Electric America

The People and Places Powering the USA

The Nuts and Bolts of Kauai Solar and Battery Storage

The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) is a small utility. It provides electricity to about 33,000 homes and businesses on Kauai and has about 25,000 active members. Energy cooperatives are organizations that provide power to their customers, who own a share of the cooperative as  members and ratepayers. The organization is run as a nonprofit, and in the case of KIUC, owns the power plants, and the transmission and distribution infrastructure to bring the electricity to the customer.

Rural electric cooperatives serve 75% of the geographic U.S., but only 12% of the population because there are fewer people to serve per mile of transmission line in rural areas. Cooperatives were founded as a way to electrify parts of the country where investor-owned power companies didn't want to go because it was less lucrative.  Because member-owned cooperatives have no shareholders, the cooperatives serve only their members (the electricity customers) and their employees. 

The cooperative model, especially in rural area or islands, has produced amazing developments in the power sector, and innovation that some for-profit companies have not been able to achieve.

In March of this year, KIUC and Tesla completed a solar and battery storage facility in Lihue, Kauai on a former sugar plantation

 It is a 13 MW solar farm ( 2600 times the capacity of the average 5kW PV system found on an American rooftop), with an accompanying 52Mwh worth of battery storage, making the installation one of the biggest battery energy storage facilities in the country, behind utility scale battery deployment in Southern California. There are 272 Tesla Powerpacks set up next to 55,000 solar panels  According to KIUC, there are many sunny days when 90 percent or more of day time electricity demand is met by the island’s solar farms. The batteries can power 4500 homes for four hours, or about 18% of the island’s homes. 

On islands it is often easier to make the financials work for new, creative power solutions because they typically face a high price of electricity to start.

This is also part of the reason that Block Island Wind Farm came to be, which is the only operational offshore wind farm in the United States, which serves Block Island and its cooperative power company (Block Island Power Company). Prior to receiving power from the wind farm, Block island was also dependent on diesel fuel, importing nearly 1 million gallons of diesel every year.

Kauai is still dependent on oil for a large part of its power supply. About 60% of the electricity on the island comes from oil power plants, and the other 40% from renewable energy sources, including solar+battery, hydropower and biomass. The solar and battery storage facility displaces 1.6 million gallons of diesel per year, enough to fill a Tacoma truck 76,000 times.

Hawaii has a state goal to be powered by 100% renewable energy sources by 2045.

 

Time on the Tea Farm, Kauai, Hawaii

Monday I arrived in Lihue, Kauai.  After a long, early flight on which I did not sleep I was picked up by my second cousin who I had not seen in 8 years. Reunited! Reunited as young adults in Hawaii (who can adventure and drink), what’s better than that?

He drove me back to the family’s home, a large tea farm consisting of 4 primarily wood bungalows, and a wooden walkway to connect them all. They were built one at a time and the family continued to move from one to the other until the main living area was built. It is essentially an extensive overgrown tropical forest that they converted into usable land that produces a couple of types of tea, and is home to a herd of goat and chickens.

(Look out for video of my cousin helping a goat get its head out of a metal fence).

The family has owned and run the tea farm for the last 15 years. I grew up seeing photos of my cousins on wild adventures among beautiful landscapes- beaches and oceans with daunting mountains in the background. I was jealous since my teenage years, and as an avid tea drinker and someone who can appreciate time among a beautiful landscape in remote area in an earthy home (who couldn’t?) it didn’t take long for me to identify my next destination. And with a built-in tour guide and travel companion in my cousins there was little to dissuade me from planning a trip.

The farm is excellent at resource management and using local resources to create a nearly self-sustaining home life. They compost their food scraps, reuse cartons and crates. They milk the goats for drinking milk and goat milk soaps.  They grow the hens they eat and eggs they sell.  Sometimes they even shoot wild pigs that shouldn’t be on their land, and local townspeople drain, roast and eat it for day. The feeling on the farm is somewhere between an oasis and a wild jungle. They have to physically haul trash into town so they keep it to a minimum.  There are no plastic bags on Kauai. Stores provide paper bags but you are encouraged bring your own bags to the store.

Some of the work I do on the farm is collecting lauhala leaves which are spiky and do not break down. They get stuck in the weedwackers and mowers so the land must be cleared of them. The property has a burn permit, so when they need to clear land they use the leaves to burn an area. We also have picked peanuts or small leaves that look like clovers, which are nitrogen fixing and prosper easily, and replant the in areas that are muddy or dry without any greenery.

(Look out for video of me and my muddy shoes).

At night the moon shines so bright that you almost forget that it’s night. It’s the only light in the area and it’s really beautiful, especially when there is a full moon.

On Wednesday I visited a 13 MW solar facility in Lihue, Kauai and they are one of the largest sites with utlity scale Tesla batteries. The batteries can power 4500 homes for 4 hours, and are used primarily at ight to send the solar to the grid, rather than for frequency controls, which is a common function of small scale batteries on solar and wind farms.

After that and some logistics work at a coffeeshop we headed to Kauai Community Radio (KKCR) where I had my first on air interview! That was pretty exciting. I was the “Out of the Box” show form 4-6 p.m. with Jimmy Trujillo.  The KIUC representative who I had met earlier that day texted me the next day that she listened in and thought I was great, which was wonderful to hear. I’ll see if I can get the snippets from KKCR radio website, but I’m just happy  and proud of myself for getting on air with them (simply by reaching out), and promoting Electric America, and speaking well about an important issue. It was super fun.

I played basketball with some locals with my cousin. The number of places in and out of the country where I have played is growing, and I love adding new spots to the list (Kauai; DC; NJ; Sevilla, Spain).  Those are the main updates from Kauai for the time being.

Be sure to check out my photo series form the Tesla/KIUC Solar +Battery Storage site on instagram over the next week!

Aloha and Mahalo.

 

 

7 Days in a Green Home - Top Takeaways from My Stay in One of the Greenest Homes in the Country

When I was offered the opportunity to exhibit my photography at the sustainability/tech conference, VERGE 2017, I reached out to the west coast climate network for a place to stay. Sven Thesen returned my call with an offer for a bed and a warm meal. I spent an entire week living as the family lives in “Project Green Home,” a LEED platinum, net zero energy, passive house.  This all electric home uses approximately 80% less energy and water than the typical U.S. house. It was not only fun to stay in, but was actually more comfortable, luxurious, and fruitful than any other place I have stayed.

This LEED platinum, net zero energy, passive house uses approximately 80% less energy and water than conventional American homes, savings on bills and impact on the planet. More detail on the Palo Alto home on the Project Green Home website.

This LEED platinum, net zero energy, passive house uses approximately 80% less energy and water than conventional American homes, savings on bills and impact on the planet. More detail on the Palo Alto home on the Project Green Home website.

How do they do it?

The family has set up a structure to create a closed loop system within their home, and does what it can to reduce waste wherever possible. The Thesens recapture and reuse water, food, and energy, and it was inspiring to see how they benefit from their well-designed, environmental, and economic home. It is a beautiful house designed with lots of windows and sky lights for natural light, extensive garden space, rooftop solar, and three electric vehicle charging stations. There is even a tree trunk that serves as a feature column in the living room.

The thing that was so wonderful about staying with the family was that they don’t make you feel bad about how you live, or even expect you to join, but I did take note of some amazing features and reaped the benefits. 

Here are my favorite parts of the green home:

1.     Hot Water that You Don’t Have to Wait For

You know that moment when you turn the shower on and get bored waiting for it to heat up? Maybe you grab a glass of water, start your nightly stretching routine, or plug in your phone, all while the water is running, wasting water cleaned to drinking water quality. No one wants to step in before it’s steaming, which is why I was so impressed with the design at Project Green Home.  Next to every water system there is a small white button you press before you need the water. Water (heated by an electric heat pump) is kept hot in the insulated pipe loop. Pressing the button triggers the pump to circulate hot water to that specific area of the home. Give it 2 minutes and you’re good to go. You turn the handle and by the time you step in you feel steaming, luscious flowing water that you’re actually using and enjoying. No more cold quick showers, or buckets of water wasted.

2.     An On-site Pump and Platform Where You Can Fuel Up (Literally and Spiritually)

I was searching around the exterior of the house for a place to do yoga. After a lap through the vegetated back yard and garden, I noticed that there was a hard flat surface in the front yard that meets every yoga need. It met my goal of being outside, and had enough room to lay out my mat and move around. What was it you ask? It was the stone fuel pad alongside the electric vehicle charging station, aka their driveway. There is no way in hell I would ever sprawl out to do yoga on the concrete of a gas station, but an EV charging station at my home? That’s a different story.  It dually serves as a place for the car to be parked and plugged in, and a lovely (and oil free) landing spot for a meditation session when the car is out being driven. It was clean with no sign of any oil or leaking fuel (because the car doesn’t use oil or gasoline – it’s electric!). The flat stone is perfect against your feet during a tree pose or a good downward dog. Sven’s wife has not been to a gas station in 8 years.. I repeat, 8 years. A spot for filling your car and your soul- what more could you ask for from your home?

3.     Luxury Shower- Water Pressure that you Crave

When I hopped in the low-flow shower, I had no idea what I was in for. I had experienced the moment of exhaustion when you’ve been traveling in a different time zone and just need a shower, but decided to sleep and get to it in the morning. Little did I know I had put off what would be one of the best shower experiences of my life.  The water was steaming (see bullet one), and equally important, the pressure was amazing.

Many water efficient technologies have struggled to meet the luxury standards that Americans are accustomed to, and if you’re like me, have come to crave. The idea had disseminated that sometimes you just need more water to get the performance. This shower dispels that notion.  The showerhead provides a flow less than 1.5 gallons/minute (gpm), compared to typical showers that stream over 2 gallons per minute, using 30 gallons in a 15 minute shower. This design saves water while maintaining water pressure. And I never put off a shower again.

4.     Fresh eggs, whenever you want them (on demand eggs)

The beauty of having hens is that you can stroll out to the backyard to collect breakfast. There were always eggs in the house fresh out of the oven (quite literally), and great for morning omelets. Healthy, cheap, and always available.  

The chickens come to the door to say good morning.

The chickens come to the door to say good morning.

5.     Wine, Homemade Goodies, Handwritten Notes- The Fruits of Providing Free Car Fuel

Nearly every time I returned to the home there was a different electric vehicle fueling up at the curbside charging station, one installed on public property, and permitted by the city of Palo Alto.  The Thesen family provides electricity to the community for free. They consider the additional electricity cost a minimal expense and well worth the value of normalizing curbside electric vehicle charging. Their generosity is often repaid via a stream of bottles of wine, notes and other goodies.  Neighbors and community members leave gifts on their curb or doorstep, grateful for their leadership, and to have a nearby fueling station (in this case providing free fuel). Neighbors could buy an electric vehicle and not install a station. The public charging station helps people overcome initial concerns about range and fueling, encouraging the growth of the electric vehicle market.

