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EarthTalk®

by Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: Is there any way to harness volcanic energy to meet our electricity and other power needs? -- Antonio Lopez, Chino, CA

The short answer is yes: Heat generated by underground volcanic activity can and has been harnessed for electricity for over 100 years around the world. Utilities can capture the steam from underground water heated by magma and use it to drive the turbines in geothermal power plants to produce significant amounts of electricity. Getting at the sources is not so easy or cheap, though, as it requires drilling into unstable sections of the Earth’s crust and then harnessing the heat energy miles below the surface.

Despite these difficulties, volcanic geothermal energy reserves account for about a quarter of Iceland’s energy consumption (with the rest taken up by another clean renewable resource, hydropower dams). According to statistics from the Geothermal Energy Association, the Philippines is also a big user of geothermal power: About 18 percent of that country’s electricity comes from underground volcanic sources. And in New Zealand, geothermal accounts for about 10 percent of total electricity consumption.

But believe it or not, the United States is actually the world’s largest producer of volcano-derived geothermal electricity, but still only derives less than one percent of its total power from such sources. California and Nevada are the leaders in this nascent form of renewable energy domestically, but promising efforts are also underway in Oregon, Utah, Alaska and Hawaii. Some analysts believe that the U.S. has enough geothermal capacity to provide 20 percent or more of the nation’s electricity needs.

Against the backdrop of diminishing oil reserves, tapping volcanic energy has become a high priority for some other regions as well. The war-ravaged East African nation of Rwanda is hoping to provide power for its people by harnessing the energy from volcanic gases at Lake Kivu, one of the continent’s largest lakes, covering some 1,000 square miles. The lake is one of three known “exploding” lakes subject to violent and sometimes deadly “overturns” triggered by volcanic activity. Methane and carbon dioxide from an adjacent volcano mix methane and carbon dioxide into the lake, making it a veritable tinder box, threatening the lives and homes of some two million people in the region.

In response to the risk—and also to produce energy—the Rwandan government has started using a large barge to suck up water and extract the methane gas therein. The methane is then used to fire the gas-powered Kibuye power plant. Already the system is producing 3.6 megawatts of electricity—some four percent of Rwanda’s total power supply. Within a few years, project backers hope to be generating between 50 and 100 megawatts of power from the operation. Extracting the methane also significantly reduces the risk of explosions, thus providing a measure of safety for area residents.

Humans have barely put a dent in the amount of power that can be captured from volcanic activity, but analysts expect to see much more of this form of power coming online over the next few decades. The U.S. Geological Survey refers to this phenomenon as the “plus side of volcanoes.” Environmentalists and others are hopeful that volcanic geothermal energy can become a major player in meeting a significant portion of our energy needs in our increasingly carbon-constrained world.

CONTACTS: Geothermal Energy Association, www.geo-energy.org U.S. Geological Survey, www.usgs.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: When we talk about “endangered species” we usually think of animal species, but someone recently told me that there was a worldwide crisis pertaining to the extinction of plants. Can you enlighten? -- Max Blanchard, East Islip, NY

We may not realize it, but the health of the plant kingdom is crucial to the health of the planet and the animal life (which includes humans) it supports. “Through photosynthesis, plants provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat and are thus the foundation of most life on Earth,” reports the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit dedicated to securing the future for endangered plants and animals throughout the world.

“Unlike animals, plants can’t readily move as their habitat is destroyed, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction,” says the Center. Habitat destruction—just one of the threats plants face—can lead to an “extinction debt” whereby even some plants that are plentiful now could disappear over time by being unable to disperse to new habitat patches. And global warming is already starting to exacerbate such problems. “With plants making up the backbone of ecosystems and the base of the food chain,” says the group, “that’s very bad news for all species, which depend on plants for food, shelter and survival.”

A 2009 report by the UK-based nonprofit, Plantlife, found that 15,000 of the 50,000 or so species of wild plants known for their medicinal qualities in traditional remedies are being overexploited and are potentially headed for extinction. The group says the fact that most people around the world—including some 80 percent of all Africans—rely on herbal medicines obtained primarily from wild plants underscores just how serious a problem a mass extinction of wild plants could be for humanity, let alone for the environment. Commercial over-harvesting does the most harm, though pollution, competition from invasive species and habitat destruction all contribute. “Commercial collectors generally harvest medicinal plants with little care for sustainability,” Plantlife reports, adding that shortages already exist in China, India, Kenya, Nepal, Tanzania and Uganda.

