Electric America

The People and Places Powering the USA

U.S. Renewables Under Attack

 The tax bills passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate do more than affect real estate, income taxes and inheritance.

The clean power sector is under attack in the House and Senate tax bills. Though each bill uses slightly different mechanisms to undermine the clean energy industries, measures in both bills are expected to have dramatic effects and undercut investment in and the economic vibrancy of the industries. 

Inside Climate News runs through the differences between the bills, which must be reconciled in a final joint bill.  Here's what's clear and consistent in the two:

 The bills favor traditional and polluting energy resources including oil, gas, and nuclear over renewable resources. Bloomberg Markets discusses how the cut of the corporate tax rate undermines clean energy investment, and would disrupt how large solar and wind farms are currently financed.

 The bills further tip the economic scale in favor of fossil fuels, creating an all the more uneven playing field for new and alternative energy technologies and companies. They do this via several clauses. The Senate bill opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas companies to drill there and lifts a ban on crude oil exports. The House bill ends the tax credit for electric vehicles, and retroactively changes the tax credit qualifications for solar and wind developers. It also extends nuclear tax credits, while ramping down solar and wind tax credits. And these are just a couple of the highlights of the damage.

The NYTimes reports this week on how the GOP Tax Bill Could Curtail Renewable growth, and the WSJ  adds commentary on the threat the Senate bill poses to the industry and investment in it. On the whole, the industries are looking at serious upheaval and unnecessary disruption.

Investment in utility scale solar farms, like this one shown here, is likely to be seriously disrupted and compromised by the U.S. 2017 tax bill, which is slated to be voted on in late 2017 or early 2018. Greentech Media is tracking where the bill is and the impact of the changes on clean tech and renewables.

Investment in utility scale solar farms, like this one shown here, is likely to be seriously disrupted and compromised by the U.S. 2017 tax bill, which is slated to be voted on in late 2017 or early 2018. Greentech Media is tracking where the bill is and the impact of the changes on clean tech and renewables.

why is clean energy is important to the U.S.? 

1. Jobs

I'm the first one to say that power plants should not necessarily be kept open for the jobs they create. But the clean energy industry is providing low-carbon energy and putting Americans to work. As is, low carbon sources of power generation such as wind and solar are growing quickly and employing Americans in various states. The solar industry grew at a rate 12x that of the U.S. economy. This year the wind industry surpassed 100,00 jobs. The solar industry saw a 25% increase in jobs in 2016, and now employs over 260,000 Americans.

 With the electrification of U.S. energy uses, and with a grid powered by 100% renewables, the low carbon or clean energy economy is expected to produce 2 million net full-time jobs in the long term.

(Watch the full interview here, and subscribe to the Electric America YouTube Channel).

2. Clean Air: Number of deaths linked to air pollution in the U.S. outpaces  Deaths from Drug Overdoses

Research presented at the 2016 conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported 80,000 annual premature deaths linked to air pollution in the United States. That number is higher than the 64,000 Americans that died from drug overdoses according to 2016 CDC estimates. Deaths linked to air pollution are entirely preventable. Investment in clean energy means less pollution from electricity production and fewer Americans lost. 

3. Slow global temperature rise,  stymie some effects of climate change, such as more frequent and more extreme weather events.

Electricity production is the single largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. According to 2015 data, 29% of all U.S. emissions  are from electricity and heat production (up from 25% in 2010). About 67% of power generated in the United States is derived from burning fossil fuels. Accelerating the transition to a grid powered by clean energy is critical to addressing the warming of the planet, and the effects that cities face

What you Can do Today: 

Speak up!

  1. Tweet this story using the share icon below, or any other stories linked in this piece.
  2. Call your Congressman- the wind industry makes it easy to get in touch about this issue.
  3. Thoughts on all this? Comment below!

 

Women in the Mines and the Age Old Story of Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

I am standing at my desk in my new home office pondering what to write about. There are boxes all around me: returns to Best Buy and Amazon for the office technology that didn’t quite fit; thank you notes to send out; and an open box of books to return to a kind inn owner who lent them to me during my stay in West Virginia.

