Frustration with electric utilities is universal today. Whether it’s concerns over high rates, poor service or a combination of both, people are constantly looking for a better answer to the systems that serve them.

In the Nov. 7, 2023, election, voters in Maine had a chance to consider a new model for electricity service that would replace the state’s two widely unpopular private utilities, but they balked in the face of multibillion-dollar cost projections.

This decision took the form of two ballot questions. Question 3 asked whether voters wanted to create a new publicly owned power company, dubbed Pine Tree Power, to take over the existing assets of Maine’s two privately owned utilities. The related Question 1 asked whether consumer-owned electric utilities should have to get public approval before taking on more than US$1 billion in debt. Voters adopted Question 1 and soundly defeated Question 3.

Municipal ownership of utilities is not new: Across the U.S., about 2,000 communities have public power utilities. In Nebraska, all electricity providers are publicly owned.

But private utilities often fight against public takeover attempts – and Maine was no exception. The parent companies of Central Maine Power and Versant Power spent nearly $40 million campaigning against the ballot measures, compared with $1.2 million on the pro-public power side.

At the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, I work with utilities and regulators around the world to assess different ways of structuring power companies. Questions about what kinds of utilities best serve the public have intensified in recent years. As the Maine vote shows, people want different and sometimes competing things from their utility systems.

Maine utilities have struggled to modernize their networks and cope with increasing outages caused by climate-driven storms.

Three basic structures

There are three basic ownership models for electric utilities. Investor-owned utilities, or IOUs, are owned by private shareholders, who might live next door or halfway around the world. Their stock is publicly traded, and their CEOs have a fiscal responsibility to shareholders as well as to serve their customers.

Municipally owned utilities, often known as munis, are owned locally, generally by the government of the city they serve. Some municipal utilities also serve customers in surrounding areas.

Cooperative utilities are owned entirely by their customers, much like housing or food co-ops. Initially, cooperatives tended to be located in more rural zones. Some of these areas, such as southwest Florida, have grown so rapidly that the term “rural cooperative” no longer applies.

Both munis and cooperatives operate as nonprofits. There is no consistent nationwide link between rates and ownership structure, but it is notable that five of the nine municipal and cooperative utilities in Maine charge less then 15 cents per kilowatt-hour for residential customers, compared with 27 to 30 cents for Central Maine Power and Versant. This may have influenced voters’ perception that a municipal utility could provide power at lower prices.

Municipal utilities do return a portion of their revenues to their investors, but a muni’s investor is the city it serves. According to the American Public Power Association, in 2020, public power utilities returned a median of 6.1% of their revenues to the communities they served. This return allows local governments to keep taxes lower than would otherwise be necessary to provide government services.

These utilities are also regulated in different ways. Investor-owned utilities are regulated by state public utility commissions, which oversee everything from what kinds of facilities to build and where to build them to how to reflect those costs in electricity rates.

Municipally owned and cooperative utilities are typically regulated on a limited basis by state public utility commissions – usually on matters of safety, reliability or the utilities’ impacts on the rest of the grid. Responsibility for municipal utility rates lies with either the city council or an independent local utility board. Cooperative utilities typically set their rates through a board elected by their customers.

Maine’s approach

The structure proposed in Maine was a fascinating hybrid case. Pine Tree Power’s ownership would have closely mirrored that of a municipal utility, governed by a board, but its rates would have been regulated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. It is unclear what the board’s responsibilities would have been.

Further, since the public utility commission would have been required to set rates according to the actual costs of providing service, it is unclear whether Pine Tree Power would have been allowed to charge rates sufficient to return revenue to the state, similar to what most municipal utilities do.

There was intense debate about Pine Tree Power’s potential benefits. One study showed that shifting from private to public power would produce significant benefits, while another showed significant costs. A third study forecast long-term benefits but short-term costs, primarily from buying out the state’s two private utilities.

A 1942 sign in east central Oklahoma announces that local power is provided at cost by a cooperative utility.
Rural electrification was a central element of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The 1936 Rural Electrification Act authorized low-interest federal loans to local cooperatives that would build and maintain power plants and lines and charge reasonable fees for membership. Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, CC BY-ND

In a municipalization, the cost to buy out the private utility strongly influences how much net benefit will result – and it’s not as simple as writing a check for the book value of the assets. Typically, price determination is a quasi-judicial process overseen by an arbitrator.