Another group, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles and maintains the famous “Red List” of endangered species around the world, found that a whopping 70 percent of the 12,000-plus plant species it has evaluated to date are threatened with extinction—despite the fact that each year about 2,000 new plants make themselves known to science. Of course, the organization only evaluates plants that are rare or have suffered major declines.

Meanwhile, researchers in the UK estimate that up to 33 percent of all flowering plants worldwide are threatened with extinction. “That percentage reflects the global impact of factors such as habitat loss,” says Lucas Joppa, the study’s lead author, who adds that climate change could increase the toll.

This worldwide threat to plants is just part of a larger biodiversity crisis, and the United Nations has declared 2010 “The International Year of Biodiversity” to raise awareness and encourage action to help stem the tide. The project’s website features listings of celebrations taking place around the world as well as resources for those who want to help spread the word and be part of the solution.

CONTACTS: Center for Biological Diversity, www.biologicaldiversity.org; Plantlife, www.plantlife.org.uk; IUCN, www.iucn.org; International Year of Biodiversity, www.cbd.int/2010.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that some countries have turned over public water supplies to private companies, effectively denying local communities much-needed access? -- J. Johnson, Lancaster, PA

Water is such an important part of life that it has long been regarded as a public good worth entrusting only to public entities. But given the mixed track record of municipal, regional and national governments to properly manage water resources, outsourcing to private companies is becoming more common. But critics of such privatization point out that the end result for consumers is not always so positive.

Perhaps the best known example transpired in Bolivia in the 1990s, when water systems in poor regions were put up for sale to private investors at the urging of development agencies intent on steering poor countries away from state control of industries and toward free market systems. Bolivia hired U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation to take over and manage water in the Cochabamba region there. Bechtel made good on its pledge to provide water to many previously underserved Cochabamba areas, but it also raised prices significantly. “Many were unable to pay such high rates, and even though water was now available to them, they couldn’t access it because they couldn’t afford it,” reports the non-profit World Savvy.

In 2000 riots erupted in Cochabamba as hundreds of residents filled the streets, angry that a private, foreign entity was preventing them from accessing water. “The violence shook the confidence of the local government and international investors,” says World Savvy. “Bechtel was forced out, resulting in not only chaos in water delivery in the area, but also in a serious blow to foreign investment in the country.” Similar conflicts have played out in other parts of Bolivia as well as in Ghana, Uruguay and the United Kingdom.

In the U.S., the federal government ensured the protection of waterways and drinking water in the 1970s through passage of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, which among other benefits increased funding for community water systems to help cities and towns maintain high standards and inexpensive access to fresh water. “However, since the 1980s, the federal government has been cutting back funding to communities for water infrastructure, with assistance falling to historic lows under the Bush administration,” reports the non-profit Food & Water Watch. Without federal funding, communities that can’t afford to keep fresh water supplies clean and safe are increasingly turning to private companies.

But at what cost? Food & Water Watch cites dozens of examples from across the country where water privatization has gone woefully bad: “[H]igh rates and bad service plague communities who transfer control of their water service to the hands of corporations.” Common complaints include skyrocketing rates, sewage flooded basements, broken pipes, bad water quality, and cost overruns. “The water barons prioritize stockholder returns over public wellbeing and leave municipalities to clean up the mess.”

Not everyone thinks water privatization is all bad, especially when governments can’t efficiently manage the sourcing, sanitizing and distribution of life’s most vital resource. “There is evidence that privatization may work when the cost of water is subsidized for poorer populations,” reports World Savvy. Regardless, the debate will rage on as more and more governments turn to water privatization as stress over accessing water becomes more commonplace in a quickly warming and increasingly drought-stricken world.

CONTACTS: World Savvy, www.worldsavvy.org; Food & Water Watch, www.foodandwaterwatch.org.

Dear EarthTalk: As far as I know, genetically modified foods are not required to be labeled so. Why is this? Don’t we have a right to know what our food is made of? -- Rebecca Webster, via e-mail

Unbeknownst to most Americans, a majority of the processed foods available in grocery stores today are derived from genetically modified (GM) sources—whereby genes have been taken from one species and insert into another to obtain specific traits or characteristics. Given how new GM technology is—scientists first began tinkering with it in the 1970s but only recently began utilizing it on a wide scale across the food sector—the jury is still out as to whether such products can cause health or environmental problems.

In light of such uncertainties the European Union and dozens of other regions around the world, including Australia and Japan, now require food producers to label GM products clearly so consumers can decide for themselves whether or not to take the risk. Neither the U.S. nor Canada has any such requirements.

