Journalists and scientists talked environment at summit Tuesday


 

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Cwiertny, Dalrymple and Jones answer audience questions on nitrate pollution in Iowa (photo by Julia Poska).

Julia Poska | March 7, 2019

Urgent environmental challenges like climate change have made it increasingly vital for the public to know the facts. General audiences get information largely through news media, but distilling complicated science accurately is not always easy for writers. Friendly collaboration between scientists and journalists is crucial, for the sake of accuracy and public good.

An Environmental Journalism Summit in Grinnell, Iowa brought students and professionals in both fields together Tuesday to share thoughts on improving environmental science communication.

The University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center organized the summit and presented on three “hot topics” in environmental news. Peter Thorne, head of the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, spoke about his experiences advising the EPA under changing administration. Dr. Robert Blount discussed his medical research on air pollution and tuberculosis.  Darrin Thompson, associate director of the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), shared his knowledge and research on neonicotinoids, a controversial class of pesticides.

Two expert panels shared their knowledge and answered questions from moderators and audience members. The “Science and Media” panel featured Iowa Public Radio’s Amy Mayer, journalism professor Daniel Lathrop, Iowa Watch executive director Lyle Muller and engineer Craig Just, who discussed the complexities of communicating science. They stressed the importance of fact checking, including people in storytelling and maintaining responsibility to the audience.

Another panel focused on nitrates and water quality, featuring IIHR research engineer Chris Jones, CHEEC director David Cwiertny and Kajsa Dalrymple, who researches media effects on agricultural practices. They discussed gaps in coverage of the issue, the magnitude of the problem and the complex system that created it. 

Researchers also participated in more journalistic activities, like generating story ideas on hog manure. The summit ended with a showcase on Cedar Fall High School’s news team, which has published award-winning investigations on pesticide drift, climate  change education and drinking water nitrates through Iowa Watch. 

On The Radio- Benefits of GMOs


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On the road, Lesotho (flickr/Steve Lamb)

Kasey Dresser| March 4, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how GMO crops could help African farmers.

Transcript: 

A new study from Iowa State University says genetically modified crops are far more helpful than harmful

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

GMO crops have been studied extensively. Iowa State agronomy researchers recently examined dozens of previous studies to assess the overall safety of genetic modification in plants. 

They determined that GMO crops are not only safe, but that delaying their adoption poses risks for humans and the environment in the developing world. Insect resistant crops could help African farmers battle an emerging invasive pest, the fall armyworm, which has been devastating corn crops in Africa since 2016. But fear has kept insect resistant corn commercially unavailable in all but one African country. 

Study co-author Walter Suza directs the Plant Breeding E-Learning in Africa Program, which develops digital learning materials for African universities. He hopes the study will help African policymakers embrace GMOs. 

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

The Iowa ‘sunshine tax’: What you need to know


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The “Solar Options Lead to Affordable Renewables (SOLAR) Act” may not be so sunny (Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | February 28, 2019

The so-called “sunshine tax” might have a bright and cheery name, but the proposed fee could put a real damper on private solar power in Iowa.

Described in House Study Bill 185 and Senate Study Bill 1201, the “Solar Options Lead to Affordable Renewables (SOLAR) Act” would impose an over $300 annual fee on solar customers — property owners with small-scale solar panel setups who sell excess power back to the grid. The fee would cover the cost of using the electric grid and support Iowa’s energy infrastructure.

Currently, such customers can expect to pay off the high initial cost of solar panel installation in less than 10 years through savings on energy bills and sales of excess power. Cedar Rapids City Councilman Tyler Olson told the designated House subcommittee the fee would extend that period to as much as 20 years, as reported in the Gazette. This would greatly discourage private individuals from investing in home setups, which typically last about 25 years.

Supporters of the fee, including major Iowa utilities like MidAmerican and Alliant Energy, say it is unfair that customers who do not generate their own power absorb the cost of maintaining power infrastructure that is used by solar generators.

“Growth is possible when policies allow all customers to benefit from renewable energy,”  MidAmerican Energy’s president and CEO said in a press release. “Common sense legislation focused on keeping costs low and affordable for everyone provides the best opportunity to grow solar in Iowa.”

Opponents say the fee would only allow solar to grow for large corporations, however, and that it would kill the future of Iowa’s growing solar industry, which largely develops and installs systems for private homes, businesses and farms.

On Tuesday, the Gazette reported that the the bill would soon move forward in the Iowa House, to the full House Commerce Committee. Yesterday, the Iowa Senate held a hearing on their version of the bill, and did the same. There is a push among some legislators to delay the conversation until the Iowa Utilities Board finishes an assessment of compensation for solar energy producers next year.

 

On The Radio- Brazil and the negative affects of hydropower


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Brazil’s flag (flickr/Rodnei Reis)

Kasey Dresser| February 18, 2019

This weeks segment looks at the negative impact of the Bela Monte Hyrdodam in Brazil. 

Transcript:

Hydropower is one of the world’s leading sources of renewable energy, but in some places it has come at a cost.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Hydropower accounts for over fourteen percent of all energy globally and about seventy percent of all renewable energy. Although dams help bring power to people, they can also have negative social and environmental consequences.

Researcher Emilio Moran is helping investigate the negative impact of the Bela Monte Hyrdodam in a developing area populated with indigenous communities. The dam is the third-largest in the world, and was built over Brazil’s Xingu (SHIN-GOO) River near the city of Altamira.

The new dams reduced the amount of fish that flow downstream, impacting the fishing yields of villages that rely on the river for their livelihoods. The project took three years to complete, and twenty thousand people were displaced from their homes during that time. Altamira’s population increased by sixty thousand during construction, and the city built hotels and attractions in response. After the dam was completed, however, those sixty thousand workers left, leaving many buildings vacant in their wake.

Hydropower is an important source of power, protecting Brazil from blackouts. It is also much cleaner than coal. But dams are not guaranteed generators of power, and their effectiveness can be altered by rainfall.

Emilio Moran and other researchers are only looking for some accountability, and are pushing for dam developers to mitigate the negative economic and social consequences before building.

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Iowa solar employment is on the rise


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Most solar jobs are in installation and project development (flickr).

Julia Poska | February 14, 2019

Despite a 3.2 percent drop in solar energy jobs nationwide, solar jobs in Iowa grew 4 percent in 2018, according to the recently released National Solar Jobs Census.

Various solar projects recent years likely contributed to job growth in Iowa. In 2017, Alliant Energy built Iowa’s biggest solar farm on 21 acres near Dubuque, but the Central Iowa Power Cooperative recently announced plans to surpass that record with an 800 acre solar farm in Louisa County in 2020. Solarize Johnson and Linn Counties brought a combined 1,760 kilowatts of residential solar power to eastern Iowa in 2017 and 2018. Ideal Energy in Fairfield is currently building a solar array with special battery storage at Maharishi University of Management as well.

But still, only 844 Iowans are employed in solar. The state ranks 45 in solar jobs per capita despite 2018 growth, according to the census, which is conducted annually by the Solar Foundation.

Overall, U.S. solar employment has risen 159 percent since 2010 and is projected to continue growing. The price of solar installation has fallen dramatically, too. At the utility scale, the cost of a one Watt segment of a solar panel dropped from $4.40 in 2010 to $1.03 in 2018. For residential panels, the cost dropped from $6.65 to $2.89 per Watt.

 

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Geographer Eric Tate


Julia Poska | February 8, 2019

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Eric Tate, shot by Julia Poska 2019

Natural disasters are enormously costly. The U.S. incurred an estimated $306 billion in physical damage from extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods in 2017 alone.

CGRER member Eric Tate, a professor in the University of Iowa geography department,  quantifies disaster impacts in a bigger way.

“Looking at these impacts just by dollars affected may not really get at the true impact of how people are affected, how their livelihoods are affected,” he said.

Tate studies the social effects of disasters, with an emphasis on floods. Looking beyond physical damage, he determines how population characteristics like age, disability, education and poverty create social vulnerability to harm.


Listen to Tate explain social vulnerability in his own words. 

Disaster impacts are typically distributed unevenly; certain groups suffer disproportionately due to social, political, economic and institutional inequalities. These processes may debilitate some households while neighbors go unaffected during the same storm.

Using mainly government disaster relief data, Tate has measured and mapped the social reality of disasters like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. He’s currently examining 2015 flooding in South Carolina. His research aims to inform planning and policy by lending insight into how various population characteristics contribute to vulnerability.

“What is needed in this field is a bunch of studies looking at different disasters at different scales of analysis, looking at different variables, looking at different outcomes,” he said. “When you put them all together, now you start to get some generalizable understanding.”

Officials can use such analyses to help vulnerable populations before, during and after disasters with adjusted mitigation and primary response plans. The social dimension of sustainability is often underemphasized, but is crucial for implementing effective change.

“If we want to have sustainable futures but the gains aren’t equitably shared, then is that sustainable?” Tate asked.


Tate on the need for research into the spillover effects of disasters. 

He sees several ways policymakers on all levels can more deeply embed equity into decision making. They can model vulnerability among their constituents themselves or look to academic research that does so. They can seek to be inclusive and involve a diverse cross section of the population early on in the decision making process.

Tate pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as well, which requires the government to complete environmental impact assessments prior to undergoing all federally funded executive projects. He thinks a similar statute could mandate assessments of the far-reaching social consequences of such projects.

He also advised considering climate change in proactive disaster planning, as atmospheric carbon seems to amplify climatological weather events. In Iowa, flooding has already become pronouncedly more intense and will continue to get worse in coming decades.

“Regardless of your belief in climate change or not, we’re seeing changes in hydrological extremes,” Tate said.


Tate on how to help protect yourself and your community from flooding. 

Intensified flooding will increase pressure on the already vulnerability and likely push some previously unaffected households beyond their coping capacities.

Tate calls for updated statistical analysis to better inform everyone from city planners to homeowners about risk and vulnerability in different areas. The 100-year floodplain of today may become the 50-year floodplain in 15 years, but flood maps are based on historical frequencies and do not reflect projections for the future.

“Trying to understand future risk based on past occurrences is likely to lead you to faulty conclusions,” he said. “We should be thinking maybe a little less probabilistically and a little more possibilistically.”

 


 

***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

Iowa increased biodiesel production in 2018


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About 296 gallons of soy biodiesel were produced in Iowa last year (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 4, 2019

Iowa produced about 80 million more gallons of biodiesel in 2018 than 2017, bringing the total up to about 365 million gallons. The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association estimates that Iowa generated about one fifth of total biodiesel produced in the U.S. last year.

Monte Shaw, the director of the IRFA, attributed the increase in production to reduced foreign imports of biodiesel. Last spring, the United States International Trade Commission determined that Argentina and Indonesia were selling biodiesel in the U.S. at unfairly low rates, harming the domestic industry. Subsequent tariffs increased demand for U.S.-produced biodiesel.

Much of the demand was met with soybean oil, which totaled about 81 percent of the market share, up from 2017. Corn oil comprised 10 percent, while animal fat dropped to 5 percent, and used cooking oil contributed about 4 percent of the share.

Shaw believes Iowa could produce even more biodiesel, up to 400 million gallons in its 12 facilities, if nationwide Renewable Fuel Standard levels were higher. These levels determine the minimum quantity of biofuel that U.S. transportation fuels must contain and are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Levels increase each year. In 2019, 2.1 billion gallons of biodiesel should be mixed into U.S. diesel. By 2020, the amount should increase to 2.43 billion gallons.