Marketplace - American Public Media

Tesla is disrupting more than just the car business

Sat, 2016-02-06 16:01

Tesla Motors is building the world's biggest battery factory just outside of Reno, Nevada. The company is calling it the “gigafactory,” and when it’s up and running in 2016 it’s expected to make Tesla’s electric cars much more affordable. 

“In a single factory we're doubling the worldwide capacity to manufacture lithium-ion batteries,” says J.B. Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer. 

That's significant enough. But the company also plans to develop batteries for use with solar-power generation – giving Tesla a shot at challenging public utilities as an energy source, Straubel says.

“At the price points that we're expecting to achieve with the gigafactory ... we see a market that is well in excess of the production capability of the factory,” says Straubel.

The market for batteries is an offshoot of the booming business for solar panels, particularly in states such as California, where solar is becoming commonplace.

“We sign up approximately one new customer every minute of the workday," says Will Craven, director of public affairs at California-based SolarCity.

Much of the excess energy harnessed by solar panels is returned to the power grid, Cravens says. This means homeowners and businesses may earn a credit from their power companies, but have no say over when and how that energy is used.

The partnership with SolarCity will use rooftop solar panels fitted with Tesla’s battery packs to allow customers to keep that energy in-house. That means they can use it however, and whenever, they want. The concept puts Tesla in direct competition with utility companies.

“Stationary storage, or backup storage, is really being considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of renewable electricity generation,” says Ben Kallo, an analyst with the Robert W. Baird financial services firm.

Kallo points out that the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources makes them less reliable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.  But with the ability to store that energy, renewable energy sources can compete head-to-head with utility companies for customers.

“There are still many utilities out there who kind of have their head stuck in the sand and just hope that this goes away. What we're seeing is really building momentum,” Kallo says.

Forward-minded utilities might look at Tesla’s business model as an opportunity, he says.  Energy-storage technology could be used to build capacity in their existing grids, and also build new infrastructure for battery-powered cars and homes.

 

Writers on Water: Tiphanie Yanique

Fri, 2015-02-27 14:40

We’re at the end of our month-long series about Water: The High Price of Cheap. How we take water for granted, don’t want to pay for it, and as a result, can find ourselves without it. Which is, you know… not good.

The poet and novelist Tiffany Yanique has a unique perspective on water. She grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, surrounded by the sea, but on land with very little water to drink. The author of “Land of Love and Drowning,” Yanique tells us what water means to her:

Land of Love and Drowning

Owen Arthur Bradshaw watched as the little girl was tied up with lace and silk. He jostled the warm rum in his glass and listened to the wind.

The storm outside wasn’t a hurricane. Just a tropical gale. It was the season for storms. Lightning slated through the heavy wooden shutters that were closed but unfastened. The thunder was coming through the walls built with blue bitch stone. There was no one outside walking in the rain. That sort of thing was avoided.

A scientist visiting from America had brought the lace and the silk. They were all at the house of Mr. Lovernkrandt, an eminent Danish businessman. Denmark was giving up on the West Indies and America was buying in, but Mr. Lovernkrandt was not leaving. The scientist was tying the girl up. He was demonstrating an experiment that had become stale on the Continent, an experiment of electricity. The little girl was very beautiful. And she was very little. And she was very afraid. She was also very brave.

Captain Bradshaw thought on his daughter, Eeona, who was not unlike this American girl. Only Eeona was more beautiful and at least as brave.

The people who had come together to make Captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw could be traced back to West Africans forced to the islands as slaves and West Africans who came over free to offer their services as goldsmiths. Back to European men who were kicked out of Europe as criminals and to European women of aristocratic blood who sailed to the islands for adventure. Back to Asians who came as servants and planned to return to their Indies, and to Asians who only wanted to see if there was indeed a western side of the Indies. And to Caribs who sat quietly making baskets in the countryside, plotting ways to kill all the rest and take back the land their God had granted them for a millennium.

