systems developer for necsys @medialab. masshole. he/him. i hate having emotions about reality; i'd much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon.
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New solar roof can be nailed just like old-school shingles

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Installers nail GAF Energy's new solar shingles to a demonstration house.

Enlarge / Installers nail GAF Energy's new solar shingles to a demonstration house. (credit: GAF Energy)

A new solar technology introduced yesterday at CES could bring power-producing roofs mainstream by relying on an old building material—nails.

For years, homeowners who wanted solar power have stripped their old roofs of shingles, added new ones, and then slapped large solar panels on top using sturdy frames. It’s a model that works well, but it also creates a two-step process that engineers have been striving to simplify.

Plenty of companies have offered their own take on solar roofs, but so far, they’ve remained niche products. GAF Energy is hoping to change that with the Timberline Solar Energy Shingle that looks strikingly like typical asphalt shingles. But their key feature isn’t so much that they emulate the look of asphalt shingles, but that they’re installed in nearly the same way. Roofers can slap the flexible sheets down and nail the top strip to the roof, just like they do for traditional roofs.

By relying on the shingle installation process, GAF Energy is counting on the scale of the roofing industry to make solar more accessible. “The roofing ecosystem is 20–30 times larger than solar. In the United States, 200,000–300,000 people get a new solar system each year. Over 5 million get a new roof,” Martin DeBono, CEO of GAF Energy, told Ars. “Our innovation is you now have a nailable solar roof, which fits the way that the majority of roofs are installed.”

New spin on an old idea

The solar roof concept has been around for years, and so far the best known is Tesla’s. Their solar roofs are stylish and subtle, with power-producing shingles that are nearly indistinguishable from regular tiles. But despite several revisions, they remain challenging to install at a reasonable cost. Just this year, the company significantly increased the cost of its solar roofs, adding a “roof complexity” factor that affects the total price.

How they look from the ground.

How they look from the ground. (credit: GAF Energy)

GAF Energy’s approach attempts to simplify several parts of the process. The first, DeBono said, is customer acquisition. Solar installers spend enormous sums to sign up new customers, which gets added on to the price of each installation. Last year, installers spent $0.75 per watt to find new customers, according to analysts at WoodMackenzie. On a typical 7 kW system, customer acquisition adds $5,250, or about 23 percent of the system’s cost. By comparison, DeBono said that “roofers spend very little on sales and marketing.”

The company sought to reduce the time and complexity of the installation process by using a format that roofers are familiar with. They also increased the dimensions of each shingle, which reduces the total install time for the entire roof.

Lastly, GAF Energy moved much of the wiring on top of the roof rather than burying it beneath the shingles. Rows of solar shingles are daisy-chained together and connected with wiring runs that look like seams on a metal roof. Each wiring run supports 2 kW of solar panels. Roofers make the electrical connections between shingles, and an electrician inspects them all when installing the inverter and tying the system into the grid.

Plenty of tweaks

Engineers changed the wiring layout based on the company’s experience with previous generations of solar roof. “With our current product, Decotech, the wires are underneath,” DeBono said. “It’s a bear when the inspector wants to see the wiring—you’re taking off flashing. And similarly for other built-in photovoltaic roofs if the inspector says, ‘I want to see all the connections are made,’ you’re going to be popping up the waterproof layer to show them.” With the new top-mounted system, installers just have to pop off a waterproof cover. It’s an approach that should also make troubleshooting and repairs simpler.

DeBono also said that the panel’s smaller scale made it easier to wring more efficiency out of the system. “Because each one of our panels is 45 Watts and only 10 volts, we have access to a whole host of electronic components that don't have to be able to withstand 300 Watts, 50 volts,” he said. “That allows us to be more efficient in the electricity generated from those panels.” 

The panels themselves are made out of monocrystalline PERC cells, which stands for “passivated emitter and rear contact,” a type of construction that allows some of the photons that pass through the panel to be reflected back to it. That helps boost efficiency to 23 percent per cell, DeBono said. (He wouldn’t say who their supplier is but made a point to say that they’re not made in China.) The cells are fixed to a flexible substrate and topped with a hardened glass that’ll withstand hail. The entire system can withstand hurricane-force winds up to 130 mph, and it’s Class A fire rated. UL certified the shingles as both solar panels and roofing materials, a first, and they can be walked on like traditional shingles.

Though the entire system uses one inverter, GAF Energy added electronics to the panels to allow them to cope with shading. And because the solar shingle panels are relatively small, they should be able to deliver more power under shady conditions than traditional, larger panels.

The entire roof comes warrantied for 25 years, and DeBono said they will be offering a more comprehensive warranty that will also include guaranteed power output. Plus, he points out that GAF Energy’s parent company, Standard Industries, has been around for over a century. “Whether we succeed or fail, the parent company is going to be around to honor our warranty claims,” he said.

Is the price right?

The big question, of course, is price. DeBono wouldn’t give a hard number since the total cost includes installation and the rest of the roof, all of which vary by market. But “a homeowner won’t pay any more for a GAF solar roof than they would if they were to get a new roof and have someone put solar on it. That’s our benchmark,” he said. “We’re half the cost of a Tesla solar roof in any given market right now.”

