Monday, August 31, 2015

How A New Battery Revolution Will Change Your Life

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How a new battery revolution will change your life

A new generation of super cells promises to reshape the future of energy.

It’s probably safe to say that freshman chemistry rarely ranks among college students’ most memorable courses. An overcrowded lecture hall teems with 18-year-olds with chins propped on palms. Eyelids droop at the mere mention of Planck’s constant or Bohr’s model of hydrogen. Yawns abound. 
So when Donald Sadoway began teaching introductory chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in 1995, he wanted to liven things up. Sure, he still lectured on the properties of atomic arrangements in crystalline and amorphous solids, but he did it an unusual way: He peppered his presentations with chemistry jokes only an MIT undergrad would understand and wove literature and art into the rigid lines and squares of the periodic table. 
A lifelong music lover, Dr. Sadoway paired each lecture with a relevant tune. He’d play Handel’s “Water Music” in a lecture on hydrogen bonding and Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” in a class on polymers. For DNA – that famous double-helix spiral – he’d play Hank Ballard’s version of “The Twist.”
Recommended: Five hopeful signs global energy is getting cleaner
Get it?
These days, Sadoway’s interests lie in another seemingly yawn-worthy subject: batteries. And he knows exactly what song to pair it with: John Lennon’s 1971 protest anthem “Power to the People.” 
“I view the whole battery enterprise as very socially conscious,” says Sadoway, who has started his own battery company with the hope of changing the world’s energy future. “It would represent a major step in bringing electricity to those who don’t have reliable access to electricity now. And for those of us that do have reliable access, it would democratize the generation of electricity.” 
It’s a dramatic endorsement for a technology most people think about only when their smartphone goes dark or their smoke alarm beeps incessantly. But Sadoway isn’t alone in trumpeting energy storage as a missing link to a cleaner, more efficient, and more equitable energy future.
Scientists and engineers have long believed in the promise of batteries to change the world. Now – finally – energy storage is beginning to live up to the hype. Advanced batteries are moving out of the lab and into “gigafactories.” They’re scaling up from smartphones and into smartgrids. They’re moving out of niche markets and creeping into the mainstream, signaling a tipping point for forward-looking technologies such as electric cars and rooftop solar panels. 
The ubiquitous battery has already come a long way, of course. It is why we can carry more computing power in our pocket than what it took to put a man on the moon. It is why we text, take selfies, and tap on our phones on the bus or at the dinner table. The battery – specifically today’s lithium-ion battery – enables tweets from the front lines of war and police videos that stir protests. For better or worse, batteries make possible our mobile-first lifestyles, our screen culture, our increasingly globalized and hyperconnected world. Across the planet, billions pore over glowing screens, totally untethered and free to roam as they please. 
Still, as impressive as all this is, it may be trivial compared with what comes next. Having already enabled a communications revolution, the battery is now poised to transform just about everything else – how we keep the lights on, travel from Point A to Point B, and spread power to those without it. 
The wireless age is expanding to include not just our phones, tablets, and laptops, but also our cars, homes, and even whole communities. In emerging economies, rural communities are leapfrogging the wires and wooden poles that spread power across the West. Instead, some in Africa and Asia are seeing their first lightbulbs illuminated by the power of sunlight stored in batteries. 
Today, energy storage is a $33 billion global industry that generates nearly 100 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year, according to Boston-based Lux Research. By the end of the decade, it is expected to be worth more than $50 billion and generate 160 GWh. That’s still just the equivalent of a AAAA battery in the sprawling energy industry, but it’s enough to attract the attention of major companies that might not otherwise be interested in a decidedly pedestrian technology. Even utilities, which have long viewed batteries and the alternative forms of energy they support as a threat, are learning to embrace the technologies as “enabling” rather than “disruptive.”
“It’s going to take a couple of decades, but the revolution is starting to happen now,” says Cosmin Laslau, a batteries analyst at Lux.
Done well, the revolution would mean energy used more wisely, more widely, and more cleanly. Today’s battery breakthroughs come as the world looks to expand modern energy access to the billion or so people without it, while also cutting back on fuels that warm the planet. Those simultaneous challenges appear less overwhelming with incrementally better answers to a centuries-old quandary: how to make power portable.
