Scientific American has just published its “Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2017”. As a project manager, we should be closely tuned in to emerging technology because we all know that new technology drives new projects – either directly (launching a new telecom network based on a 10x faster optical network) or indirectly (a new smartphone app helps you track team members’ progress instantaneously).
Well, I’ve been focusing on the intersection of project management (and projects, and project managers) and sustainability since ancient times (2007), and it’s interesting to see that fully half of them are sustainability-oriented technologies. So, I thought that this near-end-of-year post could highlight those technologies. You’ll see the connection to projects – at least I assert that you should.
Water Made By The Sun
In a cross-continental effort led by MIT and the University of California Berkley, researchers are taking advantage of the properties of Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs) which have phenomenally large pores and a strong affinity for water. It’s actually quite amazing: one MOF crystal the size of a sugar cube has an internal area approximately the size of an American football field. By using these MOFs, the initiative forgoes the usual way of removing water from air (like your home dehumidifier) which takes lots of energy. The places that need this water (where billions of people suffer from the lack thereof) require a lot of electricity – something those same people also don’t have. These systems can be powered by the sun.
Projects to implement this technology are already taking place. A startup in Scottsdale, Arizona called Zero Mass Water has already started selling a system which, with one solar panel can produce 2 to 5 liters a day. The company has even shipped such systems to Lebanon to provide water to Syrian refugees. You can imagine the projects that could ‘waterfall’ of this technology.
Fuel From An Artificial Leaf
Researchers at Harvard University, in partnership with commercial interests, have actually exceeded the efficiency of a leaf in converting energy from the sun to create glucose. The researchers, Daniel Nocera and Pamela Silver, paired the technology with microbes specifically engineered to produce multiple types of fuels, even with low CO2 concentrations. Now, Nocera and his team are working on a new idea that allows the bacteria to produce nitrogen-based fertilizer into the soil. This bacterium can actually form a biological plastic which can serve as its own fuel supply – a closed system which would not contribute to the greenhouse effect. Reminiscent of scenes from the movie Sleeper, this technique has yielded radishes that weigh 150% more than a control group. So this is about more than fuel – it could assist in the capabilities of farming.
Continuing the farming theme, this initiative focuses on combining the technologies of drones, big data analytics, sensors, improved seed development, and advanced software to produce healthier crops with increased yields for a world that has increasing need for food. Who’s involved? Lots of stakeholders and concerns, small startups, government, and companies such as John Deere, Dow, and DuPont. However, in another example of how this set of technologies brings other technologies (and projects) into play, this combination of technologies requires movement of vast amounts of information – which in turn means an increased demand for broadband. The stakeholder count (and the plants) just keeps growing.
Hydrogen Cars For The Masses
Want a hydrogen-fueled car? It’s possible. All you need is $57,500 and that will buy you a Toyota Mirai. But projects galore – at the moment research projects – are aimed at removing the most expensive part of a hydrogen fuel-cell: the catalyst. Many fuel cells today use platinum. Palladium, one substitute, doesn’t perform quite as well and is still fairly expensive. So the researchers are looking for radically different catalysts, made from more readily-available materials, such as copper or nickel. Even more radically, researchers such as Liming Dai at Case Western University, are working on a catalyst that uses no metal at all, and instead uses nitrogen and phosphorous-doped carbon foam. Working together with manufacturers, the goal is to create inexpensive fuel-cells that power vehicles with no emissions, and also produce zero emissions during their production in quantity.
While building a green house is an admirable goal, this emerging technology is about building blocks of homes in such a way as to be even more effective and efficient. An example is the Oakland EcoBlock project. Near the Golden Gate Bridge, this collection of about 35 contiguous older homes will have existing sustainability technology applied – but there will be additional program advantages at the community level – such as a smart microgrid and shared electric vehicles. Other innovations involve the use of community water, reducing the demand of this block by up to 70%. But perhaps of the most interest to project managers is the collaborative nature of the program, a multidisciplinary effort involving urban designers, engineers, social scientists, policy experts, governments, and academics. This is what projects are all about, right?
