National News

When the power grid fails

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-06-18 06:05

The nation's system of power plants, utility poles and electrical wires is aging. And compared with other developed countries, it’s less and less reliable. Among the worst hit states: Connecticut.

Three historic storms hit the state in 2011 and 2012. Each time, more than 600,000 residents lost power for days. More than lights went out: household water comes from wells in the town of Marlborough.

“The well runs off electricity,” resident Cliff Denniss says. “And when you lose power you don’t have the pump working to push the water into the house. And you only get about two flushes out of the toilet. ..and when you’re out for a week it can get pretty tough.”

Marlborough went dark for a week in all three storms. Cliff Denniss’s wife, Dorothy, now fills the tub with water when a big one’s coming. Which she admits is not enough for a week-long outage.

“You don’t flush every time,” she says. “Trust me.”

Gas stations in town lost power to pump their gas. Cellphone batteries died. And perishable food … perished. Unless you ate it.

“I had filet mignon all week,” Dorothy Denniss says. “I just bought a brand new one, had it chopped up into steaks. It was in the freezer, we lost the power. I said ‘we have to eat this!’” 

In the average year, New England loses power for a total of three and a half hours, compared with four minutes in Japan. The U.S. fares worse than any other rich country. The cost – in lost work and production – is estimated at $80 billion dollars, more than Google makes in a year. 

The big culprit is weather — say, winds knocking tree limbs into power lines strung along streets. So in Marlborough, backup generators sell rather well.

“We’re still consuming electricity in ways we have done over 100 years in this country,” remodeling contractor Scott Welch says. “I think what we’re doing is antiquated.”

In fact, one joke told frequently in the business: if Thomas Edison came back today, he would recognize the power grid he helped create.

In 1882, Edison built the first electric “utility” system.

Edison's Pearl Street Station.

Courtesy:U.S. Department of Interior

“He invented a light bulb,” Virginia Tech energy historian Richard Hirsh says. “He also invented specialized generators to produce electricity. He developed the wiring system.”

Edison’s very first utility went up in Manhattan. Like a local drugstore, it was a local electric company, with generators and customers in the same place. But this local model lost out. Two of Edison’s rivals, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, developed long-distance transmission, to send power from big sources far away.

“Westinghouse transmitted power from a Niagara Falls hydropower plant to the city of Buffalo about 20 miles distant,” Hirsh says.

Long-distance electricity was more efficient and cheaper. So America ended up with a hub-and–spoke system of poles and wires.

And electricity changed everything.

“It allows you to heat, to cool, to illuminate,” Hirsch says. “In factories, it boosted productivity hugely. In homes, it enables people to do things at day and night in ways that people in the 19th century could only imagine.”

We became addicted to electricity.

But then, the grid aged, and investment didn’t keep up. Power failures have tripled since the 1980s.

 

Major Electric Grid Outages From Severe Weather, 2000 to 2014

Courtesy: Jordan Wirfs-Brock/Inside Energy

“An experienced electrical engineer, a field operator, once said to me, ‘the whole system is going to fall down some day, it’s just not going to happen on the same day,’”  says Larry Reilly, a former utility executive now with Rosewood Consulting. “That was really the philosophy of operating companies for a long time, to wait 'til failure.”

The electricity infrastructure, Reilly says, went up in a big hurry early on. “People were looking for the fastest, cheapest places to put facilities,” he said. “If we went back and had the ability to do it again, the system would have been designed a little bit differently, but of course, we don’t have that opportunity.”

A case in point: a 1920s substation in the Connecticut town of Branford, on Long Island Sound. It was built right at sea level. So it floods and fails with storm surges.

A substation in Branford.

Scott Tong/Marketplace

“I don’t know what was in the minds of folks as to why it went here,” local resident and journalist Marcia Chambers says. “The flooding of the street has long been an issue.” In two of the big storms –Irene and Sandy – one of Branford’s main Internet providers, Comcast, lost its power. Gone was the whole Comcast bundle: internet, TV, phone.

