The last card (unpublished)

Olga’s Psychic Boutique is a squat, beat-up house up the street from a gas station in northern Chicago. Hanging in one of its windows is the international calling card of those on mysticism’s payroll: the gold neon outline of a giant hand with its fingers spread wide. If I was still confused, I could read the word PSYCHIC stuck on the bright red door leading inside.

I visited Olga’s out of curiosity. An observation on the psychological effects of tarot card readings, I told myself. But the closer I got, the more that curiosity changed into the tightly controlled hope that masquerades as curiosity – the kind you stuff in a sack well outside your heart and drop if it doesn’t pan out.

On February 7, 2002, someone shot and killed my brother, Tim. The Palm Springs police never found a gun or a bullet. We never found out who did it, or why. I tried to accept I would never know, but I had a habit of leaving room for miracles in my thoughts. Reason and rationality hadn’t told me anything. What would a Tarot card reader say?

I expected Olga to wear purple robes and a hood. Her hair – curly and black, with streaks of gray — would poke out from its edges that framed a wrinkled face. She would hiss out prophecies while her eyes rolled back in her head.

Olga, in fact, stood about six feet tall, weighed around 300 pounds, had stringy black hair, wore a billowing pajama-like shirt, silky gray pants, shiny black penny loafers and called himself John.

John’s office – long as a station wagon and wide as a pool table – was a cheerfully bright sunroom hidden behind the drawn blinds of the shop’s windows. Grover-blue carpet glowed like a sapphire shellac in the afternoon sun. An unopened case of bottled water sat next to the door leading back to an attached apartment. I heard a television. Alex Trebek?

I took a seat in one of two chairs facing each other along the far wall. Between them was a table lamp. After claiming the chair across from me, John laid a stack of tarot cards on the circular glass table and told me to cut the deck three times. I did so and we began.

A tarot deck has 78 cards. Fifty-six of them are divided into four suits, each suit having a king, queen, knight, page and 10 cards numbered one through 10 – modern playing cards, more or less. The 22 other cards are where the real fortune-telling action takes place. Each of them represents a different aspect of life or human nature. Exactly how that representation looks is up to individual artists, but image themes have included cats, dragons, royalty and pop culture.

“The imagery has come out of people’s spiritual search,” says Dr. Tina Tessina, an author and psychotherapist in California who occasionally uses Tarot cards to help her patients. “It has grown out of the human search for meaning.”

For $45, John glanced at the Disney-like images of medieval royalty on his cards told me I was “looking for security.” He also noted I “have to be happy in what I’m doing.” I’m going to be successful, both in love and work. In October I’ll get some money. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought.

Then John said he saw cancer in my cards. My birthmother had died of it in 1980, four years after I was born. I was surprised.

How’d he do that?

“People are misled into thinking that these readings are unique to them,” said Professor Charlie Wynn, author of Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends . . . and Pseudoscience Begins. “We all go through pretty much similar stages in life. We all pretty much encounter the problems that are associated with these stages in life.”

Maybe John made a lucky guess. Obviously I’m over 25 years old and no one comes to a tarot card reader to discuss happiness. They come for answers they can’t get anywhere else. Death is one big question and cancer kills a lot of folks.

Guns do too – 9,369 people were murdered by firearms in 2002 according to the FBI — and I was even more surprised by John’s reaction to my story about Tim’s murder.

“Did they find him in his apartment?” he asked.

I told him yes. Tim’s landlord actually found him in the shower. The water was running.

“Your brother had a temper,” he went on. “I think he was around the wrong people.”

True and true, but not the work of a seer. Then John told me he saw two men and drugs involved in the crime. I would never find out what happened to Tim, he said, unless I found these two men.

That stuck.

John kept on talking and I kept on thinking. Two men. Even if John was right, should I start looking for them? Where would I start?

John told me I would be inheriting a house, told me I was locked in a room as young child and still felt angry over it. Neither meant much and I didn’t really register what he was saying until the end, when he told me he was sorry about my mother and brother. It seemed sincere. I gave him two twenties and a five and he pushed out of his chair to sweep me toward the door.

“Your brother is not coming back,” he said as I was stepping out.

“I know,” I said.

John’s matter-of-fact lack of pity or mercy – dead was dead – felt pure and I almost thanked him for saying the simple words.

He said another quick goodbye and closed the door.

I wasn’t going to do any searching for two men. I wasn’t going to go through Tim’s old phone records all over again. I wasn’t going to fly out to California and start interrogating people.

Like John said, my brother wasn’t coming back. Even if I found the two men, Tim would still be gone.

Escape of the Amazonian Bimbo (unpublished)

My name is Sherry and I carry a mace – the medieval spiked ball on a stick made for liquefying skulls, not the sissy spritzer you pick up at Walgreens – as long as a golf club. I am 5’6” with legs like an Olympic sprinter’s, breasts like Pamela Anderson and abs tight enough to bounce bowling balls off of. Men bow before me, women envy me, villains fear me.

It’s easy being perfect; I, a 27-year-old man living near Chicago, designed me this way. Creating me – Sherry – was the first step toward becoming a citizen of Paragon City.

If you’ve never heard of Paragon, it’s because it doesn’t technically exist. It’s a city of bits and bytes on a computer’s hard drive, and the only way there is through the Internet. Designers at Cryptic Studios in California clicked and tapped Paragon into existence to create City of Heroes, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that came out in April.

MMORPGs allow people with a Web connection and a computer to guide self-designed, cartoon-like characters through a virtual environment shared with hundreds of other people around the United States. Some MMORPGs have a medieval theme; others are set far in the future. City of Heroes is, well, a city full of heroes defending its citizens against swarms of bad guys.

In it, you – along with all of the other fans of fantasy who dreamed of leaping tall buildings in a single bound – are not just watching some super hero fly, you are flying. You’re guiding your hero between skyscrapers with a mouse and keyboard. Or, in my case, you’re guiding a 14-year-old boy’s fantasy girl with super strength and steel-tough skin around a city in her flesh-colored underwear.