Though GAF Energy announced the shingles yesterday, DeBono said they’ve already been installing them in various markets in the US. “We’ve actually installed this. We’ve got permits, we’ve passed inspections.”

DeBono is hoping that, by selling a new roof and solar power as one package, his company can convince more people to go solar. “What we say,” he said, “is that with this roof, mister and misses customer, you can generate enough electricity that it will not only pay for the solar system, but also pay for the roof itself. And that’s a very compelling value proposition.”

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rascalking
139 days ago
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Charter charges more money for slower Internet on streets with no competition

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A Charter Spectrum service truck on a snowy street.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum service truck in McKinney, Texas, on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

It's no surprise that cable companies charge lower prices for broadband when they face competition from fiber-to-the-home services. But an article yesterday by Stop the Cap provides a good example of how dramatically promotional prices for Charter's Spectrum Internet service can vary from one street to the next.

In this example, Charter charges $20 more per month for slower speeds on the street where it faces no serious competition. When customers in two areas purchase the same speeds, the customer on the street without competition could have to pay $40 more per month and would have their promotional rates expire after only one year instead of two.

Stop the Cap said it examined promotional offers to new customers in the metro Rochester, New York, market, "where Spectrum faces token competition from Frontier's slow speed DSL service" and more robust competition in limited areas from Greenlight Networks' fiber service. Greenlight fiber is available in 23 percent of Rochester, while Charter cable is available to homes throughout the city, according to BroadbandNow. Greenlight prices start at $50 per month for 500Mbps.

"Charter's offers are address-sensitive," Stop the Cap founder Phillip Dampier wrote. "The cable company knows its competition and almost exactly where those competitors offer service. That is why the company asks for your service address before it quotes you pricing."

Dampier found that Charter offers 200Mbps service for $50 a month "[i]n neighborhoods where Spectrum enjoys a broadband monopoly." Charter charges $70 for 400Mbps service in those same competition-free neighborhoods.

But "[j]ust one street away, where Greenlight offers customers the option of gigabit speed over a fiber-to-the-home network, Spectrum's promotional prices are quite different," Dampier wrote. On the competitive street, Charter charges only $30 a month for the same 400Mbps service that costs $70 nearby. As previously noted, customers on the noncompetitive street have to pay $50 for 200Mbps.

"Spectrum does not even bother offering new customers its entry-level 200Mbps plan in areas where it has significant fiber competition," Dampier noted, referring to the promotional offers that pop up when you type in an address. "For $20 less per month, you get double that speed."

For gigabit-download service, Charter charges $90 a month on the competitive street versus $110 on the noncompetitive street. These are the base prices without fees and taxes. Stop the Cap's article included these screenshots from Charter's promotional offers:

Longer price guarantee on competitive street

Charter also offers to lock in the monthly rate for two years in the competitive area, compared to just one year in the noncompetitive area. Prices can rise dramatically once promotional deals expire, so locking in a price for 24 instead of 12 months ensures that customers on competitive streets save even more money in the long run.

And that's not all. Charter "charges a hefty $199.99 compulsory installation fee for gigabit service in noncompetitive neighborhoods. Where fiber competition exists, sometimes just a street away, that installation fee plummets to just $49.99," Dampier wrote.

He added:

Note similar pricing variability exists in Spectrum service areas around the country, with the most aggressively priced offers reserved for addresses also served by a fiber-to-the-home provider or multiple competitors (e.g., cable company, phone company, Google Fiber or other [competitor]). Current customers typically have to cancel existing service and sign up as a new customer to get these prices.

Cable-company pricing varies widely, so the price difference between competitive and noncompetitive areas may be lower elsewhere. But the price differences show how valuable competition is to broadband subscribers.

Greenlight charges $50 per month for 500Mbps service, $75 for 750Mbps, $100 for 1Gbps, and $200 for 2Gbps. The company charges a $100 installation fee. It doesn't offer promotional prices, so there isn't a big automatic price hike after a set period like there is with many major ISPs.

Charter says it uses a “common” pricing strategy

When contacted by Ars, Charter said that "Spectrum Internet retail prices, speeds, and features are consistent in each market—regardless of the competitive environment." But "retail prices" are the standard rates customers pay after promotional rates expire. Stop the Cap showed that Charter's promotional rates vary between competitive and noncompetitive areas.

Charter told Ars that its promotional offers are affected by several factors, including "location."

"Any promotional offers available to new customers are time-limited and vary based on a number of factors, such as time of year, location and programming, or device opportunities, and testing different promotional offers concurrently is common in a subscription business," Charter said.

This isn't the first time we've written about major Internet providers offering lower prices in competitive areas. In 2015, we noted that AT&T was charging $40 more per month for gigabit service in cities without Google Fiber.

Charter has over 27 million residential Internet subscribers in 41 states, making it the second-largest home-Internet provider in the US after Comcast.

