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April 17 Green Energy News

Opinion:

  • “No, the IPCC climate report doesn’t call for a fracking boom” Interpretations of the report saying it endorses fracking, urging a “dash for gas” as a bridge fuel to put us on a path to a more renewable energy future are exaggerated, lack context, and are just plain wrong. [Grist]

Science and Technology:

  • Newly built wind and solar with natural-gas as a backup can make power a fifth cheaper than nuclear backed by gas, the study by consultant Prognos AG shows. It says excluding the backup generation, renewables produce power 50% cheaper than nuclear. [Moneyweb.co.za]
  • The IPCC report is positive on renewables’ ability to deal with carbon emissions. It addresses nuclear power as a possible solution, but also underscores considerable barriers for it. The combination illustrates the conclusion that nuclear is largely irrelevant. [Scoop.co.nz]

World:

  • When the wind blows and the sun shines in Germany, electricity prices in the country plummet. Natural gas peaker plants are not needed, as the peaks are erased and they cannot compete with renewables. But the grid still needs balancing resources like demand response. [Energy Collective]
  • Germany’s RWE expects profits to stabilise beyond 2014, albeit at a lower level. It will target customer-friendly products to offset a decline in traditional power generation. Renewable power and lower demand has made many of its fossil fuel plants redundant. [Business Spectator]
  • Australian households are driving the country towards a clean energy future by themselves, spending billions on generating their own electricity and providing nearly two-thirds of all investment in renewables in Australia in 2013, and virtually all of it in 2014. [RenewEconomy]
  • Turbines located in a sea-wall stretching across a Bristol Channel bay could provide power to over half a million homes while combating coastal erosion, preventing floods and regenerating the local economy, according to the company behind the idea. [Western Morning News]
  • The Australian Capitol Territory government is set to announce the next stage of its introduction of large clean energy projects with a reverse auction for 200 MW of wind-generated electricity. The goal is to have 90% renewable sources by 2020. [The Canberra Times]
  • GE’s Digital Energy is helping Scottish Power integrate renewable energy onto power grid. GE will provide series compensation capabilities to three facilities in southern Scotland, helping the utility meet and mitigate today’s highly complex and technical grid challenges. [PennEnergy]

US:

  • President Obama will challenge companies Thursday to expand their use of solar power, part of his ongoing effort to leverage the power of his office to achieve goals that have been stymied by Congress. [Washington Post]
  • Private sector interest may be helping drive the wind sector forward. IKEA says the Hoopeston Wind facility outside of Chicago will provide 165% of the electricity needed for its entire US retail and distribution footprint. [OilPrice.com]
  • For the tenth consecutive year, Xcel Energy has been named the country’s top wind energy provider. As of 2013, Xcel Energy had 5,080 MW of wind energy on its systems, enough wind power to meet the energy needs of about 2.5 million homes. [AltEnergyMag]
  • Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative has entered into a power purchase agreement with an affiliate of juwi solar Inc. to develop, design and construct the 10.0-megawatt (MW) Rockfish Solar facility on 80 acres in Charles County, Maryland. [Southern Maryland News Net]

