Friday, November 27, 2015

Solar energy is not the answer

Knowing the struggles that my company faces in paying some of the highest electrical rates in the nation – double what our competitors pay – many people have asked me over the years, "have you ever thought about solar energy?"
Yes, I have -- and it’s not practical at all.

We use around 3 megawatts of power at the plant. To put that into perspective, let’s look at the much-ballyhooed Desoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Florida. With 90,000 panels in use and an imprint of 235 acres, it is touted as the nation’s largest solar farm. It is rated for 25 megawatts yet only produces 4.8 megawatts of energy. That’s because 100 percent efficiency is impossible -- according to scientists and solar manufacturers, the capacity factor of a typical high-quality solar panel is only 11 to 15 percent with 20 percent being exceptional. We would need a solar farm of the approximate size of Desoto to accommodate our energy needs after our upcoming expansion.

Further tempering the inefficiency of energy generation is the availability of sunlight. We’re a 24-hour facility. What do we do when the sun sets? No sun equals no energy. The days are only so long (especially in the winter) and, here in WNY, they are quite cloudy. Over the course of the year we receive 48 percent of available sunshine. In comparison, Phoenix, Arizona gets 85 percent. Solar generation is primed for failure on the Niagara Frontier because, no matter how many panels are erected, backup sources must always be available for use in the day as well as the night.

Not only is solar completely unreasonable from the standpoints of space and efficiency, the costs are as equally unrealistic. Desoto’s total construction cost was in the neighborhood of $150 million. If such an investment were made for my company (which it couldn’t be, as every bank would laugh in my face) I would never see a payback in my lifetime -- and neither would my daughter and, one day, her kids.   

It’s obvious, in just the quickest of analyses, that solar energy is impractical, inefficient and expensive. That’s why it’s rather dumbfounding that elected officials continue to push for it in their drive to go green or, in the case of the manufacture of solar cells and components, as a means to jumpstart our economy.

We here in Western New York know too well how much taxpayer money Governor Cuomo and his team have contributed to SolarCity’s cause. But, he’s not the only one who’s guilty of such misguided corporatism. In 2010, President Obama announced that the government was handing out nearly $2 billion in corporate welfare to two solar companies, Abengoa Solar, to build one of the biggest solar plants in the world in Arizona, and Abound Solar Manufacturing, which planned to open 2 US plants.

How did that work out? Abound went bankrupt in 2012 and Abengoa is now only days away from insolvency.

Didn’t we already give enough to giant corporations (Wall Street, anyone?) with no return on investment and no benefit to the working class or the economy to even entertain such foolish investments?

Understand that it is not the government’s role to choose winners and losers in the markets. Yet, it does and, once again, it’s obvious that the government is only capable of choosing losers and making them out to be winners, which, in turn, makes the consumer and the taxpayer the ultimate loser in the equation.

That said, you’re almost guaranteed that SolarCity will go the way of Abound, Abengoa and Solyndra before them (remember that the ill-fated Solyndra cost taxpayers $535 million).

Solar is not the answer to what ails our economy -- not now and not ever.

From the 30 November 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Friday, November 20, 2015

In defense of GMOs

By incorporating a gene from the larger Chinook salmon into those of Atlantic salmon, AquaAdvantage was able to breed a genetically modified salmon that grows quickly and to great size on fish farms while needing 25% less feed to do so. Last week, after a 5 year wait, federal regulators announced that the fish was fit for human consumption.

This, of course, brought out the GMO boo birds. Anti-GMO (genetically-modified organism) activists decried the decision, tossed around the “Frankenfish” moniker, and cited this as the latest development in the destruction of our world.

This is nothing new; look at the ongoing campaigns to have the feds mandate labeling of all GM foodstuff and the almost constant battering of the ag industry by those who find fault in GMOs, most often for purely unscientific reasons, saying they are the causes of everything from environmental mutations to lower intelligence.

