Loretta and the Fishmonger
When I first moved to Portland, Maine in January 2014, I found part-time work on the Maine Wharf with the fishmonger George Parr and Upstream Trucking. George and his crew are a small outfit that deliver seafood to around a dozen of the most prestigious restaurants in town. Down on the waterfront, the spoils went to Loretta, a blind harbor seal, or sea dog, who always found her way back to our wharf for snacks.
Graceful and patient, Loretta would always find her snack before it drifted down too far. Usually George, his son Jimmy, the mountain Josh, or the butcher Niles would save leftovers of Arctic char for her - first hollering to get her attention, then flinging the fish rack to the water.
I grew up in the mountains down south, and the whole experience of working on the wharf with salty, hilarious characters, and delivering to bustling kitchens during winter in a hardscrabble old city like Portland was a vivid time. Loretta was a fascinating addition - she made everything special, and completes the memory in my mind's eye.
Too broke to buy a real camera, I photographed her with my iPhone 4. She was both a regular fixture, and a disappearing act, at times. We'd wonder how she'd go anywhere with purpose, lacking sight, and then make it back. She did, though, for several years.
I started working with ReVision Energy by February 2015, and haven't visited the crew much since. I heard she'd disappeared again for a long time, presumably forever.
Around that time I made friends with Kazeem Lawal, proprietor of Portland Trading Co., and I would stop by his store to enjoy his music taste and ever-changing selection of impeccable wares. I couldn't afford much in his store at the time, but Kazeem never minds visitors. He enjoys conversation, and one day was telling me about his idea to create a documentary series of Portland's "unsung" citizens.
I was quick to share my knowledge of George and Loretta. The story of an authentic fishmonger on the Portland waterfront who had a loyal, blind sea dog captivated Kazeem, so I said I'd make the necessary introductions (he didn't mind - he's been interviewed before).
I still visit with Kazeem from time to time, but never caught up with him about how the project went. He's busier than ever with his store, and travels regularly to seek new and different wares, but it turns out, the project got made - the first chapter, at least. Working with filmmaker Sam Brosnan, Kazeem interviewed George not long after I suggested his story, and the video they produced is very good - though Loretta isn't featured.
When I get home, I want to talk to Kazeem about his project again, to see if he wants to do more, and maybe take on another cook in the kitchen.
As for George, I should visit him too. His partner Dana Street (restaurant dynamo of Portland), has finally opened Scales. It's on the same wharf as Upstream and Bangs Island Mussels, where Three Sons Fishing used to be, and there may even be an Upstream retail space now. I'm still grateful for the all the fish guts, scallop sorting, and sub-zero boat work that keep me gainfully employed on the Maine Wharf when I was starting out in town.
Working on that wharf shaped my experience in Portland in ways I still notice, though my life has evolved beyond the circumstances of the 2014.
Long live Loretta!
Everything Is Connected
On August 24, 2017, a Chebeague Islander (in the Casco Bay of Maine) named Alex Todd found a rarity while checking his lobster pots. The 48-year-old lobsterman, no stranger to having his story told, had pulled aboard an iridescent, white lobster - a female with a notched tail.
Alex snapped a photo, showed the bug to his folks, and set it free back in the ocean. She was V-notched on her tail, and Alex is an upright guy, so he abided the mandatory practice of returning females with such a mark.
Since 1917, Mainers have notched tails of females found carrying eggs, to keep the population stable. As the lobster grows, it keeps the notch in its exoskeleton, forever sparing it from hungry people, well, everywhere, nowadays.
Alex did well because lobsters are declining in the Gulf of Maine, and the difficult-to-enforce practice of preserving egg-bearing females has been declining also. For now, annual harvests total several hundreds of millions of dollars.
Modern lobstering has been in a lucrative sweet spot with the increasingly warm water temps diminishing predators, but now the water has warmed to the point where lobsters are swimming to chillier places. To lose lobsters would be a tough blow to Maine, having already lost many industrial jobs, but it's far more sad to think of Maine losing such a big piece of its identity.
Meanwhile in Nicaragua...
