Archive for August, 2013

8-29-13 008


ELLSWORTH, MAINE — On the outskirts of Ellsworth, Maine, just after we turned off Route 1 in pursuit of a more scenic route home, we heard a notice on WERU, an Orland-based community radio station, announcing that a rally in support of fast food workers had just begun.  Having been on vacation, we had been unaware that August 29 had been designated a day for fast food workers and their allies to strike and rally for a hike in wages to $15 an hour until Jan mentioned it to us the previous day. 

Assuming we would find the rally on the strip we had sought to avoid, we did a u-turn, re-traced our path, took a right, and soon found a small group of sign-holding protestors in front of McDonalds. 

For the next hour we joined them, with chants of “Low Pay, Not Okay,” and8-29-13 005 conversations about their other activities.  Standing under the sign reading “Looking for a job?  We are looking for you,” we waved at passers by, many of whom gave us friendly waves in return.

The activist group, made up of local retirees, began its life as Occupy Ellsworth and continues to meet regularly for social and educational events plus occasional actions.  The call themselves “Community Union,” and are already planning a Black Friday protest at a local retail store. 

The nationwide protest, backed by the SEIU, called attention to the low pay rates typical of work in fast food establishments and also to the fact that the federal minimum wage – stuck at $7.25 an hour – is far from enough for workers to support themselves, let alone their families.  In fact, members of the Ellsworth group pointed out that the wages earned by fast food and many retail workers are so low that they are eligible for public assistance.  That means taxpayers are subsidizing the operations of highly profitable corporations like McDonalds.  

The protest drew attention from Maine Public Radio Network and two local TV stations.  My hope is that workers will be emboldened to demand better pay, that state and federal lawmakers will raise the minimum wage, and that even giant corporations will be forced to give in. 

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PORTSMOUTH NH — Kim Richards’ mom scrubbed out her swimming pool before a recent family party at her home in Eliot, Maine. “By the end of the day,” Richards said, “the pool was full of this.” She showed us a photo showing lots of black soot, which she said comes from the Schiller Station coal-fired power plant just across the Piscataqua River in Newington, New Hampshire.

Richards, founder of a grassroots group called Citizens for Clean Air, was one of portsmouth 8-10-13 052 several speakers who addressed an August 10 rally in Portsmouth’s Market Square calling for a shut-down of the region’s few remaining coal-fueled power plants. “Residents of Eliot have long been suspicious,” she said, of Schiller’s atmospheric outputs. She finally got fed up and started a petition calling for an EPA investigation and got a resolution critical of Schiller adopted by the town.

“We will not stand idly by and let big corporations determine our living conditions,” she called out to the crowd of several dozen people outside Portsmouth’s North Church.

It’s not just soot and sulfur that motivated the turn-out, though. Mostly it’s the carbon, which is also emitted by Schiller, that aroused people concerned about  changes in the earth’s climate. “A coal-free future” was the focus of the rally, the first portsmouth 8-10-13 022 organized by 350 NH, an affiliate of the global activist group 350.org.

“Shut down Schiller. It’s a killer. Wind is clean. Let’s be green,” participants chanted.

Schiller is the region’s oldest and least efficient power plant in New England, “the baddest of the bunch,” said long-time activist Doug Bogen, “It deserves to be shut down,” he said.

Moreover, the potential of wind power is not just some green fantasy, Bogen insisted. Construction of wind turbines off the coast of New England could generate as much as 150,000 megawatts of power, enough to electrify the entire East Coast,portsmouth 8-10-13 103 he said, citing reports from the federal Department of Energy and the State of Maine.  Construction of the turbines—800 could be used off the coast of Maine—would also generate lots of jobs, twice as many as the coal industry.

Bogen is promoting a concept that the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard be re-tooled for manufacture of offshore wind turbines. As a major industrial facility with a skilled workforce, located at a deep-water port, the Navy Yard would be an ideal site, he said, noting as well that an economic future built on wind power has other advantages over one dependent on the overhaul of the Navy’s nuclear submarines.

Bogen’s statement that we are either at the “sunset of a declining society or the dawn of a new one” may have been a tad apocalyptic, but his point was well taken. It is past time for commitment to a post-coal economy.

