Marketplace - American Public Media

What will stop the dangerous algae in Lake Erie?

Fri, 2015-08-07 02:00

Last year’s toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie was so bad it shut down the water supply of Toledo, Ohio. This year’s is expected to be worse, and Congress has ordered the EPA  to work on a solution

The EPA can’t do much about one factor driving these algae problems: Climate change. Algae like it warm. However, people could give the algae less to eat, according to Timothy Davis, who studies harmful algae blooms for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

"If you limit the nutrition, you limit the size and toxicity of these blooms," Davis says.

Most important is to limit the phosphorous hitting the lake. According to Laura Johnson, a research scientist from Heidelberg University's National Center for Water Quality Research, the biggest problem is a form called "dissolved phosphorous," which comes from farms.

"It’s really yummy stuff for algae to use," Johnson says. "They grow explosively when they have dissolved phosphorous."

One possible remedy would be to inject fertilizer into the soil, instead of spreading it on top, where rain can wash it away. Injecting fertilizer would require new expensive gear, but Johnson says there might be some compensatory savings for farmers.

"If you’re losing phosphorous off your soil, you’re losing something that you applied," she says. "And anything that’s running off is lost money."

However, she admits the savings might be small. Studies show that in the most critical region, around the Maumee River, only about one percent of the phosphorous applied shows up as runoff. "That's pretty efficient," she says.

What will it take to stop killer algae? (It's back.)

Fri, 2015-08-07 02:00

Last year’s toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie was so bad it shut down the water supply of Toledo, Ohio. This year’s is expected to be worse, and Congress has ordered the EPA  to work on a solution

The EPA can’t do much about one factor driving these algae problems: Climate change. Algae like it warm. However, people could give the algae less to eat, according to Timothy Davis, who studies harmful algae blooms for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

"If you limit the nutrition, you limit the size and toxicity of these blooms," Davis says.

Most important is to limit the phosphorous hitting the lake. According to Laura Johnson, a research scientist from Heidelberg University's National Center for Water Quality Research, the biggest problem is a form called "dissolved phosphorous," which comes from farms.

"It’s really yummy stuff for algae to use," Johnson says. "They grow explosively when they have dissolved phosphorous."

One possible remedy would be to inject fertilizer into the soil, instead of spreading it on top, where rain can wash it away. Injecting fertilizer would require new, expensive gear, but Johnson says there might be some compensatory savings for farmers.

"If you’re losing phosphorous off your soil, you’re losing something that you applied," she says. "And anything that’s running off is lost money."

However, she admits the savings might be small. Studies show that in the most critical region, around the Maumee River, only about one percent of the phosphorous applied shows up as runoff. "That's pretty efficient," she says.

Women, venture capital and bias

Fri, 2015-08-07 02:00

Entrepreneurs face many challenges. Getting people to buy what they’re selling and running a business are hard enough. They also need to convince investors to risk their money on their dreams. That requires a great idea, talented team and a fantastic pitch.

Many female entrepreneurs find the path can be trickier for them, and research into the topic backs that up. Even some of the smartest investors in the world are vulnerable to the same kind of unconscious biases that affect us all. Imagine two groups of investors asked to judge an entrepreneur’s pitch. In separate rooms, each group watches a different video presentation for a startup. But the videos actually aren’t all that different. In fact, they’re practically identical: Same idea, same numbers and same slide deck. The only difference is the speaker’s gender. 

The scenario comes from a series of experiments by researchers from the business schools at Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and MIT. The key takeaway from their research is that the investors preferred male entrepreneurs to the females, even when the pitches were exactly the same.

That experiment adds context to existing hard data that paints a picture of a uniquely challenging fundraising environment for female entrepreneurs. A 2014 analysis by the Diana Project shows that of $50 billion in venture capital invested during 2011-2013, only 3 percent went to companies with female CEOs.

Findings like these are anything but academic to people like Jocelyn Leavitt, co-founder and CEO of Hopscotch, a New York startup founded by women in 2013. Hopscotch has a popular app that makes programming visual and easy for kids. With 2 million downloads and counting, Hopscotch has enough young users to merit attention of investors.

“We raised $1.2 million initially, and then we raised more afterward, so we’re now at about $3 million,” Leavitt says. “Where we’ve grown from where we started has been remarkable.”

