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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Has there been any backlash against the installation of rooftop solar panels or the development of big solar farms across the U.S.? -- B. Jackson, Longmeadow, MA

Incentives like the Solar Investment Tax Credit and increased affordability in the cost of solar panel installation over the past decade have given renewable solar energy the option of becoming a more mainstream power source. Solar energy’s growing edge has amplified its share of total U.S. electrical generation from just 0.1 percent in 2010 to 2.3 percent in 2020.

The expansion of solar beyond just panels on rooftops, however, is sparking debate. Farmers and other landowners who agree to large-scale solar leasing on their property are frequently met with resistance from surrounding homeowners who question whether the development of a solar plant or “farm” will decrease the value of their homes, ruin scenic views or be detrimental to wildlife or the environment. Organized groups like Virginia-based Citizens for Responsible Solar (CRS) also rally against the development of solar panels on rural or agricultural land. They argue that thousands of acres of land need to be cleared for solar panels to produce the equivalent amount of energy of a coal, nuclear or natural gas plant, and the resulting deforestation will contribute to global warming. The group instead encourages installation of solar panels solely on rooftops, contaminated land, parking lots and industrial zoned land.

Conservationists have also raised concerns over the large number of birds being killed at large-scale photovoltaic solar facilities. In an attempt to combat these deaths, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois were granted a $1.3 million contract by the Department of Energy last year to collect data on what happens when birds fly by, perch on or collide with solar panels. “There is speculation about how solar energy infrastructure affects bird populations, but we need more data to scientifically understand what is happening,” says Yuki Hamada, Argonne’s lead scientist in the project.

One theory is the “lake effect,” which proposes that birds mistake the reflective blue expanse of solar panels for bodies of water and crash land on them. According to the Audubon Society, water birds in particular are in danger of this fatal effect as some species can’t take off from the ground; they require a running start on the water’s surface. Concentrated solar “tower” plants, including Tonopah, Nevada’s Crescent Dunes and California’s Ivanpah in the Mojave Desert, have also come under scrutiny due to bird deaths. These plants use heliostats, or mirrors, to focus sunlight onto a molten salt-filled receiver located at the top of a collector tower that converts heat into steam. The steam then powers a turbine to generate clean electricity. Unfortunately, the tremendously hot beams of light traveling via the mirrors to the tower incinerate passing birds, as well as bats and insects.

There’s also the issue of disposal after a solar panel’s operative life of approximately 20 to 30 years. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that solar panel waste could total nearly 80 million metric tons by 2050, and the establishment of effective recycling or repurposing regulation is imperative. Encouraging approaches include Washington State’s Photovoltaic Module Stewardship and Takeback Program, which requires manufacturers of solar panels to provide the public with a convenient and environmentally sound way to recycle all panels purchased after July 2017.

CONTACTS: CRS, citizensforresponsiblesolar.org; “Deep learning system will monitor birds at solar facilities,” anl.gov/article/deep-learning-system-will-monitor-birds-at-solar-facilities.

Dear EarthTalk: Is blimp travel really making a comeback? Is it eco-friendly? – J. Roe, Islip. NY

The blimp, forever besmirched due to the Hindenburg explosion in 1937—when one of the first commercial blimps caught on fire—never really fulfilled its potential as a commuting vehicle.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and companies like Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) are taking steps to reintroduce airships safely. HAV’s Airlander 10, for example, uses inert helium for buoyancy instead of flammable hydrogen (which the industry began doing right after the Hindenburg disaster), thus eliminating the threat of disasters like the Hindenburg. Today’s blimp can be an efficient cargo carrier, and can also seat 100 passengers and travel 200-300 miles quickly on hybrid (diesel/electric) power—making blimp travel one of the greenest ways to travel medium-length distances.

Traditional commercial jets are not only much more costly to make but also accelerate global warming and impact local air quality. Commercial aircrafts use large amounts of fossil fuels and emit harmful greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfate or soot particulates.