A photo of a grime covered face with a hard hat and pig tails smiled up at me. She was holding a fresh faced curly haired young child in her arms. The cover of “Women in the Mines: Stories of Life and Work” by Marat Moore caught my eye, mind and heart. 

POQ2KP+NQhGqdH4meXqgcQ_thumb_f8.jpg

There is probably no moment more pertinent to this book than today. Flip to any news source and you'll hear stories of sexual misconduct in the workplace, and public figures resigning and being fired for inappropriate and illegal acts. In wake of the number of cases of sexual harassment that have come into the public light, and the rise of the #MeToo movement, I realized now is exactly the time to write about women in the mines. Women who endured, persevered and disrupted. Misconduct is rampant, in nearly every workplace, and so too, in the mines.  

Moore writes about the 1970s coal boom, and an increase of good paying jobs accompanied by affirmative action policies which led to an insurgence of women in the mines over the next decade. According to West Virginia records of new hires, women represented .0015% of new coal miners hired in 1973. In 1989, they represented 8.1% of new hires, a growth of nearly 5400% in 16 years (Moore, 331).

Moore relays oral histories from those women who worked in the mines. There are varied stories of different attitudes that women experienced, but sexual harassment at a minimum was consistent. Talk about workplace conduct-  Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be in an underground mine, literally trapped beneath the earth in soot and fume filled conditions for hours on end? Underground coal mining is laborious, dangerous work in particularly unsound working conditions. Unwanted sexual advances or abuse is horrific in any work place. Combine the two and the situation looks bleak. Sexual advances in the coal seam, a male dominated, tightly constrained environment, presents a new perspective of workplace challenges that are multifaceted, pervasive and, in some cases, as suffocating as the seams themselves.

A Men’s club, reinforced

Men behaved poorly and blatantly crossed boundaries, and women were on the receiving end. One woman recounted how her superiors had drilled holes in the women's bathhouse to watch the women as they changed clothing. This was after they fought to get a bathhouse and portable potties in the first place.

On any given night many women would stay up in the evening to be with their children, drive sometimes hours to get to the mine and work the overnight shift.  One woman recounts how men drew images of her in the underground coal mine, and how she suddenly became aware of her big bust which she had never been aware of before. Another woman recalls how moved to the community and was excited to work in the mines. However, she was taken aback by the stigma of being a woman coal miner, and the outright hate that she faced. Even the local priest spouted a sermon directed at her to reinforce a sense of shame and immorality around women in the mines. The women of the mines became a common scapegoat-  men and non-mining women would spew rhetoric we still hear today.  "They’re taking our jobs," the jobs of fathers, brothers and husbands.  There were accidents in the mines that were  intentional acts (see photo with quote below from an African American female miner), but reported as accidents. There was a double standard for women who chose to take legal action. If women reported claims to the union,  all of a sudden they were considered a "union sister," who betrayed the institution. They continued to be shamed, harassed or attacked for reporting on a fellow “union brother." 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_fb.jpg

"They would take my bucket, or my jacket, and they would put them in a hangman's noose, to give me a message. ....I found out later he was planning to run me down and make it look like an accident" (Moore 131).

The Good fight- Mechanisms & getting crafty

There were some really bad stories. 

Still, one woman saw the overnight mining shift as a better option to support her family compared to working two or three jobs to barely make ends meet. While many women didn’t last very long in the mines, either due to serious injuries from accidents (unintentional or intentional), there were some women who worked up to 15 years underground. And they found some mechanisms for fighting harassment.

Some of the women miners found utility in women outside of the mines, women that did have an impact on the men’s lives: their colleague's wives. One woman threatened to tell a fellow miner's wife they were having an affair if the harassment continued, which was effective at shutting him up. Another called a wife directly who got through to her husband about the harassment and he ultimately refrained.

 

 Allies-

1.     Friends in the Mines- Supporters on the Job

Some men were protective and served as kind, true friends. At one mine whenever images were drawn of a woman miner, one African American male miner would rush to get down first and erase them before she arrived. I can only guess his actions were driven by a true understanding of what it meant to be a victim of hate and discrimination, but he was still in a position to help. Today he would be what we would consider an ally.