To be sure, the battery still has a long way to go before the nightly recharge completely replaces the weekly trip to the gas station. One need only ask the pilots of the Solar Impulse 2 about the shortcomings of today’s batteries. The solar-powered aircraft, which made the first attempt to fly around the world without consuming a drop of fuel, was grounded earlier this year after frying its batteries over the Pacific Ocean.
A battery-powered, electrified world comes with its own risks, too. Namely, what happens to the centralized electric grid, which took decades and billions of dollars to build, as more and more people become “prosumers,” generating and consuming their own energy on-site? 
No one knows which – if any – battery technology will ultimately dominate, but one thing remains clear: The future of energy is in how we store it. 
“So, ‘Power to the People,’ ” Sadoway reiterates. “Of course, they were referring to political power, but it’s a pretty good metaphor in this case.” 
•     •     • 
The battery’s rising influence is a product of its falling price. Like the solar panels they aim to bolster, batteries must compete with well-
 entrenched mainstream fuels and the piston engines, power plant turbines, and other infrastructure associated with them. Also, like those of solar panels, battery costs have followed a dramatic downward curve over recent years. 
Between 2007 and 2014, electric car battery costs dropped by more than half – from more than $1,000 per kilowatt-hour to around $410 per kWh, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Nature Climate Change. It’s still not cheap enough to put an electric car in every garage, but it’s enough to carve out a niche market that gives a new technology the foundation from which to spread through suburbs and urban motor pools. And that trend should continue as manufacturers scale up production, tweak financing, and find other efficiencies: By 2025, the cost of batteries in electric vehicles will drop to as low as $172 per kWh, according to Lux. 
“One of the remarkable things, looking back historically, is that for basically a century it was all about the internal combustion engine,” Dr. Laslau says. “We’re taking fuels and we’re blowing them up inside of cylinders. We’re now at a point where the alternative is here, and it’s staying here.”
Tech giant Google has a secretive team building better batteries, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. Analysts speculate that Apple is doing the same, based on the company’s job postings. Nearly every major automaker has an electric vehicle for sale and many – notably Toyota and General Motors – are investing millions in designing new batteries to power them. It’s a veritable moon race to see who can build the first affordable electric vehicle to drive 200 miles on a single charge. Many analysts believe hitting that mark would dramatically accelerate a global transition from fossil fuels to electricity as the energy of choice for the automotive world. 
Nor are Americans the only ones with their eyes on the battery’s future. Panasonic in Japan and Samsung in South Korea are two multinational companies that have long dominated the lithium-ion field. China’s lithium-ion battery market is expected to expand 400 percent by 2017, according to research firm China Chemicals Market. Chinese firms are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into US battery companies, hoping for new technologies to meet the ballooning demand. Germany, which is attempting perhaps the most dramatic energy transition across the globe, is seen as a key early market for emerging home battery technologies. BMZ, based in Karlstein, Germany, is building Europe’s largest rechargeable battery production facility. 
In the United States, Tesla Motors is among those pushing the battery era the hardest. The California-based company has spent the past 12 years doing to electric vehicles what Apple did to early MP3 players – making them cool. It already has a battery-powered car that goes 200 miles on a single charge – the Model S – but its $70,000-plus price tag keeps it beyond the reach of most drivers. 
Tesla believes it can bring its car to the masses without any radical new breakthroughs in the lithium-ion chemistry that powers most of today’s gadgets and electric vehicles. Last February the company unveiled a $5 billion plan for a battery “gigafactory” that it says will be able to supply half a million cars when it opens. Scale, in other words, could be the secret to an inexpensive, 200-mile-range electric vehicle.
But Tesla’s battery ambitions go beyond just cars. Elon Musk, the company’s dynamic chief executive, envisions a future in which batteries – paired with solar panels – power homes, businesses, and whole communities. By providing on-site storage for backup power, the setup would directly address renewable energy’s Achilles’ heel – that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. It would shift a reliance on fossil fuels to a reliance on a power plant that is 4.5 billion years old and 93 million miles away. 
“We have this handy fusion reactor in the sky called the sun,” Mr. Musk mused in April at the launch of Tesla’s suite of energy-storage devices. “You don’t have to do anything. It just works, shows up every day, and produces ridiculous amounts of power.” 