It’s truly unfortunate that GMOs consistently come under such attacks. Yes, a few GMOs might be questionable  -- why do we have so many potentially-deadly peanut allergies in schools today when it was completely unheard of when I was a student? But, in almost all cases, GMOs have proven to be a Godsend (or more accurately “Mansend”) for humanity and the environment. 

GMO crops are everywhere and in everything. Genetic modification accounts for 95% of the US beet crop, 95% of the soy bean output and 88% of the corn grown for cattle, pigs, and chicken. Their use has allowed for much higher yields, larger and better looking fruits and vegetables, and a longer useful life for produce after harvest.

Those agricultural victories are an absolute necessity for human nourishment. Today, there are already 805 million starving people on this planet. Here in the US alone, 1 in 7 households is deemed food insecure. Without GMOs cutting deeply into those sad numbers every year and bringing people out of starvation, where would we be 20 years from now when the global population is projected to be 21% greater than it is now (8.8 billion versus 7.3 billion)?

Those same people are benefiting from advances brought about through genetic modification of crops. Consider that 250 million children in developing countries are subjected to Vitamin A deficiencies that lead to blindness among other ailments. Golden Rice, which is infused with bate-carotene, was produced to combat that. Millions of people have been saved by this GMO.

What about the world in which we all live? The anti-GMO crowd would like everyone to believe that GMOs are a scourge to the environment and a cause of global warming (what isn’t nowadays?). They are anything but. GMOs have reduced pesticide use by 10% since 1996. They allow the use of no-till farming which decreases erosion by 1 billion tons per year in the US, which also substantially decreases nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from farms. That same farming procedure also eliminates greenhouse gases – since 2012 American farmers have cut back what is equivalent to 12 million cars of the road. 

The GMO witch hunt has to stop. It benefits no one to put the fear of GMOs into consumers who already can’t make smart food choices as it is -- more than two-thirds of US adults are overweight or obese, an outcome of choosing processed foods over produce, a situation that will be compounded by the war on fresh GMO foods. Adding to that, your average consumer is incapable of telling good science from bad.

We have to let the government watchdogs and nutritionists do their jobs – as they did with the marketplace’s newest salmon -- and determine what’s safe and what’s not. In almost all cases they cannot distinguish between GMOs and non-GMOs. And, neither can your body. GMOs are safe, productive and the key to a brighter tomorrow for so many of this world’s hungry citizens.

 From the 23 November 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: What to get the nature lover for Christmas

Last year around this time, this column had an installment looking at what you could get the nature lover in your family for Christmas. That article, which can be found here, discussed some of my favorite field guides.

Although those books are truly timeless suggestions, not everyone is a book person or they might already have a strong nature library. So, I plan on making a Christmas article an annual occurrence, throwing some alternative ideas out there for you because sometimes it seems so incredibly tough to figure out what to give your loved ones, which tends to add some unneeded stress to the holiday season which is really supposed to be anything but stressful.

For this year, I offer you these suggestions…

Conservationist magazine

Published six times a year, Conservationist is a New York State-focused glossy magazine that is packed with informative articles and great photography. The magazine is put out by the Department of  Environmental Conservation and it covers a broad range of environmental and nature topics. A typical issue highlights a destination (for nature watching, hiking, hunting or fishing) and a handful of species of animals and plants while supporting an always-interesting mailbag. As an example of the breadth of material, October’s issue featured articles about the use of radio collars to track Adirondack moose, the Salmon River hatchery, and how to manage your woodlots for wildlife. Most issues also contain a few pages written for children that can be easily pulled out and shared with them.

You can get a gift subscription online for the affordable price of $12 for 7 issues. That’s not a bad deal for a magazine that is consistently excellent from cover to cover.


Everybody loves looking at the stars, especially when there is an astronomical event underway like a meteor shower or a comet that is visible to the naked eye. But, for those unfamiliar with the details of the nighttime sky (like the locations of constellations and major stars), it can sometime be difficult to know where exactly to look. Consider the Persieds meteor shower in August when local newscasts tell you to watch the area near the constellation Perseus. Where is that exactly? With a planisphere you can find it quite easily.

