacts

It sounds so silly, put like that, but there are people who believe it. The best place to get a contact is wherever the story comes from. If your contact is on Twitter, that's the place; if your contact is in the pub, then the pub's the place. Anyone who can only interpret life in terms of one channel is, themselves, unidimensional.

5)Twitter is first

The first time I read a story outlining how Twitter outruns the old media straw man, I took the analysis as straight and thought “that's interesting”. The second time, I was watching Twitter unfold at the same time as the story. Since Twitter's stories came from other media (eg, RSS feeds, including 'old media' sites), the claim that it was outrunning its own primary sources is demonstrably nonsense.

As with all media, Twitter has the ability to be first. Any moderately real-time medium can be first; it depends on the channels and reporters (I don't restrict “reporter” to “professional journalist employed by major publisher”) that exist between the event and the reader.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Self Interest or Public Interest? - Google Maps Versus Crown Copyright

The story goes like this: seeing that the Country Fire Authority Website was struggling (as, for that matter, was the Geosciences Australia Sentinel site), Google decided to run a mash-up on Google Maps to display fire locations and help people get the information they needed.

It was able to secure information very quickly from the CFA, which provides a feed of fire information covering private land, but fires on public land are tracked not by the CFA but by Victoria's Department of Sustainability – which didn't give the okay for use of its copyright.

In this ZDnet story, Google's Alan Noble complains that the refusal to provide information has its roots in Crown Copyright, which stands in the way of expanding the geospatial information available to the public.

It's all pretty cut-and-dried, isn't it? On one side, we have a go-getting company devoting resources to a public service, only to be baulked by a hidebound bureaucracy.

But that's not all there is to things.

The first is that Google is well aware how mapping copyrights are handled in Australia. The general reader, I guess, doesn't need the entire end-to-end detail, but the short version is that most of the data used in detailed maps (street directories, for example, or the property boundaries known as cadastral maps) is managed by PSMA – the Public Service Mapping Agency, whose copyright appears on Google Maps Australia's home page next to MapData Sciences Pty Ltd.

Roughly, the PSMA acts as the copyright clearing house for map data at detail finer than that offered for free by Geosciences Australia. In general, this means maps of finer scale than 1:100,000 (this is the potted version, a full description of Australian geodata would need a book).

States own the copyright in their mapping information, and sell it for fairly decent slices of lettuce.

So the first issue in asking for any give-away of state mapping data is simply that there are probably several approvals to go through to get the sign-off; and anyhow, I would guess that a public servant that okayed the free use of data that other users have to pay for would be on a tight spot at some point in the future.

But that doesn't fully satisfy me.

For the last three years or so, in my capacity as an analyst, I have become intimate with geospatial tools and various spatial data sources.

One thing I can tell you is this: while a particular map, or a database of locations, is subject to copyright, there's nothing to stop a person discovering the latitude and longitude of a particular place for themselves, and using that latitude and longitude in a publication. They may well reproduce the co-ordinates held in someone else's database, but the existence of the co-ordinates isn't copyright.

So there's something other than a simple issue of Crown Copyright at stake: Google wanted a particular dataset, to enable a particular programming approach, and it is this that was denied.

There's another remark made by Noble that's worthy of remark:

"It's ironic that I can download detailed NASA satellite imagery [of Australia] more readily than I can get satellite imagery from the Australian government,” he is reported to have said.

That's not surprising: most of the world's satellite imagery comes from NASA, and the Australian government doesn't own the copyright. I can (and do) download NASA images directly to Grass-GIS, the open source geographic application. If you want to get copyright information, go to the copyright owner.

As for its call for mapping data to exist in the public domain, it's worth remembering that PSMA copyright notice at the bottom of Google Maps Australia. There is a clear self-interest here, because Google has to pay a license fee for the PSMA maps – and these don't come for free.

In other words, Google's stance could safely be dismissed, except for one thing.

I happen to agree.

The prices charged for government geospatial data are outrageously high. We paid for the mapping in the first place, via various state lands departments and so on; to buy the maps, we have to pay again – and to buy (say) detailed national street maps runs well into the tens of thousands.

