Between A Surveillance Nightmare And The Digital Divide

Librarians are in an odd position, technologically. This is especially true of those lucky/unlucky folks who join me as the motley crew of the Good Ship Tech Librarian. We’re well informed enough to be afraid of the decline of net neutrality, “free” services, social engineering, and the weaponization of personal data. At the same time, being capable with Google Drive, WordPress, LinkedIn, and Instagram is allowing us to bring services to our patrons that we’d otherwise be unable to provide. Concurrent document sharing alone is a powerful tool that we’d have to pay hundreds, even thousands for if we weren’t paying with our data already.

At the same time, it is scary. Worst of all, we see patrons suffer when they don’t have access to these services. Kids without computers at home come to the library to log on to Google Drive to do their homework. Mom still working? Nobody to drive? That homework isn’t getting done. The looming threat of the digital divide isn’t going to hurt librarians. It’s going to hurt our most vulnerable patrons: the poorest, newest, most stressed Americans who are least capable of affording wifi or a new laptop.

Providing IT services to these populations has got to be a critical part of our mission now. Yes, we should keep the darn books – I hate it when people think of print and digital collections as some kind of zero-sum format war – but we need to recognize that it’s no longer possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps by reading a lot. Even if it were, who has time for that nowadays? I’ve got a masters degree and I still work two jobs.

Warning vulnerable folks about how the Internet really works seems like part of our mission too, but what happens if those patrons’ outcomes are harmed thanks to our love/hate relationship with technology? Scaring a new tech user isn’t going to help them – they still need to know how to use the Internet, scary or not. At the same time, if your trustworthy local librarian doesn’t explain about how viruses work, you’re likely to be misinformed by the news anyway, while at the same time getting beguiled by safe-looking situations like the Facebook dumpster fire. Which, by the way, I check every morning and evening.

Education is the key. Not only do we need to start teaching our patrons about how to use tech and most importantly how to get it for free, but we need to do so in a coordinated and organized way. The profession also needs to agree on some guidelines and (brace yourselves) standards. We need to show people the back doors into the world of technology and how to avoid some of the pitfalls.

To that end, I have made a conceptual toolkit for vulnerable new tech users. These are skills and resources that I think we need to teach in public libraries, which means that librarians need to get good at them first.


Open Source Software

Oh my God the tyranny of Microsoft. Not only is their software expensive and vulnerable to exploitation, but it stops working at the weirdest moments. Recently, Microsoft has also started pushing people into 365 subscriptions, but my experience with that (expensive!) service has been poor. Why pay real money for a scheme that doesn’t even share well? Nevermind the concurrency problems.

There are open source alternatives to browsers, word processors, and even operating systems. Some are easy entry – LibreOffice, for example – and others require more technical fluency. Consider Ubuntu Linux the apex of a program series about open source. Not that your patrons can’t learn how to use it, but you’ll need to bone up on command line yourself and be prepared to help patrons with their first baby steps into managing an OS.

That said, if your patron is just using Ubuntu to do some word processing and use the Internet, they might never have to get into the thorniness that is installing new programs. Even that is easier than it used to be when Ubuntu was a twinkle in the eye of Debian Linux, from which it sprang like Athena from the head of Zeus. There’s now a handy dandy software install tool that makes a lot of getting new software – most of it free and open – fairly easy. I’m writing this on a refurbished Ubuntu laptop right now. It may be a particularly ideal solution for young students who are flexible enough to absorb new skills. The real problem is finding librarians who are comfortable teaching it.

I’ve also had a great deal of luck introducing OpenOffice and LibreOffice to older computer users. If you’re patient, you can teach anyone how to use these. The controls are analogous to their brand counterparts, but they cost 100% less. The same goes for Gimp, Firefox, VLC Player, and other alternatives. When it comes to our patrons, being able to access technology in the first place is often a more urgent issue than protecting their privacy. Using open source alternatives can let them accomplish both of these goals in one swell foop. The only needful thing is a librarian who can introduce it all in a comprehensible way.

