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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: You see a lot of people putting solar panels on their homes these days, but windmills not so much. Is there any future for small residential wind turbines as we transition to more renewable forms of energy? -- M. Simon, Portland, ME

Wind power will likely play a key role in the transition to a zero-emission economy—especially if we can start to distribute it more widely and harness its benefits on a building-by-building basis. Could your own small wind turbine next to your home be the next way to keep up with the Joneses while augmenting the electricity you already get from the grid or solar panels?

The short answer is...definitely. Large wind turbines lined up along the highway in commercial wind farms typically stand at least 150 feet tall, each powering thousands of households per year. But smaller, much less obtrusive turbines might output just enough power to serve as a back-up to your existing solar system or reduce what you need from the grid. Limitations on how much electricity a turbine can extract as well as the variability of the wind itself means that wind power might never be your primary energy source. But there’s no reason it can’t meet an increasingly larger share of your energy needs.

Small stand-alone wind systems might make sense for a larger residence or for a commercial entity like a farm or small factory or warehouse. Turbines that can share the electricity generated among a group of homes or buildings as needed tend to be much more energy- and cost-efficient. And extra capacity in a wind system can be sold to the utilities via so-called Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), which can help offset the up-front costs of installing turbines in the first place.

Ultimately, the most important factor in determining whether to invest in a wind power system is the local climate. To maximize the efficiency of wind turbines, free-standing pole-mounted turbines need to be installed at a high-elevation locations with steady, strong sources of wind. After assessing wind conditions, work with an expert to choose the correct size turbine and tower. If the location is on the power grid, it’ll serve you well to connect it to take advantage of RECs.

Overall, small, residential wind energy systems are essential to the nation’s transition away from fossil fuels and toward a greener future. Though initial costs may seem unfavorable compared to cheap, non-renewable energy, investment in wind electricity will pay off in the long run. Both grid-tied and stand-alone wind systems are more energy and cost effective on wider scales, meaning that the more expansive the system, the more energy is generated and the overall cost goes down. Moving forward, higher demands for wind energy will lead to increased advancements in this technology, possibly offering even greater benefits and pointing toward a future powered by 100 percent renewable energy.

CONTACTS: “Home Wind Power: Yes In My Backyard,”
motherearthnews.com/renewable-energy/wind-power/home-wind-power-zm0z13amzrob; “Residential Solar & Wind Systems: What Are The Energy Costs?” directenergy.com/learning-center/residential-solar-and-wind-systems; “Installing & Maintaining A Small Wind Electric System,” https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/installing-and-maintaining-small-wind-electric-system. 

Dear EarthTalk: What is a “pollinator lawn” and how can I make one in my backyard?

-- Jane W., Westbrook, CT

Bees and other pollinators are essential for growing a great deal of nature’s finest foods. These include coffee, chocolate, beans, many fruits including apples, avocados, blueberries, cherries and peaches, nuts like almonds and cashews, and vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli and Brussel’s sprouts, just to name a few. More than 100 U.S.-grown crops rely on pollinators. Small birds and animals also depend on a variety of pollinated wild fruits and seeds to survive.

Unfortunately, the populations of bees and other pollinators, including hummingbirds, butterflies, moths and flies, have been drastically declining due in part to exposure to insecticides, but also to loss of natural habitat including grasslands, meadows and woodlands lost to human development.

Turning your own lawn into a pollinator or “bee” lawn can help restore the kinds of natural habitat no longer available to pollinators. Typical manicured lawns, which require a great deal of water, gas for mowing and weed-killer, are also a virtual desert environment for bees and other pollinators. In contrast, “bee” lawns consist of a mix of grasses and shorter flowers that can provide vital nutrition to pollinators. Fine fescues grass, for example, has thin blades that give flowers the best chance to grow, and shorter perennial flowers such as Dutch White Clover, Creeping Thyme and Self-Heal cater to a variety of bees with diverse pollen and nectar needs. Dutch White Clover flowers also take nitrogen from the air and add it back into soil, reducing the need for fertilizer. It’s recommended that bee lawns be kept at least three inches tall to provide a shaded, moist environment for flowers to bloom and seeds to form.

Furthermore, incorporating a very simple bee water garden into a bee lawn can provide pollinators with a shallow water source that can be otherwise difficult to find. Because bees are small and can easily drown, bee water gardens consist of wide, shallow bowls of water that have rocks rising above the water surface for bees to stand on. And for anyone worried about being stung on their bee lawn, it’s good to know that wild bees do not sting when foraging for flower nectar or pollen—in fact, you can safely get within inches of bees visiting flowers and not get stung. People usually tend to get stung only when bees are harassed at their nest, stepped on or entangled in pieces of clothing.

Thankfully, the importance of bee lawns has been gaining momentum, so much so that, in 2019 Minnesota launched the $900,000 Lawns to Legumes project to help homeowners across the state make their lawns bee-friendly. The program particularly emphasizes hope for providing protection for the at-risk rusty patched bumblebee, Minnesota’s state bee. At one time abundant, the rusty patched bumblebee has suffered an 87 percent decline in population in the last 20 years and was formally listed as federally endangered in March 2017, marking the first bee in the continental U.S. to make the endangered species list.

CONTACTS: “Why Planting a Bee Garden Is Good for Pollinators, Good for the Planet, and Good for You!” https://medium.com/climate-conscious/why-planting-a-bee-garden-is-good-for-pollinators-good-for-the-planet-and-good-for-you-100de8a228e2; Lawns to Legumes, http://bwsr.state.mn.us/l2l; Bee-Friendly Gardening, pugetsoundbees.org/bee-friendly-gardening/.


