Paths to Power: The US Electricity Grid
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With power outages across the country causing everything from minor disruptions to death, Living on Earth turns to the experts to find out what’s going on with the U.S. power grid. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Judah Rose of ICF International, a consulting firm that specializes in energy and environmental issues, and Ashley Brown, Executive Director of Harvard University’s electricity policy group. (09:00)
Not in My Skyline
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The Department of Energy has a plan in the works to ensure the nation’s energy supply, sometimes at the cost of the little guy. Bruce Gellerman talks with Chris Rossi of Hubbardsville, NY, who is protesting the installation of new power lines in her community. (03:00)
Retrofit It/ Claire Schoen
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Producer Claire Schoen takes a tour of a California home and finds out that it’s the little things that count in cutting energy bills this summer. (14:00)
Organics Taste Test/ Pim Techamuanvivit
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As Walmart and other big stores carry more and more organic foods, food writer Pim Techamuanvivit laments that the packaged organics don’t always have healthy ingredients, and they rarely taste good. (03:30)
Emerging Science Note/ Allison Smith
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Women tested in parts of South Africa, where DDT is used to fight malaria, showed levels of residue of the pesticide up to 77 times higher than safely allowed. Allison Smith reports. (01:30)
Keeping Away the Rays
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Host Bruce Gellerman turns to Jane Houlihan, Vice President of Research for the Environmental Working group to get the inside scoop on what’s inside sunscreen. (05:45)
Cashing in on the Oil Thing/ Jeff Young
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The oil industry is enjoying a gusher of profits. Just where does that money go? Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Jeff Young follows the oil money pipeline. (08:30)
Sounds of the surf on California’s coast.
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Ashley Brown, Jane Houlihan, Judah Rose, Chris Rossi
REPORTER: Claire Schoen, Jeff Young
COMMENTATOR: Pim Techamuanvivit
SCIENCE NOTE: Allison Smith
GELLERMAN: From NPR, this is Living On Earth.
GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. Imagine making a billion dollars a day. Exxon Mobile did last quarter. So, where is all the money going? Industry executives say it is being well spent.
FELMY: The oil and natural gas industry is investing more than they make in earnings. So, we’re plowing the money back in to produce more oil and gas in the future.
GELLERMAN: But critics charge that when you do the math the numbers just don’t add up.
WYDEN: The major oil companies are only putting back in the ground a modest fraction of what they have been siphoning away from consumers at the pump across our country.
GELLERMAN: Also, shocking news. The world’s biggest machine has some big problems. The nation’s electric power grid needs a new game plan.
GELLERMAN: These stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman sitting in for Steve Curwood.
You flip a switch and the lights go on. Now, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But in recent days it became painfully obvious that sometimes it doesn’t. Record breaking temperatures across the country had people cranking up their air conditioners. The demand for electricity soared and supplying the power to satisfy needs stressed and strained generating plants. In California there were blackouts and the grid supplying the state with electricity came close to the breaking point.
GELLERMAN: In Missouri thunderstorms knocked out power lines. More than half a million were without electricity for a week. Officials there declared a state of emergency.
NEWSCAST: The mayor warns many may not have power restored until next week.
MAYOR SLAY: One of the things we want to make sure of though is we do everything we can to protect every person in the city. This is a life or death situation. We want to reach as many individuals as possible, so we’re not sparing any expense.
GELLERMAN: And in Queens New York they still don’t know what caused the power lines there to melt, leaving tens of thousands to sweat in the dark for days.
WOMAN: The bad news is he has told everyone here, all of the assembled reporters, that there is no time, no day officially that CON-ED can guarantee that the power will be restored for 100,000 people here in Queens.
GELLERMAN: It’s all a reminder of just how dependent we are on what engineers call "the world’s largest machine." It’s the network of 180 thousand miles of high-power transmission lines that criss cross the country, carrying electricity from generating plants to local utilities. The production of power was deregulated in the 1990’s. It was supposed to result in more competition and cheaper electricity. But the system of lines that carry the power was kept in tack and now, some say it is badly in need of a major overhaul. Joining me to discuss the nation’s power grid are two experts in the field. Judah Rose is managing director of ICF international, it’s a consulting firm that specializes in energy and environmental issues. And Ashley Brown, executive director of Harvard University’s electricity policy group. He’s also former commissioner of the public utilities commission of Ohio.
Gentlemen, thanks for your time.
ROSE: Thank you, it’s a pleasure.
BROWN: You’re welcome, it’s a pleasure.
GELLERMAN: The electric system in the United States is the backbone of our modern economy and yet some have called it, like former Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, a third world electric grid. How good is our grid, Mr. Rose?
ROSE: I think our grid is medium. That’s sort of the score I would give it. It’s a large grid. It’s the largest in the world. It generally functions the way we want it to function. But there is significant room for improvement and it’s an improvement that is long overdue.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Brown?
BROWN: I don’t disagree with that. I don’t think I would describe it as third world, as Governor Richardson did, but it certainly has room for a lot of improvement.
GELLERMAN: Well, who owns the grid?
BROWN: Ah, that’s easy. Lots and lots of different people. It’s a very balkanized system in terms of ownership. It was owned by, each utility had its own grid. And some utilities, particularly municipal utilities were dependent on other owners of the grid. But basically there are several hundred owners of the grid. Now the control, in many cases the owners also control it. But in big parts of the United States now, particularly the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and in the West Coast and in Texas, the grid is actually, although owned by several utilities, the grid is actually centrally operated by independent system operators.
