Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast about what we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how we make those things happen.
Alex: You know, Ayana, our audio engineer, Peter Leonard, he prepared something very special.
Alex: Just for today's episode.
Ayana: Ooh! I'm extremely excited.
[singing: It's listener mail time!]
Ayana: It's so good. [laughs]
Alex: I love the Broadway rock anthem ending. [singing] Time!
Ayana: Oh, Alex hit that high note.
Alex: Yeah. Thank you. So, yeah. So as the jingle suggests, we are gonna be taking your questions, as they say.
Ayana: Inquiring, climate-friendly minds want to know.
Alex: We're answering a few questions from listeners that we think might have crossed the minds of most of you as well. For example, maybe you're like me and you have a growing supply of plastic bags, perhaps under your sink. And you've wondered, can those actually be recycled anywhere?
Ayana: Yeah. As opposed to keep shoving them under there and, like, hoping they don't billow out next time you, like, try to refill your dish soap.
Alex: Your secret plastic bag hoard shame. We have an answer to that question. Also, we dive into a mystery posed by a listener: is her utility trying to sabotage the solar industry?
Alex: And we'll also hear from a sentient recycling bin.
Ayana: That will be as weird as that preview sounds.
Ayana: And then I will be back to share yet more seaweed facts with you, because who would want to be under-informed about kelp?
Alex: Not How to Save a Planet listeners, that's for sure.
Ayana: Not y'all. So all that after the break.
Anna Ladd: Well, hello.
Anna: It's me, Anna Ladd. I'm handling my own introduction this week. [laughs]
Alex: That's very kind of you. Let me help. I feel like it would be rude of me to, like, just let you do it all by yourself. So Anna, you're a producer on our team, you've been on the show before talking about tree planting, and you've been looking into a very pressing listener question that I think a lot of our listeners will relate to.
Anna: Yes. So maybe you remember about a month ago, the one, the only Kendra Pierre-Louis did an episode about recycling.
Anna: Where we talked about how plastic is made from fossil fuels, and making it releases carbon into the atmosphere. And we also talked about how recycling plastic is really hard, and there's certain types of plastics that you shouldn't put in your at home recycling bin at all.
Alex: I remember.
Anna: Specifically, filmy plastics like plastic bags, which cause problems for the sorting facilities that handle the recycling.
Anna: So basically, we told people you can't recycle your plastic bags in a curbside bin.
Anna: And after hearing that, one of our listeners had a question.
Peyton: Hey, How to Save a Planet team. My name is Peyton, I'm in Jacksonville, Florida. I loved your episode on recycling, and specifically about how plastic bags clog up the machinery in recycling centers. I was fascinated by this because I live in the South, and we have Publix supermarkets down here. And Publix actually offers plastic bag recycling. They have little garbage cans outside all their stores that are marked specifically for plastic bags, but I don't really know what that recycling entails.
Peyton: I would love to know what kind of positive benefit, if any, there is from those recycling centers. In my view, if we are going to have plastic bags, it feels like that would be at least better than people throwing them away or trying to recycle them with their regular street recycling, because as we know, that causes lots of issues.
Alex: This is a really good question. I really want to know the answer to this because then you're just sort of like, wait, am I a sucker for, like, taking my bags to Publix? Or am I, like, actually helping anything?
Anna: Yeah. And Peyton wasn't the only listener with this question. A bunch of people wrote in asking about similar bins at Target and Walmart and Whole Foods. So I looked into it and, you know, just to get a visual of what we're talking about, I had our listener, Peyton, send me pictures of the bins at her Publix. So here. Here they are in all their glory.
Alex: All right. Yeah. Pretty standard, big plastic receptacles with, like, a swinging door on the front at the top.
Anna: Classic bin.
Alex: Classic bin.
Anna: You may notice there are four. There are two for plastic, one for paper, one for foam.
Anna: And there's written instructions on what can and can't go into the bin, and the bin marked 'Plastic' tells you to do basically the opposite of what you're supposed to do for curbside recycling. So no hard plastics like plastic bottles or milk jugs, but yes, soft flimsy, filmy plastics like plastic bags or plastic wrap.
Alex: That is specifically not hard plastic. It's just this filmy stuff that we said on our episode you should not recycle because it gunks up the works.
Alex: So it's us against the recycling bins outside Publix and other places.
Anna: Yes. We're now in a fight. [laughs]
Ayana: A fight? We're in a collective quest for information.
Alex: We are in a collective quest with us and the new sentient recycling receptacles outside the grocery store. [laughs] Tell us, Anna Ladd, are we serving a real purpose, or are we just bullshit?
Anna: [laughs] All right.
