For a start-up to succeed, it needs a well defined map of the world. That map needs to be as distorted as the famous “New Yorker’s View of the World from 9th Avenue.” This cartoon portrays a map of the world beyond the Hudson River that is a barren landscape marked only by Utah and Las Vegas before a tiny Los Angeles lies at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. China, Japan and Russia appear as sand dunes that mark the far edges of the world. Similarly, water tech companies have to see the world not only in terms of where water is scarce, but also where customers will pay a premium for advanced technologies. They need to define their view of the world based on where new technology can gain momentum.
Advanced science and engineering are changing the face of telephony and communications, as well as energy and healthcare, but it hasn’t yet reshaped water technology. For example, eyes primary approach to treating sewage worldwide today, the activated sludge process, was invented over 100 years ago. It applies oxygen and bacteria to sewage to reduce the organic components. Despite incremental improvements, activated sludge processing remains largely unchanged in those hundred years, and is an important target for improvement. This process alone uses over 60% of the electricity required for sewage treatment.
The market opportunity for innovation is massive for innovation in activated sludge is massive, with a global municipal market of $2.2 billion, and an industrial market of $1.8 billion.
The Stanford study compares the levels of innovation in renewable energy and water, as measured by patents filed.
Simply raising the price of water services could have a dramatic impact on driving new solutions forward. Studies have found that higher energy prices encourage greater investment by energy users in conservation technologies.
“We see water scarcity in the Western US as an opportunity to consider new and innovative solutions and direct new funding into water innovation,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Newsha Ajami. “On a separate effort, we are working with policy leaders and utility officials to identify how financing models and policies from renewable energy and energy efficiency in California has led adoption of solar and wind, and might apply some of those models for driving water tech.” Ajami cites new models “virtual water trading on the local level” that mimick solar feedback tariffs and government sponsored funding mechanisms as some examples for the future.
Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and California Governor Jerry Brown made a unique appearance on Monday at Stanford University.
“The answer is not to go back to a presumed utopia, we’ve got to manage what we have. In a state of 38 million people, we’ve got a management challenge that will take all of the innovation, collaboration and magic of the marketplace.”
California is a “canary in the coal mine” for the world as the state faces an unprecedented drought, combined with new reductions on its critical water supply from the Colorado river. Water scarcity is devastating the economies of the Western US: California agriculture lost $2.2 billion in 2014 alone Texas has lost $25 billion since 2011 because of drought, and Las Vegas is spending $1 billion for a third pipe and a lower level into Lake Mead to tap into its dwindling waters.
There is a fundamental mismatch between the US water infrastructure and the water services requirements for the next decade. As water supplies dry up, water pollution will become more concentrated. In order to tap into the estimated 5.2 to 7.1 million acre-feet of water supply from storm water and reclaimed sewage, California will need to build a second water utility system– onsite and community water systems. The state will need to move fast to set policy and monitoring for these remote systems.
If he wins in November, Brown promised to “put water up front and center.” With over a century of brutal politics around water, California water policy is not for the faint of heart. In what many expect to be Brown’s last term in office, changing the face of California water would set a promient place Brown in the history books.
Roger Sorkin is aiming for his new documentary, The Burden to take a place beside The Inconvenient Truth as a harbinger of a new epoch in American popular history. Instead of images of polar bears struggling to stay afloat in a melting Arctic Ocean, The Burden juxtaposes images of US military casualties amidst the smoking ruins of fuel trucks with footage of senior DOD officials speaking about strategic role of renewable energy. At the movie’s center, combat soldiers speak about the personal toll of those supply line attacks. “In a three month span, I buried two guys,” says Iraq war veteran Jon Gensler during the film’s first minutes. “Every time I squeeze the gas pump, I’d think about them.”
The Burden makes a powerful, gut-level connection between renewable energy solutions and the US defense effort. The central theme is simple and clear: oil dependence threatens national security, and renewable energy is a tool for military strategy. Unlike Inconvenient Truth, The Burden does not build a new message for the public, but instead shows us why soldiers and veterans are already driving renewable energy. It shows how former Marine Greg Ballard, Mayor of Indianapolis, is converting his city to zero emissions and how Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn sees the strategic impact of renewable energy. These aren’t environmentalists, and they’re not business people, these are soldiers from the front lines. A dry story of innovation and the next frontier for technology would not have gained the kind of high profile support in Congress and within the military if it hadn’t tapped into this emotional, deeply resonant message.
To my mind, The Burden challenges those of us seeking out drivers for water tech to find another high-powered, gut-level message about the value of water tech innovation. Historically, war has been inextricably connected to energy. Going forward, 21st century warfare will be inextricably linked to water.
Melesse Temescan is one example of the new breed of entrepreneurs emerging with promising water technologies out of the places that have been contending with water scarcity for decades. Temescan’s company, Aybar LLC was among the first awarded the US/Swedish/Dutch Securing Water for Food (SWFF) grant to rapidly build his business for wide scale impact.
Aybar has designed a innovative plow to help Ethiopian farmers reduce water logging during the rainy seasons and conserve water in the dry season. In Ethiopia, water logging, or flooding, prevents cultivation of over 5 million hectares of land during the rainy season. The Aybar BBM allows the livestock used for farming to build deeper, more effective ridges to drain excess water. This plow costs $16.48 as compared with $2000 for Chinese manufactured tractors.
A career researcher for the Government of Ethiopia, Temescan was frustrated to see that his innovation was not getting onto the farms to that needed it. The story of Aybar is a story of entrepreneurship as much as it is a story of innovation. In three years, Temescan has sold 45,000, and has been struggling to manufacture units to keep up with demand. Only an entrepreneur from Ethiopia like Temescan could produce this kind of innovation based on existing practices and build a distribution channel so quickly. With SWFF funding, Temescan expects to sell 60,000 in the next year.
The SWFF program is a pioneering effort focusing upon individual businesses and technologies, rather than large-scale programs. Temescan, and the other 16 SWFF awardees provide a glimpse of how entrepreneurs might drive the velocity of change in the face of water scarcity.