In Part 1, I discussed how Millennials are driving change to the way that wealth is invested, with their propensity to insist that ethics, and along with it, assuring that social, economic, and ecological bottom lines are considered and balanced. I was pleased to see that this triggered some interest and comments.
So, since I’d like to bring this back to project management - how can we connect this to our projects? Already, I hope you got the idea from Part 1 – projects depend on sponsors, and sponsors are usually either investors or are driven by investors. How can you see if your existing projects are linked to these increasingly attractive outcomes, outcomes that this type of investor is seeking? Let’s start by looking at the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mentioned above. Let’s start with one we’ve featured on this website before, understand it, and then zoom out and look at the set of 30 holistically.
Not a fan of Climate Change, or are you interested in other causes? No worries – there’s a lot to look at here; if you were perhaps bored thinking that all you have to do is complete your project on time, achieving full scope, and under budget, there are a lot of other considerations.
Well, at least be aware of them. Read on to understand. One of the pleasures of writing books on different topics (or at least different within the field of project management) is to find unusual connections between them. I recently had the pleasure of collaborating with Loredana Abramo, PMP on the new book, Bridging the PM Competency Gap. One of the things on which we focus in this book is the role that generational differences plays in the way that people gain knowledge. In turn, this required us to dig in and find out what drives Millennials. In one of the tables of the book, we look at Motivating and Enabling Factors, Deterring and Blocking Factors, and Engagement Strategies. One of the Motivating Factors was ‘strong ethical leaders’. And that is the connection from the Bridging the Gap book to the books on sustainability in PM (Green Project Management and Driving Project, Program, and Portfolio Success) and indeed to this blog.
Today’s post is about how Millennials are driving change to the way that wealth is invested, with their propensity to insist that ethics, and along with it, social, economic, and ecological bottom lines are considered and balanced. By the way, let’s not ignore Millennials. Why? Their spending power is estimated at US$170B per year. I highly recommend that you spend a moment looking at this infographic (in small form here, linked to a larger size image for your convenience).
This is why a small story in The Economist’s most recent issue caught my eye. It’s called Generation SRI and the subtitle is “Sustainable Investing Joins the Mainstream”. SRI is “Socially Responsible Investing”.
From the article:
Fans of “socially responsible investment” (SRI) hope that millennials, the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, will drag these concepts into the investment mainstream. SRI is a broad-brush term, that can be used to cover everything from divestment from companies seen as doing harm, to limiting investment to companies that do measurable good (impact investing). The US Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, a lobby group, estimates that more than a fifth ($8.7trn) of the funds under professional management in America is screened on SRI criteria, broadly defined, up from a ninth in 2012 (see chart).
The numbers are hard to ignore.
From the Green Money Journal:
Sustainable, responsible and impact investing assets now account for $8.72 trillion, or one in five dollars invested under professional management in the United States according to the US SIF Foundation’s biennial Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends 2016 which was released in mid-November 2016. See chart below:
According to a survey in America by Morgan Stanley, 75% (of Millennials) agreed that their investments could influence climate change, compared with 58% of the overall population. They not only believe in the triple bottom line, they have confidence that they can be change agents. They are also twice as likely as investors in general to check product packaging or invest in companies that espouse social or environmental objectives.
The Economist article cautions us that we can’t fool Millennials. They have too much savvy, and their’s too much data available to them (and they know how to use it) to ‘greenwash’ this group. From the article: “money managers who pay only lip-service to SRI are unlikely to get away with it for long: sooner or later the robots and millennials are bound to call them out”. And there is the rationale for the title of this blog post.
Let’s get back to the Morgan Stanley survey.
“As widespread attention to sustainability continues to increase, consumers and investors alike are now more than ever factoring sustainability issues into their investment decisions,” said Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at Morgan Stanley.
