ENGIE’s Climate Action Toolkit Could Boost the Low-Carbon Economy

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For many Fortune 500 companies that have made serious climate action commitments in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, reality is sinking in. Many are faced with a looming gap between intention and action. They are not on track to meet their commitments. Clearly, something is missing.

The leading European energy company ENGIE believes it has the missing link in hand. Until recently, ENGIE’s portfolio was burdened with coal power plants. But the company has since made an almost complete transition into renewables, natural gas and related services. The next logical step for ENGIE is to leverage that experience and grow its business by guiding others on a low-carbon journey.

A new climate change toolkit

ENGIE has placed its climate advisory services under the umbrella of its newly formed ENGIE Impact consulting firm. The move brings together several existing branches of the company: ENGIE Insight (formerly Ecova), Ecova U.K., Red Engineering, and the Advisory and Advanced Analytics division of Tractebel, a leading offshore solar panel company.

Through the new firm, ENGIE aims to provide clients in business and government with a holistic approach to achieving their zero-carbon goals.

The key element will be ENGIE Impact’s ability to sort through the challenges faced by businesses and governments, identify opportunities to avoid risk, and achieve direct bottom-line benefits.

The potential for global impact

On the private-sector side, ENGIE Impact will focus on working with high-level executives. That approach is consistent with the experience of the green investor group Ceres and other climate advocacy organizations. These groups find that rapid, efficient climate action in the private sector requires direction from the highest levels.

On the government side, ENGIE Impact is focusing on local governments. That may seem counterintuitive in terms of global impact, but a glance at the situation in countries like the U.S. demonstrates why a decentralized approach can be more effective.

In the U.S., hundreds of mayors have partnered with the business community to take the lead on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Hundreds of cities have set climate goals and continue to advocate for action. In contrast, many state-level policymakers are pushing back on climate action. And of course, U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017 began the process of pulling the entire nation out of the Paris Agreement, though the U.S. Department of Energy continues to support renewable energy initiatives.

Room for opportunity

ENGIE still has substantial interests in natural gas. However, if all goes according to plan, ENGIE Impact will enable the company to grow its opportunities in the energy services field, even as the global economy decarbonizes.

Just four years ago, coal accounted for 13 percent of ENGIE’s global power generation capacity. In 2015, the company pledged to reduce and eventually eliminate its coal portfolio. That number is already down to 4 percent as of April, when the company sold major coal assets in the Netherlands and Germany.

While coal opportunities are shrinking, the openings for energy services are growing. ENGIE Impact already has more than 1 million sites globally in its portfolio, distributed among 1,000 clients.

Many of those clients are Fortune 500 companies. That connection to the world’s top-performing firms provides ENGIE Impact with a window into the challenges faced by some of the world’s leading carbon emitters.

In a press release announcing the formation of the new consulting firm, ENGIE took note of a recent study by the firm Carbon Delta, which assessed the ability of the world’s top 500 companies (rated by market capitalization) to meet climate goals under the Paris Agreement.

Rather than calculating the impact of the companies’ public pledges, the report compares their current carbon emissions to their current portfolio of low-carbon patents.

The results indicate why ENGIE perceives a significant opportunity for growth. The Financial Times crunched the numbers and found that only 15 percent of the Fortune 500 is on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The ripple effect of climate action

Though ENGIE still has a foothold in fossil fuels through its gas business, the company is increasing its renewable gas portfolio as part of its decarbonization plan. ENGIE also began introducing renewable hydrogen into its portfolio last year.

Getting other energy companies to climb on board the low-carbon economy is another matter. Demand for electricity is rising, providing new opportunities for fossil fuel stakeholders. Some are beginning to accelerate their transition into renewable energy, but as a group fossil energy companies still play an outsized role in global carbon emissions.

In 2017 the nonprofit organization CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) ran the numbers and concluded that more than 71 percent of the world’s carbon emissions can be traced to just 100 fossil extracting companies.

Additionally, CDP found that only 25 fossil energy firms and government organizations have been responsible for more than half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions produced after 1988. CDP explains the 1988 milepost as the point at which “fossil fuel companies knew, or should have known, of the destabilizing effects of their products on the environment.”

Whether or not the world’s leading carbon emitters do business with ENGIE Impact, their fossil fuel-driven opportunities will begin to shrink as consulting firms like ENGIE Impact enable energy consumers to find sustainable alternatives that yield bottom-line benefits.

Image credit: Andreas Gücklhorn/Unsplash

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Tiny Apartments Gain Traction in Latin America: How Small Can They Go?

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With workers in major Latin American cities stuck in grueling three-hour commutes and hamstrung by unaffordable housing options, architects are turning to a big idea: small housing—really small housing. The introduction of micro-apartments—as small as 10 square meters, a size comparable to a parking space—are the latest trend to hit cities like Sao Paolo, Bogota (pictured above), Mexico City and Buenos Aires, cities where a swelling population has not been kind to students and young professionals looking for affordable living options.

