Green Behind the Scene
Marin’s Innovators in Energy, Health and Business
Willard McDonald's Solmetric device measures sun and shade quotients on rooftops to determine the maximum sun exposure for placement of solar panels.
Photos by Tim Porter
We’ve all heard about the environmental benefits of solar power, the hidden health dangers in some ordinary household items and how smart engineering can make the machines we use in daily life more energy-efficient and less polluting. What we don’t often hear about are the innovative people whose ideas address these issues. They work largely behind the green screen, letting their results speak for them. Here are five of them—unveiled at last.
Making the most of solar power
With the telecommunications market cratering in 2005, Agilent hardware engineer Willard MacDonald faced a possible layoff. The timing seemed right to pursue a dream, so he took a severance package and founded Solmetric, with the goal of creating high-tech products for the solar industry. His motive was financial, but also altruistic, he says. Solar-powered heat and electricity have been around a long time, but with energy costs on the rise, the technology will become more important than ever.
MacDonald’s mother, a social worker, had impressed on him the value of taking care of others. Alternative energy had long intrigued him.
“Global warming and energy supply are the fundamental problems we face,” says the 38-year-old, bohemian-looking MacDonald, who works out of his home amid a thicket of redwood trees overlooking Bolinas Lagoon. “I felt a moral obligation to redirect my career to spend my working hours on these problems rather than (on) other problems.”
First, he had to come up with a good idea. He started to think about the solar panels he had installed on his roof in 2002, at a cost of $40,000. “The guy who made the sales pitch had a product (the Solar Pathfinder) that was the standard shade analysis tool of the solar industry.” The tool determined the solar power energy potential of a site by measuring its sun and shade quotient.
After MacDonald’s solar system was installed, however, he found it was not performing at the optimum level. Even after the solar company repositioned the panels, the system underperformed.
MacDonald bought a Solar Pathfinder to do his own analysis. He found the device “elegant but outdated, tedious and inaccurate.”
One day, during a business brainstorming session, he, his father and his brother decided to develop a more accurate and easier-to-use shade-measuring device.
In February 2005, MacDonald and fellow Agilent engineer Mark Galli went to work in Galli’s Windsor garage, building a prototype of their first invention, the SunEye. It debuted in fall 2006, and over the next two years Solmetric sold 1,500 of the devices at $1,400 each, a much higher price than the Solar Pathfinder’s $299.
The handheld electronic gadget has a touch-screen display that suggests when and where shadows will occur at your site throughout the day or year and where to place solar panels for maximum energy efficiency. It works with a compass, bubble level, computer, optional GPS, calculation software, integrated digital camera and a fish-eye lens that takes a hemispherical picture—an image of the entire horizon in 360 degrees. The device can calculate for tree trimming, planting or removal, and all data can be uploaded to a personal computer. The company now has distributors in Europe and Southeast Asia.
“It’s critical to place modules carefully to modify shading,” MacDonald says. “If even a corner of a panel is not in the sun, it can disproportionately affect performance.”
More information at solmetric.com.
Natural solutions for manmade problems
San Rafael’s PAX Scientific looks to nature to solve human problems. The biomimicry design, and engineering and research firm was the 1997 brainchild of Australian inventor/entrepreneur Jay Harman, 59, a former naturalist with the Australian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and founder of one of Australia’s top technology companies.
Biomimicry is a new science that studies systems of the natural world to find sustainable solutions for the human world. Consider the ordinary exhaust fan. It’s noisy and uses a lot of energy. Most mixers, pumps, turbines and propellers—all the devices we use to move substances ranging from water to oil to peanut butter—are similar in this regard. Limitations like drag resistance and low output make them terribly inefficient for the energy they require.
Harman has changed all that. He applied the spiral pattern of a whirlpool —what he calls the Streamlining Principle—to the blade and heat exchanger design of an ordinary fan. The result is a fan that is 10 to 50 percent more energy efficient and 75 percent less noisy. The spiraling geometry can be applied to almost any device that moves water, air or gas to create energy or provide cooling, Harman says, including pumps, propellers, wind turbines, automotive and computer cooling systems, aerospace technologies, industrial mixing and the vascular system of the human body.