Owen Arthur had been raised from a poor upbringing to a place of importance and ownership. He was the captain and owner of a cargo ship. And now he was among the important men who sat in this living room and watched through the haze of the oil lamps as a girl was hoisted off the ground via lace and silk and a hook in the ceiling. The little girl’s body jerked as the American scientist tugged. Her body jerked until she was a few feet off the ground, but she did not cry out. Owen Arthur Bradshaw was not sure how much longer he could bear to watch. But it was essential for him to be at this gathering. The host, Mr. Lovernkrandt, was a rummaker and Owen Arthur had always shipped rum. But with Americanness would come Prohibition, and Owen Arthur needed to ensure he was included in any of Lovernkrandt’s nonliquor endeavors.

He pressed his own earlobe between his thumb and forefinger. Success and solvency should have been on his mind, but Owen Arthur could not help but watch the American girl with a father’s tenderness. This little girl was pale-faced and blond, and Owen’s little girl, Eeona, was honey-skinned and ocean-haired. But still he looked at this strange little girl as though looking on his own child. The first half of him desired that he had created this little girl. She was a pretty yellow thing. The lower half of him desired the girl. How young could she be?

He put his mouth to his glass and tilted it until the warm sweetness met his lips. She will outlive me, he thought to himself. And who was the “she” he was referring to? Perhaps his wife, who was just then sitting at home doing the sewing that it seemed God had created her to do. Or perhaps he was speaking of his mistress, who was at that moment sitting in her home playing the piano he had bought her, making a music that only God or the Devil could bless. Or perhaps he was actually speaking of his daughter, whom he loved like he loved his own skin. Perhaps he was speaking of the little girl to whom the scientist was now attaching cords of metal. Perhaps the little girl was, in a way, all women to him, as all women might be to a certain kind of man.

Owen Arthur is right. All these shes will outlive him, though he cannot bear the thought of his women going on. He knows his daughter will live forever, in the way all parents do, simply because parents generally die first. But Owen will not die of old age. Owen will die of love. The Danish West Indies will become the United States Virgin Islands and then this patriarch will die. And perhaps these things are the same thing.

“Behold,” the American is saying in his strange accent. He hands the girl a glass ball and then whispers to her, “Do not drop it or I will punish you.” She does not make a move to suggest she has heard. She only takes the glass ball in both her hands. And then the first miracle happens—her hair begins to rise. The storm outside begins to howl.

“Christ, have mercy.” This is what the Christians whisper. The Jewish and Muslim men for whom these islands have been a refuge, mutter “Oy, Gotenu” and “Allahu Akbar” under their breaths respectfully. Yes, America will bring us progress. Here is progress before us.

Reprinted from Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2014 by Tiphanie Yanique.

Waiting for a big break in Germany's new economy

Fri, 2015-02-27 11:21

Felicitas Sonnenberg is a waitress with dark hair and bright eyes, and works at a trendy restaurant in Berlin where business people go for a nice lunch.

Krissy Clark/Marketplace

As she darts from table to table, she takes customers’ orders with a pen and pad of paper she keeps tucked in a black, polka-dotted belt strapped around her waist. It holds not just her order pad, but, she hopes, her ticket to making it in the German economy.

A little context. Maybe when you think of the German economy, certain things come to mind: good pay, lots of vacation, strong social-safety net, perhaps something about precise German engineering.

For many years, those clichés were pretty accurate. Precise German engineering led to lots of well-made German products like cars, engines and industrial machines, built by lots of well-paid German workers — who could be so well-paid because their well-made products were in demand around the world. Germany called it their “economic miracle,” or Wirtschaftswunder, and it led to the companion doctrine of Wholstand Für Alle, which translates to “prosperity for all.” 

“That was the promise after the Second World War, that we will have a strong economy but that the profits will be shared so everyone can profit from the growth,” says Peter Bofinger, an economic adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the shifts in the German economy brought on by unification and globalization have called the promise of shared prosperity into question, says Bofinger. “We have seen in the last twenty years more or less a stagnation of living standards for the wide majority of the population.”

Along with those fears has come a new German reality, a rise in the number of working poor. Many well-paid manufacturing jobs in Germany have gone overseas, or to European countries with lower labor costs, leaving behind more temporary, part-time and low-paying work in Germany.

And that is where waitress Felicitas Sonnenberg comes in. Sonnenberg makes 8.50 euro an hour, about the equivalent of $9.65 in the United States.

Waitresses, taxi drivers, hairdressers and workers in other kinds of service industries make up a large share of Germany's new working poor. Pay has gotten low enough in many of these industries in early 2015 Germany established a minimum wage for the first time ever.