While critics are labeling the apartments and similar approaches to housing like Californias Podshare as prison-like, others are promoting these ideas as an innovative way to respond to the growing demand for affordable housing. Through co-living spaces including kitchens, dining rooms, movie theaters, gyms and lounges, architects are finding ways to attract a younger generation of renters. These renters sleep in their tiny apartments, but that’s about it, said Alexandre Frankel, executive director of a development firm building micro-apartments in Sao Paulo.

“People sleep in their apartments, but the rest of the building is theirs, too,” Frankel told BBC Mundo.

Micro-apartments aren’t a new phenomenon. In Japan, where rent and population density rank among the highest in the world, there are apartments as small as 8 square meters. The trend is also underway in pricey London. Nevertheless, the development of these micro-apartments in Latin America is pushing the boundary to a new level there. Sao Paulo’s government responded to the trend with new regulations limiting the size of new apartments to 11 square meters. Frankel said he would make the apartments even smaller if he could.

Argentina’s government approved the building of micro-apartments a few months ago, the BBC reported. The construction of these mini homes is expected to proliferate there, though most of the city's apartments do not dip below 20 square meters. 

The trend hasn’t quite spread to Mexico City, where residents aren’t showing much interest in living in an apartment smaller than 65 square meters. But in a city where the growth rate is among the highest in the world, it may not be long before residents opt to swap space for practicality.

Are micro-apartments and tiny homes here to stay, or rather a short-term solution for a more enduring housing problem?

Experts tend to view micro-housing as a temporary stopgap while the private sector, government and policymakers grapple with how to approach more longstanding issues in the housing market. Living in a cramped space some compare to a prison cell may also have lasting psychological effects, experts say. Communal spaces like the ones Frankel is envisioning for his firm’s future micro-projects may curb this concern. And in far-off cities like Auckland, New Zealand, local officials are looking to this trend in Latin America for inspiration on how to tackle their own local affordable housing crises.

Micro-housing may not be the silver bullet to solving the housing crisis, but it can be used as a crucial strategy to complement more long-lasting improvements, like increased public housing and better transportation systems to mitigate traffic and unlock easy city access for more rural dwellers.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the housing crisis. Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, require unique solutions to their overcrowded cities—their small landmass doesn’t provide them the luxury of building further into the countryside. Instead they build higher and higher. Hong Kong tops the world ranking for city with the most skyscrapers, with nearly 75 percent of them being residential buildings. Cities in Latin America, however, have a little more leeway. Investments in strong transportation systems in these cities can more easily connect suburbs to downtown, reducing traffic woes and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from cars along the way. 

The market, above all, will dictate the immediate future of micro-housing. If young professionals and college students are willing to downsize for the right price, then architects and developers will jump on the idea of mass producing these parking-space-sized homes. Investors, too, want a piece of the actionthey see high profitability in buying these homes on the cheap and renting them out to tourists paying premium prices for daily and weekly rentals. 

Image credit: Michael Lechner/Unsplash

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This Silicon Valley Program Boosts Social Entrepreneurship

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Far too many people worldwide are living on the margins, as through no control of their own they have been displaced from communities they once called home. Social entrepreneurship can help address this challenge in various ways. The Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University is helping with this effort through its Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins (SEM) program. Established in 2018 and funded by philanthropic organizations and individual donors, the six-month online accelerator was designed to sharpen social entrepreneurs’ business plans, while improving investment readiness in their ideas.

Such programs are critical as the world is facing a huge refugee and immigrant crisis:

 “Our experience and track record led us to believe that entrepreneurial approaches to helping those in need might have potential to scale,” said Thane Kreiner, executive director of Miller Center. Since 2003, the organization says it has accelerated more than 1,000 social enterprises, positively impacting more than 380 million people in 100 countries.  

Mentoring social entrepreneurship leaders can pay dividends

Executive-level Silicon Valley mentors accompanied the 18 organizations chosen for SEM 2018 through six months of online learning, including topics such as business models, unit economics, impact models and growth strategies. In addition to sharing their knowledge and expertise, the mentors also learned more about issues facing migrants, refugees and other citizens confronting similar conditions. The mentors brought this knowledge back to their Silicon Valley entrepreneurial ecosystem, which helped increase awareness of these marginalized citizens.

Rachel Taber, a 2018 SEM participant and cofounder of 1951 Coffee Company, says the mentorship was her favorite part of the program. She worked with Louis Jordan, formerly global senior vice president of finance at Starbucks, on 1951’s financials. “Because he understood the coffee and retail business, he was able to analyze our current operations, suggest options to streamline, and help us figure out efficient ways to scale,” Taber said.

Brewing up better jobs

Taber and cofounder Doug Hewitt started 1951 Coffee after seeing firsthand the barriers refugees faced in finding dignified employment that pays a living wage. “1951 was borne out of equal part inspiration—of what was possible—and frustration—of deep needs not being met that resulted in a refugee’s long-term isolation and poverty,” the cofounders told TriplePundit.

In response, 1951 Coffee provides refugees with an intensive two-week hard and soft skills training program so they can find quality jobs as quickly as possible. 1851 also provides follow-up support, including mock interviews and one-on-one coaching with employers.

