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Nov 19

The Wonders of Biochar

Posted by: Betsy Teutsch

Betsy Teutsch

Biochar: Ancient Wisdom Gives Clue to A Brighter Future


by Francesca Rheannon 
Could a centuries-old technology help solve climate change, soil depletion, water scarcity, fossil fuel dependence and poverty? Biochar advocates say, "yes!" 

With prospects dimming for a binding climate change agreementat the upcoming talks in Copenhagen, we all need some good news on climate change. So when I was listening to the radio the other day, half-snoozing in bed, my ears perked up when I heard about an ancient technology being revived as a possible big gun to tackle climate change. When the reporter said that the technology could also take a big bite out of world hunger and possibly provide carbon negative, clean, renewable fuels for transportation and heating/cooling, I leaped up in astonishment. Was I dreaming or is the Murphy's Law of global warming finally coming to an end? 

It's too early to break out the bubbly, but a burgeoning movement of scientists, entrepreneurs and policy makers are touting the benefits of biochar, the product of burning plant wastes and other biomass at low temperatures without oxygen. They say it may be able to significantly lower the amount of carbon dioxide we keep adding to the atmosphere every year. That's not a solution to fossil-fuel induced climate change, but it could buy us critical time to get the whole toolkit of solutions -- clean technology, increased efficiency, and other energy-saving practices -- on board and widespread. 

When I heard that a symposium on biochar was taking place at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst this past weekend, I jumped at the chance to find out more. The large conference hall was packed with attendees and presenters from around the world, from soil scientists like Johannes Lehmann, who co-wrote the "biochar bible" to entrepreneurs like Jim Fournier ofBiochar Engineering, who is building light industrial biochar furnaces in Colorado (more on this, below). 

Biochar could make the world's deserts bloom -- without using enormous quantities of water for irrigation. That's because biochar is the "coral reef of soil": it provides a lattice that can store large amounts of nutrients, water and beneficial organisms to help plants grow. On poor and marginal land, it can supercharge fertility. Some test plots have boosted crop yields by almost 900%, as you can see in this video clip

And it's not just for deserts. Cape Codders Peter Hirst and Bob Wells demonstrated their "Mobile Adam Retort" at the conference's field day, held at the New England Small Farm Institute. They've been taking in chippings and other waste from landscapers (who are only too happy to give it away for free) and turning it into a high quality soil amendment mixed with compost to sell to farms and gardeners. You can make biochar out of animal wastes, too. That could cut down on the smells and pollution from factory farms. 

The beauty of the technology is its scalability. From tiny units to help you make your houseplants grow all the way up to municipal and factory-sized units that can furnish energy for heating and electricity, biochar production provides opportunities for entrepreneurship in poor rural communities and developed nations alike. 
Already, some of Jim Fournier's units have been sold to municipal landfills excited about turning their waste into a product they can sell to the public while cutting down on the space they need to store waste and providing heat to their buildings. He's also developing a mobile unit that can be trucked to forests out West being devastated by the pine bark beetle. All those dead trees will put carbon into the atmosphere as they decay. But processing the dead wood into biochar and turning some back into the soil will regenerate the forests and get them soaking up carbon once again. 

Carbon negative fertilizer is just one product. Other companies, like Dynamotive Energy are working on creating clean, renewable liquid fuels from biochar. From fertilizer to fuels, biochar can provide opportunities for sustainability investors -- but investors in other biofuels, like corn ethanol, may find stiff competition in the market as the biochar market evolves. 

Policy makers are taking note. Senator Harry Reid introduced the "Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration (WECHAR) Act of 2009" in September, along with cosponsors Max Baucus and John Tester of Montana, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Tom Udall of New Mexico. The bill would give loan guarantees for biochar technology, support biochar landscape restoration projects on public land, and fund research on biochar technology and economics. And COP-15 has approved several side events about biochar, including one to be hosted by the International Biochar Institute, which hosted last weekend's conference. 

So, while the news on the run-up to the Copenhagen climate talks could be brighter, I'm seeing a glimmer of light on the horizon.


