• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

June 10, 2005

Air Date: June 10, 2005

FULL SHOW

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

Greening the Cities / Eileen Bolinsky

(stream / mp3)

Mayors from cities around the globe signed a document with an ambitious set of goals designed to make their cities greener. The Urban Environmental Accords sets out twenty-one actions in areas ranging from energy to transportation to environmental health and mayors will work over the next seven years to implement the objectives. The Accords signing was the culmination of the World Environment Day Conference. Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky reports. (07:00)

Recycle or Pay / Don Magilliray

(stream / mp3)

A pilot project in northern London is drawing attention from other cities. Residents must separate their garbage into bins of glass, paper and cans, or face a hefty fine. Don Magilliray of Deutsche Welle Radio has our story. (05:05)

Water Permeable Concrete / Conrad Fox

(stream / mp3)

Mexico City gets almost 30 inches of rain each year, but most of it runs out to the ocean through extensive drainage systems. During the summer rains, the streets flood and the aquifers are not refilling fast enough to keep the water supply at a constant level. A group of entrepreneurs believe they have a solution to the city’s water problems with a material called “Ecocreto.” Conrad Fox reports. (09:00)

Re-designing Cities

(stream / mp3)

Architect Hillary Brown offers some tips on how to make the most of miles of concrete and pavement rights-of-way in big cities. (03:00)

Lightning Strikes

(stream / mp3)

For the past 40 years, according to the National Weather Service, lightning has been the second largest storm killer in the U.S. Nearly 70 people are killed each year by lightning, and those who survive bear symptoms that can last for years. Russ Francis is one who survived, and he talks with host Steve Curwood about the storm that changed his life. (05:30)

Green Entrepreneurs / Claire Schoen

(stream / mp3)

Green entrepreneurs are entering competitions, run by business schools across the country, to get their eco-friendly ventures off the ground. Reporter Claire Schoen follows one hopeful in the Haas School at the University of California, Berkeley, as he competes to win the $25,000 prize with his biodiesel invention. (15:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Russ Francis
REPORTERS: Eileen Bolinsky, Don MacGillivray, Conrad Fox, Claire Schoen
COMMENTATOR: Hillary Brown

(THEME MUSIC)

CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.

(THEME MUSIC-UP AND UNDER)

CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. The rush is on to design and market low carbon energy systems and everyone from giant oil companies to business school students is jumping on what’s becoming a billion dollar venture capital bandwagon.

MAN: Well, I’m going to coin a new phrase here for you: Green Robber Baron. If this does what we expect it to do, I become wealthy and I can clean up the world at the same time.

HENRY: Doing good’s good but making money’s also nice.

CURWOOD: Also, surviving the shock. Not many people get struck by lightning but for those who do, it can be a long road back.

FRANCIS: I still have terrible headaches. I had a lot of trouble with dizziness and that. They did a functional MRI and they found out that one side of my brain had pretty much got sizzled by it.

[SOUND OF THUNDER/LIGHTNING]

CURWOOD: Lightning strikes and more- this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

[NPR NEWSCAST]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

Back to top

 

Greening the Cities

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom holds the Urban Environmental Accords which was signed by 50 mayors. (Photo: Andy Kuno/WED2005)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The green carpet was recently rolled out at City Hall in San Francisco. Inside, fifty mayors from around the world signed on to Urban Environmental Accords, a set of 21 actions designed to promote greener cities.

ANNOUNCER: Ahmedabad, Arnhem, and Austin…please come up to the podium.

[APPLAUSE]

CURWOOD: It was the final event of World Environment Day, sponsored by the United Nations. Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky has our story.

BOLINSKY: United Nations documents are typically agreements between countries, but these Urban Environmental Accords stand out as an agreement among international cities. U.N. Environment Program Director Klaus Toepfer noted that the majority of people now live in urban areas, and if we are looking at the future of the planet, it is urgent that city mayors take action.

TOEPFER: We have to have this exchange what we call let’s be aware of the ecological footprints of cities so we can step by step reduce them and cooperate. We are exporting waste, we are exporting sewage, we are exporting polluted air. And we have to import water, we have to import clean air.



San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (left) speaks with (clockwise) London's Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron, London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Matale, and Sri Lanka Mayor Hilmy Mohamed. (Photo: Andy Kuno/WED2005)

BOLINSKY: As host city of the five day World Environment Day conference, San Francisco offered mayors, government officials, and members of advocacy groups a daily forum to share information, experiences, and a plan to move forward toward making their cities greener.

[MEETING AMBIENCE FADES IN]

BOLINSKY: At these so-called World Café sessions, attendees were divided into small working groups and given a number of assignments designed to inspire global dialogue.

KENOLI: Our first exercise today is going to be to talk about the things that you have already done…particularly the things you are proud of.

CADMAN: I think the thing we’re most proud of is actually having done a 100 year plan for the city.

BOLINSKY: David Cadman is Vancouver’s deputy mayor.

CADMAN: When we did a 100 year plan we learned that we run out of water in 35 years, run out of oil in 40 years, run out of natural gas in 60 years so we can’t plan tomorrow as if it’s a continuum of today.

LUTTERAL: Very little to be proud of. We have done very little to protect one of our most important resources and that’s our riverfront that we have.

BOLINSKY: Juan Martin Lutteral works on water issues in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

LUTTERAL: I don’t know if you know it but Buenos Aires is on the verge of the widest river in the world and the free land that we have there is still in struggle with the lack of vision about the importance of protecting those open spaces for the generations to come.

BOLINSKY: At another table, delegates Dana Smirin of South Africa, Mayor Hilmy Mohamed of Matale, Sri Lanka and Diego Diez Martin of Caracas, Venezuela spoke of their cities’ priorities.

SMIRIN: For me, mine was food security and water. So that every family has healthy food and clean water.

MOHAMED: My city has 27 natural spouts, you know, so wish, my dream is to get, you know, like some water parks going in the city to attract tourism to them.

MARTIN: Caracas is a big city. And one of the things that people is that people are thinking about is waste management and I would like to see the streets really clean with no waste problems.

BOLINSKY: Dr. Adedeji works on waste reduction in Lagos, Nigeria. He says there are no quick fixes to reducing waste sustainably.

ADEDEJI: Not too many countries in the world that are developing have a protocol for waste management yet. Even for those who have, it is a seeming problem that never will have an end because population growth is a factor that you must reckon with. As long as population is growing, the amount of waste that is generated on a daily basis grows with it. And, therefore, if you have a solution for the quantity that you’re handling today, in another one year you have to start looking for another solution.

BOLINSKY: Residents of Lagos recently began sorting their trash in color-coded bags and small business owners will soon be paid for recycling plastics.

ADEDEJI: So, at this point, what we’re trying to do is to put together a waste management practice that addresses the culture of the people. And also inform the way and manner that people are going to relate to the waste they generate. And I think that is the key.



San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom holds the Urban Environmental Accords which was signed by 50 mayors. (Photo: Andy Kuno/WED2005)

BOLINSKY: As the Global Café drew to a close, some mayors expressed concern about signing the non-binding Accords. It asks cities to work to implement as many of the 21 actions as possible between now and World Environment Day 2012… actions including increasing the use of renewable energy to meet ten percent of the city’s peak electric load within seven years; establishing a policy to achieve zero waste to landfills and incinerators by 2040; and increasing adequate access to safe drinking water, with the aim of access for all by 2015.

Nairobi mayor Dick Wathika spoke for a number of mayors when he said he did not have the authority to implement these actions.

WATHIKA: Most of those things that have been mentioned in these accords are not within my jurisdiction as the mayor of the city, and probably so many other mayors. When you talk of transport policies and laws, when you talk of other things on the accords like energy, water, then these are things that as the mayor of Nairobi I don’t have anything to do with.

BOLINSKY: In response to this concern, language in the accords was later changed to recognize that the adoption of the document shows agreement with the spirit of the actions rather than the commitment to reach specific targets.

Now, as the mayors take the Urban Environmental Accords back to their home cities, they must find ways to move toward its goals. Vancouver’s David Cadman says it may not be easy to bring these written actions to life in real cities but he’s an optimist.

CADMAN: No meeting in and of itself can change the world. But when people come together and leave with resolve, and go back to networks which within they work, we can make change.

BOLINSKY: For Living on Earth, I’m Eileen Bolinsky in San Francisco.

CURWOOD: To see the full text of the Urban Environmental Accords, go to our website, Living on Earth dot org. Also at Living on Earth dot org, you can hear interviews with the mayors of Copenhagen and London.

A Living on Earth Exclusive:

Short Interviews at a World Environment Day Mayor’s Event at the Cable Car Barn, San Francisco

Related link:
Urban Environmental Accords

Back to top

 

Recycle or Pay

CURWOOD: And speaking of London, residents of the North London borough of Barnett now have a choice about what to do with their recyclable materials. They can separate their used glass bottles, paper, and tin cans into a black box for pickup. Or they can stick it all into the rubbish bin and face a fine that translates into more than eighteen hundred dollars. Okay, for most folks that’s not really much of a choice. Dom MacGillivray has our story about efforts to turn reluctant recyclers into rabid reusers.

[CLANKING OF BOTTLES IN BIN]

MACGILLIVRAY: Into the back of the truck, Terry Bradshaw unloads a black box filled with old newspapers... wine bottles... mayonnaise jars and soup cans...Bradshaw says after a few years on the job he can tell a lot about people by their recycled rubbish... he analyzes the contents from this house in Milton Avenue, north London.

BRADSHAW: I’d say they’re quite average really, don’t drink a lot of alcohol. But I say they, most of the food they eat is in tins.

[CLANKING OF GLASS GOING INTO RECYCLING TRUCK]

BRADSHAW: I say they’re weekend drinkers. Saturday evening wine with food. The money we can make out of the recycling can go to cancer and can start improving things for people that, you know…

MACGILLIVRAY: Bradshaw takes a few seconds to scan the street. He notes the houses that have signed up in the past couple of months.

BRADSHAW: A lot of people are recycling a lot more. Before, this house didn’t do it and now it is and one over the road just there- they never used to and now they do. These two houses have started recycling since January.

MACGILLIVRAY: These houses have started recycling since January because they were threatened with a 1,500 Euro fine.

OFFERED: We are not engaging in activity where we go through people’s bins, no, we don’t do that. We know who’s recycling, who’s not.

MACGILLIVRAY: Local Councillor Mathew Offered says only 20 per cent of household rubbish is being recycled in his borough of Barnett. Not nearly enough, he says. They’re aiming for at least 30 percent. They are imposing fines because they feel this is the only way to shake people into action.

OFFERED: Recycling operatives go round. If they notice there’s a house with a recycling box that hasn’t had anything in for some weeks, they’ll report back to the recycling assistants who can then go and call on the property and speak to the homeowners and find out if there’s anything we can do to help them recycle. Some people have said in the past, “well, we didn’t know what to put in the black box,” so we explain it to them and they have recycled. Other people who are maybe elderly, concerned or disabled, find it difficult to lift the heavy box. So we can provide an assisted collection. We can help them out with that, as well. It’s those people that then, after we’ve helped them, and spoken to them, who then refuse to recycle, they’re the ones we’d be looking for, in terms of addressing them with a fine.

MACGILLIVRAY: Sheldon Weitsman watches Bradshaw's crew empty another box of bottles and newspapers into the truck. Weitsman has been recycling for less
than a month. He started for one reason.

WEITSMAN: To be honest because they’re talking about fines for not doing it. Really, that’s it.

MACGILLIVRAY: Weitsman, a man in his middle age, is a reluctant recycler.
Some of his neighbors have been bundling up their black boxes for years,
but until now he's always managed to resist. Perhaps it's his age, this may be something young people do.

WEITSMAN: My children recycle. So it’s become a way of life with them. They all sort their rubbish out. It’s a natural thing.

MACGILLIVRAY: Weitsman has plenty of company. Numerous borough residents are complaining. They say rubbish is their private property and they don 't need the state telling them how to dispose of it. They’re especially upset with the threat of a substantial fine. Ben Saunders who organizes the recycle pick-up program says they may have a point.

SAUNDERS: The general feel is, is animosity towards being fined and being told what to do. I’m not entirely sure that a compulsory recycling scheme is the way forward. It’s that sort of big brother syndrome, you know, you’ve got to do this or we’re going to financially deprive you. But it’s difficult, I don’t know. It’s just something that I, it obviously works, there’s no doubt about that, but whether it’s morally correct, I’m not sure.

MACGILLIVRAY: Councillor Matthew Offered has heard the complaints, but he can't see the problem. Instead of placing all the rubbish in one bin, he says split it up, put it in two bins: one for recycling, the other for rubbish. Everything is free: the black boxes and the weekly pickup.

OFFERED: We’ve made it as simple as possible for the local residents and the people won’t do it. We don’t know why they won’t. Perhaps they feel that they shouldn’t have to, they don’t want to, they can’t be bothered. As I’ve said, we’ve made it very easy for local residents and now we’re just asking them to use what we’ve put in place. It will be considered more socially responsible to recycle because the amount of cost, both in terms of the environment and the amount of landfill that we have in this country. I think it will become socially unacceptable not to recycle and to keep throwing things into the bin.

MACGILLIVRAY: This program is attracting tons of attention from local governments all across the UK and the continent. If this succeeds in north London, plenty of other villages, towns and cities all over Europe are set to impose similar schemes.

[MUSIC: “Streets of London” Cat Stevens]

CURWOOD: Our report on recycling incentives in north London was produced by Don MacGillivray and comes to us from Deutsche Welle Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up, if there’s too much water on one hand, and not enough on the other, there ought to be a solution. And Mexico City thinks it has one. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Back to top

[MUSIC: “Mediu Xhiga” Dueto de Los Hermanos Rios: Mexico (Putomayo) 2001]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Water Permeable Concrete

CURWOOD: Like many cities, Mexico City is strapped for water, and for cash. Water treatment facilities and new supply pipes are badly needed but they’d bust the municipal budget. Now some local inventors believe they have found a surprisingly simple and economic solution to the city’s water woes. And Conrad Fox has our story.

[THUNDER, RAIN, WATER RUNNING DOWN DRAIN]

FOX: You wouldn't think the twenty million residents of Mexico City would have to worry about their water supply; they get more than 27 inches of rain every year. But most of that rain never makes it to a tap. Instead, one of the most extensive drainage systems in the world channels it straight out of the city and to the sea.

[GUASCH SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: Mexico City gets very short, very intense rains during the summer. We've got to be very efficient about draining the water. And if we don’t get rid of it quickly, not even the Lord our Father could prevent this city from flooding.

FOX: That's Juan Carlos Guasch, technical director of Mexico City’s water system. Flooding is a serious problem in many parts of the city, but keeping streets dry is only half the challenge Guasch’s department faces. The other half is making sure residents still have enough to drink. And at the moment, he says, he's fighting a losing battle.

[GUASCH SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: Seventy percent of our water comes from about 450 wells in the city. Some rain does recharge the aquifer but not fast enough. In the south of the city the water table is dropping about a meter a year. That’s not good. In fact, it's extremely bad.

FOX: No one knows for sure just how much water is left in the Mexico City aquifer, although most think a crisis is not far off. But what worries Guasch is that as the aquifer depletes, concentrations of manganese and other dangerous elements make the drinking water almost unusable. And that’s not the only consequence of a sinking water table.

[STREET SOUNDS, CARS, TALKING]

FOX: On a busy sidewalk in the center of Mexico City, Jesus Esteva, a consulting engineer for the city works department, points out the crumbling pavement at the base of an old art deco building. Part of the sidewalk has heaved upwards and passersby are forced to step around the rumble. The problem, says Esteva, is related to what lies below the concrete of Mexico City.

[ESTEVA SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: It's built over jello. What was once a lake. The ground is very soft clay and water. Most of Mexico City's water comes from the same ground, and as it is pumped out, the ground dries out and sinks. In places you can have sinking up to a meter.

FOX: The problem dates back to the early 17th century when the Spanish drained Lake Texcoco, which covered much of the Valley of Mexico, to build their new capital soon after the conquest of the Aztec Empire. The valley has no natural drainage and flooding was a serious problem, even back then. To handle it, the Spanish built a series of large drainage canals. They worked for a time but soil has since subsided, and the canals now run uphill. And moving soil also means broken pipes. The city loses an estimated 35 percent of its water to leaks, a nightmare for residents like Francisco Gasca.

[GASCA SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: There never used to be a lack of water. I put it down to leaks in the streets. You can often see water bubbling up over the sidewalk. You spend 8 or 10 hours without water in the bathroom, it’s horrible.

