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Finding New Synergies between Water and Energy

Consider these two seemingly unrelated problems: Solar and wind energy are intermittent, and fresh water is often in short supply. An integrated system that combines existing technologies—and that runs entirely on renewable energy—could solve both those problems at the same time, an engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology maintains. And, he says, several sites in the Americas have the perfect topography for putting such a system to the test. The key is to have mountains next to the sea.

All the technology needed for this combination water-and-power system already exists, says Alexander Slocum, the Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and lead author of a paper on the subject published in the journal Sustainable Energy Technologies and Assessments.

The system he envisions brings together a pumped hydro system to store energy and produce backup power for wind and solar power systems and a reverse osmosis system to desalinate water. The first piece of that, the pumped hydro, stores water—and therefore energy—in a lined reservoir built at a high elevation next to the sea.

“It’s a giant battery to go along with wind and solar,” Slocum explained in a phone interview. “We’re going to need big batteries, because the wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine.”

Water is pumped up to the reservoir, using wind or solar energy, and stored. When the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining, water is released through pipes and flows through turbines, generating electricity on its way back to the sea. In other words, an intermittent source of energy can now be constant.

The second part of the system is the desalination plant, which uses a reverse osmosis process to extract fresh water from salt water. The process, which involves forcing water under pressure through semipermeable membranes, normally requires significant energy; it also generates about one liter of brine, which is very salty and toxic to marine life, for every liter of fresh water produced.

Under what Slocum calls an Integrated Pumped Hydro Reverse Osmosis System (IPHROS), about 5 percent of the water from the reservoir would be diverted to a reverse osmosis plant instead of going to the power turbines. The downward pressure of that column of water would power the desalination process and eliminate the need for the high-pressure pumps used in existing reverse osmosis systems. Slocum said such a plant could produce enough fresh water to meet all local needs, including for agriculture and industry.

Currently, one expensive part of desalination is dealing with the brine that is left over once fresh water has been extracted. It can’t be discharged directly into the sea, so it has to be pumped out long outflow pipes to slowly mix with sea water. With an integrated system, the brine could be released into the massive flow of water going through the turbines, which would dilute it to safe levels, Slocum said.

Pumped hydro storage is already in wide use in Switzerland, to cite one example, and a system using sea water has been operating successfully for years in Okinawa, Japan. Reverse osmosis plants, meanwhile, are used in many arid parts of the world. “You wouldn’t have the modern Middle East without reverse osmosis,” Slocum said.

The idea of combining these power and water systems is not original. Slocum said a Japanese researcher working for the United Nations came up with the concept in the 1970s, but nothing came of it at a time when fossil fuels were cheap, renewables expensive, and climate change a less pressing concern. Now, Slocum said, the circumstances are very different. “If the world does not quickly evolve into a renewable-based energy society, game over for everyone, no matter how wealthy you are.”

Potential for the Americas

Several places in the Americas have the natural features that would be needed for an integrated power-and-water system to operate. “Any coastal region that has a mountain nearby could be a site,” said Enrique Shadah, who works at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab and has been helping Slocum connect with people outside the university to raise awareness about the concept. 

Theoretically, the mountain or high cliff would not need to be right next to the ocean—the conduit to take water from the sea to the mountaintop could be longer—but “the more distance between the reservoir and the shore, the higher the cost,” Shadah said in an interview.

The places Slocum and his colleagues have identified as promising include, in no particular order, northern Chile; areas near Los Angeles, California; Baja California, Mexico; the islands of Lanai and Maui in Hawaii; Lima, Peru; the island of Hispaniola and other mountainous Caribbean islands; and areas near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Slocum mentioned one project in the works near Iquique, Chile, where a company called Valhalla is seeking funding for a pumped hydro project called Espejo de Tarapacá. An online video produced by the company shows ideal conditions for such a plant, with a high cliff right next to the Pacific Ocean and the intense solar radiation of the Atacama Desert.

“Our research shows that Chile has the best conditions in the Americas for seawater pumped storage,” Valhalla CEO Juan Andrés Camus said in an email message, adding that the company is researching the possibility of installing a desalination plant at the upper reservoir.

Meanwhile, Slocum said, a California-based company called Oceanus Power & Water, LLC has been working on getting an integrated system built—a similar concept as Slocum is describing, developed independently of his work—in northwest Mexico.

In a phone interview, Oceanus CEO Neal Aronson said the company has selected a site in the state of Sonora, on the Sea of Cortés (also known as the Gulf of California), and it’s about to begin a detailed feasibility study, which will be followed by a permitting process. 

Although he declined to discuss specifics, Aronson said the planned facility would be able to store more than 200 megawatts of energy and produce more than 50 million gallons of fresh water per day. This is a logical solution for a place like Sonora, which has plenty of solar power, a growing population, and an inadequate water supply that inhibits future economic growth, he said. “For Mexico, it’s largely an economic development issue.”

This type of system solves the problem of storing energy in a much more environmentally friendly way than batteries, Aronson said, and it uses proven technology. Plus, locating the power storage and desalination systems in the same place and integrating them generates significant savings in capital expenditures and operating expenses.

Aronson said that he has been working with a major engineering company to come up with designs that

can be scaled up for areas with large urban populations or scaled down to meet the needs of small island countries. The system can be designed differently depending on whether the greater need is for fresh water or energy storage.

As logical as all this may be, it costs money—potentially a lot of money—and conservative investors typically don’t want to be the first ones through the door. “The challenge is, nobody’s done this before,” Aronson said.

But he believes that the idea has huge potential. “Wherever you have a large coastal population in a semi-arid part of the world, this is a viable, large-scale solution,” he said.

For his part, Slocum  is reluctant to talk about the potential cost of an IPHROS project, stressing, “I’m an engineer. I don’t do financing.” But, he said, the smallest project that would be feasible economically would probably be around a 100-megawatt (MW) system, which would serve about 100,000 people with electric power and 500 liters of fresh water per person per day.

An article MIT published last year about the IPHROS idea said the cost would work out to an estimated $5,000 to $10,000 per person served; in other words, a 100 MW system, including the pumped hydro and reverse osmosis facility, as well as the wind and solar power systems, would cost between $500 million and $1 billion.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s a lot of money.’ But think about it. That gives you 24/7 renewable energy and fresh water forever,” Slocum said.

Driven by the urgency to act in the face of climate change, he has no patience for economic obstacles. “The best long-term investment for you, your children, your grandchildren, is to save the planet. And we can do it without sacrificing our quality of life,” he said.

From a technological standpoint, Slocum said, there’s nothing holding such as project back, since the different pieces have been done before. “We’ve got the technology, we have the economic ability, we have the industrial capability to do this,” he said.

