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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: What is firescaping and what’s the connection with native plants? – J.T., via email

Firescaping involves designing a landscape to fireproof a property while maintaining aesthetic appeal. By thoughtfully choosing and arranging plants and construction materials, the likelihood of igniting a fire, along with its potential severity and the speed at which it spreads, can be significantly reduced.. A firescape design often involves multiple zones. Zone 0, also known as a ‘noncombustible zone,’ is the perimeter region zero to five feet away from the home. Anything within this region should be incombustible. This most frequently means putting pavement, bricks or rocks around the border of the home to prevent any groundfires from being able to make direct contact. In addition, avoid planting vegetation beneath decks or balconies as fire and heat tends to climb upward.

All vegetation should be kept at least 10 feet away from homes for optimal fireproofing, and trees should always be kept at least 15 feet away from chimneys and powerlines. When choosing the placement of trees, consider their size at maturity versus their size at the time of planting. Additionally, the crowns of trees should be kept at least 10 feet apart via pruning. This helps avoid fire laddering, whereby flames ignite lower branches or shrubs, initiating upward movement before spreading to adjacent trees.

Zone 1 is the ‘lean, clean, green’ area within 30 feet of a home. Certain plants, such as junipers, conifers and other evergreens should not be planted in this region because they contain oils, resins and waxes that make them flammable. Other characteristics of incendiary plants include those containing dry or dead twigs and needles and those having strongly aromatic terpenoid leaves.

Instead, choose plants that are less ‘woody’, have higher moisture content, and are ground covers. Deciduous trees and shrubs, as well as succulents and some perennials, are better-suited options. Furthermore, many native plants possess evolutionary adaptations, such as deep root systems and fire-resistant bark, which make them resilient to wildfires. Incorporating a variety of native plants fosters biodiversity, which in turn promotes plant health. Diverse and healthy native ecosystems create natural firebreaks and slow the spread of fires.

The organization of vegetation and structures also play a vital role in firescaping. Incorporating materials like concrete, stone and brick in the construction of driveways, walkways, patios and fences establishes effective firebreaks while offering both functional and aesthetic value. Though bare dirt can also serve as a noncombustible fuel break, it is not recommended due to the potential of soil erosion. Buffering, or creating separation between distinct layers of ground covers, shrubs and trees, limits a fire's ability to climb and intensify. Adding water features in firescaping introduces a dynamic element that can act as a natural firebreak. Ponds, streams or other water sources can serve as barriers, hindering the progression of wildfires by creating a moisture-rich environment. Finally, removing dead vegetation is a critical component of firescaping as it eliminates potential fuel sources for fires, disrupting the continuity of combustible material.

CONTACTS: Q&A with the Authors of Firescaping Your Home: A Manual for Readiness in Wildfire Country, https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/qa/timber-press-post-firescaping-qa/?lens=timber-press; Firescaping, https://firesafemarin.org/create-a-fire-smart-yard/firescaping/.

Dear EarthTalk: My roof needs replacing and I’m also thinking about getting solar panels. Do solar shingles make sense or are they still too newfangled to trust? -- Peter. H., Boston, MA

Going solar is becoming an increasingly appealing choice for homeowners looking for sustainable energy solutions. Solar shingles are an innovative and aesthetically pleasing alternative to traditional solar panels, thanks to advancements in solar technology. However, whether they’re a good fit for you depends upon a number of factors.

Solar shingles, or solar roof tiles, are a great way to add renewable energy to your home without sacrificing curb appeal. They blend in seamlessly with your existing roof, so you won't have to worry about them looking out of place. Solar shingles are also a great way to increase the value of your home.

Solar shingles are becoming increasingly common in new construction homes, and they’re also a great choice if your old roof needs repair or replacement. Combining the installation of solar shingles with your roof renovation kills accomplishes two things at once. However, solar shingles tend to be more expensive up front compared to traditional solar panels; you’ll have to crunch the numbers with the help of one or more local installers to see what makes the most financial sense for you. Definitely get a few bids to make sure you’re getting a fair deal.

