As the climate crisis and its compounding effects increase in both frequency and severity around the globe, the reality that world leaders have failed to meet the greatest challenge of our time with practical climate policy solutions becomes more evident. Land and soil erosion, rising sea levels, more frequent and intense drought, wildfires and hurricanes are but a few of the byproducts of the climate crisis.
Beyond the existential threat climate change poses to humans and other species, remedying the worsening climate events also costs governments around the world untold millions of dollars annually. Research conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that, if present trends continue, the total cost of global warming will be as high as $1.9 trillion annually by 2100.
To mediate the devastating infrastructural and costly economic effects of climate change, climate scientists, policy practitioners, companies and engineers are working together. They’re all spearheading a combined effort to develop innovative technologies to address the profusion of infrastructural, economic and societal problems nations now face due to the growing climate catastrophe.
What Is Greentech?
Greentech, also known as cleantech or environmental technology, has gained a lot of traction over the years as a possible solution to climate change. Greentech is an encompassing term used to describe the rapidly growing industry of scientific, technological and ideological approaches for clean energy production as an alternative to the use of fossil fuels. Solar cells, wind farms and hydrologic dams are some current and widely used examples of greentech you might see today.
Elements of greentech and its fundamental ideological practices have been around since the early 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. Its subfields include green energy, green chemistry, green nanotech and even green building. Greentech as a business sector did not develop more fully until the early 1960s. A United Nations report released in 2018 revealed that global investment in renewable and green technology has surpassed $200 billion.
Greentech takes on many forms to address the plethora of climate problems we face. Some of these problems are obvious: water and air pollution, melting ice glaciers and unsustainable practices such as offshore drilling for oil. Some are less well-known; for example, long-line fishing practices often cause marine and oceanic disasters.
In practice, everything from a field of massive wind turbines to solar panels affixed to row houses and electric cars to the conversion of biomass and geothermal energy into sustainable modes of energy production falls under the umbrella of greentech. The main function of them all is to innovate and produce sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions to reduce energy consumption and waste and their resulting negative effects on the environment.
Several companies are leading the way in the production of greentech. The Denmark-based Vestas Wind Systems has invested in and developed efficient wind energy production methods. First Solar, a solar energy company headquartered in the United States, has spearheaded solar energy technology. Finally, Brazil’s Electrobras, Latin America’s largest utility company, is the fourth-largest low-carbon and clean energy utilities company in the world. All of these companies and many others are spearheading research, development and large-scale implementation of solutions in the greentech space.
The biggest challenge facing the greentech industry is developing both environmentally friendly and economically viable energy-efficient processes that will allow for widespread adoption. To date, a few technologies have managed to accomplish this goal. One area that has seen some remarkable progress is water management, which is particularly important in light of the worsening global water crisis.
The Water Crisis
Today, more than 1.42 billion people live in water-scarce regions, defined as areas with a severe lack of fresh water supply to meet the basic standards of health, sanitation and water demand. Access to clean and fresh water is essential to sustaining all aspects of life, development and organized society. Health, hygiene and sanitation, cooking, industrial activity and energy production all depend on the availability of an abundant, quality water source.
If current trends continue, more countries will have to grapple with the calamitous effects of the water crisis. According to a United Nations report, by 2050, approximately 3.9 billion people will live in severely water-stressed regions. That’s more than 40 percent of the world’s population. This problem will also exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities since already marginalized populations like the poor, women and people of color are disproportionately affected by the worsening water crisis.
Decades of misuse, including pollution, agricultural intensification, overextraction of groundwater, urbanization, industrial production and climate change, have contributed to the reduced availability of an already limited resource since less than 3 percent of the world’s water resources are freshwater. Thankfully, some of the most powerful individuals in business and brilliant minds in science and technology have come together to develop technological solutions.
Omni Processors and Water Management
About a decade ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation founded the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Program to promote the development of safe and sustainable sanitation tools and technologies that can be tested, evaluated and upscaled. This program funded the development of a piece of technology designed to collect and convert fecal waste from pit latrines into safe drinking water and electricity: the Omni Processor.