Alex: I and my sisters and brothers want to know the answer.
Anna: So the big question here: the plastic bags that are getting put in the plastic bag bin, are they being recycled?
Anna: So in some cases, what's happening here is called open-loop recycling, which would be taking an old plastic bag and turning it into a new plastic bag, but having to add new plastic along the way.
Anna: But most of the time what's happening here is what's called downcycling, which would be taking the plastic bags and turning them into something new.
Alex: Got it.
Ayana: So what are they turning into?
Anna: Let me show you. So we're gonna do my favorite thing to do in times of stress, which is watch an assembly line video.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, video: Hey everybody, I'm Jennifer Berry, and I'm gonna take you on a tour of the world's largest plastic bag recycling facility. So let's go!]
Anna: This is a video from an organization called Earth911 TV, and it basically shows how the bags get shredded.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, video: A guillotine chops bales of bags ...]
Anna: And then the shreds get washed and dried.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, video: Go through a series of float tanks and magnets to remove more contaminants.]
Anna: And then it goes into a machine that melts it into gunk. And that gunk gets cut into teeny tiny plastic pellets.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, video: ... chopped into pellets, which are sorted for size and stored for use later.]
Alex: Wow! So they're just little gray plastic rocks.
Anna: Pretty much.
Ayana: I have something to interject here. I know what those tiny plastic pellets are called.
Alex: You do?
Ayana: They are called nurdles.
Alex: What don't you know?
Ayana: This is an actual technical term for plastic pellets. I know this because they wash up on beaches all the time, because they spill them off of, like, tanker ships. There's, like, shipping containers full of nurdles that get lost at sea, and then they're all in your sand and, like, messing up everything. It sounds like such a cute word. It's deceptively adorable.
Alex: So these nurdles, the nurdles that our listener's plastic bags are getting turned into, I'm assuming the goal is not to have them lost at sea. What do you actually do with them? What do people do with the nurdles?
Anna: Right. So the nurdles would get sold to a company that would manufacture something with them. And the most common thing they get turned into is composite decking, which is like weatherproof decking made of plastic and sawdust.
Alex: Composite decking.
Anna: Yes. They take the pellets, they melt them down, and then they take recovered sawdust, and then they chop that up until it's kind of like a flour-y consistency. They mix that with the melted plastic, and then they squish it through an extruder to make these boards. So here's another video that shows what that looks like.
Ayana: I'm so excited for this.
Alex: Here it comes. It's like a weird industrial pasta maker.
Ayana: They're like churros, but decking.
Anna: And then it runs through, like, a little thing that imprints wood grain on it.
Ayana: This is extremely exciting. Like, if you turn it into yet another disposable single-use thing, like, we should maybe just stop using those things.
Ayana: But this is, like, gonna last for decades.
Ayana: Oh, Anna Ladd.
Alex: This is getting out of control.
Ayana: That was a good one.
Alex: [laughs] Okay, but all punning aside, what you're telling us is that the bags that are collected outside of the Publix and other grocery stores like Publix, they end up as composite decking. Is that where all of them go? All of them turn into decking? Like, every single bag that goes into the Publix container and other containers, like, get turned into composite decking?
Anna: So that is the most common thing that they get turned into. It's almost half of the film plastics collected for recycling become composite decking or fencing. But they also can melt the nurdles into a mold or turn them into new plastic bags, which does involve adding new plastic along with the recycled plastic.
Ayana: Ah, got it. So less good. Like, extends the life of the bag a little bit, but definitely not getting out of the single-use plastic loop.
Alex: Yeah. And I think to sort of like go to what maybe the suspicion is about these things, is that this is all just like some sort of elaborate PR scheme. Like, the supermarket or whatever is trying to look good by saying that they're collecting the bags and recycling them, but the suspicion is, well, do they just get dumped in a landfill somewhere? Does that actually happen?
Anna: It does sometimes happen. The large sorting centers like the MRF that Kendra talked about in our previous episode do end up in situations where they just can't find a buyer for the recyclables. And then in those scenarios, they do send them to a landfill. But that's less of a concern with these Publix-style sorting bins.
Alex: And why is that?
Anna: The first reason is that curbside recycling in the US is primarily single stream. So everything goes in one bin, and then that all together gets sent to the MRF. And the film plastics are bad for MRFs because they gunk up the sorting machines, but with the bins outside the Publix, there is no machine that needs to sort them because they're already in their own bin.
Alex: Got it.
Anna: The other reason it's hard for, like, a municipal recycling program to recycle film plastics is because it's hard to make money off of used film plastic. But for grocery stores, that matters less. So if you remember when Kendra was describing the MRF, it just sorts the recycling. It's not doing any of the recycling itself. It has to sell the material to another company. And some recyclables can sell for a high price, like metals, but others like film plastics? Pennies. Pennies for a pound.