But running such an operation isn’t easy because other leaders in the business world don’t necessarily understand what social entrepreneurship is all about, leading to feelings of frustration and isolation. The SEM program provided networking with others of similar mindset. “No one understood what we were doing and how we were trying to do it,” Taber explained. “SEM connected us to others in our exact same position and helped us define and share our model.”

Workshops can help new ventures win more funding

The SEM 2018 accelerator concluded with a five-day in-residence workshop highlighted by a showcase event in San Francisco, where each participant shared a six-minute overview of their work. Participants also had an opportunity to meet potential partners and investors past events held by Social Capital Markets.

This in-residence training proved quite valuable to 1951 Coffee’s showcase presentation. "The Miller Center brought in an expert to help us with storytelling and how to create the most engaging pitch,” Taber explained. The result was a $200,000 commitment from the Chao Foundation to open an outpost of 1951 in the San Jose area.

 “The entire [SEM] program gave us the knowledge and tools to confidently approach any funder with a strong business plan, financials and due diligence information,” Taber added.

Accelerating good must continue

The SEM 2018 program resulted in raising $11 million of investment and a positive impact on 80,000 lives, said Kreiner of the Miller Center. With such success, the Center is offering a second accelerator, SEM 2 Online, another six-month program offered at no charge to participants.

As social enterprises become more business-capable and investment-ready, they can also scale up their impact, Kreiner told us. Programs like SEM can help, but they require a similar level of investment and commitment so that social entrepreneurs have the tools they need to address the challenges faced by the millions of marginalized people worldwide.

Image credit: 1951 Coffee

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Can a Redesign Make the Airplane Middle Seat Your Favorite?

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With summer travel in full swing, many are reminded of the uncomfortable conditions most airlines provide on their planes. Leg room, seat width and recline have decreased to pack more people into less space.

In the last 30 years, seat widths on major airlines have shrunk around two inches. New seat patents circulating the internet don’t give much hope. One example turns the middle seat backwards — ideally bringing more shoulder room for all passengers, but also creating uncomfortable eye-contact with strangers.

Refreshingly, a new invention by the Denver startup Molon Labe Seating provides a realistic solution for the middle seat. It is newly approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is ready to be installed in at least one airline.

The design alters seat layout slightly to give every passenger the illusion of more room. There are three elements that customers and airlines alike will find enticing about this invention: staggered and wider middle seats, wider aisles during takeoff and landing and for an airline's bottom line, overall lighter seats.

Staggered seats add comfort

Molon Labe’s seats look familiar, expect that the middle seat is slightly lower and behind the window and aisle seats. The armrests also have two levels — leaving the back for the middle seat and the higher front for the aisle and window.

But the biggest selling point for customers might be the seat width — the middle seat is 21 inches, while the others are a standard 18 inches. For comparison, some airlines have decreased seat widths to 16 inches.

While the staggered design adds comfort for passengers, it will not decrease seating capacity. Flying the same number of people means this improvement won’t increase an airline’s carbon footprint.

Wider aisles decrease takeoff and landing time

The design also widens the aisle during takeoff and landing — the aisle seat can shift over the middle seat to make the aisle over twice as roomy. The amount of space shifts from 19 inches to 41 inches with only the push of a button, thus accommodating two people side-by-side or even a wheelchair.

“When you stop in the aisle to take off your jacket and pull your iPad out, everyone else stops,” Hank Scott, the founder and CEO of Molon Labe told The Denver Post in 2015. “Now the line won’t stop. Just get out of the way and let people walk around you.”

It’s not only passengers who will be happy with quicker boarding and deplaning times. Shorter turnarounds, especially for short-haul flights, save airlines money. Simply slipping the seats aside could save airlines 6.7 minutes per trip. This translates to $670,000 a day or $245 million a year, according to calculations courtesy of the Denver Post.

Lighter seats decrease carbon emissions

Another positive for atmospheric CO2 is that these seats are on the lighter side — being mostly aluminum, they weigh under 20 pounds each. The average weight for an airplane seat is 22 pounds.

In an industry that defies gravity, weight is a major consideration. Some airlines, such as this Japanese carrier, have gone to extremes to decrease the weight of their aircraft.

Other benefits to airlines

This invention is the first major seat redesign that benefits economy passengers. Any airline that buys into this staggered seat will give the impression to its customers that it cares. Doing so speaks loudly in an industry where airlines often put profit over person with practices like overbooking flights.

While airlines have generally done well with customer satisfaction in recent years, the in-flight experience leaves much to be desired. Of course, food and entertainment could be better, but seat comfort beats them both out. With a score of 69 out of 100, seat comfort was the lowest scoring category in this past spring’s American Customer Satisfaction Index report.

Middle seats are an untapped opportunity for airlines. Only three percent of airplane passengers claim to prefer the middle seat — mostly after a travel companion has already selected their seat. Disdain for middle seats translates into lost revenue.

Molon Labe’s design gives the middle seat its own advantage — size — thus increasing the chances airplanes will fly full.

And of course, some airlines may capitalize on the improved design by adding a surcharge for middle seats. Although, that may not be the best way to keep customers satisfied.

