Electric America

The People and Places Powering the USA

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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.  

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.

 

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.

Time on the Tea Farm, Kauai, Hawaii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aloha and Mahalo.

 

 

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

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

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

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

How do they do it?

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

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

Here are my favorite parts of the green home:

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

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

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

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

3.     Luxury Shower- Water Pressure that you Crave

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

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

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

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

The chickens come to the door to say good morning.

The chickens come to the door to say good morning.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Wine

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

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

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

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

The Rat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digging a burial spot for the pet.

Digging a burial spot for the pet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the rat funeral..

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

Reviewing my newly printed posters & captions for my exhibit.

Reviewing my newly printed posters & captions for my exhibit.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jersey to Cali: Part One

EWR to SJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8243.jpg

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers to being on the west coast!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So be demanding.   

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.

What's Going on with Coal?!

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

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

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

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

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

1.     Poignant, Historic American story

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

2.     Coal Central, a Singular Economy

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

3.     All or Nothing, Deep Roots

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on from Coal

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.fromtheashesfilm.com

Additional Information:

Coal Transition &  Bankruptcies:

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

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

http://www.coalfield-development.org

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

Tobacco Transition

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

Decline in Jobs & Power Production

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Facilities

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Circular Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewable?

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

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

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

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

Worth a Visit

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

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

SWA Information:  

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

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

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

Additional Resources:

NYTimes: Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback Kindling Both Garbage and Debate

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

Sources:

SWA

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

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

Energy Recovery Council

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

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

Site by Molly A. Seltzer

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