How IBM helps monitor biodiversity in the Amazon

GreenBiz | February 18, 2014

aBrazil IBM Wikiflora Screenshot

A screenshot from IBM Brazil’s Wikiflora app.

In the future, tracking the growth and development of a certain stand of açaí palm trees in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest might just as likely be done by a student as a government biologist.

That’s because a new data portal and mobile app built by IBM in its São Paulo research lab — one of 12 R&D hubs run by the company experimenting with new approaches to sustainability — will be used by a cadre of citizen scientists to help the Brazilian government monitor and track the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest. It’s part of a group of projects developed by the company to give users the tools to help manage and monitor their environment via crowdsourced data.

In 2010, Brazil’s Ministry for Environment and Innovation presented his group with a 500-page catalog of all the species recorded in an area of rainforest close to the city of Manaus, according to Sergio Borger, a team lead of the São Paulo human systems division.

“Though this area was well explored, it comes up as just a big square on Google Maps,” Borger said. “That paper catalog of its biodiversity was limited to the scientists who created it.”

The government challenged IBM to think of ways it could bring the experience of the rainforest alive to younger generations — and simultaneously develop a central repository for all of its data.

But instead of conjuring up the hot and humid climate of the Amazon rainforest as inspiration, Borger was moved by a winter memory from 15 years ago: the time he and his children counted birds for the Audubon Society during its Christmas Bird Count. The oldest known citizen science project in the world, data from the 114-year-old count helps scientists monitor biodiversity and gain greater insight from population changes over time.

“I was very passionate about that,” he said. “So I felt crowdsourcing was the way to go, as one of the elements of monitoring our environment is asking our citizens about it.”

As the government’s first priority was to get the project into the schools, Borger and his team first prototyped a website-based platform they dubbed Wikiflora. It took them a year and half, and was completed in October 2011.

Wikiflora enabled students to upload their photos of a plant species, enter specific characteristics and classify it after comparing it against an existing catalog photo. Each photo contained data to describe precisely where it was taken.

A key part of the platform was its identification gaming function. Students could review their peers’ entries and rate how well they thought that student classified photos. A user’s rating would determine the weight of his or her assessments.

Over the next year, the team developed a mobile app, Wikiflora 2.0, which carried over the feature that allowed students to upload photos and rate them with their smartphones. It also gave them the capacity to track and map individual plants and trees, as well as components such as the leaves and trunk, via more photo uploads. To identify the particular plant or tree, students were asked to choose from a long list of similar-looking plants or trees that the app would present for selection.

But because the students were too impatient to scroll through the options, Borger said, his team set off a year ago to revamp Wikiflora 2.0 so the public could collect data and monitor it over time using real-time processing and data aggregation.

“We’re on our third wave of learning now,” he said.

The platform’s third iteration, Missions, uses the company’s IBM InfoSphere Streams product to process collected data coming in (from many sources at any particular moment) before it gets stored in a DB2 database. Borger estimates that it will be released later this year for both Android and iOS smartphones, but in a research capacity only.

Multiple users will be able to add to the data file of a specific plant or tree by using unique identifying characteristics, such as the diameter of a tree trunk.

“That can be done with some level of certainty,” Borger said. “At this point, the system makes an assumption [on which plant or tree the data belongs to], but we’re working to refine it even further.”

His São Paulo team is developing tools to advance the capability of real-time processing and aggregation of images so that when a user takes a photo of a certain element of a plant or tree, for example, Missions will help the user determine its species and give the user five to six options to choose from. After the user makes the final identification, the data is sent to the database.

Tracking mobile species, such as frogs and insects living close to water, tack on another dimension of complexity altogether. They will be included in the future, Borger says, as his team is determining how to handle this type of monitoring.

IBM is particularly interested in knowing if insects living close to water are present because they can serve as bioindicators.

“If they’re not there, the water may not have enough oxygen for them to live,” Borger said.

The company’s efforts to get the public to crowdsource environmental indicators through technology is not new territory for IBM.

In 2009, an engineer in its San Jose, Calif., Almaden Research Lab developed CreekWatch, an app where users help the state to monitor drought conditions by uploading photos and weighing in on water levels, flow rate and the amount of trash at each location. Borger applied what he learned from this project to the development of the Wikiflora and Missions platforms.

And IBM’s Accessible Way app allows the greater public to map accessibility barriers in urban areas, so that mobility-challenged individuals can select suitable routes well in advance of their trip.

“We look at sustainability,” Borger said, “as a way to make our environment smarter.”

View the original story here.

Screenshot of Wikiflora web app courtesy IBM Brazil

Cloud technology brings clean drinking water to India

GreenBiz | September 4, 2013 | Original headline: How cloud technology can bring clean drinking water to India

Women and children collect drinking water from tanks at an urban resettlement slum in Delhi, India

Women and children collect drinking water from tanks at an urban resettlement slum in Delhi, India. Credit: Frog Design

Imagine not having access to clean drinking water because you refused to vote for a particular politician, or didn’t pay bribes to the driver delivering your supply. Even after doing both these things, you’re still not sure just exactly when the next delivery will arrive.

This is the case in India, where access to drinking water is not universal. As India increasingly urbanizes and water becomes even more scarce, solutions that raise access will be more important in the coming decades.

That’s why the Piramal Foundation — which addresses India’s development challenges through social ventures — funded Sarvajal, a company that uses cloud technology to provide water via filtration stations and solar-powered ATMs.

UNICEF reports that water-borne diseases such as cholera, gastroenteritis and diarrhea in India are responsible for $600 million in medical bills and lost productivity per year, but it could get worse. The national government estimates that demand for clean water will rise 50 percent by 2031 if current delivery models stay the same. According to the World Bank, 220 million Indians will migrate to cities over the same 20-year period.