 

There are countless examples of awesome design and good living- if you want to see them all, stop by the home for a look around! The next tour is on Sunday October 8th, 1-3pm in celebration of the North American Passive House Network Conference.  Contact Sven at sven@projectgreenhome.org to join.

Learn more about how the Thesen's installed the EV charging station and the cost of electricity to fuel the public here. 

To read about the domestic hot water design and system, go to www.gohotwater.com

Jersey to Cali Part Two: The Wine, the Rat & The Rest of the Day

The Wine

On the way to Project Green Home in Palo Alto, my electric vehicle boasting, well insulated abode for the week I stopped at Safeway to grab some grub and a small token of gratitude for my hosts- wine. I grabbed a wine that was on display, made in northern California. It’s a red wine with a nice label and in my budget so I snagged it, thinking to myself “how does anyone know? would I come out with a better wine if I spent more time searching and deliberating? I decided not so much. I arrived at the house, found the key in the rock outside where they instructed me to look and was greeted by a cute dog name Art or Artie that jumped on me excessively. The family was at a wedding that my host couple officiated, so I set the wine on the kitchen table, added some dark chocolate mint doves with it and a note of gratitude for their having me.

At dinner the following evening with a neighborhood family they took out the wine. “Menage a Trois.” I had no idea of the implications until the friend said she’d been wanting to try the wine, but didn’t want to bring it home to her husband. They asked me if I knew what it meant and almost didn’t tell me, afraid to corrupt my naïve spirit. A threesome.

It should come with a sign – do not bring to houses of new people- or leave for strangers with chocolate as a young single woman coming into a house. Can someone please make an app for that? I want to check all future wines for associations and  to determine what’s good for whom. Maybe a scanner so I can steer clear of future implications that I may in some way desire a threesome.

We all had a good laugh, and they enjoyed the wine. And it’ll always be a funny story of the young single woman who came to their house and asked for a threesome without knowing it. And  who turned out to be a cool young journalist who could stay a while, go the farmers market with the kids or enjoy a good EV talk.

The Rat

In the morning I awoke to a dead rat on the counter. I am staying with a family who has pet rats. It wasn’t just any rat, it was the eldest daughter, Gen’s, precious rat, Sprint, the second one to pass away that week. It had been a rough week.

Kate (the mother), Gen and Sophie (two daughters) and I went outside to have coffee and egg in a basket- egg inside a piece of bread. The eggs were straight from the backyard, from the chickens whose coos woke me around sunrise (I immediately closed the window and fell back to sleep).

In a rush to get out the door to go to a wedding, the parents had frozen the rat when they found it dead Friday evening. Sophie had laid it out on the counter and covered it with flowers from the wedding they had attended the day prior in an empathetic sisterly gesture.

We sat outside talking about the day, rat still on the counter inside. It was a good chance to get to know one another. Kate is from the east coast originally too. Gen and Sophie often bike ride to school now, and talk openly and honestly about many topics. They are very mature and responsible. They do chores around the house, and are quite giving. They have made me feel welcome and at home.

Gen and I went grocery shopping at the farmers market, one of my favorite things to do, and shared a pretzel. We got nan, whole wheat apricot bread, apples and vegetables for the family and she roller bladed home along side me. I felt like a mom and immediately was concerned every time she switched gears quickly, as she was not wearing a helmet.

Her and I headed there after she buried the rat with her dad alongside the other two in the backyard.

The resting of the frozen dead rat on the kitchen counter.

The resting of the frozen dead rat on the kitchen counter.

Digging a burial spot for the pet.

Digging a burial spot for the pet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the rat funeral..

And after I went to the market, I was picked up by my very kind and wonderful friend (and roommate) from college who lives in San Francisco. She chauffeured me around the Bay area to the various stops I needed to hit to get the pieces of my display: fabric as a backdrop to the photos to cover the foam board that will act as walls; the poster that I designed with all 36 caption cards at FedEx; and my 36 large photos printed at Costco.

Reviewing my newly printed posters & captions for my exhibit.

Reviewing my newly printed posters & captions for my exhibit.

 

I stood in awe for a moment. I could cry of happiness for a brief moment of what I had done. It was all coming together. I also picked up the posters and display information of Power Watch, my partner who I built and designed the exhibit with. Power Watch is a project of the World Resources Institute that is mapping all of the power plants around the world on an open source platform. My photos and stories go with the data points and together we present a qualitative and quantitate way for you to understand the energy sector.  

After that, my friend and I then went to McDonald’s nearby for Mcflurry’s and had a heart to heart. Through all the odd and challenging moments in the last seven months since I left DC, I can still say that in my current venture my highs are higher, and my lows are higher than in my previous position post grad. Maybe even compared to any other stages of my life (though that’s hard to say).

I encouraged her to really try to think about what she enjoys doing. For me, when I talk to people in the field, hear their stories and learn new things, I feel joy. And so my professional life is fulfilling me personally. I feel like I am always growing through my work. And that’s a beautiful thing.

She dropped me back off and said I’d see her later in the week.

Later I drove around the block in Sven’s (the father /original host) electric vehicle and he babbled about his favorite part, the heated steering wheel which was added by Kia as an efficiency measure because it provides heat to the driver and reduces the need to create hot air to blow through the vents, which uses a lot of the battery’s electricity. I did like that feature, which in a typical combustion engine’s car, would only be found in a luxury vehicle.

We were called in for dinner. I was reminded of what it’s like to be around children, more specifically 4 year olds (I was once a camp counselor for 4 year old boys). Then I had a great post dinner conversation with Sven about kids face today, and about Sven’s businesses, home, and the future of electric vehicles.

Only a little of the rat smell of the one living rat wafts through to my bedroom.  I can officially say that I’ve witnessed a rat burial. And the official strings of my business and project are threading themselves together. I have a large 2 foot by 3 foot poster, photos and caption cards and a full gallery of photos to show for myself. Business cards and a website to back it up. It really looks like the pillars of Electric America have arisen. They are standing and now I happily climb to the top of them to see the view. Keep following as I find my way up, and surely slide down some. But for now, I am moving forward and it feels electric.

Jersey to Cali: Part One

EWR to SJ

It was an easy entry to Newark Int. Airport. A Lyft driver picked me up and he didn’t speak much English. He was relieved when I told him I spoke Spanish, and we almost immediately got into a pretty deep discussion for a cab ride. I began to chat and before I knew it the conversation turned to science and religion, and the two were almost directly at odds.

 I told him I couldn’t text in English and listen in Spanish, so I sent my logistics texts, and then he tuned in. He asked me about the storm in Houston and whether I believed in God. I said yes, but that Houston and the utter devastation was due to a scientific phenomenon that has been well studied. He didn’t know of climate change.

He shared  that how he often reads the bible, and how it has all the answers, and I, in turn, was teaching him about science. He said God and Jesus saved him when his life was nearly cut short, and that he was into “malas cosas” (bad things) prior. Now he wants to be a chef, but is driving in the meantime, and reading the bible. I asked him why he didn’t want to be a minister. He said was a man of the bible and Jesus but not necessarily of religion. We had a nice ride and I told him about the changing climate and wet areas getting more rain, and dry areas becoming drier.  And that’s what they were seeing in Houston.

One of my life goals is to go on air- tv or radio probably- and be interviewed in Spanish, and this was almost a practice round in some ways. I got out of the car and thought to myself “this was why I learned Spanish,” so that I could communicate with almost anyone I meet.

I entered the airport. Although I had a mess of a time trying to schedule a TSA global entry interview, and did not ultimately have the approval prior to the trip, the security checkpoint before the Alaska airline gate was nearly empty. I didn’t wait at all to get my boarding pass and ID checked.

I maneuvered my way into the bathroom stall (when the doors open in, poor design) with my large offsprey bag, my yoga mat, and my lululemon bag stuffed to the brim. I boarded the plane and was pleasantly surprised to find seat next to me, and the seat behind me unfilled. I don’t believe that will ever happen again.

IMG_8243.jpg

 

Although they don’t have tvs on every seat, they do have free in-flight entertainment. They provide wifi so you can download the app and then there are tons of movies available. With the wifi you can also use whatsapp and imessage (It has selective functions, but the point is you can be entertained and communicate for free). And because you’re using your own devices they have plugs on all the seatbacks, which is very helpful. You can rent a tablet or device to watch the entertainment for $10 if you choose. Very reasonable, and importantly, they had When Harry Met Sally on the movie list.

 I had the window seat (my favorite), and an older heavier Indian woman with a thick accent and a nose piercing in bright patterned attire held the aisle seat. She got me cookies while I was resting, which was more than appreciated. Later in the flight she looked at me, grabbed my face and said “you’re so cute. So beautiful,” in an accent almost not understandable to me. When she lightly stroked my face it was clear that she was paying me a compliment. I said thanks and smiled. Any motherly figure who saves me biscotti can give a light facial caress.

Inevitably I realized that I did not stock my tea wallet before I left, which is a major bummer when I got the biscotti. Anyone who knows me knows that I carry tea with me almost anywhere I travel, even just for a weekend. You never know when you’re going to want some, and by brining your own tea bag and cup, you only need the hot water.  This usually saves money, saves the waste of a cup, and you can carry your preferential tea types. They had three drink services though and overall it was an easy plane ride.

The San Jose airport is super modern and easy to access and navigate. It’s not huge, so only a few carousels. My luggage came out quickly, and I hopped in a Lyft from the designated “mobile phone apps” pick up spot. I am amazed how well Lyft identifies terminals and the pick up spots. Both at Newark and at San Jose, you could enter your airline and terminal. The app identified exactly where you should be, and where your car would arrive.

I headed to Palo Alto where I am staying with a family who built a green home, Project Green Home. We got connected when a friend connected in the national climate networks sent out a note on my behalf to the west coast 350.org group, and the owner responded with an invitation.

The home is unique and warm. There is an electric vehicle charging station out front. There is a lot of wood; a tree limb that acts as a pillar in the center of the living room. I have my own little suite , bedroom and bath on the main living level. There is a sink atop the toilet in the guest bathroom, and when you flush the sink runs somehow recycling clean water (more on that to come this week).

I wouldn’t necessarily know I am in CA except that I know I took a flight, and there are some things are that more high tech. Buildings are smaller, closer to the ground and closer together, but not in a bad way.

