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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: First Solyndra went under, then SunEdison... If solar energy is growing so much in the U.S., why have some of the bigger players gone under and will the survivors be able to stay the course? -- Scott Marcinik, Altoona, PA

No doubt, solar power is surging. The trade group Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reports that our domestic solar power capacity has seen a compound annual growth of nearly 60 percent over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, solar accounted for 28 percent of all new power added to the U.S. electric grid in 2015 and the prices of photovoltaic panels have fallen so steeply that solar is now cost-competitive with coal or natural gas in some parts of the country. And there’s no sign of solar slowing down anytime soon.

But just because Americans are warming up to solar doesn’t mean that every company looking to lead this power revolution has been able to manage the growth and navigate the tricky world of shifting subsidies and incentives. The most infamous case of a solar company flare-out is Solyndra, a California-based start-up that was pioneering the design and manufacture of thin film photovoltaic cylinders and secured $545 million in federal loan guarantees from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package.

“But a solar manufacturing boom in China crushed the price of conventional crystalline photovoltaic (PV) solar panels,” reports David Ferris and Saqib Rahim in EENews’ EnergyWire. “The economic rationale for Solyndra's pricey tubes was undermined, and the company declared bankruptcy in August 2011.”

Solyndra’s demise was certainly an embarrassment to the Obama administration, which had been touting the company as an example of the direction we should be heading in our energy sector, and augured poorly for the future of the still nascent green economy. But despite the setback, solar has grown at a record clip since 2011, surpassing wind as the largest renewable energy source in California.

This very maturation of the solar power industry in the U.S. made the April 2016 news of the bankruptcy of SunEdison, one of four remaining big players in the American solar industry, that much more surprising, given that the company was much larger in employees and revenues than Solyndra and had received more federal subsidies and loan guarantees overall. 

“SunEdison’s bankruptcy, for creditors, customers, shareholders and partners, is a very big deal with all manner of negative repercussions,” comments Clint Wilder of the clean-tech advisory firm Clean Edge, “and it’s a cautionary tale like those we’ve seen across the energy landscape and in other industries, where over-leveraged, aggressive growth strategies can come crashing down.”

Meanwhile, America’s remaining solar powerhouses—SunPower, SolarCity and First Solar—continue to expand judiciously. And hundreds of smaller players are working to shake up the industry even further and keep the bigger players on their toes. While the growing pains for America’s solar industry are far from over, the future still looks bright for solar power specifically and renewables of all kinds.

CONTACTS: SEIA, www.seia.org; EnergyWire, www.eenews.net/ew; Clean Edge, www.cleanedge.com; SunPower, www.sunpower.com; SolarCity, www.solarcity.com; First Solar, www.firstsolar.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Did anyone ever figure out what has been killing all the bees, and is there anything we can do about it? -- Gerry Sanders, Wichita, KS

By now, we’ve all heard about bees dying across the U.S. and around the world. This isn’t just bad news for beekeepers: these amazing insects pollinate upwards of two-thirds of our food crops—all at no cost to farmers or consumers. All we need do is keep them around, which is proving to be more and more difficult.

A third of all beehives in the U.S. have disappeared in the last decade alone, a situation that has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. Experts say several factors are at play. First, global warming has changed weather patterns so profoundly that bees have been unable to adapt fast enough. Flowers now bloom so early or late that they don’t coincide with the active season of pollinators, so when bees emerge from hibernation the flowers they need for food have already bloomed. Another threat is habitat loss: development, urbanization and monoculture farming are decimating natural areas bees need to thrive. And a new generation of parasites is infiltrating hives and impeding chemical communication between bees.