For example, when Winter Park, Florida, took control of the local assets of its power provider in 2005, the city estimated the value of the physical assets at $15.8 million. The eventual purchase price determined by an arbitrator was just over $42 million. The city also incurred legal and technical support costs. Winter Park issued almost $49 million in bonds to cover all of the costs of the acquisition.

Maine’s cost safeguard

One curious element of the Maine vote that could have future impacts is the voter approval process under Question 1, which was adopted. Typically, when a community municipalizes its electric power, voters would consider an initial referendum authorizing the government to explore the possibility of purchasing the private utility’s assets, and then a second referendum when the costs of the purchase were known.

The second vote would be more specific – something like, “Should the City issue bonds in the amount of $200 million to finalize the purchase of the assets of XYZ Corp. for the express purpose of establishing a municipal utility?”

This approach is expensive to administer, since it requires two votes, and a defeat at either stage can stop the acquisition process. But it also safeguards voters, since it ensures that they have information about how much municipalizing their utility will cost before they vote to approve it.

Cost estimates for buying out Maine’s utilities and creating Pine Tree Power ranged from $5 billion to $13.5 billion, and buyout opponents – including Maine Gov. Janet Mills – strongly emphasized the potential price tag. However, the fact that voters approved Question 1 might actually make a future municipalization vote more likely to pass, since voters now know they will have a safeguard of knowing the purchase price prior to their final approval.

Ultimately, in my view, there is no best model for utility ownership and operation. One strength of private utilities is that they are subject to clear, consistent oversight by professional utility regulators. For their part, municipal and cooperative utilities offer local control and greater flexibility to address local concerns. However, all types of power companies face daunting challenges, including grid cybersecurity, the clean energy transition and hiring and retaining skilled workers.

As I see it, a community’s best strategy is to choose a model that has strengths residents value, and whose weaknesses are less important or can be mitigated in other ways. While Maine voters may not love the system they have, their fear of the unknown was apparently stronger.

The Conversation

Theodore Kury is the Director of Energy Studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, which is sponsored in part by the Florida electric and gas utilities and the Florida Public Service Commission. In 2018, he was principal investigator on a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to study the value of municipal utilities in a changing marketplace. That work informs portions of this piece. However, the Center maintains sole editorial control of this and any other work.

Read more …Maine voters don't like their electric utilities, but they balked at paying billions to buy them out

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Cranberries grow on vines in sandy bogs and marshes. Lance Cheung, USDA/Flickr

Cranberries are a staple in U.S. households at Thanksgiving – but how did this bog dweller end up on holiday tables?

Compared to many valuable plant species that were domesticated over thousands of years, cultivated cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is a young agricultural crop, just as the U.S. is a young country and Thanksgiving is a relatively new holiday. But as a plant scientist, I’ve learned much about cranberries’ ancestry from their botany and genomics.

New on the plant breeding scene

Humans have cultivated sorghum for some 5,500 years, corn for around 8,700 years and cotton for about 5,000 years. In contrast, cranberries were domesticated around 200 years ago – but people were eating the berries before that.

Wild cranberries are native to North America. They were an important food source for Native Americans, who used them in puddings, sauces, breads and a high-protein portable food called pemmican – a carnivore’s version of an energy bar, made from a mixture of dried meat and rendered animal fat and sometimes studded with dried fruits. Some tribes still make pemmican today, and even market a commercial version.

Cranberry cultivation began in 1816 in Massachusetts, where Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall found that covering cranberry bogs with sand fertilized the vines and retained water around their roots. From there, the fruit spread throughout the U.S. Northeast and Upper Midwest.

Today, Wisconsin produces roughly 60% of the U.S. cranberry harvest, followed by Massachusetts, Oregon and New Jersey. Cranberries also are grown in Canada, where they are a major fruit crop.

Four men in waders, holding long rakes, thigh-deep in a flooded bog, its surface covered with floating cranberries.
Farmers often flood cranberry bogs to harvest the fruit, which they rake loose from the vines. Michael Galvin, Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism/Flickr, CC BY-ND

A flexible and adaptable plant

Cranberries have many interesting botanical features. Like roses, lilies and daffodils, cranberry flowers are hermaphroditic, which means they contain both male and female parts. This allows them to self-pollinate instead of relying on birds, insects or other pollinators.

