End of the Wild
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We’ve lost the race to save endangered species. That’s according to Stephen Meyer, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meyer tells host Steve Curwood that efforts to help preserve biodiversity are largely symbolic and created to fit human needs, and they’ve come too little, too late. (24:45)
Woman’s Best Friend/ Sy Montgomery
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Commentator Sy Montgomery laments the nights when she and her now old and blind dog Tess would play Frisbee for hours, but she says they’ve found a new nighttime sport. (04:00)
Environmental Health Note/Chemobrain/ Eileen Bolinsky
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Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky reports on a new study that dispels previous notions about the origins of “chemobrain,” a cognitive disorder that affects cancer patients using chemotherapy. (01:20)
Our Solar Future/ Ingrid Lobet
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The prospect of cheap electricity from the sun has been promised for decades, and has gone largely undelivered. But as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, new technologies are changing the economics of solar power and spurring a multi-billion dollar industry. (15:00)
HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Stephen MeyerCOMMENTATOR: Sy MontgomeryREPORTER: Ingrid LobetSCIENCE NOTE: Eileen Bolinsky
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. If you think the widespread use of solar cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity is something far off in the future, think again. Some business analyst say it’s time to shed old notions about solar power.
WOODWARD: They always believe it's this niche product that you see on highways and buoys in a harbor. And there are not that many homes in the United States that have solar panels on them. But when you total it all up on a global basis, it is a very large number.
CURWOOD: And there are some very large players ready to capitalize on new solar technologies.
KEESEE: We see people like GE in it, BP, Shell. You can look at millions of homes that are being built. Each one could be a potential power plant. That's what they see.
CURWOOD: The bright future -- and the here and now -- of power from the sun. This week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
Call it a remarkable turn in evolution. According to MIT political scientist Stephen Meyer, the course of human events is now the strongest force on the evolution of just about all species. So strong, he says, that we have irrevocably changed life on this third rock from the sun.
Now, Professor Meyer has studied and even helped to regulate the protection of endangered species. But in a recent article in the Boston Review he declares that the race to save many of the life forms that evolved with us humans has now been lost. Indeed, he says precious little of life on earth is now “wild” in the sense of being untouched by humans.
Professor Meyer joins me now. Welcome to Living on Earth.
MEYER: My pleasure to be here, thank you.
CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, of course, you’re not saying we should give up in trying to make nature have a better shot at things. But essentially, you say that we really have lost this race to save the present wildness – the degree of biodiversity that we have on the planet. And people have been talking about this for a long time. What’s different about your message?
MEYER: I think that’s true that people have been talking about this for a long time but the difference is that now I believe we have the data that actually show what’s happening. And, specifically, what I’m focusing on is the fact that human selection has replaced natural selection; that the organisms – the assemblage of organisms that we call biodiversity – are being unnaturally selected for their compatibility with one environmental factor, and that factor is us. And that’s what’s really changed.
And I think when one looks across all the science journals, and looks across all the different species that people work on, the results are all the same: that the animals that are thriving, -- the plants that are thriving, the microorganisms that are thriving – are all thriving for one reason. They like the kind of transformation that humans constantly make to the landscape compared to the others, which are rapidly disappearing because they just can’t survive with us.
CURWOOD: All right, let’s talk about a few numbers. Over the next century, how much of the wild do you think is going to be gone?
MEYER: Well, based on the estimates that I’ve seen in the journals and the research that’s now becoming available, one could imagine anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of today’s known species could disappear over the next hundred years or so. Even if we just continue to do the kinds of things we’re doing now, at the pace we’re doing them, to try to protect them.
CURWOOD: Now, go back for me a bit and trace for me the beginnings of the disturbance of nature and human domination of the environment, if you could.
MEYER: Well, the human domination of the environment is much more complex than most people assume. We often look at development, for example, whether it’s urban development or even agricultural development, as a problem. And we say things like, “well, if we could only stop sprawling our suburbs we would be able to preserve the wild.”
