Popularity of rooftop solar arrays posing challenges for firefighters

Popularity of rooftop solar arrays posing challenges for firefighters

The increasing use of solar power in the region is forcing fire officials to rethink how their departments fight fires involving the technology, especially when the system is on the roof of a burning building.

Coming into contact with live solar arrays and their wires can cause electrical shock or electrocution, according to area fire officials.

And that, along with the added weight solar panels put on a roof, has them concerned about the safety of their crews working a structure fire where the building has a roof-mounted solar array, they say.

Like live wires at a fire scene, photovoltaic systems have to be de-energized for firefighters to safely come into contact with them, fire officials say. If that isn’t possible, crews then have to stay away from panels and the area of roof where the panels are mounted, they said.

Even if the outside electrical connection to a building has been disconnected, a current would still flow between the building and the solar installation, until that system is somehow disconnected, Jeffrey Chickering, Keene’s deputy fire chief, said.

That can have an effect on the methods used to fight a fire, including where hoses are aimed and at what distance, and where holes are cut in a building’s roof to vent flames and smoke, he said.

Other concerns about fighting fires involving photovoltaic installations include the weight solar panels add to a roof, and the placement of those panels, he said.

Any weight added to a roof can increase the likelihood of some level of building collapse during a fire, he said, and firefighters aren’t going to cut through solar panels to vent a roof.

In addition, if the solar array goes right to a roof’s edge, firefighters aren’t going to hook a metal ladder onto it to gain access to the roof, he said.

“It definitely adds a lot more challenges for us,” he said.

One way Keene fire officials have sought to address that challenge is to work with the city’s building department staff to have a record of which buildings in the city have photovoltaic systems, where those systems are installed, and how they can be shut down, he said.

Another solution is training, he said, which the department did in-house in July 2016.

The training, put out by the Clean Energy States Alliance, included sections on recognizing photovoltaic systems and components, understanding systems’ labeling, ways to disconnect systems and tactical approaches.

According to the instruction material, solar thermal systems, which are used to heat water, don’t present the same risk of electrical shock as photovoltaic systems, but they could be a scalding hazard.

Swanzey Fire Chief Norman W. Skantze said the concept of photovoltaic installations affecting firefighting is fairly new and is not part of regular firefighter training, but being handled as a seminar-style class.

At some point, the training should be offered as part of regular firefighter courses with the use of residential and commercial photovoltaic systems becoming more widespread, he said.

“Sooner or later firefighters will encounter the panels in the normal course of their work,” he said. “We don’t want to see any member of the public, or firefighters, injured as a result of new technology.”

His department is evaluating how it can roll into the monthly training curriculum instruction on the potential hazards and strategies for approaching fires involving buildings with photovoltaic arrays, Skantze said.

In the meantime, Swanzey firefighters are being encouraged to participate in a self-paced online course put together by the International Association of Firefighters, he said.

According to the Clean Energy States Alliance training, there are three types of inverters that convert direct-current energy produced by a photovoltaic system into alternating current to match a building’s electrical system and the power grid.

Those inverters stop converting electricity when the utility power shuts down, the training said.

However, that doesn’t stop the photovoltaic system from producing electricity, and that system has to be de-energized manually through disconnection switches, according to the training.

Those disconnects can be inside or outside a house.

Newer systems have what’s called rapid shutdown, which stops the system from producing electricity quickly from one disconnection point, according to the training. Those systems would have been installed after the 2014 edition of the National Electric Code went into effect, mandating rapid shutdown for photovoltaic systems with rooftop solar arrays.

While there are codes to follow when installing photovoltaic systems, how those codes are applied and enforced ultimately depends on the city or town in New Hampshire, Pablo Fleischmann, co-owner of Green Energy Options in Keene, said.

For example, some communities require that solar panels to be installed with a 3-foot setback from the sides of the roof and the ridge, and others don’t, he said.

“What we’re running into here in New Hampshire, it depends on the town,” he said. “Some towns are taking it to the extreme no matter what. Some others don’t have any requirements.”

Solar arrays are made up of modules that are typically anywhere from 25 to 40 volts apiece, he said. It’s when those modules are connected into an array that the voltage increases, he said.

For example, his company installs residential solar arrays up to 600 volts, he said.

Craig J. Bell, general manager of Solar Source in Keene, said that in the electric code, rapid shutdown means interrupting the direct current of a roof-mounted photovoltaic system within 10 feet of the array on the outside of a building, and within 5 feet once the current enter a building.

Basically, the process lowers the voltage level of an array to 30 volts within 10 seconds, he said.

That voltage is considered safe to touch, and safe for firefighters to be up on a roof working around a solar array as long as they’re not cutting wires, he said.

The 2017 version of the code takes that a step further and requires there be an external means to activate a rapid shutdown, he said.

It also requires a distinction between labeling of systems with rapid shutdown depending on whether they were installed under the 2014 or 2017 code, he said.

Another requirement in the 2017 code changes the boundaries of the effects of the rapid shutdown to within 1 foot of a solar array on the outside of a building, and within 3 feet from where the current from the array enters a building, he said.

Further, it requires a rapid shutdown system to lower the voltage outside the 1- or 3-foot boundaries to 30 volts within 30 seconds, he said. Inside the boundaries, the voltage must be lowered to 80 volts within 30 seconds, but that change won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2019, he said.

The Keene and Swanzey fire departments haven’t be called to structure fires in their towns involving a residential or commercial roof-mounted solar array, but their counterpart in Peterborough has.

Peterborough Fire Chief Ed Walker said the call at a small hydroelectric facility about three years ago. Some type of fault in the solar panels on the building’s roof had caused them to ignite, he said. Firefighters stayed away from the roof and the panels and were able to put out the fire using water sprayed from an aerial ladder, he said.

Solar installations on the roofs or residential buildings aren’t a big problems, as they’re typically only on one side, he said. The roof-mounted commercial systems can be quite problematic because the roofs of those buildings are usually flat with solar panels covering them, he said.

Another factor to consider is that as solar technology advances, the traditional solar panel design is changing, Walker said. For example, solar panels designed mimic shingles are now available, he said.

As photovoltaic systems become more popular, it’s important for firefighters to be aware of the systems, the risks they pose when fighting fires, and how to minimize those risks, he said. Peterborough firefighters have so far done some online training and had discussions about the topic, he said.

“If you don’t see something a lot, you don’t worry about it,” he said. “This is something we’re seeing a lot of now, so we have to worry about it.”



Even teachers now say that academics are not the key to kids’ success

Even teachers now say that academics are not the key to kids’ success

To many, increasing automation and the unprecedented pace of technological changes mean kids need more than just academic skills to succeed. They need confidence and motivation to tackle problems, interpersonal skills to work with others and the resilience to stay on task when things fall apart.

New research from the Sutton Trust, a British foundation focused on social mobility, finds that 88% of young people, 94% of employers, and 97% of teachers say these so-called life skills are as or more important than academic qualifications. Perhaps more surprising: more than half of teachers surveyed—53%—believe these “non-cognitive” or “soft” skills are more important than academic skills to young people’s success.

“It is the ability to show flexibility, creativity, and teamwork that are increasingly becoming just as valuable, if not more valuable, than academic knowledge and technical skills,” said Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust.

The teachers’ perspective flies in the face of a decades-long movement from governments in the US and UK toward increased standards and testing. The more educators emphasize test scores, the more teachers feel hamstrung to focus their teaching on preparing for those tests, which crowds out the space to teach a subject they might love, or to underpin the subject with creative and collaborative projects and lessons to help build social and emotional learning, or character.

While testing has an important role to play in education, more research is pointing to the idea that too much testing crowds out real learning. Amanda Spielman, Britain’s chief school inspector, said this week that “the regular taking of test papers does little to increase a child’s ability to comprehend. A much better use of time is to teach and help children to read and read more.”

Meanwhile, teaching “character” is taking hold everywhere from Singapore and China to Colombia and Uganda. And employers are on board. Recent research in the US shows that jobs requiring a combination of strong social and cognitive skills are rising far faster than those based on cognitive ability alone.

Unfortunately, the Sutton Trust research found that, despite a lot of lip service about the importance of life skills, most schools in the UK aren’t doing enough to teach them. The National Foundation for Education Research asked secondary school teachers (kids aged 13-18) across England how many offered programs to build life skills, such as extracurricular activities (sports, drama, debating), or volunteering programs. They also asked kids whether they participated. More than a third of students—37%—don’t take part in any clubs or activities. Nearly half of teachers said their schools provided debating, yet just 2% of young people said they participated.

There is also a huge socioeconomic dimension. Less than half (46%) of students from disadvantaged backgrounds participate in extracurriculars, compared to 66% from better off families.

The group stressed the need for a more holistic approach to children’s education, and also vouchers to help disadvantaged kids participate in extracurricular activities. It noted that private schools have long focused on the importance of building confidence, articulacy (a Britishism for being articulate), and perseverance. And research shows those private school kids dominate the ranks of government and industry.

Even teachers now say that academics are not the key to kids’ success

How Cities Are Trying to Convince Landlords to Rent to the Homeless

How Cities Are Trying to Convince Landlords to Rent to the Homeless

Families wait years to get off the government’s waiting list for a rental voucher, sometimes while living in a homeless shelter. When they finally get that housing aid, they often struggle to find landlords willing to rent to them.

Most landlords screen out people who have a criminal background, poor credit or a history of evictions, making it difficult for voucher holders to find somewhere to live, even when they can afford rent. In fact, it’s common for people to lose their vouchers — which have expiration dates — after months of unsuccessful searching for a home.

To ease landlords’ worries and house more of the homeless, a growing number of cities are offering to reimburse landlords for certain losses — unpaid back rent or repairs for tenant-caused damages — that result from accepting applicants who have rental vouchers.

“Many, many communities are doing this, and it’s out of necessity,” says Elisha Harig-Blaine, who works on affordable housing issues at the National League of Cities. “They simply can’t get people placed into housing with these subsidies.”

This month, Boston and the District of Columbia announced their own “housing guarantee” or “risk mitigation” programs.

In Boston, the city will reimburse landlords for up to $10,000 in unpaid back rent or property damages that go beyond normal wear and tear. In D.C., a nonprofit is raising $500,000 in private funds to cover up to $5,000 in landlord costs per tenant. In both places, program staff will be available to address landlord complaints and provide case management for the tenants.

The question is, will that be enough to convince landlords to accept tenants who pay with rental vouchers?

In many of the cities that have these programs, affordable housing is hard to find, but renters with clean criminal and financial backgrounds are not.

“At the end of the day, real estate is a business. These landlords want to do the right thing, but we’re talking about their livelihood,” says Harig-Blaine, who has attended landlord recruitment events in nine communities across the country.

Landlords, he says, don’t want to deal with missed payments or other trouble that might come with renting to someone who was recently homeless.

Nevertheless, local officials in D.C. — which is getting 800 new residents every month and has some of the country’s highest rents — are optimistic.

“Rather than [renting] to the millennial who is just moving in from some other part of the country,” Neil Albert, president and executive director of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District, the nonprofit raising the money, told Governing. Albert thinks the risk funds will spur landlords to “weigh our needs and give equal consideration” to voucher holders.

There is no official number of landlord assistance programs, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, but they exist in Denver, Fargo, N.D.; Marin County, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle-King County, Wash, which started one of the first almost a decade ago. Some states, such as Minnesota and Oregon, offer them as well.

Before launching its program, Boston researched them in other cities and found that participating landlords rarely had to use the risk funds, according to Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development. Last year, in Seattle and King County, for example, participating landlords filed mitigation claims for only 15 percent of the renters covered by the program. Data on how many landlords participate in each city and how many people are housed through such programs, however, is not readily available.

D.C. officials, though, expect demand for the risk funds to be higher in their city.

“We think it will be a little different here in D.C. We think people will actually use this fund,” says Albert, adding that if it results in more units being rented to voucher-holders, then “that’s a great problem to have.”

One difference between the Boston and D.C. landlord programs is the funding and management structure. In Boston, the city is putting up the risk funds and managing its landlord relations on a two-year pilot basis. In D.C., a nonprofit business improvement district is raising funds — mostly from developers — and a local housing nonprofit is administering the program. That’s because landlords and property managers in D.C. pushed for a privately managed fund that could provide reimbursements faster than a government agency, says Albert.

More than 5 million Americans receive some kind of rental voucher from the state or federal government, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To qualify, a person or household must be below the federal poverty line or make less than 30 percent of the area median income. Because the program is not an entitlement, less than a quarter of all eligible families receive housing assistance, and many households wait years before a voucher becomes available.

Landlord assistance programs are trying to address a chicken-and-egg problem, says Laura Zeilinger, D.C.’s director of human services. Landlords want renters who have jobs and earn a steady income. But stable housing is usually the first step to helping people get and keep a job. She’s hoping that landlords in D.C. will waive income requirements in their applications.

“Housing is an important foundation for people to be able to work and to achieve their potential,” she says. “It’s a really difficult thing for people to do while living in a shelter environment.”


Two identical nuclear projects, one in Georgia and one in South Carolina. Only one survived.

WAYNESBORO, GA. – At 4:30 p.m., a siren sounds at the Vogtle nuclear worksite, and the exodus is on.

Workers from across the nation have moved here to build two nuclear reactors, so from Missouri and Texas, welders and electricians pile into cars and trucks. From Georgia and South Carolina, they form a line out the gates to a country road that’s stop and go.

Georgia’s Vogtle nuclear reactor project is just 130 miles from South Carolina’s V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, but activity at the two complexes couldn’t be more different.

At South Carolina’s V.C. Summer site north of Columbia, parking lots are mostly empty. Many areas resemble junkyards after workers there lost their jobs and walked off the site in July. Left behind: trucks with their doors wide open; construction plans scattering in the wind, and tens of millions of dollars in equipment and supplies, now rusting and rotting away.

But here in the pine lands and cotton fields south of Augusta, nearly 6,000 workers still have jobs. And, at shift change on this rainy Monday afternoon, they create an hour-long traffic jam. Behind them, a dozen cranes rise from a vast parking lot that’s still packed. Two new cooling towers stand so high they merge with rain clouds.

The Vogtle and V.C. Summer nuclear projects were identical twins. Both had the same reactor design, the same contractor, the same modular construction strategy. They began at roughly the same time in the late 2000s. Both benefited from new laws that shifted financial risks from utilities to ratepayers. But only one of these twins survived. Why?

A deeper look at the Vogtle nuclear project helps explain what happened to its South Carolina twin, how Westinghouse bungled construction at both sites. It exposes South Carolina’s lax oversight and how this failed to give ratepayers a true picture of V.C. Summer’s problems. Georgia, meantime, had monitors who consistently and painstakingly pointed out the project’s problems — in public. Ultimately, Vogtle’s story shows how money and political power triumphed over incompetence, at least so far.

Nuclear renaissance

The Vogtle nuclear complex is roughly halfway between Allendale and Augusta, just off a two-lane road that roughly follows the Savannah River. Amid the area’s rolling hills are a scattering of modest homes, dozens of RV parks for workers and two convenience stores. A prodigious amount of roadkill is a testament to its remote location and heavy construction traffic.

Southern Company’s subsidiary, Georgia Power, began work here in 1974 on two nuclear reactors, Vogtle 1 and 2. The company named them after Alvin W. Vogtle, a former chairman and president, who among other things was a World War II prisoner of war. The feisty Vogtle tried to break out four times, succeeding on his fifth. His exploits inspired Steve McQueen’s character in the movie “The Great Escape.”

Georgia Power’s relationship with nuclear power isn’t so different than its persistent former chairman. In 1979, while Vogtle 1 and 2 units were still under construction, Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant had a near meltdown. Public support for nuclear power cooled, and chilled even more after Russia’s Chernobyl blast in 1986. But Georgia Power kept pushing forward. Vogtle 1 finally went online in 1987, and Unit 2 in 1989.

By then, America’s nuclear construction industry had begun a two-decade hibernation. Burned by high costs and numerous failures, energy producers moved toward coal and natural gas.

But in the early 2000s, Georgia Power and other utilities were ready to try again. In 2003, a little-known group, NuStart Energy, formed to usher in a new era of nuclear power in the United States. The group included Southern Company, SCANA and nine other utilities, mostly in the South. Joining them were Westinghouse and General Electric, each with a new reactor design. They stood to make tens of billions of dollars if this nuclear renaissance materialized.

The power of Georgia Power

Things would be different this time, Westinghouse promised then and still does today. Westinghouse had a new reactor design, the AP1000. It incorporated the latest technology. Old reactors use pumps to shower water onto overheating reactors, but the AP1000 relied on a nearly 800,000-gallon container of water above the reactor. In an emergency, water would pour onto the reactor and prevent a meltdown.

And new plants would be constructed differently, Westinghouse advertised. Instead of doing nearly all work onsite, key components would be fabricated off site at dedicated factories. These modules would then be shipped to work sites and assembled like giant Legos. This approach would cut costs and improve quality, especially if Westinghouse produced reactors in large numbers as the industry hoped.

Utilities and their lobbyists went to work. In the mid 2000s, they prodded state legislatures to pass pro-nuclear laws. These new laws, including South Carolina’s Base Load Review Act, generally shifted financial risks of new reactors from utilities to ratepayers.

The industry’s campaign was particularly aggressive in Georgia. Energy-related PACs and lobbyists poured money into campaign coffers of lawmakers and utility regulators alike.

Unlike South Carolina, where lawmakers appoint commissioners, Georgia’s commissioners are elected. Campaign donations even crossed state lines, with SCANA executives chipping in at least $53,000 since 2006, according to a compilation by the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group. All told, lobbyists and utility players pumped nearly $2 million into commissioners’ campaigns over the past decade.

Georgia Power “has deep tentacles and deep relationships” at all levels of government, said Glenn Richardson, Georgia’s House Speaker from 2004 to 2010, the first Republican since Reconstruction to hold the post. He said Georgia Power regularly showered communities with donations, accumulating goodwill and favors. It had a deep stable of lobbyists. Richardson said he was amazed at how the utility could advance its legislative interests quickly, often without leaving fingerprints.

Yet, he added, Georgia Power and its allies made solid cases that they needed new nuclear reactors. Coal was in decline; natural gas prices were still high in the mid-2000s; solar and wind weren’t yet competitive. “And, you have to remember that in 2004, ’05 and ’06, Georgia had exponential growth,” he said. “We were on fire, and we didn’t think we would have enough electricity for everyone moving here.”

Amid this legislative push, on April 9, 2008, a consortium led by Georgia Power made a deal with Westinghouse to build two new AP1000 reactors at Vogtle.

The next month, SCANA and Santee Cooper made a similar deal for V.C. Summer near the small town of Jenkinsville.

The race to build the new generation of nuclear reactors had begun.

The insiders

Constructing a plant to safely split atoms is a remarkably complex endeavor, one that requires extensive engineering know-how and documentation. So, in 2009, Georgia’s Public Service Commission set aside $600,000 a year to hire expert construction monitors. Georgia Power agreed to foot the bill. The commission then hired William Jacobs to lead the monitoring team.

Jacobs had a lengthy resume: He graduated from Georgia Tech with a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. He worked for a Florida engineering company and on nuclear projects in Korea. In 1979, he landed a job with Westinghouse and managed nuclear plants in the Philippines and Yugoslavia. In the late 1980s, he became a sought-after consultant, offering testimony about nuclear issues in at least 10 states, including South Carolina.

South Carolina regulators tried to hire Jacobs to monitor the V.C. Summer project but lost out to Georgia, said Nanette Edwards, deputy executive director of South Carolina’s Office of Regulatory Staff.

On the surface, Georgia’s monitoring plan had potential conflicts of interest, given that Georgia Power was effectively paying the monitoring team’s expenses and Jacobs’ past employment with Westinghouse. But Jacobs knew that a nuclear renaissance wouldn’t happen unless Westinghouse built Vogtle on time and on budget.

So, as construction picked up in 2012, Jacobs and his team aggressively identified roadblocks — ones that would haunt both the Georgia and South Carolina projects in the coming years. In public hearings that year, Jacobs warned that Westinghouse had no firm schedule that integrated the many tasks needed to complete the reactors. Instead, Westinghouse managed the project with a “six-month lookahead schedule.”

It was a stunning revelation; the absence of a firm schedule was particularly critical given the project’s modular construction. Delays in one module could ripple through the entire project. And Jacobs highlighted major quality-control problems at off-site factories. He cited safety problems in Louisiana uncovered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Welders and workers there didn’t have the expertise to build nuclear components, much less document what they were doing. He testified that basic paperwork lacked signatures and contained illegible notes. Documentation was in such disarray that sorting it out would take longer than building a module from scratch.

Work at the Vogtle site itself also wasn’t going well; early concrete pours weren’t done properly, he told commissioners. Workers had to redo rebar because it wasn’t done to code. During a 2012 hearing, he said that Westinghouse’s performance was unsatisfactory — so bad that he urged Georgia regulators to consider a surprising scenario: the project, though barely off the ground, already could be as much as four years behind schedule.

Different state, different monitor

In 2011, South Carolina’s Office of Regulatory Staff also hired a construction monitor, another nuclear industry insider named Gary Jones.

Like Jacobs, Jones had an impressive resume. A senior vice president and owner of Sargent & Lundy, a large Chicago construction consulting company, he worked on nuclear projects in China and Korea and several in the United States.

Unlike Jacobs, Jones painted a much rosier portrait when he testified about the project’s status in 2012.

He told the S.C. Public Service Commission that V.C. Summer project hadn’t produced a detailed project schedule, but that he expected one soon.

At the time, SCANA wanted to push the completion date seven months forward. Jones warned commissioners this timetable was “aggressive and ambitious” and noted problems with module fabrication and quality control issues. But he concluded with a recommendation that regulators accept South Carolina Electric & Gas’s aggressive new completion schedule — and that the state approve SCE&G’s request to increase the cost of the project by $131 million.

He wouldn’t testify publicly for another four years.

Both projects fall behind

By 2016, Jacobs and his colleagues had a long history of identifying and making public major problems at the Vogtle site.

Time and again, he and his colleagues found that Westinghouse consistently failed to produce a detailed construction schedule, depending instead on short-term “look-aheads.”

Over and over he brought up that Westinghouse had yet to finalize engineering drawings. He told Georgia commissioners about his visit to Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor project in China. His biggest impression from that trip was how far workers at Vogtle had to go.

He testified roughly every six months. Information about his findings was posted on the Georgia Public Service Commission website, as well as the questions his team posed to Georgia Power. These public hearings also gave the project’s opponents chances to cross examine Georgia Power officials. Armed with Jacobs’ findings, a lawyer for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy grilled a Georgia Power official earlier this year about the project’s slow pace.

The official acknowledged that a consultant had examined productivity and found workers spent more time doing “non-work-related activities” than actual work. Progress was so slow that between April 2016 and April 2017, the Vogtle project fell behind 325 days, or “almost a day-for-day slippage,” the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy noted in a court filing.

Vogtle’s twin in South Carolina had similar productivity issues and delays. But the V.C. Summer project’s problems were often papered over by SCANA and Santee Cooper officials. On Sept. 21, 2016, SCANA and Santee Cooper held a “media day” at the plant where executives assured reporters that the project had faced some challenges but was on track.

“People ask, ‘If you could do it again, would you make the same decision?’” SCANA Chief Executive Officer Kevin Marsh told reporters. “Absolutely, I would make the same decision. I feel as strongly today — probably even stronger today than I did back in 2008 — that this is the solution for us, for a clean energy future.”

Behind closed doors, however, SCANA and Santee Cooper officials had received a scathing report from a consultant, Bechtel, a large civil engineering company. Kept secret from investors and the public, the Bechtel audit highlighted many problems that Jacobs and his team in Georgia had talked about publicly for years.

‘Significant progress’

South Carolina’s Office of Regulatory Staff has paid Jones, its construction monitor, an average of $122,000 a year since 2012 to keep track of work at V.C. Summer. But Jones reportedly didn’t learn about the Bechtel report until this summer when it was referenced during a Senate hearing and posted on The Post and Courier’s website, said Edwards of the Office of Regulatory Staff.

Jones had visited the V.C. Summer site monthly since 2011 and provided the Office of Regulatory Staff regular reports, ORS officials told The Post and Courier. But he testified publicly just twice, once in 2012 and again in 2016.

“We feel very good about his testimony in 2016,” Edwards said.

Jones’ 2016 testimony wasn’t as rosy as his comments four years before, but it still lacked the detail and sense of urgency of Jacobs’ work in Georgia. Jones testified about the project’s “significant progress,” especially now that Westinghouse had brought in Fluor, an experienced construction company, to sort out the project’s longstanding problems. But he added that he was skeptical about Westinghouse’s ability to complete the project on time.

“Well, I’ll be perfectly candid,” Jones told state regulators in 2016. “I don’t think that the project is going to hit their specific completion dates.”

Jones did not respond directly to recent requests for comment, but in an email through the Office of Regulatory Staff, he said Westinghouse had a schedule that changed often because of delays. He said that SCE&G and Westinghouse couldn’t agree on a long-term labor and construction schedule in 2013, and that “the project was managed on the basis of detailed three-month look-ahead schedules” after that. As the months passed, ORS never gained access to a long-term schedule, he said.

By early March, the problems with South Carolina’s project couldn’t be hidden anymore. At a meeting in New York, Westinghouse officials told SCANA and Santee Cooper that it still didn’t have a detailed construction schedule.

Lonnie Carter, Santee Cooper’s CEO, later wrote a letter calling the news “devastating.” Devastating perhaps, but given Jacobs’ public testimony about Vogtle’s schedule issues, it shouldn’t have been surprising.

Spreading the pain

Stan Wise, chairman of Georgia Public Service Commission, watched with interest as SCANA and Santee Cooper wrestled with their decision to shut down the V.C. Summer project. SCANA and Santee Cooper and their ratepayers had sunk $9 billion into the South Carolina project, more than the state’s annual budget. Westinghouse had bought more than 90 percent of the supplies for the plant but was less than a third of the way through actual construction. Estimates about the final price tag topped $25 billion.

When SCANA and Santee Cooper finally pulled the plug July 31, Wise said to himself: “We’re the last one standing.”

Georgia Power’s consortium and Georgia regulators also had a decision to make. As with V.C. Summer, only about 30 percent of Vogtle had been built.

“There was some real gnashing of teeth in Georgia to go or not go,” Wise said. But in the end, the Georgia consortium replaced Westinghouse with Bechtel as its primary contractor and pressed on.

While the Vogtle and V.C. Summer projects were virtually identical, Wise said the utilities behind the projects were notably different, which partly explains why Georgia Power moved forward.

The Georgia nuclear consortium received more money from Toshiba to settle construction problems. Georgia also had loan guarantees from the federal government that cut future financing costs. SCANA and Santee Cooper had decided against such guarantees.

Moreover, Georgia Power and its parent, the Southern Company, was much larger than SCANA, and could spread the project’s cost over a larger base of ratepayers, Wise said.

Georgia Power serves 2.5 million customers versus SCANA’s 717,000. In South Carolina, roughly 18 cents per dollar on an SCE&G bill goes toward the nuclear project. Because of Georgia Power’s larger customer base, it’s just 5 cents per dollar for its customers.

Wise called the difference in ratepayer risks “remarkable.” The 18 percent charge on SCE&G electric bills “will have a terrible impact on South Carolina residents and businesses for decades to come,” he said.

“We’re better off today with it going forward,” he added, “In South Carolina you have a finger pointing campaign about who knew what and when and who’s going to pay for it all. No good comes out of any of those scenarios.”

Quitting time

Monday was the first day that Bechtel was officially in charge of construction at the Vogtle site.

“They can’t point fingers anymore at Westinghouse,” Wise said. “It’s theirs.”

It was an inauspicious beginning for Bechtel. The day’s rainstorm drenched the worksite, and a few departing workers said they were let off early. They left during the afternoon shift change. And the result was like a parking lot after a major sports event: a massive rush to get out.

With the new cooling towers getting soaked by the storm, the huge, transient workforce filed out of two gates. From Kentucky and Alabama, they turned onto River Road, a few stopping at convenience stores to pick up beers. From Florida and South Carolina, they sped on country roads, turning into the many RV parks that have popped up like toadstools around the plant. Thousands of workers on the move, the last ones standing.


The Radical Reference Librarians Who Use Info to Challenge Authority – Atlas Obscura

The Radical Reference Librarians Who Use Info to Challenge Authority – Atlas Obscura

An adaptation of Banksy’s “Flower Bomber,” this depicts a librarian in protest, throwing Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.

FROM AUGUST 29 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 2, 2004, a series of protests erupted in New York in response to the 2004 Republican National Convention and the nomination of George W. Bush for the impending election. Nearly 1,800 protesters were arrested during the convention, and later filed a civil rights suit, citing violation of their constitutional rights.

During the protests, a steady team provided support to anyone who needed information amid the confusion: a modest group of socially conscious librarians from around the United States, armed with folders of facts ranging from legal rights in dealing with police to the locations of open bathrooms.

“We wanted to operate as if we were bringing a reference desk to the streets,” explains Lia Friedman, Director of Learning Services at University of California San Diego, who was at one of the protest marches in 2004. At the time, fewer people had smartphones, making this service both new and important. When someone asked a question that wasn’t included in their traveling reference desk folders, other librarians waiting at their home computers were poised to research and deliver information by phone.

The group of librarians soon formed into the first-ever chapter of the Radical Reference Collective, a non-hierarchal volunteer collective who believe in supporting social justice, independent journalists, and activist causes. Since the group’s first action at the Republican National Convention of 2004, the group, originally based in New York, has spread across the United States as a collection of individual local chapters. New collectives formed via library listservs, the Rad Ref’s website, and word of mouth.

Because the organization is non-hierarchical, there is no consensus on exactly what the “radical” in Radical Reference really means, nor what kind of work it might imply. Members come from different backgrounds; one New York City Rad Ref member is personally involved with a group that provides street medics training to help people medically during protests; other members are from academia or are involved in work with prisoners or science archives. The website for Rad Ref points out that in no way does the word “radical” specifically denote a political affiliation of any kind; the word “radical” is used to challenge “mainstream meaning which largely marginalizes the term and along with it certain groups.” But, members do form their own opinions on the matter.

“In my opinion, using the word ‘radical’ means advocating for change, whether that is political, societal,” says Friedman. Audrey Lorberfeld, Digital Technical Specialist at The New York Academy of Medicine and longtime member of the New York Rad Ref group, says that this inherent politicization of information is apparent to librarians regardless of their specialty: in the introductory information sciences courses for those pursuing a Masters of Library Sciences in the U.S., librarians-to-be become well-versed in the American Librarians Association code of ethics, which includes intellectual and informational freedom. According to both Lorberfeld and Friedman, who were interviewed separately for this article, to many librarians, the idea that information is neutral is a myth.

Now, amid a divisive political climate in the U.S., the original New York group is continuing to provide open-access information for all, be it about a specific historical fact, civil rights infringement statistic, or the complex laws regarding immigration. Often this support is lended to social justice organizations, independent journalists, and, as their website states, “anyone who questions authority.”

Some of the Rad Ref groups use social media to communicate and promote events, talks, and workshops with the public and activist organizations, while others meet face-to-face. The topics vary wildly; some events may concern more local issues, like planning support for a library worker strike, while others could involve “creating or using a resource guide on a relevant issue, i.e. Black Lives Matter, Critical Librarianship, Fact Checking basics” says Friedman.

Rad Ref has sizzled in the background of protests, local workshops and activist groups across the U.S. since its inception, although participation varies, and each local group is unique. Friedman spent years providing information through the Rad Ref website, which formerly acted as a virtual reference question desk. More recently she has participated on a smaller scale within the San Diego group, which sometimes has only a few members; both Friedman and Lorberfeld noted that since librarians tend to be involved in multiple projects and membership is voluntary, the numbers of a group can fluctuate. Occasionally, the groups have gone on hiatus, as the New York group’s online reference presence did in 2013, when its members didn’t have time to devote to the struggles of running a volunteer-based organization.

That hiatus hasn’t lasted, though: New York City’s Rad Ref was reinvigorated after President Donald Trump took his oath of office in early 2017. And these librarians are ready to radicalize their role as information champions. During their first meeting post-hiatus, the room was overflowing with activists and librarians who deeply cared about organizing to preserve information. “It was an amazing feeling,” says Lorberfeld.

Right now, the New York group’s goal is to build a community of knowledgeable experts on the art of finding and delivering information, which can become a resource for librarians and activist organizations alike. “We’re trying to look inward and educate ourselves, from anything from immigration rights to grassroots organizing best practices,” says Lorberfeld. “One member is making a guide about Unions in New York City; what they are, how to join them,” and another is creating a map of available free meeting places for organizations throughout the city.

Friedman and other Rad Ref volunteers once helped a writer who was working on research for a nonfiction book on resistance and struggle within women’s prisons, for example, and needed access to statistics and facts that were not easy to find, such as the amount of prisoners in a specific county in a specific year. Through the website, Rad Ref librarians were able to provide specific numbers she used throughout her book by pooling their skills in data research and law. While the reference service aspect of the website has been inactive since the hiatus, the website is still available as an archive, and librarians will still answer the occasional question in the Rad Ref inbox.

It might seem like information is open to everyone today: the internet is common and most people know how to type a sentence into Google. But as Friedman and Lorberfeld explain, there’s often more to it than that when trying to find specific and often very meaningful details and information. Sometimes, the only thing keeping data from, say, a government website like that of the Environmental Protection Agency from being removed or tampered with by politicians may be the librarians, working behind the scenes to preserve that information—something that actually happened earlier this year.

“We used to teach that a .gov site was trusted. And that’s a little bit more challenging to do now,” Friedman says. A Google search often isn’t curated or necessarily fact-checked, and doesn’t always provide multiple and balanced sources. Sometimes key information is behind an academic journal’s steep paywall, or buried in government documents under specialized lingo. “We really wanted to support independent journalists and activists, and really wanted to give people access to information, which is a pretty librarian thing to do,” says Friedman.

It really is a pretty librarian thing to do. Despite librarians’ public image of glasses-clad women hushing pesky kids, library workers around the world, from South Africa to Sweden, have formed similar organizations to Rad Ref, according to Alfred Kagan in his book Progressive Library Organizations: A Worldwide History. Since the 1960s in the United States, many library workers have committed to “social responsibility,” the democratic giving of information to the public and to free speech. Kagan writes that progressive groups have used their independence from the American Librarians Association (ALA), the major national librarian group in the U.S., “to take radical stances.”

A subunit of the ALA includes the Social Responsibilities Round Table, which has, according to its website, worked to democratize the ALA with human and economic rights in mind since 1969. Similar groups exist around the United States, such as the Progressive Librarians Guild, which aims toward an international agenda. Rad Ref participates in this tradition, though it differs in that it’s comprised of local librarian groups who work within their individual volunteer base’s skills and goals, without a central governance.

“We all sort of have a really core sentimental belief of information access as a human right, and I feel like that really governs what we do within the group,” Lorberfeld says. By using their diverse backgrounds and talents, Rad Ref is now readying itself to help activist groups by promoting information that aids in furthering social equality.


Today’s roads can’t handle today’s climate conditions | Smart Cities Dive

Today’s roads can’t handle today’s climate conditions | Smart Cities Dive

Dive Brief:

  • Engineers are using outdated temperature data — from 1964 to 1995 — to pick the right temperature-sensitive asphalt blends for use on roads today, Ars Technica reported, citing a new study in Nature Climate Change, which found the mismatch could raise road maintenance costs significantly.
  • In a study of nearly 800 asphalt roads built in the U.S. over the last 20 years, researchers found that 35% used an asphalt product ill-suited to current climate conditions. For one-quarter of those cases, the roads weren’t built to handle the high temperatures it experienced currently.
  • The researchers note that using an asphalt product even one grade short of what would be necessary could cut a few years off the road’s life, requiring repaving sooner than anticipated.

Dive Insight:

One in five miles of highway pavement was in poor condition in 2014 with urban roads (32%) worse off than rural ones (14%), according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Poor roads don’t cost only those charged with their maintenance and repairs, however. That level of disrepair caused vehicle operators $112 billion in additional fixes and operating costs that year.

State and local governments paved roads in asphalt when prices for the material were low. Now, they are now rethinking that strategy as construction costs trend upward. To help manage those costs, at least 27 states have turned some of their asphalt roads to gravel, with most of that work occurring in the last five years, the ASCE reported.

Omaha, NE, is one municipality doing just that. The New York Times reported earlier this year that the city decided to convert some asphalt roads, including those in higher-end neighborhoods, to gravel after it struggled to fund repairs, such as filling potholes.

Montpelier, VT, has also made headlines for its de-paving activities. The city saved $120,000 by replacing asphalt on some run-down roads with dirt and gravel reinforced with a geotextile for stability rather than repaving, Wired reported.

A substantial number of de-paved roads are in rural areas that don’t see heavy traffic, according to a 2016 study from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program. Still, regardless of their location, drivers aren’t necessarily in favor of gravel roads, which generally lead to more wear on their vehicles as compared to asphalt or concrete surfaces.

However, it’s likely more state and local governments will look to de-paving as a way to manage road maintenance costs as questions continue around potential new long-term funding sources for infrastructure.


How Do Consumers Really Feel About Facial Recognition? – eMarketer

How Do Consumers Really Feel About Facial Recognition? – eMarketer

Last month Apple unveiled the iPhone X—the company’s most expensive device to date, which comes with a host of new features, including facial recognition technology.

According to Apple, the device uses light projection and an infrared camera to create a 3-D map of a user’s face. While new to Apple, facial identification technology has been used by other manufacturers, such as Apple rival Samsung, for some time now.

There’s no denying that smartphones with biometrics will soon be the norm. But consumers are somewhat split when it comes to mobile devices with facial recognition capability, data from Morning Consult reveals.

Its survey of US internet users in September 2017 showed that 34% of respondents had a favorable view of facial recognition software in personal devices. In contrast, 39% of those polled felt the opposite way. And over a quarter (26%) said they either weren’t sure how they felt, or had no opinion about it.

Women were more likely than men to feel at least somewhat unfavorably toward this type of technology. For example, while 30% of women surveyed had at least a somewhat favorable view of facial recognition software, 41% expressed the opposite sentiment. Men, on the other hand, were nearly split in their attitudes.

Many consumers are likely not sold on facial recognition because the technology creeps them out.

According to a June 2017 survey from RichRelevance, facial recognition was one of the “creepiest” technologies out there. Indeed, over two-thirds of US internet users it polled found it creepy.


Where “Jaywalking” Is Not a Crime – Streetsblog USA

Where “Jaywalking” Is Not a Crime – Streetsblog USA

What would it be like to live in a place with safely designed streets, where people on foot can cross midblock if they think it’s safe, knowing that the law supports them?

You can see for yourself if you ever get a chance to visit the Netherlands. For the last two decades, people walking in Dutch cities have had the freedom to cross the street where they want, reports Mark Wagenbuur at Bicycle Dutch:

If you want to cross a city street you just wait for a gap in traffic and you cross. So, isn’t there an obligation to use a zebra crossing? No, there no longer is! That article 99 was scrapped from the traffic laws on 1 January 1995. Until then, pedestrians were not allowed to cross within 30 metres of a zebra crossing, effectively making it illegal to cross the street for over 60 metres with just one zebra crossing in the middle of that zone. That restriction was abolished to simplify the traffic rules and to give the pedestrian more freedom.

A zebra crossing is now just a service to the pedestrian. You are allowed to judge for yourself if you want to use it, but you are not obliged to. If you do use the zebra crossing, other traffic must yield the moment it becomes clear you are going to cross the street. Just the visible intention to use the zebra crossing already gives the pedestrian priority over motor traffic and people cycling. Unfortunately, a lot of Dutch drivers choose to forget that rule (and people cycling also tend to miss this regulation all too often) so it is best not to depend on getting that priority.

That Dutch pedestrians have had this extented freedom to cross the streets for over 20 years, now even becomes apparent in the street design. Some municipalities literally encourage people to cross wherever they like by lowering the kerbs (curbs).

It is very different across the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, the concept of ‘jaywalking’ was propagated in the 1920s by the auto industry, with the object to restrict pedestrian movements and to give motor traffic more space in the towns and cities. Nowadays it is still illegal to cross the street mid-block in most of the United States. Although in New York even children are taught to do it carefully as it may be safer than crossing at the crosswalks. As a foreigner it would be best to stick to the rules though, or you may end up flat on the sidewalk with five police officers pinning you down, like a British professor after he crossed a street mid-block in Atlanta.

For the record: The United States has nearly three times as many traffic deaths per capita as the Netherlands.


Bake What We Knead: Solving the Problem of Excess Bread | Civil Eats

Bake What We Knead: Solving the Problem of Excess Bread | Civil Eats

I could spend all day collecting day-olds from bakeries for the community meals program I run. The donuts, danishes, and buttery rolls look luscious, but our guests have plenty of access to refined foods. I want to offer healthier options, so I started think more about what all this extra bread does to all of us—not just those who rely on emergency feeding programs, but also to the average eater, and bakers, too.

As a nation, we’re making too much bread. Exactly how much is hard to say, but some estimate that one-third of all the bread made in America goes to waste. In their roadmap to less food waste, ReFED reported that grain products constitute 19 percent of food waste in our country. In New York City, City Harvest redistributed 5.1 million pounds of bread in 2016, or almost 10 percent of the food they collected.

This surplus breaks my heart. I like baking so much that I wrote a book about flour, and spent years learning about how much work goes into getting grain from the field to the mill. That work is not reflected in the cost of flour, which is insulated by economies of scale, the pennies game of milling, and government subsidies ($40 billion between 1995 and 2014). No wonder this ingredient seems disposable.

There’s also the fact that, except in the most exclusive bakeries, a bare shelf is a no-no. Customers expect fresh bread and lots of it. Sugar and fat are also relatively inexpensive, so it is safer to make too much and donate the leftovers than it is to risk running out.

The problem of plenty isn’t exclusive to America. In France and Germany, small bakeries are closing, partially because of the ubiquity of supermarket bread. Baker Pascal Rigo, who reinvented the baked goods at Starbucks, is now building a network of microboulangeries in France, hoping to revive the traditions of local baking. I think we should take a page from this model, and scale back bread production, too.

I’m not saying we should harken back to another era entirely. Before factory bread was the norm in America, many women spent their only day off baking large batches of bread. Yet the solution, which began with horse-drawn carts delivering factory-baked bread, has ballooned, bringing with it all kinds of industrial-scale problems. Even in the manufacturing process, this kind of bread can generate great waste. If one machine on the line breaks down, 90,000 pounds of dough can suddenly go “off-track,” destined to be sold into animal feed or other secondary markets.

Managing excess dough and baked goods in smaller-scale bakeries is not as clumsy, but still a part of business. And these businesses expect charities to absorb the extra. But people living in poverty already have access to easy calories, and even large operations like mine limit what we accept. Our shelf space is limited, and produce is heavy, perishable, and needs a lot of handling.

For instance, I recently sorted through a case of clementines, removing the ones that had burst, and rinsing the rest. The task didn’t take long but it did take time, and not all of our volunteers know how to look at dubious fruit and decide what’s worth saving. But the bread and sweets we pick up are always attractive and ready to serve.

What would happen if we made a lot less bread—and fewer donuts?

What if supermarket bakeries shrank their offerings, creating a sense of abundance in tighter real estate? What if independent bakeries baked only what they thought they could sell and no more? Some high-end bakeries sell out of their legendary treats, and they survive customer disappointment. Some even thrive on it.

What if we had to order bread like we order birthday cakes? In some circuits, this is the standard. Community supported bakeries (CSBs) sell subscriptions to loaves, just as community supported agriculture (CSA) farms sell seasonal subscriptions to a farm’s products. Sarah Owens, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, ran BK17 Bakery from her Brooklyn apartment that way. Many microbakery enterprises like hers only bake the loaves that people pre-order. I know these models can’t replace the way most of us buy our bread, but they suggest efficiencies that can help trim production and shift the burden of excess food further upstream.

As a home baker, I can’t bear to let any of the bread I bake go to waste. The remnants become breadcrumbs, and end up in mac & cheese, inside fish cakes, and even in sweet cakes, between berries and whipped cream. Such frugality is evident in old cookbooks, which use breadcrumbs galore. One baker who was trained in Germany once told me that his first task as an apprentice was grinding leftover bread to use in more dough.

Here’s another solution: Toast Ale, the brainchild of food waste activist Tristram Stuart. Launched in England, and now coming to the United States via Chelsea Brewing, the beer is made using 40 percent surplus bread. It replaces fresh grains in the brewing formula, so it preserves resources that would normally go into growing and malting barley, in addition to keeping bread out of the waste stream.

Once upon a time, bread was valuable because it was hard to make. Wheat was tough to grow and mill. Baking bread took time and resources.

Breaking bread remains a symbol of the shared labors involved, and of the necessity of our cooperation. If we could see the work invested by bakers, millers and farmers, whether small-scale or industrial, that symbol might gain real meaning again. And feeding each other, especially the poorest among us, would mean more than disposing of surplus foods.


The ‘internet of things’ is sending us back to the Middle Ages

The ‘internet of things’ is sending us back to the Middle Ages

Internet-enabled devices are so common, and so vulnerable, that hackers recently broke into a casino through its fish tank. The tank had internet-connected sensors measuring its temperature and cleanliness. The hackers got into the fish tank’s sensors and then to the computer used to control them, and from there to other parts of the casino’s network. The intruders were able to copy 10 gigabytes of data to somewhere in Finland.

By gazing into this fish tank, we can see the problem with “internet of things” devices: We don’t really control them. And it’s not always clear who does – though often software designers and advertisers are involved.

In my recent book, “Owned: Property, Privacy and the New Digital Serfdom,” I discuss what it means that our environment is seeded with more sensors than ever before. Our fish tanks, smart televisions, internet-enabled home thermostats, Fitbits and smartphones constantly gather information about us and our environment. That information is valuable not just for us but for people who want to sell us things. They ensure that internet-enabled devices are programmed to be quite eager to share information.

Take, for example, Roomba, the adorable robotic vacuum cleaner. Since 2015, the high-end models have created maps of its users’ homes, to more efficiently navigate through them while cleaning. But as Reuters and Gizmodo reported recently, Roomba’s manufacturer, iRobot, may plan to share those maps of the layouts of people’s private homes with its commercial partners.

Security and privacy breaches are built in

Like the Roomba, other smart devices can be programmed to share our private information with advertisers over back-channels of which we are not aware. In a case even more intimate than the Roomba business plan, a smartphone-controllable erotic massage device, called WeVibe, gathered information about how often, with what settings and at what times of day it was used. The WeVibe app sent that data back to its manufacturer – which agreed to pay a multi-million-dollar legal settlement when customers found out and objected to the invasion of privacy.

Those back-channels are also a serious security weakness. The computer manufacturer Lenovo, for instance, used to sell its computers with a program called “Superfish” preinstalled. The program was intended to allow Lenovo – or companies that paid it – to secretly insert targeted advertisements into the results of users’ web searches. The way it did so was downright dangerous: It hijacked web browsers’ traffic without the user’s knowledge – including web communications users thought were securely encrypted, like connections to banks and online stores for financial transactions.

The underlying problem is ownership

One key reason we don’t control our devices is that the companies that make them seem to think – and definitely act like – they still own them, even after we’ve bought them. A person may purchase a nice-looking box full of electronics that can function as a smartphone, the corporate argument goes, but they buy a license only to use the software inside. The companies say they still own the software, and because they own it, they can control it. It’s as if a car dealer sold a car, but claimed ownership of the motor.

This sort of arrangement is destroying the concept of basic property ownership. John Deere has already told farmers that they don’t really own their tractors but just license the software – so they can’t fix their own farm equipment or even take it to an independent repair shop. The farmers are objecting, but maybe some people are willing to let things slide when it comes to smartphones, which are often bought on a payment installment plan and traded in as soon as possible.

How long will it be before we realize they’re trying to apply the same rules to our smart homes, smart televisions in our living rooms and bedrooms, smart toilets and internet-enabled cars?

A return to feudalism?

The issue of who gets to control property has a long history. In the feudal system of medieval Europe, the king owned almost everything, and everyone else’s property rights depended on their relationship with the king. Peasants lived on land granted by the king to a local lord, and workers didn’t always even own the tools they used for farming or other trades like carpentry and blacksmithing.

Over the centuries, Western economies and legal systems evolved into our modern commercial arrangement: People and private companies often buy and sell items themselves and own land, tools and other objects outright. Apart from a few basic government rules like environmental protection and public health, ownership comes with no trailing strings attached.

This system means that a car company can’t stop me from painting my car a shocking shade of pink or from getting the oil changed at whatever repair shop I choose. I can even try to modify or fix my car myself. The same is true for my television, my farm equipment and my refrigerator.

Yet the expansion of the internet of things seems to be bringing us back to something like that old feudal model, where people didn’t own the items they used every day. In this 21st-century version, companies are using intellectual property law – intended to protect ideas – to control physical objects consumers think they own.

Intellectual property control

My phone is a Samsung Galaxy. Google controls the operating system and the Google Apps that make an Android smartphone work well. Google licenses them to Samsung, which makes its own modification to the Android interface, and sublicenses the right to use my own phone to me – or at least that is the argument that Google and Samsung make. Samsung cuts deals with lots of software providers which want to take my data for their own use.

But this model is flawed, in my view. We need the right to fix our own property. We need the right to kick invasive advertisers out of our devices. We need the ability to shut down the information back-channels to advertisers, not merely because we don’t love being spied on, but because those back doors are security risks, as the stories of Superfish and the hacked fish tank show. If we don’t have the right to control our own property, we don’t really own it. We are just digital peasants, using the things that we have bought and paid for at the whim of our digital lord.

Even though things look grim right now, there is hope. These problems quickly become public relations nightmares for the companies involved. And there is serious bipartisan support for right-to-repair bills that restore some powers of ownership to consumers.

Recent years have seen progress in reclaiming ownership from would-be digital barons. What is important is that we recognize and reject what these companies are trying to do, buy accordingly, vigorously exercise our rights to use, repair and modify our smart property, and support efforts to strengthen those rights. The idea of property is still powerful in our cultural imagination, and it won’t die easily. That gives us a window of opportunity. I hope we will take it.