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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: With summer bearing down on us, are there any environmentally friendly air conditioners out there? --Fred Johansen, Grand Rapids, MI

Air conditioners are essential for keeping us cool and comfortable during hot summer months, but their environmental impact cannot be ignored. Traditional air conditioning units consume significant amounts of energy and rely heavily on refrigerants that contribute to global warming. However, the good news is that there are several environmentally friendly air conditioning options available today.

One notable advancement is the development of energy-efficient air conditioners. These units are designed to use less electricity, reducing their carbon footprint and lowering energy bills. Energy Star certified air conditioners are a reliable option to consider. They meet strict energy efficiency standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and can help reduce energy consumption by up to 15 percent. By choosing an Energy Star certified model, consumers can make a positive impact on both the environment and their wallets.

Another eco-friendly air conditioning solution gaining popularity is the use of evaporative coolers, also known as swamp coolers. Unlike conventional air conditioners, which use refrigerants and compressors to cool the air, evaporative coolers work by passing air over water-soaked pads, causing evaporation and cooling the air. These units consume significantly less energy than traditional air conditioners and are a suitable option for dry climates. However, they may not be as effective in areas with high humidity.

In recent years, researchers and engineers have been exploring more sustainable alternatives to refrigerants used in air conditioners. One such alternative is hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) refrigerants, which have a much lower global warming potential compared to hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants commonly used today. HFOs are less harmful to the ozone layer and have a significantly lower impact on global warming. Some manufacturers have already started producing air conditioners that use HFO refrigerants, offering a greener cooling solution.

Additionally, there is a growing trend towards the use of geothermal heat pumps for cooling purposes. These systems utilize the constant temperature of the earth to provide cooling, rather than relying on electricity to generate cool air. Geothermal heat pumps are highly efficient and can save up to 30-60 percent on energy costs compared to traditional air conditioners. They also have a longer lifespan and require less maintenance. While the initial installation costs may be higher, the long-term environmental and financial benefits make them a viable option for those looking to minimize their ecological impact.

Finally, it is essential to consider sustainable design and proper maintenance practices when using air conditioners. Optimizing insulation, reducing air leaks, and shading windows can help reduce the load on air conditioning systems. Regular maintenance, such as cleaning filters and ensuring proper airflow, ensures that the unit operates at maximum efficiency.

While there is no one-size-fits-all environmentally friendly air conditioner, consumers now have several options to choose from. Energy-efficient models, evaporative coolers, HFO refrigerants, and geothermal heat pumps are all promising alternatives that can help reduce the ecological footprint of cooling our homes and buildings. By making informed choices and adopting sustainable practices, we can stay cool without compromising the health of our planet.

In the face of climate change and growing energy demands, it is encouraging to see advancements in air conditioning technology that prioritize energy efficiency and environmental responsibility. As consumers, we have the power to support and demand these eco-friendly solutions, driving the transition towards a greener future.

Remember, staying cool doesn't have to mean heating up the planet!

CONTACTS: EnergyStar Certified Room AC, energystar.gov/productfinder/product/certified-room-air-conditioners/results; ??”Green air conditioning: what is eco-friendly AC?” hvac.com/air-conditioners/green-air-conditioning/.

Dear EarthTalk: Can we harness kinetic energy to reduce our carbon footprint? – J.B., via email

 

Harnessing kinetic energy as a means to reduce our carbon footprint is indeed a promising avenue for a sustainable future. Kinetic energy is the energy possessed by an object due to its motion, and finding innovative ways to capture and utilize this energy can have significant environmental benefits.

 

Wind turbines are a prime example of harnessing kinetic energy from the movement of air molecules. These turbines convert the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical energy, which is then transformed into electricity. Wind power has already become a substantial contributor to global electricity generation, and its continued expansion can play a crucial role in reducing our carbon footprint. By investing in wind energy infrastructure, we can shift away from fossil fuel-based electricity generation and achieve a more sustainable and clean energy mix.

 

Another way to harness kinetic energy is through the use of kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS). KERS technology allows for the capture and storage of energy that is typically lost during braking or deceleration in vehicles, such as cars, buses and trains. By retrofitting vehicles with KERS, the kinetic energy generated during braking can be converted into electricity and stored in batteries or other energy storage systems. This stored energy can then be used to power vehicle systems or assist with acceleration, reducing the overall energy consumption and carbon emissions of the vehicle.

 

The potential for KERS technology extends beyond transportation. Some energy harvesting systems can convert the kinetic energy generated by human footsteps into electrical energy. Specialized flooring or walkways can convert this mechanical stress (called footfalls) into electrical charges. This energy can be used to power various applications, such as lighting, sensors or even charging stations for small electronic devices. Implementing footfall energy harvesting systems in high-traffic areas, such as shopping malls or train stations, could significantly contribute to reducing our reliance on conventional energy sources.

 

There are still challenges to overcome in the widespread adoption of kinetic energy harnessing. The efficiency and cost-effectiveness of these systems need further improvement to make them economically viable on a large scale. Research and development efforts should focus on enhancing the efficiency of energy conversion, optimizing storage capabilities and reducing manufacturing costs. Policy support and incentives can also play a crucial role to promote the deployment of these technologies.

 

Indeed, harnessing kinetic energy in multiple ways can undoubtedly contribute to reducing our carbon footprint. By capturing and utilizing the energy generated by motion, we can decrease our reliance on fossil fuels and mitigate the environmental impacts associated with traditional energy sources. However, it is important to view kinetic energy harnessing as part of a comprehensive approach to sustainability, combining multiple strategies to achieve a greener and more sustainable future.

 

CONTACTS: “Move over, fossil fuels – kinetic energy is the carbon-neutral future,” kaspersky.com/blog/secure-futures-magazine/kinetic-energy/35026/; “The power of energy: How dancing and walking can light up a city,” euronews.com/green/2020/11/21/the-power-of-energy-how-dancing-and-walking-can-light-up-a-city; “Can Decentralized Sustainable Energy Generated by Crowds Become a Long-term Power Source, or is it just Virtue Flag Waving?” crowdsourcingweek.com/blog/energy-generated-by-crowds/.

Dear EarthTalk: I would like to plant a few new trees in my backyard, and am looking for guidance on which species are native and would benefit the local ecosystem. Where can I find this kind of information? -- Susan T., Bangor, ME

Home gardening is a great way to spend time outside, improve local ecosystems and learn more about botany and plants. When it comes to household gardening, natives are the key to success. Planting native species has numerous benefits, including providing food and habitat for native species, especially pollinators. Another important benefit is that native trees will thrive and spread naturally if they are planted in their native environment and suitable climate.

In order to plant the most well-suited flora for your garden to support a holistic, healthy ecosystem, here are some general principles to follow. As previously mentioned, go native! Secondly, look for pollinator friendly species. On a similar note, it could help to do some research on what species, both flora and fauna, are endangered or threatened in your area. Planting threatened tree species can help to support and grow their population numbers. Similarly, finding out which animal species are threatened and planting trees that could be beneficial to their survival would also be beneficial to supporting the local ecosystem. Finally, planting a variety of trees is a great way to support local biodiversity. High biodiversity levels support healthy, productive ecosystems.

Finding just the right species that ticks off all the boxes can be a daunting task. Luckily, there is a plethora of tools out there that can help. For example, Tree Wizard is a tool that helps find tree species that are suitable for specific climates and soil types. Another useful tool is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Climate Change Tree Atlas. This tool specifically looks at how different species’ suitable ranges will change as a result of rising temperatures. This is a helpful tool for determining what tree species will thrive in the future in your area. You can also do research on which species are native to your specific state or region. Most states have an inventory of native trees available through their Department of Natural Resources, as well as an inventory of native animal species.

The bottom line is that planting trees, especially native ones, is massively beneficial to the ecosystem, and is an important step in fighting climate change. Trees provide major ecosystem services, especially carbon sequestration (removing carbon from the air). Trees store large amounts of carbon, and planting large numbers of them can create carbon sinks (defined as anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases), decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Other ecosystem services provided by trees include increases in biodiversity, support for local populations, and protecting soils from erosion and chemical runoff, which can help to keep water sources clean. Trees are the key to our future, so it is crucial that we do it right!