“Fantasy taps into something deeper, something higher, something better and richer,” says Dr. Betti Schleyer, a clinical psychologist in New York who plays MMORPGs. “I think it’s a very deep need in us. If we couldn’t imagine things as being different than they are, we’d never make any progress.”

Sherry, despite her ridiculously sexualized appearance, is all about progress – the progress of my real-world checkbook. I designed her to the specs outlined in a conversation with Stephanie Hoerner, a 26-year-old Chicago resident who plays a four-foot tall fighter in the game called Speeding Flame.

“The reason that men play women is that other men will give female characters stuff,” Hoerner says. “If you’ve got your boobs hanging out, and big pigtails hanging down, apparently you get a lot of free stuff.”

Sherry is the perfect stuff hunter armed with, as prescribed, boobs hanging out. Her prey: objects in the game called inspirations, enhancements and influence. Inspirations are like a shot of steroids without the side effects. They temporarily – three or four minutes at most – boost your character’s powers so you can more easily kill bad guys. Enhancements permanently boost your powers so, once again, you can more easily kill bad guys. Think of them like a steroid IV. Influence is the game’s version of money. You get it for killing bad guys, and once you have it, you can buy more enhancements and inspirations. So you can kill more bad guys.

Through the magic of Ebay, influence has value in American dollars. City of Heroes players are fetching about $1 for every 33,000 in influence they manage to sell to the impatient players looking for a shortcut to virtual riches. But collecting a stash of influence to sell can take hundreds of hours of playing – unless you use characters like Sherry who are supposedly showered with gifts from male players. Hoerner refers to them as Amazonian bimbos.

”The more a character looks like a whore, the younger the boy playing her usually is,” Hoerner says. “I wouldn’t ever create a character that looked like that and no self-respecting woman would.”

I stand Sherry in Freedom Plaza, one of several town squares of Paragon City where heroes congregate to chat by sending typed messages that appear above your character’s head like the dialogue bubbles in a comic.

Most of the heroes wear what you expect: tights, leather straps, helmets, masks and armor that looks like a tank was wrapped around a human body. They have names like Van Hellscream, Burst Fire, Inferno Ex, The Texas Scrapper and Mutated Hellboy.

If you click on the heroes, you can read a description of them supplied by the controlling player. Mr. Inadequate, in pink and turquoise tights, is perpetually disappointed by his self-perceived less than super performance. He has been kneeling for hours, his arms hanging despondently at his sides, his chin dropped to his chest. A dialogue bubble above his head reads, “I’ll never be good enough!”

Sherry, in her flesh-colored underwear, attracts a steady stream of evaluative gazes. One female character who looks like an office worker in her Friday casuals tells me to find Jesus and put on some clothes, preferably a sweatshirt and pair of pants from Old Navy. She goes on to tell me I’m a ho.

“Okay,” I type back.

I think this confuses her because it takes her a few minutes to respond with, “Talk to the elbow, because the hand’s on vacation.”

I ask my critic where a hand goes on vacation.

“Nunya,” she writes. “Nunya business.”

End of conversation. My influence count is 310 – barely a penny on Ebay. I’m beginning to doubt Hoerner’s theory. The alternative – actually performing the missions supplied by the game – seems more tempting. I’m currently tasked to recover a stash of stolen jewelry for the influential van Horn family of Paragon City. Then again, watching other heroes react to Sherry is fascinating in and of itself. Is this what it’s like to be a woman?

“You get guys that follow you around and hit on you in the game,” Hoerner says. “It’s literally, ‘Hey baby, what’s up?’”

Or, in the case of Captain Soul, the line goes, Yo baby, what up?, according to his creator, 33-year old Scott Varney. “I always try to hit on the chicks,” he says.

Varney sits at his roommate’s desk stuck in the massive attic of a Chicago apartment. He stares at the computer screen, taking out villains with Captain Soul.

Soul has a white afro, white moustache, white boots, white gloves, white leotards and a big white number one on his chest. The only thing that isn’t white on Soul is his black skin and the black tiger stripes marking his oversized gloves and boots.

“I just wanted to make it funky,” Varney says about the costume, adding that he found the character’s inspiration in 1970s blacksploitation films like Avenging Disco Godfather.

Varney sometimes goes silent mid-sentence as he dispatches one of many villains – some in red demonic masks that look like spilled lasagna – with the audacity to shoot at Captain Soul.

“I keep running into these guys with machine guns,” Varney says. “Those are the guys that do a lot of damage to you.”

Soul’s solution is a long, slow punch that vaguely looks like a pitcher throwing a fastball. Officially, it’s called a cobra strike. The thunder kick works too, according to Varney. There are other powers as well, but Soul can’t use them yet. They have to be earned by defeating a certain number of villains. Kill enough, and Soul becomes stronger, earning the right to a new power until he eventually gets all 18.

“The game’s more fun if you’re stronger,” says Dave Schneider, known as Red Daemon in Paragon City, and as one of two of Varney’s roommates in Chicago. “I suppose in real life it’s the same thing. You get a better job, you get more money. You can go on vacation. You can eat. You can buy a car to get to your nice job.”

Schneider, standing behind us, stares at Varney’s play from through a pair of glasses almost as intently as Varney watches the screen. He paces and I wonder if he wants to jump in, or if he’s just trying to walk off the headache bothering him earlier.

Varney switches to playing Captain Kickback, a guy in a green costume who shoots blue-white energy from his hands. One attack looks like an unfurling rug of light that cruises along the ground toward its target, in this case another pack of tattooed thugs. When it hits them, they scatter like swatted flies.

“I like this wave thing,” Varney says.

“It’s pretty cool,” Schneider says.

“It’s the cosmic bitch slap,” Varney notes.