The problem: Steady access to clean water

In rural areas, residents often have no other choice than to capture groundwater.  “The water was brackish, there were no pipes, no tankers, and filters were too expensive,” said Anand Shah, former head of the India-based Piramal Foundation, of the lack of access. “They’d sift it but would still have large amounts of kidney stones, joint pain, arthritis and gastrointestinal problems.” Plus, the reverse osmosis process to desalinate and filter out impurities was inefficient.

In urban slums, the situation can be better, but not optimal. Although tankers arrive to dispense water for free, they’re intermittent and unpredictable, Shah said. Residents invest large amounts of time pursuing the tanker, jostling to fill containers they carry home. And even if the driver has the best intentions, the country’s rough roads lead to unexpected roadblocks.

Through a monitoring device attached to each filtration unit, embedded sensors and an RFID reader, Sarvajal tracks water quality in real time. It follows user activity, how many times the water has been backwashed and rinsed, when filters need changing, how much water a station has dispensed and how many times the power went out.

Service and maintenance were costly, so a monitoring device was built in-house allowing the company to diagnose machines from one central location.

The company grew from one pilot location in 2007 to more than 200 filtration station-ATM combos in villages of at least 5,000 people each across India. One resident per village can purchase a franchise for about 30,000 Indian rupees, about $500, and sell the filtered water for a penny per liter, he said.

Users pre-pay for their water, and funds are loaded onto Sarvajal ATM cards.

Selling, really?

Shah said he realizes that selling water in a country that has offered water as a public resource could appear off the mark. But delivery via the tankers is unpredictable, and it takes families time to collect water from the tankers and filter it at home.

“We looked at every alternative out there, and even if a family buys the cheapest water filter, we’ve priced it still under what it would cost them per liter,” he said. Bottled water costs 32 cents and water pouches 14 cents per liter on the street, and creates more waste than refilling reusable containers.

According to Shah, local franchise owners can earn a good living — up to two to three times what they would make for unskilled labor. While Sarvajal still owns the water filtration equipment, it takes less than a year for the franchise owners to start returning profits, he says. Sarvajal, on the other hand, doesn’t expect to profit for another five to 10 years.

Shah says Sarvajal launched as a for-profit company in part because a non-profit would have a harder time attracting technical talent.

Scaling into urban areas – with some help

Sarvajal has secured the go-ahead from the local government in the metropolitan area around New Delhi to set up some 50 filtration station-ATM units — areas without regular access to drinking water.

Because Sarvajal mostly had operated in more rural areas, it needed help. To that end, the company hired Frog Design, a consultancy that engineers and designs products and services in energy, health care and social innovation.

Jan Chipchase, Frog’s creative director of global insights, set up a team of staffers from India. They spent over a month in Delhi interviewing and observing how residents navigated securing drinking water. The group also spoke to water providers who had opened businesses related to supplying clean water.

Savda Ghevra, a resettled slum on the edge of Delhi, was the focus of the research. Frog wanted to find out the value of clean drinking water, how a delivery system would meet residents’ needs and what might arise during the implementation of an alternative system. (The extended research was funded by the Institute of Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion at the University of California-Irvine).

“A water ATM allows stored value to convert to digital credit. As the world digitizes, we wanted to find out to what extent a low literate community was willing to invest in these types of technology,” said Chipchase.

Using digital tools to store value in less developed countries is not unheard of, says Chipchase, who cited Kenya as a country where much of the population banks online.

As a result of their research – detailed in a report, “Journeys for Water” released Tuesday – Frog concluded that in the context of the current water delivery model for Savda Ghevra, the “belief that water is a right and should be free is moot. In the slum residents pay for their water in one way or another – with time and money, with their ability to move and make political choices based on their interests.”

“It’s realizing that the current practice of water tankers isn’t working from a social and practical perspective,” Chipchase said. “This project is far more about understanding politics and economics in the broader sense.”

But Frog found that despite all the advanced technology enabling a water delivery system such as Sarvajal’s to exist in a country lacking adequate infrastructure, it must give residents some ownership and control for the system to be sustainable.

Shah said his team estimates that Sarvajal needs to scale to 1,000 to 1,500 locations to break even.

Democratizing of technology

Chipchase said Sarvajal is a perfect example of how “reverse innovation” is taking place through combining “mature” technologies such as the mobile telephone system, RFID tags and sensors. “The ability to prototype is becoming mainstream. It’s not just Silicon Valley anymore.”

Shah is a CalTech and Harvard-educated Indian-American who grew up in Houston, then spent 13 years in India after college, yet most of the 120 employees at Sarvajal are Indian nationals. His team of 25 engineers developed the filtration system’s monitoring device, coined the Soochak.

Coin-operated water filtration stations exist in Vietnam and Thailand. Yet Sarvajal’s pairing of cloud-based monitoring and an ATM service appears to be unique.

Capital returns should be secondary

Shah has been contacted by the Indian division of water giant Pentair and an array of venture capitalists about potential investments. But after learning more about the company’s timeline for return, he said, they lost interest. The same thing happened, he said, with larger companies interested in moving into the space themselves.

“My response to them was you’re asking the wrong question – you should be asking how long it’s going to take to solve the problem,” he said. “We’re in this to solve the problem, not for money to be made. Things like water — where innovation hasn’t happened in 50 years – these are really big opportunities to think about them freshly from a new perspective. Returning capital should be a byproduct or a secondary [outcome].”

Middle image: Women collect filtered drinking water at a solar ATM and filtration station operated by Sarvajal. Bottom image: Sarvajal’s filtration stations are operated by local villagers and are monitored for maintenance using sensor technology. All photos courtesy Frog Design

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Dairy farmers move ahead on sustainability

GreenBiz | July 9, 2013

Farmer and cow at Foster Brothers Farms dairy  in Middlebury, Vt.

