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Forward Osmosis – Solving Tomorrow’s Water Challenges Using Nature’s Remedy

Nature has an ingenious way of extracting water, but does it have the potential to solve many of today’s global water challenges? Before going into more details on how nature’s way of extracting water can help cut energy usage in water treatment processes, an appreciation is needed of why energy reduction in water treatment is an essential prerequisite for continued global development.

Since water is used in all energy production processes and energy is used to generate fresh, potable water from impaired sources, water and energy are two sides of the same coin. Factor in that global fresh water resources are rapidly declining and energy prices are one the rise due to over-utilization of fossil fuels, you quickly realize that energy reduction in water treatment processes will make a tremendous positive impact on the challenges faced in this water-energy nexus.

Moving back to nature’s way of extracting water, you may have wondered how trees are able to extract water from the soil in which they grow to the leaves in the treetops? Or how mangroves are able to extract fresh water from the seawater surrounding their roots? Given the obvious lack of electrically powered high pressure pumps, nature has come up with it’s own way of generating the pressure needed to transport water in trees and to extract fresh water from seawater in mangroves. It turns out that nature extracts water by utilizing the principle of forward osmosis in which water diffuses spontaneously (and without the input of energy) across a semi-permeable membrane from a low concentration solution on one side of the membrane to a high concentration solution on the other side of the membrane. The driving force for forward osmosis processes being the difference in osmotic pressure between the aqueous streams on either side of the forward osmosis membrane.

Coming back to the trees and mangroves mentioned earlier, the intracellular solution of root cells contains high concentrations of sugars and other dissolved molecules, which in turn generate a large enough osmotic pressure to extract water from soil and seawater respectively and transport this water throughout the stems and leaves of these amazing biological systems.

Now, how can water transport in trees help solve the looming water challenges facing our world today? Well, fortunately scientists have been able to develop artificial forward osmosis membranes and systems for industrial water treatment applications. And since forward osmosis systems do not require electrical energy inputs other than the energy needed to pump solutions across its membranes, it is potentially possible to reduce the overall energy consumption of water extraction by 90% compared to traditional pressure driven technologies such as reverse osmosis and nano-filtration.

Wide-spread adoption of forward osmosis systems in industry is still limited due to lack of high-performing, large-scale system capacity as well as industry preference towards proven technologies with long-term operational track records.

A number of startups and tech companies are working in the area.

 

Oasys Water 

Porifera

HTI Water

As well as ongoing research projects at a number of universities and labs around the world are working hard to commercialize forward osmosis technologies, so don’t be surprised if you – in the near future – start running into examples of forward osmosis being used to treat water in industries or even households.

Water: The Big Issue for Fracking

On February 13, the Cleveland office of the law firm McDonald Hopkins hosted a panel to discuss the pivotal water issues facing producers of oil/gas from shale via fracking.  In addition to three MH attorneys, the panel also included Jeff Dick (Director of the Natural Gas and Water Resource Institute at Youngstown State University), Samuel Johnson (Director of Water Asset Development for CONSOL Energy (NYSE: CNX)), John Lucey (EVP of Business Development and Engineering for Heckmann Corporation (NYSE: HEK)) and Sudarshan Sathe (President of Water and Wastewater Equipment Co.)

I took away three main observations from the panel discussion.

First, it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between produced water and flowback water.  Flowback water includes all of the fluids used in the fracking process to initially stimulate oil/gas production.  Produced water is defined as the flows associated with ongoing oil/gas production long after the fracking is complete,  as has long been the case with all conventional oil/gas wells that never required fracking, since all oil/gas production usually contains a sizable fraction of water.  The water treatment issues for flowback waters and produced waters are thus different.  In particular, flowback waters are contaminated by the proprietary ingredients that fracking operators want to protect for competitive advantage, whereas produced waters contain loadings of the minerals that leach out from the particular oil/gas bearing shale strata being tapped.

Second, as significant as the challenges are for treating the water resulting from fracking operations, sourcing the quantity of water from fracking operations may be even more challenging.  Simply, fracking operations require enormous quantities of water.  While the voluminous Great Lakes would seem a natural supply basin, the Great Lakes Basin Compact signed a few years ago by the jurisdictions within the Great Lakes Basin precludes transporting Great Lakes water outside the basin — and while the Marcellus and Utica shale plays are not far at all from Lake Erie as the crow flies, it nevertheless so happens that they generally lay outside that basin.  Thus, fracking operators in the Marcellus and the Utica have to get their water from somewhere else.

Lastly, for a company that is historically rooted in the coal industry, CONSOL comes across as highly progressive.  Among other eyebrow-arching comments, Mr. Johnson argued that environmental regulations associated with fracking operations needed to be tighter than they currently were simply to drive further technological advancement — existing practices just weren’t good enough.  I leaned over to a colleague and said that either (1) Mr. Johnson is out of step with his management, (2) CONSOL was outstanding at “greenwashing” with convincing public relations messaging, or (3) the company is genuinely trying to differentiate itself from many of its peers.

The panel was timely:  just a week prior, in an appallingly flagrant disregard of environmental law, a renegade operator in Youngstown called Hard Rock Excavating was caught by regulators dumping untold tens of thousands of gallons of untreated wastewater into the Mahoning River (which drains into the Ohio River).  The principal of the operation, a Mr. Ben Lupo, is subject to up to three years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines if convicted of violating the Clean Water Act.

(Oh, by the way, even though he was only just recently caught red-handed, this event doesn’t appear to have been the first for Mr. Lupo, who seems to have a long history of illegal water dumping, according to this article by the Vindicator.  Not to mention, Mr. Lupo also owns and operates another company, D&L Energy, which was responsible for the injection wells thought to have triggered the seismic activity in Youngstown in late 2011.  It’s almost as if Mr. Lupo is waging a one-man public relations demolition derby for the industry.)