Because it’s important for us as project managers – with an increasing number of Millennial stakeholders – to understand this generation, we provide this extract from the survey. Note the connection to long-term thinking.
• Values Matter. Consciousness around sustainability has leapt from the consumer space to the investment space. According to the latest survey, investor attention to sustainability factors is now growing faster than that of consumers as a whole.
• Environmental impact. Increased interest in sustainable investing occurred despite a heightened sense of market volatility, implying perhaps that in uncertain times, companies and funds with sustainable attributes may be viewed as more stable over the long run. 71% of investors polled agreed that good social, environmental and governance practices can potentially lead to higher profitability and may be better long-term investments.
• Focus on Customization. The poll showed a strong desire for the ability to customize sustainable investments; 80% of individual investors and 89% of Millennials are interested in sustainable investments that can be customized to meet their interests and goals.
• Sustainable Investing in the Workplace. With Millennials projected to make up 75% of the American workforce by 2025, it’s interesting to note that nine out of ten Millennial investors (90%) expressed interest in pursuing sustainable investments as part of their 401(k) portfolios. This implies that offering sustainable investment funds as 401(k) options may be an additional way for companies to attract and retain Millennial talent in competitive job markets.
Millennials continue to fuel growth. Nearly nine in ten Millennials surveyed (86%) are interested in sustainable investing, compared with three-quarters of individual investors overall (75%). This heightened interest is likely tied to Millennials’ strong belief that they can make a positive difference with their own investments. Related findings from the survey include:
• Influence. 75% agree that it is possible for “my investment decisions to influence the amount of climate change caused by human activities," compared with 58% of the total individual investor population.
• Impact. 84% agree that it is possible for “my investment decisions to create economic growth that lifts people out of poverty," compared with 79% of the total individual investor population surveyed.
In summary, you get a feel here for the mindset of these Millennial investors, who are also project sponsors, team members, leaders, and customers.
What does this mean to project managers? Well, if investors, who are (or should be) long-term thinkers are increasingly thinking about long-term impact, and projects are launched by investors, then by the tried and true property of transitivity, project managers should be thinking about long-term impacts as well – thinking through the project’s outcome to the benefits – and other side-effects of the project’s product in the long-term.
In Part 2, I’ll discuss the particular ‘outcome areas’ that are the focus of sustainable investment, and how you can use this information to (A) make better decisions on your own project that serve the longer term, and (B) better understand the thinking behind the investment choices made by Millennials.
You think it’s important to reduce carbon emissions? Think again. Sure, it is important, and whatever you believe about climate change and its causes, you hopefully agree that IF the global temperatures are rising, we want to understand it. So, here’s a little-known fact. The pledge at the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, is going to require not only emission reduction, it’s going to require removing carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, 87% of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change models make assumptions that include ‘negative emissions’. Wise project managers know that assumptions are the ‘seeds’ of threats and opportunities. And that project management truth holds true here as well.
That’s right: the agreements reached in Paris, and somewhat reaffirmed in Bonn last week include assumptions. They assume that the portfolio of programs and projects to bring down the rising global temperature includes not only initiatives which aim at emitting fewer tons of greenhouse gasses, but importantly, also projects to significantly remove vast amounts of greenhouse gasses already present. Otherwise stated, it means we need to undo what’s been done. And that means we’ll need to create carbon sinks.
That’s where science – and project management – will need to come to the rescue.
Take Sweden for example. In a recent article (“Sucking up carbon”) from The Economist, Sweden’s lawmakers have passed legislation which requires no net emissions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere by 2045. Even if everyone in Sweden went to fully-renewable sources of power and drove electric vehicles, they would still be emitting (adding) greenhouse gasses by virtue of (for example) use of fertilizer and from use of airplanes. This ‘net zero’ will therefore call for the removal (subtracting) of greenhouse gasses with emergent and not-yet-invented technology.
What really makes a difference with respect to climate change is the total amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. If we need to keep the temperature stable it means staying inside a certain budget of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. If we go over our budget, even with strict “spending controls”, we will need to balance that budget via extraction. So let’s talk extraction for a moment.
As any good project manager should, let’s begin with the end in mind and understand our project objective. In the long term, this is a gigantic impending aspiration. The numbers are actually mind-boggling. To take into account the aforementioned assumptions – the median IPCC model – assumes the extraction of 810 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2100. Stated in different terms this means “undoing” 20 years of our global emissions (taken at the current rate) by that year.
The Economist article discusses NETS (negative-emissions technologies), the generic term for techniques which serve as carbon sinks. One family of NETS is BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), which involves power stations fueled by crops that can be burned generate energy while injecting the carbon into the ground rather than into the air. The problem with this technology is that it is at least twice as expensive as standard power generation and it cannot produce the size of sink necessary for the large numbers in the objective.
Another technique is afforestation – the regrowth of deforested logging areas – very large areas. It has been estimated that the area of afforestation would have to be somewhere in the range of sizes between India and Canada – up to 68% of the world’s arable land. Clearly, this technique alone will not suffice.
The other technologies don’t yet exist, meaning the projects are in the research and development stage. Machines designed to capture carbon dioxide from the air are problematic. If you try to extract CO2 from a smokestack of a power plant – no problem; the concentration, there is 10%. Try the same in the atmosphere, and although levels are indeed historically high, the concentration is only 0.04%. Still, companies like Global Thermostat in the US, Carbon Engineering in Canada, and Climeworks of Switzerland are working on such contraptions. Here is a video explaining what Global Thermostat is up to:
And here is one from Climeworks:
Other thinking in this area includes techniques to accelerate how the soil and natural weathering processes remove CO2 from the air.
But here’s the thing: mechanical techniques at the moment show only 40 million tons of CO2 per year. Remember our project objective? It was 810 billion tons by 2100. That’s 10 billion per year. 40 million, as they say, ain’t going to cut it.
So there will need to be a wave of innovation over the next decades which focus on adding value by subtracting carbon (and other greenhouse gasses). This will spell opportunity for large R&D as well as deployment projects, which in turn will require informed, inspired, capable project managers. Are you ready for a challenge? Get informed, stay informed, and get ever more curious about greenhouse gas extraction. We’re hoping that this story provided you with a good (excuse the pun) takeaway.
For more information about the technologies involved, try these sources:
Your blog author was recently involved in a power outage. An overnight microburst with winds at 100 mph and higher took down a large double oak tree, which narrowly missed the house, but did end up taking down the power lines for the entire neighborhood. The only sounds the next morning were chainsaws and the constant hum of a neighbor’s generator. The generator-empowered neighbor offered to ‘power us all up’ and even set up a charging table for people to recharge their laptops and mobile phones.
In a way, what they did (besides demonstrating outstanding neighborly behavior) was to establish a microgrid – a small, independent area capable of providing its own power without the existing electric infrastructure. We lost power for a week and this was a problem for us - but it's nothing compared to what many in the world live every day. This post is about the ways in which microgrid projects may make a difference in the struggle to increase the use of renewable energy, and to “power up” parts of the world (such as in Africa or currently in Puerto Rico) where not having power is not a mere inconvenience, but a matter of moment-to-moment life and death, as well as allowing economic development to advance.
From the US Department of Energy, a microgrid is a local energy grid with control capability, which means it can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously. To understand how a microgrid works, first understand the grid. The grid connects homes, businesses and other buildings to central power sources, which allow us to use appliances, heating/cooling systems and electronics. But this interconnectedness means that when part of the grid needs to be repaired, everyone is affected. This is where a microgrid can help. A microgrid generally operates while connected to the grid, but importantly, it can break off and operate on its own using local energy generation in times of crisis like storms or power outages, or for other reasons.
A microgrid can be powered by distributed generators, batteries, and/or renewable resources like solar panels. Depending on how it’s fueled and how its requirements are managed, a microgrid might run indefinitely.
A recent article on this topic intrigued me, and then (perhaps because I was super-attentive to the topic) I found a flurry of recent stories about the increasing applicability of microgrids, for a wide variety of deployments and reasons. This one caught my attention because it centers on Pittsburgh – the city singled out by US President Trump when he announced that he was exiting the Paris Climate Agreement (and is now the leader of the only country not in that agreement). 'I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris', said President Trump. The mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, said in return, ‘We stand with the world, and will follow the agreement’. That little interchange already had me focused on Pittsburgh just a little more than other cities.
From the article:
Usually, power grids rely on a far-flung network. For example, a person making toast might be drawing electricity from miles away. A microgrid is a local, independent power grid that can run without electricity from the main network.
A pilot site for microgrids is at the Pitt Ohio trucking company in nearby Harmar, Pa. Jim Maug, director of building maintenance, eagerly showed a reporter the building's green credentials last month. A wind turbine twisted near the parking lot. Solar panels tiled the roof. And in the truck bay, electric forklifts ran on batteries fueled by the renewable power.
"We're anticipating about a seven to eight-year return on investment," said Maug. The project cost about $325,000, he added.
Of course it’s not just the clearly tangible ROI that Pitt Ohio gets as a benefit. They also have the ability to continue operations during outages, independent of the main grid.
That’s a nice-to-have. For parts of the world, this is a must-have. In a recent Economist magazine Special Report on Africa, there’s a segment called “Good night, gloom” which is quite eye-opening.
It starts with (excuse the pun) a jolt.
Of all the measures of (Africa’s) poverty, few are starker than that about two-thirds of its people have no access to reliable electricity.
That’s 620 million people with no access to electricity, most of them in villages and on farms. This is not a convenience issue. This costs lives.
In Nigeria each year an estimated 36,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, many because they deliver their babies in the dark in clinics such as the one in Makoko, a slum perched on stilts above a lagoon in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest commercial city.
The article goes on to more optimistic news, luckily. Africa has been adding renewable power via thousands of projects, at an amazing rate. The problem (just look at a map of Africa) is geography (see map below).
…generating power is useful only if it can be sent to where it is needed, and in many parts of Africa electricity grids seldom stretch beyond big cities. Adding a house to the grid even in a compact country such as Rwanda typically costs about $2,000, which is more than the country’s average annual income per person. The APP reckons that expanding grid power across Africa to reach almost everyone would cost $63bn a year until 2030, compared with the $8bn a year that is being spent now.
So the answer, much like in Pittsburgh, is microgrids (called minigrids in the article).
Increasingly, projects are being launched to power these remote villages and farm areas with microgrids. According to the article,
a study by the Rockefeller Foundation in India found that when minigrids were installed in villages, small businesses increased their sales by 13% and incomes rose across the area. “If you want to drive the productive use of electricity and move people up the economic ladder, then you need a minigrid,” says Deepali Khanna of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Smart Villages Initiative, which has brought together scientists from Cambridge and Oxford Universities to get minigrids adopted more widely in poor countries, found that once smallholder farmers have electricity, they quickly adopt a range of other technologies such as irrigation pumps and smartphones to get long-term weather forecasts. “You then soon find support industries springing up to feed this higher level of economic activity in the villages, together with a general increase in well-being,” says John Holmes, a co-leader of the initiative.
However, to get this done, it’s going to take projects, project management capability, and project managers. Have a look through this document (Click on the image below – or here to download it for free). In it you see the need for projects of which I speak:
To achieve universal electricity access by 2030, the current pace of expansion will have to double. It is estimated that off-grid solutions will supply 50-60% of the additional generation needed to achieve universal electricity access by 2030.
It’s important work and project managers will play a key role. I provide the following links if I have piqued your interest even a micro-amount.