Slocum said that he published the paper in the scientific journal, in 2016, to spread these ideas more widely and generate as much interest as possible. (The paper can be downloaded for free at this link.) He’s not interested in working directly with any company or obtaining a financial stake in any project. “I’m happy for people to start companies and make money on that. Great. God bless them. We all benefit by helping to save the planet,” he said.

The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) hosted a webinar, with the participation of MIT, on this concept of integrated water-and-power systems, or IPHROS. The purpose was to explain the ideas in more detail and explore interest among member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS) and funding institutions for implementing a pilot project in the region. 

The water-energy nexus is a subject of ongoing interest withing ECPA, which held regional dialogues in Panama and Barbados on the subject in 2016. 

Here is the video of the webinar


Post-hurricane infrastructure reconstruction in the Caribbean Islands: when business-as-usual is risky business

Two devastating blows were dealt to the Caribbean Islands in September 2017, in the form of Category 5 hurricanes that caused massive human and economic losses. 

An immediate challenge is to bring back the electric power, potable water, communications, and transportation networks. In light of increasingly intense weather patterns, predicted to become even more intense due to climate change, it is critical to rebuild infrastructure in the Caribbean to withstand future disasters. Just rebuilding infrastructure as a newer version of the same design that failed in the recent events, or simply making some components sturdier, will not be enough. To ride out future disasters, the reconstructed energy, water, and transportation systems will need to be resilient, autonomous, and secure. Rebuilding centralized energy and water systems will be time and capital intensive, but there are other ways to incorporate existing technologies and locally-available resources that will reduce the overall risk of system failure and save time and money, while providing individual communities with functioning infrastructure with expediency and improved efficiency.

On resilience

What does it mean for infrastructure to be resilient? The most critical element is to lower its chance of failure. Also, should failure occur, resilient infrastructure is planned and implemented in a way that keeps negative consequences at a minimum, with the ability to recover rapidly from failure.

Based on this definition, the traditional, centralized electrical grid and water treatment and supply systems are far from resilient. Their hierarchically networked nature means disruptions in one area can take down a significantly larger part of the system, amplifying the human and economic loss during and after disasters. When failure does occur in the typical electrical grid, the standard approach is to rely on backup diesel generators, and since centralized water treatment and supply systems depend on the electrical grid,these systems are dependent on the same generators.

The lesson we learned with Katrina and now Irma and Maria is that this is not a backup plan conducive to rapid recovery. While we had millions of gallons of diesel fuel, there was often no electricity to pump the fuel out of centralized storage tanks. Even when one managed to extract the fuel out of the tanks, there was limited capability to transport it. In many cases, the generators themselves were water logged, old, or otherwise non operational. Battery systems were utilized in some cases, but these tend to be of short-term duration, ranging from 30 minutes to a maximum of three hours.

Figure 1: Key to infrastructure resilience is providing as many fallback plans as possible to prevent system failure by diversifying the sources and technologies for providing energy and water. Rebuilding centralized systems with single points for system is not the answer. 


Resilient infrastructure minimizes the chance of service interruptions by having multiple interlinked yet independent fallback options to guard against failures that can otherwise lead to service interruptions. Having localized sources of energy and water that are close to or at the sites where they are needed also contributes to infrastructure resilience by improving efficiency and accessibility. Rebuilding the energy and water infrastructure using locally-available energy sources removes the dependency on a central point for energy and water access forever. For example, a localized, distributed system for energy, called “on-site hybrid distributed renewable energy generation,” utilizes multiple technologies (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower) that can work together or independently. It cannot be remotely controlled, so it is cyber-secure. No fuel delivery is needed, so a compromised supply chain no longer becomes a problem. The generators can be combined with other renewables and battery storage, or even small propane generators or fuel cells. Larger electric generators from waste biomass, moving water, and geothermal can provide 24-hour power indefinitely. This makes these systems completely operational at all times under all conditions, ensuring people’s access to energy and clean water from treatment plants during and after disasters. 

Tackling the loss of energy and water access on a local level through careful planning of resources that are available on site, in particular renewable energy and water, for the right uses can speed up the recovery process. By rebuilding the energy and water infrastructure against extreme weather events, reconstructing post-disaster can not only serve in the short-term but also set up communities for long-term sustainability and growth.

Prioritizing Critical Infrastructure 


In looking at reconstructing these island communities, it is important to remember immediate relief efforts, when hastily implemented, can create unintended obstacles to long-term growth and sustainability. With that in mind, the first order of business for island communities is to assess what needs to be in operation at all times during extreme weather events. This critical water and energy infrastructure can often be supported with on-site hybrid distributed renewable energy generation. 

One of the most essential functions during emergencies is communications - from cellular towers, government communications, to cameras. Another is overall functionality for first responders, including police, fire, and emergency health support. Other needs include pipelines and pumps for water, sewage, and fuels, as well as core functions at water and sewage treatment plants. Roadway signals and street lighting and signage are also critical to preventing gridlock and expeditiously moving first responders, and reconstruction and service crews. The same applies to railroad, seaport, and airport lighting and communications. While data centers have layered backup, many go down because diesel fuel suppliers cannot arrive in time to refill back-up diesel generator tanks. 

In buildings, critical functions include WIFI, phone, security, and at least one elevator shaft. Operating rooms in hospitals, data centers within buildings, and sump pumps that prevent flooding must be able to function during disasters. In southern and northern climates where extreme temperatures may occur, functioning heating and cooling systems are essential to ensure minimally acceptable thermal comfort and to protect the health of vulnerable populations. 

On a community level, powering selected strip malls that are geographically dispersed with ATM machines, refrigeration for food, and gasoline pump islands can help keep civil society functioning. In an effort to unburden local hospitals, critical power for health care facilities (i.e., primary, vision, and dental care) located in these strip malls can help ensure only the most critical health problems are seen at hospitals. On-site power generation at local schools can serve as convergence points for first responders or for displaced people in a community. For schools, independently powering the office, computer lab, kitchen, and gymnasium, which take about a third of the overall energy, can make the facility usable in the worst situations. When the times are good, they contribute to significant reductions in utility costs.

Considering the importance of water for human sustenance–most humans perish without water in three to four days–it is crucial for all these critical convergence points to have water reserves for people to access. These reserves can be treated and reused on site with backup filtration solutions, many of which are available off the shelf and can function even without an on-site energy supply. 