Since solar shingles haven’t been around as long as conventional photovoltaic panels, they don’t have much of a track record of reliability. That said, solar shingles tend to last longer and are more resistant to the elements than photovoltaic panels, as they are designed to be part of the actual structure of the roof itself. If you can’t find any with a warranty of less than 25 years, keep looking. If you’re contemplating the move to solar shingles, proceed with caution and do your homework regarding different manufacturers’ products and warranties—and find/read real customer reviews.

The suitability of solar shingles also depends on your geographical location and the direction your roof faces. It’s important to figure out how much sunlight your roof gets throughout the year to determine how much energy solar shingles can generate. If your roof doesn’t get enough sunlight because of shade or its position, the effectiveness of solar shingles may be reduced, making them less cost-effective. Google’s free Project Sunroof website lets you see if your roof would be a good host for solar panels or shingles.

While solar shingles definitely cost more than photovoltaic panels—typically at least twice as much—it might pencil out if you need roofing tiles replaced anyway. The best way to find out is to interview and get bids from roofers, solar installers and others well-versed in the technology.

Some of the leading manufacturers of solar shingles include CertainTeed Solar, Luma Solar, SunTegra, GAF Energy’s Timberline Solar and, yes, even Tesla. The latter’s solar shingle solution is the priciest of the bunch—$70,000 isn’t unheard of for one of Tesla’s Solar Roofs—but may be the most reliable given the company’s head start in the business and huge cash reserves.

CONTACTS: Project Sun Roof, https://sunroof.withgoogle.com/; Tesla Solar Roof, https://www.tesla.com/solarroof

Dear EarthTalk: Why are ecologists so bullish on “enhanced geothermal” power plants, and how do they differ from regular geothermal? -- Paul Berman, Milwaukee, WI

Geothermal energy is energy derived from the natural heat beneath the Earth’s surface. The word geothermal comes from the Greek “geo” (for earth) and “therme” (heat).

Humans have been harnessing the heat from the center of the Earth for eons in one form or another, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that we started utilizing it as a renewable power source. By drilling below the Earth’s surface and cycling water or other liquids down there, the heat is brought up to use directly as a heat source or indirectly to create steam that turns turbines that generate electricity. When ambient temperatures are colder than the ground, a geothermal heat pump removes heat from the collector's fluids, concentrates it, and transfers it to the building. When ambient temperatures are warmer than the ground, the heat pump removes heat from the building and deposits it underground.

The world’s first commercial geothermal power plant opened in Italy in 1911, but the U.S. didn’t see its first utility-grade geothermal plant until 1960 when the Geysers Geothermal Field opened for business in Northern California. Cut to the present and the U.S. leads the world in geothermal energy production with some 6,500 megawatts of power online from 93 different plants from coast to coast. Geothermal systems, which provide so-called “baseload” supplies of power—that is, available 24/7—are a good complement to other renewables which are only available on an intermittent basis (solar when the sun shines, wind when the wind blows).

And in November 2023, Texas-based Fervo Energy, with backing from Google, opened a new generation of geothermal plants in Nevada. This so-called “enhanced geothermal system” (EGS) facility supercharges the geothermal production process by using advanced drilling techniques to access deeper and harder-to-reach resources. EGS also involves using high-pressure water to break up the subterranean rocks so as to enable the extraction of larger loads of heat much more quickly. As the water circulates through these fractures, it absorbs heat from the surrounding rocks before being brought back to the surface to generate electricity. (Conventional geothermal plants tap into hot springs and geysers much closer to the Earth’s surface.) And deeper drilling means enhanced geothermal can be implemented just about anywhere on the planet.

Despite the invention of the EGS concept in the early 1970s, Americans are a little late to the party with regard to developing it for large-scale generation. The first commercial-scale EGS plants opened in France and Germany in the early 2000s, and these days dozens of others can be found across the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan.

Industry analysts think U.S. producers will soon catch up with other leading EGS countries given that it’s such a reliable and inexpensive energy generation system to maintain—although up front development costs are still high given that the technology is relatively new.

CONTACTS: Geothermal explained, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/geothermal/; America’s first ?‘enhanced’ geothermal plant just got up and running, https://www.canarymedia.com/articles/geothermal/americas-first-enhanced-geothermal-plant-just-got-up-and-running; Fervo Energy, https://fervoenergy.com/. 