FOX: But a group of Mexican entrepreneurs believes they have discovered a solution to the problem. And it happened by accident. One day, in 1996, architect Nestor de Buen and a friend dropped by the lab of chemist Jaime Grau to examine new materials that Grau was developing--mostly paints and paving tiles. They noticed a small paving stone in the corner.

NESTOR: When German asking why he didn't want to show that special piece, he said, “it doesn't work because water goes through it.” So I told him “Jaime, you’re kidding, that's impossible.” So he opened the sink, put the piece under the water and I felt like, you know, like my soul was going everywhere around the world. I told him, “Jaime you just discovered something that everyone around the world is looking for.”

FOX: Grau had hit upon a pervious, water-permeable concrete. It's similar to normal concrete, but has no sand. Instead, a special additive holds the gravel together in a strong but porous block, which some have likened to a big rice krispy square. De Buen convinced Grau to patent the product, and together they began selling it to the Mexican and U.S. construction industry under the name Ecocreto. Ten years on, the name is hardly a household word, but its makers are convinced it could be the saviour of places like Mexico City.

[SOUND OF CONCRETE MIXER, PEOPLE TALKING]

FOX: Ecocreto can be used for roads, parking lots and other surface coverings, just like concrete or asphalt. But unlike traditional paving methods, water runs straight through Ecocreto and back into the ground.

[WATER POURING]

NESTOR: If, if this was rain, it would be more than a year's worth of rain, in this small area.

FOX: Nestor de Buen pours a bucket of water on a parking lot made of Ecocreto. The water disappears instantly, leaving behind just a small wet stain.

NESTOR: In most cities around the world, we take the water from the aquifers but we don’t get it back. And in most places, when cities are built, what we are doing is putting impervious surfaces above the ground so that water is not going to get back when it drains. One of the authorities, when we started this project, told us that if we could give the aquifers one third of their rain water back we would solve the problem pretty fast.

FOX: Others have already recognized Ecocreto's potential for alleviating the water crisis in Mexico City. The product has won several environmental prizes, including one from the World Resources Institute. Some Mexico City officials have promoted its environmental benefits but although it has been used for some public roads and private constructions, its use hasn't been widespread. In most cases, the city has preferred the cheaper alternative - - at least in the short run -- of laying traditional concrete or asphalt for new roads. And it's far from ripping up old ones to lay down Ecocreto. Juan Carlos Guasch says fixing the leaky water supply system already sets the city back 20 million U.S. dollars a year, but it’s not only the cost that concerns him.

[GUASCH SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: We think it’s a good product and we’ve recommended local authorities use it. But it’s mostly useful in the south, where the city is growing. Here in the center it doesn’t make any sense because the soil is impermeable.

FOX: According to Ecocreto developers, that problem can be overcome by drilling holes beneath the pavement to allow water to permeate to the aquifer, but that substantially raises the product's cost. Nestor de Buen believes that any solution to Mexico City’s water problems is going to be costly and he’s disappointed that the city isn’t using the product on a larger scale.

Meanwhile, his company is finding new uses for the product. Currently, they're installing it in golf courses under sand traps. And they've partnered with MBA students from Georgetown University to seek new markets in the U.S. But for de Buen, the inspiration remains his thirsty city.

NESTOR: In Mexico, the worst problems are not politicians, which are rather bad most of them. Not the thieves and the kidnappers. The worst problem this country has is the lack of water.

FOX: De Buen knows Ecocreto won’t solve Mexico City’s water problems single-handedly but he believes it’s, at least, a partial solution for the water-strapped city. For Living on Earth, I'm Conrad Fox in Mexico City.

A Living on Earth Exclusive:
Professor Bruce Ferguson, Director of School of Environmental Design at the University of Georgia, Athens, talks with Steve Curwood and porous pavement.
- Advances in Porous Pavement
- Bruce Ferguson, School of Environmental Design

Related link:
Ecocreto

Back to top

 

Re-designing Cities

CURWOOD: In New York City, a team of architects and urban planners have figured out how some taken-for-granted real estate could make for a healthier environment. They did it by taking to the streets: rethinking how to use pavement, drainage, utilities and landscape; and looking at what other cities are doing. They came up with what they say is the right way to use all those public rights-of-way in an attempt, says team leader Hillary Brown, to put the principles of sustainability to work where the rubber meets the road.

BROWN: First off, we noticed that cars, surface transit, pedestrians, and bike riders all compete for the right-of-way. But too often, autos win out. So, we proposed carving out more space for bikers and separating them from cars and walkers with islands and corridors of trees and vegetation.

We also found that in many places, wider sidewalks and green outdoor alcoves can entice us out of our cars to stroll, walk to work, and enjoy exercise in comfort and safety.

We all appreciate the seasonal colors of trees and other street plantings, but these pockets of nature offer other tangible benefits by removing air-borne dirt, producing oxygen, dampening street noise and keeping the city cool in summer. Some studies even show that the more trees you have on a street, the less crime you have.

Creating continuous trenches for these trees can prevent both damage to their roots and cracks in the pavement. Selecting mixed species that are water-efficient and pest-resistant produces healthier plants that need less tending to.

And instead of letting polluted rainwater flow into storm sewers, let’s direct it onto porous surfaces such as gravel or open spaced pavers, or into planted trenches where it can be filtered by roots while refreshing underground aquifers.

We also learned that something as simple as the color of concrete or asphalt makes a big difference. Lighter shades of concrete improve visibility at night. By day, it reflects the heat of the sun, reducing summertime temperatures - - and a cooler street means less energy is needed for air-conditioning.

This pavement lasts longer too, and may be an excellent medium for recycling a variety of wastes such as old concrete, glass, or rubber.

Open up the street and you’ll find a deep tangle of conduits and pipes. We recommend organizing this messy infrastructure into trenches with removable lids for repairs. Radar can test pipes, and you can drill them with lasers, a practice called micro-tunneling that allows workmen to make repairs without digging, keeping neighbors happier.

Now, these may not sound like grand solutions but small improvements, taken together, can make a big difference, simply because so much of our urban environment is paved. The 20,000 lane miles of right-of-way in all of New York City comprise an area as big as Manhattan.

All in all, we learned that greening our streets does far more than create a lovely, living mosaic of the city’s diverse neighborhoods. With better air and water, healthier natural systems, and a more active population, it’s a long-term investment in our city’s quality of life.

CURWOOD: Hillary Brown is an architect and principal of the firm “New Civic Works” based in Manhattan.

For more information on how to green your city, go to our website – Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.

Related link:
Design Trust for Public Space

Back to top

[MUSIC: “Grandfather, Look at Me!” Tokeya Inajin: Keepers of the Dream (EarthBeat) 1995]

Lightning Strikes

CURWOOD: 'Tis the season of summer storms, and while some folks relish all that excitement of crashing thunder and pouring rain, others say their blood runs cold at the first flash of light, especially those who've been hit by lightning. Between 200 and 1,000 people in the U.S. are struck by lightning each year. About 70 of them are killed.

One person who lived to tell his tale is Russ Francis, a communications worker in Lyndon, Illinois. We caught him on his cell phone as he was driving home from work. Russ, I hear it's optimal conditions for a conversation like this!

FRANCIS: Yeah, at the present time, I’m just ahead of a huge thunderstorm. I get kind of antsy I guess when it’s storming like this.

CURWOOD: I hope this won’t spook you too much, but could you tell me the story of when you did get struck by lightning?

FRANCIS: Yes, at the time I worked for a communication company and I was repairing a line and it was raining out that day and it had not been storming at all. And I just had finished up the case of trouble that I was working on and shut the closure up and I was on the ground and just stood up and I remember seeing the flash. It came out my right hand and the noise was something, I can’t even explain how loud the noise was. It’s the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced or heard or whatever. And I remember getting half thrown back and the next thing I remember was trying to get back into my truck and, at the time, it blew out the two-way radios that I had in our truck. I had no feeling at all on my right side. It just felt like I’d had a stroke.

CURWOOD: So, this thing hits you, you see this flash come out of your hand and then, did it knock you out? Did you have to wake up?

FRANCIS: I don’t think I was ever completely knocked out. I know I was stupor- stunned and sat there, and then got in my van and I had a headset there where I could have went back and connected on and tried to call for help. (Laughs) I’m not getting back up in this. So I ended up driving myself back into the office which was about two and a half miles away. I remember my boss took me into the emergency room then.

CURWOOD: Now, you had some symptoms, like your whole right side was weak and you lost your hearing. How long do those symptoms last?

FRANCIS: Well, I was off work for about three and a half years. Probably the first two years I slept between 20 and 22 hours a day. It just zapped every bit of energy there was out of me. I still have terrible headaches. I had a lot of trouble with dizziness and at the University of Illinois Chicago Hospital they did a functional MRI and they found out that one side of my brain pretty had much got sizzled by it.

CURWOOD: So, literally fried the brain, huh?

FRANCIS: Yep.

CURWOOD: But you’re doing okay, you sound okay.

FRANCIS: I’m back to work. They told me I’d never be back to work, and I’m back to work. And the other side, I guess, is taking care of the side that’s been damaged so we’re living life as well as we can.

CURWOOD: Now, what kind of reaction did you get from family and friends? I understand that a lot of times people have a hard time believing people who say they’ve been hit by lightning.

FRANCIS: Well, the biggest things is, that 95 percent of the people have no burns or no marks on them and I was one of those. You have no physical things and they look at you and say, “you look okay, you look healthy.” And, at the time, I couldn’t walk across the room without being exhausted. It would get kind of aggravating that way when people look at you in that regard. I mean, you don’t have an arm blown off, you’re not sizzled like an overdone hotdog so they say you should be okay. Well, you’re not. I guess my kids have had to deal with me in your mood swings and not being able to remember things because your memory, short-term memory gets pretty much hosed up and the strengths you used to have are now weaknesses.

CURWOOD: How has it affected your extra-curricular activities? I’m wondering in particular if you’re a golfer.

FRANCIS: Well, I wasn’t a golfer prior to that. I was an average ______ ? prior to that and after that happened I had trouble blacking out, things like that. I had to pretty much stop doing that sport. That was hard, I mean your physical, things that you used to be able to do you can’t do. You learn to compensate for that, I guess other ways.

CURWOOD: Now, do you have any advice for me. It’s the summer season and it seems to me that the thunder and lightning storms come this time of year. The hazy, hot and humid weather. What would you advise me to do?

FRANCIS: I guess that one thing that kind of bothers me is if I see a coach trying to get that one more inning in or one more batter up or something like that or one more play-off or get one more hole in. It can change your life and it’s not worth it.

CURWOOD: And so, what if I’m all of the sudden caught out in the middle of it and it seems like, oh wow, this is definitely lightning time. Anything I can do?

FRANCIS: Go under a closed structure like a building with sides on it and preferably something that’s got wiring in it or whatever, like a park shelter or a tent is not a good place to be. Under a tree is one of the terrible places to be. A car is okay. It’s not the best place to be, but it’s better than being out in the open.

CURWOOD: So, right now are you still outrunning the storm?