Foster Brothers Farms dairy in Middlebury, Vt. Photo: Skye Chalmers for Cabot Creamery Cooperative

As a fourth-generation farmer, Bob Foster worked for decades under his father and uncles as they taught him how to run Foster Brothers Farms, his family’s 1,800-acre dairy tucked away in Middlebury, Vt.

When he was growing up, following sustainable practices was not always front and center of the industry’s business strategy.

“As a kid, it was okay to mix the bags of superphosphate in with the manure,” Foster said.

But the energy crisis of the 1970s spurred an awakening. “We had one of the last loads of fuel and we were trying to harvest crops,” he said. The situation jump-started his efforts to lower his farm’s carbon footprint through a closed loop system.

In 1982, the farm installed an onsite anaerobic digester. Since then, it has been producing electricity and compost from cow manure. So in addition to the 1.4 million gallons of milk it produces each year, Foster Brothers also sells excess electricity to the grid and compost varieties to regional farms.

But for all his efforts towards becoming a more sustainable producer, Foster was frustrated that companies looking to buy his products had a different approach towards measuring emissions and the farm’s carbon footprint.

Although many companies circulated questionnaires asking what his farm was doing to monitor its emissions and shrink its carbon footprint, Foster didn’t think they were asking the right questions. “A lot of the scorecards when you push it down to the farm gate don’t measure up,” he said.

So Foster joined efforts with Agri-Mark (a dairy co-op Foster Brothers belongs to) and over 40 other Northeastern dairy producers working alongside the Manomet Center for Conservation Science to develop the Vital Capital Index. Released in 2010, it was the U.S. dairy industry’s first effort to measure impact on a social, environmental and economic level.

Now, a national effort to standardize the way U.S. dairy producers are measured in the same three areas is almost complete.

The industry-funded organization leading the efforts, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, says that the new framework is a science-based tool for dairy producers and processors to benchmark their own progress. It enables them to report data on a variety of indicators such as their energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, working conditions, animal care and impacts on the local economy. Indicators were developed in collaboration with dairy producers and processors, nongovernmental organizations, academics and companies that purchase dairy products as part of their supply chain.

The framework — detailed in a document titled the Stewardship and Sustainability Guide for U.S. Dairy — is an evolution of the work the Innovation Center started in 2008. In 2009, the industry had made a voluntary commitment to reduce 25 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions from milk by 2020. So when the Vital Capital Index was released one year later, the Center was ready to build upon and expand those efforts.

The Center hopes that the framework will enable both companies and consumers to better understand dairy’s impact on the supply chain.

Kenton Holle and daughter Jennifer at family-operated Northern Lights Dairy in Mandan, N.D.

Kenton Holle and daughter Jennifer at family-operated Northern Lights Dairy in Mandan, N.D. Photo courtesy Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy

“It allows for standardization in communication and consistent definitions throughout the industry,” said Sandra Vijn, a sustainability metrics specialist at the Center who is leading the effort. “We want the producers and processors to tell their own sustainability story.”

The indicators are based on several performance indicators from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines that Vijn helped to develop.

Yet considering that most in the industry do not report on sustainability issues at all — and that using the Center’s framework is voluntary — how much can the effort really standardize sustainability reporting? Will it really help conscientious consumers decide which brand of milk, yogurt or cheese to buy when one farm reports progress on sustainability using the framework and another does not?

Even if both did participate, applications still appear limited. The Center emphasizes that reporting results should be used as to benchmark one’s own progress, not as a comparison tool.

Still, Foster says that if companies adopt the framework as an evaluation tool — and if the questions asked are those his peers have the data to answer — an enormous amount of time would be saved when responding to each questionnaire.

Jed Davis, director of sustainability for Agri-Mark Co-op — comprising 1,200 dairy farm families in upstate New York and New England — said that the sheer variety and ever-changing nature of questionnaires from potential customers frustrates him.

“We take all of the questionnaires at the moment and boil it down to the questions we most want to ask our farmers,” he said. “The next month we get a whole bunch more, but the next month [they’re] slightly different. More than once we have to go back — which is too much to bother them for information when they have to stop and pull it together.

As a dairy industry, if we can help our customers ask better questions of us, we can give better answers.”

One such example of a poorly developed question, Foster and Davis agreed, was one asking about the source of the cows’ feed when not all dairies grow their own crops; sometimes, the source can change from one week’s delivery to the next.

But compared to its sister industries in agriculture such as beef, soybeans and corn — dairy appears ahead of the game. (While hackathons held recently in Silicon Valley and New York in pursuit of a more sustainable meat industry appear to be fostering a new wave of innovative ventures between farmers, hackers and entrepreneurs, they were not organized by an industry association).

What the beef industry just started doing last year  — pulling together a group of stakeholders together at a sustainability “roundtable” — is what the dairy industry did in 2008 with the first of its sustainability councils, Davis said.

Earlier this year, the Center’s framework was pilot tested by a group of dairy producers and processors in different regions of the country. Testers were provided with a suite of location-specific tools (for a farm, processing plant or fleet) and handbook for guidance and support in how to report using the framework. And on July 14, the Center will wrap up a 60-day stakeholder comment period on the framework.

But plans for third-party certification are not in the immediate future. “We think that by working through a multistakeholder process, basing it on science, and getting nongovernmental organizations and customer feedback brings credibility to the process,” Vijn said.

GRI has reviewed the indicators to make sure they’re in line with its own, and the Center has been working with the Carbon Disclosure Project on processor indicators, she added.

Next, the Center will be working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a larger group of academic institutions and USDA labs to study how the industry can adapt their production methods to a changing climate. It has the support of a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s not a complete picture yet,” Vijn said. “Greenhouse gas and energy is one thing, but we also want to make sure we bring in other indicators over the years.”