Though the cosmic bitch slap entertains magnificently, it pales in comparison to flying. Sherry, alas, remains too inexperienced a hero to up-up-and-away it. But another character of mine named Ulok – a charcoal-skinned, eight-foot tall, 600-pound, muscled-bound, demonic cross of an obsidian bull with Arnold Schwarzenegger – is a 747 from hell.

When Ulok takes off, he has the form of an Olympic diver gone horizontal. The sky parts before the wedge of his perfectly square chin, he looks down with glowing red eyes on skyscrapers, not up, and he moves with such speed that silver-gray worms of crystallized air drag behind him like the fading contrails of a jet.

Ulok has earned nine powers thus far. It took hours to get them all, easily more than 70. Flying took at least 40. But an hour of game time feels like two minutes. When you’re flying, time flies, and the temporal distortion has a name: peak experience, according to Nora McCauley of Jump Associates, a product design consultation firm in California. McCauley has personally observed and studied MMORPG players in action.

“You get caught up in the moment. You lose track of time. You lose track of your normal personal inhibitions. People typically in the past had them (peak experiences) with religion,” she says. “These games create those experiences for people in ways that are sometimes easier and more successful.”

These moments of worry-free bliss can work like a fire escape from the stresses of life, despite the criticism that some video games encourage aggressive behavior.

“To go home and not live in this world for awhile is a great blessing,” Dr. Schleyer says while Hoerner, in response to a hypothetical question, suggests Hitler may have decided against invading Poland if he had a chance to get out his aggression in City of Heroes.

Varney’s observations on the therapeutic benefits of blasting super villains were a bit more direct: “Reality sucks. It gives people a chance to detach.”

But it’s not just detaching. It’s detaching from one world and reattaching to another, one lacking the inconvenient details of life. Superhero pimples? Forget it. Going to the bathroom? Nay. And death? Laughable – a mere speed bump on the highway to the super hero hall of fame.

“It’s a world where pain is just a word, death is temporary and you can heal people with a click of a button,” Dr. Schleyer says. “It really is that inner fantasy world that many writers have talked about over the years, but it’s real. It’s not just a game because real people are playing it.”

Real people with sometimes unfortunately realistic conversations that cover all the valleys, mountaintops and dull deserts of humanity’s chatter: profanity, transcendence, pornography, mundanity, philosophy, humor, blathering, gossip…all of it. I’ve discussed girlfriends with buddies in Colorado while we blasted our way through zombies knee-deep in bubbling green sewage. Hoerner got closer to other actors in her improv group and Dr. Schleyer started falling for her second husband on an MMORPG after observing how he played.

“You get a measure of people’s behavior that you don’t get in e-mail or in a chat room,” she says. Or even in reality – part of her husband’s charm was his chivalry. If a dragon attacked, he would throw himself between it and Schleyer.

“You don’t see that on a date,” she says.

Nor do you see some of the other odd behaviors easily performed in City of Heroes with a click of the mouse. Players can, for example, flex like a Muscle Beach prima donna going for the gold. They can also slump to their knees in defeat or pound their chests like Tarzan. Not good enough? Ninety-eight other poses and body movements offer ways to say what players feel without opening their super mouths.

Sherry, for instance, dances to express herself.

Dancing is the best way – right behind wearing flesh-colored underwear – to attract the attention of other players and hopefully the influence they carry. Sherry’s combination of the two reels in stares by the dozens. But you can’t dance just anywhere. I pick a spot inside city hall, a vast gray building that heroes regularly visit to pick up missions. It’s private and public at the same time – an audience will show up, and they’ll feel comfortable chatting with you.

With the stage set, I click on boombox from a long list of things I can tell Sherry to do. She then whips out a silver-gray, portable stereo booming out techno music and sets it on the ground. The show begins: Sherry’s hips bat back and forth; her arms swing like she’s jogging; body parts shake; it’s two pasties and a g-string short of NC-17; the stares pile up.

Within seconds I hook a hero in blue and red tights.

After circling around Sherry, he holds up a placard – yet another one of the 98 poses – with the number 10 written on it. Given that a one is the lowest he could display, it’s a compliment. He follows up with a barrage of flattering phrases about Sherry’s looks. I’m starting to feel odd. Are men – am I – really like this or is it just men online? Then he asks me to marry him.

Naturally I type, “Okay.”

I’m thinking reverse dowry. Surely my husband can cough up some influence. But no. Seconds after making the biggest decision of our superheroes’ lives, the red and blue tights wonder runs off. All I get is a, “Bye wife.”

It’s heartbreaking – I still only have 310 influence – but then this other guy in black tights walks up. I click on boombox again. Sherry’s hips start jerking. He stares for a minute, thinking, pondering. Then he holds up a placard.

It too has a 10 on it.

Article in The Times of Northwest Indiana: Competition frazzles the grid

Consumer demand for electricity and construction of new power-generating facilities is rising, but even after last summer’s massive blackout, investment in the nation’s strained electricity transmission grid is lagging, partly because of federal-state turf contests. Reliability of the grid, experts say, is threatened.

According to the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a not-for-profit corporation of power industry members that oversees the grid’s reliability, for every gigawatt of new power generation capability installed in 1972, there was roughly $200 million in year-2000 dollars invested in the transmission grid. That’s $6 billion spent on the lines supporting 30 gigawatts of new power plants.

But in 2001, 41.8 gigawatts of new power plants got only $3.9 billion — or about $90 million per gigawatt, less than half the 1972 level — invested in the transmission grid. And in 2002, 57.7 gigawatts of new power plants came online and only $3.5 billion was invested in the grid. That’s $60 million per gigawatt. NERC estimates about 53.8 gigawatts of new power plants were added in 2003, accompanied by about $3.8 billion in grid investment –- or $70 million invested per new gigawatt.

“It doesn’t seem this blackout is attracting the financing activity it should have,” said Richard Stavros, executive editor of Public Utilities Fortnightly, a magazine covering the power and gas industry.