Another woman recalls:

“’I was surprised, because the old-timers took care of me and I had trouble with the young ones. Everybody told me it would be the old-timers who would give me a rough time because they didn’t want women in the mine. But they put me under their wing and took care of me. I think they were raised to take care of women.’”

2.    Family- male relatives that also worked in the mines

Having a brother, father or cousin working at the same mine helped to stop or minimize harassment. In some cases fights broke out when a miner would come to a woman's defense. 

Legal mechanisms & Support- 

I was excited to see legal action discussed and taken through multiple channels. Women miners joined the union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and took up proceedings against fellow union members. This had mixed success.

Women also bound together to start supporting each other. Some miners gained the confidence to take ownership of their positions in the mines and speak up. Betty Jean Hall founded and directed the Coal Employment Project (CEP).  A 1978 NYTimes article entitled "Feminist Group Assails Coal Industry" discuss how Appalachian women sought out coal mining jobs, and found solace in the CEP support group. 

“At CEP conferences, women miners found emotional support and developed concrete strategies to combat the problem.  Coal Employment Project CEP surveyed women on their experiences of harassment and successful ways to respond, ad published guidelines for legal and contractual remedies” (Moore, xliii)

In one account a woman describes her behavior transformation. She described herself as a "nice girl"  who was likable and hard working in the mines for the first five years of the job.  During that time she was taken advantage of, given the shitty jobs, and generally speaking "walked all over." And then she decided to start saying how she felt, thinking for herself, and showing them up in exams. She used her knowledge instead of hiding it and gained credentials to back the "newfound outspokenness." Her outspokenness, conviction and sense of self enabled her to survive mentally in the position. She was able to put in her decades in the mines, working 15 underground.

today

We still have work to do on changing attitudes and creating an inclusive supportive culture in workplaces. A culture in which men respect women, and are not threatened by them. Where men enable and support women where they can, especially in situations where are they powerful and entitled. 

Women are writing their own workplace guides, both aimed at behavior by women and men.  The NYtimes now has a gender editor, Jessica Bennett, who is author of  "Feminist Fightclub: A Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace." (Buy it here; A percentage of your purchase will support Electric America). 

This topic has been the theme of conversations among all my closest friends. And I've started talking to both the  men and women in my life about how gender norms such as the idea that the male is the aggressor, and even outright sexism, is learned and embodied.  That conversation is a starting point for how we can unlearn it, and adopt and act on different principles. 

Compared to the 1980s,  there are probably more allies and stronger legal mechanisms today on the whole. But not in all places. You better believe that an environment with predominantly one race or gender can feel as stifling as a coal mine.  The oil and gas industries have been reported as less diverse the tech industry. Blaire Briody shares crude realities of her time as a reporter in a North Dakota oil boom town in 2017.  Yet others  have persevered and felt  as the Women in the Mines did- that the economic opportunity outweighs the negatives.

Do you consciously think that your office is sexist? Probably not. We're not really conditioned to recognize and discuss it. But often times when diversity is lacking, prejudice finds space to breed.   Even if you don't think it's a sexist work place, if there too many men and not enough women or other voices, especially in positions of power, it probably has those tendencies. A mentor once said to me “Diversity is extremely important in every scenario: in your boardroom, your investment portfolio, and in your energy basket." 

Talking about and seeing energy field- coal mines, oil or gas wells, rooftops or wind farms, is a good place to start.

Finding allies, legal mechanisms, and cultivating diversity, and then letting those support systems give people the conviction to have hard conversations is how we move forward.

To read the complete stories of the Women in the Mines, and gain some new perspective on an age old theme, pick up a copy of Women in the Mines: Stories of Life and Work here (A percentage of your purchase will support Electric America).

I leave you with this from the inside cover of the book:

Coal Mining woman – a song by Hazel Dickens, an activist for miners’ rights.

“I’ve got the woman coal miner blues
Just like you, I’ve got the right to choose
A job with decent pay, a better chance to make my way
And if you can’t stand by me, don’t stand in way.”
We must work together to change the things that’s wrong.
For better conditions, we’ve waited much too long.
Health and Safety have to be a first priority,
And the change can only come through you and me.
Yes the change can only come through you and me.”