A planisphere is a circular tool comprised of two discs that act as a map of the nighttime sky. You place the planisphere over your head and adjust one of the discs for the date and time (because the layout of the sky changes by the hour and by the day). With it, you can then navigate your way through the heavens like an expert.

A quick search of Amazon or Google will find a variety of planispheres, most with a price tag between $9 and $13. When shopping, though, you have to be specific to the latitude or the tool will be useless (not everyone on this Earth sees the same sky). The latitude of Lockport is 43 degrees north. Planispheres are effective for plus or minus 5 degrees. So, if you get one that’s rated for anywhere from 38 to 45 degrees you’ll be fine. You might see some that aren’t specific to the degree and say “40 to 50 degrees,” which is fine for this area because that’s a 45-degree planisphere.

Rain gauge

A rain gauge? Who would want a rain gauge? You’d be surprised.

When we get socked by big storms, a lot of nature watchers get curious about how much rain we got, especially when totals can vary so much across Western New York. Plus, many of those folks are also gardeners and they might be curious as to how their garden or landscaping has fared. There’s also a sense of pride to be taken on social media when someone says he got a half inch of rain and you counter with “oh, yeah? My rain gauge says we got an inch and a quarter!”

Rain gauges are cheap ($3 to $10) and can be found at any local hardware store and their small size lends them to being excellent stocking stuffers.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 19 November 2015 East Niagara Post

Thursday, November 12, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: 'Chicken hawks' – the scourge of bird feeders

This is the time of year when many of us take to filling our bird feeders and enjoying the company of our feathered friends, birds like chickadees and jays that can really brighten up the dull and depressing winter months.

That’s what makes it so sad when you occasionally discover a pile of feathers and maybe a little blood next to your feeders.

Something ate your friends, but what?

Chances are it was either a sharp-shinned hawk or a Cooper’s hawk.

Identifying these hawks

Cooper's hawks are beautiful birds of prey. (PHOTO COURTESY OF 
The sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks are strikingly beautiful birds of prey, skinny and sleek with a slate-colored back and cap (juveniles are brown-backed) and a white breast that sports rusty bars. The underside of their long tail has defined black bands on a white background.

To the casual birdwatcher, these species are barely indistinguishable from one another. But, after you’ve seen a few you will be able to identify them by size alone. Sharp-shinned hawks are small, just 10 to 14 inches long. Cooper’s Hawks are noticeably larger, at 14 to 20 inches in length.

Both species are impressive fliers. The sharp-shinned is especially fast, its smaller frame and long tail giving it a great maneuverability and the ability to make sharp turns at even its highest speeds. You will often see them rocket through your yard or a small woodlot.  The Cooper’s hawk is a tad slower, yet still unbelievably fast at times. When not dive-bombing their prey, you’ll see them searching the landscape with a constant flap-and-glide, flap-and-glide.

The infamous chicken hawk

The Cooper’s hawk is well-known by another name: “the chicken hawk.” That moniker came from its propensity for raiding farms and snatching up chickens, something it is quite adept at because chickens aren’t the most defensive of birds.
Seeing hawks kill other birds can be disconcerting, but it is nature's way.
Raising chickens for eggs is now more than just a farm thing as it has become incredibly popular, even “sexy”, for rural and suburban residents to host chicken coops. Many a newfound egg farmer has found their flock decimated by Cooper’s hawks – as if foxes and coyotes weren’t bad enough.

Cooper’s hawks will raid bird feeders, too, preferring to latch onto larger birds like mourning doves and blue jays.  

The smaller sharp-shinned hawk is the bigger scourge of feeding stations, snatching up chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and goldfinches. They can come out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning and catch many a flock of songbirds off guard. They attack with such precision and force that you will often see an explosion of feathers.

I can attest to their surprise attacks. One spring morning some years ago while turkey hunting I had to remove a glove and tend to some equipment. Somehow, a sharp-shinned hawk saw my moving hand (the only fleshy looking thing around because I was otherwise covered head to toe in camouflage) and it came out of nowhere and dive-bombed my hand, thinking it was a meal, which I safely pulled away at the last millisecond. Scary but exciting.    

