A long-delayed public health study commissioned by Colorado regulators found that oil and gas drilling poses health risks at distances greater than current minimum “setback” distances, a development that is poised to send shockwaves through a regulatory environment already in a state of transition and uncertainty.
“Exposure to chemicals used in oil and gas development, such as benzene, may cause short-term negative health impacts…during ‘worst-case’ conditions,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a press release. “The study found that there is a possibility of negative health impacts at distances from 300 feet out to 2,000 feet.”
The state’s current rules require new oil and gas wells to be at least 500 feet from single-family homes and 1,000 feet from high-occupancy buildings. Proposition 112, the statewide ballot measure pushed by environmental groups and defeated by Colorado voters in 2018, would have imposed a 2,500-foot minimum.
State toxicologist Kristy Richardson said in a press conference Thursday afternoon that the results of the study are consistent with the health impacts that have been reported by Colorado residents near oil and gas sites in recent years.
“We’ve received, since 2015, about 750 health concerns that have been reported through our hotline,” Richardson said. “About 60 percent of those concerns reported to us are things like headaches, nosebleeds, respiratory issues, skin irritation.”
The study, conducted by consulting firm ICF International, is one of the most comprehensive analyses of its kind, and was submitted for peer review and publication in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association. Its modeling is based on air samples collected near oil and gas sites along the Front Range and in Garfield County on the Western Slope.
“I haven’t come across any data like this in the world,” state epidemiologist Mike Van Dyke told CPR News when the study was first announced in 2017.
“This study is the first of its kind because it used actual emissions data to model potential exposure and health risks,” John Putnam, the CDPHE’s environmental program director, said in a statement on the study’s release.
The study is also consistent with a large body of existing health and environmental research finding risks associated with oil and gas development. A 2016 analysis published in the scientific journal PLOS One reviewed nearly 700 peer-reviewed studies on the health impacts of fracking and found that 84 percent of them “contain findings that indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes.”
As it faced repeated delays over the past two years, the study achieved a somewhat mythical status in environmental-advocacy circles. Anti-fracking activists were suspicious when the study’s initial release was pushed back until after the 2018 election, when Coloradans voted on Proposition 112.
Oil and gas groups, in turn, speculated earlier this year that the study’s release was being delayed until Democrats could pass Senate Bill 181, a package of oil and gas reforms that strengthened health and safety protections and granted local governments greater authority to regulate drilling.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is already undertaking an overhaul of its rules following the enactment of SB 181, but has not halted any permits during rule making, issued a response to the study that outlined a series of immediate changes to its review processes.
“Working with our partners and CDPHE, we will immediately enact stricter and safer precautionary review measures to protect public health, safety, welfare, the environment,” COGCC director Jeff Robbins said in a statement.
Those measures include ensuring that “a protective review will occur for all wells under 2,000 feet from well to building unit.” Following the passage of SB 181, the agency had already said it would subject permits under 1,500 feet to additional review.
Anti-fracking group Colorado Rising, which has called on the state to impose a moratorium on new drilling permits, said the study highlights the inadequacy of the state’s approach to regulating oil and gas. Anne Lee Foster, the group’s communications director, pointed to cases in which residents impacted by fracking have undergone blood tests showing elevated levels of benzene — which researchers wrote was the “critical toxic effect” identified by the study.
“We have a lot of corroborative data showing people, especially children, with very high levels of benzene in their blood,” says Foster. “I think this goes to support the case that we need to pause the permits. We don’t know what level of harm is being done, especially when it comes to cumulative impacts.”
The COGCC said the study’s findings will impact the SB 181 rulemaking process, and the agency will continue to work with CDPHE to review health impacts from oil and gas development.
“This study just reinforces what we already knew: We need to minimize emissions from oil and gas sources,” Putnam said.
I had the unique experience of being on the stage and taking pictures of the Denver Climate Strike on October 11, 2019. It was incredible, it was emotionally overwhelming, it was one of those experiences that when reflected upon, still makes my eyes tear up. I went to see Greta Thunberg speak in person. Greta has inspired the global youth to speak up and speak out about our current Climate Crisis. Adding to the gravitas and magic of the day, Native Elders led the Ceremony with Traditional songs, Native youth spoke, Earth Guardians, 350.org, and Mother’s Out Front were all present. The painted handprint across their faces was to bring awareness of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
Fires, explosions and toxic releases: Front Range residents fight fracking boom. How oil and gas production is devastating Colorado communities and endangering the climate.
For Barb Binder, the bad news arrived with a knock on the door. That’s when she learned from a local activist that a patch of open public space across from her “forever home” in Broomfield County, the Denver suburb where she and her husband planned to retire, was about to become an industrial site.
Initially, she was comforted by the thought that state officials would not possibly allow residential hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, as it is known – to begin if it was not safe.
But two years on Binder feels naive for being so trusting. She believes her asthma has become worse since the construction near her home began, and blames the drilling mud that has been used on the site. And then there is the constant worry.
“I had to educate myself about exactly what’s involved in industrial-scale fracking,” she says. “It meant looking at the dangers – the fires, the explosions, the toxic releases, and recognising: ‘Oh my God, I am going to be living right next to this.’”
Binder now spends most of her free time opposing the plans of Extraction Oil and Gas, the Denver-based company that has plans to construct 84 wells around her neighborhood, 16 of them “literally” – she says – in her backyard.
She is not alone. Since the advent of the fracking boom in oil-rich Colorado – where there has been a fivefold increase in oil and gas production since 2008 – new wells and production sites have sprung up around residential neighbourhoods in the Front Range faster than environmental researchers can track them.
There are 40,000 active and inactive wells across the Denver basin, and new permits issued every month for more. They are built close to schools, playgrounds, and clusters of family homes.
Extraction Oil and Gas told the Guardian it had used new technologies to “minimise the impact of oil and gas development” in the Front Range, compared with the way oil was extracted in previous decades.
A spokesperson said the company had learned some lessons from an incident on its Livingston site, after it voluntarily switched a drilling fluid it had been using because residents complained about the odour. It said air monitoring results had found “no health impact” from the smell.
“To date, all published air-quality monitoring results have been stellar, and conclusively show that any effects of our development on the air we breathe are negligible,” the company said.
“We understand that there will always be those who oppose all oil and gas development whatsoever, or want to ‘leave it in the ground’, but we will continue our endeavours to minimise impacts of developing the energy we all use each day – and we will never stop innovating for the betterment of Colorado and our state’s economy.”
Yet the conflicts – between industry and residents, and sometimes neighbour versus neighbour – have felt, in the words of the local reporter Chase Woodruff, like a “civil war” at times.
And there have been accidents. In 2017, two men were killed, and a woman and child injured, after a house in Firestone, Colorado, exploded because of a leak of “fugitive gas” from an uncapped pipeline that was connected to a gas well near the home.
Erin Martinez, who lost her husband and brother in the blast, has moved house again after a new well began construction across from her home.
Environmental researchers from the not-for-profit Earthworks group travel from site to site in what sometimes seems like a game of whack-a-mole, using a special gas-finding imaging camera to track, document, and report what they describe as plumes of pollution that are being emitted from the sites, in what they claim is evidence of dangerous releases of methane and other volatile organic compounds that are not visible to the naked eye.
Dozens of complaints have been filed to state authorities, but regulators have deemed that most of those emissions are in the allowable range.
One proposal that would have forced oil and gas wells to be located at least 2,500ft (760 metres) – or half a mile – from homes and other buildings was voted down on a ballot initiative last year by a vote of 58% to 42%, in a significant blow to anti-fracking activists.
Oil and gas advocates argue the “setback” proposal would have decimated their operations in Colorado, in effect barring new drilling from the Denver suburbs where nine in 10 new wells are being constructed.
Colorado Rising, one of the leading activist groups in the state, reportedly raised about $1.2m (£1m) to support the initiative, but were outspent when – activists say – industry sources pumped $41m into the race.
Opponents of fracking have, however, won one big victory since then. Last April, Colorado’s new Democratic governor, Jared Polis, signed a new mandate into law that forced one of the state’s most powerful institutions, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), to completely upend its mission.
Instead of fostering the oil and gas industry, Senate bill 181 (SB181) has forced the COGCC to regulate it, with a specific priority on public health and safety and focus on the environment.
The new law has raised questions: about whether a state with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry can ever really change, and whether fears about the climate crisis, and the ill-effects of fracking, will ever make a difference.
For years, the oil sector has argued that Colorado needs the multibillion-dollar industry and the hundreds of thousands of job it sustains.
Sara Loflin, the executive director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, a campaigning group that helped get SB181 passed, says the legislation was a product of decades of Coloradans living with oil and gas in their communities, and seeing the effect of its pollution: the industrial waste, the bad air, the noise, and the constant low thumping vibrations that have made residents physically ill.
For years, Loflin told the Guardian, locals who were concerned about debris from abandoned sites, or the way soil at a local playground had changed colour, would have to make more than a dozen calls to get answers from public officials, and still be treated with hostility.
Now her organisation is seeking to remind local governments, who have also been given more power under SB181, that they have “the jurisdiction, the right, and the responsibility” to say no to new permits if health and safety is jeopardised.
But despite its legal firepower, there is no sign of rapid change within the Colorado market. At a recent meeting of the COGCC in Thornton, on an unseasonably hot autumn day, residents’ frustrations were aimed at Jeff Robbins, the director of the COGCC, who was appointed by Polis.Advertisement
Since May, Robbins and the COGCC have approved 650 drilling permits and 82 location sites. Some permit applications have been delayed, but not a single one has been denied, despite the COGCC’s new mandate.
Pressed by the Guardian about whether he saw it as his job to say no to industry, Robbins said he believed it was his mission to take “a close look” at permit applications that were located close to homes.
“And that’s exactly what I’m doing,” he said. “What 181 says is that we don’t want to see all of the pending permits get a free pass. And we don’t want to see all pending permits be under a moratorium. It says we want you – director – using objective criteria to permit those that can be permitted, and potentially delay others that can’t be permitted, because they are not protected.”
When he was asked whether the climate crisis would affect the COGCC’s permit allocations under the new law, Robbins said climate could potentially be considered since SB181 required the commission to evaluate the cumulative effects of oil and gas operations on the environment.
But Robbins said he would look for “stakeholder input” for guidance. He meets once a month with environmental activists and residents, and twice a month with industry.Advertisement
For residents like Connie Beach, who returned home from a vacation in November 2017 to a letter that said she would soon be living next to a 30-well mega-pad for drilling, and was told there was “nothing to do about it”, the promise of SB181 is losing its lustre.
On a local Facebook group, people in her neighbourhood post about favoured local candidates who will fight industry. Most end up being challenged by opponents with deep pockets and ties to oil and gas.
Joe Salazar, a former Democratic state legislator and civil rights lawyer who recently became the head of Colorado Rising, is keeping his eye on a proposed fracking site called Acme, which has been described by environmental experts as one of the most problematic in the state of Colorado. Permits have not yet been approved, but if they are, the site will contain 36 wells within 500ft (150 metres) of homes, and 100ft from a small airport runway.
The COGCC recently reopened a public comment period, inviting residents to air their views before the commission makes a decision.
“This is going to be one hell of a test case,” Salazar said. “The community is fighting like hell to get the COGCC to deny that. It really is left to the whims and wishes of the director … that’s why there is so much pressure on him.”
My heart goes out to everyone negatively impacted by fracking. No one should have to live like this. None of us moved to Broomfield to put up with this. I’ve been fighting against this industry since 2012, which is what led me to running for office. If you experience headaches, nosebleeds, coughing, tightness of breath. If you have recently been diagnosed with asthma, need nebulizer treatments, or have begun to have heart issues. If you experience odors, noise, light from the rigs, or even your house shaking, please take the time to report it. Here are the complaint links for O&G Health and Safety related issues for both the local and state.
The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (the Compendium) is a fully referenced compilation of evidence outlining the risks and harms of fracking. It is a public, open-access document that is housed on the websites of Concerned Health Professionals of New York (www.concernedhealthny.org) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (www.psr.org).
The five earlier editions of the Compendium have been used and referenced all over the world. The Compendium has been twice translated into Spanish: independently in 2014 by a Madrid-based environmental coalition, followed by an official translation of the third edition, which was funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and launched in Mexico City in May 2016. The Compendium has been used in the European Union, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, Mexico, and Argentina.
About Concerned Health Professionals of New York
Concerned Health Professionals of New York (CHPNY) is an initiative by health professionals, scientists, and medical organizations for raising science-based concerns about the impacts of fracking on public health and safety. CHPNY provides educational resources and works to ensure that careful consideration of science and health impacts are at the forefront of the fracking debate.
