The letter C is chock-full in the climatetech space. I mean, come on now! Climatetech itself starts with c. I hope this post is fun for you. Please don't hesitate to reach out if you're sparked by this in any way. I looooove collaborators and really can't do this thang alone. If this project generates revenue I'll share it, I promise! Here are links to A (Accelerators & Slack Communities) and B (Biomimicry, Bikeshare, Biodegradable, and Biodigesters).
To be honest, I don't feel great about giving carbon the first position here, as it ALWAYS gets first position in the climate conversation. Really folks, we should probably be talking about water before we talk about carbon... But whatevs, I'll go with it.
So, carbon. What can be said that hasn't already been said? It's atomic number 6 on the periodic table, meaning that it has 6 protons in an atom. Its atomic weight is 12.011. It is in the same family as Boron, Nitrogen, Lithium, Berylium, Oxygen, Fluorine, and Neon. From The Guardian,
Carbon is a very abundant element. It exists in pure or nearly pure forms – such as diamonds and graphite – but can also combine with other elements to form molecules. These carbon-based molecules are the basic building blocks of humans, animals, plants, trees and soils. Some greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane, also consist of carbon-based molecules, as do fossil fuels, which are largely made up of hydrocarbons (molecules consisting of hydrogen and carbon).
The whole field of organic chemistry is oriented around carbon-based molecules. Some of the most well-known compounds are carbon-based. Caffeine, carbon steel, cannabinoids, plants, animals.... you get the picture. I won't keep going at risk of embarrassing myself - The fine folks at CK-12, an education platform, can take it from here.
In climate action, the conversation is dominated by a focus on greenhouse gasses, which are released into the atmosphere from processes that involve heat. The atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 2% water vapor, and less than 1% argon, carbon dioxide, methane, and other gasses. Carbon dioxide is 0.000004%, or 400 parts out of every 1 million parts of the atmosphere.
The common theory is that increased greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere keeps heat from escaping back into space. Let's be sure not to focus all of our energies on the problem: it's important to use Root Cause Analysis to ask, where did it come from, and ... hold on, wait a second, why is the environment polluted? That ain't right. So should we focus on carbon or should we focus on ending pollution and regenerating the environment? I say, let the chemists focus on the carbon, and the rest of us, let's defend the environment and participate in her splendor. Project Drawdown has identified 100 ways to reverse global warming using technologies and methods that already exist today. Amazing!
Compost is what you get when wet, organic materials break down in a biological process, forming something you add to soil to increase its microbiological activity.
From Common Ground Compost in NYC, these are the 3 phases of hot composting:
1. Mesophilic (moderate temperature), lasting for a couple of days
Temperature reaches up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and beyond. There is rapid growth of Mesophilic bacteria and fungi, that breakdown soluble sugars and starches, causing the temperature to rise.
2. Thermophilic (high temperature), a few weeks
As temperatures increase well beyond 120 degrees F, Thermophilic bacteria, actinomycetes, and heat-tolerant fungi populate the pile. They break down proteins, fats, hemicellulose and cellulose. Eventually, the organisms begin to run out of food, and so the temperature of the compost pile drops.
3. Mesophilic Curing, several months
Temperatures drop back down below 140 degrees F, allowing Mesophilic actinomycetes, bacteria, and fungi to enter the pile. Over this several month period, the microorganisms break down lignin and other highly resistant compounds.
Compost is an old-school land-based technology that was developed back in the days before "trash" was a thing. Folks who grew up in rural areas know about this because it's the method to turn food scraps into fertilizer for the fields. As humans have become more and more distant from the land, they have begun doing dumb things like putting wet food scraps into plastic bags, where it is mixed with all kinds of other things, like plastics (from oil and gas) and papers (from trees). You know this. I know this.
Ok, ok I'm being harsh calling humans dumb. Fine, I take it back. There are all kinds of potentially good reasons that food scraps are put to waste in this manner. Back in the Tenement days of NYC, tuberculosis was rampant, in part because people dumped feces out their windows. Naturally, human culture wants to survive, and so the response was, no bacteria, keep it clean, keep it sterile.
But the constant human endeavor toward sterility has resulted in big, noise and air pollution-spewing trucks, methane leaks in landfills, and Monsanto patenting seeds and creating unhealthy dependency with farmers. Meanwhile, compost still works, and those of us who are passionate about it know that it is possible, accessible, easy, and fun! You can even use wriggling worms to turn food scraps into something you can put on your soil.