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How Google is changing the renewables game

GreenBiz | April 24, 2013 | Original headline: How Google is changing the renewables game for Apple, Facebook

Nightfall over Google data center in Lenoir, N.C. The need to consume ever-increasing amounts of energy in their data centers — yet continue marching towards renewable energy goals — has been an ongoing challenge for Google and Apple.

Google has offset electricity needed for its centers through purchase power agreements that enable an equal amount of renewable energy to be created, yet has lamented that managing power sales and purchases on the wholesale market takes time away from its focus on building user products.

And despite Apple’s onsite generation of renewable energy, it has still had to supplement its need for renewables through buying off the grid and purchasing renewable energy certificates to offset the conventional portion, green IT experts say.

It’s a conundrum that has kept the Silicon Valley tech giants within the constraints of local utilities’ energy mix in states that don’t permit direct purchases of renewable energy.

Nowhere has this challenge been more evident than in North Carolina, an indirect access state that houses data centers for Google, Apple and Facebook as well as AT&T, Wipro and Disney. Compounding matters further is proposed legislation that would repeal the state’s renewable portfolio standard mandating that 12.5 percent of North Carolina’s energy mix come from renewable sources by 2021.

But things are looking up. Now, Google is trying to transform the local landscape in North Carolina by partnering with Duke Energy. The pair worked together to develop a mechanism which will enable companies of all sizes to directly purchase renewables through a new category dubbed “renewable energy tariffs.”

“The tariffs are creating a new class of service,” said Michael Terrell, who leads Google’s public policy efforts in energy and sustainability. “We think it will be a good framework for purchasing renewable energy,” he told GreenBiz.

Before the program can be launched, though, the new class and tariff structure needs to be approved by the North Carolina Utiltiies Commission. Duke Energy will make a regulatory filing asking for its adoption within the next three months.

Under the tariff, renewable energy will be sold at specific rates yet to be determined — higher than conventional sources, of course, but passed on only to those who choose to participate in the program.

“What we think is exciting is that it’s scaleable – it allows companies to buy large amounts of renewables … not every company can manage power on the wholesale market,” Terrell said.

Terrell said that he hopes the tariff will be in place by the end of the year.

Google’s announcement of the renewable energy tariff concept last Friday came on the same day it released plans to expand its Lenoir, N.C. data center with $600 million in investments. The possibility of accessing more renewable energy directly will come in handy for the company striving to reach a commitment it made in 2007 to become carbon neutral.

Implications for Apple, Facebook


The renewable energy tariff promises to boost Apple’s tally of renewable energy directly purchased for use at its data center in Maiden, N.C.

Despite Apple’s claim last month that its data centers are powered by 100 percent renewable energy, experts say that based on the information the company has released, it does buy conventional power off the grid in North Carolina (comprised mainly of coal and nuclear power in 2013, according to a Duke Energy report filed to the state’s utilities commission) to supplement what it cannot supply on its own from its 20 MW solar array and 10 MW fuel cell installation at the Maiden data center.

According to Brad Brech, a data center energy efficiency expert and board member of the Portland-based Green Grid, Apple fell short of its claim.

“Assuming that the facility runs the fuel cells at their rated capacity, they will be running their data center at its average operational load in 2012 on 85 percent renewable energy. On a sunny day, the facility will be running on 100 percent renewable energy for eight to 10 hours because the 20 MW solar farm is feeding the grid during that time period, increasing the percentage of the time the data center runs on renewable energy to 91.3 percent of the day,” Brech told GreenBiz. “On a rainy day, it will be 85 percent.”

Brech used Apple’s reported figure of the Maiden data center’s total consumption of 104,000 MWh in 2012 as a basis for his calculations, which he said on average requires 11.8 MW of generation capacity.

“With the current renewable energy generation and energy storage technologies, it is extremely difficult to run a facility that uses large amounts of electricity on renewable energy 24 hours per day, seven days per week,” Brech added. “Most renewable energy generation sources for electricity are intermittent and then are no economical, large scale energy storage technologies available to store electricity for release when the renewable sources are not generating.”

Gary Cook, an IT analyst for Greenpeace, also weighed in. “Apple is otherwise buying renewable energy credits to allow it to claim that all of the electricity it buys is renewable energy,” he told GreenBiz. “It’s not clear how much of Apple’s 100 percent renewable energy claim is being supported by REC purchases. … Technically speaking, if Apple used the current standard for reporting greenhouse gas emissions, Apple would have to use Duke’s grid mix.”

“Given that they expect the Maiden facility to grow and its electricity use increase it will be difficult to achieve 100 percent renewable energy use and assure the reliable operation of the facility,” Brech concluded. “The reality is that all users of renewable energy, whether they are residential or commercial, depend on grid-generated electricity for some part of the day.”

Apple did not make a spokesperson available to respond.


The social media company runs a data center in Forest City, N.C., operates another in Prineville, Ore., is building a third in Lulea, Sweden and recently announced plans for a fourth near Des Moines, Iowa. While it has not been as aggressive as Google or Apple in the renewables market so far, it has a goal to reach 25 percent use of renewable energy at its data centers and facilities by 2015. And it’s planning to tap into renewable energy sources for its data centers in Sweden and Iowa, according to Reuters.

If Duke Energy’s regulatory filing to the North Carolina Utilities Commission to establish renewable energy tariffs is approved, Facebook will also have the opportunity to increase its use of renewables in Forest City.

Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks told GreenBiz that he didn’t know whether Facebook or Apple has expressed interest in participating in the renewable energy tariff program.