We look at pollution. Most recently, actually yesterday, there was a long article in the news how fire retardants are now being found in animals in the Arctic. Considering they’re not used there, they’re traveling thousands of miles polluting the environment there and causing serious effects in the reproductive capacity and immune systems of wildlife. So there’s pollution.
There’s the kinds of transformation that we just manipulate for our own domestic use. We replace wild animals with domestic animals. We exterminated the wolf in the lower 48 states to make life safe for cattle. Today in Africa, the lion is being exterminated to make life safe for cattle. An example of that is 20 year ago there were 200,000 lions in Africa. Today the estimate’s around 20,000. Why? Because cattle raisers are pushing out into these more formerly-wild areas.
And then, beyond that, of course, there’s the issue of climate change and the effect that that’s having on the landscape. So all these things are coming together now simultaneously, where even 20 or 30 years ago they were fairly limited and segmented.
CURWOOD: Now, other people have been talking about this. I’m thinking, in fact, in your own article you point out the work that David Quammen has done in his book “A Planet of Weeds.” How does his notion of the rise of weed species tie into the analysis you’re offering right now?
MEYER: Well, you know, I would say we can think about the future biological structure of the planet in terms of three broad categories. And the first would be “weedy species.” And weedy species are just what they sound like, things that love what we do around us: cockroaches, possums, raccoons, weeds of all kinds. Things that just live on continual disturbance. Animals and plants and other organisms that over time evolved to occupy high-disturbance areas.
Now, in the very distant past, those disturbances happened through natural events – hurricanes, tornadoes, you know, major geologic change. But they have it in limited ways across the landscape. The difference with human selection is we’re doing it continuously all across the landscape. So, weedy species represent that category of wildlife plants that are really comfortable with us. And coyotes are another example, by the way. We even have coyotes in Boston now that seem to adapt very well to us.
Then, there’s a second category, and that category I call “relic species,” and I would –
CURWOOD: Relic species?
MEYER: Relic species, yes. These are plants and animals that can exist on the periphery of human existence but will never have serious ecological roles again. These are – another way to think about these would be to call them “boutique species.” So, it used to be that there were 50,000 grizzly bears roaming the United States; but we’ve decided 1,000 or so is enough now, and we’re going to keep these on national parks. Just like we have this little herd of buffalo at Yellowstone, that’s about 4,000 buffalo, and they live on there, and they represent a population that used to represent tens of millions of animals across the country.
And as long as they stay in the national park, we’ll let them live. But if they move out of the national park, we shoot and kill them. So these relics come about from two different mechanisms. One is their intolerance of us, and the second mechanism would be our intolerance of them. And so, what we’ll have is, in remote regions of the world, a few relic species of parrots will continue to persist in isolated biological reserves. We will allow a few wolf packs to roam certain areas of the United States. In Africa, the elephant will be allowed to live in a few preserves. And these relics will be around for us to see, but they’ll be in basically open-air zoos.
CURWOOD: Okay. Now, you say you have three different categories. What’s your third?
MEYER: Right, then the third is what I would call “ghosts.” And I call them ghosts because, in fact, that’s what they are. These are things that are still around, and, in fact, some of them may even still be plentiful, but they’re effectively gone, that they will not be able to persist in our world. And without extraordinary efforts to save them and maintain them and manage them, they’re effectively gone.
CURWOOD: Okay, these are, for example…?
MEYER: Well, for example, the California condor was really effectively gone, as was the whooping crane, until we decided to spend millions of dollars to breed them and to watch their eggs on an egg-by-egg basis. And if you think of the world having, say, 10 million species, the idea that we’re going to monitor each little one and somehow bring it back -- and when we say bring it back, we’re talking about a couple dozen birds, for example, or condors, in this case -- that will fly and live in this funny status. But there are others which we can do nothing about. The many species of tiger are effectively gone even though we can still find several hundred in the wild. The fact is there’s nothing we can do to keep them breeding. And so we have to recognize that a lot of the animals that we’re trying to protect today we really can’t protect because there’s no habitat left for them.