Investment in the grid is being held up in part by a complicated power struggle between state and federal authorities.

In 2003, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) tried to encourage grid investment by allowing companies to charge up to 3 percent more for transporting power though their lines if they joined a regional transmission organization (RTO). RTOs are not-for-profit companies responsible for directing power across the grid in the same sense that air traffic controllers direct flights in and out of airports. In joining an RTO, a company gives it control of the company’s transmission lines.

“Everybody thought last year that would create a huge investment wave,” Stavros said.

But some states, concerned that the higher rates allowed by FERC would raise electricity prices for their constituents and undermine their regulatory authority, temporarily barred companies in their states from joining RTOs, or instituted approval processes for joining an RTO.

FERC has proposed ordering companies to give control over their transmission lines to RTOs, but the stalled federal energy bill, if passed, would forbid it until 2007, said Bryan Lee, spokesperson for FERC. However, a court case underway between FERC and American Electric Power Co. Inc., a utility holding company, may help resolve whether FERC or the states have authority over companies in regard to joining RTOs.

And there’s another debilitating tussle between the federal and state governments, over which should control siting, the process by which a new site is chosen and approved for the installation of new power lines.

States currently have siting authority, and it can take years to get approval from all the different entities involved in a siting decision, especially troublesome when power lines in today’s partially deregulated electricity market need to cross the nation.

Deregulation — initiated by the Energy Policy Act in 1992 — revved up in 1996 with an order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It required any company owning electricity transmission lines to let other companies send their power through those lines. As a result, consumers could pick and choose their power supplier from around the nation, birthing a national, competitive market for power.

But the essential backbone of that national power market — the nation’s transmission grid — was built to handle local, intrastate transfers of power. It was never intended to cope with the massive movement of power across the nation that has pushed the power lines toward their limits.

“The existing interconnection transmission systems in this country are today being used in ways for which they, frankly, weren’t designed,” said Brant Eldridge, executive manager of the East Central Area Reliability Council, one of 10 regional members of NERC. “You don’t have as much margin if something goes wrong as you used to have.”

Richard Bulley, executive director of Mid-America Interconnected Network, another regional member of NERC, said the power lines are currently operating closer to their limits, subsequently requiring closer scrutiny of the lines than in the past.

Providing that scrutiny in the Midwest is the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator Inc. (MISO), a non-profit organization located in Carmel, Ind. MISO, founded in 1996, was the first regional transmission organization (RTO) approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

MISO’s reliability coordinators watch over the transmission grid stretching from eastern Montana to Indiana and Michigan. If they spot a problem, they tell local control-area operators — working for utility companies — who then fix it by altering the flow of power across their utility’s section of MISO’s portion of the national grid.

In its investigation of last summer’s blackout, NERC found MISO partially responsible and asked it to improve a host of its operational aspects by June 30.

One improvement includes MISO giving its reliability coordinators five more days of training dealing with emergency power situations. NERC also asked MISO to improve its ability to monitor the power grid, a task primarily accomplished by the grid overview — a screen showing all the different points on MISO’s grid area and the amount of power flowing through those points. The overview did not cover all of MISO’s territory until October 2003, over a month after the blackout, said Roger Harszy, vice president of engineering at MISO. But in December, MISO launched an upgraded computer system that increased its ability to track the flow of power across the grid.

“The full deployment of our set of tools that we have now would certainly been very beneficial in August last year,” he said.

Additionally, NERC asked MISO to report any grid disturbances it observes — even if the meaning of the disturbances is unclear to MISO — to other reliability coordinators and control-area operators, Harszy said. Before the blackout, MISO would analyze disturbances and report its findings rather than each disturbance, he said.

NERC also initiated a new, tri-annual inspection of the nation’s control-area operators and RTO reliability coordinators. Reports of all of the new inspections will be made public, whereas only the inspections of reliability coordinators were made public in the past, said Michehl Gent, president and chief executive officer of NERC, during a press conference.

The reports NERC receives will also offer more thorough information — identifying specifically who made a violation and the exact nature of the violation. Past reports sent to NERC listed the quantity of violations, but did not identify the violators or details of the violation, Gent said.

Stavros said NERC’s recommendations were a good sign, but they fell short of addressing the real problem because NERC, a voluntary organization, lacks regulatory authority. If it had approval from Congress to enforce its recommendations, he said, it could set standards that would require utilities to invest in the transmission grid.

“If the money’s not going into upgrading the transmission infrastructure, how are you going to be able to adequately tell the American public that you’ve been able to improve reliability?” he said.
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*This is the full version of the article; The Times of Northwest Indiana published a shortened version in its Sunday business section (February 29, 2004).

*The Medill News Service published this article in February 2004. It is archived here.

Article for Medill: NovaMed’s modest profits

NovaMed Eyecare Inc., an owner and developer of outpatient surgery centers, posted modest earnings for the fourth quarter, an improvement from a year-earlier loss that was due in part to the introduction of new cosmetic and pain-management surgical procedures.

NovaMed earned $1.34 million, or 6 cents per diluted share, for the quarter ended Dec. 31. For the same period a year earlier, the company reported a loss of $1.24 million, or 5 cents per diluted share, with most of the loss attributable to the continuing divestiture of its physician management business. Revenues were $13.61 million for the quarter, compared with revenues of $13.69 million for the same period a year ago.

In 2003, NovaMed earned $3.49 million, or 16 cents per diluted share, compared with $0.21 million, or 1 cent per diluted share, in 2002. Revenues rose slightly to $55.51 million from $53.77 million.

The new surgical procedures at NovaMed’s centers — including minor plastic surgery and specialized pain-relieving shots — helped push sales of all non-cataract related procedures up 43 percent in 2003, but drops in demand for laser vision correction procedures somewhat offset those gains.

