Big ideas on carbon emissions swirl through a radical energy conference

I'm still humming from November's "Carbon Economy" summit in Washington. My highlight: Ten entrepreneurs showcasing their ideas on how to address renewable-energy demand, carbon mitigation, and green jobs. They presented their ideas to potential investors and energy executives, who voted for the smartest, savviest, likeliest game-changer.

And it was a tough contest. There was the bio-algae producer from Puerto Rico, and the wind turbines designed to float at sea. There was the company using national weather-service data to help India's farmers accurately predict rainfall -- and use less diesel energy for their generators. The ideas were so good, I couldn't narrow them down to one favorite. Here, instead, I present my own awards for the most surprising green ideas to come from the conference (one of which was the actual "winner").
Brightest Young Entrepreneur:
Jason Aramburu, re:char

The Carbon Economy summit attendees selected re:char as their favorite "game-changing" idea: a low-cost portable biomass processor that can convert agricultural waste into diesel-like bio oil and carbon-rich, charcoal-like bio-char. The latter acts as a long-term carbon trap, keeping carbon from breaking down for hundreds of years, and as a powerful fertilizer containing nitrates, phosphates and calcium.

Re:char's process heats agricultural waste with "pyrolization," a process that produces diesel-like "bio-oil" and the fertilizer subistitute "biochar." A $10,000 pyrolizer can pay for itself within a year in savings on both oil and fertilizer, Aramburu says. His ideas have caught the attention of climate scientist James Hansen and soil scientist David Laird of the USDA National Soil Tilth Laboratory.

Smartest Doomed Idea:
The Miller Carbon-Footprint Label

Douglas Jesse Miller Jr., a sophmore at the University of Pennsylvania, proposed the simplest idea I've heard for greening an economy -- nothing more than putting a green label on all products to clearly describe how much carbon went into its production and distribution. A production-and-transportation-facts label, Miller says, would act like a nutrition-facts or drug-facts label to help consumers understand what they're buying. Consumers, he added, don't yet have a method of assessing each product's environmental impact.

The label would rate, on a 1-to-5 scale, every product's effect on greenhouse gas emissions, the energy source used to make it, how far the materials traveled and with what type of shipping, and how to dispose of it. It's an elegant idea that could create two very powerful market drivers -- one with consumers, who will be able to choose products based on environmental impact, and another with manufacturers, who will increasingly recognize the potential for value-added brand diversification as their products get greener. But good luck getting this idea past the National Association of Manufacturers.

Smartest Idea Doomed by Speechifying:
Peter Sharma, sirius/pureprophet

Sharma gets a final, special mention for blasting panelist and Duke Energy (DUK) CEO James Rogers for having endorsed nuclear energy, using Rogers's own negative assessment of clean coal to dash nuclear energy as well. Sharma's condemnation was breathtaking; he clearly didn't give a damn about what anybody thought of him, or his product, and contented himself to use his allotted seven minutes to deliver a libertarian-inspired manifesto to the uber-capitalists of the world warning that "our society will crumble in violent revolution."

Sharma then turned his attention to the national grid. "No offense to anyone who spoke so far," he said, "but the national grid -- smart or otherwise -- is a national security nightmare and a waste of energy. We'd do well to generate energy and grow food locally, to the points of consumption, just as Edison and Bell warned us a hundred years ago, when they argued against the national grid for electrification."

After that salvo, Sharma finally began his pitch for the Green Revolution Wind Mill.

Sharma noted that the current median household income was about $40,000" -- it's actually about 50,000 -- and that the average cost of renewable energy systems to replace the energy that everybody gets are about the same as that. His goal, therefore is to provide low-cost wind power that can be made locally at a reasonable price. His windmill uses cloth sails, made on sewing machines -- potentially, anywhere in the world, he said. And it can work in breezes as light as 2-1/2 miles per hour, enabling his system to "negatively net meter the average household for under $6,000 with no economies of scale applied and by buying parts retail, straight off the shelf." With economies of scale applied, Sharma's goal is to provide the windmill for $2,000.

Sharma's presentation was bracing, probably the most radical of the summit's presentations. But what does it say about the world that someone like Sharma can be seen as a radical? Here's someone who doesn't believe in "walking into a community and taking away money," but instead wants "to use local materials and local labor, [and do] what capital is supposed to do: provide opportunity and economy to people." The Economist deserves an award for inviting someone like that to speak.

Best Gadfly of Tomorrow:
It was hard not to notice Eli Colasante, the 19-year-old founder of SLC Composting. Colasante wasn't a finalist in the "game-changing ideas" challenge, but the undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, came to the conference with a composting agenda for urban apartment dwellers. He pitched many pointed questions during the Q&A to top-level executives and Obama administration officials, fearlessly worked the crowd, and handed out slips of paper with his contact information.

On Day Two, when the Compost Kid got up for a second helping at the lunch buffet, an investment banker winked and said, without a trace of irony, "He's the future, you know."

Mark Svenvold, author of Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America, teaches at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
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