In the Caribbean, rainwater harvesting can capitalize on the amount of precipitation during rainy months to curb demand during dry periods, while granting communities and individuals localized access to clean water even during disasters. Making better use of available water resources, such as rainwater, not only improves access to clean water but also reduces the need for energy-intensive and waste-producing extraction and treatment processes such as desalination. Recycling wastewater for uses that do not require drinking-quality water, such as irrigation and toilet flushing, can further alleviate water demands. Stormwater management tools, such as bioswales, green roofs, rain gardens, and retention ponds, can improve water quality and mitigate flood risks. They offer additional benefits to communities as well, including the creation of outdoor spaces that people can enjoy for various recreational purposes. These measures, coupled with water-efficient fixtures inside buildings, can dramatically reduce the demand for fresh water or groundwater. Establishing community-based water treatment and supply systems can also help decrease the amount of water loss during conveyance due to leakage, which wastes 46 billion liters of drinking-quality water a day globally. 

The approaches discussed here not only help prevent and mitigate the consequences of disasters, but can also provide benefits year-round. Decrease in public energy demands on the central electrical grid improves energy efficiency, which is more cost-effective and reduces distribution line congestion. In island communities such as the Caribbean, this significantly improves the resilience of the electric grid itself during unforeseen events, which can include disasters and other unexpected changes in supply and demand. Resilient energy infrastructure in turn increases the resilience of the public water, sewage, and communications infrastructure. Along similar lines, improving reliable water access through the efficient use of existing water resources reduces the substantial energy demands required for treatment and conveyance. Further, it allows even remote communities to have access to clean water at all times, including during and after disasters when lack of clean water and sanitation can result in the spread of waterborne diseases and other public health threats. 

System-Level Reconstruction


For electricity, rather than focusing on one technology, the entire portfolio of renewable energy and advanced hybrid distributed generation needs to be deployed in modular, standardized systems that are interoperable with web-enabled diagnostics. Instead of re-connecting lots of wires, electricity can be delivered through segmented, self-healing grids, similar to those that cellular communications and the internet have adopted. Grid planning and critical infrastructure seem to be evolving on autopilot. Now is the time to re-think and re-orient our options in a more practical and resilient profile where grids are segmented and each segment is composed of several microgrids, which blend and manage on-site generation, energy storage and electric load reduction seamlessly. In buildings, solar water heating, solar daylighting, and geothermal heat pumps can produce energy on-site reliably and cost-effectively, and additional high-value energy efficiency measures can dramatically reduce electric costs. When a portion of the electric system is harmed, the remaining segments and microgrids can isolate themselves and remain functioning.

For water, it is time to stop the practice of treating the different scales and uses of water as separate and unrelated entities and adopt an integrated management plan that incorporates the entire water system. This means taking a holistic look at drinking water, wastewater, groundwater, surface water, flood control measures, and other factors related to the water system, as they are interrelated and cannot be managed properly in isolation. For example, water extraction methods such as well-drilling, done without considering the larger hydrological network, can affect freshwater availability in lakes, rivers, and other surface waterbodies that are connected. Considering the interrelations before jumping into action can help formulate solutions that tackle multiple issues at once, including water quality and availability, flood risk management, biodiversity, energy, place-making, and community development.    

While these proven, cost-effective options are used today throughout the United States and many places around the world, they now need to be optimally integrated into wider regional systems. Practical education for engineers, architects, urban planners, and energy and water systems procurement personnel needs to start now.

Looking Forward in the Caribbean


Short-term relief and long-term resilience in post-disaster reconstruction address the importance of energy and water independence, especially from extreme weather and other unforeseen risks. There are other long-term considerations specific to the Caribbean, and a major one is tourism. The Caribbean’s natural assets–the pristine beaches and mountains, and the plentiful sunshine–continue to draw many visitors and to play a key role in sustaining island economies. Balancing the resource demands of the visitors and the need to maintain these natural assets, which help attract the visitors in the first place, has been a challenge in the past. While tourists and residents do not share the same stake in resource use, there is a strong and growing interest among tourists in eco-tourism. In addition to increasing resilience, a decentralized and distributed energy and water infrastructure based on locally available resources and clean technology can be an opportunity for island communities not only to conserve their resources and to reduce their operating costs and pollution, but also to signal their leadership in sustainable tourism. As a result, short-term relief activities can present opportunities to enhance the hospitality industry for growth and resilience, by playing a larger role in disaster planning, which can dramatically reduce their operating costs while ensuring the preservation of natural assets for the attraction of visitors for years to come.

The technologies to make this happen exist and are economical in an extremely wide-range of applications. They are not being utilized and integrated due to a lack of general knowledge of system integration and modern procurement guidelines, as well as a lack of practical regional and land use planning tools and generalized and specific education. Localities need to amp up training and education at a variety of levels so that governmental, financial, and corporate decision-makers can ask the right questions, and be open to embracing next generation technologies to drive resilient growth that is right for individual communities.

About the authors:

Scott Sklar has run The Stella Group, Ltd for 17 years, which is a clean technology optimization firm, after 15 years running both the solar and biomass industry associations in Washington, DC.  He was Political Director of the Solar Lobby for 2 years, after 3 years at the Nat’l Center for Appropriate Technology as both the RD&D and Washington Director. Scott served for 9 years as an energy/military aide to Senator Jacob K Javits (NY). He lives in a zero-energy solar home and has a zero-energy office building – both in Arlington, Virginia. Sklar serves as Steering Committee Chair of the Sustainable Energy Coalition, and sits on the national Boards of Directors of The Solar Foundation and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. Sklar is an Adjunct Professor at GWU teaching two unique interdisciplinary courses on sustainable energy, and an Affiliated Professor at CATIE, a sustainable graduate university based in Costa Rica. In 2014, Sklar received The Charles Greeley Abbot Award by ASES and the Green Patriot Award by GMU, and serves as Vice Chair of the US Department of Commerce Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee through 2018.

Hyon K. Rah, LEED AP, ENV SP, is a resilience planner who designs and implements multi-benefit water and energy management strategies that address multiple risks at once while meeting local communities’ needs. An architect, a water resource manager, and a dot-connector, she has worked in over 30 countries, supporting clients facilitate, plan, and implement community and hospitality development projects in five languages - English, Korean, Japanese, German, and Spanish. Rah instills in future professionals the interrelationship between the built environment and the social, economic, and environmental contexts as an Adjunct Professor at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), and serves on Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MW COG)’ Air and Climate Public Advisory Committee. She is Principal of RAH Solutions, a DC-based consultancy that provides community-based and integrated water and energy solutions for sustainable development. 


Jamaica in the Spotlight

VIÑA DEL MAR, Chile—After announcing that her country will host the Fourth Ministerial Meeting of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), Jamaican Ambassador Audrey Marks spoke in an interview about the importance of energy issues to the Caribbean region.

“We are determined as a country and as a region to get to certain macroeconomic goals, and energy is one of the critical drivers of that goal,” said the diplomat, who represents her country both at the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United States. She led the Jamaican delegation to the recent ECPA ministerial meeting in Chile.