CONTACTS: Arbor Day Tree Wizard,
arborday.org/shopping/trees/treewizard/intro.cfm; USDA Climate Change Tree Atlas, fs.usda.gov/nrs/atlas/

Dear EarthTalk: Is global warming creating the increase in turbulence on airplane flights?

-- Ginny C., Prescott, AZ


Air turbulence is defined as a sudden change in the speed, direction or air pressure in the atmosphere. Turbulence can cause abrupt changes in the motion of an airplane, ranging from small bumps to violent jolts that cause significant damage to aircrafts and injury to passengers. Air turbulence has increased rapidly in the last few decades. It is now the main cause of in-flight injuries and is estimated to cost the airline industry over $500 million annually.

The main causes of air turbulence are storms, jet streams—the bands of strong winds in the upper atmosphere—and mountains. In such cases, pilots can anticipate turbulence from pre-flight weather reports, sophisticated radar equipment and warnings from other pilots. But there is another kind of turbulence pilots have to contend with known as “clear-air turbulence,” which has no visible cause and cannot be detected by radars. This makes clear-air turbulence very perilous since pilots cannot warn passengers to buckle up and avoid injury. Clear-air turbulence is becoming more frequent; scientists and meteorologists predict that it will double in frequency between 2050 and 2080.

At the source of the rise in clear-air turbulence is global warming. As carbon emissions increase, greenhouse gases trap more heat in the troposphere (the layer closest to the Earth’s surface) instead of letting it rise into the stratosphere. This is causing a rising temperature difference between the two atmospheric layers, which in turn is causing large disruptions in the circulation patterns of atmospheric winds. These abrupt changes in the speed and direction of winds—known as “wind shear”—play a big role in creating the atmospheric disturbances that cause clear-air turbulence.

Although clear-air turbulence can occur at all levels of the troposphere in which airplanes cruise, they are most likely at the altitudes where the jet streams flow. Meteorologists have found that jet streams are experiencing 15 percent more wind shear than they did 40 years ago.

Can anything be done to avoid clear-air turbulence? Pilots could avoid flying in the four jet streams that circle the earth, and could limit flying through regions known to have high clear-air turbulence. The industry could invest in aircraft designs that improve aircraft stability and develop technology to detect clear-air turbulence. But pilots fly in the jet stream to shorten flight times and use less fuel. Thus, taking these steps will lead to longer flights, higher costs, more fuel consumption and carbon emissions, further increases in global warming and more turbulence, not less.

A better solution is to tackle rising clear-air turbulence at its source: by reducing global warming. Among other things, governments should accelerate policies that mitigate climate change such as carbon taxation, and provide incentives for clean energy adoption. Businesses should speed up investment in clean-energy products, services and infrastructure. And ordinary people should reduce their consumption of fossil-fuels by conserving energy, using public transit, recycling and participating in citizen science projects that mitigate climate change.

CONTACTS: Professor Paul Williams, International expert on air turbulence and climate change, www.port.ac.uk/school-of-biological-sciences/staff/john-mcgeehan.html; Petition to Stop Global Warming, https://preserve.nature.org/page/81465/petition/1?locale=en-US

Dear EarthTalk: How is America's outdated power grid inhibiting efforts to fight climate change?

-- Jim S., Milwaukee, WI

Our outdated power grid is indeed a significant hindrance to efforts to combat climate change. One of the key issues is the grid’s limited capacity to integrate renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc.), a needed step if we’re to make the transition to a clean energy economy. Today’s grid is made up of a patchwork of local and regional interests often at odds with one another and developed to process locally sourced coal and gas into electricity that rarely gets transported more than a few dozen miles away.

To take full advantage of renewables, these local and regional utilities need to coordinate on the production and placement of thousands of miles of new high voltage transmission lines that could send electricity generated by wind and solar for thousands of miles across multiple grid regions. But without clear financial incentives, utilities aren’t in any rush to pursue such endeavors.

A key challenge of renewable energy generation is its intermittency. Solar and wind power is variable depending on weather conditions, making it essential to have a grid capable of balancing supply and demand in real-time. An outdated grid with limited energy storage capacity and transmission capability can’t effectively manage the fluctuations in renewable energy production. So renewable energy gets wasted while the grid keeps using fossil fuels to meet demand during times of low renewable generation.