What’s in store for the staggered seat?

The design has been finished for a few years, but it only got FAA approval last month. An undisclosed airline already has plans to install the seats on 50 of its planes by 2020.

These first seats won’t include the slide-slip technology.

Scott explains to Fast Company, “We decided two years ago to focus on getting the S1 flying as it is . . . then once an airline is flying and happy with our seats and support, we will offer to upsell some Side-Slip Seats. It’s such a risk-averse industry that it made more sense to offer a nonmoving seat to start with.”

The company has focused on getting its short-haul design into planes — after all, that’s where seating is the tightest — but it also has a design for longer flights with added comfort features including privacy barriers.

While Molon Labe’s seats don’t solve all the horrors passengers associate with flying, they are a good start for returning to a place of comfort. While the seats won’t be available for this year’s summer travel, it’s nice to finally have hope for the near future. And for airlines, these staggered seats offer an opportunity to revive their industry’s reputation - one that currently comes across as putting customers' comfort as lower than low priority.

Image credit: Molon Labe Seating

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Kicking the Diesel Habit, With Glass Solar Cells

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Access to renewable energy is increasing globally, and yet the market for diesel generators continues to grow across all sectors, including commercial and industrial users. Solving this conundrum is imperative if the global economy is to electrify and decarbonize. One solution may lie in a new glass solar cell under development by a team of researchers from South Africa and Belgium.

Why diesel?

Energy users turn to diesel generators for three basic reasons: accessibility, reliability and cost.

Despite the impact on greenhouse gas emissions,  demand for diesel generators is rising as global demand for electricity increases.

Small scale solar-plus-storage systems are beginning to cut into the diesel generator market in areas without grid access. They also help fulfill demand for backup power. However, the up-front cost of solar-plus-storage can still be relatively high. That factor helps explain why the global diesel generator market was poised for a five-year growth spurt as of 2017.

The upward trajectory is continuing into 2019. Somewhat ironically, greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of climate change may be partly responsible for the increased demand.

Last spring, Market Research Future observed that “the diesel generator market has gained significant traction due to the amplified occurrence of natural disasters globally,” with demand is especially strong in the power station and data center sectors.

Why solar cells?

The problem of electricity access is more acute in some areas than others, according to EIA:

“Around 84 percent of those without electricity access reside in rural areas and more than 95 percent of those living without electricity are in countries in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. While still far from complete, progress in providing electrification in urban areas has outpaced that in rural areas two to one since 2000.”

Part of the urban-rural divide is due to the expense of building new transmission lines to serve relatively small pockets of population.

Service to remote energy users is an area where small scale, distributed solar energy could provide a distinct advantage over diesel generators.

Compared to solar, diesel is at a disadvantage in remote areas where the cost of fuel transportation piles on to higher costs for servicing and repair.

Solar entrepreneurs are beginning to grasp the opportunities in the off-grid market in Africa and elsewhere, though that still leaves diesel stakeholders with plenty of room to grow.

Glass solar cells to the rescue

The new glass solar cell research could help provide solar stakeholders with an edge, by enabling solar cells to serve double duty as windows.

That’s a win-win for energy consumers. Glass windows (such as the one shown above at the Bejar Market in Salamanca, Spain, which Onyx Solar designed) allow daylight into rooms, helping to reduce the use of electricity during peak daytime hours. Having a window that also produces electricity is icing on the cake.

Ideally, the overall effect on the bottom line is to absorb part of the cost of solar cells into the energy profile of a building. That would help property owners and other stakeholders calculate the potential for significant, long term savings compared to diesel generators.

The long road to transparent solar cells

The new solar research comes from scientists based at the University of the Free State in South Africa, and Ghent University in Belgium. Ghent University describes the motivation in terms of the diesel generator conundrum:

“The research is driven by the UFS and was prompted by ever-rising electricity prices and growing demand for electricity production. South Africa lives with constant power outages which leaves people stuck in lifts and facing chaos on the roads as traffic lights cut out. Many people who can afford them now rely on generators.”

The challenge is to develop materials that are efficient at converting solar energy without blocking too much light from passing through.

To solve the puzzle, the research team is developing glass made with light-collecting materials, which zero in on the invisible, ultraviolet and infrared ends of the light spectrum. The workhorse parts of the new solar cell are concentrated along the sides.

Solar cells on the go

The new approach enables ample light to pass through, but the devil is in the details. The research team is still working on the right combination of materials. They foresee an R&D period of about 10 years before a market-ready product emerges from the laboratory.

When it does, the impact could be game changing. In addition to windows for buildings, the new solar cell could be used in billions of smart phones and tablets around the world.

The research team also anticipates incorporating the new solar cell into durable materials that could replace metal roofs. That would provide another “cool roof” option to help improve energy efficiency in buildings, as well as creating another opportunity for site electricity generation.

In addition, auto manufacturers like Toyota are already experimenting with solar-equipped cars, and solar-integrated body parts could provide another option.

If ten years seems too long to wait, take heart. Other research teams have also been busy at work on solar cells that could be integrated into buildings, mobile devices, and autos. That includes a team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where work on a “switchable” solar cell is progressing.

Image credit: Onyx Solar

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Businesses, Cities Find Ways to Curb Single-Use Water Bottles

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A million single-use water bottles are bought around the world every minute and, astonishingly, it’s predicted that figure will rise by another 20 percent by 2021.

Consumption of water bottles is especially prevalent in the world’s cities, where pushcart vendors and bodega owners hawk ice-cold water to hot tourists and city dwellers in the sweltering summer heat.

What’s the alternative? Public drinking fountains are often decrepit, rusty or just don’t work. As part of the effort to reduce plastic waste, many cities are trying to make public drinking fountains chic again – some with a little help from the private sector and designers.

London announces 50 modern drinking fountains across the city

Just this week, London announced the locations of the first 50 of 100 promised public drinking water fountains around the capital. But these aren’t like the water fountains you remember from the school playground or local park, where you had to bend over to slurp a few drops inches from the metal spout.

The six-foot-plus structures are topped with a giant blue “waterdrop” to make them easy to spot. And rather than slurping, people can refill their water bottles. The fountains have been installed near the high-trafficked Tube (aka, subway) and mainline train stations, shopping centers, markets and parks. The goal: Ensure all 9 million Londoners and 30 million annual visitors have access to free drinking water while they are out and about.

The giant blue water drop - the new London icon?
The giant blue water drop - the new London icon?

(above: The giant blue water drop - the new London icon?)

The fountains are a result of a partnership between the city government and Thames Water – the United Kingdom’s largest water and wastewater services provider. Each party is contributing £2.5 million ($3.1 million) to fund the venture backed by a 25-year maintenance agreement. The partnership also involved MIW Water Cooler Experts in the initial pilot in 2018. As part of the  #OneLess campaign – which includes a network of policymakers, NGOs, businesses, communities and individuals set up to tackle London’s plastic problem, including the single-use plastic water bottle – MIW set up 28 pilot water stations that quickly saw thousands of Londoners filling up their water bottles each day.

The new round of 50 fountains announced this month will be at a range  of sites, from the iconic Natural History Museum and London Eye, to public parks and community spaces.

 “To get a grip on needless plastic waste, we need to provide simple ways of refilling and accessing free water, and water fountains are the much-needed solution,” the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, told The Guardian.

Shirley Rodrigues, deputy mayor for environment and energy, went further, telling Guardian reporter Nicola Davis, “We want to make sure that it becomes the norm that people cannot use single-use plastic bottles.”

New York, are you listening?

Some 3,400 miles southwest of London, millions of New Yorkers have their own problem when it comes to public drinking fountains: lead contamination.

Lead contamination is common for cities with aging, lead-based plumbing. As part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s LeadFree NYC campaign to eliminate childhood lead exposure, the city will test every single drinking fountain in the city’s park system for lead – the first time such a test has been carried out in the city. Those found with high levels will be remediated.

Mayor de Blasio may want to chat with Mayor Khan about his efforts in London. In addition to remediation, what about a campaign to find creative ways to make public drinking fountains chic and accessible again? Certainly, there are enough artists and entrepreneurs in the five boroughs who would be eager to join forces with the city.

One company that is already involved is S’well, which last year partnered with New York City’s Office of Sustainability by donating more than 320,000 of its designer reusable water bottles to city high schools.

“The goal is really to extend our mission to rid the world of plastic bottles and we couldn’t help but think the best way to do that is to tap into the city’s future leaders,” S’well Vice President Kendra Peavy told CBS New York News.

S’well Founder Sarah Kauss, who launched the company in 2010, explains on the company’s website that she “believed that if we made a crave-worthy bottle that combined fashion with function, people would stop buying disposable bottles and we could reduce single-use plastic consumption worldwide.”  I think she’s on to something: Today, S’well is the fastest growing woman-owned company in the U.S.

Two other New York designers -- Agency-Agency and Chris Woebken – also want to help New Yorkers kick the single-use bottle habit. They have created a prototype drinking fountain of bright blue plumbing fixtures that could turn the city's fire hydrants into public drinking fountains.

The conceptual project, as described in the online architecture, interiors and design magazine Dezene, was developed over summer 2018 in response to a brief from the Water Futures research program organized by Brooklyn creative space A/D/O. The initiative aims to find design responses to the world's increasingly pressing water scarcity issues.

"Water Futures aims to inspire the creative community to take action in reimagining our toxic drinking water culture," according to the website.

The hydrant turned fountain includes four shallow dishes at various heights that would allow adults, children, dogs and birds to drink the city water. The lowest basin is a dog bowl, the middle two are outfitted as drinking fountains for humans, and the top vessel forms a bird bath. A vertical pipe connects these basins and ensures they stay full. Next, the designers plan to work on a refill station for reusable water bottles. Again, Mayor de Blasio, are you listening?

Back in Europe

London isn’t the only city working to lure people to public water fountains. Many others are refurbishing old fountains and creating apps for people to easily locate them.

