Dear EarthTalk: I am interested in helping my school get solar panels on the roof to show students how we can be part of the solution to the climate crisis. Are there any resources or grants out there to help schools go solar? — Charles Hamilton, Warren, OH
Putting solar panels on your school is a great idea, not only to provide a free source of electricity, but also as a real-world way to teach students about the need for more renewable energy options and to make the school community part of the solution to our climate woes. School buildings are typically built with large, flat rooftops that are ideal candidates for solar installations.
According to the Foundation for Environmental Education’s Solar School Initiative, some 4,000 public and private school systems around the country have already installed solar panels at their own expense, or with funds raised through parent-teacher associations, student groups, individual donors and foundations. Analysts estimate that an additional 125,000 schools nationwide are good candidates for going solar and reaping the financial benefits of free energy. Developing renewable alternatives is essential to our transition away from dirty fossil fuel sources.
Grant programs vary from state to state, though some can be very supportive of municipal solar projects. In Massachusetts, for example, cities qualified as “Green Communities” can apply for clean energy grants through a state-run program. California also has a number of solar-friendly programs that schools can capitalize on, including the School Facility Modernization Grants and Self-Generation Incentive program. Several other states offer similar programs.
There are also many federal grant opportunities, primarily from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Their Loan Programs Office works with municipal and commercial applicants to help realize their energy goals. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy shares this mission, and recently made an investment of $19 million to improve our nation’s buildings, specifically naming hospitals and schools as top priorities.
There are also non-government options that can be utilized to bring solar to your local school district. The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) offers a wide array of resources for achieving successful solar school programs and for navigating issues around choosing a system. Their partnership with The Solar Foundation’s BDR Fund has set a goal of 20,000 solar systems installed at K-12 schools by the year 2020.
Another grant opportunity comes from the American Electric Power Foundation’s Learning from Light program, which has sponsored over 100 schools’ transitions to solar, starting with Bluffsview Elementary in Worthington, Ohio back in 1998. And the Walmart Foundation recently pledged to fund solar conversions at 20 schools in large cities around the country. A list of further programs offered by a number of organizations can be found at solarschools.org.
For more tips, check out the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s report “Solar Schools Assessment and Implementation Project: Financing Options for Solar Installations on K-12 Schools,” which explains the myriad ways to finance and own solar installations at schools — including how to choose a location to maximize benefits.
Contacts: Solar School Initiative, www.solarschools.org; ASES, www.ases.org; DOE Loan Programs Office, energy.gov/lpo/loan-programs-office; American Electric Power Foundation, www.aep.com; NREL, www.nrel.gov. Photo above: The non-profit Black Rock Solar helped Rainshadow Community Charter High School in Reno, Nevada install a 31 kilowatt photovoltaic array in 2010.
Dear EarthTalk: Where do the VP choices for the upcoming Presidential election (Tim Kaine and Mike Pence) stand in terms of environmental track record and commitment? — Mitchell Finan, Butte, MT
Not surprisingly, given the current political climate, the respective Vice Presidential candidates differ on most of the issues, including their policies on the environment and energy.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s VP choice Tim Kaine has opposed big oil companies since his career as Virginia State Senator. He first endorsed a “25 percent renewables by 2025” goal back in 2007, and has continued his staunch support ever since. He has been a champion of diversifying America’s energy portfolio. “We’re not going to drill our way out of the long-term energy crisis facing this nation and the world…we can’t keep relying oil,” said Kaine back in 2008. He reinforced this position again in his 2012 Senate race by arguing against tax subsidies for major oil companies.
As far as environmental protection, he has not shown much of a track record in support or against. In May of 2013, he did vote affirmatively on a bill to protect ocean, coastal and Great Lakes ecosystems. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV), which puts out an annual national environmental scorecard for politicians, has attributed a 91 percent lifetime score to Kaine, clearly naming him as one of our nation’s leading politicians. More recently, in late 2015, Kaine voted against a bill that attacked Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) carbon pollution limits. Of course, a Republican dominated Congress passed the bill anyway, although President Obama quickly vetoed it to maintain stricter limits on carbon pollution.
Across the aisle, Donald Trump’s VP selection, Mike Pence, lacks any sort of environmental agenda in his political career. The LCV gives him a lifetime score of only four percent, meaning he is no friend of the environment. Pence, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001-2013 when he assumed the Indiana governorship, voted against a “Cash for Clunkers” recycling program in 2009 and also voted no on a bill improving public transportation in 2008. Meanwhile, he voted affirmatively for deauthorizing critical habitat zones and approving forest thinning projects in 2005 and 2003, respectively.
As for energy policy, Pence supported the “25 percent renewable energy…” goal in 2007 like his opponent Kaine. However, since then, he has supported offshore drilling, opposed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases and voted without any environmental conscience. He also voted against incentives for alternative fuels, for the construction of new oil refineries, and against criminalizing oil cartels such as OPEC.
“I think the science is very mixed on the subject of global warming,” Pence stated in 2009. His record of the environment since then reflects his continued skepticism toward environmental protection efforts.
For environmentalists, Kaine is the obvious choice over Pence, which is no surprise given the Presidential candidates who selected each of them as running mates. While Hillary Clinton may have focused more attention on other political issues over her career, she has continuously supported environmental protection and the transition away from fossil fuels, while Donald Trump has fought environmental restrictions on his ability to operate his real estate empire and recently told reporters he would consider reneging on U.S. commitments to reduce greenhouse gases made at the recent Paris climate summit.
Contact: League of Conservation Voters, www.lcv.org.