CURWOOD: Okay, so you say that because of the human impact on the planet we’re seeing this big change in the distribution of species. What you call “weedy species,” that is, I guess, things that reproduce pretty quickly and can respond to changes in the biosphere – whether it’s a rat or a microbe or whatever – that those are going to increase…
CURWOOD: And that, otherwise, we have “relics” and “ghosts” which, I guess, are going to decrease or stay in very small numbers. Give me a proportion here.
MEYER: Well, I think it’s important to understand when I say that we’re going to lose 30 percent, 50 percent of the species, I don’t mean the population of animals and plants is going to disappear and that the planet will be lacking in biodiversity. It’s just that it’s going to now shift, and we’re talking about the weedy species becoming dominant and being spread around the globe.
So, for example, if you travel around the globe, go to any major city in the world, you’ll find English sparrows -- because they’ve been brought all around the world and they like living in parks and being fed bread crumbs. You find gray squirrels everywhere you go now. And that’s the kind of population changes that are going to take place. These weedy species will come to dominate ecosystems, the relics will exist on the periphery in specially managed boutiques that we either determine, or they’re so isolated from us that -- it’s like when they rediscover endangered species they thought were gone, they find one little relic population of a plant on the top of some mountain in Tennessee, because no one’s been there in 50 years. And then there’ll be the ghosts which we’ll just sort of watch disappear and not be around.
CURWOOD: You say the tools that were created to help us deal with this situation -- such as the U.S. Endangered Species Act, or the convention in Trade in Endangered Species, or the International Whaling Commission rules – you say these are examples of human-driven evolution. What do you mean by that?
MEYER: I think that’s an interesting irony. In fact, we have a lot of institutions we’ve created to try to keep the wild wild, and keep nature natural. But the truth is, these end up being tools and mechanisms of human selection. So the Endangered Species Act – we decide which animals go on and which don’t go on. And the numbers are very small. In CITES we decide internationally which plants and animals will be protected. In all of these institutions that we put in place we’re making choices.
And the choices we make are based on things like, do the animals have fur? Are they soft and cuddly? It’s easy to get something like a tiger or an elephant on the Endangered Species list. It’s very tough to get a mosquito on there because nobody really has deep sympathies for a species of mosquito that may or may not persist in decades ahead. And so each of these institutions, in fact -- whether it’s creation of bioreserves, or it’s the creation of laws and regulations, or even genetic engineering – each of these institutions are basically humans deciding who should be around, and in what numbers.
CURWOOD: Now tell us, how did we get here? At what point do you think we really started losing the race to save biological diversity, and what got us to this point?
MEYER: I would guess we actually lost this probably 100 – 150 years ago or more. That when large-scale human expansion into the new world -- and into what were then pristine ecosystems -- the transformation of the natural landscape into agricultural landscapes and urban landscapes linked by transportation essentially cut it up into thousands of pieces. And what’s been going on since probably, realistically, the 1700s, has been a sort of death by a thousand cuts. That you chop up the landscape into smaller and smaller bits and make it impossible for the various plants and animals that used to live there to continue on.
CURWOOD: My guest is Professor Stephen Meyer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We’re talking about his article “The End of the Wild.” We’ll be right after this short break. You’re listening to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
If you’ve just tuned in, my guest is Stephen Meyer, an MIT professor of political science and author of “End of the Wild: The Extinction Crisis is Over. We Lost.” His article was published in the latest issue of the Boston Review.
Steve, now help me understand how we humans have transformed the planet. In your article you write about three different ways this has happened. You say that sometimes we change the landscape, sometimes we change the earth’s chemistry, and then sometimes we over-consume. Can you give me some examples, please?
MEYER: Well, landscape transformation, of course, is an obvious one – where we take a large tract of forest or seashore and we convert it into housing subdivisions, or we convert it into shopping malls, or we simply divide it up by putting roads through it. And fragmentation is perhaps one of the most insidious forms of land transformation. Right now, for example, there’s a plan to run a road right through the middle of the Amazon forest. And people say, well, the road’s only 26 feet wide, what problem could it really be? But effectively dividing the Amazon now into two smaller tropical rainforests changes the characteristics of both halves in ways that are not predictable. So that’s the most obvious.