Emanuele Pizzolorusso is hoping his newly designed reusable water bottles will help. His new bottles list the locations of public water fountains in 10 major cities -- Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Milan, New York, Paris, Rome and several time zones away in Tokyo. Made from PBA-free plastic resin, the half-liter water bottles were designed for Florence-based Palomar.

"In many countries, a lot of people still buy bottled water," the designer told Dezene. "Highlighting the drinking fountains in our cities was a way to bring to our attention the fact that we can use tap water. In most countries, the water supply is highly secure and often there is no real need to buy bottled water.”

From London to New York to Florence, great ideas are taking flight to help revitalize public water fountains. With luck, we will see even more examples of creative designers and businesses teaming up with city and state governments to make this movement a global trend.

Image credit: Thames Water/Corporate and Facebook

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Picturing Sustainable Space Travel, 50 Years After Apollo 11

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Even as an eight-year-old living in Long Island, New York, the significance of astronauts landing on the moon on July 20, 1969 was not lost on me. First, I had an 11-year-old brother with extensive knowledge of the space program, and I had seen models of the Apollo 11 spacecraft and all its parts. Second, I knew this had to be monumental because I got to stay up later than I ever had before—past 11 p.m.—to watch the grainy images on our black-and-white TV of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepping onto the lunar surface and hear them describe—the moon! 

I even had the foresight to save the front page of the next day’s New York Daily News, but ruined its historical value by writing (in pen) “Ellen Delisio was 8 1/2 years old” under the huge headline and photo of Armstrong.

The first journey to the moon was the culmination of six years of research and innovation, spurred by President John F. Kennedy's 1962 call to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bring him back safely in a bold move to ratchet up Cold War competition. The U.S. felt it needed to send a message of its technical superiority after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and the moon mission was in part a rocket-sized slap to the Soviets.

Jump ahead 50 years to the plans of the current U.S. space program, which now is focused on deep space exploration and settlements on the moon and Mars. The next trip to the moon could occur in 2028, while the estimate for the first Mars mission is in the 2030s. Along with those goals comes the challenges of how to produce enough food, minimize and recycle waste, and conserve resources on both long-duration space flights and off-Earth colonies. Today’s NASA is building in recycling options and sustainable operations within these future plans.

Waste of all kinds is one of the biggest problems of space travel; as it takes up precious room, repurposing it is a priority. NASA staffers at Ames and Glenn Research Centers are working on a device that would recycle mission waste by burning it, which would then produce ash, water, heat and carbon dioxide. Research has shown that crops can grow in lunar soil, called regolith, when supplied with water, light, oxygen and fertilizer. The ash could be used as fertilizer for crops on the moon while the crews would utilize available water. Plants could make use of the carbon dioxide, producing oxygen through photosynthesis.

Along similar lines, scientists at Pennsylvania State University are testing a compact recycling system that would enable human waste to produce edible bacteria. After the device converts human waste into salts and methane gas, the gas helps produce an edible protein substance. (Food technology experts, clearly, would have to finesse the taste.)  Such a system could provide a steady source of nutrition to crew members on the long flight to Mars.

Private industry is also working with NASA on innovations in other areas. “Building on our model in low-Earth orbit, we’ll expand our partnerships with industry and other nations to explore the moon and advance our missions to farther destinations such as Mars, with America leading the way,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told SyFyWire. “When we send astronauts to the surface of the moon in the next decade, it will be in a sustainable fashion.”

As part of its NEXTStep program, NASA is seeking corporate partners to design and build reusable spacecraft that would be able to transport passengers and cargo between the moon and a “gateway” space station NASA is planning to build between the Earth and the moon.

The shortage of raw materials in space also necessitates far more recycling and repurposing. The International Space Station this year began using a device called the Refabricator, an integrated plastic recycler and 3-D printer, which transforms recyclable plastic into 3-D printable material. “The Refabricator is key in demonstrating a sustainable model to fabricate, recycle, and reuse parts and waste materials on extended space exploration missions,” said Niki Werkheiser, manager of in-space manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in a recent profile on Digital Trends.

NASA also is hoping to set up a 3-D printer “workshop” in space, which could create parts for spacecraft and other equipment. The company Made in Space was contracted to show that its craft, called Archinaut One, could manufacture items using its robotic arm, which would eliminate the need to transport new equipment from Earth.

Even when it comes to Martian homes, NASA is thinking sustainably. The agency’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge is seeking designs of sustainable housing for colonists to use on Mars, since they cannot bring, nor will they have, many raw materials. The winning design will be selected from among three finalists who will 3-D print actual size models of their homes.

All of these developments, unimaginable in the late 1960s, are unfolding just half a century after Armstrong and Aldrin left the first footprints on the moon. Much work lies ahead to perfect these technologies, but nevertheless, research for the next phase in space exploration is proving to be a giant leap indeed.

Image credit: NASA

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50 years after Apollo 11, the U.S. space program focuses on deep space exploration and settlements on the moon and Mars—and sustainability is key to making those dreams a reality.
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Human Rights Are Essential for Clean Energy’s Ethical Future

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A new report entitled Respecting Rights in Renewable Energy Investments from the nonprofit Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) highlights how investors can help grow renewable energy—necessary for addressing our climate crisis—while not ignoring human rights.