“Pumps use 30 percent of the energy on earth,” he notes. “Fans use 18. So if you can harness these natural efficiencies you can improve the efficiency output of these devices and halve the world’s energy bill.”
Today, PAX comprises four companies: PAX Scientific and PAX Streamline and subsidiaries PAX Water and PAX Mixer. PAX also licenses its technology for commercial use in a variety of markets.
The spark for Harman’s invention came when he was only 10 years old, but it was his experience as a naturalist that got him truly engaged in fighting for the environment. “Australia is a large country with a tiny population and lots of wilderness area, and yet in 100 years it has cleared 90 percent of its hardwood forests,” he says. “For four years, I was responsible for a forest in the southwest (region). I took great care of this area and then the state government thought its interests would be served better if it was turned into a bauxite mine. I saw this happening again and again.”
Realizing that business is about making money, Harman understood what he had to do. “I needed to try to show how humanity could make a profit by doing the right thing. It occurred to me the tool kits humans have been working with (since) the industrial revolution have been incredibly destructive, so I was looking to nature to give us a new tool kit so we can be inspired by nature instead of destroying it. Nature is clean, green and sustainable—and that is what the world is now aspiring to. And if nature is already there and has already invented systems that humans need, there are models for everything we do.”
One model is how water flows naturally, something that had fascinated Harman since childhood when he regularly skipped school to swim in the ocean among the fish. “I studied how they swam and it was effortlessly,” he says. “And I saw how seaweed changed its shape to let huge waves go by. Even in incredibly fierce storms it wouldn’t get torn up.”
The shape Harman noticed was a curve that went into a spiral. “I realized that this shape seaweed was changing [in]to obviously must be the path of least resistance,” he says. “And then one day I realized all these shapes were really just one specific shape and happened to be the same shapes that fish adopt when swimming. Then I noticed exactly the same shape in the whirlpool in my bathtub when I took out the plug. And that was my ‘aha’ moment.”
For 20 years, Harman obsessively studied vortexes. “I said to myself, ‘If I can just figure out the geometry of a whirlpool I will have the key to how nature moves things.’” He was able to freeze the whirlpool’s shape after taking a cast of water while it drained. He then used the cast to develop models for impellers used in pumps and other devices that move fluids.
Today, Harman has moved on to a greater challenge: coming up with a strategy for cooling down the atmosphere, which he has already modeled on computer.
“Nature is extremely good at cooling right now with storms and so on,” Harman says. “Unfortunately the carbon dioxide and methane in the upper atmosphere is interfering with the flow patterns so it’s trapping the heat underneath this blanket of greenhouse gases that are incredibly destructive to the environment. We’ve worked out how to penetrate that blanket, to reinstate what nature does normally and cool things down. If we can get a little extra time by cooling down the atmosphere a bit, it gives us a little more time to work on wind turbines and solar power and shift to alternatives. Because right now the (time) window is too short. In 10 years it will be too late.”
More information at paxscientific.com.
Collaborative on Health and the Environment
Tools for healing yourself—and the planet
As the women’s health program manager at the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, a project of the progressive Bolinas think tank Commonweal, Heather Sarantis created a website that provides women with information on health and environmental contaminants and how they can make healthy changes in their homes and communities.
Sarantis, 37, is based in Berkeley but grew up in New England in the 1970s, in the shadow of construction of a controversial nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. The antinuclear movement was beginning, and very early on she understood she had the right to oppose things she felt were wrong — something she has done for 15 years. While with Rainforest Action Network, she worked on the Boycott Mitsubishi campaign to protest the company’s logging practices, and for the Breast Cancer Fund she worked on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
The Collaborative on Health and the Environment aims to show women how they can help bring about far-reaching policy changes—for instance, closing major loopholes in federal law that allow cosmetic companies to put chemicals in personal care products without testing for health effects. “We know there’s a momentum in the healthy products sector but we also know we can’t shop our way out of the problem,” says Sarantis. “We have to change the policies by which products are made and the ingredients manufacturers are allowed to use. A lot of products are not required to list ingredients. The cosmetics area is supposed to list ingredients, but the rules are not very well enforced.”