In the case of Sonnenberg, the boost she got when the minimum wage kicked in still wasn’t enough for her to make ends meet.

“It would be wonderful to live with my money — what I earn in my job,” she says. “But it's not enough without help of the state.”

Sonnenberg is separated from her husband, raising two young children on her own. She gets some aid from the government that goes toward rent and daycare, and she says she is grateful for it. But in recent years Germany, long known for a strong social-safety net, has been rethinking how much to spend on that net. Sonnenberg says she can feel the scrutiny when she goes to her local welfare office.

“They were treating me like somebody who doesn't want to work — who only wants to get the money of the state, “ she says. “And I am not like that.”

Sonnenberg works part time right now, but she says as a single mom even that can be a tough balancing act. Once she is home from work, her children are eager for her attention. Bath time, dinner time, homework, bedtime, “Everything has to be done in a certain way, to finish in time to bring the children to bed at 9 o’clock,” she says.

But after the kids are in bed, Sonnenberg gets busy making plans for her future.

That black dotted belt she was wearing at the restaurant, to keep her pen and order pad? She designed and made it herself, after feeling frustrated with the standard money belts that most German wait staff use.

Krissy Clark/Marketplace

She has shopped her design around to people in the fashion industry and received coaching from state-funded agencies on how to prototype and trademark the design. “I want to produce this and have my own company,” she says.

She already has the trademark certificate framed, hanging in a narrow hallway in her apartment. “This is my office,” she says with a laugh.

Krissy Clark/Marketplace

Sonnenberg says she has told the welfare agency about her efforts to start her own business; she says she was warned it might be too much for a single mother, and that maybe she should stick to waitressing. And so she says she is torn, between the income she makes now, and taking a risk to make more. 

“I am believing in my product because I love it and I use it every day, and I think that there is really a need of this thing,” she says. “But I have a fear to go into the business market, because I feel so little.”

Yet, little creative start-up businesses like Sonnenberg's are being touted by German politicians as one of the best new hopes for the German economy.

As scared as Sonnenberg is, she is also hopeful.

“I always said when I really found my company, I will open a bottle of Champagne — but I never did it, because you never know when, when is the real start,” she says.

Because even with her framed trademark certificate and her prototypes, Sonnenberg says it's hard to know when you've really made it in the German economy these days.

What happens at Netflix when House of Cards goes live

Fri, 2015-02-27 11:06

Update Feb. 27, 2015: Well, here we are a little over a year later and "House of Cards" Season 3 is up on Netflix. We can't promise this is exactly how things went down this time around (there was that slight hiccup this year when the season accidentally got released early) but it's safe to say someone called in sick to work today to be the next super-binger.

Original story: Feb. 14, 2014

The new world of Internet TV is really geeky.

I spent some time in the Netflix war room last night, as the company debuted the second season of its smash hit series, "House of Cards." The war room is a conference room with big table in the middle, and as we approached midnight, a bunch of engineers were crouched over their laptops.

Jeremy Edberg, Netflix’s reliability architect, was one of them.

"So when the clock hits 12, the first thing I’m going to be doing is looking at our dashboards to see if anybody is playing the show," Edberg said.

If nobody is playing "House of Cards," that means there’s a problem. Unlike traditional TV, people now use hundreds of different devices to go online. And last night, the engineers were there to make sure "House of Cards" would play on every one of them.

Netflix monitors House of Cards mentions on social media during the season two launch in 2014.

Courtesy of Netflix

"We’ve probably got sitting around the room an X-Box, a Play Station, Nintendo, Apple devices, Android devices and a couple of different TVs from our partner manufacturers," Edberg said.

The engineers can tell, in real time, how many people are streaming the show on these devices, where they are and who’s binging. Edberg said the last time "House of Cards" launched, the engineers figured out the entire season was about 13 hours.

"We looked to [see]  if anybody was finishing in that amount of time," Edberg said. "And there was one person who finished with just three minutes longer than there is content. So basically, three total minutes of break in roughly 13 hours."

That’s right, of its 40 million subscribers around the world, Netflix was able the find the one super binger. Netflix spokesman Joris Evers said Netflix knows everything about your viewing habits.