GELLERMAN: So, we’ve got this huge system, Mr. Rose, that’s got tens of thousands of miles that’s being controlled by hundreds of different owners, and yet it has to make split-second decisions on where all this electricity goes.
ROSE: Yes that’s correct. And historically there have been procedures and mechanisms put into place to facilitate the coordinated operation of the grid. But that coordination is voluntary and is not consistent with the changing nature of the power system, both in terms of the deregulation of the industry, and in terms of the very dynamic growth that we’re seeing in demand for electricity.
GELLERMAN: So, do we need more transmission lines?
BROWN: Well, certainly in some areas of the country. There was a recent study that indicated at least four areas where there was real deficiency. When I say four areas – four areas of North America. One of the areas was Ontario. But the other areas were the New York area, southwest Connecticut, southern California.
ROSE: It is undisputed, in my view that’s how strong I feel about it, that there’s been under-investment in the grid. Many of the areas that Ashley just mentioned are known sort of problem areas. And it turns out that you can’t solve everything with new power plants. It’s important to recognize that while in many cases you can either have power plants or new transmission lines, there’s a limit to how much you can just rely on new power plants, and we have crossed that limit. And we have, therefore, lowered the reliability of the grid. But as you take a look at the investment levels, although they have started improving in the last two or three years, in the period leading up to the 2003 black out they were just down, down, down, relative to the electricity demand.
GELLERMAN: Well, the blackout that you cite was the largest blackout in North American history. 50 million people were effected in nine states. Nine nuclear power stations went down.
BROWN: And Ontario.
GELLERMAN: And Ontario. And it’s traced back to this first energy company. And it’s one of those stories for want of a nail. It started off it seems with a tree kind of hitting a sagging electric power line. But do we know what caused that blackout?
BROWN: Well, there’s really two issues. One is what caused the initial incident which you described earlier. But the second question is why did it cascade into other systems. And I’m not sure we know exactly why. In some systems it didn’t cascade. We in New England weren’t affected by it. Southern Ohio, just south of First Energy territory was not affected by it. On the other hand, as you point out, a number of states were. So, the cascading affect you can’t say simply that that was a result of First Energy. There were obviously failings that went along the system.
ROSE: I think that you know, when you push the grid to its extreme you should not be surprised that systems fail.
GELLERMAN: It’s interesting that even now we’re really not sure what caused the blackout of 2003. But soon afterwards, President Bush got on nation wide TV and said, and said this.
BUSH: Obviously the sooner we can get electricity up, the more normal people’s lives will become. The one thing, I think I can say for certain, is that this was not a terrorist act.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Brown, how did we know that it wasn’t terrorism, just minutes after the blackout occurred?
BROWN: Records are maintained at the companies of exactly what was going on and they knew on an instantaneous basis. So, you could go back and retrace and figure out various failings along the way. Could a terrorist act cause that kind of thing? Yeah, possibly it could. But that’s not what happened here.
GELLERMAN: I was reading in Columbia that they have two hundred terrorist attacks against transmission lines a year.
BROWN: They do and they’re very good at replacing them very quickly.
ROSE: You know, there are mechanisms, remote cameras, remote sensors. I think that people are sensitive to that problem, increasingly so. But it’s outside the normal realm of experience where the typical problems are individual line failures and tornadoes or hurricanes, or that type of problem.
GELLERMAN: When I see one of these huge transmission towers, 100 to 120 feet high, I think of Godzilla. And I think they’re very vulnerable, he’s tripping over them. And they’re ugly, let’s face it. Why don’t they put these things under ground?
ROSE: A couple comments on the Godzilla problem. The first is that these lines are very hot. They’re dissipating a lot of heat. So if you touched them that would be for many reasons a bad thing to do. So to stick them under ground you have to basically deal with the heat problem. And what happens is that your system becomes somewhere between three and ten times more expensive when you go to an all underground system. So in some sense we are dealing with a difficult problem. And I think that no one likes to see the lines and yet there’s – except for in limited niche situations – not a lot of chance that we’re really going to be able to really eliminate that problem.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Rose, thank you for coming in.
ROSE: My pleasure.
GELLERMAN: Ashley Brown is executive director of Harvard University’s electricity policy group. Judah Rose is managing director of ICF international. And Mr. Brown thank you.
BROWN: Thank you, my pleasure as well.
GELLERMAN: Well, in the next few weeks the department of energy will designate what are called "national interest electric transmission corridors." The plan gives the federal government eminent domain over 7 to 10-mile wide swaths of land as rights-of-way for utility transmission towers. One place that’s likely to be on the list is a 200-mile long tract stretching from Utica to Port Jervis New York. Chris Rossi lives in Hubbardsville, near Utica. She’s with one of forty groups protesting the plan.
Hello, Ms. Rossi.
GELLERMAN: My understanding is that the proposed power line will go through a national park, 154 streams and rivers, 155 wetlands and 65 miles of farmland.
ROSSI: Yes, that’s correct and in addition to that it cuts through 56 towns in New York and 17 towns, possibly, in Pennsylvania.
GELLERMAN: Now you live in Hubbardsville, New York. Where would this line go in relationship to you?
ROSSI: Well, Hubbardsville is a very very small town. And I would have a lovely view of these very very large, 130-foot tall power lines from my front porch.
GELLERMAN: What does it look like when you look out your window, Ms. Rossi?
ROSSI: Well, my house was probably built in the 1870s it was when the hops were being grown in central New York. It was a time of great prosperity. I look out over rolling green fields and little houses, little farming houses.
