Four Green Tech Predictions for 2017
Four Green Tech Predictions for 2017
The end of the calendar year is a traditional time of reflection, of the ups and downs of the past year, and to think about what to expect in 2017. As Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, I am encouraged by the progress made on some environmental issues in the past year, but there is still much work to be done. Despite the increasing urgency around many environmental issues, I remain optimistic about the future.
Perhaps the most notable breakthrough this past year was that the Paris Agreement on climate change entered into force. Cities, countries and companies around the world are now focusing their efforts on how to set and execute their plans to reduce carbon emissions. We also saw growth in corporate procurement of renewable energy in 2016, both in the U.S. and around the globe, another encouraging sign. At Microsoft, we put forth our own goal to source 50% of our datacenter electricity from wind, solar and hydropower. At the end of this year, we’re happy to report that we are on pace to not only meet our goal, but also are creating new financial and technology models that can further accelerate the pace of the adoption of renewable energy.
As we look towards 2017, I expect that we will see both continued progress on energy and an increasing focus on non-energy areas. As we at Microsoft think about 2017, I think we expect to see some shifts in approaches and investments happening across the world.
1. IoT and Cloud Computing will begin to transform utility energy management:
Aging infrastructure is already under pressure and the addition of more renewable energy will only compound the stress on existing infrastructure. As more clean energy comes online, along with distributed resources like electric vehicles and rooftop solar, utilities are facing a big challenge – how to manage a more complex network of energy creating and energy storing devices. 2017 will see an increased investment by utilities in technology to leverage data, through IoT solutions and cloud computing, to make energy management more predictable, flexible and efficient.
In developing nations, we are seeing a different trend, but one that is also accelerated by IoT and cloud computing. In these markets, data is being used to accelerate distribution, sales and management of micro-solar grids to enable households to get both power and connectivity to the internet. 2017 should be an exciting year with even more growth as capital investments in these markets increase and solar and battery storage prices decline.
2. Water will begin to emerge as the next critical world-scale environmental challenge
Water scarcity is increasing in many areas around the world. Our oceans are under threat from pollution, acidification and warming temperatures. We are already seeing the devastating effects on iconic landmarks like the Great Barrier Reef. And these trends are putting peoples’ food, water, and livelihoods at risk. In 2017, awareness on this challenge will increase. We will begin to better understand what is happening to our water through the use of sensors and cloud computing. Our ability to leverage technologies like advanced mapping technologies and sensors will increase and expand our understanding of what is driving the decline of many of our critical water systems.
3. Data will increasingly be used to try to better understand our planet
Data is essential for monitoring and managing the earth’s resources and fragile ecosystems. There is much we do not understand about the planet, but we see an increasing number of companies and investments flowing toward developing tools and platforms that enable better mapping and understanding of earth’s carbon storage and air borne gasses, and ecosystems and the associated value they provide. We expect to see data being applied more proactively to create a more actionable understanding of how we can better manage food, water, biodiversity and climate change.
4. Organizations and policy makers will start leveraging cloud-based technologies
This area is perhaps the most difficult to try to predict. While countries will begin implementing their action plans under the Paris Agreement, it is not easy to predict the methods each country will use and prioritize to make progress against commitments under the Paris Agreement. And the changes will happen not just at the national level. Increasingly we will see cities and local governments moving ahead with technology implementation to drive efficiencies and accountability, along with policy changes as well. We’re already leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence to better model and understand the potential impact of legislative changes, in addition to offering our technologies to our public sector partners as they work towards their plans. While this will likely take several years to take hold, 2017 should see an increased awareness for the role of technology in environmental policy
While there are many challenges ahead across so many areas of sustainability, I remain optimistic. The number of people and organizations that are focusing on these and many other areas of sustainability ensure that we will continue to make progress in 2017. At Microsoft, we are committed to working with our customers and partners to help them achieve more through the use of our technologies. Everyone – companies, countries, individuals – have much work to do. We believe that by working together, we can help develop effective solutions to address environmental challenges that will benefit our business, our customers and the planet. And we are up to the challenge.