In the last three years, partly because of lower oil prices, Jamaica has seen its electricity prices drop from $0.40 per kilowatt hour to $0.28, according to Marks. Of course, as the country knows from long experience, that trend can change, she added.

“What we have to do is make use of this window,” she said. “We are moving in the right direction, now that we are focusing on energy diversification, and we want to keep this momentum going.”

As it seeks to increase its energy security and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, Jamaica’s current goal is to generate 30 percent of its electricity from renewables—including wind, solar, and small hydro—by 2030. With 10.5 percent as of 2016, the country is on track to surpass that target, according to an official concept note prepared for the recent ministerial meeting. Jamaica is also implementing measures to improve energy efficiency.

Ambassador Marks said the Caribbean island states in general are “taking energy diversification seriously,” recognizing that it is critical for development. Having Jamaica at the helm of the ECPA process for the next two years—under the direction of the Minister of Science, Energy and Technology, Andrew Wheatley—will help fuel those efforts, she said. 

 “We need to utilize this opportunity to really move forward and show Caribbean leadership.” 

ECPA IN ACTION: Countdown to Viña del Mar

It’s official: Energy ministers from around the region will gather in Viña del Mar, Chile, on September 7-8 for the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA). Chilean President Michelle Bachelet invited all Member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) to participate, noting that “we share the same urgency to work toward a cleaner and more efficient and accessible energy that will enable us to take care of our environment and improve the quality of life for our citizens.”

In a video message to delegates attending a meeting of the OAS Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI), held at OAS headquarters on March 28, Bachelet described the region as “privileged” in its store of renewable energy resources.

“In Chile alone, I can tell you that we have the region with the most solar radiation on the planet,” she said. “And each of you is also aware of the advantages every country has in terms of your natural energy resources.”

But, she added, to make the most of that potential, countries need to coordinate their efforts and “address the needs for infrastructure, innovation, and efficiency, as well as the challenges of regional integration, among other challenges that make up the pillars of ECPA.”

During the CIDI meeting, Chile’s Ambassador to the OAS, Juan Aníbal Barría, detailed some of the steps his country has taken on the energy front. A major increase in the percentage of renewables in its electricity mix—from 2 percent in 2008 to around 15 percent in 2016—has resulted in a major decrease in electricity prices, he said. “All this without the need to implement any type of subsidy,” he added.

Speaking on behalf of Chilean Energy Minister Andrés Rebolledo, who had been scheduled to attend the meeting but had to return to his country unexpectedly, Ambassador Barría stressed that each country has its own energy needs, priorities, and circumstances. But, he said, the countries in the region are ready to meet the shared challenges implied by the theme of the ministerial meeting: “Energy Transition in the Americas.”

“The final goal, to be sure, is the same: to move forward in transforming the energy model based on fossil fuels to one based on clean, renewable, and more efficient energy sources, again encouraging innovation and technology in energy sources of the future, maximizing efficiency in energy use, and reducing energy dependence, especially in those countries that lack conventional energy resources,” he said.

For his part, Ambassador Vince Henderson, Permanent Representative of Dominica to the OAS and Chair of CIDI, stressed the importance of taking concrete, practical steps to make the energy transition a reality. He urged Chile, as host of the ministerial meeting, to think about how other countries could benefit in practical terms from its own achievements, and urged the OAS General Secretariat to determine how it can best move from dialogue to action. “The OAS as an institution needs to define its role in this energy transition,” he said.   

Before the ministerial meeting, Trinidad and Tobago will host a preparatory meeting where ECPA National Focal Points will lay out each country’s priorities and proposed actions. (See related story in this issue.)

Chile and Trinidad and Tobago are two of the seven countries on the ECPA Steering Committee; the others are Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, and the United States.

At the CIDI meeting, Beth Urbanas, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Energy, expressed the United States’ continued support of ECPA, and underscored “the commitment of the ECPA partners to not only identify and discuss regional energy challenges, but also lead on implementing solutions.”

Speaking for the members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Guyana’s Ambassador to the OAS, Riyad Insanally, described the work done through ECPA, with U.S. government support, as a “lifeline” to Caribbean countries hard-hit by natural disasters. In the Caribbean, he said, investments in disaster risk management and adaptation to climate change “are ‘no choice’ investments.”

“ECPA is helping us to design more healthy, livable, and functional cities; to build more sustainable energy pathways; and to strengthen our capacity to build circular economies,” Ambassador Insanally said. “CARICOM hopes this support will continue and that a true hemispheric cooperative effort on energy and climate will emerge from the Third Meeting of Ministers of ECPA in Chile.”    


Mensaje de la Presidenta Michelle Bachelet sobre la III Reunión Ministerial de la ECPA from ECPA on Vimeo.


Energy Integration in Latin America: The Connecting the Americas 2022 Initiative

Connecting electricity grids and markets across borders is a long-term process that requires sustained political support at the highest levels.  But it is well worth the effort, because electricity integration benefits all countries and consumers.  Electricity integration drives competition, which can lower electricity prices, mobilize investment, facilitate renewable energy deployment, and encourage an optimal use of energy resources across a region.  

Electrical interconnections enable exporters to sell excess power generation capacity, while allowing importing countries to meet domestic electricity needs, buy cheaper power, or avoid shortages.  They improve reliability and give governments options and flexibility in securing their countries’ electricity needs, especially countries that rely heavily on hydropower and are vulnerable to droughts.  Electrical interconnections reduce infrastructure costs by capturing economies of scale and lowering reserve requirements. 

For these reasons, and given the fundamental role of electricity prices in enhancing competitiveness, the U.S. and Colombian governments launched the Connecting the Americas 2022 initiative, or Connect 2022, at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.  We are almost at the half-way point of our leaders’ decade-long mandate to expand electrical interconnections and scale up low-carbon power generation throughout the hemisphere.

The United States government, in support of Connect 2022, prioritized Central America’s ongoing efforts to strengthen and expand the regional electricity market (MER) and transmission system, which is the most advanced sub-region in realizing our Presidents’ vision of an interconnected Americas.  With the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and other partners, the U.S. Department of State organized policy discussions, ministerial meetings, and investor forums with regional governments, private energy companies, and financiers to identify and resolve barriers in the MER that limit regional electricity trade and investment.  We provided targeted technical assistance to Central American regional institutions and national governments responsible for electricity integration to strengthen power sectors, promote clean energy uptake, and maximize the opportunity for regional power trade.  U.S. Vice President Biden hosted an Energy Summit in May 2016 where a U.S.-Central American Energy Security Task Force presented time-bound recommendations to accelerate the integration process, including with Mexico.  Central American leaders agreed to implement recommendations as soon as possible and reaffirmed their commitment to this transformational initiative.

