Harbor Seals at Hopkins Marine Station

Frightening Miracle

A few weeks ago when Charlie and I were out for our daily jaunt along Asilomar, “refuge by the sea,”[i] we passed a young man and woman wrapped together in the cradle of a jagged out rock, staring at the sea. Later, we met them on the trail, and the young man told me they had been watching a mother otter and her young, noisy pup for over an hour. I knew right away that I must hike back to my car and get the new binoculars. (Thank you house guests! Note to self: always take these with you.) We went back down where they had been sitting and, sure enough, there were the mother and baby.

The Monterey Bay has been reborn in the course of my lifetime.[ii] We humans had brought both fish and mammals to near extinction by the early 20th C. The very first to go were the otter that were hunted in the 18th Century for their fur, the densest of any animal. They were followed by the whale, hunted in the 19th C, then came the abalone, and finally the sardine. Infamous Cannery Row hauled in 250,000 tons a day at its peak.[iii] But each one of these near extinctions had a cascading impact on the ecology of the Bay. The fishing and hunting reached its apotheosis in the early part of 20th C when the sardine were fished to “commercial extinction,”[iv] and their remains dumped directly into the bay. That period has been likened to a Dust Bowl for the ocean. This is when the city earned the saying, “Monterey by the smell.”

Harbor Seals at Hopkins Marine Station
Harbor Seals at Hopkins Marine Station

It was Dr. Julia Platt, one of the first American women to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman mayor of Pacific Grove, who began the long journey of restoration by setting up a protected area in the bay at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. This was the first in a series of important changes instrumental in bringing back the bay and the sea otters, whales, sea lions, harbor seals, ocean birds and finally, even, the sardines.

The discovery of a sea otter colony at the mouth of Bixby Creek in 1938 was a secret kept closely guarded by naturalists who were fearful for them. Slowly over the next several decades the otter multiplied and moved north and finally back to Monterey Bay. The otter have been found by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to be essential in maintaining the kelp forests of the bay, which are home to a vast array of fish and other species.[v]

That day at the beach, when I looked out in awe at the mother and baby otter, I could not see the pup moving. It seemed to be lying like dead weight on the mother’s chest until she finally cast it aside and began doing somersaults over and over (a maneuver to trap air in their dense fur, as a means of keeping warm). The baby seemed cast adrift, floating lifelessly on the water. I had recently seen a Nova program on the Monterey Bay Aquarium in which they pair orphaned baby otters with foster otter mothers. From this, I knew how vulnerable both mother and pup are in the first hours after birth. So I high-tailed it back to get my cell phone in the car and call for help, only to discover I was out of range. I quickly drove home to call the aquarium’s otter rescue hotline. I thought it might be too late in the day, but the volunteer who picked up said the supervisor had not yet left and promised she would ask him to go by the address I gave. I intoned that I was a card-carrying member of the aquarium and that I was counting on them to do their level best. Perhaps that is why they called back about an hour later to say that the supervisor had found both mother and baby were doing fine. It was a frightening miracle that buoyed my spirits for many days afterward.

Electric Panel
Electric Panel

But later that same week I had another frightening experience though of a different sort, threatening to stop progress on our new house construction project. It happened just as our builder Allan was preparing for what he described as the largest inspection of the entire project just before they insulate and sheet rock the walls. It’s about wall guts:  wiring, plumbing, structural supports, etc.

When I offered to help, Allan suggested I might go to the City Building Department and inquire if all of our building plan changes had been approved. I blithely drove off in blue skies to City Hall downtown, secure in the knowledge that our trusty architect, Terry Latasa, chair of the City’s Architectural Review Committee, would have had matters well in hand., before he left the country that morning. As I waited at the counter of the Building Department, the plans inspector searched the files, and finally drew up out of the drawer an ominous looking yellow carbon copy. He knit his eyebrows together, looked at me without expression, and said the sheet indicated we would need another hearing before the Architectural Review Committee to approve plan changes.

“But,” I whimpered, “What would you have done if I hadn’t wandered in here today?” Unwilling to consider there might be a flaw in the system, he went to the back and produced a set of the rolled up plans that he said I needed to walk down to the Planning Department (about 20 feet down the hall), after they returned from the Noon break during which the office is closed. I dutifully arrived an hour later at the Planning Department where the yellow carbon copy initiated a frenzied, yet unproductive, search for the project file with the changes. By then I was having visions of it having slipped between filing cabinets never to be found again, when suddenly one of the planners noticed the signature on the yellow carbon. “Oh this is Terry Latasa’s job! We know that has been approved.” Voilá the paper was found in a remote special basket. It had been approved, and, more importantly, determined that we would not have to have another public hearing.  Sigh…

We were not yet ready to call for the super inspection either. Allan was nearly finished with the massive wiring job on the house. As a last step, I was tasked with videotaping each portion of the wall to mark the locations of wire for the audio and computer network; the alarm system, thermostat, high voltage, low voltage, and the sprinkler systems. We were almost finished when, once again, my husband threw in a monkey wrench. “Suppose someday,” he asked, “we get an electric car?” We would need a high voltage plug for that in the garage. Allan was ahead of us, however, and was just finishing up that special hookup of his own volition. But then came the real stumper, what about wiring for solar? Harry insisted he had always wanted that foundation laid for the future though we were not yet ready to install solar panels. After a very high-cost estimate and inconclusive deliberations, we had decided to put off the decision to the future.

