The Intel Environment Award
Dorothy J. Glancy
The 85 applications for the Intel Environment Award are difficult to categorize, in part because many of these applications address more than one environmental problem and apply more than one type of technology. By far the largest number of applications focused on sustainable resources, especially reuse of waste materials to make useful products such as various household goods and fuel in the form of biogas as well as to generate electric power. Among the sustainable resource applications, the most frequently described technologies used biomass, including agricultural, slaughterhouse and even human wastes. Some of the most innovative waste reuse technologies were designed to process air emissions from power plants to make building materials, such as cement. As in past years, many applications focused on renewable power sources such as solar, wave and hydro power.
Conservation of plants, forests, and wildlife through habitat restoration, mapping and tracking represents the somewhat different focus of a number of the applications. Biotechnology-related applications ranged from advanced genetic engineering of food plants to simpler strategies using insects, instead of pesticides, to control harmful insects. Energy conservation technologies represented in the applications included several related to carbon offset markets, as well as more efficient stoves and engines. Water quality and quantity improvement was the objective of considerably fewer applications than in past years. Only a few applications concerned environmental cleanup in response to releases of toxic materials and responding to environmental disasters such as floods and earthquakes. Notably fewer applications related to the marine environment were submitted this year than in past years.
Applications came from every continent, except Antarctica, with the most applications from the United States (25) and India (16). The five Environment Laureates are from five different countries: Germany, Laos, Namibia, Peru, and the States. Most of the applications were from not-for-profit organizations, but for-profit companies were represented among the applications. There were relatively few applications from individuals. Among the Environment Laureates two are non-profit organizations and three are for-profit companies.
Arcadia Biosciences, Inc. –– United States Among current environmental problems, the importance of greenhouse gas emissions seems matched by the difficulty of reducing them. A significant amount of greenhouse gas comes from agricultural uses of nitrogen fertilizers. According to the World Resources Institute, agriculture is the second leading source of global greenhouse gases, just behind electricity and heat generation. Roughly one-third of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the use of nitrogen fertilizer, which is also often the largest single monetary cost of crop production. Nitrogen fertilizer is a two-fold source of environmental pollution. It leaches into surface and sea water, where the nitrogen deprives the water of oxygen and results in hypoxia––“dead zones” where plants and animals cannot survive. Probably the most serious environmental impact of nitrogen fertilizer use is emission of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 296 times as potent as CO2. Nevertheless, plants need nitrogen to grow, thrive and produce food, fuel, and fiber.
Reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied to food crops, without reducing crop yield, is the environmental issue addressed by Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) biotechnology developed by Arcadia Biosciences of Davis, California. Arcadia is a profit-making company established in 2002 by Eric Rey, the entrepreneur who developed and commercialized Arcadia’s genetic modifications that reduce plants’ nitrogen fertilizer requirements and increase their salt tolerance. Arcadia has been generous in transfers of these biotechnologies to China and to Africa. For example, Arcadia licensed salt tolerance and NUE technology at no cost to enhance stress-tolerant and nitrogen-fertilizer-saving rice production on small farms in Africa. Ultimately the global food supply as well as the environment will benefit from Arcadia’s technological innovation.
Although Arcadia works with a number of agricultural biotechnologies, perhaps the most notable is NUE technology that reduces nitrogen fertilizer requirements by roughly one-half to two-thirds without reducing crop yield in a wide variety of crops including canola, rice, wheat, barley and corn. The environmental benefits from NUE technology include cutting by at least 50 percent both greenhouse gas emissions and water pollutants from nitrogen fertilizer use. NUE technology does not insert new genes into the plants modified by the technology. Rather, NUE enhances the activity of a gene that is naturally present in plants so as to increase absorption of nitrogen by plant roots. NUE technology simply “turns up” natural genes for nitrogen absorption within a plant’s roots so that much less nitrogen fertilizer is required for the plant to flourish. Without sacrificing crop yield, between one-half to two-thirds of environmentally and economically costly nitrogen fertilizer can be eliminated. More information about Arcadia Biosciences is available at www.arcadiabiosciences.com.
Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) –– Namibia The multi-factored environmental problems of sub-Saharan
Africa often center around challenged ecosystems. Namibia is among the poorest of African nations and has been harmed by the destruction of the grassland savannah habitat of wild animals, including the cheetah. Indeed, the cheetah is not only the world’s fastest land animal; it is among the most endangered inhabitants of the diminishing African savannah. The largest wild population of cheetahs (less than 2,500 animals) lives in Namibia, primarily in a large cheetah preserve in the Otjiwarongo area. To survive, cheetahs depend on an open savannah habitat where the cheetah’s speed makes it a formidable predator of various grazing species. This habitat is gradually disappearing, in part because of the encroachment of a type of thorny acacia called thornbush, or simply “bush.” When invasive thornbush outcompetes Africa’s wild grasses for soil nutrients and water, the wild grazing species on which cheetah depend for food disappear.
Based in Otjiwarongo, Namibia, the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), under the direction of Dr. Laurie Marker, operates the Bush Project aimed at cheetah habitat restoration. The technical heart of the project is biomass engineering. CCF restores cheetah habitat through a combined eco-system as well as human-system approach. CCF’s technology application strategy might be called opportunistic in the sense that “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” In cheetah habitat restoration, ecological change has given CCF thornbush; so Dr. Marker, assisted by USAID funding, turns thornbush into bushblok––highly efficient, environmentally friendly heat logs that are commercially marketed in Europe and South Africa. Of course the story is much more complicated than the lemons-to-lemonade analogy.
The solution CCF devised was to use technology to turn the encroaching bush into a valuable raw material that produces useful products as well as valuable technical training and employment for local Namibians. CCF harvests the thornbush in an environmentally sensitive manner and then processes it as biomass into virtually smokeless low-ash heat logs and briquettes. Each aspect of CCF’s habitat restoration project was carefully devised to assure that it would be environmentally sound and also socially and economically beneficial. Scores of local Namibians are employed in removing the thornbush using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified forestry practices. Electrical power for the processing plant will soon be generated by a 150 kilowatt biomass gasification system to provide clean sustainable power for the operation.
In many ways the most interesting aspect of the CCF biomass project is the ingenious marketing of bushblok, the project’s most well-known commercial product. Bushblok sales not only raise needed revenues for CCF conservation activities. These sales also raise world-wide awareness about the endangered status of the cheetah. Consumers concerned about the cheetah and its peril are offered the opportunity to participate in cheetah protection through purchasing an environmentally friendly high-quality heat source. The bushblok sales project expects to turn its first profit this year. More information is available at www.cheetah.org and at www.equatorinitiative.org. Information about Bushblok is available at www.bushblok.com.
Practical Action –– Peru Remote rural people often live far from any grid that might supply electrical power. In the Andes Mountains of South America 13 million people have no access to electric power. Instead, they use environmentally harmful fossil fuels, batteries or candles for light and heat. In Peru alone, more than 50,000 small villages have no access to electricity. One environmentally sensible solution to this problem is to use abundant small waterfall resources. Decentralized microhydropower generation facilities in remote impoverished mountain villages can bring power to those who would otherwise not have electricity.
Mr. Javier Coello in Lima, Peru directs the Latin American Regional Office of Practical Action, an international organization committed to sustainable use of technology to reduce poverty in developing countries. With the assistance of the World Bank, Mr. Coello’s organization established a Renewable Energies Promotion Fund to help create sustainable, low-cost technologies for small-scale renewable energy hydroelectric power generation––sometimes called micro-hydro.