Brand product

Free/open source alternative

Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari

Firefox, Tor
Microsoft Office LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Mozilla Thunderbird
Photoshop Gimp
iMovie, Windows Movie Maker HitFilm Express
Adobe Audition Audacity
Windows Media Player, iTunes VLC Player
Kindle services, Google Books Calibre
Windows, iOS Ubuntu Linux
Norton Antivirus, Trend Micro ClamAV

Distributed Freemium Services

Google tracks you. I tell this to everyone I meet. Literally. I just told it to a barista. At the same time, that tracking is payment for a valuable service. You’re never going to find a versatile cloud that doesn’t track you, paid or not, I don’t care what they say. Knowledge is power, data is valuable, and storing stuff in Google’s cloud is safer than keeping it on a home computer. This is especially true in the cases of patrons who don’t own computers or have wifi at home. They can’t keep information on library computers, but they should know that they can work on the same project over multiple library sessions, or even across multiple libraries. That’s why I generally recommend Google Drive to patrons, even as I explain – twice, when necessary – that their data will be aggregated, packaged, and made available to advertisers.

There’s a tightrope we need to walk when it comes to patrons whose lives are being harmed by lack of access to technology and technology education. Whatever their goals are, they often need an online foot locker, at least, to store resumes and letters. They need to practice word processing and data management skills in a place that’s “theirs,” if only in an abstract sense. Using Google for this isn’t awesome, but the next best option is Office 365, which costs money for equivalent service.

It’s bad that this is the choice we need to make, and I will always push for privacy whenever I can. But the bare fact is that most of our patrons couldn’t afford Google-level services if Google charged money for them.

There are alternatives. One is to walk around with a USB drive all the time. I have patrons who do this, and it’s a great solution until the drive fritzes. Portable hard drives are a more durable solution, but they’re bulky and expensive. Plus, if you need to collaborate, your drive will be unwieldy. Then there are the email services that patrons will need to use anyway, services that are “free” in the same way that Google and Facebook services are “free.” Your patrons’ data is already being harvested, whether or not they use an external storage unit. It’s inevitable. Our only power comes from making sure that they at least get some good service for what it’s costing them.

I feel like a Google shill when I say this, but ultimately, they have to pick *something.* It may as well be a robust suite of services that all work well, even if Alphabet’s days of non-evilness are long over the horizon.

Need My recommendation Why
Email Gmail Works well, best complimentary services
Cloud storage Google Drive Most space, best apps
Online search Duck Duck Go Anonymizing
Housing, goods, and services Craigslist Easy to navigate, no fees, local

IRL resources

Here’s where the librarian has to step up. It’s on us to be aware of the tech situation, up on the latest apps, and – yes – to be ready to do some basic repair. I’d die for some association-wide advanced IT training for librarians. I have lost count of the virus-riddled laptops I’ve had to deal with in the last four years. My best advice in cases where you’re in over your head is to locate the best small computer repair shop in your area (NOT BEST BUY) and develop a relationship. I’ve found one that’s run by a competent woman and her family, charges reasonable rates, doesn’t upsell, and isn’t mean to my elderly patrons. They get a lot of business from me. That said, as soon as I get far enough in my IT classes to be confident about fixing a sick laptop, I’m doing that service for free.

We tech librarians need to be proactive about learning command line, beta-testing new software, and providing the education that our patrons need. Sometimes, that will mean asking what patrons need. Sometimes, your programs will fail because nobody will show up. Sometimes, you’ll need to take a MOOC or ten before you feel like you can really help. It’s exhausting, but talk to your boss about setting aside work time for continuing ed and staff trainings. You don’t have to go at this problem alone or in a state of panic.

Likewise, you’re going to need to find a way to bring technology to your patrons. Circulating mobile hot spots can be a great way to do this, but it works best when you conduct a coordinated PR campaign to make sure that the neediest sections of your community are aware that this is an option. Circulating laptops and devices can be powerful, too, but it’s is expensive. You might have to content yourself with setting up shop at a farmer’s market, YMCA, or school for a certain amount of time every day, every few days, every week, etc. At first, anyway. Bring computers, a hot spot, and your bad self. We’ll bridge this digital divide, so help us. If we don’t, nobody else will.

Teach other librarians. Teach your patrons. Make yourself a constant resource. Hold IT repair days. Look around your community for the cracked screens that aren’t getting fixed, the resumes that aren’t getting formatted right, and the passwords that are ever getting lost. These are places where a librarian can provide services. Provide.