Oct 08

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Posted by: Betsy Teutsch

Betsy Teutsch

Boy who harnessed-3Dcover on white

William Kamkwamba, raised in a village in Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries. He dropped out of school at age 14 due to famine - his family was forced to choose between food or school for their son.  He poured through books at a local mini-library, and - inspired by a picture of a windmill - set to work fabricating one from salvaged objects.  A new book chronicles his story.  Now 22, he is featured on none other than Jon Stewart - check him out!

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arD374MFk4w 400x300]

Sep 25

Application of Solar Pumps

Posted by: Elizabeth Israel

Elizabeth Israel

Solar Pumps operate anywhere there is Sun ray. It will not run when there is rain but there is no need of pumping water when it rains. 

OFF GRID refers to a power system that generates electricity such as power from a Solar PV array. The electricity produced is stored in Batteries for later use and the energy system isn't connected to the utility Power Grid. In the Developing World, where there is abundant sunlight and a large rural population without the proper infrastructure to develop an electrical grid, PV is very attractive option because of its modular features, its ability to generate electricity at the actual point of use, its low maintenance requirements and its non-polluting technologies. PV is also important to rural health clinics in developing countries. These clinics require electricity for lighting, vaccine refrigeration and water pumping and purification. PV has proven to be a reliable system for these isolated clinics. Even If you live in urban areas where grid is serving only a part of your requirement or facing power disruption and power outage then it is a good option to install OFF GRID solar power system to fulfill your power requirement when needed.

Imaj Enterprise



Sep 02

World's Poor are the Most Vulnerable Victims of Global Warming

Posted by: Betsy Teutsch

Betsy Teutsch

Some headlines just fail to surprise, like the recent one announcing that "low income workers are often cheated out of their wages."  Unfortunately, the fact that global warming's greatest impacts are on the world's poor is not really news; we at GMf are well aware of this terrible truth.  But this recent article in mainstream USA Today sums the situation up well:

   Global warming will fall heaviest on the desperately poor, finds a study of agricultural economics.

Released this week in Environmental Research Letters, the study led by Syud Ahmed of The World Bank in Washington, D.C., looked at the economic impacts of increases in atmospheric temperatures and climate variability, droughts, floods and storms, projected for the last three decades of this century across 16 developing nations. They based the estimate on the economic effects of similar weather in those places from 1970 to 2000.

"We find that extremes under present climate volatility increase poverty across our developing country sample -- particularly in Bangladesh, Mexico, Indonesia, and Africa -- with urban wage earners the most vulnerable group," write the authors. "We also find that global warming exacerbates poverty vulnerability in many nations."

Farmers in poor nations actually see their wages increase under global warming, says study co-author Noah Diffenbaugh of Purdue University, as the price of grain goes higher in nations experiencing more drought, but city dwellers, who spend much of their income on food, do worse.

The study fed projections of climate effects in two future scenarios produced by the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report into its economic forecasts. One was a hot, "business as usual", scenario, with industrial emissions of greenhouse gases continuing unabated into the future. The other was a "low emissions" model with limited emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere. Poverty was worse in the high-emissions model, Diffenbaugh says.

"IPCC identified the poor, the elderly, and the very young as the most vulnerable categories of people on the planet ... regardless of location, as Katrina and the European (2003) heat wave taught us," says economics professor Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University, an author of the IPCC report. "Nonetheless, the most vulnerable are more likely to live in developing countries where they face multiple stresses.  For many, climate change itself is a source of multiple stress because it is manifest in so many different ways."

However, climate scientist David Battisti of the University of Washington in Seattle is critical of the study, explaining by email that "the climate models do a poor job at simulating rainfall in many places...As well, the climate models do an extremely poor job at estimating natural variability and extreme events in temperature and precipitation. In particular, they overestimate the variability in summertime temperature and extreme events. Without correcting for these biases -- which are ubiquitous in the climate models -- it is very likely that the extreme event information input into the impact models is grossly exaggerated," Battisti says.

But Diffenbaugh notes that the poor in developing countries, who live on less that a dollar a day, have been vulnerable historically to climate swings, as seen in the study's look at numbers from the 20th century. "These folks are already vulnerable to climate, so climate 'change' seems unlikely to make things better for them."