GELLERMAN: Well, so where do you think it comes from?
ROSSI: Well, I think it comes from the windmills that I can see when I drive through my area. We do have windmills. I, and many of the other people in my area, are very much in favor of forward-looking energy transmission and energy generation. We don’t think this company is featuring any forward-looking aspects to the project.
GELLERMAN: So the electricity that would be on this power line wouldn’t come to your house?
ROSSI: No, in fact it goes straight from hydro Quebec down to Westchester where it’s been distributed downstate. Upstate would not get any of the power. In addition, it would lower rates somewhat downstate but it would bring rates up in my area.
GELLERMAN: Well, Ms. Rossi, what are you going to do?
ROSSI: What am I going to do? I am the co-chair of Stop NYRI and we have been very vocal in our opposition to the project. We have been working with local politicians and the other citizens’ groups up and down the line. So, I’m going to keep talking, talking, talking, and agitating to keep this out of our area.
GELLERMAN: Chris Rossi is with the group Stop NYRI. She lives in Hubbardsville, New York. Well, Ms. Rossi, I want to thank you very much.
ROSSI: Thank you for this opportunity.
[MUSIC: Say Hi To Your Mom "Pintsized Midnight Moonbeam Workers" from ‘Discosadness’ (Euphobia/RBG – 2006)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up: when it comes to conserving energy – every little thing can mean big savings. Some homeowner tips are just ahead. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: The Instruments "My Ship" from ‘Billions of Phonographs’ (Orange Twin Records – 2002)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Keeping cool this summer means turning up the juice…but demanding juice, juice and more juice strains not just the nation’s electric power grid, it can also short circuit your budget .You could retrofit your house with big ticket items--things like solar panels or tankless hot water heaters. But, producer Claire Schoen discovered it’s the little stuff that really counts.
SCHOEN: David Johnston is President of "What's Working," a green building consulting firm. I met with him at a cafe not long ago, to get some ideas about tackling skyrocketing energy bills.
JOHNSTON: I don't know if you're in stocks and bonds, and got money in the bank at maybe 3% or 4% interest. You're looking at 20 or 30% return on your money by doing energy retrofits. It's the best investment you can make.
SCHOEN: This caught the attention of the guy at the next table who broke into our conversation to introduce himself -- as Daniel Marcus -- and told us a tale of woe about his own energy bill.
MARCUS: Typically it runs around $60 to 80 dollars. And suddenly went up to $160 which I, clenched my teeth and paid that. And then I got the real big surprise last month which was $250. Pretty detrimental to my pocket book! (Chuckle)
SCHOEN: I decided to pay Daniel a visit at his home. He's single and lives in small house in Berkeley, California -- with his roommate, Shawn.
[MUSIC: Daniel Marcus, Alan Stonebraker and Sarah Miller. "Surrender" from ‘Surrender’ (Dirty Little Locket – recorded 2006)]
MARCUS: I'm a recording artist. Uh, we're putting together an album called Surrender right now. It's a root rock meets nouveau techno album. And I manage to hold down a day job to support my fledgling career.
HODGE: My name's Shawn Hodge. And I'm a private guitar teacher and a musician.
SCHOEN: The two of them took me on a tour of their house. It was a textbook illustration of America's love affair with electronic devices.
[ELECTRONIC MUSIC SOUNDS]
MARCUS: We're in the living room.
HODGE: Typical living room with a TV and sound system.
MARCUS: Here's the kitchen over here. Electric stove, toaster oven, microwave, refrigerator with a freezer. This is my washer and drier. They reside in my garage. Takes up a pretty good chunk of energy. I have no double about that. (Chuckle). So this is my bedroom. Chargers for my phones and gadgets floating around. Alarm clock.
HODGE: I have a printer, I have a heater, I have a little hotplate. Computer, a lamp, over-head light.
MARCUS: Let's see in the bathroom. Electric shaver, hair trimmer.
HODGE: Keep my little goatee at a certain length.
MARCUS: Goat trimmer. (Chuckle)
HODGE: And then I have two amplifiers.
MARCUS: Our hot tub. It's a nice amenity. I really like it. And uh, you know keep it at 103, 104 degrees pretty consistently. (Laugh)
SCHOEN: It's a fairly standard setup for an America house -- well, except perhaps the hot tub -- but mainly filled with the gadgets of our modern lifestyle, that all add up. Then we moved on to Daniel's music room:
[MUSIC: Daniel Marcus, Alan Stonebraker and Sarah Miller. "Surrender" from ‘Surrender’ (Dirty Little Locket – recorded 2006)]
MARCUS: This is my recording studio. I have my recording system, computer, wide assortment of mikes, keyboards, various instruments, plug-ins, amps, preamps, and printer.
SCHOEN: While most of us don't have a home recording studio, we all have our own unique energy needs that are emptying our pocketbooks. Daniel and Shawn don't want to be shelling out big bucks for their energy usage. But they also don't want to be forced to change their lifestyle.
HODGE: The little clocks and phone chargers and..... I consider those pretty necessary in my life. They're not something that I really feel like I need to or want to give up.
SCHOEN: Do they really need to give up their phone chargers? Daniel and Shawn actually don't have a clue where their problem lies. It's just not something they think about.
MARCUS: I don't have time. So it's like for me, every little thing is like, "How do I make this go away really fast."
SCHOEN: Daniel's focus is not on home improvements, but rather on his music. What's on his mind right now is whether he'll be able to interest a visiting producer in his band's cover song.
