Solar power, biodiesel, cleantech, and parking in Palmerston North

Recession-hit SMEs reduce sustainability

Many businesses have reduced their sustainable business practices during the recession—at a time when greater numbers of them are relying on New Zealand’s clean green image to make sales.

The recession shook out firms that had sustainability as an ‘add-on’. For those firms, sustainability wasn’t aligned with their core business, so when things got tough they let it go

Those are the latest findings of The University of Waikato Management School, which has been following trends in sustainable business since 2003. From 2003 to 2006 there was a general increase in social practices like charitable donations, ethical purchasing and work/life balancing initiatives for staff. But the school’s latest survey of more than 700 businesses found a marked retreat in all these areas, with most dropping below 2003 levels.

There was better news on environmental initiatives like recycling, reporting and efficiency, with seven out of the 11 indicators still on the up despite the economic storms. But only just over a quarter of those surveyed had measurable waste and energy targets.

In every category the study found that the larger the firm, the larger the uptake of environmental practices. Unsurprisingly, the cost of environmental and social measures was seen as the biggest turn-off. But it was also a key motivator in favour of sustainable activity, suggesting firms continue to commit to sustainability if the business case stacks up.

The report’s co-author, Dr Eva Collins, says the stats also identified a growing sustainability gap between firms that are allied to organisations such as the Sustainable Business Network and the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development, and those that are not.

“The recession shook out firms that had sustainability as an ‘add-on’,” says Collins. “For those firms, sustainability wasn’t aligned with their core business, so when things got tough they let it go.”

Meanwhile, the number of companies marketing themselves based on environmental claims such as ‘clean, green New Zealand’ continues to grow steadily from 17 percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2010.

Collins fears this attempt to have our cake and eat it too could substantially damage the country’s national branding and blunt our competitive edge.

“We’re increasingly marketing our products and services on a clean, green ticket,” she says. “But the majority of firms are actually reducing uptake of sustainability practices. So while we recognise the market advantages of sustainability, it’s not supported by substance.”

Heating up solar power development

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The US Department of Energy has approved US$1.85 billion in loan guarantees for solar power. Making the announcement, President Barack Obama says it’s aimed at “accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy and doubling our use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power—steps that have the potential to create whole new industries and hundreds of thousands of new jobs in America”.

Spanish renewable energy firm Abengoa Solar is to receive the lion’s share: US$1.45 billion in loan guarantees to help support the development of its proposed Solana solar farm in Arizona. The project is expected to generate enough power for about 70,000 homes.

Obama says that the loan guarantees were the latest in a long line of clean energy investments made under the US Recovery Act, which he argues were already creating jobs and helping to bolster US competitiveness.

“Already, I’ve seen the payoff from these investments,” he says. “I’ve seen once-shuttered factories humming with new workers who are building solar panels and wind turbines; rolling up their sleeves to help America win the race for the clean energy economy.”

Fisher & Paykel breakthrough

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If competition over dwindling oil supplies sends energy prices soaring, and climate change heats up things for everyone, we are all going to need a really efficient way to store some soothing cold beer.

Luckily, F&P is on the case. The company has just completed a very cool joint development deal with Brazilian compressor manufacturer Embraco, owned by the US Whirlpool Corporation.

The company claims the new compressor is up to 30 percent more energy efficient than its conventional counterparts and improves overall temperature control. Because it does not contain oil, it doesn’t have to be kept upright, which also opens up more storage capacity and flexible installation options.

Fisher & Paykel Appliances managing director and CEO Stuart Broadhurst says, “In most households, the refrigerator is one of the larger

appliance power users. The shape of the compressor will allow around 15 litres more space inside the fridge, the equivalent of five three-litre containers of milk, or an extra fruit and vegetable compartment.”

The development of the compressor was the result of consultation work with a number of other firms, nationally and international, and also benefited from a R&D grant from Tech New Zealand. The next stage of development will be field trials, followed by mass production.

Biodiesel boost

New Zealand has taken another baby-step towards the alternative fuel economy by extending a grant scheme aimed at promoting the sale of biofuels to include support for producers selling 100 percent biodiesel.