Normally I'm all like, "NO ACRONYMS THEY LEAVE PEOPLE OUT!" But in this case, there's a purpose... I want you and your community to know, CSA is Community-Supported Agriculture.
The way CSAs usually work is, you, the customer, pay the farm for a season's worth of produce, usually from early summer to late fall. It might contain vegetables or herbs, fruit, dairy, eggs, or meat. Every week or two, the farm fills a box with food, and they bring it to a central location near where you live or work. You pick it up, and BOOM, farm-fresh food right to your kitchen.
My experience with CSAs is that many times, especially in peak season, you get more produce than you know what to do with. You also get exposed to new items and sometimes the farm will include recipes in the box, so you can use their goodies.
Some CSAs take place on-farm, like at Seed Song in Kingston, NY, where every week, CSA members go to the farm and take a prescribed number of each item that is grown. Some of the produce you pick yourself, like tomatoes and sunflowers. There's nothing quite like leaving the farm with an overflowing bag of fresh cucumbers, lettuces, tomatoes, flowers, you name it...
If you live in a place where there are farms within 50-100 miles, there is likely a CSA nearby. According to my research, there are over 100 CSA programs available to people who live in NYC.
Community-Supported Agriculture is an important piece of a society that produces no waste and nourishes its citizens.
If you follow my writing, you know that I'm passionate about bicycles, pedestrian access, and zero-emissions transportation. I even worked as a fixed-gear bicycle courier in NYC back in the day. Cargo bikes are one of these climatetech's that many people don't think about. Whether the bike is extended, with the cargo in the front or the rear, or the bike is actually a trike, with a large box on its rear end, or the bike is electrified and is pulling a trailer, this is the future of urban cargo transportation.
Pair cargo bikes with bike-shares, and you have an interesting and disruptive model.
Urban infrastructure is currently at the forefront of cargo bike deployment. Cities like NYC are still trying to figure out how to paint bike lanes, and haven't yet ascended to the level of allocating space specifically for cargo bicycles. It is also a cultural issue, as urban areas try to figure out how to move away from being car-centric. Those of us who dream of car-free lives have no doubt thought about electrified bicycles, and cargo is a natural extension of that.
I will refrain from linking to particular cargo bike and electrified bike companies, because all you need to do is a quick Google search.
Here's a jump-off point: The International Cargo Bike Festival
Controlled Environment Agriculture
ACRONYM ALERT: Folks in the Controlled Environment Agriculture space sometimes call it CEA. I won't join them in doing this, because that's an acronym that won't ever be understood outside of the space. Just a heads-up y'all.
Controlled Environment Agriculture is the method of growing plants indoors, using sensors to measure light, moisture, temperature, pH, and other metrics relevant to plants. Indoor agricultural technology connects sensors to timers that turn on and off specialty lights and nutrient feeder systems, and uses logic to determine when to give the plant what it wants. It can be done at a large scale, and there are a few companies doing this, with names like Bowery Farming and AeroFarms. You might even see Bowery Farming's produce on the shelf at your local grocery store.
Controlled Environment Agriculture is a hyper-literal term for farming indoors. Indoor farming can fill a need in dense urban areas or in disaster areas where local agriculture does not exist or can't feed the people. The "deep sustainability" perspective is: indoor farming is a product of the system which has polluted the Earth, since it relies on global networks of electronics supply chains and server farms, and exists independent of its local environment, and so it is not truly a regenerative solution. But, at the same time, there is a niche purpose for it, and any amount of deeper study into plants and their preferred conditions is a good thing.
MIT's Food Computer was one initiative to take the research done for indoor agriculture and publish it for use. Colleagues of mine who are alumni of the MIT food computer lab began working to commercialize a food computer, and ended up developing a "seed quilt" technology instead, which I find absolutely brilliant, as it requires no computers and uses sun and water to grow its plants.
What the heck is "community solar?" Sounds cool, right? Basically, community solar is a shared solar farm. The way it generally works is a private company will build a solar farm, connect it to to the electric grid, and "rate payers," (people who pay the bill), can sign up for their energy use to draw from that solar farm. In some states, such as New York, power utilities are required by the state government to have solar energy assets on their grid, and community solar is a method by which private financing can fund renewable energy in a risk-reduced way.
Another term in the community solar space is "distributed energy resources." This brings us to the concept of a microgrid, which breaks down the electric grid into its fundamentals, and then builds it from the ground-up, with a system that is sized for the required energy draw from the community.