In South America, Peru’s President, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski voiced support for Peru-Chile electricity integration, noting discussions were “in advanced stages.”  Peruvian and Chilean Energy Ministers, in videotaped remarks to an Institute of the Americas event on September 14, also highlighted regional electricity integration as a priority.  A 2015 U.S. Department of State-supported technical-economic analysis on two possible electrical interconnections confirmed that either scenario would yield commercial benefits for both countries and improvements in reliability.  Since these two countries are not yet interconnected electrically, concrete progress between Peru and Chile would be an important step forward for Andean interconnection, a process supported by the IDB and other partners, and for the Connect 2022 vision of an interconnected hemisphere. 

Meanwhile, the Andean Community (CAN) has made important advances on a draft regional regulatory framework to govern a potential CAN-Chile electricity market, currently under review by the governments.   If governments implement this norm, it would be a major step forward in enhancing Andean regional electricity trade.  Most Andean nations continue to trade limited amounts of power through small bilateral interconnections, and Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru have announced plans to expand cross-border infrastructure that will increase the opportunity to trade.

Other efforts are underway to expand electrical interconnectivity in North America and between Brazil, Guyana, and Suriname, the so-called “Northern Arch.”  The Colombian and Panamanian governments continue supporting a proposed bilateral electrical interconnection.  Panama’s government is currently consulting affected Panamanian indigenous communities for their consent to begin environmental and social impact assessments on the proposed corridor. 

In the Caribbean region, there are no active electricity interconnection projects between island countries.  But, Caribbean governments have made significant advances in renewable energy deployment with support from the U.S. in the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative, launched by Vice President Biden in 2014 in the Dominican Republic.  St. Kitts and Nevis is developing its geothermal resource on the Nevis Island, with potential to interconnect to St. Kitts, expanding the market for the country’s domestic, renewable energy resource that has the potential to reduce the country’s fossil fuel dependence in the power sector to near zero.  

When Chile hosts the Energy and Climate Partnership Ministerial in 2017, governments, regional institutions, and multilateral development partners will have an opportunity to take stock of our progress in achieving our leaders’ vision of an interconnected Americas from Canada to Chile and Argentina by 2022.   As we approach the half-way point, we should celebrate the significant progress in Central America, the Andes, and across the continent in accelerating energy transition with sustainable, diverse, and reliable energy.  To that end, the U.S. government’s development finance agency OPIC approved over $500 million in clean energy projects in the Caribbean and Central America in Fiscal Years 2014-2015.  Clean and stable energy sectors underpin strong and prosperous economies and they also highlight energy’s role in enhancing Inter-American collaboration.  

About the Author: Faith Corneille serves as Senior Regional Energy Advisor in the State Department's Bureau of Energy Resources (ENR) and is currently based at the Embassy San José, Costa Rica.



Connect 2022 from ECPA on Vimeo.

Why invest in an Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy?

Among the biggest global challenges we are confronted with are access to fresh water, food, energy, and other essential resources necessary to maintain human life and the modern societies we know today, while remaining within the carrying capacity of the Earth. In this blog, I will discuss the merits of investing in Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy, which offers a rare opportunity for creative, tangible solutions to many of these challenges in a way that is accessible, effective and sustainable.

How we got here

Modern society has been made possible due to human creativity and the invention of technologies making it possible to transform relatively easily accessible and affordable natural resources into high-density energy sources (e.g. coal, petroleum, and gas). These lead to the Industrial Revolution, and grew into the ability to manipulate and use materials to manufacture products and infrastructure, up to complete mega-cities. This ability has brought significant progress and prosperity among many communities around the globe.     


However, this industrialization of society has also created a greater inter-dependency and vulnerabilities to impacts of the economic system. The current system, based on a “take-make-waste” linear model relies on an ineffective use of available resources provided by nature, and leads to unintended consequences, such as waste, pollution, and contamination of the air, water, food and other basic needs to human beings and environment. Maintaining this ongoing linear economic system requires the continued extraction of more natural resources, which are increasingly becoming scarce and continue to generate waste, which negatively affects the health of humans as well as the environment.


ASDF argues that many of the major social and environmental problems we are currently facing can be derived from (1) the failures in the proper selection of non-toxic primary materials and chemicals, (2) lack of rational use of natural resources, (3) and a failure in design of basic products, up to the level of the current linear economic operating system. There is a realization that the current economic model is the principle cause and at the same time the only sphere where human intervention can lead to improving or solving the global food, water, energy, and materials crises. This can be done by re-thinking and re-designing the current economic model and transforming it into an eco-intelligent Circular Economic model based on the Cradle-to-Cradle® design principles.


Moving towards a Circular Economy

The term Circular Economy is gaining global traction as a means for concerted international action to help create a new industrial model and economic system that is better aligned to the rules of nature, while allowing for human beings to continue to maintain the standards of modern society. Due to its recent emergence as a new terminology, it is still evolving without a formal global consensus on its definition yet. Since the concept incorporates and significantly relies on the design principles of Cradle-to-Cradle®, it recognizes the need to re-think the way we are making products and move towards a circular economic model.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes Circular Economy as one that is “restorative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value, at all times”. They highlight five principles to realize a Circular Economy: “(1) Circular economy is a global economic model that decouples economic growth and development from the consumption of finite resources; (2) Distinguishes between and separates technical and biological materials, keeping them at their highest value at all times; (3) Focuses on effective design and use of materials to optimize their flow and maintain or increase technical and natural resource stocks; (4) Provides new opportunities for innovation across fields such as product design, service and business models, food, farming, biological feedstocks and products; and (5) Establishes a framework and building blocks for a resilient system able to work in the longer term” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013). William McDonough defines “Circular Economy” as “a resourceful economic system and innovation engine, providing clean materials, energy, water and human ingenuity. In essence, the Circular Economy puts the “re” back in resources” (MBDC, 2015).


ASDF acknowledges Cradle-to-Cradle® design principles as the foundation of a so-called Circular Economy and presents the need for using the specific terms “Eco-Intelligent” and “Circular” combined, since “Circular Economy” itself does not guarantee that once you figured out how to close the loop of materials and resources use in the economic model by design, this is done respecting the limits and boundaries and the regenerative capacity of the Earth’s ecosystem processes.


As example of this distinction, consider the rate of water extraction and use from aquifers for the manufacturing of products that are compatible with the Circular Economy concept. This approach acknowledges that the ever-increasing pace and need for more products by a continuously growing global population may turn out to be very difficult to balance with nature’s rate and capacity to regenerate the aquifer with fresh water. That capacity is highly dependent on the climate conditions and other natural phenomena, which may result to be significantly slower.


Cradle-to-Cradle® is a registered trademark of MBDC and is an innovation platform for designing beneficial economic, social, and environmental products, processes and systems based on in-depth scientific analysis and assessment. Cradle-to-Cradle® design is characterized by three principles derived from nature: (1) Everything is a resource for something else, (2) Use clean energy, and (3) Celebrate diversity. 