Over 2,000 miles away, on the Miskito Coast of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua, fishermen are hauling in another kind of bounty from the sea.
Some background: The Creole and indigenous population there is isolated from central America by jungle, and so residents of the Miskito Coast feel more kindred with their Caribbean neighbors across the sea than with the other citizens of Nicaragua. Bluefields is the capital and home of about 90,000 people. Electricity is sporadic, roads are rough, and there isn't much work. Subsistence fishing is one of the more common daily priorities, but they also keep an eye out for their own lucrative harvest.
The Devil's Dandruff
Residents of Bluefields and various coastal villages often wake up early and scan the horizon for la langosta blanca. The elusive white lobster, in Nicaragua, is cocaine.
When smugglers traveling up the "country road" by sea from Colombia are confronted by law enforcement, they dump their drugs and run. Bales of cocaine often drift in the currents to the various lagoons, beaches and cays up and down the Miskito Coast.
Lucky fishers retrieve these bales - sometimes weighing 35 kg, sometimes much, much more - and trade it back to Colombian traffickers who peruse the villages for about $4,000 per kilo. This is well below the going rate, but a lot of cash, nonetheless.
Traffickers are intertwined in the economy in other ways as well, and though it is not a well-loved presence, it is considered to be a presence that provides.
The Miskito Coast is cut-off from the rest of Nicaragua in more than one way. There isn't much infrastructure, nothing that will really attract investors, anyway. As well, the indigenous and Creole population have a complicated past with the central government, and as autonomous coastal regions do not receive much support. Here, as in Maine, lobster is king.
Wait, why was the actual lobster white, though?
The white lobster that Alex Todd caught was not albino, it was leucistic. Leucism is a genetic condition, like albinism, but only results in a partial loss of melanin pigmentation.
The easiest distinction between the two is found in the eyes. Albino eyes are totally devoid of melanin, and appear red due to retinal blood vessels. Leucistic eyes are often blue, from light refraction.
Leucism can also be partial, resulting in what's known as piebald. Piebald animals have an unpredictable pattern of pigmentation that can create an even more striking appearance.
Both albinism and leucism can make it difficult for certain animals to survive in the wild, where camouflage either helps you get your next meal, or keeps you from becoming one. Eyesight is poorer, feathers are weaker, and chances of mating can be lowered.
Both conditions happen to all kinds of critters, even humans.
It doesn't matter so much to our leucistic crustacean cruising Casco Bay, though. You can tell she's leucistic due to the hints of blue still visible on her shell, and color in her eyes. There's an outside chance a seal might make a snack of her, but, otherwise, her white shell probably won't stop her from eating mollusks until she's too huge to molt anymore.
This brings us to Brevard, North Carolina, my hometown of beer, bikes, barbecue, and banjos. There I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal to spot white squirrels prancing around.
They are neither albino nor leucistic, however. They're simply an Eastern Gray Squirrel with a coat color variant, albeit rare.
There are a few albino and leucistic colonies spread throughout the country, but none as numerous as ours. Brevard’s squirrel population, with almost one in three white, has the highest percent white of any known colony, with approximately a thousand individuals within the city limits.
They're protected by law, but I guess there's some wiggle room for the ones that insist on being run over. So in this case, they can't be harvested, they aren't valuable on the black market, and they get filthy after a good rain, but the amount of tourism dollars they draw is nuts.
So you see, it really is ALL connected. That's what we learned today, in this nuanced, meaningful discourse.
What's your evidence it's all connected?
An Electrifying Concept that will Save the World
It won’t be long until we power everything in the world with wind, water and sun. This is strategic electrification, and its game-changing disruptions will help us stop carbon pollution and increase energy efficiency. The sooner we adopt this strategy of progress, the sooner we see the benefits.
There’s hundreds of years’ worth of coal underground for us to burn, but it’s going to stay there. We no longer need it to make electricity.
Historically, grid operators have created electricity with problematic resources like coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy – but due to the emergence of renewables and electrification, the nature of the grid has begun to change.