Charter far behind Greenlight on upload speed

Price isn't the only factor that a customer might consider when choosing between Greenlight and Charter. As a fiber provider, Greenlight offers far higher upload speeds than Charter's cable network.

Charter's upload speeds max out at 35Mbps, while Greenlight's start at 50Mbps. Greenlight currently lists upload speeds as being 10 percent of download speeds, so the 500Mbps-download plan has 50Mbps uploads, and the 2Gbps plan has 200Mbps uploads. But Greenlight plans to make its speeds symmetrical like other fiber providers do.

"In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are upgrading upload speeds for orders in Serviceable Greenlight Districts at no additional charge. Your upload speed will match your download speed (500/500, 750/750, 1000/1000, 2000/2000.)," the company's website says.

Charter's upload speeds start at only 4Mbps. Its 200Mbps download plan comes with 10Mbps upload speeds, and the 400Mbps download plan comes with 20Mbps upload speeds. You have to buy Charter's gigabit-download plan to get its highest upload speeds of 35Mbps, slower than Greenlight's lowest upload rate. Despite years of promising higher upload speeds through upgrades to cable's DOCSIS standard, Charter and other cable companies still lag far behind fiber in upload capabilities.

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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348 days ago
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Solving The Vaccine Data Problem

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VaccinateCA, the non-profit I have been running, expanded nationally to Vaccinate The States. Here's what we've learned in the last 100 days.
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398 days ago
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Judge upholds Boston School Committee on alternative way to select students for exam schools this year

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A federal judge ruled today that the Boston School Committee can proceed with selecting students for the city's three exam schools via a formula based on grade point average and Zip codes, rather than using GPAs and the traditional entrance exams.

US District Court Judge William Young said the new method, enacted due to the difficulties of giving multiple-choice tests in the middle of a pandemic, was not racially biased.

This Court finds and rules that the Plan is race-neutral, and that neither the factors used nor the goal of greater diversity qualify as a racial classification.

BPS had initially hoped to begin sending out acceptance letters to families today for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O'Bryant School.

Young's ruling come in a suit brought by a group of White and Asian-American parents, mostly in West Roxbury, who contended the new method, in which the top 20% of students sent acceptance letters would be chosen citywide by GPA, with the rest based on their GPA by Zip code, starting with the city's poorest districts, was not discriminatory against their children.

Young noted the plan, approved by the School Committee in October, does not use explicit racial designations to select potential candidates for seats at the three schools and so is "facially race neutral," and that while the School Committee obviously considered the issue of racial equity in its deliberations, by itself that only recognizes the reality of Boston demographics, not an explicit decision to bias the selection process against Whites and Asian-Americans.

In fact, he criticized the parents' filings for their "cavalier interpretations" of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal-protection doctrine.

Without question, some statements raise cause for concern. The statement within the Equity Planning Tool, for example, about a hard pivot away from equality and towards equity simply has no support in the Equal Protection jurisprudence of the Supreme Court. Had this Plan unconstitutionally substituted equality of result for equality of opportunity along racial lines, this Court would not hesitate to strike it down.

But that is not what happened here.

He continued that, if anything, the School Committee took another tack: That while it did consider race, the plan it approved also accomplished another goal having nothing directly to do with race, to ensure that students get into the schools from all neighborhoods and economic classes.

Apparently well counseled, the School Committee considered diversity and developed its Plan within the permissible framework of the Supreme Court precedent. Despite its goal of greater "racial, socioeconomic and geographic diversity [better to reflect the diversity of] all students (K-12)," the Plan principally anchors itself to geographic diversity by equally apportioning seats to the City's zip codes according to the criterion of the zip code's percentage of the City's school-age children. ... The Plan similarly anchors itself to socioeconomic diversity by ordering the zip codes within each round by their median family income. The Plan is devoid, however, of any anchor to race.

Viewing everything through the prism of race is both myopic and endlessly divisive. Geographic and socioeconomic diversity are appropriate educational goals in their own right, regardless of race. ... They are not mere shibboleths or surrogates for racial balancing. Indeed, Boston's richly varied cultural heritage, see, e.g., Mark Peterson, The City-State of Boston (Princeton Univ. Press 2019), makes it all the more appropriate to draw the Exam Schools' entering class from every corner of the City. Likewise, putting the poorest neighborhoods first in the draw is a bold attempt to address America's caste system.

The School Committee's goal of a more racially representative student body, although more often discussed and analyzed, did not commandeer the Plan, and it in fact necessarily took a back seat to the Plan's other goals, which the Plan more aptly achieved. Consequently, any effect on the racial diversity of the Exam Schools is merely derivative of the Plan's effect on geographic and socioeconomic diversity -- not the reverse.

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rascalking
406 days ago
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Here's hoping they can make this change permanent, and get rid of the exams for good.
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"Fortunately this is not a metaphor for anything on our Earth!"

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rascalking
418 days ago
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Imagine if the Blue Line had been extended to Brighton

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Vanshnookenraggen maps every single Boston-area subway expansion proposal since the 1890s - some of which got built, and some, like extending what is now the Blue Line from downtown to Brighton, didn't.

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rascalking
428 days ago
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