 

 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_292.jpg

What are your thoughts? Are there stronger protections today? Is sexism emboldened?  Comment below.  Also.. did anyone see this?

Tumbling Grapes and Composting on America's Favorite Food Holiday

The frozen grapes toppled out of my bag one by one as I hustled through the metro station to catch my train out of the city. Bursting from my backpack were two large ziplop bags full of frozen vegetable scraps which I was choosing to lug from my apartment in downtown DC to the office freezer in the suburbs of the city. My boss had a garden where she composted, and had graciously agreed to make use of my household scraps to boost the soil.

It was a free option for disposal that was not the landfill.  It was an attempt to recycle food and help it become soil, instead of decomposing and releasing methane into the atmosphere. This was certainly not the most simple, convenient, or efficient system for disposal. But I was going to the office anyway, and you could say it spiced up my morning commute.

The Urban Tumbler (Goes Suburban)

Sticking excess veggie scraps in the freezer instead of the trash wasn’t too big of an ask of my roommates, and they kindly signed on, if for no other reason than to appease my environmental compulsions.

I backtracked through the metro station, picked up fallen frozen fruit and made it to the commercial office freezer to do the final handoff.

Suffice it to say, composting is not mainstream. It’s uncommon and can be a grape spilling hassle. It’s not the norm on the east coast, and not even in all places on the west coast. Lugging compost has become a trademark of the urban millennial, and most environmentalists  take pride in their farmers market drop-offs or home gardens.

Either way though, it's a choice and work,  and no one is incentivizing doing the right thing. 

I did enjoy my composting routine. It helped me be cognizant of what I was buying, using and throwing away, and I challenged myself to use more of the whole vegetable when I cooked.

Since moving back home from DC to the surburbs of NYC, I have not yet figured out how to effectively integrate composting into my day to day routine. In light of Thanksgiving, this beautiful festival of food, I thought I’d reflect on a couple anecdotes and resources to bring our my inner compost-er again, and hopefully yours too.

Food Waste Facts

1. 63 million tons, or 40 % percent of the food grown in the United States, is effectively going from farm to landfill (farm to fill, if you will).

“Every year, American consumers, businesses, and farms spends $218 billion a year, or 1.3% of GDP, growing, processing, transporting, and disposing food that is never eaten.”

2. Consumers make the largest contribution in the chain to food waste.

Household food waste in the United States totals 27 million tons each year or 43% percent of annual food waste.

3. More food than any other item goes to landfill and incinerators.

In the United States, food makes up 22% of the waste stream.

4. Methane from landfills is the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, and accounted for 15 % of emissions in 2015.

Still.. More Gas than Poop

As I casually toss food from this Sunday's holiday prep into the garbage, I thought back to a landfill and waste processing facility I visited in Florida earlier this year.

The Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority (SWA) utility park houses the newest incinerator in the country, a landfill, recycling center and waste processing digester. It is one of the most closed-loop systems I have seen. 

As food and matter decomposes in the landfill, methane is released.  Methane is a greenhouse gas over 25x more potent than carbon. Methane can be captured and used to produce electricity or heat.  But even well managed landfills produce too much methane to use, or haven’t been incentivized or regulated to use all of it. 

 At the SWA, they capture the methane, and use it to run heaters that dry poop.  However, there is still extra methane. In fact, 40% of the landfill gas is not used. It is simply burned into the air, or flared off. If you were to get into the facility at night you'd see an stream of gas on fire.  Gas flaring is a common at oil wells where excess gas that comes up with the oil is burned because it is not seen as important or valuable enough to capture. 

Keep it from the Fill

All this talk of eating, landfill and gas got you revved up? Me too. I’m challenging myself, and anyone reading this, to find a way to reduce food waste in landfills (via composting, less cluttered fridge or any other food waste solution) Maybe we can’t get the infrastructure in place to capture all of our Thanksgiving scraps this year, but we can certainly strive to get it ready for next year, and in the new year. I still have yet to find my composting beat, but I will work on it and keep you posted on progress. 