Practical Action’s application of fairly standard micro-hydropower technologies to rural electrification involves more than just bringing renewable electric power to remote mountain villages. Practical Action’s systematic approach begins with analyzing a rural area’s particular needs and capacities. The projects are only partly financed by outside resources. Between 20 and 30 percent of the total cost of a project is paid for by the villagers who use the electricity. Locally manufactured and assembled equipment, as well as local labor, contribute to each locally-managed project. Each of Practical Action’s decentralized projects are operated and managed at the local village level, by local people who have been trained in participative management, finance, and facility maintenance. The micro-hydro projects promote productive use of electricity through a pay-for-use system (called a “block tariff scheme”) that varies the cost of electric power with electricity consumption. Designed as catalysts for economic development, education and increasing living standards, Practical Action’s 54 micro-hydropower projects produce 1.84 MW of electricity for 5,800 families (about 35,000 people) in the rural mountains of Peru. Micro-hydro technology, using appropriate local materials, local labor and local control, is a promising renewable power source for isolated mountain populations world-wide. Additional information about Practical Action is available at www.solucionespracticas.org.pe.
Sunlabob Renewable Energy –– Laos Environmentally unfriendly kerosene and disposable batteries remain the only available power and light sources for millions of rural people in low-lying equatorial parts of the world, where solar power is abundant. How to get reliable solar power to such isolated poor areas presents technical challenges that are partly environmental and partly economic. Although solar lamps are generally available, solar-powered lamps have a bad reputation. Because solar devices available in developing countries are often made with cheap components, solar lights and solar batteries are known to be unreliable. As a result, kerosene and disposable batteries continue to be used in remote areas where there is plenty of sun, but poor solar technology.
Operating out of Vientiane, Laos, under the management of Andy Schroeter, Sunlabob Renewable Energy, LTD, is a four-year-old profit-making company that has brought high-quality, reliable solar lamps and a franchised solar recharging system to more than 2500 Laotian villages. Sunlabob’s program involves small-scale village entrepreneurs who operate village-level rental systems for rechargeable solar lamps. These entrepreneurs rent from Sunlabob large solar-powered central charging stations together with pods of between 24 and 120 lamps, depending on the size of the village. The village entrepreneurs in turn rent out to villagers rechargeable exchangeable solar lamps that provide a reliable source of light; they also provide a port for charging mobile devices such as telephones or small computers. Sunlabob’s renewable power system for a village includes solar lamps, a large solar array, a central battery charging unit, and a system control unit with management software. Each exchangeable high-quality durable lamp provides 10 hours of power from every charge. After providing ten hours of power, the lamp shuts off and can only be recharged by returning it to the village solar recharging station where it is exchanged for a recharged lamp. A microchip in each lamp keeps track of energy use (for calculating potential carbon off-set values) as well as the lamp itself. The entrepreneur who operates the solar recharging station uses a computer program to manage the lamps, calculate energy use, provide a comparison with the amount of kerosene replaced, and assist in managing the exchange of recharged lamps. This rental cycle is sustainable, renewable, and competes favorably in price with kerosene and disposable batteries.
The economic strategy of providing local entrepreneurs with training,
equipment, and software to manage the central charging of electronically controlled portable lamps, allows the sale of environmentally friendly, reliable hours of light to villagers at rates comparable to usual expenses for dangerous and polluting kerosene. Sunlabob software also enables the solar entrepreneur to attribute each single solar recharging to a particular amount of kerosene replaced. This accounting system makes it possible to consolidate multiple small household uses of kerosene replacement for the purposes of carbon-saving credits, which may further reduce fees paid by households. There should be potential for replicating this environmentally beneficial enterprise strategy in other remote areas of the world where there is abundant solar energy. Additional information about Sunlabob is available at www.sunlabob.com.
Vereinigte Werkstatten fur Pflanzenoltechnologie (VWP) –– Germany The environmental problems caused by burning fossil fuels in combustion engines include not only CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, but also the potential for surface and water contamination by hazardous fuel spills. Growing plants absorb CO2 and help clean the air. These plants can also produce both food and a safe and useful fuel that can take the place of pollution-laden fossil fuels. A system that can use this natural CO2 cycle to sustainably yield environmentally sensible combustion fuel as well as food is beginning to become more than a conservationist dream.