Cradle-to-Cradle® thinking includes the recognition that in nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to either be safely returned to the soil as “biological nutrients”, or collected after use, dissasembled and re-utilized as high quality materials for new products as “technical nutrients” without contamination. Furthermore, it recognizes that living things thrive on the energy of current solar income and that human constructs can use renewable energy sources while supporting human and environmental health. And as nature celebrates diversity, designs and solutions should respond to the challenges and opportunities offered by each location in an elegant and effective manner.  Rather than seeking to minimize the harm humans inflict, Cradle to Cradle® reframes design as an intentional positive, regenerative force. This paradigm shift reveals opportunities to improve quality, increase value, and spur innovation (MBDC, 2015).


Thus, understanding and recognizing that the Economy and Human Society will continue to operate within the Ecosystem of the Earth, it is important to understand (1) the regenerative capacity and rate of ecosystem processes, and (2) develop intelligence regarding how to achieve a proper balance between the continued rate of extraction due to population growth, the duration of the use cycles in the circular economy to satisfy the needs of the global population, and the net decrease in available natural capital on Earth. Therefore, the development of an “Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy” is vital to finding a long-term solution.


In other words, the new economic model should not only be regenerative and circular by design, but also intelligently balanced with ecosystem processes. The Circular Economy system needs to consider that, although you may have managed to mimic the regenerative capacity of nature, this still will need to be done in line or pace with the regenerative capacity of the earth’s ecosystem processes, as these continue to provide the basic life support needs, such as oxygen, water, energy, food, and other resources to allow human beings to thrive on the planet.


ASDF believes that an “Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy” is entirely compatible with the concept of Sustainable Development and considers it a suitable framework to allow for a systemic societal paradigm shift toward an Eco-Intelligent Circular Economic model that is better aligned to nature’s rules and fundamentals.


While having a long-term strategic vision based on an Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy is necessary, even more so is the need for a concrete pragmatic mechanism to realize this long-term vision. Therefore, ASDF has established a formal alliance with MBDC, the developers of the Cradle-to-Cradle® design framework, and has specialized and built up its in-house capacity to properly integrate the Cradle-to-Cradle® design principles as the basis for all its interventions and implementation of its projects and initiatives to transition to an Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy.  


In conclusion, ASDF’s strategic development plan to realizing sustainable development, is to continue to allocate its accumulated knowledge, efforts, skills, and resources to bringing about innovative and practical solutions to address concrete air, water, energy, food, and material problems and challenges inspired by the Cradle-to-Cradle® design principles to facilitate the transition toward Eco-Intelligent Circular Economies in the Americas. Moving forward, we must recognize that the Economy is subject to the Society, and that the Society is in turn dependent on the Ecology that provides the basic life support to allow for the human being to survive and thrive on planet Earth.


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Author: Ing. Kevin de Cuba, MSc

Kevin de Cuba is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Americas Sustainable Development Foundation (ASDF). Over the past 9 years he has specialized in the topics of Cradle-to-Cradle® and Circular Economy and has been a pioneer in creating awareness, capacity building and triggering action in Latin America and the Caribbean regarding these topics. Mr. de Cuba has a bachelor degree in Environmental Technology Engineering, with specialization in Waste Management, obtained from the Technical University of VanHall-Larenstein (VHL) and has a MSc. Degree in Sustainable Development, with specialization in Energy and Materials, from the Copernicus Institute at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands.

Replicable models for energy-efficient schools and buildings implemented in three cities

The ECPA is supporting three pilot projects carried out in three municipalities—Valdivia, Chile; Goiania, Brazil; and Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago—geared toward developing energy efficiency practices and policies with the potential of being replicable in other cities in the region.

A team of Universidad Austral de Chile (UACh) recently conducted energy efficiency testing in a rural school outside Valdivia.  Recommendations were issued on ways to reduce the school’s electricity bills. In this case, considerable efficiency was achieved by switching lighting fixtures to LED lamps, with a reported reduction in consumption in excess of 20%. This is the first school in the region illuminated exclusively with LED fixtures.



In Goiania, a team of experts is implementing three pilot projects under the ECPA umbrella to support a grant application with local electricity utility CELG. The objective is to use the ECPA project as a means to access CELG’s energy savings fund to finance the retrofits needed to increase energy efficiency. This experience has the potential to be replicable in other municipal buildings which would also receive support from CELG.

In Port-of-Spain, Florida International University (FIU) and local partner Energy Dynamics Limited (EDL) are implementing an energy efficiency project at the building of the Ministry of Energy. The objective is to lower electricity consumption by 10 to 15 percent through energy efficiency standards and policies. A similar approach is sought in approximately 400 municipal buildings in the island nation.

Uprooted Lives: The Effects of Climate Change on Migration

In early 1999, less than three months after Hurricane Mitch had plowed through his fields, wiping out the corn, potatoes, and other crops he had planted, Israel Baíl headed for the United States to take his chances as an undocumented immigrant. Now back in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, he looks back on that decision as his only option at the time. “The hurricane destroyed my crops and I couldn’t pay my debts,” he explained.

Severe storms uproot not just trees and structures but people. As the effects of climate change intensify—producing not only stronger hurricanes, but also slower-motion disasters such as droughts and rising sea level—countries will increasingly need to consider the impacts on human migration, both across and within borders.

To some extent, climate-driven migration affects all countries, large and small, rich and poor. In the United States, Hurricane Katrina displaced hundreds of thousands of people in 2005, with New Orleans losing more than half its population for a time. While the city has been growing again in recent years, it’s still considerably smaller than it was before.

The Central American and Caribbean regions are especially vulnerable to violent storms. In a 2014 report—Human Rights of Migrants and Other Persons in the Context of Human Mobility in Mexico—the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights looked at some of the causes for migration to and through Mexico. It found that natural disasters in Central America and the Caribbean “are now figuring more prominently among the hardship factors that cause many in the region to migrate.” In addition to hurricanes, torrential rains, and flooding, the report cited such factors as the increasing intensity of the dry seasons, soil degradation, and sea-level rise.

The Global Climate Risk Index 2016 lists the 10 countries in the world most affected by climate effects over a 10-year period (1995-2014), and four of them are in Central America or the Caribbean: Honduras (#1), Haiti (#3), Nicaragua (#4), and Guatemala (#10). The index, produced by a nongovernmental organization called Germanwatch, primarily reflects the direct impacts of extreme weather events. It notes that even though monetary losses tend to be greater in richer countries, “poorer, developing countries are hit much harder.”

