Inspiration on display at the San Jose Tech Museum’s annual awards gala

Photovoltaics World interviewed several recipients of this year’s Tech Awards Laureates who showcased their projects at a Nov. 19 gala; and Al Gore brought it all together by describing with multiple examples what it means to be a humanitarian.

by Debra Vogler, senior technical editor, Photovoltaics World

November 30, 2009 – The Tech Awards Laureates of 2009 and displays that showcased their projects were available to attendees at the annual gala (Nov. 19 at the San Jose Convention Center). Photovoltaics Worldwas on hand and interviewed several of the special cash-award recipients (selected laureates’ organizations received $50,000) at the event. (For more about each of these organizations and the complete list/description of the awards, check the Tech Awards Web site.)

Joseph Adelegan, representing Cows to Kilowatts, received the Intel Environment Award. Slaughterhouse waste is one of the most significant sources of water pollution and greenhouse gases emissions in most developing economies. The anaerobic fixed film reactor (Figure 1) used in the Cows to Kilowatts project decontaminates the waste stream from slaughterhouses and turns this organic waste into methane that can be used to generate electricity or as inexpensive cooking gas. The use of this technology not only assists with energy production, it also “reduces the pollution load so that it can meet national effluent thresholds,” Adelegan told PV World. “When compressed, the gas can be used for cooking or to drive microturbines to generate electricity; and sludge from the reactor, which is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, is used as fertilizer.” Thus, a problematic waste stream is converted to something very useful.

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Figure 1. Anaerobic fixed-film reactor. (Source: Cows to Kilowatts)

Rolf Papsdorf, CEO representing Alternative Energy Development Corp. (AEDC), received the BD Biosciences Economic Development award on behalf of his organization. Another example targeting the need for energy in developing countries is the use of inexpensive, zinc-air fuel cells (Figure 2) that can be used in poor communities lacking access to grid power. Fuel cell anodes can be removed manually in about 15 minutes and zinc oxide waste recycled as fertilizer. According to Papsdorf, these fuel cells create 80W of energy (i.e., 4000W-hrs) that “is available 24/7,” and the lead-acid waste of solar or wind installation batteries can largely be avoided. “Our main aim is to create disposable income in rural areas that have high unemployment,” he told PV World. “By having electricity available, people can work in the evenings (e.g., operating sewing machines, computers, cell phone charging, electric air cutters, etc.).” Furthermore, the energy is totally portable, which is key because people are highly migrant in Africa, he pointed out. “We look at the whole thing holistically. The operating cost is about $8/month, which is less than what would be spent on candles.” Papsdorf also noted that, while he very much likes solar power, it’s not practical in rural Africa where issues of proper maintenance and proper disposal (to avoid environmental disasters) are challenging.

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Figure 2. Single zinc-air fuel cell (left) and 12V DC power supply (right). (Source: AEDC)

Tackling a different sort of energy — the work of human hands — the World of Good Development Organization received the Katherine M. Swanson Equality Award. Priya Haji, board chair and co-founder, discussed the group’s Fair Wage Guide software with PV World. Handicraft workers around the world are generally paid per piece and often at low hourly rates. The free Web-based platform provides localized pricing evaluation of handmade goods to improve wages of informal workers ( Figure 3), and encourages ethical trade by comparing wages worldwide. “We use technology to empower women in the informal sector (those who work in their homes or small-scale production)…bringing together wage data from 120 countries,” Haji told PV World. “It helps a buyer or producer of goods to look at such things as how long did it take to make, how much am I getting paid, how much are the materials costs, and uses a real time calculation to compare that product to the minimum wage, the average wage, and the poverty level.” There is also a currency converter to help with pricing. As a result of a pilot project in which 500 organizations around the world are using the software, “27,000 women’s wages have increased by 20% through the combination of either negotiating a higher price for goods, or creative re-design so that the product takes less time to make,” explained Haji. In the informal sector, women around the world typically make less than $2/day — this software is raising their standard of living.

“This is Silicon Valley’s best night of the year as we celebrate and support the amazing teams and individuals who are using technology to address our planet’s greatest challenges with vision, impact, creativity and passion,” said Mike Splinter, CEO and chairman of Applied Materials. “The real winners tonight are the millions of people around the world who are directly benefiting from the work of The Tech Awards Laureates and whose lives are changed for the better.”