My guess is that everyone on the panel, and presumably in the audience, would be in favor of strict punishment for Mr. Lupo, assuming that his guilt is confirmed.  Not only are the environmentalists up in arms, the panelists and others who seek to pursue fracking in the Marcellus and Utica shale know that they can’t afford many bad black-eyes like the one(s) wrought by Mr. Lupo’s apparent disregard for good practices.

Water’s just too important for the fracking business not to handle wisely.

U.S. Water Infrastructure: FAIL (Almost)

The Water Innovations Alliance (WIA) recently completed an assessment of the state of the U.S. water infrastructure, which was given an overall grade of D- by the American Society of Civil Engineers in its most recent infrastructure report card

Underlying that nearly failing grade, the WIA produced some startling statistics in a recent newsletter (not yet posted to their website):

  • More than 20% of water treatment systems in the U.S. — serving 49 million people — have violated provisions of the  Safe Drinking Water Act at some point in the past 5 years.
  • About 15% of municipal water is lost to leaks, representing 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water PER DAY. 
  • The U.S. water system represents more than 4% of total U.S. electricity usage.
  • Up to 20 years of significant investment are required to stabilize and modernize the U.S. water infrastructure, with around $300 billion capital required.

From this background, the WIA urges for the adoption of “smart water grid” technologies — much of which data-driven and IT-related — to upgrade the U.S. water system.  The WIA projects that a $20 billion investment in smart water grid technologies can generate $100 billion in annual savings through reduced losses and energy consumption — in addition to improving environmental performance (less chemical treatment required, fewer regulatory violations, better human health).

The question that WIA leaves unaddressed is how to motivate these smart water grid investments — especially when they appear to have such good financial returns. 

Alas, unlike some other countries, most of the U.S. water system is publicly-owned by government agencies:  Federal, state and municipal.  As everyone knows, governments are not exactly flush with spare cash, and even though the returns seem attractive, the up-front capital increment of $20 billion is daunting — and not likely to be supported by frustrated taxpayers and voters, who don’t want to spend an extra dime.

Even if this financing hurdle could somehow be overcome, there is still the problem that most publicly-owned water organizations are — how should I put this? — saddled with people and processes that make them lethargic, resistant to change, and risk-averse. 

Note that there are 53,000 water systems in the U.S., with 83% of them serving fewer than 3,300 people.  These are typically small-town, mom-and-pop operations, staffed with — well — not the best-and-brightest.  Many of the cost savings that can be achieved with investment in the water sector would reduce the need for someone to get in his truck and drive down to fix something, and in this economy, decision-makers in the public sector are not terribly keen to eliminate jobs.  In other words, smart technologies can and often do replace not-so-smart people — many of whom are friends, neighbors and relatives.

The WIA’s report is provocative, and hopefully will stimulate more effort to surmount the financing and institutional impediments to investing in a smart water grid.  Even so, it won’t be easy getting the U.S. water infrastructure to improve upon its nearly-failing grade.

Cleantech Forum Snaps – Affirmative Action, Star Trek, and Starvation

Three comments I really liked from the premier conference on cleantech:

Art Rosenfeld, California Energy Commission – It’s all about cool white roofs to combat climate change.  Art is one of the deans of energy efficiency in California.  It’s been long known that white roofs can cool a building and help reduce the heat island effect in cities (cities are always hotter than the country, basically because they make more heat, and shifting from trees to concrete, asphalt and asphalt shingled roofs both reduces the cooling affects of aspiration and absorbs a larger portion of heat into the phyiscal environment).

So Art is now effectively calling for step by step, low cost and simple geoengineering through policy to combat both energy efficiency demons and climate change.  E.g, not only do cool white roofs reduce heat in the city, they reduce the cooling bill in the building, and reduce GHGs from energy use.  He posits that a shift from black roofs to white roofs and/or shifting roof design to flatter roofs that are more effective in white roofs would save literally billions upon billions of tons of CO2e over time, with no measurable cost difference.

So, call it the affirmative action program for cleantech, but color matters.

Sheeraz Haji, CEO Cleantech Group – It’s all about Data.  The idea is pretty simple – everything in cleantech from here on out – e.g. smart grid, energy efficiency, solar performance, water use, EVs, etc all depends on more, cheaper, faster, more granular, timely and better data and the analysis it can drive.  Sheeraz’s question to define future opportunities in cleantech is, “so what does data need?”

John Denniston, Kleiner Perkins – It’s all about food.  Think food security, food v fuel, water use, fertilizer source and ag run-off, crop yields, etc.  I love this topic.  For those of you who haven’t heard of him, go google Norman Borlaug, the recently passed away sage who made possible our ability to not starve and threw Malthus for a loop for the last few decades with dramatic crop yield improvements from his selective plant breeding and fertilizer intensive ag.  The favorite argument of the day, which John mentioned, is the “in the next x decades of years we’ll need more food than in the last x – thousands of years”.  Right or wrong, the scale is sure changing. 

So, whether your answer to John’s all about food is less people, more GMO, more technology, more water efficiency, or shifting diets, we’re going to need another Norman Borlaug or life is gonna suck.

Israel Awakening to Cleantech

by Richard T. Stuebi

In early November, I  participated in a week-long delegation concerning energy in Israel, at the invitation of Project Interchange, an educational program of the American Jewish Committee

In addition to learning a tremendous amount about Israel’s history, culture and political situation, my fellow travelers and I were fortunate to talk with many leaders active in various aspects of Israel’s cleantech sector.  From a cleantech standpoint, the key takeaways I gained from our tour were:

Even with a population of only 7 million people, Israel can nevertheless be an important force in cleantech, given that Jews have consistently played a disproportionately influential role in scientific and social advancement of the human race throughout history.