Basic microgrid components are:
Generation: Solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, geothermal or air-source, etc
Storage: Chemical battery, mechanical battery
Computers for Logic: Negotiate with the grid based on demand and availability
Here is an image from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority's website on Microgrid's 101:
Microgrids can be connected to the main grid, or disconnected, if the power utility allows it. Some do, some don't. "Island mode" is when a microgrid operates separate from the "big grid." Chakka bradda!
Another related term for community solar is net metering. The concept of net metering is that when a solar farm feeds power to the grid, the owner will be credited for the generated power. Some places have solid net metering options, and some places don't. My experence in NY State has shown me that that even if net metering exists in your area, it is not guaranteed, as the state government can change the rules without your involvement. Activist nonprofits do the hard work of challenging energy utilities in court, and there are opportunities for federal laws to be changed to facilitate the decoupling of economic growth and energy growth, a necessary step to transition away from fossil fuels.
Back to the topic of Community Solar.
Generally, people sign up for community solar because they want to know that their electricity use is coming from the sun, and not from fossil fuels. In some places, community solar saves money (I've seen 10% savings) because of government incentive programs that force community solar power to cost less. In other places, community solar can be more expensive. My outlook on community solar is neutral. It is a wonderful innovation between people, climate activists, government, financiers, and power utilities and a "bridge" technology to bring more renewables on the grid, but it can be better. If you're in New York State and want to learn more about community solar options for you, you can read a study I performed while working with Citizens For Local Power in 2019, click here.
Basically you take some curved mirrors and arrange them at an angle so that they reflect the sun's rays toward an energy-transfer medium, usually a salt. You transfer that heat into water or another liquid, which is used to turn a turbine, which creates electricity, which can then be stored or sent into the local grid.
Concentrated Solar Power always reminds me of James Bond.
The World Bank Climate Investment Fund recently invested $945 million into concentrated solar power throughout Africa, so this is definitely a viable technology. If you think $945m is a lot of money, well, a quick internet search for "cost to build a new power plant" will reveal that this is well in the range of expected costs for a new power plant.
Not much more to say on this subject, other than that concentrated solar might be in the running for the "coolest" climatetech award (Coolest? Hottest? Hmm... oh, superlatives...)
Cradle to Cradle
Last, but very much not least, is Cradle to Cradle. This is the title of a book by that name, released in 1999, promising to teach us the art of "Remaking the Way Things Are Made."
Cradle to Cradle is the update to "cradle to grave," where instead of some hypothetical "grave" for the product, every material contained in the product and its packaging has a new life at the end of its life. Manufacturing has been slow to adopt a cradle-to-cradle approach, but with growing consumer demand for zero-waste, non-polluting, regenerating products, this adoption will accelerate. It is also goes by another name that is growing in popularity: the circular economy.
You may have heard of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which is the main method by which environmental impacts are compared across different products. Here's the kicker about Life Cycle Assessments: end-of-life of the product ain't included.
That's right, folks. The product pollution issue we're dealing with is straight-up not even counted in the environmental assessment of the product. Cradle-to-cradle gets right to the heart of the issue: what is going to happen to the product and its constituent materials once it has reached the end of its useful life?
Related concepts include Extended Producer Responsibility, where manufacturers are required by law to take back an equivalent amount of the material they send out into the world. This too has been slow to adopt. According to Earth911.com, in 2020,
there are 19 states with multiple mandated EPR programs. California has eight statewide product stewardship programs. They also have several county-level pharmaceutical programs, and one in the City of San Francisco. California has EPR for batteries, carpets, cell phones, green chemistry, mattresses, paint, pesticide containers, and mercury thermostats. Maine and Vermont tie for second place with seven EPR laws each. Nationwide, the most common EPR laws regulate electronics waste and products containing mercury. Eighty percent of the 83 statewide EPR laws cover products with toxic constituents, primarily mercury.
The way Earth911 puts it, it sounds like we're in pretty decent shape - hey White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, can you get someone in charge of this? :-) (Who is Gina McCarthy? Hear her talk on How to Save a Planet podcast from January 2021)
So... where does Cradle to Cradle stand today?
It is a product certification that you might see on products you purchase, governed by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. It is a governing principle that you can use, a portal to see a future that we actually want to be a part of. Borrow the book from the library, learn about it, study it online, and tell your friends. You will be a solo voice on this, as the manufacturing sector is currently not feeling the pressure to do it themselves, and in fact, they have no interest in you knowing about it either.
But I want you to know. So, there you go.
Till Next Time,
Your Humble Host & Narrator,