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2017- seasons of ..power plant selfies?

How do we define this year? As 2017, a year that many considered exhausting, terrifying, and tumultuous, comes to a close, how do we value it? In the classic song from Rent, “Seasons of Love,” they ask how do you measure a year in the life- “In daylights, in sunsets, In midnights, in cups of coffee?” From the age of 5 to 21, many people have structure; they experience 16 years of summer and winter breaks. Seasons pass and there is always the next gap to look forward to. In adulthood, there are no given moments. We have to create the ones that are important to us. We are left with the question of how we track, measure, and appreciate our years?

I’d like to say I’m measuring my year in terms of where I have been and what I have done. How many new people I have interacted with, cultivated knowledge about and empathy for. How many states I visited for the first time and revisited. How many facilities I wrangled my way into. How many times I sat down to a blank sheet of paper and took the daring step to put my thoughts down, and type the first words of something I would share with the world.

I often find myself writing pieces that justify what I am doing, that show myself what I have done (this one included) and  accomplished on paper. Maybe you do the same.

We, as people, and our years, are worth more than what we produce. There are other great things about our years. 

For me, this year was about learning and exploration. 

One year ago, I didn’t know the difference between transmission and distribution (you don't eitherread about how power gets to you).  I would pass large facilities on the highway and wonder what was inside. What were the covered mounds of salt or resources alongside large tanks? How did it get there and where was it going?  While I may not be able to speak to all the piles, I certainly can spot a coal plant, nuclear plant, or incinerator and have an idea of the inputs.

I took the steps to get inside the plants and industry, and indulge my curiosity.  And there were people who thought it was worthwhile, who stood beside me, and even financially supported the investigative endeavor. The George Washington University supported the effort with a grant to fund my travels; the World Resources Institute invested resources in helping me cultivate knowledge and exposure. Then there were the people who invested time and money into my exploration, without knowing what would come of it. Duke Energy Renewables opened their doors to me to their largest solar farm in North Carolina  and showed me around the Renewable Control Center where they watch their renewable assets. The good people at Covanta’s Newark incinerator endured my harassment when I was working to get an invite to “media day.”

Editors, professors, colleagues, and friends asked around and put me in touch with resources. Strangers tipped me off to when a boat was heading out to the offshore wind farm, and I managed to get on it, and have a moment of career awakening. 

People posted on their personal Facebook pages about Electric America and my journey, to share and support the message.

I can say that once I reached a threshold of targeted outreach, the industry was relatively open, receptive even. 

I am choosing to count the doors opened; photos taken; smiling selfies at power plants; and whole-hearted endeavors, of which I’ve experienced many. And, of course, situations in which I felt utterly uncertain, and entirely out of my comfort zone.

How are you reflecting on your year? And what do you value from it? 

Cheers to this moment and the moments that define your 2017 - whatever they may be. Seasons of smiles, new experiences, cold showers, love notes, frozen computer screens, shared desserts or even selfies at solar farms.  

Electricity Production & Storage- Corrections

In the following piece "Why Salt is This Power Plant's Most Valuable Resource" for Smithsonianmag.com I inaccurately described how electricity is produced in the first three paragraphs. I regret the errors. 

Correction:

Power companies are not always making more power than they expect you to consume; they make exactly what you demand. They have enough power plants and technical know-how to make exactly the right amount of electricity at the moment it is demanded by homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals on the grid.

Additional explanation:

There are enough power plants to provide electricity during peak moments, meaning at other times, when demand is lower, some power plants are shut off and sit idle. This can happen, for example, when wind turbines are spinning hard but demand is low and a nuclear plant or a coal plant is already providing sufficient power. The coal and nuclear plants take longer to shut down and start up again.

If power from the wind farms is not needed, the wind farms may be shut down, instead of the coal or nuclear plants, and the potential energy is effectively wasted, along with the environmental benefit.

The swing in energy demand and the longer shutdown and startup times for baseload power plants discourage the use of some renewables, specifically wind power, which is generated mostly at night when winds are strongest.  In short, a lot of electricity, and importantly, clean electricity, is produced at the wrong time.  