[IN DANIEL’S MUSIC ROOM]
STONEBRAKER: So, what should we play here?
MARCUS: Let's play "Surrender". That one's a pretty tasty little nugget. I don't think Pierro's heard that song.
[MUSIC: Daniel Marcus, Alan Stonebraker and Sarah Miller. "Surrender" from ‘Surrender’ (Dirty Little Locket – recorded 2006)]
PIERRO: Yeah, I think you guys have definitely achieved that with the whole thing. It's kinda of very, it’s folksy but it doesn't whine. (Laugh)
SCHOEN: Daniel's high tech home studio makes it possible for him to be his own engineer and mix demos right here.
MARCUS: What I'd like to do is actually reroute your tone through a compressor. And naturalize it a little. It will warm up the tone a little bit...
SCHOEN: Besides, Daniel and Shawn are not convinced that fixing up the house is going to save them enough money to make it worth taking time and effort away from their music.
HODGE: There are a lot of smart people in this country. A lot of educated people about finances. And people would be doing more energy efficient things if it was cheaper. But it's not, I don't think. You know, I might as well just pay the extra high energy bills and keep using energy.
SCHOEN: I decided to bring green building expert, David Johnston into the picture. He offered to pay a visit to Daniel and Shawn to assess their energy situation.
MARCUS: Hi there.
JOHNSTON: Daniel, good to see you. David Johnston.
MARCUS: David. Nice to see you again.
JOHNSTON: So, what should we be looking at today.
MARCUS: Ah well, tell me what I can do to be more energy efficient in my house, without having to sacrifice my gadgets or my high-tech lifestyle. (Chuckle)
JOHNSTON: Well, you're an All-American guy.
MARCUS: (chuckle) This is my roommate Shawn.
HODGE/ JOHNSTON: Hi. How's it going? Nice to meet you.
JOHNSTON: I hear you're a toy junkie too.
HODGE: I am. Just like most people I think.
JOHNSTON: So let's do the low hanging fruit, the stuff that's least expensive, that gives you a return in energy savings. Let's go back to the front door. And let's just take a quick look at it.
MARCUS: Yeah my door looks a little drafty to me... (Walking)
JOHNSTON: Anytime you have a penetration in the envelope of the building, there's an opportunity for air to get through. If you look right by the deadbolt there, what do you see?
MARCUS: I see daylight.
JOHNSTON: Air will gallop through there like wild horses.
MARCUS: Wild horses.
JOHNSTON: So we can see right here you can see this old weather stripping that's been here for 50 years. And simply... even a musician can do this.....
MARCUS: Oh, even a musician? (Chuckle) We're not handy at all.
JOHNSTON: You get sticky-backed foam that comes in a roll and you just wash this surface down real well fits right on that strip and so when the door closes it crushes the foam. So, that's costing you maybe 50¢ a day.
MARCUS: That will add up after a while.
JOHNSTON: It's significant.
SCHOEN: And.... then there is the hot tub.
JOHNSTON: So, can we open the top on your hot tub?
MARCUS: Hot tubs are one of God's gifts to humankind as far as I'm concerned.
JOHNSTON: Amen. (Laugh) Especially depending how often you entertain your vocalists out here.
MARCUS: I haven't talked my vocalist into my hot tub yet. (Both laugh)
JOHNSTON: I can feel right now with my hand six inches above the water, the heat radiating from the surface of the water. Can you feel that?
JOHNSTON: So, one more layer of insulation. A foam that's cut out to fit the contour of the side and just lays on the top of the water.
SCHOEN: Another quick fix... Back inside, David took a look up into the attic.
JOHNSTON: Where's your furnace?
MARCUS: Up in the attic. Probably. (Chuckle) We think so. Some large device that whirrs from time to time is up above.
JOHNSTON: We'll pop it and we'll take a peek up in the attic. (Sure, sure)
JOHNSTON: Some insulation up here. Kinda spotty. There's some here. There's some there. I see holes everyplace. You're just throwing money right out through the attic.
MARCUS: The heating thing is still somewhat of a mystery to me.
JOHNSTON: What I would do is use bags of what's called dry cellulose.
MARCUS: Dry cellulose.
JOHNSTON: You can do it yourself, you don't have to pay anybody. So this is where an afternoon with a rake and a couple of buddies. And just bring as many bags of cellulose as you can get up here. And could literally save yourself a quarter of your energy bill every year. Just by putting more grey stuff up there. And it's really inexpensive.
MARCUS: Couple hundred, few hundred bucks...
JOHNSTON: Yeah, it's in the hundreds, not the thousands.
MARCUS: That's a good thing.
JOHNSTON: So it's going to serve you immensely.
MARCUS: Keep it cooler as well?
JOHNSTON: Oh, absolutely. Much cooler.
MARCUS: Cooler and hotter. So it's a win-win on both seasons.
SCHOEN: Then David turned his attention to Daniel's home recording studio.
JOHNSTON: Alright, let's look at the toy room.
MARCUS: Here is my music studio.
JOHNSTON: Well, it's quite a set-up. With your mixer and your computers and speakers and piano and that's a lot in one place. So when everything's fired up it's probably really sucking a lot of juice.
SCHOEN: In fact, all this equipment is sucking juice even when it's not fired up.
JOHNSTON: A lot of equipment, TV's, stereos, computers, even though they say they're off they're still drawing power. And that parasitic power is typically invisible to us. But it's still spinning the meter. And it's like having a hole in your bucket, it all adds up.
