2010 Green Rankings: 10 Big Green Ideas

Illlustration by Grafilu

The Green Rankings were created in 2009 with ASAP Media, a New York City media development firm founded by editors Peter W. Bernstein (pbernstein@asap-partners.com) and Annalyn Swan (aswan@asap-partners.com). It specializes in creating magazine, book, and online content.

At the first Earth Day protest in 1970, Margaret Mead, the American Anthropologist and proto-environmentalist, issued a call to action: "We have to learn to cherish this earth and cherish it as something that's fragile, that's only one, it's all we have. We have to use our scientific knowledge to correct the dangers that have come from science and technology." Back in those early days—long before we began driving hybrid cars and politicians started using words like "sustainability" and "carbon footprint" to win elections—Mead and her Earth Day comrades were on the fringe. Would she be surprised to see how mainstream the green movement is today? Probably not. After all, she once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." All it takes is a great idea. Here we've gathered 10 of those, along with the stories of the thoughtful citizens who are trying to make them a reality.

Make a Greener Burger

Who knew hamburgers could wreck the planet? That's what environmentalists say is happening, as ranchers raze the Brazilian rainforest and their methane-emitting cows foul the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. No one has been more a target of environmentalists' ire than Blairo Maggi. Though known as a soybean tycoon, Maggi became Big Beef's best friend as a two-time governor of Mato Grosso, the frontier state that boasts Brazil's largest herds and has helped make that nation the world's No. 1 beef exporter. But this "developmentalista," who in 2005 won Greenpeace's Golden Chainsaw award for the havoc he had wreaked on the Amazon, has become Brazil's latest tree-hugger. The talk in Maggi's corral is all about "sustainable development," "carbon credits," "avoided deforestation"—and green beef. After signing on to a 2006 moratorium on selling soybeans harvested from recently deforested lands, Maggi last year extended the ban to Amazon beef cattle. He has urged ranchers and Brazil's giant meatpackers to clean up their act, and is even using satellites to monitor illegal clear-cutting and burning of forests. Why Maggi's change of heart? It's smart business. "The entire world has come to the conclusion that forests should be worth more standing than cut down," he often says. "Farmers should get paid for that." Mac Margolis

Invest In the Improbable

They say great risk brings great reward. just ask Vinod Khosla, the Sun Microsystems cofounder who became Silicon Valley's most vaunted venture capitalist. These days, Khosla is betting on green-tech startups, with a $1 billion venture-capital fund called Khosla Ventures. "I like technologies that have a 90 percent chance of failure," he says. "Because a 10 percent chance of making 100 times your money is better than an 80 percent chance of doubling your money." He believes huge breakthroughs begin with highly improbable ideas—"black swan technologies," he calls them (a reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb's theory about the randomness and unpredictability of big events). Khosla's flock includes investments in battery-technology startups like Recapping and Pellion, which he describes as "some really long-shot things on electricity storage, some of which are really not even batteries." He has also invested in a company called Solum that's developing a measuring tool to enable farmers to use less fertilizer, thus reducing harmful nitrogen runoff. "These are way out there, flaky ideas" that could take 10 to 15 years to bear fruit. Luckily, he can afford to be patient. Daniel Lyons

Get Out Of the Gulf

Before this year's massive oil spill, the U.S. was getting 8 percent of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico—a number that translates to 1.6 million barrels each day. That statistic alone helped oil executives persuade President Obama last week to reopen the area. Demand, they said, is simply too high to keep the rigs dry. But is it really? Jackie Savitz, a political-policy analyst with the ocean-advocacy group Oceana, sees a fairly simple way to get out of the gulf completely. For starters, electrify 10 percent of America's cars by 2020 (we're already at about 1 percent). Switch oil-based power plants to clean electric ones (there are only 105 of them). Update one quarter of oil-heated homes to electric power (also doable; the number has been decreasing). And phase in all available non-feedstock biofuels (much of which are going unused). Total barrels saved? Yep, 1.6 million. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy gave Oceana a grant this summer to implement the agenda, which could be passed in pieces. And during a debate last month, a senior Interior Department official admitted the idea wasn't so farfetched. "The oil companies depend on all of this stuff sounding really difficult," says Savitz. "But really, it's not that hard." Daniel Stone

Catch a Wave

More than 70 percent of the earth's surface is covered by water, most of it in oceans that seethe and crash around with pent-up energy. What if you could harness that power? As many green venturers have discovered over the years, catching a wave is no easy feat because the oceans are so harsh on equipment and the energy produced is expensive. Now, thanks (ironically) to Big Petroleum, the harvest of the seas is at hand. The quest for oil and gas buried deep beneath the ocean and the polar icecaps has yielded a new generation of materials and equipment that can withstand salt, gale-force winds, giant waves, crushing water pressure, and thermal shock. In March, 10 energy firms got the green light to set up wave and tidal farms off the coast of Scotland, with plans to generate enough electricity to power 750,000 homes by 2015. Pilot plants have also been set up in Portugal, Indonesia, Taiwan, and the Northeastern Seaboard of the United States (insiders speak of the "Gulf of Maine"). The Marine Board of the European Science Foundation recently concluded that Europe could draw half its power from the seas by 2050. All that's needed is for enough public and private investors to take the plunge. Mac Margolis