That’s where energy storage comes in. Storing energy when it's made and releasing it when it's needed helps keep the grid reliable and paves the way for introducing intermittent renewables like wind and solar to the mix.

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READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE!

For Former NOAA Scientists, an Ocean View with Offshore Wind is Picture Perfect

To Judy Gray and Jules Craynock, a 5 turbine wind farm in the Atlantic Ocean is one great front yard. From their red picnic table and bright flowered garden that wraps around the porch, you can see the five turbines in the distance.  

Judy was a seasonal residence for 13 years before moving to the island full time in retirement with her partner Jules. The plans and timeline for the development of the wind farm started to take shape soon after the couple moved to the island permanently.

The two have had a deep understanding of the climate crisis since the beginning- both studied to become scientists, and worked for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for over 30 years. Judy, a meteorologist, knows the devastating impacts of fossil fuels and human dependence on them. Two days after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill took place, she took on the role Acting Deputy of Research for NOAA.  Prior to that, she was working in fishery research on Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred.  Jules was an oceanographer for NOAA and completed projects with the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers

She and Jules have been waiting for this moment for years- the moment when clean, steady electricity is finally supplied to the island. They are overjoyed at the idea of running entirely on renewable energy (on the windy days). 

“ [The wind project] is totally consistent with our ethos, and how we live our lives. " Judy says.

 The couple thought of installing an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) for the entire house, which are used on submarines, before the vision of a wind farm and backup electricity from the mainland came to life.  They were tired of replacing electrical appliances every year because the power supplied by the diesel generators regularly operated at 58 hertz, not the standard 60 hz that appliances were designed to run on. Judy mentions that she replaced a dishwasher that hadn’t been used 100 times. The dishwasher was only used during the summer, and only by people who rented the house. 

But poor electricity supply couldn’t dissuade her from finally taking full time residence on Block Island. “This place owns me …it’s breathtakingly beautiful. It’s like a cat- you don’t own a cat, the cat owns you” 

When asked about what is it about Block Island that draws her in she recalls a story of war brides from the second world war who would seek solace in Block Island because it reminded them of the English and Irish countryside.  The beauty is one thing. In true scientific form, she also spewed meteorological figures about how Block Island was created and its geological uniqueness and diversity.

“It’s not a barrier beach in the traditional sense. This is a glacier terminal moraine from the last major ice age. "

She also recalls that as a child her parents felt safe on the island. They would take trips to the island from Connecticut, and  her parents let the children roam free. 

“It’s where the idea of independence first formulated as a core value; this is where I was first able to exercise that value.”

Now her mother resides near by and they all enjoy the New England island life.

And they couldn’t be happier with their new view.

“The fact that we’re getting good power has not really been brought up.” Jules says. 

Invigorated by the change, and no longer in need of an external UPS, they are hoping to complete an extension that involves a solar array and tied electrical radiant floor heating. Now that they are off diesel for electricity, they are also looking to ween off of dependence on propane, and the volatility of market heating prices that they are vulnerable to.  A diversity of heating sources is the next step in securing reliable, affordable and stable energy supply. 

 For now they settle for a beautiful view, and some stable, high quality electricity to go with it.

Jules professes:  “The bottom line is this is all we’ve got. As a populous, we can continue to soil our own nest, or we can pay attention to issues like sustainability, pollution, and try to minimize our impact so that we can figure out how to sustain ourselves.” 

And the Block Island Wind Farm is helping them get there.

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  w    h ere 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. 

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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." 

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"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.”

 

 

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

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 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.

 

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

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.   

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. 

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

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

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

The Facilities

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Circular Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewable?

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

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

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

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

Worth a Visit

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

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

SWA Information:  

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

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

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

Additional Resources:

NYTimes: Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback Kindling Both Garbage and Debate

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

Sources:

SWA

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

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

Energy Recovery Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good reads:

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

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

Council Would Fine Stores if They Cool the Sidewalks

The Grid, and Your Long Lost Neighbors

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

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

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

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

 Image One  U.S. Power Grids

Image One

U.S. Power Grids

 Image Two  Electricity Generation, Transmission & Distribution

Image Two

Electricity Generation, Transmission & Distribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electric America and Why You Should Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Additional information:

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

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

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

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