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Shocking Crack in Ice Shelf Grows Another 11 Miles

A 70-mile long crack in the Larsen C ice shelf grew another shocking 11 miles in December alone. That leaves just 12 miles before an iceberg the size of Delaware snaps off into the Southern Ocean.

"The Larsen C Ice shelf in Antarctica is primed to shed an area of more than 5000 square kilometers [approx. 3,100 square miles] following further substantial rift growth," wrote the Project MIDAS team, which has been studying the ice shelf.

"After a few months of steady, incremental advance since the last event, the rift grew suddenly by a further 18 kilometers [about 11 miles] during the second half of December 2016."

During the last Antarctic winter, the rift averaged about three miles per month of growth. In December, NASA released a set of images that found the crack measured 70 miles in length, 300 feet wide and one-third of a mile deep.

The sudden acceleration of the split in the ice has scientists convinced that a massive calving event is imminent.

"If it doesn't go in the next few months, I'll be amazed," Professor Adrian Luckman, project leader from Swansea University, told BBC News.

By itself, the iceberg that is set to break off won't lead to a rise in sea levels, as the ice shelf already floats on the ocean. However, the Larsen ice shelf acts as a buttress against continental glaciers that could then be free to slide into the sea. BBC reports that if all the ice that Larsen C holds back were released into the ocean, global waters would rise by 10 cm, or four inches.

Globally, sea levels have risen about eight inches since 1901. Its effects can be seen in increased flooding in South Florida, coastal erosion in Louisiana, intrusion of seawater into ground aquifers and stronger storm surges such as those seen in Superstorm Sandy.

Antarctica—which holds 90 percent of the Earth's fresh water—is losing about 92 billion tons of ice per year. The rate of loss has doubled from 2003 to 2014.

Long-term satellite observations show that Antarctic glaciers are rapidly retreating. A separate rift in the East Antarctic is forcing a British research station to relocate.

The Larsen C is the latest section of the huge ice shelf to break off. Larsen A collapsed in 1995. In 2002, Larsen B began to break apart. Within six weeks, a 1,235 square mile chunk of ice slipped away.

When the Larsen C ice shelf breaks off, it "will fundamentally change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula," said the U.K.-based Project MIDAS team.

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U.S. Navy-Trained Dolphins to Round Up Nearly Extinct Vaquita in Controversial Plan

A controversial, last-ditch plan to round up the last remaining vaquitas—a critically endangered porpoise found only in the Sea of Cortez—may get underway this spring with the aid of U.S. Navy-trained bottlenose dolphins. The vaquitas would be placed in a protected enclosure while efforts are made to get illegal fishing in the area under control.

The population of these small porpoises has reached the point where they face imminent extinction. A report by marine conservationists issued in May 2016 estimated that less than 60 vaquitas remain.

Their numbers have dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. There were 567 individuals in 1997, 245 in 2008 and just under 100 in 2014. The report puts a high probability on extinction within five years.

Vaquita refuge established in 2005 where gillnet fishing is prohibited.National Geographic

The Mexican government has been working with local fishermen to save the species. In 2005, Mexico established a refuge off San Felipe in the Gulf of California. Gillnet fishing was banned in the refuge. The government is spending $74 million to compensate fishermen and encourage them to use safer fishing methods.

For a time, it worked. Although the population continued to decline, it did so at a slower rate. Scientists hoped it would soon turn around and begin to recover.

But they didn't count on China.

The country's newly-minted millionaires stimulated a demand for dried fish bladders. Called fish maw, they are alleged to possess medicinal properties including the ability to increase fertility. The source of those fish bladders: the Mexican totoaba, a critically endangered fish found in the same waters as the vaquita.

Totoaba bladders are worth up to $5,000 per kilogram and can command as much as $100,000 on the black market in China, according to a 2016 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency. They can be found at retailers in major Chinese cities as well as online sites such as Alibaba. Poachers often take their boats out at night, and use gillnets under the cover of darkness to round up as many totoaba as they can. The vaquita are merely bycatch, caught up in the nets where they often drown or die from stress.

Fish maw wholesaler in Shantou, China (c) EIAEnvironmental Investigation Agency

Details of the plan to save the vaquita are still being worked out.

Plans may involve using dolphins from the Navy Marine Mammal Program, which has studied, trained and deployed these highly intelligent animals since the 1950s. Dolphins would be used to help locate vaquitas. They would then be coaxed into lightweight surface gillnets. It's never been done before with vaquitas, but harbor porpoises in Greenland have been captured safely in a similar manner.

