Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On the Road to a Green Future

I've been using the past few blog posts to share a few of my New Haven Magazine articles in a net-exclusive. Here's one published in April's Green Issue.

Mahatma Gandhi once famously advised, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The Indian leader’s words resonated this winter with two young Yale graduates who, dissatisfied with merely studying and talking about the issue of climate change, decided to put their shoulders to the wheel.
Caroline Howe, a Durham native and Yale School of Engineering graduate, and Alexis Ringwald, a graduate of Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, are the masterminds behind the India Climate Solutions Road Tour, a project that led the pair and a cohort of about 20 students and supporters, many of them members of the Indian Youth Climate Network, on a five-week, 3,500-kilometer journey from the south Indian city of Chennai, north through 15 cities to Delhi, where they arrived February 5.
The fleet left Chennai on January 3 in three solar-roofed, plug-in electric cars, which can travel about 90 miles on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; and a truck converted to run on biofuel made from sustainably harvested jatropha, a native Indian plant, which carried the equipment for the solar-powered band, Solar Punch, that joined the troupe on the road.
Add a truck running on used vegetable oil and piloted by a friendly Czech named Stanislav, which joined the crew midway, and a car with solar panels on the roof that was rigged with power outlets to charge the team’s laptops, cell phones and cameras while they were on the road — and you have a caravan likely to attract some attention in rural India.
“It felt like we were driving in the midst of a revolution of the future of transportation,” says Howe, speaking via Skype from New Delhi.
Bidisha Banerjee, an Indian national currently studying at Yale’s Forestry School, was on the road tour as well. “We were touring India at a pivotal moment during its history, when thousands of roads are in the process of being built, and thousands of power-lines are just about to be laid,” she writes in an e-mail. “Too often, it's easy to feel powerless about the climate crisis. During our trip, I realized that there is still a vivid possibility for India to achieve a low-carbon development path.”
Because of the rapid growth in India’s economy (eight percent annually), which supports one of the world’s biggest populations, the country is currently poised to become the third leading consumer of energy by 2030, and the third leading emitter of greenhouse gases by 2015. Given that India is already experiencing electricity shortages, the search for alternative energy innovations has developed a true sense of urgency.
Yet not all or even most of India’s population burns a great deal of energy. The country’s highest income group emits an annual average of 4.97 tons of carbon dioxide per capita, close to the world average. India’s low overall per-capita emissions is due to the fact that most of its population makes less than $125 per year and contributes a negligible amount of emissions. The painful reality, though, is that the poor, who rely on climate-sensitive industries such as agriculture, forestry and fishing, will be impacted by climate change first.

So the India Climate Solutions Road Tour set out on a mission to raise awareness of climate issues, and in search of solutions.
“When we charged [the vehicles’ batteries] at petrol [gasoline] stations, people really saw it as the future, because they don’t [necessarily] want to be working in petrol,” says Howe. “It’s noxious fumes they breathe in every day. They know it’s polluting their planet and their children’s future.
“Students along the way were really drawn in, especially by the band. They played Hindi songs and everybody went crazy.”
Ringwald adds that her favorite charging stop, “and our only princely charging stop,” was an impromptu one at the home of the Prince of Rajpipli, who runs a vermiculture business, has an organic farm and a wind turbine installed on his property. He also is building a solar hospital.
After finishing her undergraduate degree in political science in 2005, Ringwald was sent as Yale’s envoy to The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in India for the summer. She ended up writing her master’s thesis for the Forestry School on the potential of biofuel in India, and returned to south Asian soon after as a Fulbright Scholar researching the business aspects of renewable energy and climate issues. She contacted Howe, a Yale engineering student whom the university had sent to TERI to work on green building issues, and the pair floated the idea of developing a project together at the conclusion of their fellowship years.
Recalls Howe, “What we wanted to do was to create a project that would profile the opportunities to both young people and to entrepreneurs and financers about the fact that there are so many opportunities here in India — and at the same time demonstrate that India is in its own way taking action and needs to be supported.”
On the road, Ringwald explains, they began to develop “incredible distributed networks, amazing energy. It became bigger and we realized we could make this something pretty loud.”
Along the way, they made countless stops to recharge and talk with locals about climate solutions. The electric cars are a homegrown innovation — manufactured domestically in India by a company called Reva. Like refrigerators, they draw electricity from three-pronged power points. According to Howe’s calculations, “At ten rupees a kilowatt-hour, the car could get fully charged for about a dollar, which would fuel the car for 200 kilometers [90 miles]. It takes six hours for a full charge.
“People aren’t covering the solutions [to climate change] — they’re covering the problems, because the problems make a better story,” Howe says.
“So we created a journey that would be a great story to tell.”

