Solar panels bring new life to Chernobyl disaster site

The Ukrainian government is seeking to bring new life to the abandoned plant. (/shutterstock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | January 16th, 2018

Sections of the long-abandoned site of the 1986 nuclear accident are being repurposed by the Ukrainian government for solar power.

Around 25 square kilometers have been opened up for solar projects and energy proposals, most taking place within the “sarcophagus”–a metal dome designed to seal leftover radiation leakage away from nearby residents. Solar panels are attached to concrete slabs placed over the toxic soil, facing skyward; once up and running, the panels are estimated to produce enough energy to consistently power a small village–around 2,000 homes.

Chernobyl’s nuclear plant stood near the small village of Pripyat, back when Ukraine was under control of the USSR. During a safety test, one of the reactors within the plant exploded from steam pressure, spewing toxic radiation into the air and killing approximately 32 people. The plant itself continued to run after the meltdown until its eventual shutdown in December of 2000, but the surrounding land has suffered the consequences of radiation fallout well after the initial disaster.

The earth surrounding the nuclear site is too poisoned and damaged to be farmed or inhabited, so the government sought another way to utilize this skeleton of a plant; a memorial to one of the country’s greatest environmental disasters.

Yevgen Varyagin, the current head of the Chernobyl Solar Project, is passionate about the potential the site has for producing clean energy: “It shouldn’t be a black hole in the middle of Ukraine.


On The Radio–Bitcoin and the environment

Bitcoin is a growing digital currency with real-life environmental consequences. (link)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | January 15th, 2018

This week’s segment looks at Bitcoin, the rise of digital currency and its surprisingly large impact on the environment.


The rise of digital currency, Bitcoin, may be impacting the environment.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

There are lot of mixed feelings about Bitcoin. The currency has been slowly attracting investors as its value rose to $17,000 in December. Bitcoin is unique in that it is a completely digital product, and is not tied to any central bank. Transactions of the money are done between people directly, with no government authorities or banks involved.

Huge data centers use multiple computers to generate Bitcoin by processing algorithms, data chains, and complicated formulas. The entire process is difficult to follow, even for investors. The main problem with Bitcoin is the energy required to make it.

This year, the currency required 2 terawatts of energy to produce. That’s enough energy to power three million homes. As the currency grows, more and more algorithms need to be solved and worked through by these data centers. According to meteorologist Eric Holthaus, if Bitcoin is continuously mined at this rate, the energy consumption by 2019 would be enough to power the United States.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

California aims for greener, cleaner buildings

California continues efforts to become a green state. (shutterstock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | January 4rd, 2018

The state of California is attempting to further their cause for green energy. Throughout 2017, the state released policies through a bill aimed at reducing the use of gas and electricity in their major buildings, following a report from 2016 that listed California’s commercial and residential buildings as some top contributors to carbon emissions in the United States.

The move includes an efficiency policy proposed by the CEC (California Energy Commission), which establishes “energy targets” for gas and electricity–key amounts that buildings should try not to go over if they want to continue being energy-efficient.

The move also proposes replacing some gas-powered utilities with electricity-powered ones, like water heating.

The overall goal of the bill is to reduce California carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

China begins collecting an “environment tax”

China tries to hit back at its pollution problem. (istock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | January 2nd, 2018

As a further effort to protect the environment and cut down on pollution,  China began collecting an environment tax on January 1st, 2018.

The move is part of their Environmental Protection Tax Law, set to replace the more informal pollution discharge fee. The previous discharge fee, established in 1979, was China’s first attempt at controlling “dirty energy”, but the fee fell victim to loopholes exploited by smaller government bodies that exempted larger companies from the fee. Environmentalists and scientists called for a law to officially replace the fee system, as a way to better enforce pollution regulations. Some of these concerns cropped up after over 18000 Chinese officials failed or almost failed environmental regulation inspections.

The new law specifically targets public institutions and companies that release certain pollutants into the air, water, and soil. Companies are taxed for producing noise air, water and solid waste pollution, and are encouraged to come up with alternatives to reduce their pollution output.

The move is part of China’s overall plan to become a more green nation within the next few years.

On The Radio–The 4th national Climate Change Assessment

Scientists discuss methods of helping the environment in the recent assessment. (flickr)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | January 1st, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the recently released Climate Change Assessment.

Transcript: In early December, the first draft of the 4th national climate change assessment was released.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The National Climate Change Assessment comes out every four years. The goal of the assessment is to update the scientific community’s understanding of climate change, and suggest solutions on how to adapt to these changes.

The two biggest issues highlighted in the statement that will affect Iowa are increases in humidity and temperature.

The temperature of the Gulf of Mexico is rising. This is creating warmer and moister water vapor which is being pushed to the Midwest because of high pressure from the east and low pressure from the west. The exaggerated northward flow of moisture to the Midwest is increasing precipitation, creating more overall humidity, and more extreme rainfall in the late spring and early summer.

The Midwest’s average temperature has gone up 1.2 degrees since 1990, and is predicted to have the highest temperature increase in the country by mid-century. This will create challenges for the pollination cycle for the crops, forest health, and other ecosystems.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.


Solar panels are helping Rohingya lives


Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | December 28th, 2017

The Rohingya people are using portable solar panels to improve their otherwise drastic situation.

Muslim Rohingya refugees have been fleeing violence and unrest in Myanmar to seek safety in Bangladesh, moving in droves. The persecution of the Myanmar minority group has escalated and forced many to evacuate, a situation that has only worsened in the past four months. With few belongings and family members to watch over, many of the refugees have little to their name; those who have lost loved ones have only images and videos on cell phones as a reminder of their loss.

But with tragedy comes strength and resourcefulness, and the Rohingya have found ways to make their lives of uncertainty more survivable.

The trek to Bangladesh from Myanmar is a dangerous one, mostly navigated on foot and taking around two weeks for some to finish. Many families bring their solar panels along, tied to their backs or bags. As heavy and cumbersome as solar panels can be, they are the primary source of electricity in native Rohingya-occupied areas, where the Myanmar government has not provided any semblance of electric infrastructure.

As the minority group flees to safety, the panels become even more vital, providing light and charging phones in rough campsites set up by the survivors. Most small panels cost around $15. While the price tag is large for those with little money, the value of a solar panel is indispensable.

The US pledges to withdraw from UNESCO

Questions and concerns are raised as the US prepares to leave the organization (allience)
Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | December 27,  2017

President Trump announced this month that the United States would be withdrawing its involvement with UNESCO by the end of 2018.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is one that the US itself helped form, after World War II. The decision was preceded by many years of unpaid funding fees; the US bill of funding technically owed to UNESCO adds up to over $550 million.

There are multiple reasons for the withdrawal–including disagreements between the United States and UNESCO about Israel. The main question, however, is this: how will this move affect the environment?

UNESCO is heavily involved with environmental well-being, though that is not its only goal as an organization. Its Natural Science Sector runs multiple international environmental programs from its headquarters in Paris, including Man and Biosphere, a program launched to protect the environments of areas nominated by the national government of that area’s country.

The US has pledged to remain involved with UNESCO as an observer and to consider the organization’s findings when making decisions.