Most analysts expect the Powerwall, Tesla’s battery for homes, to appeal to only a small number of people, at least until the price and associated costs drop further. With a capacity of between only 7 and 10 kWh, and a price tag ranging from $3,000 to $3,500, the economics just don’t make sense for most consumers across the US. But the larger-sized Powerpacks are already proving attractive to businesses and utilities, which have more of a financial incentive to avoid the violent fluctuations in energy supply and demand. And when the gigafactory comes on line in 2017, Tesla hopes the economies of scale will drive prices down to a point where home batteries entice a lot of people.
For Musk, “a lot of people” means just about everyone. At April’s launch, Musk calculated it would take roughly 2 billion Powerpacks to electrify the entire world. That sounds like a lot, but, as Musk noted, it’s on par with the number of cars and trucks on the road.
“This is actually within the power of humanity to do,” he said. “We have done things like this before.”
•     •     • 
When the National Academy of Engineering cast about for something to anoint as the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century, it didn’t settle on the automobile. Or the airplane. Or even anything from the gee-whiz world of electronics. 
It chose the pedestrian electrical grid.
That perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. The electrical grid is the aorta of modern civilization – the channel that brings power and light to virtually every family and factory in the developed world. But it does have a fundamental flaw. 
“The grid is the biggest supply chain on the planet – and it has zero inventory,” says Sadoway, perched on a stool in a lab back at MIT. “The electricity that powers the lights in this building was generated just moments ago.” 
Power, in other words, is tailor-made for the moment you need it. Grid operators are constantly ramping generators up or down to ensure supply meets demand. Entire power plants remain idle for much of the year, called into service only when people reach for their thermostats – during a heat wave or a polar vortex, for example. If supply and demand fall out of sync, “bad things start to happen,” Sadoway says. It’s a delicate balancing act of mammoth proportions.
No wonder, then, that batteries represent a potential paladin for the electrical grid. Grid-scale batteries would give utilities an emissions-free, easily dispatchable way to store energy that can be summoned during moments of surging demand. To some, batteries could do to electricity what refrigeration did to our food supply and storage tanks to our access to water.
“It doesn’t have to be raining when you’re taking a shower because we’ve got cisterns,” Sadoway says. “If we had something analogous to that for electricity, it would make the supply chain so much more stable.”
Sadoway is skeptical that today’s lithium-ion chemistry will do the trick. Inspired by aluminum smelting, he and his students have developed an all-liquid-metal battery that packs a bigger punch than lithium-ion and – most important – does so over a longer life span. The battery’s unique floating chemistry doesn’t require internal structures that degrade over time, which means it can discharge and recharge tens of thousands of times before wearing out. His team also uses earth-abundant minerals such as magnesium and antimony instead of scarcer metals such as lithium that pervade today’s batteries.
“If you want to make it dirt-cheap, make it out of dirt,” Sadoway is fond of saying, “and preferably dirt from your own backyard, because then you know you have a secure supply chain!”
In 2010, Sadoway and David Bradwell, one of his students, cofounded a company called Ambri with the intent of commercializing the technology. Five years later, it has 50 employees, more than $50 million in financing, and a prototype manufacturing plant tucked away in an industrial park in Marlborough, Mass. Count Microsoft founder Bill Gates among its investors. The tech magnate took one of Sadoway’s courses anonymously online, and reached out soon thereafter to learn more about the promising technology. 
Later this year, Ambri is launching two pilot projects, and it eventually hopes to sell its modular battery packs to utilities, hospitals, and other groups that could benefit from large amounts of on-demand electricity.
•     •     •
Halfway across the country from MIT, in the woods southwest of Chicago, there is something like a college campus where all the students have advanced degrees and work on the great challenges of our time. 
Argonne National Laboratory is a staple of postwar American science. Nuclear power has its origins here. Argonne scientists analyzed lunar rocks from humanity’s first moon landing. In 1957, a physicist stuck his arm in an ultrasonic scanner at Argonne, and – voilĂ  – the world’s first ultrasound image of the human body. 
Today, the sprawling 1,500-acre complex still feels like an Atomic Age temple to science, but the work inside is geared firmly toward today’s challenges. Those who wander Argonne’s labyrinthine corridors talk coolly but intently about the need to wean ourselves off the carbon-heavy fuels that made modern civilization possible. They worry about dependence on oil from unstable foreign governments. They worry about smog-choked skylines and emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere.
But instead of inventing a better solar panel or wind turbine, one team at Argonne is looking for energy solutions in better batteries.
The Argonne-led Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) is looking for the next big breakthrough in energy storage – a technology that would store at least five times as much energy as today’s batteries at one-fifth the cost. In late 2012, it received a $120 million grant from the Department of Energy to make it happen within five years. It’s a timeline that even Jeff Chamberlain, who leads JCESR’s partnerships with industry, admits is at the limit of theoretical possibility. But if the center meets its mark, he says, it would do to energy what social media has done to information and communication.
“The end result is that, for good or for bad, individuals have a voice in a way that we never did in history,” Dr. Chamberlain says, echoing Sadoway’s view of batteries as democratizing. “I think that kind of thing can happen with energy, and the battery is a huge enabler.”
To an outsider, JCESR (pronounced “jay-Caesar”) feels like a heady test kitchen. PhD-enabled chefs cull ingredients from the periodic table to design recipes steeped in the fundamental laws of the universe. Take a pinch of manganese, add a dash of nickel, stir in cobalt, bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes – and hope what comes out will help change the future of the world. 
A typical day here is like “studying for a physics test,” says Jason Croy, who oversees scientists testing small battery prototypes at Argonne. “You’re thinking about things you don’t understand – that nobody understands.”
Even so, the basic science of batteries is simple. There’s an anode on one end, a cathode on the other, and a chemical electrolyte in between. When a battery is used, the anode releases positively charged atoms called ions that travel across the electrolyte to the cathode. The cathode then attracts negatively charged particles called electrons that flow through an external circuit, bringing to life whatever device is connected. When a battery is plugged in to recharge, the ions flow back to the anode, converting electric energy back into stored chemical energy. 
“The science of batteries is really fundamental science,” Dr. Croy says. “It’s physics – basic problems at the atomic and subatomic level.”
Italian scientist Alessandro Volta is widely considered the field’s founding father, having developed a primitive battery using metal discs and brine-soaked cardboard back in 1800. The first lead-acid battery came 60 years later and still serves as the energy-storage device in most cars. Zinc-carbon batteries powered early hand-held devices in the first half of the 20th century. The rise of alkaline batteries paved the way for better-performing flashlights, remote controls, and portable electronics in the 1960s. Then came the high-density, lightweight lithium-ion battery in the 1980s, which enabled today’s mobile revolution.
Now JCESR is looking beyond lithium ion to find the next breakthrough in battery science – in different ions, new chemical reactions, and unique battery structures. The other half of JCESR’s mission is to streamline the cumbersome process of developing a new battery technology, testing a prototype, scaling it up in the lab, replicating it on the factory line, and, finally, safely installing it in the car you drive. 
For Chamberlain, a self-professed “Detroit kid” who witnessed firsthand the decline of US manufacturing, there’s a personal stake in all this. 
“My grandfather, my uncle, were lifelong Ford employees ... and we’ve watched Detroit become decimated,” he says. “It’s difficult to say whether that could have been prevented, but there are certain technological opportunities to bring innovation and manufacturing back onto our soil.”
 •     •     •
Thirty-one years ago, Motorola released the world’s first commercial cellular phone – an unwieldy plastic brick weighing two pounds, with a price tag of $3,995. It won the favor of wealthy Wall Street types (think Gordon Gekko), but it was impractical for a general public that made do with landlines and, in some cases, car phones. At the time, no one could be certain portable phones would ever make sense for the average consumer.
Today, the battery finds itself at a similar juncture. True, the battery has been around for a long time and already powers everything from laptops to cordless screw guns. But the question is whether the next generation of batteries will be cheap enough and have enough storage to make the electric car and home energy systems as omnipresent as the iPhone.
Energy, of course, is vastly different from telecommunications, and it will likely take much longer to overhaul the world’s vast network of pipelines, power plants, and transmission lines. But a transition has already begun to some sort of new Eveready future, judging from the amount of money and intellectual power flowing into next-generation batteries.
And it is the next generation of thinkers fathoming the unfathomable that keeps Sadoway mixing exotic battery brews for his company in Marlborough and teaching in classrooms in Cambridge. 
“You’ve got bright people who are intellectually fearless, and we give them impossible problems and they work on them with enthusiasm,” he says of his students. “It stands to reason [that we should] harness that unbridled enthusiasm and intellectual horsepower.”
Tesla unveils battery to 'transform energy infrastructure'

Supreme Court Rejects County Official's Request In Gay Marriage Case


The Supreme Court on Monday turned down a Kentucky county clerk’s request to be excused from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the court’s first involvement in a series of legal battles that have erupted since gay couples won the right to marry.
The court, without comment, turned away a request by Kim Davis, the elected clerk of Rowan County in northeast Kentucky, who faces fines or even jail time if she doesn’t begin issuing marriage licenses Tuesday. Davis, a devout Apostolic Christian who opposes same-sex marriage, has argued that doing so would violate her religious liberties.
Davis’s resistance has led to the most prominent of a number of legal skirmishes that have broken out since the high court decided in June that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The ruling was implemented relatively smoothly at first but lately has encountered resistance, particularly in the South.
Two counties in Texas and about a dozen in Alabama are also refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to gay rights groups. In Mississippi, two same-sex couples are challenging a state law barring gay couples from adopting children. And in Florida, a couple has sued over a state agency’s refusal to name both of them as parents on their child’s birth certificate.
Gay rights groups say this backlash is to be expected. Following Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s forceful opinion establishing no legal distinction between gay and straight married couples, gay activists expect the cases eventually to be resolved in favor of gay rights.
But the dogged resistance in some corners suggests that the battles may drag on for some time. And it suggests that there will be continuing pressure on courts to balance the constitutional rights of gay couples to marry with the rights of public officials and others who say condoning same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.
Davis — who stopped issuing licenses to all couples, gay and straight — had not indicated late Monday how she would respond to the court’s decision. If she refuses to comply, she could be held in contempt, leading to daily fines or jail time. At a recent rally, Davis adopted a defiant tone, asking for prayers to “stand firm.”
Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group that is representing Davis, demurred earlier Monday when asked how she would respond if she lost.
“She’s not going to resign, but to issue a marriage license is a direct conflict with her religious convictions,” he said. “So it would put her in a real Catch-22 over having to make a decision about her convictions.”
A lightning rod and a hero
Of the many firefights over same-sex marriage, the dispute in Rowan County, about an hour east of Lexington, has proceeded the fastest and drawn the most attention. Davis, 49, a Democrat, was a little-known public servant who toiled quietly as a deputy clerk for 26 years. After being elected to the top post in November, she took the reins from her mother, who had served as Rowan County clerk for the previous 37 years, according to local news reports.
Today, she is a lightning rod. Protesters have flocked to the courthouse in the county seat, Morehead, often gathering around her office window to chant and wave signs. At least once, they pressed a megaphone against the glass.
Same-sex couples come in regularly to attempt to apply for marriage licenses; one couple recorded an encounter with Davis’s staff in a video that went viral. Staver said Davis has also been the subject of death threats. In one case, he said, a person called pretending to be from the office of the state attorney general and began threatening the clerk when she got on the phone.
For others, however, Davis has become a hero. She was greeted with raucous applause when she appeared at a rally at the capitol in Frankfort in support of her and two defiant clerks from other Kentucky counties. One of them, Casey Davis, who is no relation, has embarked on a 450-mile bicycle ride across the state to draw attention to Kim Davis’s plight.
“This lady, she’s a good lady,” Casey Davis said via cellphone from a hilltop in Anderson County on Monday afternoon, near the halfway point of his cycling trip from Pikeville to Paducah. “There are people who deserve to go to jail. She is not one of them.”
Casey Davis said he and the other clerk are not facing any legal trouble because no one has sued them for refusing to issue a license to a same-sex couple. The situation is different in Rowan County, which has a population of about 23,000 people and is home to Morehead State University.
Six couples who tried unsuccessfully to get marriage licenses from Kim Davis’s office have filed suit. In early August, U.S. District Court Judge David L. Bunning rejected Davis’s argument that she was being forced to violate her religious beliefs by issuing and signing the marriage licenses.
The clerk is “simply being asked to signify that couples meet the legal requirements to marry,” and that does not impinge on her religious freedoms, Bunning wrote. “Her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County Clerk.”
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit agreed, and Davis faced a Tuesday deadline to open her office to all couples seeking to marry.
A devout Christian
In her defense, her lawyers described Davis in a court filing as “a professing Apostolic Christian who attends church worship service multiple times per week, attends weekly Bible study, and leads a weekly Bible study with women at a local jail.” It says she fasted and prayed for weeks before deciding that she would not issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Her lawyers say there are more than 130 locations around the state where same-sex couples can get licenses, including seven counties neighboring Rowan. They also argue that other steps could be taken to accommodate Davis’s religious beliefs.
For example, a clerk from a neighboring county could be deputized to issue licenses in Rowan County. The state could remove all references to a clerk’s name on marriage licenses. Or lawmakers could overhaul the way Kentucky licenses marriages.
On Friday, Davis formally requested a stay of the lower court’s ruling from Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court justice who oversees the 6th Circuit.
Kagan referred the matter to the entire court, which turned down Davis’s request Monday evening without noted disagreement.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Sandhya Somashekhar is the social change reporter for the Washington Post.

Getting Less Than 6 Hours Of Sleep Makes You 4X More Likely To Catch Cold

Getting less than 6 hours of sleep makes you 4x more likely to get a cold

Even though just about everyone knows the importance of a good night’s sleep, many people pride themselves on being able to get by on just a few hours of shut-eye.
But new evidence suggests that skipping sleep does a number on your health. People who sleep six hours a night or less are four times more likely to catch a cold than those who snooze for more than seven hours, according to researchers.
Poor sleep has long been linked to chronic illness and even premature death. The new study provides the first evidence connecting less sleep and the risk of infectious sickness, researchers said.
Aric Prather, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco said in an e-mail that he regularly hears friends or colleagues bragging about their ability to accomplish things on little sleep. "It is my hope," said Prather, the lead author of the study published online Mondayand in the September issue of the journal Sleep, "that studies like this one will provide the necessary science to show conclusively that chronic short sleep has a health cost.”
Researchers found that lack of sleep was the most important factor in predicting the likelihood of someone catching a cold, more so than age, stress levels and whether someone was a smoker, factors that were previously associated with a cold risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic. One in five Americans gets less than six hours of sleep on the average work night, the least amount of sleep among six countries surveyed in 2013 by the National Sleep Foundation.
In the past, the few studies on sleep and infectious illness have relied on a person’s self-reported history of catching a cold, recollection of his or her sleep patterns, or both, Prather said.
In the new study, researchers recruited 164 volunteers and measured their normal sleep habits with a watch-like sensor for seven nights. Then they put the volunteers in a hotel and gave them a cold virus in nose drops for a week to see who got sick and who didn't. (The amount of virus was about the same as a natural exposure.)
They collected daily mucus samples to see if volunteers had been infected.
What they found was striking: Those who slept less than six hours a night the week before were 4.2 times more likely to catch the cold compared with those who got more than seven hours of sleep.
Prather said the study wasn’t designed to figure out the underlying biology between the lack of sleep and susceptibility to colds. Available data suggests insufficient sleep disrupts the immune system and makes it less able to fight off a virus, he said.
As for the six-hour threshold, he said the study’s findings are consistent with recent recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society that urge people to get at least seven hours of sleep for optimal health.
Read more:

NPR Story Spotlights Difference Between Republican and Democratic Government

NPR Story Spotlights Difference Between Republican and Democratic Government
There's no difference between Republican and Democratic Politicians. Ever been faced with similar rhetoric?
If you frequent this website, my guess is probably. But then when I hear stories like this one that I heard on NPR today, I am reminded of how utterly false such an assertion truly is.
Like so many other states, Maine is in the grip of an opiate epidemic. Other states have expanded drug treatment as part of the response. Maine has not. There are fewer treatment options than just a few years ago. The Republican Governor Paul LePage is pursuing instead a drug-enforcement strategy. Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports.
Although it is a brief story, it is a compelling depiction of the stark reality faced by Maine residents trying to overcome drug addiction. As if it is not hard enough getting addicted to drugs and then facing all the struggles that come with trying to kick the habit, they are finding it increasingly harder to get help to do so.
SHARON: Lauren Wert is the director of nursing at Milestone Foundation in Portland. This is Maine's largest city, the epicenter of the heroin crisis, and Milestone is the only residential detox around. It has just 16 beds available for three- to seven-day stays. At the small nurses station, Wert says she and her staff gently inform a steady stream of callers that they can't help them out.
WERT: Oftentimes people cry. They're asking questions like, where else do we go? What do I do? He feels like he's going to die.
SHARON: Wert says there used to be places to refer clients, but now all the staff can say is, I'm so sorry.
In addition to refusing to increase spending on drug treatment, the story highlights how Republican Governor Paul LePage has had a hand in adding to the struggle.
Two years ago the state dropped hundreds of single adults from state Medicaid rolls. Under the leadership of Republican Governor Paul LePage, Maine refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and set caps on the length of time Medicaid patients receive drug treatment. Dr. Vijay Amarendran oversees methadone and Suboxone services at Acadia Hospital in Bangor.
VIJAY AMARENDRAN: We need to provide more insurance coverage for people, not less insurance coverage. Clearly, that doesn't make sense.
While Paul LePage may arguably be considered the worst Governor in the country, the reality is that the large majority of this is in line with conventional Republican policy.
While the increasing drug epidemic is causing the state of Maine to spend more combating the drug problem, very little is actually spent on drug treatment.
According to a 2013 report commissioned by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, drug and alcohol abuse costs to the state jumped from nearly $900 million in 2005 to $1.4 billion in 2010, a 56.2 percent increase. Driving the costs were significant increases in prosecuting, jailing and treating drug and alcohol abusers. Of the 2010 total, $47 million, 3.4 percent, was spent on substance-abuse treatment.
Rather than more spending for drug treatment, he wants to increase drug enforcement, even going so far as threatening to use the National Guard to do so.
“I am going to use the executive branch, and if need be, as commander in chief, I have access to the National Guard,” he said. “If the Legislature refuses to give us the resources we need, and if we can’t develop a comprehensive plan with existing resources, I will use the National Guard.”
One could contrast what LePage is doing to what other governments have tried. For example,Portugal chose to decriminalize drug use and instead impose fines or refer offenders to drug treatment.
The data show, among other things, that the number of adults in Portugal who have at some point taken illegal drugs is rising. At the same time, though, the number of teenagers who have at some point taken illegal drugs is falling. The number of drug addicts who have undergone rehab has also increased dramatically, while the number of drug addicts who have become infected with HIV has fallen significantly.
What about that first part, how the number of adults who have tried drugs actually increased? Even that has seen a decline over time.
2. Despite virtually eliminating all punishments for personal drug possession, rates of drug use haven’t skyrocketed like some predicted. As this chart shows, use had gone up slightly when measured in 2007 (a trend in line with other, similar countries), but has since gone back down. In fact, by two out of three measures, adult drug use is now lower than it was in 2001. This gives more credence to the idea that criminalising people is an unnecessary (not to mention inhumane) way of trying to stop them taking drugs.
While the results have been promising, it's not just this change in drug policy that should be noted in the Portugal example. It also came with expansions of their social programs.
At the turn of the millennium, Portugal shifted drug control from the Justice Department to the Ministry of Health and instituted a robust public health model for treating hard drug addiction. It also expanded the welfare system in the form of a guaranteed minimum income. Changes in the material and health resources for at-risk populations for the past decade are a major factor in evaluating the evolution of Portugal's drug situation.
While this may only be one example, and the issues far more complicated than might be captured in a few paragraphs, my point is this: if we try to think of the difference between Republican and Democrat governments, it is impossible. Not because of just how different the two approaches are, but because they are different on so many issues, too many to count.
The more glamorous subjects discussed by mainstream media, and even here, such as income inequality, immigration, racism, and gun violence, the difference between the two sides are easy to see. But then there are all the other issues, that are just as important to our everyday lives, if not more so.
The War on Drugs, as this example shows, but other things such as how to treat the homelessfunding research and developmenthow to treat emergencies. There is just no end to the issues that are largely driven by policies enacted by our governments. And in almost all these cases, the difference between having a Republican in office or a Democrat in office is perhaps the most critical. We should never think about a race as important as the Presidency as over one issue. It is over almost every important issue one can think of. And especially: the important issues that we can't think of.
Framing things like 2016 with these notions in mind, perhaps there will not be much major difference with how one might approach the elections. All this really does, is just crystallize just how much is truly at stake.