Why Cons Are Still Important

I spent the first part of last week at the Massachusetts Library Association’s 2019 conference. (Theme: Big Top? Circus sideshow? The Best Job On Earth! Could have used more jugglers, but nobody asked me, so.) I know a lot of people who skipped this one, citing an anemic program lineup. Granted, there were no jugglers, but otherwise, I actually found this to be far from the truth.

This is the first con where I actually attended the MLA catch-up session, where you get to meet your association governance. That meant that I finally had a chance to start divvying names between MLA, MLS, and MBLC. Not to mention NELA. I’ll be honest: I have always had trouble figuring out which of these guys does the big budget. (MBLC, I think.) I know MBLC provides a lot of statewide databases, like Gale, that most libraries couldn’t dream of having otherwise. MLS provides a lot of ebooks. However, the fact remains that if you’re going to be a good librarian in Massachusetts, you’ve got to know…

  • MLA
  • NELA
  • PLA
  • ALA

And if you want to get into library politics (GOD BLESS YOU) you’ll need to associate with and/or work for…

  • MLS
  • MBLC

I briefly worked with the Air Force as a contractor librarian and during that moment I got fairly comfortable with alphabet soup. However, libraryland puts the military to shame. It doesn’t help that everybody hops around jobs, shares tasks, and generally herd-of-cats it up with the best of them.

So it was good to have a chance to kind of sort that out a bit. I can’t say I’m now an expert per se in MBLC vs. MLS. What I mainly took away from that session was that there used to be way more of these groups. MA used to have something north of a dozen library organizations in the state. Apparently, 2008 leveled them like wheat before the scythe, and every org that survived had to consolidate and downsize dramatically to survive. They’re only now recovering.

I was just going into library school in 2008. In fact, I graduated from SUNY Binghamton in December of 2007 and merrily took out a shipload of high-interest PLUS loans in preparation for the lucrative library career upon which I was about to embark. Of course, as soon as I’d signed the final paper, the economy crashed. No joke, everything went to hell literally the week after I’d finalized the loans. At the time this seemed very lame to me, but of course it was nothing compared to what happened to people who lost their retirements, houses, jobs, and livelihoods. Learning about how the Great Recession impacted libraries and their representatives is also quite sobering.

We live in a boom-bust economy. I’m too young and uneducated to know if Naomi Klein is right about this aggressive, low-oversight, take-no-prisoners version of T-Rex capitalism is a recent Regan-era phenomenon. However, there does seem to be a constant cycle of economic destruction and rebirth going on, and while it might be spectacular to watch from a penthouse (maybe? Someone must want this, right?), us little people are getting burned again and again.

What I hear now is that the same exact thing won’t happen again. Not sure whether this is accurate, but how would I know either way? I’m no economist. My point is that busts seem pretty inevitable in our model. Several have happened in my lifetime. Some were big, some were small, some were probably avoidable or predictable, but not by me. or anyone I know. They’re essentially like earthquakes. We seem to live on an economic fault line.

Libraries are one of the last social institutions that give people stuff for free, and when the power/Internet goes out at home, we’re where people come to look for jobs, freelance, and do whatever they have to do to get their lives together. Because we have Internet, and without Internet, you don’t have nothin’. So when the earthquake strikes again, it makes sense that we’d be good first responders. It’s time for us to stop being surprised when the economy goes to hell, because it seems to do that. Barring some major change in our economic model – and who are we kidding, even in the face of looming ecological disaster our model stubbornly refuses to give an inch – another crash seems like more a matter of time than anything else.

Whether bracing for it means somehow putting money aside, having a contingency plan for staffing, or just networking enough to know how we might be able to share material resources in a crunch will have to be situationally determined by each library and each org. Lord knows I’m not in administration, but I’m aware that each situation in libraries and in associations is essentially unique. This is bad because we can’t formulate a single cohesive plan and great because heterogeneous systems tend to be more resilient. I am of two minds about the library herd-of-cats effect, but that’s a topic for another post.

Second, we need to focus on mobile, material tech outreach. That could benefit our current low-income and struggling patrons now, but during the next downturn it could also benefit people who currently don’t consider the library at all. Promo seems like low-hanging fruit, but of course the traditional billboard costs money. I advocate showing up at farmer’s markets with free wifi and a couple of computers, stationing a librarian at the mall for on-the-spot Libby demos, and going into the schools with flyers listing the free stuff you can get at the library. If I had my druthers, I’d see every library with ten circulating hotspots. Would that the budget gods made that possible for all of us.

