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Why innovation isn't always the answer in clean tech

Published July 17, 2014
Why innovation isn't always the answer in clean tech

Like most people, I love the idea of innovation. Innovation is new, it's exciting, it's cutting-edge and it's vital — even if no one can agree on precisely what it is.

In green business and environmental circles, innovation is self-evidently of huge importance. Our current economic models are at the root of the environmental crises we face, so we need to develop innovative new technologies and business models to resolve those crises. Without technical innovation to bring down the cost of clean energy and transport, we will never decarbonize the economy; without innovative new ways of doing business, we will never tackle the resource crunches that loom over so many industries. That is what makes the sheer quantity and quality of clean tech innovation on display at the recent BusinessGreen Leaders Awards so inspiring and heartening. We need clean tech innovation, and long may it continue.

However, there is a little-acknowledged caveat to our obsession with innovation that was highlighted last week by Dutch landscape ecologist Victor Beumer. Sometimes, he told the Global Estuaries Forum in Deauville, France, you need to stop regarding a solution as innovative and acknowledge that it has become normalized, boring, passé even. In fact, this should be the point you are aiming for. That is when you have made it.

Beumer was speaking of how we can use eco-engineering techniques to tackle flood risks when he said: "People say this is innovative, but it's been being done for over 10 years and if you call it innovative, people want the government to pay for it and businesses won't take the risk." But he could have been talking about almost any clean tech innovation.

The surprising stigma of innovation

The key point that too many in the clean tech sector overlook in their rush to celebrate innovation (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) is that not everyone likes innovation. Large swathes of the public don't like innovation. Pension funds and institutional investors really hate innovation. Many multinationals, regardless of what they say to the contrary, are wary of innovation. What they want is safe, reliable, bankable technologies, projects and business models that will deliver near-guaranteed returns.

Credit: Joe C via FlickrThe goal of the clean tech revolution is not innovation for innovation's sake, it is innovation to reach and then pass the point where greener alternatives become safer and more effective propositions than the polluting incumbents they are designed to replace. We need a clean tech industry that can innovate, but we also need one that can roll out its innovations at global scale in the matter of a few years. There are other skills that matter besides innovation (and yes, I appreciate the contradiction of writing this just days after our BusinessGreen Leaders Awards celebrated the best in green business innovation).

The most encouraging aspect of the decision by retail giants such as Walmart, Sainsbury's and Tesco to invest so heavily in deploying solar panels and LED lights at their stores is that these firms are not traditionally that innovative when it comes to this aspect of their operations. They are not deploying these technologies to prove that they are cutting-edge. They've done the return on investment calculations, tested the technology and deemed it to be the best and most cost-effective, not necessarily most innovative, option. Similarly, it has to be asked if wind and solar energy should still be seen as innovative in those parts of the world where the technology has been around for more than 20 years and can compete with fossil fuels on cost without subsidy.

Innovation's goal: To become commonplace

Of course, innovation remains crucial. It is the lifeblood of the clean tech sector and will remain so for years to come. Green industries secure huge benefits from their being regarded as unimpeachably modern and technologically bleeding edge.

But there will come a point, and for some parts of the green economy it already has come, when clean tech firms will have to realize innovation can get you only so far. Sometimes you have to focus on deployment, and at that point being regarded as innovative can become a curse as well as a blessing. It is almost always good to be seen as innovative, but if clean tech firms are to ever achieve their goals they also have to be regarded as boringly mainstream.

Top image of Rube Goldberg machine by Jeff Kubina via Flickr. This article first appeared at BusinessGreen.



Why sustainability requires leadership training

Published July 17, 2014
Why sustainability requires leadership training

Sustainability is now firmly on the radar screen of business. Along with their ongoing focus on economic issues, two-thirds of executives and managers now consider social and environmental issues as significant or very significant concerns. Yet only 10 percent of leaders say they are fully addressing these issues. Those who have been able to embed sustainability into core functions of their companies are reaping significant benefits.

Sustainability is one of those big openings that hold enormous promise. It requires teams to know not only what it means and why it’s important, but also how it can be actualized in a business. And as always, it takes excellent leadership skills to turn good ideas into tangible results.