Moreover, an outdated power grid falls short in integrating electric vehicles (EVs) into the transportation sector, a crucial component of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. EV adoption is on the rise, but the existing grid is ill-equipped to support a widespread charging infrastructure. This hinders the growth of the EV market. To fully realize the potential of EVs as a climate solution, a grid must be able to support increased demand from charging stations and manage the associated load fluctuations.

Outdated power grid vulnerabilities are further exacerbated by the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events linked to climate change. Aging infrastructure is more susceptible to damage from storms, hurricanes and wildfires, resulting in prolonged power outages and disruptions. These events not only have immediate impacts on public safety and health but also impede climate change mitigation efforts by hampering renewable energy generation and slowing down the restoration of power supply.

To address these challenges, significant investments in grid modernization are essential. Upgrading the power grid to a smart grid, equipped with advanced sensors, automation and two-way communication can enhance grid resilience and flexibility. Smart grid technologies enable real-time monitoring and response, optimizing electricity distribution, and facilitating the integration of renewable energy sources. Additionally, expanding energy storage infrastructure, such as battery systems, can help mitigate the intermittency of renewable energy generation and provide backup power during outages.

CONTACTS: Americans for a Clean Energy Grid’s “Our Outdated Grid,” cleanenergygrid.org/our-outdated-grid/; Why the U.S. Electric Grid Isn’t Ready for the Energy Transition, nytimes.com/interactive/2023/06/12/climate/us-electric-grid-energy-transition.html.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental and other pros and cons of ditching the gas guzzler for an electric vehicle (EV)? -- S.H., Washington, DC

Transportation accounts for almost a third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making the switch to EVs a welcome change for environmental advocates. But is ditching your old conventional wheels for a shiny new EV really the best thing for the planet? To evaluate how eco-friendly a car is, you should consider the environmental impacts of its three life stages: its creation, operation and disposal.

Studies conclude that manufacturing a vehicle accounts for around 25 percent of its lifetime carbon footprint. Making a car creates a lot of pollution as raw materials have to be extracted, transported and manufactured. In fact, according to the environmental consulting firm Ricardo, 46 percent of an EV's total carbon footprint is generated before it even travels a mile. Keeping your old car eliminates the environmental effect of manufacturing a vehicle.

An important question arises: Do the negative environmental impacts of manufacturing EV batteries outweigh the benefits? A report by CarbonBrief concludes that EVs have a smaller carbon footprint than used gasoline cars in about four years and a smaller carbon footprint than new ones in around two years. EVs also benefit the environment by eliminating tailpipe emissions and having better fuel economies than gasoline-powered cars. And while the sustainability of EVs ultimately depends upon the mix of renewable energy in the grid where you live, even with the current renewable energy percentage, driving EVs tends to be beneficial. The more renewable energy you charge your car with, the better: So consider choosing your utility’s greener options or purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs).

EVs themselves pose a bit of a difficulty when it comes to responsible disposal. Recycling EV batteries can be difficult as the design and chemicals vary greatly from one battery to another. Most batteries aren’t even designed to be recycled. While much is being done to address this issue, it remains a significant contributor to toxic waste.

Financially speaking, according to a report by GetJerry, EVs cost an average of $56 per month more to insure than gasoline-powered cars. They are also more expensive to repair. But in spite of these down sides, operating an EV comes with certain economic benefits. It can help you evade the ever-increasing gas prices and the ever-increasing maintenance needs of an aging gas-powered vehicle. It also may be eligible for tax incentives and credits. And prices of battery EVs are seeing significant reductions: According to EVI-USA, “Experts expect that their prices will be at par with diesel or petrol vehicles between 2025 and 2027.”

To conclude, over their full life, electric and hybrid vehicles have significantly lower carbon footprints than normal cars. But, EVs tend to be a bit more expensive. If investing in one is out of reach, you can reduce your transport-related issues by walking, biking or using public transport whenever possible.


CONTACTS: CarbonBrief, carbonbrief.org; EVs Save You Gas Money, but EV Insurance Costs More, getjerry.com/trends-reports/evs-save-you-gas-money-but-ev-insurance-costs-more; Will Electric Vehicles Come Down In Price? evi-usa.com/will-electric-vehicles-come-down-in-price; EPA’s Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions, epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

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://www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


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