Anna: And if you're a MRF and your whole business is selling recyclables, it's not a great business model for you to collect and sell film plastics. But if you're a grocery store, their business model does not depend on selling all these film plastics. So they're able to, like, collect a lot of them, send it to the warehouse and let it kind of hang out there until they have enough to sell to a buyer.
Alex: So they look good, they make a teeny little bit of money, but it's not the—that's not what they—they're not depending on that money to keep themselves afloat.
Alex: I guess I'm not that shocked that there's not, like, a robust market for used plastic bags. [laughs] Hey, do you want to buy—I have—like, I have a ton of used plastic bags. Anybody? Anybody? And I think we have arrived at an answer here. So in our fight/collective quest for information with the Publix recycling bins, where we said you can't recycle plastic bags and they said yes we can, we're both right! Don't put plastic bags in your recycling bin at home. Although you can check the regulations, maybe it's possible, but most likely don't. But if you do put it in the bin at Publix or other stores like Publix that have these recycling facilities, most of those bags will get re-used.
Ayana: They get cycled in some fashion.
Alex: Yeah. Worst case scenario, they get a shot of virgin plastic and come back as another plastic bag. Best case scenario, around half of the time, they get turned into a long-lasting durable good like composite decking.
Ayana: This actually feels like good news.
Anna: Oh, I haven't gotten to the bad news yet.
Ayana: Oh, there's bad news?
Anna: Yes. It is good that the plastic bags have this chance at another life. Like, if you have a bag of bags under your sink and you don't know what to do with them, by all means put them in one of these bins. But I would like to be a little realistic here about how much plastic that is made ever actually makes it to those bins.
Anna: And it is very, very little. So it's nine percent of all plastic in the US ever gets collected for recycling. And only one percent of plastic bags.
Alex: One percent of all plastic bags ever get recycled?
Ayana: And also, like, if this just increases the demand for endless plastic bags, which are made out of fossil fuels, which is a whole not good thing, then that's not actually a solution.
Anna: Yeah. And that was kind of what set off alarm bells for me a bit when I was looking at this, because all the big public-facing, like, how-to-recycle-your-film-plastics campaigns are coming from the plastics industry, which made me go, you know, huh? If the plastic makers are supporting the plastic bag dropoff bins, that probably means that the bins aren't making it harder for them to sell more plastic bags.
Alex: Right. So, I guess the takeaway is like, fine, put your bags in those bins if that's an option for you, but there is a much, much larger problem that these bins aren't really doing anything to address, and that is that the vast majority of plastic bags, 99 percent of them, do not end up in these bins, they end up as garbage or litter. And so these bins aren't doing much of anything to address that pretty major single-use plastic problem we have. So is there a solution for the other 99 percent of plastic bags?
Anna: A tax!
Alex: Wait. A tax?
Anna: A tax. So I talked to Tatiana Homonoff, who's a behavioral economist at NYU about how to actually reduce the amount of single-use plastics that make their way to us at all. And she said that there's a couple different ways that society has tried to handle this. We ban single-use bags, we pay people not to use them, or we charge people and tax them.
Alex: And you're telling us that taxing is the best of these three options?
Anna: I am!
Alex: I would not have thought that.
Anna: So Tatiana told me about one of the first disposable bag taxes in the US, and it was super effective.
Tatiana Homonoff: It was a five-cent tax on every plastic or paper bag that your grocery store gave you. Very small tax, but very effective at changing behavior. These small taxes have been shown to decrease disposable bag use by cutting it about in half.
Anna: And the reason she told me that this tiny little tax is so effective, and she thinks that if it was like three cents, it would still work, if it was one cent, it would still work, is just because we are so used to getting the bags for free.
Tatiana Homonoff: People, get, you know, a certain bump in their happiness when they get something for free. They treat zero as a special price. And so the fact that we started out thinking that plastic bags are free, and then moving to any type of cost for them feels very different than if plastic bags cost a dollar, and then suddenly they're a dollar and five cents. At the end of the day, I might not care about five cents, but if it's a five-cent loss, that feels painful. And so I'll take different behaviors to make sure to avoid that loss.
Ayana: I think when I was living in DC, they started a tax. It was five cents if you wanted a bag, and then the funds, those funds went to cleanups of the Anacostia River. And people were like, "Oh, well, if you're gonna charge me, I don't need a bag." Because it just makes you stop and think about it, because it puts a value on something you kind of assumed was free and disposable.