Sometimes, when a sudden catastrophe strikes, migration is all but inevitable. This was the case for more than 800 residents of Petite Savanne, Dominica, who had to be permanently evacuated after flooding and landslides brought by Tropical Storm Erika devastated their town in August 2015. (The government of Dominica is in the process of planning a new community that will be built for the evacuees, according to a report earlier this year by Caribbean News Now.)

Other effects of climate change evolve more slowly. In the Andes, for example, glaciers are a critical source of fresh water, but with rising global temperatures they are melting at unprecedented rates. In Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, smaller glaciers at lower altitudes (around 5,000 meters) are likely to disappear completely within a generation, according to Walter Vergara, a climate specialist at the World Resources Institute.

“This is terrifying, because there are many glaciers that are below 5,000 meters,” said Vergara, who coauthored a study on the subject when he worked for the World Bank. In addition to receding glaciers, higher temperatures also contribute to the drying of high-mountain wetland ecosystems known as páramos, which store and release water over time. All of this means that less water will be available in the future for agriculture, energy production, and other uses.   

“Eventually, people who live in the high-altitude basins are going to have to adapt or migrate,” Vergara said in an interview.

Another example of a slow-motion climate event is coral bleaching, which is linked to rising sea surface temperatures. This problem not only has an impact on tourism, by dimming the bright colors that draw snorkelers and divers; it also threatens fishing, as coral reefs support fish colonies. In some communities in the Caribbean, many people who depend on fishing for their livelihood could end up having to relocate, Vergara said.

To be sure, long-term adaptation measures are underway to address both of these situations. In the case of the coral reefs, scientists are doing genetic studies to identify corals that are more resistant to higher temperatures—a process Vergara described as “a race against time.” Andean countries, meanwhile, are looking at measures such as creating high-altitude man-made reservoirs and introducing drought-resistant plants.

No matter what the particular climate risk, Vergara said, countries and communities must step up their efforts to visualize long-term impacts and engage in serious strategic planning. In the meantime, he added, the region needs to make every effort possible to eliminate fossil fuel emissions. “It’s something we can do now,” he said.

Building Awareness

On a global scale, the issue of migration and population displacement is becoming more widely discussed in the context of climate change. The Paris Agreement adopted in December 2015 includes migrants among the groups whose rights must be protected, and refers to the need for “integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

Speaking in Paris during the climate talks, the Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Ambassador William Lacy Swing, said that including the issue in the agreement would help raise the visibility of “climate migration” as one of the many factors driving “unprecedented human mobility.”

“I don’t think that, generally speaking, our governments, particularly our parliaments, are well enough aware of what is happening and why they have a responsibility to address this in both monetary and policy terms,” he said.

Of course, migration is often a complex phenomenon with multiple causes. Ambassador Nestor Mendez, Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), noted that non-environmental factors often come into play after a disaster and contribute to a decision to migrate.

“If you have a very poor community that is already suffering from poverty, from poor governance, from the inability to access certain basic services, these people are more vulnerable to moving if they’re struck by a hurricane or a drought or a flood because the infrastructure is not in place to give them some of the basic protections that would enable them to resist these kinds of natural disasters and remain at home,” he said in an interview. With all the work to be done to address the causes of climate change, “we also have to look at ensuring that the vulnerabilities of our communities are reduced,” he added.

The OAS can help bring attention to the issue and encourage countries to establish protocols to deal with climate-induced migration, Ambassador Mendez said. “It needs an integral approach, because to reduce the vulnerabilities to climate change requires a lot of work in many areas”—from poverty alleviation and social safety nets to smart building codes that prevent construction in low-lying coastal areas. Although national governments typically handle responses to natural disasters, he said, it’s also important to work with local governments since much of the implementation happens at that level.

“I would like to encourage everybody who has a role in community leadership, in local government leadership, in central government, to help in creating an awareness of how the changes in climate will be impacting our people going into the future and how we need to prepare for it, because it’s a reality,” the Assistant Secretary General said.

A Project with Sizzle

In Guatemala City, a small pilot project to produce biodiesel from recycled cooking oil has shown so much potential that its organizers are hoping to scale it up to help power a whole fleet of city vehicles—with clear benefits for the air and water.

At the Chicharronería “El Mañanero,” a bustling eatery located near La Palmita market in Guatemala City, the specialty of the house is deep-fried pork cracklings tucked into tortillas with guacamole, diced radishes, jalapeño peppers, and lemon. All that sizzling pork adds up to a lot of cooking oil, which used to go straight down the drain. Now it goes into 5-gallon plastic containers instead, and eventually makes its way into a gas tank, in the form of biodiesel.

Siomara Segura García, who owns the restaurant, was happy to find an environmentally friendly way to dispose of the waste oil—especially after a disaster last year in which the drainage system at El Mañanero became clogged and she had to shut down for three days. When she heard about a pilot project that would give her the chance to recycle instead, she jumped at the chance to participate.  

“It was such a nice project that it caught my interest,” she said. “We’re helping the environment. We’re helping generations to come.”

Segura García is one of about 400 small-business owners at six of Guatemala City’s municipal markets who participated in the project, called Reciclaceite (a combination of the words for “recycle” and “oil” in Spanish).

The project received a $50,000 grant under an initiative called Sustainable Communities in Central America and the Caribbean. The program—funded by the U.S. Department of State and run by the Organization of American States (OAS), through the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA)—has awarded a total of $1 million in small grants to support 22 projects in different countries.

Reciclaceite brought together several key players. Fundación Solar, a large nonprofit environmental organization in Guatemala, managed the overall project, while the municipal government of Guatemala City implemented the oil collection system. Empresa Eléctrica de Guatemala, S.A. (EEGSA), a private utility that supplies electricity to much of the country, contributed $25,000 in supplemental funding, and the Asociación de Combustibles Renovables (Renewable Fuels Association) provided additional support. The technical side of converting the used oil into biofuel was the responsibility of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG), a private, not-for-profit institution with a strong emphasis on technology.

The oil recycling project also had a strong social component. Two young men participating in a city employment program for at-risk youth were hired to collect the oil from the market cooks, making their rounds in a pickup featuring the city’s trademark bright green and plastered with messages about the importance of recycling oil. (The project included a logo design and messaging contest.)

Another element of the project’s success has been the buy-in from the many owners of little market eateries who were willing to donate their used oil, according to Marta Ximénez de Rivera, who coordinates the energy division at Fundación Solar and advises the organization’s board on energy matters. “People have to be involved. If not, it’s not sustainable,” she said.

Initially, the project’s organizers faced some logistical and bureaucratic hurdles in setting up the collection and processing system. They also had to spend time educating the small-business owners about the recycling process, including what types of cooking oil could be used and how it should be stored.

