Fossil Fuels Yield to Solar and Data in Upstate New York
By Molly Taft
Lisa Marshall isn't your typical activist. For one thing, she's not into crowds. "I don't really like rallies," Marshall, a mom of three from upstate New York, said. "They're a little stressful — not my favorite thing."
Marshall, who has two degrees in earth science, remembers being concerned about fossil fuels when New York activists began to push Governor Cuomo to ban fracking in the early 2010s. But she didn't know the best way to become involved. "At that time, one of the main strategies, which was very effective in New York, was to just show up wherever [Cuomo] was and make sure he had no peace from the activist community until he banned fracking," she said. "It just was very overwhelming."
Then, at one of her first organizing events for the activist group Mothers Out Front, Marshall realized that organizing wasn't just about making noise. "They handed out a form, with what we might be interested in doing [to help]," she said. "The form said, 'Are you interested in research?' I don't want to go to a rally, but research? Sign me up."
The Cayuga power plant
Source: Philip Cohen
The Finger Lakes area of New York, where Marshall lives, has been a key hotspot for the state's anti-fracking movement for years. Local activists were part of an important coalition to convince Cuomo to ban fracking in 2014. Now, as New York state signs its own Green New Deal and sets one of the most aggressive emissions reductions targets in the world, newer local activists are joining with the older guard and further turning the tide on fossil fuels.
Most notably, in Tompkins County, a coalition including Mothers Out Front recently scored a big clean-power win. In May, owners of the coal-fired Cayuga Power Plant, nestled on the shores of Cayuga Lake just north of Ithaca, announced that instead of switching to gas-fired power, the plant will become a data center partially powered by an on-site solar field. The rest of the electricity will come from other power sources. The power plant's owners have asked for an all-renewable allocation from regulators but that decision hasn't been announced yet. At the very least, the shift marks a transition for the location from dirty power producer to clean(er) power user.
Just three years ago, the plant was at a crossroads. The longtime owner of the plant had filed for bankruptcy in 2011, as low natural gas prices began to push up the cost of coal. The state decided to help the plant hobble along on subsidies, which cost taxpayers $4 million per month. And as coal's fate began to decline, the taxable value of the power plant also took a turn for the worse, losing $100 million in value between 2009 and 2014.
In 2016, the plant faced even more hurdles. In February of that year, state regulators denied an application from the owners for more subsidies to power the plant with coal and natural gas, deciding to spend the money requested on transmission upgrades that would achieve the same reliability for ratepayers without adding more fossil fuels to the mix.
But the lure of natural gas was too great. Last May, the plant's new owner, Beowulf Energy, filed another application with state regulators to switch the plant to primarily run on natural gas. Beowulf Managing Director Michael Enright told the Lansing Star that the company thought the switch would save jobs and help the town's tax base.
"I called it a really bad summer sequel," said Irene Weiser, a longtime fracking activist in the region. Weiser, coordinator of the group Fossil Free Tompkins, and other activists had been instrumental in pushing for the transmission upgrades in 2016 and against transitioning the plant to natural gas. "We were having to fight this all over again."
This time around, seasoned activists weren't alone. Since the protests at Standing Rock that fixated the country in 2016, more and more communities across the country have become involved in opposing local gas pipelines and power plants.
"I think there's just been a growing consciousness over the years that we needed to get further away from fossils, including gas," Weiser said.
While helping her daughter research famed environmentalist Rachel Carson for a high school project last year, Marshall connected with Sandra Steingraber, a noted environmental activist in the area. After speaking with Marshall's daughter for the project, Steingraber told Marshall about several local oil and gas projects that could use additional organizing for opposition — and Marshall decided to tell her "mom network" about the Cayuga project.
The fresh energy from Mothers Out Front helped galvanize new voices to speak about the project to the Tompkins County Legislature. "[The legislature] even said, 'We're seeing all these people we've never seen at any meeting before,'" Marshall said. "People were getting up, our people that we mobilized, and saying, 'I've never come to the county legislature before. I would rather do almost anything other than stand here, but I'm really concerned about this.'" In November of last year, the legislature sent a letter to Albany officially opposing the Cayuga plant's proposal to transition to gas.
The activists' argument was also helped by changing market forces. Natural gas enjoyed a streak of no-questions-asked years in the early 2010s, as rock-bottom prices and the boom in fracking made gas the No. 1 choice for power suppliers. But the crashing price of renewables and fast technological innovations in storage have made many analysts and utility companies look towards a fossil fuel-free future.
The looming targets of the Paris agreement, which seeks to limit global temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees C, set additional constraints on natural gas. That's because while natural gas emits less carbon than coal, climate and energy experts note that methane emissions from fracking and burning natural gas make it much harder to meet the targets in the short-term. Locking in more natural gas infrastructure, activists say, delays the adoption of renewable energy and would impede the international targets — as well as New York state's new emissions goals.
Ed LaVigne was elected as Lansing town supervisor in 2012, and says his priority is helping the town maintain its tax revenues and its jobs — which means helping businesses like Beowulf stay in Lansing. "As I tell [the company], I say, 'We're the barnacle,'" he said. "'You're the whale. You're going to take us places we can't go by ourselves.'"
But for LaVigne, the company's decision to look to future technologies makes sense. "When I went to pharmacy school in the late '70s, it cost you $100 and a nine-volt battery to have a calculator that adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides," he said. "You now can get them to run off of indoor light and they're free when you open up a checking account. That's how these dynamics have changed. So let's just put the adult pants on and fast forward to see how we can develop these systems."
Regardless of the temporary victory for anti-fracking activists, challenges remain for the project. Data centers are notorious energy sucks: the one planned on the Cayuga site cannot get all of its energy from the solar panels it will install, and it has asked New York regulators for a substantial allocation of clean energy to power the facility. If Beowulf does not get this energy allocation, it will switch back to its plan of powering the plant with gas. And locals are concerned about whether the data center will retrain current plant workers to help them keep their jobs.
"I don't count my chickens before they're hatched," Weiser, the anti-fracking activist, said of the plan. She pointed out that the data center's energy allocation ask is larger than any other facility in the state. "That said, it's an interesting new development."
Marshall is cautiously optimistic — but also heartened — about the power of organizing to transform local politics. "If you mobilize, if you organize and build power and then mobilize that power strategically, that's how all of the important things usually happen."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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