Friday, October 25, 2019

Who will clean up solar energy’s legacy?

Unless you’re the Hudson’s Bay Company -- which is in its 349th year -- businesses don’t last forever.

According to the Small Business Association, 30% of businesses fail during the first 2 years of being open, 50% close during their first 5 years and two-thirds are gone by the end of their first decade.

Look around your neighborhood and reflect on the places that used to be. It doesn’t matter if it’s manufacturing, retail, agriculture, dining or service…corporations have a shelf life.

Why would we think that the solar industry would be any different?

Many companies that install and/or manage solar farms will go the way of the dinosaurs. It might be for reasons of ever-evolving technology, a decline in state and federal subsidies, the passing of owners, or future prices on the electrical market that could kill a company’s bottom line.

It’s guaranteed to happen.

And, when it does, they will leave a legacy.

Like the industrial brownfields of Niagara Falls or the hazardous waste pits in Wheatfield, it will be a bad legacy – towns will be besieged by dozens if not hundreds of acres of solar arrays left standing, no electricity being taken, and no value in the structures. More than just eyesores, the unattended panels will sit like dead beasts on land that would otherwise have economic or natural value as farmland or forest. 

That’s been a major concern for communities around the country and it is currently a hot button issue where I live in Gasport – both of our towns are entertaining the idea of sizable solar farms; Royalton a 100-plus acre farm and Hartland a 1,500-acre complex.

Whether it happens in my community or elsewhere, mass solar development is inevitable. There’s somewhat of a push in the marketplace and it’s definitely a mandate here in New York.

Earlier this year, the State passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act which diverts the state’s energy reliance to renewable sources. It requires 100 percent clean power by 2040, 70 percent by 2030.

Unlike previous attempts at green energy standards which didn’t have teeth, this time it’s real: The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is empowered to enforce emissions rules while the Public Service Commission (PSC) is given carte blanche to impose clean energy standards upon the utility companies.

That means solar is our future – immediately and in the long-term.

But, for all the effort and posturing and preening state officials put into creating these standards, they put almost no thought into weathering what they’ve wrought. So, we’re left with the question, who will clean up solar energy’s legacy when these businesses expire?

We can’t wait for the State to respond when a crisis comes from what they thought was good intent. We’ve seen that before in the electrical market.

In the late-1970s and 1980s New York forced power companies to buy energy at what became costs twice that of the standard market rate from the numerous cogeneration facilities which had become wildly popular due to federal grants. Facing potential bankruptcy because of that edict, Niagara Mohawk used billions in junk bonds to buy-out those government-mandated contracts and then, over a 14 year period put the cost of its efforts to save itself onto ratepayers. That state-induced salvation cost the average homeowner a total of $2,700 on power bills over those 14 years. Over that same time period, my company paid $4 million towards the surcharge.

You can easily see similar craziness happening again 15, 25 years from now, with the State mandating that electrical companies pay for the decommissioning of solar farms from which they were originally forced to buy from. That massive cost, of course, would have to get pushed on to their customers.

It shouldn’t be that way. As communities impacted by solar in our backyards, we need to demand that the Legislature produce answers now, well in advance of any closures and ahead of the push to go to a completely green grid.

What could they do?

They could create a sort of insurance fund managed by the State Comptroller that solar installers and solar providers would pay into every year of their existence that would cover the removal of equipment and remediation of the land in the event of their closure.

They could create an insurance marketplace in New York that could do the same.

They could mandate that property owners, who are gleaning the benefits of hearty payments, enter into similar insurance policies to have their land cleaned up in the event the solar company folds (after all, the decommissioning clause in their leases is meaningless if the company folds).

There are many more things they could do to mitigate these issues. But, it will take some serious discussions immediately, in the 2020 legislative session, to prepare for the future. Legislators, officials from the DEC, PSC, and Independent System Operator (NYISO) need to come to the table with solar providers and come up with real plans.

The intent of solar today may be to make sure our kids don’t have to contend with a legacy of a spoiled environment but, when companies fold and technologies change, we’re certain to have some spoils because of the very existence of solar. 

From the 28 October 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, October 18, 2019

Providing kids safe harbor from their stormy homes

I’ve been listening to the police scanner for over 30 years now. Eavesdropping on the dispatching and responses of sheriff’s deputies and volunteers keeps me in the know about things going on in Niagara County.

But, the knowledge gleaned from the scanner is more than where an accident or fire might be, or where the latest speed trap is set-up. Listen long enough and you’ll begin to understand the social conditions in certain parts, certain households of your community.

It can be incredibly uncomfortable and heartbreaking to hear officers being dispatched to broken homes, something that’s too regular of an occurrence. According to the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, all departments within Niagara County reported a combined 1,233 arrests for domestic violence in 2018. Among them were 1,051 cases of simple assault, 38 sexual offenses against a family member, and 20 violations of protection orders.  

Mind you, those are just the cases recorded as actual arrests. There were thousands of 911 calls and tips about physical domestic situations and intense verbal abuse. The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office alone responds to nearly 4,000 of such calls every year. There are thousands more covered by the city police departments in Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda and Lockport.

And, remember, most victims and witnesses remain silent; there are thousands of situations that go unreported. 

There are the direct victims, those who call 911 looking for help and those who remain silent despite being abused mentally, physically and sexually.

And then there are the indirect victims. They may not have directly been hit or berated, but they saw it. They experienced it. They lived it.

Children are occupants of many of those homes and apartments where hate and discord rule. It could be they were beaten or demeaned. Maybe they their saw dad hit their mom or knock her down. Perhaps they witnessed their mother going on a drunken rage towards their father.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg when you hear some of the calls on the scanner – the level of escalation of some domestic events is frightening.

