Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Think outside the bubble.

I have always known that the SF Bay Area was a bubble, but since moving to Chicagoland, and going about the mundane things in life, this has become very clear. I’m not talking about the perfect-temperature-summer-or-winter and always-sunny weather bubble.   When Mark Twain apparently said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,* I can only assume that he was never in Chicago anytime between November and April.   

No. I’m talking about the show-me-the-next-big-technology bubble in the Nor. Cal. area.   Where every fifth car is a Tesla, every third is a Leaf, and a roof without a solar panel means it has the latest in architectural solar shingles.

I have seen a total of ten Tesla’s in the last 3-4 months in the burbs of Chicago.  Five of them are the same color, so highly possible I keep seeing the same ones again and again.  I have seen a handful of Leaf’s.  I got all excited when I saw my first BMW i3 the past weekend; I now know what a Big Foot sighting feels like. 

The grocery store we shop in has a few slots allocated for clean vehicles.  The first time we drove up there in our Prius, I parked next to these spots, because, in the Bay Area, a Prius is not really a clean vehicle.  I had assumed that these are for the oh-so-many-EVs we have in the road.  Well well well… what do you know?  I see everything except clean vehicles take up those spaces.  I once saw a F150 parked in the slot.  And No. It was not an indie-convert F150 with a 150 kWh battery pack in the flat bed.    I suppose the driver interpreted the sign as being referenced to a big rig. 

We have been house hunting for the last month and as with all home buyers we don’t look at the road when driving, but the roofs of the homes on the side of the road (one reason why we desperately need to move to automated cars).  We have yet to see a roof line that has a solar panel, unless it is hiding somewhere within the folds of the enormous structures that people here call homes.  When we bought our home in CA in 2011, rooftop solar was still a novelty.  But by the time we moved, ~30% of my neighborhood had solar and the number was increasing. 

The difference in solar penetration is easier to understand; with electricity at 9c/kWh in IL compared to 15c/kWh in CA and less sunny days, the economics are harder to justify.  And there is the well-known effect that if your neighbor has solar, you get to understand the technology, get recommendation on installers, tips on using it etc.  Adoption becomes easier with knowledge. The bubble in the Bay Area has certainly helped solar PV.  Imagine the ego boost when you can proclaim that you have more MWh generated than anyone else on the block.  Never underestimate the power of peer pressure. 

CA jumpstarted its solar push using state incentives.  A bill that was recently passed in IL will, hopefully, help in this regard.  And the steady dropping costs of solar will also help.  Solar module prices are dropping like a brick; the latest word appears to be close to 3c/kWh.  Maybe the next 6 years in IL are going to be the same as what I saw in CA when I bought a house 6 years ago; a steady rise in rooftop solar.  Maybe... 

The EV penetration differences are going to be harder to bridge.  So, gas is a bit cheaper in IL, but not by much. The lower electricity cost will certain help EVs.  Driving distances are not that dramatically different.  Yes, the cold weather will kill the range (and damn, is it cold here!) with all the heating needs, but these are trivial differences.  There has to be a deeper reason. 

We all like to think car buying is a rational process involves some sort of financial calculation.  Reality is that once we sit in the car, rationality goes out the window.  The car we drive is a statement about who we are.  I remember years ago, when we had just about gotten a job, me driving thru a fancy neighborhood in a Subaru and commenting to my wife that we don’t belong there.  A few years later, my wife bought a Prius, and we drove thru the same neighborhood and I commented that we still don’t belong there, but no-one there knows it.  This was the mid 2000’s when the Prius was the ultimate leveler:  If you were green you had a Prius, irrespective of your economic standing.  Larry David had one, and so did I. 

A decade later, we have bifurcation in the EV/plug-in market.  There is the “value for money” car (Leaf), the “reliability is key” car (plug in Prius), the “German handling” car (i3), the “driving-range flexibility” car (Volt), and the “I have the green to make a statement” car (Model S).   

These work very well inside the bubble.  But outside? 

I wonder if the bifurcation we need is not the above, but the “this is the next cool thing that happened to mankind” one.  The Model 3 preorders seems to have tapped into this part of our brain (the Model S has this angle, except at a price tag to ensure exclusivity).  A purely economic argument may not be enough.  Rather, we need EV’s to provide the buyer with a lifestyle they want to see themselves in.

In a post last year, I was examining the rise of the 200 mile EV segment and wondering if this will change the pace of adoption.  It certainly will in the Bay Area. But now I wonder if we need more than just the driving range at the price we can afford for adoption in places like my new home.

Not sure the same “imagine yourself sitting here” argument works for home solar (same for solar+storage) in my new neighborhood.  When one turns on the light switch, it works exactly the same whether the electrons came from coal or from solar.  The economics need to make sense.

But I also do think it would help to create a bubble; one that helps breakdown some of the myths around new technologies and allows familiarity.  Worked for the Bay Area. May work in the burbs of Chicago.

If only we had a nucleation point for this bubble (pun intended).  Maybe someone who thinks about energy, thinks about adoption of new technology, thinks of themselves as a first adopter, and is looking for a new home wherein solar can become part of the solution?  

Did I mentioned that I was in the market for a new home?  And that Prius does look a bit beaten up.    


* Snopes tells me that Mark Twain probably did not say anything like that.  But as I have pointed out before, I feel that facts just get in the way.    


  1. Very nice blog. You should consider yourself fortunate to be experiencing a completely new bubble...the bubble that says yes to power from nuclear energy. As a former Illinoisian, I was always proud of the fact that 40% of my electricity was provided by nuclear power. Given that - imagine if Illinois had even half the interest of the SanFran Bay area in accelerating renewable penetration. It would outperform California as the model low emissions state!

  2. "Reality is that once we sit in the car, rationality goes out the window."

    I remember you telling me how you got your first student car. You saw that the car-headlights had shields which opened (like eyelids) when started and you were ready to buy it.