Agriculture is probably the biggest form of land transformation, where we change biologically diverse landscapes of plants and animals into monocultures. And even when, for example, the logging industry claims that it reforests either temperate forests or rainforests, it’s not replacing them with 40 or 100 different species per acre. It’s replacing them with a monoculture of economically valuable tree species that may or may not have any ecological value, and certainly don’t have the original ecological value of a diverse habitat. So that’s the most obvious.
CURWOOD: How does changing the earth’s chemistry lead to these big changes?
MEYER: Well, we alter chemistry in a lot of ways. For example, when sewage treatment plants discharge their waste into the ocean it increases the nutrient content. And anyone who’s traveled up and down the west coast, in particular, if you look over the cliffs you’ll notice there are these bright green areas around all the major outlets where the sewage treatment plants let out water. And then the water turns blue a half a mile further away. Well, the introduction of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus into the water, changes the biological characteristics of the water, changes the algae content, changes the food content of that water.
So we have impacts we don’t even think much about. For example, today in the Caribbean large tracts of coral are simply dying out, being smothered by algaes which are growing on the nutrients from sewage treatment plants. So, on the one hand, we build these plants to clean up the environment, but the waste has to go somewhere and we discharge it to some other place. Another way is through more toxic pollutants such as PCBs and other chemicals, which we emit from plants with high stacks. We put this stuff high into the atmosphere, we deposit it thousands of miles away from its source. And that alters the biochemical nature of the environment, as well.
CURWOOD: Okay, and what about our consumption patterns?
MEYER: Well, I mean consumption patterns are also easy to track. For example, we all know about the collapse of the cod stocks in the northeast, and the collapse of the salmon stocks out west. And the most recent data that have come out -- it’s really quite shocking – is that we’ve actually genetically altered the evolutionary pattern of cod by our over-fishing.
What the data now show is we have consumed so many of the large cod that female cod are now maturing a year to a year and a half earlier than they used to – even 20, 25 years ago. And so these smaller fish are now the breeding fish, producing fewer fish, because smaller females produce fewer eggs. And, as a result, cod stocks cannot get back to where they were simply due to how we’ve evolutionarily changed … we’ve actually favored smaller cod who escaped the nets, and this has led to younger maturity rates.
And there are many other examples, of course, where we’ve consumed away the birds of New Zealand. We’ve consumed away the wolves in the United States. And in Africa now the big problem is bush meat, that because of the growing population in Africa, and the lack of economic development, the cheapest source of protein are the animals in the forest. At first, this was for local consumption but now it’s become an international delicacy. So the global trade actually leads people to go out into the forests, to exterminate large numbers of apes and other animals, cut them up for hamburger and send them overseas.
CURWOOD: We’re talking to Professor Stephen Meyer, and I guess we’re talking pretty much about gloom and doom at this stage of the game in this discussion. This is all pretty depressing that we’re going to be losing the wild, we are losing the wild, we have, in fact, lost this race to protect biodiversity, you tell us.
We’ve just been talking about the different ways that we do that. And I’m wondering, what about the efforts to halt this slide? What impact are they having? I mean, a lot of money, a lot of resources are being put into this – people who I think probably wouldn’t agree with your assessment that, you know, we’ve pretty much lost.
MEYER: Well, you know, the message here is that if we’re going to put resources and create institutions and put money into buying land with the notion that we’re going to preserve nature as it was, as it is today – that’s a waste of time because that has been lost. And what we need to do is refocus our efforts and think about the transformations that are taking place, and how we can use these resources – which is money, and the creation of bioreserves, large bioreserves, and the creation of laws and regulations – in ways that maintain enough of the evolutionary options for wildlife in the future, while at the same time protecting us. Because this is not a benign change. Many of the species that are compatible with human selection we would consider to be pests, if not parasites and diseases. And so the great risk to us, if we just let this happen in its own laissez-faire way, would be very serious implications for human populations.
CURWOOD: Pests – be specific for a moment.