You have to feel for the kids who grow up in such families. If they aren’t abused, a loved one is and that in itself is a form of abuse towards the child.

Those incidents sear into a child’s memories and behaviors. They could give nightmares, instill fear, plant the seeds for hate, lead to substance abuse, foster depression and suicidal thoughts, lead to lower grades, and make dysfunction a normalcy that the child will carry into his or her relationships one day. Many will rise above their circumstances, some will not, and even if they do the painful memories linger.

I bring all this up to give perspective to those who provide service to children.

Whether you are school teacher, sports coach, club leader, Sunday school instructor, or a Scouting volunteer like me, we all have to understand that these victims – primary and secondary alike - are in our classrooms, on our teams, and in our troops. The sheer volume of dispatches and domestic statistics show us that it’s more than likely that they’re in an extracurricular activity you oversee -- and it’s a certainty in your classroom.  

You likely don’t know who, and in many cases you won’t. That may be from masking of the hurt by the child or the sheer joy he or she has being around you.

Realize that in many cases you are providing a safe place, a good place to a child. Your classroom, baseball field or campout might be the only place they feel happy, loved or safe.

Think about that.

Most of us grew up having loving parents and valuing home above all else. But, that isn’t the case for so many children. They fear home. They don’t what will happen to them. They don’t know what will happen to their mother or father.

Every child we serve has different expectations of us – a boy scout from a well-adjusted home may want the adventure of a camping trip while one from a broken home may only want you to be you, someone for him to strive to be, someone who isn’t his dad.

You may not realize it, and they might never tell you, but to kids from troubled homes you are their hero -- they might see you as the mother or father they always wished they had.

That significance be an overwhelming way to view what we do when doing good for children. But, it’s a necessary view. We have roles in this world, some much bigger than we always assume them to be. Hurt kids are too many, and it’s up to us, as their educators and leaders, to give them the safe harbor they deserve and, from there, the help they need to navigate life.    

From the 21 October Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News   

Africa: Outsourcing’s final frontier

Under the current model of outsourcing to China and other Asian nations, it will be, over the next two decades, increasingly difficult to keep store shelves stocked in America and other Western societies at price levels frugal shoppers appreciate.

As China has grown to a $13.4 trillion economy and their public policies have focused on enlarging their middle class, in turn making their economy more of a participant than a provider, the cost of doing business is quickly rising in China and they won’t be as attractive for outsourcing as they have been since the push for offshore manufacturing really hit its stride in the late-1970s.

That doesn’t mean the jobs are coming back here.

As much as Americans savor the thought of goods being produced on US soil, the chances of that happening in appreciable volume again are slim to none. Philosophy and personal finance are two entirely different things.

The reality of today’s world is that globalization is and will be the way to do business. Most consumers, and the purchasing and sales managers who fill up the warehouses and stores for them, demand cheaply-priced if not cheaply-made goods and many corporations are more than happy to oblige. American companies (and buyers) fully committed to domestic manufacturing are now rarities when once they were a dime a dozen.

Most of the world, from agricultural South America to the industrialized Far East, has already been pressured by traders from the richest nations to meet their demands and in many cases the well is dry from a potential price savings standpoint as the cost of labor is rising dramatically as it has in China.

The African continent’s people, on the other hand, have remained relatively unmolested by Westerners since the days of the slave trade. Other nations have focused more on taking Africa’s natural resources rather than using their human resources. Consider the pitifully-low gross domestic product among some of the countries: Chad ($2,420), Rwanda ($2,225), Sierra Leone ($1,608), Burundi ($731). The US’s GDP per capita, by comparison, is $62,152.

The continent’s population is in excess of 1.2 billion, but nearly one-in-five are undernourished. 227 million people are starving on that continent. To put that number into perspective, the entire US population is 327 million.  

In the short-term (the next 3 decades), outsourcing and globalization will help Africa rise from a poverty that, truthfully, makes America’s impoverished citizens look like kings. Given implementation of Western economic practices, following the quality of life trends that we saw in industrial Europe, US, and Japan, the long-term future (by 2100) is economically bright and socially responsible for Africans.

Some might discount the lack of political morality on the continent that would prevent development. That was – and still is -- the case for China. But, Americans are more than happy to either overlook or work in conjunction with one of the most horrid communist systems in the world, one that still - even 30 years after Tiananmen Square massacre - squashes freedom and criticism (for all their focus on improving economics, Chinese officials don’t see personal liberty in the same light).   

Many African leaders are just as oppressive. But whereas China’s political system is old and deeply entrenched, most African nations have fragile systems, so newly employed Africans who will have something that only the few now possess (money) will ultimately become a financially and politically empowered people who can turn away decades of evil rule.

Is Africa’s infrastructure ready for all this?

Not now.

But, by historical standards, China was a backwards nation until only recently in regard to infrastructure.

Now they have quality roads, impressive electrical generation and vast cities that seem to pop up overnight. Whereas that’s been a public-private venture to bring them into the 21st century, Africa’s nations are lacking in wealth so it will be a mostly private investment led by Western firms.

But, as capitalism goes, if the need and reward are there for electricity, water, ports, and roads, the necessary investments will be made. Nearly a billion potential workers is a very attractive number for capitalists focusing on thrifty consumers in America and elsewhere, especially for as cheaply as those workers can be had at this time.

Africa is ready to boom. It will take some time, but I guarantee that by 2040 many of the “Made in China” labels you see on items now will be replaced by “Made in” labels from far-flung locales like Kenya, Tanzania, and Mali.

It’s an ever-changing – and ever-shrinking - world we live in.

From the 14 October 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News