April 2014 Green Energy Times Online

Table of Contents

Page Section Article (titles are links to the articles)
1 Front cover Vermont Capital Commits to Net Zero
1 Front cover It’s Too Late
1 Front cover We Should Get on with Building the Pipeline! … a pipeline of wind and solar projects!
2 Page 2 Happy Spring to You
3 Page 3 View From the Top – Why are we pretending natural gas isn’t a fossil fuel?
4 Transportation “Car Brain” and the Slow Transportation Movement
4 Transportation Electric Vehicle Forum & Demo Coming to the Upper Valley
5 Transportation Best Options for Fuel Efficient Vehicles for 2014
5 Community Idle-Free Vermont – New Smart Commute Program
6 Community Public Transportation is Working
6 Community Smart Commuting in Vermont and New Hampshire
7 Community Solar-Powered LED Streetlights for Rutland
7 Community Monadnock Community Solar Initiative Progress Report
7 Community Solarize Putney
7 Community Solarize Norwich Update
8 Solar Geting to Know Your Solar Installers
9 Solar Solar Roof Shingles
10 Solar Twenty-Year Solar Revolution – Solarfest from 1994-2014
11 Solar Solarize Upper Valley Gears Up
12 Solar NhSolarGarden: A New Green Energy Dynamic
12 Solar Locally-Made in Plymouth NH
13 Solar Batteries for Home and Grid
14 Geothermal & Hydro Local Geothermal and Solar Companies Collaborate for Super-Efficient Homes
15 Wind How Does Windpower Compare as a Bird-Killer?
15 Wind Cape Wind Victory
15 Wind Towns that Went All the Way – Greensburg, Kansas
17 Incentives Vermont’s Swift Passage of Net-Metering Expansion
17 Incentives An Energy-Efficient Future for the Granite State
18 Heating From Heating to Cooling, Heat Pumps are a Win-Win!
19 Passive House Passive House Revolution
20 Dining & Lodging 900 Degree Pizzeria is Sustainably Delicious
21 Dining & Lodging Dining and Lodging – Brought to you Sustainably
22 Energy Efficiency High Efficiency Window Air Conditioners
22 Energy Efficiency My Lightbulb will Outlive Me
24 Climate Change World Water Day
25 News, Clues, … Book Review: Sustainable Communities
26 Building Efficiency Introducing the Concepts of Building Science
27 Building Efficiency Green Builders in our Midst – Wright Construction
28 Building Efficiency Energy Efficient Windows Part 2 – Window Types
29 Building Efficiency Renovating Green
30 Sust. Agriculture Creating your Habitat for a Sustainable Future
30 Sust. Agriculture Plan Now for Saving Your Seeds
31 Sust. Agriculture Kick the Chemicals: The Move Away from Synthetic Fertilizers Toward Healthier Gardening
31 Sust. Agriculture Emerging Frontiers in Bioenergy: Growing Sunflowers for Biodiesel Production
32 Sust. Agriculture Elmore Roots Permaculture Tips: Growing Blueberries Successfully in the North
32 Sust. Education Stowe School Saves Big on Heating Costs
33 Sust. Education The Nature of Things – From LEED-Certified Buildings to Fairy Shrimp
34 Green Life New Affordability Programs at Neighboring Co-ops
35 Green Life Ingredient of the Month – Toluene
35 Green Life Genetic Engineering and Synthetic Biology
36 Green Life Electric Lawnmowers Lowdown
36 Green Life Greening Your Lawn Naturally
37 Green Life Milk Paint – Perfect for the Nursery
37 Green Life Awnings Against Air Conditioning 
38 Green Life Earth Day and Spring Cleaning
39 Green Life The Cost of Gold

April 16 Green Energy News

Opinion:

  • “Oil Limits and Climate Change: How They Fit Together” The likely effect of oil limits–one way or the other–is to bring down the economy, and because of this bring an end to pretty much all carbon emissions very quickly. There are several ways this could happen. [Energy Collective]
  • “Keystone report can’t have it both ways” The Keystone XL Pipeline report contains more than enough information for Secretary of State John Kerry — a respected environmental champion — to conclude that the pipeline is not in the national interest. [CNN]

Science and Technology:

  • The IPCC report says solar has the largest technical feasibility in mitigating harmful emissions from electricity production “by a large magnitude”, considering such issues as intermittency, subsidies and economic competitiveness, water use, and land availability. [PV-Tech]
  • Researchers at Loughborough University’s Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (CREST) have developed a multi-layer anti-reflection coating for glass surfaces that can reduce glare from solar panels and boost their efficiency. [Energy Matters]

World:

  • First quarter clean energy investment rose 9% from last year on surging demand for rooftop solar panels. New investment in renewable power and energy efficiency rose to $47.7 billion, up from $43.6 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. [Bloomberg]
  • Network operators in at least two Australian states are likely to ditch parts of their extensive poles and wire networks in regional areas as they realise that the costs of delivering centralised generation to remote areas is no longer economically feasible. [CleanTechnica]
  • In 2013, China witnessed yet another year of impressive wind energy capacity addition. While the total capacity added was off the peak levels seen a couple of years ago, the Asian giant still managed to add 45% of all the wind energy capacity added in 2013. [CleanTechnica]
  • Kenya’s transition to a green economy could produce major economic benefits – equivalent to an estimated $45 billion by 2030 – as well as greater food security, a cleaner environment and higher productivity of natural resources. [Environmental Expert]
  • Sony will form a joint venture with Hydro-Quebec to research and develop a large-scale energy storage system combining their know-how in lithium-ion rechargeable batteries. The new company, to be based in Varenne, Quebec, will be formed in June. [Wall Street Journal]
  • Tata Power, one of India’s largest private power companies, plans to increase its renewable energy capacity by about 71% to cut carbon emissions and reduce risks from fluctuating fuel prices. The utility is adding 646.7 MW of renewable energy capacity. [Economic Times]

 

US:

  • ISO New England reported today that the volatile natural gas market in this region pushed wholesale electric prices up by 55% last year. We’re already seeing some of this at the retail level, but the real impact will likely be seen in our monthly bills next winter. [Boston Business Journal]
  • A new study conducted by the SUN DAY campaign, projects that electricity generation from renewable sources will reach 16% of the total by 2018. This is 22 years sooner than that predicted by US Energy Information Administration. [Justmeans]
  • California’s recent revisions to Title 24 put in place ambitious performance goals: all new residential buildings must be Zero Net Energy by 2020, and commercial buildings by 2030. This is likely to have ripple effects through the whole nation’s construction industry. [CleanTechnica]
  • The US Army announced plans on Monday to begin construction on the Department of Defense’s largest solar array on a military installation. Groundbreaking for the 20-megawatt project will take place on April 25, with operations slated to begin late this year. [ThinkProgress]
  • US greenhouse gas emissions fell nearly 10% from 2005 to 2012, more than halfway toward the U.S.’s 2020 target pledged at United Nations climate talks, according to the latest national emissions inventory. [Scientific American]

 

The Cost of Gold

Born and raised in Shaftsbury, Vermont, Andrew K. Newell is a member of the U.S. Ski Team 2014.

Born and raised in Shaftsbury, Vermont, Andrew K. Newell is a member of the U.S. Ski Team 2014.

By Andrew K. Newell

Having competed in three Olympic Games I’ve been a part of the winter sports community for quite some time. From Torino, Italy to Sochi, Russia I’ve experienced different venues over the years, seasons with high snow pack and others with none, but above all I’ve seen change both in climate and in attitude. This has caused me to question the extreme measures host nations and our world leaders are willing to go to not only to capitalize on the Olympics but, more important, turn a blind eye to our changing climate.

I took my first trip to Sochi a year and a half before the Games were set to begin and what I saw in the outlying mountains were beautiful snow covered peaks in one of Russia’s largest national parks. Fast-forward 16 months and several billion dollars later and we were left with hastily built resort towns, huge unfinished hotels, and thousands of acres of clear-cut forest and polluted waterways.

Upon arrival at the Olympics we were bussed to one of the six gondolas to access the nordic and biathlon stadiums. Of course everyone was giddy with nerves and excitement over the upcoming competitions, but as we crept higher up the 8,000-foot peak to where the Endurance Village was located we could get a true vision of the destruction below.

A bad snow year had left the valley floor brown and muddy, highlighting all the construction debris. Looking across to the mountainside where the alpine and snowboarding events were to take place we saw massive swaths of hillside clear cut to accommodate the new trails and lift towers of a future alpine resort. All of this was created by Putin to capitalize on the Olympics and to create what he envisioned as Russia’s next big tourist destination,.But at what cost?