Netflix knows who's watching the show and in what quantities.

Courtesy of Netflix

"'House of Cards' was obviously a big bet for Netflix," Joris said. "But it was a calculated bet because we knew Netflix members like political dramas, that they like serialized dramas. That they are fans of Kevin Spacey, that they like David Fincher."

Evers said Netflix uses this data when it decides on which original program to buy.

"We monitor what you watch, how often you watch things," Evers said. "Does a movie have a happy ending, what’s the level of romance, what's the level of violence, is it a cerebral kind of movie or is it light and funny?"

Netflix’s move into original programming is all about taking viewers from other media companies, especially HBO, said Brad Adgate, an analyst at Horizon Media.

He says Netflix has more subscribers than HBO, but when it comes to making money, Netflix is David to HBO’s Goliath. But Adgate says, Netflix does have its slingshot.

A scene from the Netflix War Room during 2014.

Courtesy of Netflix

"I think right now Netflix does have a competitive advantage over HBO because of the analytics," Adgate said.

Networks like HBO still rely, on large part, on Nielsen data. But the information Netflix gets is much more textured, granular — and valuable.

"And I think that’s where television and streaming video is headed — but I think right now streaming video is in the lead," Adgate said. That said, he added, it’s just a matter of time before HBO and other premium channels catch up.

Your Wallet: What's broken in your community?

Fri, 2015-02-27 09:05

This week we want to know about infrastructure in your community. How are your sidewalks, bridges, or hospitals?

Talk to us the way you might in a town hall. What's broken in your community, in your home, and what's stopping the fix?

Is it money?

We want to hear you stories. Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter, @MarketplaceWKND

John Boehner doesn't enjoy congressmen wearing jeans

Fri, 2015-02-27 08:53

Speaker of the House John Boehner, second in line for the presidency, is not at all happy with the way things are going in Congress.

No, not the whole gridlock thing.

Let's just say there's no such thing as casual Friday in Congress. Boehner gave a dress code reminder during the last votes Wednesday.

"Members should wear appropriate attire during all sittings of the House however brief their appearances on the floor may be," he said, according to the Hill. "You know who you are."

Boehner also reiterated House rules against taking photos, and reminded lawmakers to show up for votes on time.

No word about bringing snowballs in the chamber though. 

John Boehner doesn't congressmen wearing jeans

Fri, 2015-02-27 08:53

Speaker of the House John Boehner, second in line for the presidency, is not at all happy with the way things are going in Congress.

No, not the whole gridlock thing.

Let's just say there's no such thing as casual Friday in Congress. Boehner gave a dress code reminder during the last votes Wednesday.

"Members should wear appropriate attire during all sittings of the House however brief their appearances on the floor may be," he said, according to the Hill. "You know who you are."

Boehner also reiterated House rules against taking photos, and reminded lawmakers to show up for votes on time.

No word about bringing snowballs in the chamber though. 

Fun Fact Friday: It's a soupy mess

Fri, 2015-02-27 08:53

Cardiff Garcia from the blog FT Alphaville and Linette Lopez from Business Insider wrap up the week in news. What's more? Some fun facts to hold you over through the weekend.

Fun fact: Campbell reported a less-than-impressive second-quarter profit of $312 million

The soup company warned investors in advance that the number was going to be low given the strong dollar. However, future plans to restructure the company may be an inclination as to why their profits were down this time around.

Campbell tries a new recipe for success

Fun fact: Pebble Time broke a Kickstarter record by raising over $10 million in just two days.

Pebble's new wearable faces heavy competition from the Apple Watch. If you're curious, the record-breaking Kickstarter company isn't bothered.

Pebble Time breaks Kickstarter's record

Fun fact: Baltimore has embarked on a $1.5 billion program to replace and rebuild it's sewage system.

Our month-long water series, Water: The Price of Cheap, has come to an end, but the #WaterLog problems are still here. This week we visited Baltimore Harbor, once considered "the toilet of the city," and uncovered it's host city's lengthy history with an ageing sewage system.

Baltimore sewers: time bombs buried under the streets

Fun fact: Since July 2013, San Diego County Office of Education has spent nearly $900,000 on computers, printers and software for its secure juvenile facilities.