That kind of money is a strong vote of confidence for what she and her co-founder have built. Leavitt can go on about the many ways that starting a company with a woman is great. But when it comes to fundraising, she sometimes wonders what it would be like if she and her co-founder were males. She remembers a situation where an investor passed, questioning whether the team could meet technical challenges.

“We didn’t know, but it felt a little bit like if we had been guys, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten that kind of feedback,” Leavitt recalls.

Like many female founders, Leavitt stresses that all entrepreneurs—men and women—face challenges, and that she’s grateful her company has had fundraising success. Talking about investor bias is a difficult topic for entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of pressure on startup founders to put a positive image forward. Those who talk about bias worry about being branded as complainers. So many of the conversations about the fundraising challenges women face take place in private. Leavitt says female founders talk to each other about the perils of raising money, wrestling with issues male entrepreneurs rarely have to consider.

“Sometimes women will be like, ‘I should wear a wedding ring to make sure that this investor doesn’t hit on me, versus, I should not wear a wedding ring because I don’t want to have to deal with questions about whether I’m gonna be having kids anytime soon,’” she explains, adding that she opted to wear her own wedding band when pitching.

No one is saying all venture capitalists are sexist. They ultimately want to back people who’ll make them rich, regardless of gender. They believe they make the best possible choice given available information. But they almost certainly don’t. None of us can, because we all fall victim to any number of unconscious biases. To get a sense of how they can get us, think of a startup founder. For many, what comes to mind is the Facebook guy, the Google guys, but typically guys.

“If we see someone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, let’s say, we may think they’re more likely to be successful because they fit in with that idea of an entrepreneur based on what we see in the media,” says Elizabeth Webb, who teaches a class on decision making at Columbia Business School. “All of that kind of works together at a very unconscious level to inform our judgments and our evaluations.”

People are especially vulnerable to the influence of unconscious biases when judging risk, what venture investors do every day. And the level of risk is high in that field. Even very successful investors still lose piles of money on companies that fail. Melissa Bradley has been an entrepreneur and investor who has backed female and minority businesses. She says the risk involved in venture investing can push many investors to stick with what they know, which favors men.

“Venture funds raise their money based on the performance of prior portfolios, and so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she explains.

Whatever the situation may be, awareness that an unconscious bias is at play doesn’t necessarily make things easier for women working to fund their businesses.

“There’s not really a lot that you can do besides just really wowing people,” Leavitt says. 

Reducing the impact of unconscious bias is challenging, in part because few people can admit to being vulnerable.

“People often just think, 'Well, I’m not this type of person. Other people fall victim to this, but I don’t,'” Webb says.

But that isn’t the case, Webb explains. Anyone can fall under the sway of decision biases, which means they need adjust for them. Like so many other issues, the first step is often just admitting you have a problem.

Mark Garrison: Imagine yourself in a conference room, considering a risky investment in farming technology. You’re gonna judge clips from two video pitches to decide who gets a million dollars. Here’s the first.

And here’s the second, which is quite similar.

Who do you risk a million on? Take a moment to decide.

The clips came from a recent entrepreneurship study from Harvard, Wharton and MIT’s business schools. And actually, the pitches aren’t just similar. They’re identical.

Same idea, same numbers, same slides. The only difference is the speaker’s gender. Yet in the experiment, men and women preferred the male to the female. And in fact, of $50 billion in venture capital invested during 2011-2013, only 3 percent went to companies with female CEOs.

We’re in a whiteboard meeting at Hopscotch, a New York startup founded by women in 2013. Hopscotch has a popular app that makes programming visual and easy for kids. That means user testing sessions are lively.

With 2 million downloads and counting, Hopscotch has enough of these young users to merit attention of investors. Jocelyn Leavitt is co-founder and CEO.

Jocelyn Leavitt: We raised 1.2 initially and then we raised more afterward, so we’re now at about three million.

Leavitt says there are great things about starting a company with a woman. But when it comes to raising money from investors:

Jocelyn Leavitt: I wish that we weren’t. I wish that we were two guys building it. Just because it just seems like everybody’s more willing to jump on board.

Leavitt gives us a window into how female founders talk to each other about the perils of raising money.

Jocelyn Leavitt: Sometimes women will be like, ‘I should wear a wedding ring to make sure that this investor doesn’t hit on me, versus, I should not wear a wedding ring because I don’t want to have to deal with questions about whether I’m gonna be having kids anytime soon.’