Anna: But compare that to what happened with, like, the program that Whole Foods did, which was the opposite strategy, where they were giving people five cents if they brought a reusable bag.
Alex: Got it. So this was like—their strategy was like, reward the right decision rather than punish the wrong one.
Anna: Right. But that didn't work at all.
Anna: Tatiana looked at stores that offer a five-cent reward, and customers were almost exactly as likely to use single-use disposable bags as they were in a store with no financial incentive at all.
Alex: So what's wrong though with just a ban? Like, I would have thought that would be—you know, just ban them. Why doesn't that work?
Anna: That doesn't work as well as a tax, because it's hard to write ban legislation without having a loophole for the kind of bags that they can give away. So they have to define what the single-use plastic is in the places where they've tried banning plastic bags. They've defined it to mean a certain thickness of plastic. Like, the first bag ban in Chicago ...
Tatiana Homonoff: The sort of unintended consequence of this policy is that retailers started offering customers free thicker plastic bags instead of the traditional thin plastic bags. So customers were still using disposable bags at similar rates, but they were using either paper bags, which also have their own environmental costs, or switching over to these thick plastic bags rather than using a reusable bag or taking no bags at all.
Anna: Chicago ended up changing to a plastic bag tax in 2017 of seven cents per bag, partially because of blowback related to this loophole. And then that tax ended up decreasing plastic bag use by 28 percent and increased reusable bag use.
Alex: Right, right, right.
Anna: So now, some cities and states are trying out these more hybrid policies where they'll, like, ban the plastic grocery bag, and then they'll tax whatever other disposable bag they're giving away at the store, whether it be the paper replacement or a different thicker kind of plastic. That's what the policy is in New York right now.
Alex: Okay. So for my behavior in front of the recycling bin, if there was a store near me that is taking this, I should feel good about taking my plastic bags and putting them in the plastic bag specific recycling container. Right?
Anna: That is true.
Alex: To deal with the other 99 percent, we have to tax the bags.
Anna: Tax the bags.
Alex: Tax, don't ban.
Ayana: I feel like there's a song and a dance move for, like, ya gotta tax the bags.
Alex: [singing] Tax the bags, don't ban. Tax the bags, don't ban. There's loopholes when you ban. You gotta tax the bags, don't ban. There's loopholes when you ban. How's that?
Alex: All right, Ayana. What do you got?
Ayana: [singing] Oh, when the bags go marching in, oh when the bags go marching in. How I want to be in that supermarket when the bag tax comes in.
Alex: [laughs] But what about us? What will we eat? Sorry. I'm actually not sorry. After the break, we answer a different listener question that takes us from the supermarket to the rooftop. And we find out what it's like to stop using something, and have to pay for it anyway.
Alex: Welcome back!
Ayana: Hi, you're still here.
Alex: We're still here. We're still answering listener questions.
[singing: It's listener mail time!]
Ayana: I mean, there's so many good ones.
Alex: And this next one was answered by our very own intrepid reporter, Kendra Pierre-Louis.
Ayana: Intrepid. She will get to the bottom of it.
Alex: Oh my God, will she ever.
Ayana: Don't get between her and the bottom of a story.
Alex: [laughs] And she told me about the question and what she found. I think you were doing some other planet-saving activity, so you weren't there for this conversation. But here's Kendra.
Kendra Pierre-Louis: So hello, Alex.
Alex: Hello, Kendra!
Kendra: How are you doing today?
Alex: We're off to a pretty formal start to this conversation, aren't we? I'm very well, thank you. And yourself?
Kendra: I can't complain. I mean, I can, but it would be unseemly.
Alex: Right. And if people wanted to listen to us complain, they would just tune into our other podcast, Alex And Kendra Complain.
Kendra: [laughs] I would be so good at that!
Alex: [laughs] We should start that Spotify exclusive. Yeah.
Kendra: So the other day, this listener Lindsey contacted us with a question about what happens when you decide to install solar panels on your roof where she lives.
Lindsey: Hi there. My name's Lindsey, and I live in Alabama, and I recently came across an article about solar panels. Alabama Power is charging a $5 per kilowatt fee to utilize solar panels on your home, and it kind of seems counterintuitive to charge that amount. And basically, they're discouraging people from using solar panels because it's just going to rack up another power bill. So just wanted to see if you guys had any insight into that, and if that is kind of a pattern across the country with power companies discouraging the use of solar panels, and if they really are worth it, because it's such a big upfront cost. Thanks.
Alex: Wow! [laughs]
Kendra: What's the wow about?
Alex: Well, just, I'm with Lindsey. It seems like we wouldn't want to penalize people for getting solar panels. We'd want to encourage them. Like, give them a discount on their bill, instead of tacking on a fee. So, you know, what is up with that?
