Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why Solar power systems suck

I have just finished my yearly research into the current solar schemes and system prices, I have come to the conclusion that its a big scam and will continue to be for some time. 

Let me be clear that I am talking about urban, grid connected systems with easy availability of grid electricity.  This is not about remote area power or fridge power (where the quality of the grid is a bit wobbly)

1) Pricing

The pricing model for solar systems is always pitched in comparison to the grid.  The sales people are simply trying to "beat the grid"rather than pricing the systems based on any intrinsic quality of the system.  Usually they are only trying to be "just"better than the grid price.  The other problem is that the way they try to calculate that price is on an upfront cost versus "best guess over time"cost.  This all gets pretty wobbly once you start trying to guess what your usage will be in the future, what the grid price will be in the future etc.  

2) Power output

The models used to predict power output from a solar system are pretty simple.  Amount of sun per day, amount of sunny days for your region, potential output from the panels, decline in panel output over time, time of day you want to use the power.... but you try getting a straight answer from a salesman.  Once you do the math from first principles its not rocket science.  But you also realize just how little actual usable power you will have at any point in time. 

Then you realize just how much power you will be returning to the grid for free; which leads to the realization that you will be buying most of it back at 6 times what you were paid for it.

3) Storage

Storage is the only thing that makes a solar system make sense. But once you look at the additional cost and risk it just gets stupid quickly.

The storage systems that are available are expensive, high risk and high maintenance.  You require yet another box on the wall to manage the storage, which increases system complexity and risk.  Trying to do anything like a gravity battery or hydrogen system is a joke.  There is just nothing viable unless you go for old school battery banks with the associated problems. 

4) Risk

Take 15 different peices of equipment, wire, frames and a connection to the grid and figure out the failure rate of them and the cost to replace, downtime, potential side effects of collateral damage in the event of catastrophic failure, the additional risk of high voltages floating around the house and the general issues of dealing with more trades, small businesses and 15 to 25 year warranties from companies that change their names every two years or only supply under short term contracts....  It's just a massive pile of risks that are difficult to mitigate.  Some are physical risks, some are ecconomic, some are reliability risks.... and they are all your problem once you buy the system.

About the only way that you can mitigate some of these risks is to buy (or add the system to your existing) insurance.  However, as we are again playing guessing games with the future, I think its hard to know if the insurance will actually cover all these issues.  Even if it does now, its possible that this could change at some point during the period you own the system.... yet another risk.  

5) Investment return

Honestly the investment returns I have seen are rubbish.  Depending on how you massage the spreadsheet and how much wishful thinking you inject you can get a flat payoff period somewhere between 6 and 10 years.  IF you play the system very hard. 

If you live in the real world and work outside the home during the day... then you are pretty much screwed.  Unless you can either store or use the power during the day, your ability to recover your initial costs are seriously diminished. The power going into the grid during the day will not be nearly enough to offset what you use during the evening.  

This is yet another risk that is not disclosed in any of the literature that is easily available. Your system dictates your lifestyle.   

The return from the gov rebate or a grid feed rebate is always going to be a game run by the big players.  YOU CANNOT WIN.  There is no interest in making it a fair game. Even if it was, it would still be a game of SCALE.  Big generators will be able to get efficiencies that small players cannot.  The overheads will always push small producers out of volume markets. 

6) Reliable data

Just trying to get hard enough data to differentiate between two products in the solar market is way too hard. It's just bullshit.  You try differentiating between two inverters based on anything other than the published price and the colour of the box... you have virtually nothing to go on.  I have not found anything like an independent testing body any useful data to base a decision on performance.  Even then the sales people will finally admin that once the system is installed they will need to "tune"it to get it to perform adequately.  This may continue for a year or more.  (So for the first year or so of your systems lifetime, it may not work properly.  Should this be part of the product disclosure?  What effect will this have on your payback period?  Does this add more costs?  What is the risk that they will never get it working "adequately"?)   