Greater availability won't just support Google: it would open the gate to lots of innovation and, heaven help us, lots of competition, because most of the value-add over the top of geo data is not intrinsic to the data itself.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A Non-Rigorous Calculation: Are E-Books Green?

Just ask Steve Jobs: the best kind of marketing you can get is where your customers do the marketing for you. Buzz is everything.

E-books are one of those markets. Users are absolutely convinced they're right about everything associated with e-books, and are happy to do the marketing on behalf of the industry (how stupid can you be, to act as an unpaid sales rep for anyone?). A quick round-up of e-book arguments runs, roughly:

  • Convenience – Why carry one paper book when you can have an entire library everywhere you go?
  • Cost – E-books are cheaper.
  • Inevitability – This is the way of the future. Anyone who won't get with the program is a luddite.
  • Environment – E-books are greener.

Since the environmental argument is the clincher-of-the-day, I'd like to run it over the back of an envelope and see how it stacks up.

Warning: this is not an academic paper. If you want rigourous analysis, it won't be here, because I don't do rigour for free.

Let's start with the simplest case: all households in Australia have three e-book readers and no longer buy paper books. With roughly 7 million households in Australia, we need 21 million e-books to make paper books redundant.

I don't have a calculation of carbon footprint for e-books, but there's a common enough number for mobile phone manufacture – about 60kg of carbon per phone. Let's give e-books the same number.

That works out to 1.26 million tonnes of carbon to equip Australia for a future free of dead-tree books.

What's the carbon footprint of Australia's book consumption?

That's not too hard to provide, at least as a thumbnail. Australians buy about 130 million books a year, and according to the US Book Industry Study Group, a book's footprint is about 4 kilograms. That comes to 520,000 tonnes of carbon in Australia, if the American figures hold true.

This, however, ignores a couple of things.

The first is the electricity consumption of e-books. This is imponderable, because the one thing I can't tell you is how many people will leave the wall-warts plugged in and warm even when the book is charged.

The biggie, however, is the matter of product turnover. No manufacture can stay solvent by selling a device once, and never selling any more. So let's assume that just to keep the suppliers available to us, we'll need to turn the inventory of e-book readers over every ten years – roughly two million devices sold each year.

That puts a premium on the existence of the market; just for the back-of-the-envelope, we'll put that premium at 120,000 tonnnes of carbon (the footprint of 2 million replacement readers each year).

The other item is the network that delivers the books.

I'm going to use a couple of rough estimates here. The first is from Tom Worthington, who calculates that 20kB crossing the network equates to one gram of carbon (he was talking about e-mail, but let's just borrow the number for PDFs as well).

If each book, as PDF, is 1MB, then its network cost would be 50 grams. If Australia's book consumption remained at 130 million books on e-book readers rather than paper books, the network cost would be 6500 tonnes of carbon per year; nowhere near the millions, but neither is it insignificant.

Let's take the whole thing over five years.

Paper books, at 130 million per year sold in Australia, would generate 2.6 million tonnes of carbon.

For e-books, the assumptions (to repeat myself) are 21 million devices, plus 2 million per year new sales to sustain the market, plus 6500 tonnes of carbon per year for downloading books.

The total, at 1.9 million tonnes, is less than the paper book – but it's not as huge as advocates would have us believe, and it certainly doesn't make the e-book some magical “green” alternative.

And there are a few other cost items that I didn't include.

The first is simple: if the e-book needs more carbon than the mobile phone – just 80 kilos of carbon instead of 60 – then the advantage is nearly zero.

The second is that I've ignored disposal. E-books will either add to the toxic metals stream in landfill, or they'll need energy spent on their disposal.

And finally, there's the assumption that the two markets are exclusive. That is, the e-book isn't just another must-have consumer toy: it really is an exclusive replacement medium.

If this last is not true – if e-books create a distinct market that co-exists with paper books – then e-books are an environmental disaster: they will add to the carbon footprint, not reduce it, while at the same time delivering marginal consumer benefits at the cost of being leg-roped into licensing agreements, dragging publishing under the net of DMCA-type legislation, and reducing our freedom to read, share, resell, and give away our books.