Dear EarthTalk: Are the cicada blooms of the eastern U.S. out of whack due to global warming and/or other man-made environmental problems? -- Joe R., Moorestown, NJ

The short answer is...probably. If you live in the eastern or midwestern U.S., you’ve likely seen so-called periodic cicadas. These inch-long, gray- and orange-winged insects with bulging red eyes feed on the underground xylem tissue of tree roots for years before emerging in millions-strong-per-acre swarms to mate and then die. Of the 3,000 different cicada species around the world, only seven—all in North America—are periodical. The first historical reports of periodical cicadas came from the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock and were shocked to see such a wondrous biological phenomenon unfold before their eyes during the summer of 1634.

Cut to the present, summer 2021 promises to be a doozy as cicada “blooms” go. From Georgia and Tennessee north to Michigan and New York, we can expect to see a big showing as the largest generational brood, Brood X, emerges from the ground en masse as spring warms to summer.

But even though this spectacle typically starts in May, this year millions of cicadas came out as early as March. Researchers believe they were erroneously triggered by a warming-induced “false spring” when the weather warmed up enough for trees to start leafing out early, even though at least one more freeze was still on the way. Even stranger still, a smaller segment of Brood X actually emerged four years early in and around Washington, D.C. in the late spring of 2017.

“[For] these accelerations that we’re seeing constantly for all these different broods over much of the eastern half of the U.S., the only common phenomenon that can account for it is climate,” biologist Gene Kritsky of Ohio’s Mount St. Joseph University, who has been studying and mapping periodical cicadas for decades, tells Scientific American.

Time will tell if this warming-induced aberration in the cicada’s lifecycle will have deleterious effects on the environment. The Pilgrims may have mistakenly thought they were being swarmed by a plague of locusts of biblical proportions that would eat up all their crops, but cicadas are actually beneficial to the environment, providing valuable ecosystem services to the communities of plants and wildlife in their native territories. Once the cicadas do emerge, they aerate soils, serve as a food source for predators, and relieve predatory pressure on other insects, serving as a biological kickstart to local ecosystems.

Scientists studying the ecological role of cicadas worry that altering the timing of their emergence could potentially have negative effects on the bug’s populations moving forward, not to mention other environmental ripple effects. In the meantime, consider yourself lucky if you do get to see the cicadas—indeed one of the great phenomena of nature of the eastern U.S.—during this summer of Brood X.

CONTACTS: A Population Census of Seventeen-Year Periodical Cicadas, esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/1933372; Brood X cicadas map: Where you will find them in 2021, cincinnati.com/story/news/2021/05/06/brood-x-cicadas-map-what-states/4946803001/; Noisy Cicadas Are Emerging Earlier, scientificamerican.com/article/noisy-cicadas-are-emerging-earlier/.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the most common contaminants our pets are exposed to and how can we avoid them? -- Maria R., Chicago, IL

This issue grabbed headlines when it was revealed in the May 2021 that domestic dogs and horses were suffering from health issues and premature death from exposure through drinking water to chemicals emitted by the Chemours Fayetteville Works chemical plant in Bladen County, North Carolina.

The offending chemicals—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are added to everyday products to make them water, grease and stain-resistant—fall to the ground with rain. They then permeate soils and the water table for some 18 miles in every direction. Most residents of this rural area get their drinking water from private wells that do not benefit from community clean water filtration systems or standards. A court challenge by local clean water advocates prompted a local judge to order Chemours Fayetteville Works to provide local residents with water filtration systems to filter out offending chemicals. But many locals say they can’t rest easy until the factory closes altogether.

If you do live within the pollution radius of a factory, you’ll want to get your drinking water (and air quality) tested for contaminants on a regular basis to make sure you, your family members and pets aren’t getting poisoned. If the results aren’t good, it may be time to see if any neighbors are experiencing issues and start asking some questions to get to the bottom of where the pollution might be coming from.

There are of course many other threats to pets even if you don’t live near a pollution “point source.” In one study, researchers found that the brains of dogs exposed to the heavy and constant air pollution of Mexico City had significantly elevated inflammation and pathology profiles (including neurofibrillary tangles that cause Alzheimer’s in humans) compared to dogs from more rural, less polluted regions.

Since our pets spend lots of time walking and running through—not to mention rolling around in and even nibbling on—the grass, it’s not surprising that they are much more likely to pick up and ingest contaminants than their owners. If your dog or cat develops a skin rash, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive salivation, dilated pupils, lack of coordination, or respiratory difficulties, it may be related to chemical exposure. Regarding longer-term effects, one study in Massachusetts showed that dogs whose owners used pesticides in their own yards had a 70 percent higher chance of developing malignant lymphoma. Indeed, one-third of the 700 dogs in the study were diagnosed with this typically terminal canine cancer.

If your dog or cat wants to run free in a neighbor’s yard or at the park, wait 24-72 hours after the lawn in question has been treated with chemicals of any kind (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) to minimize exposure to and ingestion of potentially hazardous substances. You can also lobby your neighbors and local officials to give up the harsh synthetic chemicals; some will be more open to the idea than others, so make sure you have a good way to protect your pets even if your requests aren’t complied with.

CONTACTS: “These pets have high levels of forever chemicals in their blood. Has that made them sick?” northcarolinahealthnews.org/2021/05/10/these-pets-have-high-levels-of-forever-chemicals-in-their-blood-has-that-made-them-sick/; The Dangers of Lawn Chemicals: Is Your Perfect Lawn Killing Your Pet?” petmd.com/dog/care/dangers-lawn-chemicals-your-perfect-lawn-killing-your-pet; “Does air pollution affect our furry friends?” pca.state.mn.us/featured/does-air-pollution-affect-our-furry-friends.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https//earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


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