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Carbon Capture Breakthrough in India Converts CO2 Into Baking Powder

Carbon captured in a new process from a coal-fired power plant in Chennai, India will be used by chemicals manufacturer Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals & Fertilizers (TACFL) to produce soda ash.

Tuticorin power plant in India will convert carbon emissions to soda ash.Roger Harrabin / The Guardian

The process was developed by London-based Carbon Clean Solutions Limited (CCSL). A pilot project, completed in May 2016, demonstrated the advantages of the process. Soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), is used in glass manufacturing, fiberglass insulation, sweeteners and household products. Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), is one of those products.

"This project is a game-changer," said Aniruddha Sharma, chief executive officer at Carbon Clean Solutions. "This is a project that doesn't rely on government funding or subsidies—it just makes great business sense."

CCSL said that it can capture CO2 at $30 per metric ton, far lower than the $60 to $90 per ton typical in the global power sector. It said that the project will capture more than 60,000 metric tons (about 66,000 U.S. tons) of carbon each year.

Carbon Clean Solutions is not the first company to attempt to commercialize a process to convert CO2 emissions into commercially marketable products.

In 2012, a U.S. startup named Skyonic raised $9 million from investors to build a plant to convert carbon emissions from a cement plant in San Antonio, Texas. The investors included ConocoPhilips, BP and PVS Chemicals. The facility opened in October 2014 at the Capitol Aggregates plant and became operational in January 2016. Outputs include baking soda, bleach and hydrochloric acid.

Skyonic has said that, at full capacity, the plant will be able to capture 75,000 tons annually of CO2. The company claims that its process uses 30 percent less energy than more common carbon capture technologies. The plant was financed with the aid of a $28 million award under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

California-based Blue Planet produces concrete and other building materials from sequestered CO2. The company says its concrete can be carbon neutral or carbon negative. Climate activist and actor Leonardo DiCaprio is a member of the firms' government affairs advisory board.

In Germany, ThyssenKrup Steel Europe began a pilot project in December 2015 to produce ammonium bicarbonate (NH4HCO3) from carbon emissions. This compound is used in the manufacturing of ceramics and in the plastic and rubber industries among others. Initial results, the company said, have been promising.

In a twist on the idea of creating baking soda from carbon emissions, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has created microcapsules and an absorbent sponge that use baking soda itself to capture carbon. They believe this process could be about 40 percent cheaper than current carbon capture methods.

TACFL has been producing soda ash at the Tuticorin plant since 1981. The chemical is generally made from trona ore. Major deposits of the ore are found in California, Wyoming and Utah in the U.S. as well as Botswana, Egypt, Turkey, China and parts of Africa.

Carbon Clean Solutions' patented technology scrubs CO2 emissions and feeds them to a chemicals plant where they are used to manufacture common products such as baking soda.Source: Carbon Clean Solutions Limited

In the Chennai coal plant, flue gases are diverted to an absorber that removes CO2 using technology patented by CCSL. The CO2 is then fed to the TACFL chemical plant.

Ramachadran Gopalan, owner of the Tuticorin plant, told BBC Radio, "I am a businessman. I never thought about saving the planet. I needed a reliable stream of CO2, and this was the best way of getting it."

Gopalan said the plant now produces zero carbon emissions. He is looking to install a second coal boiler to produce additional CO2 that can be used to synthesize fertilizer.

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Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Photo credit: Patagonia

Obama Designates Two New National Monuments, Protecting 1.65 Million Acres

President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect two large areas in the western U.S. The new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah preserves 1.35 million acres containing 100,000 significant Native American sites, while the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada sets aside 300,000 acres, also home to Indigenous archeological sites.

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22 Million Pounds of Plastic Enters the Great Lakes Each Year

U.S. and Canada together discard 22 million pounds of plastic into the waters of the Great Lakes each year, according to a new Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study. Most of it washes up along the shores, accounting for 80 percent of the litter found there.

Researchers said that Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland and Detroit are the worst contributors to the plastic pollution. Half of the plastic dumped into the Great Lakes—11 million pounds—goes into Lake Michigan. Lake Erie comes in at number two, receiving 5.5 million pounds. Lake Ontario gets 3 million pounds of plastic waste a year, with Lake Huron and Lake Superior receiving smaller amounts.

"This study is the first picture of the true scale of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes," said Matthew Hoffman, assistant professor in RIT's School of Mathematical Sciences and lead author of the study.

Plastic pollution in Lake Michigan is approximately the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles dumped into the lake every year.

"Every piece of plastic entering our watersheds is an example of a serious design flaw: we are manufacturing products that have no recovery plan or value after they leave consumer's hands," said Anna Cummins, co-founder and global strategy director of 5 Gyres Institute. "Just as we demand that people dispose of their trash properly, we must also demand that companies take responsibility for the end life of their products."

Plastic debris in the Great Lakes moves differently than in the ocean. Instead of the free-floating garbage patches that are driven by ocean currents, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic in the Great Lakes is carried by winds and currents toward shore.

"Most of the particles from Chicago and Milwaukee end up accumulating on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, while the particles from Detroit and Cleveland end up along the southern coast of the eastern basin of Lake Erie," Hoffman explained. "Particles released from Toronto appear to accumulate on the southern coast of Lake Ontario, including around Rochester and Sodus Bay."

But, like the oceans, much of what remains as floating trash in the Great Lakes consists of microplastics, which are consumed by fish and enter the food chain.

"Similar to what we find worldwide, much of the plastic is microplastic, which are fragments smaller than a grain of rice and practically impossible to clean up, making prevention the only real option," said Marcus Eriksen, research director at 5 Gyres Institute.

Estimates of surface microplastics entering the lakes each year show 9,722 pounds in Lake Erie, 3,174 pounds in Lake Huron and less than 50 pounds in Lake Superior.

"Like our successful microbead campaign, the fact of so much trash entering the Great Lakes is an opportunity to identify the most common brands and work with those companies to improve recovery or choose something less harmful than plastic for their products and packaging," said Eriksen.

The RIT study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Marine Pollution Bulletin, used computer simulations and mathematical modeling to provide a more complete and accurate picture of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Researchers said that the study could help inform future cleanup and prevention efforts.

National Park Service

Mountain Lion Mom Killed by Car ... Can Wildlife Corridors Help Save the Species?

A female mountain lion with three kittens was struck and killed by a car while crossing the six-lane 118 Freeway near Chatsworth, California on Dec. 3. Her three kittens are not expected to survive, the National Park Service announced Thursday.

The remains of the mountain lion, known as P-39, have not been found, but her radio collar was located in the center divider of the freeway. It likely came off as a result of the impact with the vehicle. Her kittens haven't been located yet.

P-39 is the thirteenth mountain lion killed since 2002 on Los Angeles county roads.

About 15 of the big cats are known to inhabit the Santa Monica Mountains, which are crisscrossed by freeways and other roads in the highly populated area. The mountain range extends east-west from the Pacific Ocean to the Hollywood Hills in the heart of Los Angeles.

"P-39's death is a jolting call to action for local and state officials to urgently build the corridors necessary to ensure the safe passage that these majestic cats are entitled to," said Jean Su of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"People forget that the Santa Monica Mountains are native mountain lion territory," Su added. "It's our houses and freeways that have directly infringed upon their homes and natural corridors."

Prompted by the repeated deaths of these animals while crossing busy roads, wildlife advocates have suggested bridges and tunnels that could act as passageways.The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has proposed building a 200-foot long wildlife overpass above the 110 freeway in Agoura Hills.

Separately, the Los Angeles City Council is looking at enacting a wildlife corridor that would require new development to provide access for animals to transit the area. They say it will help to reduce human conflicts.

"The recent headlines featuring mountain lions of the Greater Los Angeles area, such as the death of P-39 on the 118 freeway, highlights the tremendous pressure facing these big cats due to lack of connectivity, urbanization and habitat fragmentation," said documentarian Tony Lee. He is the producer and director of The Cat That Changed America, which tells the captivating story of P-22, perhaps the most famous mountain lion of all time.

P-22, who lives in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, wasn't born there. In search of that territory, which he could call his own, the big, tawny-brown cat had to cross two major freeways and walk through dense urban areas.

However, P-39 wasn't so lucky. The five-year old had given birth to her second litter earlier this year and had mostly stayed in an undeveloped area north of the 118 freeway. Just days before she was killed, she crossed the freeway for the first time.

Today, there are some 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions roaming California. They inhabit high mountain forests, coastal chaparral and scrubland. They prefer to avoid humans, but conflicts can occur. There have been 15 verified attacks on people since 1986 in the state, resulting in three fatalities.

Source: Mountain Lion Foundation.

Mountain lions are far more likely to be the victims of human actions. At one time, there was a bounty on mountain lions in California. From 1907 to 1963, 12,462 were killed and turned in for the bounty.

But the killing hasn't stopped. Since 1991, 2,542 cougars have been killed under depredation permits and 947 from other causes including vehicle collisions.

One that just barely escaped a death sentence this year was P-45, suspected of killing 10 alpacas on a ranch north of Malibu. The ranch owner was granted a permit to kill the predator, but has since agreed to work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service to either relocate or place the mountain lion in captivity.

Rat poison, which gets into the food chain when homeowners, exterminators and farmers use powerful rodenticides, also threatens the state's mountain lions. More than three-quarters of the cats in California carry the poison in their systems.

In September 2015, a hiker found P-34 dead in a state park in Southern California. P-34, a female cougar, was the "third case of mortality directly from rodenticide poisoning," according to the National Park Service.

But increasingly, people are having to get along with wild animals in urban areas, including mountain lions. And in California, attitudes toward the big cats are changing, thanks in part to P-22.

A healthy-looking P-22 in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.National Park Service

The cat's home, since at least 2012, has been Griffith Park, an urban park that sees 10 million visitors a year. However, few have ever seen the elusive cougar other than in photos.

Griffith Park encompasses just eight square miles. A male mountain needs as much as a 200-square-mile territory.

Inbreeding among cougars inhabiting the Santa Monica Mountains is threatening their long-term survival. A study released in August gave the big cats a near-zero chance of surviving the next 50 years unless more lions become part of the gene pool.

"P22 lives inside Griffith Park, but he is isolated by freeways on every side and has little chance of ever finding a mate. His plight is changing the way Americans think about wildlife management," said Lee. "We cannot have mountain lions dying on our freeways when we have the technology and capability to prevent future mortalities. Mountain lions are territorial animals and need large home ranges and open spaces to survive."

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Colorado to Kill 45 Mountain Lions and 75 Black Bears so Hunters Have Mule Deer to Hunt

Despite opposition from conservation and wildlife groups, Colorado announced plans to kill mountain lions and black bears so that more mule deer will be available for hunters.

Adult mule deer buck.Yellowstone National Park/NPS

The state is currently home to just more than 400,000 mule deer. The target population set by Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) is 525,000 to 575,000.

In the 1800s, both white-tailed and mule deer were hunted with abandon until they became so scarce that most people just stopped hunting them. Federal and state conservation legislation beginning around 1900 allowed deer to recover.

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, however, as energy development grew in Western Colorado, mule deer populations began to decline. The White River herd, which once numbered 100,000 animals, is now down to 32,000. Populations in the state's central and northern mountains, and those on the eastern Plains, are stable.

Anyone who has visited a national park or hiked the forests and shrub lands of the West has likely encountered mule deer. Mule deer range west of the Missouri River and are smaller than white-tailed deer, which are more common in the East.

They can be seen in most of Colorado, in the Yosemite Valley, along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and in the foothills of Los Angeles. Mule deer are often unafraid of humans in areas such as these where hunting is prohibited and interactions are common.

Mountain lions—also known as cougars—take a particular liking to mule deer. Wolves, coyotes and bears also prey on the species. But natural predation is not seen as the leading cause of mule deer declines in Colorado.

A mountain lion on the hunt.Dan Zukowski

Both the pro-hunting Mule Deer Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) cite loss of habitat as a primary cause.

"We believe that habitat degradation from energy, and residential development, which has been confirmed by CPW biologists for years, should be the primary focus of scientifically-based wildlife management," said Brian Kurzel, regional executive director for the NWF.

Colorado's plan calls for the killing of up to 15 mountain lions and 25 black bears each year for the next three years using cage traps, culvert traps, foot snares and hunting dogs. The $4.5 million wildlife management plan would then be followed by a six-year study to see how the deer population responds.

There is concern that the CPW's decision is driven by money and a desire to favor hunting, which generates $693 million in annual economic benefits in northwest Colorado alone. Last year, 34,000 mule deer were taken legally by hunters. The CPW gets 90 percent of its revenue from hunting and fishing licenses.

But not even hunters are buying into the plan.

Brett Ochs, a Colorado resident who describes himself as "someone who has been hunting in Colorado for more than three decades," wrote in the Boulder Daily Camera, "Killing predators to arbitrarily see if it will boost mule deer populations is unsustainable and not sound wildlife management." He argued that CPW should use revenues from hunting fees to improve habitat and migration corridors.

"Other states have tried to boost deer populations by removing predators from the landscape, but time and time again these studies have failed to increase deer populations," said Andrea Santarsiere, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Mountain lions are a game animal in Colorado. Even though CPW says it has no idea of the population of the species in the state, it allowed the killing of 467 big cats during the 2014-2015 hunting season. Many argue that killing a few more is not the answer.

"Deer in Colorado suffer from lack of habitat and habitat degradation, largely due to expansive oil and gas drilling and invasive plant species. Without adequate nutrition, deer will not thrive no matter how many predators CPW removes," Santarsiere added.

Mule deer herds in northwestern Colorado were once so prolific that the area was known as the "mule deer factory." But that's the area where drilling has dramatically increased in recent years. The NWF report reveals that 8,965 new wells were dug between 2005 and 2012.

Crude oil production in Colorado grew 64 percent from 2007 to 2011, while natural gas production rose 27 percent during the same period. In 2012, Colorado was the sixth leading producer of natural gas and the ninth leading producer of oil in the U.S. More than 90 percent of new wells use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

In a comprehensive NWF report on mule deer in Colorado, the organization refers to a similar issue in a neighboring state.

"Research has shown that two mule deer herds in western Wyoming, parts of which have been heavily drilled the last decade or so, have shrunk by at least 30 percent," the report says. "Research­ers don't pin all the decline on energy development, but note that deer avoid well sites."

Last month, the Obama Administration canceled 25 oil and gas leases in western Colorado and added restrictions on others. Even though all were inactive leases, the executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, David Ludlam, considered the cancellation of the leases to be a "last-ditch shot across the bow" from President Obama.

Colorado State University wildlife biologists reminded CPW commissioners in a letter dated Dec. 10 that road construction and oil and gas development had damaged large areas of deer habitat, and argued against the plan to cull cougars and bears.

"The scientific consensus is clear and compelling—predator control is a costly and ineffective management tool to increase mule deer populations," they wrote.

For more information on the history of mule deer, watch here:

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Stunning Photos Show Huge Crack in Antarctic Ice Shelf

NASA has just released new aerial photographs that show, close-up, an immense, 70-mile long rift in the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. The breach is 300 feet wide and one-third of a mile deep. As it grows, an iceberg the size of Delaware will break off.

Operation Icebridge, in its eighth year of conducting airborne survey of polar ice, flew two missions in November around the 88th parallel. The highly sophisticated aircraft is equipped with radars, lasers, digital imaging and infrared sensors.

The Larsen ice shelf, in the East Antarctic, is of interest because two previous sections have broken off and disappeared into the sea. Larsen A collapsed in 1995. In 2002, Larsen B began to break apart. Within six weeks, a 1,235 square mile chunk of ice slipped away, which scientists attributed to warmer air temperatures. Prior to that, the Larsen B ice shelf had been stable for 12,000 years.

Larsen C began thinning around the time that the other sections broke off, losing 13 feet between 1998 and 2012. But deterioration of the ice shelf has dramatically accelerated.

When the dark of the Southern Hemisphere winter lifted in August, scientists were shocked to see that the rift in the ice had grown nearly 14 miles.

"The growth of this rift likely indicates that the portion of the ice shelf downstream of the rift is no longer holding back any grounded ice," said Joe MacGregor, IceBridge deputy project scientist and glaciologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Ice shelves ride on water and are fed by glaciers and continental ice streams. Cracks and calving are normal, and the loss of a portion of an ice shelf will not contribute to sea level rise as it is already afloat on the ocean. However, an ice shelf such as Larsen C holds back land ice, acting as a buttress. When a shelf disintegrates, the glaciers behind it can flow out to sea, which will directly increase sea level.

Long-term satellite observations show that Antarctic glaciers are rapidly retreating. In West Antarctica, they are losing 23 feet of elevation per year. As they slip away, they add up to 150 billion tons of water to the ocean, raising seas by about a tenth of an inch annually.

One of those glaciers, the Pine Island Glacier, calved off a 225 square mile iceberg in 2015. Ohio State University researchers found that the rift began at the base of the glacier in 2013 and worked its way upward.

"It's generally accepted that it's no longer a question of whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt, it's a question of when," said study leader Ian Howat, associate professor of Earth Sciences at Ohio State.

Britain's Halley VI research station has to be moved to avoid being lost at sea. British Antarctic Survey

A separate rift in the East Antarctic is forcing a British research station to relocate. It's on the wrong side of the crack and could be stranded out at sea.

Antarctica holds more than half of the planet's fresh water in its snow, glaciers and ice formations. But conditions around the continent are worsening.

The NASA mission also flew over Antarctic sea ice. It found coverage to be sparse in the Bellingshausen Sea, on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

In November, Antarctic air temperatures were 3.6 - 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. Antarctic sea ice set a new record low, as did the Arctic. Antarctic sea ice was a staggering 699,000 square miles below the 1981 to 2010 average.

"Antarctic sea ice really went down the rabbit hole this time," said Ted Scambos, the lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet could collapse entirely within the next 100 years.

"The collapse would lead to a sea-level rise of nearly 10 feet, which would engulf major U.S. cities such as New York and Miami and displace 150 million people living on coasts worldwide," stated the Ohio State researchers.

NASA's Operation Icebridge flights were based this year at Punta Arenas, Chile. Next year, the agency plans to fly from McMurdo Station in Antarctica in order to survey new areas. But, future missions may be in doubt. President-elect Donald Trump has suggested eliminating all climate research conducted by NASA, leaving Antarctica and the rest of the planet in the "dark ages."

Renewable Energy

U.S. Solar Surges in Record-Breaking Quarter

One megawatt of solar power was installed every 32 minutes in the U.S. from July to September, for a record total of 4,143 megawatts of new, clean energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research's U.S. Solar Market Insight report.

That brings total installed solar capacity in the U.S. to 35.8 gigawatts, enough to power 6.5 million homes. Solar power may double from 2015 to 2016. SEIA said.

Rapid growth in solar power installations continued in 2016.Source: Solar Energy Industries Association

"The United States solar market just shattered all previous quarterly solar photovoltaic (PV) installation records," stated SEIA.

Through the end of September, solar accounted for 39 percent of all new electric generating capacity brought on-line in the U.S. Both utility-scale installations and residential installations grew strongly. Electric power utilities accounted for 77 percent of additions to the grid, while both corporate and residential customers added capacity as well.

"The solar market now enjoys an economically-winning hand that pays off both financially and environmentally, and American taxpayers have noticed," said Tom Kimbis, SEIA's interim president.

Source: SEIA

Community solar represents another growing trend. In these programs, both residential and business customers share a large, central installation. These work well for renters and condo owners, homeowners who can't install rooftop solar panels or owners of historic buildings that are not permitted to alter the structure.

Currently, 25 states have active community solar projects, serving both cities and smaller communities. In Boulder, Colorado, the sold-out Boulder Cowdery Meadows Solar Array generates 496,455 kilowatts. A 52-kilowatt installation is up and running in Wayne, Maine, serving nine Central Maine Power customers. Other projects can be found in Orlando, Seattle and Springfield, Missouri.

Community solar is expected to add 200 megawatts this year, a fourfold increase over 2015 according to SEIA. Much of the demand is being driven by the nosedive in solar system costs. Overall pricing fell by 6.9 percent in the 3rd quarter, with costs now below $3 per watt.

"The phenomenal boom in U.S. solar is being driven by dramatically lowering solar costs, to the point where solar is in many cases now the most affordable power and smartest investment for homeowners, businesses, and cities," said Glen Brand, Maine chapter director for the Sierra Club. "And this is despite the enormous subsidies for dirty fossil fuels and the coordinated attacks on state solar policy by monopoly, private utilities."

Municipalities, which are often large users of electricity for government buildings, streetlights and other needs are adding cost-effective solar as well. The village of Minster, Ohio, was the first. A 3-megawatt solar array is saving the town $1 million per month.

Peterborough, New Hampshire, completed its 1-megawatt installation in 2015 and Portland, Maine, plans to build a 660-kilowatt solar project on an a closed landfill that will power city hall and the 1,900-seat Merrill Auditorium.

Looking ahead, SEIA forecasts a decline in new installations in 2017 and 2018. Some near-term pullbacks are due to delays in utility connection projects, which currently see an 8-gigawatt backlog. SEIA expects growth to resume in 2019.

The solar industry employs 209,000 workers in the U.S. In contrast, the oil industry has shed 350,000 jobs as the price of oil has collapsed since 2014.

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