S03|E02: The Accidental History of Solar Power & The Company Man

In this week's episode, solar power is all the rage these days, but how did it get its start? And what the heck is net-metering? Also we'll hear about the resurgence of a deadly form of black lung in coal country and why, despite the severity of these health hazards, it's not getting a lot of attention.

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1 & 2

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The Accidental History of Solar Power

If you’re even the least bit interested in taking some sort of personal action on climate change, you inevitably wind up researching solar power. And when you research solar power, you come across an obscure, hard-to-parse, seemingly content free term: net metering. Buckle up folks, we're going full energy nerd.


Part 3

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The Company Man

When he was just 38 years old, Mackie Branham Jr., a coal miner, was diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, a debilitating and terminal form of black lung, a disease that was thought to be a relic of the past; a problem when coal mining was at its peak. In this episode we hear from Branham and his family, in a collaboration with Producer Benny Becker who reported on the resurgence of black lung in coal country. We'll look into why, despite the severity of the illness and the large number of miners being diagnosed, it's not getting a lot of attention.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Mon Plaisir, Jahzzar, Jason Leonard, Blue Dot Sessions and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Episode 29: A House Built on Sand

A quick note: this episode previously appeared in our podcast feed back in the spring of 2016, as an individual segment in one of our hour-long episodes we produced to air on New Hampshire Public Radio. So you might have already heard it, but…you might not have! 

Coastal communities of every partisan stripe are wrestling with the reality of rising seas. But when you’ve built a life centered around your dream home by the shore, the decision to pull up stakes and leave is a wrenching one. 

This story was a collaboration with WBEZ and their project, Heat of the Moment: Everyday Life on a Changing Planet. You can see more photos from Nahant here.

Nahant, Massachusetts is a rocky crescent moon-shaped piece of land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean just north of Boston.

 

For its entire history, it’s been at the mercy of the ocean.  

To get to the town, back in the 1800s, you would cross a long beautiful beach at low tide that connected Nahant to the mainland. At high-tide, you had to take a boat. These days there’s a four-lane road built on that beach, and it sits just a few feet above high tide.

Lincoln Wharf, upper end, Steamers for Bass Point and Nahant, corner of Commercial Street and Battery Street | 1899

Lincoln Wharf, upper end, Steamers for Bass Point and Nahant, corner of Commercial Street and Battery Street | 1899

“When the weather’s good in the summer, there’s no prettier, nicer place. We have a private beach, we have a great view. The shipping lanes of Boston come right in front of our house, so all the big ships that come in we can see. And I love it, I love my house,” said Dave Lazzaro, a retired bartender and a wood worker, as he sat in his living room on a windy  spring day.

When the weather’s good in the summer, there’s no prettier, nicer place.
— Dave Lazzaro

The house he shares with his wife Chris is filled with his carvings -- it’s kind of a comforting nautical clutter. They have lived on Willow Road, in a house that at high tide is a stone’s throw from the water, for nearly 50 years.

“I raised a family here,” he said, matter-of-factly.

The Dangers of Waterfront Living

Waterfront property tends to be expensive. More than 120 million people live in coastal counties in the United States -- that’s more than a third of the country.

But most people living by the water know -- you get the beautiful summer days, but also the brutal storms. There are two storms that people who have lived in Nahant for a long time talk about: the Blizzard of 1978, and what everyone here calls the “No-Name Storm” in 1991. If you live anywhere else, you’ve probably heard that second one called the Perfect Storm… they made a movie about it.

“When a storm comes in, the house shakes. You can literally feel it. And when those big waves hit the seawall, you can see movement, see curtains moving,” Dave Lazzaro said. “In the blizzard of ‘78 I had put plywood up over the windows, but when that got knocked in, there was waves carrying four-by-eight sheets of plywood through the living room, and if one of those had hit, we would have had broken bones or been underwater.”

The unfortunate thing is what we’re really facing in so many of these coastal areas is what we can rightly call an extinction threat.
— Sam Merril

As the seas rise, climate scientists predict devastation will become more and more common. Higher seas mean even a less powerful storm could push the tides up over Nahant’s seawalls. Around the country, as many as 12 million people could be at risk because of sea level rise.

“The unfortunate thing is what we’re really facing in so many of these coastal areas is what we can rightly call an extinction threat,” said Sam Merril, an engineer with GEI consultants, an engineering firm that designs coastal infrastructure. “The extinction of a community. We don’t know how to deal with extinction. It’s not really a conversation in our public sphere.”

In the face of such potential change, Merrill says there are three options for action:  “fortify, accommodate, and relocate.”

Fortify, accommodate, relocate. In other words, you can brace for things getting worse, you can try to adapt to live with the occasional flood, or you abandon your home and flee.

