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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: How far along are we on efforts to support large numbers of people on the moon or other planets if our population gets too big or we ruin the environment here on Earth?

  -- Barbara Christie, Hull, MA

As the human population swells and global warming compounds other environmental problems here on Earth, the notion of colonizing other planets is more appealing than ever. While we are far from being able to support human communities elsewhere in the solar system and beyond, environmentalists are increasingly interested in space exploration as one potential solution to our own earthly woes.

Mars is by far the most promising planet in the solar system on which we could support substantial human life. Currently, Mars is a desolate desert, but the so-called “red planet” once contained liquid water and perhaps harbored life. Many of the elements we depend upon to support life here on Earth, including carbon, silicon, iron and even frozen water, are present on Mars, giving researchers hope that one day some of us could hopscotch through space and set up shop there.

 The first challenge of colonizing Mars is transportation. The furthest a manned mission has ever gone to date is the moon, and Mars is 140 times further away. Currently the biggest hurdle is the cost of spaceflight. But a new breed of private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have invested in making launching more efficient by streamlining manufacturing and even reusing rockets. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, claims he can reduce the cost of spaceflight 100-fold.

 The best concrete plan for landing humans on Mars is called Mars Direct. Designed by aerospace engineer and Mars Society founder Bob Zubrin, this plan was rejected by NASA because it failed to fully utilize new technologies such as the International Space Station. Zubrin thinks we could get ourselves to Mars for only $55 billion, which seems like a bargain compared to the $250 billion figure suggested for a Mars landing back in 1969 after our first moon landing. 

 The most immediate problem for human habitation on Mars is the severe temperature. The average temperature on the surface of the red planet is -67° Fahrenheit compared to the balmy 61° here on Earth. Elon Musk suggests there are two ways to overcome this obstacle. The fast way would be by dropping nuclear weapons on Mars’ poles, while a slower solution would entail emitting huge amounts of carbon into the Martian atmosphere much as we are doing on Earth but to a larger extent. In theory, this carbon seeding plan would cause the atmosphere to grow and eventually shield much of the radiation that would otherwise be harmful to Martians. Since carbon dioxide is the main gaseous nutrient consumed by plants, it’s possible that many plants could thrive on Mars. Without competition, plants could take over the planet and put oxygen into the atmosphere, eventually making it possible for humans and other animals to populate Mars without oxygen masks.

There are still problems with colonizing Mars, however. Its low gravity would corrode human bones and giant storms rage across the currently barren planet. In sharp contrast, Earth is rich in resources and water, making it naturally habitable for plants and animals. Addressing the problems here on Earth will likely be easier than escaping them by fleeing to Mars or other planets.

CONTACTS: NASA, www.nasa.gov; Blue Origin, www.blueorigin.com; SpaceX, www.spacex.com; The Mars Society, www.marssociety.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What is fusion energy and why are environmentalists so bullish on it?

  -- Mickey Brent, Milwaukee, WI

Nuclear fusion may be the most promising energy source that most of us have never heard of. Scientists first discovered fusion as a potential energy source in the 1930’s and have been quietly working on it ever since. Only recently, given societal pressure to find alternatives to fossil fuels, has fusion started to capture the attention of the media and policymakers—and now researchers are hoping the process can become a key source of safe, clean, reliable energy in the near future.

Nuclear fusion is the fusing of two atoms into one. Fusion is very different from fission, in which atoms are split in half. Although both emit energy, fusion emits much more. Fusion takes an immense amount of heat and pressure and is the reaction that happens inside of stars, including our own sun. The temperature at the center of the sun is around 15 million Kelvin (27 million degrees Fahrenheit)! Scientists have achieved temperatures of around 100 million degrees inside experimental fusion devices but have yet to make the process net energy positive. The issue with doing reactions at such high heats is that the heated substance cannot touch anything or the container will melt. Therefore, fusion reactions are done in a donut of floating plasma, suspended by magnetic fields.

When compared to other energy sources, fusion energy seems like it might be our best bet in the long term. Compared to fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, fusion is wildly more efficient and no more dangerous. Fusion is three to four times more efficient even than nuclear fission, without the downsides such as the risk of nuclear meltdown or dirty bombs. While nuclear fission requires uranium to function, fusion reactors only require deuterium, which occurs naturally in seawater, and tritium, which can be produced through a reaction of deuterium and lithium. These low raw material costs cause fusion to be considered a potential source of limitless energy. Due to the low radioactivity of fusion, even in the case of an explosion, radioactivity would be contained to the reactor site. Fusion reactors’ small input and extremely high output have made them a popular idea.

So what are the drawbacks of nuclear fusion? Or is it the perfect energy source? Most critics of fusion energy point to the timeline as its greatest weakness. The majority of projections see 2050 as the first year fusion reactors could be commercially available. This is too late for fusion energy to solve our current energy crisis. Some environmentalists claim that funding for fusion energy could be better spent on renewable sources such as solar and hydro that give us clean energy now. Another concern with fusion is public opinion. People tend to be wary of anything nuclear, if only because of the incredible devastation of nuclear bombs. While nuclear fusion is far safer than fission, many activists in France, for example, are protesting all forms of nuclear energy.

The biggest fusion energy project in the world is called the ITER which means “the way” in Latin. ITER is located in Southern France and funded by the European Union, the U.S., China, India, Korea, Russia and Japan. ITER will be a fusion reactor used for research and is currently under construction. Current plans are for ITER to be ready for the first test of plasma by 2025. The main other research on fusion energy is being done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Though commercial fusion reactors are far from a reality, the abundant raw materials and high safety, paired with enormous energy output, make it an outstanding possibility for the future.

