National / International News
Can you run a stodgy water utility like a business? Turn sewer water into money? This is the premise behind what’s called the “digester” process at DC Water’s Blue Plains wastewater plant.
“That’s why we don’t call this a waste treatment facility,” says DC Water CEO George Hawkins. “It is an enriched water facility, that’s a resource.”David Kidd
By all accounts, Hawkins is a star among water utility managers, an energetic executive from outside the sector (he’s a lawyer). In our interview, Hawkins routinely drops phrases you might expect in business school. For starters:
I want to be like Nike.
We have the most important marketplace, the marketplace of public opinion
We fight for the support and loyalty of every customer
60% of the people who take a blind taste-test will rank our water better or the same as bottled water.
We have got the best product ever. Who gets to deliver water?
I consider myself kleptocrat-in-chief. I take good ideas from all over.
Here’s the good idea when it comes to the digester. Simply put, it takes human waste and processes it into sellable goods, like fertilizer.
“The farmers value it at $300 an acre,” says Chris Peot, director of resource recovery at DC Water. “If I worked for a Fortune 500 company and said that we were going to give this asset away for free, I’d probably be fired on the spot.”
Walking me through the digester area, Peot explains most steps occurs in pipes and cylinders. So you can’t see much of the action, for obvious reasons: it stinks. First, waste is routed into centrifuges, to separate out the water from the economic “resource.”
The centrifuge spins and separates water from the solids, solids then heat up in a stage called thermal hydrolysis. DC Water has the only digester in the country with this step, designed to yield more economic product in the end.
“The thermal hydrolysis process makes the food much more available for the microbes in the digesters,” Peot says, “which gives us better gas production.”
Better gas production — insert your own joke here. This comes out of the key stage: the digester. A huge cylinder, it operates like an actual stomach, mixing bacteria with the product to make gas. Instead of being released, this gas is captured and burned in a power plant to make electricity. That powers about a third of the plant for free.
Courtesy of Ted Coyle/DC Water
The other byproduct: High-end fertilizer that, thanks to the thermal stage, has fewer germs and less stink. This Grade-A fertilizer can be sold in urban areas — think home garden. And someday, this place could sell phosphorous, a captured nutrient ... or cleaned-up water.
“We call it N-E-W,” says Matt Ries of the Water Environment Federation. “Nutrients, energy and water that can now be recycled as resources.”
Ries explains water utilities are looking into new business models out of financial necessity. Most ratepayers are using and buying less water (due to more efficient toilets, washing machines, shower heads, etc). Pipes need replacing. Federal clean water standards are going up, without accompanying grants. Heavier or less predictable rainfalls demand more treatment, more planning.
“All of that means you need additional capital coming into the system,” Ries says. “There’s now a realization that we’ve got to operate differently as a business.”
This all comes as a challenge to a utility sector that is understandably conservative, DC Water CEO Hawkins says this business is no place for risky trial-and-error.
“It is not one where you can start a new product and then it fails so you go back to a different one, like New Coke,” Hawkins says.
It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?
The major credit card companies—Mastercard, Visa, Discover and American Express—along with the major banks that issue their cards, have set a deadline of October 2015 for widespread adoption of new, more financially secure credit cards in the U.S. The cards, with so-called EMV technology, have an embedded microchip that limits the amount of financial and personal data transmitted to a retailer at the point of sale. That means there’s less chance of fraud or a devastating data hack down the line.
As of October, retailers will be responsible for the cost of credit-card fraud if they haven’t invested in and deployed new card-readers that exploit the new chip-cards. Card-issuers, meanwhile, have made a commitment to replace as many as possible of consumers’ old-style magnetic-stripe cards by the October deadline. Those old cards are easier to use for fraudulent purchases after the physical card has been stolen; the data communicated at the point of sale via the magnetic stripe is also easier to hack and use after purchase, once it is stored on the servers of a retailer or other financial institution.
CreditCards.com released a survey this week finding that as of February 2015, only three in ten American credit-card-holders had a chip-card. Senior industry analyst Matt Schulz says he doesn’t believe card-issuers will meet their own deadline of October 2015 for widespread adoption. Nor will retailers, he says; current estimates are that 25 percent or fewer of retailers have already deployed chip-card readers. Deployment is higher at major retailers such as Target and Walmart.
“Since the Great Recession,” says Schulz, “banks and retailers are definitely cautious when it comes to spending the money to make this investment.”
Mallory Duncan, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, estimates the cost of updating points-of-sale for retailers may be as high as $25 billion to $30 billion. The cards themselves cost approximately $1 each, compared to $0.25 each for magnetic-stripe cards, says David Robertson of the Nilson Report. He says that cost is mostly borne by the credit-card industry.