My  Lyft driver to Palo Alto is from Syria and was a refugee who got to California about a year ago after going to Indonesia to escape the war in 2011. He said was permitted through the UN to come to the United States. The US is absorbing very few refugees, and not many at all from Syria, so I was surprised to hear that. Syrians are not the highest immigrant population by any means. I figured he must be a special case.

He was very kind and stopped at Safeway for me to grab a couple things. I was greeted by Art the energetic and lovebug of a Doberman pincher puppy (mix?).

He snuggled and followed me around for a bit before I said goodnight.

That’s pretty much the night. Tomorrow is a day of prep for the show, picking up posters, photos, fabric etc. But the family also has some solar & electric happenings (car test runs, celebration of new PV installation), so we’ll see what I get to.

Cheers to being on the west coast!

 

 

Demand Demand Demand- How the Power of the Purse Drives Green Technology

I walked on the site of Duke Energy Renewables’ largest solar farm, capable of powering about 17,000 U.S. homes in rural Conetoe, North Carolina. It was tucked behind a small plot of RV homes, and was surrounded by agricultural land. The solar field was in an area of small towns and large farm plots.

We got out of the Ford truck close to 11 am, and it was stifling. The area was bug ridden, and the humidity and sheer heat made it almost unbearable to be in the field.

The George Washington University (GW) is powered by 50% solar, and as a GW alumni and Fellow with the university, Duke Energy Renewables agreed to show me where their energy comes from, along with a couple other farms in the area.

This one I visited was an 80 MW site with over 400,000 solar panels covering 800 acres. From every viewpoint, I saw solar.  I climbed a hill, looking down try to maneuver through the ant mounds. I looked up and was overwhelmed with solar. I saw nothing but panels and there was no end in sight.

The farm was developed through what's called a power purchase agreement (PPA), where energy consumers (companies, utilities etc.) buy a certain amount of power at a set price for a long period of time, usually 15-25 years. The companies Corning and Lockheed Martin created the PPA to serve their North Carolina and Maryland operations, respectively.

I was standing on the largest solar farm in Duke Energy Renewables’ portfolio.

It consisted of rows and rows of large solar panels. It also had an enclosed, air conditioned monitoring room where the solar radiance and number of MW produced were displayed on screens. And as with any power plant, there was also a transmission station on the site.

Later in the afternoon I traveled about 30 minutes up the road to a smaller farm, one of three solar farms that GW, GW Hospital and American University developed in North Carolina to serve their energy needs. Together it’s called The Capital Solar Partnership. The three institutions decided that they wanted to be powered by clean energy, and found a power provider to build solar farms within their energy market, PJM Interconnection, and to sell them the power.

Each institution established a PPA with Duke Energy Renewables. In the long run, the institutions save on their energy costs, as the market price per kwh of electricity rises. It’s a way of securing clean power now and energy security in the long term.

This is an especially popular model for institutions and big companies with high energy costs, long term need, and some capital to spend. The developer, for example, Duke Energy Renewables, just needs someone to say, “yes, we will pay for power from this solar farm for the next X years,” and then can securely invest in building the new infrastructure.

As I hopped around from site to site backed by private institutions and companies, something became so clear to me: it’s all about demand. The solar farms would not have been built if these institutions and companies did not have the interest in it, for whatever reason. Maybe it is part of the sustainability goals of the organizations, or a priority of the shareholders, but for one reason or another, they wanted to invest in clean energy to power their organizations.

I thought back to other scenarios when demand made all the difference.

In 2016, I toured Sims Recycling Facility in Brooklyn, NY that processes New York City’s recyclables.

The manager explained to me that right now they have one Chinese buyer that agreed to purchase dirty plastic bags, used by consumers to carry take-out and hair products from CVS and then thrown away.

 The moment that the one Chinese buyer decides that it is cheaper or preferable to buy clean plastic bags, or manufacture elsewhere, and no longer needs those dirty plastic bags they are no longer recyclable in the city.

They have nowhere else to go. No one wants them. And therefore they go to the landfill.

Recycling is not enabled by the technology at the facility, the collection process or consumer behavior, so much as the demand for the material to be used again.

We cannot count on a couple big companies to do the right thing. Or one Chinese buyer to take all of our garbage. We need to be demanding good processes- clean energy, goods that are common enough or malleable enough to have second uses.  We are the demand. When we as individuals band together to each demand something good (a better box, less plastic, fewer receipts, cleaner power), we all win.

So be demanding.   

Harvey Hits Home

 

Last week natural disaster swept the fourth largest metropolis in the country, and left upward of 44,000 people in the Houston area seeking shelter and thousands without food, cars, or other resources to go on living as they would have before the storm.

A Nytimes clip shows the devastation from hurricane Harvey, heartbreak and also the strength of the communities within Texas and from out of state.

Houston received 1/3 of its annual rainfall in 24 hours. 440,000 people have applied for federal aid for their homes and 60 people were killed.

Estimates of the damage have not yet been calculated, but are expected to be in the billions.

People have a tendency to talk about climate change, and most other scary things, as if it is in the future- a far off event or an apocalypse that will strike a distant town. Or if it strikes you, you’ll know that it’s “climate change,” and then you’ll change or address it.

But it does not come with a sign, stamp, or a solution packet. It’ll look like something you’ve experienced and survived before- lots of rain. I doubt that a survey of the population affected by Harvey would indicate increased concern for climate change and a call for action. I imagine it would, however, indicate increased respect for first responders or the Red Cross, and the need for increased FEMA and disaster preparedness funds.

When an event as devastating as Harvey hits, all we want to think about it how to get through it. And that’s 100% warranted, rational and necessary.  But at some point we have to address why it happened, and what we can do to prepare for a future event, or even prevent it.

Climate change is linked to an increase in frequency and intensity of storms.  Studies showed that the probably of a storm of Harvey’s scale occurring in Houston in any given was between .2 and .1%. But this is the third intense rain event with a probability of happening once every 500 years that has hit Houston in the last three years.

But no one believes they’ll be hit again.

It’s scientifically inaccurate to say the phenomenon caused Harvey; but it is accurate to say that climate change is linked to intensifying storms, and to a higher frequency of storm events, and probably contributed to its extreme impact.

When a city is tested, you see its true character. The people of Houston and Texas are resilient. Certainly first responders, FEMA, Red Cross, and the army of citizens that poured in from other states show that the city will survive. But a whole slew of issues have come to the forefront  which show where the system has gaps.

From a systemic, societal point of view, there are some serious flaws and weak points. Two explosions at an Archema chemical factory that was built along flood plains left black smoke pluming for days.  It was the result of a failure of electricity to the plant, and failure of backup generators, causing  volatile organic compounds to heat (without electric cooling) and explode.

The surrounding areas were evacuated prior to the explosions, but at that point there was nothing that could be done except wait for the explosions, and during the storm that was ultimately the plan of action chosen by the company.

While the human impact was minimized, certainly the area to which surrounding families would return will be different.   They might see affected air quality, employment, real estate value, just to name a few.

The fact that there are even chemical plants in flood prone areas is a questionable development decision. There has been a lot written about weak development regulations, and its role in exacerbating the tragedy. As difficult as it is to do, we need to keep reimagining worst case scenarios as worse and worse. That’s the only way that we can prepare, and come out in a better place each time as families, as governments, and as a civil society.

Houston will rebuild, but the real challenge is to build better and build different. Even though Houston wants a city that looks like Houston, it will not be the same  in any case, and rebuilding in the same way means it is just as vulnerable to the next storm.

We need to change our ways or preparing for and preventing these natural disasters, or they will change them for us.

West Virginia, Pleased to Make your Acquaintance

I wish I could tell you how happy I am to be in West Virginia. It is definitely in part because I was going stir crazy in the house, but it is also because I am so happy to be interacting with locals, learning, and absorbing the scenery and culture of the state. My experience, my two days here, have been overall very hospitable and enjoyable. 

My first stop in West Virginia dispelled the rumors. I stopped in the eastern most part of the state in Shepherdstown to meet the good people at Solar Holler, the company that essentially started the solar industry in the state. Shepherdstown happens to be WV’s oldest town, founded in 1762. 

Solar Holler is located on the main strip of the town’s center on German Street. According to a local, nearly all of the houses and shops on the strip were former medical centers during the Civil War. There were some southern attributes to the buildings, but If I could have isolated the town, and placed it somewhere that I knew, it easily could have been a quaint quirky town in Vermont or upstate New York.  It is a historic town, a tourist town with Harpers Ferry nearby, and a college town, home to Shepherd University. 

I ate at a cool restaurant called “Domestic,” that serves vegetarian friendly meals (as well as non-veggie). There are farms and breweries listed on the menu to indicate the local origins. it was next to some other cool spots- an antiques shop, coffeeshop, a vintage dress shop, and a couple photography studios. Sidewalk signs offered live music and open mics, and there were anti-pipeline signs in nearly every store window. It was fit for a getaway from the city, whatever city. It’s a small, historic, hip town. It was not the West Virginia I was expecting. 

In route to Shepherdstown, I saw condos and homes comparable to those in suburban New Jersey (of course with much more land in between). I passed a couple Mercedes in the town. Parked on the street across from the restaurant was a car with a bumper sticker that said “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter.”  At least the one car,  a Prius with a WV license plate,  communicated an openness and tolerance toward religion, one I generally don't encounter and certainly didn't expect to find in the state.

When I told people I was traveling to the state by myself (as an journalist/researcher/environmentalist to see power plants), there was concern for me. Even one West Virginian who I knew from my days in DC said to be careful about how I speak to people- it’s coal country. And I knew that going in.  The concern was not out of the ordinary, or uncalled for. I am clearly a Yankee. I am from the northeast. I have a bit of a New York accent. I carry way too much stuff with me, so I am automatically deemed a tourist or a traveler.   And I am very trusting of people. Sometimes my lack of common sense, and willingness to see the good in people results in what my parents would refer to as silly decisions.

But West Virginia has been good to me. Granted, I haven’t gotten into the thick of it. I haven’t toured mines or spoken with miners.  I haven’t sat in people’s living rooms and asked them about their jobs. But I have chatted with locals, and stopped at the side of the road to take pictures of a coal mine and plant. I have traveled with a camera. There was room for antagonistic sentiment. The lack of antagonism could be partially because of my approach- my pitch is educational. I am writing about energy, not making a political statement.

But it’s also thanks to the local atmosphere and the people here. 

When I arrived at the Bright Morning Inn in Davis, WV, there were photos, posters, and drawings of wind turbines as well as coal artifacts decorated throughout the inn lobby and restaurant. After hearing my interests, the inn owner, Susan, made me a tour route that focused on energy rather than the nature trails that a typical guest would request. I walked away with books she lent me from her trunk “Women in the Mines” and “The Goldenseal Book of the West Virginia Mine Wars.”

We spoke of the pride of working in the mines- the unique glory that comes with the danger of the work.  It is sort of akin to the glory of firefighters or police officers, yet different because the people work in another world below the earth, fighting for energy- there is a subculture of working underground.

She told me about a friend’s son around my age who passed up working for his dad’s Subaru autoshop to work in the mines, beaming that’d he’d be mining coal for $36/hour.  She recalled how he stopped in for lunch one day with a face entirely black. There was no mask because she would have seen a white outline. She hoped he and others would take up training at a nearby wind technician training program.

She had only recently heard about the ponds of water that were used to absorb pollutants for the coal, and stored out in the open with no cover. She was beginning to understand what it “dirty energy” meant, and how the water and pollutants can leach into ground water. She knew they were lined with clay but that these ponds shouldn’t be a permanent solution.  

Susan called the area in nearby Thomas the "perfect energy or coal corridor," with a coal processing facility, as well as coal deposit sites, and the Mt. Storm plant down the road. There were also wind turbines in the backdrop of the coal power plant.

Susan described to me the rock and piles of earth that remained from the mining process and had been layered like a wedding cake with grass growing a top. Once I knew what i was looking at it all made sense.

We also spoke about the black lung epidemic and the fund to pay for affected workers Her call for economic diversity echoed what I had heard from Solar Holler’s founder, Dan Conant.

She was extremely kind, and willing to connect me to her daughter who runs in social justice circles in Charleston. For breakfast the Inn chef made me both a dish of delicious beans, eggs (I believe it was called “hot mess”), and indulged my desire for sweets with a wonderful chocolate chip pancake. It was clear that I could really spend 5 days in the state, not 2. Especially because I spent most of both days driving- today heading west through the George Washington National Forest down winding roads.

Susan told me to call for anything at all. So when my car sounded funny, and I couldn’t decide if it was from the beating rain or something under my car, I called. She sent me to a local autoshop, “Falcos” where they hoisted it up, investigated, and test drove it at no charge. They found nothing wrong, which gave me comfort as I was going into a a four hour drive to Huntington in intermittent torrential rain and fog.

It was the same friendliness that my DC West Virginian friend displayed. He and I laughed at how unfriendly people were at our DC apartment building’s rooftop pool. “It’s like the Hard Rock” I remember him saying, and I couldn’t agree more. I was always the friendly one, but rarely was it reciprocated. It’s not a surprise that he’s from West Virginia. 

Tomorrow I’ll connect with Coalfield Development Corporation, an organization that is incubating social enterprises for former coal miners and providing jobs in agriculture, electrical sector, construction, and artistry. One of which, Rewire Appalachia, is the partner of Solar Holler- the workforce that installs the solar panels for their projects. 

I know I am not paying a mortgage here, sending a kid to college, putting food on the table. There are parts that are hurting, and areas with drug epidemics. I am simply passing through a couple parts of the state. There is not a single Whole Foods, Trader Joes, or Costco in the state. But I am pleased to be here, and see continue to meet to people working to diversify and revitalize the West Virginian economy. And I’d come back. 

Is This Really Happening? A Moment of Career Awakening

That moment when you feel like you’ve cheated the system. Like life is too good for this to be real, for this to be an option.

I had that moment on a boat in the Atlantic. I looked around and saw people in neon colored life vests, equipped with ropes and carabiners, and got myself a slice of their reality. There were no other women aboard the ship, yet I felt comfortable, like that was where I was supposed to be. We dropped off men to each of the large wind turbines in Deepwater Wind’s offshore wind farm off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, and shuttled them from site to site. I spoke with the captain, and watched bags of food and equipment swing high above my head, roped up to the team on the high platform. I watched as they climbed the ladders of the yellow base, and as they came back down to the ship. I noted all of the moving parts of the sophisticated operation of coordinating and executing maintenance on the huge mechanical islands that comprise the only offshore wind farm in the U.S.

I came home and relayed my experience, and was almost waiting for someone to stop me, and say “how’d you end up with the coolest job ever?” or “that’s a job?” Then I realized it’s only the coolest to me. I enjoy the challenge of finagling my way inside. Of running from office to harbor to transmission station to get the information I needed for the story, and the contacts to find my way into the front of the boat where I could get the best shot. Of not knowing when the boat would dock again on shore- if it’d be at sea for 2 hours or 12 (it ended up being 2).

I enjoy soaking up information wherever it may come- in interviews, at a bar after a day of interviews, or at the inner harbor chatting with the harbor manager hoping to spot a boat that was destined for the turbines. As a journalist, I learn about people’s reality, and share it with the world. Then I move on to capturing the next. This is work that I can not only swallow, but I can get excited about. I am able to see other people’s jobs, home lives, families, and study them. Learn from them. And contextualize them for readers.

I realized this is how a teacher must feel when he/she has control of a classroom or has facilitated an “ah-hah” moment for a student. Or how a performer feels on stage. I was one of the crewmen (in a way) on that Thursday in June, living an alternative reality. With my articles and photos, I am providing the window into their world. And I absolutely loved it.

Meanwhile, since coming home from the trip (1 day in Falmouth, 1 day in Bourne, 1 day in Hingham & Medford at a rooftop solar site, 3 days on Block Island to see the offshore wind farm) I have so much to digest. It is information overload. The people, the places, and the angles for stories are all bubbling in my mind.

Do I comment on the energy market, show the human component, or share personal revelations?  There is extensive follow-up work that comes with an experience like that- going through recordings, notes, and photos to get quotes right, to distill relevant information for other trips or stories, to identify follow-up sources to confirm information. Then there is the question of who my audience is- where to publicize my article once completed? Do I engage with the utilities and developers? Do I sell it to newspapers and wait to post it on my own site?

In addition to organizing my thoughts and content in all forms of media, I  need to review my finances from the trip, and organize contacts. I’ll edit photos and finalize stories. Post, hashtag, share, publicize and distribute through appropriate channels. Determine appropriate channels. Find or build a market for my content.

I am creating my form of success, my small business. And it will be messy, no doubt about it.

But I will forever cherish that moment on the Atlantic. As long as I keep reliving that feeling, the one where I’m on top, where I’m cheating the world because I found what feels right, then I think everything else will fall in line.

That’s my career awakening. And I'm sticking to it.

The (Electric Vehicle) Elephant in the Room

t’s a beautiful spring day, and I stroll with friends along a city block in DC. We pass a garage with a sign outside showing the classic plug-in symbol indicating it has charging stations where electric vehicles can juice up. 

My friend turns to me and says excitedly “ Look Mol, a place to plug in your car- it’s for electric vehicles!” She’s so happy to see something I’m interested in, and a sign of environmental progress.

“Yes... and charge it with what power?” I return.

A blank, confused face stares back at me.

“Electricity…”

It’s true-beautiful, flowing electrons power the vehicles, and leave no tail pipe emissions. But charging your car with electricity doesn’t imply it’s clean electricity, and doesn’t guarantee it is better for the environment.

The Unseen Fuel

More than likely you’re powering your car with a fossil fuel, just not direct oil. There is no longer a small machine within it burning oil, producing the energy needed to drive. With electric vehicles we get power from far away power plants, and it flows through transmission lines into power sockets and into our vehicles. 

But just because you don’t see fuel, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. You could be powering your  car with coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy (whatever the local power plant uses); on the contrary,  it could be solar, wind,  or geothermal energy.  Just as we don’t know the origins of our petroleum in any given tank (30%  Saudi Arabia, 20% Mexico..), we don’t know exactly where the electricity we draw is coming from at any given moment.

If you’re in California, you may be receiving excess electricity generated by Texan wind farms, or you might be receiving base load power from the natural gas plant 20 miles to the north. The operators pass along the cheapest electricity generated in that moment within the region. If there is high wind or strong sun one day and large plants within the region to capture it, your power may be renewable.  But only 13% of electricity generated in the U.S. is from renewables (9% if you exclude hydropower).

So if you’re not charging your vehicle using your rooftop solar, you’re probably using hydrocarbons. 

In DC, more than likely it’s electricity from coal, or natural gas. In NY, you car is likely running on natural gas or nuclear power.

So let’s clear about the following-

1.     Electric vehicles will increase the demand for electricity and demand more from the country’s infrastructure.

2.      Cars powered by electricity clear the tail pipe clouds, but  are likely still causing pollution and emissions from power plants around the country.

Electric vehicles present an amazing opportunity to make the leap and ultimately drive cars powered by the sun and act as mini storage devices that help to effectively manage the stress on the grid. 

Like all fuels and revolutionary technologies, it has caveats and challenges that arise with deployment. 

Electric vehicles are fundamentally an amazing development. But as it is, electric is not synonymous with sustainable. And only by acknowledging that electric elephant in the room will we get to a place where it is.

What's Going on with Coal?!

Some say it’s down for the count. The current presidential administration stands firmly behind the industry. But all roads point to the neon sign- the coal heyday is behind us.

“From the Ashes,” a film distributed by National Geographic Documentary Films, and produced by Radical Media with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Wednesday, April 26, 2017. It turns a spotlight toward the American coal industry and current trends at a time when coal is at the center of a national debate about how to manage America’s industrial decline. The film weaves together the tales of coal miners, community members affected by toxic air and water from coal pollution, and on-the-ground activists. It portrays a comprehensive portrait of the industry’s effect on local economic and environmental conditions.

One of the central questions in the debate is addressed upfront- why the decline? And it was a quick answer- it’s not economical to produce power using coal; natural gas is cheaper.  The greatest “attack” on the coal industry is the natural gas industry. The competition from gas with the advent of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and increasingly efficient rigs, challenged the coal industry, and moved natural gas to the number one fuel for producing electricity in U.S.  Coupled with increasing awareness of the public health effects, and leadership from government , environmental groups, and even energy companies, the landscape of how electricity is produced in the United States has changed drastically in the last five years. 

Most energy companies have decided that the investment required to update coal plants to meet air quality standards is better spent converting the plants to natural gas power plants. Other coal plants have simply been decommissioned altogether. Natural gas is cheaper, cleaner burning, and on the rise for electricity production.

Coal still provides around 30% of the country’s power, according to 2016 EIA data, behind natural gas at 33%. But if we’re talking about rapid decline, many industries have been hit by competitive technology and mechanization of production. The retail sector has lost 18 times as many jobs as the coal industry since 2001. So why so much attention?

1.     Poignant, Historic American story

Well, for starters, retailers did not work in dangerous, dirty coal mines to electrify the country for a century, and they certainly did not die trying. The social, economic and historical legacy is strong, and the country, and coal companies, owe the miners. Michael Bloomberg has stated the “profits have been privatized and the costs socialized,” in reference to the coal industry. A string of coal giants have declared bankruptcy and have attempted to relieve themselves of their obligations to the workers. The miners are often left without pensions, healthcare, and jobs. And we, as energy consumers are “connected through the plug.”

2.     Coal Central, a Singular Economy

The areas that are most affected by the decline in coal mining and plant shutdowns are concentrated areas of coal and only coal. There is no diversity of industry. Coal companies intentionally became the only game in town. For decades the coal companies convinced miners and local governments that it was best this way, and to be grateful for the jobs and economic activity. Coal was proudly, and intentionally, the only industry. With plant closures and layoffs, the workers are left to face the financial and health challenges of being embedded in the coal economy.

3.     All or Nothing, Deep Roots

Similar to a farming town, there is family tradition, pride, community, and an entire social fabric around coal and the electricity it produces.  In the town of Sunbury Pennsylvania, instead of a ball, they drop a light bulb on NYE. To coal miners who have been working in the mines for 30 years, it doesn’t matter that there are 800,000 jobs in the low carbon economy (and growing- solar employment grew by 25% in 2016 and wind by 32%), and far more economic and healthful opportunity. Coal-powered electricity and associated jobs are what they have known, and for good and for bad, everything is wrapped up in it.  The water sources and the air are affected by it. Coal-related health problems are particularly prevalent in those areas. And the cultural symbols and traditions, demographics, daily schedule, and general way of life were built around the coal boom. Roots are hard to pull up when the center of your economic life is also the center of your life.

4.     A Transition is a Transition, and Nobody Likes Change

Despite all the talk, transitions are costly and these communities are not getting the resources they need. There are some amazing organizations that are providing jobs and training to former coal miners. A West Virginia native, Brandon Dennison, is incubating small businesses in the Appalachia region with the Coalfield Development Corporation. President Obama had designated funding for diversification and workforce transition programs through Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative (which Trump's proposed budget would cut). But they are still fundamentally underfunded.

Coal isn’t the first industry to experience a decline, however. In the case of tobacco, the government, using fees levied on tobacco companies, paid tobacco workers as the industry transitioned back to the free market after decades of government quotas. The paper and timber industries have slowed. Technology is replacing jobs in all spheres- on assembly lines, in grocery stores, and in print houses. But the fact that the communities are suffering and it’s a life-altering transition for them warrants, or at least helps to explain, the outcry.

The coal community is an affected and vulnerable population, which is why President Trump focused on garnering a support base there. His promises to “bring back” the coal industry and put coal miners “back to work,” draw attention to a small group of people who were critical to the country’s progress, who have been by and large unsupported during the industry’s decline, and who would like to hold on to what they know for as long as they can.

Moving on from Coal

But the truth of the matter is that coal is a “20th century fuel.” It is no longer financially sensible to produce electricity using coal, with or without increased regulations. Lawsuits using the Clean Air Act have affected what types of coal we get from which mines and which plants remain operable (the most egregious offenders with outdated technology are more easily shutdown). But market forces ultimately have contributed the fuel’s decline. Solar and wind, along with battery technology, are advancing. Electricity demand in the U.S. is relatively stagnant. Natural gas put a pin in it.

When you hear talk about coal, know there are deep rooted economic and environmental forces and legacies at play. Today it’s a small industry, a shell of what it was.  Coal miners need the support of the people who have consumed the power for decades. 

But also recognize the shift away from coal is a shift forward.

There are 20 deaths from coal pollution each day, and fewer coal plants and mines means a more healthy population.  As Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, states “There has not been a more exciting time to watch how electricity is produced in America since the industrial revolution.”  Empathizing and supporting affected communities, diversifying local economies and power supply, and adapting with changing circumstances is how we progress and is how we build a truly Electric America.  

 To support affected populations, visit https://www.crowdrise.com/fromtheashesfilm.

 “From the Ashes,” premieres on National Geographic on June 25th, 2017.

www.fromtheashesfilm.com

Additional Information:

Coal Transition &  Bankruptcies:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/nations-largest-coal-mining-company-files-for-bankruptcy-protection 

https://thinkprogress.org/coal-communities-trump-budget-6b74acddaa46

http://www.coalfield-development.org

https://thinkprogress.org/coal-communities-trump-budget-6b74acddaa46

Tobacco Transition

http://info.ncagr.gov/blog/2013/12/31/todays-topic-tobacco-transition-payment-program-coming-to-an-end/

Decline in Jobs & Power Production

https://www.eia.gov/coal/annual/

https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=427&t=3

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/opinion/why-dont-all-jobs-matter.html?_r=0

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/31/8-surprisingly-small-industries-that-employ-more-people-than-coal/?utm_term=.915b3fdc62dc

Optimism and Criticism, Two Peas in a Climate Pod (A Climate March Anthem)

In fall 2015, I received a paper cutout article from New York Magazine in the mail entitled “The Sunniest Climate Change Story You’ve Ever Read” (read it here).  It was the type of note that could only come from a grandmother, one who is constantly on the lookout for things that relate to her grandchildren. Good news and climate?! I immediately devoured the content and pinned it behind my desk. 

As an environmentalist, student of science, millennial, and rational person I am supremely concerned at all times about the state of the environment and the effects of climate change on the earth and its people. I am always looking for good news, but more often than not, I feel compelled to point out the irrational, the untrue, the problems with our action, the "negative." It's a never ending effort, noting the facts around human demolition of the natural world, and the natural world's reaction.

So can you be optimistic and a climate advocate?

It seems like a fundamental part of being a climate advocate is being cynical. The main reason why our calls for action are increasingly urgent is because there is little attention paid and minimal action- we are calling from a dire place.  We are driven to action because of the nagging feeling that we, as a society, are going down, and because of the apocalyptic vision we see.  

And, to top it, people around us are complacent, and even optimistic.  It will take care of itself; the market will do its job and make sure water stays clean and there’s enough to go around.

That’s not how markets work.  And I was compelled not to be optimistic because it seemed that so many other people were, and it was not prompting solutions.  

But I was mistaking optimism for ignorance, and criticism for cynicism.

Climate advocates are optimists by nature. They wouldn’t bother working on it if they weren’t; if they truly thought they were screwed and there is no hope in progress, they’d spend their money, live fast and die young.

When I graduated from GW, a couple of honorary doctorates were given at commencement and the recipients spoke before the headliner. I remember very few words from the day, and fewer people, but these words remained with me.

“Cynicism is the death of society.”

They were not spoken by the main speaker, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, but a woman with a background in public service. I was absolutely taken aback but her choice of topic. It was not about moving forward, or utilizing an education, it was about not being a cynic. Cynicism and optimism are choices.

Willpower is the Mark of A Human

I think we have enough money and mindpower to reduce the effects of and stymie climate change. I believe we have the capability.  We now have flying and self-driving cars, superfast trains, and 3D-printed houses. It is the ability to think and choose, our willpower and mental strength, that separate us from other species.

We need to put that to the right use. We need to develop our collective will power, and decidedly change cultural norms.  Mark Jacobson of Standford University found that we can power the entire world on wind, water and solar technology, and do so economically. The barriers are largely social and political.  They are collective choices we must make individually and together.

A choice to-

  • To conserve
  • To surrender an ability to use unfettered amounts of electricity at any given time
  • To not get 5 coffees in a day
  • To value moderation
  • To take your time
  • To use public transit; to understand and accept when someone is 10 min late sometimes because of the bus

the list goes on..

The question is- do we want to use our willpower? How do we harness it collectively? What does that look like?

Advocacy and organizing have been successful historically. Local communities in the Pacific Northwest stopped 6 of 7 proposed terminals for coal export in recent years. The March for Science in NYC on Earth Day drew thousands of scientists and everyday people. The Climate March in DC on 4/29/17 is expected to draw tens of thousands more.

But it also looks like not taking plastic bags for Chinese leftovers; noticing when a coworker down the hall brings his own metal spoon with him to lunch everyday, and joining him. It involves making a culture where environmental decisions are normal and the decision makers are not outsiders. Small actions on a grand scale invigorate communities and result in cultural revolutions. They move the climate dial forward, ultimately saving carbon and preserving species.

 We see it today in niche arenas- customers and businesses making values-driven decisions. There are coffeeshops that have pushed back against grab-and-go coffee, and the idea of coffee shops as internet cafes. They don’t provide wifi, and only give out mugs to stay. They have customers who value it for what it is, a place of community and face-to-face connectivity. That is a choice on behalf of the business, and the customer. When values are placed at the forefront, they can be very impactful and pervasive among social groups.

And it start’s with someone asking- Do I need or  do you need 15 napkins? Why am I not eating in? Do I need to drive a car this weekend? Can we go to XYZ coffeshop because it encourages reuse?

We can be optimistic and still critical of daily habits.

Optimism and criticism are two peas in the climate pod. They can and should coexist. They  are fundamental complements.

So, to everyone marching this weekend in DC in the Climate March, and all those who are not, who are reading this post and thinking critically about our collective societal actions- Keep on keeping on. Keep criticizing, and looking up. For those are the starting points of a movement.

 

 

2 Years, and a Life Flipped Upside Down

It was two Easters ago that I visited my first transformer substation. I remember because there was a Do Not Enter sign, and no one was on guard, presumably because it was Easter.  My dad and I didn’t enter, but I did take some photos from the outside, and they would become my most influential series, informing my next work and this year’s project.

In January 2017 I left my job in Washington, DC with the ambition of and intention to photograph and write about power plants across the country. The idea had been building for a while. The seeds were planted even prior to my first job, while I was undergraduate at The George Washington University, and probably at that first substation.  

Through my studies, my passion had become climate change, the underdog of phenomena and complex world issues. It is something that affects every facet of every industry, a sweeping, all-inclusive problem that wasn’t going away or really getting better. No one was talking about it, or changing their behavior, and I knew I needed to dedicate my career and life to bringing attention to it. Climate mitigation and adaptation are paramount, and unlike other problems, the cost of inaction increases each year.

Senior year of college in my black and white photography class, I was fully responsible for the development and execution of a final project.  I was thinking about themes, and landed on the intersection of nature and infrastructure. Power lines and trees; power lines and water; bridges and fauna. The juxtaposition was stark and in every corner.  As I noticed and began to shoot the subjects, I saw nature and infrastructure side by side in every eye shot. I could not unsee it.

After graduation I began working at a sustainability consulting firm. On my vacations I would tour facilities- wastewater treatment plants, recycling centers, and wind farms. I called them “nerdcations,” and lucky for me, I had a couple of friends and family who would come along, and stop at the first urban coastal wind farm in the US on the way to the beach (Atlantic City Utilities Authority tours).

When thinking about it, I realize this is the result of an extraordinary curiosity for how things work and for the systems that underpin our day to day activities- where poop goes, how we get clean water, how recycling happens, and where our power comes from (read why electricity makes me tick here).   I had a list of never ending questions for whoever would take them. I strove for clarity in the classroom, on the basketball court, in the lunchroom, in conversations with adults or kids.  Throughout my whole life I always needed  to learn more, to relate, and to understand. That I am curious and ever-analyzing, with a natural intuition to question, probably stems from my upbringing in a Jewish education-centered household. It is also reflective of my care for the world and people around me.

Now I am able to do that every day, full time, and shed light on the issues that are most pressing and relevant to all people- natural resource management,  the effects of climate change, the psychology of influencing people and changing behavior.

Two easters later, I begin to execute the vision that had been forming for  years, even when I didn’t know it. I photograph energy infrastructure every week, and am dedicating the foreseeable future- at least the next year - to it.  I now have the support of the George Washington University in a different way, via the Shapiro Traveling Fellowship.  Today when I drive I have to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road and not the powerlines and power towers.

There have been lots of questions from friends and family (to be expected, thankfully)...

What have you been doing? When are you leaving? Where are you going? Is your writing going to matter and be understandable to me, someone outside the world of energy and the environment? How often will you post? What about?

So here it goes- what I’ve been up to and where I am at

The first month was spent largely securing funding- completing fellowship applications and securing associated mentorship and planning resources. I had saved money to do this project but I was open to getting financial backing from other places than my savings account.  I searched for interested parties, and explored what subject areas and facilities I would target. I began to design my project, and put into place the avenues and resources to execute it. I also got involved with the Rutgers Energy Institute and one of the professor’s companies, Greenhouse Gas Industries LLC. There I began to research New Jersey energy resources and policy.  

In the second month, March, I set up the blog and started writing. I made contacts, developed story ideas, set a schedule for posting (which indubitably has changed, and will continue to evolve). I took my first trip to Florida to visit my grandma and my great aunt, where I was also able to visit the newest and cleanest waste-to-energy plant in the country  (read my post here). I also started working on a white paper on the prospects for offshore wind, solar, and energy storage in NJ.

In April, I celebrated Passover, continued to plan for stories, and develop contacts,and reach out to facilities to plan my trip. I started to tap into the local artist community, and show and sell my photography. My friends and family came out to the Pancakes and Booze NYC show, my NYC photography debut (More Pancakes and Booze Info). I attended the RAW artist show to support a new friend. This Friday, 4/21/17, I’ll be showing some of my nature pictures at 529 Arts Avenue in NYC at the Spring Time Open Mic (more details here).  I started reading the big climate and energy books:

This Changes Everything- Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Anne Klein  check it out here

and

The Quest- Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin

check it out here

And of course, the big kaboom, I experienced and continue to experience the utter shock, bliss, and overwhelming freedom of receiving the fellowship.

Like many other people, I have never not had some place to be and go at all times...a schedule, obligations, structure etc. It is freeing and paralyzing all at once.  Hopefully in the next weeks and months I will increasingly embrace it and hug it till it can’t disappear. April is also when I began to stress about everything I didn’t know, and about what would come of this year.  But even just by writing about it, I start to feel better.

Where the Wind Takes Me

I have been cultivating leads, talking to journalists, studying bloggers, and cold calling facilities to get an in. I’ve identified  the places I want to see, and am writing them here, so you can you can hold me accountable and get excited for what’s to come..

  1. Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station , Tonopah, Arizona - the largest nuclear power plant in the U.S.

  2. Grand Coulee Dam, Columbia River, Washington - the largest hydropower electricity producer in the U.S.

  3. Davis, West Virginia-  A place with a strong historic coal legacy and a blossoming solar and wind industry alongside it.

  4. The Geysers, Mayacama Mountains, California-  Largest geothermal power plants in the country and world.

  5. Compressed Air Energy Storage, McIntosh, Alabama- The  only energy storage facility of its kind in the country, using compressed air to store energy.

  6. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), Carlsbad, New Mexico- Nuclear fuel rod disposal site.

Suggestions, thoughts, places or people I need to meet? Please

contact me here.

Conquering May- What’s up Next?

So this blog will be my sounding board where I try different styles, tones, articles, subjects (all related to climate), and where you can tell me what you think.

It will certainly be a journey- a travel adventure and a professional and personal journey.  I’m excited to  figure out what I like to write about,  and how to communicate about energy and the environment in a way that’s digestible, informative, and enjoyable to read, and  cross paths with extraordinary people that shape my trip.

And  this month I would like to-

  • Name my project
  • Streamline and rock social media
  • Plan two trips

Feel free to send suggestions! In the meantime, I’ll be observing, photographing, inquiring, writing, and posting!

Molly

Burning Trash and Proud of It: A South Florida Waste Authority’s Efforts to Get the Most Out of Its Resources

I step on to the site of the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County (SWA) and cannot believe where I am.  Green, purple, and yellow native flowers and palm trees pepper the entryway in front of the Education Center, and twist along the stairwells and walls. The sun beats off the parking overhang, which is covered in photovoltaic panels that generate solar power and keep the cars below cool. The site hosts an integrated solid waste management facility, a trash center, with two large incineration plants that burn trash every day and make electricity. But the site has the twinkle of a brighter time. There is no cloud of smog hovering above or black soot. A single ellipsis-shaped concrete smoke stack jets out into the sky. Unlike typical smoke stacks, this one is not round, the result of a deal made with the surrounding community to minimize the view from nearby properties and ease Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. In pictures only a small white stream of pollutants can be seen, and even can be  mistaken for moving clouds. Of course, there are emissions associated with the plant, but I’ll get to that later.  In the land of beaches and country clubs, the high tech waste to energy plant is beginning to close the loop and effectively utilize the seemingly endless waste stream.

The Facilities

The Solid Waste Authority (SWA) maintains 1,300 acres in total, 300 of which have been set aside as a conservation area.  With trails open to the public from dawn to dusk, manmade lakes, and bird habitats, the site serves as an outright natural sanctuary among the populated South Florida area.  It was first home to only one incineration plant (Renewable Energy Facility 1, REF 1, built in 1989), which processed half of the county’s garbage at the time. With 50% of the county’s trash going to landfill, the lots were expected to be full by 2020. There were no other sites in the county to build landfills, and after the idea of building one on SWA’s natural site was rejected by the community, SWA sought other options for waste management. It found them in burning more trash and making more power.  

 

The second Renewable Energy Facility (REF 2) (Image 3) opened in 2015 and is known as the newest and most advanced incineration plant in the country. The tour of the facility centered on REF 2, though SWA also has REF 1, two landfills, home chemical recycling centers, a biosolids processing facility (poop processing facility), a recycling plant, and a new LEED Platinum Education Center.

While REF 1 processes garbage to create a “refuse-derived fuel,” REF 2's process is a “mass burn,” which means all garbage received is burned without pre-processing. Massive claws that operate out of a control room grab trash from large piles and move it into a garbage chute, empties into the combustion chamber. The heat  created from its burn boils water to make steam, which turns a turbine and generates electricity.  

The facility is able to burn everything thrown in the garbage and sort through the ash later because of its emissions control technologies. The stream of byproducts are scrubbed, the acid gases, nitrogen oxides and mercury controlled. The ash then goes through baghouses, or large fabric filters that capture particulates. The facility doesn’t pick out the bad stuff before it’s burned, but rather, prevents it from entering the air. Ferrous and non-ferrous materials are separated from the ash, and the valuable material sold.

Between REF 1 and REF 2, the electricity generated and sold to Florida Power and Light brings in $18M of revenue for SWA annually. REF 2 produces 575kwH of electricity, or about enough to keep your home electrified for half a month, per ton of garbage. It has extended the life of the landfills by approximately 25 years. It is a small power plant, but certainly on the map,  in total producing enough energy to power all of the homes in Boca Raton. The $672 million facility has proven to be both a good economic and environmental investment for the county.

The Circular Economy

Given the efficiency of using waste as a fuel- why recycle at all?  This question only came up once, during a quick elevator conversation.  On the ride down from REF2 with the stragglers of the group, the education specialist explained that burning trash has extended the life of the landfills, but no waste is still better than some waste. Ash will fill the landfills. And it takes a lot less energy and natural resources to recycle something than to extract the resources to create a new product, which can be detrimental to the environment. She continued with the example of aluminum cans- they are, in theory, infinitely recyclable. If all aluminum cans were recycled, we would not need to mine the earth’s crust for aluminum for new cans.

As the tour continued and we moved through the facilities, the connection between natural resource management and energy became clearer.  On the SWA site many processes were happening simultaneously to extend the life of products and embedded natural resources -

Waste was burned to eliminate trash and generate electricity; electricity was sent to the grid;

The ferrous material in the ash was separated and sold, further reducing the ash sent to landfill;

Materials that were recycled by homes and businesses were sorted and sold for reprocessing; the glass was used to make glassphalt, a type of shimmering asphalt seen in the parking lot;

 The methane release from decomposing trash in the landfill was used to fire the dryers to dry sludge from the waste water treatment plant, which is then turned into fertilizer pellets and used on site for landscaping

The facility clearly is maximizing its resources to minimize the environmental impact. On the van tour, we passed the biosolids processing facility and the landfill. As trash decomposes in the landfill, methane is released into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that captures 25x more heat than carbon, therefore accelerating the greenhouse gas effect and climate change. At SWA’s landfill, 60% of the methane is captured and used to power the biosolids processing facility, which receives sludge from the waste water treatment plant, and turns it into fertilizer. While 60% of the landfill methane is sent to the bioprocessing solids facility, the other 40% is flared off, meaning methane is constantly being burned. This is still the cleanest way of methane disposal, as the combustion produces just C02 and water. During the day it is invisible, but you may be able to catch a glimpse at night.   

Renewable?

But let’s be clear- incineration is not a form of renewable energy. I agree that it’s a form of waste management, reducing the need to find new sites and ship waste out of the county via polluting trucks. I do, however, take issue with use of the word “renewable.” For the new plant, REF 2, the emissions are controlled and, according to an industry study published on SWA’s website, it produces fewer carbon emissions than coal, oil and natural gas facilities (though it’s not the lowest as far as air quality pollutants- see Table 1). The study is also more forgiving than other estimates and slightly outdated, published in 2005. As a form of electricity generation, it beats fossil fuels when it comes to the effect on climate change.

However, no scientist or renewable energy expert would consider incineration a form of renewable energy. The input for the electricity production, trash, is not inherently a renewable resource. Although it may seem like trash stream is never ending and continually produced, natural resources are being depleted to provide the plastics, metals, containers, products that end up thrown away and burned. Undoubtedly, everything in the waste stream has been extracted from the ground and converted into a user product that is then trashed by the consumer. If a catastrophe hit the earth and shut down production and consumption of goods, the sun would still shine and provide thermal energy. Incineration is not comparable to actual renewable resources, like the sun, tides, and wind, and it is certainly not clean relative to those pollution-free resources.

But in Florida it is. The state of Florida, and 30 other states (plus DC, Puerto Rico, N. Mariana Islands) count incineration as renewable, either by definition in their Renewable Portfolio Standard or in another law. Florida also considers incineration “recycling,” and prescribes one recycling credit per ton of waste incinerated, moving West Palm Beach to the head of the pack for recycling rates in the state. (See if your state considers it renewable here).

Incineration kills two birds with one stone, ridding trash and producing electricity. It reduces the need for new landfills.  But as far as energy production, not waste management, it is not the ultimate answer.

Worth a Visit

With its diverse and integrated facilities, the site can draw a crowd. It is cool to see a garbage claw digging through the sum of the county’s garbage, and physically managing it. SWA’s facilities are unique, and  housed on a site that exemplifies the intersection of nature and infrastructure.

Because of the breadth of facilities, educational resources, and variety in topic, you are bound to find something that sparks your interest and stays with you after your visit. Between the interactive recycling game and conveyor belt sorting simulation, drone video footage from landfill management, and view of the life sized garbage claw control room  something will fascinate, enrage, or enthrall you. If nothing else, you will learn how to recycle better, and that to operate the garbage claw you need at least 7 months of training, unlike the video arcade lookalikes. The site has a modern feel and is one of the most manageable­­ and accessible utility parks around from a visitor’s point of view. Next time you’re thinking about heading to the mall, but want something more meaningful, take a stroll along its Northeast Everglades Natural Area trails or check the schedule for a community tour.  SWA gives you unparalleled insight into how you, and your garbage, are fueling the county. 

SWA Information:  

SWA Trails: http://wpb.org/grassywaters/owahee_trail-php

SWA Tours: http://swa.org/423/Facility-Tours

Note: Lake Worth does not send its garbage or recycling to the Palm Beach County Renewable Energy Facilities; the town has a contract with a waste management provider outside of the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County. 

Additional Resources:

NYTimes: Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback Kindling Both Garbage and Debate

Scientific American: Does Burning Garbage to Produce Electricity Make Sense?

Sources:

SWA

http://www.swa.org/161/Palm-Beach-Renewable-Energy-Facility-1

http://www.swa.org/375/Palm-Beach-Renewable-Energy-Facility-2

Energy Recovery Council

http://energyrecoverycouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/ERC-2016-directory.pdf

Corrections- A previous version of this article said REF 1 was built in 1988; it was built in 1989.

Shut the Front Door- For Businesses in NYC, it’s Illegal Not To

It is a sunny day in early April, warm enough to work up a sweat walking up the subway stairs.  I strolled into the local McDonald’s by the Essex Street station to get a vanilla ice cream cone. As I opened the door, I came across something I hadn’t seen before, let alone at a McDonald’s- a notice from NYC to keep the door shut while the AC is running. McDonald’s promoting energy efficiency and conservation?! I was stunned.  After reading the notice, I realized that in NYC per Local Law 38 businesses with active cooling systems must close their windows and doors, and it’s been the case since 2008. (see photo of sticker below).

When Local Law 38 was enacted in 2008, it applied to businesses over 4,000 SF running an AC or space cooling system; in 2015, that law was updated to apply to all commercial establishments.

Like many other laws, it counts on NYC residents to enforce rather than actual city officials, and this sticker told me how to do so; I can call 311 number to report a case.  If only this applied at the household level - I’m sure my dad would have a field day reporting me.   I immediately called him to share what I had found.

I was excited by the educational tidbit. The Long Island Power Authority  has estimated that open doors lead to between 20-25% increase in  energy demand, which as discussed in my post, The Simple Energy Story- 7 Things You Don't Think About When You Turn on The Lights , leads to higher peaks and more power plants to provide that peak power. Letting in warm air and out cold air means higher spikes and a grid that is strapped for resources. It also increases energy bills for the businesses.

 Many stores have cited that the AC blowing out into the sidewalks encourages shoppers to stroll in, and promotes a welcoming, open environment. The law creates an even playing field for pulling in customers to their conditioned spaces. We all know it’s going to be cool inside, just not how cool exactly. Without the refreshing sidewalk breeze to immediately entice us to the specific store it’s coming from, we can make out own decisions of where we want to shop. Estimates showing the value of luring in customers with the cold air versus shelling out the money in energy costs are difficult to calculate because you don’t know who was actually enticed by the AC. However, Steve Winters Associates, a building consulting firm, has stated that for a 5,000 SF store, it could mean an extra $1,000 on their energy bill.  That’s a high price for some additional foot traffic.

The jury is still out on how effective the law is. The Natural Resources Defense Council conducted a survey in 2015, NYC Businesses Still Blasting Their Air Conditioners with Doors Open, after the first round ofstores were subject to the law but before the law’s extension. It found that 1 in 5 of the buildings left their doors open during the summer and ran their AC.  I haven’t seen an updated survey updated; data will likely come out this summer. In the meantime, I’ll continue to look out for the stickers.

I would be remiss not to mention just how much electricity we use for cooling. Buildings are cooled year-round, even in the winter because of server rooms and other equipment that cannot get too hot. The Huffington Post quoted Indian Prime Minister Modi on New York energy use: “Midtown Manhattan has more energy use than the whole country of Kenya, and New York state uses more energy than all of sub-Saharan Africa” (New York City Energy: Interactive Map Shows Appetite for Power).  That speaks both to the demand in NYC, including commercial buildings, individual apartments with AC units per person and per space,  and to level of electrification and industrialization in Africa.  One thing’s for certain- we have become extremely reliant on mechanical climate control. The shift from outdoor to indoor, from passive to active, natural to mechanical is everywhere.  No one discusses this better than Ana Swanson in How America fell in love with crazy amounts of air conditioning.

I don’t foresee this changing. Even if we have started eating with the seasons, dressing for the seasons and lowering our AC is a different beast and unlikely. At least we have McDonald’s and the City of New York to remind us to use these mechanical systems and associated natural resources wisely. After all, we can’t always have ice cream to keep us cool.

Good reads:

Bill de Blasio just banned all businesses from blasting A/C on New York's sidewalks

90 Degrees + A.C. + Open Doors = Hamptons Energy Policy?

Council Would Fine Stores if They Cool the Sidewalks

The Grid, and Your Long Lost Neighbors

Referred to as “the largest machine on the planet,” and certainly the most utilized, the U.S. power grid is complex, massive and constantly in motion, serving the 125 million homes in the U.S.  While it’s often discussed on the national level, in reality the “grid” is comprised of 3 main regional grids- the Western Interconnection; the Eastern Interconnection; the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Yes, Texas has its own.  The Western extends from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains; the Eastern covers the area east of the Rockies to the Atlantic coast and part of Texas; ERCOT includes most of Texas. See image 1 below.

So how does it get to you? There are three main parts to the grid- generation, transmission, and distribution. Power plants produce the power. Transformers then “step up” the power to 250-550,000 volts for it move on the power highways- the large transmission towers and lines that you see cutting across meadows, highways, and cities. See image 2 below.

Once it arrives at the area of demand, local substations “step down” power and distribute it to homes via local electrical wires.  Along the way about 5% of the power is lost during transmission and distribution.

While countries like Denmark and Germany share borders and balance electricity loads and natural resources between them, importing and exporting electricity as needed, in the United States, we trade mostly with our friendly neighboring states. To do this, there are over 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the U.S, and millions of low voltage power lines in our neighborhoods. Your neighboring state, and even the one 10 hours away, if it’s in your Interconnect, is relevant to your power supply.  One in two states are net electricity importers.  California imports 33% of its electricity supply from neighboring states. With about half of states importing electricity, and regional transmission infrastructure and governing bodies, clean, reliable affordable power becomes an interstate issue.  

Referred to as “the largest machine on the planet,” and certainly the most utilized, the U.S. power grid is complex, massive and constantly in motion, serving the 125 million homes in the U.S.  While it’s often discussed on the national level, in reality the “grid” is comprised of 3 main regional grids- the Western Interconnection; the Eastern Interconnection; the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Yes, Texas has its own.  The Western extends from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains; the Eastern covers the area east of the Rockies to the Atlantic coast and part of Texas; ERCOT includes most of Texas. See image 1 below.

So how does it get to you? There are three main parts to the grid- generation, transmission, and distribution. Power plants produce the power. Transformers then “step up” the power to 250-550,000 volts for it move on the power highways- the large transmission towers and lines that you see cutting across meadows, highways, and cities. See image 2 below.

Once it arrives at the area of demand, local substations “step down” power and distribute it to homes via local electrical wires.  Along the way about 5% of the power is lost during transmission and distribution.

While countries like Denmark and Germany share borders and balance electricity loads and natural resources between them, importing and exporting electricity as needed, in the United States, we trade mostly with our friendly neighboring states. To do this, there are over 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the U.S, and millions of low voltage power lines in our neighborhoods. Your neighboring state, and even the one 10 hours away, if it’s in your Interconnect, is relevant to your power supply.  One in two states are net electricity importers.  California imports 33% of its electricity supply from neighboring states. With about half of states importing electricity, and regional transmission infrastructure and governing bodies, clean, reliable affordable power becomes an interstate issue.  

 

Image One U.S. Power Grids

Image One

U.S. Power Grids

Image Two Electricity Generation, Transmission & Distribution

Image Two

Electricity Generation, Transmission & Distribution

Latte with a Side of Juice- Powering Up and Staying Charged

You’re strolling down the street heading to the subway. A museum and a movie are on the day’s agenda. Spotify is playing your favorite playlist. Twitter is open in the background. Then you get the notification - Low Power, 10%. You have two options. You can make it through the rest of your day in low power mode and risk your phone dying, cutting off communication to your entire social network, your navigation and therefore your mobility, and access to important information- movie time, weather, subway app, NYTimes alerts.  Or you can stop and charge it.  You regret not packing a charged backup battery. So, you stop in to the nearest coffee shop, identify the open outlets, and steal a spot near one. Once you squeeze in between the row of laptops, and plug in, you order your latte and wait to charge up.  You’re late to the movie, but are able to send a quick text to your friend, and eventually get there. The 1kWh to charge your phone, which typically costs $.10 at home, costs you a $4 latte to access the retailer’s energy supply, and a 20 minute delay.

