Recently I purchased a solar panel system for my home and I've been sharing my experience with my neighbors. A common component of many of these conversations is some sort of comment about "getting off the grid". As I have reflected on these comments, I realized that solar panels have been attached to a romanticism of independence and escapism, the idea that solar panels not only provide electricity, but a form of independence that many folks long for. I can certainly appreciate the sentiment, but I can't help to reflect how separated from reality these feeling are. Solar panels don't bring independence from the grid, in truth it's the opposite: you will never be more attached to the grid than once your solar system becomes operational.
Let's use my case as an example. My system has been operational for about a month now, and I have tracked my production and energy usage closely during this time. Of all the energy my solar cells produce, I only use just under a third of it. The rest is fed onto the grid. In fact, two-thirds of the energy my house uses comes right off the grid. That's hardly independence. To make the whole thing work economically, it requires the ability to sell my excess power.
That's the amazing thing about solar right now. The big talking point around solar is the 30% federal tax rebate that is set to expire at the end of 2016. In this tax break, if you purchase your own system, you can get up to 30% of the cost back in a refund from the federal government, assuming you paid that much in taxes to begin with. It's a nice deal, but hardly the subsidy that is known as Net Metering. In fact, for many, solar is a good investment with or without the federal tax break, but without Net Metering it's a deal breaker.
Net Metering is the agreement with the utility, often driven by regulatory help, which allows owners of solar panel system to transfer excess electricity onto the grid for others to use. Essentially solar panel owners become producers of energy, just like a coal, nuclear, or other type of plants. The difference is the dollar value of the energy "sold" to the system. If a coal plant sells their energy to the grid, that operation might get 4 cents for every kilowatt hour sold. But in Net Metering, the owner doesn't get paid but gets credits that go against the energy they use, on a one-to-one basis. The end result is that the system owner only pays for energy based on net usage, or what they bought from the grid minus what they sold. In essence, the owner is getting paid as much as 15 cents or more per kilowatt hour, not the market rate which can be a quarter or less than that. It's a sweet deal for the system owner, so maybe being connected to the grid isn't so bad after all.
Net Metering is what makes solar an attractive investment, and without it solar power would simply go away for residential considerations, even with the federal tax break in place. Net Metering is also critical, because storage of energy is so rudimentary that it's near impossible to create a system that can be truly independent from the grid. Telsa has recently announced an economic breakthrough in home energy storage, but even with that, it's near impossible to run an A/C system in the evening hours without a little help from the grid.
Given all this, it's hard not to wonder: what's so bad about the grid anyway? After all, our water and sewage systems are also a grid, and no one seems to complain about them like they do with electricity. I think it all comes down to two things: high prices and the reliability and vulnerability of the system.
If I had to guess, I'd imagine that what really drives people to want to "get off the grid" are folks who are tired of paying a lot for electricity. PG&E rates in particular are quite high compared to the rest of the country, and that probably doesn't help people to feel warm and fuzzy toward their utility. It should be noted though, that PG&E sources it's energy from a higher rate of renewables and less coal that most other utilities, and this factors into the price. We are paying a premium for energy, but we're doing so because it is better for the environment. Still, the sting of a high bill is hard to get over and it's natural to want to find an alternative. Solar feeds well into this sentiment, because not only do you get to escape those high bills, but you can do so while providing clean energy.
The nature of the grid probably factors into many folks thinking as well. Whether we are talking about brown-outs or the vulnerability of the system to a terrorist attack or really bad weather, there's a sense that maybe the answer is local generation and distribution of energy, away from our highly networked and complex system. This seems to drive that sense of independence of getting off the grid.
Regardless, I think the grid is a good thing, although likely in need of restructuring as time goes on. Utilities are always in a bad position, often stuck in an either doing what they were expected to do to begin with, or not delivering on what people want. It's hard to wow people in a position like that. Yet, it's just as easy to overlook the advancements made in the system, and the service these vendors do provide.
I could go on about these things, but I will just offer one example: smart meters. Smart meters have been used by utilities to replace traditional meters and have resulted in providing data to customers that had previously been either impossible or took too much effort to obtain. I have a smart meter at my home, and can tell at any point what energy I have used or sold to the system. I even have an app for that on my smartphone. There's nothing like that for the water system, and in this time of drought, having that level of knowledge about water usage would really come in handy.
In my mind, it's not about getting off the grid, but about making the grid better, and utilities are already moving in this direction. Of course there is a lot of work to go and it's not clear that there is a vision of what the right model is. But then again, that's the exciting part about all of this. The future isn't about getting off the grid but making it work better for us, and in that sense, there is much reason for optimism. Solar panels and Net Metering are an example of this in action, although not an economically sustainable one from the utility's point of view. That leaves a lot of tough decisions before us, but exciting ones as well. Just as long as we realize that the answer isn't to simply long to disengage.
The Delay of a Potential Classic
To the chagrin of gamers across the world, the announcement was made that No Man's Sky (hereto referred as NMS) will be delayed from an original release date in June to one in August. The extra time is being used to polish the game, putting in the final touches on what may be one of the best games to come around in a long time. Or will it be one of the most overhyped? The potential is there to go either direction, but my money is on the former.
The Minecraft connection
I think NMS will do well based on the success of Minecraft, because there are significant parallels between the two games. Minecraft has been recorded as the second best-selling video game of all time, so any similarities are worth observing.
These games start with a nearly identical premise. You are a lone being dropped into an unexplored world with nothing to speak of in terms of possessions or a past. With no story to guide you along, you are thrust into a challenge of survival and discovery. By gathering resources, you advance in the game, and progress in a manner of the player's choosing. Both games provide an endgame which exists more as an optional exercise than an inevitable conclusion. Minecraft is set on a planet of infinite reach (if on the PC, consoles are limited) and NMS is a nearly infinite universe of stars and rotating planets which also begins on a planet's surface but includes space travel.
Besides these fundamental similarities, there are also smaller connections between the two experiences. For example, both use seeds to generate worlds, although Minecraft's seed is used just at the beginning to create the world, while NMS's are used for constant procedural generation. Both games are mainly from the first person perspective, and feature benign beings that can be traded with - villagers in Minecraft, alien races in NMS.
Where Two Worlds Diverge
Of course these two are not the same game, and key differences exist. In Minecraft, the fight for survival early on evolves into a focus on crafting and building later. In NMS, the survival aspect seems to be more persistent throughout the game, and focuses on exploration and levelling up ships and items instead of creating things. In this way, I think NMS addresses one of the critical weaknesses of Minecraft, in that exploration in the latter game quickly reaches a stale point. Eventually, and relatively quickly, you see every biome and building the game has to offer. Early exploration is fun, but later on it becomes tedious and unnecessary. In theory, NMS explores the territory that Minecraft leaves behind.
The deviation of these games also illustrate the potential limitation of NMS's sales potential. In Minecraft, you can build to your heart's content, and do so with friends as well. It's much more of a social game, and I have seen girls, boys, men and women enjoy it equally. It's open enough to be that inclusive, and doesn't neatly categorize its world into a genre which helps its universal appeal. NMS, with it's individual approach and science fiction theme, will provide a limitation to its potential success. It's just hard to see girls, as a demographic, be into this game as much as with Minecraft.
Despite this, I think the success of Minecraft still bodes well for NMS. Minecraft showed us that endless digging can be both meditative and fun when there's a reward to be had, and NMS is built solidly in that premise. If the game can address the limitation present in Minecraft, to have the player constantly believe that something around the corner might really be worth seeing, then I don't see how this game won't be a success.
Some criticism of NMS has been around the fact that so much is generated by mathematical algorithms as opposed to thoughtful, structured design. Similar games to leverage these techniques have been tried in the past and not done well. They come across as either too stale or become boring too soon. That's the challenge NMS faces, and we won't know if they succeed until the game is released. But given the track record of the developer, the potential is clearly there, and the success of Minecraft is reason enough for optimism.