For every highly-influential leader who may have the clout to put sustainability on the table, it takes a whole team of skillful champions working together to make sustainability a reality.

Throughout my career, and in my role at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, I’ve witnessed what’s possible when business leaders set a powerful agenda and then pull together the teams that get it done. Those game-changing initiatives take commitment, talent, hard work and time.

One problem we face as leaders today is that we developed our leadership talents, and gained business success, in environments that were much more predictable than those our businesses face now. The business challenges surrounding resource constraints, erratic markets, extreme weather, economic volatility and social change have become the new normal described by Andrew Winston in The Big Pivot. These conditions, along with innovations in technology that have interconnected our world, have infused the business landscape with a never-before-seen radical level of transparency. All this has left business leaders with much less control than they would ideally want.

Making sustainability happen — at scale — and with the speed required to reap returns on investment under these conditions, requires business leadership to rethink and remix their skill sets to develop the versatility and agility they need.

Sustainability leadership training

The value to leaders of developing collaborative relationships that are cross-functional and inter-industry cannot be emphasized enough in regard to sustainability. The USCCF and other forward-thinking business-focused organizations have a critically important role to play in moving sustainability forward by providing venues where business leaders can learn what they need to be highly effective in a complex, rapidly changing world. The recent Sustainable Brands Conference is one example of how this can be done. GreenBiz VERGE events are another. 

We also see a huge opportunity for a new kind of leadership training: one that gets at the hands-on, nuts-and-bolts of actually running a profitable, socially responsible company, and ensures that business leaders at all levels and key job functions — including operations and production, R&D, marketing and sales, human resources and finance — are equipped with both the “why” and the “how” of sustainability.

We believe that to be successful, leadership must engage enough people so that sustainability practices permeate the organization. That's the reason our LeaderShip for Sustainability three-day training program aims at causing such breakthroughs as garnering C-suite support for integrating sustainability throughout the entire organization and in every function, or implementing sustainability employee-resource groups and green teams throughout the organization to engage employees at every level and make sustainability goals their own.

We’ve been watching the rise of gamification in business that helps employees discover, learn and practice hard-core business skills (while including the human side) in a low-risk environment, as DeloitteGartner, and others have noted. While it’s still an emerging arena, gamification has huge potential to help people learn and gain insights about making sustainability real in their business. And doing it in days, rather than years.

That's why we apply a learning model that integrates sustainability concepts and best practices with hands-on experience through gamification that simulates an actual business. We believe this approach models for companies what they can do internally to accelerate learning and to have their leaders gain relevant experience with minimal risk.

We believe that each of us has a role to play in responsibly managing our planet’s resources and making a positive contribution to society, while generating business opportunities and results that benefit many people both locally and across the globe. Many of you have your own experiences to share. Now that you know what we've been up to, we’d love to hear what you are doing to champion sustainability.

Top image by docstockmedia via Shutterstock.



How to track corporate action on climate change

Published July 17, 2014
How to track corporate action on climate change

When the Unitarian Universalist Association announced its new fossil fuel divestment policy, the resolution stated that the UUA would divest its holdings in the Carbon Tracker 200 within five years.

What is the CT200? Originally assembled by the Carbon Tracker Initiative  — the organization whose 2011 report Unburnable Carbon focused the attention of investors and others on the concept of stranded fossil fuel assets — the CT200 list the world's 200 largest fossil fuel companies. The list is currently maintained by Fossil Free Indexes, an environmental, social and corporate governance index and research company.

To be precise, the CT200 lists the 100 largest oil and gas companies and the 100 largest coal companies. Noted and links to media coverage included in the rankings describe investment and reputational risks incurred by the companies due to environmentally unsustainable business practices. The list also reports on the reserves on the books of each company, measured in gigatons of CO2.

As the fossil fuel divestment movement grows increasingly mainstream — even BlackRock recently partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to launch an “equity global index series that will exclude companies linked to exploration, ownership or extraction of carbon-based fossil fuel reserves” — the smart long-term investment money would seem to be on divestment.

But as UUA's carefully crafted divestment policy points out, divestment alone probably is not enough to steer the world to a low-carbon economy. That is why the Association was explicit in its determination to maintain the level of shareowner engagement that it has developed over its years as an institutional investor.

