Dear EarthTalk: What does the budget sequester that recently took hold mean for the environment? -- Jane Burgos, Los Angeles, CA
The sequester that went into effect March 1 is a budget measure that cuts federal spending across the board to the tune of $85 billion, meaning every federal agency is affected and must reduce discretionary spending. Indeed, the cuts are already having a negative impact on everything from air quality monitoring to extreme weather response capability to staffing at national parks.
Among other negative impacts, sequester-based
Some of the harshest cuts are starting to kick in at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On the chopping block there are some critical air monitoring sites that check for dangerous pollutants like ozone and particulate matter, as well as funding the agency has traditionally given states to monitor their own air quality. The agency is also reducing the number of staffers tasked with monitoring compliance with environmental laws, and will do around 1,000 fewer inspections accordingly in 2013.
Meanwhile, sequester-based cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mean reduced response efforts following weather disasters, which are on the rise due to climate change. Likewise, cuts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mean less funding for maintenance and operations of some weather-monitoring systems, including the national radar network used for tornado warnings, and a delay in launching two new satellites designed to help track severe weather events like hurricanes. Also, sequester-based cuts to funding for the repair or replacement of decaying water and wastewater infrastructure are putting local drinking water at risk in communities from coast to coast.
One way we’ll feel the pain this summer is via staff cuts and closures at national parks and historic sites. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the sequester is responsible for an indefinite delay in reopening the Statue of Liberty after Hurricane Sandy (though as of this writing Liberty Island will re-open July 4 while Ellis Island will remain closed) and for undermining his ability to fight fires and clean up after storms.
The sequester also means less natural resource management. Fewer funds for fishery stock assessments means Alaskan fisheries may remain closed for longer than needed given lack of data on fish runs. And sequester cuts reduce efforts to combat illegal overfishing. Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture will treat 200,000 fewer acres this summer for “hazardous fuel,” meaning a higher risk of wildfires.
On the energy front, outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu reports that the sequester jeopardizes ongoing research into increasing automobile fuel efficiency and reducing gasoline consumption, in turn slowing down the country’s quest for energy independence. Also, less funding means less oversight of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas and research into the environmental impacts of the practice.
Green group leaders are especially annoyed that under the sequester oil companies get to keep billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies while drastic budget cuts limit the EPA’s ability to monitor, limit and clean up the pollution they cause. Perhaps the one silver lining is a slowdown in the issuance of new off-shore oil and gas development permits given cuts at the Department of Energy.
CONTACTS: NRDC Sequester Fact Sheet, http://docs.nrdc.org/globalwarming/files/glo_12110801a.pdf.
Dear EarthTalk: I’m getting my roof redone and have heard about solar shingles. Are they available—and are they practical for the Northeast? -- John Denson, Glastonbury, CT
Recently solar shingles have become price-competitive with bolt-on
Solar shingles are photovoltaic cells designed to look like and integrate with conventional asphalt roof shingles. First commercially available in 2005, solar shingles were much more costly than traditional “bolt-on” photovoltaic panels, and thus were used mainly by those wanting to go solar but maintain a traditional roofline. But more recently solar shingles have become price-competitive with bolt-on panels, and are getting much more popular accordingly. Eco-conscious home and building owners might find solar shingles especially attractive when they are re-shingling anyway since the solar shingles also double as functional, protective and weatherproof roof shingles in their own right.
The biggest name in solar shingles is Dow’s Powerhouse line, which uses cutting edge Copper Indium Gallium Selenide solar cells (aka “thin-film” solar) to turn sunlight into electricity via a supplied inverter box. The Powerhouse shingles generate 12 watts per square foot and are “grid-tied,” meaning they’re designed for structures already connected to the power grid and can send excess power back to the grid. They are wireless, snap together and can be installed by regular roofing contractors just like (or alongside) conventional asphalt shingles (an electrician needs to set up the inverter box).
Dow reports that a typical residential cluster of 350 solar singles on a roof could slash one’s household electric bill by 40-60 percent. Such an installation can cost a homeowner over $20,000, but federal, state and local incentives can bring the cost to half that in some areas. Powerhouse shingles are currently available (from Dow-authorized contractors) in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Washington, D.C.
Another leader in solar shingles is building products manufacturer CertainTeed. The company’s Apollo line of grid-tied monocrystalline solar shingles and roofing tiles offers efficiency similar to larger “bolt-on” photovoltaic arrays at around the same price (and incentives similar to those for Dow may also apply) but with less bulk: Each Apollo tile is less than an inch thick and will integrate with, replace, or lay on top of existing asphalt roof shingles or tiles and generate 12 watts of power per square foot.
CertainTeed says a typical installation will save homeowners 40-70 percent on their electric bills. Their Apollo products are available across the U.S. but the company recommends using one of their authorized roofing contractors to make sure they are installed properly.
Now is an especially good time to go solar—shingles or otherwise—because costs have started to come down and the federal government is still offering 30 percent tax credits with no cap on the purchase of solar electricity equipment. Twenty-seven states and several cities offer additional incentives that can get pricing on solar gear and installations down even lower. For more information check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), a free online resource provided by the North Carolina Solar Center and IREC with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.