MEYER: Well, mosquitoes. I mean, we have the problem now with West Nile virus being spread throughout the United States, which is a virus that has a mortality rate among humans of about two or three or four percent. Which is not small when you think about the spread of mosquitoes across the country. It came in in ’99 into one state, New York, and it’s now in most states of the lower 48, as a matter of fact, except for Hawaii and Alaska.
And so we’re facing pests like disease-carrying organisms, which I would include, it’s part of biodiversity, because of the compatibility, the question of “weedy” species being linked to human occupation and human transformation. The danger of more viruses like SARs that jump from animal to humans – for which we have no immunity – is very serious. As we penetrate deeper into rain forests and we consume bush meat, we are now picking up viral proteins that we were not exposed to before. And these do make the jump. Even though it’s a small number, as the total number increases that fraction can be small but that can be a large number, as well.
CURWOOD: So I’m surprised after reading your article that you think we shouldn’t give up.
MEYER: Yes, and I think that’s a very important part of this argument. My argument actually begins with the assumption that we continue these efforts. I think things could be a lot more dire if we actually gave up and abandoned the Endangered Species Act and abandoned CITES and stopped putting aside bioreserves.
CURWOOD: But, wait a second – you’re saying they’re not working, they’re not helping to protect nature.
MEYER: They are not working to preserve the wild, that’s absolutely true. But they are slowing the pace, and, at least, maintaining areas in the biotic structure of the planet that we can continue to nurture. My argument would be this: We have to move away from the notion that we can wall-off nature and let it exist with us side-by-side, and move to active management. That if we really want to preserve biodiversity then we’re going to have to actively engage in making decisions across the planet about what we’re going to do with keeping certain species, about letting certain species go, about what needs to be preserved and what we can’t save.
CURWOOD: Give me some examples, that’s kind of abstract. You know, what you’re talking about, I’m not sure people listening to us know what you mean.
MEYER: Well, for example, we right now have been buying land in tropical rainforests and other areas where we think they represent biological hotspots today. And they do. They’re important areas because they have a lot of diversity. But in the context of climate change, a lot of areas which seem unimportant today could become very important tomorrow, as weather patterns shift, as rainfalls shifts, as temperature shifts. So we need to be thinking on a much larger scale about the capacity of the kinds of wildlife that will be left to move to these new areas in response to things like global climate change.
A good example: most of the species alive today, and that have been alive for the last two million years, have gone through climate changes at least as large as what people are predicting is going to take place in the next 200 years. And they survived it with no problem. So why are all these studies now coming out suggesting that climate change is going to have this big impact on biodiversity? And the answer is because we’ve so transformed the landscape that neither the plants nor the animals have any place go -- to move in response to climate change. And that’s what’s going to end up exterminating them.
So we need to start thinking about that problem. So rather than going to Mars for $100 million -- $100 billion, I’m sorry – to look for the possibility that life might be extinct there, we have plenty of life that’s going to be extinct here. We ought to be spending that money first of all surveying what we have. We don’t even know what the full species list looks like, nor what their biological needs are. Put the resources into trying to understand what’s happening here, and then use these laws, bioreserves, other institutional approaches, to try to moderate what happens. We can’t stop it, but we can certainly make choices that make both our lives better and at least preserve the biological richness in some form.
CURWOOD: Who do you hope is listening to your message? I mean, why did you write this piece?
MEYER: I wrote this piece, as depressing as it is, because I really felt that – my intent in writing this was to expose this problem and say, we ought to be addressing the real issues. And we ought to bring science to bear on solving the problems we can solve. And that the extinction crisis, if you’re thinking about making sure that the rainforests in South America behave the way they did 1,000 years ago – you’re wasting your time.
CURWOOD: Steven Meyer is professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His article “End of the Wild” appears in the April/May issue of the Boston Review. Thank you, sir.
MEYER: My pleasure, thank you for having me.
Stephen Meyer’s article in the Boston Review
CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery has a border collie named Tess. But Tess hasn’t been a real border collie for some time now because she gave up herding animals in favor of grabbing flying Frisbees. For Tess and Sy, playing Frisbee became something of an obsession. They played all the time, even at night. Well, Tess is pretty old now, and Frisbee is a thing of the past. But Sy says their nights have taken on new meaning.
MONTGOMERY: Tess is a border collie and by the time we adopted her, after two other owners, she was imprinted on Frisbees, not sheep. My favorite time to play with her was on inky black moonless nights when I couldn’t see her or anything else at all. We live in the country, so no streetlights pollute our night skies. Some nights are almost cave dark. With my middle-aged, human eyes, I can see nothing on those nights. But Tess could see perfectly in the dark. Dogs possess a tapedum lucedum, a light-gathering reflector in the eye -- the reason dogs and cats eyes glow in the headlights of a car. So on those moonless nights I would follow her into the blackness, listening for the jingle of her dog tags. Down the gentle slope of the backyard I would follow to where the lawn leveled out at the edge of the field. Then I would whisper to her. "Tess: Go!"
I'd wait some seconds, and then toss the Frisbee into the blackness. Where it went, I had no idea; even in broad daylight, my aim isn't perfect. But a second or two later, I'd hear the beautiful click of her teeth on the plastic and know that she had leapt into the air and caught it. I'd squat down and hold my hands out in the dark. I needed her to put the Frisbee directly in my hands -- otherwise I'd have to waste valuable playtime feeling about for it on the ground.
I knew she couldn't possibly understand my blindness in the dark. How could I not see what was so plain and clear to her? Yet she generously worked around this unfathomable disability. She always patiently brought the toy right to my hands. And when I felt we should go in, I only had to say softly, "Tess, come. " She would run back to my side and lead me by the sound of her jingling tags back to the house. I always felt richer for those nights. For unlike other humans, thanks to Tess, I could voyage, even play, in the pitch blackness. With her I could walk without fear anywhere in the dark. It was our private little miracle.
Tess is 14 now. She has survived a stroke, a heart murmur, and a number of old-age ailments. She is completely deaf and nearly blind. We no longer play Frisbee. But we still go out at night. At first, my invisible black border collie, not used to her new disabilities, wandered off into the night and I couldn’t find her without a flashlight. I would call to her but she wouldn’t come, she couldn’t hear. Coping with a blind dog on a moonless night was heartbreaking, frustrating. But then I realized Tess had not lost that gift she had given me all those years. She had simply brought it back to me, like the Frisbee. Now I would be the one to lead her through the blackness. She probably can’t understand that she’s blind anymore than she understood that I couldn’t see in the dark.
Life is still rich and interesting, redolent with scent, full of tasty treats, and lots of petting. But now, for some reason, the world has gone largely dark and silent. This doesn't seem to worry her. Because she understands that somehow, I can navigate this black and soundless world. These days, I stay very close to Tess outside at night so she can follow my heat and my scent. She can count on me. And I am honored, after all these years, to receive the gift of her graceful, trusting reliance on me, as I once relied on her, to navigate through the dark.
CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery is the author of nine books including; “The Wild Out Your Window: Exploring Nature Near At Hand.”
CURWOOD: Just ahead: solar power is making its way from the shadows of the marketplace. First, this Environmental Health Note from Eileen Bolinsky.
BOLINSKY: A new study has found that anti-cancer drugs may not be the sole cause of what’s known as “chemobrain.” Chemobrain is a mental condition that causes some cancer patients to suffer cognitive disorders during and after chemotherapy. But a series of studies on breast cancer patients at the University of Texas revealed that 35 percent of participants experienced cognitive problems before chemo treatments.
Such findings suggest symptoms like forgetfulness, confusion and an inability to concentrate may be caused by the cancer itself rather than anti-cancer remedies. Researchers say doctors inaccurately blamed these symptoms on chemotherapy because patients weren’t examined for mental impairment preceding their treatments.
Dr. Christina Myers, a professor of neuropsychology and one of the study’s authors, says the findings will benefit patients who’ve been reluctant to undergo treatment fearing chemobrain symptoms.
Despite the study, researchers still don’t know why cancer patients develop cognitive problems. Some think cancer cells create substances that impair the nervous system. Other theories say the cancer may be affecting hormones that inflame the immune system. The study also found that the effects of chemobrain are not long lasting. A year after the study half the patients with “Chemobrain” recovered from their symptoms.