The company intends to add more new procedures and grow significantly due to continuing advancements in surgical technology and techniques, said Stephen Winjum, chairman, president and chief executive officer of NovaMed, during a conference call with investors. Growth should also be spurred by the increased demand in eye care from aging baby boomers, he added.

New surgical procedures in the fields of podiatry and orthopedics are being considered to help boost growth, said Scott Macomber, chief financial officer.

“We view our surgical facilities as our core business and that’s what our growth strategy is built around,” Macomber said. In December, NovaMed completed the divestiture of its physician management business.

“It was very management intensive, and was not a business we saw much growth potential with,” he said.

Winjum said the poorly performing national economy contributed to the drop in the number of laser vision correction procedures — commonly known as LASIK — performed. He expects any improvement in the economy to boost sales of NovaMed’s LASIK procedures.

Besides outpatient surgery centers, NovaMed runs optical products and services businesses. No analysts cover the company.

Article for Medill: Power is blowin’ in the wind

About 100 miles west of Chicago, one answer to Illinois’ future energy supply may be blowing in the wind.

In January the state’s first large-scale wind farm — 63, 213-foot tall turbines turning wind into electricity –- got its finishing touches from Navitas Energy Inc., a Minneapolis-based wind farm developer and subsidiary of Spain-based Gamesa Energia S.A.

Near Compton, Ill., the wind farm totals 50.4 megawatts in capacity and spreads over roughly 3,000 acres. Those who own the land the turbines sit upon will receive $2,000 to $4,000 a year for each turbine. With an annual power output estimated to be 126 million kilowatt-hours, the farm could power about 12,000 homes.

“The Great Plains, especially in the winter, is like a vast ocean of wind,” said Greg Jaunich, chief executive officer of Navitas. “There will be a lot of renewable energy installed in the U.S. over the upcoming years.”

He may be right. Wind energy capacity grew in the nation by an average of 24.5 percent a year from 1998 to 2003, when it reached 6,374 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

Iowa held 471.2 megawatts of that total and Wisconsin held 53 megawatts. Indiana has no wind farms, but in Illinois, two stalled wind farm projects — totaling about 100 megawatts — will begin construction when Congress passes the long-stalled federal energy bill with its wind energy production tax credit.

Jaunich said the declining cost of producing wind energy — which is beginning to make it competitive with fossil fuels — is one reason interest in wind energy has grown from a breeze to gale.

In the 1980s wind energy cost between 38 cents and 40 cents per kilowatt-hour to produce, said Stefan Noe, president of Illinois Wind Energy LLC, another developer of wind farms. He said the cost is now around 3 cents to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

In comparison, energy produced by natural gas — before the recent price jumps — costs about 3 cents to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, said James Johnson, senior mechanical engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., by e-mail. He added that power from paid-off coal plants costs about 2 cents per kilowatt hour, and from new coal plants, about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Much of the drop in wind energy production costs can be attributed to the turbine’s blade size.

In the 1980s, wind turbine blades were 15 to 18 meters long, Johnson said. The blades got bigger — the longest today being 75 meters for 7-megawatt offshore wind turbines — as manufacturers better understood their aerodynamic and structural properties. Bigger blades mean cheaper energy because manufacturing costs grow only slightly when the blade gets slightly bigger, but the megawatt capacity increases exponentially, he said.

But the blades probably won’t get any bigger due to the cost of transporting and installing such behemoths, Johnson said. Further cuts in wind energy cost will have to come from improved manufacturing processes or by increasing the quantity of turbines being manufactured in order to hit even better economies of scale.

Even with the huge, cost-efficient turbines, Illinois Wind Energy’s 51-megawatt wind farm in Bureau County — about 120 miles southwest of Chicago — won’t be built until Congress passes the energy bill, which includes the renewal of a wind energy production tax credit.

The credit is 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour of renewable energy produced. It is adjusted for inflation and was at 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour before expiring on Dec. 31, 2003, after a two-year extension in 2001. The AWEA has pushed for a five-year extension.

The credit began as independent legislation supported by both political parties, said Kathy Belyeu, a spokesperson for the AWEA. However, it was attached to the energy bill for political reasons and the AWEA’s attempts to detach it and have it passed separately have failed.

The lack of a production tax credit is also holding up construction of Forever Power & Construction Services Inc.’s 44.5 megawatt, $60 million wind farm near West Brooklyn, about 100 miles west of Chicago. The farm’s 27 turbines could be running in eight months once the credit is revived.

The key to the rise of Forever Power’s wind farm — and many others — was the deregulation of electric utilities, said Joyce Papiech, president of Forever Power.

Deregulation, initiated nationwide by an order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1996, allows electricity buyers to choose who generates their power. It forced utilities to consider alternative energy sources to keep environmentally-conscious customers who began shopping elsewhere for their power.

“There has been an opening up, a start of changing in the attitudes of some of the electric companies,” Papiech said.

Noe agreed. “You started to see utilities getting more and more comfortable with the idea of wind power and adding wind power to their production mix,” he said.

While all of the power from Forever Power’s wind farm will be bought by Commonwealth Edison, the Chicago-based subsidiary of Exelon Corp., other wind projects weren’t so lucky.

Florida-based FPL Energy LLC, a subsidiary of FPL Group Inc., dropped plans for a wind farm in Illinois when it couldn’t find a utility to buy the power at an acceptable price, a contract typically called a power purchase agreement, said Steve Stengel, spokesperson for FPL Energy.

Had a utility entered a power purchase agreement with FPL Energy, it, unlike some renewable energy producers, would have included the wind farm’s green tags in the sale.

Green tags are certificates that producers of renewable energy get for the renewable energy they produce. The tags, first used around the year 2000, represent the reduction in pollution that occurs when renewable energy is used instead of energy from fossil fuels.

The tags can be bought and sold on an informal, nationwide market. In states with renewable portfolio standards — regulations first appearing in 2000 that required utilities to use a certain percentage of renewable energy — utility companies often buy the tags rather than invest directly in renewable energy facilities, to demonstrate they’ve met those required renewable levels.

Even with green tag revenues, wind farms typically need some sort of power purchase agreement. Renewable portfolio standards, slowly catching on around the nation, would make such agreements easier to secure.

Illinois adopted a voluntary standard in 2001 that is pushing for 5 percent of total energy to come from renewable sources by 2010, and 15 percent to be renewable by 2020. Hawaii also has a voluntary standard and 13 states have mandated standards. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley announced that 20 percent of the city government’s power usage will come from renewable energy sources by 2006. But wind energy is still not the cheapest energy supply — and utilities are still businesses trying to make a profit.

“It’s a matter of time before there will be (wind) opportunities here in Illinois that make sense economically,” said Gabriela Martin, manager of Environmental Commitment at Commonwealth Edison. “I think that’s the bottom line. It’s got to make sense for the business.”

Article for Medill: Nicor Gas’s earnings take a hit

Nicor Inc., parent company of natural gas utility Nicor Gas, reported a 10.7 percent drop in fourth quarter earnings from the same year-ago period under the pressure of increased operating costs and sub-par results from the gas distribution portion of its business.

Nicor earned $35.1 million for the quarter ended Dec. 31, or 80 cents per share, compared with $39.3 million, or 89 cents per share, for the same period a year earlier. The consensus earnings estimate from analysts polled by Zacks.com was 85 cents per share for the quarter ended Dec. 31.

For 2003, Naperville-based Nicor earned $105.2 million, or $2.38 per diluted share, compared with $128 million, or $2.88 per diluted share, earned in 2002. The consensus earnings estimate from analysts polled by Zacks.com was $2.07 per share for 2003.

“The big driver in the reduction of earnings was lower gas distribution results,” said Richard Hawley, chief financial officer of Nicor, during a conference call. A sluggish national economy and high natural gas prices contributed to those results, he added. On top of that, increasing maintenance and operation expenses — including health insurance and compliance costs –- also whittled away earnings.

Industrial deliveries, one component of the gas distribution business, were down about 6 percent, noted Mark Knox, assistant secretary and director of investor relations at Nicor, during a conference call.

The drop in industrial demand would be slow to recover, and could be permanent, said Thomas Fisher, chairman and chief executive officer of Nicor, during a conference call. In response, Nicor plans to enact tight cost control and to request a raise in the rates the company is allowed to charge its customers, he added. Rates are regulated by the Illinois Commerce Commission, and it would review any proposed rate changes.

Another factor contributing to the drop in 2003 earnings was a change in accounting rules, according to a company press release.

Revenues for the quarter ended Dec. 31 were $743.9 million, 5.6 percent higher than the $704.7 million reported for the same period a year earlier. For 2003, Nicor reported revenues of $2.66 billion, a whopping 40 percent higher than the $1.90 billion in revenues reported for 2002.

”An overwhelming amount of that will be the much higher gas prices,” said Craig Shere, a utility analyst with Standard & Poor’s Equity Research Services. “In addition, the first quarter of ’03 was colder.”

In 2003, natural gas prices reached record highs. Nicor bought more expensive natural gas and that gas was sold to customers –- at the price the utility paid for it– thus creating leaps in revenues but not earnings, Shere said. Utilities, by regulation, are allowed to profit from its natural gas distribution services, but not the sale of natural gas. Whatever the utility pays for gas is what the customer pays.

Due to lowered expectations for the performance of Nicor’s gas distribution segment and continued increasing operations costs, the company has set earnings estimates at $2.10 to $2.30 per diluted share in 2004.

Nicor Inc. is the holding company for Northern Illinois Gas, a natural gas utility company doing business as Nicor Gas. Nicor Gas serves about two million customers in Illinois. Nicor Inc. also owns Tropical Shipping, a freight shipping business based in the Caribbean.

The stock’s price was $33.59 during late afternoon trading, up 79 cents.

Article for Medill: NiSource Inc. gets slammed

A colder than usual year and sinking interest expense helped NiSource Inc.’s earnings leap ahead for the quarter ended Dec. 31, but earnings for all of 2003 dropped a whopping 77 percent from the previous year’s earnings due mostly to the sale of discontinued operations assets.

“They took a beating on what they sold,” said Jim Halloren, an analyst with NatCity Investments.

NiSource earned $139.8 million, or 54 cents per share, for the quarter ended Dec. 31. That was up 70 percent from the $82.1 million, or 36 cents per share, earned in the same period a year ago.

The consensus earnings estimate of analysts polled by Zacks.com was 56 cents per share for the quarter, 2 cents above the actual earnings per share.

Revenues hit $1.7 billion for the quarter, compared with $1.7 billion.

NiSource earned $85.2 million, or 33 cents per share, for the year ended Dec. 31, down 77 percent from the $372.5 million, or $1.77 per share, earned in 2002.

Revenues rose to $6.2 billion for the year compared with $5.3 billion.

“They did a good job on paying down debts and holding the line on costs,” said Michael C. Heim, an equity analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons. “It’s been a good turnaround story as a whole.”

Earnings per share for 2004 are estimated to be $1.65 to $1.70, said Gary Neale, chairman, president and chief executive officer of NiSource, during a conference call with analysts.

“January has been a cold month with strong natural gas sales,” Neale added. “This gives us a good start for the year.”

NiSource is an Indiana-based holding company with natural gas and electricity transmission, storage and distribution businesses serving about 3.7 million customers.

Article for Medill: The business of saving the planet

About 277,000 tons less of carbon dioxide made it into the air in 2002, according to the Center for Resource Solutions, a non-profit environmental organization in San Francisco.

And it’s all because of little things called green tags.

By January, sales of those little green tags brought Mainstay Energy LLC’s revenues to about $100,000. And the privately held start-up on Chicago’s Near North Side — working out of a virtual office woven together by phone lines, e-mails, a Web site and instant messaging tools — expects the little green tags to help generate revenues reaching about $500,000 in 2004.