But perhaps the biggest threats to bees are some of the pesticides routinely used in agriculture, particularly neonicotinoids. Commonly referred to as neonics, this increasingly popular class of insecticides is meant to eliminate pests, but has been proven to have an equally devastating impact on bees. Today, seeds are engineered with neonics from the start, so this harmful chemical is present in the plant, pollen and nectar. This chemical, approximately 6,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT, devastates bee central nervous systems and makes it impossible for them to relocate their hives. Those bees that survive a first encounter aren’t off the hook. They remain dazed and inefficient. Neonics have an addictive quality similar to that of nicotine for humans, so surviving bees inevitably return to treated flowers until their death.

Policy changes must address this issue by rewarding farmers for sustainable practices and banning neonicotinoids for use as pesticides. Unfortunately, big agri-chemical companies like Dow Chemical and Syngenta make huge profits selling neonics and as such are reluctant to withdraw them. The European Union took steps to ban the use of neonics in member countries in 2013, although that ruling is currently under review. Meanwhile, in the U.S., a few cities and states have taken at least symbolic action to reduce neonics, but without a federal ban on the books such piecemeal efforts can’t do much to help.

In Spring 2016, Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate calling for new policy initiatives and interagency coordination to restore and enhance pollinator habitat across the U.S. Key provisions of Merkley’s Pollinator Recovery Act include setting aside three million acres of public land as expanded acreage for “forage and habitat” for pollinators, grant funding for R&D to develop crops to resist pests without neonics, financial incentives and technical assistance for farmers that adopt pollinator-friendly practices, and expanded health monitoring and population tracking for bees and other key pollinators.

Concerned Americans should urge their Senators to co-sponsor or support the Pollinator Recovery Act. After all, protecting bees isn’t just important to environmentalists but to anyone who enjoys avocados, almonds or any of the countless fruits, vegetables or nuts pollinated by our little black and yellow friends.

CONTACTS: Greenpeace “Save the Bees” Campaign, www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-agriculture/save-the-bees; Merkley Unveils New Proposal to Help Restore Pollinator Populations Across the U.S., https://www.merkley.senate.gov/news/press-releases/during-national-pollinator-week-merkley-unveils-new-proposal-to-help-restore-pollinator-populations-across-the-us.

Dear EarthTalk: You hear a lot about solar and wind energy, but what’s new in efforts to generate electricity from ocean waves? -- Melanie Bernstein, New York, NY

Wave power advocates cheered in September 2016 when Hawaii-based Naval researchers started feeding power from two experimental offshore wave energy devices into the grid on nearby Oahu, representing the first time the American public could access electricity derived from ocean waves. The trickle of energy from these experimental devices doesn’t amount to anything substantial yet, but wave energy’s potential is huge.

Analysts think we could derive at least a quarter of U.S. electricity needs by harnessing wave power around our coasts. Most other countries around the world have coastlines they could exploit for wave energy, as well, if engineers could create affordable technology to capture and transport the energy back to shore where it would be used to power local communities or get fed into existing larger power grids.

But just because we can tap ocean energy big time doesn’t mean we necessarily will, given the high costs of getting started, technical issues with maintaining offshore equipment, and the challenges of scaling up for mass consumption. The world’s first experimental wave farm, the Aguçadoura Wave Park off the coast of Portugal, went online in September 2008 with three wave energy converter machines, but ceased operations only two months later when bearings on the equipment gave way, underscoring the technical challenges of running complicated heavy machinery in unstable marine environments.

While such technical problems may be frustrating, financial concerns loom larger over wave energy’s future. Two of the biggest wave energy endeavors in the world, Pelamis and Aquamarine, both based out of wave-battered Scotland, went belly up recently despite funding from the Scottish government and plans to build out the biggest wave energy farms in the world based on the success of earlier prototypes.

Aquamarine’s CEO John Malcolm chalked up his company’s demise to “the considerable financial, regulatory and technical challenges faced by the ocean energy sector as a whole.” Meanwhile, cheap natural gas and the surge in solar and wind power options have kept ocean energy on the back burner.
But wave power is far from dead in the water. Besides the experimental wave farm off Oahu, two larger projects are being built off the coast of the United Kingdom, while three additional projects are underway around Australia. Funding for these projects has come from not only the host governments but also the private sector. American defense contractor Lockheed Martin, for one, is a big player in deployment of wave power technologies and is a driving force behind the 19 megawatt, grid-connected wave power station currently in the works near Victoria, Australia.