There are many solutions for food waste, including prevention. ReFED lays out solutions to food waste and characterizes them by impacts: waste diversion, financial benefit, jobs created, ghg emissions, water use, and meals recovered.

*Centralized composting ranks first in impact for waste diversion, ghg emission AND job creation.  It can save  18million tons of ghg emissions each year.

When centralized composting seems out of your control, you CAN add your stack to community compost and show that there is a need for centralized composting. 

Here are some composting resources for residential food composting in your area:

1. NYC

Free Drop Off: 

http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/zerowaste/residents/residential-food-waste-drop-off-sites.shtm

2. DC

Free drop off:

http://dcist.com/2017/04/dc_launches_free_composting_program.php

Compost pick up services:

https://compostcab.com/

3. Baltimore

Composting Information:

http://mde.maryland.gov/marylandgreen/Pages/CompostChallenge.aspx

https://www.baltimorecountymd.gov/Agencies/publicworks/recycling/composting/binsale.html

3. Philadelphia

Compost pick up services:

https://www.bennettcompost.com/

https://www.circlecompost.com/

4. Boston

Free drop off: 

https://www.boston.gov/environment-and-energy/project-oscar .

Compost pickup services:

https://bootstrapcompost.com/

5. Raleigh/The Triangle, NC

Compost pick up services:

https://compostnow.org/

So tomorrow your trash bin may be full of food. And so will your stomach. But maybe next year someone else's stomach, garden, or compost bin will be full too. And you can thank yourself and your inner compost-er. 

Enjoy your food coma, and enjoy the company with whom you're breaking bread.

and a HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO YOU, DEAR READER.

 

Revelations on the Recycling Floor- Something to Be Grateful For

It was the eve of the new year, Dec 31 2015, and I found myself eating dinner with strangers. We had just finished a tour of the SIMS recycling center in Brooklyn, which processes thousands of tons of New York City’s recyclables.

I asked a lot of questions on the tour, took hand-written notes and snapped pictures of every angle of the recycling floor.

A man on the tour asked me “are you a journalist documenting this?” Almost without thinking I said “no but I want to want to be.”

At that point I had no intention of leaving my sustainability consulting job, and was not looking for a new profession. I simply sought out these learning opportunities because I was interested, and because it helped me do my job better by being knowledgeable about processes that were relevant to my clients.

The statement was a slip, a knee-jerk reaction, but it was true. About a year later I acted on that intuition. With a vision (and some savings), I moved home, and got to work to become a journalist. I wanted to be someone who learns on the ground from the source, and who is in touch with the economically, culturally and geographically diverse United States.  

10 states, dozens of new towns, 7,000 miles, 15 plants later I am here writing about what I am grateful for-  my gut. My inner self realized the path ahead even before I consciously recognized it. And it had spoken before. About 7 years prior, I was at a family holiday sitting around a large circular table and a question was posed: if you were stranded on an island and you could bring one thing, what would it be?

I extended it two items, but to me it was simple- pen and paper. How else would I stay sane?

The writing was on the wall for years. In my last position, I rarely wrote. Now I write several times a week, and strive to publish a piece twice a week. In the last 8 months, I have written thousands of words and made thousands of photographs.

This Thanksgiving, I raise a glass to serendipitous encounters that help you realize something about yourself, and maybe even help you define your passions and goals. Here’s to random, pointed, and seemingly innocuous questions from strangers that lifted out my inner voice. And to the person who does it for you. It may be yourself, someone you never see again, or the one you share a dinner table with. We all have intuition, and that's something to be thankful for.

This Thanksgiving what's your gut telling you?

Cheers and happy celebrating.

 

A Little Bit of Optimism- 5 Pieces of Climate Hope in the US Today

This week world leaders met in Bonn, Germany to discuss the international climate accords that came out of the 2015 conference in Paris. Recent reports that world C02 emissions have not yet peaked, and that the world is far off from the stabilizing the its temperature leave things looking a little bit bleak. Add to that the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement, now the only country in the world  not committed, it’s easy to feel pure despair. When non-sensical non-science  climate policies have arisen at the federal level and American  institutions and values  are under threat, here are a couple rays of hope.