Library associations also need to start pushing tech outreach as a major duty of public libraries. Grants can help publics get into the information literacy groove. Talent clearinghouses can dig up librarians who know everything from web design to auto repair, so it might be a good idea to start building those. Your website and bookmobile are guaranteed to break down at the worst moment.

Most of all, more librarians need to get involved in and aware of the alphabet soup. It’s not about career advancement and it’s not about politics. It’s about maintaining the budget if the economy crashes, about keeping MLS in the black by any means necessary, and generally maintaining the integrity of the profession if something bad happens. Just being aware of the associations and systems and boards brings more talent to bear on a potential problem. More talent is more joy and a more resilient professional ecosystem.

No matter how we do it, we need to get ready for another economic dip. We need to be ready to catch our patrons when they start to slip out of the middle class. We also need to make sure that our orgs, who do amazing things for our radical little socialist outposts, don’t go under if 2008 ever happens again.

Today in “Be Careful What You Wish For”

A lot of the tech help that I perform is for my older patrons. A lot of these folks had never had an email account before they got Verizon or Comcast Internet service, which they only got in the first place because it came with their cable service.

Historically, I have had issues with how the Verizon and Comcast email services have operated.

  1. They just suck. The interfaces are confusing and unintuitive. They’re spam magnets. Even functionality is uneven. Attachments fail to send, device tie-in is weak, the service blocks random useful/important stuff, pages fail to load, etc. Problems! I have so many.
  2. When the Internet service ends, so does access to the email service.

How often did I wish for Verizon email to disappear forever! And of course, as of early 2018, it did. The company graciously admitted that there were “more capable” email services out there…because it had acquired one.

Verizon acquired AOL. AOL? Really? Yup.

Then it force-migrated all of its customers over, causing my elderly patrons to be terribly confused. AOL isn’t exactly the prince of email providers itself, but if it’s a frog then at least it’s a step up from the actual slug-on-a-hot-sidewalk email service that Verizon used to provide.

In fact, AOL seems to have improved things somewhat in terms of service quality. It appears that users can keep their AOL accounts after Verizon service termination even though their addresses would still read as “”. Apparently getting acquired by a powerful Internet provider has its perks.

So ultimately, I don’t have a problem with the fact that Verizon sent everyone to AOL. I have a problem with the fact that this is the tech landscape that my older patrons have to deal with. As far as most of them are concerned, using the Internet is like doing Crossfit: it looks cool, the results are often impressive, but they’d generally prefer not to participate. They won’t choose to switch email providers given a chance, and when it happens to them regardless, it just cements their already-established distrust of technology and sense of helplessness.

But it’s not optional. They can’t not have email. It’s their conduit to their families, how they request housing services, how they talk to their doctors, how they apply for jobs. And stuff like this will keep happening – the Internet is an unstable place and businesses (and email services) will come and go. If tech keeps advancing like it is now, I wonder what I’ll find bewildering when I’m 75 and how it will impact my own life. I suspect the key to avoiding my patrons’ fate is to use tech and keep using it, even if that means corneal implants and universal biometric ID. That’s going to require a sustained financial investment that librarian-me may one day be unable to afford, but that’s a topic for another post.

For my patrons, there’s no good solution except education, which of course I provide. It’s an issue that’s likely to keep my library in business for a long time. It’s not like there are basic tech classes out there for people who didn’t grow up with computers. It’s also a good answer to the flippant comments I get about library irrelevance.

Them: yuk yuk chuckle I didn’t even know we had libraries anymore guffaw!

Me: Who do you think taught your grandma to use Facetime?

On a side note, Verizon’s apparently acquiring parts of Yahoo too. Here’s hoping they fix the spam and scare page issues while not going mad with power and becoming a horrifying heterogeneous Internet monopoly that eats net neutrality laws for breakfast.

Banning Plastic Isn’t Enough

This week, the EU banned single-use plastic, effective 2021. This is a wonderful development about which I am thrilled, and not just because plastic accumulates and stays. The manufacture, shipping, disposal, and cleanup of single-use plastic is an environmental catastrophe on its own. The plastic-banning movement started out as individual-based collective action that demonstrated the will of the people, after which the government listened to their constituents and implemented the reform broadly. It’s the environmentalist policy dream come true. However, banning plastic straws isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

Banning Plastic Is Not Enough | plastic ban | plastic straws | recycling

Plastic is a relatively easy problem to tackle, actually. We got by without it just 100 years ago. For the most part, it’s a convenience product that companies favor even if there are alternatives. Consumers would adjust to a different routine given incentives. These don’t have to be shady cash payoffs, either. Reducing the amount of waste that a city creates would cut down on the amount of taxpayer money that city needs to pay out for municipal waste management and removal. this is especially true now that China has started banning recyclable imports, meaning that bottles and wrappers end up in the trash.

Now that plastic is a headache, it’s low-hanging fruit. Of course we should ditch single-use, it’s a pain to manage if China’s not helping. The fact that banning this category of stuff is a no-brainer makes it inherently less valuable as a breakthrough. Would this be such an easy get if it were addressing the root cause of our environmental problems? No – those problems underpin modern society. The shift we need to make is tectonic, so when they happen, we should feel the earth shake. If anyone expects saving the Earth to be easy based on the E.U.’s plastic ban, then they’re in for a disappointment. The true danger is that otherwise enthusiastic plastic ban supporters will decide that they’ve done enough when faced with the trickier prospects of funding EV charging infrastructure, incentivizing solar panels, and taxing corporate carbon emitters.

That’s not to say that all change requires trauma. In fact, even with new economic incentives for zero-waste and low-packaging products, forcing a shift away from single-use plastics in the U.S. will probably take more time. It could indeed become a traumatic process – if it even gets off the ground within the next six years. There’s even a chance that it will become a useful political fracas, a drawn-out distraction from more pressing, more challenging issues. Even so, the problem there won’t be that banning plastic is hard. Banning coal will be far more difficult. The problem will remain that plastic is a flashy, visible problem that can be resolved rather quickly. Thereafter, it is a poster child for the success of a half-measure. Look, people will say, We got rid of plastic. Isn’t that enough?

In general, I’ve found that if change isn’t tough, it’s not rewarding. Banning plastic is the first step up a mountain that we have to summit. It’s important, but we need to be ready for many more miles.

Sustainability On A Budget In 2019

Welcome to 2019! If you found yourself daunted by the state of the environment in 2018, then now’s your chance to do something about it.

I could tell you that buying green will help – organic food, biodegradable soaps, electric vehicles, stuff like that – and it might, a little. But let’s face it: a lot of green consumer activism is only available to people who can afford it. What good is ethically sourced chocolate if your budget only has room for conventional beans?

beans in jars on a canvas background

Take that problem one step further. If only a few people can afford to buy solar panels and things like that, then there can be no change until everybody’s financially stable. As nice as that would be, economists have been working on total financial equality for thousands of years and we’re still not there. Since climate change is an immediate issue, the only real ground-level solutions attainable by individual people have to meet some qualifiers:

  1. The solution doesn’t require a huge up-front financial investment
  2. The solution doesn’t exclude any economic or cultural group
  3. The solution doesn’t make anybody rich

Tricky, right? Luckily, there are a few ways that you can effectively decrease your footprint without breaking the budget or excluding people with smaller purses than yours.

Share, donate, thrift, repair, and reuse

clothing hanging on a rack at a thrift store

I recently wrote an article about consumerism and how it relates to climate change. Here’s a summary: you can’t have eternal stuff on a finite planet. In addition to disposable cutlery that’s basically made to be waste, even objects that we consider permanent fixtures in our lives tend to have short lifespans. For example, the electronics industry assumes that you’ll toss your smartphone every two years, partially because it thinks you’re going to want a fancier, flashier, hipper device.

The same goes for furniture. Nothing against Ikea, whose sustainability plan is laudable, but the presence of cheap chairs on the market makes periodic upgrades tempting. Manufacture of that stuff, from the screws that hold it together to the wood that gets logged and processed with diesel-powered equipment, is still generally carbon-heavy. That’s easy to overlook that when the company wants to soothe your concerns about its environmental friendliness.

So don’t buy it! I’m not saying you should abstain from buying everything – you can’t, please don’t try – but by reducing the amount you shop, you’ll reduce your footprint. If you can get a bunch of friends together and pledge to reduce unnecessary spending, you’ll be on your way.

Here’s where things get interesting. The amount of spending that’s really necessary for your life to remain happy and healthy is actually far smaller than you’d think. For example, think of your closet. You have all kinds of stuff in there that you don’t want to wear anymore, not because it’s worn out, but because you’re sick of looking at it. But you’re not sick of looking at your friends’ clothing.

They feel exactly the same way.

Websites like Freecycle and the Buy Nothing Project let you trade stuff you don’t want and get stuff you do. My hometown of Salem even holds regular clothing and book swaps that draw hundreds of people. It also supports a repair cafe where you can bring busted household gadgets. All of these projects are run by regular people who, as far as I know, get zero dollars and zero cents for this work. They do, however, end up with great wardrobes, regular turnover in literature, and some fully functional household gadgets that might otherwise have ended up in the trash. They save money and they save the Earth.

Repair and share operations also benefit low-income people. If you’re affluent and intend to organize an event like this, be sure and reach out to community centers and schools located in places where money is scarce. If you can forge relationships across economic boundaries, then you can start breaking those boundaries down. Together, we’re all more powerful.

When you simply must buy something, check your local thrift store. You’d be amazed at what appears there, and if you can extend the life of that merchandise, you make the manufacture and delivery of a new version a little less necessary.

Speaking of buying…

Buy local when possible

Apples being sold at a farmer's market

Nation-sized commercial operations don’t have a whole lot of incentive to change. They have an enormous base, powerful investors, and a directive to grow a certain amount every year. Converting to green supply chain technology or solar energy is a great idea in principle, but not what a conservative business manager steeped in traditionalist thinking would choose first. You and everyone you know can’t change their minds about that.

As the price of solar falls, companies like Walmart will start to default to renewable power anyway just because it’s cheaper than traditional sources. However, you don’t have time for every mega-retailer in the U.S. to come to Jesus. That’s why you need to buy local.

Local retailers are not necessarily interested in growing by the quarter. They want to be economically viable and sustainable within their communities. They’re thrifty and personally interested in what their customers want. If you and all your friends tell the owner of your corner store that you want that store to run on renewable power, they might just listen. Even if the business itself doesn’t have brick and mortar solar options, there are ways to buy renewable energy from solar and wind farms.

There are other ways of buying local that get even more creative. CSAs, for example, are often very economical – I use Farm Direct Coop and spend less than $500 on food for the entire summer. There are usually aid programs in case you can’t afford the membership price and backup systems if you can’t pick up your food on a certain day. Best of all, the food you get from a CSA is usually locally sourced and seasonal.

The same goes for farmer’s markets. These are often fairly expensive, but many accept SNAP.

Share a ride

passenger in the front seat of a car

Unless you live in New York City, you probably need a car. What a pain! In addition to being expensive, bulky wallet vampires, they’re contributing to the death of the environment. Luckily, the humble carpool mitigates this. You don’t have to get an expensive Tesla to green your commute, you just have to get some buddies! There are some great ways to find carpools online. and are a couple of good ones. However, if you really can’t corner anyone to ride with…

Support public transportation

People complain a lot about public transportation. It’s always late, it’s dirty, it’s slow, it’s not classy, there aren’t enough trains, the service area is limited. Know how to change all of these factors? Mass usage. If everyone rides the train, train service will improve. If residents demand a bus route along the boulevard, then that will happen. These are voteable issues, and if everyone piles onto public transit at the same time as they scream for better service, then the people in charge will have an incentive to make busses and trains more pleasant experiences.

Garden and share

Vegetables in a wooden box

Did you know that you only need a space of about 100 feet by 80 feet to support one vegetarian for a year? That’s less space than most families will consent to live in. In a lot of places, that’s the size of a backyard.

If you live in a city, like me, you’ll have a hard time finding your 800 square feet, but growing is still possible. This year, I myself rented a space of 4 feet by 6 feet for my garden from a community garden. Check out Food Not Lawns for starters on how to turn your available space into something nutritious. If it’s property value you’re worried about, then consider the beauty of the edible landscape.

Combined with our CSA, my wife and I ended up with too much produce, despite the fact that a couple of my agricultural experiments went a little haywire. We ended up giving away a ton of summer squash and we’ve still got more carrots than we know what to do with.