GigaOM‘s Katie Fehrenbacher reported last summer that Facebook’s head of energy efficiency and sustainability Bill Weihl expressed interest in purchasing renewable energy through an industry trade association which would “influence utilities’ grid choices through the group purchasing of clean power,” the article read.

How the renewable tariff program would work

Google and Duke Energy still have yet to hammer out much of the details of the renewable tariff program, which is a separate initiative from the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

The program will initially focus on large commercial and industrial companies as customers, according to Google.

“They have fairly predictable energy loads and it’s consistent, which makes it easy to design a rate that will meet their needs,” said Brooks, who added that Duke Energy had been discussing the tariff program with Google in detail for the last several months. General discussion about the idea began when Google first asked Duke Energy for a renewables rate during initial discussions about expanding its Lenoir data center, according to Brooks.

To start, the customer will decide if they want to offset some or all of its energy consumption, then the utility will match the customer with a project in the region that has a third party purchase agreement, Brooks said.

In addition to the utility going out and identifying renewable project sources, projects can approach the utility and come in under the tariff, he continued.

While Brooks could not project the level of demand in North Carolina for directly purchased renewables, he said he sees a potential for long-term growth of renewable energy sources.

“We’ve seen renewable energy projects bloom in the state over the last few years, and we’ve seen a great interest in solar energy companies, wind and even biomass and other forms of methane gas projects too. Solar in particular has really boomed in the past few years, and we’ve seen costs come down for those technologies,” Brooks said.

Terrell said that Google has been speaking to other utilities about the renewable energy tariff proposal. According to Brooks, the idea to offer renewable energy rates to various customer classes is fairly new but not entirely unique. Dominion Virginia Power, he said, provides a similar offering.

“It’s [an idea] that utilities are exploring in different ways,” he said.

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Mobile app turns city residents into agents of change

GreenBiz | March 27, 2013 | Original headline: How a civic app is turning city residents into agents of change

iCivic improvement requests resolved via PublicStuff mobile app

Civic improvement requests resolved via PublicStuff mobile app. Credit: PublicStuff

Would you turn in the girl next door for watering her lawn too much?

That’s exactly what has been happening in Plano, Texas ever since the city started using a mobile app and digital communications system. Residents can report problems in real-time ranging from environmental health hazards to water leaks, potholes, trash and broken street lights.

When the city’s water supply was under siege due to invasive zebra mussels and a simultaneous drought, the City of Plano restricted residents to watering their yards once a week, then once every other week. But with limited staff, there was no way the city could absorb the costs of monitoring and enforcement around the clock. Drive-bys noting whether lawn color was closer to brown than green wouldn’t cut it either.

Enter the mobile app and communications system the city purchased from New York City-based startup PublicStuff. Suddenly, residents who downloaded the FixIt Plano app (for free) could stop grumbling to their friends about their neighbor’s behavior — and gleefully send a hall-of-shame photo (which included the date and time the photo was snapped) documenting the excess water consumption directly to Plano City Hall instead. The location of the incident could also be mapped as well, provided the phone’s location tracking was on. And once the “report” was in the system, anyone could track its progress through receiving push notifications from city staff.

“When we enabled people to report watering violations, the use of our PublicStuff website and app really skyrocketed,” Melissa Peachey, the electronics communication manager for Plano, told GreenBiz.

Residents got so snap-happy, in fact, that in the first 19 days after FixIt Plano set up a category for water violations, 71 reports were filed.

“Being able to tag a picture to it makes it a valuable tool … The technology puts the reporting capability in their hands and they can make that report as they see [the issue],” Peachey said.

Though the watering restrictions have since been relaxed (residents are now allowed to water twice a week), the FixIt Plano app remains a convenient way for residents and city staff to keep an eye out for violations.

To date, the city has closed nearly 3,900 resident reports on the app since it debuted in 2011. Analyzing the data as a whole, Peachey says, enables Plano to make data-driven decisions for the benefit of citizens and city budgets. One such decision that might be made based on FixIt Plano data is where the city will spray for mosquitoes as a means of controlling potential West Nile Virus carriers. The city will map the locations of dead birds reported by residents and look out for areas of high concentration. A pop-up message informing that a dead bird was spotted, along with instructions on how to dispose of one in a safe manner, will be sent out to residents after the original report was filed, according to Peachey.

National push to use technology and open data for city problem-solving

Plano is just one of many cities using mobile technology to do a better job of tracking problems with the help of residents. These innovators are using open data collected by and from the local population to better plan emergency responses, city services and manage everyday occurrences such as traffic jams.

While about 200 cities (including Philadelphia, one of the pioneers of using open data and civic hackers for public good) have purchased the PublicStuff software and app that are customizable with widgets of their choice, others have signed up with competitors SeeClickFix and Citysourced to give residents access to city hall by reporting via their mobile devices.

In an update of PublicStuff’s mobile app released last week, non-English speaking residents can send in requests in their native language, and their message will be automatically translated into English for the city workers — and vice versa.

How’s it working so far? “We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback,” PublicStuff co-founder and CEO Lily Liu told GreenBiz. “We want to be sensitive to different words used in local languages and let people know that there are some sorts of modifications to the text. Obviously that will affect someone’s response and we’re building in a mechanism for that,” she said. PublicStuff also wants to make sure that its system recognizes colloquial words like “graffiti,” Liu added.

Increased communication between city staff and residents — along with increasing civic engagement — are not the only benefits for the multitudes of cash-strapped cities that have been forced to cut back on city services and staff in recent years. According to Liu, cities using her company’s products have been able to free up much-needed staff time from taking reports over the phone. Users can also pay their municipal bills and parking tickets on PublicStuff.

The service can also facilitate quick communication of crucial information during emergencies when power lines might be down, Liu said.

“Before Hurricane Sandy, cities sent out information on how to prepare, and during the hurricane residents sent in notes on the system rather than bogging down 911 lines, so critical resources weren’t tied up,” she said.