“The idea that companies are bundling everything and giving you a discount sounds really terrific,” Chambers says. “Except when it goes down.” 

Local cell towers also lost power. The town hospice saw its backup generator fail, so it had to move dying people. Electric wheelchairs could not recharge.

Why did so much of the grid go down?

“We found in Connecticut that half the utility poles were more than 50 years old, did not meet modern standards, and when faced with heavy wind began to snap,” Yale law professor Dan Esty says. He was state energy commissioner for all three storms. “A significant percent of the wires were not insulated, meaning that not only if they were knocked down there was a problem, but if a tree branch touched them they would arc and short out.”

Esty blames state rules aimed at keeping customer rates low, which may have discouraged utilities from investing in reliability.

“We have an antiquated regulatory model that provided limited capital,” Esty says, “and resulted, I think, in systematic underinvestment in grid modernization.”

By the third storm, state lawmakers said enough. They started to consider big changes to the power grid. Esty’s wife had enough, too, by Superstorm Sandy.

“I came home after the first night in the bunker with the governor,” Esty says. “And on the second night, did grill on my outside grill and served my wife dinner by candlelight, and I think it was quite charming. On the third day she was grumbling a bit. And on the fourth day she asked me, ‘Who the hell is the commissioner of energy in the state of Connecticut?’”

At that point, Connecticut passed a law to finance more decentralized, or distributed energy. What’s that like? Take a look at Denmark’s system:

Distributed Generation in Denmark

From "The Smart Grid: An Introduction by Litos Strategic Communication"

 Marketplace is teaming up with Waze to look at transportation infrastructure across the U.S. Click here to find out how you can be a part of our series and report bad infrastructure on your own commute. 

Pope Francis: Climate Change A 'Principal Challenge' For Humanity

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 04:47

In a major encyclical titled Laudato Si, the pontiff calls on humanity to acknowledge a "sense of responsibility" for the Earth and said it was time to stop "masking problems."

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Appetite For War: What Napoleon And His Men Ate On The March

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 04:27

Napoleon is credited with the phrase "an army marches on its stomach," but he likely never said it. Now 200 years after his legendary defeat, it's worth recalling his disregard for feeding his army.

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Afghan Schools: Is The Success Story Exaggerated?

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 03:12

Afghan officials reportedly inflated the number of students to make the education system appear more successful that it has been, according to the U.S. inspector for Afghanistan's reconstruction.

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#TBT: White House Hopefuls Be Jammin'

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 03:03

The country may have serious problems, but we apparently do not want a president who takes himself (or herself) too seriously.

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When Should Surgeons Stop Operating?

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 03:03

A quarter of U.S. physicians are older than 65 and there are no national guidelines for assessing late-career skills. Some say the lack of oversight, especially for surgeons, is cause for concern.

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PODCAST: The new face of the $10 bill

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-06-18 03:00

First up, we'll talk about what the Fed makes of your shopping habits — What we're earning and how we're spending it factors into what the Fed plans to do with interest rates. And with the announcement that a new $10 bill will feature a woman in 2020, we'll take a look at why Hamilton's face, and not Jackson's, is being replaced. And construction of an 18-story optical-infrared telescope was set to begin on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, but native Hawaiian activists protested the telescope would harm the environment and desecrate a sacred mountain. We'll talk about the controversy surrounding the $1.4 billion project.

Police Search For Man Suspected Of Killing 9 At S.C. Church

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 02:32

Police in Charleston, S.C., released a photograph of a man with sandy blonde hair, who they suspect opened fire on one of the city's oldest historically black churches.

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So you want to fund a film festival

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-06-18 02:00

Have you noticed lately how every city seems to have its own film festival — And we’re not talking Sundance or Cannes. Most are small affairs, unencumbered by Hollywood royalty and studio execs writing big checks for small movies.  

How do all those festivals stay in business?

Putting on a film festival takes money. And funding is as all-over-the-map as the film festivals themselves.

In some places, like Toronto, the city pitches in $1 million a year.

"Towns and cities are highly aware of the potential tourism dollars it might bring," says Tamara Falicov, an associate professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas.

A lot of smaller festivals don’t have that kind of backing. "I recently read a survey that many, many festivals are barely surviving and they depend a lot on filmmaker submission fees," says Falicov.

Those fees range from $10 to $100-plus, and they are becoming more and more contentious.

Josh Welsh, the president of Film Independent, which puts on the LA Film Festival, says the non-profit spends a lot of the year raising money to put on the fest. It gets cash from philanthropic donors. It sell tickets. And, his organization, like many festivals, depends on corporate sponsorship, "that's a very significant piece of it." 

Companies see the film festival goers as an audience they want for themselves. 

Why egg prices have been climbing while chicken prices are falling

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-06-18 02:00

Avian flu has had a huge effect on the nation's turkey and egg operations; shrinking supplies and lifting prices for egg products, in particular. But farms that raise chickens for their meat — known as broilers — have largely been spared from avian flu.

And the latest monthly report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service says broiler prices are actually ticking down. The supply of broilers appears to be exceeding demand.

“You have two factors contributing to more domestic supply: increased production and a decreased amount of markets that can be exported to,” says Alex Melton, a poultry economist with the USDA.

A number of countries are spooked about avian flu and are limiting imports of U.S. poultry products. China and South Korea have enacted total bans.

“So broiler meat is impacted even if broilers have not been found to catch the virus,” Melton says.

It's still not clear why farms that raise the chickens we eat have mostly dodged the avian flu. Some experts speculate it could have to do with the producers’ biosecurity measures.

Carol Cardona, an avian flu expert at the University of Minnesota, says the short lifespan of broiler chickens could also play a role. She says they only live for about six weeks, compared to hens that lay eggs, which live about a year. Cardona says a lot of biosecurity mistakes can happen over that longer period.

“What you have with the layers being hit versus the broilers is an odds game,” she says.

The broiler price declines play out at the wholesale level first — grocery store chains and fast food companies see prices drop before we do.

But Bruce Babcock, an economist at Iowa State University, expects the declines will trickle down to consumers.

“I bet we'll see some reduction in the retail price of chicken in the next six months,” he says.

Babcock says that could steer more consumers to chicken, and away from pricier meats, like beef.

 

Why the $10 bill, not $20, will get a woman's portrait

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-06-18 02:00

The Treasury Department is asking for public input to help decide which historically-significant woman will appear on the $10 bill. The agency announced that it will unveil the new paper currency design with a portrait of a woman by 2020.

The move comes after a popular online campaign to put a woman on the $20 bill. The $10 bill won out, instead, because it has already been scheduled for a refresh, as of 2013.

"I like to think of our paper money as pocket monuments," says Susan Ades Stone, executive director of the Women On 20s campaign. "By putting women on our paper money, it's a way of showing the world that we are committed to gender equality."

Click the media player above to hear more.

Many Marin workers can't afford to live in Marin

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-06-18 02:00

Commutes can be long for people who have jobs in expensive real estate markets like Marin County, a suburban enclave just north of San Francisco. And there are economic forces driving the long drives.

Consider the commute of Phillip Thomas, a communications technician for the County of Marin. His department maintains things like jail security cameras and radio equipment for fire departments. On a recent foggy morning, his drive to work took 55 minutes. “I was pleased about that,” he says.

“Pleased” because, even though 55 minutes is twice the national average for a one-way commute, Thomas's trips often take even longer — up to 80 minutes. Thomas lives in Solano County, some 30 miles from where he works in Marin. He says he'd love to live closer to his job, but when he's looked for homes in Marin “the housing prices are just too high.”

Thomas earns more than $80,000 a year. In Marin, where the median price for a single family home is around $1 million, he wouldn't qualify for most home loans. So he drives in from somewhere else, just like most of his coworkers.

Depending on which Census survey you look at, between about 40 and 60 percent of the workforce in Marin commutes in from another county. Thomas says for him, that means more time on the road and increased frustration. “I hate traffic,” he says. “But most of all it is a few hours out of the day that I don't get to spend with my family. And I like my family.”

Beyond those personal costs, long commutes might also have impacts on the communities that workers like Thomas drive into each day to serve, says Thomas Peters, president of the Marin Community Foundation, which funds and advocates for more affordable housing in Marin County.

“You've got people that are making absolutely critical contributions to the life and quality of life for individuals and families in Marin,” Peters says.

He argues that expensive places like Marin can benefit from having more of the pre-school teachers, the home health care workers, the MRI technicians that work in the county, able to live and raise their families there too.

“It’s true at a cellular level and its true at a social level — there's a real payoff for diversity,” Peters says.

On a more practical level, Peters warns that ultimately workers who can't afford to live in Marin may get so fed up with their commutes that they find jobs elsewhere, closer to home, leaving critical middle and low-income service jobs difficult to fill.

Despite bird flu, chicken prices are about to fall

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-06-18 02:00

Avian flu has had a huge effect on the nation's turkey and egg operations; shrinking supplies and lifting prices for egg products, in particular. But farms that raise chickens for their meat — known as broilers — have largely been spared from avian flu.

And the latest monthly report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service says broiler prices are actually ticking down. The supply of broilers appears to be exceeding demand.

“You have two factors contributing to more domestic supply: increased production and a decreased amount of markets that can be exported to,” says Alex Melton, a poultry economist with the USDA.

A number of countries are spooked about avian flu and are limiting imports of U.S. poultry products. China and South Korea have enacted total bans.

“So broiler meat is impacted even if broilers have not been found to catch the virus,” Melton says.

It's still not clear why farms that raise the chickens we eat have mostly dodged the avian flu. Some experts speculate it could have to do with the producers’ biosecurity measures.

Carol Cardona, an avian flu expert at the University of Minnesota, says the short lifespan of broiler chickens could also play a role. She says they only live for about six weeks, compared to hens that lay eggs, which live about a year. Cardona says a lot of biosecurity mistakes can happen over that longer period.

“What you have with the layers being hit versus the broilers is an odds game,” she says.

The broiler price declines play out at the wholesale level first — grocery store chains and fast food companies see prices drop before we do.

But Bruce Babcock, an economist at Iowa State University, expects the declines will trickle down to consumers.

“I bet we'll see some reduction in the retail price of chicken in the next six months,” he says.

Babcock says that could steer more consumers to chicken, and away from pricier meats, like beef.

 

On Hawaii, a big telescope stirs conflict

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-06-18 02:00

Spiritual and cultural values are clashing with scientific and economic considerations on the Big Island of Hawaii, where protesters want to stop development of a $1.4 billion observatory called the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The mountain of Mauna Kea rises almost 14,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, making it popular with astronomers. But the mountain also has religious and cultural importance for native Hawaiians. For two months, protesters have camped out on the mountain to block construction of the 18-story observatory. They consider Mauna Kea sacred; it is the burial grounds for their ancestors.

"It's also our watershed for the whole island of Hawaii," Kealoha Pisciotta says. "There are seven aquifers that are fed by the summit of Mauna Kea."

The people behind the telescope project have vowed to protect the aquifer, and promise to remove all liquid waste from the mountain.

"The Thirty Meter Telescope is, I think, the biggest jump forward in terms of observing capability for exploring the universe that we've had going all the way back to the first telescope that Galileo used," says Mike Bolte, an astronomy professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory is a consortium of two universities (University of California and CalTech) and four countries (Canada, Japan, India and China).

Construction of the telescope is expected to create about 300 jobs. About half that many people will staff the observatory once it's running. And the project has funded a workforce development program to help train engineers and computer specialists.

"That's to make sure that local folks have the opportunity to get these jobs at the observatory," Bolte says.

The island of Hawaii is currently dependent on the tourist and military industries. That's one reason that banana farmer Richard Ha supports the project.