Getting Lucky With Water Technologies

by Richard T. Stuebi

For cleantech investors in the water space, one of the most attractive aspects of the water technology sector is that there’s a well-established set of well-heeled companies with strong interests in building their water businesses via acquisitions.  This list includes most prominently General Electric (NYSE: GE), Siemens (NYSE: SI), and Veolia (NYSE: VE):  multi-billion dollar global corporations who are accustomed to buying smaller companies to achieve growth targets.

This list has recently grown:  the Korean conglomerate LG (KSE: 066570.KS), formerly known as Lucky Goldstar, recently announced their intentions to make a major move into water treatment technologies.  Their aspirations are very ambitious:  $400 million allocated for investments to reach a $7 billion revenue target by 2020.

The addition of LG further improves exit dynamics for water tech ventures.  It will be interesting to track M&A activity in the water arena in the coming years.

Mercury Rising

by Richard T. Stuebi

Unlike some other environmental issues, there is virtually no controversy or skepticism about the perils of mercury in the environment. Not only has mercury been known for centuries to be highly poisonous, it’s also increasingly linked to other physiological ills, including some speculation in recent years that mercury is related to certain neurological disorders.

Despite the breadth of constituencies concerned about mercury pollution, it’s evident that we have a long way to go. A report just issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that mercury concentrations exceeded safe levels at 49% of U.S. lakes and reservoirs sampled during 2000-2003.

Where does all this mercury in our water come from? Sources can be classified into two groups. One is legacy industrial facilities from days of yore, in which mercury was either used in or generated as a by-product of the core production process. Although many of these facilities are now shut down, the mercury often lingers at these sites, even after remediation approaches and efforts have been pursued. Over time, the mercury finds its way into aquifers underground or nearby rivers and streams.

The other group of sources is related to coal use. Mercury is a trace element in most hydrocarbons, but especially in coal. Thus, where it is mined or stored in a pile, rainfall leaches mercury from the coal on the ground. And, when it is burned – mainly, at powerplants – mercury emissions come out the smokestack into the air, only to fall somewhere else downwind in a future rainstorm. Inevitably, the mercury ends up in the water – somewhere, someway, somehow.

Related to coal burning, the EPA is cracking down, via its upcoming Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR), which aims to drive a 70% reduction in mercury air emissions from large point sources. Several mercury emission control technologies are under development, including those by companies such as Albemarle and Amended Silicates.

But, there’s a problem: much of the rest of the world won’t be subject to strict mercury emissions limits, so U.S. water supplies will still be fed new sources of mercury from elsewhere (such as China, which is adding new coal powerplants weekly absent any mercury control technologies), since mercury emissions can stay airborne for a long time. In any event, we’re still exposed to mercury run-off from coal mines and coal piles – plus all of those legacy industrial sites.

Historically, the main approach for dealing with mercury in water streams has not actually involved taking mercury out of the water, but rather introducing large volumes of clean water to reduce overall concentration levels. To employ an old adage from the water industry: “the solution to pollution is dilution”.

In mathematical terms, instead of reducing the numerator, dilution involves massively increasing the denominator. But that approach can only go so far. For example, current EPA limits stipulate that all natural or manmade water streams feeding into the Great Lakes can have mercury concentration levels no higher than 1.3 parts per trillion (ppt). Given some of the nasty sources in the old industrial heartland, enormous volumes of clean water would need to be introduced to reduce concentrations of some of the polluted sources to permitted levels. So, let’s just say that something less than 100% of the water streams flowing into the Great Lakes are in mercury compliance.

Why not just extract the mercury from water? Until recently, only activated carbon has been known to be effective as an agent for removing mercury – but it leeches too, so once the carbon has adsorbed the mercury, it must be dealt with as a hazardous waste, implying expensive disposal procedures. And, carbon quickly saturates with mercury, so lots of carbon is required. All told, a very expensive process.

Because mercury remediation in water has generally been unsatisfactory from an economic (and sometimes also from an environmental) perspective, regulators have often been rather lenient in addressing water streams where mercury levels are above desirable (or even required) levels. Regulators rarely seek to be “bad guys”, so they tend to refrain from forcing corporations to undertake compliance actions that risk putting industrial facilities out of business, thereby eliminating major employers and tax bases – often in poor rural areas. Instead, variances and waivers are often issued, allowing non-compliance to continue.

A good solution for cost-effective removal of mercury from water may now finally be at hand. A Cleveland-area company named MAR Systems has developed a proprietary material of abundant and low-cost supply to use in lieu of activated carbon that almost instantaneously achieves very high (95+%) mercury capture and binds the mercury so that it can be disposed as ordinary waste. The fundamental intellectual property of MAR Systems is based on research undertaken by the EPA itself.

(Full disclosure: Early Stage Partners, the venture capital firm that I work with, was sufficiently impressed with the MAR Systems technology that it recently made an equity investment in the company, and I represent ESP on the Board of MAR Systems.)

Perhaps now the rising concern about mercury can be matched by a corresponding increase of remedial action, driving towards full compliance with the rules and regulations that are already on the books.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

Reinventing Desalination

by Richard T. Stuebi

Many informed observers consider the inadequacy of clean drinking water to be one of the world’s most serious problems. By some estimates, 20% of the human population lacks access to good water supplies.

That’s not to say that these people live nowhere near water: indeed, most of humankind lives fairly close to an ocean. However, seawater is saline, and desalination is required to render it usable as drinking water.

