Tag Archives: Sustainability

Trails Are Driving Community Interest

IMG_2783“As with Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), where demand to live in and around TOD projects has increased, studies are showing a similar trend for Trail-Oriented Development, where there is a rising demand for bike-friendly and walkable places close to trails.Trails, according to a National Association of Homebuilders study, are the number one amenity potential homeowners cite when they are looking at moving into a new community. Trails provide communities with a valuable amenity that translates into increased housing values, a positive impact on property values and enhanced tax revenue for municipalities.”

Source: Transit-Oriented Development to Trail-Oriented Development 

Water Is Thirsty For Innovation. How Are We Meeting The Challenge?

lightbulb_waterAs 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.

In Ghana, Scandinavia’s largest research firm, SINTEF, is helping villagers convert rooftop rainwater into drinking water because groundwater is often too salty.

“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.

A Playbook For Simplification

Lifestyle changes aren’t as hard as you think

I was inspired by ’s recent piece on living with less stuff, so I wanted to share a few of our experiences.

For starters, by most accounts, my spouse and I are kind of extreme when it comes to simplifying. My wife describes the (main) set of circumstances that sparked our sustainability push more eloquently than me, but roughly speaking, here’s the short version.

When we had our first child, it was right after Katrina and with my wife being from New Orleans, it hit home on many fronts. The impacts of climate, people in need, and our kids’ futures all seemed bizarrely exposed. It was around that time, we both decided we had grown tired of hearing, “Don’t worry, someone else will take care of it!”

The problem was that we weren’t meeting a lot of those “other people,” the ones that were deftly operating behind the scenes. She basically led the charge at that point and moved beyond the rhetoric. Sometimes,we collectively decided, it has to be you. And that meant it had to be us.

We ended up in Houston a few years later for work, just in time to catch the arrival of another monumental storm, Hurricane Ike. And boy did that shift things. With Katrina still in the shadows, we were pounded in Downtown Houston and left without power for almost two days. Our daughter had also just been born, so here we were with two babies, no power, and stranded.

So there’s some context. And it’s not just about climate change, or being green. The latter is a byproduct of being acutely aware of our surroundings. We challenged ourselves to question things more —at every turn. Why did this happen? How do we keep it from happening again? I can’t explain why we didn’t change things sooner. We just realized that things in our world, our personal world, had to change. Over the last five years, here’s a few things we’ve done.

The Heirloom Principle

Consumption is the centerpiece of how we think things through. We both come from families that love to collect things, so it’s a constant challenge. Estate sales signs in older neighborhoods are our addiction. What we had to agree on was a simple set of rules.

We decided on “immediate utility.” Just what it sounds like. If we bought something, it had to be hung, worn, toted, or played with in an increasingly short time frame. Use it or lose it. Or in our case, take it back to Goodwill.

Vintage Airstream trailer // Austin,TX

I was reminded of the term itself from the founder of Opportunity Green, Karen Solomon. “Buy stuff that’ll last,” she told me after a meeting in Austin.


Audit The Resources You’re Using

Start with assessing your usage. How much water and electricity do you use every month? And fortunately, it’s become much easier to see that information. Utilities, water districts, and municipalities are awash in data. The challenge is getting you and me to act on it. Beyond common sense and choosing fundamental options — Energy Star ratings or tips from your local utility — it’s part education and part discipline.

Living through a drought in Central Texas and summers in Dallas taught us early on that we might not want to be dependent on a lot of watering. Soon after, my wife blew past “quick study” status on native landscaping and voila!, our water consumption plummeted. It wasn’t all because of our lawns, but it was a big piece. That decrease in usage was one of those light-bulb moments. If this provided such an impact, what else could we do?

And don’t let anyone tell you that competition doesn’t have anything to do with it. Competition is word-of-mouth’s favorite cousin. We saw that the first time we went over to a friend’s house and mentioned our water bill (below). I’m not sure they believed us, but the next time we saw them, they mentioned they had no idea they were using so much water.

