Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that home rooftop solar only makes sense in certain parts of the U.S. with proper incentives as opposed to where the sun shines the most? — Esther Knox, Wilton, NH
The short answer is yes: In the United States, whether or not it is easy and economical to go solar depends more on state politics than prevailing weather trends. In those states with ample sunshine and the legislative initiative to get solar panels on residential roofs, there has never been a better — or cheaper — time to put photovoltaic panels to use.
According to Solar Power Rocks, a website that helps homeowners understand the rules, incentives and investment returns on local solar panel installations, the top three states where switching over to solar power makes the most economic sense are in the Northeast (New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey). Maryland, Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico and Colorado round out the top ten.
What makes these states particularly prime for rooftop solar is their willingness to allow homeowners to lease photovoltaic equipment from third-party owners (like Sun Edison, Solar City, SunRun, etc.) and legislature-backed incentives to help keep costs down overall. Going solar in one of these states might end up being cheaper than remaining on the grid.
Surprisingly, a few states in the South (Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Kentucky), where solar panels would seem like a no-brainer, continue to resist this change for the better, in large part due to entrenched utility lobbies intent on maintaining their fossil-fuel-based lock on the status quo. According to a recent Rolling Stone article by Tim Dickinson, the recent ascent of solar power in the U.S. poses a grave threat to the business interests of big fossil fuel industry investors. Dickinson details how these entrenched interests are “mounting a fierce, rear-guard resistance at the state level — pushing rate hikes and punishing fees for homeowners who turn to solar power.” He adds that their efforts have “darkened green-energy prospects in could-be solar superpowers” like Arizona and Nevada. “But nowhere has the solar industry been more eclipsed than in Florida, where the utilities’ powers of obstruction are unrivaled.”
“The solar industry in Florida has been boxed out by investor-owned utilities (IOUs) that reap massive profits from natural gas and coal,” reports Dickinson. “These IOUs wield outsized political power in the state capital of Tallahassee, and flex it to protect their absolute monopoly on electricity sales.”
While Florida might be a laggard on rooftop solar for now, that could all change if some residents are successful in their drive for an amendment to the state constitution to allow for third-party solar ownership (which would enable solar leasing). Of course, the state’s utilities have challenged the amendment by creating their own, designed to confuse voters into keeping solar panels off their rooftops.
For more information on where your state stands in terms on rooftop solar, check out Solar Power Rocks 2016 U.S. Solar Power Rankings. Also, visit the website of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) for a full run-down of state-by-state, federal and other incentives for installing solar panels and other forms of renewable energy equipment.
Contacts: Solar Power Rocks, www.solarpowerrocks.com; Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, www.dsireusa.org. Photo above: Who would have guessed that the best three states across the U.S. for putting solar panels on the roof would be in the Northeast? Credit: Nick Normal, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: What should I know about artificial sweeteners before I opt for them for myself or my kids in place of regular ol’ sugar? — Gretchen Abdow, Philadelphia, PA
These days, it’s incredibly easy to consume a huge daily dose of sugar. Grabbing a non-fat, grande latte at Starbucks before work will start your day off with 18 grams of sugar. A Chobani Strawberry-on-the-Bottom yogurt with an 8-ounce can of Sprite in the afternoon will add 41 grams; and a 32 ounce bottle of Gatorade and an Almond & Apricot KIND bar at the gym shovels in another 65.5 grams. Consuming these common foods and beverages will bring your daily sugar intake to a total of 124.5 grams.
“Our ancestors probably consumed 20 teaspoons (100 grams) of sugar per year and we now consume that much per day,” says Dr. Sandy Seeman, a naturopathic doctor who also works at Campbell’s Nutrition in Des Moines, Iowa. “We cannot continue to consume this amount of sugar and not have it impact our systems. Something has to change.”
To avoid tooth decay, obesity, diabetes and other ailments associated with excess sugar intake, Americans have turned to artificial sweeteners, including aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet’n Low), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium, neotame and others. But the potential dangers of such sweeteners have been controversial since the 1970s, when saccharin was linked with bladder cancer in laboratory rats. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 30 human studies have since shown that those results were irrelevant to humans and that saccharin is safe for human consumption.
The FDA stands by the safety of the sweeteners it approves, referring to aspartame on its website as one of the “most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply,” with 100-plus studies supporting its safety.The FDA also says that more than 90 studies support the safety of acesulfame potassium, while some 110 studies were reviewed in approving sucralose, 113 for neotame, and 37 for advantame.
“About the only way this stuff could harm you is if you were run over by a truck that was delivering it,” reports Josh Bloom, Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), when discussing the recent FDA approval of advantame on his blog.
But according to Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight loss specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, artificial sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, and overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent usage may limit tolerance for more complex tastes, that is, people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods (such as fruit) less appealing and unsweet foods (such as vegetables) downright unpalatable. In other words, overuse of artificial sweeteners can make you shun healthy, filling and highly nutritious foods while consuming more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value.
New York Times bestselling author Dr. Mark Hyman suggests that if you have a desire for something sweet, have a little sugar, but stay away from “fake” foods. “Sugar-containing foods in their natural form, whole fruit, for example, tend to be highly nutritious-nutrient-dense, high in fiber and low in glycemic load. On the other hand, refined, concentrated sugar consumed in large amounts rapidly increases blood glucose and insulin levels, triglycerides, inflammatory mediators and oxygen radicals, and with them, the risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.”
Dear EarthTalk: Do scientists think there is a big environmental component to the huge rise in peanut allergies in recent years? — Jay Williams, Fresno, CA
Peanut allergies among children in the United States have more than tripled, from 0.4 percent in 1997 to 1.4 percent in 2010, according to a study by food allergists at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Of the eight foods that cause 90 percent of food allergies (milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish), peanuts are the deadliest. They result in an estimated 15,000 emergency room visits (half of the 30,000 due to food allergies) in the U.S.
Heather Fraser, author of The Peanut Allergy Epidemic: What’s Causing It and How to Stop It, says that despite the continuing intense attention given to the growing epidemic of peanut allergies in children, an answer to its cause(s) has not been found. Fraser adds that it is difficult to accept the startling increase in peanut allergies in just the last 20 years as a coincidence or to chalk it up to a genetic fluke.
Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, states that the sudden surge in American peanut allergies may be attributed to the fact that peanuts are grown in the same soil as Roundup Ready, or glyphosate tolerant, cotton. Unlike almonds, walnuts and cashews, peanuts do not grow on trees — they’re actually a legume with a soft shell that grows in the ground. “Put anything in that soil and you can imagine how it gets absorbed into the peanut,” O’Brien wrote on her website, adding: “Put genetically engineered seeds in that soil and you get soil that is saturated with a controversial chemical, glyphosate,” a chemical that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has linked to gradually increasing, cellular-damaging inflammation.
But according to Fraser, the consumption of genetically modified foods does not correlate with the epidemiological facts of the peanut allergy epidemic: during a specific window of time between the late 1980s and early 1990s peanut allergy began to increase suddenly, just in children, in specific countries (the US, UK, Canada, AU) — and again, at the same time. Upon further investigation, Fraser discovered that there was a precedent to the child-specific epidemic.
“Over 100 years ago the words allergy and anaphylaxis were coined to describe strange symptoms in children that were provoked by the first ever use of the needle paired with vaccines,” says Fraser. “The current allergy epidemic among children was provoked by a sudden change in the vaccination schedule together with a sudden increase in coverage rates (the number of children being vaccinated at an early age).”
With the direct cause(s) of the peanut allergy epidemic still open-ended, many pregnant women have taken to avoiding peanuts altogether to prevent their unborn child from developing the allergy. But a recent study found that children whose non-allergic mothers had the highest consumption of peanuts or tree nuts, or both, during pregnancy had the lowest risk of developing a nut allergy. The risk was most reduced among the children of mothers who ate nuts five or more times a month.
“Some studies actually showed that avoiding peanuts during pregnancy increased the risk of a child developing peanut sensitization,” said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University. Dr. Gupta emphasized that further research is needed to determine “why more and more children are developing food allergy and how we can prevent it.”
Dear EarthTalk: Why are there stretches of thousands of miles of interstate systems in this country with barren medians? What are the obstacles to planting trees or other vegetation in those areas? — James Logan Cockerham, Middletown, OH
The idea of beautifying highway medians with plantings goes back five decades when Lady Bird Johnson pushed the Highway Beautification Act through Congress in 1965. Today, Americans are starting to think about undeveloped land alongside and between roadways as a low cost and widely dispersed strategy for carbon sequestration. Researchers from the Western Transportation Institute (WTI) at Montana State University report that roadside soils and vegetation on federal lands alone are already capturing almost two percent of total U.S. transportation carbon emissions. WTI adds that the land alongside America’s four million miles of public roadways already maintained by federal, state and local governments could be planted with vegetation optimized for storing atmospheric carbon dioxide and could serve as valuable “banks” for meeting ambitious carbon sequestration goals set at the recent Paris climate accord.
At a talk at 2015’s North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Missoula, Montana, WTI’s Rob Ament reported that shrubs, grasses and other plants already along roads in U.S. national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands currently are sequestering some seven million metric tons of carbon a year — equivalent to taking some five million cars off the road — all without trying to optimize the mix of plants and management practices for carbon storage. Ament advocates that land management authorities and departments of transportation research ways to enlist medians and other public lands in the fight to stave off cataclysmic global warming.
Of course, maintaining highway medians and other forlorn stretches of roadside for carbon sequestration may be more easily said than done, especially since drought across the American West has reduced water budgets for land management and transportation authorities to the bare minimum. While this winter’s El Nino weather pattern has restored many depleted aquifers, water is still likely more valuable than some precious metals and will probably remain scarce for years to come.
Despite the drought, California’s Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is currently looking into just how much carbon sequestration could be possible by optimizing the state’s median and roadside plantings. “Highway roadsides may be an overlooked and undervalued component of the department’s resources available to reduce greenhouse gases and assist in meeting California Air Resources Board compliance goals,” says Doug Brown, a Senior Landscape Architect with Caltrans. “When managed properly, trees are proven cost-effective mitigation measures that sequester carbon.” He adds that increasing tree cover also reduces the heat-island effect by shading impervious surfaces.
Much of the information we already have about vegetation management strategies that optimize carbon sequestration, says Brown, is focused on large tracts of forest land, not on smaller tracts such as along roadsides. He concludes that we need to do much more research to figure out ways to better utilize these roadside green spaces without depleting groundwater reserves. Planting highway medians with carbon-sucking plants may not be the only solution to global warming woes, we need all the help we can get.