A cranberry blossom has four petals that peel back when the flower blooms. This exposes the anthers, which contain the plant’s pollen. The flower’s resemblance to the beak of a bird earned the cranberry its original name, the “craneberry.”

A flower with four curved white petals tinged with pink.
A blossom on a cranberry bush in Wisconsin. Aaron Carlson/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

When cranberries don’t self-pollinate, they rely on bumblebees and honeybees to transport their pollen from flower to flower. They can also be propagated sexually, by planting seeds, or asexually, through rooting vine cuttings. This is important for growers because seed-based propagation allows for higher genetic diversity, which can translate to things like increased disease resistance or more pest tolerance.

Asexual reproduction is equally important, however. This method allows growers to create clones of varieties that perform very well in their bogs and grow even more of those high-performing types.

Every cranberry contains four air pockets, which is why they float when farmers flood bogs to harvest them. The air pockets also make raw cranberries bounce when they are dropped on a hard surface – a good indicator of whether they are fresh.

These pockets serve a biological role: They enable the berries to float down rivers and streams to disperse their seeds. Many other plants disperse their seeds via animals and birds that eat their fruits and excrete the seeds as they move around. But as anyone who has tasted them raw knows, cranberries are ultra-tart, so they have limited appeal for wildlife.

Reading cranberry DNA

For cranberries being such a young crop, scientists already know a lot about their genetics. The cranberry is a diploid, which means that each cell contains one set of chromosomes from the maternal parent and one set from the paternal parent. It has 24 chromosomes, and its genome size is less than one-tenth that of the human genome.

Insights like these help scientists better understand where potentially valuable genes might be located in the cranberry genome. And diploid crops tend to have fewer genes associated with a single trait, which makes breeding them to emphasize that trait much simpler.

Researchers have also described the genetics of the cultivated cranberry’s wild relative, which is known as the “small cranberry” (Vaccinium oxycoccos). Comparing the two can help scientists determine where the cultivated cranberry’s agronomically valuable traits reside in its genome, and where some of the small cranberry’s cold hardiness might come from.

Researchers are developing molecular markers – tools to determine where certain genes or sequences of interest reside within a genome – to help determine the best combinations of genes from different varieties of cranberry that can enhance desired traits. For example, a breeder might want to make the fruits larger, more firm or redder in color.

While cranberries have only been grown by humans for a short period of time, they have been evolving for much longer. They entered agriculture with a long genetic history, including things like whole genome duplication events and genetic bottlenecks, which collectively change which genes are gained or lost over time in a population.

Whole genome duplication events occur when two species’ genomes collide to form a new, larger genome, encompassing all the traits of the two parental species. Genetic bottlenecks occur when a population is greatly reduced in size, which limits the amount of genetic diversity in that species. These events are extremely common in the plant world and can lead to both gains and losses of different genes.

Analyzing the cranberry’s genome can indicate when it diverged evolutionarily from some of its relatives, such as the blueberry, lingonberry and huckleberry. Understanding how modern species evolved can teach plant scientists about how different traits are inherited, and how to effectively breed for them in the future.

Ripe at the right time

Cranberries’ close association with Thanksgiving was simply a practical matter at first. Fresh cranberries are ready to harvest from mid-September through mid-November, so Thanksgiving falls within that perfect window for eating them.

Cranberry sauce was first loosely described in accounts from the American colonies in the 1600s, and appeared in a cookbook for the first time in 1796. The berries’ tart flavor, which comes from high levels of several types of acids, makes them more than twice as acidic as most other edible fruits, so they add a welcome zing to a meal full of blander foods like turkey and potatoes.

In recent decades, the cranberry industry has branched out into juices, snacks and other products in pursuit of year-round markets. But for many people, Thanksgiving is still the time when they’re most likely to see cranberries in some form on the menu.

The Conversation

Serina DeSalvio ne travaille pas, ne conseille pas, ne possède pas de parts, ne reçoit pas de fonds d'une organisation qui pourrait tirer profit de cet article, et n'a déclaré aucune autre affiliation que son organisme de recherche.

Read more …Cranberries can bounce, float and pollinate themselves: The saucy science of a Thanksgiving classic

Autumn is the season to gaze at gorgeous leaves of gold, yellow and orange as they flutter from the trees and fall on our yards – but then, of course, comes the tedious task of raking them up and trying to decide what to do with them. SciLine interviewed Susan Barton, a professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware, who says taking a lazy approach is actually a win for your garden and the critters that live there.

