How to prevent Google profiling you and censoring what you see

Concerned about having your privacy invaded?  Concerned about being profiled by companies such as Google?  Don’t want algorithms to analyse your preferences, assign a label to you, then treat you differently based on corporate agendas?  If you watch YouTube, here’s one more thing you can do.

google-is-watching-you

 

It all started when I built a new Linux system a while back.  Apart from a new video card, the hardware was the same, but the operating system was new, all of the applications were new, and I hadn’t even had a chance to transfer any data yet.  A pristine copy of Mozilla Firefox (with no add-ons) was installed so I was using that to hunt down some video drivers.

Now, as a long-time user of Adblock Plus (ABP) you get used to experiencing a relatively ad-free version of the World Wide Web.  You don’t get to see how truly horrendous it has become — because of all of the advertising — until you switch to a new browser without an ad-blocking add-on/plug-in/extension.  Oh my!

Then some creepy stuff started to happen.  Advertising started appearing on some of the sites I visited suggesting products that I had recently purchased.  The products in question (some Noctua CPU coolers and case fans) are pretty obscure — not mainstream at all.  Yet there they were, down to the exact model number.  It didn’t stop at products, though.  YouTube videos started being recommended to me on channels that I was subscribed to.

Keep in mind that this was a brand new system with a pristine browser.  I had not yet signed into Google/YouTube (or any other website for that matter).  The advertising was too specific, too targeted, for it to be random coincidence.

Ok, well, we know that Google is evil and uses a lot of different ways to track you (with browser fingerprinting being especially devious and probably what they used in this case), so I installed ABP and made all those annoying ads go away again.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Roll on a few months and I recently noticed that the suggestions on YouTube changed over the course of a single week.  I’d been researching an “issue” lately (won’t say which one) and had been watching lots of videos related to it.  The issue is historic (i.e. dated) so no new videos regarding it were being made — pretty much everything was over two years old.  When I started researching it I was presented with a pile of relevant-sounding suggestions.  As I watched the videos, and clicked the usual ‘like/dislike’ buttons, the suggestions changed.

Now, you might think that this is predictable, and that maybe Google/YouTube was ‘refining’ the results to show more videos that I would be interested in, but in this case the opposite was true.  The videos with the information I was actually after were dropping out of the suggestions list.  The more I ‘liked’ the videos that interested me, the fewer of them appeared in the suggestions list.

If I had watched them slowly, over time, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the change in suggestions, but I was doing this quickly, over a short period of time (kind of like binge-watching entire seasons of a particular show), and it was blatantly obvious.

Suspecting that I may be researching a topic that Google/YouTube had decided to censor, I used my search history to backtrack over the videos I had watched, unchecked the ‘like’ buttons for all (~20) of them, blew my cookies and browsing history away, rebooted, and then pursued the same line of research again using the same search terms (and started watching the videos in the same order).  Bang!  The original suggestions came back.

More importantly:  I let the videos play all the way through (in a background tab, muted) did not click the ‘like’ button for them, and the suggested videos did not change significantly.  Relevant videos were still being suggested at the end of the batch.

Hypotheses:

  • ‘liking’ YouTube videos has an impact on what future videos will be suggested
  • if Google/YouTube is censoring a particular issue…
    • …and you ‘like‘ a video that disagrees with their position on that issue…
      • then you’ll see fewer relevant videos in the suggestions list
    • if you neither ‘like’ nor ‘dislike’ a video, it seems to make no difference to what videos will be suggested
    • merely watching a video doesn’t seem to change the suggestions list

(Note: I did not test to see if ‘disliking’ videos affects suggestions, so I don’t know if the opposite of the above is true.)

As far as I am concerned, my experience (and test) clearly supports the hypothesis that Google/YouTube is actively censoring certain points of views on certain issues based on users clicking the ‘like’ button in YouTube.

As I want to have access to all sides of all issues, and not have a small number of people within Google manipulate what I think, I tried to come up with a way to stop Google from profiling me and then using that profile to censor what I see.

Unfortunately, I clear my browser history every-so-often, so it’s not possible for me to go back to the date I created my Google/YouTube account and delete all of my ‘likes’.  Even if I had my entire history, it wouldn’t be practical to do so.  As far as I can tell, there’s no way to mass-clear ‘likes’ within YouTube, either.

One option would be to delete my YouTube account and create a new one.  Given that Google can track me across a brand new system install, I’m not sure how well this would actually work.

The final option is to simply accept the damage done so far, and prevent further damage from occurring.  This is the route I chose.  I decided to simply stop clicking the ‘like’ button.

After a few days, and having failed to control myself adequately (it’s so.. damned.. hard.. to resist.. clicking… — a real testament to how well we have been conditioned), I decided to try again and solve the problem a different way.  If I couldn’t consciously stop myself from clicking the ‘like’ button, then I’d use my ad-blocker to hide the buttons themselves.  If the buttons aren’t there, then regardless of what I think or want I simply can’t click on them!

So, about three minutes later, I had ABP blocking all of the ‘like/dislike’ buttons on YouTube and I haven’t been able to click anything since.

Problem solved!

  • Google/YouTube aren’t getting any more ‘likes’ from me
  • that will make it harder for them to profile me
  • that should mean I appear ‘neutral’ on issues Google/YouTube is censoring
  • that should mean I get to see more/all of the content
  • that should make it harder for Google/YouTube to manipulate what I am thinking

It’s a bit strange to not have those buttons there any more, but I’ll get used to it.

Since YouTube changed the payment formula a couple of years ago — to greatly diminish the value of ‘likes’ and make it virtually entirely dependant on ‘minutes watched’ — I’m glad this solution doesn’t meaningfully penalise content creators.  In fact, now that I’m likely to watch more videos, creators (that are being censored) might actually get more income.  (Maybe.  Assuming their videos haven’t been demonetised already.)

Summary:  If you want to make it harder for Google to profile you and manipulate how you think, and don’t have the willpower to avoid clicking ‘like’ buttons, then use an ad-blocker to get rid of the ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ buttons on YouTube.

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Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies

Bitcoin (and many other cryptocurrencies) have been making headlines lately.  Their prices seem to be going through the roof.  Some people even claim that they are long-term ‘investments’.  What’s really going on?  Should you buy some?

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To start the ball rolling let me first say that I do not own any Bitcoin.  I do not own any Ethereum.  I do not own any cryptocurrencies at all.  I have nothing to gain or lose whether you buy cryptos or not.  That stands in stark contrast to most of the people who are pumping cryptos, who own cryptos, and who stand to financially gain if they can convince you to start buying cryptos.

If you are new to cryptos, you would have read a lot about how they are anonymous and secure, can’t be tracked or traced, cannot be manipulated by governments or central banks, greatly lower the cost of transactions, cannot be devalued by inflating the supply, and so-on and so-forth.  That was the great promise of cryptocurrencies… but those folks paying attention to developments over the last few years know that every single one of those claims is either blatantly untrue, or not as black-and-white as the pumpers would have you believe.

The ‘appeal’ of cryptos for many, many people is that they seem (at first glance) to be a viable alternative to the corrupt financial system that we’re all trapped by.  Buying some cryptos will let you break free of that, right?  Well, unfortunately, no.

The word cryptocurrency is made up of two parts — crypto and currency.  Crypto describes ‘how it works’ and currency describes ‘what it does’.  Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin were designed from the ground up to act as a currency — to be a unit of exchange, to solve the ‘coincidence of wants’ problem, to let you buy stuff without having to use legal tender (i.e. government-approved money), to let you bypass ‘the system’.

That last point is where it all comes crashing down.  The government doesn’t want you to bypass the system.  They’ve spent hundreds of years developing that system — a system that is strictly regulated and which forces you to transact using a very limited number of financial instruments that they ultimately control.  Every time you transact within the system, the government is able to tax the transaction.

Tax revenues are the lifeblood of government.  If you are able to freely transact outside the system, in a way that prevents government from tracking and taxing your transactions, you are depriving them of tax revenues.  If enough people do it, government will no longer have enough tax revenue to operate and will fall apart.

Do you really think they are going to let that happen?  Really?  Governments have gone to war and sacrificed millions of their own citizens over petty issues — how do you think they will react to an existential threat?

If you approach the whole issue of cryptocurrencies from the government’s point-of-view, the whole thing becomes very clear indeed:  Unregulated (uncontrolled) currencies threaten the tax base so either have to be regulated, controlled, or outlawed.  Simple as that.  There are no other options.

If a cryptocurrency is regulated or controlled, it will end up with properties similar to current legal tender (trackable/taxable) and, in that case, why bother owning it?  If it can’t be regulated or controlled then it will be outlawed, anyone transacting with it will face prison time and, in that case, why bother owning it?  So regardless of what happens, there’s no point owning it in the long term — it will either become ‘just as bad’ as legal tender, or it will become illegal.

Technical arguments are irrelevant.  The ‘crypto’ part can not save the ‘currency’ part.

Already in 2017 we have seen governments (e.g. Russia, China, South Korea) ban ICOs and cryptocurrency exchanges because they don’t want to let their citizens be sucked in by the hype and throw ‘good’ money into a system that is doomed to fail.

Now, to be clear, you might be able to make a bit of money speculating on some cryptos in the short term, but that’s a very, very risky proposition and not at all an ‘investment’.  Non-government-controlled cryptos will all approach their intrinsic value of $0 in the long term.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that governments have already looked hard at the technology underlying cryptocurrencies, and many will undoubtedly launch their own form of digital currency — because that would allow them to ban cash and force their populations into using a centrally-controlled system that has tracking and denial-of-funds features inbuilt.  Having such a system would also then allow central banks to drop interest rates into negative territory to have wealth confiscated directly from the entire population — with no way for regular folk to escape.  In this respect, the crypto community has voluntarily developed and freely handed government the very tools that will be used to financially enslave them in the future!

So, to summarise:

  • technical arguments are irrelevant
  • cryptocurrencies threaten tax revenues
  • if they can’t be regulated or controlled they will be outlawed
  • the technology will be used to further financially enslave the populace
  • the long-term intrinsic value of all non-government-controlled cryptos is $0
  • short-term speculation may still yield profits
  • beware of biased pumpers
  • if it seems too good to be true, it probably is

Take care out there.

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Curvature of the Earth

We all know that the surface of the Earth is curved, but exactly how ‘curvy’ is it?  At what scale do you actually need to start compensating for it in a construction project?  Let’s do some easy math and find out…

The Earth is not a sphere — it’s actually an oblate spheroid — but since oblate spheroid math requires a university degree to understand, we can simplify things by treating the Earth as a sphere.  That makes the calculations understandable by anyone who has passed, say, Grade 10 or 11 high school math.

The mean radius, r, of this simplified Earth sphere is 6,371,008m.

Let d be a straight-line distance that you project at a tangent from any point on the Earth’s surface:

Application of Pythagoras’ Theorem gives the following:

c² = a² + b²
(r+h)² = r² + d²
r+h = √(r² + d²)
h = √(r² + d²) – r

…where h is the height of the end point of that line above the surface of the Earth.

A distance of 1,000m is something that most people can relate to, and is probably near the upper limit of what you would use for large-scale projects, so I’ll use that distance to calculate the magnitude of curvature of the Earth.

Solving with d = 1,000m we get:

h = √(6371008² + 1000²) – 6371008
h = 6371008.078480516 – 6371008
h = 0.078480516m
h ≈ 78mm

So, to put this in a way that I hope everyone can understand:

The surface of the Earth is not now, nor has it ever been, flat —
it falls away from a perfectly straight line at the rate of 78mm every 1,000m.

Thanks to similar triangles and the metric system, you can interpolate easily from that number:

78mm @ 1,000m  ≡  7.8mm @ 100m  ≡  0.78mm @ 10m  ≡  0.078mm @ 1m

So, if you built a house that was 10m long on top of a perfectly flat concrete raft, and placed it on the surface of a perfectly spherical Earth, the curvature of the Earth would result in a 0.78mm gap under one edge of the raft.  It would take 8 sheets of 75gsm photocopy paper or 1 grain of coarse sand to fill that gap.

If a 0.78mm fall over 10m (or any of its equivalents) does not compromise the integrity of your construction, then you can safely ignore the curvature of the Earth — pretend that the Earth is flat* — and just build it.  No-one will suffer.

Now you know.   Happy building.  🙂

* Treating the Earth as flat for small-scale construction projects is perfectly fine.  However, believing that the Earth is flat means you’re joining the ranks of a bizarre religious cult — and that’s not a good idea.  The curvature of the Earth is hard to see with the human eye, and hard to measure with the sort of measuring devices ordinary folks can buy at a hardware store.  Just because it looks flat doesn’t mean it is.  The challenge folks have in measuring that curvature at small scales is due simply to a) the lack of precision and accuracy of their instruments, and/or b) their lack of mathematical skill.

To be fair, very few of us construct things on a scale where we need to factor in curvature of the Earth, so we can happily go through life ignoring its existence.  That doesn’t mean curvature doesn’t exist — it just means ordinary folk don’t need to calculate it, compensate for it, or even worry about it, in their day-to-day lives.  Rest assured, however, that every modern engineer that signs off on a bridge, stadium, dam, airport runway or terminal, canal, supertanker, cruise liner, cargo ship, hospital, aircraft carrier, freeway intersection, railway station, shopping mall, or tunnel has obtained super-accurate measurements and crunched the numbers to compensate for curvature of the Earth — to ensure that their constructions don’t fail and that people don’t die.

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Free Dehumidifier

Air too humid inside your house?  Got mould problems?  Clothes take ages to dry inside during the wet season?  How does a free dehumidifier with zero running costs sound?

Most folks don’t know that their ‘frost free fridge’ can easily be hacked to act as a dehumidifier.  As it runs continuously, it can be used to suck moisture out of a humid house all.. year.. long.

Frost free fridges actually have a heating element.  This heating element comes on every-so-often to thaw out the cooling plate.  Any frost/ice that has formed on the cooling plate melts, drips into a plastic trough, drains to the bottom-rear of your fridge via a small tube, and then ends up in a plastic bowl located on top of your compressor.  The compressor, as it works to pump heat out of your fridge and into the surrounding air, heats up.  Heat from the compressor warms the bowl and evaporates the water, returning the moisture back to the air where it originally came from.  So, under normal circumstances, this operation is humidity-neutral.

Assuming that your fridge is against an external wall, or above an accessible basement, or near a drain, you can get a short piece of scrap tubing, attach it onto the end of the drain tube (just above the bowl), and instead of the water ending up in the bowl, it can be redirected outside, into a container or into a drain.  In any case, since it is no longer being heated and evaporated back into the air, it is effectively removed from the humidity equation and your internal air becomes drier.

Depending on how easy it is to access the back of your fridge, this hack takes mere minutes.  I think it took me all of 5 minutes to do mine — and I chose to drill a hole into our back wall so that the water would go to plants outside.

It doesn’t take any extra electricity, and doesn’t harm your fridge in any way.  It’s just the free 24/7/365 dehumidifier that you all have in your kitchen but weren’t aware of.

Enjoy!

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Slow ADSL Download Speeds

Got an ADSL connection that’s running slow?  Downloads taking too long?  Wonder if there’s anything you can do to speed things up?  Maybe, maybe not.

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Note:  The bulk of this post was originally in response to a question from someone who was getting only 1Mbps download speeds on their ADSL connection.  Since the issues are the same regardless of how slow your connection is, I figured I’d post it here and expand on it if folks are interested.  Whilst some of the content is specific to Australia, most of it is generic and applies to ADSL connections anywhere.

Real world ADSL speeds are primarily limited by the distance to the exchange and then by line noise.

Before you do anything else, make sure that you actually have a problem by checking units.  Mbps is not the same as MBps.  1MBps is fine, but 1Mbps is very low for ADSL.  There are 8 (b)its in a (B)yte, so 1MBps is actually 8Mbps.  Lots of applications report transfer speeds in MBps and they aren’t always consistent (or correct) in their capitalisation.  Use something like speedtest.net to verify your download speed in Mbps.

Assuming that you do indeed have a download rate of 1Mbps, then the next thing you need to check are the laws of physics.  Signals lose strength as they travel down copper wires, and since download speeds are linked to signal strength that means the further away from the telephone exchange you are, the slower your download rate will be.  Use something like adsl2exchanges.com.au to find out what your estimated maximum speed should be.  If you’re within 40% of this number then you don’t have a significant problem (cable runs are often much longer than straight-line distances).

If you can’t get an estimated maximum speed from the above website, or another similar website, but you can get a distance to the exchange, then use the distance with the following chart (from Internode) to estimate your maximum speed yourself:

internode-adsl2-dist07

If what you get from speedtest.net is less than 60% of the maximum rate that you could get according to adsl2exchanges.com.au then there’s likely to be a problem somewhere.  How significant a problem depends on how big the difference is.

Line noise is the next biggest limiting factor.  Bean-counters at Telecom/Telstra have forced technicians to use cheaper, sub-optimal compounds to moisture-proof connections for over two decades with the consequence being that, when it rains heavily, junction boxes and pits flood, water often penetrates the connections, and low-level short-circuiting occurs.  You can tell if this affects you because when you go to make a phone call (using your analogue land line) just after a decent rain, you’ll hear lots of static, crackling and pops on the line — line noise.

