IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

A bit later in the hour, we'll be talking about genetic testing and the oldest recorded song. But up first: What is your city, your town or your village doing to cut back on energy use or switch to some form of alternative energy? Well, that's the question one Wall Street Journal reporter and his colleagues asked recently, and they turned the spotlight on cities because the federal government has not taken the lead in cutting back and going green. There is no real national energy policy to interweave all the different states and cities. And he looked beyond the U.S. cities because Europe has many, many towns that are doing these things.

So which cities are the ones to watch here and learn from all over the world, perhaps? We'll start the hour today with a tour of some of those changes that already are producing results. For example, did you know that New York City is experimenting with tidal power, tidal-powered turbines in the East River to make electricity? Or, how about conservation in Palm Springs? California plans for local power generation. And we also have London doing some interesting things. So what do you think your town is doing or should be doing?

Joining me now is Jim Carlton, senior special writer for the Wall Street Journal in San Francisco. He joins us from his office there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. JIM CARLTON (Journalist, The Wall Street Journal): Hi, Ira. How are you doing?

FLATOW: What is driving all of this?

Mr. CARLTON: It was really two major drivers. One is there's, you know, Al Gore, "An Inconvenient Truth." There's all this focus on global warming. We've seen ski-less winters in Europe. We're seeing, you know, polar bears drowning and, you know, winters in New York City when, you know, the flowers start growing in February. That's one driver.

The other driver is that power, you know, cost of power is going through the roof. And, you know, people are really kind of quite desperately trying to cut down on the cost of heating and cooling their homes and buildings.

FLATOW: For example, we've been talking recently about California utilities installing solar thermal power.

Mr. CARLTON: California really is a world leader in alternative energy and especially solar power. And this has been driven a lot by Arnold Schwarzenegger, our terminator in chief here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLTON: And Arnold, you know, came up with a policy here a couple of years ago called the million rooftop. And these were - you know, under his edict, the state in California, there's going to be a solar rooftop on 1 million new homes over the next 10 years. And the state has a lot of really aggressive subsidies to get people to go that way.

FLATOW: Now, I'm wondering about how you pick your cities on your top 10 list, because, you know, I imagine every city - some place is doing something.

Mr. CARLTON: Well, Ira, that was really one of our biggest challenges. In fact, two years ago in Seattle, there's the U.S. Mayors Conference. So they signed -there's over 700 mayors in the U.S. have signed kind of a Kyoto-like agreement to cut emissions in their hometowns. So, but what we looked aut were cities that are doing unique things and also cities that have been kind of pioneers in the whole alternative energy effort.

And, you know, one of the first that's came to attention was Chicago and their rooftop garden program.

FLATOW: Tell us about that. They put - they're telling people to plant gardens on their roofs.

Mr. CARLTON: Yeah, I mean, it seems kind of intuitive, you know, you…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. CARLTON: …plant a garden on your roof and you can, you know, lower the temperature. But Chicago the - and a lot of U.S. cities - the rooftop temperatures get as high as 160 degrees. You know, almost…

FLATOW: You got that flat black top on there.

Mr. CARLTON: Right, exactly.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. CARLTON: So, in 2001 at the Chicago City Hall, which they got a flat roof, they decided to put a garden on there. And, you know, lo and behold, it dropped the temperature about 70 degrees, and the power savings of that building have gone down to almost $10,000 a year.

And so that's immediate savings and that's something that spread throughout Chicago. Now, 15 million square feet of buildings in Chicago now have gardens on top of them.

FLATOW: You mentioned Ann Arbor is a good place.

Mr. CARLTON: You know, Ann Arbor, you know, you wouldn't think, you know, that's kind of an industrial city college town, but they're on the leading edge of, you know, kind of the alternative lighting movement.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CARLTON: And they have switched out to - they're switching all of their street lights. They have, you know, the street lights throughout Ann Arbor that they're going to change to Light Emitting Diodes or LEDs.

And those LED lights use only half the energy of a traditional incandescent bulb. And Ann Arbor started doing this. They've started in downtown Ann Arbor and already they're seeing savings. And over the next few years, they're going to replace all the street lights. But, you know, surprisingly, it's causing a little strife among some residents.

FLATOW: Yeah, I imagine they want - they like the brightness of those old lights.

Mr. CARLTON: Well, exactly. The problem with the LED light is that - it's kind of directional. So, you know, if you use it on a streetlight, you need to really - it kind of - it shines in one direction. And so, on a street light, you need to shine it down. And for folks who like to see the stars, it's great because the light, you know, the night sky…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CARLTON: …is going to be darker. But if you live near, you know, on one of the streets, it's going to be a darker street. So, actually, there was actually a resident who complained and said, you know, my home isn't lit up anymore. And the mayor of the city basically said it's not our job to light up your home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I imagine some smart person will come up with a lens that there's - that diffuses the light a little bit somewhere.

Mr. CARLTON: Exactly. Well, in fact on some of these street lamps in downtown Ann Arbor, to keep the aesthetic look, that kind of glow, they've actually had to, you know, do some configurations, mirrors, that kind of…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. CARLTON: …thing to make it look, you know, like it's glowing.

FLATOW: Tell us about Palm Desert, California.

Mr. CARLTON: You know, Palm Desert was really an interesting city. I mean, I live in California, but I'm in San Francisco. But San Francisco is pretty cool year-round. Palm Desert, the temperatures there get to over 120 in the summertime. They have air-conditioning bills that believe it or not go over $1,000. I mean, can you believe that, New York? I mean, that's like a mortgage payment.

And so the city was really economically compelled to do something, and so they set out with this really ambitious agenda. In fact, it's one of the most ambitious in the country. They want - together with the local utilities, Southern California Edison and Southern California Gas, they planned to cut energy use in Palm Desert by 30 percent by 2011. And that is not just for the city of Palm Desert, this is for everybody - businesses, everything. And they're doing this through, you know, these really aggressive rebate programs on, for example, to get you to take out your old air conditioner and put in a new one. They're doing, you know, $14 million in grants.

FLATOW: Let's - I mentioned what New York City was doing about tidal power. That was sort of really interesting.

Mr. CARLTON: Yeah. That, you know, if you drive past East River, you know, about eight feet below the surface, you know - excuse me - where Roosevelt Island is…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. CARLTON: …between Manhattan and Queens…

FLATOW: Sure.

Mr. CARLTON: …there are five windmill turbines that are, you know, buried in the ground. And right now, they're spending - they're collecting energy and they're actually providing enough electricity to power a supermarket on Roosevelt Island and a parking garage, believe it or not.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. CARLTON: And the company behind this, Vernon Power, plans to expand that to, like, 30 over the next few years.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CARLTON: And this is all part of Mayor Bloomberg's Plan NYC Program, which is also very ambitious to get New York to, you know, cut its emissions significantly by over the next 30 years.

FLATOW: Let's hop over to Amsterdam.

Mr. CARLTON: Yup. Now, Amsterdam is another interesting - and, you know, actually when we started talking about Europe, Europe has been really ahead of the United States on many other parts of the world on energy efficiency and many other environmental issues. I mean, if you go to Europe, you see all the small cars. I mean, they've kind of, you know, where we are going to.

But Amsterdam, they've decided that there's one fast growing part of the city that they decided they - one way they could cut emissions was to, you know, cut down air-conditioning.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CARLTON: And there's a lake there that's got cold water and so they're diverting from, like, a hundred feet deep, which is the cold water, 40 to 41 degrees. They're diverting into a system where it cools the village. So, they're using lake, you know, cold lake water to cool their buildings, which is a pretty - it's a cool thing, but it's, you know, there are a lot of lakes and a lot of cities could try that. So we thought that was really interesting.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get one caller before we have to go.

Let's go to Donia(ph) in Arizona. Hi.

DONIA (Caller): Hi, yes, my name is Donia, and I live in Williams, Arizona, a little tiny town in the arid southwest. And I guess this is actually kind of a negative representation of what we, I think, we shouldn't be doing.

The town has three city wells that all costs over a million dollars apiece to drill and they're pumping out of those - currently right now. However, at this particular season, we've had a huge amount of snow and rain so all of our reserves are full, which is what we pump out of when our wells aren't keeping up. And it's just kind of unfortunate because they're overflowing at a tremendous rate. And it's kind of wasteful in a huge opinion of mine. But…

FLATOW: All right.

DONIA: Yeah. I just, kind of thought that, you know, hey, they did a good job by trying to find another resource for water, but…

FLATOW: Hmm.

DONIA: …they're kind of blowing it by not using what's there right now. And…

FLATOW: Yeah.

DONIA: …it's kind of a shame. So I just kind of wanted to put that out there.

FLATOW: It shows how - it shows - thank you. It shows how complicated figuring out just what the right thing to do is.

Mr. CARLTON: Yeah. And that was a good point that Donia brought up. Donia, did I say that right?

FLATOW: Yeah. Donia, I think.

Mr. CARLTON: Donia. Anyway, so I actually have been toWilliams, Arizona. It's a nice town. You know, she put up good point, the West has had an unusual amount of precipitation. This year has been really drying. And so it is - there are many inefficiencies. I mean, I live in California. If you go through the California - Central Valley, you'll see, you know, irrigation spigots. You will see the water just running in a cotton field that's already flooded. I mean, there's all kinds of things that, you know, we could - you know, clamp down on just to - it's almost, kind of, low-hanging fruit(ph), things that we could fix up. It sounds like what she points out in Arizona is one easy one.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How effective are incentives, you know, local incentives or countries that give incentives to people to save energy?

Mr. CARLTON: Well, they're extremely in - you know, they're extremely effective. In fact, that's kind of the cornerstone of what's going on in California. I mean, you know, if you give someone an incentive to - I mean the problem is, for example in California, if you want to put a solar system in your house, it can cost $30,000. Very few people have the extra cash to do that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CARLTON: But, you know, with rebates and incentives, and whatnot, it can be, you know, reduced to $15,000. So, you know, there you go. And the…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CARLTON: …payback is about five to seven years. So, I mean, that's a lot more attractive. So, I mean, it's crucial, really…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CARLTON: …to get this market going with incentives.

FLATOW: Since you've done your top ten lists, have you heard back from cities that thought they should be included?

Mr. CARLTON: Oh, God, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLTON: I mean, you know, Austin, for example, I mean, Austin is - I mean, gosh, I mean, there's nobody - maybe they're even more aggressive than California. They actually started doing it, you know, the early 1980s.

Austin, Texas, is a real leader on this. Portland, Oregon is another leader; Seattle, Washington, Burlington, Vermont. I mentioned Aspen in this story, because Aspen's a small, little town, but everybody's heard of Aspen. And they have something called the Canary Initiative, which is they're like the canary in the coal mine. You know, when they're dead, you know, then the rest of us are in trouble.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CARLTON: And so, you know, they're worried about their melting snow pack. But anyway, yeah, there's, you know, literally, there's thousands of cities, you know, that are doing this now.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And are you going to continue to look for more or…

Mr. CARLTON: Absolutely, yes. It's not just the cities. It's at state level. You know, Schwarzenegger, you know, here in California, I mean, he's, you know, he's just always doing something. And then, very interesting, with the next administration - whoever it is - all of the leading candidates, you know, McCain, you know, Clinton, Obama, they've all talked about doing a lot on the global warming front. So, I think there's going to be big changes on the national level, too.

FLATOW: Well, you know what they say about talk - it's cheap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We'll see what happens. Thank you, Jim, for taking time to be with us.

Mr. CARLTON: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Jim Carlton is a senior special writer for the Wall Street Journal in San Francisco, talking about his column on the top ten cities around the world, and how they're investing in alternative energies.

We're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about genetic testing. You know, is it a good idea? There are all these gene tests out now for different kinds of diseases and maladies, and food - drug reactions, how well you hold up to the kinds of drugs you take? Are they good, should you use them without your doctor's advice?

We'll come back and talk about that and the caveats that go along with it. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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