Jay O’Hara spoke of an aquatic route to the dawn of a new society. On May 15 he portsmouth 8-10-13 070 piloted a lobster boat named “Henry David T” into the path of a freighter delivering 40,000 tons of Appalachian coal to the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. He and his colleague, Ken Ward, were arrested. Now facing five charges (negligent operation of a vessel, failure to act to avoid collision, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, and conspiracy), O’Hara told the rally “our job is to make it clear what the moral ramifications of our actions are.”

It will take many kinds of actions to make a serious dent in fossil fuel use. Petitions,portsmouth 8-10-13 009 research, engineering proposals, rallies, leaflets handed to Market Square tourists, and dramatic nonviolent acts of civil disobedience are all called for. To its credit, 350.org and its offshoots take an all-of-the-above approach. Its leaders also appear to respect the role of culture and humor. That’s why the Market Square rally concluded with a skit pitting Mother Earth against Mean Mister Coal.

Yes, it may have been a bit ironic to hear the Leftist Marching Band performing “Which Side Are You On,” an anthem of Appalachian coal miner unions, at a demonstration calling for the shut-down of the coal industry. That song’s spirit, which deals with resistance to corporate domination, was not out of place. But it also stands as a helpful reminder that the climate movement would do well to devote more attention to the transition from fossil fuels to wind and solar and what will happen to actual workers along the way. There are moral ramifications, as well as political and economic ones, to the choices we have before us.

Click here to find 350 NH on Facebook. 

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I was at the kitchen table stewing over a pro-nuclear op-ed in the Concord Monitor when Judy said it was time to leave for Beth and Ruth’s solar open house on the other side of town. 

Beth and Ruth have an impressive homestead with a big garden, a healthy looking flock of chickens, and two solar arrays on their rooftop.  Yesterday’s open house was put on by the NH Sustainable Energy Association and ReVision Energycanterbury 8-3-13 007

ReVision’s ambition is to “transition away from fossil fuels and get solar on every rooftop,” said Heather Fournier, who explained how Beth and Ruth meet all their year-round hot water and electric power needs from the sun.  

Kate Epsen, Executive Director for the Sustainable Energy Association, used to work at the Public Utilities Commission, where she became familiar with incentives for solar.  Those include rebates from the state and tax credits from the Feds.  

There’s a few ways to hook up a solar electric system.  You can go totally off-the-canterbury 8-3-13 023 grid, like our friend Fred.  But he needs batteries to store electricity and a generator for back-up.  If you don’t want to go that route, you can hook up to your local utility, with a meter that runs in both directions.  If you generate more than you use, you can either sell it back to the power company or use the grid, in effect, like a storage battery.  That’s what Beth and Ruth do.

Beth said she was looking forward to watching their meter run backwards, but because it’s electronic it doesn’t really work that way.  This time of year, she said, they generate more electricity than they use, and currently have 2 1/2 months of power in the bank.   (In other words, if the sun stopped shining tomorrow, they could go for 2 1/2 months without paying a dime to the electric company.)  

ReVision is in business to design and install solar hot water and electric systems.  Heather Fournier said they can also help consumers figure out the state and federal incentive systems.

The Sustainable Energy Association, on the other hand, is an educational organization that also also pays close attention to public policy.  Kate Epsen said this year the Association supported HB 306, a bill this year to develop a state energy strategy.  The study will be under the direction of the NH Office of Enecanterbury 8-3-13 020 rgy and Planning. 

Knowing that neighbors are getting most of their energy from the sun made it easier for me to return home and write a letter to the editor in response to the pro-nuke op-ed.  The column’s writer, who happens to be Concord’s mayor, has signed up as a member of a self-described “grassroots” group funded entirely by the nuclear industry and promoting nuclear power as the answer to problems associated with fossil fuels. 

But even if the nukesters had a solution for the waste problem (they don’t), and even if they could be trusted to keep reactors from spewing radiation (they can’t), nukes are not the way to deal with climate change.  As my friend Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear said, they’ve gone from being perceived as “too cheap to meter” to being too expensive to matter.  Meanwhile, solar is becoming increasingly competitive.  That’s where the future lies. 


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You Have Nothing to Lose but the Nukes, and a Solar Future to Gain!

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Stephen Comley addresses the Clams on the World Fellowship lawn.

Ever heard of the “bathtub curve?” It’s a principle of reliability engineering that illustrates the failure rates for technology. When a form of technology is new, it has a high failure rate. As the bugs get worked out, failure rates decline. But as the productbathtub curves age, failure rates rise again.