Dear EarthTalk: What sort of environmental toll are the major military conflicts going on around the world now taking? -- J.D., Salem, NH

No one questions the fact that war is horrible, and it is no less so for the environment. And recent major conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East couldn’t come at a worse time politically as international negotiators try to broker a deal to rein in carbon emissions against the backdrop of two active wars.

In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, environmental damage has been widespread. An August 2023 study by Chinese and German researchers found an “abrupt exacerbation in air quality over Europe after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war.” Levels of both particulate matter and nitrogen oxide have spiked about 10 percent each—and ground-level ozone surged by almost eight percent—in regions where fighting has occurred. The researchers blame ongoing explosions and fires as the main drivers of this predicament. Due to the war, Ukraine has experienced a 45-fold increase in the total area of forest fires across the country. The result has been the release of hundreds of millions of tons of noxious pollution in various forms that not only foul the air but also contaminate soils and groundwater across the region.

Meanwhile, the more recent Hamas/Israel conflict is wreaking havoc on the environment in the Middle East. Israel’s campaign to eradicate Hamas following the initial October 7 attack has turned much of Gaza into an apocalyptic destruction zone where polluted air and water now joins mass casualties and lack of food and supplies in making life extremely difficult for millions of Palestinians.

“These environmental impacts exacerbate the toll of death and injury directly caused by acts of war, but the environmental death toll will continue for decades due to respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and cancer caused by exposure to elevated levels of pollution,” United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment David R. Boyd tells TRT World.

Besides damaging the environment and increasing our global carbon footprint, these recent conflicts are also taking a toll on longer term prospects for hammering out a binding agreement for the nations of the world to work together in reining in carbon emissions. CNN reports that world leaders attending the long-awaited November 2023 Abu Dhabi follow-up to 2015’s Paris Climate Agreement were spending more time meeting behind closed doors trying to broker diplomatic solutions to military conflicts than hammering out carbon emissions reduction plans. Jordan’s King Abdullah II told gathered delegates that “we cannot talk about climate change in isolation from the humanitarian tragedies unfolding around us,” adding that “the massive destruction of war” makes environmental threats like water scarcity and food insecurity even more severe. Meanwhile, Iranian negotiators left the climate talks because its sworn enemy Israel had delegates present.

Environmentalists advocates around the world are keeping their fingers crossed that the wars in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine don’t derail international cooperation on environmental issues altogether.

CONTACTS: Israel devastates Gaza’s environment for years to come, warn experts, https://www.trtworld.com/middle-east/israel-devastates-gazas-environment-for-years-to-come-warn-experts-15904788; Abrupt exacerbation in air quality over Europe after the outbreak of Russia-Ukraine war, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412023003938

Dear EarthTalk: How feasible is so-called Direct Air Capture as a tool in mitigating runaway climate change? -- James Hawthorne, Tampa, FL

The United Nations has emphasized limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to mitigate the severe impacts of climate change and ensure a habitable planet. Meeting this target requires a 45 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Despite this ticking clock, the December 2023 United Nations Climate Summit reported a 1.1 percent increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions since 2022. This led researchers to believe that artificial carbon removal, or Direct Air Capture (DAC), may become essential to maintaining a livable Earth.

Plants naturally absorb and convert CO2 into oxygen through photosynthesis. When plants die, they release carbon, but most of it is absorbed by the soil. Additionally, the ocean absorbs CO2 through surface dissolution and the biological pump. Unfortunately, deforestation has lowered the number of carbon-sequestering trees, and converting carbon-rich ecosystems, such as forests and wetlands, into farmland has depleted topsoil, releasing stored carbon and hindering the ability to capture additional carbon. Warmer ocean waters have decreased gas solubility and released more carbon from melting ice.

Scientists are designing technologies that can extract CO2 from the air. Air is funneled into a processor by fans and passed over a liquid solvent or a solid sorbent which captures the CO2. After the CO2 has been isolated, heat is applied to release it from the solvent or sorbent. Next, the gas undergoes a process called “liquefaction,” or compression until it becomes liquid. It is then injected into underground rock formations where it gradually mineralizes. DAC is not meant to encourage the continuation of high-emission practices but rather to serve as a tool for offsetting the emissions that they cannot avoid.