By Dan Vergano

Aug 26

Energy Meeting Women's Needs!

Posted by: Elizabeth Israel

Elizabeth Israel

Why Women's Rights Are the Cause of our Time
New York Times Magazine
August 23, 2009

WHY DO MICROFINANCE organizations usually focus their assistance on women? And why does everyone benefit when women enter the work force and bring home regular pay checks? One reason involves the dirty little secret of global poverty: some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes but also by unwise spending by the poor — especially by men. Surprisingly frequently, we’ve come across a mother mourning a child who has just died of malaria for want of a $5 mosquito bed net; the mother says that the family couldn’t afford a bed net and she means it, but then we find the father at a nearby bar. He goes three evenings a week to the bar, spending $5 each week.


Reflection on the NY Times Article....

WHY IS MICROFINANCE AND THE ENVIRONMENT important to women today?  How can micro-finance be used for Energy Meeting Women's Needs?   

Aug 06

Barh Koh ESDA in Chad: Preserving Forests while Enhancing Quality of Life

Posted by: Betsy Teutsch

Betsy Teutsch

Barh Koh ESDA in Chad approaches poverty relief through environmental protection, working to provide environmentally safe alternative energy sources to the disadvantaged inhabitants and refugees in the region of Maro in southern Chad. The group's focuses on cooking and indoor lighting, to help reduce dependence on firewood, thereby reducing deforestation. 

Their plan of action shows the many ways clean technology can transform life in off-grid villages - providing power and preserving habitat.  It's always good to read about clean energy's impact on the ground!  As a northern city dweller, protection from reptiles is not something I've ever needed to contend with! (#3)
1) Providing solar cookers/ovens to poor rural families.
Solar cookers cost approximately $40 while solar ovens are in the vicinity of $300; which constitute a very small investment to help relieve poverty and save the environment at the same time. Solar cookers and stoves are safe; they cause no danger of fire, burns or smoke inhalation associated with wood burning.
2) Providing solar lanterns for poor families and students. A set of two solar lanterns can cost around $40 to $60, including shipping and handling. Solar lanterns are eco-friendly and will reduce the risks of fire hazards associated with kerosene lamps and firewood burning. A solar lantern will also enable a rural student to study and do homework after sunset. Solar lanterns also provide indoor lighting in the otherwise dark rural dwellings.
3) Providing solar flashlights to poor families and students. A single solar flashlight could save lives in a rural family that spends its evenings and nights in perpetual darkness, subject to all sorts of insects, reptiles and other elements. A solar-powered flashlight costs between $20 to $30 and can make a significant difference in a rural villager's life.

(H/T to DevelopmentCrossing).

Jul 14

Sustainable GREEN Microfinance - an Attainable Goal

Posted by: Betsy Teutsch

Betsy Teutsch

 Teasing out the meaning of "sustainable microfinance"

Christian Science Monitor

"There is nothing intrinsic about microfinance that makes it green. The author’s assertion is simply incorrect and ’sustainable’ in the business sense does not necessarily equate to environmental sustainability. A microentrepreneur may use chemicals that are bad for the environment, they may use farming techniques that create run-off, they may cook on inefficient stoves, they may use mobile phones that are difficult to recycle, and they may drive taxis that spew pollutants into the air. It will take a concerted effort by microfinance providers to adopt and enforce environmental lending criteria into the approval process and they will need to work more closely with environmentalists and green technology providers for there to be a significant role for microfinance in improving the environment. I am all for this."

- Elizabeth Wallace

Apr 08

CGAP Report on Microfinance and Climate Change

Posted by: Elizabeth Israel

Elizabeth Israel

Congratulations GGAP on a MUST READ!

...for the April 2 Report on Greening Microfinance: Clients and the Climate of Change

With environmental challenges-from drought to flooding-disproportionately affecting poor people's livelihoods, microfinance institutions have a strong incentive to mitigate the risks of climate change while helping their clients adapt to that change, argues Paul Rippey, the author of the latest report from CGAP on microfinance and climate change.