Kendra: Yeah. So I dug into this a little bit, and Lindsey from Alabama was correct. If you live in Alabama, and your power company is a utility by the name of Alabama Power, they will charge you $5 a month for each kilowatt of rooftop solar capacity that you've installed on your house.
Alex: And what is the typical amount that people install on their houses?
Kendra: Yeah, so generally a decent-sized house system is around five kilowatts. And so for your typical system, so this is essentially a $25 a month fee. And when you take that amount and you scale it out over the life of that solar panel system, it essentially adds an extra cost of between $6,000 and $9,000 over the life of that system.
Kendra: I think the obvious question is like, why would they do this?
Alex: Yeah. I mean, yes, that's my question. Why would they do this?
Kendra: You know, Alabama Power, their statement and their position is that, whether or not these people have solar panels, that the utility still has to make electricity kind of on reserve to serve these people when their panels aren't making electricity. And so these people have to pony up for this extra electricity, essentially, that they're making for them.
Alex: Right. We're making it for you, and even if you're not using it, you still owe us for it. Since we made it. [laughs] Seems sort of nuts.
Kendra: Yeah, it does. So I talked to a lawyer named Jill Kysor who agrees with you. She works at this organization, the Southern Environmental Law Center that was part of this lawsuit against Alabama Power to drop those fees. They did not win. She thinks that the best way to think about these fees is kind of like this ...
Jill Kysor: My mom, like so many other Americans during the pandemic, started a massive produce garden. She's been spending a lot of her time in the last year growing her own produce. And as a result, she's buying less produce from the grocery store. Would the grocery store start charging her more because she's buying less produce from them? No, that would be ridiculous. And I don't think any of us would stand for it. So I think we could look at the same question for rooftop solar customers. You know, should an electric utility charge a rooftop solar customer more just because they're buying less electricity from the utility? I would say no, the electric utilities aren't guaranteed to have us buy a certain amount of energy from them so that they can make a certain amount of money. You know, they're in business, and they're going to be subject to competition even when they're living in a monopoly environment.
Alex: I mean, it's like, it is crazy when you think about it. It's like, literally the chutzpah of that argument of just sort of like, "Well, you're using less of this thing that we made, but we made it, so you still have to buy it from us, even though you're not using it."
Kendra: And Jill Kysor said that in many cases, those costs are already covered because almost every utility has some sort of minimum bill or base bill.
Kendra: That is designed to sort of cover some of these basic utility costs of maintaining the grid and so forth.
Kendra: And so that, even if you have rooftop solar, you're already going to be paying whatever that minimum bill is.
Alex: All right. So why is this happening? Why is something that we would never allow a grocery store to do, why are we allowing a utility to do it?
Kendra: So here's where I think we need to take a minute to explain how a utility works. Essentially, government gives them exclusive right to operate in a given area. But in exchange for that exclusive operating right, there are certain rules and regulations that dictate how they operate. And pricing restrictions. Like, they can only charge so much.
Alex: All right. So I'm let's say Alex's Utility. I get a contract from the state to provide all the electricity to a quadrant—I don't know. Let's say Ohio, my home state. I'm providing electricity to, I don't know, the southwest corner of Ohio. And the rules for me are I have to provide it to everyone, and I can't go over a certain price. But in exchange for that, I don't have any competitors. No one else can, say, start a wind farm and sell electricity to customers in my area for less than I do.
Kendra: Yeah. And as a utility, you might be inclined to see rooftop solar the same way you'd view that rogue wind farm—as competition. From the utility's perspective, the more people are creating their own electricity with rooftop solar panels, the less that they're buying from the utility. And in many places, utilities have a lot of political power, so they can get legislators to write rules that are in their favor.
Alex: So to answer Lindsey's question, it seems counterintuitive to charge that amount. You are correct. Well, it's not counterintuitive if you're a public utility monopoly trying to protect its interests, but it is counterintuitive if you want more people to put up solar panels. You are correct about that. This $5 per kilowatt charge per month is real. And she was asking, is it common? Like, does this happen everywhere? Do all utilities work this way?
Kendra: No. Some actually do the opposite. They actually provide incentives for solar. But what's happening in Alabama with the adding on fees, that does seem to be part of a growing nationwide trend.
Alex: Oh, okay. Wow.
Kendra: In Kansas for example, they tried charging rooftop solar owners, more per kilowatt-hour of electricity. So every kilowatt-hour of electricity that they pulled from the grid, that they took, they were going to try and charge them a higher rate than people who did not have rooftop solar.
Alex: Right. It's the same trick.
