National News

Tesla is disrupting more than just the car business

Marketplace - American Public Media - Sat, 2016-02-06 16:01

Tesla Motors is building the world's biggest battery factory just outside of Reno, Nevada. The company is calling it the “gigafactory,” and when it’s up and running in 2016 it’s expected to make Tesla’s electric cars much more affordable. 

“In a single factory we're doubling the worldwide capacity to manufacture lithium-ion batteries,” says J.B. Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer. 

That's significant enough. But the company also plans to develop batteries for use with solar-power generation – giving Tesla a shot at challenging public utilities as an energy source, Straubel says.

“At the price points that we're expecting to achieve with the gigafactory ... we see a market that is well in excess of the production capability of the factory,” says Straubel.

The market for batteries is an offshoot of the booming business for solar panels, particularly in states such as California, where solar is becoming commonplace.

“We sign up approximately one new customer every minute of the workday," says Will Craven, director of public affairs at California-based SolarCity.

Much of the excess energy harnessed by solar panels is returned to the power grid, Cravens says. This means homeowners and businesses may earn a credit from their power companies, but have no say over when and how that energy is used.

The partnership with SolarCity will use rooftop solar panels fitted with Tesla’s battery packs to allow customers to keep that energy in-house. That means they can use it however, and whenever, they want. The concept puts Tesla in direct competition with utility companies.

“Stationary storage, or backup storage, is really being considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of renewable electricity generation,” says Ben Kallo, an analyst with the Robert W. Baird financial services firm.

Kallo points out that the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources makes them less reliable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.  But with the ability to store that energy, renewable energy sources can compete head-to-head with utility companies for customers.

“There are still many utilities out there who kind of have their head stuck in the sand and just hope that this goes away. What we're seeing is really building momentum,” Kallo says.

Forward-minded utilities might look at Tesla’s business model as an opportunity, he says.  Energy-storage technology could be used to build capacity in their existing grids, and also build new infrastructure for battery-powered cars and homes.

 

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Heat Wave Claims More Than 750 Lives In India

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Test Of '1 Person, 1 Vote' Heads To The Supreme Court

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How Dorothea Lange Taught Us To See Hunger And Humanity

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Perhaps no one did more to show us the human toll of the Great Depression than Lange, who was born on this day in 1895. Her photos of farm workers and others have become iconic of the era.

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Out Of The Classroom And Into The Woods

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In this Vermont kindergarten, every Monday is "Forest Monday" a day that gets students out of the classroom and into nature.

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Hackers Stole Data From More Than 100,000 Taxpayers, IRS Says

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The thieves used the data to file fraudulent tax returns. The IRS commissioner said less than $50 million had been successfully claimed from the agency.

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Sip It Slowly, And Other Lessons From The Oldest Tea Book In The World

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Over 800 years before tea was known in the West, a Chinese master penned the The Classic of Tea. In it, he blends the practical with the spiritual and emphasizes rituals from cultivation to drinking.

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How Worried Should We Be About Lassa Fever?

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The tropical virus has killed a man who returned to New Jersey from Liberia this month. But chances that he could have spread the disease are remote.

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Texas floods have business owners singing the blues

Flooding has disrupted life for many in the Lone Star State. Kellie Moore was at her bakery in Austin yesterday when the water levels began to rise.

"It was crazy," Moore told Kai Ryssdal. "I looked in the back room and I noticed that water was coming through the building ... [I] was trying to sop it up, but then it started coming into the kitchen and into the front of our showroom, and there was no way to stop the water."

Press the play button above to hear more of Kellie's story. 

There are 14,000 lobbying groups in Washington

To see just how ubiquitous lobbying has become in Washington, I make an appointment for lunch with Lee Drutman. He's a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of "The Business of America is Lobbying."

He’s waiting for me at the buffet, and we're about to zero in on the food business: loading up our plates, then dissecting them to see which foods have lobbyists at the table. 

Drutman pulls out a laptop with a list of lobbyists, and I tell him what’s on my plate, starting with beef.

“There’s 17 beef organizations here in Washington," Drutman says. "We’ve got the Center for Beef Excellence, U.S. Premium Beef, Beef Products Incorporated…”

You get the idea. Every single thing on our plates had somebody representing it on Capitol Hill. Sometimes lots of somebodies. For rice, seven associations. Ditto for shrimp.

Some of the trade associations are pretty obscure. Like the International Natural Sausage Casing Association, or the American Dehydrated Onion and Garlic Association.  

I reach for a bag of chips, which reminds me: I interviewed the CEO of the Snack Food Association, Tom Dempsey, because I was wondering – what are all these food folks lobbying for? Turns out it’s stuff like labeling on packages, and the federal government’s new dietary guidelines.

“What the association does is tries to stay out in front of issues that may not impact the industry tomorrow but will impact it down the line,” says Dempsey.

Other food lobbyists are focused on some proposed new trade deals. There’s one with Europe that’s gotten the attention of the International Dairy Foods Association — Europe wants to trademark the names of certain cheeses. But there are 35 dairy lobby groups. I ask Dave Carlin, the Association’s chief lobbyist why there are so many.

