EarthTalk…Questions & Answers About Our Environment

August 2021

Dear EarthTalk: You see a lot of people putting solar panels on their homes these days, but windmills not so much. Is there any future for small residential wind turbines as we transition to more renewable forms of energy?             ~ M. Simon, Portland, ME

Wind power will likely play a key role in the transition to a zero-emission economy—especially if we can start to distribute it more widely and harness its benefits on a building-by-building basis. Could your own small wind turbine next to your home be the next way to keep up with the Joneses while augmenting the electricity you already get from the grid or solar panels?

Backyard wind turbines could help us make the transition away from fossil fuels. Credit: Cowrin, FlickrCC.

The short answer is…definitely. Large wind turbines lined up along the highway in commercial wind farms typically stand at least 150 feet tall, each powering thousands of households per year. But smaller, much less obtrusive turbines might output just enough power to serve as a back-up to your existing solar system or reduce what you need from the grid. Limitations on how much electricity a turbine can extract as well as the variability of the wind itself means that wind power might never be your primary energy source. But there’s no reason it can’t meet an increasingly larger share of your energy needs.

Small stand-alone wind systems might make sense for a larger residence or for a commercial entity like a farm or small factory or warehouse. Turbines that can share the electricity generated among a group of homes or buildings as needed tend to be much more energy- and cost-efficient. And extra capacity in a wind system can be sold to the utilities via so-called Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), which can help offset the up-front costs of installing turbines in the first place.

Ultimately, the most important factor in determining whether to invest in a wind power system is the local climate. To maximize the efficiency of wind turbines, free-standing pole-mounted turbines need to be installed at a high-elevation locations with steady, strong sources of wind. After assessing wind conditions, work with an expert to choose the correct size turbine and tower. If the location is on the power grid, it’ll serve you well to connect it to take advantage of RECs.

Overall, small, residential wind energy systems are essential to the nation’s transition away from fossil fuels and toward a greener future. Though initial costs may seem unfavorable compared to cheap, non-renewable energy, investment in wind electricity will pay off in the long run. Both grid-tied and stand-alone wind systems are more energy and cost effective on wider scales, meaning that the more expansive the system, the more energy is generated and the overall cost goes down. Moving forward, higher demands for wind energy will lead to increased advancements in this technology, possibly offering even greater benefits and pointing toward a future powered by 100 percent renewable energy.

Dear EarthTalk: How are bee population numbers doing these days?    ~ B. Turner, via e-mail

Whether you’ve noticed it or not, there are far fewer bees around nowadays. One-quarter of the world’s 20,000 bee species are in precipitous decline or have already gone extinct since 1990. A range of causes are to blame, including indiscriminate overuse of pesticides, loss of plants, and habitat destruction from human encroachment. But the latest and greatest threat is now climate change, which is warping the bees’ environments (blooming seasons, plant diversity, etc.) at a faster rate than they are able to adapt.

American bumblebee numbers have fallen by 89% over the last two decades across the U.S., and conservationsists want the Biden administration to add this little flying stinger to the Endangered Species List. Credit: James Johnston, FlickrCC.

Today in the U.S. only eight bee species are afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act. Seven are found only in Hawaii while the other, the Rusty patched bumble bee, occupies the tallgrass prairie of the Upper Midwest, most of which has been lost to farmland, strip malls and housing developments. Rusty patched bee populations have fallen off by 87 percent as a result.
In February 2021, conservation groups petitioned the Biden administration to grant the American bumblebee endangered species protection as well. Once the most common type of bee from coast-to-coast, this iconic bee has declined by some 89 percent in just the last two decades alone. Conservationists are worried about the implications for bee-pollinated plants and the animals (like us) that depend on them.

While the bees’ decline worldwide is unquestionably due to human activity, the silver lining is that human activity can also help bring them back. A new map of global bee distribution and density created by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Georgia aims to help conservationists track the health of various bee populations across the U.S. and around the globe.

As for what readers can do to help bees, plant some native plants that attract them to your backyard. Regardless, if you happen to see bees nearby, snap some photos of them with your phone and upload them to iNaturalist so researchers can use your sighting to help track population dynamics. For more ideas on how you can help bees rebound locally, check out the website of the Bee Conservancy, a U.S.-based non-profit that is coordinating efforts to save bee populations around the world.

The good news is that bee populations in the U.S. and globally have seen a slight increase during the course of the COVID pandemic, due to reduced human activity. But the problem is hardly solved—especially as we all get back to business as usual.

They may be small, but if we do not care for bees, we lose natural pollinators for the vast majority of cultivated crops and wild plants. If we can’t save bees now, fresh fruits and vegetables could be scarce worldwide, which could in turn lead to massive social upheaval, even wars. It seems well worth our time, money and effort at this point to protect bees now, if not for their own sake, then for ours.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the most common contaminants our pets are exposed to and how can we avoid them?      ~ Maria R., Chicago, IL

This issue grabbed headlines when it was revealed in the May 2021 that domestic dogs and horses were suffering from health issues and premature death from exposure through drinking water to chemicals emitted by the Chemours Fayetteville Works chemical plant in Bladen County, North Carolina.

The offending chemicals—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are added to everyday products to make them water, grease and stain-resistant—fall to the ground with rain. They then permeate soils and the water table for some 18 miles in every direction. Most residents of this rural area get their drinking water from private wells that do not benefit from community clean water filtration systems or standards. A court challenge by local clean water advocates prompted a local judge to order Chemours Fayetteville Works to provide local residents with water filtration systems to filter out offending chemicals. But many locals say they can’t rest easy until the factory closes altogether.

If you do live within the pollution radius of a factory, you’ll want to get your drinking water (and air quality) tested for contaminants on a regular basis to make sure you, your family members and pets aren’t getting poisoned. If the results aren’t good, it may be time to see if any neighbors are experiencing issues and start asking some questions to get to the bottom of where the pollution might be coming from.

It’s hard to know how to keep dogs and cats safe from all the chemicals in the environment around your neighborhood. Credit: Roddy Scheer.

There are of course many other threats to pets even if you don’t live near a pollution “point source.” In one study, researchers found that the brains of dogs exposed to the heavy and constant air pollution of Mexico City had significantly elevated inflammation and pathology profiles (including neurofibrillary tangles that cause Alzheimer’s in humans) compared to dogs from more rural, less polluted regions.

Since our pets spend lots of time walking and running through—not to mention rolling around in and even nibbling on—the grass, it’s not surprising that they are much more likely to pick up and ingest contaminants than their owners. If your dog or cat develops a skin rash, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive salivation, dilated pupils, lack of coordination, or respiratory difficulties, it may be related to chemical exposure. Regarding longer-term effects, one study in Massachusetts showed that dogs whose owners used pesticides in their own yards had a 70 percent higher chance of developing malignant lymphoma. Indeed, one-third of the 700 dogs in the study were diagnosed with this typically terminal canine cancer.

If your dog or cat wants to run free in a neighbor’s yard or at the park, wait 24-72 hours after the lawn in question has been treated with chemicals of any kind (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) to minimize exposure to and ingestion of potentially hazardous substances. You can also lobby your neighbors and local officials to give up the harsh synthetic chemicals; some will be more open to the idea than others, so make sure you have a good way to protect your pets even if your requests aren’t complied with.

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