1.     Data: Steady Access to News & Current Information  

In a time when it is increasingly difficult to find non-partisan, fact-based information there is still a steady stream of critical data coming out of key government institutions, and news organizations.

Most notably, the Energy Information Agency (EIA) reports monthly on a breadth of subjects related to the power sector and its intersection with the economy (industry, transportation etc). The EIA reports are accompanied by backup data to support the results and analysis, and they provide the contact information for the data analysts. The analysts take responsibility for the data ad I have personally contacted them. This promotes accountability and reminds me that people in some areas of the government are doing their job well. What’s best is that the site lists when the next report will be released, again promoting transparency and accountability.

The EIA in conjunction with organizations such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Greentech Media, and academic institutions provide quantitative data that propel the energy industry forward, and enable climate action.

2.     Academic Institutions Are Sending Green Signals to the Next Generation

Across the United States higher education institutions are creating environmental, climate, and sustainability focused programs and degrees that train in both the social and  hard sciences. They are training the next generation of professionals and leaders in all fields, and integrating stewardship and environmental management into those discussions.  

What’s more, this commitment goes beyond the classroom. Universities are practicing what they preach by “greening” their energy portfolios. One of the most impactful trends is the procurement of renewable energy. Harvard, The George Washington University,  and American University (just to name a few) have invested in solar and wind farms to power their institutions for the long term. Universities are many times bureaucratic risk adverse institutions, but as large and long-standing energy consumers they have harnessed the economic benefit of renewables and chosen to advance the clean energy industry.

3.      Cities & States Are Flexing Their Muscles

Since the United States pulled out of the Paris climate accords, there have been a slew of leaders from states and cities that have reinforced their independent commitments to the accords and to facilitating a shift to a clean power grid. The Governor of Massachusetts, Republican Charlie Baker  quickly signed on after the United States withdrew. The C40- Mayors are dedicated to creating sustainable cities powered by renewable resources. There is a list of towns, counties, cities, and states committed to that goal. And it’s growing.

4.     Cross Sector Action- Private Sector & Non Profit Partnerships

Big tech companies have dedicated resources to understanding where their power comes from, and securing their power supply with reliable renewable resources. They do this for their own economic benefit and security, but most companies  also have created energy teams or subsidiaries that explore ways to diversify and strengthen their energy baskets. They communicate about their decisions, which advances the industry altogether. Nearly every Silicon Valley company- Amazon, Google, Apple has its hands in the energy game, and many are encouraging a conversation about supply, and the role of  electricity  in climate change.  Global Power Watch, an Electric America partner, is an initiative by the World Resources Institute to map and provide information on all of the power plants throughout world. That initiative is funded by Google.

5.     The “Clean Energy Economy” is a powerful force.

Not only is the clean energy economy a thing, but it’s a documented and impactful phenomena. In 2016, the Department of Energy put out its first jobs report, the U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER)  characterizing jobs by industry. It noted whether jobs fell into the category of “Traditional Energy and Energy Efficiency," and which ones contributed to low carbon electricity production. The report ties together in one place the carbon and economic impact of the energy industry. The solar and wind energy trade organizations, SEIA and AWEA, are also reporting on jobs growth.  In January 2017 the second annual report was released. As of the 2017 report, 800,000 Americans contribute to low carbon electricity production, and about 32% of the U.S. construction industry work in energy building efficiency projects, totaling over 2 million Americans.

Do you have other optimistic tidbits? Comment below. 

 

 

In Vets We Trust: U.S. Military Veterans on the Front Lines of the Power Sector

 

It wasn’t long into my time documenting the American power sector that I noticed a trend- veterans rule, and rule the power industry.  Everywhere I went I met people serving the energy industry who had served the country in the military- field technicians, plant operators, planners.  And it wasn’t in just in one job, or at one type of plant. I met veterans at incinerators and solar farms alike.

When I commented on the number of people with military backgrounds to one of tour guides at a local incinerator, she spoke of the trend as if it was standard operating procedure, something that simply made sense. Anecdotally she pointed to how they handle pressure and have the skills to move quickly to maintain operations and power production.

More times than not the veterans I met had served in the Navy. Whether or not they had served on a nuclear submarine or their role was directly tied to the nuclear reactor, living on a submarine  yields a level of self-sufficiency, and urgency that aligns with the demand and circumstances of power plants. The industries are catching on, and bringing in veterans.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute  about one quarter of all nuclear plant workers are veterans.

As I began to research this trend, I came across groups and initiatives that actively support it.

Veterans in Energy is a professional society “by veterans for veterans,” dedicated to supporting veterans that choose a career in energy, with resources for recruiting, incorporating and retaining veterans in the field.  Within the energy industry, trade groups have committed to increasing the impact of vets in various sectors. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) announced in 2015 a goal of for the industry to employ 50,000 veterans and family members by 2020. This was an effort to the support “Joining Forces,”  initiative created by Michelle Obama to stimulate veteran employment.   The Veterans Energy Pipeline is a project by the American Petroleum Institute to strengthen veteran careers in oil and gas.

Back at the Duke Energy Renewables office in Tarboro, I met four people that staff and manage the nearby solar arrays, all with military backgrounds

Veterans bring their skills to the energy industry, and the industry enables veterans to continue to serve the country in critical ways with meaningful and substantive careers in civil society.

Click on the photos below to learn about veterans in the energy industry.

Thank you vets. 

Compared to the other places I’ve been, this is a dream job
— Paul, Solar Technician, Tarboro NC

The Rural Sound: What I Learned about Life & Careers from West Virginia Christian Radio

One of the best parts of taking a cross-country road trip, besides the fact that my grandchildren will not even be able to conceptualize the “American road trip” with the advent of self-driving and flying cars, is the radio.  The experience of overlapping stations fading in and out, signals and static on the road is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and enlightening parts of a trip. It reminds you that you are on a road trip, driving from state to state, landscape to landscape. The gargle of signals reminds you to stop and take a look around.

The radio channels and programs in a state are an observer’s first clue about the population, demographics, culture, and physical landscape of the state. You get a feel for the area based on the stations available, the content of those stations, as well as signal strength.

Despite the drastic technological changes in the automobile industry and among communication platforms, the radio is one of the few technologies that still exists in every car, regardless of the model, make and year. Some may have varied accessories to complement it- cassette players, CD players, Aux cords, Sirius or XM radio, but radio is standard. It is both a contemporary and idyllic part of the dissemination of information in the United States, an integral string in the fabric of American media.

During my travels I have come to appreciate NPR and local affiliate stations. However, in some places, for example in the rural mountains of West Virginia, NPR didn’t come through. One particular trip I was traveling from the eastern to the western part of the state toward Kentucky and there were virtually no stations available. I flipped between channels and I heard snippets of Christian talk shows on repeat. Just as I was deciding whether I’d throw on a CD, a program rang through discussing tactics to recruit, welcome and integrate members into church so that they remained involved and active members. Recruiting and maintaining churchgoers didn’t seem too relevant to me. That was until they said this:

“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

It is such a simple quote, and encapsulates a fundamental truth of how people relate to one another. They were saying you can’t save or enlighten newcomers, or get them to motivate them in the church until they know you really care about them.  This applies in so many contexts and settings, and  in virtually every professional setting.

No one cares about your business, problem or your solution., ie how you can contribute, until you connect with someone on a personal level. It likely will be about a different topic, or a shared interest, and as long as it’s from an authentic place, it is unfailing.

The most successful politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers (insert professional here), are able to do their jobs most effectively when they have shown they care and gained the client’s trust.

You could be a genius about farming, but until the farmer knows you have his back, and you are a buddy, there’s no way he’ll give you the time of day to provide a solution (even if it’s ultimately in both of your best interests).

I think back through my journey driving from NJ to Florida, and all of my experiences- shattered stereotypes, facts learned, museums visited, unique interactions, and yet this one quote stays with me.  Showing interest and empathy in someone’s life is how I get information on the ground- it is critical to relationship building, and to journalism. Talk to people like they’re neighbors, and show them you care, and they’ll respond. Simple, to the point, and remarkably effective.