If this sounds like a simple choice, spend some time in a place like Nahant, where people are facing these choices. When you do, it’s gets clearer that each of those options is a lot more complicated.

Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Fortifying Your Property

Let’s start with fortify-- choosing to stay and fight. In Nahant you can see this just a few doors down from Dave Lazzaro, in Ken Carangelo’s house.

He’s single, no kids, and is an executive at a big company in the film industry. He and his neighbors each own a section of an interlocking seawall. Carangelo’s house was built in the ‘90s after the Perfect Storm undermined the old wall. It’s pretty imposing: tall enough that you can’t reach to the top of it from the beach, and even more concrete is buried under the sand.

“And everything that’s down there has a solid footing and kevlar-coated rebar, so the salt doesn’t get to it as much,” Carangelo explained.

He bought this house in 2008, but says the seawall cost the previous owners more than $200,000. “It’s the equivalent of building a sandcastle,” he said, “and you kind of know what happens after a while. The ocean will do what the ocean’s gonna do. So depends how hard you wanna fight it I guess.”

I don’t think it’s feasible to protect every community.
— Sam Merril

Plenty of people in coastal communities believe the federal government should help pay to protect these sandcastles, and that’s true in Nahant too; one local official told me he thinks the Army Corps of Engineers should put a breakwater in Nahant Harbor.

But Sam Merrill, the coastal engineer, says the cost of protection -- especially if you’re trying to protect every building, from every storm, in every community in the country -- could run into the billions every year for a century.

“I don’t think it’s feasible to protect every community,” he said.

Accommodating the Storm Waters

So how about accommodating?  That second option on our list means trying to live with flooding and find ways to let the water flow in and out without causing too much damage.

In Nahant, they’re trying that too.

Enzo Barile, a local elected official, gave me a tour, pointing out newer houses that have been built to withstand moderate flooding. “Seawalls can only do so much. You’re not going to stop the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.

Barile grew up in Nahant. He owns a garage in town and can point out where all the families of mobsters used to live. He says the biggest accommodation Nahant has made is keeping a lot of its low-lying areas out of development. There’s  a baseball field, a golf course, and a small bird sanctuary all built into some of the lowest areas of the town.

Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

After centuries of habitation, Nahant has built seawalls to protect some of the most flood prone locations. But despite its efforts, it is one of the most at-risk towns in the state. | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

After centuries of habitation, Nahant has built seawalls to protect some of the most flood prone locations. But despite its efforts, it is one of the most at-risk towns in the state. | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Seawalls can only do so much. You’re not going to stop the Atlantic Ocean.
— Enzo Barile

And there’s even a pond at the low-point of the town’s golf course, and when storms come they put giant bilge pumps in to drain the town, and make room for the water that’s on its way.

“So we actually drain the town down, before we know there’s a major event gonna come, north’easter… we drain it right down,” said Barile.

But despite the seawalls, and the open space, Nahant has some of the worst flooding in Massachusetts. There are only two towns in the state that have received more per capita in federal flood insurance claims.

What’s more, nearly 50 homes in Nahant are places called “repetitive loss properties.” These are buildings that have had more than two major flood insurance claims in the past 10 years -- kind of the definition of having your home in a risky spot. These homes make up something like one percent of all the buildings covered by the flood insurance administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but that one percent accounts for nearly 40 percent of the claims.

Even Enzo Barile -- a lifelong Nahanter -- thinks there’s a point after which you shouldn’t get paid to rebuild a home in a spot like this.

“Where do we draw the line? I don’t know,” Barile began. “Personally I think that once FEMA has paid you, if they’ve paid for your home and you’ve lost it, because it’s in a ridiculous spot... enough’s enough. We have just to say no, because the country is paying for that now.”

Moving Away From the Water

This brings us to relocation -- just move.  That third option on our list -- maybe more than the others -- seems so simple as a hypothetical. But in real life, it’s not even close.

Consider Dave Lazzaro, the retired bartender who likes watching the ships go by. His home on Willow Road has been flooded six times over the past 40-some years. He doesn’t question that the seas are rising.

“Storms are getting more intense and there are places where once you can live, that now you can’t live. I don’t think of Willow Road that way,” he said.

And that’s the thing; Nobody thinks this way about their own home. Even if logically they know the odds… which Dave does.

“Is this house going to be safe in the next 25 years?” he said. “I don’t know about that, because those storms that come in, if you’re in the path, you’re in trouble.”

When you’re talking about other people’s houses by the sea, and how risky those are, it’s much easier to distance yourself and look at the facts. When it’s your home, the view gets blurrier.