Kendra: That got overturned by the Kansas Supreme Court because it was viewed as discriminatory.
Kendra: So they're now tossing around the same kind of a fee like Alabama Power did, but it's lower.
Alex: Okay. So there's some number of utilities out there that are actively discouraging rooftop solar, but you also said that there are some that are doing the opposite and encouraging it?
Kendra: Yeah. For example Utah, it has this policy called net metering. It's this idea that, like, if I have a solar panel on my roof, I'm making electricity. I'm making more electricity than I currently need. I can sell it back to the grid.
Alex: So in Utah, I'm encouraged to have a solar panel on my roof because I get paid for selling the excess electricity back to the utility. Whereas in Alabama, I'm discouraged because they charge me a fee for my solar panels.
Kendra: Yeah. And, you know, unsurprisingly, whether your utility encourages or discourages rooftop solar has a big impact on whether or not people invest in it, whether they put it on their roofs.
Alex: That makes sense.
Kendra: For example, do you know how many people live in Alabama?
Alex: Uh, no. I mean, I'd guess it would be like, I don't know, five million or so?
Kendra: You're so close! 4.9 million.
Alex: Uh-huh. [laughs]
Kendra: Yeah. So you were, like, right there. Within the rounding error. So do you know how many rooftop solar installations they have?
Alex: I love this game. [laughs] I'm gonna guess in the tens of thousands.
Kendra: So according to Jill from the Southern Environmental Law Center, it's 300.
Alex: Oh, my god! Wow! So just 300 rooftop solar installations in a state of almost five million people. That is—I'm shocked. I'm shocked.
Alex: Not least because there's a lot of sunshine in Alabama! It's hot down there! Like, what?
Kendra: Yeah. So now let's compare that to Utah where remember, they have net metering so people get paid to sell any extra electricity that their solar panels make, which has about as third as many people as Alabama, it has 3.2 million people.
Kendra: And how many rooftop solar installations do you think they have?
Alex: All right. Well, I think directionally they're gonna have more, but I was way off with the tens of thousands. So I'm gonna say, I don't know, 2,000.
Kendra: It's actually closer to 40,000.
Alex: 40,000! Oh, so they do have tens of thousands in Utah.
Kendra: They do have tens of thousands in Utah.
Alex: Wow! So it turns out people respond to incentives. If you pay them for something, they do more of it. And if you charge them, they do less of it.
Kendra: Econ 101 sometimes is true.
Alex: It's sometimes true.
Kendra: But even small changes to incentives can have big impacts. So for most of 2017, if you were a solar customer of Utah's utility, Rocky Mountain Power, you could sell it back to the grid at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Kendra: Which is a good deal if you're trying to offset the kind of costs of building a solar system. In 2017, there was a shift in policy, and that rate dropped to nine cents per kilowatt-hour.
Kendra: And that one penny difference really seemed to impact how many people were willing to install solar. In 2017, when prices were at that 10 cents per kilowatt hour, they had about 12,400 rooftop solar installations.
Kendra: In 2018, after the price dropped to nine cents per hour—just one cent—there were only 3,500 new installations.
Alex: Okay. Wow. All right, so just a difference in one cent on what the utility was buying back the electricity at makes a huge, huge difference in the adoption of solar panels. And I mean, what strikes me in all of this, is just how much variation there is from utility to utility, right? Like, you have some utilities like in Alabama where Lindsey lives, charging people for putting up solar panels. And then you have other utilities like in Utah in 2017 sort of doing the opposite. Like, paying people for the electricity that their solar panels generate. So what determines how a utility is gonna come down on this? And I think more, I actually understand the Alabama position a little bit more. I obviously don't think it's the right position, but I understand why a utility who makes its money selling electricity would see solar panels as a threat. What is the business incentive for doing what, say, Utah was doing in 2017? What is the business incentive to buy power back from solar owners?
Kendra: It comes down to policy, but more broadly a state's goals. If you are in a state for example that has big climate change goals, or even big goals around grid resilience and energy independence, you may find bigger push for solar incentives, and the pleas of utilities may be less compelling. But if you're in a place where that's less of a priority or where there's a certain belief system in place, you'll have different incentives.
Alex: Right. So I would imagine, like, the problem with all of this, if it's such a hodgepodge, like, if you can go from state to state or even sort of like region to region within a state and find completely different incentives coming from the utility, like, sometimes they're actually encouraging rooftop solar sometimes they're actively discouraging it, sometimes they start out encouraging it and then start discouraging it sort of a year or two later, it just seems like its really hard if you are, like, actually a solar panel installer, seems like that would be a hard business environment to operate in where you just don't know what's coming where.