...to Paul Rippey, on the well-written article,  Microfinance and Climate Change: Threats and Opportunities.   Great work, Paul!

"Within microfinance, the word ‘sustainable' has tended to be used in a very narrow way, mainly referring to institutions that are financially viable," says Rippey. "But just as many MFIs have added social performance to their bottom line, they should also consider how their actions-and those of their clients-can help combat climate change."

Thank you, CGAP, for making mention of GMf in the Report and as an Additional Resource on your Feature page.  

Apr 02

Princeton Students Display a Wide Knowledge Base - Soon to be Shared in our University Forum

Posted by: Betsy Teutsch

Betsy Teutsch


Students at college entered last fall with the Bush administration in place resisting any climate change policy and a flush financial system.  Now just one semester later there is a new president, new policies and green stimuli afoot, and a financial system in tatters.  Fortunately, as one student described, they're in a bubble and somewhat insulated from trauma. 

However, tonight's group of Princeton students is surely not ivory tower elitists.  They are applying their prodigious brain power to some of the world's really big challenges and learning together through the Princeton Microfinance Organization. The span of subject they're studying emphasizes to me just how many disciplines are soon-to-launch University Forum will encompass.  Hearing all the fields represented at today's program was very impressive: financial modeling (Princeton actually has a Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering - which will likely be doing some Re-Engineering), a chemist working on solar energy, an electrical engineering major focusing on design that requires people to be more efficient, a student focusing on environmental justice, a graduate student in Development.  These all link to aspects of GreenMicrofinance.The once exception was the astrophysics major - but she is entitled to have interests outside her major!

Probably the most surprising, and informative for all of us, was a student doing a project on biochar; she elegantly explained this carbon sequestering soil improvement medium to us all!

Stay tuned.  You'll be hearing more interesting things from this group, I am sure.  You can see us up above, not actually IN Africa, but at the Woodrow Wilson School.

 PS - great planning work, TIng-Fung!

Jul 29

Panel: Microfinance, Their Clients, and Clean Energy

Posted by: Elizabeth Israel

Elizabeth Israel

Today was a breakthrough!  Since 2002, GreenMicrofinance has been participating and leading panels on microfinance and the environment at various Microcredit Summit gatherings- Bangladesh 2004; Chile 2005, Halifax 2006, and today in Bali. 

During today's session on Microfinance, Their Clients, and Clean Energy: Making a Positive Impact on the Environment there was a definite shift in interest and ‘energy' around the topic.  THE LIGHTS ARE ON!

Craig Wilson from The Foundation for Development Cooperation based in Australia and my colleague, Kathleen Robbins from GreenMicrofinance, provided a macro overview of moving forward with clean energy and the microfinance.   

We then shifted to the local perspective.  Paul Thomas, Founder and Exective Director,  Evangelical Social Action Forum (ESAF), India, and Chitta Ranjan Chaki, Deputy General Manager, Grameen Shakti, Bangladesh, both provided very comprehensive overviews of their clean energy initiatives.  

ESAF in partnership with GreenMicrofinance is developing a clean energy lending program; they recently completed a market survey of 1,200 clients in four States in which they work.  A couple of highlights from the survey include:

  • Majority of these people use firewood for cooking purposes; even if they do have LPG connections they prefer to use firewood stoves (comparatively cheaper source)
  • Waste generated in each household could be processed to produce renewable clean energy.

One I can't help but be impressed with the work of Grameen Shakti, which incorporated in 1996, and which provides energy services in remote rural areas of Bangladesh. GS sells, installs, and maintains solar photovoltaic systems, and has biogas, solar thermal, and wind programs.  

The session was very well attended with about 45 participants from government, NGOs, energy service providers, national banks, advocacy groups, and microfinance institutions.  We invited the group to post on this blog some of their thoughts and questions to further the dialogue on this panel theme.   

From my own perspective, I think we need to clearly identify our vision within the microfinance sector, continue to develop innovative solutions, and promote champions (like Paul Thomas and Chitta Chaki), who will reenergize communities to work together to conserve our natural environment and to promote environmental justice.  

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