Liu, who was recognized in December by Forbes as a “30 Under 30” social entrepreneur, co-founded PublicStuff with Vincent Polidoro (now the company’s Chief Technology Officer) in 2010. The initial beta version of PublicStuff was released at the end of that year, and it was tested in a few cities in early 2011. The company is backed by FirstMark Capital venture capital firm and the Knight Enterprise Fund.

A former staffer for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Liu was inspired to develop the product after noticing that there was a gap in services for government agencies that wanted a better way to communicate with the public. None of the vendors, products or price points were accessible for cities, she said.

The cost for cities to install the PublicStuff software and use an app depends on the population size — anywhere between $1,000 for small cities and “more than $20,000” for large cities, according to Liu.

Plano did not say whether it has saved money from using PublicStuff, though Adrian Hummel, the electronic media specialist for the city who works on the back end of the system daily, observed that many of the reports sent in are closed within 24 hours.

“Some remain longer,” he said. “Obviously a pothole or street repair will take longer than [picking up] a dead animal.”

Why Kimberly-Clark is banking on bamboo

GreenBiz | November 9, 2012

When Kimberly-Clark announced its plan to source 50 percent of its wood fiber to alternative sources by 2025 — more than the amount that’s in three billion rolls of toilet paper — the company wasn’t quite sure how it would make that happen.

It’s a tall order, even for the one of the world’s top suppliers of facial tissue, toilet paper and paper towels.

“We don’t know how we’re going to get there yet,” Brenda Nelson, a director of business planning and sustainability for the company’s family care division, told GreenBiz. “It’s not like there was a lot of precision around number and years,” she said of the pledge made in June.

So why would Kimberly-Clark, best known for its Kleenex, Huggies and Scott brand products, commit to an actual deadline? After all, Walmart famously announced goals to become 100 percent supplied by renewable energy and create zero waste — yet failed to disclose a timeline.

Like the advice given to Benjamin, the young man searching for a future in the 1967 film “The Graduate,” the answer lies in one word.

Kimberly-Clark is banking on bamboo.

“We did enough research on the fibers and potential barriers to know that it’s achievable,” Nelson said. “2025 was a date we put out there to hold ourselves accountable to make it happen.”

Mitigating risk

In 2011, Kimberly-Clark used 3.53 million metric tons of fiber to manufacture its products, according to company figures. Less than one-third of that amount – 1.05 million metric tons — came from recycled sources, the company reported.

Eighty percent of Kimberly-Clark’s product line contains wood fiber. Its primary sources are from the U.S., Brazil and Canada. In a 2011 report, the company describes itself as “highly reliant” on the material.

In the last few years, Kimberly-Clark has been hunting for a commercially viable alternative to wood fiber. In 2009, the company adopted a procurement policy requiring 40 percent of its fiber to be sourced either from FSC-certified or recycled sources by 2011. The move brought an end to a five-year campaign by Greenpeace pressuring the company to cut its ties with suppliers hawking non FSC-certified wood. The policy also banned the use of any fiber from endangered species.

But the motivation for the search extends beyond environmental reasons, Nelson says. It’s also an effort to insulate the company from a fiber market marked by volatile prices and a dwindling supply.

“We’ve taken a long look at what are the outlook and trends in virgin and recycled fiber supply,” she says. “There’s increasing pressures and demand on land that’s available. We know that where there’s constraints in terms of resources, we’ll someday have business impacts associated with them.”

To build the business case for alternative fibers, Nelson’s team examined a whole range of characteristics for several materials including bamboo and wheat straw, a product left over from wheat farming. They looked at fiber characteristics, biomass available, processing requirements and whether the infrastructure needed for processing was available. The group also identified barriers to commercializing the materials, along with broader trends that could affect the supply.

After a year of initial R&D tests, bamboo appears to have become the focus in the company’s alternative fiber strategy. Kimberly Clark is also evaluating other candidates, Nelson said, but declined to disclose more information.

With its ability to grow four times faster than trees — and without fertilizer, pesticides or a lot of water — the towering plant from Asia is a favorite for companies specializing in sustainable goods. As a result, the bamboo goods market has grown into a robust industry within the past ten years.

According to Susanne Lucas, executive director of the World Bamboo Organization, an industry association, the annual global bamboo market is currently estimated at $7 billion a year. In 2017, it’s expected to more than double to $17 billion, she says, due to increasing commercial applications such as combustion, pyrolysis, fibers, metabolites, water purification and phyto-remediation.

For Kimberly-Clark, bamboo’s ability to grow in the southeastern U.S. as well as be processed locally at wood pulping plants is significant, as the company won’t need to invest in new infrastructure, Nelson said.

Of course, Kimberly-Clark isn’t the first company to take steps toward sourcing sustainable bamboo. Cape Cod, Mass.-based Bum Boosa, which makes bamboo toilet paper and baby wipes, sources its bamboo from an FSC-certified supplier in China, according to owner Sonja Sheasley. Sheasley says she turned to a Chinese source since they accept smaller orders.

But for companies as large as Kimberly-Clark, volume is a problem.

Because bamboo only flowers once every 60 to 100 years, there hasn’t been enough of a supply to keep up with the demand. Bamboo forests around the world have been overharvested to meet consumer demand. In fact, half of all bamboo species are at risk of extinction due to forest destruction, according to a report issued by the United Nations.

Upturning sourcing on its end

But Kimberly-Clark’s development deal with Booshoot, a tiny biotech upstart located north of Seattle in Mt. Vernon, Wash., has the potential to upturn bamboo sourcing on its end — for the better.

Over the course of 12 years, Booshoot developed a now-patented method using non-genetically modified tissue culture to grow large volumes of bamboo fast enough for it to be sourced at commercial scale.