More often than we care to admit, on-demand access to electricity influences our day to day activities. It dictates what retailer we stop into (typically the nearest one), where we sit when we’re there, how we get to places, and even how we communicate along the way. Access to electricity impacts where and how we spend our money, and ill-preparedness results in higher costs and changes to scheduled activities.

Picture the same scenario, except this time you have a charged back up battery. You bring your own power supply, and you go back to your scheduled activities- you optimize your route based on the subway schedule, you check other rideshare options and weigh time versus cost savings, and make an informed decision to catch the L train. No stopping for charging and no extra cost. It’s a micro form of energy independence.  You manage your energy use, knowing that two full charges can and will get you through the day. You make it to the movie on time, springing for popcorn, your favorite treat. When you get home at the end of the night, you recharge your phone and your backup battery at the utility’s retail rate of $.10/kwH.

The storage mechanism, and your ability to provide your own on-demand power, is liberating, and keeps you from being in a vulnerable situation. The example above is simple, but being without a charged phone can make you vulnerable to real dangers, which I’m sure your mother has reminded you of on several occasions. Can you even imagine if not just one electronic device, but your entire home was out of power?

Draining the electricity on a rechargeable iPhone is certainly different than losing your source supply at home, but the consequences and solutions are the same.  The effect of losing power is that you’re vulnerable, and the solution is backup storage.  

If having a charged phone is key to continued activity, functionality, wellness and happiness, a charged home is integral to the health and wellness of a family. Cooking, heating, air conditioning, hot water,  and electronics are all critical and reliant on electricity supply. While few in the United States have experienced significant black or brownouts, they are a reality more and more during extreme weather events.  If there was a battery that could be used for backup as well adopted and useful as your portable phone battery, would you buy it? if you could plug in a battery and protect the loads served by electricity in your home, would you?

After Sandy, many people invested in back-up generators. Generation, coupled with backup storage, is the next investment for homeowners and building owners. Options for in-home batteries are expanding, and the prices will continue to decrease as competition increases. Even though batteries are still expensive, and capacity is limited, the consequences of losing power are significant, and waiting till you lose power is not the answer. The technology and economics will advance; the market is moving toward more storage for a lower price per kWh. There has been a lot of publicity and excitement over the Tesla Powerwall 2. Other batteries and manufacturers that have been in the race for years are innovating and advancing.  The battery age is here. They are the future of resiliency and staying powered. Will you power up and stay charged?

The Simple Energy Story- 7 Things You Don’t Think About When You Turn On The Lights

1.       Everything comes from the ground- we move mountains, crush earth, and remove land to get the uranium,  coal, natural gas and oil that creates the electricity to light your home and keep you cool. Your demand for electricity fuels these industries and these activities.

2.       Fossil fuels are buried, fossilized sunshine; they are energy sources that have been created over hundreds of millions of years. We dig up coal, natural gas, and oil, and burn them to turn a turbine, powering a generator and producing electricity. The whole process converts thermal energy to mechanical to electrical energy.  

3.       The more we demand power (the more we leave lights on), the more energy infrastructure and power plants we need to satisfy the demand. This leads to a large stock of power plants in our cities and communities.

4.       Utilities must have enough power plants to power each and every home on its most demanding day at its most demanding time (typically a hot summer day around noon). Electricity is constantly being produced so that your AC can turn on exactly when you demand it. Utilities  have built thousands of power plants, and consumers have funded them, so that more power is constantly being produced than is used. We typically do not experience brownouts in the United States for this reason.

5.       The lower your energy demand is on the hottest day, the lesser the need for huge or new power plants.  On your electric bill you will see a  "demand charge.” This is based on the power production capacity that utilities must have to meet every household’s need on its most demanding day.  If users can lower this “peak demand,” fewer power plants will be needed and demand charges will be lower.  You can make sure your household energy use doesn’t spike too high, for example, by reducing other demands at that time; you can wait to run the dishwasher or washing machine until you turn down your air conditioning. 

6.       If you are not actively conserving, you’re probably increasing your energy use, driving up the power capacity needed to serve the area.

7.       The cheapest, most sustainable form of energy is the energy not used. It’s cheaper for utilities to pay you not to use energy when it’s toughest to provide power to everyone, than to build new plants for those moments of extreme demand. This concept is referred to as “demand response,” or “demand management.”  In the future, the  consumer will play an increasing role in responding to the needs of the grid, and helping to balance the load by reducing consumption on the most demanding days. Demand management is also critical for the integration of renewables into the grid because solar and wind power are produced at certain times during the day. New technologies are providing more information on energy use patterns, and are increasing communication between utilities and consumers.  Both the utility and the consumer have an incentive to ensure that peak power remains low. Ultimately, if demand spikes too high on those extreme weather days, new power plants will be needed, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring online. This comes out of the consumer’s pocket, born by charges and fees on electric bills, and involves a lot of risk for the utility. If the power provider and the consumer communicate and work together to manage the electricity loads, everyone wins.

The power provider and the consumer have a stake in reliable power supply and minimizing the impact on the customer’s wallet, air quality, and community life. How you use electricity affects how utilities produce power and how much they need produce. Ultimately, you, as a consumer, have the ability and responsibility to manage electricity use, and facilitate clean power and clean vibrant communities.

Electric America and Why You Should Care

Electricity is an unseen product, flowing into and out of homes, schools, and businesses, literally powering our country. It is in constant demand and production, but few people see its impact. Energy transmission infrastructure is ubiquitous, and with over 7,000 power plants in the United States, so is power generation (Source: EIA FAQ). Pick a place in the country, and I guarantee that you will be within eyeshot of electricity infrastructure. 100% of The United States is electrified, and our powerlines are everywhere (Source: World Bank).

If I were to ask, “where does your power come from?” most people would respond with blank stares, or maybe with the name of the utility: “PSE&G?” “ConEd?” “Pepco?” “I think I get a gas bill..” The general public knows little about how their electricity is produced, how their electricity demand fuels climate change, and how they can help to promote renewables.

Just like we don’t know the breakdown of gas from Saudi Arabia versus Canada in a given tank of gas, we too, as energy consumers don’t know the sources of our power. We are simply drawing from the elusive and complicated “grid.” Educated people, even those studying energy and the environment, generally cannot tell you the breakdown of the state or nation’s fuel supply, how it gets to them, and how they can take control of their personal energy security.

In New Jersey (NJ) today, 50% of electricity comes from natural gas plants (49.6% in 2015).  45% came from nuclear power plants, together making up 95% of the state’s power supply. In New York (NY), the power breakdown is similar-  41% of the state’s electricity is generated by natural gas, 32% from nuclear power, and 19% by conventional hydroelectricity (Source: EIA Net Generation By State and Type).   

In the United States as a whole, electricity is generated principally at fossil-fueled and non-renewable sourced power plants, including natural gas, coal, and nuclear. Energy production, including heating and electricity, worldwide accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, a quarter just from one sector (Source: EPA, IPCC ). As a significant world energy consumer, and a critical player in the global energy sector, the United States and its energy consumers must be aware of its resources and  consumption.  

Electricity from renewables in The United States makes up only 9% of U.S. power supply, excluding hydropower (Source: EIA Renewables). If hydropower is included, that number goes up to 13%;, hydropower  is controversial in its own vein, and considered renewable in some states and non-renewable in others (Source: Midwestern Energy News Hydropower RPS by State; Nat Geo Hydropower).

Transparency and conscientious consumption has taken hold in the food and clothing industries, but not in the energy industry, perhaps the most critical in regard to climate change.  With more frequent and more extreme weather events due to climate change, customers are also increasingly vulnerable to power outages. Further, as demand for energy to fight the changing climate grows, greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector are likely to keep climbing too.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and even this week with winter storm Stella, people began to think about their power sources. During Sandy, NYC residents living below 39th street lost power. Most people knew if they were served by the substation at East 14th street, as it flooded and exploded, and left hundreds of thousands of people in the dark (Source: CBS NYC Utility Cuts Power to More Households in Sandy’s Aftermath). NY and 16 other states experienced power outages during Superstorm Sandy. 7 million people lost power in total, many people for over a week (Source: CBS Superstorm Sandy: More than 7 Million Without Power ).

Beyond the most extreme effects of the storm, fatality, it is clear that the storm and losing electricity is detrimental to day to day life- basic services, mobility and infrastructure, business. Sandy cost the NY and NJ over $71 billion in damages alone, not including losses in revenue and productivity from the destruction and temporarily disabled workforce. (Source: Reuters Sandy Costs).  Many people, my dad included, invested in backup generators that run on natural gas or diesel to provide electricity and heat for when supply is compromised.

 How can we protect ourselves- our communities, business and homes? The first step is staying informed and knowing your power source.  The user is the missing link in shifting to a durable, more nimble, reliable grid supported by a strong clean energy economy. Now is a critical time to show the American public the American energy landscape, and I’m here to do just that. Check back here every Tuesday and Thursday for what you need to know about clean energy technologies, power plants and policies, and for stories of people working in the energy sector and everyday people carrying on with their electrified lives. Join me as I explore Electric America.

Molly Seltzer is a writer and photographer based in the NY area covering topics of energy and the environment. She is affiliated with the Rutgers Energy Institute and Greenhouse Gas Industries LLC. She has held positions in the green building consulting field and at non-profits researching energy policy and finance.

Questions, comments, corrections? Always welcome! Please send me a note at mollyaseltzer@gmail.com

Love energy and photography? Check out my photographs of energy infrastructure here: http://www.seltzershots.com/energy/  and follow me on Instagram @seltzershots.

For more, check back here on Tuesdays and Thursdays for all you need to know about Electric America. Follow me @mollyaseltzer on Twitter for more energy updates!

 Additional information:

For more about NYC electricity, Emily Rueb gives an in-depth look: NYTimes How NYC Gets Its Electricity

Don’t live in NY or NJ? Click the following link to see your state’s energy breakdown: EIA Net Generation By State and Type.

More on U.S. energy consumption? In total the country consumes 97.7 quadrillion btu annually. Check out EIA Energy Explained for more data.

Site by Molly A. Seltzer

Powered by Squarespace