There’s another option too: garden on your neighbors’ lawns. I wish I could find the link that talked about this project, but a few years back, some intrepid gardeners had the bright idea of turning their neighbors’ lawns into food paradises. The neighbors were happy to get some veggies in payment and the gardeners got to grow a ton of produce for charity. If any of my readers can find the news report on these guys, comment!

Growing a Victory Garden can ease the pressure on your wallet and the Earth. A $1.75 packet of 20 tomato plant seeds is absolutely more economical than buying thirty tomatoes that had to be shipped from California. Community gardens often have donation plots that you can use if you can’t pay, and even if you don’t have time to water and weed constantly, there are tasty crops that will essentially take care of themselves until harvest time.

Become an activist

People coming together and supporting each other

Environmental damage and disaster disproportionately affect the poor. When toxic waste is to be dumped, that doesn’t happen in gated communities. When asthma-causing coal-fired power plants are planned, they’re not placed in the heart of the University district. Companies who dump chemicals into the water of poor towns would never dream of doing so in rich areas. In fact, the effects of climate change will broadly affect people who live in cheap, low-lying housing, can’t afford home insurance or emergency relocation costs, and haven’t got the political pull to make towns repair infrastructures like levees and seawalls.

If you’ve got the privilege, then becoming politically active for the environment is a great way to share that with your fellow human beings. I’ve got a post on becoming active here.

Change doesn’t just happen. It takes a collective clamor to start it and sustained, share effort to keep it going. 2019 is a fresh chance to make that change. Let’s make this a green year together.

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Net Metering, SRECs, and What’s Happening To Solar In Massachusetts

Ten years ago, solar energy was about to get big. The federal government rolled out a 30% tax break for home solar arrays while several states, including my home state of Massachusetts, started SREC programs. In case you’re not familiar with the lingo, SREC stands for Solar Renewable Energy Credits. You can earn these with your home solar panels, and then swap them, cap and trade style, with energy companies that then use them to pay fees. The system worked, and for a while, it made perfect sense to buy solar panels. Solar farms popped up along highways. Solar appeared on rooftops. As the price of arrays dropped, the industry looked set to boom.

Then, something changed. Even though the cost of home solar installations dropped by 55% since 2015, large-scale solar projects stalled. In a state where 49% of houses could have been generating power, only a tiny percentage actually featured rooftop arrays. Even though solar was more feasible than ever, solar companies weren’t thriving. Why?

I sat down with Jeff Cohen, solar guru of Salem, Massachusetts and vice-chair of Salem’s Sustainability, Energy and Resiliency Committee, to learn why solar hasn’t taken over Massachusetts yet. I found out that there are several big roadblocks to mass solar adoption right now, but also even greater hope for the future of renewable power.

Incentives expiring

Workers installing solar panels

First of all, the federal incentive for residential solar panels is expiring. In fact, it was supposed to disappear in 2016, but the Obama administration was able to extend it for a couple years more. According to Jeff, any resident who installs solar by the end of next year will still get that sweet 30% tax break. (There’s a plain English explanation of that program at Wholesale Solar.) After 2019, the break will drop by a few percentage points every year. This isn’t necessarily a huge deal, because the cost of solar panels is dropping fast. The incentive was never supposed to be permanent. But the incentives specific to Massachusetts have changed, too.

The SREC program was a wonderful tool for getting homeowners into solar energy. Solar experts considered it one of the best state-level incentive programs in the country. During an array’s first ten years of life, its owner earned one SREC for every megawatt of energy their panels produced. The average home solar array could produce about 6 SRECs per year, which could then be sold back to utilities. This was guaranteed money in the pockets of anybody who got solar panels between 2008 and 2018. EnergySage has a good rundown of exactly how this worked and explains some of the finer details of the program.

Unfortunately, SREC expired in January 2018. Its replacement, the SMART program, isn’t as good a deal. However, many people who bought solar panels during SREC continue to earn credits. They’re grandfathered in for the first ten years of their array’s life. Still, without SREC, there’s less incentive for residents to get solar panels.

Municipal power

person using a light bulb on the sun in front of a city landscape

There are about 41 municipalities in Massachusetts that own their own power generation facilities. They include Marblehead and Peabody, which border Salem, and the upshot is that their power bills tend to be lower than those for, say, National Grid. However, a municipally owned power supply isn’t always a good deal for solar power.
First of all, many towns aren’t necessarily interested in going solar. Salem recently installed panels atop a school on Witchcraft Heights, but Salem’s also fairly well-off and doesn’t engage in municipal power generation. A town without resources won’t necessarily want to invest in a technology that involves significant up-front expense, especially if a legacy system is already working well for them.