“Investors have a key role to play in ensuring renewable energy companies respect human rights,” said Eniko Horvath, senior researcher at BHRRC, in a written statement to TriplePundit.

We do not often think of renewable energy as the culprit when it comes to human rights abuses. The fossil fuel industry, on the other hand, is rife with examples of such abuses: land grabs, the use of violent force, documented violations of indigenous rights, episodes of dumping pollution without notifying locals, and much, much more. Some cases are especially egregious, such as Chevron’s dumping of waste onto indigenous land in Ecuador, not informing them and, according to critics, refusing to clean it up. With these stories as a backdrop, it is easy to assume that renewables are intrinsically better when it comes to human rights, but that would be wrong.

In fact, the history of sustainable business, and even renewable energy, is filled with good intentions gone bad. Take, for example, biofuels, once seen as an important alternative to fossil fuels due to the fact that such plant-based sources could replace petroleum for use as transport fuel. In the early 2000s, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia embarked on massive palm oil planting binges to fuel demand for European biofuels—and alongside this came land grabs, labor violations, and even, in a few cases, the killings of local and indigenous activists.

Solar, wind, geothermal and other low-carbon and renewable energies are all technologies that we need to rapidly expand. But we need to make sure that their growth does not violate human rights or leave local communities worse off than they were before. Already, the BHRRC has identified 152 allegations of human rights abuses around renewable energy projects since 2017. These include the displacement of local people, violations of indigenous rights, death threats by contractors, intimidation and environmental degradation. BHRRC’s survey also found that only a small fraction of the companies evaluated had met basic human rights criteria within their business practices.

“Given the urgent need for investments into renewable energy to tackle climate change, we’re concerned about the rising frequency of human rights abuse allegations linked to the sector, and believe this should be addressed now to ensure a just transition to a low-carbon economy,” Horvath said.

One way the renewables sector could avoid these problems is to factor in human and social impacts from the very beginning. The report notes that most renewable energy companies do not have in place basic human rights processes. Investors can push for them to adopt policies in line with agreements like the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and also ensure they incorporate best practices such as human rights due diligence processes allowing them to identify risks before they become abuses.

It is important to note that the report does not target renewable energy companies directly, but rather, investors, as they are the ones who can exert pressure to mandate changes in a company’s operations. Moreover, investors often have broad portfolios, giving them leverage to help bring about industry-wide change.

“If investors take up this opportunity, they can help protect both the planet and people, and create a more just, safe and sustainable world,” Horvath told us.

If investors, companies, designers and communities can work together, we can ensure that the clean energy transition is not only good for the planet, but for people as well. This BHRRC report offers a key tool for any ethical investor who wants to make the greatest possible impact for people and the planet.

Image credit: Land Rover Our Planet/Flickr

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A new report highlights how investors can help expand renewable energy—necessary for addressing our climate crisis—while respecting human rights.
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Please Don’t Call Your Sustainability Program a ‘Moonshot’

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With the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing fast approaching, we can add “moonshot” to the list of jargon that’s at risk of becoming embedded in the sustainability lexicon, and not necessarily in a good way. The list is already getting long with “collaboration,” “radical transparency,” “purpose” and to some people, yes, even “CSR” (corporate social responsibility).

Don’t. Please, just don’t. For several reasons:

First, for every advocate of space exploration, there is also someone who questions whether the funds used to visit the moon, or what is now funding an eventual trip to Mars, is money well spent. In fact, during the late 1960s and 1970s, many Americans opposed spending federal money on visiting the moon; though in fairness, there was a misconception about how much money was spent on space exploration, analogous to the false debate over whether the U.S. spends too much money on foreign aid. Nevertheless, concerns about social issues at home, not to mention the roaring inflation that marred the 1970s, were among the factors that eventually led to the mothballing of the Apollo program after six missions to the moon.

Nevertheless, when considering the technology available in 1969—not to mention how divisive that era was as the U.S. was mired in a controversial war—the Apollo 11 mission was an incredible achievement. The buildup during July 1969, up to the time the two astronauts landed on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, still resonates with citizens who to this day still remember where exactly they were crowded around a television the moment Neil Armstrong strung together some of the most famous words ever said. It was a moonshot the world had never experienced.

There are other moonshots that deserve mention. Researchers involved with cancer treatment and prevention breakthroughs? Consider that a moonshot, no questions asked. The scientists and activists that pushed for compassion, research and coming to terms with AIDS during the 1980s, despite a presidential administration that was apathetic and even joked about the epidemic? Their work and fearlessness together comprised a moonshot.

The word “moonshot,” however, doesn’t apply to an athletic apparel brand that suddenly decides to work on its environmental footprint. A coffee cup that is compostable and recyclable? Well, considering how many are already stewing in landfills, describing this maneuver falls short of a moonshot. Perhaps it could be considered more of an earthshot. Energy-efficient data centers? It wasn’t exactly the heaviest of lifts to power them by solar or to buy renewable energy credits to cancel out their carbon emissions, so comparing that effort to launching three people in orbit for eight days, and doing so 50 years ago, is a stretch. A garbage collection company that strives to accomplish a “moonshot” mission of cutting its carbon emissions? Refer to the events of 1969 noted above.

To be fair, it’s not as if every Fortune 500 company on the face of the earth is stepping over each other in the quest to out-moonshot each other. But at a time when many companies, and the communications teams that represent them, insist their sustainability plans can turn back climate change, push the circular economy forward and stop deforestation, it is tempting to cut in line and score some attention by describing such a plan as a “moonshot.”

But don’t. However, do savor the nostalgia and coverage surrounding the half-century since Apollo 11. Because that was a moonshot which even today, is still very much worthy of its hype.

Image credit: NASA

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This Simple Energy Efficiency Trick Could Save A Bundle on Energy Costs

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Smart meters and other high-tech energy efficiency gadgets may grab all the headlines, but researchers have shown that saving energy can be as simple as painting over a dark roof with a lighter color. Now researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California have added another twist to the “cool roof” trick: cool walls.

Energy efficiency: as simple as opening a can of paint

Researchers have already assembled ample evidence that painting a lighter color over a dark roof can save a significant amount of energy for buildings located in warmer, sunnier climates. Since most buildings have far more wall area than roof area, the next logical step to look for energy savings would be in those vertical surfaces.

The new Berkeley Lab study is titled Solar-Reflective “Cool” Walls: Benefits, Technologies, and Implementation. The researchers examined the potential for light-colored walls to save energy in different types of buildings in California and elsewhere in the U.S., including standalone retail stores and office buildings as well as homes.

The best results occurred in cities located in the southern U.S. In those areas, the study demonstrated an annual HVAC savings of 11 percent for standalone retail stores. Medium-sized office buildings registered a 4.6 percent savings.

Residential properties also fared well. The study found an average energy efficiency gain of 8.3 percent in the southern U.S. Savings ranged from 4 percent to 27 percent across all of California.

Painting with a purpose

In another recent study, researchers found that a fresh coat of “cool” paint on exterior walls provides about as much energy savings as a cool roof upgrade.

That result may seem counterintuitive. After all, vertical walls generally do not receive as much direct sunlight as rooftops.

The difference is that walls in U.S. buildings are typically not as well insulated as roofs. That’s especially the case for older buildings.

Before 1980, U.S. building codes called for less insulation. The result is that even a modest improvement in older walls can have a significant impact.

In fact, the study found that property owners with pre-1980 buildings on their hands stand to realize energy savings of three to six times more than owners of newer buildings.

Creating a cooler community

The study shows that cool walls are one of the low-hanging fruits of the energy efficiency field, ripe for the picking with relatively little effort.

The savings goes beyond direct bottom line benefits. Another recent study found that cool walls can enable building owners to claim credit for helping to reduce the “heat island” effect in cities (heat islands occur where dark surfaces absorb heat and release it slowly).

Since cool walls (and roofs) go to work during peak daylight energy consumption hours, they also enable building owners to take credit for helping to shave peak demand.

The ability to shave down demand can have enormous consequences. Typically, policymakers rely on building new power plants to meet peak demand. Cool walls and other energy efficiency improvements can help avoid those costs.

Forward-looking policy makers are beginning to rely more on renewable energy, smart grid technology and energy storage to meet peak demand. Building owners can accelerate that trend with cool walls and other energy efficiency upgrades.

Building owners with rooftop solar and energy storage systems can also enhance the impact of those investments by making their next paint job a cool one.

The best places for energy efficient walls

The Berkeley Lab team also suggests how building owners can maximize the energy efficiency impact of their next paint job.

Standalone buildings in hot, sunny parts of the U.S. (and many parts of California) are the best candidates for a high impact, cool wall upgrade.

Buildings that receive shade may still realize some savings, depending on how much they receive.

As for choosing a paint color, the study confirms a common sense approach: light colors are the most efficient at reflecting sunlight.

However, the study also indicates that building owners do not need to settle for plain white:

“Light-colored walls are coolest, but pigments that reflect the invisible half of sunlight and pigments that fluoresce can be used to make cool paints in a wide range of colors.”

Metal roofs are popular in parts of the southern U.S., but the researchers caution that shiny, unpainted metal surfaces are not necessarily good candidates for cool walls. Unpainted metal absorbs heat and in turn is slow to release it.

On the other hand, painted metal roofs can provide for significant energy savings.

Cool is in the eye of the beholder

As of now, there are no formal standards for labeling cool wall paint, though the Berkeley Lab team suggests that a typical cool wall should reflect about 40 percent of sunlight.

The lab also indicates that claims about high-performance paint should be reserved for those reflecting about 60 percent. In contrast, non-cool walls reflect only 25 percent.

Help is on the way. The nonprofit Cool Roof Rating Council is looking into taking wall paint under a rating system that will help take some of the guesswork out of choosing the coolest paint.

In the meantime, the study indicates that there can be hidden energy savings behind dark walls. Building owners who are considering a fresh coat of paint can give their property an energy efficiency upgrade simply by choosing a lighter color.

Image credit: Christian Perner/Unsplash

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