The Comeback Kids

For far too many years, Cooper’s hawks were shot and killed by farmers who wanted to protect their chickens. This, in conjunction with widespread use of some nasty pesticides, led to a major decline that was noticeable throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Those same pesticides inadvertently poisoned sharp-shinned hawks, too.

But as those poisons (which appeared in their prey and then affected reproductive success) were taken off the market and laws for killing hawks strengthened, their populations rebounded. When I was a kid, both hawks were still pretty rare on the Niagara Frontier, but now, they could be considered uncommon to common. The latest edition of the New York breeding bird atlas which came out in 2008 showed Cooper’s hawk populations grew by 4 percent per year from 1980 to 2005 while sharp-shinned hawk populations grew by a total of 6.3 percent from 1966 to 2005.

Now, you can find them anywhere – in the local forests to backyards to villages. I’ve even seen them in the heart of Williamsville (the “Big City”).

Keeping them under control   

Many birdwatchers probably wonder how to keep these hawks under control and stop them from preying on their friends. You really can’t. I shoo them away every chance I get. Most of the time it works, but these hawks have become increasingly brazen. Last winter I could stand underneath a Cooper’s hawk that frequented my yard, yell at him and he’d only give me the “yeah, OK, Confer” look.

There are some cages on the market that go over the top of sunflower or nyjer tube feeders that will protect finches from overhead and lateral attacks.

But, you’re probably better off letting Mother Nature do her thing (something you are enabling, by the way, by concentrating birds in your yard). Yes, it can be ugly. It can be sad. But the hawks have to eat, too. And that can be beautiful and interesting in its own way. It’s the circle of life.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he’s not yelling at the trees – he’s yelling at hawks. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 12 November 2015 East Niagara Post

Nobody wins in the Fight for $15

Last week saw another round of Fight for $15 demonstrations across the state. But now that organizers have claimed victory in the restaurant trade, they’ve set their sights on the rest of the economy, something the Governor Cuomo lists as one of his primary goals for 2016.

It will be an especially damning development for the economy’s wealth creating sectors – manufacturing and farming – and those employed by them. Employers will have to make adjustments to labor costs that will significantly affect their ability to compete with other states and other countries.

New York businesses that grow crops or manufacture goods already have the highest cost burdens in the US. As I’ve indicated numerous times before, my company alone throws away $750,000 a year on state-driven costs for electricity, taxes, workers comp and more that are over and above what our competitors in Ohio, Indiana, and Utah pay.

Were the $15 rate to go through, we would more than double that competitive imbalance because we would be forced to maintain the large gap we currently have against the minimum wage in regard to our starting rate. That substantial increase would have to be implemented across the board, though, because there’s no way that I can tell a long-tenured coworker that the new guy we just hired is worth as just much as someone who’s invested a few years in us and we in him.

When applied to 170 people at 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, plus an endless amount of voluntary overtime, we’re not talking chump change. Many of our products have high labor inputs. It takes 5 to 8 people to make most of them. And those are just the direct costs; each of those goods is also moved by a myriad of material handlers, truck drivers, and shippers.

I will have no choice but to pass that on to my customers. What do you think they will say when I come to them with higher costs because direct and indirect labor went up 25 percent? They’ll say “good bye”. Their customers – the big box stores, distributors, etc. – won’t pay higher prices because they know the end consumer won’t and they know someone in Utah or China can make the goods much cheaper.                  

There are only two options for survival: One is to move (which will put 170 New Yorkers out of work) and the other is to use robots which in turn would put 30 people out of job.

Unlike us, farms can’t move (their land is their life) and they can automate only so much (no robot can pick apples and veggies). The New York Farm Bureau says the $15 wage will cost New York farmers $500 million. Those higher costs will force food processers and supermarkets from across the country and around the world to not buy New York produce and dairy. At the same time, the wage increase will cut net income on farms by 25% which will kill countless family farms that are reeling from the most recent collapse in the dairy markets and the constant uncertainty of weather that has dogged Man since he first planted seeds.