7) Inflexibility

 Once you commit to purchasing the system and all the associated unknowns... you are stuck with it for the future.... If you have had a look at the resale value of an installed system... unless you sell the house with it installed its going to be alot smaller.  Keep in mind that you need a sparky to extract the system and a way to deliver it to the new owner.  Then you have the loss and liability involved in selling something. (Check consumer law) So, in summary there is no cheap way to change your mind without taking a bath.

Now think about the technology. The panels degrade over time and the inverter is a computer. The batteries do not get better with use.  Everything gets much less valuable the longer you own it.  At some point everything you have purchased will reach a zero value point and you will need to dispose of it.  The batteries are actually the only thing that will have much value at that point as the lead will still get a good price from the scrap metal dealer.  Old panels might be able to be sold as is, but it will take a sparky to evaluate them, so no-one will be buying them on sight.  This will add an overhead to disposal unless you simply sell them for scrap value (about 1kg of aluminum and some steel) or about $10 for a panel that cost you $500 new.

 So, if you look at the system as an investment, its a very rigid deal.  You either stick with it for 15 years or you loose. And your chances of getting any sort of pay-off are minimal.  Your best hope will be to get your money back but after 15 years of indexing at between 2 and 4%... its going to be eaten up either way.

8) Ideological Bullshit

The amount of lying involved in the solar debate is just gobsmaking.  Both lies of ommision and lies of commision.  Once you get past the crap, the only substance left is the ideology.  The idea that in some existantial way, solar systems are somehow better.  They produce less polution (check the production systems and the factories in China, the labour conditions, the social systems that support all this and finally the explointation required to keep the cheap labour) then make the ethical argruments...

From a technical standpoint I like the idea of collecting solar energy, but the technology is just not here yet to store it effectively (hydrogen) and recover it rapidly (fuel cells) without having a massivly parallel system that is outrageouly expensive and a maintenance headache. The inefficiencies in the availible technology just make it impractical.

Hopefully this situation will change over time, but for now, the grid is cheap, efficient, low risk, ethically neutral and very low maintenance.   Economy of scale is very hard to beat.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Updating my web editor - or the great dreamweaver debate....

I have been using Dreamweaver CS4 since... a while now.  As I was only doing a bit of simple web gui work mostly with tricky clientside javascript but fairly basic hand coded interfaces... CS4 was fine.

I have recently landed with a whole pile of projects that are very GUI dependant. Active websites and quite complex web apps.  Trying to hand code all this stuff is just painful. 

So, this got me looking at my tooling. What I wanted was a fairly high level way to compose the GUI and then good support for the inevitable coding under the bonnet.  Dreamweaver is a nice editor but the CS4 designer is just broken on modern coding styles.

Thus began the quest to get something better.

The starting point is just to upgrade to the latest version of Dreamweaver... but Adobe have continued their mission to make their software both ridiculosly expensive and even more entangled in their ecosystem. 

Firstly, I don't have a problem with paying for software.  I recognise that Adobe make a simply exceptional product line and the amount of working code that you get for your money is gobsmacking.  That being said, their pricing model is just mean unless you are a fulltime production user.  (I also recognise that they are the most pirated software ...ever.  Which I think might explain a bit of the "meanness" in their attitude.)  Anyway.... the pricing was a bit of a shock to the system. 

The level of entanglement in their online ecosystem and the frailty of that system is a bit worrying.  Honestly, its not very worrying... just a bit new and took a bit of time to think about. (Again, there was a hint of mean-ness in the attitude from Adobe customer service about their handling of service outages... but that could be just me projecting into what I have read) 

However, in summary, I suspect that the monopoly position that Adobe has occupied for some years is getting ingrained as arrogance throughout the organisation.  This should be a cause for concern among its managment.

Anyway, back to the problem.

After some thrashing around and getting my head back in the game of current generation web design I started looking at the contenders.