The Biodiesel Grants Scheme administered by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) allows for grants of up to 42.5 cents per litre to biodiesel producers who sell 10,000 or more litres of eligible biodiesel each month. Originally it was only available for blends up to 20 percent biofuel.

Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee said the government responded to business demand to make the change.

“By extending the eligibility to blends up to and including 100 percent biodiesel, we provide an incentive for those businesses and individuals who are willing and able to use these higher level blends.”

A million dollars of crap

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The old saying, ‘Where there’s muck there’s brass,’ gets truer all the time.

The latest company pulling nuggets from our effluent is Scion Crown Research Institute. It just mopped up a milliondollar grant from the government’s Waste Minimisation Fund for a new facility that ‘cooks’ sewage sludge. The process breaks down biosolids into re-useable nutrients and other potentially valuable chemicals.

Environment Minister Nick Smith says it’s the biggest cheque the fund will write this year.

“Biosolids generated by sewage treatment are a big problem for New Zealand’s landfills due to the large volume and hazardous nature of this waste. In addition to providing cost savings and reducing the impact on the environment, this project could also see new opportunities created for energy generation out of methane, as well as biotechnology and fertiliser production.”

If the pilot performs it could be expanded to other regions of the country and other forms of organic waste.

Cleantech or fry

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New Zealand must commit its brightest and best to the new global industrial revolution that is now underway. If it succeeds, we get an unprecedented era of innovation, followed by a golden age of humanity in a cleaner, greener and fairer world. If not, we will create an incredibly hostile global environment disfigured by wars that could create billions of refugees. Countries and companies that don’t commit to this right now may soon find themselves shut out of world markets.

This was the stark message delivered on a recent visit to Auckland by Lord Nicholas Stern. He’s a former chief economist of the World Bank, and is currently professor of economics and government and chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.

In 2006 he was the lead author of the Stern review on climate change for the British government. Its 700 pages detail the economic case for a low-carbon economy, and the risks involved in failing to make this transition quickly. The review was instrumental in spurring government action worldwide. He continues to directly advise world powers, and was a key participant in the tumultuous COP15 Climate Change talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

According to Stern, the fact that polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases has been free until now is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen. But once you get to grips with the science, the maths on climate change is relatively simple. Humanity needs to drop to two tonnes of CO2 per capita by 2050 to have about a 50/50 chance of only allowing the Earth to heat up by about two degrees Celsius. This is not without its impacts, but beyond it Really Bad Things start to happen.

New Zealand’s per capita CO2 is hovering between seven or eight tonnes, depending on how you measure it. So we are looking at cutting that by something like 75 percent, down to the current level of somewhere like Fiji. If we can’t commit to that lifestyle then we must join the worldwide mission to uncouple CO2 emissions from development. This means making great stuff without pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and halting worldwide deforestation. At the same time poorer countries must see significant rises in living standards to motivate their contribution to the plan.

Happily, algal fuel, in which New Zealand’s Aquaflow is a world leader, is included in Stern’s list of the most promising technologies in this new revolution. And plenty of Kiwi business bigwigs are already behind the necessary changes.

During his brief stay Stern dined with representatives from 100% Plan, a new group aiming to accelerate private sector investment in the clean technology sectors. This includes Stephen Tindall, Philip Mills of Les Mills International, and Geoff Ross of 42 Below, who undoubtedly have some cash and kudos to throw in this direction.

Stern also spoke to Environment Minister Nick Smith, and various other government officials. Let’s hope they listened.

Palmy parking goes solar-powered

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If I had trouble parking in a city as small as Palmerston North, I would probably just stop on the outskirts and walk. But the battle for space there has inspired a much better local cleantech solution.

The Frogparking system uses solar-powered sensors that monitor when time-limited parking spots around the city are occupied. These communicate with internet links mounted on poles nearby. If a car overstays, the system alerts parking wardens via iPhone, who can then bust the offender. This way the council gets real-time info on how and when parking spaces are used, valuable insights for town planning and saves on the parking wardens’ shoeleather and chalk.

The setup is worth about $2.5 million, but the company isn’t charging a cent. Frogparking CEO Don Sandbrook has already achieved export success with innovations such as the Seed Spider brand of high-tech seeders, planters and drills and the Spider Track portable satellite tracking system. He now hopes the large-scale field trial will attract international buyers.

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