Desalination is no theoretical pipe-dream: two desalination approaches have long existed to remove salt from water, distillation and reverse-osmosis. Regrettably, both are rather energy-intensive. No problem for the wealthy, but the world’s ultra-poor populations typically cannot afford either the construction or the operation of such desalination technology. And, so they go without good drinking water.

As reported in an article entitled “Current Thinking” in the October 31 issue of The Economist, a pair of entrepreneur/inventors (Ben Sparrow and Joshua Zoshi) from Vancouver BC has launched a company called Saltworks Technologies that to commercialize a completely novel “thermo-ionic” approach for desalination, based on evaporation and ionic conduction, powered mainly by sunlight.

There are three beauties of this new approach concocted by Saltworks:

1. It is based primarily on solar thermal energy sources – and sunlight is often plentiful in some of the world’s poorest and most remote corners.
2. It theoretically requires only about 30% of the electricity requirement of the most efficient reverse-osmosis approaches now available for desalination.
3. It should be upward- and downward-scalable, making it a plausible solution for megacities and tiny villages alike.

All three of these factors imply that the Saltworks technology could dramatically reduce the cost of desalination and bring it into economic reach for the untold billions of the world’s thirsty poor.

This is yet another shining example of how high-tech innovators are solving the world’s biggest problems. The future health of our planet and success of our species demands more people like Mssrs. Sparrow and Zoshi. And, political, corporate, financial, academic and civic leaders around the globe would be well-advised to keep improving the environments within which those like Sparrow and Zoshi come up with and pursue unconventional and sometimes brilliant ideas.


Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of the advanced energy initiative at
NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

A Perfect Storm for Water

‘Growing world population will cause a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030′. That is what a UK Government chief scientist told attendees at the Sustainable Development conference in London yesterday. Prof. Beddington told the group that demand for food and energy will jump 50% by 2030 and for fresh water by 30%, as the population tops 8.3 billion.

Despite this, investment in water deals represented just 1.8% of the total investment in the Clean Technology area in 2008. There are number of reasons for this and also signs that this is changing.

The Venture Capital Community has been slow to invest in the water sector. Last year out of a total investment of $8.4 billion into clean technology ventures, just $148million (1.8%) is reported by the Cleantech Group by having been made into water. Why?

Some companies are not convinced that there is enough activity in the sector. Others feel it is a conservative market. However DFJ just made their first investment in water by investing $10M into Oasys Water, a US company with a forward osmosis technology.

The Artemis Project is running a ‘Water Top 50’ to identify companies with game changing strategies in the water sector and to demonstrate to the VC community that there are quality opportunities in this space. Global Water Intelligence has number of potentially disruptive technologies as entrants in their ‘Water Idol’ competition and overall several Water Indices, while showing losses, are still outperforming major stock indices.

One of the problems with water is that we only use it once. Of the wastewater which is collected globally, 38% is actually treated and only 5% of that is actually re-used. Michael Braungart, the author of ‘Cradle to Cradle – remaking the way we make things’, is addressing this issue at the Water Meets Money Conference in Zurich with a talk entitled ‘The End of Wastewater’.

So yes, it may be a perfect storm in terms of water shortages, but it may also be a perfect storm which will see innovation, the end of wastewater and new ways of using and managing this resource.

This post is submitted by Paul O’Callaghan founding CEO of O2 Environmental .

Energy Versus Water

There is a growing awareness that there are two convergent crises facing the world: Energy and Water. Scientific Amercican just launced a dedicated environmental publication this month, Earth 3.0 and the cover story? … ‘Energy Vs Water’.

The article explores the dichotomy between the fact that we need energy to produce water and we need water to produce energy. Both resources are running out. As we are reaching Peak Oil, we also appear to approaching Peak Water. This creates a very interesting dilemma and one which will require no small amount of innovation to solve.
Biofuels, cited as one option to wean us away from petroleum, can consume 20 or more times as much water for every mile traveled than the production of gasoline. Not all biofuels are created equal however, some are worse offenders than others, and the US National Research Council addresses this very well in ‘Water Implications of Biofuels Productions in the United States’.
Electric hybrids are another solution to get away from imported gasoline. But if we switch to electric cars, we will need more electricity and at the moment 90 percent of electricity in the US is generated at thermal power plants, – those that consume coal, oil, natural gas or uranium, and these plants are water hogs. They use vast quantities of water for cooling. The US Army Corp of engineers is currently trying to find a middle ground in an interesting water drama unfolding between the states of Florida, Alabama and Georgia. Part of the problem is that both Georgia and Alabama have come dangerously close recently to having to shut down their nuclear power plants due to lack of water.
The Energy Vs Water article goes on to say that ‘any switch from gasoline to electric vehicles or biofuels is a strategic decision to switch our dependence from foreign oil to domestic water’.
The Concept of Virtual Water
To help assess issues relating to water use and water balance, Professor John Anthony Allan from Kings College London, developed the concept of ‘Virtual Water’. He was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize this year for his work in this area. The idea is that you can calculate how much water there is in, say an apple, not just physically in the apple, but on a life cycle basis, how much water went into growing it, transporting it etc, By doing this with various food items or other commodities, a country could take a view to import ‘water heavy’ items, as a kind of a virtual way of importing water. For instance behind that morning cup of coffee, are 140 litres of water used to grow, produce, package and ship the beans. The ubiquitous hamburger needs an estimated 2,400 litres of water. Put simply, it may be more cost effective to import oranges from a region that has plenty of water than to try and de-salinate water at home to irrigate an orchard. Now that doesn’t always work though, you can’t grow things like oranges in wet damp countries like England.
And herein lies one of the fundamental problems. There is a reason why it is easier to grow 50% of the nations fruit and vegetables in California – it’s warm and sunny. And for this same reason, populations have been moving to the sunshine belt. If we could all live in California and import melons and oranges and strawberries from England, wouldn’t that be great? And you can’t cool a nuclear reactor with virtual water – at least not yet!

Californian City Considers Buying back lawns to save water

How ‘green’ is your lawn? The City of Fresno in California think’s not very ‘green’ at all and is proposing to ‘buy back’ lawns from home owners in an effort to stop people pouring the States’ precious water resources all over them. This is part of an Urban Water Management Plan approved by the Fresno City Council last month. The Assistant Director or Public Utilities, Garth Gaddy, said he could see the City paying $9 or $10 a square foot to homeowners who sign contracts saying they won’t reinstall lawns.

Given that Fresno’s peak water usage during the winter, when most residential sprinkler systems are shut off, is approximately one third of what it is in the summer, this makes good economic and environmental sense. In a City with an expanding population based, it’s a cheap of way of not having to find, treat and deliver new water.
Those “cash for grass” type programs are growing in popularity, said Jennifer Persike, public affairs director for the Association of California Water Agencies.

In Minnesota people were also concerned with the environmental footprint of lawns and enacted the Phosphorus Lawn Fertilizer Law to restrict application of phosphorus fertilizers to prevent nutrient enrichment of their lakes and rivers. While they are the only state so far in the US to enact such a law, the Province of Manitoba in Canada has just followed suit and enacted a similar law.

In addition to a plentiful supply of water and fertilizer, any home owner worth his salt knows that it’s only right and proper to give his lawn a good dose of herbicide every now to keep any insolent daisies at bay. This practice too however is coming under pressure, with several municipalities across North America enacting by-laws to ban the use of cosmetic pesticides and herbicides to protect the environment.

The solution to all of this? Jim Hagedorn, the CEO of and Chair of ScottsMiracle-Gro thinks it genetically modified grass. ‘When it comes to grass, people worry about watering, maintenance, and weeds, three headaches that genetic engineering – transgenic turf – could dramatically alleviate. “That’s the big kahuna for consumer lawns,” he says. “Solve those three issues and you’re a friggin’ hero!”
Nearly 50,000 square miles of the continental US is covered by lawn, according to estimates by ecologists at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Using satellite and aerial imagery, the team calculated that irrigated grass covers three times more land in the US than irrigated corn does. That makes turf the nation’s most widespread irrigated crop.
Lawn care and gardening is also the most popular outdoor leisure activity in the country, and the global industry supporting it generates an estimated $7 billion a year. ScottsMiracle-Gro accounts for more than a third of that – $2.4 billion in 2005.

It’s safe to say that no other nation commits even a fraction of the land, resources, chemicals, and water that the US does in pursuit of the perfect greensward.
So how did such a wholly unsustainable practice become so deep rooted in the fabric of suburbia? In American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, historian Ted Steinberg traces it to three factors: 1. Indoor plumbing, 2. Suburbia, and 3. Clever marketing on the part of the lawn care industry.

The lawn care industry saw tens of thousands of men returning from the war to a society where leisure time was increasing. These men, disciplined by military service, were looking for something to do in their spare time, so the lawn care industry gave it to them. Through their marketing efforts, they convinced people that clover and various other weeds were ‘enemies’ to be ‘eradicated’. Prior to the late 1950s, most lawns were a mix of Kentucky Bluegrass and clover. It was an ideal mix because of clover’s ability to take nitrogen out of the air and self fertilize the lawn. However this cut into sales of nitrogen fertilizers, so the lawn care industry decided the clover had to go. This created a market for both nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides in one fell swoop.

In the article ‘Turf Warrior’ David Wolman reports that all that vegetation does however have some environmental benefit. According to the NASA group, lawns collectively absorb some 12 billion pounds of carbon each year – effectively cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And if that grass weren’t there, much more soil would run off into storm drains, waterways, and rivers, polluting reservoirs and hastening the erosion of hillsides and valuable farmland.

So maybe hold off on concreting that lawn, cut back on the water, hold the fertilizer, embrace those daisies and at the risk of being burned as a heretic, consider some GMO grass???

Paul O’Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. He lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

Counting the Cost of Water

I was contacted last week by a journalist doing a story on ‘the future of water’. When I asked what the publication was, I was told it was for Esquire. Needless to say I was only too glad to help, – it’s not often I have the opportunity to have my name in print alongside the Jolie-Pitts of the world!

Some of the questions I was asked were: ‘Where is our water going to come from?”Is it going to be from desalination?’, ‘How much growth can we expect to see in desalination, and what breakthroughs if any in this area are we on the verge of?’

There was a very good session on water at the Always On Going Green Conference in San Francisco last week chaired by Christopher Gasson of Global Water Intelligence (GWI). I am going to borrow a little bit here from that session and from the GWI report “Desalination Markets 2007: A Global Industry Perspective’.

Desalination is a rapidly growing industry and there is no shortage of the raw material required. The Global Desalination industry is predicted to grow from 39.9 million m3/d at the beginning of 2006 to 64.3 million m3/d in 2010, and to 97.5 million m3/d in 2015. This represents a 61% increase in capacity over a five-year period, and a 140% increase in capacity over a ten-year period.

Beyond 2015, the rate of growth in the industry is expected to accelerate, as large markets such as the US, China and India will by then have established the financial and political models to pursue large-scale desalination projects. The rate at which the installed capacity increases is expected to move into double figures, and the annual increment to capacity is expected to increase by an average of more than 15% between 2015 and 2020.

To understand why desalination is so important, you first have to understand just how little of the world’s water is actually fresh water. If all the water on Earth were compressed to a single gallon, only four ounces would be fresh water. Only two drops would be readily accessible and human beings already use one of those drops. But about 92 percent of that single drop is used by agriculture and industry; just 8 percent goes to cities, towns, and municipalities. So for every gallon of water on the planet, only 8 percent of one drop is available for drinking, bathing, and other personal consumption.

A number of other factors compound this scarcity:
· Political & economic instability
· Uneven freshwater distribution
· Population growth in areas of limited natural resources
China has only 8 percent of the world’s fresh water to meet the needs of 22 percent of the world’s population, while Canada has 30 times more water and only 0.5 percent of the world’s population. While Global warming has no predictable impact on overall scarcity it is believed to increase the risk of both floods and droughts.

The good news is that costs for desalination have been dropping dramatically. Forty years ago the cost was $10 per m3. Now it’s down to $0.50/m3 (GWI). However 50% of the current costs are associated with energy use, and energy costs are only going one way. Given the huge impact that energy has on the cost of desalinating water, it is difficult to see how the industry can continue to deliver further significant reductions in desalination costs.

So what’s the next big thing going to be in desal membranes? Some say nanotechnology. Oak Venture Partners and Khosla Ventures clearly think so as they have just invested $15M into the UCLA spin-out company, NanoH20 to help them commercialize their Thin‐Film Nanocomposite (TFN) membrane system.
What NanoH2O are doing is very clever, they are nano-engineering the characteristics of the membrane so that it ‘wants’ to let water through’ and ‘wants’ to repel other contaminants. Its almost Taoist in principle, as opposed to trying to push water through a very small aperture with brute force, you are engineering that aperture so that its natural tendency is to let water pass through it and to repel other contaminants.

If desalination continues to increase, the water produced will have to be metered. Smart metering technology with remote on-line data collection is an area to watch.

Paul O’Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental . He lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

Breakthrough in solar energy storage

The hydrogen economy is heralded in certain quarters as the green alternative to oil as an energy carrier. At present the vast majority of hydrogen generated is generated from natural gas. So right now a hydrogen fuel cell car, is most likely still ultimately reliant on a fossil fuel source, natural gas, to provide the hydrogen required. In the future of course the thesis is that we could use renewable energy sources to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and generate our hydrogen in that way, thus getting away entirely from fossil fuels.

There was an interesting development on this front reported in the media last week. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology University have developed an efficient method of using solar energy solar energy to produce hydrogen from water. Nothing new there I hear you say. But the breakthrough appears to be the use of some specific catalysts which make the process of splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen much more efficient and therefore viable.
There is no doubt catalysts can work some magic and if they have identified something that can do this here, they may well be on to something.

Daniel Nocera of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, said the discovery could remove one of the major obstacles that has prevented solar power from being taken up widely as a viable alternative to fossil fuels such as oil and gas.
“The discovery has enormous implications for the large-scale deployment of solar since it puts us on the doorstep of a cheap and easily manufactured storage mechanism. The ease of implementation means that this discovery will have legs,” Dr. Nocera said.

So will solar panels and water solve our energy problems? Dr. Nocera thinks so stating that ‘sunlight has the greatest potential of any power source to solve the world’s energy problems given that in one hour enough energy from the Sun strikes the Earth to provide the entire planet’s energy needs for a year’.

Now there is another group out there, more of a fringe element perhaps, which is proposing the idea that you run your car on water. There is some interesting discourse and commentary on this in the green tech gazette. If you really want the hyperbola and sales pitch on this, check out ‘Run Your Car with Water

The basic premise is that you can use electrical current from the alternator in your car to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then burned along with the gasoline which helps increase fuel efficiency. I have to say I am very skeptical about this. I am inclined to think there is no such thing as a free lunch. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that: In any reaction, energy cannot be created or destroyed. The energy to split the water has to come from somewhere and in your car the energy source is your gasoline. If you use the alternator in your car to run your A/C it consumes fuel, so too would running your alternator to generate hydrogen. In fact the new Toyota Prius will have solar panels on the roof to power the A/C for this very reason.
However ….. a caveat to this, may be if there is a synergistic or catalytic effect of co-burning hydrogen with gasoline which makes the whole process more efficient (at present your typical car is about 20% efficient, i.e. 20% of the energy in your gasoline tank goes into moving the vehicle, the rest is lost mostly as waste heat).

Also if you were able to use say for example the braking energy of the car to generate electricity and use this electricity to split hydrogen, THEN you would be taking advantage of wasted mechanical energy to produce that hydrogen fuel. Again, the Toyota Prius already takes advantage of this phenomenon to power the battery.

Paul O’Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. Paul is the author of numerous papers on environmental technologies and lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College. He is chair of a technical committee on decentralized wastewater management in British Columbia, is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for investing in

Last week I put out the idea that we were approaching a tipping point in water re-use. There were a few other headlines this week which support that. For one thing California’s second largest reservoir is now ‘at its lowest level in 30 years’. Last Monday the California Department of Water Resources Director, Lester Snow, stated that next year “could be the worst drought in California history”. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein have proposed a $9.3 billion plan to the Legislature to fund a number of measures aimed at improving California’s water system.
So that’s California, – which bear in mind would be the 7th largest economy in the world if it was a country and has been the number one food producer in the United States for more than 50 years. Now let’s take a look at what’s happening in the capital of the world’s second largest economy. In Beijing, in the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games, Siemens Water Technologies has started up a wastewater reuse system at the city’s Beixiaohe wastewater treatment plant. The goal is to process 90% of the wastewater with 50% of the treated wastewater being recycled and reused.

2008 may be remembered as the year in which China hosted the Olympic Games but is also an auspicious year for another reason. 2008 is the first year in which the population of the planet will be more urban than rural. (Apparently this change occurred May 23rd 2008!). That’s an important turning point and if we are to increasingly live in cities, this of course means that we need to have means of sustainably meeting demands on water use in these cities.

Al Gores’ challenge to the US to move towards 100% non fossil fuel energy by the end of the decade, may be a long shot, but at least in theory it is achievable. There are alternatives to fossil fuels. The same can’t be said of water. There is an elasticity in water use, – up to a point, but there comes a point where you can not reduce water use any further without seriously impacting our ability to live. Mark Twain put it well when he said ‘Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over’. Whether or not we end up fighting over it, history has shown that times of crisis leads to accelerated technological innovation.

This technological innovation is likely to take place in small start-up companies. Commenting on this in his article Inventing Water’s Future, William Pentland, noted that in purchasing Zenon Membranes for $700M, GE is effectively outsourcing their innovation in clean technology to small start-ups.

Some venture capital firms, like Toronto’s XPV Capital have placed big bets on this and are choosing to invest in innovative water start ups on the assumption that they will be future targets for ‘Big Water’ industry giants like GE Veolia, Siemens etc as scarcity, climate change and energy prices increase the value of water. In fact overall the amount of money invested in water and wastewater technologies in the U.S. rose 436% between 2006 and 2007, according to the Cleantech Group,

A good general yard stick to track the water business is the ISE Water Index (HHO). This index tracks a bundle of 36 companies engaged in water distribution, water filtration, flow technology and other water solutions. The ISE Water Index has enjoyed an impressive rally this year, has tacked on nearly 5% since the start of 2008, which compares favorably with the S&P 500 Index’s (SPX) loss of 7.7% during the same time frame. In fact, the index has climbed steadily higher since it was created in January 2006, gaining more than 36% along the way. As was outlined in Jocelyn Drakes ‘Cross Currents In Water World’ article.

Finally to close, one technology I came across this week which I thought was really ingenious and also just a lovely idea is called Play Pumps. It’s basically a children’s merry-go-round that pumps clean, safe drinking water from a deep borehole every time the children start to spin. So the system utilizes the energy of children playing, to purify water. Genius. You can check out a video of it in use in Africa on You Tube.

Paul O’Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. Paul is the author of numerous papers environmental technologies and lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College. He is chair of a technical committee on decentralized wastewater management in British Columbia, is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

A tipping point in water re-use?

There were two interesting recent headlines which support the view that we are approaching a tipping point in relation to water scarcity and water resources.
Firstly, Orange County, California was awarded the Stockholm Industry Award for its pioneering work to inject treated wastewater into deep wells to re-charge ground water aquifers. This water can then be extracted at a later date for water supply. What you are seeing here is the start of a convergence in advanced wastewater treatment and water supply. They say that water has no memory, but the public certainly does, and they don’t like the thought that what comes out of their tap, might in the not too distant past have disappeared down their toilet. Aquifer injection provides that one degree of separation.
However water is the ultimate re-cyclable commodity and re-cycle it we must if we are to avoid some of the alarming predictions reported at the Goldman Sachs ‘Top Five Risks Conference’ Goldman Sachs reported that a catastrophic water shortage could prove an even bigger threat to mankind this century than soaring food prices and the relentless exhaustion of energy reserves. The report said water was the “petroleum for the next century”, offering huge rewards for investors who know how to play the infrastructure boom.
So how exactly do you go about playing this boom? Goldman Sachs suggest eyeing companies that produce or service filtration equipment, ultraviolet disinfection, desalination technology using membranes, automated water meters and specialist niches in water reuse.
Water re-cycling is going to be huge, particularly in the sunshine belt between California and Florida. Groundwater, in the context of our lifespans at least, is a non-renewable resource. If you drain it down, it can take hundreds of years to re-charge. Nicholas (Lord) Stern, author of the UK Government’s Stern Review on the economics of climate change, warned that underground aquifers could run dry at the same time as melting glaciers play havoc with fresh supplies of usable water.

There are a myriad of companies out there that can take salt out of water, but if someone can comes up with a) the midas touch to turn the briny waste produced into a product, or b) a lower energy method of doing it they will be on to a winner.

Paul O’ Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. Paul lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College, is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

GE: Doing Cleantech The Right Way

I have long had a respect for GE (NYSE:GE), and how it runs its business. In cleantech, I am very, very jealous. They have made themselves into the company to beat. Whether by plan, luck, or simply applying sound business discipline, GE has made itself into a top 3 global cleantech player no matter happens. And they did it for a fraction of the price, and a lot less risk than anyone in Silicon Valley or the energy sector. Venture capitalists beware, in cleantech, the behemoths have beat you to the punch, have done it cheaper, faster, and with more grit than you realize.

5 step Cleantech Program by GE

Wind – In 2002, GE bought Enron Wind out of Enron’s bankruptcy for about $300 mm, making GE one of the top 5 wind players overnight (it’s now well in excess of a billion in revenue). It was their first cleantech steal, right before the wind industry got amazingly tight (and huge).

Power – In 2003, GE acquired one of the leading gas engine manufacturers in Jenbacher, making GE an overnight leader in small, clean power systems, and powering their way into everything from distributed generation to landfill gas markets.

Solar – In 2004, just before the solar boom, GE acquired Astropower, one of the top 5 solar energy companies in the US, for less than $20 million out of bankrupcty, after the company was delisted following accounting irregularities. You cannot even build a single solar manufacturing line for $20 mm. Only the subsequent silicon supply shortages, and a lack of the needed investment in the business and next generation technology kept GE from making a homerun out of it. But despite that, there will never be another steal in solar quite like this.

Water – In 2005, GE acquired one of the largest water technology businesses in the US, Ionics, to complement its previous acqusitions in the water sector. Paying a full price of $1.1 Billion, it virtually guaranteed GE a top 5 position in the reverse osmosis, desalination, and water purification markets going forwrad, right after Ionics was shored up through a merger with Ecolochem.

Ecomagination Brand – Then on the back of these deals, in 2005 GE launched its Ecomagination initiative, and anchored the entire company’s image around its new cleantech empire.

That, my friends, is the way you make money in cleantech venture capital. I would venture to guess that GE has made 10x its money, no matter how you spin it. Or put another way, an IPO of the GE cleantech business would be the hottest thing in years.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of Cleantech.org, and a blogger for CNET’s Cleantech blog.

Blogroll Review: Sinks, Oranges, Woz

by Frank Ling

Power Bathroom

For many years, the Japanese have recycled sink water for their toilets. Now an American company is taking it further.

WaterSaver Technologies from Kentucky has developed the AQUS system, which Philip Proefrock at EcoGeek says:

“…collects the water from a bathroom sink and filters and disinfects it before it gets re-used as flush water for an adjacent toilet. (There is nothing that would prevent this from being used in a large-scale LEED project either.)”

The toilet can save up to 7300 gallons of water each year.

According to the Word Water Council, that’s enough water to produce 2 kg of beef. :)

Orange-ol

Apparently you can get more out of oranges than just orange juice. Some guys have figured out how to convert the citrus peel into ethanol.

Jim Fraser at the EnergyBlog says:

“FPL Energy said that ethanol from citrus peel could result in a new Florida industry producing over 60 million gallons of fuel per year, which could replace about one percent of Florida’s annual gasoline.”

If only they had a way to make Pine-sol smell orangy….oh wait, I guess they already have. :)


Green Woz

Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cameron Diaz are all out there pushing for a greener future. But it doesn’t hurt to have more celebrities out there to garner support.

Steve Jobs (from his own blog!) quotes his old buddy Steve Wozniak as saying he wants to reduce his emissions:

“I have a long dream to build my own house in a very energy-efficient approach. That’s going to be very soon. It uses the right kind of wood that serves as a heater and as an air conditioner.”

Frank Ling is a postdoctoral fellow at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley. He is also a producer of the Berkeley Groks Science Show.

The Trouble with Water

Previously posted on Inside Greentech.

There was an active discussion around water at the recent Cleantech Forum in San Francisco. As there always is.

Everyone knows the old joke, applied to just about everything at one time or another, that runs: “hydrogen is the fuel of the future… and always will be,” or “Brazil is the superpower of the future, and always will be.”

Well, I wonder if that applies to water.

Will water always remain the “problem of the future,” and not of the present? Despite the maxim that “water is the next oil,” nobody ever seems to put their money where their mouth is in the water sector.

The basic story goes like this:

  • The water industry is huge, mostly public owned by entities that have no money for the (pick your number of) billions in upgrades needed
  • Population is growing every year
  • Population is increasing most rapidly in driest regions
    Water is cheap, so no one conserves it (think about that statement as an economist and ask yourself if we really have a problem yet)
  • Water is even more important than energy as a “basic right,” so no government will let its population run short.

Therefore, investing in water technology (desalination, membranes, remediation, purification, metering, etc.) to create solutions to the coming problem is a good idea.

But it never happens. The investment community just doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to water. Why is that?

Some thoughts on why:

  • Motivation. The water industry, while huge, is not widely privatized and is very fragmented. It’s not been heavily “technology” driven to date, and has proven to be even more cumbersome than the electric utility market to break new technologies into. Investor owned utilities, which are now a very large portion of the electric and gas utility market, are just a few percentage points of the water market. So very few of the potential customers for technology are big enough and profit driven enough to care.
  • Maturity. The technologies these water companies use is relatively old. Membrane technology used in reverse osmosis and more efficient valves and even smart control systems are not new ideas. And a lot of potential “breakthroughs” have been beat out of the industry already. So unless price radically changes – as in several orders of magnitude, it’s likely that the technology we’ve got is “good enough” or at least hard to beat.
  • Price. Water is cheap (see above). Read: nobody’s bearing any real pain today in most of the industrialized world. I’m not. I don’t even get a water bill. I’ll cut my morning Starbucks before I reduce my water usage. It’s a bigger hit on my pocketbook. In pockets of the market, this may be changing (we do read about water crises in Australia from time to time, ultra clean water needed for semiconductor processes and additional water demand for a particular housing development in Southern California), but it is really hard to get a return on R&D when your customer is measured in “pockets” as opposed to “markets.”
  • Solar, ethanol and carbon. Three years ago, water was the buzz of the venture conferences. Money looked like it might flow. Then the solar and ethanol markets took off, carbon trading got traction and climate change grabbed the headlines and the political mindshare (including mandates, rebates, and subsidies). Water – both the problems and the solutions – fell out of vogue.
  • Size and capital intensity. Like energy projects, water projects are often really big and expensive. Scaling up ALWAYS has more risk than one thinks it does. Like in energy, one just doesn’t invest in a pilot for a new technology lightly. And just because one or two projects with a given technology are running does not a successful launch make. When 30 or 40 are running for 5 to 10 years, then you’ve broken through.

So I guess it remains to be seen if water is the problem of the future – or if it really is the next big thing. And it definitely remains to be seen if anyone can make big money investing in new water technologies and solutions.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks.