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Updated: 34 min 39 sec ago

European eclipse sheds light on solar power challenges

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:14

For lots and lots of Europeans, the continent's biggest solar eclipse in many years meant excitement.

OMG THE ECLIPSE IS SO COOL pic.twitter.com/NJxvn0IoGY

— Liamthelion☯☮ (@waverider_) March 20, 2015

But for a few Europeans — grid operators and utility workers — it meant distinct unease. Especially in places like Germany and Italy, where solar power has grown to be a significant part of the electricity supply.

Managing the grid when the sun suddenly went away was a serious concern. And it cast light on a big challenge as renewable energy grows: integrating it into the grid.

Of course, it does get dark every single night. But not all at once. Sunset and dusk add up to an hour or so, which gives power producers time to spin up other generators.

The lead time is important, because the big challenge for grid operators is balancing out supply and demand in real time.  

"A fossil-fired generator is not like a stereo," says Anthony Paul, a fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future. "You can’t just turn the volume from five to ten, in an instant."

Generators take time to ramp up. And down. What happens when the sun comes back, and you've still got all that power from your other sources?

Maybe an overload. In Europe, people worried about blackouts.

That didn't happen, but the episode shows why, even with just regular events — night falling, or clouds rolling in — solar means extra work for grid operators.

One big piece of work is accommodating what's called "distributed generation" like rooftop solar. The grid isn't really built for it.

"Traditionally, our grid has been a one-way street," says John Larsen, a director at the Rhodium Group. "You've got all these power generators, and they shove all the power through the transmission lines, down through the distribution network into your house."

Distributed generation like rooftop solar means changing that traffic flow. "You’re turning it into a two-way street," Larsen says.

And the existing street may not be wide enough to handle traffic in both directions.  

For instance, the amount of distributed generation power coming up from parts of Germany's grid is now six times as much as formerly went out to them, says Ben York, a research engineer at the Electric Power Research Institute.

He picks up Larsen's traffic-pattern analogy. "If you had originally two lanes lanes going one way," York says, "you’ve got to add six or seven lanes going back the other way."

He says Germany is looking at a $30 billion investment to create those lanes in the next few years.

Ryanair: We screwed up.

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:14

At our editorial meeting on Monday, we talked about some reports that the budget airline Ryanair — an airline so budget it once reportedly considered charging passengers to use the lavatory — wanted to expand outside of Europe, where it's based, to fly some transatlantic routes. 

The company confirmed those expansion plans to several reporters.

Well, turns out, that's not going to happen.

The airline issued this one-sentence statement:

"The Board of Ryanair Holdings wishes to clarify that it has not considered or approved any transatlantic project and does not intend to do so."

According to the airline's CEO, there was a "miscommunication."

"We screwed up," he said.

Does net neutrality have a loophole?

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:14

The simple understanding of the FCC's recent net neutrality regulation is this: it makes it so cable companies can't charge the Netflixes of the world more for an Internet fast lane. 

But net neutrality applies only to the "highway" of data that is the public Internet. The cable companies have three routes into your house: the public Internet, pay TV, and "specialized services." The Wall Street Journal reports HBO, Sony and Showtime are in talks with cable provider Comcast to bring their "Web TV" product to that "specialized services" highway, where fast lanes are allowed. 

Susan Crawford, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says this could present an opportunity for cable companies to cap bandwidth on the public Internet, and then charge web TV providers for special treatment for products delivered through the "specialized services" pipe.

But Ian Olgeirson, an industry analyst at SNL Kagan, doesn't see, from the details we know now, how this would be a smart business proposition for the cable companies, since it would undermine their pay TV business.

"There's sort of a tradeoff for the operators," he says. "They're giving up a revenue stream — to gain another revenue stream." 

Your Wallet: What are you waiting for?

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:05

Next week, we explore the economics of waiting.

What are you waiting for? Is it a big purchase? Maybe marriage? Childbirth?

We want to hear from you. Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter @MarketplaceWKND.

What are you waiting for?

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:05

Next week, we explore the economics of waiting.

What are you waiting for? Is it a big purchase? Maybe marriage? Childbirth?

We want to hear from you. Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter @MarketplaceWKND.

Small town hopes to rescue itself by selling pot

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:04

North Bonneville, Washington, is surrounded by forests on one side. On the other is the Columbia River. 

“There is one gas station. There is one restaurant. There is a golf course. And there is the Bonneville Hot Springs Hotel,” says John Spencer, the former city administrator. Now he’s a consultant. And with some exceptions, he’s just described most of the town’s economy.

A few years ago, the town of about 1,000 people stopped watering parks and other public places to save money. And a few months ago, it started turning off streetlights to cut down on its electricity bill.

“The city is on its knees financially. They have run negative numbers in the general fund multiple months in a row because they have no retail sector here,” Spencer says. “This store could very well make a town that is otherwise going to fail.”

The store Spencer is talking about is The Cannabis Corner: the first recreational pot shop in the country run by a government.  

It opened earlier this month. Technically, the city doesn’t own it. Rather, it set up a public development authority to run it.

“In the headlines, everybody wants to say it’s a city-owned pot shop, which, I guess, I leave for the lawyers," says North Bonneville Mayor Don Stevens, who embraces the title of “The Marijuana Mayor,” right down to the personalized license plates he’s ordered for his car that read "MJMAYOR." 

"I guess technically, on some level, it is.” Stevens says there was a strong likelihood of a pot shop opening in the town anyway. So the city decided to open its own store to have more control over how it’s operated.

“Whereas if a private person came in and opened a store and it wasn’t working out in the community’s best interest, we’d have a really long, ugly path to try and straighten that situation out,” Stevens says. He says all the profits from North Bonneville’s pot shop will go back to the community, by partnering the shop with the city on projects.

“While it can’t just deposit its profit directly into our general fund, (it) can as a separate corporation, help us defray costs with law-enforcement contracts, public health and safety programs, any number of things that ultimately will have a positive affect on our bottom line,” he says.

Right now, the city’s annual budget is $1.2 million. Officials think The Cannabis Corner could eventually bring in half a million dollars in profit every year.

That’s big money here. After the timber industry collapsed in the 1990s, tourism became the county’s main industry.

Casey Roeder, the executive director of the Skamania County Chamber of Commerce, says the town’s pot shop adds another reason for people to visit.

“It’s an amenity, in my mind, just as a winery or brewery,” she says. “The cannabis store in North Bonneville just adds to that whole menu of options for folks to come and spend money.”

And Roeder says if people come here and see the region’s natural beauty and lifestyle, they just may want to move here and bring their business with them.

 

Fun Fact Friday: Much ado about macaroni and cheese

Fri, 2015-03-20 08:35

David Gura offered his final Marketplace sign off Friday, but not before he hosted a discussion about the week that was with Leigh Gallagher of Fortune and Sudeep Reddy with the Wall Street Journal. Listen to that above, then read about some of the best stuff we learned this week at Marketplace:

Fun Fact: It can take between $70,000 and $100,000 to keep a kennel full of racing dogs running year-round. This week, Alaska hosted the Iditarod.

We spoke to Alaska's top musher in long-distance sled dog racing history, Lance Mackey, who broke down the economics behind running races like the Iditarod. This large sum includes the cost of fuel, entry fees and food for the dogs, which costs around $5,000 every race season.

Want to run the Iditarod? You'll need a lot of scratch

Fun Fact: Kids take an average of 113 standardized tests by the time they finish high school.

This year, standardized tests are being tied to Common Core education standards, creating a divide between schools and parents. According to a Gallup poll conducted late last year, 41 percent of teachers say they view common core standards positively, vs. 33 percent of parents. Should parents let their kids decide whether to take the Common Core tests? Take our poll: 

Parents weigh the lessons of common core testing

Fun Fact: Kraft is recalling 6.5 million boxes of macaroni and cheese.

The company said numerous consumers reported finding metal pieces in the packages. While it may be too early to determine the cost of this recall, some experts warn it proves that the food-safety system in the United States is inadequate.

Kraft recalls 6.5 million boxes of macaroni and cheese

Oh, one more thing: We already miss David.

'Match Day' is a rite of passage for young doctors

Fri, 2015-03-20 08:15

Friday was a big day for young doctors across the country. It's Match Day — the day medical students find out where they will spend their residencies.

It's a competitive process. This year, more 41,000 applicants are vying for about 30,000 spots. 

Dr. Atul Grover, Chief Public Policy Officer with the Association for American Medical Colleges, says he remembers his 1998 Match Day well.

"It was really all about the envelopes," Grover says. "We went back to our groups of friends, family, sat down and everybody kind of opened their envelopes on the count of three. And I can just remember, myself, being personally elated of getting my first choice."

But not everyone is so lucky. Thousands will not be placed. A record number of young doctors applied for residencies this year, and while enrollment in medical schools is increasing, funding for residency positions has stayed about the the same, making the process more competitive.

Marketplace asks: Have you cut the cord?

Fri, 2015-03-20 07:38
In 2014, Time Warner Cable lost nearly 600,000 subscribers. Comcast lost 150,00 subscribers of their own service.

1.4 million U.S. households "either canceled pay-TV over the trailing 12 months or never subscribed," according to Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett.

Are you one of them? Tell us how you watch TV:

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Your Wallet: The economics of waiting

Fri, 2015-03-20 06:48

Next week, we explore the economics of waiting.

What are you waiting for in you personal economy? Is it that big purchase? Maybe marriage?

We want to hear from you. Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter, @MarketplaceWKND

PODCAST: A grande race relations conversation

Fri, 2015-03-20 03:00

An announcement from Tesla in the I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it category. More on that. Plus, Starbucks said this week it wanted to use its big retail footprint to foster a conversation on race in America. It hasn’t gone as planned, as critics have panned the effort as ham-handed. We look at ways companies have had success in talking about diversity and inclusion. And women with limited education beyond high school, especially single working mothers, earn less than men. They’re often shunted into minimum-wage unskilled jobs—in the Wendy’s drive-through or behind the register at Rite-Aid. At the same time, the skilled trades are begging for new recruits: electricians, welders, machinists. There are initiatives to bring women into these traditionally male-dominated professions (by labor unions, community colleges, employer groups). But it’s not an easy gig to work—with a bunch of men on a building site or a machine-shop floor.

Michelle Obama promotes girls' education in Asia

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

First lady Michelle Obama is traveling in Asia this week to promote a new initiative with the Peace Corps aimed at closing the education gap for girls. Around the world, an estimated 62 million girls between the ages of 6 and 15 are not in school. The Peace Corps plans to recruit and train at least 650 new volunteers to help remove the barriers to education in developing countries like Albania, Cambodia, Georgia, and Uganda.

The economic payoff can be significant, says Sarah Lynch, a senior director of the global charity Care, which will help train volunteers. "Investments in girls' education have proven to go further than any other spending in global development," she says.

Click the media player above to hear more.

 

Tesla plans to launch 'autopilot' feature this summer

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

Tesla announced a few software updates it’s planning for its electric vehicles on Thursday, including one where the car tracks its distance from charging stations to try to alleviate driver anxiety about running out of juice. CEO Elon Musk said that the company could push another update — autopilot — to its Model S fleet as soon as June.

While Musk said cars would be technically capable of getting from place to place without a driver having to do anything, initially this feature limited to use on highways, as neighborhoods pose safety issues given their many obstacles and variables. Eventually, drivers could also summon their cars or let the vehicles park themselves.

Mike Wall, an auto analyst at IHS, says this move echoes steps taken by other car companies and that driver-less technology is advancing faster than regulations that will govern its use.

Michelle Krebs, an analyst with AutoTrader, says driverless cars could be on the road tomorrow, but manufacturers are holding back because of regulatory concerns and questions about who’s to blame if there’s an accident. Tesla believes its autopilot feature meets current regulations. 

Michelle Obama promotes girls' education in Asia

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

First lady Michelle Obama is traveling in Asia this week to promote a new initiative with the Peace Corps aimed at closing the education gap for girls. Around the world, an estimated 62 million girls between the ages of 6 and 15 are not in school. The Peace Corps plans to recruit and train at least 650 new volunteers to help remove the barriers to education in developing countries like Albania, Cambodia, Georgia, and Uganda.

The economic payoff can be significant, says Sarah Lynch, a senior director of the global charity Care, which will help train volunteers. "Investments in girls' education have proven to go further than any other spending in global development," she says.

Click the media player above to hear more.

 

Silicon Tally: Where's my tax refund?

Fri, 2015-03-20 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 David Gura, senior reporter for Marketplace in our Washington D.C. bureau. We're celebrating his last day at Marketplace, as he leaves for Bloomberg TV.

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Starbucks' race push irks some

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

Starbucks new #RaceTogether campaign has set off a storm of controversy. The coffee giant is hoping baristas and customers will have a more frank discussion about American race relations. 

So what's the best way to bring up issues of diversity? Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting, says Starbucks may have helped create controversy by trying to force this conversation when people are at their most vulnerable—that is to say, before they've had their morning coffee.

But Robert Raben, president of the Raben Group, says Starbucks may be onto something. Its coffee houses are so ubiquitous and integrated that they serve as de facto town halls and community centers for places all across the country. 

Freight rail is king in U.S.

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

Railways carry more than 40 percent of the freight shipped between U.S. cities. The U.S. freight rail system is uniquely profitable, and it's been attracting international attention. Europe, Russia, Brazil and Australia have all sent representatives here.

“There have been dozens of delegations just over the last couple of years,” says Patricia Reilly, senior vice president  for communications at the Association of American Railroads, a trade group for freight rail companies.

Reilly has met with some of the international visitors. They want to know everything, down to what stone is used for rail beds. Some come with interpreters, but Reilly says they speak a common tongue.

“They might not speak our language, but they love railroads," she says. "They love the sound of a whistle.”

Garrick Francis loves the sound of a whistle, too. He’s a lobbyist with the freight rail company CSX Transportation.  

He’s also met with the international delegations. He says they’re curious about a huge difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world. The American freight rail system is run entirely by private companies. Francis says he gets lots of questions about investment.

“So how do we have private investors," he says. "How is this a business that attracts investment from major funds or major shareholders on Wall Street and in other places?” 

But Francis gets harder questions, too, about rail congestion in places like Chicago. Freight trains have to share track with passenger trains, adding to the congestion. 

The international delegations also want to know about new safety technology freight railways have developed. Freight rail’s safety record has improved, with the accident rate down by 42 percent since 2000. Still, accidents do happen. 

“Some of these accidents with the crude oil trains have been drastic reminders that there’s still a long way to go,” says Pasi Lautala, director of the rail transportation program at Michigan Technological University. 

Lautala says, in some ways, freight rail in the U.S. is a victim of its own success, making money and growing enough to attract admirers from around the world — but still facing expensive challenges.  

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Facebook me some money

Fri, 2015-03-20 01:30
500 million

A low estimate for the number of people using Facebook's Messenger app. With the reveal of mobile payments on Messenger earlier this week, Facebook's plans for the app are becoming clearer. TechCrunch reported Messenger will become a platform for third-party developers, who will add more content and commerce. The company is expected to build on the success of its WhatsApp acquisition, and model Messenger after Asia's extremely popular messaging apps like WeChat and Line.

One in four

The whiter a census tract is, except in extreme cases, the more likely it is to have a Starbucks, according to an analysis by Quartz. For example, one in four tracts with 70 percent white people have a 'Bucks. Something to keep in mind if you see "#RaceTogether" on your cup one morning.

$1.9 billion

Last year's revenue across all streaming music services like Spotify, Pandora and Vevo, according to a new report from the RIAA. Streaming is on track to overtake digital downloads, which had already taken a bite out of recording industry revenue in the past decade. All this disruption added up to a flat year for the recording industry.

3 percent

Fewer than 3 percent of construction workers are women. And as employers report job shortages of skilled workers in fields like welding and carpentry, some are calling for women to go after employment in these professions. 

40 percent

That's the percentage of freight carried by the U.S. railway system across the country. It's why this unusually profitable venture has been studied by the global market.

Women in construction: few and far between

Thu, 2015-03-19 15:06

As the job market heats up, employers are starting to report labor-shortages—especially of skilled workers like welders, machinists, and carpenters in manufacturing and construction.

Those jobs can pay $15/hour or more, and often offer health insurance, a pension, and on-the-job-training, especially if the worker rises through the ranks of a union apprenticeship program.

And for three decades now, Lauren Sugerman, director of the National Center for Women’s Employment Equity at Wider Opportunities for Women has been trying to get more women into well-paying construction jobs.

“The construction trades represent a significant segment of the blue-collar jobs that earn over $20/hour,” she says. “And these jobs are also growing dramatically.”

In the late 1970s, Sugerman herself entered an apprenticeship program for elevator constructors in Chicago. At the time, she says women made up less than 0.01 percent of construction workers. The percentage has gone up, but not by much, in her opinion. “Now, women are 2.6 percent of the construction workforce, so that’s very little progress.”

Sugerman says she left construction work after years struggling against discrimination and harassment on the job. It started right away. “The superintendent who interviewed me said ‘You don’t want this job, it’s too dangerous for you, girls really shouldn’t be doing this, you won’t like it.’ I just kept saying ‘Yes I do.’ And, not very different from what many women still report today, I was subjected to physical harassment, I worked around men who talked about rape in jokes.”

Sugerman became an advocate for women in the trades, working with the Chicago Women in Trades and other groups pushing for gender equality in employment. And she’s well aware of what she missed out on by leaving construction—what women today can be earning if they’re protected and well-prepared and manage to stick it out.

“‘Let’s just do the numbers,’” she quips. “I would currently be making $50/hour as an elevator constructor. Compare that to the wage in a typically female job, $9/hour as a nurse’s aide, preschool teachers are also very low on the scale. That’s a $900,000 to $2 million gap in earnings over a lifetime.”

Holly Huntley runs Environs, a small construction firm in Portland, Oregon. She’s 37 and grew up in South Carolina. She was a debutante in her teens, and started as an amateur in construction during college, helping to manage and maintain an apartment building her family owned.

“After college I just kept practicing on friends’ and families’ properties,” she says. She worked for several small construction firms, moved to Portland, and started her own company. She also teaches in a pre-apprenticeship program for Oregon Tradeswomen. Some of her current employees came through the program.

“I know a lot of women in the trades that experience harassment on a daily basis,” she says. “And what I all my female employees get from subcontractors and people making deliveries is: ‘Where’s the contractor?’ They all think that we’re the homeowner. They don’t even think that we’re working. And the odds are that I’m not the boss. The odds are that the guy on the project is the boss.”

Sajru Dueber has been studying welding at Mt. Hood Community College near Portland. Before joining the program, she taught English, dealt cards, did other jobs to support herself and her daughter. None of them, though, paid as well as a skilled trade like welding.

“I’m hoping to get involved in the train yards,” says Dueber, “do some spot welding on trains, get my foot in the door that way.” She wants to do artistic welding as well. “Ultimately I want my daughter to have the best education she can ,and that will require money, so I hope going into this field will help.”

In her welding program last year, Dueber did a report surveying women’s experience of working in welding shops. “I found a lot of females online talking about how hard it was for them to get a job, how hard it was to get accepted, how hard it was for a foreman to take them seriously,” she says. “And a lot of them were told ‘You’ll be a sexual distraction,’ or ‘Maybe you can’t pick up a box that’s forty pounds,’ or ‘You’re just a woman, I can’t take your application.’ And I’m sure that that’s something I’m going to run into.”

Plant businesses have struggled since the recession

Thu, 2015-03-19 14:10

The heating bill can reach $30,000 for the month of January at Spring Hill Nurseries, but that is the price to be paid for green grape buds, flowering black berries, and pink hellebores — triumphant in rows ready to be shipped to the gardening public at the first hint that winter might be relenting.  

Felix Cooper, Vice President of Gardens Alive, the parent company of Spring Hill Nurseries, and greenhouse manager Jenny Lewis are giving a balmy tour through what seem like endless rows of blood-red sedum, glowing pink coral bells, and lush vining clematis. Coolers are filled with grub-like arisaema tubers, and phlox roots tumble through conveyor belts and packing machines into bags of peat moss. 

Spring Hill Nurseries has been around longer than California has been a state, and it's even older than the Washington Monument. Founded in 1848, it’s been as hardy as the goldenrod one can find on Ohio side roads. It made it through the Civil War and mechanization and everything a modern economy has thrown at it — up until now. After 166 springs, this may be it’s last. 

“It’s been a fairly steady ride down,” says Niles Kinerk, CEO of Gardens Alive. Gardens Alive owns several plant businesses and sells environmentally responsible gardening products.  

While some of its seed companies and bulb companies are doing great, Spring Hill is draining cash. A particularly nasty winter last year didn’t help. Kinerk is trying to sell it.

“The alternative for us is to cut way back,” he says.  

The demise – or dramatic scaling back – of Spring Hill Nurseries is the tail end of a nationwide phenomenon that is decades in the making but came to a head in the great recession. 

Nurseries ramped up with the housing boom, took out loans to expand, and were left holding the bag. 

“As many as 30 percent of the growers in the country exited during this period of financial stress,” says Charles Hall, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University. “That’s a significant number of growers.”

“In previous recessions,” he says, “we had a situation where we sold more flowers, shrubs and trees because people stayed home and engaged in gardening more because they weren’t taking trips to Disneyland.”

But not this time.

Tony Avent runs Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the industry was especially hard hit. “North Carolina lost 40 percent of its nursery industry, including garden retailers, nurseries, the whole bit. Georgia lost sixty percent.”

The collapse is evident today in the shortage of woody ornamental plants, like landscape trees. They take five years or more to reach a sell-able size, and not many people were planting five years ago, so there aren’t enough ready now. 

There’s also new competition. 

“The big box stores have put quite a bit of effort into their green goods areas,” says Gardens Alive’s Kinerk. “They’re very competitive and they’ve taken a good hunk of business that used to be fulfilled by companies like ours.”

Credit, especially for smaller companies, is harder to come by.

“Back in 2001 the bank was willing to extend to us 10 times our earnings,” Kinerk recalls. “And now it’s down to three times earnings.” 

Federal regulations reigning in lending are partly responsible for that, and while banks have expanded small business loans as a whole, plant nurseries’ biggest source of collateral is their land.

It’s usually not worth much.

“I’ve actually had my banker say to me don’t even talk to me about the land value or building value ,” says Kinerk.   

But hovering behind the economic factors is how America’s relationship to its gardens and its plants is changing. For one, fewer people grow their own food.

“People’s size of their yards are getting smaller.  Two-income families have less time.  Gardening takes time” he says.  “It’s a great way to relax, I will hasten to add, and forget about your day!”

Kinerk still has faith that Spring Hill can flourish again, but he can’t be the one to rescue it. He needs to use his cash to invest in his businesses that are growing.

“They’re good businesses, and if we could find a buyer who had the cash to invest to get it going like it could again, it’d be better for everyone .”

The plant nursery industry will not disappear, its roots are too deep for that, but for now it is smaller and a bit wilted. 

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