Environmental Innovations to Give You Hope

Find out why the planet’s not dead yet

Mother Earth (Opener)

image by Jude Buffum

Content Tools

This article is part of a package brushing off the gloom and doom with good green news. Also included are:
Tomorrowland : An eco-smart urban design competition turns “what ifs” into “what is”
Hiring Mother Earth To Do Her Thing : Are capitalists the new conservationists?
Green All the Lawyers : Legal expert Mary Wood on how Lady Justice could tip the scales
In Praise Of Economic Pain : The threat of recession could lead to an environmental boon
Special Online Project: Mother Earth’s Big Comeback

Green Building : Back to Basics

“Green building” is a media darling—it’s chic, sleek, and upwardly mobile. Depending on the scale and spirit of the coverage, says the Walrus (May 2008), it can also be a false promise: “In the interest of looking sufficiently slick for the photo shoots,” the magazines opines, high-end consumer periodicals often gloss over decades of humble experimentation in affordable, small-scale sustainable housing.

New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds, for example, uses recycled automobile tires to build homes completely off the grid. Other buildings are made from straw bales, adobe, compressed earth, cordwood, and cob.

While these techniques won’t make the cover of Vanity Fair’s next “green” issue, they share commendable qualities. They are time-tested (adobe and other types of earth building are among the oldest known); they are labor-intensive and low-tech, consuming less energy in the building phase; and they are relatively simple to construct, which, by shifting the workload to homeowners, increases affordability.

Structures that are dependent on concrete and steel will never solve the energy crisis, no matter how many solar panels or gray-water recycling plants are attached to them. Like biofuels, fixing up what already exists is simply a transitional step toward truly sustainable living. Fortunately, now that the building industry is moving forward, the technology exists to keep them on a righteous path—with or without the sexy cover spread.

Recyclable Housing

 A typical house is built with materials designed to last a lifetime. Yet many are torn down after two or three decades—a throwaway approach that environmentalists have long fought. Now a handful of green thinkers are wondering whether it’s time to embrace our nomadic natures and build homes that are designed not to last.

The idea is already creeping into the green building industry. It’s long been possible to build homes in a factory, which is more efficient than conventional construction. Today these modular structures, with smarter designs, can be disassembled and reused or recycled, a key quality in what’s known as cradle-to-cradle design, popularized by architect William McDonough.

To illustrate how sophisticated this concept is becoming, TreeHugger.com (June 5, 2008) points to a modular prototype designed by Oakland-based Michelle Kaufmann Designs for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry that uses half as much energy as a standard new construction.

Even more radical: biodegradable products that simply melt away on the compost pile when they’re no longer useful.

According to TriplePundit.com (June 10, 2008), architects and furniture designers already are experimenting with “biopolymers” such as corn-based plastics that break down with virtually no pollution. While they’re far from a panacea, these high-tech degradables, combined with traditional building methods that use natural materials like earth and straw, could help shrink the footprint of the average American abode.

The Energy Internet

If you hear the phrase “energy intelligence” being bandied about, don’t worry: It’s not a new IQ standard that deems SUV drivers below average or bicyclists geniuses. The term refers to a system that manages power generation and use in a more efficient, responsive manner—“the energy equivalent of the Internet,” as Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn describe it in Earth: The Sequel (Norton, 2008). This web would draw electricity from where it is abundant and send it to where it is needed, reducing the demand for new power plants and offering more flexibility for incorporating renewable sources like wind and sun.

Forward-thinking investors are already all over the concept, with venture capitalists sinking more than $434 million into energy intelligence in 2007, write Krupp and Horn. One company, Virginia-based GridPoint, has developed a device—a refrigerator-sized “smart battery” that utilities can install in customers’ basements—that has been called “TiVo for electricity.” The battery stores and releases energy based on various factors, including cost and demand, which saves the user money by avoiding the power peaks that can tax the power grid.

Other innovations give consumers information about how much power they’re using at any given time. Instead of staring down those cryptic spinning wheels on electric meters, users see a clear digital readout of how much energy is being consumed, as well as its cost. In one pilot program, according to California (Jan.-Feb. 2008), people who had this information at their fingertips cut their energy use by a whopping 40 percent.

Most important of all, concludes Mother Jones (May-June 2008), is the notion of decentralized power generation. Unlike coal and nuclear power, next-generation energy sources don’t require any massive central investment. You can have your own power plant in a solar panel or flat-profile wind turbine on your roof. Linking millions of these power sources into regional networks will make our energy cleaner, safer, and steadier.