"It's another industry," Ha says. "The Thirty Meter Telescope will bring $26 million annually into our economy."

Young people often have to leave the island to find work. Ha says, "If we could get more employment, the young folks would be able to stay home."

Earlier this week, protesters chanted outside the headquarters for the Thirty Meter Telescope in Pasadena, California.

Activist Pua Case said the Hawaiian culture is more valuable than the jobs and money the telescope would bring.

"We need to find our people better jobs, that their grandchildren will be proud of them for," Case says. "Not jobs that have destroyed our Hawaii and our way of life."

A legal challenge of the project is headed for Hawaii's Supreme Court.

The best part of waking up ... is caffeine

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-06-18 01:52
$10

The Treasury Department announced Wednesday that it will mint a new $10 bill in 2020. But this time around, the bills will feature the face of a yet-to-be-chosen woman. With recent campaigns to get a woman's face on the $20 bill, we take a look at why it will be Hamilton, and not Jackson, who is replaced.

1.2 gigabytes

That's how much wireless data American smartphone users consume each month, on average. That's a lot more than anyone used back in 2007, Wired notes, when AT&T offered "unlimited data" plans to get customers in the door and trying out the then-new iPhone. Now those plans have come back to bite AT&T, which was hit with a $100 million fine from the FCC Wednesday for throttling data.

55 minutes

That's how long it takes Phillip Thomas, a communications technician for the County of Marin, to drive to work ... on a good day. That's twice as long as the national-average for a one way commute, and Thomas says his drive can take as long as 80 minutes. His problem is not unique — many workers in Marin find themselves priced out of property ownership in an area where the median price for a single family home is $1 million. In fact, 40 to 60 percent of the workforce in Marin commute from elsewhere.

4.5 miles

That's the gap between the 210 and 710 freeways in the Northeast Los Angeles suburbs. At some point the two roads were supposed to connect, and a tunnel linking them has been controversial for decades. It's another case study in our series on infrastructure, "The Weak Link."

$1.4 billion

That's how much will potentially be spent on a new observatory located on the Big Island of Hawaii. But plans for the Thirty Meter Telescope are controversial, as the building site — the mountain of Mauna Kea — has deep cultural importance for native Hawaiian, not to mention its role as the main watershed for the island. But the team behind the telescope promise to be environmentally conscious, and some Hawaiians welcome the economic boost the project could bring to the area.

190 milligrams

That how much caffeine is in an iced coffee from Caribou, and it's the strongest of the major chains — compare it to Seattle's Best's measly 45 milligrams. The Washington Post's Wonk blog has gathered up everything you need to know about coffee in 19 charts. Need an even stronger coffee data buzz? Here's a map of all the major coffee chains in the U.S.  

Fact Check: Could Jeb Bush Really Grow GDP At 4 Percent? It's Hard To See How.

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 01:03

Jeb Bush is saying he can create 4 percent GDP growth as president, but there's little evidence that a president really can cause that kind of growth alone.

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Istanbul Bookstore Caters To Syrian Refugees In Need Of A Good Read

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 01:02

The mere mention of Syrian refugees can conjure up images of families living in tents in the desert. But a bookstore in Istanbul serves as a cultural oasis and informal community center for Syrians.

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Why Israel Lets Qatar Give Millions To Hamas

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 01:01

Israel's long-standing policy has been to isolate Hamas. But in a rare exception, Israel does permit Qatar to send large sums for projects in Gaza, the territory run by Hamas.

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Raised Around Cry For Smaller Government, Rand Paul Carries The Torch

NPR News - Thu, 2015-06-18 01:00

In Lake Jackson, Texas where Paul grew up, he learned politics and his small-government philosophy around the Paul family's kitchen table.

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9 Dead In Shooting At Charleston, S.C., Church

NPR News - Wed, 2015-06-17 20:59

Police are still searching for a suspect in the attack, described as a young white man. Charleston police chief Gregory Mullen says the shooting will be investigated as a hate crime.

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