Electricity is becoming cleaner at an impressive rate, and the time is right to electrify everything. Whether it comes from residential solar systems or our growing asset of utility-scale renewable energy systems, clean power will flow into an increasingly electrified world of devices.
The beauty of strategic electrification is that as electricity becomes cleaner, so will everything we do with it. As utilities invest more into renewable energy infrastructure, electricity will steadily use less fossil fuel per kilowatt-hour of energy produced. If we power our grid with 100% renewable energy, we can nearly eliminate greenhouse gas emissions altogether by electrifying everything under the sun.
To bolster the penetration of renewables on our electric grid, and to see the biggest benefit of electrification, we need to electrify space heating, water heating, and, especially, transportation. With today’s heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, and next-generation electric cars, we already have the solutions.
The Flexibility to Give
Not only will these devices be cleaner than their predecessors, they will also be more flexible, smarter. The modern grid will become smarter, too, and increased flexibility in generation, interconnection, storage and demand response around the grid will meet the challenges of a more electrified world.
The variability of certain renewable resources like wind, solar or tidal energy presents a challenge to generating power smoothly at all hours, but properly mixing those different resources from around the grid will create the flexibility needed to respond to changes in demand and supply.
Though it is also possible to import electricity across network borders to help stabilize the grid, flexible interconnection with the growing amount of residential solar electricity in our own network is the better way to meet that need. Decentralizing our grid in this way allows for power to be consumed where it is produced, lowering rates for everybody.
Battery storage is often heralded as the best solution to variable power production, and it will indeed play a part, but it is a higher priority to integrate and balance available renewable energy resources. That said, batteries are an obvious way to help, especially as their costs drop and capacities grow.
Load flexibility, or demand response, will have a critical part of balancing a renewable energy grid, as it is the most cost effective method. Demand response programs existed in the past to balance supply and demand by prompting large, industrial customers to lower their usage at certain times of day during periods of high power prices or when the reliability of the grid was threatened.
Now, the world of strategic electrification has opened an unlimited number of possibilities for demand response – the internet has rendered it no harder to turn off 1,000 water heaters than it is to turn off a paper mill. Furthermore, a smart heat pump water heater will run when there is excess solar on the grid, but not when demand is high – basically performing the same function as a battery, but at maybe 2% of the cost, since all we buy is a switch telling it to run or not.
Our devices are increasingly able to communicate across the grid and operate only when most efficient. The “flexi-watts” they run on when there’s a surplus of renewable power will enable us to keep making the grid smarter. The grid is evolving beyond supplying electricity, into a network that makes the most of its distributed energy resources.
Much like the internet changed the way we participate with our media, it’s now changing the way we interact with our budding smart grid.
A Virtuous Cycle
Traditional energy efficiency metrics, that have been improving our electronics for years now, overlook the wide range of emissions efficiencies from electricity generation. Kilowatt-hours from different sources can have vastly different emissions profiles, ranging from as much as 2 lbs. of CO2 to almost nothing.
We need to improve emissions efficiency along with energy efficiency in our shift to an environmentally beneficial grid, by expanding renewable energy.
The worthy effort to reduce usage of dirty electricity through energy efficiency programs has been the focus of our policy and incentives, but when we consider the improved emissions of renewable energy, we see that it’s better to increase the amount of electricity we use when it comes from a clean source.
Pairing strategic electrification with a cleaner, smarter grid creates a beneficial exchange that inspires more electrification and greener electricity in a virtuous cycle.
On the Verge
We stand on the verge of massive opportunities through strategic electrification, but we must recognize that those opportunities won’t be achieved through an indiscriminate focus on reducing kilowatt-hours. It’s more important we clean up our kilowatt-hours, and use them.
If regulators and legislators fail to recognize the strengths of renewables and strategic electrification in a timely manner, there could be long-term negative impacts for us and the environment. Instead they can foster long-term growth, unlocking significant economic and societal benefits by getting to work on incentives and initiatives.
The sooner this is acted upon the sooner we can see all the ways a smarter, more flexible grid can increase reliability, security, sustainability, and open new opportunities for services and business. Coal was just the beginning of our electricity – and the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.