Here in the U.S., wave energy advocates say the federal government has done too little to encourage research and development in this promising niche of the energy sector. Subsidies and tax incentives helped solar and wind power grow from pipe dreams in the 1980s to significant players in the global energy mix of today. Wave power advocates would like to see similar incentives employed to boost the development of ocean-based renewable energy sources, but for that to happen the American public will need to speak up to get Congress to act.

CONTACTS: Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, www.hawaiicleanenergyinitiative.org; Lockheed Martin, www.lockheedmartin.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Any tips for how to green up my Halloween this year? -- Jason Falcone, Bern,NC

Halloween may be fun, but...this most ghoulish of holidays is also cause for lots of waste, given the preponderance of one-time use costumes that end up in a box or in the trash come November 1. And sustainability proponents also decry Halloween for promoting unhealthy eating habits, as obesity and diabetes rates among American kids continue to skyrocket. So what’s a green Halloween reveler to do?

Back in 2006, a Bellevue, Washington mom named Corey Colwell-Lipson wondered the same thing. Fearing the worst, she took her two-year-old trick-or-treating anyway and was delighted to find a few of the houses in her neighborhood handing out non-candy treats like bubbles and stickers. “I was so thrilled that someone thought outside the candy-box that, while shouting, ‘Thank You!’ at the top of my lungs, I made a note to myself to remember to trick-or-treat at these homes the following year,” she recalls. “But after winding through several streets in the dark, I had already forgotten which homes were candy-free.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if there were a sign you could place on your door or window that notified trick-or-treaters that their upcoming treat would be healthy?’” Colwell-Lipson wondered. “This way, parents could seek out those homes and turn trick-or-treating into a scavenger hunt—a hunt for treasures rather than treats.” Thus the idea for Green Halloween was born.

These days, some 10 years later, Halloween is greener across the country thanks to Colwell-Lipson’s pioneering efforts. In 2012, Green America, the non-profit membership organization with the mission of harnessing economic power to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society, put its muscle behind Green Halloween and expanded the program nationwide.

With Halloween right around the corner, there’s no time like the present to get started. Host a costume swap in your neighborhood or at your kid’s school, or both. This way everyone can the save money and reduce the waste associated with buying new costumes off-the-shelf at the store. Spread the word far and wide so others can join the costume swap and spread the good green Halloween cheer.

Another easy way to green Halloween is by swapping out the KitKats and Tootsie Rolls with healthier alternatives. LaraBars, Stretch Island Fruit Strips, Glee Gum, Bitsy’s Brainfood, Cascadian Farm Bars and Surf Sweets are a few of the many healthier alternatives to look for at your local Whole Foods that still will keep you in the good graces of neighborhood trick-or-treaters.

Green America has also teamed up with dozens of zoos and aquariums as well as different community partners across the country to host sustainability-oriented community-wide Green Halloween celebrations. Activities will vary at these events, but participants can look forward to responsible trick-or-treating, face painting and other ways to make it a memorable yet sustainable All Hallow’s Eve.

But you don’t have to rely on anyone else to make your Halloween green. Green America’s free online “Volunteer Coordinator’s Guide” lays the groundwork for doing it yourself. Happy Halloween!

CONTACTS: Green America, www.greenamerica.org; Green Halloween, www.greenhalloween.org; Surf Sweets, www.surfsweets.com; Stretch Island Fruit Co., www.stretchislandfruit.com; Larabar, www.larabar.com; Glee Gum, www.gleegum.com; Bitsy’s Brainfood, www.bitsysbrainfood.com; Cascadian Farm, www.cascadianfarm.com.

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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