CONTACT: ITER, www.iter.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I am interested in helping my school get solar panels on the roof to show students how we can be part of the solution to the climate crisis. Are there any resources or grants out there to help schools go solar? -- Charles Hamilton, Warren, OH

Putting solar panels on your school is a great idea, not only to provide a free source of electricity, but also as a real-world way to teach students about the need for more renewable energy options and to make the school community part of the solution to our climate woes. School buildings are typically built with large, flat rooftops that are ideal candidates for solar installations.

According to the Foundation for Environmental Education's Solar School Initiative, some 4,000 public and private school systems around the country have already installed solar panels at their own expense, or with funds raised through parent-teacher associations, student groups, individual donors and foundations. Analysts estimate that an additional 125,000 schools nationwide are good candidates for going solar and reaping the financial benefits of free energy. Developing renewable alternatives is essential to our transition away from dirty fossil fuel sources.

Grant programs vary from state to state, though some can be very supportive of municipal solar projects. In Massachusetts, for example, cities qualified as “Green Communities” can apply for clean energy grants through a state-run program. California also has a number of solar-friendly programs that schools can capitalize on, including the School Facility Modernization Grants and Self-Generation Incentive program. Several other states offer similar programs. 

There are also many federal grant opportunities, primarily from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Their Loan Programs Office works with municipal and commercial applicants to help realize their energy goals. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy shares this mission, and recently made an investment of $19 million to improve our nation’s buildings, specifically naming hospitals and schools as top priorities.

There are also non-government options that can be utilized to bring solar to your local school district. The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) offers a wide array of resources for achieving successful solar school programs and for navigating issues around choosing a system. Their partnership with The Solar Foundation’s BDR Fund has set a goal of 20,000 solar systems installed at K-12 schools by the year 2020.

Another grant opportunity comes from the American Electric Power Foundation’s Learning from Light program, which has sponsored over 100 schools’ transitions to solar, starting with Bluffsview Elementary in Worthington, Ohio back in 1998. And the Walmart Foundation recently pledged to fund solar conversions at 20 schools in large cities around the country. A list of further programs offered by a number of organizations can be found at solarschools.org.

For more tips, check out the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s report “Solar Schools Assessment and Implementation Project: Financing Options for Solar Installations on K–12 Schools,” which explains the myriad ways to finance and own solar installations at schools—including how to choose a  location to maximize benefits.

CONTACTS: Solar School Initiative, www.solarschools.org; ASES, www.ases.org; DOE Loan Programs Office, energy.gov/lpo/loan-programs-office; American Electric Power Foundation, www.aep.com; NREL, www.nrel.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: Where do the VP choices for the upcoming Presidential election (Tim Kaine and Mike Pence) stand in terms of environmental track record and commitment?

-- Mitchell Finan, Butte, MT

Not surprisingly given the current political climate, the respective Vice Presidential candidates differ on most of the issues, including their policies on the environment and energy. 

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s VP choice Tim Kaine has opposed big oil companies since his career as Virginia State Senator. He first endorsed a “25% renewables by 2025” goal back in 2007, and has continued his staunch support ever since. He has been a champion of diversifying America’s energy portfolio. “We’re not going to drill our way out of the long-term energy crisis facing this nation and the world... we can’t keep relying oil,” said Kaine back in 2008. He reinforced this position again in his 2012 Senate race by arguing against tax subsidies for major oil companies. 

As far as environmental protection, he has not shown much of a track record in support or against. In May of 2013, he did vote affirmatively on a bill to protect ocean, coastal and Great Lakes ecosystems. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV), which puts out an annual national environmental scorecard for politicians, has attributed a 91 percent lifetime score to Kaine, clearly naming him as one of our nation’s leading politicians. More recently, in late 2015, Kaine voted against a bill that attacked Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) carbon pollution limits. Of course, a Republican dominated Congress passed the bill anyway, although President Obama quickly vetoed it to maintain stricter limits on carbon pollution.

?Across the aisle, Donald Trump’s VP selection, Mike Pence, lacks any sort of environmental agenda in his political career. The LCV gives him a lifetime score of only four percent, meaning he is no friend of the environment. Pence, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001-2013 when he assumed the Indiana governorship, voted against a “Cash for Clunkers” recycling program in 2009 and also voted no on a bill improving public transportation in 2008. Meanwhile, he voted affirmatively for deauthorizing critical habitat zones and approving forest thinning projects in 2005 and 2003, respectively. 

As for energy policy, Pence supported the “25% renewable energy...” goal in 2007 like his opponent Kaine. However, since then, he has supported offshore drilling, opposed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases and voted without any environmental conscience. He also voted against incentives for alternative fuels, for the construction of new oil refineries, and against criminalizing oil cartels such as OPEC.

“I think the science is very mixed on the subject of global warming,” Pence stated in 2009. His record of the environment since then reflects his continued skepticism toward environmental protection efforts.

For environmentalists, Kaine is the obvious choice over Pence, which is no surprise given the Presidential candidates who selected each of them as running mates. While Hillary Clinton may have focused more attention on other political issues over her career, she has continuously supported environmental protection and the transition away from fossil fuels, while Donald Trump has fought environmental restrictions on his ability to operate his real estate empire and recently told reporters he would consider reneging on U.S. commitments to reduce greenhouse gases made at the recent Paris climate summit.

CONTACT: League of Conservation Voters, www.lcv.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org



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