The minimum wage increase won’t bring people out of poverty in New York because it will create poverty --- plants and farms will downsize, maybe even shutter, because their ability to compete in the global marketplace will be made even weaker than it is now. No one -- I repeat, no one -- will win in the Fight for $15.

From the 16 November 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers  

Friday, November 6, 2015

Niagara Falls Memorial: An ally in the fight against high healthcare costs

A couple of weeks back in this column I lamented the ever-rising cost of health insurance and the impact that it has on my company, my coworkers and my clients. The good people at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center (NFMMC) read that column and invited me and my coworker to the Center to have a personal tour and discussion with CEO Joe Ruffolo and his team about what they could do to mitigate our costs and what they have been doing to address that with the community at large.

They’ve developed numerous programs and practices, ranging from Bridging the Inpatient Process (BIP) to satellite doctor’s offices to their Health Home endeavor to a re-education of their customer base that encourages smarter use of the emergency department. By doing so, in just the past few years alone they’ve saved Niagara area residents and businesses over $6 million.  

That is a princely sum of money that most hospitals would see as lost revenues and would do their darnedest to retain. Those CEOs and boards are driven solely by revenues, which is a determinant to a given community as it impedes economic development in other sectors.

So, one might consider NFMMC’s approach to business atypical to the health industry. NFMMC leadership keenly sees the impact that such money-grabbing behaviors have and they know that such a model is dangerous in a city like Niagara Falls that is still recovering from the decades-long exodus of employers and citizens. By containing a cost of doing business, a cost of living, they know that they can aid in local recovery…by helping guys like you and me.

If you remember my recent column, you know I expounded upon the overuse of ERs that my coworkers and their families tend to take part in. Our insured had more than 60-plus visits to the ER and only 3 were actual emergencies. While many hospitals see ERs as cash cows, NFMMC would rather their clients not use them. When handling cases, they educate the patient then help to assign them to other physicians and services, while discouraging future trips to the ER. That has led to a 6% year-to-year decrease in the number of ER visits to NFMMC.

Ruffolo and his team make that work by having recently launched primary care services in the region. Now, NFMMC maintains and staffs 7 satellite centers throughout the area in places like North Tonawanda, Wheatfield, and Grand Island. Each center is manned by a handful of physicians who are often joined by specialists who consult with the afflicted. This is a benefit I plan to capitalize on -- I have 37 insured families at the plant who don’t have a primary physician, which likely accounts for them always leaning on ERs (this is not unique to Confer Plastics: I was told that 30 percent of the workers at one of the largest employers in the region don’t have doctors). Now, that employer and I can conveniently direct them to facilities just minutes away from our businesses.

Adding to that, their Health Home program (which serves all of the county) employs hundreds of support employees who directly interact with high-risk patients and anyone who has 2 or more diseases which, in WNY, is a majority of the population (consider that one person might have any multiples of diabetes, high-blood pressure, depression, arthritis, and back problems to name a few). The Health Home workers help manage their care, guarantee follow-up and ensure the best long-term results.

Please don’t think that all of these cost-cutting exercises mean substandard facilities or people. There’s also a stigma out there that NFMMC is an “inner city hospital.” Throughout the entire tour I was absolutely floored by what I saw. The new NFMMC is not that of past generations. Every floor, every department was modernized and comfortable (not depressing or sterile-feeling) with the very best in equipment and world-class specialists and support staff. There are new areas such as cardiac care, hospice care, and a Community Health Center under creation. They’ve also done wonders with a mental wellness floor that de-stigmatizes such ailing and treats people like human beings.

I was left feeling that NFMMC is a true jewel for the entire region and something locals should be proud of and utilize. I encourage my fellow employers to reach out to them for more information and soon: It’s open enrollment season and now is the best time to educate your coworkers about making smart healthcare decisions with a wise partner like NFMMC.

From the 09 November 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers