This stove cleanly burns plastic and charges a phone

TakePart | Mashable | Nov. 14, 2014

KleanCook stove

The KleanCook stove inspired the design for the K2 cookstove. Photo credit: Energant

It’s no secret that the smoke spewing from open fires and from indoor coal-fired cook stoves is a silent killer in the developing world, and a contributor to climate change. More than 4 million people die each year from health problems related to inhaling carbon monoxide or particulate matter released from stoves that burn wood, biomass, or coal, according to the World Health Organization.

Despite a long-running government campaign to eradicate dirty fuels from households, the problem persists in China. But thanks to two young entrepreneurs, a new kind of cook stove—one that can cleanly combust small amounts of plastic trash and convert its excess cooking heat to electricity—could be on its way into kitchens across China.

“Smoke-related illnesses are a bigger issue than malaria or HIV,” said Jacqueline Nguyen, one of the entrepreneurs and a University of California, Berkeley, senior toxicology student. “It kills more than HIV and malaria worldwide per year.”

While Nguyen handles business and marketing for Energant, the company behind the device, her best friend, Mark Webb—a 2011 Berkeley graduate who studied biochemistry—designed the K2 cook stove.

The K2 reduces smoky emissions by 95 percent, according to tests Webb conducted. Using the excess heat created during operations, it can generate enough electricity to trickle charge a mobile phone. It has the ability to burn biomass briquettes cleanly as well.

It can also burn plastic and wood without toxic emissions as long as the material—which emits volatile organic compounds when burned—doesn’t exceed 8 percent of the mass being used as fuel, according to Webb.

The ability to burn plastic and wood cleanly is what distinguishes the K2 model from the KleanCook stove, the product Webb designed last year.

Webb got the idea for the K2 cook stove during pilot testing of the KleanCook model in the Philippines this past summer, when he and Nguyen noticed people cooking food over open fires all across the country—and burning plastic bags as a way to get those fires started.

“We decided to make the K2, which was centered specifically around being able to burn off all of the toxic material from this trash,” Webb said.

K2 cookstove from Energant

The K2 cookstove. Photo credit: Energant

But because the two wanted the cook stoves to generate income for local people who would sell the devices for profit, they decided to target the Chinese market, as business costs in the Philippines were too high.

How does it work, and what differentiates it from other clean cook stoves?

The stove’s built-in fan has a geometric design and resembles the turbo fan of a jet engine. When the fan blows air into the fire, it creates forced convection, which makes the stove more fuel-efficient. Carbon monoxide is then converted to carbon dioxide.

The stove’s greater efficiency means that 50 percent less fuel has to be burned to create the same amount of heat, resulting in lower emissions, according to Webb. A patent is pending on the K2’s design.

The stove also contains a thermoelectric generator. When one side of the device is exposed to heat and the other is kept cool, an electric current is generated as the heat travels from one side of the generator to the other. That electric charge is then fed into a voltage regulator to produce a steady current.

Because it’s made from cheap metal, the stove costs only $16 to manufacture. Energant plans to sell the stoves to regional distributors for $20 to $25. In turn, the salespeople will sell the units at retail for $50—a price that Webb and Nguyen say the Chinese government has deemed an acceptable amount to charge based on disposable income.

The debut of the K2 cook stove could be timely, as recent reports from China indicate there’s been an increase in burning trash and plastic, which releases carcinogenic dioxins.

Webb and Nguyen’s clean cook stove venture attracted support from Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab after the pair won the lab’s “Big Ideas” student innovation contest with the KleanCook stove.

The development lab is one of seven university efforts funded by USAID via the U.S. Global Development Lab. That initiative gives money to seven centers at universities around the country that support students creating solutions to global problems such as climate change, food security, health, and poverty.

“Our whole market approach to the KleanCook was to have the cheapest possible thing that was the most scalable and can deliver electricity for devices,” Webb said.

KleanCook also won prize money from the Clinton Global Initiative University contest this past year, which allowed the entrepreneurs to fund KleanCook’s pilot testing in the Philippines.

Though the K2 cook stove—KleanCook’s more sophisticated sister—appears promising, it isn’t ready for market yet. Webb says Energant has a pre-manufacturing prototype that he’s tested for efficiency using a consumer carbon monoxide sensor that recorded the carbon dioxide output of the stove.

To win the confidence of Chinese consumers, he says K2 needs to be tested using validated equipment—something that Energant would have to pay for specialists to do at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

The company hopes to raise $30,000 from an Indiegogo campaign to pay for the testing.

View the original story here.

Tapping the sun to put more food on Africa’s table

TakePart | June 3, 2014

Sweet potato farmers in Mozambique. Photo by International Livestock Research Institute courtesy Creative Commons

Sweet potato farmers in Mozambique. Photo by International Livestock Research Institute courtesy Creative Commons

For farmers in Mozambique, every harvest is bittersweet. That’s because up to 40 percent of their crops can spoil, as there’s no way to keep them cool. It’s a common and costly problem in countries that lack reliable power grids—or have no access to electricity at all—and that can ill afford to throw away food.

Farmers can use diesel generators to refrigerate produce, but they’re expensive and cause pollution. What if they could tap carbon-free solar energy to power a device that chills newly harvested crops, thus extending their shelf life? Better yet, that device could be manufactured locally, creating jobs.

Rebound Technology of Boulder, Colo., is trying to do just that. Formed by two solar industry exiles, the start-up is developing a 3-D-printed heat exchanger and a membrane made from a Gore-Tex-like material that uses solar thermal heat to create refrigeration.

“If we can cool the products in the field, then that will be really beneficial. In Mozambique, crops are being harvested in 77 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Kevin Davis, Rebound’s cofounder and CEO. “By lowering the temp of that product you’re stunting some of the metabolic processes that lead to spoilage.”

Higher-quality produce could be sold for up to four times more than the price of fruits and vegetables that have not been chilled before being transported to market, Davis says. Because women are buying the food from farmers to sell at the markets in Mozambique, it would also help women small business owners, according to Koos Van Der Merwe, the co-owner of Mozambique Organicos, a farm that is partnering with Rebound to field-test the technology next year.

Here’s how it works: Salt is dissolved in warm water running through a 3-D-printed heat exchanger. The saltwater solution absorbs the heat from the warm water, which makes it colder. That dip in temperature chills another pool of water that the farmers dunk their produce into after harvesting. To ready the process for the next day, a membrane placed into the saltwater uses heat generated by a solar thermal panel to separate out the salt and water across the membrane.

As simple as it sounds, Rebound’s product—dubbed SunChill—has some way to go before it can be deployed to Mozambique farmers. With $1.4 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development—via “Powering Agriculture,” a new program aimed at fostering clean-tech solutions to boost agricultural productivity in developing countries—Davis and cofounder Russell Muren will spend the better part of the next year designing and testing the SunChill prototype.

The pair will meet with smallholder farmers in Mozambique this month to gather information for the design process. They’re also working with German collaborators to finalize the membrane’s design.

One challenge the company is still working out, Davis says, is the best way to get SunChill into the hands of small farmers, given the system’s expected $6,000 price tag. Rebound thinks it’s feasible for larger operations such as Mozambique Organicos or agricultural co-ops to purchase the equipment for use by a large group of farmers.

Van Der Merwe, who is about to start a business working with small farmers, says SunChill can fill a void. “I’m quickly running out of capacity to accommodate all small-scale production,” he says. “Being [that we supply] mostly produce for the local markets, we’re hoping that the SunChill technology can provide the answer to this need.”

View the original story here.

How innovative solar is trumping oil in Tanzania

TakePart | May 20, 2014

Mtae Village in Tanzania. Photo by Rod Waddington courtesy Creative Commons.

Mtae Village in Tanzania. Photo by Rod Waddington courtesy Creative Commons.

While nearly 20 percent of people worldwide lack access to electricity, the rate is even higher in the East African nation of Tanzania: 84 percent of the country is off the grid. In the country’s rural areas, access is even sparser.

Sounds like a sweet spot for solar, right? But the up-front costs for a solar panel, battery, and charger are out of reach for the average village resident, not to mention the additional costs of equipment maintenance and repair. Rent-to-own schemes, which require users to pay for their system over time, aren’t practical either, given today’s rapid advancements in technology. So kerosene lamps and diesel fuel generators have remained the default go-to for most.

What if rural Tanzanians could bypass the financial barriers and lease their solar systems instead? What if this enterprise could create local jobs by employing agents to sell electricity services door-to-door?

That’s the business model of Off.Grid:Electric, a start-up founded in 2012 by a trio of American social entrepreneurs.

“We’re the SolarCity of Africa,” said cofounder Erica Mackey. She was originally interested in finding a solution to last-mile rural health care delivery in Tanzania, but switched to energy services after locals told her the lack of access to electricity was the largest obstacle to rural development. “We realized that the biggest barrier to implementing solar on a wide scale was because customers had to assume a lot of risk. So we take on that risk and deliver energy services.”

Off.Grid:Electric customers get a solar panel and metered battery storage and have electrical accessories (such as a charger) installed in their home. They prepay for as much electricity as they want—24 hours of power costs the equivalent of 20 cents a day, or about $6 a month—about what the average Tanzanian household spends on a night’s worth of kerosene for a single lantern. Families might use as many as three lantern loads per night, depending on the circumstances, Mackey says. Solar power can provide 35 times more light—and charge phones. An app enables subscribers to re-up their accounts using their phones.

Affordable electricity provides families with more time for work, study, and leisure activities. And clean electricity offers big health and environmental benefits over kerosene and diesel. Apart from the carbon emissions associated with the fuels, Mackey said that operating a single kerosene lamp indoors for four hours is the equivalent of secondhand smoke from two packs of cigarettes.

By using the “Avon lady” sales model that deploys locals to sell Off.Grid:Electric’s services door-to-door—more than 300 agents are in the field—the company has created jobs that pay three to four times more than what individuals were earning before, Mackey says.

The company operates in three regions of Tanzania and has enrolled more than 70 percent of homes in some villages, according to Mackey. Thanks to a recent $7 million funding round from high-profile investors such as SolarCity, Vulcan Capital, and Omidyar Networks, Off.Grid:Electric plans to move into other parts of the country, anticipating it will have close to 1,000 agents on the ground by the end of the year. It hopes to expand to Uganda and Kenya.

“That’s one of the most exciting things we can do—to make an African rooftop investable for a Western investor,” Mackey said. “That alone puts resources behind a big problem.”

Photo of Mtae village, Tanzania by Rod Waddington courtesy Creative Commons

View the original story here.

Inside the military’s billion-plus push for renewables

Story by Kristine A. Wong
This piece was originally published on GreenBiz on Aug. 22, 2012 with a headline of “Inside the military’s multibillion-dollar push for renewables”

As the largest consumer of energy in the world, the Department of Defense has a long way to go before becoming a sustainable operation.

But a recent push to purchase 3 gigawatts (GW) of locally generated renewable energy is opening up billions of dollars in market opportunities — and it’s not just energy companies that stand to benefit. Companies that can finance these deals also stand to carve out a substantial piece of this pie.

The military’s goal?

To become more energy independent.

“By diversifying our installation energy sources to include sustainable, reliable energy, we improve our ability to fulfill our mission during energy interruptions and to better manage price volatility,” said Katherine Hammack, U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army for installations, energy & environment.

Plans are underway for the Army, Navy and Air Force to each deploy 1 GW of renewable energy on U.S. bases by 2025, an effort announced in April. The 3 GW goal is tied to a 2007 DOD initiative to source 25 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025.

It’s one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history, according to the White House.

Three gigawatts are equivalent to the amount needed to power 750,000 homes, said Hammack.

The military will purchase the power generated through privately owned solar, wind, geothermal or biomass facilities under power purchase agreements.

Companies can build their facilities on military bases or on some of the 16 million acres of military land recently opened for renewable energy development. They will be expected to own and maintain the facilities, as well as arrange private sector financing for its construction and operation.

One aim of the effort is to develop energy security on U.S. military bases, according to DOD spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan.

“Together with smart microgrid and storage technologies, renewable and other forms of on-site energy will allow a military base to maintain its critical operations ‘off-grid’ for weeks or months if necessary,” said Morgan.

Noteworthy opportunities for experienced developers, investors
Billions of dollars in federal funds will be available to the private sector in contracts for the purchase of renewable energy.

“This is an end-of-the-game market creator for renewable energy and cleantech,” said Taite McDonald, a senior advisor at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati (WSGR) in Washington, D.C. who advises energy and clean technology companies interested in working with government.

Opportunities are materializing. Earlier this month, the Army took an important step forward in laying the foundation to fulfill its commitment of deploying 1 GW of renewable energy. The Army Corps of Engineers released a call for companies to bid for up to $7 billion of contracts to purchase energy from renewable facilities that will be installed on military land.
The contracts –- in the form of power purchase agreements, or contracts that define the terms between buyers and sellers of electricity – could be in place for as long as 30 years. More likely, though, they’ll be 23 to 25 years in length, according to McDonald.

The number of contractors is dependent on the capabilities and qualifications of the bids the Army receives, said Hammack. It’s also dependent on the type of energy that’s supplied and the size of those projects. One gigawatt can be generated through 10 very large projects, 100 medium-sized projects or 500 small projects, according to Hammack.

The Navy is now soliciting feedback regarding what type of projects industry may want to build on its bases such as the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, Calif. It’s planning to continue the process with other bases in the future, according to McDonald.

As for the Air Force, McDonald predicts it will likely start to release more opportunities for building renewable projects with enhanced-use leases in the coming months. The first step in the process to develop such an opportunity is now underway at the Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico.

In the future, more requests for proposals focused on purchase power agreements are likely to become available, McDonald said.

Getting qualified under the Army’s $7 billion opportunity

Those qualified to be renewable energy contractors for the Army have demonstrated the ability to finance, design, build, operate, own and maintain their own energy facilities, Hammack said.

“If your company qualifies under this opportunity, you can go after up to $7 billion in contracts –- we call it a hunting license,” said McDonald.

Throughout the last year –- as a service to help educate and prepare companies for this contract opportunity –- McDonald and colleagues have acted as advisors-for-hire with several renewable energy companies, developers and investors interested in getting their “hunting licenses.”

A significant number of developers, small businesses and defense contractors have been preparing for this announcement for some time, McDonald said.

She estimates that while Army Energy Initiative Task Force officials have met with about 150 entities, only 50 will qualify as prime contractors for hunting licenses. The Army Corps of Engineers will evaluate all applicants.

According to McDonald, those best positioned to qualify are experienced renewable energy project developers and operators — not those who are selling technology in the developing stage. Most of the opportunities will be for purchase power agreements for solar, she added.

“Unless you are a very large and reputable developer that has just recently begun to learn about this opportunity, you probably want to join other teams instead of submitting a proposal to be a prime contractor,” she said.

But small businesses shouldn’t fear being edged out of competition by their larger counterparts. Projects that are slated to produce less than four megawatts of energy will be reserved for small businesses first. Those that fall in the 4-12 MW capacity range may be reserved for small businesses as well, depending on the project size, complexity and level of financing required. Projects over 12 MW in capacity are open for unrestricted competition.

And there are still opportunities available for investors who can bring capital to the table as well as finance commercial projects.

“That’s where we’re seeing the most gaps,” McDonald said.

The Army will likely announce the firms that are qualified for its $7 billion in contracts during the first quarter of 2013, she predicted.

Three to six months after determining which companies are qualified, the Army will issue its first task orders, Hammack said. Task orders detail contracts available for bidding, including the energy capacity of the project and the type of technology to be used.

“At least 100 megawatts in task orders will be issued a year,” Hammack said.

Hammack said the task orders are currently being determined by the Army Energy Initiative Task Force through environmental analyses of more than 180 military installations. After evaluating the natural resources available at each site, the task force will match it with the technology best suited for the site and calculate the amount of energy that can be generated onsite.

Companies whose technology is not ready to scale at a commercial level need not despair. There are a number of demonstration opportunities with the military services and with the Office of the Secretary of Defense that will become available next year, McDonald said.

Photo of wind turbines courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Milking the sun: Dairy takes on solar cogeneration

GreenBiz | July 13, 2012

Milking the Sun: Dairy Takes on Solar Cogeneration from kristine a. wong on Vimeo.

On June 20, 2012, Clover Stornetta Farms in Petaluma, Calif. became the first dairy in the U.S. to generate solar hot water and electricity using a cogeneration system. The system was manufactured by Silicon Valley startup Cogenra Solar based in Mountain View, Calif.

I produced, shot, and edited this video and wrote an accompanying story.

Additional footage and photo of cow provided by Clover Stornetta Farms.