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As small hydropower swells, so does caution on its impacts

Published August 21, 2014
As small hydropower swells, so does caution on its impacts

This article originally appeared at Yale e360.

The northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, nestled in the Himalayas, is home to a population of 10 million people, mostly farmers. Many are among the 400 million Indians who lack access to electricity.

In recent years, however, a strong push for hydroelectric power development has started to change that. Since Uttarakhand's rise to statehood in 2000, the expansion of hydropower in the region has mirrored the region's robust economic growth. Many dams that have been built are small hydropower projects that harness the force of a river without trapping large reservoirs of water.

But hydropower's benefits have come at a cost. In June 2013, early and extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains fell for two days, streaming off Uttarakhand's mountainsides, overflowing its rivers and overwhelming scores of new dams. The flooding eventually killed nearly 6,000 people, tore up 1,300 roads, took out nearly 150 bridges and destroyed 25 small hydropower projects. The disaster seemed an act of God, but a government-commissioned report said much of the blame lay elsewhere — on the new hydroelectric power infrastructure, which included nearly 100 dams, many of them smaller than 25 megawatts in capacity.

A panel of experts said the huge number of dams and associated construction debris were spaced so closely together that they had changed the river courses and flow of sedimentation, exacerbating the flooding. Tunneling through mountains and deforestation also contributed to the disastrous flooding, the panel said. As the floodwaters roared through narrow gorges where small dams had been built, the torrent swept up uncounted tons of dam construction spoils and carried them downstream, swamping villages, according to a report commissioned by the Indian Supreme Court.

It turned out that one or two of the state's largest hydroelectric dams — an energy source that for decades has been blamed for serious environmental damage around the world — actually may have held back some of the worst flooding.

Uttarakhand may have been a worst-case scenario for small hydro, but there is nevertheless an increasing understanding that a global push to downsize this renewable energy source carries risks. Small hydro has great potential to bring power to some of the 1.2 billion people around the world who lack electricity, and groups such as the World Bank and United Nations are increasingly backing small hydropower projects. But it is not environmentally benign, with impacts ranging from the fragmentation of river habitat to the potential for cascading dam failures during the kind of flooding experienced in Uttarakhand.

Small hydro, which includes so-called mini- and micro-hydro projects on small rivers and creeks, is most often defined as dams with a capacity up to 10 megawatts, although some countries define it as including dams of up to 25 or 30 megawatts. (The world's biggest dam, the Three Gorges Dam in China, has a 22,500-megawatt capacity). Although designs differ and sometimes rivers do get diverted, small hydro dams are often built as "run-of-river" projects, meaning the flow of the river turns some turbines in the dam to produce electricity without the need to create a reservoir behind those turbines. This can provide cheap, off-grid power, allowing rural areas access to electricity.

So far, about 75 gigawatts of small hydro have been installed worldwide, the bulk of it in China (37 gigawatts), Europe (about 17 gigawatts) and North America (about 8 gigawatts). So how much small hydro potential remains? According to one assessment from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the total remaining global potential is just under 100 gigawatts of projects of 10 megawatts or less. That's equal to 100 nuclear reactors or big coal power plants.

A glance at the specifics of small hydro's potential sharpens the focus on developing countries even further. East Africa has only 208 megawatts of installed small hydro, with 6,000 megawatts (6 gigawatts) that could be added; Kenya alone, with less than 2,000 megawatts of installed electricity from any source, could add 3,000 megawatts of small hydropower, according to UNIDO. Southeast Asia also has 6,000 megawatts of untapped potential. (The U.S. and Canada have tapped more than 85 percent of their small hydro potential already, with about 1,000 megawatts that still could be developed, UNIDO stated.)

Although there is still plenty of focus on major dams in certain parts of the world — including scores of large projects in China and numerous megadams in the Amazon — many countries, developers and financing groups are now more strongly focused on downsizing hydropower. Pierre Audinet, the program team leader for clean energy at the World Bank's Energy Sector Management Assistance Program, said that the majority of the bank's current hydropower projects are small. Since 2003, the World Bank reports that 61 percent of its projects were run-of-river or other small-scale or micro-hydro development.

Still, the World Bank is trying to convince developing countries that pushing too fast with small hydro carries risks.

"This whole discussion on accumulating impacts, it is something we pay a lot of attention to, and we have been pressing our client countries … to mitigate and prevent the negative impacts that can happen when there are too many dams on a single basin," Audinet said. In Vietnam, a $202 million commitment from the World Bank is helping finance the construction of nine new small hydro plants — maxing out at 30 megawatts each — with six already completed. The project includes an exhaustive environmental framework (PDF) that requires numerous safeguards before a project is eligible for funding. These range from assessing impacts on fisheries, water quality and sedimentation to consideration of downstream effects.

These precautions are in place for a reason, as the risks of building too many small dams in a single river basin aren't yet fully understood.