“We shattered that scientific bottleneck … it’s really a complicated cloning process,” said biologist Jackie Heinricher, Booshoot’s founder.

Booshoot’s technology created the solution Kimberly-Clark was looking for: A way to develop a recycled fiber source that could deliver the high volume it needed in a sustainable and economical way.

The deal

Under its development deal, Booshoot is providing Kimberly-Clark with tens of thousands of bamboo starts for its R&D projects.

The goal: to bring bamboo into the company’s fiber fold.

Kimberly-Clark is testing the plants to see if they can grow efficiently, and whether the fiber will hold up to standards expected by consumers, such as strength and softness.

Though not exclusive, the focus is on the Moso species, a giant that grows up to 100 feet tall, produces more fiber than wood and captures four times more carbon than most trees. Because of its fast growth, less land is needed to grow bamboo fiber when compared to the same amount of wood fiber. It can be harvested in less than a decade.

If the material passes the tests, Kimberly-Clark will become the largest grower and processor of bamboo in the U.S.

Nelson said her company is also investigating how to process bamboo “with a lighter footprint, less complex processing and a higher yield” than the predominant method currently used, which includes carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide among its inputs. Bamboo goods company Bum Boosa employs a processor that uses water, steam and friction to pulp the cellulose, Sheasley said.

Kimberly-Clark’s trials are being conducted with the potential of using bamboo in products across all types of its tissue products, Nelson said.

Working with a team of external consultants and advisors, the company is also conducting a lifecycle analysis for its products that might be manufactured with bamboo.

“It’s challenging – especially in this case to do a LCA on something theoretical,” Nelson said. “We can’t say for sure when the work will be done. But if it shows a negative impact on the total lifecycle, that would cause us to pause.”

One of the issues that the team is investigating is whether bamboo could have an invasive effect on local ecosystems — something that’s commonly associated with the plant.

The ripple effect

“It’s a really bold move,” said Richard Brooks, a Greenpeace forest campaigner in Toronto, Canada, who led the successful campaign against Kimberly-Clark that ended in 2009.

Brooks predicts Kimberly-Clark’s alternative fiber goal will send ripples throughout fiber supply chains.

“We’ve seen it before,” he said. “You can be sure there are other Fortune 500 companies looking into alternative fibers.”

“It’s actually hard for companies to be the first to make the first move,” Brooks said. “We’re seeing Kimberly-Clark make the move, get early adopter status and benefits — and other companies quickly follow them.”

It’s not clear yet whether Procter & Gamble and Georgia Pacific — Kimberly-Clark’s largest competitors in the market — will follow suit.

In the months following Kimberly-Clark’s announcement, Brooks reports that an increasing number of companies around the world who source fiber — and their pulp suppliers — are asking Greenpeace for guidance about alternatives.

“The conversations we’re having with these companies are more sophisticated,” he says. “They’re seriously exploring how to start purchasing these types of pulp.”

Brooks, who thinks the 50 percent reduction goal by 2025 is “realistic,” gives credit to Kimberly-Clark. “It’s the first time we’ve seen a large announcement that puts a number out there and puts research dollars behind it,” he said.

Still, he cautions that there are some actions that the company needs to take as part of its effort to source alternative fiber at commercial scale.

“There is no third party certification system for alternative fibers. Right now, Kimberly-Clark needs to come together with other companies and define some minimum criteria before certification is set up,” he said, referring to social, labor and environmental standards.

He also emphasizes that any potential use of post-agricultural wheat straw must be weighed in consideration with the global food supply.

Clark has been working with Kimberly-Clark along with a group of other external advisors on developing a socially and environmentally responsible alternative fiber supply chain.

“We know that we can’t do this alone,” Nelson said. “Getting the right partnerships in place, identifying the stakeholders and who to have conversations with — it’s all important to be successful.”

“It really is the next step of where the pulp and paper sector and companies need to go,” Brooks said. “We simply don’t have enough forests to be able to supply the growing demands of consumers.”

Photo of bamboo in test tubes courtesy of Booshoot

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One grower’s $17 million quest for a greener tomato

GreenBiz | August 30, 2012

More than 15 years ago, Casey Houweling ventured from his native Canada to start raising his tomatoes in the Southern California sunshine. From Romas to grape tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine, Houweling’s Tomatoes grows a wide range of GMO-free varieties at its outpost in Camarillo, Calif. in addition to its original facility in British Columbia, Canada.

It’s a massive operation. Each year, rows and rows of plants inside the company’s glass-enclosed greenhouses produce over 108 million pounds. Growing the tomatoes hydroponically — without the use of soil — enables Houweling to use less water, yield more on less land and save money. He has also outfitted his greenhouses with solar panels, reuses water and recycles or composts the majority of the company’s waste.

Over the last three years, Houweling has aimed to boost productivity even more — and reduce his environmental impact further — by making a major investment.

He recently unveiled the fruits of that investment: a new 125-acre greenhouse powered by two high-efficient, two-stage turbocharged gas-powered GE Jenbacher J624 engines. The combined heat and power (CHP) system can produce 8.7 megawatts of electrical power — enough to run about 8,800 homes — and goes beyond capturing and reusing heat, as traditional cogeneration systems do.

It also captures CO2 which can then be pumped in to the greenhouse as a fertilizer, as well as water that can be used in facility operations.

As the first commercial CHP greenhouse in the U.S., it’s arguably poised to become the most efficient in the country, and is expected to increase tomato production by 20 percent.

The system makes use of excess low grade heat and water released during production which would normally be wasted, according to GE spokesperson Scott Nolen. And since all of its power output won’t be needed 24 hours a day, Houweling plans to sell the excess power back to the grid.

