Innovative environmental achievers

Though the arrival of autumn signals the falling of leaves and a general slowdown in preparation for winter, it’s also the start of the award season (and, of course, a new prime time lineup). Among the many prizes given out this past week is the Tech Museum of Innovation’s 2008 Tech Awards as well as the Heinz Awards’ 14th Annual Human Achievement Prize. Both recognize some outstanding environmentalists.

Let’s start off with the Tech Museum award. Established in 2001, the Tech Awards program recognizes the crème de la crème in technological innovation by highlighting 25 global leaders who are spearheading technology projects to benefit humanity and spark global change.

"The Tech Awards remind us that much of the world is without simple technologies such as power, irrigation, water purification and lighting,” says Mike Splinter, president and CEO of Applied Materials, an awards sponsor. “Working with these Laureates and their great ideas, we can improve the way people live by replicating simple technologies such as the ability to pump more water with solar powered pumps, or using solar coupled with battery and LED technology to light a home at night so children can study.”

Despite the relatively “simple” technologies used, make no mistake. These awards are kind of a big deal, and they have the dough to back it up. In fact, one lucky Laureate per category takes home a $50,000 cash prize during the annual Awards Gala in November. Among the five categories are the 2008 Intel Environment Award winners, which are listed below. Pay attention to these names because they’ll most likely be splashing headline covers soon.

Arcadia Biosciences, Inc.
Arcadia Biosciences is genetically engineering crops so that their roots can absorb more nitrogen, thereby reducing the overall amount of fertilizer needed. Nitrogen fertilizer runoff is a bane to the environment, contributing heavily to the many aquatic dead zones—oxygen-depleted areas that wipe out entire fish populations in the US and around the world—as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Arcadia’s technology allows farmers to reduce fertilizer use by up to two-thirds without sacrificing crop yields. And, it helps save money on fertilizer. Best of all, reducing fertilizer use means fewer greenhouse gases and cleaner water.

Cheetah Conservation Fund
The Cheetah Conservation Fund’s Biomass Energy Project is converting an invasive species into clean fuel while also restoring habitats. In Namibia, 25 million acres of land are choked by invasive thorn bushes. The bushes make agriculture impossible, alter the water cycle, reduce soil fertility, and begin desertification, which threatens humans and animals alike. The Fund is saving Namibia's grassland savannas by harvesting these bushes and converting them into clean-burning, environmentally friendly fuel logs. The process requires only plant material, heat, pressure, and the natural resins in wood to create the logs. Removing thorn bushes from the savannas helps reverse an ecological disaster and replenish Namibia's vanishing ecosystems.

Practical Action (Latin American Regional Office)
Practical Action is harnessing the power of waterfalls to bring electricity to isolated villages in Peru. In Peru, 6.5 million people live in remote villages without access to electricity. To help solve the energy shortage, the company looked to Peru's many waterfalls for a solution, adapting low-cost hydropower technology for small-scale use and training local technicians so that each village can tap nearby waterfalls for a clean source of energy. Using hydropower eliminates the need for dirty diesel power stations and delivers reliable, renewable power to about 35,000 Peruvians. 

Sunlabob Renewable Energy, LTD
Sunlabob is making solar lights commercially competitive with kerosene—which is costly and harmful to air quality—by developing a comprehensive system to make solar light affordable to the rural poor. The company starts by renting large solar-charging stations to local entrepreneurs who in turn rent good-quality, rechargeable lamps to fellow villagers for less money than they would spend on kerosene. Each lamp contains a microprocessor that shuts it off when it is time to re-charge, or when the lamp is used improperly. This guarantees a long and productive life for each lamp, and makes it economical for people to switch to sustainable solar lighting.

Vereinigte Werkstätten für Pflanzenöltechnologie (VWP)
This innovative company modified diesel technology to create engines that run on pure plant oil, which burns much cleaner and is more easily available than fossil fuel. Plant oil is easily extracted from plants with little energy expenditure. And, the process also yields useful byproducts, including a high-protein food as well as straw that can be used to enrich the soil. Pure plant oil engines also create lower emissions than diesel and biodiesel. Most importantly, unlike fossil fuels, a plant oil spill is completely safe for the environment.

The 14th Heinz Awards (yes, the ketchup company), given out by the Heinz Family Foundation, were also announced today. The $250,000 Human Achievement Prize is among the largest individual achievement prizes in the world, recognizing significant accomplishments among influential trailblazers in five categories.

The environmental category winner is Thomas FitzGerald, founder and director of the Kentucky Resources Council, who has been dubbed the “watchdog of the environment” within the Bluegrass state. FitzGerald began his environmental career as a law clerk and environmental specialist for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund. He went on to develop a specialty in protecting communities against surface coal mining operations. But FitzGerald’s influence extends well beyond issues related to coal. Always working pro bono, FitzGerald is often knee-deep in issues concerning sewage sludge disposal and factory hog farms as well as solid and hazardous waste management, environmental protections related to brownfield development, and renewable energy. Looking toward the future, FitzGerald has developed plans for an environmental leadership training program designed to cultivate the next generation of environmental watchdogs.

These award winners represent some of the best chances we have for solving everyday environmental problems. Or, at the very least, they serve as a nice distraction from all the meaningless glitterati awards clogging up the blogosphere these days.