That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Eileen Bolinsky.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and Aveda, an earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
If you press your ear to the door of the solar industry right now, you'll hear a buzz; the sense that something's happening or about to happen. On the other hand, making lots of electricity directly from sunlight has supposedly been "just around the corner" for decades. Always about to take off ---yet solar roofs are still few and far between.
You really think about it when you fly in a plane and look down. There we are under this astral broiler -- it blazes down, soaking into miles of black rooftop, heating up buildings to the point of discomfort. So we switch on the AC, and sometimes overload the power grid as we reverse the sun-made heat. It seems like a huge waste. Many in business agree and they see an opportunity.
As Ingrid Lobet of our West Coast bureau reports, the changing economics of solar power are making it a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
LOBET: From his post as manager of the venture capital firm Nth Power in San Francisco, Tim Woodward’s view is that public perception hasn't kept up with the reality of solar electricity.
WOODWARD: People don't realize that there's three billion dollars of revenue generated in solar. They always believe it's this niche product that you see on highways and buoys in the harbor. And relatively speaking, that's true. I mean, there are not that many houses in the United States that have solar panels on them. But when you total it all up on a global basis, it is a very large number. And that’s what people are starting to understand.
LOBET: Woodward cites $3 billion. The industry's own figure approaches $5 billion. That's about as large as organic agriculture was when it burst on the scene in the late 1990s. And sales of solar are growing at a brisk pace, 30 to 35 percent a year. Woodward says that's making some investors take notice.
WOODWARD: We’re getting a lot more inquiries from institutional sources of money that are reading the tea leaves and saying, "This market is changing. Can we talk to you?”
LOBET: And solar companies are hungry to soak up any capital. They're investing in faster equipment in a fierce effort to drive down the cost of building solar panels. The cost has come down, but power experts say it still needs to drop from about $700 for a 100-watt panel, installed, down to about $300.
WOODWARD: We believe the costs are coming down at a significant enough rate that it will be very economical. Every three years the volume of output of the industry doubles, and for every doubling of output the cost comes down 18 percent.
LOBET: Living on Earth visited several solar businesses and found solar cells practically flying out of warehouses. Demand is high. Stocks are low. Business is good. Today, we'll find out how that's happened and why that hasn't automatically translated into panels on your neighbor's roof.
First, it helps to know a little bit about how solar panels are made. Did you realize they're basically the same silicon as Silicon Valley microchips?
[SOUND OF SILICON ROCKS]
Silicon comes from silica -- sand or quartz. It's the second most abundant element in the earth's crust. In Michigan, Wisconsin and Washington state, factories take raw silica and refine it into what's now called “solar grade” silicon.
LOBET: And from these rocks, they pour or spin silver ingots -- long, squared-off cylinders you could mistake for metal, but, of course, are more like glass.
[SOUND OF SILICON INGOTS]
LOBET: These ingots fill a display case at the Shell Solar factory in southern California. The oil companies BP and Shell are now among the biggest producers of solar power.
[DOOR OPENING INTO ROOM]
LOBET: Next, the long 20-pound silicon ingots are sliced into paper-thin wafers. Shell Solar's Tina Nickerson shows me a stack of discards, like thin CDs.
[WAFER PINGING, BREAKING SOUND, SOUND OF TALKING]
NICKERSON: So, if you press down in the middle...
LOBET: Oh, look at that.
NICKERSON: It breaks into four perfect triangles.
LOBET: To illustrate the crystalline structure that helps silicon wafers convert the sun's photons into electric current, she pushes a ballpoint into the center of one.
The panels on this roof are made of tempered glass that can endure severe weather conditions. They contain multi-crystalline silicon solar cells which harness solar power. (Photo: Shell Solar)
Getting these silicon wafers just this far accounts for about 50 percent of the cost of a solar panel, uninstalled. Cost is the enemy. Senior Engineer Nuran Deyirmencian describes building a new, more efficient line of solar cells while trying to keep the budget lean.
DEYIRMENCIAN: For example, this could have been a clean room. If it was a clean room it would have HEPA-filtered air and so forth and would cost us another $10-15 million to set it up and run it.
LOBET: The company also just doubled production by installing robots, including one beefy robot they call Arnold, after the state's solar-friendly governor.
DEYIRMENCIAN: That's the bottom line: make it cheap enough for anybody to afford it, then everybody will have one on their roof. That will be the ultimate thing to see. So, we are diligently working towards that end.
LOBET: And there have been other improvements in solar panels that you may have missed. Operations Director Terry Jester remembers silicon cells used to be round instead of squared. That meant less conductive surface.
JESTER: Now, if you look at almost all the panels on the market have more solar cell and less white space because the amount of power generated per square foot or per square meter is becoming critical.
LOBET: So, if I looked at a 100-watt panel when you started in the business versus now, what would the size difference be?
JESTER: It might 50 percent smaller, from, say, a meter and a half down to a meter now.
LOBET: Highway call boxes and mountain radio towers were, for a time, the solar industry's bread and butter. But no more. We're now solidly into the era of grid-connected solar. Increasingly, they're going on to the roofs of Fortune 500 companies, often with the help of an upstart firm out of Berkeley, California. Powerlight Corporation started in a garage 13 years ago. Last year it did $55 million in sales. Standing in his factory, Powerlight President Dan Shugar says one advance that puts solar systems on businesses is that they last longer.
SHUGAR: The technology has matured to the point where every major manufacturer now provides a 25-year warranty on the guaranteed power from every single solar panel. We have incentives here in California that pay for about 50 percent of the cost of these systems. And so you know that, hey, after the system's paid off, I still have another two-thirds of the life of the system left or more to recover the value of the asset.
LOBET: And in many places, you can now sell what you produce on your rooftop back to the power company. Powerlight’s customers don't merely save the high cost of afternoon electricity; the power they produce at that time is credited against the juice they do use. That's called “net metering.”
Shugar used to work at the power company, and he fielded one of the first requests for this idea even before it was called net-metering.
SHUGAR: I happened to be working at PG and E and we got a call from a famous actor-comedian who – really, his goal was, he had a large ranch in Northern California and he wanted to generate enough power to essentially net out his bill so he was a zero net energy consumer. We thought that was a great idea at the solar group at the utility. But we couldn't get it through. We were, essentially, blocked by the law department because God forbid an electron could find it's way into the transmission system and cross an interstate boundary.
LOBET: Today, 38 states have net metering. It's one more factor contributing to the growth of solar. In response to the demand, it seems like everyone is setting up new production lines: Sharp Electronics in Tennessee and Japan, BP Solar in Australia, Evergreen Solar in Massachusetts, Kyocera in China, Spire Solar in New Mexico.
SHUGAR: I just finished a world tour of many of the manufacturing facilities. There's huge investments going in. A lot of manufacturers are doubling their capacity. The global manufacturing capacity has grown from about 20 megawatts in 1988 to 750 megawatts today.
LOBET: In fact, some industry watchers are warning of too much capacity as all these new plants come on line. At the moment though, most producers scoff at this. They're sold out. Warehouses are low or empty. That's true even at a high-end shop in Sacramento where Joe Morrissey sells a product called “Sunslates.”
MORRISSEY: I just talked to somebody in Spain this morning. And they want three containers sent immediately.
LOBET: Shipping containers?
MORRISSEY: Shipping containers, 40-foot shipping containers of material. And this is just for Spain. This particular company is going to Amsterdam on Wednesday and Austria and then on to Budapest.
LOBET: And that points to another reason you haven't necessarily noticed the current heat in the solar business. The product is going to Europe and Japan. That’s because in Japan, electricity already costs more, and in Europe the government reimburses a large share of homeowners' installation cost.
MORRISSEY: The Europeans have just jumped ahead and they said, “Look, this is a real deal here. We want as much green energy as we can get.” And they've really put their money where their mouth is. And it’s just drained the global market. It's all flowing to Europe right now.