Paul Gunter says the bathtub curve is useful for understanding nuclear reactors. Disasters at Three  Mile Island and Chernobyl represented catastrophic failures of relatively new reactors. Fukushima would be an example of failure for an aging reactor. The aging of the US reactor “fleet” means “this is the most dangerous time,” Gunter said.

With backing from the Cheney and Obama administrations, the industry promised a 21st century nuclear renaissance and promoted itself as a replacement for fossil fuels. Former NRC Commissioner Peter Bradford says “the renaissance story line was hard to resist.”

“By early 2009,” he writes, “applications for 31 new reactors were pending at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The promises came garnished with tales of remorseful changes of heart from oft-obscure nuclear converts. With few exceptions, the news media – especially television with its thirst for the short and the simple – fell for the renaissance story line.”

In a foreword to The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013, Bradford writes of the supposed renaissance, “It is all in ruins now. The 31 proposed reactors are down to four actually being built and a few others lingering on in search of a license, which is good for 20 years. Those four are hopelessly uneconomic but proceed because their state legislatures have committed to finish them as long as a dollar remains to be taken from any electric customer’s pocket. Operating reactors are being closed as uneconomic for the first time in fifteen years.”

Or as Paul Gunter put it, industry has gone from the “too cheap to meter” line of the 1950s and ‘60s to the reality of “too expensive to matter.”

Gunter, a Clamshell founder who is now co-director of Beyond Nuclear, was one of several speakers at last weekend’s Clamshell Alliance Reunion, held at PAUL40world fellowship july 2013 285World Fellowship in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The annual event is part social, part educational, part planning and plotting for a community of activists who met in the No Nukes days of the 1970s and 80s.

Other speakers included Doug Bogen, who’s been promoting the potential of offshore windpower from floating turbines in the Gulf of Maine; Naoto Inoue, a solar entrepreneur from Arundel, Maine; and Stephen Comley, who woke up to the dangers of nuclear power when an NRC official told him to stock upon potassium iodide pills for the the residents of his Rowley, MA nursing home, 12 miles from the Seabrook reactor.

Spurred to action, Comley organized 80% of town residents to sign a petition for Seabrook to be shut down. As a long-time Republican activist, he even delivered the petitions in person to President Ronald Reagan. He is still talking about nuclear dangers, especially his allegation that counterfeit, substandard parts were installed at 72 reactors, a fact revealed to him years ago by an industry insider. Comley started a group, “We the People,” to collect such stories and try to get action from people in high places. At this time he’s trying to communicate with Michelle Obama in hopes that she can get through to her husband.naoto04world fellowship july 2013 276

Paul Gunter said “climate change needs to motivate all of us.” That’s why it was great to hear from Naoto Inoue, who heads Talmage Solar Engineering in  Arundel, Maine. From installing photovoltaic (PV) systems at homes on the coast of Maine, Inoue has taken the plunge into large-scale solar generation with a 2.2 megawatt PV installation in Sharon, Vermont. With support from Vermont’s pilot “feed-in tariff” program, the solar array can economically provide enough electricity for the entire town.

Doug Bogen says offshore wind is another viable alternative. The state of Maine has a commitmDOUG03world fellowship july 2013 138ent to support 5000 megawatts of capacity in the next 20 years, by coincidence the date the Seabrook reactor’s license is due to expire. We can’t rely on wind for 100% of our energy needs, he said, but the potential is  there to replace New England’s aging nuclear plants and phase out fossil fuel plants as well. Bogen is promoting the idea that the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, a massive industrial facility sited on a deep water port, would be the perfect place for the massive wind turbines to be manufactured.

The Clams also heard some words of wisdom from Peter Kellman. peter17world fellowship july 2013 321Whatever struggle you’re in, says the veteran organizer, never forget “the big picture.”

I was also grateful to spend some time with Sukie Rice, a former American Friends Service Committee staff member who conducted nonviolence training workshops for early Clamshell demonstrations at Seabrook.  She recalled meetings in the spring of 1976 at which Clamshell organizers agreed to adopt nonviolence as a guiding principle for direct action.  “If what they wanted was for New Hampshire residents to see them as legitimate, they would have to act in the manner of nonviolence,” she recalled.  It was Elizabeth Boardman, she said, who introduced the Quaker principle of consensus decision-making.  The use of affinity groups and “spokes” meetings came from the experience of the Cambridge-based Nonviolent Direct Action Group, an anti-war project of the early ‘70s.  From early on, she said, “I knew it was the start of something big.” 

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