Since your ADSL rides on top of the underlying carrier signal, whenever that signal gets disrupted, you lose packets and your Internet application needs to re-send those packets.  This is known as ‘packet loss’.  Having to re-send lost packets takes time and slows down your transfer speeds.  If you have a decent router, you could log into the router’s web interface and bring up a chart or some statistics showing you how much packet loss your line is experiencing.  If packet loss increases after local rains, but is negligible during dry periods, then that’s your problem.

The real problem, however, is getting it fixed.  If you detect line noise and report it to your ISP then they’ll open a ticket with Telstra who will take, at least, two days to get back to you.  By that time the rains have stopped, the junction boxes have emptied, the connections have dried out, and the signal noise is gone.  So when the technician rocks up and test your line, the device they use reports that the line is working fine.  /sigh

The final source of line noise is within your house.  This is a vast topic in and of itself, but basically the more phone sockets, connections, splitters, adapters, extension lines, analogue phones, security systems, and so-on that you have connected to your line, the more line noise there will be.  As an experiment, you could disconnect absolutely everything from your phone system, then connect only your router to the master/main phone socket (the one closest to where the line comes in from outside) and do a speed test with that.  If there’s a big improvement in speed then one of the things you disconnected must have been causing substantial amounts of noise.  Shouldn’t be too hard to work out which one if that’s the case.

Optimising an Internet connection is not a trivial process.  You need to be prepared to research all of the relevant issues and absorb and understand technical information.  There is no magic green ‘go fast‘ button that you can press.  Sometimes 1Mbps is as good as it gets!  The location of your house, the location of the exchange, the condition of the line between them, the laws of physics — none of these care about whether or not you are happy with the speed of your Internet connection, and you usually can’t change (‘fix’) any of them.

The best you can do is simplify the wiring within your home, and maybe try a different router (to address chipset incompatibilities).  If that doesn’t fix the problem, then the problem probably can’t be fixed.  You then have no option but to use a different technology to connect to the Internet (cable, fixed wireless, HFC, mobile, fibre…).

Finally, this problem isn’t going to get better in Australia — it’s only going to get worse.  The government is basically abandoning the copper network (and everything that relies on it).  This is clearly evident in how the NBN operates.  If you get a new NBN connection, they will decommission your land line within 18 months — literally cut it off.  The writing is on the wall for the copper network.  That’s why no-one is really interested in fixing house-to-exchange line noise issues — crumbling infrastructure and slow speeds are a good way to ‘encourage’ users to stop using the copper network and switch to the NBN.  You can voluntarily walk the plank, or wait until you are pushed — either way you are leaving the ship.

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Lawn Tractor Oil Filter Tips

If you have a John Deere D125 lawn tractor (aka ride-on mower), or pretty much any of the D-series, and have ever replaced the oil filter, then you’ll know how annoying it can be.  The crux of the problem is that:

  • the ‘proper’ oil filter (the AM125424 for a D125) is a very short filter
  • the oil filter is positioned so that there is very little clearance between the filter and the frame

This causes a couple of issues:

  • there is not enough clearance to use many oil filter removal tools
  • there is insufficient room to hand-tighten the new oil filter

The solution is rather simple:  Install a longer oil filter!

Providing that a longer oil filter will not come into contact with the closed hood, or any other moving part, you can simply buy a (slightly) longer one and install that instead.  The fluted end of the oil filter will then project beyond the frame which will make (un-)installing it a whole lot easier.  The larger filters sometimes even cost less, because they are used on more machines and produced/stocked in larger quantities.

(Of course this design issue/fault affects many other lawn tractors, not just the JD D-series.)

The second tip is pretty common knowledge, but worth repeating anyway:  After you’ve smeared a small amount of fresh oil over the rubber gasket on the new filter, and wiped clean the part of the engine block that the gasket will mate with, screw on the new oil filter and then hand-tighten it firmly in place.

There is absolutely no need whatsoever to use a tool to install an oil filter, and risk damaging it.  Even the tiniest hole or crack will ultimately lead to oil loss and very bad things happening to the engine.  If the new filter is clean and your hands are relatively oil free, you should be able to get a good grip with both hands and torque the filter enough to ensure a solid seal.  You don’t need to go ape on the thing.