The trek was a remarkable one. Banerjee recalls highlights: “Meeting with organic farmers practicing drip-irrigation in Andhra Pradesh, visiting green buildings and a smart solar micro-grid in Hyderabad and learning from a college in Rajasthan that trains rural poor from around the world to work on key issues like solar-power generation, water-harvesting, health and sanitation. I was inspired to meet so many architects of possibility — from farmers to engineers working at Reva, the world's best-selling electric car company, which is based in Bangalore.”
At the Energy and Resources Institute’s climate conference in February, the group submitted a report to the Union environment ministry asking for policy changes to battle climate change, and gave New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman a spin around the block in one of the Revas. On February 18, Howe and Ringwald were granted an audience with the president of India, Pratibha Patil, who congratulated them on their work.
So what climate solutions did the tour identify on its travels?
“Almost every city in India has made a law that every building that’s built should have rainwater harvesting systems,” says Howe. “But Chennai is one of the few places that has very effectively implemented it, so every building we saw had a rainwater harvesting system, and that was really exciting.”
The road tour also made a stop at Peace Garden in Vellore, a school devoted to the environmental education of rural children. It also boasts sustainable buildings and a growing permaculture site. Sustainable agriculture practices already in use across the country include drip irrigation, seed saving and crop rotation. Some communities make their own reusable banana-leaf plates and clay cups to reduce waste.
“It’s not just about tech transfer, about us selling American innovations to villages in India, but developing what makes the most sense here and what’s been in use here, and helping that scale up,” says Howe.
At the Hewlett-Packard headquarters in Bangladore, 14 data centers have been consolidated to save on cooling costs. The facility also has 7,500 temperature sensors that are part of a centralized system which allow for spot cooling, which spares approximately 40 percent of the cooling energy.
Ringwald was especially excited about the program at Barefoot College, where village women from around the world are trained to become solar entrepreneurs. “They come and they get trained to understand solar energy equipment, how to put together batteries with lights,” she says. “And they take this knowledge and technology back to their villages. So that brings electricity to their village along with women’s empowerment, which I think is really beautiful and inspiring.”
While young environmentalists can do much to help make low-tech climate solutions available on a larger scale, Howe and Ringwald recognize that the large-scale problems require policy changes at a higher level. “We’re trying to spread the message that some policies do need to change in order to better support these solutions, both nationally and internationally,” explains Howe. “As we look toward the international climate negotiations at Copenhagen, we need to be looking at how developed nations can really be supporting technology and innovators in countries like India.”
Banerjee agrees. “I believe that it is imperative for both India and the U.S. to commit to drastically reducing their carbon emissions this December during the U.N. negotiations in Poland,” she says. “We are at the start of a global social movement much like the civil-rights movement. Unless we can help build a new economy and a new energy system, we will have done a grave injustice to future generations.”
Ringwald says the most important thing for people confronting the climate crisis to do is to be creative, open-minded — and daring. “The crazier idea, the better,” she asserts. “We need unconventional ideas. We thought [the tour] was insane, and everyone told us it was insane, and it was crazy. But we learned a lot, and reached a lot of people.”

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