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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

 

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that the price of getting solar panels installed on a home is lower than ever, but has it gotten to the point anywhere in the U.S. where it’s actually cheaper than traditional grid power yet?                                  --Lester Milstein, Boston, MA

 

Rooftop solar panels on have always been the province of well-to-do, eco-friendly folks willing to shell out extra bucks to be green, but that is all starting to change. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the cost of putting solar panels on a typical American house has fallen by some 70 percent over the last decade and a half. And a recent report from Deutsche Bank shows that solar has already achieved so-called “price parity” with fossil fuel-based grid power in 10 U.S. states. Deutsche Bank goes on to say that solar electricity is on track to be as cheap or cheaper than average electricity-bill prices in all but three states by2016—assuming,that is, that the federal government maintains the 30 percent solar investment tax credit it currently offers homeowners on installation and equipment costs.

 

But therein could lie the rub. The federal tax credit for residential solar installations expires in 2016, and it’s anybody’s guess whether and to what extent theRepublican-dominated Congress will renew it. Legislative analysts report that while Congress is unlikely to abandon the program entirely, big cutbacks could be on the way. But Deutsche Bank maintains that even if the credit is reduced to 10 percent, solar power would still achieve price parity with conventional electricity in some 36 states by 2016.

 

Meanwhile, homeowners in states where additional local incentives are available and there’s lots of sunshine—such as across the Southwest—may in fact already be able to power their homes cheaper with the sun than from the grid. Homeowners looking to go solar should check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewable and Efficiency (DSIRE), a free online database of all the different state and local incentives for solar and other forms of renewable energy.

 

And prices for solar are expected to keep falling as technologies improve and financing becomes more affordable. Solar leasing has helped hundreds of thousands of Americans realize the dream of going solar without breaking the bank. The companies behind such programs—Solar City, Sun Run and others—take care of installation, maintenance and upgrades while the customer ends up paying about as much for clean, green power as for grid power from coal or other fossil fuels.

 

Of course, solar is still a bit player in the scheme of things in terms of U.S. and global electricity production. But with costs coming down, we can expect to see a lot more solar panels going up on rooftops across the land in the coming decade. Environmentalists concerned about our changing climate say the sooner the better, as our dependency on coal and other fossil fuels for electricity is a big contributor to global warming.

 

Congress will definitely be considering whether or not to extend the solar investment tax credit when it reconvenes in 2015. If you’re part of the silent majority of Americans who would like to see the credit extended so that middle class Americans can continue to afford to convert to solar power, be sure to speak up and let your Congressional delegation know.

 

CONTACTS: Deutsche Bank, www.db.com; National Renewable Energy Laboratory, www.nrel.gov; SolarCity, www.solarcity.com; SunRun, www.sunrun.com.

 

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questionsto: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

 

DearEarthTalk: Do you have any tips for helping me get my kids involved in environmental protection advocacy?                                                                         -- Jeanine Black, Charlotte, NC

 

There’s no time like the present to teach kids to respect their environment and be willing to stand up to protect it. Of course, any good environmental education starts at home: parents should always keep in mind that they are role models for their kids, and should act responsibly. And most schools today incorporate issues of sustainability into their curricula. But kids who want to do more can sync up with one of any number of nonprofits focused on getting young people involved with volunteering and advocacy on behalf of the environment.

 

One of the best places to start is Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!), a nonprofit that runs a national speakers’ and workshop tour around the U.S. and beyond as well as summer camps devoted to teaching kids how to take action on behalf of the environment. The group also runs JAMs, bringing together “young changemakers” from local communities to brainstorm ideas for solutions to local, national and international environmental problems. The YES! website features information on a wide range of environmental topics as well as videos focusing on organizing and coalition building around shared environmental goals.

 

Another great resource is the Center for Biological Diversity’s Generation Wild program, designed to help kids learn about and help protect local wildlife. The program’s website offers kids tips on things like how to write an effective and compelling “letter to the editor” for publication in a local newspaper, creating a backyard wildlife sanctuary, encouraging teachers and schools to undertake projects that help local wildlife,and spreading the word via social media.

 

Meanwhile, Earthforce, Inc. helps kids ages 10-14 develop citizenship skills and address both local and national environmental problems. Participants get hands-on, real-world opportunities to learn about the issues and develop skills that can help them become lifelong leaders in addressing them. Another leading youth environmental group is Tree Musketeers, which empowers kids to use innovative approaches in launching their own environmental campaigns where they live. Through its Young Executive program, the group provides resources to help kids learn the practical, logistical and personal skills to lead environmental actions and spread the word about the need to live more sustainable lifestyles.

 

Yet another nonprofit vehicle that helps kids get active is Sustain US, which focuses on sustainable development. Its Agents of Change program sends youth delegations to United Nations conferences on climate change, sustainable development, women’s issues and biological diversity—and its Lead Now Fellowship trains and supports young people in becoming leaders in advancing sustainable development.

 

Last but not least, TakingItGlobal is an international network of young people working to tackle global environmental challenges. Its Digital Youth Engagement, Global Educationand Social Innovation programs focus on creating the next generation of environmental leaders around the world.

 

Young people can also get involved in environmental protection efforts right in their own backyards even without the support of a non-profit. Examples include organizing a locale-waste recycling drive, asking schools and businesses in the area to refrain from using noxious chemicals for landscaping, and coordinating carpools to reduce traffic-related greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, kids can learn a lot by finding a local green group and volunteering to help canvass for funds, clean-up a beach or waterway, or lobby local officials to take sustainability into account. Indeed, our common future may well depend on it.

 

CONTACTS: YES!, www.yesworld.org; Generation Wild, www.biologicaldiversity.org/youth; Earthforce, www.earthforce.org; Tree Musketeers, www.treemusketeers.org; SustainUS, www.sustainus.org; TakingItGlobal, www.tigweb.org.