FRANCIS: No I pulled over right now so we could have a decent cell phone conversation, but it the storm is catching up to me.

CURWOOD: Well, I guess you better get a move on then.

FRANCIS: Tell your people though, if you hear it, fear it. If you see it, flee it.

CURWOOD: Russ Francis works in the communications business in Lyndon, Illinois. Russ, thanks for taking this time with me and hey, get home out of the storm, would you?

FRANCIS: Yes, I will.

CURWOOD: Just ahead, green business plans that some up and coming entrepreneurs hope will put them in the black. Keep listening to Living on Earth

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and Verizon, providing 4-1-1 directory assistance for residential and business numbers locally or across the country. The Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at kresge.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Related links:
- National Weather Service Lightning Safety Page
- Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International, Inc.

Back to top

[MUSIC: “Lightning Strikes” Lou Christie]

Green Entrepreneurs

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. An increasing number of young, environmentally-minded entrepreneurs are trying to develop businesses based on green energy technology , like wind, solar and conservation Bio-diesel is considered one of the "green energy" fuels, because it's made from sustainable resources -- mainly plant oils -- and produces little pollution. Biodiesel can be poured right into the tank of any diesel truck, bus or car, and mixed in any proportion with diesel made from fossil fuel. It can even go right into your home heating oil tank. Claire Schoen reports on one young man who is trying to jump-start a biodiesel venture.

CARSTENS: We're Homeland Fuels. We're pro-Business, pro-American, and pro-environment.

SCHOEN: Chris Carstens is neither a starry-eyed environmentalist, nor a hard-edged businessman, but an interesting mix of the two.

CARSTENS: I'm a Berkeley alumni. Mechanical engineer. And started a business with a friend doing a new technology for biodiesel production. .

SCHOEN: Chris sees biodiesel as a viable alternative to gas-powered vehicles, which are a major source of greenhouse emissions. But there's another angle to the green energy movement that is attracting such burgeoning businessmen.

MAN FROM BOEGESKOV: Well, I'm going to coin a new phrase here for you. “Green Robber Baron.” If this does what we expect it to do, I become wealthy and I can clean up the world at the same time.

HENRY: Doing good's good. But making money's also nice.

[CROWDED ROOM, PEOPLE MINGLING, GLASSES AND SILVERWARE]

SCHOEN: The Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley has a Business Plan Competition which is becoming a magnet for green entrepreneurs looking for recognition for their ideas. This year, four green energy groups made it into the semi-finals round of the Haas B-Plan Competition: Helios, Boegeskov, Diamond Energy and Homeland Fuels, headed up by Chris Carstens.

WOMAN: Christopher, congratulations on making the semi-final rounds.

CARSTENS: Okay.

WOMAN: So, go out there and mingle.

CARSTENS: This evening is the "Mentor Mixer," so to speak. And we're going to find out what it's about.

SCHOEN: Business students, engineers and entrepreneurs are milling about here where terms like "business opportunity" and "VC" are bandied about, that's venture capitalist, not Viet Cong, by the way. Also, "the elevator pitch" in which you pare down your concept to 30 seconds, short enough to pitch to a VC in an elevator ride, should you find yourself in this fortunate circumstance. Tonight, each semi-finalist team is offered a mentor who will help them craft their business plan for the finals round.

CARSTENS: It's a unique opportunity, really. You have all these seasoned executives helping people like us for free.

SCHOEN: Tonight Chris will meet Richard Caro, who runs a small company called Tangible Future. Richard specializes in helping budding entrepreneurs start successful businesses, a perfect match for Chris.

CARO: I don't really know yet anything about what they're doing. So I'm probably on a rapid learning curve.

CARSTENS: Should I give you the elevator pitch here?

CARO: Sure.

CARSTENS: Alright, so basically we're working on a new production method for bio-diesel. Specifically focused toward small-scale production, for community-based, school bus fleets, municipal bus fleets.

CARO: So, it sounds like you're trying to combine ecological friendliness with making a profit, is that right?

SCHOEN: But can a company who's out to "do good" actually come out on top? Last year's first-place winner was, indeed, a green energy team, called Proton Power. They developed a solid acid fuel cell technology that provides power, heat and electricity to long-haul freight trucks so they don't have to keep their engines idling when they stop to sleep. This saves the average trucker 26 hundred dollars a year in fuel and significantly reduces pollution and noise. Jerry Engel runs the Haas B-Plan Competition.

ENGEL: What this team did was they found a market that was ready to accept this technology today. Deploy it today. Have an impact today.

SCHOEN: Winning first place is the ring that all the teams are reaching for.

ENGEL: Twenty-five thousand dollars for first place, so this is not insignificant. But if you make it to semifinals, one of the other major opportunities is that you get to pitch your opportunity to a panel of experienced venture capitalists. This exposure sometimes leads to outcomes that are unforeseen.

BOEGESKOV MAN 1: Clean technology is up and coming. Venture money’s been pouring into it in recent years.

BOEGESKOV MAN 2: Last year, 500 million dollars was invested in clean energy companies, an all-time high.

[DOOR OPENS. FOOTSTEPS]

SCHOEN: The following week, Richard met with Chris to see what he's been cooking up in his lab.

[DOOR SLAMS SHUT]

CARO: Wow, so you really do have a garage for your lab. That's perfect for a little start up. Let's have a look at your prototype.

CARSTENS: Well, this is our high-pressure reactor, that we bought online at a great discount. And the thermal mass on the thing is great. It's kinda scary actually, when you drop it into a thing of water. It moans and whines and "Whiiiirrrrrr".

CARO: So, what is it here that's your unique thing?

CARSTENS: The idea is that it will be a refrigerator-sized machine or maybe a double-wide refrigerator. And, vegetable oil, alcohol. That's what they need to start with. Then the machine calibrates the two. And then spits out glycerin and biodiesel.

SCHOEN: Chris' design does have some unique technical innovations which will allow him to develop and patent a small appliance that can produce a moderate amount of bio-diesel, perhaps 250,000 gallons a year, in a clean efficient manner with low labor costs. However, while Richard is helping him figure out how to pitch the technology, he discovers that there is another, very compelling angle to Chris' plan.

CARO: But, if I had to put my finger on what's different about your approach than everybody else's, who might be playing in this space?

CARSTENS: We're trying to cater to smaller and community-based production.

SCHOEN: Chris thinks that communities could use his machine to make their own biodiesel, on-site, for a particular fleet of cars or trucks. For example, a school district could make biodiesel for their own buses. Or a farming co-op could use their agricultural waste to run their tractors. Making biodiesel on-site would save the huge cost of transportation -- and the middle-men.

[TALKING ON CELL PHONE, CAR DOOR SLAMS, CAR ENGINE STARTS]

CARSTENS: Hey Bill, it's Chris. Pretty good. We were just coming over, is that okay? Alright, we'll probably be there in 15 minutes.

SCHOEN: Chris and Richard decide to focus on the marketing angle in their pitch to the VC judges.

CARSTENS: We're going to Bill's house.

SCHOEN: So, Chris is taking Richard to visit Bill Michael, a local "home brewer" who is making biodiesel for his personal use.

CARSTENS: Bill is very professional, very clean. And he's got a very nice setup.

[GARAGE DOOR OPENS]

MICHAEL: This is a 20 gallon unit. And we're about meeting the family need. So these containers here contain oil from a restaurant. They've cooked their French fries and put it out in the dumpster.

SCHOEN: The problem is, Bill's home brewing process is extremely labor-intensive and inefficient.

MICHAEL: I mean, my greatest dream is that cities will really get into this. For example, the city I live in there's probably 100, 200 restaurants in the city. And they're producing this muck that's just getting, I dunno, turned into dog chow or something. But they could take and turn it into fuel for city vehicles and save some money.

[DOOR CLOSES, FOOTSTEPS]

CARSTENS: It's a matter of converting that kind of enthusiasm into a real business.

SCHOEN: While Chris doesn't see home brewing as the solution to the greenhouse crisis, he does see this cadre of environmental idealists as the foundation of a customer base for Homeland Fuels.

CARSTENS: It's like, you've got maybe 50 biodiesel plants in the United States that are making 98 percent of the fuel And then you've got thousands and thousands of home brewers. And the home brewers are sitting around saying, why can't I buy this at the pump? And there has to be a bridge between huge centralized plant in Nebraska and a home brewer in Berkeley. And that's what we're enabling.

CARO: And so, we have to figure out a way that we’re gonna have a profitable business, as well.

CARSTENS: Save the earth and make a profit? Sure.

SCHOEN: One potential market for Chris' appliance could be biodiesel stations, where people like Bill could buy his fuel. Today, there a few scattered stations around the country that are doing it as a political passion. But they have to buy from the big manufacturers who truck in the fuel. Their price is steep and their profit margins are minuscule. What if they could make their own fuel on-site? Chris went to visit Sarah Hope at BioFuel Oasis, one small station up the road in Berkeley, to see if they might be a customer.

CARSTENS: Alright, let's go over there. See what she has to say.
[CARS]

CUSTOMER/ATTENDANT: Getting yourself pumped? Yup. which side should I take it from? It's pretty sweet. You can pull right in. And we just pump it right directly into our tank. So here goes. It's going to make kind of a loud noise.

[LOUD WHIRRING NOISE]

CUSTOMER/ATTENDANT: Our dream is to have a map right there that has bio-diesel spots along the 5, along the 101, big corridors where you can get bio-diesel. Unfortunately, there's not much to put on the map right now. (Laughs)

SARA: You got 18 gallons and the total is $64.06. We take cash and checks. Thank you very much.

CARSTENS: We kinda want to sit down and talk to you about the potential advantages of having a biodiesel plant here, as opposed to having it trucked in.

SARA: You know, at $3.50 a gallon we're doing right now, it's like very little profit. Yeah, it's a community service project right now.

CARSTENS: And that's where local production comes in. We've come up with a product to make bio-diesel on a continuous basis. And it can use a variety of feed stocks. So you could put waste vegetable oil into it. You could put animal fats into it.

SARA: So, what's the cost per gallon for production?

CARSTENS: It's probably going to be about 35 cents above the cost of the feed stock.

SARA: Then you put in your other operating expenses and your profit margin.

CARSTENS: Is this something that sounds of interest to you?

SARA: Yeah, definitely. I mean, if you come along with something that can give us a better profit margin that makes a difference in us being able to be here next year.

CARSTENS: Terrific. Well, thank you very much.

CARSTENS: It's good! I think she was encouraged by it. As soon as I said, "Increase your profit margin," that kinda caught her attention a little (Laughs).

SCHOEN: Chris and another team member, Henry Oh, meet Richard at his San Francisco office to work out their presentation for the final round of the competition.

CARO: Now, this slide worried me a bit because I started to drift off in this slide. It just was so reminiscent to me of you know when I was an undergraduate, people telling me why I should live in a commune (laughs). But the thing that really helped me picture this was the Stanford example you've mentioned, where you take all that waste from the dining hall and convert it into fuel for these shuttles. And so you're just closing that loop in an incredibly cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way.

OH: The idea is that you have a community that can create it's own energy supply from resources that have previously gone to waste. So in the Brazilian example, they pay twice as much to transport the diesel fuel to the community as it costs for the diesel fuel itself.

CARO: And I believe you have some interesting news on Brazil, don't you?

CARSTENS: The Brazilian government, they have said that they had funds available for a prototype.

OH: We have interest, I mean this is a market waiting for a product.

CARO: A business plan competition implies venture capitalists financing it. And so to do that, you need to be helping them understand how if they invest x million dollars they will make 10 x million dollars. And so if the message is, "We have a business which will be successful because it enables the manufacture of diesel that will cost less than diesel is today by a lot. And, by the way, will solve a lot of the nations' energy dependence problems and as we migrate out into other places will help solve world poverty." You know that's like, "Oh, okay (chuckle). I sort of get how that would work."

SCHOEN: The big day arrives for the presentation. The hallways are filled with competitors, laptops on laps, working out final details. The bathroom door swings open, revealing a cluster of young men trying to get their ties knotted straight. Chris, Henry and the rest of the Homeland Fuels team meet up with Richard.

CARSTENS: Afternoon, guys.

CARO: You've put on the tie and everything. (chuckle) It's pretty exciting actually. I've got my checkbook ready (chuckle).

SCHOEN: The team looks over the list of judges.

CARO: They used to invest in one of my companies.

TEAM MEMBER: Did they do well?

CARO: They did alright. Not great, actually, that one (chuckle)..

SCHOEN: The group also sized up the other green energy teams.

TEAM MEMBER 1: Boegeskov Energy which we think is fuel cells.

TEAM MEMBER 2: Helios which is probably wind or sun. Advanced Diamond Energy, that's an interesting one.

WOMAN: The Energy Panel is over here if you want to get started.

[MOVEMENT INTO ROOM, GETTING SETTLED. DOOR CLOSES]

CARSTENS: Alright, good afternoon. My name is Christopher Carstens. And I'm the founder and CEO of Homeland Fuels. What we've designed is a scalable, biodiesel appliance.

SCHOEN: Richard's coaching and Chris' hard work have paid off as Chris gives a smooth and coherent presentation.

CARSTENS: And finally we are looking for an investment of two million dollars. So I'd be happy to take any questions.

JUDGES: Chris, could you explain a little bit about the technology hurdles that you’re going to have to overcome? The vision is clearly great. So, how long? Fascinating. Very enthusiastic about it, in spite of my question.

[APPLAUSE]

CARSTENS: Shall I just give you a card? Which would be fine if I could. I'm realizing I don't know where my wallet is (laugh).

JUDGE: Email me something. Okay?

CARSTENS: Why don't you give me a card. I know we're in a rush. Nice to meet you. Thanks a lot.

TEAM MEMBER: Did you walk out with a check?

CARSTENS: Just the business cards.

CARO: Make sure you follow up with them. Because they like to invest in early stage high risk-type things just like this.

CARSTENS: Alright. I will.

CARO: Well, it's been amazing. They've worked really hard. They've gone from a really unclear concept that had this obvious nugget of interest in it. And they've crafted a compelling story. So whether he wins or not is almost secondary in that he's got a very exciting opportunity to go create something possibly world changing which is what you really look for.

SCHOEN: Homeland Fuels thought they had a winning presentation. But so did the other green energy groups.

DIAMOND ENERGY MAN: I think the judges were very interested.

HELIOS MAN: We had a lot of smiling faces.

SCHOEN: And what did the judges think?

JUDGE: Very smart people. Very energetic. I mean, that's what's made the start-up world go round from day one. These potentially hold the ability to reconcile business objectives with green objectives which I think is exactly the right way to go. And my kind of firm is their target.

CARSTENS: We're ready to ship off.

CARO: Congratulations. Nice to see all you other guys.

ALL: Alright let's go guys.

SCHOEN: An exciting race. But Homeland Fuels did not win. Helios, a team working on solar panels was one of seven teams to win this round and head into the competition finals. And out of the original 66 teams, Helios ended up winning both third place and a special technology award.

ENGEL: Today is really the moment when green energy is becoming a viable, competitive business opportunity. And the Business Plan competition has been an excellent forum for green energy companies to make their business case. It's being made and it's being made well

SCHOEN: Chris is not giving up. The competition has given him a strong business plan, which he is using to look for funding to turn his prototype into a saleable appliance. With a little luck and a lot of persistence, you may be seeing Homeland Fuels Biodiesel at your local filling station someday. For Living on Earth, this is Claire Schoen in Berkeley, California.

Back to top

[MUSIC: “Ingi” Jennifer & Hazel Wrigley: Huldreland (GreenTrax) 1997]

CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth: a decade old ban on offshore drilling has kept most of the U.S. coastline free of oil and gas rigs. But to soften the energy crunch there’s now a push in Congress for more deep-sea exploration.

MAN: I know that off shore is a, almost a sacred issue to some. But the American people are going to find out what a shortage of natural gas is going to do to them.

CURWOOD: Offshore drilling and the environment, next time on Living on Earth. And now for a walk through one of the world’s largest and most vibrant cities. Sarah Peebles recorded these sounds along Koushuu-kaidou road in Tokyo where sidewalk vendors hawk everything from fashion to fast food.

[EARTHEAR: “Fast Kitchen (South Shinjuku Area)” Sarah Peebles: Walking Through Tokyo (Post-Concrete) 2001]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Steve Gregory, Jeff Young and Susan Shepherd, with help from Chris Bolick and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Max Thelander and Sarah Williams. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at living on earth dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt, smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Town Creek Foundation.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an autographed copy of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.