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Figure 3. Priya Haji with an artisan in India. (Source: World of Good Development Organization)

Al Gore stresses climate change worries, how to be “humanitarian”

While contemplating the tremendously difficult work and dedication of each of the 15 laureates was indeed inspiring and humbling, it was former Vice President Al Gore — recipient of the 2009 James C. Morgan Applied Materials Global Humanitarian Award — who brought home what it means to be a humanitarian.

Acknowledging the billion people worldwide who live on less than $2/day and the many already suffering the consequences of the climate crisis, Gore observed that “One of the secrets of the human condition is that suffering binds people together.” Bangladesh, for example, has low-lying delta areas that are vulnerable to even the small sea-level increases that have already occurred; though there have always been flood events and disruptions in that country, what was once the pattern of rebuilding residents’ lives on average every 20 years, now, they have to rebuild their lives every four or five years, Gore pointed out. “In large numbers, they are leaving the places they have long called home and moving to cities and the refugee flood has begun,” he said — noting that concertina barbed wire has gone up along sections of the border between Bangladesh and India.

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L-R: Peter Friess, president of the Tech Museum; former Vice President Al Gore; Mike Splinter, chairman and CEO of Applied Materials.

Gore further cited the Maldives Cabinet’s recently-held meeting underwater in a desperate bid to “get the attention of the rest of the world.” Last year, the country added a line item to its budget, he noted: “fund to purchase a new country.” The Nepalese Cabinet similarly held a recent cabinet meeting at the base camp on Mount Everest to draw attention to the extremely rapid melting of Himalayan ice and snow, partly because of the warming of temperatures and partly because of the enormous amounts of black carbon and soot emitted in the sub-continent and Southern China. The seven great rivers of Asia, which originate in the ice and snow of the Himalayans and the Tibetan plateau, provide 50% of the drinking and agricultural water to 40% of all human beings on the planet, Gore pointed out, and their increasing flows won’t continue to do so for much longer. “What does it mean to be a human being and be aware that 40% of our fellow human beings — their children and grandchildren — are in imminent danger of losing their water?” Each one meter of sea level rise puts 100 million climate refugees on the move, he added — where do they go? “The Maldives might buy a new country; Bangladesh cannot.”

Gore further described the recent experience of Australian firefighters who, last February, had to battle the worst fires that country had seen. A group of them were so shaken by the experience that they organized a 6000km cross-country run to draw attention and help get citizens excited about policy change. Similarly, the Canadian Medical Association issued warnings about the growing incidence of tick-borne diseases in that country, something it did not have to worry about in the past. “The Journal of the Canadian Medical Association issued a call to every doctor in Canada to become active in the political system and promote policies against global warming,” said Gore. “When doctors in Canada and firefighters in Australia, and the people in the Maldives and those in Bangladesh have all come to the same conclusion that they have to somehow attract the attention of people around the world — not least in the wealthy Western countries who have the resources, the technology, and the willpower and the wherewithal to do something about this crisis — it is time for us to become politically active and get solutions for the climate crisis.”

Observing that “technology has been placed in the hands of people throughout the world with good intentions but with unanticipated side effects,” Gore also said that at times, mankind has been blind to “the consequences that are sometimes distributed so widely and globally that they masquerade as an abstraction (…) And the length of time between the cause and the consequences extends over a longer period than we are used to thinking about, much less responding to, because the way we think has been shaped by the challenges that our ancestors survived.”

Gore reminded the audience that although we are connected to those who come after us, “we are also connected to those who came before us,” and each of us “has benefited in untold measure” from previous generations’ hard work and sacrifices. “If we decided consciously or unconsciously to simply fully exploit all the benefits of their labors and then give the back of our hand to those who come after us, that would be the single most immoral act of any generation that has ever lived on this planet,” he asserted. “I do not believe that that is who we are as human beings. And my passion comes from my deep belief that we are not like that. I believe we do care; I believe we are capable of changing.”

Future generations will look back at those of us today and reflect on what we either did or did not do, Gore added. “If they look around them and see a world in renewal with new technologies that are bringing about a shift from dirty, expensive, vulnerable, dangerous, volatile carbon-based fuels to new fuels that are free forever, and if they see a world that has a sense of shared purpose and a feeling of hope that each new generation has a better prospect for the future, I want them to look back at us and ask, how did you find the moral courage to shake off the lethargy, to break the trance, to see the responsibility and act in time to solve a crisis that so many said was impossible to solve? We have everything we need with the possible exception of political will — but political will, especially in the US, is a renewable resource.”

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