“We have to tell our story," he tells me. "Because if we don’t tell our story nobody else will.”

Nancy Marshall-Genzer & Tony Wagner/Marketplace

There’s an old saying in Washington: if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, which brings me back to the buffet, with Lee Drutman. 

We’ve started talking money. He says there are 1,114  different food lobbying organizations in Washington, spending about $130 million a year.

Drutman says all the registered lobbyists in town spend about $3 billion a  year. I wondered when lobbying got to be such a big business. Drutman says the food folks started around the time of FDR’s  New Deal, when a lot of agricultural subsidies were born.

“It caused a lot of people in the agricultural industry to pay attention to politics,” he says.

Drutman says corporations started lobbying more in the '70s and '80s, in the wake of increased government regulation. And it’s just kept growing. Now, lobbying kind of feeds on itself.

“Once companies and associations set up shop in Washington they rarely leave because they’ve hired lobbyists who can keep them interested in all the issues," says Drutman. "So once you start lobbying, you tend to keep lobbying, and there’s a self-reinforcing stickiness.”

Because you certainly don’t want to be the one who’s not at the table.

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This week, NPR looks at four seemingly intractable problems that await the 45th president: stagnant wages, violent extremism, cybersecurity and the federal debt.

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NYU Changes Its Policy On Reviewing Applicants' Criminal Background

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NYU has announced that when looking at applications, it will initially overlook the criminal record of prospective students.

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Higher-Tech Fake Eggs Offer Better Clues To Wild Bird Behavior

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Faux eggs made with 3-D printers are better than sculpted versions, researchers say, because it's easier to systematically vary their size, weight and other features. Next goal: 3-D fragile shells.

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Blind Waiters Give Diners A Taste Of 'Dinner In The Dark' In Kenya

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It's a worldwide chain that lets "the blind become our eyes." But there's a difference in the new Nairobi branch. The servers themselves had never eaten in a restaurant before.

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Shhh ... we're talking about Fight Club

The first rule of Fight Club is … do not talk about Fight Club. We’re going to break that rule, because there is now a sequel and it’s written in a completely different style than the original. Author Chuck Palahniuk teamed up with artists David Mack and Cameron Stewart to release a 10-part comic book that brings back Tyler Durden.

The first issue of Fight Club 2 hits shelves on Wednesday. Earlier this month, Palahniuk released a collection of short stories called Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread.  

On why he chose to bring back Fight Club:

I finally had the time to learn a new storytelling skill. I had about a year off, because my story collection was done. I was invited, kind of ambushed, at a dinner party by a bunch of comic people, including Brian Bendis and Matt Fraction. They really hammered on me about creating Fight Club 2 as a graphic novel, so I had the time and I had the peer pressure so, what the hell?

On how to write a comic book:

There’s so many different parts of that skill. As you see the two pages, the reader scans them all (to get) a general idea of what’s going to happen. The only moment you can surprise or shock the reader is when they turn the page. It’s called the page-turn reveal. So you’ve got to have a set up at the bottom of the right hand page, and you have to have a payoff at the top of the left hand page as they turn that page every time. It drives you crazy to pace a story so artificially!

On what his life has been like the past 19 years since Fight Club came out:

You know the biggest change, if I can be honest, is that both of my parents died. My father was killed in ‘99 and my mother died in 2009. I had to come to terms with how much of my performance was based on pleasing them and getting their approval and I had to find a way to motivate myself now that they were both gone.

On the sense of loneliness that his characters have:

So many of us think that if we can get money enough, we can kind of isolate ourselves in the country or in the penthouse, then we will be happy because we won’t be dealing with Sartre’s “other people,” and then when we do achieve that isolation, we realize we’ve never been more unhappy.

On the marketing of Fight Club 2:

I’ve been really pulled into the whole creative, the whole enterprise. I had to answer the letter columns. I had to write 200 haikus as Tyler Durden so those could be tweeted out gradually. I had to come up with all these little extras whenever there was a blank page, and I had to design a lot of the marketing things because this is supposed to be my baby…and that’s exciting.

Will there be a new movie?

There’s been interest, there’s also been some television interest — so people are just kind of holding their breath right now.

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The influential photographer was known mostly for her humanist work.

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Prolific Fantasy And Science Fiction Writer Tanith Lee Has Died

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Lee wrote dozens of books, including Don't Bite The Sun and Death's Master -- the latter of which was part of her popular Flat Earth series. She was 67.

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Despite An Economy On The Rise, American Paychecks Remain Stuck

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NPR's "Day 1" series looks at major issues the next president will face in office. One issue is that Americans still aren't seeing big raises, even though the job market is slowly recovering.

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Federal Appeals Court Leaves Hold On Obama's Immigration Orders

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The president has sought to give temporary protection from deportation to people who were brought to the U.S. as children, and to the parents of people who live in the U.S. legally.

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