Dave and Chris Lazzaro have lived in their home on the water for decades. Over the past 50 years the home has sustained flood damage a half dozen times. Twice - in 1978 and 1991 - that damage was serious. | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Dave and Chris Lazzaro have lived in their home on the water for decades. Over the past 50 years the home has sustained flood damage a half dozen times. Twice - in 1978 and 1991 - that damage was serious. | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Storms are getting more intense and there are places where once you can live, that now you can’t live.
— Dave Lazzaro

This is where flood insurance comes in. The price that people pay should be an indicator -- a clue -- that sooner rather than later, you will be in trouble.

I asked Dave and Chris if they would be willing to take the risk of living in their home without flood insurance. Dave answered immediately “No.” After a short pause, Chris said: “Yes.”

Even in one household, figuring out where and when to draw the line is complicated, and the signal of risk that flood insurance sends gets all mixed up in your love for your home.

And that risk signal gets more muddled when federal flood insurance subsidies don’t reflect the true risk of living in the sorts of flood zones.  

Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

For example, many older, riskier properties covered by federal flood insurance are grandfathered into artificially low rates. For example, after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy left the federal flood insurance program $23 billion dollars in debt and Congress tried to raise those rates, coastal property owners reacted immediately, filling their representatives’ inboxes and voicemails with complaints

Members of Congress like then-Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, fought in 2013 to keep the subsidies.

“This is a major bill that passed without the data necessary to use either compassion or common sense,” she railed in a committee hearing at the time.

Less than two years after the change was passed, Congress watered it down: delaying some rate increases, and eliminating others.

This means, while insurance rates are rising for coastal residents, it could take another ten to fifteen years before many of them are paying what the private industry would consider a rate that truly reflects their risk.

None of the options are terribly good at this point. I mean, in many places there are still whole communities where in fact we may be past the point where anything makes financial sense.
— Sam Merril

So there is no clear message telling coastal homeowners whether they should relocate, at least not through the rates.

Sam Merrill, the coastal engineer with GEI consulting, thinks that without some sort of action, eventually many homeowners will be left holding the bag when their homes simply cease to be worth anything... or their homes are swept away.

“Generally it’s going to be bloody. The question is… can we help communities make it a little bit less bloody… and I… I think so,” he said. “None of the options are terribly good at this point. I mean, in many places there are still whole communities where in fact we may be past the point where anything makes financial sense.”

We often look for the easy -- least painful -- answers.
But when it comes to sea level rise in communities that could be facing extinction, there may not be a solution that makes it so no one gets hurt.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown and Logan Shannon, with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez.

We produced this episode in collaboration with the Heat of the Moment, which is a project of WBEZ in Chicago.

Flood insurance is a complicated topic, so special thanks this week to Dave Conrad, Steve Ellis, Howard Kunreuther and Carolyn Kousky who cumulatively spent hours explaining all of the nooks and crannies of the issue to me.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Episode 28: The Accidental History of Solar Power

If you’re even the least bit interested in taking some sort of personal action on climate change, you inevitably wind up researching solar power. And when you research solar power, you come across an obscure, hard-to-parse, seemingly content free term: net metering. Buckle up folks, we're going full energy nerd.

Photo: Greta Rybus

If you’ve heard of net metering, I challenge you to come up with a definition of what it is in the next 15 seconds; I bet you can’t. And yet, this indecipherable term has been the center of some of the most heated energy battles of recent years. California, Nevada, Iowa, Texas, Maine, Vermont, New York, Utah, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have all struggled with it. The fight over net metering in Nevada even attracted the attention of both of the main Democratic presidential hopefuls, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

This battle is happening all over the country, state-by-state, and each fight has its own local flavor when it comes to this argument.

But what the heck is net metering? Why are we so worked up about something that, on its face, looks to be nothing more than a simple billing mechanism? And this is the question that gets me interested: Where the heck did this fight come from?

The answer to this last question is that net metering is something of a historical accident, born at the cross-roads of necessity and ingenuity, but without much forethought.

So read on, this is the accidental history of net metering.

The Father of Solar

Like me, Steven Strong is an energy nerd. Unlike me, he’s also a talented engineer and innovator. He’s a guy who, when Toyota came out with the Prius got to work hacking the thing, installing a lithium-ion battery back and turning it into a plug-in electric car, years before the car company was ready to do the same thing.

His office in central Massachusetts is small and unassuming, and when I met him there and commented on this, one of his employees smiled and said, “You’d never know that this is where ‘the father of solar’ works.”

Steven got his start as a young engineer working on the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline in the years of the Carter administration, but then there was the whole Arab oil embargo, there was a scandal where contractors were falsifying some of the required safety measures on the pipeline, and so he resigned and returned to Boston to become and architect and found his own solar design company.

Back in the seventies, solar photovoltaic, which is what you’re probably thinking about when I say solar panels, was something like 65 times more expensive than it is today, and electricity was cheap.

This was in the early seventies, when solar power, besides being on satellites in outer space, wasn’t really a thing, yet. But Steven did manage to get work. In particular, he landed the contract to put a solar array, one of the first of its kind, onto a 286-unit, federally-subsidized, low-income housing complex. The building looks kind of like a big college dorm: it’s brick, and it’s pretty unremarkable looking.  

aN EARLY PHOTO OF THE BUILDING, SOLAR PANELS STILL INTACT. 

aN EARLY PHOTO OF THE BUILDING, SOLAR PANELS STILL INTACT. 

hERE'S THE BUILDING TODAY.

hERE'S THE BUILDING TODAY.

At this time, commercially available solar power was used to heat hot water. (To oversimplify, the systems were basically rows of pipes, painted black, that allowed the sun’s rays to heat up the water inside.) The solar system he installed was one of the largest solar thermal systems in New England, and he estimates it met something like 80% of the building’s annual hot water requirements.  

But back in the seventies, solar photovoltaic, which is what you’re probably thinking about when I say solar panels, was something like 65 times more expensive than it is today, and electricity was cheap. But Steven Strong, who always wanted to push the envelope, convinced the developer of this building to let him install a couple of photovoltaic panels up there too.

But there was this question: how do you wire them up?

The Accidental Part

Whenever the sun is shining, obviously the electricity from the panels would go towards running all the stuff—water pump, hot water heaters, lights and fridges—in the building.

But then what happens when the sun’s not shining? Or what happens if the sun is shining and there’s nothing going on in the building? Today we take the answer to these questions for granted. We assume that when you’re not using it, the extra energy can just feed out into the grid, but when Steve Strong was wiring up this building, that was not a given.

He decided to configure the system so when there’s no sun, the building would buy electricity just like any other building, and the little dials on the electric meter would roll in one direction.

But if the sun was shining, and the appliances in the building weren’t using any energy, the electricity would flow out onto the grid, and the little dials on the meter would just roll in the other direction…backwards.

“It was intuitive, and it was almost just like, that’s just the way it should be. We’re producing electrons that are just as valuable as the ones delivered by the coal plant or the heavy residual fuel oil driven plant, and so it just made sense, Steven told me.

He didn’t ask for permission from the utility to feed electricity back into the grid. He didn’t show them a design and say here’s what I’d like to do. The developers told him they would handle all of that.

There’s one thing in your career that you should learn early, which is that it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

“And it turned out that they didn’t say anything to the utility purposefully,” Steven said. “So when the system was complete and ready to start up, one of the brothers came up into the mechanical penthouse in the top of the building and said, ‘how are we doing with the solar, Steven?’”

“And I said, ‘Well, Peter it’s ready to go. We just need to get permission from the utility to connect with the grid.’ And he threw the switch and said, ‘that’s OK, we’ll take care of that.’ And he told me at the time, ‘There’s one thing in your career that you should learn early, which is that it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.’”

(I will note here, at least one of these developers, went on to have an extremely checkered history, accusations of rape, drug charges, and other really crazy stuff.)

Instead of asking permission, they had a big ribbon cutting ceremony. They invited the head of the national renewable energy lab, all the senators and congresspeople from Massachusetts, and even President Carter. The President was planning on coming, but they put the kibosh on his appearance at the last minute because there was a strike at a nearby shipyard and the Secret Service told him to stay away.

And at this event, a torrent of important people stood up and spoke about how great the building was, how forward thinking it was, and how it would be the way of the future. Then, the last person to talk was an executive from the utility.

“He basically praised how innovative the solar systems were and how forward thinking the developers were and that was it,” said Steven. Afterwards Steven said the developer told him, “‘See I told you, I would take care of that... it wouldn’t be an issue.’ And he was right of course.”

And that, ladies and gentleman, was the birth of a little policy called net metering.

From Net Metering to “Net Zero”

That is also what the name means: when you’re producing, the meter runs in one direction and when you’re consuming, the meter runs in the other direction, so the practice is called “net metering” because you’re billed for your net consumption.

Those first grid-integrated solar photovoltaic panels didn’t last particularly long. They were blown off the roof of the building after little more than a year, according to the building’s manager George Picewick. The solar thermal panels heated the building’s water for more than 20 years, though, before they had to be removed because of a lack of maintenance.