MARCUS: And I think when you say parasitic mode you're referring to...
JOHNSTON: Instant on. We want to turn on our computer. (snap) We want to be ready to log on instantaneously. We turn on our TV we want a picture instantly. And we're talking about, you know five seconds differential.
JOHNSTON: So, the way you address that issue, have an on/off strip on a power strip. And so when you leave the room, just hit the off switch on the power strip. And that absolutely kills everything. They do add up. It's like walking down the street and dropping dollar bills. And we wouldn't do that. We'd probably pick up a dollar bill if we saw it.
SCHOEN: After meeting with David, Daniel decided to pick up a few of those dollar bills -- starting with the attic insulation.
MARCUS: I'm definitely interested in putting in the dry cellulose. It doesn't sound like fun work, especially up in a dusty attic. But if it will save me a little money and keep my place warmer and more comfortable and then cooler and more comfortable in the hot months, then... Put down the guitar for a few hours and get out and do some grunty work. It's totally worth it.
[BIG BOX HARDWARE STORE SOUNDS]
INTERCOM: Miguel, please come to insulation. Miguel, insulation.
SCHOEN: Daniel located the insulation at a big-box hardware store not too far away.
MARCUS: So, hopefully this will be simple and easy. And I guess we're about to find out. Hello. Got a question for you. So, I need some insulation which is, um, dry cellulous.
MAN: This is the dry cellulous right here.
MARCUS: I could use a rake and just beat on it.
MAN: Yeah, you can just....
MARCUS: It'll come apart?
MARCUS: So, I'll just grab a couple of bags and give it a try.
MAN: You have a cart?
MARCUS: Alright, so I'm hitting the touch screen. And I'm selecting English. (Beep, beep)
MACHINE: Insert cash. Or select payment type.
MARCUS: Service with a smile. But no smile.
MACHINE: Please take your change.
SCHOEN: Daniel picks up the band's bass guitarist, Alan Stonebraker on the way home.
MARKUS: We're going to be spreading dry cellulous around my attic.
MARCUS: But as a reward I'll let you jump in the hot tub.
STONEBRAKER: (Laugh) Well, now you're talking!
MARCUS: We have gloves, we have masks. Drag this stuff up the ladder.
[DRAGGING, CLANKING, MOVING THINGS AROUND]
MARCUS: OK, so, I'm up here in the attic with my rake and my little flashlight. And I've noticed that right here in the middle of the house there is almost no insulation what-so-ever. OK, so I guess I just sort of chuck this stuff out there, huh? And just trying to spread it around. It's a little like playing in the sandbox as a little kid. But it's hotter and dustier and not as much fun. Alan! When you joined the band did you know that you were going to get to do really fun stuff like this?
STONBRAKER: I had no idea. (Laugh)
MARCUS: Whoo! This is some work!
STONEBRAKER: Yeah, it's like stuff you do in the military. Like, all that crawling under stuff, and…
MARCUS: Alright. I'm becoming more intimately familiar with my furnace than I ever thought I’d be.
SCHOEN: So are most Americans actually going to tackle something like this? With the demand for electricity breaking records, David Johnston thinks that we better.
JOHNSTON: Two years from now, energy is going to be twice as expensive as today. That's going to get somebody's attention. But you want to be doing this now, because the longer you wait, that's just money that’s thrown literally out the windows.
MARCUS: This isn't something that I would have thought to have done if I hadn't met you guys randomly in a cafe. So, maybe a lot of people wouldn't think about or wouldn't know where to engage somebody with that expertise.
SCHOEN: Daniel was able to get advice from David who also works with a non-profit called Build It Green. Brian Gitt is Executive Director of Build It Green. But he says you don't have to live in Berkeley to get free advice on energy savings.
GITT: There are programs like ours all across the country. Over 50 regional programs on the ground today, that are doing very similar work to Build It Green. In the Midwest. You have them in the South. Atlanta, Georgia has had a really amazing program for over 20 years. This is really a national trend.
SCHOEN: Daniel has taken the first step towards retrofitting his house. Time will tell how much it will affect his bottom line. But there are national figures and they're promising.
GITT: According to the Department of Energy, simple, low-cost measures such as weatherization – which is, in essence, just filling all those little cracks and holes around your windows, around your doors and then adding attic insulation – can save on average about 30% on your home's energy bill.
SCHOEN: There are all sorts of other energy saving solutions homeowners can employ. For instance replacing a ten-year-old fridge with a new Energy Star model can save between $500 and $1,000 over the life of the machine. Plus there are all those parasitic appliances David was talking about.
GITT: A study coming out of Cornell University said that we're spending 3 billion dollars per year just on parasitic power. That's when the machine or the appliance is off. The average homeowner can save $200 per year by reducing this type of electricity consumption.
SCHOEN: So, imagine how much surge protectors could save someone like Daniel. Maybe he could even afford his hot tub.
[HOT TUB SOUNDS, OPENING IT GETTING IN]
STONEBRAKER: Oh yeah
MILLER: Great. Relaxing.
STONEBRAKER: We stay in here until we're wrinkled, right?
MARCUS: I find that after my fingers go into a complete prune state, that I've a really good sensitivity to the strings. Some say that's actually the key to our music. (laughter)
MARCUS: Is it time?
SCHOEN: For Living on Earth, this is Claire Schoen, in Berkeley, California.
TECHAMUANVIVIT: Bad things sometimes happen to good ingredients. You know what I'm talking about...those 'organic' foods that are meant to be healthy alternatives to regular junk food: the five-bucks-a-box cereals that taste like extruded cardboard. Or those 'Energy' Bars that are basically compacted sawdust.