My first realisation was that working at the HTML/CSS level is a mugs game.  Its just not feasible to hand write current generation web app.  (It is, but you are not going to get much done and it will consume your life) There is no way to avoid frameworks now.  Its just not even a question.  The only question now is which framework(s) you choose to use for the projects.

The put me onto a side detour to play "pick a framework".... talk about down the freak'n rabbit hole!

As I have dabbled in a couple of back and front end frameworks before, I had some starting places.  After a really messy period of reading and test playing,.... I settled with:

PHP (4-5 frameworks still to be refined down) for the server side
Angular.js + bootstrap for the client side

Why did I pick these?  In the end it was mostly cause those were the ones I liked best and the tutorials were pleasant.  (Honestly that was about it.  I stopped looking for compelling reasons as it was all bullshit.... the tradeoffs are just to many and varied for me to make an informed choice yet... so I just stopped trying to "be right". I will build a couple of projects and then re-evaluate as I get more literate.)

In the time since I made those choices... even more choices have come to light... its just a mad mess out there.  (Which supports the main theme of this train-wreck of a post)


To recap, I wanted an editor that would allow me to do high level assembly of pages and support the inevitable coding with all the bells and whistles of coding editors like Visual Studio ( big ask I know)

Drag and drop, wysiwyg designer, syntax highlighting, project managment, debugger... etc.

Coffeecup HTMLEditor (and other tools)

This is an interesting little suite of tools... but they are almost novelty tools.  The editor is pretty but has no support for backend coding.  Just look at its javascript handling.  This is dead technology from a decade ago.

Ignore these tools. There is nothing here anymore.  No.


Just don't bother. It's an academic toybox.



Yet another web editor from the past. WYSIWYG....bullshit.  This is a very competent editor for about 10 years ago.


Webstorm and PHPStorm

Code editors without any GUI designer. Very nice code editors which should be rolled together... but I want a GUI designer.

High quality code tools... no help for the design stuff.  Could be a contender if they ever get the graphical nature of the web.


Microsoft Webmatrix

Yet another in Microsofts long line of half-assed attempts to almost commit to having a web development toolbox. Frontpage, ASP, Expression, Metro, Silverlight blah blah blah.  I just cannot understand why they always manage to totally stuff it up so completely. Get the politics out of the tools you idiots!  I have a lot of trust issues with MS and this is not giving me any warm feelings.  It looks like yet another abandonware project that has no commitment behind it.

So, this is a No from me until the whole company grows the fuck up.

Microsoft Visual Web Developer (Express, Pro... whatever)

Already dead by the time I got there.


Microsoft Visual Studio with plugins 

Only if you want to use MS backend tech.  And you are happy with really shit rendering of the page you are working on....


Microsoft Expression Web

Go the fuck away MS.

NO you fucktards.  Commit to something and stop fucking around or just die and get out of the road.  Do you have any idea just how much effort has been wasted on your endless inability to commit?

Google Webdesigner

 Almost a mirror image of Microsofts poor effort.  Inhouse tool that is not getting much love. Beta feature set. 

No. No. NO.

There are more...

 BlueFish, Open Bexi, Namo, Aptana, Text Mate, Blue Griffon, Top Styler.. etc.  Many are good code editor.  None that I spent the time looking at are good GUI designers. It all became a bit of a blur honestly... I may have missed stuff but the fatigue of trying to honstely evaluate this many similar bits of software and seeing the same repeated patterns of failure; same decade old model got a bit depressing. 

However, it did bring the problem into sharp focus.

I also think that the buffet of half-assed editors should sound a real warning to the industry.  The tools are lagging well behind the needs of the people building this generation of web-apps. 

The editors are not keeping pace with the frameworks. Very few of them are what I would describe as "framework aware".  There are some that have "plugins" to handle the framework classes and make their syntax checkers work with your framework of choice.  This is a BIG PLUS in their favour... but its a trick that has been around for years.

In my survey, I did not find many editors that were able to do "high level" manipulation of common stuff like bootstrap.  The fact that bootstrap is fragmenting and evolving as soon as you look hard at it is similar to all the frameworks.  It must be a nightmare for the groups working on these editors.