Kendra: Yeah, totally. It's a very mercurial environment. Like, in Utah, for example, one of the largest solar installers actually went out of business in the state.
Alex: Yeah. Right.
Kendra: And so there sort of needs to be kind of more consistent, I think, across the board guidance.
Alex: Yeah, it seems like if we want to actually build this into an industry, we're gonna need at least consistency, and that's gonna take some sort of, like, federal guidelines, it seems like. So very, very interesting. You know, our listener Lindsey, she had one final question which seems straightforward, but given all that we've talked about, I now think maybe isn't straightforward. Her final question was: does it make sense to put solar panels on your roof?
Kendra: Financial sense or environmental sense?
Kendra: Because from the point of view of the environment, assuming you're in a place that's reasonably sunny—and reasonably sunny can be quite broad. It does not have to be, like, you know, Arizona. It basically always makes sense to put up solar panels, presuming that they'll be up on your roof for 10, 15, 20 years. Financially, it sort of depends on which kind of utility provides your electricity. To figure out if it makes sense financially, Jill at the Southern Environmental Law Center says there are three things that you should consider.
Alex: All right. Three rules. I like it. Let's hear them. What's the first?
Kendra: So the first is fees. They should either be non-existent or quite low.
Alex: Okay, so none of that monkey business like those fees in Alabama that Lindsey wrote to us about in the first place that kicked off this whole conversation. Look out for those.
Kendra: Yeah. And sort of the second thing that you should make sure exists is net metering, which we mentioned in Utah.
Kendra: Which is the rate at which the utility is buying the electricity off of you should make sense. Are you being paid enough to make it make sense to buy a solar panel?
Kendra: And the last piece is access to financing. Is it relatively easy and straightforward to get the money that you need to pay for solar panels? Some places have laws on the books that make it possible to finance solar panels, other places don't. And in the places that don't, it's harder to pay for them. It's just that straightforward.
Alex: Got it.
Kendra: So making sure that where you are has kind of comprehensive and holistic financing is kind of the other critical piece of this.
Alex: Got it. Okay. So those are the three things you need to look into to see if solar makes financial sense. Like, are there fees, is there net metering and is there financing? and this is for if you want to put solar panels on your house.
Kendra: On your house.
Alex: On your roof. Yeah. Okay. Got it. Zooming out, I mean, it's pretty obvious looking at it from several steps back that, like, we just want to be doing more things that encourage more solar, right? Like, we need to be transitioning away from fossil fuels to, you know, sort of power our homes and heat and cool them. And, like, solar panels seem to be a big, smart example of how to do that. But it also feels like this is exactly the kind of nitty-gritty kinks that you have to work out in order to get there because, like, you've got this system that has been built up over the last century that involves this utility system, which is like a holdover from the days when people couldn't produce their own electricity. Most people are not gonna build a coal plant on their roof.
Kendra: You don't know my life. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] Most people who aren't you, they're not gonna build a natural gas generator on their roof. And so the utility system grew up out of that, the fact that electricity generation was this massive capital intensive undertaking. But now that it can be something that you put on your roof, like, we have to adjust. And it seems like we're in the very, very beginning of that adjustment.
Kendra: I mean, there's another element of it, which is people are increasingly pushing for more federal oversight over this kind of stuff, so that there can be consistent planning kind of across the board. And now with the Biden administration, there's a really big push for rooftop solar, so there's at least hope or appetite for some of this regulation.
Alex: Hopefully, there is some sort of—some bigger policy moves in place that will sort of like make it a little bit more rational. I guess we'll see.
Alex: Yeah. All right. Well, Kendra, thank you very much. That was fun and informative in your trademark style. And thanks to Lindsey very much for sending in your question.
Ayana: Hey, Alex.
Alex: Hey, you're back.
Ayana: I'm back with kelp facts. I have more ocean information I would like to share, surprising no one.
Alex: [laughs] Let's do it.
Ayana: So we had a bunch of listeners write in with questions about our two-part series on kelp.
Alex: Yes, we did two episodes on a fisherman-turned-kelp-farmer Bren Smith, and his organization which is called GreenWave, which is making this big push for building a domestic kelp farming industry in the United States You would think if we did two whole episodes on kelp, we would have addressed all the questions, but nope.
Ayana: Oh, there's so much more to know about seaweed. We're only just beginning.
Alex: Yes, exactly.
Ayana: So a few listeners wrote in with questions about kelp deforestation, and whether seaweed farming was really sustainable. They were concerned about the ecosystem impacts.