She fiddles with her own band as she talks. Leavitt wore it when pitching. She shows me how she even sits differently in those meetings.

Jocelyn Leavitt: The way I’m sitting right now, you know, instead of crossing your legs, which I sometimes do because I’m cold, you just sort of sit with your legs sitting apart and you put your elbow on the table as opposed to sitting there hunched over and small.

There was this one rejection where an investor questioned whether the team could meet technical challenges.

Jocelyn Leavitt: We didn’t know, but it felt a little bit like if we had been guys maybe we wouldn’t have gotten that kind of feedback.

No one is saying all venture capitalists are sexist. They wanna back people who’ll make them rich. But like all of us, they can fall victim to unconscious biases. Think of a startup founder. For many, what comes to mind is the Facebook guy, the Google guys. But typically, guys. Elizabeth Webb teaches a decision making class at Columbia Business School.

Elizabeth Webb: If we see someone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, let’s say, we may think they’re more likely to be successful because they fit in with that idea of an entrepreneur based on what we see in the media. So all of that kind of works together at a very unconscious level to inform our judgments and our evaluations.

In the end, we all need to accept our tendency to have these biases.

Elizabeth Webb: People often just think well, I’m not this type of person. Other people fall victim to this, but I don’t.

But that’s just not true. Like other issues, the first step, is admitting you have a problem. In New York, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

Silicon Tally: The hitchhiker robot's guide to the galaxy

Fri, 2015-08-07 02:00

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Dave Pell, a startup investor in San Francisco who writes the NextDraft newsletter.

Click the media player above to play along.

Shell starts drilling for oil in the Arctic

Fri, 2015-08-07 02:00

Russia has just staked a claim to a big chunk of the Arctic. A big reason is the oil under the water. Several countries and companies are betting on this, and first out of the gate is Royal Dutch Shell. It is one week into exploratory drilling there.

In oil company speak, the Arctic is one of the last "elephant fields." Some 20 percent of the world's untapped oil and gas is there. And for big companies like Shell, their stock price depends on proving the energy is there.

"Ten years ago, Shell in particular felt that it was going to be very hard to find oil," Steven Kopits of Princeton Energy Advisors says. "And so they looked around the world to see where they could go. And one of the very few places you could add oil in big quantities was in Alaska."

Specifically, the Alaskan Arctic just north of the Bering Strait. A Shell rig is doing early exploring now.

If oil is struck, it may take a decade to flow. Kopits considers that good timing. By then, American oil fracked from shale may be fracked out.

"The U.S. shale revolution is slated to last probably through 2020, maybe through 2025," Kopits says. "But it doesn't last forever."

For all the challenges, drilling may be the easy part. It's low-pressure drilling, in shallow waters of less than 150 feet in depth.

What's hard is logistics, hauling 20-some vessels to frigid waters far from the Coast Guard, hospitals and other help.

In one attempt two and a half years ago, a Shell rig named the Kulluk separated from its tow boat.

"The cable snapped," McKenzie Funk, author of "The Wreck of the Kulluk," says. "And this giant rig drifted until it slammed into the rocks near Kodiak Island. And it was just a total loss."

The towing disaster came after challenges encountered during the drilling process. Ice flows proved to be unpredictable.

"Suddenly an ice flow the size of Manhattan came drifting and they had to pull up everything and basically run away," Funk says. "Having been up there a few times and studied this, that's what I think people don't understand, how entirely remote this is."

These problems concern environmental critics, who also argue there's no good fix for a spill. Shell and industry groups counter that machinery to cap leaking wells has a proven track record.

All the interested parties are watching: environmental groups, regulators, and other major oil companies who also have their eyes on the Arctic prize.

"It's a multi-year process," says Rice University business professor William Arnold, who once worked in Shell's government relations department. "This year just about has to be error-free in order to get to next year and years of development following that."

If not, $7 billion in investments to date may be lost.

 

Trumping your competitors

Fri, 2015-08-07 01:56
215,000

That's how many U.S. jobs were added in the month of July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate remained unchanged at 5.3 percent. It's been a slow summer for hiring in the U.S., and some economists say that the poor state of the global economy isn't helping — a strong U.S. dollar depresses exports, which in turn hurts manufacturing.

20 percent

That's how much of the world's untapped oil and gas is in the Arctic. It's a big reason why many countries and companies have begun exploratory drilling in the area, including Royal Dutch Shell. With both concerns about oil spills, as well as the possibility of huge monetary gains, everyone from environmental groups, to regulators,  to other major oil companies are keeping their eyes on the Arctic prize.

30 minutes

That's by how much North Korea will alter its clocks to create its own time zone. "Pyongyang time," as it will be called, will return the country back to its original time zone before Japan changed its clock to coincide with Tokyo. Quartz reports that South Korea will remain in its current time zone.

11:06

That's how much time Donald Trump spoke during Thursday night's Republican presidential primary debate. As PBS points out, in terms of talk time, he trumped all of his competitors.

Excessories

Fri, 2015-08-07 01:00

This Week, Actuality gorges itself on caviar to understand why the supply chain behind a luxury good is more important than ever. Also, a semi-aquatic invasive rodent may solve the "fur is murder" problem. Plus, the market in gothic poultry.



Activist investor may trim fat at Oreo maker

Thu, 2015-08-06 13:00

Activist investor William Ackman’s hedge fund is making a $5.5 billion investment in Mondelez International, a food giant based in suburban Chicago.

Ackman and his firm, Pershing Square Capital Management, aren’t saying much about the investment, which would give Pershing a 7.5 percent ownership stake in Mondelez. But analysts suspect Ackman wants to use his position to drive deeper cost-cutting steps at the manufacturer of snack foods like Oreos and Ritz crackers. If those efforts don't succeed, Mondelez could go up for sale.

Bernstein analyst Alexia Howard says many big food companies are grappling with a shift in Americans' tastes towards fresh foods and away from processed foods. That’s crimping revenue growth and driving industry consolidation as companies struggle to grow profits, though Howard notes that Mondelez has less exposure than some to such consumer trends.

“Mondelez only has 20 percent of sales in the U.S. And it's in the U.S. where we're seeing this big turnover in attitudes towards health and wellness,” she says.

Howard says Mondelez could stand to goose its revenue. But she suspects Ackman’s focus is “much more around the cost cutting and the margin potential.”

Morningstar equity analyst Erin Lash notes that just over a year ago, Mondelez announced a $1.5 billion plan to slash costs. But Lash thinks the tie-up of Kraft and Heinz, and the merged company's subsequent cost-cutting spree makes Mondelez still look comparatively bloated in its cost structure.

“We think the combination of activist investor interest combined with the merger between Kraft and Heinz places a new bar for profitability,” she says.

Lash suspects if Mondelez can't cut costs aggressively enough, it could be a target for Kraft Heinz in a year or two. Such a move would reunite Kraft and Mondelez, which had split into separate companies just a few years ago.

For now, it’s clear that Bill Ackman will hold a lot of sway in whatever happens at Mondelez, according to Bob Goldin, executive vice-president at Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm.

“I'm quite certain there will be meetings with senior management quite soon, if they haven't already begun today,” he says.

Disputes over shadows aren't black and white

Thu, 2015-08-06 13:00

A heat map takes into account shadows and how quickly they pass.

Environmental Simulation Center

New York’s skyline is in the process of getting some new icons. They are known as pencil towers, super-slender towers and pejoratively as bank vaults in the sky because of their high price tags. They are feats of modern engineering, but also controversial. 

One reason is the shadows they would cast on Central Park at certain times of year. Another reason is that the luxurious apartments and high price tags that make them possible are also signs of conspicuous consumption by the mega-wealthy. There are analysts who try to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to light and shadow, but they have their work cut out for them.  

Click the above audio player to hear more. 

Her old salary? Don't ask.

Thu, 2015-08-06 13:00

Say you’ve made it to the second interview for that new job you desperately want. The hiring manager asks a question that’s considered taboo in most other situation – how much do you currently make?

Well, the federal government wants to make that question a bit more taboo in the hiring process, too. The theory is that not relying on past salaries to set future pay might help close the pay gap between men and women.

This move came from the Office of Personnel Management, which found last year that women in government made almost 13 percent less than men in 2012. Some agencies have been required to use current salary info when hiring new employees. OPM now says that’s only one factor that may be used to set pay.

But doing away with that practice completely would be a good thing, says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“You try to assign pay to the job, so you say, 'OK, this is job that requires x, y, z,'” he says. “Then you look find best person for the job.”

Using current salaries can penalize women who took time off to have kids or chose more flexible jobs, says Randy Albelda, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Plus, “there’s lots of research that shows women are terrible negotiators over salaries compared with men,” she says. “And where you start determines where you end up.”

This would be a fresh slate, making sure past discrimination doesn’t carry into the new job.

It won’t totally solve the gender pay gap, says Eileen Boris, a professor at the University California, Santa Barbara, but the government can be a model for the private sector. 

“Because it has set best practices that many employers then follow, particularly those who rely on government contracts,” she says.

Boris says if the feds really want to close this gap, Congress could pass equal-pay legislation.

Blue Apron wants to change the way you cook dinner

Thu, 2015-08-06 13:00

Blue Apron, the New York-based subscription service that delivers weekly pre-portioned ingredients and recipes to homes nationwide, ships millions of meals to its customers per month. In fact, food start-ups have become an inspiration for entrepreneurs everywhere and a magnet for venture-capitalist dollars.

But it wasn’t always this way. Remember Webvan?

“One of the mistakes of the internet bubble was to build businesses that tried to be all things to all people,” says Matt Salzberg, CEO of Blue Apron. “And we’ve built our business to be the exact opposite of that.”

Blue Apron says its focus is to deliver farm-fresh, high-quality food and to help prevent food waste by pre-portioning its ingredients. Salzberg says he would like to change the way Americans consume meals by shaking up the way the ingredients, specifically used to make dinner, are bought and sold.

“It costs 60 percent more money on average to recreate our recipes by going to a grocery store, and on top of that, about 30 percent of the ingredients we deliver wouldn’t even be available at a given grocery store,” Salzberg says.

To see what was in Kai’s Blue Apron box, click here.

Click the above media player to hear the whole interview. 

Intense fires burn dry West and firefighting budgets

Thu, 2015-08-06 13:00

It's already been a long summer for wildfires in the dry West, and it’s not going to be over any time soon. The Rocky Fire north of San Francisco has burned more than 100 square miles and is still roaring. This week, the U.S. Forest Service released a report saying it's spending more than half its budget on fighting fires. It’s asking Congress to classify wildfires as natural disasters to free more money for fighting them.

Twenty years ago, the Forest Service spent about 16 percent of its budget on fighting fires. This year, it’s spending more than half. “The trends aren’t getting better," says Robert Bonnie, the undersecretary of natural resources and environment at the Department of Agriculture. "We’ve doubled the amount we’ve burned over the last 30 years from about three and a half million acres to seven."

Bonnie says it’s likely due to a number of things – climate change and drought not least among them. But it’s the size of the fires that’s really eating up the budget. "One percent of fires cost about 30 percent of our overall firefighting budget," he says. "So you get these huge megafires, and those types of fires cause an enormous amount of challenge to fight, but they’re also incredibly expensive.”

California’s not even into the peak of its fire season and Gov. Jerry Brown has already declared a state of emergency in many counties.

Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire, says these fires are burning very dangerously. "It’s a very extreme and explosive type of a situation and the firefighters are having to be very careful about the choices that they make,” she says.

The Rocky Fire is burning land so parched by years of drought that firefighters have had to change the way they’re fighting it. The fire breaks that they’re cutting today, for example, have to be much wider.

Richard Minnich, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, focusing on fire ecology, says fighting fires in an urban setting is one thing, “but if you’re in a wildland setting, you’re now in a matrix of fuel with solitary or scattered housing, which is much more vulnerable.”

Minnich thinks more than funding, it’s a planning problem. More and more homes are encroaching on the forests in California and other western states. And when those fires rage – people are forced to leave.

Rebuilding burned homes just aggravates the situation. “If houses keep recycling in fires, then what’s the point?" Minnich says. "Especially if it’s at the cost of the state.”

 Last year, California spent almost half a billion dollars fighting wildfires. This year's rainy season – if it comes at all – won’t hit until November. 

Energy companies lose $1.3 trillion amid oil crash

Thu, 2015-08-06 13:00

We've been talking on and off for the past year or so about the fall in oil prices. Fine. Old news.

Bloomberg went out and did a little math though and came up with a really big number. The fall has wiped $1.3 trillion off the value of energy companies as their share prices have fallen along with crude.

That's a number so big it kind of doesn't mean anything ... 'til you think about all the pension funds and retirement accounts that have those company shares in their portfolios.

Crude today is $44.50 a barrel.

What's the song of the summer?

Thu, 2015-08-06 11:42

According to your radio, phone, or record player... what's the song of your summer?

Can you sing it? Why do you like it? We want to hear your voice on our show!

Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter, @MarketplaceWKND

Your groceries are still shrinking

Thu, 2015-08-06 10:48

Look on the shelves at the products you like. Are they getting smaller? It's not your fading eyesight, it's the real deal. You're paying the same or more for less product.

Edgar Dworsky, the founder of consumerworld.org explains why groceries are getting smaller, and what you can do about it.

Here are some recent examples from Dworksy's website:

Photo courtesy of Edgar Dworsky, from his website consumerworld.org

Click the media player above to hear the whole story.

Texas has its own supply of cheap — and dirty — coal

Thu, 2015-08-06 07:19

Oil, and then natural gas, made Texas famous. Now it’s famous as well for having far and away the most wind energy of any state. But here’s a little-known fact: Texas is a major coal producer, and its coal is not like most other states’ coal. It’s an infant phase, still damp, called lignite.

“Basically it is brown dirt,” says Fred Beach, assistant director at the University of Texas Energy Institute. “Oily mud is another way we commonly refer to it.”

Just past the town of Elgin, known for its barbecue and sausage, there’s a dragline practically hanging over the road on a recent day.

In Texas, shallow coal is often mined beneath pasture land. 

Ingrid Lobet

“Most people in Austin really have no clue that there is a strip mine located only 30 miles away from the city,” says Tom Edgar, director of the University of Texas Energy Institute. “We pay more attention to renewable energy. So it’s kind of a well-kept secret.”

About a dozen Texas coal mines lie in a necklace from Louisiana toward the border with Mexico, across the giant state. That line is no accident. It traces the ancient shoreline of Texas. Millennia ago, vegetation, trees and woody matter were deposited here.

“Given enough time, given pressure and heat, you actually form this coal-like substance,” Edgar says.

The coal-like substance is called brown coal in Europe, where it still makes up a substantial piece of the power pie. But it’s not so carbon rich. You need to burn almost twice as much lignite as bituminous coal (the most commonly used in electricity generation) to get the same amount of energy, according to "Coal Data: A Reference" and the Energy Information Administration.

“You also get a whole lot more ash generated,” Beach says. “You get more particulate in the exhaust fume gases. So lignite has a lot going against it.”

It’s also wet.

“A lot of the energy that could be used to produce electricity is actually used to evaporate the water,” says J.P. Nicot, of UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

But Texas figured out a way to make this low-quality fuel pencil out nonetheless about 30 years ago by building the coal power plants next to the mines. They’re called mine mouth power plants.

“You’re literally digging it out of the ground, putting it on a conveyor belt, and it’s going right into the power plant,” Beach says.

You can’t transport lignite for another reason. It has a tendency to catch fire. But used right there in place, the fuel is cheap, it’s steady and it’s local. In short, it’s irreplaceable, says Mike Nasi, an attorney with the Gulf Coast Lignite Coalition. Together with coal imported from outside the state, this is how Texas generates more than a third of its juice.

Texas coal mining regions

Texas Almanac

“It’s a significant hedge against price volatility,” Nasi says. “It’s only 38 percent of our grid, but it’s an extremely valuable part.”

(According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the independent system operator for the state, coal generated 36 percent of electricity in 2014.)

Texas’ power-heavy industries, like refining and chemicals, rely on this inexpensive power. This is in large part why Texas so fiercely opposes the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which forces reductions in carbon emissions from each state’s power generators.

“It’s not just the coal producers and power producers that show up and ask for policies to be reasonable," Nasi says. "It is Dow chemical. It is Occidental Petroleum, it is Valero. And the reason is their single highest line-item cost is electricity."

The CO2 cuts vary by state. Between a third and half of Texas’ coal power plants will likely close. But Nasi says that doesn’t mean Texas’ second-rate coal is going to stay in the ground now, as climate scientists say it should.

“Lignite is going to continue to power that fleet,” he predicts.

Ingrid Lobet is a reporter for BURN from SoundVision Productions, with support from the Sloan Foundation.

Texas has its own supply of cheap — and dirty — coal

Thu, 2015-08-06 07:19

Oil, and then natural gas, made Texas famous. Now it’s famous as well for having far and away the most wind energy of any state. But here’s a little-known fact: Texas is a major coal producer, and its coal is not like most other states’ coal. It’s an infant phase, still damp, called lignite.

“Basically it is brown dirt,” says Fred Beach, assistant director at the University of Texas Energy Institute. “Oily mud is another way we commonly refer to it.”

Just past the town of Elgin, known for its barbecue and sausage, there’s a dragline practically hanging over the road on a recent day.

In Texas, shallow coal is often mined beneath pasture land. 

Ingrid Lobet

“Most people in Austin really have no clue that there is a strip mine located only 30 miles away from the city,” says Tom Edgar, director of the University of Texas Energy Institute. “We pay more attention to renewable energy. So it’s kind of a well-kept secret.”

About a dozen Texas coal mines lie in a necklace from Louisiana toward the border with Mexico, across the giant state. That line is no accident. It traces the ancient shoreline of Texas. Millennia ago, vegetation, trees and woody matter were deposited here.

“Given enough time, given pressure and heat, you actually form this coal-like substance,” Edgar says.

The coal-like substance is called brown coal in Europe, where it still makes up a substantial piece of the power pie. But it’s not so carbon rich. You need to burn almost twice as much lignite as bituminous coal (the most commonly used in electricity generation) to get the same amount of energy, according to "Coal Data: A Reference" and the Energy Information Administration.

“You also get a whole lot more ash generated,” Beach says. “You get more particulate in the exhaust fume gases. So lignite has a lot going against it.”

It’s also wet.

“A lot of the energy that could be used to produce electricity is actually used to evaporate the water,” says J.P. Nicot, of UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

But Texas figured out a way to make this low-quality fuel pencil out nonetheless about 30 years ago by building the coal power plants next to the mines. They’re called mine mouth power plants.

“You’re literally digging it out of the ground, putting it on a conveyor belt, and it’s going right into the power plant,” Beach says.

You can’t transport lignite for another reason. It has a tendency to catch fire. But used right there in place, the fuel is cheap, it’s steady and it’s local. In short, it’s irreplaceable, says Mike Nasi, an attorney with the Gulf Coast Lignite Coalition. Together with coal imported from outside the state, this is how Texas generates more than a third of its juice.

Texas coal mining regions

Texas Almanac

“It’s a significant hedge against price volatility,” Nasi says. “It’s only 38 percent of our grid, but it’s an extremely valuable part.”

(According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the independent system operator for the state, coal generated 36 percent of electricity in 2014.)

Texas’ power-heavy industries, like refining and chemicals, rely on this inexpensive power. This is in large part why Texas so fiercely opposes the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which forces reductions in carbon emissions from each state’s power generators.

“It’s not just the coal producers and power producers that show up and ask for policies to be reasonable," Nasi says. "It is Dow chemical. It is Occidental Petroleum, it is Valero. And the reason is their single highest line-item cost is electricity."

The CO2 cuts vary by state. Between a third and half of Texas’ coal power plants will likely close. But Nasi says that doesn’t mean Texas’ second-rate coal is going to stay in the ground now, as climate scientists say it should.

“Lignite is going to continue to power that fleet,” he predicts.

 Ingrid Lobet is a reporter for BURN from SoundVision Productions, with support from the Sloan Foundation.

PODCAST: Cleveland rocks

Thu, 2015-08-06 03:00

An update from Greece, and a check in on two major cities preparing for political conventions.

Yo La Tengo's James McNew likes things that don't sound right

Thu, 2015-08-06 03:00

As part of a series about music technology called "Noise Makers," we're talking to musicians about their favorite noise-making device. For this week's installment Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson had a conversation with Yo La Tengo's James McNew before an improvised performance through the Issue Project Room at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. 

Before committing to any one favorite piece of equipment, James McNew emphasizes how the nature of the performance changes his opinion about gear: "It’s an improvised performance. So I’m not that attached to either [guitar pedal]. I guess that’s really the true spirit of the improviser, which is that you can’t really depend on that stuff."

Instead of settling on a pedal, neither of which are part of his Yo La Tengo setup, McNew picks the guitar itself, a Teisco May Queen guitar, which is also something he hasn't played in a long time. He describes the Teisco as "a kind of crappy fantastic guitar ... The pickups are really cruddy. But in this really fantastic sound. It kind of has this really dead blunt sound to it. I haven’t heard another guitar that sounds like it."

