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earthTalk-wideDear 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 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 by 2016 — 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 the Republican-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, 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 — SolarCity, SunRun 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. Photo: The cost of electricity derived from residential rooftop solar panels could achieve “price parity” with fossil-fuel-based grid power in 47 U.S. states by 2016 according to a new report from Deutsche Bank. (Photo: Courtesy 64MM, Flickr CC)


Teen activists
Teen activists in Newton, Massachusetts show their true environmental colors at a presentation for the non-profit Green Decade/Newton. (Photo: Newton Free Library, Flickr CC)
Dear EarthTalk: 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 SustainUS, 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 Education and 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 local e-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.


genetic engineering
Twenty-one countries and the European Union have instituted policies requiring foods created using genetic engineering (GE) be labeled accordingly so consumers can know what they’re putting into their mouths. Pictured: A California campaign (defeated in 2012) demanding labeling of GE foods. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski, courtesy Flickr)
Dear EarthTalk: What are the potential health and environmental impacts of so many genetically engineered organisms in our food supply? — Frank C., Charlottesville, VA

Proponents of genetic engineering (GE) — whereby DNA from unrelated species is combined to produce improved or novel organisms — insist that the benefits of increased crop yields and less agricultural waste outweigh the potential risks, but many environmental and public health advocates aren’t convinced.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), one risk of GE is that our new “frankencrops” could become invasive, toxic to wildlife or dangerous in other as-yet unknown ways. “But the most damaging impact of GE in agriculture so far is the phenomenon of pesticide resistance,” reports UCS, adding that millions of acres of American farmland are infested by weeds that have become resistant to Monsanto’s popular herbicide glyphosate (known to most by its trade name Roundup). “Overuse of Monsanto’s ‘Roundup Ready’ trait, which is engineered to tolerate the herbicide, has promoted the accelerated development of resistance in several weed species.”

As a result, farmers are now turning to older, more toxic herbicides — and agribusiness companies are responding in kind with new rounds of GE crops engineered to tolerate these older chemicals. UCS worries that the process repeating itself is only leading us down the path of plants evolving quickly to overcome our defenses however technically brilliant they may be.

As for health risks, UCS acknowledges that eating refined products derived from GE crops is unlikely to cause health problems, but maintains that inserting a gene from one organism into another could still have unintended health consequences. For example, those with food-borne allergies could be at increased risk for reactions given the combination of genes in what looks like any other vegetable or piece of fruit. “This phenomenon was documented in 1996, as soybeans with a Brazil nut gene — added to improve their value as animal feed — produced an allergic response in test subjects with Brazil nut allergies,” reports UCS.

Given these risks, some 21 countries and the European Union (EU) have instituted policies requiring foods created with GE technology to be labeled as such so consumers can know what they are buying and putting into their mouths. EU rules mandate that if any ingredient in a food has 0.9 percent or higher of genetically modified organisms, it must be marked accordingly on its packaging. Environmentalists in the U.S. would like to see the federal government put in place a similar policy — research from the non-profit Just Label It found nine in 10 Americans to be in favor of mandated GE labeling — but lobbying interests from agricultural states with a vested interest in selling more GE products still hold lots of sway over elected officials. So for now, Americans concerned about what’s in their food will need to do their own homework regarding what’s safe to put on their dinner tables.

Luckily some natural foods retailers are making it easier for consumers intent on avoiding GE foods. Whole Foods, for one, is working toward full disclosure via labeling in regards to which of the foods on its store shelves contain GE ingredients. While Whole Foods may be a pioneer in this regard, environmentalists are hoping other U.S. grocery store chains will follow suit so that Americans can decide for themselves whether or not to take the risk of eating GE foods.

CONTACTS: UCS, www.ucsusa.org; Just Label It, justlabelit.org.


Using "greywater"
Using “greywater” from sinks, showers and washing machines to irrigate outdoor gardens is a great way to increase the productivity of backyard ecosystems while reducing household water use by as much as 30 percent. Pictured: A backyard garden watered with residential greywater. (Photo: Jeremy Levine, courtesy Flickr)
Dear EarthTalk: I know that some large buildings filter some of their wastewater to irrigate exterior landscaping. Is there an affordable way to do this at home? — Bill P., Salem, OR

Now that solar panels are so commonplace on rooftops across the country, reusing so-called greywater — that is, the waste water from sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines — for landscape irrigation may be the next frontier in the greening of the American home, especially if you live in an arid region where water use is restricted. In fact, reusing your greywater may be the only way to keep your lawn and garden healthy without taking more than your fair share of the community’s precious freshwater reserves.

“Using water from sinks, showers and washing machines to irrigate plants is a way to increase the productivity of sustainable backyard ecosystems that produce food, clean water and shelter wildlife,” reports Greywater Action, a California-based non-profit dedicated to educating and empowering people to use water sustainably. According to the group, a typical U.S. single family home can reduce water use by as much as 30 percent by installing some kind of greywater reclamation system while simultaneously reducing pollution into nearby water bodies by filtering out contaminants locally. Capturing and reusing greywater can also be part of the battle against climate change, given that you’ll be helping grow plants that sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide while reducing demand on a regional wastewater treatment facility that’s likely powered by fossil fuels.

The simplest way to get into home greywater reuse is to install a “laundry-to-landscape” system that sends washing machine wastewater outside via a diversion tank and hose that can be moved around to irrigate specific sections of the yard. Equipment costs for such a set-up max out at $200, but labor and expertise may tack on another few hundred dollars. Handy homeowners can do much of the work in setting up such systems themselves, though those without much home repair or plumbing experience might at least consult a professional. Greywater Action suggests one way to reduce costs is by digging trenches for diversion pipes and mulch basins yourself — or enlist friends who want to support the effort and learn about residential greywater reuse in the process.

A more comprehensive system can draw wastewater from sinks, showers and tubs, too — and then filter and distribute it to backyard landscaping via a drip irrigation network. Getting such a system professionally installed can run upwards of $5,000.

Either way, once the greywater diversion system is in place, you’ll need to be careful about what goes down the drain, given how it might affect the plants and soils right outside. “In any greywater system, it is essential to put nothing toxic down the drain — no bleach, no dye, no bath salts, no cleanser, no shampoo with unpronounceable ingredients, and no products containing boron, which is toxic to plants,” adds Greywater Action.

For more information on installing a greywater reuse system yourself, check out the resources section of Greywater Action’s website, where you’ll find diagrams, written instructions and even videos to make the job go smoother. Those more inclined to hire a professional can browse through listings of qualified installers across the country. And if you want to see how it’s done first-hand, sign up to attend one of Greywater Action’s one-day workshops on how to install a greywater catchment and diversion system in a residential setting.

CONTACT: Greywater Action, www.greywateraction.org.

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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. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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