And for Steven Strong, this project kicked off years of work on net metered buildings that catapulted his work into the spotlight. Very shortly afterwards, MIT came calling. They asked Steven to help them build a house that would be “energy independent,” by which they meant that it would generate as much energy as it used, even though it still relied on the grid. Today such a house is called a “net-zero” home. This house was built in Carlisle, Massachusetts and was on the cover of magazines like Popular Science, and written about in publications worldwide.

IMG_7629.JPG
The cover of Popular Science from September of 1981 features the Impact 2000 house.

Because of all this attention, a local utility, Boston Edison, reached out to Steven Strong. They wanted to build a net-zero house too, and they called it the Impact 2000 House. This house was super-insulated, all electric (heated by a geothermal heat-pump), and all bedecked with solar panels.

It was also a public relations coup for the utility, which had been beset by protests focused on its new nuclear power plant. Steven Strong was also contacted by the producers of This Old House who decided to do the entire fifth season of the show about the construction of the Impact 2000 house.

Solar power was seen as something that a few tech enthusiasts and environmental zealots would do, but certainly it wasn’t expected to spread to the masses.

After that house, another utility asked Steven Strong to do a whole neighborhood of net metered solar homes, and the story of this weird billing trick just expanded from there. Before long Massachusetts regulators officially put a rule about net metering on the books, and other states followed suit, some even passed laws that formally established the practice. Now it’s allowed in 41 states, plus Washington, DC.

And for years not only was it totally non-controversial: solar power was seen as something that a few tech enthusiasts and environmental zealots would do, but certainly it wasn’t expected to spread to the masses. In hindsight this seems short-sighted, that a policy with the potential to shape the future of something as important as the electric grid would be allowed to grow so organically and without any real vetting or thought.

It was just a historical accident, that just sort of happened, kind of under the radar.

And Then Came SolarCity

Until, suddenly, solar started to get cheap. In 1980, a solar cell cost $30 a watt. Today, it’s more like 30 cents a watt. And starting in the mid-2000s, a bunch of really ambitious and well-financed companies started saying, Hey… we can make some money doing this. So from 2009 to 2010, the amount of solar in the US doubled. It doubled again from 2010 to 2011. It doubled again from 2011 to 2013 and from 2013 to today it’s on track to triple… again.

And some of this rapid growth came not just from large-scale solar farms (though much of it is that), but from people putting panels on their roofs, and reducing—and sometimes eliminating—their electric bills. That was made possible by net metering, and I think it's fair to say that back in the seventies, the electric companies did not see this coming.

And now they’re starting to push back. Which brings us to the litany of states where net metering became an intense and public energy policy debate that started us off in this story.

And why is it such a fight? Well, it all has to do with how we pay for electricity.

The utilities argue that net metered customers are using the grid to power their homes at night or on cloudy days, but they aren’t paying for the grid. This then means there is a smaller pool of people paying for the grid, and that smaller pool has to pay more.

Those who are sympathetic to this argument sometimes describe it as wealth redistribution.

Back when Thomas Edison built the first electric power stations, there were no meters, so he actually billed people a monthly fee based on how many light bulbs they had.

“It’s a… taking from the people who have not so much and giving it to the people who have more,” said Michael Harrington, who used to be one of the regulators of New Hampshire’s electric companies, and is now on the board of the New England Ratepayers Association, which advocates for lower electricity costs. “So it’s a reverse distribution of wealth from the way we normally do things in the United States, and I don’t think that’s right.”

This (in very rough terms) is how utility rate structures work: a utility is a big company that invests a ton of money in poles and wires, and they also pay for energy to send across those poles and wires. Then, they take all of their customers and they divide the cost of all of those expenses up between all of them and they spread it around, charging different kinds of customers slightly different kinds of rates based on how they use electricity.

It has basically been like that since the first electric meter was invented: back when Thomas Edison built the first electric power stations, there were no meters, so he actually billed people a monthly fee based on how many lightbulbs they had. The entire business model is based on a piece of equipment that is more than 100 years old, and the utilities argue that under that business model, if 50 percent of the people in the United States went solar and started net metering, a big chunk of the money that they’re saving winds up being money that’s not going towards the poles and wires.

But What if Solar is Saving us Money?

Except, we’re not 100% sure that’s true.

There’s another former New Hampshire regulator, Cliff Below (he’s also the former state lawmaker who wrote the initial net metering law here in New Hampshire) who argues that solar might be doing more good than harm

“Net Metering was initially thought of as a rough justice,” he told me in an interview. He said when net metering first came along there was this belief that, “there were benefits particularly to solar, because increasingly for New England, peak demand was being driven by air conditioning loads, which was driven by sunlight landing on buildings and heating things up.”

To understand this argument, you have to understand that even though on your electric bill you pay the same amount for every unit of energy, all electrons are not created equal. In reality, every five minutes there is a new auction for energy and so every five minutes we’ve got a new price for energy. When demand is low, prices are low, and they can actually go negative, usually at night. (As in power plants will pay us so they don’t have to shut down.) When demand is high prices can be insane: 100 times higher than normal.

But again, the utilities take all of those costs, they average them all out, they divide them by their customers, and you never see that variation on your bill.

So the thing is: if solar panels are producing at times of day that are really high value—sunny, hot, air conditioning heavy days—the electrons coming off the panels might be worth substantially more (on average) than all of the electrons on the grid (on average). And maybe, just maybe, even the very generous rate net metered customers are getting doesn’t fully reimburse them for what they’re making.

There’s more to this argument. If done properly, solar might reduce the need to build new power lines, substations or other infrastructure, but most of those other facets stem from this same principal. Solar tends to produce at times when the grid is most in need of electrons.

So How Can We Know Who’s Right?

“These problems are often put out there as very difficult problems to solve. They’re actually not, in my view, that difficult to address, but we need to just put all of the numbers on the table.” That’s the assessment of Jessika Trancik, she’s a professor of energy studies at MIT.

Jessika’s point is that we can answer this question for every individual solar array if you look at the data. When is it producing? What are the power prices at that moment? What kind of neighborhood is it in on the grid? What’s the load on that circuit? Is it helping on that circuit or is it hurting on that circuit?

You can take all that data and she says, “look at each different location and understand how the situation what the situation looks like today and how that’s likely to change over time. But I think that’s all very doable.”

But in order to do this, you need the data. That means installing smart meters on solar arrays so we can see the minute-by-minute production of the panels. It means getting the data from the utilities to know if the solar panels are producing at a time when they are needed in the given neighborhood that they are in.

And it could also mean paying solar producers prices that make more sense: as in prices that are different for different times of day.

Here in New Hampshire, people are arguing about what to do with the state’s net metering program, and most of the fixes that people are proposing are pretty blunt instruments. In my opinion, they are kind of disappointingly blunt.

If you’re a net metered customer in New Hampshire, you’re getting paid about seventeen cents per kilowatt hour. So seventeen cents is the starting point.

The way we pay for electricity doesn’t reflect the way electricity is actually generated and the actual costs that are incurred.

The utilities say, you should get the same price that other power-plants get: which is more like four to six cents a kilowatt hour—one third as much. Solar people generally don’t want regulators to touch net metering, and they  want them to keep the rate at seventeen cents. And then you’ve got a range of people in the middle who seem to be just picking a number somewhere in between the two. “Oh maybe we could make it 12 cents.”

For the Jessika Tranciks of the world, (steely energy economist academics), this is not really getting at the root problem, which is: the way we pay for electricity doesn’t reflect the way electricity is actually generated and the actual costs that are incurred. And there is one proposal on the table in New Hampshire that would start to shift that model.

“It is clearly inappropriate in today’s technological age to continue to charge people the same price for electricity 24/7, when the cost of providing people electricity varies, sometimes by orders of magnitude, depending on the time of day and the time of year,” said Don Kreis, the state’s consumer advocate. Don’s job is to watch out for people who pay electric bills, he’s looking out for the little guy.

Don wants solar customers to have the option to move to a Time-of-Use rate, a rate that would pay you more if your solar is cranking out electrons during high price times, like later in the afternoon. On the flip side, this rate would also mean that you pay more, if you’re using more energy in the afternoon. To make this really simple, every day there would be a higher price between 2pm and 8pm.

This is cracking open the door to a totally different way of paying for energy. Instead of abiding by this crazy illusion that every electron is worth the same, it acknowledges that when demand is high, electricity gets expensive, and maybe we should let people know that.

How Far Could This Go?

Jessika Trancik, from MIT, wants to take that concept even a step further. Remember, every five minutes, there’s a new auction and a new energy price every five minutes. She thinks we should all have a little display in our houses that says, here’s the price of energy, right now. In her mind that price could change every hour, and it could be capped, so customers are sheltered from the most extreme fluctuations of the grid.

In this world, every home, not just solar homes, would be outfitted with a little display telling you what the price of electricity is at that moment. Perhaps it could be color-coded, to give you a clue about whether that price is high or low. With that information, we could all make choices about when to run our driers or our dishwashers, and maybe manufacturers would make devices that could read that display and automatically respond: flipping on in the middle of the night, say, if electricity prices drop to zero or lower. In this world, solar producers would get paid based on what the grid price is from moment to moment, and the whole question of shifting costs from rich to poor would be rendered moot.

Of course, this dream relies on a lot of technology that simply has not yet been deployed, may well be very expensive, and needs to be protected from cyber-attacks… all of which are profound concerns for the utilities that are being asked to do this.

