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Re-imagining clinical research to help diagnose hidden heart conditions

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Study authors and coordinators included (front row, left to right) Reina Estrada, Lauren Ariniello, Jill Waalen, Elisa Felicone, (back row) Eric Topol, Gail Ebner, Steven Steinhubl And Melissa Peters

Source: Scripps Research Center

By catching AFib, which can increase the risk of stroke fivefold, in people who are at risk but might have gone undiagnosed, the mobile health (mHealth) devices resulted in more people receiving critical preventive therapies, the study found.

“Our study shows an almost threefold improvement in the rate of diagnosis of AFib in the those actively monitored compared to usual care,” says Steven Steinhubl, MD, director of digital medicine at STSI and an associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). “Timely diagnosis of AFib more effectively can enable the initiation of effective therapies and help reduce strokes and death.”

Findings from the mHealth Screening To Prevent Strokes (mSToPS) study were published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

A need for better screening

As many as six million Americans live with AFib, an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that beyond its associated stroke risk also doubles the risk of death. Fortunately, effective therapies can help substantially reduce the risk of stroke in individuals diagnosed with AFib. However, approximately a third of individuals with the disorder are asymptomatic, and the lack of effective screening prevents or delays diagnosis and treatment.

Recent advances in digital medicine technologies present opportunities for both innovative screening strategies, as well as more inclusive and participant-centric approaches to clinical research. Novel mobile health (mHealth) devices can provide a means of monitoring AFib more effectively and continuously without interfering with routine activities.

The mSToPS study sought to compare outcomes of intermittent screening for AFib during regular visits to a primary care physician with continuous, single-lead electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring using a patch sensor. The primary objective was to determine whether monitoring with wearable sensor technology can identify people with asymptomatic AFib more efficiently than routine care.

Re-imagining clinical research

STSI researchers teamed with Aetna’s Healthagen Outcomes unit and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., to conduct the study using the FDA approved wireless iRhythm Zio®XT patch for ECG screening.  Aetna’s data and analytics made the innovative study design possible.

The study population consisted of members of the Aetna fully insured Commercial and Medicare health plans. Using Aetna’s data sets, eligible members were identified  based on clinical characteristics associated with a possible increased incidence of AFib. They were invited to participate in the study through a nationwide email outreach campaign that then enabled interested participants to enroll through a web-based digital consent process.

The digital outreach and enrollment, and the home-based approach meant that anyone who met the inclusion criteria could participate in the study, regardless of their geographical location.

All of the study data was participant-generated, with individuals self-applying the wearable sensor they received in the mail and returning it to iRhythm for analysis once they had worn the patch for up to two weeks. The generated data was also returned to the monitored participants and, with their approval, to their physicians.

A total of 5,214 individuals were included in the one-year analysis, with a third being assigned to the monitored cohort and the rest being observational controls. AFib was newly diagnosed in 6.3 percent of the monitored participants and in 2.4 percent of the controls.

According to Steinhubl, this is the first study to describe the early term clinical consequences of active ECG screening. By reviewing claims data, the researchers observed that active monitoring was associated with increased initiation of anticoagulant and antiarrhythmic therapies.

“This study demonstrates the utility of a digital approach not only to diagnosing asymptomatic AFib, but to the clinical research field as a whole,” says Steinhubl. “We hope that it will set a precedent for future real-world, participant-centric clinical trials that leverage the power of digital medicine technologies.”

STSI’s founder and director Eric Topol, MD, also a TSRI professor, deems the use of digital sensors as vital to the future of medicine and clinical research. “For clinical research to change practice it needs to be more participant focused and reflect the real world of those participants, by taking advantage of digital tools and infrastructure that is possible as never before,” says Topol.

Additional authors of the study, “Effect of a Home-Based Wearable Continuous ECG Monitoring Patch on Detection of Undiagnosed Atrial Fibrillation” were Jill Waalen, Lauren Ariniello and Katie Baca-Motes of the Scripps Translational Science Institute; Alison Edwards and Rajesh Mehta of Healthagen Outcomes; and Chureen Carter, Elise Felicione and Troy Sarich of Janssen Scientific Affairs.

The research was supported by a research grant from Janssen Pharmaceuticals. Additional support was provided by a National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences grant  (UL1TROO1114) and a grant from Qualcomm Foundation.

Source: Scripps Research Center

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Scientists: Make it Easier for the Public to Understand Your Reports!