And Duncan says the anti-fraud value of the new cards is dubious. “There’s actually more hype than hope,” he says. That’s because card-issuers have opted to pair chip-enabled cards in the U.S. with signature verification at the point of sale. In Europe, where chip-cards have been in use for years and are nearly ubiquitous, the cards must be verified with a unique secret PIN entered by the card-holder. Signatures are easily forged, meaning a stolen card can still possibly be used to purchase expensive goods after it’s stolen. Without the PIN, a stolen card in Europe is much less likely to be used after it’s stolen. Online fraud is still possible with both types of cards, since credit-card use that's not done in person doesn't utilize, and isn't protected by, EMV microchip-plus-verification functionality.
David Robertson at the Nilson Report explains that Americans typically have more credit cards than Europeans, and Americans tend to use their multiple cards for revolving credit. He says Europeans typically use a single charge- or debit-type card, which either deducts the purchase amount from their bank account immediately, or requires the consumer to pay off the full balance at the end of each month.
In the U.S., says Robertson, introducing PINs to validate each in-person credit card transaction would mean “you’d have four or five different PINS on your credit cards. It makes it tough, and the card-issuers don’t want to be in that place.” Robertson says card-issuers worry people will forget their multiple PINs, and stop using most of their cards as a result.
U.S. and Cuban negotiators will meet in Washington Friday. On the agenda: whether Cuba should be taken off the U.S.'s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba wants off that list, and American banks are watching the negotiations closely. So are U.S. travelers, who can’t use their credit or debit cards on the island.
Right now, Americans can pay for hotels and plane tickets to Cuba in advance. But once you get there, "all of your expenses, you need cash for them,” says Philip Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va., who was traveling in Havana when we spoke.
“You’re going to rent a car, you’re going to rent a cell phone, you’re going to feed yourself," he says. "You’re going need about $200 a day in cash.”
Peters says, if Cuba were taken off the terrorism list, U.S. banks would be more willing to do business there.
Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst with the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, says right now, banks are leery.
“What may seem like, to the bank, an innocent banking arrangement, could lead to substantial fines,” he says.
But Thale says, even if Cuba were taken off the list, U.S. banks would still be cautious.
Case in point: MasterCard is removing its block on U.S. card transactions in Cuba this Sunday. But, that doesn’t mean your bank will clear them. MasterCard says you should contact your bank before you go to ensure your card will be "supported on the island."
Can you imagine betting against the legendary investor Warren Buffett in public? For real money?
Warren Buffett was trying to make a point about index funds—that this meat-and-potatoes boring investment strategy would beat any fancy hedge fund portfolio over time. Well, Ted Seides, President and Co-chief Investment Officer at Protégé Partners, which invests in small and specialized hedge funds, took that bet.
And even though Mr. Buffett is probably chortling with satisfaction somewhere, Mr. Seides was willing to talk about how it's going three-quarters of the way into a ten year bet.
Click the media player above to hear more.
By the way, Buffett and Seides each put up enough money in a way that $1 million of the loser's money will go to charity when this is all said and done in three years time.
The total transactions processed by mobile payment upstart Venmo in the third quarter of 2014. The service is gaining popularity among young adults, but some users have reported security holes that have lead to fraudulent charges. It's not difficult for hackers to change account settings after getting in, Slate reported, and Venmo's small team has been slow to respond in some cases.3 in 10
A new study shows that only 3 in 10 credit-card-carrying Americans have cards with EMV chips, otherwise known as Chip and PIN cards. Major credit card companies—including Mastercard, Visa, Discover and American Express—along with the major banks that issue their cards, have set a deadline of October 2015 for widespread adoption of the new, more financially secure credit cards in the U.S.12 years
That's about how many years ago Columbia law professor Tim Wu coined the term "net neutrality." Marketplace Tech spoke with Wu on the FCC's vote to reclassify broadband as a utility under Title II.7 percent
That's how much a woman's future earnings increase when her partner takes a month of paternity leave, Fast Company reported. Equal parental leave encourages more balance in work and family responsibilities, and it may be key to closing the gender pay gap, but few companies offer it and fewer men elect not to take it.$8.11
Netflix's average monthly revenue per user on this, the debut of "House of Cards" season three. The company is making a lot more per user than it did during season 2, Bloomberg reported, thanks to a price hike and reconfiguring of some plans.12.3 karats
This week Brikk, a company that sells customized tech-gadgets, announced it will offer luxury Apple Watches. The most expensive will be gold plated and set with diamonds, totaling 12.3 carats. It’ll run you $74,995. But you already knew that, didn't you? So why not head over to Silicon Tally, our weekly quiz on the week in tech news, and prove your prowess.