Zac Judkins
Zac Judkins

Allan said he could not install wiring for a system for which he had no particulars. I suddenly had an idea that we should ask our daughter’s friend, Zac Judkins, a managing engineer for SunPower, one of the two largest US solar companies, and the industry’s efficiency leader.[vi] SunPower has been in existence since the mid-80s, although its largest profits are now driven by utility-scale projects, on which Zac works. For example, they are constructing the largest photovoltaic generating center in the world. Called Solar Star and in southern California, it is a project of Berkshire Hathaway Energy.[vii] I thought perhaps Zac could move us ahead in our decision-making. SunPower also produces panels for residential installations.

Solar is an area that is growing so fast it is predicted to overtake fossil fuels and coal as the leading world energy producer.[viii] Investment in residential solar in the USA has increased by at least 50% in each of the last three years. The USA is now the fastest growing market according to Wikipedia.[ix] The fact that utility installations and roof-top installations are ultimately linked on the grid means this generating capacity is ultimately pooled.[x] Solar by one estimate could climb from a $1 Billion to a $9 Billion worldwide market by 2020.[xi]

Harry has studied energy deregulation in Texas where he monitors our electric usage and takes pleasure every year in checking prices and switching our provider to get the lowest rate. Yet, our electric bill, driven by air conditioning, was still about $2,500 last year and our average annual consumption about 22 megawatt hours.

Solar had not been an easy decision for us. Even armed with good information about our current electric usage, it was difficult to estimate what our usage would be in a new house and a different state. We kept eliminating things from the list in our new house:  no air conditioning, our radiant floor heating is powered by a gas hot water heater as are the stove and dryer. There are a few electrical appliances but also many items that are low voltage. It was good to ask Zac because he owns a home in California and therefore could tell us his average usage. Because of the new technology and building standards, we assume our house will be more efficient and use a fraction of what we used in Houston.

20150410_103452Further complicating matters, solar panels are not all the same. Even with roof plan drawings, we had to have installers come out to take measurements and locate where the panels would fit and be best situated to catch the sun’s rays. Between bidders we found there was substantial variation in the power generating capacity of the panels and this is where SunPower stood out generating more power with fewer panels. There were also substantial differences in the cost of the panels, and the warranties offered.

Before we solicited bids we had estimated the cost of the panels would be close to $20,000 and perhaps only save us $1,000 a year in our energy bill, thus it would take 20 years to recoup our investment. By that time we would probably be at the end of the useful life of the panels. Thus there was no economic gain to be had which is why we had postponed the decision.

What we failed to calculate in our original estimate were the substantial Federal tax credits available for 30% of the cost in the year you install it. In addition, we have since found there may be additional Federal tax credits of $2,000-4,000 if we meet the latest California Building Energy Standards for new construction. (To see if we qualify for this last credit we had to enlist the help of the energy planner who completed Title 24 calculations required for our building permit.) It seems the final value of the tax credits will be $6,000-$10,000, a 30-50% reduction in cost.  In return we will not have any electric costs in coming years which we estimated would otherwise have been $1,600 per year. This means we will recoup our investment in just four to seven years.  The new solar system will generate 5.259 megawatt hours per year.

A word here too about the technology. Solar panels produce direct current which, through a gizmo called an Inverter, is changed to alternating current which we can use as it is produced. The installer told me that even in a power outage at PG&E, we could still have power at our house—“just go to the inverter and plug-in your hair dryer.” Any power that we generate and don’t use goes on the power grid of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and is recorded by our “smart meter”. The smart meter will also record peak and off-peak usage. The pricing varies during a work day when most usage is before and after work. We will generate power while the sun is out but, because we are retirees whose use is not dictated by daily work hours, our usage will be more evenly spread over the course of the day allowing us to sell back to the grid during peak pricing times. We will no longer get a monthly bill, but only a bill at the end of the year saying whether we owe money, or have credits that do not carry over to future years. We are installing a bit more capacity than we currently need in the event that an electric car is in our future.

After we signed the contract with SunPower, I was so excited to be part of this fast growing and fascinating technology all of which takes place via quantum mechanics without burning carbon fuels.

Mother and Baby Otter at Asilomar
Mother and Baby Otter at Asilomar

So it’s been a very busy month! Last week, a month since my last sighting of the mother and baby sea otters, I spotted a little blob floating on the surface of the kelp beds in the same cove where I had last seen them. With my binoc’s bra keeping my viewer close at hand, I quickly scanned the cove and there they were! The baby was bigger and stronger now, but still lying on Mom’s chest, fast asleep. Charlie and I have found a little sandy perch overlooking the cove where I can watch them snoozing in the afternoon sun. I have seen them there both afternoons since, when the tides were in. Once the baby was sleeping and the other time jumping around without stop. When they are resting on their backs, soaking up the afternoon sun, heads close together, the mother, ever alert, cradling the baby in her arm on her stomach, the affection is almost palpable.  As evening approaches, I look up across the bay to the purple chain of mountains and the sky beyond to the glow of the future ahead.

[i] http://www.visitasilomar.com/history/asilomar-the-complete-story.aspx

[ii] The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, Stephen Palumbi

[iii] Op cit, p.

[iv] http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animal-guide/fishes/pacific-sardine

[v] http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/about/ecosystems/kelpdesc.html

[vi] http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2015/03/09/better-buy-now-first-solar-vs-sunpower.aspx

[vii] http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/02/18/business/18reuters-citigroup-environment.html

[viii] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/01/business/energy-environment/li-hejun-chairman-of-hanergy-holding-group-on-the-energy-source.html

[ix] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaics

[x] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-10/first-solar-sunpower-joint-venture-will-own-rooftop-systems

[xi] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/solar-farms-threaten-birds/



  1. Hi Laura – I feel so cheered by your post! It gives me hope that we are developing a kinder and more collaborative relationship to the world in which we live. Thank you! Nancy


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