Besides, as the UUA's Simon Billenness pointed out to SocialFunds.com in a recent conversation, the fossil fuel divestment movement is “also influencing the way shareholder activists engage with companies that are not in the fossil fuel industry, like electrical utilities.”

Investors rely on the climate change disclosures of companies to assess whether how those companies are responding to climate change, both in strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the business realities of a low-carbon economy. In 2010, the Securities and Exchange Commission published interpretive guidance for corporate reporting on climate change. “Certain existing disclosure rules ... may require a company to disclose the impact that business or legal developments related to climate change may have on its business,” the Commission stated at the time.

To provide investors with improved access to corporate climate change disclosures, Ceres has collaborated with Jackie Cook of CookESG Research to provide a searchable database of such disclosures by companies listed on the Russell 3000 index. Only half of Russell 3000 filers had something to say about climate change in their 201410-K filings, the database reveals.

“Robust climate-related data from companies is a critical need, but it’s still lacking,” said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres.

“This portal helps investors make sense of textual climate disclosures, conduct company-to-company comparisons and identify best practice,” Cook added. “The full value of the SEC’s 2010 interpretive guidance can only be realized if we actually monitor companies’ climate disclosures and act on the information — or absence of information.”

The tool will be extended in the future, Ceres states, “to include U.S. and non-U.S. companies and coverage on a broader range of sustainability issues, including hydraulic fracturing and water availability, which also pose material risks and opportunities to a range of companies.”

This article originally appeared at Social Funds. Top image of examining a report by EDHAR via Shutterstock. 



6 ways collaboration can boost sustainability

Published July 16, 2014
6 ways collaboration can boost sustainability

A room filled with 10 companies, each at various stages of maturity in their sustainability programs. They’re in the same industry but are different sizes, from different markets, with different brand images and perspectives. My role is to facilitate discussion and gain consensus on a collaborative approach — despite all the differences.

I’ve been in rooms like this many times and have come to recognize there is always one constant: Collaboration is hard. Period. You have to balance competing needs and, compared to an individual corporate initiative, collaboration almost always takes more time, commitment and patience.

But it’s also worth it. Corporate collaboration can drive exponentially greater impacts. It can foster innovative solutions, level the playing field, move an industry, raise expectations for partners, influence policy and catalyze change in myriad ways.

At BSR, we recently launched five new collaborative initiatives for our member companies, and as I have worked with colleagues to get these started, I have been asking myself: How can we make these successful and just a little bit easier?

I came up with six ways. In the spirit of collaboration, I'm sharing my list:

1. Don’t follow a template

Over the past decade, corporate sustainability collaborations have appeared to follow the same formula: Create industry solutions to a particular issue by forming an initiative with a multistakeholder governance structure. While these collaborations are important and powerful, they are not the only viable approach.

I facilitated the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition for more than four years, growing the initiative from 15 to more than 50 electronics companies and helping institutionalize the EICC as its own entity. Unlike groups like the extractives industry’s Voluntary Principles — which includes companies, governments and NGOs — the EICC includes industry only. But that’s because the collaboration needed was across the complete supply chain, and EICC members represent the entire industry, from retailers and electronics brands to contract manufacturers and raw materials suppliers.

There is a need for a wide variety of collaborations: some within an industry, some multi-industry, some multistakeholder. Some are focused on standards and implementation, others on learning and sharing. But there is no one right way.

2. Embrace good governance

Regardless of what form they take, good governance is a critical part of improving performance or setting standards through formal collaborations. Take the time to define decision-making processes and roles, ensure sufficient administrative time and support staff and use effective meeting facilitation techniques. In some cases, this might mean hiring staff to ensure the long-term viability of the effort.

3. Take advantage of external pressure

Collaboration can be challenging and sometimes it helps to get an external push. The calamity at Rana Plaza that killed more than 1,000 apparel workers in Bangladesh was both predictable and avoidable. But the silver lining is that it spawned two new collaborative initiatives focused on systemic challenges to health and safety within Bangladesh’s garment industry. Ideally, it wouldn’t take a horrific event to trigger necessary collaboration, but it’s helpful to use these events or bring in external stakeholder input to drive buy-in from internal skeptics or additional peer companies.