The term Omni Processor denotes any type of technology or low-cost method developed to treat human waste. Left untreated, this waste would be disposed of by unsanitary methods like the widespread use of pit latrines. If not drained properly, the waste in the latrines can seep into the groundwater, contaminating the larger water supply and the surrounding environment.
The stakes here are high. Contaminated water and inadequate sanitation is responsible for more 827,000 deaths per year in low- and middle-income countries. Chronic diarrhea, malnutrition and increased rates of diseases are among the leading causes of death due to increased exposure to pathogens resulting from poor sanitation.
Fortunately, recent breakthroughs in greentech targeted toward this issue are promising. In 2014, Sedron Technologies, formerly known as Janicki Bioenergy, debuted the S100 combustion prototype of its Janicki Omni Processor, or J-OP for short. The device fully converted sewage sludge into clean drinking water and electrical energy. The prototype could produce approximately 10,800 liters of drinking water per day and 100 kilowatts of net electricity.
The J-OP takes pit latrines as its primary collection source of waste. Its goal is to efficiently remove pathogens and other contaminants from the water collected from latrines. The treated water can then be reused for agriculture, drinking and sanitation.
Much of the technology used for the processor has been around for decades. What makes the J-OP revolutionary is how these separate technologies were reimagined to form a sustainable sanitation system. It combines the functionality of a steam power plant, incinerator and water filtration system into one device.
The wet sewage enters the processor, is boiled at approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit and is then separated into dry solids and water vapor. Through a series of other processes, the J-OP’s final outputs are pure distilled water, fertilizer from the phosphorus and potassium left over from the remaining solids and enough electricity to be self-sustaining with a surplus that can be transferred for external use.
As with most greentech, the Janicki Omni Processor encountered the age-old problem as development shifted from trial to full-scale commercialization. Could it be both an environmentally friendly and economically viable product? The problems were common to this type of technology but thorny nonetheless: The materials were too expensive, the output was not efficient enough and so forth. To prove that the device is viable, the company decided to test it in practice.
In 2015, Sedron Technologies launched a pilot project in Dakar, Senegal, in partnership with the Gates Foundation, the National Office of Sanitation of Senegal (ONAS) and Delvic Sanitation, a local sanitation company. Approximately 24 percent of Dakar’s population of 2.4 million people did not have electricity or access to clean water. After three years of testing and training in Dakar, the pilot project became a full-time operation in 2018 and is still running today.
The development team at Sedron Technologies learned a lot from the prototype’s deployment, which it used to upgrade the device. Adjustments made for the newest model addressed these problems to include higher processing capacity and output quantities, improved automation and increasing corrosion resistance and lower initial product costs. All of these changes mean the J-OP can serve as a functional business model for global adoption of greentech for water and waste management.
And the additional development is paying dividends already. Sedron has now produced the S200 or V2 model Omni Processor. This version can process waste from more than 100,000 people to produce approximately 86,000 liters of drinkable water and 250 kilowatts of net electricity each day. That’s enough clean drinking water for more than 43,000 per day. The S200 is currently operating in Senegal and is set for full-scale commercial use. In fact, the company is already in preliminary talks about deploying the J-OP in other cities in Senegal and West Africa.
Looking Ahead: The Future of Greentech
The green technology industry is growing rapidly. The need for technologies like the Janicki Omni Processor, to address the innumerable effects of the climate crisis is urgent. Governments are failing to meet this moment with policy solutions. Where they fall short, however, industry leaders, private corporations and environmental-justice-based organizations are attempting to pick up the slack through innovation.
Greentech is the future of sustainability. Good policies, research and funding are all necessary to ensure the widespread adoption of greentech solutions. Nowhere is this more evident than through the advent and successful implementation of the J-OP.
A public and private partnership between industry, philanthropy and government provided the circumstances necessary to develop, test and fully implement a new, sustainable approach to water and waste management. The success of this project makes clear that collaboration is essential in addressing and curating viable technological solutions to the varied effects of climate change.