"It's really tricky because these smaller dams, they don't have the measurable impacts that you have with the bigger dams," said Martin Doyle, director of the Water Policy Program at Duke University. "You don't get the same sediment-starving effect downstream, and a lot of species can actually get by them during floods. But what they do is — we always called it death by a thousand cuts. Instead of having one big Hoover dam, you have thousands of little dams. They add up."

David Strayer, a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., said fragmentation by hydropower is a serious threat to ecosystems. In the U.S., Strayer said that studies have shown small dams mark the boundaries of various freshwater species, such as mussels (PDF), with potential long-term consequences. Put a small power project in today, and mussels likely still will live on both sides of the dam tomorrow. But over time, a drought or a flood might kill off the group on one side or the other, and the dam will block the rest of the species from spreading out to fill the void.

"It's not something that is yet regarded as a primary factor affecting freshwater biodiversity, but we have enough hints of this now that I personally would put this on the short list of major endangering factors over the longer term," Strayer said.

Another study in the Nu River area in China found that the cumulative impacts of small hydropower actually can outweigh those of larger dams. Flow modification of streams, for example, was "3 to 4 orders of magnitude greater" for the numerous small dams than for dams as big as 4,200 megawatts and 300 meters in height. Downstream of small hydro projects — which in some cases actually do divert rivers for large portions of the year — the rivers were "dewatered" an average of 74 percent of days studied, which aside from the obvious problems also negatively can affect water quality. Water quality also was affected more strongly by small hydro than large, the Nu study said.

Two studies — one by a group at Kansas State University and one by scientists at the University of New Mexico — found that some fish species, such as the family that includes carp and minnows, need as much as 100 kilometers of unbroken stream in order to survive and thrive. Many existing and proposed mall hydro projects are spaced much more closely together.

The Uttarakhand disaster represents an extreme scenario. In the report on the floods submitted to the Indian Ministry of Environment & Forests, the expert panel concluded that "bumper-to-bumper" development of run-of-river hydro projects is dangerous, and that changes to sedimentation of rivers caused much of the flooding damage. Even smaller dams hold back sediment and other materials that naturally would flow downstream, which can increase erosion below the dam and make the impacts of flooding worse if dams give way during a deluge, as they did in Uttarakhand.

The report recommended (PDF) that because of the threat of a "cascading chain of catastrophes," planners needed to examine the basin-wide impacts of building numerous dams on a single river system. The existing guidelines in the region require only one kilometer of separation between two projects. The report called for a halt to almost all hydropower development until studies could determine optimal distances between dams.

With the help of the UN, the World Bank, and others who increasingly focus on the impacts of small hydro, progress is being made. A survey of professionals working on small hydro around the world, from a database run by the International Energy Agency, suggests most think the industry is beginning to be regulated properly.

"Environmental impact studies are done even here for any sizeable hydro project, but there is room for improvement," said Terry Gray, a consultant on hydro projects based in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. Others in Uganda, Vietnam, India and elsewhere said that increasingly regulations are being adopted to match a growing demand for small hydro.

"Of course there are benefits to small hydropower, and I'm not saying we should stop doing any hydropower development," Strayer of the Cary Institute said. "But if you're really balancing costs and benefits, you ought to be doing so with your eyes open."

Small hydro power plant image by Dmitry Naumov via Shutterstock.

What makes BT's Net Good carbon program a game-changer?

Published August 21, 2014
What makes BT's Net Good carbon program a game-changer?

This article represents the premiere of a new column, "Game Changers," focusing on the intersection between innovation and sustainability in business, showcasing game-changing innovation approaches, people and trends.

BT's Net Good program is a component of BT's Better Future Program, which focuses on helping society live within the constraints of the planet's resources. Net Good applies an updated carbon abatement methodology across the supply chain, customers and internal operations. It aims to also have a wider impact for other businesses to move forward on their carbon abatement efforts. With its June 2013 launch, BT launched some new products. These translate into sales and business growth. I met with Kevin Moss, the head of BT's Net Good program. We spoke about BT's aspirations to become "net positive."

Susan Nickbarg: Please describe the Net Good program.

Kevin Moss: The vision of BT's Net Good program is to help society live within the constraints of the planet's resources through our products and people. The program's overarching goal is to help our customers reduce carbon emissions by at least three times the end-to-end carbon burden of running our business. We will achieve this by minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive impacts delivered by our products and people. Net Good means that the positives outweigh the negatives. By pursuing the goal "Net Good," we are shaping and accelerating the transition to a more sustainable, low-carbon economy. I work closely with the business units as together we innovate solutions towards this goal.

Specifically, our current goal here in BT's Net Good program is to help customers reduce carbon emissions by at least three times that amount by 2020. As of 2013, the total carbon emissions of BT's business created roughly equaled the emissions our products and services helped customers to avoid.

Nickbarg: What is the carbon reduction goal of the Net Good program and how has it expanded from before Net Good was launched?

Moss: It is a 3:1 goal based on the premise that BT is directly responsible for emissions resulting from its own operations. For example, this includes the network, offices, commercial fleets and company cars. We also hold responsibility for emissions at both ends of its value chain: in our supply chain (product and service production) and from the products and services used by BT customers.

We have a methodology we also want to share with other businesses and industries to help them move forward with their carbon abatement efforts. We also use our customer's feedback to further shape evolution of the methodology. The Net Good methodology and framework form part of BT's Better Future program, which encapsulates BT's commitment to be a responsible and sustainable business leader. It is a pledge set as one of BT's six strategic priorities.

Nickbarg: BT has been a forerunner to invest and proactively coalesce the Net Good program that you lead. Please explain the concept of "net positive" on which the Net Good program is related and why it's considered game-changing.

Moss: The concept of net positive means that an enterprise is contributing more in its chosen area for driving positive impact and mitigating negative impact. For example, we aligned the Net Good program to the environmental space. If we look retrospectively at what we were doing with our carbon footprint, you could say that we were doing "less bad" environmentally. It was not enough for our company. We needed to contribute "net good," especially being in the ICT sector. We wanted to show that the carbon reductions we made for our customers were more than the carbon we emit across our entire value chain. We also wanted to show that "net positive" has replacement value beyond our internal operations and across our customers and supply chain.

We are now part of the Net Positive Group with Forum for the Future, the World Wildlife Fund and the Climate Group helping to bring clarity to this emerging concept. We are one among one half-dozen companies now involved. All the members of the group have already made, or are working towards, a public commitment that will ultimately mean that they have a positive impact on the communities and natural environments they operate in. We work on a report called the Net Positive report where we are trying to broaden this concept of "Net Positive" for other businesses. One way to answer the question of how much is enough in sustainability is through application of the net positive idea, including to other related impacts such as health, nutrition or waste.

Nickbarg: Is there a backstory behind the Net Good program in how the goals were formulated?

Moss: We formulated the goals before we finalized the methodology or fully understood how we were going to deliver it. We set the goal within the order of magnitude we thought was necessary and with a view to capturing the entirety of our carbon burden. Our goal could be called an aspiration goal. We established it at the board level first.

Having then defined the methodology, we're still working on the third part about how to deliver it. The important thing to share is that the current gap challenges actually end up inspiring the business units to find ways of solving said challenges. The unknowns help us to fire up our problem solving skills. If we had a complete plan, we would not have the challenge to work on ourselves to change.

Nickbarg: What is the methodology of the Net Good program?

Moss: In order to embed sustainability throughout the business, you need to give tools to your non-CSR colleagues that are intertwined to the context of their role. One of the most leverage-able points is the design of new products.

Here it would be first to identify the CSR opportunities to include in product development and use requirements. Second is getting them prioritized. Third is actually having the CSR related product development and use requirements placed into the final product or service design. Our product and service managers have checklists about CSR related things they are asked to think about (and our now familiar with). It goes beyond the usual legal, technical, operational and compliance types of product design concerns.

At BT we call our product checklist "Designing Our Tomorrow." It quickly helps to get BT's product managers to key into sustainability issues and relate them to design solutions. If, for example, the big materiality issue for a product is to recycle packaging, we can flag it at the design stage. And then act to incorporate potential solutions into the design process.

Nickbarg: How has the Net Good program affected BT's operations, supply chain and customers?

Moss: We used to think of our footprint as our operational activities only. After the debut of the Net Good program, we now think of our upstream, operational and downstream impacts all told. The upstream footprint is the entirety of the supply chain. We capture this using EEIO (environmentally enhanced input and output) analysis.

The downstream footprint includes the in-life footprint of all of our branded and managed products and services. We then compare this footprint to how much our services help our customers avoid carbon emissions through travel and energy avoidance and through dematerialization.

Nickbarg: BT has stated a desire to motivate more collaborative approaches across sectors and to create more net positive outcomes beyond its own tent. How is this unfolding?

Moss: What I can talk about are the sorts of places we envision. Most of which are prefixed by the "smart" word: smart cities, smart travel, smart grid and smart transport. For example, we won an award for a smart vehicle program. In this program, we equipped vehicles with a smart device to travel more efficiently.

The interesting thing here is this one example and many others that we are exploring provide us with important indicators. Our products that consider sustainability problems in their design in turn are helping to create a competitive advantage with new advantages. "Smarter" is where the telecom industry and CSR field is going in terms of product design and delivery.

Nickbarg: What are the key challenges and opportunities around resource management and forging new business models such as Net Good (that doesn't just take and use resources but adds resources and value back)?

Moss: A key opportunity is in the design and launch of products and services that help our customers to reduce their emissions. It helps us to shape and grow our portfolio. Our products that help customers to reduce their emissions will become more and more in demand in the future and help us to thrive as a business. Especially in some future scenarios of higher forecasted energy costs. There will be a clear need for lower carbon options in the future.

Communication technology has a vital role to play in reducing our demand for resources and cutting carbon emissions. For example, our systems can actually help to manage the energy use in buildings or the video conferencing capabilities in certain facilities to avoid carbon emissions.

A key challenge for me in my role at Net Good is the technical challenges. For instance, there isn't a previously established measurement standard. Another challenge is that the business units have many opportunities for investment and growth. Not only do I have to show a business case to the business units, but also I have to compete with internal peers outside of my department for resource prioritization and funding against those the business will actually adopt.

Nickbarg: Has there been any change up or down in inquiries from investors and shareholders related to sustainability since the launch of Net Good?

Moss: We"re seeing a little bit of difference. I'd like to see more. One of the changes we made in our meetings with investors, but it is too early to say the impact. In these meetings we can now relate the revenue value of the products and services that make up the Net Good product portfolio — as well as state it in our annual report. We try and help investors understand where Net Good products sit in the business.

Nickbarg: What shall we anticipate next from BT's Net Good?

Moss: We want to meet our net positive goal that we just announced. We also are working to promote the concept we talked of earlier of "net positive" more widely. We are also actively looking for new products and services to help our customers. We have several pilots we want to turn into products that we can sell on a scalable basis.

Nickbarg: Any parting words about Net Good?

Moss: Net Good expands the whole narrative from risk mitigation and cost reduction to a discussion about business growth and value. It engages a whole new group of people in the company who didn't either know what materiality issues our business and sector were facing. Or, how to take steps to integrate CSR into the business core, which are our products and services.

Now, they have an easy hook to get involved. It makes a big difference to engage and have more employees across more disciplines invested in CSR (business purpose) at a business operations level through our Net Good framework and methodology.

Top image of chess game by sergign via Shutterstock.

New fishing nets reduce bycatch, sparing sea life

Published August 21, 2014
New fishing nets reduce bycatch, sparing sea life

This article first appeared at Ensia.

Six years ago, the Norwegian coast guard filmed a Scottish fishing vessel riding gray swells, dumping 5 metric tons of dead fish back into the North Sea. Over the European Union catch quota,and unable to keep all the fish they'd caught, the fishermen had to ditch some. To the Norwegians, who aren't part of the EU and hold a strict discards ban, the waste was shocking.

When this news reached Dan Watson, a young British designer, it became the inspiration for SafetyNet, an ocean fishing net that allows certain fish to escape via lighted rings, offering more catch selectivity. The Scottish fishermen's predicament, he believed, was driven by their lack of control. "There can be no villains, there can be no victims, there are just problems," Watson said. "I started this project because I wanted to go some way towards solving that problem."

Watson joins a growing number of innovators designing more selective fishing gear to reduce bycatch — the unwanted fish, dolphins, whales and birds that get scooped up by longlines, gillnets and trawlers each year and then discarded. Globally, the amount of marine life that is wasted or unmanaged — which makes it potentially unsustainable — forms about 40 percent of the catch. "The way we catch now is to catch everything, decide what we want to keep and discard the rest," said Martin Hall, head of the bycatch program at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which regulates tuna fishing in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Bycatch can result in overfishing, reduces the population of species that already might be endangered and, on the largest scale, interrupts food chains and damages whole ecosystems. It also amounts to an enormous waste of valuable fish protein.

To designers building better nets and lines, bycatch isn't viewed as an inevitability, but as something we can phase out, piece by piece. It's also seen as a battle that needs to be fought alongside fishermen, not against them.

Rethink the hame

Speaking from his trawler, the 45-foot Proud Mary, off the coast of Massachusetts, one such fisherman, Christopher Brown, said that over the years, fishermen have had to "rethink the game." Brown operates a fishery that's almost completely free of discards; is the board president of the Seafood Harvesters of America, an organization representing stewardship-minded fishermen; and has designed a squid net that reduces bycatch. The net contains an escape route at its base that exploits the bottom-dwelling behavior of unwanted flounder, encouraging them to flee the net through this gap. "We need to look at things entirely differently than we have in the last 30 years," Brown said — and new gear is part of that equation. "It's a matter of enlightened self-interest."

Brown may seem unconventional, but more and more, fishermen are both driving change and being consulted like clients about new gear. "The main focus has to be the fisherman," said Watson. "You have to build something the fisherman is going to use."

Credit: Dan WatsonFor designers, the next challenge is gaining capital. Although Watson has been working on his SafetyNet design for five years, and even though it won the prestigious James Dyson design award in 2012, it's still staggeringly expensive, and Watson has had difficulty hiring a boat that will try out his net on open water.

Designed to free both young and endangered fish, the SafetyNet works by using fitted LED rings, which flash like exit signs to alert smaller fish. The fish can then escape by squeezing through the rings. There's also a panel in the net that separates tighter mesh at the top from larger mesh below, allowing nontarget, bottom-dwelling species such as cod to escape through the bigger holes. With lights and panel working in tandem, "You can start almost herding the fish under the water," Watson said.

There is no silver-bullet solution for a problem as broad as bycatch; instead, each new piece of gear responds uniquely to a species' size, shape and behavior. "The more we know about the ways we can stop different things being caught, the more we can make bespoke nets," Watson said. As Hall puts it, "Slowly, you attack the different angles of the problem, and you solve it."

Of course, there's the inevitable economic caveat. Just as Watson has fought for funding, money is an obstacle for the industry too, slowing the scale-up of new gear across fisheries. Fishermen support innovation, but they can't be expected to lose money over it, said Barrie Deas, chief executive for the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, which represents fishermen in the U.K. "Technical innovation is one thing. It's the economic consequences of doing that [that matters]," he said. "People will seek economic ways to fish."

It's easy to argue back that changes in gear should just be legislated — but that rarely works, said Deas, if fishermen aren't already onboard. "It's not so much the designed gear that's the problem," he said. "But if the attempt is made to introduce it in a top-down bureaucratic way with top-down prescriptive legislation, the last 20 years has told us that doesn't work."

Bridging the gap

Going some way to bridge this financial gap and to bring collaborative, bottom-up thinking to gear design, the World Wildlife Fund runs a regular competition called the International Smart Gear Competition that gives academics, conservationists and fishermen the chance to share their ideas.

"What we have learned is that you need an incentive to get started," said Hall, who doubles as a competition judge. And that incentive is cash. For each competition cycle, sponsors partner with WWF to generate the prize money. This year, $65,000 will be awarded — the grand prize will be $30,000. "The extent of the support depends on the amount of money we can raise, so in some years, it's been better than others," said Michael Osmond, Smart Gear's senior project officer.

The prize money goes to notable designers to help them build, try out and, they hope, introduce their gear into fisheries. "I think that attitudes have changed a lot over the last decade," Osmond said. "With our competition, a lot of the winning ideas have come from fishermen themselves."

Credit: Salvatore BarberaThis collaborative environment has delivered some serious successes. In 2011, designers hacked LED fishing lights ordinarily used to attract fish and repurposed them (PDF) to drive turtles away instead. Globally, dense pockets of gillnets unintentionally snare and drown thousands of turtles each year because they're almost invisible underwater, said John Wang, project leader and a researcher with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research who works as a fisheries research ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But if LED lights are fixed onto nets and tuned to a wavelength turtles can see, turtles recognize the nets as barriers and cruise by. As Wang put it, "We have a selective communication channel to the turtles." With this tool, they've reduced bycatch by up to 60 percent during trials in Mexico, Peru and Indonesia, and are now working with U.S. fisheries.

It's not just about turtles, though: "What we're beginning to see is that the wavelength has some interesting properties. Different wavelengths affect fish in different ways," Wang said. Now, he's working on illuminating nets with ultraviolet light to steer hammerhead sharks away.

Judged by global impact, Smart Gear's biggest success story is arguably the Eliminator Trawl (PDF), a 2007 winner built to address cod shortages by allowing cod to escape nets in New England haddock fisheries.

The brainchild of fishermen, designers and academics — "a real collaborative effort," said Laura Skrobe, Eliminator team member and fisheries scientist at Rhode Island University — the net frees down-swimming cod through the large mesh at the base, reducing bycatch by 80 percent. A tighter mesh at the top herds in haddock, which tend to swim upward. The net also significantly cuts dogfish, plaice and lobster catch — all without hurting the haddock fishery.

Credit: Laura Skrobe, URI/Rhode Island Sea Grant.During trials, the team had to sell the catch from the first three trawls just to afford the fourth. But despite hurdles, "the fishermen were really the ones who pushed it," said Skrobe. "Our fishermen will be conservationists themselves whether or not their managers tell them to. We're just providing tools for the toolbox." The net's straightforward design has made it useful in both the U.S. and the U.K., where it's now formally part of fishing regulations.

Out of the box

In the quest to scale up smart fishing gear across global fisheries, Hall echoed what designers such as Skrobe feel: large-scale, regulatory change can happen, but only if it's negotiated with fishermen first, or they'll resent it. Increased investment is the obvious next step, to spur innovation and to make gear changes easier to phase into fisheries so fishermen don't carry the costs.

As a longtime WWF Smart Gear judge, Hall adds something else: He craves even greater innovation, ideas that challenge the age-old fishing tradition. "Even though wonderful things are happening, we aren't innovating in a dramatic way," Hall said. "I'd really like to see an initiative that goes out of the box, to just shake the concept that because we've been doing this for 2,000 years, it's OK."

In August, Dan Watson will try his SafetyNet on the open ocean for the first time. After weathering a few challenges, he's found a trawler that will take him off the southwestern coast of the U.K. and into the Atlantic, pulling his lighted net, to ride the swells just as those Scottish fishermen did six years ago.

For those fighting bycatch, there's a long road ahead — much of it determined by funding and policy. But for now, innovators need to keep innovating, Watson said: "You can look at the political world of fish, but that's going to take 20 years to sort out. We need to create interventions in the meantime."

Top image of entangled sperm whale by Alberto Romero/Marine PhotoBank via Flickr.

Emma Bryce

Emma Bryce is a freelance journalist based in London, where she writes about the environment, technology and food. Her work has appeared in Wired Magazine, TED Education, the New York Times, and in the Guardian, where she writes about food and the environment.

Upcoming report tracks P2 results at U.S. public agencies

Published August 20, 2014
Upcoming report tracks P2 results at U.S. public agencies

Of all environmental programs, pollution prevention programs are especially ambitious in that they address all environmental media (air, water, land) as well as natural resource consumption (energy, water, chemicals) and habitat conservation. In addition, P2 programs endeavor to achieve the ambitious goal of providing economic and social benefit in terms of cost savings and worker safety.

The National Pollution Prevention Roundtable and the Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange collaborate on an ambitious effort to grow and maintain a national database of P2 Results. The database focuses on a variety of measures with a goal to document the efforts of some 90 U.S. government agencies and technical assistance providers to improve environmental performance. Such efforts include activities by government and technical assistance providers; behavior changes by industry; reductions in waste, energy consumption and water usage; and economic gains achieved through these activities.

The tri-annual NPPR report of these results is to be released next month during National P2 week. It will show that between 2010 and 2012, cumulative results of reporting organizations and their clients added up to:

8.9 billion pounds of waste reduced— this is the amount of waste produced by 5.5 million people in a year (the population of greater Atlanta.)

8.8 billion gallons of water conserved— the amount of water needed to supply 400,000 people per year (the population of Reno, Nevada.)

1.5 billion kWh of electricity saved— this is equivalent to the energy usage for 140,000 homes (the population of Des Moines, Iowa.)

$5.4 billion in cost savings— this is equal to the annual GDP for the country of Bermuda.

Because numbers such as ROIs are a necessary but insufficient motivation to change, the report also includes success stories that demonstrate how organizations are striving to save resources.

For instance, take Eastern Bag and Paper Company of Milford, CT. Its sustainability initiative focused on accomplishments in three areas:

  1. Electricity Usage: To reduce electricity usage in each warehouse, approximately 450,000 square feet, the company replaced of all light fixtures with new, more efficient fluorescent lights that consume less energy. They also installed motion sensors throughout the entire building. The sensors automatically shut off lights when not needed. This resulted in a 22-percent reduction of electricity usage, which amounts to 121 metric tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere, or the equivalent to saving 20,000 gallons of gasoline or planting 147 acres of pine trees.

  2. Materials Recycling: The company purchased a baling machine that bales all wrap into tight bundles, which are then sent to a recycler, and a machine to recycle all cardboard with similar procedure as Stretch Wrap; developed a policy of only using recycled wood pallets; and recycled fluorescent light bulbs, Nickel-Cadmium batteries and CRT’s.

  3. Fuel Consumption: To reduce fuel consumption, they use software that routes delivery trucks in the most efficient manner. They also acquired 15 new trucks utilizing new diesel technology, which resulted in a 16-percent reduction in fuel consumption and a 90-percent reduction in exhaust emissions.

We intend for examples such as this one to show how pollution prevention can be done, and to inspire others.

Finally, the report will share future efforts by the Pollution Prevention Results Task Force to improve the collection and sharing of P2 results. Let's keep the conversation flowing.

Top image by David Shankbone via Wikimedia.

Also in The P2 Pathways Blog:

Ioxus, Maxwell, Win Inertia bet on ultracapacitors to store energy

By Heather Clancy
Published August 20, 2014
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Tags: Energy & Climate, Energy & Utilities, More... Energy & Climate, Energy & Utilities, Renewable Energy, VERGE
Ioxus, Maxwell, Win Inertia bet on ultracapacitors to store energy

While batteries still generate more headlines, the role of ultracapacitors in energy storage and efficiency applications moved toward center stage this summer with high-profile transportation projects for two notable players, Ioxus and Maxwell Technologies.

Although they look a lot like batteries, ultracapacitors can be charged and discharged far more quickly, making them attractive for applications that require rapid bursts or occasional boosts of power. Primarily that's because they rely on electrostatics, and not a chemical reaction, to perform. It's not uncommon to find them in hybrid buses (especially in China), where they help boost fuel efficiency by providing propulsion for acceleration, or paired with batteries (which can store more power) and used to harvest and store energy from wind turbines or solar panels.

But several projects announced in the past three months happen to center on the ultracapacitor's potential for improving rail transit energy efficiency.

In New York state, for example, the Long Island Rail Road is testing Ioxus ultracapacitors as a means of reducing energy consumption and providing voltage support to trains when the electric grid load is high. The technology is installed in a 20-foot shipping container connected to the rail traction feeds and a high-power DC-DC converter. They're too big to install on the trains themselves.

"Right now, LIRR can't launch more trains at one time because of the system draw," said Chad Hall, cofounder and vice president of marketing and product management for Ioxus, which snagged $21 million in new funding in April. "This can really drop down the requirements, as much as 30 percent. In fact, each station where we install this can reduce consumption by 500,000 kilowatt-hours of energy throughout the year."    

Interest in Ioxus's technology is growing so quickly that the company just opened its second manufacturing plant in Oneonta, N.Y., near its headquarters. Aside from transportation, its iMOD products are being used in combination with photovoltaic arrays and manufacturing equipment to improve energy efficiency.

Maxwell also is working closely with railway customers: Its latest wins include a braking energy recuperation system that is part of an upgrade to Philadelphia's light rail system and an installation announced this week in Cerro Negro, Spain, where its technology is capturing excess energy from an electric rail system to power an electric vehicle charging system.

"By incorporating ultracapacitors, which accept charge from the braking energy recuperation system much more efficiently than batteries, the system recovers significantly more energy," said Eugenio Dominguez Amarillo, CEO and chief technology officer for Win Inertia, the engineering company behind the installation.

In Philadelphia, a system called Enviline is being used by contractor ABB to cut power consumption for the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority. ABB uses Maxwell ultracapacitors to capture energy generated during the train braking process and "recycle" it back into the system, where it can be used to help a different train accelerate. Usually, power is lost during the braking process.

What ABB is doing isn't entirely a new concept; what's unique is the installation's role in enabling the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority to provide frequency regular services back to the PJM Interconnection Network. The transit agency actually could earn between $150,000 and $200,000 by coordinating to meet PJM demand signals.

"There is absolutely a local market for this," said Jacques Poulin, ABB product manager for energy storage and rail. "During the balance of the day, this can become a regulation asset. … But you need to have the willingness of the transport authority and the market" to support a project of this nature.

How fast will ultracapacitors catch on? Research from IDTechEx suggests this year will mark a turning point for adoption, kickstarting compound annual growth of 30 percent between now and 2024 when revenue is projected to reach $6 billion. Aside from the applications already discussed, another big contributor will be the automotive sector, which is designing the technology into forthcoming hybrid and electric vehicle models.



Are electricity-eating bacteria the next big thing in green fuel?

By Michael Keller
Published August 20, 2014
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Tags: Alt-Fuel Vehicles, Renewable Energy, More... Alt-Fuel Vehicles, Renewable Energy, Renewables
Are electricity-eating bacteria the next big thing in green fuel?

Editor's Note: This story is republished with permission from Txchnologist, a digital magazine that follows innovation in science and technology.

There's a large and growing list of renewable energy projects pumping out cleaner electricity these days. Photovoltaic panels produce direct current and solar concentrators drive steam turbines using sunlight. Wind turbines churning out megawatts of power dot the landscape of many countries. Other projects are looking to light communities through tides, running rivers and even the heat of the Earth.

Creating current is all well and good for energizing homes, businesses and even motor vehicles, but when it comes to flying airplanes or turning the screws on big ships, batteries storing alternative-energy-produced electricity just can't deliver the power needed yet. That's why these large machines still need combustible liquids such as diesel, aviation fuel and bunker oil that pack a bunch of energy into small volumes to drive their engines.

For these and other high-power applications, renewable energy needs to up its oomph. The best way to do that would be to concentrate sunlight's energy, for instance, into a machine that converts it directly into fuel. For well over a century, we've been using a version of this that comes out of the ground in the form of petroleum products, the hydrocarbon-rich remnants of organic matter that lived eons ago. The ancient organisms that form our fossil fuels are the concentrated distillates of sunlight.

The trouble with ethanol

But now that humanity is looking to replace fossil fuels, scientists need to recreate the process of compounding energy into combustible liquids in a renewable way. One approach researchers are taking is growing microorganisms that produce biofuel as a result of their metabolism. It may sound far-fetched, but yeasts and bacteria have been used for centuries to make ethanol, the intoxicating component in alcoholic beverages that is also flammable and can be used as a power source.

 darwin Bell via FlickrTo make biofuels, bacteria genetically modified to more efficiently make specific combustible compounds are fed plant-based complex carbohydrates or simple sugars. They take the carbon atoms and energy from metabolizing these plant molecules and convert them into a renewable source of fuel.

There's a fundamental problem, though. This direct conversion of plant biomass to fuels can provide the power needed to drive engines, but the process needs lots of land to grow the feedstock and, in the case of corn-based fuel, directly compete with the crop's use as food. Also, photosynthesis is an inefficient process — in fact, the amount of incoming sunlight energy that the typical plant can convert into the chemical energy stored in biomass doesn't get much above 2 or 3 percent.

And, if reducing the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere to slow climate change is the goal, conventional biofuels aren't quite there yet. If forests need to be cut to grow the fuel's biomass feedstock, or if fertilizers need to be used to grow that biomass, then the process isn't carbon neutral, meaning that the amount of CO2 released in burning the biofuel is equal to the amount the plants absorbed while growing.

Think big by thinking small

But what if there's a way to make biofuels directly from the energy of the sun, wind and moving water without needing to grow plants to feed in? And what if that process got the carbon for the carbon-based fuel directly from atmospheric CO2?

"When it comes to making biofuels with bacteria, the question is, can we do a better job of harvesting the sun's energy than plants can?" Columbia University chemical engineer Scott Banta told Txchnologist. "We need ways to use real-time energy from the sun and real-time carbon from the air, and turn it directly into gasoline."

Banta's lab is one of several making inroads to do just that, and his team recently secured a second round of funding from the Department of Energy's advanced research arm after seeing initial success growing biofuel-producing bacteria that use electricity for food. If it works, the technology, called electrofuels, could mean pumping liquid fuel out of solar panels and wind turbines. The Energy Department said electrofuel production has the potential to be 10 times more efficient than that used to make biofuels.

The team, collaborating with the lab of fellow Columbia electrochemical engineer Alan West, is using a kind of bacteria naturally found in mines. The organism, Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans, oxidizes iron as its sole energy source and pulls in atmospheric CO2 for the carbon it needs. It already is being used in the mining industry to extract metals from ore.

A. ferrooxidans is grown in a bioreactor with iron in it. Electricity fed into the system reduces the iron so the bacteria can oxidize it to harvest electrons. Banta's team has been refining a process started by others that uses electrons and atmospheric CO2 to grow the bacterial cells.

"Others already figured that part out," he said. "Our major breakthrough is that we genetically modified the bacteria to produce two different fuel chemicals that can be blended into diesel. Now, instead of just making cells from electricity and air, we can hopefully make fuel from electricity and air."

(Credit: Banta et al.)

He said the results that they've achieved so far are promising, although the system's efficiency is low. The researchers will use the new round of funding to make the bioreactor system more efficient and to complete metabolic engineering on the bacteria to push it to produce more fuel.

"The science has been demonstrated on this process and now it's an engineering question of getting it up to scale," he said. "We're optimistic. We think this is an energy source of the future."

Top image of petri dish by Olivier Le Queinec via Shutterstock.


Susan Nickbarg

SVN Marketing
Susan Nickbarg, creator of Game Changers, is a marketing and branding expert and forerunner and sustainability reformer helping companies to pinpoint their higher purpose and turn it into innovation and integrated alignment between business practice, culture, program management, promotion, and communication. She is a frequent author, educator and speaker.

Michael Keller

Managing Editor

Michael Keller is managing editor of


How microgrid subscriptions can strengthen the New York grid

By Elisa Wood
Published August 19, 2014
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Tags: Commitments & Goals, Construction, More... Commitments & Goals, Construction, Design & Innovation, Energy, Energy & Utilities, Facilities, Government, Policy & Regulations, Smart Grid
How microgrid subscriptions can strengthen the New York grid

Central Hudson Gas & Electric is seeking approval to offer microgrid subscriptions, as part of a $46 million rate hike request filed with state regulators July 25.

The New York utility would design, build and operate microgrids at the request of customers, who would pay a fee for the service on their utility bills. The fee would be determined by location and depend on the extent and type of microgrid service.

“We will be proposing a form of microgrid that could be installed to serve critical, premium power locations that could consist of colleges, hospitals, business parks and even neighborhoods,” said Michael Mosher, Central Hudson’s vice president of regulatory affairs.

The idea for microgrid subscriptions comes in response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s push to prepare the electric grid for any repeat of severe storms like Superstorm Sandy, which left some parts of New York without power for weeks.

Central Hudson already has a microgrid in a remote area known as Frost Valley. It has operated successfully as an isolated microgrid during a dozen major and minor storms since February 2010, the utility said in the rate application filed with the New York Public Service Commission.

In choosing the sites, the utility will seek areas where a microgrid will allow it to forego building miles of infrastructure that improves service to only a small number of customers.

Solar gardens, DR, smart meters

The two-year rate plan, which requires regulatory approval, includes several other innovations, such as community solar, targeted demand response and opt-in smart meters.

To promote community solar (solar gardens), the utility plans to build, own and operate 1-3 MW solar farms. Customers could purchase energy by way of shares in the facilities, which would be located near existing Central Hudson substations. New York is a restructured state, so Central Hudson must win approval from state regulators to own the solar farms. The utility cannot otherwise own power plants.

The utility expects the solar farms to produce power at half the cost of rooftop solar, on a price per power output basis. It would site the solar farms where they will provide the most grid support.

[Learn more about distributed energy systems at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

The targeted demand response program will offer incentives for customers in select areas to lower energy use during peak periods. Central Hudson will calculate incentives based the avoided costs for the area.

A voluntary program, Central Hudson’s DR effort would focus on small businesses, commercial parks, campuses and communities. A demand response program already exists for industrial customers through the New York Independent System Operator.

The smart meter program also will be voluntary. Customers who join the program would pay an installation price plus a monthly charge, and would be provided access to a web portal to view their usage.

Part of bigger plan

The two-year rate hike would cover far more than the tech improvements. Property tax increases account for 40 percent of the new revenue the utility seeks. Central Hudson says it also needs to increase rates to pay for new electric and gas infrastructure, some of which was installed in the 1920s.

Central Hudson serves 300,000 electric customers and 78,000 natural gas customers in New York. It is a subsidiary of Fortis, the largest gas and electric investor-owned utility in Canada.

This article originally appeared at Top image of Manhattan grid by Christopher J Dolphin via Shutterstock. 


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