It’s high time for everybody to take a look and see what a rational bit of well-designed public policy would be.

But for Don Kreis, the consumer advocate, a policy like net metering—one that was created accidentally, without forethought or design, and without regard for the markets it would impact—cannot stand forever.

“The fact is, it wasn’t like the commission on uniform state laws got together and said, ‘Let’s design a net metering statute that will promote the development of distributed generation in this really logical rigorous way,’” Don said, laughing in his office, “No! It just happened by accident!”

Without a moment’s pause he continued. “And it’s high time for everybody to take a look and see what a rational bit of well-designed public policy would be.”

So that’s one way the world could change. Or we could just go back to billing based on how many light bulbs you own. There’s always that.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon

Thanks this week to Bob Johnstone, whose book Switching to Solar led me to Steven Strong, and to Haskell Werlin who rushed back from a funeral to talk solar policy with me.

Music this week was from Jahzzar, Jason Leonard, Blue Dot Sessions and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Episode 18: Dr. Percy & the Magic Soybean

It’s not surprising that many of the medicines we use today are derived from plants. The surprising part is how similar the molecular components of plants are to the building blocks of our own human, mammalian bodies. This week we dive head first into a vat of soybean oil with Dr. Percy Julian who, against all odds, became one of the most prominent chemists of his time and whose work paved the way for the birth control pill. Plus, why the cone snail and its deadly neurotoxin just might be the key to a pain free future.


A Brief Explanation of Natural Products or Medicines Derived from Nature

The natural world is full of contradictions about what is safe and what is not. In many cases the brighter and more beautiful a creature or plant is, the more likely it is to kill you. (This is a bit of a tangent, but look up the mantis shrimp. Stunning. Deadly.)

Take for example, the cone snail, which has a remarkable shell, a real showstopper. A shell so remarkable that the shell from one species, Conus cedonelli - known as “the matchless cone” because of its unsurpassed beauty - sold at an auction in Holland for 5 times the amount a Vermeer painting at the same auction sold for.

Cone snails are meat-eating mollusks that catch fish, an astounding feat for such a small creature. They have trunk like snouts and inside that snout is a tiny harpoon, and as a fish swims by this pretty little cone snail, the harpoon shoots out and sticks the fish. But wait, there’s more.

Cone snails possess an amazing chemical, a neurotoxin, that has the ability to destroy the nervous system of their prey; in a matter of seconds they can completely immobilize a fish. And then, if that’s not terrifying enough, they swallow the fish whole, you know, for dramatic effect.

And while these creatures are often pegged as one of the deadliest creatures of the sea - the larger sized snail can actually kill a person, though they would have a harder time swallowing us whole - their powerful neurotoxin holds the key to a relatively new type of painkiller called a ziconotide.

Ziconotides are 1000 times more powerful than the most powerful opiates we typically hear about today: morphine, fentanyl, codeine. But more importantly, ziconotides don’t produce a tolerance in humans, so doctors don’t have to ramp up the dose to keep treating the pain. This drug is now successfully being used to treat patients with AIDS and cancer, people who are suffering from the very worst types of chronic unmanageable pain. And so the mighty cone snail goes from deadly fish killer to groundbreaking painkiller.

The connection between modern medicine and the natural world is fascinating and complex; from rare organisms that hold the key to life-saving drugs to common plants that can be used as the raw materials to manufacture medications some people take every single day. Chemists, like the late Percy Julian, are the scientists on the front lines of unlocking drugs that come from nature, which are known as Natural Products. (There's even a Journal of Natural Products and it's chock full of words like antimelanogenic and fibronectin expression.) 

To learn more about Dr. Percy Julian and his work as a chemist and natural products innovator, check out the NOVA documentary on his life and work.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Taylor Quimby, with help from Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Logan Shannon, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks to Joan Coyle and Keith Lindblom at the American Chemical Society, and to the Julian family for speaking with us as well as letting us use the incredible tape of Dr. Percy Julian himself. 

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode featured tracks from Blue Dot Sessions, David Szesztay, Joseph C. Smith's Orchestra, Podington Bear, and Ty Gibbons. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists. 

S01|E05: Stake Your Claim

There used to be a time when you could strike out into the vast unexplored wilderness and stake your claim – but not anymore.  Today, the story of one seaside town where one homeowner is facing a brutal property dispute against an undefeatable opponent: the Atlantic Ocean.  
Plus, a group of 19th century pioneers lay claim to one of the world’s most inhospitable mountains and turn it into a premiere tourist destination. 
And, Sam goes on a hunt for Earth’s last unexplored places, so he can plant a flag and stake his claim.