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Carbon neutral? Mitigation? People don’t know the words scientists think they do.

If you’ve ever furrowed your brow trying to remember what “mitigation” meant, you’re not alone.

Many people don’t understand key terms experts use to talk about climate change, according to a recent study from researchers affiliated with the United Nations Foundation and the University of Southern California. Some of the most difficult-to-understand words were mitigation, referring to efforts to reduce emissions to slow down climate change, and carbon-neutral, when there’s no net increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Experts in a given field might think that technical language is more precise or more efficient than commonplace alternatives. But subjecting normal people to obscure terms can leave them feeling confused and disengaged and can sometimes encourage a head-in-the-sand response. Everyone has heard the advice “know your audience.” That’s easier said than done, especially since many specialists may not even realize what counts as jargon, with their non-expert days long in the past.

“Some of the people in our study were really concerned about climate change,” said Wändi Bruine de Bruin, a professor of psychology and behavioral science at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. “If they don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them, you could be missing an opportunity to make a difference.”

The researchers landed on a shortlist of terms for the study by talking with experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of U.N. scientists that released a dire report last month warning that greenhouse gas emissions were quickly destabilizing the climate with devastating and “irreversible” consequences. They picked words and phrases that were important for understanding climate policy but tend to get misinterpreted, like tipping point, carbon dioxide removal, and adaptation. Then the researchers interviewed 20 people, picked to provide a diversity of views, asking them to define these words and rate how easy they were to understand. The takeaway from the study: “many of the terms were unfamiliar or perceived as needlessly complex.”

More than half of the participants turned out to be unfamiliar with the meaning of mitigation in its climate change context, instead associating it with law or insurance, where the term refers to minimizing losses. “Mitigation, oh God I hate this word,” one person said. Another third appeared to conflate it with the similar-sounding “mediation,” where a neutral party helps resolve a conflict through discussion.

An informal survey by Grist of folks around Seattle revealed similar problems. Bud Goodwin, owner of Rising Sun Farms & Produce in Seattle, feels strongly that something needs to be done about climate change. Worsening droughts, wildfires, and heavy rains have hit the farmers who supply his fruits and vegetables. He said he’s heard the terms tipping point, carbon-neutral, and adaptation in the context of climate change. But he was stumped when it came to mitigation. “The only thing I can think of is ‘mitigating circumstances,’” he said. “That’s the only time I’ve heard of that used. And I don’t know if that’s the right context.”

Theo Henderson, who works at Third Place Books in north Seattle, was unsure what to make of the phrase tipping point when it’s used so widely in other contexts, like epidemiology, Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book, and iconic moments in sports. “It’s used in contradictory ways,” he said. “It’s almost like you just don’t want to say it anymore, because it means different things to different people.”

In a bit of irony, even the phrase used to talk about talking about climate change — “climate communication” — confounded some people on the streets of Seattle.

That general sense of confusion was reflected in the study. When asked about tipping point — a point of no return for ice shelves, ocean patterns, rainforests, or other systems central to life on Earth — people didn’t always see the link to the warming planet, instead thinking of a seesaw, a sudden change of mind, or difficulty going back to how things were before. Only 15 percent of those interviewed in the study mentioned climate change in their initial definition.

Another inscrutable phrase for some was carbon neutral, with just under half of people in the study understanding it right off the bat. Some people found the shorthand use of carbon confusing. “I know carbon is used in front of a lot of words, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide … Carbon neutral means – I don’t know,” one participant said.

Even putting the tricky words and phrases in context — the classic vocab-learning trick you learned in school — often failed to help people understand their meanings. The example sentences, pulled from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, were long and wordy and often filled with other jargon. See for yourself. Does the following sentence help you understand what sustainable development means? “Natural hazards, climate change, and societal vulnerability can pose fundamental limits to sustainable development.” (If you’re curious, the study describes sustainable development as “meeting the needs of people living today without compromising the needs of people living in the future.”)

Companies have helped muddy the picture by using buzzwords to tout their sustainability cred. You can buy “carbon-negative” hand sanitizer or a “climate positive” burger. In a recent survey commissioned by Yeo Valley, an organic dairy company in the United Kingdom, 79 percent of people said that eco-friendly jargon should be translated into plainer language.