 

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

 

Dear EarthTalk: What is biochar and how can it help reduce my carbon footprint?

                                                                                                            -- William Jarvis, Bethlehem, PA

 

Biochar is a naturally occurring, fine-grained, highly porous form of charcoal derived from the process of baking biomass—and it’s been associated with fertile soils for some two thousand years. “Biochar is found in soils around the world as a result of vegetation fires and historic soil management practices,” reports the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), a trade group representing the world’s burgeoning biochar industry. “Intensive study of biochar-rich dark earths in the Amazon has led to a wider appreciation of biochar’s unique properties as a soil enhancer.”

 

Indeed, researchers have been hard at work perfecting their own methods for manufacturing biochar by baking biomass in giant oxygen-free kilns. The resulting biochar can then be used as a soil amendment to help restore tired, compromised farmland, not to mention contaminated industrial sites, all the while taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. A liquid by-product of the biochar production process can also be converted into a carbon-neutral “biofuel” that can displace other carbon intensive fuels.

 

Farmers can layer biochar into their fields where it becomes part of the soil matrix and helps retain water and essential agricultural nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. “You can basically think of it as a soil reef upon which abiotic and biotic phenomena happen,” says David Shearer, CEO of Full Circle Biochar, one of a handful of U.S. based biochar start-ups working to commercialize the age-old “technology.” Farmers like the fact that using biochar can lower their water and fertilizer bills as well as yield more and better quality agricultural products—leading to better market performance overall. “This is really a hedge for farmers,” reports Shearer. “It really helps them manage their financial risk and it helps them manage risk into the future around production.”

 

Beyond agriculture, biochar can also be used to clean up polluted land. “For example, if you have a mine that has contaminated soil adjacent to it, biochar ... will allow you to remediate soils,” says Shearer. He adds that biochar also makes for an excellent filtration medium: “We know that activated charcoal has been used for millennia as a filter mechanism, and so there is discussion in the biochar community that maybe the first step is we’ll use it as a filtration media, and then we’ll move to agriculture as the cost of production of biochar comes down.”

 

As far as environmentalists are concerned, the greater the demand for biochar the better, given the fact that it is a potent storage mechanism for carbon dioxide that would otherwise head into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. “The carbon in biochar resists degradation and can hold carbon in soils for hundreds to thousands of years,” reports IBI. “We can use this simple, yet powerful, technology to store 2.2 gigatons of carbon annually by 2050. It’s one of the few technologies that is relatively inexpensive, widely applicable and quickly scalable. We really can’t afford not to pursue it.”

 

CONTACTSInternational Biochar Initiative (IBI), www.biochar-international.org; Full Circle Biochar, www.fullcirclebiochar.com.

 

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

 

Dear EarthTalk: Are there still outspoken global warming deniers in Congress or the mainstream media? If so, what do they say when presented with scientific facts and anecdotal evidence pointing to an increasingly warming atmosphere?                                                        -- Ben Charles, Cary, NC

 

Given the preponderance of data showing rising temperatures around the globe in recent decades—along with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events—it’s hard to believe there are still any climate change deniers. But a recent survey by the non-profit Center for American Progress found that some 58 percent of Republicans in the U.S. Congress still“refuse to accept climate change.” Meanwhile, still others acknowledge the existence of global warming but cling to the scientifically debunked notion that the cause is natural forces, not greenhouse gas pollution by humans.

 

One of the chief doubters in the U.S. House of Representatives is Texas Republican John Carter, who reports on his website that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit in Great Britain—two of the world’s foremost authorities on the extent and severity of global warming—hid their own research results showing that world temperatures have not actually been rising, but in fact have been falling, over the past several years.

 

“We may or may not even be in a warming cycle,”says Carter. “Even if we are, scientific evidence does not conclude that activity by man plays any significant role.” Regardless, Carter supports more research and development of solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy, along with the continued development of hybrid, natural gas and all-electric vehicles.

 

Another outspoken climate naysayer in Congress is House Science, Space & Technology Committee chair Lamar Smith, another Texas Republican, who calls the Obama administration’s 2014 National Climate Assessment (which squarely pins the blame for global warming on human emissions) “a political document intended to frighten Americans into believing that any abnormal weather we experience is the direct result of human CO2 emissions.” He adds that “the Obama administration feels compelled to stretch the truth in order to drum up support for more costly and unnecessary regulations and subsidies.”

 

Of course, the right side of the aisle in Congress isn’t the only place you’ll find climate change deniers. In a recent op-ed article that appeared on FoxNews.com, scientist and author Daniel Botkin comments that the 2014 National Climate Assessment “ignores...the real history of life itself: endlessly changing, highly adaptable, and never subject to the kind of stasis that the climate change consensus imagines, wrongly, to be Nature’s ideal state.” Plenty of other conservative media voices on Fox News and elsewhere are vocal in their skepticism about humans’ (leading) role in climate change.

 

But regardless of how persuasive some of these pundits might sound, the facts speak for themselves. IPCC reports that human influence on the climate system is “clear,” with greenhouse gas emissions driven largely by economic and population growth skyrocketing to record levels and leading to atmospheric conditions unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. IPCC adds that greenhouse gas emissions are “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century” and that warming will be a “very likely” catalyst for increased heat waves, extreme precipitation events, warmer oceans and higher sea levels.

 

CONTACTS: U.S. Representative John Carter (R-TX), carter.house.gov; U.S. Representative LamarSmith, lamarsmith.house.gov/; FoxNews, www.foxnews.com; IPCC, www.ipcc.ch.

 

EarthTalk® iswritten and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademarkof E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com  .

 


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