About this Report
The Compendium is organized to be accessible to public officials, researchers, journalists, and the public at large. The reader who wants to delve deeper can consult the reviews, studies, and articles referenced herein. In addition, the Compendium is complemented by a fully searchable, near-exhaustive citation database of peer-reviewed journal articles pertaining to shale gas and oil extraction, the Repository for Oil and Gas Energy Research, that was developed by PSE Healthy Energy and which is housed on its website (https://www.psehealthyenergy.org/our-work/shale-gas-research-library/).
For this sixth edition of the Compendium, as before, we collected and compiled findings from three sources: articles from peer-reviewed medical or scientific journals; investigative reports by journalists; and reports from, or commissioned by, government agencies. Peer-reviewed articles were identified through databases such as PubMed and Web of Science, and from within the PSE Healthy Energy database. We included review articles when such reviews revealed new understanding of the evidence.
Written in non-technical language, our entries briefly and plainly describe studies that document harm, or risk of harm, associated with fracking and summarize the principal findings. Entries do not include detailed results or a critique of the strengths and weaknesses of each study. Because much of medicine’s early understanding of new diseases and previously unsuspected epidemiological correlations comes through assessment of case reports, we have included published case reports and anecdotal reports when they are data-based and verifiable.
The studies and investigations referenced in the dated entries catalogued in the Compilation of Studies & Findings are current through April 1, 2019.
A special meeting was held on Monday September 30th at the City Council Chambers to discuss a methane leak the City and County of Broomfield discovered during routine soil and gas testing in Anthem Highlands. Those present included the City and County of Broomfield staff, representatives from COGCC, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, and North Metro Fire Department. The source of the leak has still not been identified, and no wells will be shut down in the interim.
This was the first time we’ve gotten to see Broomfield’s new City Manager, Jennifer Hoffman, display her leadership style. Personally, as a long time advocate for Health & Safety, Broomfield may have finally gotten the City Manager we need.
Here is the City video from the Meeting. The meeting begins at 5 minutes into the video. Because it is a two hour video, please give it a moment to buffer on your device.
Solar panels pair surprisingly well with tomatoes, peppers and pollinators.
In ‘agrivoltaics,’ crops and solar panels not only share land and sunlight, but also help each other function more efficiently.
The world already needs more solar power. It’s clean, renewable energy, and it’s quickly outpacing the job creation and affordability of fossil fuels. But on top of that, a growing field of research suggests it can improve agriculture, too, helping us grow more food and pollinator habitat while also conserving land and water.
Big, utility-scale “solar farms” are one important source of solar power, helping complement smaller, less centralized sources like solar panels on the roofs of buildings. Solar farms take up a lot of space, though — and they thrive in places with many of the same qualities favored by food crops. As one recent study found, the areas with the greatest potential for solar power tend to already be in use as croplands, which makes sense, given the importance of sunlight for both.
“It turns out that 8,000 years ago, farmers found the best places to harvest solar energy on Earth,” said Chad Higgins, study co-author and professor of agricultural sciences at Oregon State University, in a statement.
Since crops already occupy many of those places, this might seem to cast solar farms and food farms as rivals for real estate. Yet while it’s smart to balance food and energy production, a growing field of research suggests it can also be smart to combine them. Unlike fossil fuels, one of the great things about solar power is that it’s clean enough to still use the land for food production, without needing to worry about contamination. And not only can crops and solar panels co-exist on the same land, but when combined in the right ways at the right locations, researchers say each can help the other function more efficiently than it would alone.
This idea — known in the U.S. as “agrivoltaics,” a mashup of agriculture and photovoltaics — isn’t new, but new research is shedding light on how beneficial it can be. Beyond the benefits of harvesting food and clean energy from the same land, studies suggest solar panels also boost crops’ performance — potentially raising yield and reducing water needs — while crops help the panels work more efficiently. This could increase global land productivity by 73%, while generating more food from less water, since some crops under solar panels are up to 328% more water-efficient.
Agrivoltaics won’t necessarily work the same for every location or every crop, but we don’t need it to. According to Higgins’ research, if even less than 1% of existing cropland was converted to an agrivoltaic system, solar power could fulfill global demand for electricity. That still wouldn’t be as simple as it sounds, but amid the growing urgency of climate change, energy demand and food insecurity, it’s an idea that seems more than ready for its moment in the sun.
Types of agrivoltaic systems
Three different types of agrivoltaic systems: (a) using the space between solar panels for crops, (b) a photovoltaic greenhouse, and (c) a stilt-mounted system. (Illustration: Sekiyama et al. [CC BY 4.0]/Environments)
The basic idea of agrivoltaics dates back at least to 1981, when two German scientists proposed a new kind of photovoltaic power plant “which allows for additional agricultural use of the land involved.” It has evolved in the decades since, leading to new twists on the concept that have found success in several countries, including Japan — which has emerged as a global leader in “solar sharing,” as the practice is known there — as well as France, Italy and Austria, among others.
There are three general categories of agrivoltaic systems. The original idea placed crops between rows of solar panels, capitalizing on spaces that are otherwise mostly unused (see example “a” in the illustration above). A different tactic, developed in 2004 by Japanese engineer Akira Nagashima, involves solar panels raised on stilts about 3 meters (10 feet) off the ground, creating a pergola-like structure with space below for crops (example “c” above). A third category resembles the stilted method, but places the solar panels on top of a greenhouse (example “b”).
It’s one thing to plant crops in sunny gaps between solar panels, but sowing them underneath the panels means sunlight is blocked for at least a few hours every day. If the goal is to maximize the efficiency of both the crops and the solar panels, why let one block any sunlight from the other?
Made in the shade
Solar panels stand above a rice paddy at a solar-sharing farm in Japan. (Photo: Σ64 [CC BY 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Plants obviously need sunlight, but even they have limits. Once a plant maxes out its ability to use sunlight for photosynthesis, more sunlight can actually impede its productivity. Plants native to dry climates have evolved various ways to deal with excessive solar energy, but as researchers at the University of Arizona point out, many of our agricultural crops are not desert-adapted. To successfully grow them in deserts, we make up for their lack of adaptation with intensive irrigation.
Instead of using all that water, though, we could also mimic some of the natural adaptations used by dry-climate plants. Some deal with their harsh habitats by growing in the shade of other plants, for example, and that’s what agrivoltaics advocates are trying imitate by growing crops in the shadows of solar panels.
The study’s authors created an agrivoltaics research site at Biosphere 2 in Arizona, where they grew chiltepin peppers, jalapeños and cherry tomatoes under a photovoltaic (PV) array. Throughout the summer growing season, they continuously monitored sunlight levels, air temperature and relative humidity using sensors mounted above the soil surface, as well as soil temperature and moisture at a depth of 5 centimeters (2 inches). As a control, they also set up a traditional planting area near the agrivoltaics site, both of which received equal irrigation rates and were tested under two irrigation schedules, either daily or every other day.
A view of the agrivoltaic system at Biosphere 2 in southern Arizona. (Photo: Patrick Murphy/University of Arizona)
Shade from the panels led to cooler daytime temperatures and warmer nighttime temperatures for plants growing below, as well as more moisture available in the air. This affected each crop differently, but all three saw significant benefits.
“We found that many of our food crops do better in the shade of solar panels because they are spared from the direct sun,” said lead author Greg Barron-Gafford, a professor of geography and development at the University of Arizona, in a statement. “In fact, total chiltepin fruit production was three times greater under the PV panels in an agrivoltaic system, and tomato production was twice as great!”
Jalapeños produced a similar amount of fruit in both the agrivoltaic and traditional scenarios, but did so with 65% less transpirational water loss in the agrivoltaic setup.
“At the same time, we found that each irrigation event can support crop growth for days, not just hours, as in current agriculture practices,” Barron-Gafford said. “This finding suggests we could reduce our water use but still maintain levels of food production.” Soil moisture remained about 15% higher in the agrivoltaics system than in the control plot when irrigating every other day.
This echoes other recent research, including a 2018 study published in the journal PLOS One, which tested the environmental effects of solar panels on an unirrigated pasture that often experiences water stress. It found that areas under PV panels were 328% more water-efficient, and also showed a “significant increase in late-season biomass,” with 90% more biomass under solar panels than in other areas.
Machinery can still operate among panels in an agrivoltaic setup, researchers say. (Photo: NREL [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
The presence of solar panels might seem like a headache when it’s time to harvest crops, but as Barron-Gafford recently told the Ecological Society of America (ESA), the panels can be arranged in a way that lets farmers continue using much of the same equipment. “We raised the panels so that they were about 3 meters (10 feet) off the ground on the low end so that typical tractors could access the site. This is was the first thing that farmers in the area said would have to be in place for them to consider any kind of adoption of an agrivoltaic system.”
Of course, the details of agrivoltaics vary widely depending on the crops, the local climate and the specific setup of solar panels. It won’t work in every situation, but researchers are busy trying to identify where and how it can work.
NREL researcher Jordan Macknick and University of Massachusetts professor Stephen Herbert survey an agrivoltaic test plot at the UMass Crop Animal Research and Education Center. (Photo: NREL [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
The potential perks for crops alone might make agrivoltaics worthwhile, not to mention the reduced competition for land and demand for water. But there’s more. For one thing, research has found that an agrivoltaic system can also increase the efficiency of energy production from the solar panels.
Solar panels are inherently sensitive to temperature, becoming less efficient as they warm up. As Barron-Gafford and his colleagues found in their recent study, cultivating crops reduced the temperature of panels overhead.
“Those overheating solar panels are actually cooled down by the fact that the crops underneath are emitting water through their natural process of transpiration — just like misters on the patio of your favorite restaurant,” Barron-Gafford said. “All told, that is a win-win-win in terms of bettering how we grow our food, utilize our precious water resources and produce renewable energy.”
Or maybe it’s a win-win-win-win? While solar panels and crops cool each other off, they might do the same for people working in the fields. Preliminary data suggest human skin temperature can be about 18 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in an agrivoltaics area than in traditional agriculture, according to research from the University of Arizona. “Climate change is already disrupting food production and farm worker health in Arizona,” says agroecologist Gary Nabhan, a co-author of the Nature Sustainability study. “The Southwestern U.S. sees a lot of heat stroke and heat-related death among our farm laborers; this could have a direct impact there, too.”
The space around solar panels can provide valuable habitat for pollinators, hosting wildflowers like these Mexican sunflowers. (Photo: Michael G. McKinne/Shutterstock)
Aside from all the aforementioned benefits of agrivoltaics — for crops, solar panels, land availability, water supplies and workers — this kind of combination could turn out to be a big deal for bees, too, along with other pollinators.
Insects are responsible for pollinating nearly 75% of all crops grown by humans, and about 80% of all flowering plants, yet they’re now fading from habitats worldwide. The plight of honeybees tends to get more attention, but pollinators of all kinds have been declining for years, largely due to a mix of habitat loss, pesticide exposure, invasive species and disease, among other threats. That includes bumblebees and other native bees — some of which are better at pollinating food crops than domesticated honeybees are — as well as beetles, butterflies, moths and wasps.
Lots of valuable crops depend heavily on insect pollination, including most fruits, nuts, berries and other fresh produce. Foods like almonds, chocolate, coffee and vanilla wouldn’t be available without insect pollinators, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and many dairy products would be limited, too, given the large number of cows that feed on pollinator-dependent plants like alfalfa or clover. Even many crops that don’t need insect pollinators — like soy or strawberries, for example — produce higher yields if they’re pollinated by insects.
And that’s the impetus behind a push for more pollinator habitat on solar farms, especially in agricultural areas where pollinators can play the biggest economic role. This is well-established in the U.K., where a solar company began letting beekeepers set up hives at some of its solar farms in 2010, according to CleanTechnica. The idea spread, and the U.K. now has a “long and well-documented success using pollinator habitat on solar sites,” as Minnesota nonprofit Fresh Energy describes it.
A monarch butterfly rests on a wildflower in front of a solar panel. (Photo: Michael G. McKinne/Shutterstock)
The pairing of pollinators and solar power is increasingly popular in the U.S., too, especially after Minnesota enacted the Pollinator Friendly Solar Act in 2016. That law was the first of its kind in the country, establishing science-based standards for how to incorporate pollinator habitat into solar farms. It has since been followed by similar laws in other states, including Maryland, Illinois and Vermont.
Much like crops, wildflowers could help cool off solar panels overhead, while the panels’ shade could help wildflowers thrive in hot, dry places without taxing water supplies. But the main beneficiaries would be bees and other pollinators, who should then pass on their good fortune to nearby farmers.
For a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory looked at 2,800 existing and planned utility-scale solar energy (USSE) facilities in the contiguous U.S., finding “the area around solar panels could provide an ideal location for the plants that attract pollinators.” These areas are often just filled with gravel or turf grass, they noted, which would be easy to replace with native plants like prairie grasses and wildflowers.
And aside from helping pollinators in general — which would likely be wise even if we couldn’t quantify the payoff for humans — the Argonne researchers also looked at how “solar-sited pollinator habitat” might in turn boost local agriculture. Having more pollinators around can increase the productivity of crops, potentially offering farmers a higher yield without using additional resources like water, fertilizer or pesticides.
The researchers found more than 3,500 square kilometers (1,351 square miles, or 865,000 acres) of farmland near existing and planned USSE facilities that could benefit from more pollinator habitat nearby. They looked at three example crops (soybeans, almonds and cranberries) that rely on insect pollinators for their annual crop yield, examining how more solar-sited pollinator habitat might affect them. If all existing and planned solar facilities near these crops included pollinator habitat, and if yields rose by just 1%, crop values could rise by $1.75 million, $4 million and $233,000 for soybeans, almonds and cranberries, respectively, they found.
Peppers grow under solar panels at the UMass agrivoltaic test plot. (Photo: NREL [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
Farming in the U.S. has become increasingly difficult lately, due to a mix of factors from droughts and floods to the U.S.-China trade war, which has reduced demand for many American crops. As the Wall Street Journal reports, this is leading some farmers to use their land for harvesting solar power instead of food, either by leasing the land to energy companies or by installing their own panels to cut electricity bills.
“There’s been very little profit at the end of the year,” says one Wisconsin corn and soybean farmer, who’s leasing 322 acres to a solar company for $700 per acre annually, according to the WSJ. “Solar becomes a good way to diversify your income.”
Agrivoltaics may not be a quick fix for farmers who are struggling now, but that could change as research reveals more insights, potentially informing government incentives that make it easier to adopt the practice. That’s what many researchers are focusing on now, including Barron-Gafford and his colleagues. They’re working with the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Lab to assess the viability of agrivoltaics beyond the U.S. Southwest, and to examine how regional policies might encourage more novel synergies between agriculture and clean energy.
Still, farmers and solar companies don’t necessarily need to wait for more research to capitalize on what we already know. To make money from agrivoltaics right away, Barron-Gafford tells the ESA, it’s mostly just a matter of elevating the masts that hold up the solar panels. “That is part of what makes this current work so exciting,” he says. “A small change in planning can yield a ton of great benefits!”
Sunday afternoon, I got to participate in an amazing Peaceful Protest at the corner of Lowell Blvd. and Sheridan Parkway. I was joined by many familiar faces I’ve known for the last seven years. And many new faces of the next generation and those who are now aware of the dangers of fracking. Thank you again for everyone who spoke, everyone who planted, everyone who had the courage to come and be present. Thank you to the Elders who opened and closed the Ceremony. Thank you to Christiaan Van Woudenberg for speaking and for your continued support. And a special thank you to the Police who did not intervene and let us exercise our First Amendment Rights.
I originally got started with Our Broomfield in 2013 when they needed pictures and help with their website. My wife AnnMarie had already been involved with Our Broomfield, and she was expressing frustration over how much money people wanted to charge for photography and web design. At the time, Our Broomfield was just a handful of concerned parents and citizens, without a budget, trying to educate all of Broomfield as to what fracking was, and trying to prevent it from entering Broomfield. I volunteered to take photographs and donate them. I asked for locations of wells, and then went out for the day to take pictures. I came back with pictures, a headache, and a spotting nosebleed. I was furious. I asked how I could help. And that’s the beginning of what brought me here.
Three years ago, the hospital launched a rooftop farm to grow fresh produce for the pantry. The farm has produced 6,000 pounds of food a year, with 3,500 pounds slated for the pantry. The rest of its produce goes to the hospital’s cafeteria, patients, a teaching kitchen and an in-house portable farmers market.
The hospital joined a handful of medical facilities across the country that have started growing food on their roofs. The initiative is the first hospital-based farm in Massachusetts and the largest rooftop farm in Boston. The facility’s 2,658-square-foot garden houses more than 25 crops, organically grown in a milk crate system.
“Food is medicine. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing,” says David Maffeo, the hospital’s senior director of support services. “Most urban environments are food deserts. It’s hard to get locally grown food and I think it’s something that we owe to our patients and our community.”
Lindsay Allen, a farmer who has been managing the rooftop oasis since its inception, says her farm’s produce is being used for preventative care as well as in reactive care. She says 72 percent of the hospital’s patients are considered underserved, and likely don’t have access to healthy, local organic food.