Dr. Susan Barton discusses fall lawn care.

Below are some highlights from the interview. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can leaves on a landscaped property ever be left as they are, or should they always be mulched?

Susan Barton: A layer of leaves on the lawn will exclude light, which would be detrimental to the lawn. So when the leaves fall, either rake them up or chop them up with a lawn mower so they are finer and can sift down in through the grass blades. But if they fall in a landscape bed, or under trees, shrubs and larger plants, it’s fine to just leave the leaves without mulching them.

What are the benefits of mulching leaves rather than removing them?

Susan Barton: The leaves contain nutrients, and they also are a source of organic matter. So if you allow the leaves to go back into the landscape, you are providing nutrients for the plants to take up, and you are providing organic matter that will improve the soil structure.

If you think about forest, where leaves just naturally return to the soil and decompose every year, it’s some of the richest soil we have. By allowing that to happen in your landscape beds, you’re getting the same benefits.

What can keep leaves from blowing from one property to another?

Susan Barton: Chopping them up will dramatically reduce the blowing of the leaves. Make them smaller by either mowing over the leaves where they fall in the lawn, or raking them into piles and then mowing them.

There are also leaf vacuums that vacuum, chop up and put the leaves in a bag. Then you spread the leaves on your landscape beds.

What are the environmental benefits of not removing the leaves?

Susan Barton: If you rake up your leaves, put them in a black plastic bag and have them taken off to a landfill, then they never get to decompose and return those nutrients and organic matter back to the soil. Instead, you’re taking what could be a resource and making it a problem.

Also, many insects spend the winter in leaf litter. And a lot of people might not want insects in their landscape, but only about 2% of all the insects in the world are considered pests. Most of them are either beneficial or of no consequence to humans, and they are very important food sources for birds and other animals. Birds feed the insects, especially caterpillars, to their hatchlings.

So by allowing the insects to overwinter in the leaf litter, you’re supporting bird populations and, of course, pollinators, which help plants produce seeds that can develop into new plants.

When should people fertilize lawns?

Susan Barton: In the fall, because that is when turf grass is primarily growing roots and you’re promoting the kind of grass growth that makes a healthy, dense lawn. When you fertilize in the spring, your grass is growing leaves at that point, so you’re really just causing the grass to grow more and grow faster, and you will need to mow more often. So it really doesn’t make sense to fertilize in the spring.

Also, when you chop up the leaves in the fall, you are actually also fertilizing in the fall because you’re putting those chopped up leaves back into the soil. But it’s a good idea to add some additional fertilizer besides just the leaf litter.

How can people get the most out of their lawns and make their landscaping more environmentally friendly?

Susan Barton: The suburban norm is to have a lawn with some decorative plants around the house, or at the end of the driveway. But I think it’s a good idea to sort of flip that paradigm and design areas of the lawn that provide for play and gathering spaces, and then figure out what everything else can be.

It’s just a different way of thinking about the landscape, and much more environmentally sensitive. It will provide all kinds of ecosystem services, whether it’s better water infiltration or better air quality. If we think about pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, we’re doing it a lot more if we’ve got a ground cover, a shrub layer, a small tree layer and a large tree layer than we are if we have just a lawn.

Watch the full interview to hear more.

SciLine is a free service based at the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science that helps journalists include scientific evidence and experts in their news stories.

The Conversation

Susan Barton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read more …Want a healthier lawn? Instead of bagging fall leaves, take the lazy way out and get a more...

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The Noah's Ark Problem: figuring out which species to conserve with limited resources. JoeLena/Getty Images

The annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP, that starts Nov. 30 in the United Arab Emirates will bring together governments, businesses, international organizations and NGOs to shine a spotlight on the climate emergency the world faces and consider solutions to the crisis. The alarming rates at which we are losing species is not just a tragedy of epic proportions – the destruction of biodiversity also robs humanity of one of its strongest defenses against climate change.

Retaining the earth’s diverse mix of animals and plants is crucial for the planet’s future, yet any plan to halt its loss must grapple with the reality that not every species can be saved from extinction because of the limited resources we have for biodiversity conservation. By one estimate, about US$598 billion to $824 billion is needed annually to reverse the loss of species worldwide.