It's taken a significant culture shift to get the kids incarcerated in the San Diego Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility modern technology required for learning in this digital age. And the benefits have exceeded all possible belief. 

Unlocking the digital classroom for kids in lock up

Tallying the economic winners of the status quo

Fri, 2015-02-27 08:53

Senator Jim Inhofe brought a snowball to the Senate floor on Thursday, to show in his words that global warming is a “hoax,” and stands as the latest example of policy gridlock on this topic. 

But paralysis does not mean all economic actors stand still. Incumbent sectors win, in this case, fossil fuels.

Andy Hoffman of the University of Michigan says climate change “represents a market shift. Some will win, some will lose. Keeping things confused, that’s how you create paralysis.”

Creating paralysis is an active process, says Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes. “A whole network of people who have worked for more than twenty years now to prevent action, because action threatens their interests and it also threatens their ideology," he says. 

Record industry fights piracy with new global release day

Fri, 2015-02-27 08:53

Record companies typically release new albums on different days of the week, based on what country you live in. In the United States it's Tuesday, in Germany it's Friday and in England, it's Monday. 

In a move to cut down on illegal file-sharing between countries, the music industry is now setting on a standard global release day, Friday, which is expected to go into effect later this summer.

But, if there is one thing we know about consumers, it’s that they want what they want and they want it now — and that goes triple for music.

“In that age of social media there is an obvious consumer frustration, when a consumer knows that maybe a big release has been made in one country but they can't get it in another,” says Adrian Strain, a spokesman for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, a trade group representing record labels. 

He points out that a common release day would cut down on piracy, as well as appeal to would-be customers.

“You know we did some consumer research in seven countries, and we found that when music fans are asked when they want music to come out, they say Friday or Saturday,” says Strain.

But lately, the 'release day rule' has already lost favor. Taylor Swift released her new album, "1989," on a Monday to boost first-week sales.

The fact that the industry is still playing by the 20th Century rules and worrying about release dates should give you an indication of where their heads are at,” says Greg Kot.

Kot covers music for the Chicago Tribune in addition to co-hosts the radio program, Sound Opinions on WBEZ. He says release dates are a throwback to the days when record labels would promote new albums months in advance to drive physical sales, which are less important in the iTunes era.

“Increasingly you're seeing artists, even veteran artists like David Bowie to Beyoncé to Drake, who are relatively new artists, are doing this, where they're basically just putting records out when they're done,” says Kot.

Kot says having a common release could make it easier to manage global marketing campaigns for certain mega stars, but for most artists the calendar just doesn’t matter

What net neutrality might mean for 'House of Cards'

Fri, 2015-02-27 08:52

The FCC issued its much-awaited ruling on net neutrality Thursday, declaring that broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon have to treat all internet users the same. What does this decision mean for content providers like Netflix?

As of 3 a.m. Friday, season three of "House of Cards" was available for streaming, all 13 hours of it, ready for weekend binge watching.  But should that video start to shudder or buffer,  it can be tough for consumers to know why.  

“What the FCC is doing is saying for the very first time, ‘We’re going to be looking hard' at what broadband providers are doing to squeeze the connection between their own networks and outside networks,” says Susan Crawford, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

In other words: “There’s a cop on the beat now.”

Crawford views this increased regulation as a win for consumers, but Richard Bennett, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, thinks if the FCC’s reporting requirements are too burdensome, it could slow the rate at which internet service providers are able to grow their networks.

Tech IRL: Is the Snapchat party over?

Fri, 2015-02-27 08:46

Snapchat has come under scrutiny since it was first introduced. Critics called the disappearing-photos app scandalous, then swaths of tech writers emerged to say they were too old to use it — they didn't understand Snapchat. 

Who did understand? Young people. Snapchat's largest consumer base is between 13 and 25, and is primarily female. Millennials use Snapchat in many of the same ways they use other messaging services: texts, Whatsapp, etc. And Snapchat has proven itself to be adaptable. It introduced the Discover feature, which allows brands to create updates accessible to the entire user base of the app. It added Snapcash, a service that lets users send each other money. 

Still, skeptics wonder if Snapchat's high valuations and aggressive investment plans are misplaced — a bubble bound to burst, a party doomed to end — worrying that increased accessibility and a better user interface could potentially alienate Snapchat's core users, who might move on to the next big thing. 

To learn more about how Millennials use Snapchat and why it might be more valuable than it seems, Marketplace Weekend spoke to Marketplace Tech producer Meg Cramer, who says she uses Snapchat more than she texts. So what's the appeal of Snapchat? Cramer says that if Facebook is like your high school reunion, Snapchat is a VIP room. 

Tune in to the whole interview in the player above.
To check out the behind the scenes creation of the expert snap in the segment photo, listen below:

PODCAST: Purifying water

Fri, 2015-02-27 03:00

Is a little less growth just fine? There's more to life than GDP, after all. After an analysis by government statisticians of the last three months, it turns out the economy did not grow 2.6 percent, it grew at more like 2.2 percent. More on that. The Credit Card industry has set a deadline of October 2015 to get more secure microchip-enabled credit cards in the hands of consumers to replace outdated magnetic stripe cards. A recent survey by CreditCards.com found that the industry is lagging behind this deadline, and that only a third of people have chip and pin credit cards. It’s a system widely used in other countries – so why is the rollout so slow here in the US? And D.C. is also taking its sewage and wringing out the methane in it, both to burn it for electricity for its own use, and to sell it. The future is to give up notion that some water is "pure" - it's got stuff in it, and water utilities are getting into the business of making as money as they can by getting it back to drinkable.

Cities and counties rely on Homeland Security dollars

Fri, 2015-02-27 02:00

Some local government agencies could be adversely affected if funding for the Department of Homeland Security expires at the end of the day on Friday.

Congress is considering dueling proposals from the House and Senate to fund DHS. The House has proposed a short-term continuing resolution to fund the agency for three weeks, while the Senate proposed funding the department for the remainder of the fiscal year through September.

Many in local governments around the country are concerned, because some of the money that flows into DHS flows out to local agencies. It is spent on everything from emergency operations centers to firefighters' salaries.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter says money from DHS grants could be delayed, if the agency shuts down, "because the approval process is done manually, and some of the personnel involved in those grant programs may actually be furloughed."

Philadelphia's mayor says the city can weather delays in funding, but smaller counties and cities are less flexible, according to Yejin Jang, associate legislative director at the National Association of Counties.

"Some counties are looking at contingency plans and plan to lay off some people. They are also planning to cancel some trainings and exercises," if full year's funding isn't restored soon, says Jang.

There is also a difference in what DHS can do under a continuing resolution, which funds the department short term, versus a full year's funding authorization.

DHS has already been operating under a continuing resolution for the last five months, and that's meant new grant applications cannot be processed.

"DHS is only going to be able to move forward with their grant activities if they are fully funded for the fiscal year," Jang says.

Take FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which in 2003 was folded into DHS. A continuing resolution complicates some of its grant making processes, according to Susan Hendrick, FEMA's press secretary.

"A lack of a full-year appropriation complicates FEMA's ability to disburse a wide array of preparedness grant funds over the remainder of the fiscal year," Hendrick said in a written statement to Marketplace. "Without the matching federal grants, our state, local, and tribal partners may face difficult choices about how they will make ends meet or curtail their activities."

Why U.S. banks are keeping an eye on Cuba talks

Fri, 2015-02-27 02:00

U.S. and Cuban negotiators will meet in Washington Friday. On the agenda: whether Cuba should be taken off the U.S.'s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba wants off that list, and American banks are watching the negotiations closely. So are U.S. travelers, who can’t use their credit or debit cards on the island.

Right now, Americans can pay for hotels and plane tickets to Cuba in advance.  But once you get there, "all of your expenses, you need cash for them,” says Philip Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va., who was traveling in Havana when we spoke. 

“You’re going to rent a car, you’re going to rent a cell phone, you’re going to feed yourself," he says. "You’re going need about $200 a day in cash.”

Peters says, if Cuba were taken off the terrorism list, U.S. banks would be more willing to do business there.

Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst with the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, says right now, banks are leery.

“What may seem like, to the bank, an innocent banking arrangement, could lead to substantial fines,” he says.

But Thale says, even if Cuba were taken off the list, U.S. banks would still be cautious. 

Case in point: MasterCard is removing its block on U.S. card transactions in Cuba this Sunday. But, that doesn’t mean your bank will clear them. MasterCard says you should contact your bank before you go to ensure your card will be "supported on the island."

 

 

 

 

 

How to turn sewage into a product people want

Fri, 2015-02-27 02:00

Can you run a stodgy water utility like a business? Turn sewer water into money? This is the premise behind what’s called the “digester” process at DC Water’s Blue Plains wastewater plant. 

“That’s why we don’t call this a waste treatment facility,” says DC Water CEO George Hawkins. “It is an enriched water facility, that’s a resource.” 

David Kidd

By all accounts, Hawkins is a star among water utility managers, an energetic executive from outside the sector (he’s a lawyer). In our interview, Hawkins routinely drops phrases you might expect in business school. For starters: 

I want to be like Nike.

We have the most important marketplace, the marketplace of public opinion

We fight for the support and loyalty of every customer

60% of the people who take a blind taste-test will rank our water better or the same as bottled water.

We have got the best product ever. Who gets to deliver water?

I consider myself kleptocrat-in-chief. I take good ideas from all over.

Here’s the good idea when it comes to the digester. Simply put, it takes human waste and processes it into sellable goods, like fertilizer.

“The farmers value it at $300 an acre,” says Chris Peot, director of resource recovery  at DC Water. “If I worked for a Fortune 500 company and said that we were going to give this asset away for free, I’d probably be fired on the spot.”

Walking me through the digester area, Peot explains most steps occurs in pipes and cylinders. So you can’t see much of the action, for obvious reasons: it stinks. First, waste is routed into centrifuges, to separate out the water from the economic “resource.” 

Scott Tong/Marketplace

The centrifuge spins and separates water from the solids, solids then heat up in a stage called thermal hydrolysis. DC Water has the only digester in the country with this step, designed to yield more economic product in the end.

Scott Tong/Marketplace

“The thermal hydrolysis process makes the food much more available for the microbes in the digesters,” Peot says, “which gives us better gas production.”

Better gas production — insert your own joke here. This comes out of the key stage: the digester. A huge cylinder, it operates like an actual stomach, mixing bacteria with the product to make gas. Instead of being released, this gas is captured and burned in a power plant to make electricity. That powers about a third of the plant for free.

Courtesy of Ted Coyle/DC Water

The other byproduct: High-end fertilizer that, thanks to the thermal stage, has fewer germs and less stink. This Grade-A fertilizer can be sold in urban areas — think home garden. And someday, this place could sell phosphorous, a captured nutrient ... or cleaned-up water.

“We call it N-E-W,” says Matt Ries of the Water Environment Federation. “Nutrients, energy and water that can now be recycled as resources.”

Ries explains water utilities are looking into new business models out of financial necessity. Most ratepayers are using and buying less water (due to more efficient toilets, washing machines, shower heads, etc). Pipes need replacing. Federal clean water standards are going up, without accompanying grants. Heavier or less predictable rainfalls demand more treatment, more planning.

“All of that means you need additional capital coming into the system,” Ries says. “There’s now a realization that we’ve got to operate differently as a business.”

This all comes as a challenge to a utility sector that is understandably conservative, DC Water CEO Hawkins says this business is no place for risky trial-and-error. 

“It is not one where you can start a new product and then it fails so you go back to a different one, like New Coke,” Hawkins says.

Silicon Tally: Frankincense, Apple watch, and Myrrh

Fri, 2015-02-27 02:00

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Leo Laporte, host of the This Week in Tech podcast.

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Fraud-resistant credit cards are a long time coming

Fri, 2015-02-27 02:00

The major credit card companies—Mastercard, Visa, Discover and American Express—along with the major banks that issue their cards, have set a deadline of October 2015 for widespread adoption of new, more financially secure credit cards in the U.S. The cards, with so-called EMV technology, have an embedded microchip that limits the amount of financial and personal data transmitted to a retailer at the point of sale. That means there’s less chance of fraud or a devastating data hack down the line.

As of October, retailers will be responsible for the cost of credit-card fraud if they haven’t invested in and deployed new card-readers that exploit the new chip-cards. Card-issuers, meanwhile, have made a commitment to replace as many as possible of consumers’ old-style magnetic-stripe cards by the October deadline. Those old cards are easier to use for fraudulent purchases after the physical card has been stolen; the data communicated at the point of sale via the magnetic stripe is also easier to hack and use after purchase, once it is stored on the servers of a retailer or other financial institution.

CreditCards.com released a survey this week finding that as of February 2015, only three in ten American credit-card-holders had a chip-card. Senior industry analyst Matt Schulz says he doesn’t believe card-issuers will meet their own deadline of October 2015 for widespread adoption. Nor will retailers, he says; current estimates are that 25 percent or fewer of retailers have already deployed chip-card readers. Deployment is higher at major retailers such as Target and Walmart.

“Since the Great Recession,” says Schulz, “banks and retailers are definitely cautious when it comes to spending the money to make this investment.”

Mallory Duncan, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, estimates the cost of updating points-of-sale for retailers may be as high as $25 billion to $30 billion. The cards themselves cost approximately $1 each, compared to $0.25 each for magnetic-stripe cards, says David Robertson of the Nilson Report. He says that cost is mostly borne by the credit-card industry.

And Duncan says the anti-fraud value of the new cards is dubious. “There’s actually more hype than hope,” he says. That’s because card-issuers have opted to pair chip-enabled cards in the U.S. with signature verification at the point of sale. In Europe, where chip-cards have been in use for years and are nearly ubiquitous, the cards must be verified with a unique secret PIN entered by the card-holder. Signatures are easily forged, meaning a stolen card can still possibly be used to purchase expensive goods after it’s stolen. Without the PIN, a stolen card in Europe is much less likely to be used after it’s stolen. Online fraud  is still possible with both types of cards, since credit-card use that's not done in person doesn't utilize, and isn't protected by, EMV microchip-plus-verification functionality.

David Robertson at the Nilson Report explains that Americans typically have more credit cards than Europeans, and Americans tend to use their multiple cards for revolving credit. He says Europeans typically use a single charge- or debit-type card, which either deducts the purchase amount from their bank account immediately, or requires the consumer to pay off the full balance at the end of each month.

In the U.S., says Robertson, introducing PINs to validate each in-person credit card transaction would mean “you’d have four or five different PINS on your credit cards. It makes it tough, and the card-issuers don’t want to be in that place.” Robertson says card-issuers worry people will forget their multiple PINs, and stop using most of their cards as a result.

Why U.S. banks are keeping an eye on Cuba talks

Fri, 2015-02-27 02:00

U.S. and Cuban negotiators will meet in Washington Friday. On the agenda: whether Cuba should be taken off the U.S.'s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba wants off that list, and American banks are watching the negotiations closely. So are U.S. travelers, who can’t use their credit or debit cards on the island.

Right now, Americans can pay for hotels and plane tickets to Cuba in advance.  But once you get there, "all of your expenses, you need cash for them,” says Philip Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va., who was traveling in Havana when we spoke. 

“You’re going to rent a car, you’re going to rent a cell phone, you’re going to feed yourself," he says. "You’re going need about $200 a day in cash.”

Peters says, if Cuba were taken off the terrorism list, U.S. banks would be more willing to do business there.

Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst with the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, says right now, banks are leery.

“What may seem like, to the bank, an innocent banking arrangement, could lead to substantial fines,” he says.

But Thale says, even if Cuba were taken off the list, U.S. banks would still be cautious. 

Case in point: MasterCard is removing its block on U.S. card transactions in Cuba this Sunday. But, that doesn’t mean your bank will clear them. MasterCard says you should contact your bank before you go to ensure your card will be "supported on the island."

 

 

 

 

 

Betting against Warren Buffett

Fri, 2015-02-27 01:30

Can you imagine betting against the legendary investor Warren Buffett in public? For real money?

Warren Buffett was trying to make a point about index funds—that this meat-and-potatoes boring investment strategy would beat any fancy hedge fund portfolio over time. Well, Ted Seides, President and Co-chief Investment Officer at Protégé Partners, which invests in small and specialized hedge funds, took that bet.

And even though Mr. Buffett is probably chortling with satisfaction somewhere, Mr. Seides was willing to talk about how it's going three-quarters of the way into a ten year bet. 

Click the media player above to hear more.

By the way, Buffett and Seides each put up enough money in a way that $1 million of the loser's money will go to charity when this is all said and done in three years time.

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