Currently, DAC is designated by the International Energy Agency as a “technology-readiness level six” on a scale of one to nine. Immense funding and an established user base is needed before DAC can go mainstream. Maintenance and labor costs are still unpredictable. Land availability has been a concern, as well as varying weather conditions that may impact the success of DAC equipment.

DAC systems require significant amounts of heat to de-bond CO2 from a solvent or sorbent. Solvent systems normally require 900 degrees Celsius, while sorbent systems require 80-120 degrees Celsius. To optimize efficiency, the source of this heat energy must be as close to zero emission as possible.

While having significant potential, the current major hurdle for DAC lies in cost. The early-stage cost to remove one ton of CO2 from the atmosphere is estimated to be between $300 to almost $1,000. Conversely, the same quantity of removal through reforestation costs between $50 to $125. However, the future looks hopeful for DAC, as the Department of Energy has initiated a “Carbon Negative Shot” proposal that intends to reduce the cost of DAC to less than $100/tonne within the next decade.

CONTACTS: Six Things to Know About Direct Air Capture, https://www.wri.org/insights/direct-air-capture-resource-considerations-and-costs-carbon-removal; Affordable direct air capture: myth or reality? https://climate.mit.edu/posts/affordable-direct-air-capture-myth-or-reality; The U.S. Government Will Pay to Remove Carbon From Atmosphere, https://heatmap.news/economy/carbon-removal-us-government.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some New Year's Resolutions I can make to help the environment?

-- M. Lind, Sturges, MI

Given the escalating environmental challenges facing our planet, directing some of our New Year’s aspirations toward eco-conscious endeavors can make a tangible difference. Luckily there are lots of ways to put your resolve to work for the planet...

For starters, one of the most impactful resolutions is to adopt a more mindful approach to consumption. Commit to reducing waste by embracing practices like reusing, repurposing and recycling. Shift to buying reusable items and those with minimal packaging. Support brands committed to sustainable practices. Minimize your use of single-use plastics, another way to make a big impact without much effort. Choose stainless-steel water bottles, cloth shopping bags and glass food containers. Say no to plastic straws, cutlery and excessive packaging whenever possible.

Making more sustainable food choices is yet another way to make 2024 greener than 2023. Adopting a more plant-based diet or reduce meat consumption to significantly reduce environmental impact. Pledge to support local, organic and sustainably sourced foods. Also, strive to reduce food waste by planning meals, composting organic waste and supporting initiatives that redistribute surplus food to those in need.

Another resolution that of us can make is to reduce personal carbon emissions. Embrace alternatives to fossil fuel-based transportation by walking, cycling, carpooling or using public transit. Also, consider investing in energy-efficient appliances, using renewable energy sources, and supporting initiatives that offset carbon emissions. While they might not be top of mind, changing up daily habits can also reduce your carbon footprint and overall environmental impact. Conserve water by fixing leaks, taking shorter showers and using water-saving appliances. Grow your own food, support local biodiversity by planting native species, and prioritize eco-friendly practices in your daily routine.

Another way to create positive change is to speak out more for environmental policies and initiatives. Support community groups and environmental organizations, and join in local clean-up efforts or conservation projects. Engage in discussions, educate others, and advocate for sustainable practices in your workplace, schools and social circles. Spread awareness about environmental issues and inspire others to take action. Share information on social media, organize educational events, or start a community garden or recycling program. Encourage friends, family and colleagues to join in your eco-friendly endeavors, fostering a collective effort toward a greener future.

Making a resolution is just the first step—commitment is key to achieving lasting change. Progress may require adjustments and perseverance, but every step contributes to a healthier planet. By incorporating these resolutions into your New Year's goals, you become an active participant in the global movement toward environmental stewardship. Together, let us embark on this journey to protect and preserve the natural world we all call home. Cheers to a more sustainable, eco-conscious year ahead!

CONTACTS: 10 Sustainable New Year’s Resolutions, https://www.centerforecotechnology.org/10-easy-green-new-years-resolutions/; 12 Actionable and Sustainable New Year's Resolutions, https://greencitizen.com/blog/sustainable-new-years-resolutions/.

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@earthlink.org


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