4. Focus on the long term and recommit to your purpose

Collaborations take a lot of compromise, and sometimes they require two steps backward just to take one step forward. As with any long-standing relationship, it’s important to focus on the long term and remember why the group came together in the first place. I like to ask company representatives to restate why they joined a group several years later, so that they remember the value they were seeking in that collaboration. That commitment provides a foundation for healthy debate and the motivation to push through the difficulties.

5. Know when to move on

Often, we associate ending an effort with failure, when it’s actually a sign of success. Every group should review progress annually and assess whether it makes sense to continue. For three years, I led the Licensing Working Group, which comprised media and entertainment companies focused on helping licensees improve their social and environmental performance. The group developed a partnership with the international licensing association, conducted a global survey of licensees, ran several in-person and virtual workshops and published a guide translated into several languages.

Then we asked ourselves, “Now what?” We recognized that we had accomplished our goals, and the next step was for individual companies to integrate the lessons. So we sunset the group. I’ve seen groups in similar situations struggle to find a purpose to stay together. Instead, we should celebrate these endings, as there is plenty more work to do in other areas.

6. Be open to informal collaboration

Many informal networks play an important role in collaboration as well. For more than 20 years, BSR has been a membership organization focused on corporate sustainability, and when I took over leadership of our global membership a year and a half ago, I made a point to recommit to our membership model. With more than 250 member companies representing a wide range of industries and geographies, our membership provides a platform for informal collaboration through networking, events and learning opportunities, as well as the option to participate in and shape BSR’s more formal collaborative initiatives.

I often encourage companies to take advantage of their membership for these reasons: Formal initiatives are important, but they also take a lot of work, and sometimes all a company needs is a place to go for thought partnership and ideas. There are many opportunities for informal collaboration, through groups such as BSR, industry-specific associations and even social networks.

Collaboration is vital to achieving systemic change on critical sustainability challenges. It will be hard, but with some of these ideas, I hope it will be just a bit easier to reach the potential of collaboration and drive real impact.

Top image by BlueSkyImage via Shutterstock.



Google and EDF join to expose gas leaks under U.S. streets

By Fred Krupp
Published July 17, 2014
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Tags: Big Data, Chemicals, More... Big Data, Chemicals, Cities, VERGE
Google and EDF join to expose gas leaks under U.S. streets

Not so long ago, people who worried about pollution in their local environment had few options. Getting answers required hands-on testing by trained experts with specialized equipment, or finding and sifting through scarce, hard-to-come-by data.

Today, all of that is changing. A convergence of tech trends — inexpensive sensors, cloud computing and data analysis, and social media — is transforming environmental protection by giving people and organizations such as Environmental Defense Fund the ability to collect and analyze huge troves of data, then publish results for all to see.

Three cars, 15 million data points

We launched one of these powerful projects Wednesday.

Thanks to a partnership with Google Earth Outreach, EDF has mapped thousands of natural gas leaks beneath three American cities — Boston, Indianapolis and New York City’s borough of Staten Island. Using three of the company’s famous Street View cars equipped with special sensors, we gathered millions of data points over thousands of miles of neighborhood streets.

The maps are available here, with many more to come.

For the most part, these natural gas leaks don’t pose an immediate danger; utilities are required to monitor and repair the major ones and usually do a good job of it. But leaking gas, which is mostly methane, has a powerful effect on the global climate, packing up to 120 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

In fact, scientists say that methane and other short-term climate forcers account for about a third of the warming we’re experiencing today, with methane responsible for most of that. It’s urgent that we plug these leaks to reduce near-term climate impacts.Detail on a Staten Island methane map

Our pilot project with Google gives citizens and local utilities data on pollution that used to be invisible. We show not just the location of thousands of leaks beneath the streets of three large American cities, but also assess how big the leaks are, giving utilities and regulators crucial information to accelerate and prioritize efforts to stop them.

Having access to this level of intelligence is something I could only dream of when I joined EDF 30 years ago.

The project — one of 16 studies coordinated by EDF to measure methane emissions across the entire natural gas system — underscores the challenge of controlling leaks from the local distribution sector, and the progress that can be made when cities work to tackle it aggressively.