Dear EarthTalk: When did scientists first discover that carbon dioxide levels were rising in the atmosphere due to human activity and that this could cause global warming? — Barbara Mickelson, Sumter, SC
The Earth’s climate is continually changing. Since the planet was born some 4.5 billion years ago, it has undergone ice ages and warm periods due to natural changes in its orbit around the sun and other factors on its surface. But since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been the main factor in the Earth’s warming. Since pre-industrial times, the Earth’s surface has warmed some 1.5 degrees Celsius. And with 2.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) being released into the air every second, we are on track to get a lot warmer still. So when did we realize climate change was happening and who is responsible?
The science behind climate change was first understood by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896; he thought the results would be positive for humans. Arrhenius realized that burning fossil fuels would have a greenhouse effect on the planet and would likely warm the planet by several degrees. Throughout the 20th century, the planet’s human population increased by more than 280 percent and CO2 production increased by more than 1160 percent. As the climate warmed, more and more scientists started to realize that human activity must be to blame. By 1959, worry among the scientific community increased as some scientists projected that CO2 would increase with potentially “radical” effects on climate.
But it wasn’t until 1995 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a definitive statement that humans are responsible for post-industrial global warming. As of 2010, there was a 97 percent consensus among scientists that climate change was caused by humans.
So why haven’t we fixed the situation? The answer may partially lie in the part large energy corporations played in swaying public opinion. As InsideClimate News reports, ExxonMobil was aware that anthropogenic climate change was likely as early as 1977. Since then, ExxonMobil has spent more than $30 million on think tanks that promote climate denial. While it can perhaps be pardoned for opposing climate change research when the science was still inconclusive, ExxonMobil continued funding climate change denial groups as late as 2009 — well after our carbon emissions were established as the cause of climate change. ExxonMobil even helped found the “Global Climate Coalition,” a lobbying group that prevented the U.S. from taking action against limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
And ExxonMobil isn’t alone. Koch Industries, a Kansas-based multinational with big investments in oil and other fossil fuels, has donated over $88 million to climate change denial. Chevron, BP and others also fund such efforts. The actions of these companies have had a profound impact on public opinion. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, the U.S. has the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world but “is among the least concerned about climate change and its potential impact.”
Confronting ExxonMobil and other corporations that give misleading information to the public is important because this issue affects all of us. Non-profits like Greenpeace are trying to make sure oil companies stop obfuscating the truth and start promoting cleaner energy. Regardless, our commitments at the Paris climate accord have the U.S. and the rest of the world on the right path toward reducing emissions, no matter what the oil companies say about it.
Contacts: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, www.ipcc.ch; ExxonMobil, corporate.exxonmobil.com; Koch Industries, www.kochind.com; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org; Pew Research Center, www.pewresearch.org.
Dear EarthTalk: What are “smoke waves” from wildfires and how can they be hazardous for our health? — Doug Jenkins, Big Sandy, TX
Smoke waves are just what they sound like: huge waves of smoke. Perhaps more dangerous than the fires themselves from which they radiate, smoke waves can cause health problems for people hundreds of miles around. Forest fire flames licking at homes and neighborhoods are always scary, killing dozens of people and causing billions of dollars in property damage across the U.S. every year. But it’s typically the risk from the smoke waves that causes school closures and confines people indoors for days or weeks on end while more frequent and more intense wildfires rage on.
What makes smoke waves so dangerous is that they carry particulate matter (tiny dust particles smaller than 2.5 microns) that people can breathe into their lungs where they can cause respiratory problems and aggravate pre-existing medical conditions. Forest fires and other forms of combustion are the main source of these tiny dust particles — so the more forest fires, the more particulate matter risk. Asthmatic children are especially sensitive to smoke waves; hundreds were hospitalized in California this summer during one of the worst fire seasons on record. The elderly, especially those with heart or lung conditions, are also highly vulnerable to pollution from smoke waves. Smoke waves are most severe for those directly under or in the wave, but pollution can travel for hundreds of miles, poisoning the lungs of people nowhere near the actual fire.
A recent study of smoke waves across the Western U.S. by researchers from Harvard and Yale universities concluded that climate change “will likely cause smoke waves to be longer, more intense, and more frequent.” They found that between 2004 and 2009, smoke waves affected 57 million Americans — more than 15 percent of the U.S. population. But even more troubling is their projection for that number to ramp up another 45 percent by mid-century as the planet continues to warm up. That will mean about 13 million more kids and seniors will be impacted by smoke waves compared with today.
As the climate changes and most places get hotter and drier, forest fires are projected to increase significantly — and with more fire comes more smoke. Anyone living in fire-prone areas needs to be informed and prepared. Sites like AirNow.gov can give current data on air quality and warn of any dangers from smoke waves or other forms of pollution. If a smoke wave is in your area, stay indoors or wear protective clothing and masking to avoid inhalation.
Because smoke waves are a direct result of human-caused global warming, the best way to minimize them is to slow or stop carbon emissions. While slowing or stopping global warming is a global effort, individuals need to do their part too. Do what you can to minimize energy use and waste, upgrade to more efficient cars, appliances, systems, homes and offices, fly and drive less, walk and bike more…. But also vote for carbon taxes and other warming mitigation measures and urge your lawmakers to support sustainability-oriented policy initiatives. If you live in a fire-prone area, you’ll be doing yourself and your loved ones a favor.
Contacts: “Particulate air pollution from wildfires in the Western US under climate change,” link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-016-1762-6; AirNow.gov, www.airnow.gov.