“The regulations, carrying fines up to $500, add to restrictions put in place last year that rein in outdoor water use — for example, barring people from hosing down driveways. The new terms tread deeper into homes, businesses and the lives of most Californians, and are indicative of the state’s worsening water woes.”
As the planet’s population reaches more than 7 billion, the availability of clean water has become a major concern. The United Nations says more than a billion people live in areas of physical water scarcity, and 500 million more are nearing the same situation.
But as bleak as that sounds, water has also emerged as a hot spot for investment and innovation to save lives and protect future generations.
How Innovation Is Helping
Ingenuity and creative solutions are coming from every corner of the globe.
“What we have put together is a water collection system made from simple but functional technologies that collect, store and purify rainwater from the rooftops,” SINTEF’s Sigrid Damman told Science Daily.
The system’s core technologies can also be upgraded as more water collection is diverted away from traditional sources — such as groundwater — during the heavy flooding season. SINTEF’s advanced systems provide an integrated UV disinfection system and a filter, which enables users to drink water straight from the tap. And when electricity is unreliable, solar power can be used for UV purification.
Waterless Toilets and Sanitation
The nexus of water and sanitation has also spurred interest from large donors such as the Gates Foundation. Usually, the toilets, sewers and wastewater treatment systems used worldwide require huge amounts of land, energy and water — and are expensive to maintain and operate. So RTI International, a U.S.-based research firm, received a grant from the Gates Foundation to develop a self-contained toilet system that disinfects liquid waste and turns solid waste into fuel or electricity with a biomass energy conversion unit. That zero-waste strategy could help the system meet its target cost of five cents per person per day.
A Redesigned Washing Machine
There are also plenty of opportunities for change in U.S. water use. Maintaining lawns, installing low-flow showerheads and ditching bottled water are simple starting points for residents.
One British company, Xeros, hopes to add how clothes are washed to that list. The company has developed a washing machine that uses 70 percent less water, up to 50 percent less energy and nearly 50 percent less detergent compared to traditional soap-and-water methods.
Xeros uses beads that, combined with detergent, lift dirt from clothes. The same beads can be used in hundreds of wash cycles — pumped in continuously from below the drum — before being recycled. These new washing machines operate at lower-than-traditional temperatures, which also saves energy, according to Xeros.
Shipping Tankers That Deliver Water
Other ideas seem almost too obvious. Bruarfoss, an Icelandic company, says it can deliver glacial spring water from Iceland in huge tankers that can carry up to 180,000 tons at a time. Not all ports have the infrastructure to receive such large shipments of water, but Bruarfoss says it can support the Western hemisphere, the Middle East and most other locations via commercial shipping hubs such as Rotterdam. Even at full capacity, less than 1 percent of Iceland’s total water supply would be tapped, according to the company.
With so much of the world’s attention and GDP focus on energy exports, why not water?
Markets and Pricing Also Play A Role
As important as innovative technologies are to delivering clean drinking water across the globe, the challenge also requires efficient pricing and markets.
David G. Victor of the University of California, San Diego, tells the New York Times that “most water problems are readily addressed with innovation.” That’s encouraging, but the other part of his comment is also essential: “Getting the water price right to signal scarcity is crucially important.”
Environmental scholars such as Barton H. Thompson at Stanford Law School agree. “Markets are essential to ensuring that water, when it’s scarce, can go to the most valuable uses,” he told The New York Times. Without markets and pricing, “the allocation of water is certainly arbitrary,” he added.
If there’s any resource the world should avoid allocating arbitrarily, it’s water.
In Japan, though, the authorities have come up with a solution, in the form of a new system of underground bicycle parking. Users set up an account with Eco Cycle, the system’s operator, and are issued a chip which is attached to the bike’s frame. When the cyclists wheel their bike towards the entrance to the parking, the system recognises the bike, grips the front wheel and whizzes it underground to an available parking space.
How green electric cars really are, then, will depend mainly on where they are driven. In France, which obtains more than half its power from nuclear stations, they look like a good bet. In China—which is keen on electric cars, but produces some 80% of its electricity from coal—rather less so.
Most of us usually don’t use wealth and climate change in the same sentence. Jigar Shah and the Carbon War Room’s Ann Davlin were at SXSWECO yesterday to convince us things are changing. Their session,”Creating Climate Wealth,” showcased how individuals and businesses can capitalize on the climate chaos.
Davlin, who worked with Al Gore and at The Pentagon, started the discussion by reminding the audience that our society, even business, has had climate opportunities teed up before.
“This really isn’t all uncharted territory,” said Davlin. “A lot of today’s climate wealth environment was established by the success of the Carter administration.”
Most of us can associate the administration with solar panels on the White House, but Davlin highlighted the other policy and infrastructure decisions which helped set up many of the standards still used today.
“Everything from energy efficiency and vehicle emissions to power purchase agreements (PPAs) and the adoption of the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), has some connectivity to the efforts of lawmakers decades ago,” said Davlin.
“All the pieces are coming together, and we’re at a point where we can move forward. Carter won bi-partisan support for favorable policies and it lead to job creation and clean energy momentum.”
Davlin cited the residential PACE market, aimed at funding energy improvements, as another engine of growth and carbon reduction. She urged the group to think about the balance between an economic and ecologic argument.
“The capital is there, it’s more about how do we go in and approach a particular investor segment,” said Davlin. “We need to think about describing the impact in either financial terms or climate terms,” she added.
Shah opened up with a dig at our obsession with technology, questioning the value of the next new app.
“We have this weird fascination about technology,” said Shah. “The reality is that new technology is not fascinating in our industry.”
Instead, it’s about “infrastructure.” Shah noted that even with a seemingly unending technology cycle, energy costs for the average American family have increased about $4000 per year per family.
“Nobody tells they’re mom that I work in infrastructure,” he joked. But it’s easier to understand the notion of infrastructure when he describes it in the context of how the solar industry built out its own processes and practices. He mentioned how early power purchase agreements (PPAs) drove demand and led to more stable and innovative financing models that have continued to spur along the solar industry.
The conversation also addressed the opportunities in the electric vehicle (EV) industry and more broadly, the transportation industry.
“So what’s the climate wealth strategy for getting people in EVs,” asked Shah.
He mentioned recent data from Triple AAA that shows U.S car owners spend about $900 per month to own a vehicle. Besides more predictable maintenance costs for EVs, Shah thinks transportation companies and manufacturers will continue to move towards a cost per mile model.
“What you’ll see is an increase in “cost-per-mile” entrepreneurs as more time transfers to that model,” he said. “Then the question is what do you do with all the wasted space, like unused parking spots and emptier garages.”
The parking spot problem is in the industry’s headlights, sometimes referred to as one of the last mile problems in transportation. He was asked about what cities can do address it and some of the other planning challenges.
“Basically, 1000 entrepreneurs need to be knocking on doors and getting contracts, and then those need to get financed” he said.
Once autonomous vehicles are factored in, things get more interesting. Both panelists said the insurance industry is already adapting to that, preparing for the increasing loads of data from vehicle-based systems. They imagined a scenario that’s not so different from what healthcare providers might glean from health trackers to adjust our premiums.
Davlin also mentioned how microgrids, small-scale stations that can operate independently, are getting pushback from municipalities. Drawing from her pitches to Wall Street and private equity firms, Davlin reinforced how assumptions can’t be made that stakeholders understand the bigger picture. She described some scenarios where energy efficiency funding had to be reframed around a more resilient and risk-based approach.
Shah was then asked about the value proposition for solar, and how it plays into more climate opportunities.
“Solar is now an $80 billion a year industry with rooftop systems being added about every three to four minutes,” said Shah. “The industry needs to take responsibility for creating the next model for utilities.”
The panelists were also asked what city officials could do to spark more business-driven climate strategies.
Shah singled out transportation and waste management as two of the biggest pieces looming for cities. To magnify the cost reduction opportunity, he said the the average U.S. city transports its waste roughly 350 miles for disposal.
He also used the recent food waste ban in Massachusetts to show how waste reduction can create growth. Because of that policy, says Shah, 1200 anaerobic digesters will be built over the next five years, which will create jobs and reduce transportation costs..
Waste water management is also a part of the portfolio, especially with many treatment facilities across the U.S. nearing capacity. Things like pre-treatment, desalination, and other filtering applications are spurring the water management sector.
“A lot of these solutions have two year payback periods,” said Shah. “At that point, you’re basically forcing people to save money.”
As the session closed, a Nike representative in the audience asked the panelists to share specifics on the top things corporations could do to impact these climate wealth strategies. Davlin cited what Nike itself was doing as a member of the Sustainable Leather Working Group.
“Nike is actually dictating how the life of an animal is managed, everything from how it is fed, to how it is slaughtered,” said Davlin.
“What that means is more job creation, and a more visible and sustainable supply chain, ” she added,
Shah jumped in on the supply chain piece, saying the “greening of supply chains” is the toughest challenge for multinational corporations.
“You have to change the contracts and configure them to reward your best suppliers,” he said. Part of the challenge is that adjustments to supplier agreements can impact short-term profits. But Shah urged companies to look past contracts and get more creative to drive growth, saying a company’s strategic partners can be rewarded in many ways.
“There’s still constraints to being driven through the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO). But you have to make some financial commitments before any long-term strategy can really materialize,”said Shah
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