GM’s critics say that food companies have lobbied hard to ensure that U.S. regulators don’t require producers to distinguish GM from traditional foods: “…if a GM crop looks like its non-GM equivalent and grows like it, then it is assumed to be the same, and no safety testing is needed before people eat it,” reports the blog, Food Democracy. Corn, for example, may contain antibiotic-resistant genes or a built-in insecticide—but to the U.S. government “it looks and grows like maize, so it is safe to eat.”

The result, says Food Democracy, is widespread ignorance among consumers about what kinds of strange genes may have been inserted into the otherwise mundane foods they are purchasing and eating. “Keeping consumers in the dark has prevented them from making real choices about the food they eat,” says Food Democracy. “Without labels the principles of supply and demand are no longer in effect as consumers can’t send a message to farmers and manufacturers about what they do, and don’t, want to eat.”

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 53 percent of Americans would not eat GM foods if given the choice, while 87 percent believe GM foods should be labeled as such regardless. But since the federal government has no plans to require any such labeling, consumers must take matters into their own hands. To wit, the non-profit Institute for Responsible Technology recently released a free iPhone app called ShopNoGMO which provides consumers with a handy resource they can access right from the grocery aisle for identifying non-GM brand choices across 22 grocery categories.

In addition, leading natural food retailers launched the ‘Non-GMO Project’ in 2005 to develop an independent certification system to help consumers identify non-GM foods where they shop. Whole Foods, Seeds of Change, Nature’s Way and 400 other U.S. and Canadian firms now support the campaign, and today several thousand grocery products sport the easy-to-recognize “Non-GMO” seal. The project also has an ingredient database to help food producers find non-GM ingredients to use in their processed foods. Project leaders hope their work can help prevent new GM crops from gaining a foothold and build a strong non-GM food sector across the country, despite like of federal intervention.

CONTACTS: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, www.people-press.org; Food Democracy Blog, fooddemocracy.wordpress.com; Institute for Responsible Technology, www.responsibletechnology.org; Non-GMO Project, www.nongmoproject.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard conflicting reports regarding how long it really takes for a plastic grocery bag to decompose. Can you set the record straight? -- Martha Blount, San Diego, CA

Researchers fear that such ubiquitous bags may never fully decompose; instead they gradually just turn into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. The most common type of plastic shopping bag is made of polyethylene, a petroleum-derived polymer that microorganisms don’t recognize as food and as such cannot technically “biodegrade.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines biodegradation as “a process by which microbial organisms transform or alter (through metabolic or enzymatic action) the structure of chemicals introduced into the environment.” In “respirometry” tests, whereby experimenters put solid waste in a container with microbe-rich compost and then add air to promote biodegradation, newspapers and banana peels decompose in days or weeks, while plastic shopping bags are not affected.

Even though polyethylene can’t biodegrade, it does break down when subject to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, a process known as photodegradation. When exposed to sunshine, polyethylene’s polymer chains become brittle and crack, eventually turning what was a plastic bag into microscopic synthetic granules. Scientists aren’t sure whether these granules ever decompose fully, and fear that their buildup in marine and terrestrial environments—and in the stomachs of wildlife—portend a bleak future compromised by plastic particles infiltrating every step in the food chain. A plastic bag might be gone in anywhere from 10 to 100 years (estimates vary) if exposed to the sun, but its environmental legacy may last forever.

The best solution to plastic bag waste is to stop using disposable plastic bags altogether. You could invest a few bucks in reusable canvas totes—most supermarket chains now offer them—or bring your own reusable bags or backpacks with you to the store. If you have to choose between paper and plastic, opt for paper. Paper bags can biodegrade in a matter of weeks, and can also go into compost or yard waste piles or the recycling bin. Of course, plastic bags can be recycled also, but as just explained the process is inefficient. According to the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute, Americans only recycle 0.6 percent of the 100 billion plastic bags they take home from stores every year; the rest end up in landfills or as litter.

Another option which some stores are embracing—especially in places like San Francisco where traditional plastic shopping bags are now banned in chain supermarkets and pharmacies—are so-called compostable plastic bags, which are derived from agricultural waste and formed into a fully biodegradable faux-plastic with a consistency similar to the polyethylene bags we are so used to. BioBag is the leader in this field, but other companies are making inroads into this promising new green-friendly market.