Support for big ticket middleware frameworks like jquery or angular was also a bit underwhelming.  What I did find was still very "low level"... essentially ... "here's a nice code editor" ... hand code it yourself.

The other trend I noticed was the reliance on external browsers to render a "preview" of the page. This is good. Any serious web editor needs this... but its not a high level design tool.  There is no drag... no resizing of grids... no direct editing of properties or adding of directives.  This is just a better preview system.

This is bullshit. 

So back to Dreamweaver. 

Get a trial of Dreamweaver CC.  Start testing.  Jaw hang open in shock.  Fuck me!  All the problems I have found in "the other packages" are in dreamweaver too.  (Excep the design surface is a bit better)

There is still really crappy awareness about frameworks and middleware.  You still have to crack open the code editor to get much done. The GUI designer still plows the code into its own way of thinking.  Honestly its hard to say that this is any sort of step upward from CS4.  (Lots of stuff if better.. but the high level productivity is not really there. )

This is so broken. 

Where to go from here?  

 Time to change the way I'm thinking about the problem. Certainly time to review my expectations. 

My (new) expectations....

Productive IDE for code and project managment.  Needs to be FTP/Server aware for rapid round trip testing.  Should have easy round trip local browser preview for different screen/device configs. 

Ability to plug in frameworks and packages.  I have seen a bunch of package management systems and none are pretty.  But the idea is solid.  

The browser based debuggers are really where the state of the art is at.  Get used to them. 

Generic GUI design surfaces/toolboxes are dead.  I struggle to imagine how they can become relevant again unless they pair with a specific set of frameworks and widgets and work at being very aware of their conventions, models and idiosynchracies.  (Almost back to the Microsoft model... *vomit*rage*rant*blame*cry*acceptance*)

A CSS designer is a different beast.  I think this is now essential in a modern web editor. This atleast dreamweaver has... but I am still working on being happy with it.  There has to be a better way.  LESS and SaSS are now essential to making CSS managable.  These need to be supported and compiled/minified at runtime.

Database managment, SQL code generation, PHP etc... templates?

Templates were great back in the day.  But unless I start building static sites like its 1995 again, I think that tech is gone.  Generating a page using javascript on the client side is much more valuable to what I need to do now.

The more I google, the more I find that other people have traveled the same road ahead of me.  The more I find that their outcomes are .. variable.

The way I read it, there are two camps. Those who are looking for a "better" dreamweaver. That is, a better graphical editor for making static pages.  This is the Graphic Designers mindset.  They need visual tools with high level control.

The second camp are people who need to build current generation sites and for that dreamweaver is irrelevant (and has been for some time).  This is the programmers mindset.  They need a web focused IDE.

At the moment I cannot honestly say there is any replacement for Dreamweaver for the designers.  There are a couple of interesting things emerging... but nothing compelling. 
The intersting thing with this is how Adobe themselves have changed course.  Their "Edge" suite has already lost its code editor package in favour of Brackets with some glue code to allow export from PSD files.  This looks very like a tool path for "Designers" and basically replaces the "visual" design tools in Dreamweaver (which have not really progressed in the past decade).

For people who are coding websites.... there are a slew of contenders.  Most are solid IDE's, but the better ones are tuned for web dev and integrated with browsers and remote debuggers etc.  

The best of the crop are going to be the ones that make it easy to work with the frameworks, CSS, LESS, HTML5 Canvas and the sound api's while still being able to hack on a database and remote debug javascript.  This stuff is beyond a standard single language IDE.  Even IDE's can handle the syntax of multiple languages.  A web app is a ball of multiple languages all mushed together.  The fact that there is a buffet of options just makes it a really ugly problem.


This is the first editor that I have seen that seems to get the idea that CSS and HTML are no longer seperate.  (I don't mean inline styles)  Being able to directly step between the HTML and the CSS file is a big deal... being able to step to the LESS file is even more of a deal.