I don’t think we can entirely blame Russia or Putin for trying to boost a nation’s economy but the underlying theme is that we can expect more from our world leaders and the individuals accountable for these decisions. Why was this untouched land chosen for the Games? Why can’t our world leaders work together to find methods for looking past the dollar (or ruble) signs and taking into account the environment?

It’s because of this, and the continued lack of common sense, that decisions from our governments that led me to start the organization Athletes for Action and partner with Protect Our Winters this season, and begin urgently voicing the need for change. Before the Games I collected signatures from Olympic competitors urging world leaders to recognizes climate change and work together toward solutions. Through a letter we are asking nations to come together at the UN Framework Convention in Paris 2015 and partner on concrete legislation to help fight climate change.

So why will world leaders care what Olympic athletes think? I’m not sure I can answer that question but as someone who spends each and every day training outside for skiing I’ve seen the negative effects of climate change over the years, and I’m worried for what the future might hold. I feel as though it is my responsibility, along with all other outdoor enthusiasts who witness these changes, to voice our concerns and put pressure on our leaders. Weekend warrior or professional athlete, winter or summer, we can all work together to raise awareness and, most important, expect more climate-friendly decisions and legislation from our government officials.

Andrew Newell was born in Bennington, Vermont and raised in Shaftsbury. While he started skiing at a very young age, it was at Stratton Mountain School, that he learned what it would take to ski at an international level. His five years at SMS formed a special bond and pride that goes along with being a Vermont cross-country skier.

That five-year experience led Newell to set his sights on World Cup and World Championship competitions, working with US Development Coach Chris Grover and the rest of the US Ski Team, in Park City Utah. He took a12th place finish in the 2005 World Championships in Obertsdorf, Germany, that earned him a spot on the U.S. National Ski Team and eventually a spot on the 2006 US Olympic Team.

Andy still splits his time between Southern Vermont and Park City, and has come a long way — with top-five finishes at World Championship as well as World Cup podiums.

He has been part of the US Ski team for 10 years and has competed in three Olympics. Follow Andy online at www.andrewnewell.com.

This Vermont native is one of our supporters, and remarked, “You do some great work with Green Energy Times and I’d be happy to contribute.” This article is his contribution.

Earth Day and Spring Cleaning

By Deborah DeMoulpied

While Earth Day has evolved into a carbon-alert-climate-change moment, it originally started from the idea that it was time to “clean up” our environment. Back in the 70s it was “Keep America Beautiful,” “Every Litter Bit Hurts,” the “Clean Air and Clean Water Act,” and trying to keep rivers from catching on fire. And while humans are now better trained than to throw their garbage out the car window, the insidious minute particles of garbage coming out of our smoke stacks and tailpipes have created an atmosphere humans have never known. It is time to clean it all up.

That’s “cleaning” in the large metaphorical sense. But what about cleaning in the literal sense? Like tiles, sinks and ourselves? All cleaning is good, right? Well that depends.

Unless you are only using water, most cleaning involves a collecting product (cloth or sponge) and something liquid or sticky. Whichever we use, it is either washed away or thrown way or both. The point is, it has an impact on our environment to varying degrees and the idea is to make the least impact.

Lowering that impact comes down to knowing what it is you are using, and that means knowing the ingredients. While our country does not mandate listing ingredients on personal care and cleaning products, consumers have demanded it enough so that most companies comply with an ingredients list that, most of the time, you can read. But know that there could still be ingredients that are not listed.

On a recent trip to New Zealand and Australia, I was very surprised to see that many of the same personal care products from companies I am familiar with do not have ingredients lists. Maybe consumers there don’t squeak loudly enough, or the additional chemical bans in those countries give consumers more confidence. Either way, I was very surprised and grateful knowing that I could go back home and spend hours in the isles deciphering labels.

Since it is the season for spring cleaning, here are some basic green tips.

1 – Open the windows. Get a fresh air exchange after being bottled up all winter.

2 – White vinegar, baking soda and lemons will clean 95% of your projects. The Internet is loaded with advice; it’s not rocket science.

3 – Otherwise, read the ingredients. Choose organic when you can, and ingredients that are simple and understandable. Less is more.