Last summer’s water bill in Austin,TX

One other example that opens peoples’ eyes has to do with electricity. My wife took a weekend class a few years back that was focused on solar, mostly residential. A subset of the curriculum addressed “vampire power,” or the standby mode of particular devices. I haven’t compiled hard data from month-to-month, but we saw a pretty substantial spike after we starting using more power strips and aggressively turning everything off. Yes, that means unplugging the microwave, too. I told you we were extreme.

After a few months, it became habitual, and more so as we continued to see what was attainable. Dovetailing off that, we looked at all of our appliances. After seeing how much power a refrigerator eats up, we attacked that first. The key was to take a long-term view, especially since a few of our adjustments would require replacement costs. Wefound a fridge that was super-efficient, without an ice-maker, and with the capability to turn off the freezer as needed. The point isn’t to tell you to go out and buy new appliances. What’s important is putting your usage under a microscope.

Sun Oven cooking beans in August. [Austin,TX]

How often did we really make those ice-tray popsicles ? Not very often. Why not head down to the local shop and support them instead? That’s what we did. We also got rid of our dryer and used the undervalued, often maligned, clothesline. Besides huge energy savings, there’s a certain vintage, if not ritualistic quality hanging out clothes provides. No room for a clothesline you say? Target has small drying stands for less than $15. Get a few.

Keeping the outdoor theme intact, we also bought a Sun Oven. That was an easy transition, considering we had recently yanked out our old range, which of course, had an oven. That left us with no oven inside, as we opted for an induction cook-top. Soon we had become “trial-and error” Sun Oven cookers. And it wasn’t that hard. We quickly learned which veggies and grains were best, and soon were wedging all sorts of other things inside the hard foiled edges of our new friend.

There was certain type of win we felt everyone time we got back to the house and pulled something out of the yard that was ready-to-eat, and didn’t require the grid. Now granted,our Austin house is about 1100 sq. ft, but in cooler months, all the things I mentioned helped us consistently hover around $20 for a full month’s power.

Lifestyle Choices Lead To Lowing Hanging Fruit

There’s also some less tangible, lifestyle choices we’ve made. The biggest ones have been buying local and moving to the second-hand market. It’s amazing, and a bit horrifying, when you try to find stuff made in the States, much less regionally. Buying second-hand became not only a quest for quality, but an economic vote for companies that had some backyard skin in the game. And if you have kids, well, that’s the multiplier.

It was absurd to buy new swim shirts for any kid under the height markings on our giraffe’s shoulder. They outgrow those things too fast. Besides, our local Goodwill creates jobs in the community — a win for everyone. It was also interesting to see how our thrifting tendencies drove our mindset in other areas.

By paying attention to what lasted,we developed an innate sense of categorization. We’ve become adept at classifying things that should always be found in “gently used” environments. No to mention, we got smarter, we saved money, and we gave back. Those are things everybody can relate to. So create your own playbook. And grow from it.

We posted this first on Medium.

Fighting Food Waste In Austin

2013-01-23 14.42.23

The last few months have been a whirlwind for food waste efforts in Austin. Our working group wrapped up our first event on January 23rd, which was the kick-off and stakeholder meeting for the Year of Food Waste Prevention in Austin. More than 60 people attended, and included city officials, department heads, industry leaders and community advocates. The goal of the meeting was to launch and formalize the city-wide initiative around food waste in Austin.

Local green advocate Brandi Clark Burton led the meeting, and presented much of the research we’ve compiled from a local and national perspective. The first half of the meeting included the speakers below, who pledged their support for the initiative:

Brandi Clark Burton, Founder & Chief Inspiration Officer Austin EcoNetwork and EcoCampaigns
Laura Morrison, Austin City Council member
Lucia Athens, City of Austin Chief Sustainability Officer
Bob Gedert, Director of Austin Resource Recovery
Dr. Philip Huang, Medical Director/Health Authority
Vince Delisi, Assistant Division Manager, HHSD
Skeeter Miller, Austin Restaurant Association President, County Line & Cannoli Joe’s Owner & President

Following the presentation, we broke into working groups by industry cluster to address some of the challenges each segment might encounter as food is diverted from landfills. The working groups also identified where innovation might provide a boost — and perhaps most important  —  what the vision needs to be as things progress.

Response to the event was very positive. Here’s how people responded to the evaluation:

“I found the content important” 4.88(with 5 being the highest)
“I found the content relevant to me”  4.75
“Collaboration was evident”4.34
“This event will positively impact Austin”   4.46
“The city of Austin can accomplish a radical reduction of food waste” 4.63

We’re very excited about the momentum, but realize this is an ongoing fight. We’ve scheduled our next meeting for March 20h, so let us know if you’d like to help.

App Maker JouleBug Combines Data And Gaming To Drive Sustainability Actions

Buzzing around the SXSWECO conference, you’ll hear all sorts of personal stories about how people are lessening their impact on the planet. Whether or not it signals a larger shift in behavior is still debatable. Generally, it takes an incremental approach, one that can undoubtedly be augmented by technology.

One company, Raleigh-based app maker JouleBug, is betting it can move the needle with  a data-driven approach to gaming.

“We’re really an award program for sustainability actions,” said Founder Grant Williard. “It’s educational, but it also touches on our competitive spirit.”

JouleBug takes a mobile-first strategy, as its gaming mechanics are geared around simple tasks that you track and submit as they’re completed.  As expected, the app has a strong social media element too, allowing you to invite people through Twitter or Facebook as well as the ability to share what you’ve completed.

While data is the juice that keep things flowing, JouleBug’s strongest piece is the integration it provides with your utility or gas company. If you’re provider is set up, you can easily suck in your utility bill and get a snapshot of your usage. Williard says they’ll soon be able to give you an archive as far back as a year, and include gas and water bills.  The visualizations that accompany your data is one of the things that Williard says sets them apart. But it’s not just pretty graphs, you’ll see the badges you’ve earned along with  recommendations based on past usage.

But even with all that, getting people to use something daily is tall order. Look at Foursquare, they’re years into the model and it’s still unclear whether gaming can carry it. But seeing Foursquare cut a deal with OpenTable gives you a sense of how they and JouleBug might evolve. Both companies have aspirations beyond the consumer, and it starts with integrations and alliances.

 “We’re focusing our business development efforts first and foremost where the value is the highest and where the biggest energy and cost savings can take place,” explained Williard.

And they’ve made some progress, recently announcing a deal with the City of Raleigh. That partnership allowed Raleigh to tailor the platform to include everything from credits for taking green-oriented city tours to waste diversion and composting. The city says it’s been a real catalyst for raising awareness around sustainability, and even used the momentum to implement a Green Restaurant certification program.

The Raleigh partnership gives JouleBug some momentum as its newest offering, JouleBug Communities, becomes widely available by the end of the year. That package will target municipalities, companies and universities and will help entire cities track and understand the effectiveness of their sustainability strategies. I asked Williard about implementation and pressed him again on adoption, this time in the context of the other Raleighs of the world. He said other municipalities are bringing their leadership onboard first. As citizens and peers see usage from core users, the competition heats up.

The other area where JouleBug shines is around its technology stack and capabilities.  For one, Williard brings some enterprise solidity to the company, having sold his previous endeavor to Adobe.  That know-how will also play an important role when pulling together the type of integrations currently in the queue.

Beyond straight-forward application programming interfaces (APIs), there’s also the Energy Department’s Green Button standard. The goal of that program is to standardize the way energy data is represented and delivered. And with some of the largest U.S. utilities already participating, it’s that type of reach that’s in front of JouleBug. Williard estimates the coverage map is close to 25 million people.

Numbers aside, there’s plenty of room for a few players in this space. The data and gaming combination isn’t going away, it’s more about who can innovate on top of those disciplines. And at some point,  there will be plenty of companies ready to buy a head start over the competition. JouleBug appears to be in an interesting position.

You can meet the JouleBug team in booth #8 at this year’s SXSW Eco (www.sxsweco.com) conference and tradeshow taking place in Austin, Texas October 3-5, 2012.