Sun City redefined

In the United Arab Emirates, a mere 90 miles down the Persian Gulf coast from Dubai, poster child for conspicuous consumption, planning is under way for a wholly different urban paradise tucked away in the capital of Abu Dhabi. Already known as Masdar City, it will outfit 80 percent of its roof space with photovoltaic panels to harvest the desert sun and power the homes of some 50,000 residents, says Green Futures (April 2008). Being promoted as the world’s first car-free, zero-carbon, no-waste city, Masdar is the result of a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund’s One Planet Living program and the capital’s Masdar Initiative, which launched in 2006 with the aim of making Abu Dhabi a leader in sustainable technology. The first phase ought to be habitable by 2009, with project completion scheduled for 2016.

When It Rains, It Powers

Scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission in France are developing technology that captures the energy of falling raindrops and turns it into electric power, reports Plenty (June-July 2008). To date, they’re studying a process that would energize wireless storm sensors, which require a small, reliable power source. And the technology appears to have wider applications.

Piezoelectricity, as the process is called, was officially designated in the 1880s, and if you’ve punched the button on a gas grill, you’ve seen it in action. When certain substances (including bone molecules) are squeezed, they let out a tiny burst of electricity that can be used to spark propane or charge a battery or maybe, someday, light up a skyscraper. As a result of the French experiments, it’s thought that the pressure of just 5,000 large raindrops could produce enough power to fire up a 60-watt lightbulb.

Life on a Lilypad

Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut has drawn up blueprints for Lilypad, a bustling amphibian city—half terrestrial, half aquatic—that would house 50,000 residents and integrate several renewable energy sources (including wind, tidal, solar, and thermal power) as it travels along cool and warm currents in the world’s oceans. The self-sufficient floating structure is modeled after the ribbed leaves of Victoria amazonica, a giant water lily native to the Amazon.

Callebaut imagines Lilypad as an ecopolis for climate refugees, whose numbers are expected to increase as water levels continue to rise, threatening homes and livelihoods from Mumbai to Miami.

Super Suckers

Scum-sucker may soon be a compliment: Scientists are looking to the water-filtering properties of underwater fauna to clean up polluted waterways, reports Plenty (June-July 2008). Oysters, freshwater mussels, and other bivalve mollusks pump dozens of gallons of water through their bodies every day. The shellfish slurp up excess nutrients like nitrogen, preventing algae blooms, and filter heavy metals, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pushing out truly purified water. Researchers are still iffy on whether animals used as an aquaculture clean-up crew could also be sold for human consumption. Fresh- and salt-water sponges are unlikely to end up on our dinner plates anytime soon, though, and the ancient poriferans can siphon hundreds of gallons of water a day, eliminating everything from bacteria to PCBs.

Soil: Back in Black

Reviving an ancient Amazonian farming method could bring fertile soil to the world’s most unproductive lands. The secret ingredient is biochar, a type of charcoal produced by heating organic waste (crop residues, manure, even peanut shells) without oxygen, a chemical process known as pyrolysis. When it’s mixed with soil, biochar “enhances the retention of water and nutrients, decreases the need for fertilizer, encourages microbial growth, and allows more air to reach crop roots,” the Boston Globe reported in April. In short, the soil is more fertile; and the land is more productive.

Another potential perk is that it’s possible the charcoal-enriched soil could keep carbon sequestered for hundreds of years, making biochar a farm-friendly weapon in the battle to stem climate change.

Return of the Bees

Whatever is causing honeybees to disappear—pesticides, cell phones, impending armageddon—isn’t hitting the 4,000 bee species native to various parts of the United States, according to Audubon (May-June 2008). More farmers are discovering that long-horned bees, sweat bees, and other native varieties can pollinate certain crops (such as cherry tomatoes, almonds, peppers, and squash) just as efficiently as their better-known brethren.

Native bees don’t require hives or honey to do their work, but they don’t show up uninvited. They need a bit of natural habitat: native plants, a patch of weeds, a pile of twigs, maybe a few trees here or there. Polyculture helps too; with a variety of crops, flowers bloom throughout the season, giving the bees plenty to eat.

Suing the Spin Doctors

Carbon dioxide is good for us. Global warming is a conspiracy of mad scientists. Everything’s going to be just dandy. So go the slick ad campaigns and shoddy science of think tanks doing damage control for their fossil fuel–industry funders. Finally, a team of lawyers has decided the time has come to calculate the damages of this misinformation. The Atlantic (June 2008) reports that a federal suit filed in February targets 24 oil, coal, and electric companies not only for contributing to the climate changes that are making the Alaskan Eskimo village of Kivalina uninhabitable, but also for conspiring to deceive the public about global warming. Sound like a Hail Mary pass? It did 10 years ago, too, when the strategy bested Big Tobacco for covering up the health effects of smoking.