4 – Ditch the paper towels or other disposables – Reuse old cloths or t-shirts.

5 – Use a HEPA filter on your vacuum or use a central vac.

6 – Use the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. Over 2,000 products are reviewed. The website includes a “Hall of Shame” you might find interesting!

While these are small things you as an individual can do please remember the big picture. Climate change is upon us in a big way. Australia just finished their warmest year on record, shattering previous years. New Zealand finished their second warmest. On our trip we saw plenty of glaciers that we were told would be gone in a matter of decades. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change has spoken. It is really down to “now or never.” It’s one planet under all of us. If we don’t clean it up, who will?

Happy Earth Day.

Deborah DeMoulpied is owner and founder of Bona Fide Green Goods, an earth-friendly department store in Concord, NH. Bonafidegreengoods.com won the Webby Awards Green Honoree in 2011. Deborah is also faculty of the Anticancer Lifestyle Program, teaching patients about environmental toxins and healthful solutions.

Milk Paint – Perfect for the Nursery!

photo 5-1By Erin A. Winter, MD

In a nesting fit during my first pregnancy this past fall, I was searching for paint for the nursery and was referred to milk paint for its no-chemical benefits.

I had never heard of milk paint before, but some quick research showed it to: (1) be easy; (2) no more expensive then normal paint; (3) healthful for use in pregnancy and around infants and children; (4) offer LOTS of colors to mix or play around with; and (5) be durable.

SO I contacted the very nice and helpful people at milkpaint.com and was able to try out the paint in three colors that I mixed into two custom colors for my nursery.

photo 4-1My mother came to help and we started our ‘adventures in painting the nursery with milk paint!’. We picked a warm ivory color for one wall (a standard color that required no special blending), a silvery gray-lavender for another wall and a darker gray for a smaller accent wall that has mostly closet doors on it (both requiring mixing two or three paints together). The process is relatively straightforward but you will want a really good paint mixer since the paint needs to be mixed well to get a uniform color. We also found that letting it sit a bit before starting to paint helps with the texture and thickness. We used higher quality rollers and brushes but I’m not sure they were necessary. The darker colors definitely needed two coats and a few touchups in places (we painted over white walls without any primer).

The end ‘feel’ is very organic and a nice matte finish. Perfect for the nursery! AND I wasn’t  concerned when my cat wandered in to check things out while we were painting, as there were no fumes or chemicals to be concerned about.

Overall, the painting process was more involved than just picking a color and buying paint at the store, but it didn’t take too long. Once we got the hang of the mixing process. There is a great online ‘book’ of different colors and how to mix them as well. A little extra time but worth it for a healthful product!

Awnings Against Air Conditioning

By G.E.T. Staff

In the old days, even before electric fans, awnings provided a measure of relief from the heat of a summer day. In those days, an awning and an open window for some ventilation was about the best a person could do to keep cool during the heat of the summer. Like many things we had in the past, they had advantages we seem to have forgotten.

Awnings help keep a house in Edmonton, Alberta cooler. Photo credit: striatic / hobvias sudoneighm

Awnings help keep a house in Edmonton, Alberta cooler. Photo credit: striatic / hobvias sudoneighm

Awnings’ low-tech approach functions quite well, as an alternative to air conditioning for keeping a house cool.

The temperature under an awning can easily be 20° F lower than the temperature in the full sun. That means that if the sun is shining brightly through a window, the interior of the room can heat up very fast compared with what it would with awnings. They reduce the cost of running the air conditioning, even making their use unnecessary on many days. That, in turn, reduces both our expenses and our carbon emissions.

Apart from the fact that they save us money, make us more comfortable, and help save the planet, all at the same time, awnings have more to recommend them. In addition to blocking the heat of the sun, they also block the UV light, and this is important. While we do need the health benefits of the vitamin D that we receive from the sun, too much exposure to sun can lead to skin cancer. Awnings offer a health solution, which is better than chemicals on our skin that have their own side effects,

In addition, sunlight fades many colors used in fabrics, so when a sofa is close to a window, the parts that get a lot of sun can fade. This could have been prevented with a little thought to awnings or shades.

Today’s awnings come in modern designs, colors, shapes and sizes, which can provide a wonderful way to decorate many buildings. We cannot say that for air conditioners.

Electric Lawnmowers Lowdown

Staff article

The advantage of using electricity over fossil fuels for your outdoor power equipment is substantial. Switching to electric mowers has a major impact on lowering emissions as well as saving you money.

Two Lithium lawnmowing options. No gas or oil, no emissions, no maintenance, quiet…

Two Lithium lawnmowing options. No gas or oil, no emissions, no maintenance, quiet…

Outdoor power equipment such as lawnmowers, leaf blowers, grass trimmers, farm tractors, ATVs, UTVs, etc., are all poorly regulated fossil-fuel- burning products. The EPA has put very little effort into regulating emissions on these products since they are not “on-road” vehicles. Some of this equipment has two-cycle gas engines that burn gas-and-oil mix. Due to this limited regulation, outdoor power vehicles have become the worst polluters and the least efficient products on the market today. Emissions are more than 30 times worse than on-road gas vehicles and efficiencies are down near 20%.

With the switch to electric, all of this completely changes!

Electric mowers are very quiet, and give off no fumes, so they are kinder to the user, neighborhood, and planet. They have are a long service life, no maintenance, and no need to buy and store flammable fuel.

The least expensive push mowers are reel mowers and are still available. Electric mowers that have cords to plug in have also been around for a long time, but have limitations. But you no longer need to be tied to that cord to take advantage of the benefits of an electric push mower. Today’s options for either walk-behind or riding battery-powered lawn mowers are improving all the time, as we move away from polluting fossil fuels.

Battery powered push mowers have now been around for a number of years, with power ranges from 24 to 48 volts. The higher voltage units are capable of running longer on a single charge, due to newer lithium-ion batteries.

Some corded walk-behind 12-amp electric lawnmowers that received good reviews are:

  • Remington – 19-inch – $220
  • Black & Decker – 19-inch – $240
  • Cub Cadet 19-inch – $250
  • GreenWorks 18-inch – $170

Battery-powered walk-behind lawnmowers with good reviews include:

  • Black & Decker SPCM1936 – 36 volt, lead-acid battery – $399
  • EarthWise 60120 – 24 volt, lead-acid battery – $249
  • WORX WG789 – 24 volt, lead-acid battery – $292
  • Recharge Ultralight – cordless, 36-volt, lithium-ion battery – $350

While electric riding mowers are not as available, there are few models on the market for home and commercial use. Hustler Equipment, offers the excellent Zeon 48-volt, 42-inch riding mowers — available locally AEBI New England in Alstead, New Hampshire. (603)835-2600.

For commercial use, Mean Green Mowers has lithium electric riders: a 60-inch zero turn, and a 48-inch stand-on model. This relatively new company is offering franchise opportunities that might bring them closer to home. This company is a member of the Green Building Council. Though the price tag seems high, without the cost for fuel and low operating costs of about 30¢ per hour for electricity, low maintenance, and zero emissions, the cost savings for a heavy duty machine of this quality might be well worth the investment – an investment for the future. We found them at meangreenproducts.com.

Greening Your Lawn Naturally

Spring is right around the corner. It’s time to start thinking about your yard!

From Cornerstone Tree Care

  1. Compost your leaves and other garden waste at home instead of bagging and carting them to the transfer station. All that material is food for your plants and trees. Why pay for compost from somebody else when you already have the ingredients to make your own? Don’t have the space? Get together with your neighbors to create a shared spot that you all can use.
  2. Don’t clean out the woods. The forest ecosystem depends on leaf and tree litter for its food source. Extending your fall cleanup into the forest edge will rob trees of the food source they need for healthy growth and resiliency against winter cold, drought, wind and other stressors.
  3. Plant a tree. This might seem counterintuitive, but early spring — with its rain and cooler temperatures — is a much better time to plant trees than the hot summer months, and the trees will have a much better chance of surviving.
  4. Remove grass from underneath your landscape trees. There is no competition with grass in the forest, so why stress your trees with it in the landscape? Believe it or not, grass competes significantly for food and water. Removing grass under your trees also opens up a space for you to amend with compost and aged tree mulch.
  5. Have your trees pruned and cared for before the storms. If the last few falls and winters are any indication, we’re likely to get some strong storms over the next few months. Make sure your trees are properly maintained before the next big one hits.

Learn more about Cornerstone Tree Care at www.cornerstonetree.com.

These Green Tips submitted by Green Alliance, Portsmouth, NH www.greenalliance.com

Genetic Engineering and Synthetic Biology

Concerns for our Health and the Planet      

By EarthTalk®

“Synthetic biology” (or “synbio”) refers to the design and fabrication of novel biological parts, devices and systems that do not otherwise occur in nature. Many see it as an extreme version of genetic engineering (GE). But unlike GE, whereby genetic information with certain desirable traits from one organism is inserted into another, synbio uses computers and chemicals to create entirely new organisms.

Proponents of synthetic biology tout its potential for bringing about great advances in medicine, energy and cheaper foods. But health advocates worry that the risks to health and the environment may be too great. Pictured: a researcher using "synbio" to engineer new microbes as an alternative to yeast for turning complex sugars into biofuels. Photo: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Roy Kaltschmidt

Proponents of synthetic biology tout its potential for bringing about great advances in medicine, energy and cheaper foods. But health advocates worry that the risks to health and the environment may be too great. Pictured: a researcher using “synbio” to engineer new microbes as an alternative to yeast for turning complex sugars into biofuels. Photo: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Roy Kaltschmidt

Proponents of synbio, which include familiar players such as Cargill, BP, Chevron and Du Pont, tout its potential benefits. According to the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SYNBERC), a consortium of leading U.S. researchers in the field, some promising applications of synthetic biology include alternatives to rubber for tires, tumor-seeking microbes for treating cancer, and photosynthetic energy systems. Other potential applications include using synbio to detect and remove environmental contaminants, monitor and respond to disease and develop new drugs and vaccines.

While these and other applications may not be widely available for years, synthetic biology is already in use for creating food additives that will start to show up in products on grocery shelves later this year. Switzerland-based Evolva is using synthetic biology techniques to produce alternatives to resveratrol, stevia, saffron and vanilla. The company’s “synthetic vanillin” is slated to go into many foods as a cheaper and limitless version of real vanilla flavor. But many health advocates are outraged that such a product will be available to consumers without more research into potential dangers and without any warnings or labeling to let consumers know they are eating organisms designed and brought to life in a lab.

“This is the first major use of a synbio ingredient in food, and dozens of other flavors and food additives are in the pipeline, so synbio vanilla could set a dangerous precedent for synthetic genetically engineered ingredients to sneak into our food supply and be labeled as ‘natural’,” reports Friends of the Earth (FoE), a leading environmental group. “Synthetic biology vanillin poses several human-health, environmental and economic concerns for consumers, food companies and other stakeholders.”

For example, FoE worries that synbio vanilla (and eventually other synthetic biology additives) could exacerbate rainforest destruction while harming sustainable farmers and poor communities around the world. “Synbio vanilla…could displace the demand for the natural vanilla market,” reports FoE. “Without the natural vanilla market adding economic value to the rainforest in these regions, these last standing rainforests will not be protected from competing agricultural markets such as soy, palm oil and sugar.” Critics of synbio also worry that releasing synthetic life into the environment, whether done intentionally or accidentally, could have adverse effects on our ecosystems.

Despite these risks, could there actually be rewards of embracing synthetic biology? Could it help us deal with some of the tough issues of climate change, pollution and world hunger? Given that the genie is already out of the bottle, perhaps only time will tell.

Contacts: SYNBERC, www.synberc.org; FoE, www.foe.org; Evolva, www.evolva.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).