San Francisco’s pioneering effort to get rid of polyethylene bags is a positive step, but environmentalists are pushing for such bans more widely. A California effort to ban plastic bags failed again recently, but will likely eventually succeed. Washington, Florida, New Jersey and North Carolina are watching closely and considering similar laws depending on what happens in the Golden State. Worldwatch reports that taxes on plastic bags in South Africa and Ireland have been effective at reducing their use by upwards of 90 percent; Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, Taiwan and the UK are also planning to ban or tax plastic bags to help stem the tide of plastic waste.

CONTACTS: Worldwatch, www.worldwatch.org; BioBag, www.biobagusa.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What would it take to produce “green” tires? The tire industry is huge and I understand that tires contain a large amount of petroleum products. Is there an alternative?

-- Scott Pierson, Norwalk, CT

Tires are indeed no friends to the environment. Most tires on the road today are constructed of roughly equal parts natural rubber, petroleum and “carbon black” filler (derived partially from burned fossil fuels), along with a dash of other chemical additives to improve functionality. The tire industry has embraced recycling in recent years, but still some 25 percent of tires wind up in landfills, according to Michael Bloch of the GreenLivingTips.com website. Still others are incinerated, which releases benzene, lead, butadiene, styrene and other potential carcinogens into the air we breathe.

Even worse, Bloch reports, nearly half of the spent tires in the U.S. are used as “Tire Derived Fuel” (TDF) and burned alongside other dirty polluting fuels such as coal. According to the Rubber Manufacturer’s Association, old tires fuel cement kilns, pulp and paper mills and industrial boilers, and are used as well by electric utilities and some dedicated tires-to-energy facilities.

Beyond the actual ingredients in tires, environmentalists have also been critical of the tire industry for producing tires that stick to the road so well that they cause engines to burn extra fuel to overcome the added friction, which leads in turn to more greenhouse gas emissions out of our tailpipes.

In response to such criticism, tire engineers have begun incorporating a wide range of new materials as substitutes for petroleum and chemical fillers. Today consumers can already buy low rolling resistance tires that generate about five percent less friction than traditional tires. This translates into a four to eight percent boost in fuel economy depending upon the engine, according to Forrest Patterson of Michelin North America. Over a tire’s lifetime, that could save up to 80 gallons of gas, he says. Encouraging motorists to keep their tires inflated to proper levels has also helped reduce tire-related emissions.

What’s in these greener tires anyway? Chemically toughened natural rubbers, vegetable-based processing oils, and fibers made of plant cellulose are used to replace some of the petroleum in the newer so-called “low-oil” tires. Meanwhile, environmentally benign silica filler (sand microparticles) has been used to replace some of the carbon black reinforcement, with the added benefit of further reducing road friction.

Japan-based Yokohama Tire now sells what it calls the dB Super E-spec car tire, which employs modified natural rubber compounds and processing oil derived from orange peels in place of much of the petroleum in traditional tires. (The company likes to brag that the dB Super E-spec is 80 percent petroleum-free.)

While greener tires are already available, tire makers have been re-doubling efforts to recycle old tires into new ones to further reduce the industry’s environmental impact. Small quantities of reprocessed rubber are showing up increasingly in new tires, but manufacturers would like to see more of the 75 million or so tires Americans send to landfills get reprocessed to live another useful day as new tires or other products.

CONTACTS: Green Living Tips, www.greenlivingtips.com; Michelin North America, www.michelin-us.com; Yokohama Tire, www.yokohamatire.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some good resources out there for learning about investments that help the environment? -- Rob Johnson, Sherman Oaks, CA

The best green investing resources are available online, many for free. One good place to start is the Green Money Journal, which features a wide range of informative and free articles to help the individual investor make sense of the panoply of choices available when it comes to investing with the Earth in mind. Publisher Cliff Feigenbaum, also co-author of the book, Investing With Your Values (New Society, 2000), has been running the publication, first in print and now online, since 1992, and makes sure that each quarterly issue is chock full of tips and strategies for making a statement while making a buck.

Another great resource is SustainableBusiness.com’s online Progressive Investor newsletter. Publisher Rona Fried keeps each issue fresh with advice from leading green portfolio managers and other experts, and reports on trends in renewable energy and energy efficiency, green building, recycling, organic foods, healthy lifestyles, and more. Individual issues cost $21 or subscribers can get five issues for $112.

There are now also many green investing blogs. Tune in regularly to the Green Investing Times, which offers green investing strategies and tips as well as news and views on developments in the so-called “CleanTech” sectors. The Green Chip Stocks website also tracks news about clean and green companies. BusinessWeek’s Business Exchange blog features a live stream of up-to-the-minute posts pertaining to green business. For another perspective entirely, check out sites like Treehugger.com and Sustainablog, each which has unique takes on the latest and greatest in green technology and trends.