Alex Eaton: Helping small farmers turn animal waste into clean energy
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Alex Eaton: Helping small farmers turn animal waste into clean energy
When Alex Eaton started his company in Mexico to help small farmers, his timing couldn’t have been worse. It was 2010, the global economy was fragile, Mexico’s drug war was peaking and swine flu was pandemic.
Then there was Eaton’s challenge of introducing new technology – a system that turns animal waste into clean energy – to old-school farmers. His company was lean, with employees building the system in a cramped garage at night and selling it directly to farmers by day. They traveled on cheap “chicken buses,” which sometimes also carried livestock.
“I slept on a lot of farmers’ dirt floors,” says Eaton. “In terms of challenges, we certainly did not have any shortages. It was a radical, bootstrapping operation, and it made us stronger as a company, because we generated a culture in which you wouldn’t have worked for us if you weren’t passionate.”
Six years later, Eaton’s company, Sistema Biobolsa, has become a thriving business with a global mission in environmental sustainability and social justice. It has installed more than 3,000 of its digester systems, which now serve 20,000 people in Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa.
“We want small farmers to grow, improve their productivity and efficiency, and grow into the important and sustainable food producers that they can be,” Eaton says.
With the help of Microsoft tools for productivity and collaboration, the company boosts local economies by enabling farmers to turn cow and pig waste into biogas that fuels stoves and other equipment. Sistema Biobolsa’s affordable, scalable digesters also help produce an organic, nutrient-rich manure, so farmers don’t have to buy chemical fertilizers and can further save money.
“A huge disadvantage of being a small farmer today is you live in an environment filled with flies and horrible odor,” with animal waste contaminating rivers, lakes and watersheds, says Eaton, who grew up on a small farm in New Hampshire. “We take that waste and turn it into a clean, renewable energy source.”
All features of the digester — a durable-membrane bag in which microorganisms break down waste anaerobically — are designed to serve farmers. Black membrane absorbs heat for faster composting and efficient piping makes the system easy to use. The company’s microfinancing program, run in partnership with nonprofit Kiva, allows farmers to easily invest in the system with a no-interest loan. For many farmers, it’s the first time they’ve had access to credit, helping them grow and diversify their business.
“We have been saving a lot of money with this Sistema Biobolsa,” says Herles Cortez, a pig farmer in Puebla, Mexico, who installed a digester about 18 months ago. “We buy very little gas for the business anymore. Before, gas was a big expense for us.”
He says the system produces enough gas to fuel the family’s stove as well as a barn heater that keeps the piglets warm at night, leading to healthier animals. His farm is also more pleasant with less odor. “Take a look around now; there are no flies. It’s cleaner now,” he says, showing his farm recently to visitors.
As Sistema Biobolsa grows, its team of 30 employees relies on Skype to collaborate across four offices in Mexico and Nicaragua and with hundreds of installers and promoters around the world. Skype has helped the company install digesters in remote areas, from the Andean region in South America to pilot programs in Ghana, Nigeria and Madagascar. The company is also developing new pilot programs in East Africa and India.
“With collaborators all around the world, we use Skype over regular landlines,” says Eaton, a longtime Skype user. “This is completely non-negotiable for us. Being able to put together a number of people virtually and seeing people online really makes the connections a lot more tangible.”
Windows 10 also powers new computers for field staffers, and Office 365 helps Eaton work on finances and communications wherever he is, whether in his office in Mexico City or on the road.
“We couldn’t live without Microsoft Office, so I have Word and Excel open at all times,” he says. The tools help him reach his goals of empowering small farmers to work sustainably and thrive financially.
He recalls how the company years ago had helped a small dairy farm in Mexico, run by a woman whose husband had left to work in the U.S. and send money home.
When the struggling farm started using a digester, its 10 cows began creating gas that fueled a pasteurizing machine. That allowed the family to sell pasteurized milk and yogurt, make more money and buy more cows.
“It was an incredible transformation of a typical Mexican farm, which was essentially in a death spiral and being abandoned. It started using modern technology, serving the community and helping the family get ahead,” Eaton says.
“As we continue to grow, it is exciting to think about the potential to create more stories like this at hundreds of thousands of small farms throughout Latin America.”