Finally, with your new filter installed you’ll fill up with fresh oil.  Once you’ve got the oil level between the two notches on the dip-stick, run the engine for about thirty seconds.  Any trapped air should get purged from the system.  Check the oil level again and you’ll see it has dropped a little.  Top up (if required) to bring it back up to the desired level.

If you don’t take the time to perform this extra step, you may end up running the engine with inadequate oil which will result in increased engine wear and premature failure of certain components.

Oil filters may not be sexy, but they are very important and filter changes are worth taking the time to do right.

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The Future of the Electrical Grid

Grid power is dirty!  It’s polluting the planet!  We should all put solar panels on our roofs, some batteries in the shed, and go off-grid!  For the sake of the children!  Hmmm… Not so fast.

This post is about the electrical grid (“the grid”), why it’s not going to go away, and why (eventually) it will be ‘green‘.  Hard to believe?  Read on.

electricity-grid-australia

The electrical grid in most developed nations is a reliable way to connect the consumers of electricity to the producers of electricity.  Electricity is generated in various places, by various means (e.g. coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro), fed into the grid, distributed around the country, and ultimately reaches your house where you flick a switch and power some sort of device.  Fantastic!

One not-so-fantastic aspect is that most of the energy comes from non-renewable, polluting and/or dangerous sources like coal, natural gas and nuclear.

Another not-so-fantastic aspect is that after a month or three a bill arrives to account for your usage.  You must pay that bill in order to remain connected to the grid and enjoy its benefits.  Every bill seems to get larger and larger.  Ever-increasing electrical bills are financially hurting a huge number of people and have pushed many to install solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on their roofs.

Solar PV panels generate electrical power when the sun shines.  The house uses as much of this power as it needs and any surplus is exported to the grid.  When it’s cloudy or dark or your consumption rate is high, the panels don’t generate enough power to meet household needs, so the deficit is imported from the grid.

Yes, this is how ‘net-metering’ works, and things work a bit different for those on ‘gross-metering’ plans, but I’m keeping things simple for now and so will focus on how it works for most folks.

Most folks, naturally, want to minimise their electricity bill as much as possible.  A decade ago PV panels were so expensive that installing enough of them to generate all the power that a house needed was rare — PV arrays tended to be small.  The demand for panels worldwide, however, has pushed the prices down so much in the last decade that they are now quite cheap.  It is now common for folks to install large arrays that generate more power each year than their house actually uses.  That creates a problem.

In order to reduce emissions and “combat climate change” most governments encouraged people to install PV arrays by mandating that electricity suppliers pay customers for the power that their arrays feed back into the grid.  When arrays were small, this wasn’t a problem because all it would do is reduce the size of a bill by a bit.  Now that arrays are large, bills are often zero or even negative (your supplier has to pay you).

Whilst paying customers is great from the customer’s point of view, it is really, really bad from the supplier’s point-of-view.  It costs money to maintain the grid.  As more and more customers install bigger and bigger arrays, and payouts to those customers keep increasing, there is less money left over to maintain the grid.  This results in reduced investment and maintenance (resulting in more brownouts and blackouts) and increased fixed and variable costs in everyone’s bills.  In a very real sense, if you install solar panels on your roof, and receive any money at all for the power you export, you are directly responsible for increasing the size of power bills for everyone.  It’s sad, but true.

One other problem introduced by people installing PV arrays, and feeding surplus power back into the grid, is the mismatch between demand and supply.  If you leave your house to go to work during the day, the amount of power being used by your house is very low, so most of the power generated by your array ends up being surplus and gets exported to the grid.  At night, you come home, prepare dinner, turn on all the lights, the TVs, the AC and your consumption spikes — at the same that time it’s (getting) dark outside and your array is generating very little (if anything at all), forcing you to import the deficit from the grid.

Now expand this to everyone in your time zone.  The sun rises at the same time for all of you, so all of your rooftop arrays are generating surplus power when you are at work and don’t need it, and not generating much at all when you are at home and do need it.  Let’s not even get started on large-scale weather systems moving across regions causing massive fluctuations in PV generation on a minute-by-minute basis.

These things play havoc with the grid and, ultimately, make the grid less efficient, more expensive, and less reliable.  In a nutshell, solar PV arrays are the worst (most disrupting) thing to ever happen to the grid.  Who in their right mind wants to stay connected to a grid that delivers dirty power, keeps getting more expensive, and keeps getting less reliable?  The answer is obvious.