Ayana: Which, of course, is a concern that we appreciate. Shannon and Carrie wrote in about this. So a little bit more context there. If GreenWave and others were advocating for the harvest of wild kelp, that would indeed be a problem, because kelp forests across the West Coast in the US in particular have declined dramatically in the last few years, in part because of heat waves in the ocean. The ocean just got too hot for them to be comfortable. And there are some restoration efforts underway there. But definitely this is not about building a whole new industry around harvesting wild seaweed. We got to seed our own, plant our own, and then harvest what we've planted.
Alex: Right. Got it. Okay. Good, helpful.
Alex: Were there other questions?
Ayana: Yeah, and then we had sort of a big picture question about, is this even really a climate solution?
Ayana: Because if we're just growing it and eating it, it's like any other food and it doesn't, like, really make a big difference in the carbon balance.
Ayana: So the answer to whether farming seaweed is actually a climate solution depends on what we actually do with it, right? If we just eat it, eh, not so much. If we use it as fertilizer, and incorporate it into the soil and it becomes part of the soil carbon, that is a yes. If we're making it into bioplastics, that kind of depends on the manufacturing carbon footprint and that kind of thing. If we are just growing kelp and sinking it into the deep sea, that could potentially be more of a, like, literal carbon sink.
Alex: [laughs] It literally takes the organic matter in the seaweed and puts it at the bottom of the ocean where it can't get into the atmosphere.
Ayana: Yep. So the short answer is, this is certainly not a silver bullet solution to the climate crisis, but it is a way to absorb carbon. And then what we do with that carbon that's been absorbed through photosynthesis will determine how much of an impact that makes on carbon sequestration, on the balance of what's in the atmosphere. But this is—you know, I think of this not just as a numbers game, but as an element in the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a regenerative economy. And how we are starting to create new industries, new jobs that are much more sustainable overall. So seaweed farming, regenerative ocean farming, can be one piece of this greater puzzle.
Alex: Right. We can't just kelp farm our way out of this predicament, but it is adding to the positive side of the equation.
Ayana: Yep. And then we had a question about whether you can get carbon credits for coastal ecosystems, including kelp forests and kelp farming. The answer is not right now. But the US did become, in 2016, the first country to include blue carbon, that's these carbon captured in coastal sea grasses and mangroves and salt marshes in the national greenhouse gas emissions inventory. So the framework is set up so that in the future, the carbon sequestered by coastal ecosystems could be eligible for carbon credits. So obviously. I'm down for coastal ecosystems getting all the credit they deserve. So stay tuned for more on that at some point. I think that's it.
Alex: That's it, except for the calls to action, which we're doing something new on this episode, because Anna and Kendra carried the bulk of the episode with their amazing research into our listeners' questions. They are going to present the calls to action.
Ayana: Take it away!
Anna: All right. If you have an ever-growing plastic bag filled with other plastic bags under your sink, you can find a drop-off location for them at plasticfilmrecycling.org. And where possible, refuse plastic bags and bring your own. The thing about reusable bags is that they're best when you actually reuse them. You don't need to buy a new specific bag just for groceries, and whatever bag you use for groceries, keep on reusing it. You can also check and see if your city or state has plastic bag legislation in the works. And if you want to learn more about the plastic bag recycling market, you can listen to the 99 Percent Invisible episode on China's national sword policy, which banned foreign recyclables in 2018. We'll link to it in the newsletter and the show notes. Kendra!
Kendra: If you want to consider installing solar on your home or business, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has a homeowner's guide to going solar, as well as a calculator that can help you estimate the costs of going solar. And North Carolina State University's Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency can also help you figure out what solar incentives and tax credits are available where you live. If you want to focus more on the policy side, we also link to some resources about that in the show notes.
Kendra: And also a quick note, we get a lot of requests from people on how to get more engaged in climate change on a broader level. Well, if you live in the United States, the Climate Reality Project led by Al Gore, is taking applications for a climate leadership training focused on ecojustice. The training starts on April 22nd. Registration for the virtual training is now open until March 24 and is free We will include links to that in the show notes as well.
Anna: And to our New York listeners, sign the petition to legalize kelp farming in New York. That will be linked as well.
Alex: Thank you Kendra and Anna. All that remains now is for Ayana and I to do the credits.
Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. You can follow us @how2saveaplanet—with the number 2—on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.
Ayana: And me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Our show is reported and produced by Anna Ladd, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Ayo Oti.
Alex: Sound design, mixing and rad jingle-making by Peter Leonard with original music from Peter Leonard, Catherine Anderson and Emma Munger. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib.
Ayana: Special thanks to Dr. Jenna Jambeck of University of Georgia and National Geographic. Thanks for listening. We'll see ya next week!
Alex: [singing] It's listener mail time! [laughs]