Some of the general finance and investing websites have also put together pretty good sections on green investing. Investopedia’s special feature on green investing offers dozens of articles, question-and-answer features and commentaries covering the gamut of options when it comes to investing with one’s values. The Motley Fool also runs information regularly pertaining to green investing.

If you don’t want to spend your days tracking the markets, you could leave it to the experts like the portfolio managers at Portland, Oregon-based Portfolio 21 Investments. The firm puts investor dollars to work supporting companies “developing cleaner and more efficient energy solutions, products designed to be reused and rebuilt, and processes that eliminate the need for toxic inputs while producing little or no waste.” The firm’s global equity mutual fund is open to individual investors willing to put in at least $5,000, while the minimum on retirement accounts is only $1,000.

There are other green mutual funds out there, too, of course, that screen the stocks they pick according to environmental and social responsibility standards. Domini, Calvert, Sustainable Asset Management, Pax World and MMA Praxis all have offerings targeting specific industries and general green performance.

CONTACTS: Green Money Journal, www.greenmoneyjournal.com; Investopedia, www.investopedia.com/features/green-investing.aspx; Motley Fool, www.motleyfool.com; Progressive Investor, www.sustainablebusiness.com/index.cfm/go/progressiveinvestor.main; Green Investing Times, www.greeninvestingtimes.com; Treehugger, www.treehugger.com; Sustainablog, www.sustainablog.org; BusinessWeek’s Business Exchange Green Investing, http://bx.businessweek.com/green-investing/blogs .

Dear EarthTalk: Is it now feasible to provide all of a home’s energy needs—including air conditioning—with solar power alone? If so, why hasn’t solar caught on more, particularly in U.S. “Sun Belt” states from southern California east to Florida? -- Tim Douglas, Burlington, VT

It has been possible for years if not decades to provide all of a home’s energy needs with solar power. The technology is here and is only getting more efficient and less obtrusive every day. The only real stumbling block is cost: Solar systems capable of meeting all of an average U.S. home’s energy needs start at around $25,000. Given how inexpensive the grid-based power we now get all across the country remains—and, bear in mind that many utilities are working more and more renewable energy sources, like wind power, into their mix—going solar alone just doesn’t pencil out economically for most people.

Of course, many of us are starting to think beyond our individual bottom lines when it comes to energy usage as global warming nips at our heels. The federal and many state governments feel likewise and have set up generous rebates and incentives to encourage homeowners (and businesses) to embrace alternative renewable energy sources (including solar but also, wind, geothermal, biomass and even tidal power, among other choices). The federal government offers up a 30 percent personal tax credit (with no ceiling) on the cost of photovoltaic or other solar installations. To find a list of what’s available from states, check out the free listings at the website of the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE).

In the nation’s top solar market, California, residents can cash in on some serious state-funded rebates as well. Thanks to the California Solar Initiative (CSI), a $3.2 billion solar rebate program funded by electric ratepayers, Golden State homeowners can get as much as a third or more off the cost to install a residential solar system. CSI’s website, Go Solar California, provides links to several online calculators that take into account home size and location as well as state and federal incentives to help you do the figuring.

In Arizona, homeowners can get 25 percent back (capped at $1,000 per residence) from the state on the cost of installing photovoltaic panels or other solar harvesters. Some Arizona utilities offer incentives, too. In Texas, homeowners who install solar panels can get a tax credit (capped at $2,000) for 30 percent of the cost of a system. Utilities in the Lone Star State also offer incentives for those who generate their own solar power, and some will buy the power back from customers via a program called “net-metering.”

Meanwhile, the state of Florida offers a huge $4/watt rebate (capped at a whopping $20,000 for homeowners and $100,000 for businesses) for purchasers of solar photovoltaic systems there. But the website SolarPowerRocks.com reports that funding is running out and the program could end any day. Like Texas, Florida offers solar customers the ability to sell excess power back to the grid.

Even with such rebates, and the fact that solar energy is essentially free once the equipment to harness it is installed, the costs of converting an existing home to solar power is tough to swallow for most people, given that the cost to instead connect to the existing grid is zero. But if you’re building a new home, incorporating a solar system from the get-go is simply a matter of choosing solar over something else.

CONTACTS: DSIRE, www.dsireusa.org; Go Solar California, www.gosolarcalifornia.ca.gov; SolarPowerRocks.com, www.solarpowerrocks.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial


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