“Grid defections” is a term used by power companies to describe the customers that were once connected (tied) to the grid, but chose to install solar panels, their own electrical storage system (batteries), and then disconnect from the grid completely. Grid defections are on the rise.  Areas with high power prices tend to experience the largest rate of grid defection.

Grid defection is making the problem worse for suppliers.  An electricity bill has a fixed component (often called something like a “connection fee”) which you have to pay regardless of how much power you use.  The other part of the bill is the variable component — this is the amount you pay for the power you actually use.  Unless you have some way of storing the power your array generates (so you can use it at night, for example) then you can’t defect from the grid.  Batteries let you do this, but they have, historically, been quite expensive.  Most folks that are grid-tied don’t have batteries at all — the grid acts as their battery.  Now that companies (like Tesla) are making more and more batteries, it is becoming cheaper and cheaper to add batteries to your PV system.  If you have a big enough array, and a big enough battery bank, it makes little sense to remain connected to the grid and keep paying that fixed component on your bill.  Grid defection becomes the ‘financially logical’ choice.

Folks that defect from the grid no longer contribute anything towards its maintenance costs.  Since the maintenance costs are still the same, but there are fewer people left behind to pick up the tab, all of their bills go up.

The future sounds pretty bleak for the grid, right?  It’s just a matter of time before it collapses under its own weight and dies, right?  The enemies of the evil, dirty grid are probably cheering at the thought.

But here’s the thing…

Electricity suppliers are at a critical fork in the road:  “Business as usual” will result in bankruptcy (because large grid-tied PV arrays and grid defections will ultimately kill their business model).  Adapting to the new reality is their only real choice.  That means coming to terms with, and dealing with lots of solar PV customers and the unavoidable supply/demand mismatch.

Some (perhaps even many) suppliers will cling onto the past, will fail to adapt fast enough, and will go out of business. The remaining suppliers will cannibalise the corpses of those that fall, take their remaining assets and customers, and forge ahead.  Key to survival is solving the supply/demand mismatch (aka ‘load balancing’).

geesthacht_1Power companies are already developing ways to store surplus solar PV power until they need it.  Traditional (utility-scale) chemical batteries (like the ones Tesla have in mind) are one way to do this, and pumping water uphill into a big dam when the sun shines and releasing it when the sun doesn’t (pumped hydro) is another.  Whilst pumped hydro is the current leader (with over 168GW of installed capacity worldwide) geographic limitations mean that it can’t be used everywhere, so different solutions will be employed by different power companies in different regions.  As a research field, it’s exploding.

Viable solutions to the load balancing problem already exist and have been implemented.  New solutions are being developed and tested right now.  The problem has already been partially solved.

But here’s the kicker…

All of the leading contenders for grid energy storage are environmentally friendly (or, at least, more environmentally friendly than coal, natural gas, or nuclear).  Pumped hydro, for example, is basically just a dam with a turbine generator and a pump.  Power is generated when water flows out, then surplus solar PV power is used to pump water back.

As more and more PV arrays get installed, more and more surplus power will be available on the grid to ‘do something useful’ during low-demand periods.  The price of this surplus power will be very low.  Such conditions allow grid energy storage systems to be economically viable.

On a personal level, the more PV panels you install, and the more power you feed back into the grid, the more surplus power will exist, the more opportunities will be created, the faster your region will end up with an environmentally friendly grid energy storage system, and the ‘cleaner’ the electricity that everyone pulls from the grid will be.

Grid energy storage systems are allowing solar to take over from coal, natural gas and nuclear in providing environmentally friendly base loads for the entire grid.

So, defecting from the grid is something you can do right now to help your wallet and the environment right now.  It won’t help anyone else though.  Staying connected to the grid, installing as many solar panels as possible, and exporting as much power as possible, may not help your wallet quite as much — but you will hasten the rate at which clean grid electricity becomes available, for everyone.

May your days be sunny ones.

PS:  The purpose of this post was not to advocate any one approach.  It was to frame the discussion from a different angle and encourage folks to think about it a bit deeper.  It’s good to challenge assumptions once in a while.  The world keeps changing around us and sometimes those old assumptions are no longer valid.  Unless you re-evaluate the situation every-so-often you may end up walking a long way down a path that is no longer the right one for you.

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