Sunday, August 30, 2020

Solar Energy: My Financial Logic is at War With My Conscience

Tesla Solar Panels

Over the past few years, solar energy has interested me to the point where I asked that our house be built to enhance the support for future solar panels on the roof. My personal financial investments have also revolved around renewable energy. And so I've recently looked into having solar panels installed on our home. In my opinion, it's not yet inexpensive from a financial standpoint. 

But from the perspective of climate change and the health of our environment, it's probably invaluable at this point. 

Here's the high level overview and some of my thoughts: 

  • One of the first things that people interested in solar look into is the Investment Tax Credit (ITC). Despite the fact that solar hasn't been so widely adopted yet, the credit seems to be already phasing out. The credit comes as a tax benefit and is computed based on the initial cost of the system. You get the full credit in year one. As you can see, residential customers have less than 3 years to get any kind of credit for adopting solar. I hope that there is a renewal of the incentives. 
    • 2016 – 2019: The tax credit remains at 30 percent of the cost of the system.
    • 2020: Owners of new residential and commercial solar can deduct 26 percent of the cost of the system from their taxes.
    • 2021: Owners of new residential and commercial solar can deduct 22 percent of the cost of the system from their taxes.
    • 2022 onwards: Owners of new commercial solar energy systems can deduct 10 percent of the cost of the system from their taxes. There is no federal credit for residential solar energy systems.

  • Solar panels have a life of somewhere between 20-25 years. But they have practically no maintenance, other than maybe having to spray them down with water to remove any bird droppings. 

  • The ability to capture enough sunlight depends on the orientation of your house, how much sun you receive, whether or not you have trees or adjacent buildings creating shade, the slope of your roof, and the surface area of roof you have to add panels to. 

    Southward facing home with 46 solar panels
    Heat map - yellow = most exposure = most efficient; dark orange = least exposure = lease efficient

  • Some solar companies can only build you a system that does not exceed 10% of your power utilization. They use the previous year's energy bill and consumption in kilowatt hours as a guide. 
    • I take issue with this because the older your home gets, the less efficient it is. Additionally, if you had problems with energy consumption in the past year, your data may not be as accurate. A system built today may not be appropriate for your usage in 5 / 10 / 15 years. 

  • Unless you live on a farm or out in the middle of no where, you have to remain connected to the energy grid. A battery is really only good for storing energy in case the power goes out. I learned that if there is a power outage, because you are still connected to the utility and the solar power feeds the utility lines automatically, if there is a power outage, the solar system shuts down automatically. So there's not really an option to be living a battery-powered life. In any event, a single battery costs about $9-15k. So tack that on to the cost of your system. And likely, you will need more than 1 battery if your home exceeds a certain size. 

  • The cost of the system itself depends on the amount of energy you will need to create and the amount of space that you have to lay out solar panels to create and store that energy. In general, the bigger the house, the more energy consumed, the more panel you will need. 
In our case, we averaged somewhere in the range of 1500-2000 kilowatt hours of consumption over the past year which ranged in cost from $175 to $225 per month. The solar panels necessary to run our home at this rate would cost us about $36,000 for the panels alone, and that's paying it up front (not a loan) and getting the 26% federal tax credit (which comes when you file your tax return). So the cost of cash out the door on day one is really +/- $48,000 and then you have to wait to get your credit when you file your tax return. If I added a single battery, the cost would be an additional $12,000; two batteries would cost $19,000 (both before tax credit). 

There are other options that the solar companies offer. The one that draws the most attention is the $0 due at signing / no cost today. Essentially what happens is you can finance the cost of your system over 10 or 20 years. The interest they charge is 2.99% for 10 or 4.99% for 20 years. And you, instead, have a monthly payment to make to the solar company rather than the utility. So you end up paying more, obviously. The $36,000 system will cost roughly $44,000 by the time you're done paying it off.

My first issue with this is if I wanted to finance the cost of my solar panels, the better option would be to take out a home equity loan or borrow against my home. With interest rates so low these days, I'd get a better deal that way. 

My second issue with financing is if you choose the longer option at 20 years to avail of a lower monthly payment, by the time you're done paying for the system you've reached nearly the end of the life of the panels. By that time, you'll have to replace panels or worse yet replace the entire system. Have you really saved any money then? Or are you just breaking even? 

Also note: solar panels are not a home improvement. They are considered tangible personal property and not a fixture of the house. That being said, they do not improve the value (financially) of your home. In fact, if you wanted to take the solar panels with you to your next home, in theory, you could. But solar companies still advertise that having a solar system will increase the value of your home. I suppose it could, if the buyer of your home was willing to purchase the panels from you, but they could easily say they love the house but not the panels and have you remove them before you sell. In which case, you've got to shell out the money to have them taken down, and then there's no guarantee that they'll fit on the new home you're moving into. 

My problem now is one that's moral and ecological. While I know that becoming self-sufficient from an energy perspective will help the environment and that installing these panels would be doing our part in "saving" the world, my financial logic is at war with my conscience. I cannot justify the cost mathematically. The cost vs. (financial) benefit is about even. But the (financial) cost vs. (climate change) benefit is heavily in favor of adopting a solar energy system. 

Have any of you gone down this decision path? If so, please feel free to share your insights. And if I've gotten anything wrong up there, please help me understand so that I can correct my thinking. Many thanks! 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Your Mother


You remember what happens when your mom tells you to do something and you go on lollygagging along and forget to do that one thing...

You get your ass beat.

Don't forget who your mother is and make sure you listen and act accordingly.

Negative Connotation, but Inherently Positive

"Two steps forward, one step back" ... is still one step forward!

Unfortunately, the driver of negative connotation here is the mind's association of the work "back" with backwards direction, regression or reversal. What's often lost in the phrase is the logical notion that you have still achieved more than what you started with. 

How do we change the impression in our minds from negative to positive? 

Big Daddy, Sossusvlei, Namibia, circa 2017

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Fear, Not; Courage is Action

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear." - Nelson Mandela

"Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act despite it." - Desmond Tutu

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism

 "The Buddha is supposed to have said, 'I have taught one thing and one thing only: suffering and the cessation of suffering.' The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is filled with suffering. The Sanskrit word for suffereing is dukkha."

OPINION: COVID-19 the Climate Changer

While I was reading a book published in 2014 about climate change, it re-occurred to me that COVID-19 is mother nature's way of combating climate change on her own. This isn't the first time I've thought this.

There's a section that describes the tug of war between capitalism and the economy versus the efforts of climate change experts and environmentalists. My understanding is that the ideals of each side are contrary to each other, making their efforts inversely related. 

With COVID-19, although it's a health issue, the impacts to capitalism and the environment are both positive, actually. How so? 

In terms of capitalism, the stock market (not that it's a great indicator or all encompassing) is booming. There is significant unemployment currently, but I think it's a stepping stone towards future sustainable growth and development. The housing markets affected by low interest rates are great for buyers and sellers can profit from the demand. Construction continues to build and improve in growing areas. And despite small business failures due to health restrictions, I believe they will rebound because those who suffer and survive will learn and grow. 

In terms of the environment, the reduction of daily commutes, daily flights, and the constant movement of floating waste factories has all been minimized. Pollution on a grand scale has been reduced significantly. More people are working in their yards due to travel restrictions and boredom. Less people are driving daily. More people are growing their gardens for the same reasons. There's more time to tend to these basic things now that the economy is on temporary hold. 

In a way, COVID-19 is a climate changer in itself. It's changing the climate of capitalism. And it's helping to change the actual climate of the world. Looking at the positives rather than the negatives, COVID has been helpful. Some will say that it's at the expense of others' well-being and health, and I agree. It's tragic and sad. And I feel terrible for those who are suffering and being challenged physically and mentally. Everyday we hear about these things and it doesn't change the somber mood, but hey, I'm trying to look at it from a different angle. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Rise & Read

Sunrise over Angkor Wat (circa February 2017)

I started reading early in the mornings because I realized that...

  • I retain the most information / knowledge when I am fresh
  • I understand more of what I'm reading. I digest ideas and concepts quicker.
  • It's the most peaceful time in my household. I can truly immerse myself without interruption.
  • I feel good when my intellect rises with the sunshine.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Possibility of Practicing Multiple Religions?

"Can you / should you practice more than 1 religion at a time?"

I formulated this question when I was about 75% of the way through reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama XIV and Howard Cutler. As we all may have learned throughout our lives, there are so many intersections between different faiths as well as science. A logical, capitalistic man would pick and choose the best of all worlds and try to combine all the practices to yield the best lifetime results. 

But just as soon as I developed this thought, I was almost seemingly divinely answered by the Dalai Lama himself.

The part that refutes the notion of practicing more than one religion is the necessity to become immersed and develop a "deep feeling, making them part of one's inner experience." Can you truly incorporate and draw from the depths of multiple religious views? Not even God himself (or Allah or Buddha, etc.) had that ability. So maybe it's best not to even try. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama XIV and Howard C. Cutler

I wish this book was actually written by the Dalai Lama. In fact, it was written by Howard Cutler based on his interviews with the Dalai Lama. So in a way, it's a little bit misleading.

I suppose that not enough people get any kind of interaction with the Dalai Lama, so we should be "happy" with what we get. Cutler seems to have done the best job he could with the limited time with His Holiness. But to me it just wasn't satisfying. 

In picking up this book, I had hoped to read so much more by the Dalai Lama. I was hoping to be more inspired. I was hoping to have deeper appreciation and understanding. And it's not that I didn't get any of this, it's that I was being greedy in thinking that I'd get more. 

The Dalai Lama's teachings are on the surface pretty basic. But it's in the application of "the art" that is deep and difficult. So many of the simple things he says and that Cutler makes note of could be discussed for hours, days, months, years! And one's personal achievement in happiness could take equally as long. 

I did pull some good things from this book as you've seen in my previous posts. And I respect even just the attempt to put into words what a lifelong journey towards enlightenment has to offer. 

I think what I've taken most from this read is that happiness comes most from the simplicity in life. To achieve happiness, start with what you can control and remove from your life the stress and fear that comes from what you cannot control. 

Check it out on GoodReads

Buy it on Amazon.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Prediction: Eye Contact Failure

The world's exponential use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams or any other remote computing collaboration software for the work environment highlights the need to be visible and helpfully personifies a voice from a distance. While it's easy to just be on camera and speak when called upon or participating in the conversation, what's hard is maintaining eye contact with your audience. 

In some ways, it's almost as if you're on stage, not addressing any one person, but a group of people, in which situations the most often heeded guidance is to look over their heads to avoid the feeling of nervousness. (On the other hand, speaking in front of these small groups still gives us the practice of public speaking.)

In one-on-one conversations, it's become too easy to avoid eye contact. Our vision is constantly distracted, whether it's our cell phones, a second / third / fourth monitor, or a family member crossing your field of vision. We hardly have real eye contact anymore. Even if it looks like you are face-to-face, the other person could easily just have your video minimized and could be staring at something else on the screen; it just so happens that the camera is on that screen. 

I predict that once we go back to working in-office, our newly formed habits will overrule our once professional routine of locking eyes with our conversation partners. We will seemingly be distracted in the face of our colleagues, our eyes constantly wandering over their shoulders, looking down, peering at our phones, or if close enough to our desks, starting at our monitor while trying to carry a conversation. 

I'll tell you now that this bad habit needs to be kicked. So practice being engaged with your counterparts on-screen now. Close your other windows. Minimize your distractions. Fully immerse yourselves in whom you are working with. Connect visually, not just audibly. You'll be more productive that way too. 

Just because we're working remotely, doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our in-office etiquette. 

Post-COVID-19: Will flying ever be the same?

Since COVID-19 ravaged the world causing pandemic, 51% of the global fleet of airplanes have been grounded. Through 2018 there was a shortage of pilots in the world, and continued to be exacerbated with retirements without enough new pilots, but with travel and aviation taking a beating from the widespread communication of the virus, there's now a major surplus. But that surplus will quickly return to a deficit once global travel picks back up...whenever that is...

As a self-proclaimed avid traveler, the questions that comes to mind for when flying the friendly skies returns to some kind of (new) normal are: 

  • How are all the pilots keeping up their aviation skills and maintaining their awareness? 
  • Are they regularly going through flight simulators while they're grounded, out of work, furloughed, or their longer-than-normal wait times in between flights? 
  • How much time must be spent in a simulator by a pilot who was laid off when the frequency of flights picks up in the future? 
And to add another hurdle to the already seemingly dangerous return to flying, how will climate change impact / test the pilots' skills? 

The world is becoming more and more perilous with derechos, fire tornadoes, and the Greenland ice sheet melting beyond repair which will cause spiking world temperatures, like this new mark in Death Valley. How can we be sure our pilots keep us safe? Will flying ever be the same? 

Positive Change

The Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama XIV

Reading this passage, I immediately connected to my own experience. I've never described the process I went through mentally when I decided to earn my CPA, study for it, and pass the exam. But this really sums it up so well, and the proof that the process works is my certification. 

Learning and Education - from the numerous mistakes I've made to the various people I've witnessed and the number of insights I've gained, I learned the hard way. To further success in the field of Accounting, having a CPA, understanding the details of GAAP / Tax / Audit / Business, and using that education could only help me.

Conviction - I formally and firmly declared to myself that change was necessary. And that change was that I needed to be certified in my chose profession.

Determination - for successful people, failure drives determination. Decide to avoid failure, and success is within reach. Every day I was set on passing the exam. Everyday I wanted to improve. 

Action - I looked at ways to improve memory. I tested different diets to help give me energy. I started to drink coffee. I began to chew gum in an effort to correlate muscle memory with studying. I changed the time of day I would study. I changed the order of topics I would study. I modified my mindset. Every action improved my results. 

Effort - without effort, I'd be a failure in my objective. Without effort, I would have made no change. Without effort, I'd have been stuck. Without effort the results may have been depression. But my efforts created suffering in the short term, happiness in the long term. Like a basketball player who goes to practice, the efforts get reflected in the results. 

This 5 step process worked for me. I'm sure it will work for you too.

Monday, August 17, 2020

"Our suffering may not be as worthless and bad as we think." - Dalai Lama

An excerpt from a book I'm currently reading:


This is the reason why people who, from the outside looking in, have suffered great tragedies and obstacles seem to have the most compassion and understanding of our problems and issues. They have become so in tune with their challenges that they are able to develop empathy for ours. We are able to connect on a different level. And that is more helpful than we could ever have imagined. 

In turn, we should change our views on suffering and use it to grow ourselves and support others. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

It's A Small World After All

One of the most serendipitous things to ever happen to us occurred, in of all places, an airport. A lot of you would say that knowing us, maybe that's not so much of a chance occurrence. But think of the odds of something like this happening. Though no prior planning, no communication, no knowledge of timeline or itineraries - we bumped into my aunt and uncle in the Lufthansa terminal of the Frankfurt am Main Airport in Frankfurt, Germany. 

My aunt and uncle, who reside in California and happen to be a pair of our marriage sponsors, were returning home from a vacation to Egypt. Their layover from Cairo was in Frankfurt, with an onward journey to Los Angeles. 

Carolyn and I have made our home Texas in recent years. We were on a return trip from our two-and-a-half week trip to Saudi Arabia. Our itinerary called for a connection in Frankfurt from Jeddah to continue on to Houston. 

Coincidentally, we were all flying Lufthansa. Coincidentally, we had layovers in Frankfurt at around the same time in the same terminal with departure gates within eyesight of each other. 

While waiting in line to get into the Lufthansa Business Lounge, I spotted a woman with an uncanny resemblance in stature and looks as my dear aunt. As it was quite early in the morning, I kind of had to rub my eyes and do a double-check. She was speedily walking along by herself on her way to check out the duty-free shop while waiting for her flight when I spotted her. It's strange how quick my recognition of her was in a sea of people criss-crossing the terminal of a very busy airport. It's not like she was wearing anything that really stood out. It's like the scene in The Matrix where Neo is in a crowd of people walking in the same direction seemingly all wearing black and then all of a sudden there's a woman who is wearing Corvette red and walking in the opposite direction. That's how quick the recognition happened. 

But in terms of how sure I was, I'd say it was like 70-80% certainty. It was the kind of recognition where you think to yourself, I'm going to call out her name and if she turns, then that's definitely her. But if she doesn't then I'll just pretend I never said anything and put my head back down and wait patiently. 

When I called out, though, she turned! And she was as stunned as I was. We quickly recited our layover situations and then she walked us over to see my uncle who was close to the gate. When he caught a glimpse of us from afar walking towards him, he was just as surprised and happy to see us too. Needless to say we chatted until the first of our flights had to depart. 

A chance encounter like that is so much fun. The geek in me would imagine the probability but fail to compute it. The traveler in me hopes to have more run-ins like that in the future with others we know. 

It just goes to show that it’s a small world after all. Keeps your eyes open.

November 17, 2019

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Sadly, Anthony Bourdain rests in peace. But thankfully, his "adventures in the culinary underbelly" have really opened our eyes to the challenges, processes, coolness, creativity, and glory that kitchens all over the world really deserve. 

His television shows (No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown) are among my favorite reality series of all. Each of these productions were combinations of my favorite things - food and travel. Bourdain's narration of his travel and eating adventures are exactly as he wrote Kitchen Confidential - descriptive, intelligent, sarcastic, insightful, empathetic, adventurous, and real. It's the blunt and vivid stories and journeys depicted in both this book and his available-for-all-to-view tv shows that really captivate an audience. 

Reading this book after his tragic death in 2018 has allowed me to re-live the excitement of watching his tv shows in a different way. To finally understand his history and connection with the industries he's highlighted in his illustrious on-screen career have given me a deeper appreciation for what he did and how he did it. 

I look forward to reading his other books, The Last Interview and World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (when it's released), in the near future. 

Check it out on GoodReads.

But it on Amazon