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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.   

Harvey Hits Home

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no one believes they’ll be hit again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Virginia, Pleased to Make your Acquaintance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is This Really Happening? A Moment of Career Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The (Electric Vehicle) Elephant in the Room

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

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

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

A blank, confused face stares back at me.

“Electricity…”

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

The Unseen Fuel

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s clear about the following-

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

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

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

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

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

What's Going on with Coal?!

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

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

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

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

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

1.     Poignant, Historic American story

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

2.     Coal Central, a Singular Economy

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

3.     All or Nothing, Deep Roots

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on from Coal

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.fromtheashesfilm.com

Additional Information:

Coal Transition &  Bankruptcies:

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

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

http://www.coalfield-development.org

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

Tobacco Transition

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

Decline in Jobs & Power Production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So can you be optimistic and a climate advocate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cynicism is the death of society.”

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

Willpower is the Mark of A Human

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

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

A choice to-

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

the list goes on..

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

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

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

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

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

We can be optimistic and still critical of daily habits.

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

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

 

 

2 Years, and a Life Flipped Upside Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

check it out here

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

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

Where the Wind Takes Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

contact me here.

Conquering May- What’s up Next?

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

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

And  this month I would like to-

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

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

Molly

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

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

The Facilities

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Circular Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewable?

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

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

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

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

Worth a Visit

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

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

SWA Information:  

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

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

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

Additional Resources:

NYTimes: Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback Kindling Both Garbage and Debate

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

Sources:

SWA

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

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

Energy Recovery Council

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

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

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