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Largest Power Company in U.S. Joins ALEC in Plot Against One State's Solar Revolution

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By David Pomerantz

The new hot spot for solar energy in the U.S. is North Carolina. The state was second in the nation in solar growth in 2013, behind only California.

In fact, if U.S. states were considered as countries, North Carolina would have been among the top 10 countries in the world for solar growth last year.

All of that solar growth, driven by policies like the state’s renewable energy portfolio law, has been great for the North Carolina economy, generating $1.7 billion in revenue for the state. At the end of 2012, 137 solar companies employed 1,400 people in North Carolina—a number that increased during solar’s record 2013 year.

But while North Carolina’s solar sector shines brighter, a cloud is approaching on the horizon that places all of the benefits of solar power at risk of disappearing: Duke Energy, the state’s monopoly utility and the largest power company in the country, is about to launch a major attack on solar energy.

North Carolina has enough solar energy to be one of the top countries—not states—in the world. Still, the country's largest utility isn't a fan. Photo credit: Mike Baker/Flickr

On Jan. 7, Duke’s president of North Carolina operations, Paul Newton, fired the first shots of the war. Speaking in front of a joint energy committee of the state’s legislature, Newton attacked net metering, one of the key policies to North Carolina’s solar growth.

Net metering allows customers with rooftop solar panels to get credit for any extra electricity that they send back to the grid, like rollover minutes on a cell phone bill.

Newton argued that solar customers aren’t “paying their fair share” to Duke, and that his company would thus be forced to charge higher rates to all of its other customers in response.

Those allegations are false. A study conducted last year showed that the benefits of rooftop solar in North Carolina—even for customers who don’t have the panels—would outweigh any costs by 30 percent. That’s because as more homes and businesses go solar, Duke wouldn’t have to keep building expensive gas and coal plants and raising rates on its customers to finance them. Those rate benefits are aside from the job creation, climate and public health positives of solar power.

But Duke’s shareholders profit by building those gas and coal plants, which is exactly why rooftop solar is in the crosshairs.

Duke’s key ally in its war on solar: ALEC

Duke isn’t the first utility in the country to attack net metering; utilities in California, Arizona and Colorado began similar campaigns in 2013, and others are forming battle plans now.

In December, The Guardian newspaper revealed that these power companies have been coordinating their efforts under the guise of the American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC), a group that lets corporations like Duke ghostwrite laws for right-wing state legislators.

Many utilities are ALEC members, and they have made it ALEC’s top priority to attack net metering laws around the country. Forty percent of North Carolina state lawmakers are ALEC members, and Duke will rely on them to do their bidding.

So far, Duke and ALEC’s communications strategy has been to stigmatize solar energy as being only for the wealthy. Their argument is that we shouldn’t be letting rich families with solar panels get even richer on the backs of non-solar households.

It wouldn’t be surprising if early adopters of solar do have higher incomes, since buying the panels involves an upfront cost. But recent research shows that solar penetration is increasingly happening in middle class neighborhoods. In any case, if ALEC and utilities are so worried about the poor, they should be trying to give more solar access to working and middle class communities, since it will help them save money, not take away their chance to go solar by attacking policies like net metering.

The idea that the nation’s power companies, which have raised rates on customers to pad corporate profits and sited coal plants in the nation’s poorest communities for decades, suddenly want to act as champions for social justice doesn’t pass the smell test.

Duke will eventually learn to bask in the sun.

A few days after Newton went in front of the legislature to attack solar policies, Duke Energy’s Facebook and Twitter feeds started bragging, amazingly, about North Carolina’s solar growth:

It’s not the only public display of support for solar power Duke has shown in recent months. Previous CEO Jim Rogers said that he saw rooftop solar as an opportunity as much as a threat, and in March, Duke bought a stake of a distributed solar power financing company, Clean Power Finance.

Were these moves signs that Duke is embracing the solar revolution, or just greenwashing? Both answers may be true: Duke is feeling its way around the edges of solar opportunities while it mostly stalls for time by attacking net metering. One thing that would hasten Duke’s solar transition is if it loses on net metering, since that would force the company to more quickly come to terms with the inevitability of rooftop solar.

A Duke loss on net metering is far from a given, considering Duke and ALEC’s almost unlimited influence in North Carolina politics. But for all of Duke’s money and political power, it can’t change a simple reality: Rooftop solar is immensely popular. A 2013 poll showed that 88 percent of North Carolinians support solar energy. Last year, when ALEC attacked North Carolina’s renewable energy law, the effort failed because Republicans in the legislature recognized solar power as a job creator. In fact, ALEC’s efforts to attack renewable energy laws failed in every state where it tried in 2013.

Now, solar advocates will gear up to bat away the next attack wave in 2014. The sooner they win, the sooner utilities like Duke will have to face the music and realize that they need to join their customers in the sun.

Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.