Hug a Nuke

One of the big problems with nuclear energy is that, to generate power, you first need to enrich uranium. Enrichment is inefficient—some 92 percent of the original uranium gets cast aside as "depleted uranium." Worse, once you start enriching uranium to make fuel, you can enrich it further to make material for bombs. But what if you could make nuclear power that didn't need enriched uranium? What about a reactor that runs on depleted uranium? That's the idea behind TerraPower. "We've shown it can work, through theoretical calculations and detailed computer simulations," says Nathan Myhrvold, CEO of Intellectual Ventures, the Bellevue, Wash., "invention lab" where the ideas behind TerraPower were hatched. Myhrvold was once chief technology officer at Microsoft, and his longtime friend, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, is among the investors in TerraPower. The company consults with a network of 120 nuclear-power experts, and the plan is to get a test reactor running by 2020. Likely countries include China, India, Russia, Japan, and France. "We've had talks with all of them in the last few months," Myhrvold says. Daniel Lyons

Turn Smoke Into Rocks

We talk a lot about reducing carbon dioxide, taxing it, eliminating it. But there's a case to be made for keeping CO2 around. Los Gatos, Calif.–based Calera has developed a process that takes CO2 from a power-plant smokestack and turns it into cement. The technology would reduce CO2 in two ways—first by slashing power-plant emissions and then by displacing the existing cement-making industry, which is one of the biggest generators of carbon dioxide. "That's the cool part of this," says Randy Seeker, Calera's chief technology officer. "We're getting a twofer." Calera's approach was dreamed up by Brent Constantz, a Stanford science professor who studied how coral reefs are formed in nature (carbon dioxide mixes with calcium to form calcium carbonate) and then found a way to mimic the process. Calera has a pilot plant running in California, and another set to start up in Wyoming next year; the goal is to have commercial plants running by 2013 or 2014. There are some big obstacles, though: if the United States doesn't impose legislation that pushes power plants to reduce carbon emissions, those plants probably won't pay someone like Calera to keep their smokestacks clean. Daniel Lyons

Drink Your Garbage

To some, the smell of a landfill is sweet. That's because the stuff we throw away could help us save the planet and turn a profit. Plastic is made of petroleum, so finding ways to reuse it could make us less dependent on oil. And the household electronics we discard are loaded with elements like nickel, copper, and lithium, which one day could be in short supply. Why not mine our own trash? That's the plan in Belgium, where a British company, Advanced Plasma Power, plans to start digging up landfill, in part to get at buried metals as well as methane gas that could generate electricity. Axion International of New Providence, N.J., has found a way to craft pilings, beams, and other building components out of recycled plastic. How strong is it? At Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army has erected a bridge for tanks out of railroad ties fashioned from Axion's beams. Singapore last year installed a system that turns sewage into drinking water. But what if this process could also make money? Mark Shannon at the University of Illinois is working on a device that can take human sewage and turn it into fresh water, methane, and minerals that could be sold on the open market. —Michael Kanellos

Hire a Microbe

Microbes live in fermentation vats, feed on filth, and at the end of the week you can kill them off. In short, they are the perfect employees. A raft of startups and established multinationals have woken up to the power of metabolism—the interaction that occurs when a living organism ingests food and chemically converts it into something else. It's not a new idea. For centuries, humanity has exploited yeast to produce beer and cheese. But now companies are looking to microbes to power your car. BioCee of Minneapolis is working on microbes that can soak up sunlight and carbon dioxide and convert it into a substitute for petroleum. Stanford University has discovered a bug that uses sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen (which could make the hydrogen economy touted in the 1990s a reality). Amyris of Emeryville, Calif., has devised genetically modified yeast that produces something close to gasoline. "We can engineer microbes to do our bidding," says Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist at Draper, Fisher, Jurvetson, which has invested in superbug startups Genomatica and Synthetic Genomics. The downside? Superbugs are hard to create and hard to produce in large volume, and don't survive well. — Michael Kanellos

Shout It Out Loud

Never underestimate the power of protest. ma jun, a former investigative journalist for the South China Morning Post, heads the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a tiny NGO run out of a Beijing apartment that has taken on some of the world's leading corporations. His NGO collects government data about local suppliers that are violating environmental standards, and examines which Western multinationals they're connected with. He then works with foreign nonprofits to pressure the likes of Nike, Levi Strauss, Apple, and GE to clean up their act. In China, speaking up about sensitive issues can sometimes be more hazardous to your health than pollution. But Ma has succeeded. His group was a catalyst behind Wal-Mart's well-publicized demand that its top 1,000 Chinese suppliers improve their green footprint. As he points out, the Chinese version of the EPA has just 230 full-time staff looking after a country of 1.3 billion, which is why it's important to continue engaging the West around Chinese environmental issues. "Americans should remember that we are your backyard—our polluted waterways are your mercury-laced toys. It's all connected." —Rana Foroohar

Lighten Up

The best green ideas are ones that save you money, right away, without any kind of government subsidy or legislation. And there's no better example of that than LED lighting. Sure, LED bulbs cost more than traditional ones. But they also save tons of money on electricity by sipping less juice to make the same amount of light. "If you spend $100,000 to retrofit a parking garage with LED lights, I can save you $100,000 a year on electricity," says Charles Szoradi, CEO of LED Savings Solutions, in Devon, Pa. What's more, those LED bulbs will last up to 10 years, so that $100,000 initial investment could deliver $1 million in gross savings. No wonder big companies are jumping on the LED bandwagon, among them Wal-Mart, which announced plans to put LED lights in 650 stores. That deal and others like it are fueling a boom for Durham, N.C.–based Cree Inc., which makes the semiconductors used in LED lights, as well as some LED bulbs of its own. After several years of modest growth, Cree's revenues have exploded. Sales in the 2010 fiscal year, which ended in June, grew 53 percent to $867 million, and analysts expect sales to hit $1.2 billion in the current year. With numbers like that, no one can deny that environmentalism is a bright idea. — Daniel Lyons