Listen to the full episode:


aerial view of nahant, ma

Fortify, Accommodate, Relocate

Nahant, Massachusetts is a rocky crescent moon of land out in the Atlantic Ocean just north of Boston. It has a long history of being at the mercy of the ocean, and the people who live there are looking at an uncertain future. The seas are rising, and no one can say how long many homes by the water will be safe. 

Take a tour of Nahant and read about the challenges the town faces as the seas rise.

Photos by Lucian Perkins


The Hotels of Mt. Washington

Mount Washington is famously home of "The World's Worst Weather", but it also hosts a huge amount of tourist infrastructure. 

Senior producer Taylor Quimby brings us this tale of how the mountain was conquered, and how that process became the template for mountain tourism nation-wide. 

Voices From Mount Washington

As part of our research for this story, we went to the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord to check out the Summit House Guest Register from 1854 - an incredible document where early tourists would sign their names and often leave short poems or comments about their stay on Mt. Washington.  What’s really fascinating is the diversity of reactions and writing styles contained in the guest register - everything from dreary verse about bad weather, to religious expressions of praise for the mountain, and the view. We mocked up some playful recordings of the more colorful entries.

Here’s an excerpt from one by Mary Huntington, who visited the summit on July 17th, 1854.  We think it sounds a little bit like a slam poem:

These photos are of the 1854 Mt. Washington Summit House Guest Registry, which is housed at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, NH.

These photos are of the 1854 Mt. Washington Summit House Guest Registry, which is housed at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, NH.

Space! Thous art pure and boundless expanse

For golden globes to make their mountains in;

Room, where all bodies mentioned may begin;

Where planets wheel along in mary [sic] dance

And comets voyage on in wild careers

 

Here is another from August 20th of the same year. We’re not sure about the author on this one, but it sounds a little bit like an Edgar Allen Poe poem, or maybe a drinking song:

 

For Four long hours we toiled our way

The setting sun to see

Sulky and glum the event to be

Sulky and glum went we.

 

We built our cairn then slept our way

Until the night should flee

Sulky and glum he rose again

Sulky and glum rose we.

These photos are of the 1854 Mt. Washington Summit House Guest Registry, which is housed at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, NH.

These photos are of the 1854 Mt. Washington Summit House Guest Registry, which is housed at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, NH.


On August 15th, 1854, a man from Philadelphia named W.N. Conckle penned a frightening account of his near-death experience on the summit, as he climbed through a terrific August storm.  Here’s just a bit:

Three quarters of the way up I was compelled to lay behind some rocks to [illegible] from the penetrating, impetuous whirlwind. A shower of rain now succeeded & [illegible] with the increasing darkness gave birth to a thought of death which death would only alleviate. Still I ascended slowly & despondently and my agitated thoughts would rage within me equally as impetuous as the storming whirlwind around me. A terrific gale now climaxed the increasing wildness of the storm. The wind roared and sang my dirge among the angry looking rocks around my very feet. The fog was my funeral pall and the slanting cutting rain was my shroud, and my mourners were deep [illegible] among the mountain glens. I yet remained to die.


And finally, excerpts from two entries that appear back to back in the register - one a glowing appraisal of them mountain’s breathtaking scale, and another somewhat less enthusiastic review:

August 27, 1854

Mount Washington; A specimen of the magnificence of God’s works. It is an impressive symbol of the unchangeable power and glory of the Creator… To come here just to say that you have been to the top of Mt. Washington shows a vain and frivolous mind.

Tip_Top_House,_Mount_Washington,_N._H,_by_White,_Franklin,_1813-1870.jpg

September 6, 1854

Be Japers I’d as soon sleep in a swamp! And when one gits up at morning’ his clothes hang about ‘im like a woman’s gown with no skirts. Och, bad luck to it! If iver I am the bottom again, may the divil shweep me if I climb these rocks another time!

The Weather on top of Mount Washington is still pretty epic as evidenced by this video taken at the top on May 16th, 2016. 

Weather Observers Mike Dorfman and Tom Padham took a brief break this morning to enjoy the windy and wintry conditions on the observation deck. Winds so far have topped out at 109 mph, with gusts near the century mark expected through this afternoon.

Despite planting a flag there, our laws say the moon isn't American.

Despite planting a flag there, our laws say the moon isn't American.

Is Staking a Claim Still Possible?

The world is pretty full up...which got us to wondering: is there anyplace left on earth, or beyond, where you can just claim something as your own?

The answer is yes... but once you hear how, you might not be so excited to give it a try.


Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Logan Shannon & Molly Donahue

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder

Photos of Sam are by Greta Rybus unless otherwise noted.