There are plenty of ways to phrase things more simply, and communication experts have long advised specialists to do so. But the problem is, Bruine de Bruin said, scientists might not even realize which words are coming across as gibberish, having used mitigation for so long that they think it’s a simple, straightforward term. The concrete examples of misunderstandings quoted in the study, she said, and are “more powerful than people coming in saying, ‘Look, don’t use jargon.’”

Source: Grist

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Our Population Challenge Beyond Climate Change

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Do we plan for a secure and better life, or carry on blindly toward a minefield of lethal limits? 

 

By Brian McGavin, writer and environmentalist, is a director of Scientists Warning Europe. 

Most people are left in ignorance by politicians and mainstream media, who rarely think beyond the here and now. When informed about unsustainable consumption and human population growth they are shocked or deny the depth of interconnected challenges and the steps we need to take for a sustainable future, that go well beyond action on climate change.

 

The media invariably cloak population growth in terms of ‘increased demand’ – which narrow thinking growth economists portray as ‘good’ for growth. The key driver of overpopulation is at best ignored for ‘downstream’ sticking plaster responses by politicians and too often by ‘Greens’ who target ‘rights’ over ecological and resource realities.

 

“There is no social justice on a wrecked planet” –Brian McGavin

 

The type of powerful question put to former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – and his reply was notable. We need to frame more clear questions to our politicians like this.

 

“Human population growth has more than doubled in the past 50 years. The planet cannot sustain this growth. I realize this is a poisonous topic for politicians, but it’s crucial to face. Empowering women and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth seems a reasonable campaign to enact. Would you be courageous enough to discuss this issue and make it a key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe?”  

Sanders responded unambiguously: “Well, Martha, the answer is yes.”

 

Issue avoidance

A WWF reference to ‘mitigate human and elephant conflict’ in a newsletter doesn’t shout ever more human overpopulation pressure as a causal factor, or anything WWF wants to do about this. WWF advertising is a constant reset button of ‘save’ animals and give money so we can fight this decline – and it has been going on for over 50 years as our amazing bio-diversity crashes. NGOs and politicians need to engage in a much more honest dialog.

We face Systemic Population Denialism that is intellectually bankrupt and dangerously ignorant.  Where drastic exaggeration is used by people resistant to reality. When we raise our voices, we are obstructed by ill-informed media commentators with predicable recycled challenges on ageing population scares and how we need to increase births and immigration. Low birth-rate countries like Japan are NOT suffering a socio-economic crisis – and there are still 38 million people in the Tokyo metropolis alone!

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger observes:

‘Good democracy relies on good information’.

 

Professor John Beddington, UK Government Chief Scientist in March 2009 warned that:

Our food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water.”  

In 2017 over 20,000 scientist in 189 countries signed a Second Warning to Humanity, warning that humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in solving foreseen environmental challenges and most of them are getting much worse.

We simply don’t have the time for a gradualist message and we have to speed up the timeframe for action in people’s minds. Simplistic propositions by ill-informed, growthist commentators that developed economies were ideally placed to take in Africa’s exploding populations need shredding. Nor are we facing a ‘fertility collapse’, as growth pundits try to claim.

If governments won’t talk population, then they are not serious about cutting emissions, ensuring food supplies and a secure quality of life for our future.

At the heart of green politics is the simple premise that our prosperity depends completely on a healthy, functioning planet. Go on abusing the planet, go on ignoring climate change, go on ignoring population growth, and all else fails – including our deepest yearning for human rights.  (Jonathon Porritt, environmentalist)

We face huge interconnected challenges but it is easier to attract support for simple projects like saving a forest, than addressing ‘big-picture’ global problems. Major environmental groups keep their marketing too simple for the scale of the problems. Many environmental problems impact poor communities, but the social justice movement shows little interest in working with environmentalists on key challenges like biodiversity, resource depletion and overpopulation, deeming the latter as a racist agenda. We need to be clear and assertive not apologetic.

Environmental groups like XR and WWF talk about climate breakdown and ecological collapse but refuse to acknowledge the underlying over population demand driver, as they see it as ‘divisive, threatening or toxic’.

Unless we work collectively and stop creating wilful barriers of ignorance, because it might disturb people’s beliefs and comfort zones, we are leading our children to the abyss. A toxic intergenerational contract.

 

The ‘coercion’ taboo

Population concern organisations often run scared of any hint of population coercion. This can’t be sustained much longer as key resources decline and societies start to fall apart. In fact, society readily accepts values that could be interpreted as ‘coercive’ for the common good, with legal sanctions on the ‘freedom’ to drive at high speed in built up areas and fiscal incentives to discourage harmful behaviour. If we are to have any chance of a sustainable future we need to ‘incentivise’ fewer births rather than more, through the tax system and increase understanding so people make informed, socially responsible decisions in family size rather than merely saying it’s an individual choice.

 

Many people driven by self-centred beliefs will completely ignore calls for socially responsible decisions if this is all we are prepared to say. Yet social justice lobbies call for us to change to a vegan diet and travel less to compensate for ‘unavoidable’ population growth pressures.

 

 A long-term sustainable population is a ‘life-affirming’ message with many benefits for living standards and reduced infrastructure pressures.

 

Several countries, like Taiwan, Japan, Iran and Bangladesh) have transitioned to lower birth rates without coercion.

What about the rights of children to a sustainable future, rather than the ‘rights’ of parents to have large families?

 

The Ageing Population Scare – a transition not a crisis. The challenge of supporting aging populations is grossly over emphasized.  We spend more on cosmetics than we will need to support a temporary rise in older people. It is a phony argument that we need more people and more immigration to support ageing populations. Young people generally cost society more – in crime, in education and other ways. With typical short-term vision, we forget that all these extra young people get old too and will need support. The media and politicians never highlight this.

Mainstream media invariably frames any population decline as a ‘bad’ that has to be reversed for our continued well-being and economic growth.

 

A typical example appeared in The Times (UK) July 4, 2019 headlining Italian birth rates fall to lowest since 1861, “Prompting fears that the country is facing a sharp demographic decline.” “Russia is facing an even graver demographic crisis after the UN warned that its population could fall to half the present level by the end of the century.”

 

Another country with a ‘worryingly’ declining population is ‘stagnant’ Japan.  Yet the greater Tokyo metropolis is currently the world’s most populated city at around 38 million. Japan is well organised and on current fertility rates is projected to leave the list of world’s largest cities to be replaced before 2100 by Lagos at 88 million, Kinshasa 83m and Kabul in 10th place at 50m. (Population predictions for the world’s largest cities in the 21st century, Daniel Hoornweg, University of Ontario and Kevin Pope) 2017).  These cities are already chaotic at their current populations. Imagine them facing such numbers.

 

Sustainable numbers and UN Goals

The Second Scientists Warning to Humanity in 2017 listed 13 action points. The last point (m) said: “estimating a scientifically defensible sustainable human population size for the long term. Rallying nations is the UN’s job, but how do we define a long-term sustainable population?   

Global population is still growing at 1.036% a year and consumption at 3% a year, with resources declining rapidly.

Using Global Footprint data, the current average ecological footprint per capita would mean a sustainable population size for the long term would now be around 4.4 billion. But since there is no allowance made in this regularly updated snapshot for leaving any bio-capacity to conserve biodiversity, or depletion of non-renewable resources and enabling developing countries to reach more equitable living standards, we have to look at a lower population stabilisation nearer 3 billion – a number endorsed by respected ecologists like David Pimentel and Paul Ehrlich.

 

Unless we work collectively and stop creating wilful barriers of ignorance, because it might ‘disturb people’s beliefs and comfort zones’, our society and much of the planet’s bio-diversity will collapse before the end of the century, as critical food, energy and water resources become ever scarcer. Some might survive in an oppressive dystopia. We must plan for an equitable and responsible transition that preserves much of the diversity of our planet and a viable future for our children.

 

Cycle of silence.

Media coverage of environmental issues varies but remains historically low given its critical importance. There has been an upswing of concern with climate change and Extinction Rebellion protests but the media soon drifts back to celebrity gossip, economic growth and sport.

 

Today’s social media, with its narrow-framed ‘follow’ tags and identity politics, too often fails to see a wider connected picture. Dealing with complex issues on Twitter in 140 characters is practically impossible in a chain of slogans and responses. Celebrity manufactured social media gossip is off the scale of any proportionality and meaning. The baby boomer generation, not content with hoovering up household wealth and pensions of the generations below them are stealing from the future to pay for the present, while millennial media bubbles obsess with identity politics and seeking ‘safe space’. What matters is shaping the complex interactions and events we are all living through – absurd house prices, growing ecological collapse and the declining hope that tomorrow will be better than today

 

We are facing multiple and urgent global challenges, while the sheer stupidity of global turf wars for domination in fragile countries across the Middle East and Africa continue. We must appeal to sanity and the wider issues we must tackle.

 

Overpopulation and demand drives people to destroy the very resources they need to survive – freshwater, soils and forests. The social justice movement shows no interest in working with environmentalists. They simply have no concept of the impact of endless growth in our numbers and demand on biodiversity, infrastructure pressures and food security.

Religious extremism, from fundamentalist Christians, to ultra-orthodox Jews, to patriarchal Muslim cultures who all believe large families are integral to their beliefs and ignore the multiple environmental and social impacts is another barrier to sustainability. The denial of fertility management support translates into coercive child-bearing.

.

Given the immense challenges that will likely see starvation and conflict over remaining resources in the lifetime of people alive today, why would we think it better to create energy shortages, food shortages, lowered quality of life, a housing crisis, grid-locked traffic, bio-diversity loss, and many more calamities caused by ever increasing population pressures?

 

A lower population offers an enormous upside to environmental and social problems.

 

  • We avoid awful things like mass starvation, resource wars, rising pollution and catastrophic bio-diversity loss.

 

  • Small families in developing countries helps parents to afford their children’s education.

 

  • Ever more people simply drives humanity to a lower and lower standard of living.

 

  • Climate breakdown is an acknowledged danger, yet governments ignore the simple, most cost effective step we can take to reduce emissions – having fewer children. Several studies have shown this. (See drawdown.org and Wynes and Nicholas).

 

A number of tactics are widely used to grossly exaggerate claims and suppress discussion. There are common sense answers to all these challenges.

 

  • Population shaming Worrying about population growth and advocating for stabilisation and reduction is motivated by morally reprehensible characteristics like racism.
  • Population growth is good. Economies thrive with more people – increasing consumption. Population and technology gamble will resolve environmental problems of more people. Population fatalism Population may be a problem but there’s nothing we can do about it. Don’t scare the kids is a new media angle since climate warnings by teen activists.
  • Large families are caused by poverty. But large families amongst the rich go unnoticed. Regular TV shows showcase large families without any thought of the impact on others.
  • Lack of infrastructure is the fault of austerity not demand. Lack of housing and hospital beds is blamed on government cutbacks. We simply turn swords into ploughshares and infrastructure will be delivered. But the need to reduce total throughput and impact is ignored.
  • China’s former One-Child policy was coercive and denied ‘human rights’. In fact, China’s one-child policy was widely supported by the people because they were well informed by the government on the benefits. It lifted millions out poverty, helped China’s spectacular rise in living standard and only applied to people in cities. People in rural areas could have two children.  Now China has dropped the limit, with a still huge population because it swallowed the scare that there will be too few young people to support the transient phenomenon of an ageing population.
  • The Ageing Population Scare – a transition not a crisis. The challenge of supporting aging populations is grossly over emphasized. We spend more on cosmetics than we will need to support a temporary rise in older people. It is a phony argument that we need more young people and more immigration to support an ageing population. Young people generally cost society more – in crime, in education and many other ways. We forget they get old too and will need support. The media and politicians never highlight this.
  • Malthus was wrong. We are doing fine. Thomas Malthus’s essay in 1798 on the Principle of Population, predicting mass starvation if human numbers kept on rising, was only wrong in his timing. He couldn’t then know of the one-time binge the discovery of fossil fuels would give to global economic growth and how oil enabled the development of intensive agriculture.

 

Population Ignorant statements

Many media commentators ignore “doomsday” warnings, not because there is no supporting evidence, but because it does not fit with their long-held convictions of how the world works. Other tactics include ‘the practice of ‘Defamation’ to censor inconvenient truths.

Being a ‘National Treasure’ appears to be a license to talk rot.  (Alex Massie. The Spectator, 26/9/2013). Take the case of Sir David Attenborough. The poor booby is another neo-Malthusian. Which is another reminder that expertise in one area is no guarantee of good sense in another.

 

Australian bishop raps Green Party campaign on population fears 19/8/ 2010. Bishop Anthony Fisher. “The fears of a population explosion are absurd. Australia has close to the lowest population density in the world. Most of our country by far is uninhabited.”   (Yes – it’s desert!)

 

We have to change the mind-set of political leaders. Swedish Minister Ylva Johansson said her country “would take in refugees and “improve its population demographics with a smile.”

 

Brian McGavin, writer and environmentalist, is a director of Scientists Warning Europe. 

 

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The Clean Facts about Renewable Energy

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Renewable Energy: The Clean Facts

Wind and solar are powering a clean energy revolution. Here’s what you need to know about renewables and how you can help make an impact at home.
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Renewable power is booming, as innovation brings down costs and starts to deliver on the promise of a clean energy future. American solar and wind generation are breaking records and being integrated into the national electricity grid without compromising reliability.

This means that renewables are increasingly displacing “dirty” fossil fuels in the power sector, offering the benefit of lower emissions of carbon and other types of pollution. But not all sources of energy marketed as “renewable” are beneficial to the environment. Biomass and large hydroelectric dams create difficult tradeoffs when considering the impact on wildlife, climate change, and other issues. Here’s what you should know about the different types of renewable energy sources—and how you can use these emerging technologies at your own home.

What Is Renewable Energy?

Renewable energy, often referred to as clean energy, comes from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished. For example, sunlight or wind keep shining and blowing, even if their availability depends on time and weather.

While renewable energy is often thought of as a new technology, harnessing nature’s power has long been used for heating, transportation, lighting, and more. Wind has powered boats to sail the seas and windmills to grind grain. The sun has provided warmth during the day and helped kindle fires to last into the evening. But over the past 500 years or so, humans increasingly turned to cheaper, dirtier energy sources such as coal and fracked gas.

Now that we have increasingly innovative and less-expensive ways to capture and retain wind and solar energy, renewables are becoming a more important power source, accounting for more than one-eighth of U.S. generation. The expansion in renewables is also happening at scales large and small, from rooftop solar panels on homes that can sell power back to the grid to giant offshore wind farms. Even some entire rural communities rely on renewable energy for heating and lighting.

As renewable use continues to grow, a key goal will be to modernize America’s electricity grid, making it smarter, more secure, and better integrated across regions.

Dirty energy

Nonrenewable, or “dirty,” energy includes fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal. Nonrenewable sources of energy are only available in limited amounts and take a long time to replenish. When we pump gas at the station, we’re using a finite resource refined from crude oil that’s been around since prehistoric times.

Nonrenewable energy sources are also typically found in specific parts of the world, making them more plentiful in some nations than others. By contrast, every country has access to sunshine and wind. Prioritizing nonrenewable energy can also improve national security by reducing a country’s reliance on exports from fossil fuel–rich nations.

Many nonrenewable energy sources can endanger the environment or human health. For example, oil drilling might require strip-mining Canada’s boreal forest, the technology associated with fracking can cause earthquakes and water pollution, and coal power plants foul the air. To top it off, all these activities contribute to global warming.

Types of Renewable Energy Sources

Solar Energy

Humans have been harnessing solar energy for thousands of years—to grow crops, stay warm, and dry foods. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “more energy from the sun falls on the earth in one hour than is used by everyone in the world in one year.” Today, we use the sun’s rays in many ways—to heat homes and businesses, to warm water, or power devices.

Solar, or photovoltaic (PV), cells are made from silicon or other materials that transform sunlight directly into electricity. Distributed solar systems generate electricity locally for homes and businesses, either through rooftop panels or community projects that power entire neighborhoods. Solar farms can generate power for thousands of homes, using mirrors to concentrate sunlight across acres of solar cells. Floating solar farms—or “floatovoltaics”—can be an effective use of wastewater facilities and bodies of water that aren’t ecologically sensitive.

Solar supplies a little more than 1 percent of U.S. electricity generation. But nearly a third of all new generating capacity came from solar in 2017, second only to natural gas.

Solar energy systems don’t produce air pollutants or greenhouse gases, and as long as they are responsibly sited, most solar panels have few environmental impacts beyond the manufacturing process.

Wind Energy

We’ve come a long way from old-fashioned wind mills. Today, turbines as tall as skyscrapers—with turbines nearly as wide in diameter—stand at attention around the world. Wind energy turns a turbine’s blades, which feeds an electric generator and produces electricity.

Wind, which accounts for a little more than 6 percent of U.S. generation, has become the cheapest energy source in many parts of the country. Top wind power states include California, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa, though turbines can be placed anywhere with high wind speeds—such as hilltops and open plains—or even offshore in open water.

Other Alternative Energy Sources

Hydroelectric Power

Hydropower is the largest renewable energy source for electricity in the United States, though wind energy is soon expected to take over the lead. Hydropower relies on water—typically fast-moving water in a large river or rapidly descending water from a high point—and converts the force of that water into electricity by spinning a generator’s turbine blades.

Nationally and internationally, large hydroelectric plants—or mega-dams—are often considered to be nonrenewable energy. Mega-dams divert and reduce natural flows, restricting access for animal and human populations that rely on rivers. Small hydroelectric plants (an installed capacity below about 40 megawatts), carefully managed, do not tend to cause as much environmental damage, as they divert only a fraction of flow.

Biomass Energy

Biomass is organic material that comes from plants and animals, and includes crops, waste wood, and trees. When biomass is burned, the chemical energy is released as heat and can generate electricity with a steam turbine.

Biomass is often mistakenly described as a clean, renewable fuel and a greener alternative to coal and other fossil fuels for producing electricity. However, recent science shows that many forms of biomass—especially from forests—produce higher carbon emissions than fossil fuels. There are also negative consequences for biodiversity. Still, some forms of biomass energy could serve as a low-carbon option under the right circumstances. For example, sawdust and chips from sawmills that would otherwise quickly decompose and release carbon can be a low-carbon energy source.

Geothermal Energy

If you’ve ever relaxed in a hot spring, you’ve used geothermal energy. The earth’s core is about as hot as the sun’s surface, due to the slow decay of radioactive particles in rocks at the center of the planet. Drilling deep wells brings very hot underground water to the surface as a hydrothermal resource, which is then pumped through a turbine to create electricity. Geothermal plants typically have low emissions if they pump the steam and water they use back into the reservoir. There are ways to create geothermal plants where there are not underground reservoirs, but there are concerns that they may increase the risk of an earthquake in areas already considered geological hot spots.

Ocean

Tidal and wave energy is still in a developmental phase, but the ocean will always be ruled by the moon’s gravity, which makes harnessing its power an attractive option. Some tidal energy approaches may harm wildlife, such as tidal barrages, which work much like dams and are located in an ocean bay or lagoon. Like tidal power, wave power relies on dam-like structures or ocean floor–anchored devices on or just below the water’s surface.

Renewable Energy in the Home

Solar Power

At a smaller scale, we can harness the sun’s rays to power the whole house—whether through PV cell panels or passive solar home design. Passive solar homes are designed to welcome in the sun through south-facing windows and then retain the warmth through concrete, bricks, tiles, and other materials that store heat.

Some solar-powered homes generate more than enough electricity, allowing the homeowner to sell excess power back to the grid. Batteries are also an economically attractive way to store excess solar energy so that it can be used at night. Scientists are hard at work on new advances that blend form and function, such as solar skylights and roof shingles.

Geothermal Heat Pumps

Geothermal technology is a new take on a recognizable process—the coils at the back of your fridge are a mini heat pump, removing heat from the interior to keep foods fresh and cool. In a home, geothermal or geoexchange pumps use the constant temperature of the earth (a few feet below the surface) to cool homes in summer and warm houses in winter—and even to heat water.

Geothermal systems can be initially expensive to install but typically pay off within 10 years. They are also quieter, have fewer maintenance issues, and last longer than traditional air conditioners.

Small Wind Systems

A backyard wind farm? Boats, ranchers, and even cell phone companies use small wind turbines regularly. Dealers now help site, install, and maintain wind turbines for homeowners, too—although some DIY enthusiasts are installing turbines themselves. Depending on your electricity needs, wind speeds, and zoning rules in your area, a wind turbine may reduce your reliance on the electrical grid.

Selling the Energy You Collect

Wind- and solar energy–powered homes can either stand alone or get connected to the larger electrical grid, as supplied by their power provider. Electric utilities in most states allow homeowners to only pay the difference between the grid-supplied electricity consumed and what they have produced—a process called net metering. If you make more electricity than you use, your provider may pay you retail price for that power.

Renewable Energy and You

Advocating for renewables, or using them in your home, can accelerate the transition toward a clean energy future. Even if you’re not yet able to install solar panels, you may be able to opt for electricity from a clean energy source. (Contact your power company to ask if it offers that choice.) If renewable energy isn’t available through your utility, you can purchase renewable energy certificates to offset your use.

Source: National Resource Defense Council


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