“From a common sense perspective it seemed like a no-brainer,” Houweling said, reflecting back to his mindset when he first took on the project financed by lease and equity from company profits.

Yet by the time the greenhouse is ready for use, he’ll have spent a total of $17 million — with no idea what his financial return will be.

Certain risk, uncertain reward

Common sense?

As a self-proclaimed risk-taker, Houweling thinks so.

“If we waited for certainty for every decision we make in our facility, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said.

“We take a lot more risk than other companies and this has been the biggest risk,” he added, acknowledging that Houweling’s size (with $150 million in annual revenue) lowers the level of risk in comparison to its smaller counterparts.

Houweling said he experienced a defining moment in 2008 after expanding on the final 40 acres needed to build the last in a series of greenhouses at his Camarillo facility.

“I looked at it and said ‘I want it to be completely energy neutral,’” he said. For once, he realized, he wanted to build something that didn’t create any pollution.

How it works

The system’s heat output is stored in up to one million gallons of water that are then available to warm the greenhouses on demand. On top of that, the nitrogen oxide (NOx) produced by the system’s exhaust gas is converted into CO2 and water.

The CO2 is then vented into the greenhouse as fertilizer, while the water — estimated to be about 9,500 gallons a day — will be used in the greenhouse.

According to David Bell, a spokesperson for Houweling’s Tomatoes, most of the NOx — a known air pollutant — is eliminated during the NOx conversion to water and CO2.

“Although a portion of the CO2 will be absorbed by the tomatoes, it is not expected that the tomatoes would absorb the air toxics from the cogeneration units,” Bell said.

In contrast to the 5 parts per million by volume (ppmv) emitted by the new CHP system, greenhouses at Houweling’s Tomatoes that are heated by boilers are permitted to emit up to 40 ppmv NOx, he said.

Improvements aside, Houweling said getting the system online has presented many challenges, namely because he is the first to operate a U.S. facility using the Jenbacher J624. The other Jenbacher J624 engines operated as part of a CHP system are installed in greenhouses across the world.

Houweling reports spending $10 million in equipment and $7 million in infrastructure costs. That includes getting the facility ready for permitting and establishing interconnecting power between the greenhouse to the grid managed by Southern California Edison, the regional electric utility.

The biggest challenge was getting the green light to sell power back to the grid.

While the application to interconnect power and the facility permits have been approved, Houweling said the system has been delayed from going online due to the lack of a full-capacity power purchase agreement from California’s grid operator, the California Independent System Operator.

Though the facility is equipped to generate 8.7 MW — with an additional 4.4 MW in capacity anticipated to come online in the future — it’s currently allowed to sell just 2 MW.

In Houweling’s opinion, the hurdles stem from “the way the American electrical power distribution is set up — having a big centralized power generating station and distributing power to where the demand is,” he said. “What we’re doing is producing the power where the demand is.

“There’s hundreds of documents you have to sign and read through — just to sell your electricity to the grid,” he said. “You can’t estimate the time or cost it takes to build it.”

What delays could cost

As a result, Houweling expects he won’t be able to take the system online until Jan. 1, 2013 — four months later than he initially planned.

And he still isn’t even completely sure he’ll be able to fire up the facility in early 2013. “We could be sitting idle for another year after this –- costing us $15,000 a day,” he said.

Houweling says if he knew three years ago what he knows now, he’s not sure if he would do it again.

Still, interested parties did make the trek out West to see the Jenbacher J624 in action. “There were people from the East Coast here mostly from utilities, someone from Alaska that was interested in doing something, and other industry people,” he said.

But based on what Houweling’s Tomatoes, GE and California government agencies learned from the experience, Houweling said, companies interested in investing in the equipment and getting it online in the U.S. will have others to draw upon for advice.

If not for all the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles, Houweling is convinced many more growers in the U.S. would be adopting the system.

But the path to getting a CHP system up and running might be less bumpy in the future, thanks to a directive issued just this morning from the White House. The Executive Order aims to increase the amount of CHP-generated industrial power in the U.S. by 40 GW by the end of 2020. Assistance will take the form of technical guidance, financial incentives and assistance to states.

California is perhaps one of the best-positioned to receive that help. The state is working towards a goal of boosting the amount of power produced by CHP facilities by 6500 MW — also by 2020.

And while it’s definitely “uncharted territory” in Canada, Houweling says — GE operates one Jenbacher J624 in Ontario and it’s primarily a standby facility — since the government manages and owns the electrical distribution, he expects fewer hurdles to overcome than in the U.S.

Lessons learned

Companies interested in installing the technology should “be prepared at how difficult this is going to be,” Houweling said. “Go into it knowing you can’t set the timeline and you don’t know the cost.”

Houweling acknowledges that these two factors make it difficult to finance such a project.

In addition to GE, Houweling recommends Western Energy Systems, GE’s distributor and installer for the cogeneration technology that works alongside its Jenbacher J264 engines, as a resource throughout the process.

“I would use them on lean on them and be much more diligent to be very sure that you have all questions answered,” he said. “Give a lot of time,” he added.

Companies should allow 15-18 months to go through the process before the equipment arrives on site, Houweling said.

While Houweling’s Tomatoes is the only company in the U.S. that is using the Jenbacher J624 as part of a commercial operation, GE’s Nolen is optimistic.

“This is an early gate launch of the project,” he said. “ We’re really hopeful. Market research people want to see it work in the U.S. first, as they’re risk averse.”

In the meantime, Nolen says that GE is working on an even more efficient engine as a followup to the Jenbacher J624, which at 46 percent efficiency runs as the highest in its class. “We’re pushing to get to 50 percent,” he said. “But this doesn’t happen overnight.”

Photo of Casey Houweling in company greenhouse courtesy of Houweling’s Tomatoes

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