What's astonishing to me is our tolerance for foods that plainly taste horrible, merely because they are supposed to be better for us. Well, it said so, right there on the box! No hydrogenated oil. No High-Fructose-Corn-Syrup. All 'natural'. No flavor!
Don't get me wrong. I love fresh organic and sustainable food just as much as you do. Yet every time I browse the isles full of 'natural' processed food and snacks at my local whole food market, I wonder to myself if they really are that good for us.
In the spirit of research, I picked up a bag of baked cheese sticks –those fluorescent orange puffs. They were crispy but tasted oddly under-baked, and had 290 milligrams of sodium just in a small handful –that's more than a tenth of the suggested daily intake by the National Institutes of Health. Then I tried a toaster pastry. Ok, just a corner of one, if truth be told, because it was like eating baked clay with sticky sweet stuff in it. I simply couldn't go on. Had I done so, I would've ingested 5 teaspoons of sugar and 210 calories, mostly of carbohydrates.
I also bought some salad dressings. The worst of the lot was a Honey Mustard flavor with almost two teaspoons of sugar in every serving. And it tasted oily, thick, and sickly sweet. Not something I'd put on my salad.
There was also that Natural Beef Flavored Gravy I found –not made of beef exactly, only natural beef flavor. And don't you think that reconstituted mashed potato should just be banned on principle? What part of Just Add Water is natural and wholesome anyway?
I appreciate that consumers want common processed foods they're accustomed to in conventional stores. An apple doesn't always satisfy a hankering for a snack. And with all the demands of modern life, there is a legitimate need for more 'convenient' foods. And yes, compared to the conventional food riddled with ingredients I can't pronounce, these natural counterparts are certainly better for you. Yet, all that sugar, carbohydrates, and sodium can hardly be that good for anyone.
Perhaps it's time for an organic consumer revolt. We mustn't let the organic industry get away with selling crappy tasting foods in the name of health. They're not all that healthy anyway, why can't they at least taste good?
[MUSIC: Architecture in Helsinki "Spring 2008" from ‘Fingers Crossed’ (Bar None - 2004)]
GELLERMAN: Pim Techamuanvivit writes about food on her blog Chez Pim. To read more of her menu musings, visit our website, L-O-E dot org. That’s L-O-E dot O-R-G. You can reach us at comments at L-O-E dot org. Once again, comments at L-O-E dot o-r-g. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville Massachusetts, 02144. And you can call our listener line at 800-218-9988. That’s 800-218-9988. CDs and transcripts are fifteen dollars.
GELLERMAN: You’re listening to the always-tasteful Living on Earth.
Chez Pim website
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[MUSIC: Eyvind Kang &Tucker Martine "Horizon" from ‘Orchestra Dim Bridges’ (Conduit Records – 2004)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, and coming up: more big profits for big oil. So, where’s all the money going? First, this note on emerging science from Allison Smith.
SMITH: A new study from South Africa shows women there have an average of 12 times the maximum residue limit of DDT in their bodies. The most extreme case exceeded the tolerable limit by 77 times. Research has linked DDT to infant mortality due to preterm births and shortened lactation periods.
Scientists have been studying DDT residue in childbearing women since the 1980’s. DDT was outlawed in the United States as an agricultural insecticide in 1972, but it is still used in developing countries as a cheap, efficient way to control pests. It enters the body through food and water sources, inhalation during farm work, and most notably by way of mosquito insecticide used to prevent malaria. Malaria kills more than a million people in Africa each year.
International initiatives in the early ‘90’s aimed to find alternatives to DDT. But an epidemic outbreak of malaria in 1995 forced South Africa to reintroduce DDT as a blanket defense against new resistant strains of the virus.
That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Allison Smith.
The Independent’s article on the study
GELLERMAN: Tis the season to slather on the sunscreen. And while we’ve all been warned about the dangers of the sun’s rays, now comes a warning about the products that are supposed to protect us. Jane Houlihan is vice president of research with the Environmental Working Group. The organization is coming out with a new report evaluating the effectiveness and safety of the ingredients in sunscreens. Ms. Houlihan, thanks for joining me.
HOULIHAN: You’re welcome, I’m happy to be here.
GELLERMAN: Now, the organization which you are vice president of, the Environmental Working Group, recently did some research investigating the ingredients that go into sunscreens. What did you find?
HOULIHAN: In the US we have 17 active sunscreens that are approved for use in sunscreen, and they vary a lot across the board in terms of how much protection they provide from radiation and in terms of how safe they are to put on the skin. So we looked at – are these ingredients themselves presenting some toxicity? And we found that ranges pretty widely. For instance some of the ingredients in sunscreens produce free radicals. And those can damage DNA or cells and present cancer risks.
GELLERMAN: In preparing for this interview I looked up some of those ingredients and there are some suspicions that some are neurodisruptors, some act as estrogens. Is that true?
HOULIHAN: Yes, for instance some ingredients act like estrogens in the body like octylmethoxycinnamate. That’s in almost 300 sunscreens that we looked at, almost half of the sunscreens we’ve investigated. That’s a concern because estrogen is linked to increased risk for breast cancer. And also there are concerns about what happens to those chemicals when they are washed off our bodies in the shower and they get into wastewater treatment plants and into streams and rivers.
GELLERMAN: Is there any evidence to suggest that once these ingredients wash off and are in the water that they effect the wildlife, the fish, the plant life?