As a hybrid vehicle with a helium-filled balloon for buoyancy—the Airlander 10 drastically reduces the amount of fuel necessary to keep it airborne. HAV reports that the Airlander will emit 90 percent less carbon dioxide per passenger than a commercial jet. However, the company plans to replace all hybrid versions with 500 kW electric motors—two forward motors by 2025 and two rear motors by 2030—to

make the aircraft fully electric and producing zero emissions.

HAV adds that while blimps created in the past could not withstand rough weather conditions, the Airlander “will be able to withstand lightning and icing and operate in most weathers.” With the ability to cover 4,000 miles, reach the altitude of 20,000 feet, and travel approximately 80 miles per hour, the Airlander maximizes energy efficiency and is designed to remain airborne for up to five days at a stretch.

“This isn’t a luxury product, it’s a practical solution to challenges posed by the climate crisis,” HAV Chief Executive Tom Grundy tells The Guardian.

In addition to commercial passenger and cargo transportation, the Airlander may just be the newest eco-tourism vehicle. With large windows that provide a clear view of the landscapes below and little predicted turbulence due to reduced engine usage, the Airlander is perfect for luxury eco-travel. In fact, Swedish travel firm OceanSky has already purchased an Airlander that will include a customized luxury cabin, where passengers can enjoy stunning, unparalleled views while flying over places like the North Pole.

Although an Airlander prototype crashed during a 2019 test flight, another test flight performed in 2021 proved successful. As with all commercial aircraft, the Airlander requires certification from regulators before operation. Though the Airlander does not yet have approval, HAV looks forward to building 12 Airlanders yearly with hopes of producing upwards of 250 over the next few decades.

CONTACTS: “How airships could return to our crowded skies,” https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191107-how-airships-could-return-to-our-crowded-skies; “The Age of the Airship May Be Dawning Again,” foreignpolicy.com/2020/02/29/blimps-hindenburg-flying-whales-airships/; “Return of the Airship,” airspacemag.com/airspacemag/return-airship-180960184/

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that U.S. national parks are disproportionately affected by climate change. Is this true, and if so, why? ­-- Joseph Pearl, Longmont, CO

The effects of climate change can be felt all over the globe in various ways, but America’s national parks seem to be suffering more than U.S. overall land mass. A 2020 study by researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin found that “human-caused climate change has exposed the U.S. national park area to more severe increases in heat and aridity than the country as a whole and caused widespread impacts on ecosystems and resources.” Since 1895, annual average temperature of the area of the 419 national parks has increased at a rate of 1.8ºF per century, double that of the U.S. as a whole. Precipitation declined significantly on 12 percent of national park area, compared with just three percent nationally.

What’s driving this exaggerated response? One theory holds that national parks are feeling the heat more because they tend to be located in extreme environments to begin with. Their rarer ecosystems are in some cases fragile and less resilient to change than the average backyard or suburban park.

Some of the specific ways national parks are affected disproportionately include twice as much wildfire decimation and tree mortality from infestations and disease as non-parks lands, the melting of glaciers in northern parks in the continental U.S. as well as Alaska, a loss of bird species and biodiversity in southerly parks, and sea level rise at coastal sites everywhere.

According to Patrick Gonzalez, the study’s lead author and a UC Berkeley climate scientist, climate change could increase temperatures in some U.S. national parks by as much as 16ºF by 2100. “This could melt all glaciers from Glacier National Park, raise sea level enough to inundate half of Everglades National Park, dissolve coral reefs in Virgin Islands National Park through ocean acidification, and damage many other natural and cultural resources.”

Some individual parks are taking matters into their own hands and channeling some of their maintenance budgets to bolster ecosystem resilience to the climate-induced changes already underway. Biologists in Joshua Tree National Park, for example, are cordoning off sections of the park to reduce the trampling of sensitive plants in particularly biodiverse areas. And Florida’s Biscayne National Park is raising heat-resistant local corals they hope can play a role in stemming the tide of underwater biodiversity loss.

While these efforts are laudable and are no doubt helping address a dire situation, the only way to really turn things around across the board is to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. Gonzalez underscores the importance of energy conservation and efficiency improvements, renewable energy, public transit and other actions to reduce global warming. Like at no other time in history, the future is in our hands today. Whether or not our grandkids will get to see glaciers at Glacier National Park may well depend on actions we undertake today.

CONTACTS: “Human-caused climate change in United States national parks and solutions for the future,” https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9443s1kq; Climate Change in National Parks, https://www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/upload/Brochure-ClimateChangeInNationalParks.pdf; Report: Greater Yellowstone area expected to become warmer, drier with changing climate,

https://www.montana.edu/news/21258/report-greater-yellowstone-area-expected-to-become-warmer-drier-with-changing-climate.

Dear EarthTalk: Are the new SST jets friendlier to the environment than the SSTs of the 1970s?

­-- P. Barnes, Midlothian, TX

Nearly 20 years have passed since the last flight of the Concorde, the first supersonic passenger-carrying commercial airplane (or supersonic transport, SST). The aircraft cruised the Queen of England and the ultra-wealthy across the seas at Mach 2 speed, or 1,350 mph, while soaring at an altitude of 60,000 feet. In 1996, the Concorde achieved its fastest flight from New York to London in under three hours.

Now a new wave of supersonic flight may be on the horizon with the recent partnership between United Airlines and Denver-based Boom Supersonic. In June 2021, United Airlines announced plans to purchase 15 of Boom Supersonic’s first commercial supersonic jet, the Overture. Boom plans to engineer the Overture to fly up to 88 passengers at a speed of Mach 1.7, or 1,300 mph, at 60,000 feet. Most flight times will be cut nearly in half: Traveling from Paris to Montreal will only take three hours and 45 minutes instead of the usual eight and a half hours; a trip from San Francisco to Tokyo take just six hours rather than the usual 10 hours and 15 minutes.

Boom and United plan a modern, economically-viable, ecologically-sustainable version of the old Concorde, which was “a ludicrously expensive environmental disaster,” according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. “It helps to remember that we’re talking literally about 1960s technology,” Boom Supersonic’s Founder Blake Scholl told CNN Travel. “So much has changed.”

In collaboration with Prometheus Fuels, a California-based company, Boom plans to design a 100 percent carbon-neutral plane powered by sustainable alternative fuels. The company claims that Prometheus’ technology is able to economically remove CO2 from the air and use renewable, clean electricity from solar and wind to turn it into jet fuel. After successfully running their XB-1 test engines with a blend of more than 80 percent sustainable aviation fuel, Boom has confidence that sustainable fuels can safely be used in flight. If all goes as planned, the Overture may be flying passengers as soon as 2029.

Virgin Galactic is also throwing its hat into the ring of supersonic commercial air travel. In August of 2020, the company unveiled plans to collaborate with Rolls Royce in developing sustainable commercial high-speed aircraft capable of an astonishing Mach 3, or approximately 2,300 mph. The smaller-scale aircraft will hold 9-19 passengers and utilize state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel and “other sustainable technologies and techniques.”

Aerion Supersonic, which publicized plans last year to build a $375 million manufacturing facility at Florida’s Orlando Melbourne International Airport, also expressed its commitment to having carbon neutral emissions and designing their aircraft to run on 100 percent sustainable aviation fuels. However, due to financial challenges, the company announced in May 2021 that it will not be able to move forward with the facility at this time.

CONTACTS: Kirby your enthusiasm about the supposed supersonic revival, theicct.org/blog/staff/supposed-supersonic-revival-jun2021; United Airlines will buy 15 ultrafast airplanes from start-up Boom Supersonic, cnbc.com/2021/06/03/united-will-buy-15-ultrafast-airplanes-from-start-up-boom-supersonic.html; Boom Supersonic Announces First Fully Carbon-Neutral Aircraft Program, XB-1, boomsupersonic.com/news/post/carbon-neutral-aircraft.

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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