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For Utility Companies, 2019 Could Prove Interesting.

The Swamp Stomp

Volume 19, Issue 3

The demand for electricity has been continuously rising for the past 100 years.  Today, however, the demand is flat, and utilities are having to rethink their growth plans.  The US utility sector was originally built around the idea of perpetual growth in the industry. Now the utility companies are realizing that this may not be the case.

A decrease in energy usage should be good news because it means people are either finding cheaper, more efficient ways to use electricity or they are using less.  Either way, that’s a win-win for the environment. At the same time though, utility companies are slowly watching their revenues dry up.  The original models for the utility industry will have to change with the times. Utilities need to devise new ways to earn revenue, mostly through services, not products, as they have in the past.

The costs involved in the production of renewable energy are getting cheaper every year, and natural gas production is higher than it has ever been. U.S. natural gas exports at the beginning of 2018 were twice the 2017 average. Huge amounts of natural gas are being produced by extraction from shale and other sedimentary rock formations. With the abundance of relatively cheap, clean-burning natural gas, burning coal to produce electricity is no longer a competitive alternative, a big change from the past.

What this means for the future of the utility companies is still not clear. There are two kinds of utility companies, government-owned and Investor-Owned Utility Companies or (IOUs).  The IOUs are not permitted to make money on the actual selling of electricity. They make their money by earning a rate-of-return on power plants and the infrastructure that goes along with it. IOUs are struggling now because their infrastructure investments have dried up, along with their profits and the interests of stakeholders. Future profits are no longer guaranteed.

Utilities are trying to adapt by merging and diversifying into larger conglomerates.   Duke Energy bought Piedmont Natural Gas and has diversified its business by spinning off a company to transport natural gas.  Southern Company is taking a similar strategy, buying wind and solar plants across the country.

The U.S. uses 20% of the total electricity of the world, second only to China, while its per capita consumption is almost triple the consumption of China.  In 2017, U.S. consumption of energy came from many sources.  Over the decade 2004-2014, the largest increases in an electrical generation came from natural gas, wind, and solar. Power generation from coal and petroleum has decreased while other electricity sources have either remained constant or decreased.

These days, consumers are expecting more from their utility companies. They expect easy-to-use online interfaces, data about individual usage, and the option to buy energy from alternative energy sources. Self-production of electrical energy from solar panels is a popular option for many.  Consumers are also becoming much smarter about their energy consumption.  Homes are being equipped with upgrades such as Nest thermostats, solar panels, and LED light bulbs that help keep personal electricity costs under control.

With renewable energy sources becoming more financially competitive and energy-saving technology at our fingertips, utility companies must continue to adapt or face a bleak future.

1. Roberts, David, “After rising for 100 years, electricity demand is flat. Utilities are freaking out,” Vox, February 27, 2018. David Roberts
https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/2/27/17052488/electricity-demand-utilities, 

2. Hoium, Travis, “Why Consolidation is the Name of the Game In the Utility Space”. The Motley Fool. June 4, 2016.  https://www.fool.com/investing/2016/06/04/why-consolidation-is-the-name-of-the-game-in-the-u.aspx

3. “Natural Gas Explained,” US Energy Information Administration. December 11, 2018. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=natural_gas_home

5. “Energy Dominance,” Department of Energy, Year in Review, https://www.energy.gov/department-energy-year-review-2018

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Are Monarch Butterflies Becoming Extinct?

The Swamp Stomp

Volume 19, Issue 2

Since 1997, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has organized a count of the migrating western m butterfly.  This was initiated when a large decline in the population of the monarch was noticed in that year. Since then, the count has been taken annually at Thanksgiving, along their migratory path to Mexico and California.

“In 1996, migrating monarchs covered 45 acres of forest in central Mexico, each acre holding an estimated 25 million butterflies. In December 2013, the butterflies covered a mere 1.5 acres. In California, the monarch population has dropped by an estimated 80 percent over the past 15 years.”3. Scientists fear the species will become extinct within the next 20 years, according to a study published in 2017 in the journal, Biological Conservation. Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, states, “Monarchs are symbolic of what’s happening on a larger scale, you eliminate monarchs, and you eliminate everything else that shares that habitat.”3.

The decline in Migrating Monarch Butterflies has become more and more alarming. Although the Western Monarchs have migrated through the western US for centuries, a graph of the last 30 years shows an almost exponential rate of decline. The decline has numerous causes: climate change, deforestation/habitat loss, and the agricultural use of pesticides and herbicides.3. These “problems” can all be traced back to the rapid decline of the milkweed plant in their habitat.

Monarch butterflies are fully dependent on milkweed throughout the growing season of the perennial, so a decline in milkweed populations would greatly influence western monarch butterfly populations. If you’re like most, you might not realize that the monarch butterfly cannot survive without the ample presence of milkweed. This perennial plant is the only plant on which the monarch will lay its eggs. Once the larvae hatch, the caterpillar eats the plant. The two organisms exist in a symbiotic relationship because as the milkweed feeds the caterpillar, the butterfly helps pollinate the milkweed.

For many years, since milkweed is not a cash crop, farmers have removed milkweed fields to grow more corn and soy beans. Whole prairies of milkweed have been mowed to the detriment of the milkweed plant. “A large swath of land that is traveled by monarchs runs through the American corn belt, where most of the crops grown are now genetically engineered and heavily doused with herbicides for weed control.”  

Each year, there are four generations of monarch butterflies that can exist. The migrating monarchs begin by laying eggs on their journey north after hibernation. These eggs are the beginning of the next generation for the coming year. The eggs from the first generation of butterflies become the second generation, and so on. The first three generations’ life cycles are consistent. Each generation of a butterfly’s life cycle takes about 2 months to complete.

The fourth generation’s life cycle however, is longer (from 6-8months) and much different. These are the migrating monarch butterflies – eggs laid by the third generation in the September/October time frame.  When these butterflies hatch, they know their southern path to the warmer climate. The monarch is the only non-bird species that migrates over 2,500 miles to a warmer climate.

The monarch butterflies will spend their winter hibernation in Mexico if they live east of the Rocky Mountains.  If they live west of the Rocky Mountains they hibernate in Southern California.  Interestingly, monarch butterflies use the very same trees each year when they migrate. “Most people don’t understand that the monarch, like so many other insects, have a symbiotic relationship with the plant world,” Flanagan said. “They’re connected to the plant world and so when we’re not seeing them, we have to question what’s going on in the plant world.”2.

Those that want to help the monarch butterfly can do so by creating monarch habitats, planting native gardens, and by helping scientists track the species. For additional ways you can help, please see the USFWS “Save the Monarch Butterfly” website.   

1.“Monarch butterfly population in California plummeted 86 percent in 1 year.”  ABC News 7, Chicago, IL, January 12, 2019,  https://abc7chicago.com/pets-animals/monarch-butterfly-population-in-california-plummeted-86-percent-in-1-year/5063396/.

2.Stafford, Audra, “Agency Sees Decline in Migrating Monarch Butterflies,” NBC News, San Diego, CA, January 11, 2019, https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/Western-Monarch-Butterfly-Population-Decline-Encinitas-Butterfly-Farm-504212961.html

3.Dungan, Ron, “Lowly milkweed may be key to monarch recovery,” The Arizona Republic, April 27, 2014. https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2014/04/27/monarch-butterflies-milkweed/8226397/


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Bats Threatened by White Nose Syndrome

The Swamp Stomp


Volume 19, Issue 1

A fungal disease that has been called “the deadliest disease to hit wildlife in the United States in recorded history” is threatening fifteen species of bats living in North America.(1) The disease is called White Nose Syndrome (WNS), and bats are the only animals that appear to be affected by this pathogen. Six of these 15 affected bat species are now either threatened or endangered with the possibility of becoming extinct altogether.

The actual scientific name for White Nose Syndrome is Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd for short. Pd can infect up to 90% of a bat hibernaculum, which is a place such as a cave, where the bats hibernate over the winter months.  Bats normally hibernate in colonies of hundreds of bats so the infection spreads quickly through a colony and with devastating results. Whole colonies of bats can succumb to the disease in a single winter.  Already, the fungus has killed almost six million bats in North America. 

Pd attacks the bare skin of the bat (primarily the wings and faces) and produces a white fuzz on the surface. Because of this attack to their skin, the bats will periodically and unnaturally awaken while hibernating.  During a normal hibernation period, bats do awaken from time to time and use some small portion of their stored fat. However, the unnatural activity of the disease causes the bat to use much more of the stored fat that is required to survive the hibernating period.  Bats literally die of starvation from the fungus.(1)

The fungus finds its way into the caves of bat hibernacula through many different avenues. Infected bats can leave the fungus behind on the surface of a cave as they travel from cave to cave.  Sometimes cavers, people who study or investigate caves, carry it on their clothing from one bat hibernaculum to the next, and then there are winds and other external sources that may also be factors that introduce the fungus to a cave. Once introduced to a new setting, the fungus attaches itself to the substrate of the cave walls waiting for an unsuspecting bat.

Pd was first discovered in North America in an area near Albany, New York in the year 2006.  No one knows how it reached our continent, but research into the fungus has traced its initial existence to Eurasia many years prior to 2006.  In Eurasia however, the fungus has been around long enough that the bats there have built an immunity to it.  After its initial discovery in our country in 2006, the pathogen has spread across the US into the Midwest and into some portions of Canada.

There is ongoing research into a “cure” for WNS.  Research into the genome of the fungus and others like it, has shown that Pd is missing an enzyme that turns off reparation of DNA after exposure to UV light. This is one avenue that is being pursued by researchers to help eradicate the fungus from hibernacula before the bats have a chance to settle into their cave for the winter months.

Researchers are also studying the habits of some of the hibernating bats that survive WNS.  They have found that Big Brown Bats have developed a strategy of a unified awakening of the whole colony on a nightly basis in response to the WNS and researchers hypothesize that the heat from surrounding bats helps store energy and hence, fat, making survival of the season an option.(1)

The latest research shows that there are bats that have been infected, survived, and then become pregnant. Their immunity will be passed on to their offspring and there will be more and more immunity as these bats survive into the next generation. Natural selection is working for this species of bats, but what about the others? The disease is still new and spreading in North America. It may take many more years before either the fungal pathogen is eradicated or controlled, or multiple native bat species are able to combat the disease through immunity.  Let’s hope that the bats can hold out until this pathogen is no longer a problem.

1. ”White Nose Syndrome. The mystery fungus killing our bats.” Wild Things Sanctuary.org. nd. <www.wildthingssanctuary.org/bats–white-nose-syndtomr.html>