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39% of America's Energy Could One Day Be Generated by Rooftop Solar Panels

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The answer to America’s energy problems could be right under our noses—or, rather, right over our heads. According to a recent study by the Energy Department’s Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), America’s rooftops are full of untapped potential. In fact, up to 39 percent of America’s energy could be generated just by installing photovoltaic (PV) solar panels on urban rooftops.

Popular Science reports that NREL analyzed rooftops in 128 cities across the United States, representing about 23 percent of all buildings in the U.S., according to an NREL press statement. The researchers assessed the buildings' suitability for hosting PV solar panels and measured how much power could be generated by each location. They found that 83 percent of small buildings had the technical potential to host PV panels on part of their rooftop areas, while 26 percent could host an entire rooftop’s worth of panels.

Researchers say that their findings far exceeded previous estimates of the amount of power that could be generated by rooftops alone. Their analysis estimates that rooftops have a technical potential of 1118 gigawatts of capacity and 1432 terawatt-hours of annual energy generation, which would equal 39 percent of America’s total electricity sales (based on 2013 numbers).

However, it’s important to note that researchers analyzed technical potential only. That is, they considered resource availability and the availability of space without also analyzing economic or political factors—which means that while America may have the space for rooftop solar panels, it may not currently have the political will or a plan of action.

"An accurate estimate of PV's technical potential is a critical input in the development of regional deployment plans," explains researcher Pieter Gagnon. "Armed with this new data, municipalities, utilities, solar energy researchers, and other stakeholders will have a much-improved starting point for PV research and policymaking, both regionally and nationwide."

[h/t Popular Science]

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environment
A Coral Reef in Mexico Just Got Its Own Insurance Policy
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The Puerto Morelos coral reef, about 20 miles south of Cancún, is one of Mexico’s most popular snorkeling attractions. It also serves a vital purpose beyond drawing tourists. Like all reefs, it provides a buffer for the coast, protecting nearby beaches from brutal waves and storms. And so the beachside businesses that rely on the reef have decided to protect the coral as they would any other vital asset: with insurance. As Fast Company reports, the reef now has its own insurance policy, the first-ever policy of its kind.

Coral reefs are currently threatened by increasing ocean acidification, warmer waters, pollution, and other ocean changes that put them at risk of extinction. Mass coral bleachings are affecting reefs all over the world. That’s not to mention the risk of damage during extreme storms, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change.

Businesses in Puerto Morelos and Cancún pay the premiums for the Reef & Beach Resilience and Insurance Fund, and if the reef gets damaged, the insurance company will pay to help restore it. It’s not just an altruistic move. By protecting the Puerto Morelos reef, nearby businesses are protecting themselves. According to The Nature Conservancy, which designed the insurance policy, coral reef tourism generates around $36 billion for businesses around the world each year. Perhaps even more importantly to coastal businesses, reefs protect $6 billion worth of built capital (i.e. anything human-made) annually.

When a storm hits, the insurance company will pay out a claim in 10 days, according to Fast Company, providing an immediate influx of cash for urgent repair. (The insurance policy is tied to the event of a storm, not the damage, since it would be hard to immediately quantify the economic damage to a reef.) The corals that break off the reef can be rehabilitated at a nursery and reattached, but they have to be collected immediately. Waiting months for an insurance payout wouldn’t help if all the damaged corals have already floated away.

The insurance policy is one of many new initiatives designed to rehabilitate and protect endangered coastal ecosystems that we now know are vital to buffering the coast from storm surges and strong waves. Coral reefs aren’t the only protective reefs: In the eastern and southern coastal U.S., some restaurants have started donating oyster shells to help rebuild oyster reefs offshore as a storm protection and ecosystem rehabilitation measure.

Considering the outsized role reefs play in coastal protection, more insurance policies may be coming to ecosystems elsewhere in the world. Hopefully.

[h/t Fast Company]

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How Louisville Used GPS to Improve Residents' Asthma
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Louisville, Kentucky has some of the worst air pollution in the U.S., which is particularly bad news for the 85,000 people in surrounding Jefferson County (about 11 percent of the population [PDF]) who have been diagnosed with asthma.

The air quality situation in Louisville won’t be changing anytime soon, but a new study with sensor-equipped inhalers shows that technology can help people with asthma cope, as CityLab reports. The two-year AIR Louisville project involved the Louisville government, the Institute for Healthy Air Water and Soil, and a respiratory health startup called Propeller, which makes sensors for inhalers that can track location and measure air pollutants, humidity levels, and temperature.

Propeller's inhaler-mounted sensors allowed the researchers to monitor the relationship between asthma attacks and environmental factors and provided new insight on how air quality can change from neighborhood to neighborhood. The sensors—which are already used by doctors, but have never been deployed citywide before—can measure levels of nitrogen oxide, sulfur, ozone, particulate matter, and pollen in the air, plus track location, temperature, and humidity, all of which can impact the risk of asthma attacks. The sensors send Propeller data on when, where, and how many "puffs" patients take to track how often people are resorting to emergency medication.

Propeller sent out app notifications to warn the Louisville program participants of greater risk of an asthma attack on bad air quality days, and showed them where and when the most asthma attacks happened around the city.

An inhaler with a sensor on top of it lies next to a smartphone open to the Propeller app.
Propeller

The Propeller program illuminated just how much more asthma-triggering pollution the city’s west side (predominantly home to poor, African-American residents) faces compared to other neighborhoods. The data also showed that ozone provoked an uptick in asthma attacks throughout the city, namely along highways. The study may end up influencing air quality regulations, since the researchers found that air pollutants became problematic for asthma sufferers even under the legal levels.

The program had huge short-term benefits, too, beyond collecting research for city policies. By the time it ended in late June, the study clearly had a significant impact on the nearly 1200 people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who took part. The asthma group showed a decline in average inhaler use after a year. There was an 82 percent decline in people's weekly average uses of rescue inhalers at the 12-month follow-up, and the participants had twice the number of symptom-free days. The majority of participants said they understand their asthma "very well" or "well," can better control it, and feel confident about avoiding a bad asthma attack.

Now that the program is over, the institutions involved are still working to launch new policies based on the results, like creating citywide asthma alerts and planting more trees.

[h/t CityLab]

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