HOULIHAN: Yes. Some of the early concerns about the toxicity, the dangers of sunscreens came from studies of wildlife. And what’s been found is that these chemicals may be feminizing fish. So it’s a big concern for wildlife. And of course those studies raise questions about what these chemicals are doing when we put them on our bodies. And so when your combining, you know, six products a day on average for men, twelve a day on average for women, that includes sunscreen too, you know, we’re each applying 100 almost 200 unique ingredients to our skin every day and those exposures can add up.
GELLERMAN: Some of these chemicals on the backs of these products are unpronounceable. And for the average consumer how are they supposed to know which are safe or not safe?
HOULIHAN: It is really hard for consumers to navigate the safety of personal care products including sunscreens. And it’s one reason that my group has worked for three years to give people a resource which helps guide them. And one thing we have done is compile ingredient and product safety information for about 14,000 products on the market and we’ve put it in a big searchable online data base called Skin Deep.
Cosmetics, personal care products – there is no requirement for pre-market safety testing and what that means is that the whole system operates on, you know, the honor system. The manufacturers are operating on an honor system and so the claims on sunscreens sometimes just flat out aren’t substantiated. Some companies use ingredients that are safe to eat and other companies use human carcinogens in their products. It’s a huge variation and one thing you can look for in products when you’re buying them are antioxidants, because those will help quench free radicals. It’s the reason manufacturers are adding them. So if you look for things like vitamin E, vitamin C, even green tea. Those kinds of ingredients can help.
GELLERMAN: Now Ms. Houlihan, what does SPF actually mean?
HOULIHAN: That sun protection factor tells you how well that product protects you from sunburn. And it’s actually a number that’s set based on people who volunteer to be sunburned in a laboratory. That SPF protection factor though, only covers what’s called UVB radiation and it doesn’t cover UVA radiation – the other dangerous side of how we’re exposed to radiation from the sun. And that kind of radiation actually penetrates deeper into the skin. And the FDA is way behind the curve. They haven’t set standards yet for UVA protection. Most other countries have standards. So, when you’re buying a sunscreen you have to do your homework. You have to first of all look for products that are claiming broad spectrum protection, because that’s at least a start. And then look on the back of the label for ingredients like zinc oxide or avobenzone that are actual UVA protectors.
GELLERMAN: Zinc oxide is the stuff that I used to watch lifeguards put on their nose.
HOULIHAN: Right. So it used to be white and really noticeable on the skin. And formulations over the last few years have been made that use smaller particles of zinc oxide that are transparent. So you don’t have that problem of looking white all over when you use the product.
GELLERMAN: Now vitamin D has been called the sunshine vitamin and if I screen out the sun am I kind of diminishing my ability to get vitamin D?
HOULIHAN: One thing we know is that it doesn’t take much sun to give us enough vitamin D. So if you’re even out in the sun for say 15 minutes you’re getting enough of a dose of sunshine to get your vitamin D.
GELLERMAN: Ms. Houlihan, thank you very much.
HOULIHAN: You’re welcome.
GELLERMAN: Jane Houlihan is vice president for research for the Environmental Working Group. To find out which products might be safer for you, check out our website: loe.org.
Environmental Working Group report: Skin Deep
[MUSIC: Amon Tobin “Saboteur” from ‘Supermodified’ (Ninja Tune – 2000)]
GELLERMAN: Second quarter reports are in for the major oil companies and it’s another gusher. The world’s largest oil company, Exxon Mobil, made 10-point-4 billion dollars in profits over the last three months—that’s just shy of an all time record. It marks the first time in US history that a company’s revenues topped a billion dollars a day. Let me say that again: a billion dollars a day. BP, Shell, and Conoco-Phillips also saw profits soar 30 percent or more. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young took a look at just what the oil industry is doing with all that money.
YOUNG: John Felmy has a tough job. As chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute Felmy needs to persuade you that those record oil profits you hear about really aren’t that big.
FELMY: What API is trying to do is put our earnings in perspective. While the earnings from the companies are very large, it’s simply because the companies are very large. But if you calculate earnings in terms of cents in the dollar you’ll find that our earnings as an industry are in line with the earnings of the average of all other industries.
YOUNG: API – the trade group for the major oil companies – has increased its spending on advertising to make the point. Graphs in the ads show banking and pharmaceuticals making much more on the dollar than the oil industry, which has earnings between 8 and 9 percent.
FELMY: And that’s fair given everything we have to do as an industry to find, produce, refine, market and transport oil to consumers.
YOUNG: And Felmy says they’re putting those profits into exploration, research and development the country will need as energy supply tightens and demand grows.
FELMY: The oil and natural gas industry is investing more than they make in earnings. So we’re plowing the money back in to produce more oil and gas in the future.
YOUNG: Felmy and his peers can’t afford to look too happy with their success. Already there’s talk on capitol hill of windfall taxes on oil profits, new laws against price gouging at the pump, and repeal of some industry subsidies. Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden is skeptical of Felmy’s claims.
WYDEN: I think the American people deserve a true accounting of what’s been going on behind the numbers at the gas pump and where their hard earned money has been going for the past several years.
YOUNG: Wyden asked the non-partisan Congressional Research Service to look into oil company profits and investment over the past 6 years. The report found the industry doubled its spending on exploration. But both the industry’s return on equity and its cash reserves increased six times over.
WYDEN: The bottom line is that the major oil companies are only putting back in the ground a modest fraction of what they have been siphoning away from consumers at the pump across our country.