Different ways of posing the problem

Given finite research and practical resources, how should we act to conserve biological diversity? Should we, as I have argued in my research as an expert in environmental economics, try to regulate the rate at which habitat is being converted from natural to human-centered uses?

An alternative approach concentrates on conserving what biologists call keystone species that play a critical role in holding the ecosystem together. An example is the gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park, whose presence regulates prey populations like elk and deer, which in turn have cascading effects on vegetation and the overall ecosystem structure and function.

The Bible suggests a contrasting approach in the Lord’s dictum to Noah before the great flood: “Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.”

A solution

One of the most original and interesting answers to this question was provided by the late Harvard economist Martin Weitzman, who applied economic analysis to address the conservation of endangered species. In a pioneering 1998 paper titled The Noah’s Ark Problem, Weitzman viewed the challenge of figuring out which species to conserve with limited resources as a modern-day equivalent of the problem the biblical patriarch Noah faced when trying to determine what to take with him – and hence save – on his ark.

The late economist Martin Weitzman giving a talk.
Martin Weitzman’s research looked at the challenge of figuring out which endangered species to conserve with limited resources. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In Weitzman’s view, biodiversity gives rise to two kinds of values. The first is utility to humans – insects pollinate crops that yield food, and so on. There is no serious dispute that biodiversity – the variety of living species on Earth, including plants, animals, bacteria and fungi – benefits humans.

As the World Health Organization puts it, “Healthy communities rely on well-functioning ecosystems. They provide clean air, fresh water, medicines and food security. They also limit disease and stabilize the climate.” Yet nearly a third of all monitored species are currently endangered because of human activities.

The second kind identified by Weitzman is the inherent value of the wide variety of species and the genetic information they contain to biological diversity itself. Biodiversity plays a crucial role in maintaining the stability and resilience of ecosystems.

For example, increased genetic variation is important to wild Alaskan salmon returning to natal streams and rivers to reproduce. Populations in different streams have developed different sets of genetic information; some of these will allow for the earlier migration in streams that will be needed under warming temperatures and earlier snowmelt.

Weitzman likens the task of preserving different species to the task of saving the volumes in a library that represent an accumulation of human knowledge.

While in principle, every volume in the library might be valuable, some may have information that is also available in other libraries. Therefore, the objective would be to save those volumes that have information in them that is not contained anywhere else. According to this view, a conservationist’s goal ought to be to save as much of this genetic information as possible, even if the species concerned provide little direct value to humans.

This line of thinking provides counterintuitive guidance to conservationists. Specifically, it suggests that the best way to conserve biodiversity in an uncertain and resource-constrained world is to pick a species and then save as many members of this species as possible. By following this aggressive or “extreme policy,” the conservationist preserves not only what is informationally distinct about this species but also all the information it shares with other species.

Bumblebees on a yellow flower collect pollen.
Bumblebees on a yellow flower collect pollen. nnorozoff/Getty Images

An example

To see this, imagine that there are two libraries that have many volumes (or species members), some unique to each library and some overlapping. If Library 1 burns to the ground, we lose all of the volumes (species members) with the exception of those that are also housed in Library 2. The same is true if Library 2 burns.

If both libraries burn, all is lost. If both are on fire, and we do not have the equipment to save both, and one library takes fewer resources to save, we may be better off using our scarce resources to protect that one and letting the other one go in order to preserve the unique volumes (species members) as well as the knowledge in the overlapping volumes.

What does it mean in practice?

The practical meaning is that – when forced to choose – it may not make much sense to use limited conservation funds to protect a highly endangered species such as cuddly pandas that are very expensive to protect. We may be better off protecting, for example, the Atlantic menhaden, or pogy, a primary food source for bigger fish and birds along the Eastern Seaboard and a vital connection between the bottom and top of the food chain. A current lawsuit claims it is subject to overfishing in and around the Chesapeake Bay.

Weitzman’s Noah’s Ark model seeks to provide useful guidance in determining how to prioritize our efforts to save endangered species, with the presumption that biodiversity is both of value to humans and that it is inherently valuable. While we lack the resources to save every at-risk species from extinction, further delay in dealing with the climate emergency and its harmful effects on the loss of species is one thing the world cannot afford.

The Conversation

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read more …Resources to save 'every creeping thing of the earth' are limited. What would Noah do?

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