Nostalgia at the Gas Station

I stood up from a large round spinning cushion chair to hug my grandma goodbye.  She had just finished telling stories of her childhood in a Jewish and Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. With the masses of young professionals moving to Brooklyn, I decided to look up on Google Maps the apartment- the one bedroom, walk up apartment where she had slept in the living room until she married.

We pulled up a map of Eastern Parkway and the Crown Heights neighborhood she knew in the 1940s. It was less than 2 miles from where some of my friends had recently taken residence.

 I told her I was there last week and she was floored. We panned in street level view and scrolled through images of houses, and home values.

She was in awe with each tap of the mouse and new house view. I took out my Iphone and started recording the conversation.  The idea that upper middle class, college educated "young people" would be moving to an area that she knew as poor and simply not nice, a place she had not been back to since she moved to the suburbs in 1950s, was stunning to her.

It was one of those classic cyclical, nostalgic and telling intergenerational tales of urbanization, and gentrification.

After I had recorded enough moments of disbelief, I put away my Iphone, stopped the recording, packed up my stuff, and grabbed my keys to head out.

As I started toward the door I mentioned that my gas tank was low and I’d have to stop on the way home.  My mom and I immediately start bickering about the various gas stations along Route 17.

We yelled between rooms-

I’ll stop at the Valero with the blue and yellow awning.
 No try Delta. They charge more for credit.   
Yes, but it’s cheaper to start and more convenient.
 You better fill up, I don’t want to worry about you getting home. Just put $10, and wait to fill upat the cheaper stations next time you head north.
What’s the price difference? It’s got to be all of $1 cheaper to fill up somewhere else.

It was the sort of mundane conversation that echoes in living rooms, over couches and  in garages across the country.  Quick useless bickering between mother and son, husband and wife, sister and sister.

 I’d decide on the road where to go.

As I walked to the car, I replayed the conversations and tape from the night. And realized something-  I had recorded the wrong conversation.

The Brooklyn tidbit was interesting now, and revealed a lot about my grandmother’s childhood.  Tomorrow, the gas conversation will hold the same value-  it will be idyllic, and completely mind boggling.

I realized this small calculated exercise of gas shopping and price arbitration may be a foreign concept to my grandchildren. It would be equivalent to a 1950s conversation about outdated chores relevant to fueling the house, such as how and when to put out the milk cartons for refilling.

In 70 years, gas stations, let alone cars that run on gas with an internal combustion engine will be emblematic of a different time. They likely will be nostalgic, and in museums- someplace to visit with the kids, like the Ford T model is today. 

My grandchildren won’t know the touch of oil, and not because they are from New Jersey and don’t pump their own gas. They won’t understand competition between vendors and the various types- unleaded, leaded, premium, regular, diesel. The concept of choosing when to replenish fuel, and filling up a tank manually will be difficult to fathom. 

There will likely be flying cars, self-driving, even self-fueling cars (or cars that come fueled). Batteries will automatically plug in to an electrical connection or fuel source, and start charging when the price of electricity (or any other fuel) is low and readily available. They will never feel the fear of running near empty, or the see sight of a gas light going on and experience the ensuing panic.

The concept of gas and engines will be as foreign and idyllic as the concept of horsepower, a concept that is still used today but is more difficult for people to conceptualize with each passing generation. Something that stemmed from practicality- how many horses it would take to pull you- is altogether hard to use as a barometer today because it's unlikely that you've rode a horse or challenged it to carry various weights, for example all of your luggage. 

Capacity and efficiency won’t be measured in miles per gallon. It will be in how cycles before recharge, years before a battery dies,  hours to full charge, or some other measure undeveloped at the moment.

Gas prices, fuel, even the jingle of car keys and the turning of a key into an internal combustion engine to physically start a car may become diluted and even forgotten.

People will  have trouble recalling that there was a purpose of the original shape and size of a key -  fit into, turn and mechanically start a car. Not  to hold in your pocketbook while you start the engine with a push button.

I stopped at Delta, and put exactly twenty dollars worth of regular gas in my car. I made it home, all the ride wondering what day to day nostalgia I am a part of.

And when should I stop recording?

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.

 

 

Site by Molly A. Seltzer

Powered by Squarespace