A Cleantech World for Poor is Possible (and Profitable)

The distributed and micro nature of cleantech means that it has an important role to play in helping the world’s poor, especially in the areas of energy and water. In fact, cleantech in the developing world is increasingly seen as aneconomic opportunity for local communities (for example, solar water heaters in China). Perhaps just as important, the introduction of clean energy into the developing world, if successful, could have a hugely ameliorating effect on global climate change as those economies expand, people are pulled out of poverty and consumption increases. Solutions for the poor are often lower tech, but higher inspiration. Take the group of six African students who came up with a method of using the sun’s energy to take humidity from the air and turn it into potable water. Or the compost toilet that came out of the Interprofessional Projects Program (IPRO) series appropriately called Developing Extremely Affordable Products for the Rural Poor of the World. More recently, the Sahara Forest Project was announced, with the goal of using concentrated solar power and seawater greenhouses to produce clean energy and water in Africa on a much greater scale. Other great examples that are also equally inspiring have been built around small scale wind, solar cooking, micro hydro, PV-powered water distillation and pumping, biogas, rainwater harvesting, etc  My closest association with the growing momentum in this area is my work with clean-emission cookstove company Envirofit, which is trying to end indoor air pollution, a silent and largely unknown killer in the developing world that results from the burning of dirty cooking and heating fuel in cramped quarters. Envirofit, although a non-profit, is taking a business approach to the problem. Traditionally, the failed top-down philanthropic model was built on spending money to buy clean-burning stoves, giving them away and hoping they didn’t break. Instead, Envirofit is letting the market lead from the ground up – its building a sales, distribution, financing and service infrastructure around the stoves so that locals, starting in India, can actually own the process, as opposed to simply being recipients of charity. This market approach is gaining ground across the donor and NGO world, and initial results from the Envirofit approach in India are very promising.Dr. E.F. Schumacher was one of the earliest proponents of what he called “intermediate technology“, a belief that there are cheaper, more appropriate ways of addressing problems in the developing world other than the capital- and resource-intensive ways of the West. Although motivated by different reasons, more and more for-profit companies are working to improve the development of clean water and energy technology in poor countries. Some companies, like Coke and others in the food and beverage industry, are simply involved because they have no choice (they only remain in business if there is clean water). At the international level, the World Bank, after signing on to support the Clean Energy for Development Investment Framework, announced it would raise a $5 billion cleantech fund for the developing world earlier this year, and Japan has also committed to $10 billion for its Cool Earth Partnership. Some influential private funding organizations are working increasingly in this area as well, including the Acumen FundBill & Melinda Gates FoundationLight up the World Foundation and Shell Foundation. If you are looking to make an individual contribution, consider INVESTGreen MicrofinancePractical ActionGlobal Green and Global Giving.

Ultimately its going to have to be a combination of private sector innovation and capital, and public sector support to bring the might of cleantech to the poor in places that lack basic infrastructure and are often remotely situated. Of course, poverty is not the exclusive domain of the developing world. Action is also being taken in the United States and other richer countries to bring clean energy to the poor.

Here’s a list of 12 technologies and initiatives with potential to help solve the clean energy and water conundrum for the world’s poor. Additional programs focused on the use of solar to alleviate poverty and health issues can be found here and here.

LifeStraw - Lighting Africa - Watel - Envirofit - Sahara Forest Project - Warm Winter Challenge -  World Clean Energy Awards - Global Network on Energy for Sustainable Development - Grameen Shakti - Architecture for Humanity -SELCO - REN21

This post is my contribution to Blog Action Day.

60,000 Green Jobs Projected for NW

newly released report says Washington and Oregon states can assume leadership in five cleantech sectors with the potential to generate up to 63,000 direct jobs by 2025 (up from 11,000 today), and outlines what it says is a plan to be the first US region to achieve 75% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2025. By the report’s own admission, there is nothing particularly new about the five presumptive areas of strength (PV manufacturing, wind power development, green building design, smart grid and bioenergy), and the 75% figure is somewhat misleading, given that the two states already get 62% of their electricity from clean hydro and renewable sources (The hydro, of course, has nothing to do with anything we’ve done, but merely the luck of living in a place with lots of mountains and rivers). That said, the report is a very helpful first step for a region that has struggled mightily to get its act together and to find a clear identity and focus amid the clean technology boom in the Bay Area and Boston. It points to a number of signals that point to the potential for future leadership – home to big PV plants from REC and Solar World, home to big wind developments, etc. The report, produced by Climate Solutions and CleanEdge, also proposes a top-level series of 10 actions for the Northwest to achieve its role as a cleantech leader. The top 10 list: 1. put a price on carbon, 2. increase Washington RPS to 25 percent by 2025, 3. implement low carbon fuel standards, 4. pass aggressive green building codes, 5. foster regional cooperation, 6. ensure public funding for clean technology via PERS investments and through targeted clean-tech funds, 7. implement effective tax credits for renewables development, 8. deploy cleantech workforce development programs, 9. establish government procurement policies for cleantech products and services and 10. build out regional smart grids and 21st century transmission backbone.

Oh, is that all? Not to mention that how we achieve all of that in 17 years is still unclear. But it is clear from the report that the proof of Northwest leadership is building in drips rather than torrents. It points out several major weaknesses, including some that make the top 10 actions look easy:

  • Absence of a leading university technology incubator like MIT or Stanford
  • Technology investment climate that pales in comparison to Silicon Valley and Boston
  • Small size of public clean-energy support funds compared to other state leaders
  • Aging electric utility grid system challenged to carry increasing distributed and variable energy sources such as wind, wave and solar
  • Small regional market served by cheap hydro, compared to densely populated markets with high-power prices in other cleantech centers

Another issue that is particularly troubling to me: the lack of synergy between Oregon and Washington. They are working very much in silos, despite the best efforts of Climate Solutions. The one bright spot is the Western Climate Initiative, so that’s hopefully something to build on. And the absence so far of any attempt by Oregon and

Washington’s Fortune 500 companies to be advocates for the region and to work together to bring their influence to bare.

Nevertheless, the report is rather optimistic in its job creation forecasts, with an acclerated forecast of 63,000. The less aggressive target is 40,000. Nearly two thirds of the growth is expected to come from the PV and bioenergy sectors.

Disclosure: I was one of the 50+ people interviewed for the report and I’m a member of the Climate Solutions Business Leaders for Climate Action group. I’ve written about many of these obstacles and opportunities here in the past.