“Collecting the first gallon was a whole odyssey,” said Héctor Ávila, coordinator for environmental innovation in the city’s Department of the Environment, who dreamed up the project. Now, he said, the city collects 100 gallons of used oil per week and sees significant untapped demand. “I don’t collect more because I can’t process more,” Ávila said.

The pilot project officially ended several months ago, but the city is continuing to collect the oil from participating restaurants while it looks for a long-term solution. Ximénez de Rivera figures it would take about $500,000 to build a biodiesel plant for the municipality, and she’s determined to help make that happen.

“This is a pilot project that we want to transform into a reality that will benefit the city on a larger scale,” she said. The idea is to start with a small, modular plant that can be expanded as the oil collection network grows.

For the time being, the used cooking oil being collected from the markets is processed and blended with regular diesel to provide enough fuel to operate six vehicles—four from the city’s parks department and two from the electric utility. They run on a mix of one-fourth biodiesel to three-fourths regular diesel, which cuts the vehicles’ emissions by 70 percent and represents the optimal return on investment, according to Ximénez de Rivera. Engines do not have to be modified to use this type of blend.

Marvin Alvizures, who’s in charge of the fuel supply at the city gas station where the biodiesel is stored and pumped, said the biodegradable fuel has proved to be trouble-free. “I thought there were going to be problems with the vehicles, but there haven’t been,” he said.

The waste oil is processed in a biodiesel pilot plant in a laboratory that is part of the UVG Chemical Engineering Department. The partnership with this “green university” ensured a high standard of quality and enhanced the project’s credibility, Ximénez de Rivera said.

Biodiesel can be produced from vegetable oil or animal oils and fats. When waste oils from the food industry are used, the conversion process begins by filtering the oil and letting it settle; alcohol and a catalyst are then added to break down the oil into smaller molecules. Additional steps remove any water and byproducts such as soaps and glycerin. The end product is tested for such characteristics as purity, viscosity, density, and acidity, to make sure it meets high standards, according to Cristián Rossi Sosa, who heads the UVG laboratory.

The UVG plant can process 200 liters (around 53 gallons) at a time, and the conversion from waste oil to biofuel takes three to four hours. The university processes waste oil from other sources as well, so it can handle only a limited amount of oil collected from the markets.

If the city could build its own plant, Ávila said, it could vastly increase the amount of waste oil it collects, not only from other markets but from restaurants and hotels across the sprawling capital. The hope is that the plant could eventually produce at least 4,500 gallons of biodiesel per month, enough to help run the city’s entire fleet of diesel-powered vehicles. That not only would have environmental benefits; it would also put more young people to work, Ávila noted.

But even on this small scale, the project is beneficial, according to Gamaliel Zambrano, director of the university’s Center for Industrial Processes. First, he said, reducing the amount of cooking oil that is discarded into the sewer system significantly helps reduce groundwater contamination. And using biodiesel cuts air pollution.

While the effects on emissions may represent just a “drop in the bucket” in terms of overall traffic in Guatemala City, the city government is setting a strong, positive example, Zambrano said. “It’s a drop that contributes, and contributes a lot,” he said. “That example can actually be replicated.”

Cherry Trees: Nature’s Inspiration for Eco-Friendly Design


The Cherry Blossom season has finally arrived. Like every year, Washingtonians and tourists parade along the Potomac shores to watch the trees bloom, dressing the city in magnificent shades of pink for nearly two weeks. To celebrate the arrival of spring, the ECPA Clearinghouse wanted to use this emblematic occasion to better explain the “Circular Economy” philosophy, which borrows fundamental principles of “biomimicry”, a new approach based on the study and imitation of nature’s designs and processes to solve pressing human problems.

Can a building emulate a living structure? What if our homes and offices were like trees —living beings interacting productively with their surroundings? These are the questions which led chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough to see nature as a superior being. A kind of muse —an oracle perhaps — that provides solutions to social issues. Imagine a building immersed in the landscape, harvesting energy from the sun, sequestering carbon and releasing oxygen. Imagine fresh air, indigenous plants, and daylight everywhere. In short, think of a life-support system in harmony with other living things.

The cherry tree is often used as a metaphor to explain eco-effective principles. A cherry tree has a positive impact on the environment. Thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans, and other animals in order that a seed might fall onto the ground, take root, and grow. The tree produces abundant blossoms and fruits without depleting its environment. Once on the ground, they decompose and turn into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals, and soil. Biomimicry suggests rethinking designs, materials, products and services based on nature’s inherent wisdom. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is another example of putting this principle into practice.

An eco-efficient building-as we know-is a big energy saver. It minimizes air infiltration by sealing places that might leak (windows do not open.) It lowers solar income with dark-tinted glass, diminishing the cooling load on the building's air-conditioning system and thereby cutting the amount of fossil-fuel energy used.

But imagine now how a cherry tree would do it: During the daytime, light pours in. Uninterrupted exterior views and a sun-filled courtyard. At night, the system provides the building with cool air, clearing spaces from flat air and toxins. A layer of indigenous grasses cover the building's roof, to absorb water excess to protect it from degradation.

The latter building is just as energy-efficient as the first one, while realizing a broader and more complex design goal: To create a building that incorporates a range of natural gifts such as sun, light, air and nature, in order to enhance the lives of its inhabitants. Therefore, a “cherry tree-inspired” building expresses a life-centered community and environment vision in every single one of its elements. These buildings represent the beginnings of eco-effective design. They contribute to envision the difference between eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness as oppose to ordinary constructions.

The concept of eco-effectiveness contained in the “Circular Economy” philosophy implies working on the right things —the right products, services and systems— instead of making the wrong things less harmful. Once the right things are being done, then doing them "right," with the help of efficient practices and other tools, makes perfect sense. Hence, pursuing and accomplishing this vision is the most accurate way to imitate nature, being cherry trees the source of inspiration for rethinking eco-effective building design. In the words of McDonough, eco-effective architecture fundamentally aims to “build buildings like trees and cities like forests”. 

In an era when climate change is no longer a prophecy but a real threat, rethinking our ways is a must.  Seeing nature as a model as a measure; as a mentor. To maximize and translate nature’s kindness, nurturing and innovative essence, is fundamentally what these new approaches aim at by valuing nature not based on what can be extracted, but what we can learn from it, instead.  In other words, to emulate nature’s forms, processes, and systems and to strive for a more sustainable development and a better future and solve basic human problems.

The first cherry trees in Washington, DC were a gift from Japan, given as a gesture of friendship between the two countries.  Their blossoming peak has become one of the city´s most traditional and celebrated times of the year. Just like eco-efficient design aims for the “right” construction, the ECPA Closed Loop Cycle Production in the Americas initiative aims to enhance the industrial sector, redesigning environmentally sustainable products and production systems, based on “Circular Economy” principles.