“We want to create innovative, market-based financing for small- and medium-scale renewable energy products,” said Hoyt Hudson, Mainstay’s founder and chief executive officer.

A green tag is also known as a renewable energy certificate and a tradable renewable certificate.

It is a certificate that producers of renewable energy — like wind farms and solar power facilities — get for the renewable energy they produce. It represents the environmental benefits of their renewable energy.

Richard Rud, a 50-year-old resident of Hoffman Estates, began selling his green tags to Mainstay last summer after a visit from Swedish friends who told him Americans “waste so much of everything.”

That perception inspired Rud to install a 2.88-kilowatt solar panel system on the roof of his house in March 2003.

Over the course of a year, Rud’s solar panels may generate roughly 4 megawatt-hours of energy, the amount it would take to run a 100-watt light bulb for about 4.6 years.

That’s 4 megawatt-hours of electricity not generated by a polluting energy facility, such as a coal plant. Rud’s solar panel system would therefore create 4 megawatt-hours worth of green tags. They represent all the pollutants that didn’t go into the atmosphere because the coal plant burned less coal by not having to generate the 4 megawatt-hours that Rud’s solar system generated. This is called the environmental benefit.

But Rud’s 4 megawatt-hours of green tags are too small to sell on the national market, where green tags are sold in 100 to 1000 megawatt-hour amounts.

Enter Mainstay Energy.

Hudson, who has a bachelor’s degree in applied physics, started up Mainstay in early 2003 as an entrepreneurial challenge and to explore his longstanding interest in energy. The company’s first product is the bundling of small green tags coming from numerous small renewable energy producers — people like Rud — across the country into large green tag packages. These large green tag packages can then be sold on the national market at prices determined by supply and demand.

Buyers include utilities, larger green tag resellers and big organizations trying to be more environmentally friendly.

Rud recently got his first check, for $20, from Mainstay for his solar power system’s green tags.

“I think it’s a great program,” he said. “That’s one way you can get something back immediately.”

Mark Crowdis, president of Think Energy Inc., a Maryland-based company that buys Mainstay’s green tag packages, said Mainstay’s work with small-scale producers like Rud is a “unique angle on the market.”

“I like the fact that they’re going out and working with small developers of renewables and they’re helping those developers make cost-effective installations,” he said.

“If you take a look at solar, there are very few megawatt systems in the world,” said Bob Maddox, the Northeast regional manager for Georgia-based Sterling Planet Inc., another buyer of Mainstay’s green tag packages. “The only way you can blend solar into a green power offering is if you put together a bunch of systems.”

In 2002, 150,000 megawatt-hours of green tags — certified as legitimately coming from renewable energy facilities under the nationally recognized “Green-e” standard maintained by the Center for Resource Solutions in San Francisco — were sold nationwide. That’s about 0.004 percent of total power produced in the United States for the same year, or enough power to run a 100-watt light bulb for about 171,000 years.

Based upon anecdotal evidence indicating a rapidly expanding market, green tag sales in 2003 could have been twice as high, and sales for 2004 could grow equally fast, said Dan Lieberman, program manager at the Center for Resource Solutions.

Beginning in 2003, Mainstay contracted with small renewable energy facilities that have a combined capacity of about 10 megawatts. Together they generate about 20,000 megawatt-hours in green tags over a year, Hudson said. A 100-watt light bulb could run for about 23,000 years on that energy.

Mainstay will sell those green tags to a dozen or so buyers it has agreements with, but the price of the tags varies across the United States. States with renewable portfolio standards — or laws requiring that a certain amount of used energy be provided by renewable energy facilities — offer a more lucrative and stable price for green tags.

Green tags costs from 2 1/2 cents to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour in Massachusetts, a state requiring 1.5 percent of its energy to be renewable, Hudson said. The solar panels on Rud’s roof and their estimated green tags of 4,000 kilowatt-hours could fetch between $100 and $160 at that price. Illinois lacks a mandated renewable energy standard though it has put forth goals of 5 percent of energy to be from renewable sources by 2010, up to 15 percent by 2020. The City of Chicago stated a goal of 20 percent of its energy to be from renewable sources by 2006. Indiana has no renewable energy standard.

Hudson, who sells only certified “Green-e” green tags, expects the green tag market, and the number of renewable energy facilities underlying it, to grow explosively due to advances in renewable energy technology and increased consumer interest in renewable energy.

Another big reason for growth is the deregulation of the electric utility industry, according to Hudson and Joshua Cynamon, Mainstay’s product manager for project financing.

Deregulation — initiated nationwide by an order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1996 — allows power consumers to choose who generates their power, creating a “pressure to move toward a large quantity of smaller systems,” Cynamon said.

Mainstay plans to enter that growing market by financing small- and medium-scale renewable energy projects. Hudson expects that next year Mainstay will become profitable and revenues will hit about $2.5 million. Beyond that, he envisions Mainstay becoming a “next-generation utility company” offering clean energy through many small renewable energy facilities across the nation.

Article for Medill: Citizen police wrap up training

Hand-to-hand combat, a bagpipe player, men in uniform and gunfire. Were it not for the cookies and coffee, it could have been war.

On Tuesday night students in the Niles Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy (CPA) had their final class before they accept graduation certificates at next week’s graduation ceremony.

The class kicked off with sparring between two martial artists from Shim’s Taekwondo Academy in Niles. They punched, kicked and grappled until one of them got tossed to the floor, his arm twisted behind him by his foe. Then they took out small boards and warned the academy students: Wood will fly.

A few students changed seats and the martial artists, one of them holding the board while the other stared it down, promptly snapped the board in half with a jumping kick. The wood, as promised, flew.

Then came a cop in a kilt. He carried bagpipes.