YOUNG: Wyden wants to close a loophole that allows oil companies to escape billions in royalty payments to the government for drilling on federal property. So far the idea hasn’t gained traction. And those proposals to tax windfall profits and repeal subsidies also fell by the wayside. Ideas like those run into another oil industry investment: hundreds of millions in lobbying and campaign cash. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics says the oil industry spent 60 million dollars lobbying Congress last year. It gave more than 80 million in campaign cash over the last 3 election cycles—mostly to Republicans. And it gave four and a half million to help elect former oilman George W. Bush, president.
BUSH: I urge congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy.
YOUNG: The Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization, says the energy bill president bush signed a year ago gave the oil industry 6 billion in subsidies and tax breaks. The Petroleum Institute’s Felmy denies his industry benefits from a Bush White House.
FELMY: I don’t see how you can possibly say the change in the White House was a significant impact on the industry because what it was that changed everything was the change in the markets. But as far as a political change, I see no impact on the industry.
YOUNG: Felmy says Wyden’s study intentionally picked the years with the lowest and
highest industry take so the math would make a more dramatic point. But some industry analysts also find fault with how Felmy’s using the numbers. For example, his claim that the industry invests more than it earns doesn’t wash with analyst Lyle Brinker.
BRINKER: They have so much money they probably can’t spend it all even if they wanted to.
YOUNG: Brinker’s with the John Herold Energy Research Firm. Brinker’s also skeptical of industry talk about renewable and alternative energy. BP recently pledged to double its investment in renewable energy and devotes much of its advertising to topics other than oil.
AD SOUND: There are so many opportunities that haven’t been looked at, that the transition from oil to another alternative source is a must.
BRINKER: They’re probably much more of a PR issue than actual dollars spent. Or you might get the impression from some ad campaigns from some companies that they’re spending more than they really are. It’s still a very small piece of their overall capital budgets.
YOUNG: Even small pieces of budgets that big do add up. BP already has about 10 percent of the world’s market in solar power. And Exxon Mobil pledged 100 million dollars over the next decade for Stanford University to develop technology to lower emissions that contribute to global warming. But Exxon Mobil is taking heat from environmentalists for its stand on climate change policy.
DAVIES: Exxon is the laggard in corporate responsibility on global warming, full stop.
YOUNG: Kert Davies at Greenpeace has a research project called Exxon Secrets. They aren’t secrets, so much as information hidden in plain view, in this case, in Exxon Mobil records on charitable giving. Davies finds Exxon gave 19 million dollars over seven years to think tanks and advocacy groups who oppose action on global warming.
DAVIES: Groups some people may never have heard of, the George Marshall Institute, or Frontiers of Freedom, Competitive Enterprise Institute, basically a who’s who of the right-wing think tank industry.
YOUNG: Now in the Exxon world, this is chump change we’re talking about. But they’re getting a pretty good value on this.
DAVIES: They’re certainly getting their money’s worth out of these groups. These are the groups that have injected uncertainty questions into the journalistic coverage of global warming for the past 8 years, and successfully beat back policies on Capitol Hill to combat global warming.
YOUNG: Davies found a Washington-based think tank called the Competitive Enterprise
Institute gets the most Exxon Mobil money. CEI as it’s known, recently produced and ran this television ad timed to counter the release of Al Gore’s global warming film.
AD EXCERPT: Now, some politicians want to label carbon dioxide a pollutant. Imagine if they succeed. What would our lives be like then? Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution. We call it life.
YOUNG: Myron Ebell leads the CEI climate policy program. Ebell is a regular at climate-related events in the capital, fighting what he calls the global warming alarmists.
EBELL: Well I’m talking about the view that global warming is a very serious problem and the impacts or consequences or effects of global warming will be both severe and very adverse, and therefore the need to do something about it is overwhelming. I think that’s the three steps of the alarmist argument.
YOUNG: A spokesperson for Exxon Mobil declined an interview request. Greenpeace and other environmental groups say they’ll keep pressuring Exxon on climate change. Amid all the finger pointing, there is one more telling statistic to consider. As company profits rose so did consumer demand—up a little more than one percent in the last 3 months. For all the griping over gas prices and fretting over global warming we still want more oil.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
[MUSIC: JoRane "The Cave" from ‘The You and the Now’ (Six Degrees Records – 2005)]
- American Petroleum Institute’s "Facts on Earnings"
- Greenpeace "Exxon Secrets" page
- Exxpose Exxon - a project of several environmental groups
- BP page on alternative energy
- Congressional Research Service report
GELLERMAN: Next week - They’re noisy and they steal others’ young. They’re the birds folks love to hate.
J.D.: I don’t know anybody that likes magpies.
TAYLOR: To wake up every morning to screeching magpies.
WAJ: I’m not sure I would hate them as much if it weren’t for the fact that so many other people seem to hate them.
GELLERMAN: But scientists say the magpie doesn’t deserve the bad rap. Meet the much-maligned magpie, next time on Living on Earth.
[EARTH EAR: "Ocean Waves" recorded by Kim Wilson from ‘Echoes of Nature: Natural Sounds of the Wilderness’ (Delta Music - 1993)]
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week – at the edge of the ocean. Kim Wilson recorded these California surf sounds. And if you can’t get to the beach today, well, maybe this will help you keep cool.
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu and Ingrid Lobet - with help from Bobby Bascomb, Kelley Cronin, and James Curwood. Our interns are Tobin Hack and Allison Smith. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us at loe dot org. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.
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