McNew says he is attracted to things that don't sound right because "it’s more fun to force something to make it sound like you want it to sound. To push it out of its own comfort level. To make a tape machine into a distortion pedal just to drive it to its absolute limits and turn it into something else."

Most of all, McNew loves it for its size, the neck being the right size for someone with large hands. However, objectively the Teisco is not a quality guitar.

"In a way, it's a toy," McNew explains. "If you put it next to a 1959 Les Paul, the difference in craftsmanship is somewhat noticeable."

Similarly, McNew talks about an essential piece of equipment his typical repertoire with Yo La Tengo: a 1960s Ace Tone Organ, which he also regards as a toy. McNew speculates that "it was made for like Japanese combo pop acts; maybe Garage bands in the 60s." Either way, he concludes, "they really did it right."

Click the media player above for an extended interview with James McNew about the enigmatic band the Shags, his opinion about computers on stage, and if music provides evidence for the existence of aliens.

"Sudden Organ" by Yo La Tengo 

 

The conventions are coming...

Thu, 2015-08-06 02:00

Cleveland and Philadelphia are gearing up again to host the Republican and Democratic national conventions next summer. Economic realities have changed for both cities since the last time they played host to the big parties.

Republicans assemble in Cleveland 

RNC Host Committee CEO David Gilbert

Brian Bull/WCPN

David Gilbert, CEO of the has a lot on his plate. He’s got to finalize 4,000 hotel rooms, and still raise Cleveland’s share of cash for its financial commitment for the event.

The last time Cleveland hosted the RNC was almost 80 years ago, and there’s been plenty of economic turmoil since then. But officials are putting their best foot forward for the 50,000 people expected to converge on C-town in 2016.

There’s more on his to-do list, but Gilbert can’t help but smile at the clouds of dust stirred up by trucks and construction workers across the street. “Well, it’s a total of $64 million in cash, and we’ve raised just about 40,” he says.

“Right in front of us is a new 600-room Hilton Hotel that will be open in May of next year,” he says, shifting his stance slightly to the south. “And right up the road is a $35 million renovation of Public Square.”

Since Cleveland hosted the RNC in 1936, it’s taken hits to its industrial and manufacturing sectors, as well as population. But recently the city’s seen a gradual rebound that can’t all be LeBron James’ doing.

83-year-old Helaine Zemel has lived through those ups and downs. She was just a toddler when the RNC was last here.

“As far as the economy, I think it’s the greatest thing that could happen,” Zemel says. “I think people are discovering a brand new place.”

The RNC’s projected economic impact means up to $250 million in direct spending, though much of that will be concentrated around the convention site itself.

Construction banner proclaiming Hilton Hotel, set to be open in May 2016 ahead of the RNC

Brian Bull/WCPN

Democrats unite in the City of Brotherly Love 

The Democrats are planning their big convention in Philadelphia next July. It’s been 15 years since the city hosted the Republicans for their big political party.

Since then, the City of Brotherly Love has earned a good reputation for hosting major events, but it didn’t come cheap.

In 2000, Philadelphia had to raise $60 million.

“We didn’t have a really good name back then in 2000,” said Renee Amoore, deputy chair of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. “They had to do a whole lot of things so people would buy in to Philadelphia.”

The preparations included moving strip clubs off a major highway just across the river. They even painted some of the brown grass green in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum, made famous in the movie “Rocky.”

Fifteen years later, the investment has paid off. The city has hosted other headline events and coming this fall: Pope Francis.

So when the Democrats arrive next summer, Philly will have even more to show off, including new hotels and restaurants. But organizers aren’t resting on the painted grass.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is the host committee’s head fundraiser.

“We have to do a party for 30, 40,000 delegates,” he says. “We have to do a party for all the press and the media – 25, 30,000 of those.”

That’s a lot of Chardonnay.

Part of Rendell’s job is getting corporations to pay for things such as the electric bill for the media tent and the big cocktail parties with city views. He also has to get checks for renting out the local sports arena and all that helium for the balloons.

In all, Philadelphia has to raise $70 million. That’s nearly twice the amount it’s costing to welcome Pope Francis and 2 million of his followers.

“We have to entertain in a way that the Pope’s visit isn’t entertaining,” Rendell says.

In other words, for the faithful, no expensive cocktail parties.

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