What people put in their bodies has a direct link to their health she says, adding that hospitals have a responsibility to give their patients better food.
In addition to running the farm, Allen teaches a number of farming workshops to educate patients, employees and their families on how to grow their own food. The hospital’s teaching kitchen employs a number of food technicians and dieticians who offer their expertise to patients on how they can make meals with the local produce they’re given.
This is part of the medical center’s objective to not only give patients good food, but also provide them the tools to lead a healthy life.
I’ve been an ally of LGBTQ Rights for several decades. Part of the Pride Celebration is to participate in the Visibility Marches. To give open support to the LGBTQ Community and to Celebrate the day of Inclusion, Visibility, and to Honor other Human Beings. This year, in Boulder, was the biggest Visibility March yet! I marched proudly with my entire family. Below are some of the highlights from the Boulder Pridefest.
How much does where you live affect your shot at the American Dream? An overlooked government program from the nineties tried to answer that question. Recently, it has been getting new attention.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The American dream is supposed to go like this – with the right effort, a person or family can climb from the bottom of the economic ladder to the top. Study after study shows that’s getting harder to do. So Karen Duffin from our Planet Money podcast went looking for government programs that might help change that.
KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: Once upon a time, in a cubicle not so far away, sat a government bureaucrat in his government-issued chair.
MARK SHRODER: I was new to HUD. This was, like, my first couple months of HUD.
DUFFIN: This is Mark Shroder, and HUD is the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Shroder was an economist there in 1991, when HUD was trying to test a theory – could they improve a family’s odds of climbing the economic ladder just by moving them to a better neighborhood? It would be a big social experiment, and they would call it Moving to Opportunity.
SHRODER: Almost everything about Moving to Opportunity has been a surprise, not only to me but to practically everybody else.
DUFFIN: Here’s how the experiment worked – HUD chose thousands of families who lived in public housing in five big cities.
SHRODER: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
DUFFIN: They split the families into three groups, by lottery, and one of these groups was required to move out of public housing into, specifically, a low-poverty neighborhood. The government would help them cover rent in that new neighborhood by way of what’s known as a Section 8 voucher. So this should be a better neighborhood, hopefully more opportunity. But not everyone saw it that way.
SHRODER: There were some people who were praying, literally praying, they would be in the regular voucher group.
DUFFIN: Was that disappointing?
SHRODER: That wasn’t that surprising.
DUFFIN: Historically, families who’d gotten Section 8 vouchers were not using them to move to lower-poverty areas for a lot of complex reasons, both personal and systemic. But thousands of families did sign up, and for four years, they moved. HUD gathered data on them, and then in 2008, HUD tallied the data.
SHRODER: We did not find any impacts on earnings or children’s test scores.
DUFFIN: HUD’s theory was wrong. The moves had basically no economic or educational impact. And this was a landmark study, so researchers took the findings and moved their hopes, dollars and programs elsewhere – basically stopped looking at housing as a way to fix the American dream. But then about six years later, another economist was studying upward mobility.
NATHAN HENDREN: My name is Nathan Hendren. I am a professor of economics at Harvard.
DUFFIN: Hendren and a few of his research pals were combing through income tax data when they spotted a pattern that surprised them.
HENDREN: We started to see these exposure effect patterns; that the longer a child spent in a neighborhood with higher rates of upward mobility, the higher their outcomes were in adulthood.
DUFFIN: But that contradicted what that big HUD study found. As they dug deeper, they realized HUD had stopped looking at the data too soon. The younger kids who moved to opportunity just hadn’t started getting jobs by then.
HENDREN: Back in 2008, you wouldn’t have seen it. There just weren’t enough young children into the labor market where you’d really be able to say, ah, looks like there’s an effect here.
DUFFIN: But for kids who moved before they turned 13…
HENDREN: The children were 4 percentage points more likely to go to college, had about 30% higher earnings.
DUFFIN: And bonus – these kids will likely pay more in income tax over time, so the program should essentially pay for itself.
HENDREN: You could kind of feel that we had something that was going to change the way people thought about equality of opportunity in the United States.
DUFFIN: Hendren and his colleagues decided to not just release data but to turn it into an actual program. They’re currently working with cities to basically reboot the original HUD program, starting in Seattle. Congress also just passed a bipartisan law to run programs like this. And the researchers hope that, over time, they can take what they learned from the families that moved to opportunity and move that opportunity back into the neighborhoods they left behind.