Electric America

The People and Places Powering the USA

Filtering by Category: Personal Reflection

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.  

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.

 

Time on the Tea Farm, Kauai, Hawaii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aloha and Mahalo.

 

 

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

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

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

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

How do they do it?

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

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

Here are my favorite parts of the green home:

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

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

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

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

3.     Luxury Shower- Water Pressure that you Crave

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

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

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

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

 The chickens come to the door to say good morning.

The chickens come to the door to say good morning.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Wine

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

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

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

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

The Rat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Digging a burial spot for the pet.

Digging a burial spot for the pet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the rat funeral..

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

 Reviewing my newly printed posters & captions for my exhibit.

Reviewing my newly printed posters & captions for my exhibit.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jersey to Cali: Part One

EWR to SJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8243.jpg

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers to being on the west coast!

 

 

West Virginia, Pleased to Make your Acquaintance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is This Really Happening? A Moment of Career Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Years, and a Life Flipped Upside Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

check it out here

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

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

Where the Wind Takes Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

contact me here.

Conquering May- What’s up Next?

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

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

And  this month I would like to-

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

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

Molly

Site by Molly A. Seltzer

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