Owen Masterton, an officer at the Glenview Police Department, blew his bagpipes and filled the tight quarters of the conference room – decorated with American flags – with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

The performances were just part of several activities capping the 12-week CPA program designed to give Niles residents an intimate look at police work. Topics covered in the class included canine units, terrorism, juvenile law, domestic violence, gang awareness and evidence collection. Students also have the chance to get out of the classroom by accompanying police on patrol and driving a police car while performing a mock traffic stop.

Niles Finance Director George Van Geem estimated the CPA program costs the village of Niles less than $5,000 a year.

CPA alumni often volunteer to assist the police department with law enforcement conferences and programs, said Officer Charles Law, a coordinator of the CPA.

Alumni have done work for the National Night Out program – where citizens learn what they can do to reduce crime in their neighborhoods – and the Child Safety Seat Checks program, where police help citizens install child safety seats. Ninety percent of the seats are installed incorrectly, Law said.

Because of their familiarity with police work, CPA alumni may be asked to fill the ranks of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), said Officer Robert Tornabene of the Niles Police Department. The CERT program, still under consideration by the Niles police, would create a team of people who could be asked to assist the police department in the event of catastrophe, Tornabene said. A grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would pay for CERT training and equipment, he said.

Made up of about 15 women and men with ages ranging from 24 to 80, the latest CPA class offers Tornabene a diverse group of people from which to choose members of CERT.

Niles resident David Craig, 24, said the CPA taught him a “mixture of all things.” How police position and exit their cars during traffic stops was a particularly interesting fact, he said, because it erased some of the mystery he felt surrounded police work.

“It [police work] is just common sense,” he said.

A desire to better understand police attracted Niles resident Crida Leblebijian, 40, to the CPA program.

“We only see them [police] when they’re writing you a ticket,” she said. “I wanted to know everything.”

Leblebijian got what she asked for.

For part of the last class, she and her classmates crammed into a small room with Officer Carl Kully. A window took up most of one wall that, along with a door, separated the students from a 75-foot-long firing range used by the Niles police for shooting practice. The class nodded their heads as Kully explained gun calibers, gun safety, bullet speed, and the difference between a magazine and a clip.

Kully drew laughter out of the class when he took a long rifle and said as he *censored*ed it, “If you ever hear this noise, it’s time to run.”

After the introduction, students were taken three at a time into the firing range. Kully and assisting officers showed students how to safely load a revolver and gave pointers on gun-holding techniques – keep your hands on either side of the grip, keep it straight and steady, and focus on the gun’s site, not the target. Lesson learned, students pumped six bullets through a paper target hanging about 15 feet away.

“I hadn’t shot a gun since I left the war,” said Joseph Musso, 80, a CPA student who served in World War II. “It was very exciting.”

Musso’s classmates echoed his excitement and added that they had a deeper respect for police officers after completing the CPA.

“They [police officers] deserve the title of hero because they choose to put themselves in harm’s way,” Leblebijian said.

It is that kind of praise that inspires Officer Tornabene. “It makes everything we do worthwhile because we know there are people out there that actually care,” he said.

The CPA’s Graduation ceremony will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 18 in the Niles Village Hall, 1000 Civic Center Drive.

Article for Medill: ‘Tis the season

Christmas – ‘tis the season of sharing and caring, giving and receiving, robbing and stealing.

Skokie police will be out in greater numbers at the Old Orchard mall to help deal with the usual surge in retail thefts during the holiday season, Sgt. Paul Kruszynksi of the Skokie Police Department said Thursday.

He said the rise in thefts at the mall is the related to the increased number of shoppers – the more people in the mall, the more likely it is some of them will steal. Three arrests for retail theft at various Old Orchard stores occurred this week, according to police reports.

On Tuesday Skokie police arrested Velia Roman, 32, of 2600 W. Thomas St., Chicago, on charges of stealing clothes from Marshall Field’s. The same day, Joanna Bujakowska, 38, of 5528 W. Eddy St., Chicago, was arrested on charges of stealing a top and a skirt from the same store.

On Wednesday Skokie police arrested Chou Duk Yun, 69, of 9238 Gross Point Rd., on charges of stealing a hat from Saks Fifth Avenue. He told officers he tried to pay for the hat, but the store wouldn’t let him, according to the report.

“We get everything – people using stolen credit cards, stealing Prada purses, whatever they can get their hands on,” said Robert Shaw, Loss Prevention Manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Old Orchard mall. “They look for the easy mark.”

He said the increased number of shoppers makes it more difficult to detect theft. In response Saks increased its number of undercover security guards to about nine after the Thanksgiving holiday. At the end of the Christmas season, the number of guards will be reduced. He added that high numbers of undercover security guards are used at random times throughout the year.

Store theft isn’t always petty.

Sometimes sophisticated groups of thieves swarm Saks to steal large quantities of merchandise by using distraction. The “Irish Travelers” is one group from Tennessee that targeted Saks during the summer and last winter, Shaw said. He expects them to strike again this winter.

He said the group includes about 30 people, mostly women from 13 to 50 years old, who enter a store simultaneously to make it difficult for security guards to watch each one of them.

Other theft techniques include lining a shopping bag with foil and putting stolen merchandise in the bag, Shaw said. The foil prevents security alarms from sounding when a thief passes through them with the stolen merchandise.

Besides stealing, the group gets refunds on merchandise stolen from other stores and occasionally makes a legitimate purchase, Shaw said.

To counter teams of thieves, Saks security officers turn up the volume of their walkie-talkies and discuss the presence of the thieves, Shaw said. The thieves, hearing the officers’ conversation over the loud walkie-talkies, then may curb their stealing because of the impression they are being watched closely.

Stealing merchandise worth less than $150 can result in fines to the thief of up to $2,500 and one year in jail – for the first time. The second time someone steals merchandise worth less than $150, he or she could spend one to three years in prison and be fined up to $25,000.

Stealing merchandise worth more than $150 can result in fines up to $25,000 and prison sentences of two to five years.