Our sensors recorded just five leaks in Indianapolis, which has replaced many of its pipes in recent years. Never before has the public had access to so much transparent and usable data, and never before have we had an opportunity like this to address such an urgent, widely overlooked environmental problem head-on.

The future of environmental data

We are confident that our research will make it faster, easier and cheaper to gather and analyze data on methane leaks and other kinds of pollution. But breakthroughs like this don’t happen overnight.

Our research team spent two years working with scientists at Colorado State University to develop and test these new analytical tools. And we worked closely with a number of leading utilities to cross-check and validate their findings against real-world conditions.

Several utilities, including NationalGrid, worked directly with us to validate our findings.

We’re mapping more cities right now, while expanding our monitoring to other pollutants. We know Google Earth Outreach is interested in exploring others as well.

Google Street View covers 3,000 cities in 54 countries, so the possibilities truly are limitless.

People act, leaders react

Even more exciting is the larger trend.

Our maps are part of a powerful new era of environmental monitoring and protection. From Beijing and Fukushima to the rainforests of Brazil, technology is giving people new ways to see — and act on — pollution that is happening around them.

As former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg likes to say, you can’t manage what you don’t measure — and now people everywhere have the capability to take accurate measurements and publish them online, which applies pressure on authorities to step up their management.

If you want to nominate your city for methane mapping, go here.

This article originally appeared at EDF Voices. Top image of methane leaks in Boston via EDF and Google

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    Private equity has room for growth on sustainability

    By John Hodges
    Published July 16, 2014
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    Tags: Business Operations, Corporate Reporting, More... Business Operations, Corporate Reporting, Finance, Finance & Job Creation, Reporting & Transparency, Socially Responsible Investing
    Private equity has room for growth on sustainability

    A few weeks ago, I moderated a panel on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) integration in private equity at the Responsible Investor Europe Conference in London. This panel, and other discussions, highlighted the lack of consensus among investors on where the private equity industry is when it comes to sustainability.

    I would advocate that the industry is “definitely somewhere.” This may sound a bit flippant, but a decade earlier, the answer to the question on how far the industry has come on sustainability could have been “definitely nowhere.” Unfortunately, much of the progress private equity has made is hard for the public to see because of the industry's confidential nature.

    It is true that some companies have made initial public steps. Blackstone, Carlyle, and KKR, among other major private equity firms, have established ESG teams in recent years. Some firms’ websites include basic ESG sections and a few publish regular sustainability reports. When firms discuss ESG publicly, they often focus on their due diligence processes and assistance to portfolio companies on specific ESG topics, such as energy efficiency. In addition, private equity colleagues will tell you that a lot more is happening behind the scenes.

    External guidance to the industry, such as the UN Principles for Responsible Investment-led ESG Disclosure Framework for Private Equity (PDF), has focused on best practices in ESG disclosure to limited partners (investors). The largest of these limited partners are corporate and public pension funds — many of which strongly support responsible investing. While important, limited partners are too often the sole focus for ESG disclosure, which is almost always shared with them confidentially.

    Private equity firms typically own a controlling interest in their portfolio companies and therefore have tremendous influence on how these companies operate. Furthermore, many portfolio companies are well-known brands, such as Burger King, Dell, GoDaddy, Hertz, J. Crew and Toys R Us, and come from industries with significant ESG impacts, such as consumer products, energy, information technology and manufacturing. More than 17,000 U.S. companies are backed by private equity, employing about 5 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Yet, ESG disclosure by private equity portfolio companies is usually poor as well.

    These portfolio companies have diverse stakeholders — employees, customers, suppliers and communities — who are affected by their ESG performance. However, given the limited public disclosure by both the portfolio companies and their private equity owners, these stakeholders are unable to make an informed assessment of how well these companies are managing their sustainability impacts. This can lead to stakeholders assuming the worst.

    Speakers and attendees at the Responsible Investor Conference underlined that until private equity firms fully disclose ESG impacts across the value chain, they will continue to run the risk of negative public perception. To achieve a higher level of disclosure, I recommend that the private equity industry take three steps:

    1. Require that all portfolio companies have a minimum approach to ESG management and that they report publicly on their ESG efforts.

    2. Aggregate the real-world information that portfolio companies already disclose publicly, and use this to publish ESG reports that are useful to all stakeholders, not just limited partners.

    3. Use increased ESG disclosure to spur a more data-driven discussion about the industry’s beneficial ESG impacts, such as job creation, community development and environmental preservation.

    Private equity firms and their portfolio companies can have positive ESG impacts, but it is impossible for the full spectrum of their stakeholders to see them without consistent, publicly available information on where the industry is when it comes to sustainability. As in many cases, transparency is the important first step to effective stakeholder engagement.

    This article originally appeared on BSR Insights. Top image by wk1003mike via Shutterstock.

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    GreenBiz 101: Nothing small in the promise for nanogrids

    By Heather Clancy
    Published July 16, 2014
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    Tags: Energy, Energy & Utilities, More... Energy, Energy & Utilities, Renewables, VERGE
    GreenBiz 101: Nothing small in the promise for nanogrids

    Just when you understood the role of microgrids in providing energy services, along comes another fast-evolving approach to power distribution, nanogrids. What's more, you probably already use nanogrid-designed systems every day, without realizing it or thinking about it.

    Technically speaking, "nano" means super-small, but nothing's miniscule about the market that appears to be coalescing around this concept. By 2023, revenue related to installations could reach almost $60 billion, compared with $37.8 billion by the end of 2014, according to projections by market forecaster Navigant Research.

    "Though smaller in size than microgrids, nanogrids represent a larger market opportunity because they are, generally speaking, less challenging to the status quo and less subject to the technological challenges facing larger distribution networks that assimilate diverse distributed energy resources," wrote Peter Asmus, a Navigant analyst, in a recent report about the technology. "While North America is the leading region for microgrids, the largest and fastest growing nanogrid markets today are remote systems operating in the developing countries of Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa."

    Some manufacturers seeking to leverage this interest with technologies that make use of nanogrid design principles include Bosch, Eaton, Emerson Network Power, Johnson Controls and NRG Energy, according to Navigant.

    What is a nanogrid?

    Nanogrid power distribution approaches are actually more common than you probably realize, in the form of solutions and system designs that let electronics devices draw a charge via the USB ports on a personal computer or, in the case of communications gadgets, via Power over Ethernet.

    Credit: Stein der Weisen via Wikimedia CommonsWhen it comes to the future of electricity, nanogrids share several characteristics. Many use direct current (DC) components to cut down on efficiency losses associated with conversions (although alternating current, or AC, isn't out of the question), and the loads they support generally are discrete. They often are restricted to a single building or load, but they can be interconnected and there's no official threshold on generation capacity. For the purposes of its market sizing analysis, Navigant sets the limit at 100 kilowatts for a grid-tied system or 5 kW for standalone systems.

    [Learn more about distributed energy systems, and catch Peter Asmus in person, at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

    Bruce Nordman, a researcher with the Environmental Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said a "key feature" of nanogrids is their ability to be interconnected with each other or with larger grid distribution systems.

    "A nanogrid is a single domain for voltage, reliability, and administration," Nordman wrote in his recent paper about the topic, "Nanogrids: Evolving our electricity systems from the bottom up" (PDF). "It must have one load (sink of power, which could be storage) and at least one gateway to the outside. Electricity storage may or may not be present."

    What's the difference between a microgrid and a nanogrid?

    In a word, simplicity. Unlike microgrids, nanogrid distribution systems generally provide only a single voltage and level of quality/reliability. Because they are so small, installations usually can proceed pretty quickly, without being caught up with utility regulations of public right-of-way questions.

    That's one reason nanogrids are growing so fast both in established economies, such as the United States, where they are being tested as part of smart home solutions, and in emerging nations, where they are being connected with renewable generation sources, especially solar, to bring electricity to remote areas.

    "Microgrids are a superset of nanogrids, and so some current implementations serve as examples of nanogrids, either in entirety, or in some components," Nordman notes in his white paper about the topic.

    What nanogrid applications have the most potential?

    Aside from the basic electronics charging scenarios already referenced, nanogrid systems can be found in sophisticated automobiles, where they are used within the electrical systems to power radios or lights; and in aircraft or ships, where they help keep systems up and running.

    Credit: Computer Aid InternationalOne highly visible category of emerging applications for nanogrid distribution systems centers on smart home or building solutions that integrate a source of on-site power generation — such as rooftop solar photovoltaic panels — with an energy control center linking building systems, appliances, lighting and heating, and ventilation and air-conditioning equipment. The technology also could play a role in managing energy stored in electric vehicle batteries.

    In emerging nations or rural areas where power isn't available reliable, nanogrids could have a more profound impact, especially where no "macro" model exists today for distributing electricity. Although you could debate whether it's a microgrid or a nanogrid, the ZubaBox Solar Internet Hub — used by Dell as part of its solar-powered classroom initiative — offers an example of what's possible.

    Configured within a shipping container, the solar-powered system is pitched as a solution for setting up portable educational facilities but during other periods the power and connectivity it supplies can be used for other purposes. "Now consider villages with dozens of nanogrids (and perhaps a few microgrids), interconnected in some haphazard fashion," noted Nordman. "In principle, there could be a net flow across many 'links' of the grid, with many nanogrids simultaneously buying and selling power on different 'ports.'"

    Reality check: What's holding back nanogrid investments?

    With so many factors coming together in nanogrid's favor, what's holding back this concept? The biggest single reason is probably awareness.

    Because many people tend to lump nanogrids together with microgrids, they automatically may assume they are subject to the same regulatory challenges and complexity. In actuality, they may open the door to distributed energy distribution — enabling businesses and individuals to start small with investments in solar, wind or other renewable generation technologies, with the promise of scaling and interconnecting those resources at a later date.

    Top image of electricity by Lane V. Erickson via Shutterstock.

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    How to brew beer better: Less water, less energy, more innovation

    By Paula Del Giudice
    Published July 16, 2014
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    Tags: Energy Efficiency, Food & Agriculture, More... Energy Efficiency, Food & Agriculture, Waste Reduction & Recycling, Water, Water Efficiency & Conservation, Water Use
    How to brew beer better: Less water, less energy, more innovation

    The U.S. produces beer. A lot of beer. In 2013, over 195 million barrels — each barrel equaling 31 gallons — were produced. When you consider that it typically takes between four to 10 pints of water to produce one pint of beer — you do the math.

    And producing good suds takes more than water. Consider the energy needed for compressed air, lighting, refrigeration and other demands. Couple those with the waste products remaining after the brewing process is complete, and it all adds up to a resource-rich and waste-producing libation.

    The U.S. beer market has been relatively flat, even slightly down, with overall sales of beer declining 1.9 percent in 2013. Enter an innovative and sustainability-minded group of craft brewers that has set the beer market on its ear. Sales of craft beer is on a significant rise, with a jump of 17.2 percent in sales in 2013 driven by market demands for local food and beverages.

    Both sectors of the brew biz are making significant impacts on their commitments to sustainability. When it comes to the major brewers, Anheuser-Busch, the country's leading brewer by sales, has undertaken some strident measures such as reducing water use by 37 percent in the last four years, brewing nearly one in six of its beers using renewable fuel (biogas, landfill gas and solar), recycling 99 percent of the solid waste in its breweries and reducing the material in its aluminum, fiber and glass packaging.

    It makes sense that water usage is one of the most significant resources that goes into brewing beer. Anheuser-Busch took on an interesting marketing campaign recently to encourage men to reduce their use of water. The campaign asked men to stop shaving in the weeks leading up to World Environment Day in June. More than 2,300 of its employees took up the challenge and stopped shaving for two weeks. It's estimated that because the average shave takes five gallons of water, they saved over 160,000 gallons. (Sorry, A-B, but the Boston Red Sox were way ahead of you.)

    On a serious note, Anheuser-Busch has reduced its ratio of water used to beer produced to 3.5-to-1 (excluding the amount of water it takes to grow the crops).

    Craft brewers get crafty with water use

    That's a goal that many smaller craft brewers are shooting for, but they have their challenges. Craft brewed beers use more hops for that great flavor that beer drinkers want (which is also leading to a shortage of hops, but that's another story) and those hops require more water to process.

    New Belgium is a sustainably minded brewer that has a goal of reducing water in its production process to a 3.5-to-1 ratio. Producing the "hoppier" beers and the demand for more bottles than kegs are contributing to a decrease in its water efficiency in the past few years, but it recently added sub-meters throughout its facilities to address any wasted water efficiency opportunities.

    Full Sail Brewing Company processes have been known for consuming a relatively lower percentage of water used to beer produced, but this year Full Sail has made even further improvements. The company installed a Meura mash filter that improved its water efficiency even more. Full Sail's 2.5-to-1 water used to beer produced ratio is one of the best in the industry.

    Beer requires energy

    Whether it's in the brewing process, lighting, heating or cooling facilities or product refrigeration, energy usage is another top resource sink. Energy is also costly so efforts to conserve energy significantly will improve the operating bottom line.

    Credit: Betsy Weber via Flickr

    The Craft Brew Alliance, with well-known brands such as Widmer Brothers, Redhook, Kona Brewing Company and Omission Beer (brewed by Widmer Brothers), is a brewer with its eyes on energy and other conservation opportunities. "We are continually searching for efficiency opportunities around energy and water, realizing that this can translate into big money savings," said Julia Person, sustainability manager for the CBA. "We've found that even simple, quick fixes can result in a significant energy savings. In our pursuit in making our beers in a sustainable manner, we have targeted compressed air leaks as well as fan cycling in our refrigerated spaces and have seen immediate benefits." Fixing compressed air leaks in its breweries can save an estimated $20,000 a year in energy costs.

    Sierra Nevada beer is one of the best-selling craft brews and the company is fully committed to its sustainability mission. Sierra Nevada, based in Chico, Calif., prides itself on owning one of the largest private solar arrays in the country. The company's 10,573 panels on its brewery roof and parking lot, at the on-site daycare and at its private rail spur produce two megawatts of DC power and provide the brewery with nearly 20 percent of its energy needs.

    In addition, Sierra Nevada is the only brewery in the country to house its own hydrogen fuel cells. The fuel cells produce one megawatt of power. Together, on a clear and sunny summer day, the two supply about 90 percent of the brewery's energy, according to the dashboard on the company's website.

    Credit: Brittany via Flickr

    Refrigeration accounts for about 35 percent of a brewery's electricity bill. Inadequate insulation of cold storage areas and pipes carrying steam or cold fluids, air infiltration, open cooler doors and other energy wasters can have a big influence on energy costs. Using an infrared camera at Fort George Brewery in Astoria, Ore., PPRC Industrial Engineer Michelle Gaither and staff at Fort George discovered inefficiencies from heat loss on uninsulated steam pipes and a small compression tank, and from the surface of the hot tank, especially the uninsulated door. They found cold losses from refrigerant lines and cold storage areas, especially around doors. Insulation was specified for the pipes, and a high-speed insulated roll-up door was recommended for cold storage.

    Repurposing beer waste

    At the end of the brewing process, what's left is delicious bottles of amber refreshment — and literally tons of spent grain, barley husks and hops — every day. Much of that waste goes into animal feed or compost, but some brewers are coming up with alternate uses for the waste.

    Last year, the Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau installed a unique boiler system that burns the waste and turns it into steam that powers a majority of the brewery's operations. Some brewers are developing unique products. Waste brew grains are going into everything from pizza crusts to lip balms.

    Composting is one way to dispose of the waste. In response to the lack of composting facilities available to it, Sierra Nevada developed what it calls its "HotRot" composting system. The in-vessel system composts wastes from the brewing process along with food service remains, filter remains and waste paper from its operations and concert venues. The compost is used to enrich the hop fields and restaurant and employee gardens.

    A new kind of beer label

    Washington-based organization Institute for Environmental Education and Research has developed an eco-label program that allows brewers to display their impacts to the environment on their labels. It looks similar to the nutrition labels on foods. The label reports impacts on carbon, energy and water. In Oregon, Hopworks Urban Brewing and Fort George Brewery have adopted the labels.

    Many more areas of sustainability are being addressed by brewers, large and small, in addition to those above because it's good for their bottom line and their consumers demand creative and innovative solutions that are good for the environment. With brand names like Hell or High Watermelon, Lagunitas, Smooth Hoperator, Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Yellow Snow selling at a rapid pace, what else would you expect?

    Top image of by Redhook beer by Craig Damlo via Flickr.

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