That’s why municipalities aren’t necessarily converting to solar power in a central way. The reason that municipal power discourages home rooftop solar is that municipalities are not required to match the value of excess energy that a home might produce. This gets to the heart Massachusett’s biggest issue with solar power right now. According to Jeff, it’s the reason that solar power expansion has argely stalled out in the state. Think of it as the biggest solar secret that you’ve never heard of.

Net metering and the cap

electricity meter

Net metering is the practice of making solar energy worthwhile for the average homeowner. Think of it as a give and take. Sometimes, your home solar array will make more than enough electricity to power your house. The extra power might flow over to a neighbor’s home, in which case, the energy that your neighbor is getting was actually generated by you. The power company that runs the grid – which could be National Grid, Eversource, or Unitil, depending on where you live in Massachusetts – still charges your neighbor for that power. However, they have to buy it from you first, and they’re legally obligated to pay you as much for the electricity as they would have charged you if you didn’t have solar panels. This payment comes in credits, which cover the cost of power for your house at times when your house can’t make its own power. In the summer, you may build up enough energy credits with your home array to see you through the winter with minimal charge for power.

The problem is that the power companies don’t like this setup. They themselves can’t own solar farms because that would turn them into vertical monopolies, which are illegal. They’d much rather maintain the fossil fuel status quo than shake up their current business situation and deal with the headache of net metering thousands of solar residents…and worse, big solar farms.

That’s why they’ve successfully gotten the Massachusetts state government to impose caps on the amount of solar power that can be generated in the state. Caps are determined by load zone, which are areas of electrical service delivery that coincide with municipal lines. A cap is the percentage of the company’s total energy delivery that can be met through solar generation. In 2016, this was about 8% for the public and 7% for private companies, according to the Massachusetts Net Metering guide. Jeff tells me that this has risen a few percentage points each year, but not fast enough to allow community solar to flourish. Once the annual cap has been reached, the utility will no longer participate in net metering. That means that, in addition to paying for a solar array, an owner would need to pay full price for electricity in the winter and at night. Suddenly, solar is no longer as attractive, especially for a big solar farm or community array.

The problem with big projects is that they can cause their utility to hit the cap fast. Solar farms, community solar projects, and even schools that want to have solar panels on their roofs run into this problem. Lack of net metering compounds the expense of setting up large-scale solar and makes it less feasible in general. In turn, this stymies the growth of all solar use and business expansion. Since many Massachusetts residents rent, community solar is critical to getting the state off of fossil fuels. Renters don’t have the choice of buying solar panels; their only opportunity to get green power is to buy into renewable energy. If sources don’t exist, apartment-dwellers can’t opt for them.

There are a lot of politics at play here, of course. Utility companies are some of the most powerful businesses in Massachusetts, and they easily outspend advocacy and solar groups in their lobbying efforts. While the Massachusetts legislature has increased the caps in the past, they’ve recently slowed this activity down, possibly due to pressure from National Grid and Eversource.

What’s the solution?

man holding bulb in his right hand

Jeff tells me that there’s one way to make Massachusetts go solar: everybody needs to insist. There’s essentially no way to outspend Eversource and National Grid in lobbying, so consumers need to start making demands of their representatives. If you’re nervous about getting into the fray, then see my previous post on how to become politically active even if you loathe politics.

Most of all, Jeff tells me that buying solar is still a great option for your home. Going off the grid may seem attractive in concept, but even though battery technology is improving, leaving the system still so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford it. Restricting activism to people with that kind of privilege won’t result in meaningful change – in other words, we do this together or it doesn’t happen. That means sticking with the system and the grid, and working together to change them both.

As solar gets cheaper and people like Jeff work for green power options, it becomes clear that the energy giants of Massachusetts are just delaying the inevitable. Ultimately, although the fight will be difficult, solar is going to win.

Many thanks to Jeff Cohen for giving me an awesome interview for this article! Be sure to check out his direct action network on Facebook. If you’re doing research to buy your own solar array in Massachusetts, check out Solar Power Rocks, where a free strategy guide can start you on the path toward making your own power and saving the world.