Environment

A Bright Year for Solar in the U.S.—But There Are Clouds on the Horizon

You don’t get any brighter than the reflecting mirrors at the just-opened Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, in California‘s Mojave desert. When I visited the project back in May, I was warned not to look directly at the mirrors, lest my eyeballs end up as scorched as some of the birds that have flown through the 1,000° F-plus (538° C) heat generated by the solar towers. The picture is almost as bright for solar as a whole in the U.S. According to statistics released today by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, demand for solar increased by 41% in 2013, with 4.75 gigawatts of photovoltaic panels installed last year. (1 GW is about enough energy to power 750,000 homes.) That made solar the second-biggest source of new generation power in the U.S. after natural gas, which is still benefiting from the shale revolution. By the end of 2013, there were more than 440,000 operating solar electric systems in the U.S., with more than 12 GW of photovoltaic (PV) and nearly 1 GW of concentrated solar power. While big utility scale plants like Ivanpah, which harnesses the heat of the sun with concentrated solar mirrors, got most of the headlines, it was small-scale residential systems that drove much of the demand last year. Residential projects increased by 60% over 2012 as the price of installing solar fell and as customers took advantage of leasing options—offered by companies like Solarcity, which I wrote about last year—that allowed them to purchase panels with little money up front. The growth was rolling throughout 2013, with residential installations increasing 33% in the last quarter of 2013, and should continue this year. That financing market is growing: Mosaic, an Oakland-based startup launched by the climate activist Billy Parish, just began offering a home solar loan that allows consumers the chance to borrow the cost of a solar system over 20 years. “2013 offered the U.S. solar market the first real glimpse of its path toward mainstream status,” said Shayle Kann, vice president of GTM Research, which follows

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Our Global Diet Is Becoming Increasingly Homogenized—and That’s Risky

All it takes is a trip to the closest Whole Foods to discover how much more varied the offerings of an American grocery store have become in recent years. Organic asparagus from Mexico, papaya from Hawaii, dry scallops from Nantucket Bay—the foodstuffs available to American consumers have never been more diverse. And on a country by country basis, that diversity is growing around the world, as people take advantage of economic growth and urbanization to move away from basic staples like rice and beans, adding meat and dairy and processed foods, while liberalized trade rules have allowed the spread of global food brands. Whether you’re in New York or Nairobi or Nagoya, chances are you have access to a greater variety of food than your parents or your grandparents once did. But even as the offerings in each individual country become more diverse, the global diet as a whole—what people actually buy and eat—is becoming more homogenized, and that’s a dangerous thing. Those are the conclusions of a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from around the world went through 50 years of data gathered by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to identify trends in the global menu. They found that human diets have grown increasingly similar—by a global average of around 36%—as a few staple crops like wheat and maize (corn) and soybeans come to play a bigger and bigger part of mealtime, displacing regional crops like cassava and sorghum. “More people are consuming more calories, protein and fat, and they rely increasingly on a short list of major food crops, like wheat, maize and soybean, along with meat and dairy products, for most of their food,” said Colin Khoury, a scientist at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the lead author of the paper, in a statement. “These foods are critical for combating world hunger, but relying on a global diet of such limited diversity obligates us to bolster the nutritional quality of the major crops, as consumption of

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Thanks to Climate Change, West Nile Virus Could Be Your New Neighbor

Invasive species aren’t just species—they can also be pathogens. Such is the case with the West Nile virus. A mosquito-borne virus identified in the West Nile subregion in Uganda in 1937—hence the name—West Nile wasn’t much of a concern to people elsewhere until it broke out of Africa in 1999. The first U.S. cases were confirmed in New York City in 1999, and it has now spread throughout much of the world. Though 80% of infections are subclinical—meaning they yield no symptoms—those who do get sick can get very sick.The virus can led to encephalitis—inflammation of the brain and nervous system—and even death, with 286 people dying from West Nile in the U.S. in 2012. There were more than 5,500 cases reported that year, and the scary thing is that as the climate warms, West Nile will continue to spread. That’s the conclusion of a new study from a team of researchers in the U.S., Britain and Germany, including those at the Center for Tropical Research at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. In a study published in the journal Global Change Biology, the researchers took climate and species distribution data, and created models that try to project the spread of the virus as the globe warms. West Nile virus is carried by mosquitoes, and infected insects transmit the virus to human beings with a bite. But birds play a role too—if bitten by an infected mosquito, birds can generate high levels of the virus in their bloodstream, and can then transmit it to uninfected mosquitoes, which in turn can infect people. The biggest indicator of whether West Nile virus will occur is the maximum temperature of the warmest month of the year, which is why the virus has caused the most damage in hot southern states like Texas. The UCLA model indicates that higher temperatures and lower precipitation will generally lead to more cases of West Nile, as well as the spread of the virus to northern territories that haven’t yet been affected by it. In California alone, for example,

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Save the Polar Bear—Today Especially

It’s International Polar Bear today, so if you live within shouting distance of the Arctic Circle, hug the closest polar bear. (Actually do not do that—an adult male polar bear is nearly half a ton of hungry predator and they are extremely dangerous.) Still, the beasts deserve a little tenderness. The polar bear is now considered a vulnerable species, under threat from the loss of its sea ice habitat. To draw attention to their plight, Google is now offering glimpses of polar bears in their native environment, via its Street View program. Cameras in Cape Churchill and Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba captured images of polar bears doing their polar bear thing during an annual gathering in the region in October and November. You can see pictures of polar bears sparring, and a mother nursing her cub, all against the flat white and brown background of the Arctic. The footage was taken with Google’s Street View Trekker—15 cameras mounted on a backpack—from aboard the decidedly off-road vehicles known tundra buggies “It provides an opportunity to document what it looks like now, the potential to document what it looks like next year, five years from now, 10 years from now,” Krista Wright, executive director of the conservation group Polar Bear International, told the CBC. Many scientists and conservationists fear that there may be far fewer polar bears in even that single-decade time frame, thanks chiefly to the effects of climate change. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform to reach their prey, chiefly seals, and summer sea ice is melting fast. Despite a rebound from a record low in 2012, the extent of Arctic sea ice is generally trending downwards, often dramatically. As the ice vanishes, polar bears are forced to swim longer and longer distances to reach those hunting platforms, which is taking a toll on the species. Exactly how vulnerable polar bears are is not clear, partially due to the fact that they live in such a forbidding climate and are themselves not exactly friendly. That makes getting

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How Uncle Sam Is Helping to Feed the Honeybees

When I wrote a cover story last August about the plight of the honeybees, I didn’t think I’d still be talking about it half a year later. Yet this afternoon I went down to Washington to address a meeting of the National Garden Club—and the topic, of course, was honeybees. I wish I’d had better news to offer. Scientists still don’t know exactly why rates of honeybee loss have been so high in recent years, though there has been some promising research identifying new viruses. Beekeepers are still under tremendous economic pressure to keep their hives going in the face of colony collapse disorder (CCD). And the country, as I wrote last year, is still inhospitable to honeybees, lacking the wild spaces and flowers that feed them. But on that last bit, at least, there’s some good news. This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $3 million program to provide assistance to farmers and ranchers in the Midwest interested in helping out honeybees by planting bee-friendly forage in and around their plots. That includes reseeding pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants that are good for bees—and for livestock as well. Ranchers will also be able to draw on the money to build fences and make other changes that allow them to move their livestock from pasture to pasture, to prevent the vegetation from getting worn down. The idea is to turn the farms back into a buffet for honeybees. The states covered will be Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and both North and South Dakota, chosen because 65% of the country’s estimated 30,000 commercial beekeepers store their hives there for at least part of the year. (Commercial beekeepers are an itinerant lot, moving their colonies from state to state as they chase pollination contracts.) Commodity crop farmers will be able to use the money to plant bee forage along the borders of their fields—vital, given that the spread of monocultures and soybeans offer very little nutrition for bees on their own. Such higher quality food will help honeybees battle the

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