Vereinigte Werkstatten fur Pflanzenoltechnologie (VWP)––roughly translated as “Consolidated Workshops for Plant-oil Technology”––has devised the “VWP CO2-recycling concept for food and fuel” to apply the CO2 cycle for the benefit of the environment. VWP is an international company headquartered in Allersberg-Goeggelsbuch, Germany. The VWP CO2 recycling concept is a project under the direction of Dr. Georg Gruber, Thomas Kaiser, and Alois Dotzer. It has been implemented not only in Europe, but also in developing countries where sustainable cultivation of oil seed plants produce fuel for specially adapted pure plant oil diesel engines. CO2 is absorbed by growing seed plants that produce both food and low-pollution pure plant oil diesel fuel. Diesel engines powered by plant oil then assist in the sustainable production and processing of CO2-absorbing seed plants into pure plant oil as fuel and oil cake as food. Over the past 15 years, VWP developed a new type of diesel motor equipped with high-pressure fuel injection and carbon-particle filters for use with pure plant oil.
VWP has applied this concept in decentralized projects located in remote areas of Africa and South America. The CO2-recycling concept is designed to facilitate sustainable production of food and fuel from growing seed plants, such as rapeseed, sunflowers, camelina, and jatropha, on marginal land in isolated areas. The flowering oil-bearing plants also encourage insect life, such as bees, that are beneficial to agriculture. After the seeds are harvested, the remaining plant stems are left in the field to enrich the soil. The plant oil extracted from seed plants is used as diesel fuel to power farm machinery, stationary engines, and power generators. The oil cake that remains after the plant oil is extracted provides a source of nourishing food (20-50 percent protein) for humans and farm animals.
In isolated parts of the developing world, VWP’s CO2-recycling concept creates sustainable systems in which people press their own plant oil for use in pure plant oil diesel engines. It assists in growing and processing oil seed plants into food and fuel in an environmentally responsible, often better-than-carbon-neutral cycle. Moreover, because plant oil is non-toxic and non-flammable, it does not pose such hazards as fire or water and ground pollution presented by fossil fuels. For example, people in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador prefer VWP power generation because it does not endanger the water, land, plants and animals of that unique ecosystem.
VWP pure plant oil diesel engines are the hub of this CO2-recycling concept system. It is important to distinguish these plant-oil-fueled diesel engines from those powered by ordinary diesel (a fossil fuel) or by familiar biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol blends. The more familiar biofuels only substitute plant-derived material for a small percentage (5-15 percent) of the fossil fuel; the balance (85-95 percent) is composed of fossil fuels that continue to emit it CO2 into the atmosphere. Moreover, these biofuels are usually made from types of plants, such as corn, that would otherwise contribute to the food supply. Plant oil is a different and better fuel alternative––a renewable, concentrated liquid source of energy that can be produced in simple, decentralized mills with very low production costs (production energy amounts to only 3.5 percent of the energy produced). A non-toxic and non-hazardous highly viscous liquid with a flashpoint of around 300 C, plant oil is generally regarded as non-flammable and benign if spilled on soil or in water. It is used as an environmentally sound alternative to fossil fuels and biofuel mixtures in adapted internal combustion engines for transportation and stationary uses all over the world. However, pure plant oil makes its most striking contributions in remote, isolated areas of the world where the VWP CO2-recycling concept sustainably produces both high-protein food and safe, low-emission fuel without increasing the net CO2 load in the atmosphere. More information about VWP is available at www.vwp-europe.com.
Conclusion This year the applications in the environment category focused most often on sustainable resources and environmental preservation through use and reuse of biomass. Techniques for waste conversion, particularly conversion to biogas, were frequently described. Conservation of wildlife and other resources, as well as biotechnology, were also important environmental issues reflected in the applications.
Again this year there were almost no transportation technologies among the applications. Since transportation is among the greatest single contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, the absence of better strategies to move people and goods was both remarkable and lamentable. Some applications focused on cleaner, more-efficient engines, such as those that run on plant oil diesel; but these engines were primarily used for power generation. Water conservation technologies that were much more prominent in past years’ applications were relatively few this year. Given burgeoning environmental challenges from insufficient water supply in much of the world, a more intensive focus on this environmental issue might have been expected. Nevertheless, the applications for the 2008 Intel Environment Award represent a truly exciting range of innovative responses to the many environmental challenges facing humanity.