Hanlon’s Razor and Online Comments

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. – Hanlon’s Razor


Boy, but sometimes it is hard.  There was a recent article in the local paper about a solar manufacturing plant going up on Minnesota’s Iron range.  And you can bet that any article about alternative energy will bring out the interesting comments in droves.  (Maybe this is true about any article about anything?)  Warning: If you don’t want a boring rehash of anti-solar comments and my attempts to bring a few factual nuggets to the conversation, you should stop reading this post now.  You have been warned…

There were all sorts of reasonable and creative ways to find fault with the situation the article was describing.  It really was an obscene amount of money to bring in a plant which has “hired 12 of the 15 initial employees” and the Made in Minnesota rebate for these panels is insanely high, more akin to a giveaway than a rebate.  And of course any whiff of gov’t subsidy is quickly spotted by commenters.  But we were also treated to gems like  these:

Check with your local zoning authorities before installing.

Well, ok, fair enough.  Sounds a bit scary though doesn’t it!  As if you’d just plunk them on your roof yourself, anyway.

Once again you just can’t fix Stupid….people that claim solar energy is free are so far in la la land that its a waste of time to talk to them….its all about feeeeeeelings which of course are IRRATIONAL…………………. I guarantee that the Solar company will pull out of the iron range as soon as the tax credits that WE all pay for runs out…..SOLAR power is in NO WAY cheap or competitive………..anyone that claims it is is either getting paid to claim that or are just plain stupid………and probably voted for Obama…..

Hum, well, ok.  Moving on, at least this guy is trying to make some sense of it:

The only problem with solar power is the cost, we’re decades away from solar power being cost effective enough for home installation. It just honestly does not make sense. It costs between $50-$60k to install solar panels on your roof, and you’ll only get use of them for about 8 months of the year up here, since when they’re covered with snow and ice, they do not conduct electricity. For them to pay for themselves after 15 years, at $50k for installation, your monthly electric bills would need to be over $400/month.  My bill averages about $175, it would take me over 35 years to break even.

Well, saying what it costs without specifying a size isn’t very helpful, unless you are just trying to scare people away from it.  $60k (pre-rebate) would probably buy you  a roughly 10kW system, which is pretty darned big.  8 months of the year?  Well, my experience says otherwise.  And since in MN we are paid retail for excess generation, “your monthly electric bill” doesn’t really factor into the equation.  Every kWh generated generates about $0.10 of either avoided cost, or payment.  But this guy may have been an honest broker, just a bit unclear on some things.  Not so much this one:

Solar panels are cute, feel-good items because of their high visibility, but anyone with basic knowledge knows that solar panels are THE single most inefficient way to generate electricity. That solar array above the gentleman’s patio only generates enough energy to MAYBE run his fridge.

“The gentleman” was in a photo attached to the story; he is actually a solar installer, and I happen to know that the 12-panel array in the photo was 2.3kW, which would generate enough energy in a year to power 6 very large refrigerators.  I say this in a reply, citing PVWatts estimates of roughly 3MWh/year for an optimally situated array in MN.  Again, commenters are unimpressed:

You can rattle of (sic) the “optimal performance” all you want but what counts is the real output. With the short days and almost continuous cloud cover we experience during winter, there’s not a lot of power being generated for half the year, definitely not “optimally situated”. I also know first hand that ACTUAL output here in MN is about 40% of what they list as their “optimal performance”.

He knows firsthand!  I point out that PVWatts factors in location, i.e. average cloud cover, sun angles, short days, etc.  Commenter remains unimpressed.  Ok, so I try a new tack.  Having already stated my annual energy output from my 2.53kW array, I add a link to the data logging site for it so people can see for themselves.  Nope,that doesn’t work either:

Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Wait, it must be right, its on the internet! Please do real research instead of just reading something that someone wrote on an unreliable site…

Yeah, ok, it wasn’t a Wikipedia link.  At this point I am thinking there is an Amazon Mechanical Turk with tasks for this stuff, and the default reply to any link providing data is to disparage it as a Wikipedia link?  Who knows.  And then there is more “firsthand experience” –

I have installed a few large solar systems, mostly in the southern states. I have to say they are expensive and I have yet to see one that performs as advertised. There are so many variables, cloudy days, winter sun angle, even how humid the atmosphere is affect output.  <snip> The old industry norm was that solar cost was about 80 times that of electricity produced by standard methods. This cost has come down some over the last couple of years due to innovations in equipment so it is likely about 60 times the price.

60 times!  That’d be $6/kWh.  If the array I put on my home blew off the roof after one year of production, the electricity generated over its short life would have been $6/kWh.  I expect it will last a tad longer.

At this point I’m wondering.  A 12-panel array can’t run a fridge.  $60k, 35-year payback.  $400 monthly bills necessary.  At best 40% of advertised performance.  $6/kWh.  Dark 4 months of the year.

Is this an organized disinformation campaign, or was the first commenter right, “just can’t fix Stupid?”  I guess I’ll go back to Hanlon’s razor for now:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

But sometimes it’s hard.

Edit: to clarify, “malice” and “stupidity” here are maybe a little bit of hyperbole.  What led to this post was wondering if there is a coordinated attempt to sway online discussion (malice) or if it’s a genuine lack of knowledge (loosely, stupidity).  I surely don’t mean to imply that people who are not well-versed in solar production in MN are stupid.

6 thoughts on “Hanlon’s Razor and Online Comments

  1. The online environment is a very strange space in many ways. For instance, it brings together people with diametrically opposed worldviews who otherwise never would encounter each other. And, of course, it allows for the cloak of anonymity. This generally doesn’t lead to positive outcomes in comments streams below articles about solar, the environment, EVs, guns, drugs, abortion — doesn’t really matter — if, by positive, you mean that you see the calm, deliberated, idealized “public sphere” debate that, well, our society idealizes.

    I personally think there’s a strong correlation between increasingly heated political rhetoric by politicians, tendency to stick to the ideological hard line and the rise of an inter-active Internet that allows citizens to weigh in against each other. The shouting I see online (and in which I sometimes participate, i will admit) is mirrored by the shouting and intransigence on the national political stage.

    Of course, I’ll be damned if I’m going to move to the “middle” (the middle is always center-right in a righty country such as the US) just to smooth things out, and the Righties out there on the Internet (there are WAY more of them in comment streams below Yahoo.Com/AP mainstream news stories than comments from progressives) are sure as hell not going to be making any concessions to find a middle ground with me.

    Maybe not the most positive social situation, I admit. But I’m not willing to do much to change my ways to change it myself — though I manage to stay away from character assassination most of the time ;-).

    One final observation: I think the idea that the Internet brings us closer together is highly suspect. I think the stronger tendency is for it to push us farther apart, where we shout at each other, or, at least, refuse to listen to the “other” side on an issue. No way, I’m ever going to believe any of the “facts” pushed at me by a global warming denier, so, I guess I can’t expect him to believe my facts either.

    Yes, I’ve met some really nice people online and developed some online “friendships”, but for everyone one of those, there are 4 or 5 instances in which I’ve gotten into it big time with a right-wing ideologue in a comments stream.

    • I tend to agree that in many ways the internet has not brought us closer together. As much as one might hope that it’d lead to a democratization of media and wide dissemination of knowledge, I think that what has really happened is that it allows everyone to select their own set of “Facts.” The filter doesn’t help much, either.

      I was reminded of this when I saw an assertion in a comment stream that “a 100% tax on the richest Americans won’t eliminate the deficit.” I vaguely remembered seeing a rebuttal about how the original analysis was terribly flawed, dropping a zero or something like that. I honestly don’t remember, and may in fact have misremembered. So I google “100% tax on the rich” in a hope to find it, but the right blogosphere has swamped google. I could barely even find the origination of the meme (a WSJ article, I think), due to the posts, reposts of posts, and reposts of reposts winging across the intertubes.

      In the end I think I found the rebuttal here, FWIW.

  2. One other thing I want to mention is that at least in this case, I didn’t engage in the comment stream so much to sway the other commenters, as to offer a smattering of facts to counter opinion and anecdote for the hapless reader who may wander by…

  3. Pingback: Hijacking StarTribune’s Solar Comments in a Good Way | The Deets

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