An example, she says, is phthalates—chemical compounds included in fragrances to make them last longer. “They are bad because they are a family of chemicals that are hormone disrupters.”
Sarantis cites studies at the Centers for Disease Control that show elevated levels of phthalates in women of childbearing age who use a higher-than-average amount of personal care products. “One of the big areas of concern is when a fetus is in the womb and exposed to phthalates,” she says. “A lot of the research in the last two decades shows there is likely a link between phthalates and sperm count and quality, a decline in testosterone and even testicular cancer.”
More information at womenshealthandenvironment.org.
Making money while doing good
John Stayton spent 15 years in the Silicon Valley in high-tech industrial marketing and sales before experiencing his eco-epiphany.
“I finally reached a place in my own life when I could no longer be engaged in a career that was at best neutral and could at worst be seen as working against my values and lifestyle,” says Stayton, 49, cofounder and director of Dominican University’s Green MBA program, the country’s first such program from an accredited institution.
Green MBA had its genesis in 2000 when Stayton and colleague Jane Lorand founded a master’s in arts program in environmental entrepreneurship at the now-defunct New College of California campus in Santa Rosa. That program went through several iterations and between 2005 and 2007 morphed its way onto the Dominican campus as an MBA degree in Sustainable Enterprise. More than 100 students are enrolled in the program, which concentrates on business fundamentals, sustainability and leadership. Studying how to come up with solutions to promote financial viability, ecological sustainability, and social justice, students learn to lead sustainability initiatives in any type of organization.
This March Dominican launches a new, six-month Sustainable Enterprise Certificate program with an option called “Green Your MBA,” for people who already have an advanced business degree or career experience and want to learn how to advance sustainability in organizations.
Stayton, who lives with his wife, Ana, on an organic fruit farm in Sonoma County, calls the Green MBA curriculum a “transformational process. It’s a highly experimental experience, so we limit our class size to 20 and have a highly engaged classroom with hands-on learning. If someone comes into our program at whatever level of leadership, he or she will in two years gain a great capacity to lead sustainable initiatives.”
After graduation, students generally start their own businesses, like thegreenoffice.com, an online office supply company founded by alumnus Alex Szabo, or they work to advance sustainability initiatives within existing organizations or go into consulting. One Dominican graduate now works with Clover Stornetta dairy and Petaluma Poultry Processors on reducing water consumption, energy use and more.
“If humanity is to survive, we are going to need to change the way we do and make everything,” Stayton says.
More information at greenmba.com.
Sustaining the sustainers
Does living green extend to greening oneself? Mill Valley physician Linda Hawes Clever believes so. Twelve years ago, in a span of 18 months, Clever’s mother died, her house was burglarized, she lost two jobs, her father died and her doctor husband was diagnosed with cancer. When Clever came up for air, she saw that plenty of other physicians around her were also depleted, tired of the daily thrash and demands on their lives. As chief of occupational health at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, she noticed colleagues who were having trouble just getting through another day—not the best recipe for optimal patient care.
In 1999, Clever founded RENEW, a nonprofit CPMC project intended to help health professionals cope with their high-pressure lives. The project has since expanded and addresses any group of people who want to regain effectiveness and enthusiasm by building on their own energy.
“People who want to save the ocean, the environment, the spotted owl have to save themselves first,” she says. “Our job is to sustain the sustainers. The people who keep the world afloat—they have to be renewed and refreshed. Otherwise they end up like dust. We work with schoolteachers, volunteers, nonprofit people—anyone who cares about anything can get exhausted. You can get exhausted just from doing good. We can help people doing good works stay enthusiastic and effective and have purpose and joy.”
Clever describes RENEW’s stepwise formula as follows. “We must first realize that an issue or concern needs attention. Then we must think about it. Then we talk with our dear ones about it. Then we can make plans and go into action. We are our most valuable resources. We ourselves need and deserve at least as much care as we give our global villages. We need to refresh ourselves. That isn’t selfish. It’s self-preservation. Then we can do what we want and need to do.”
More information at renewnow.org.
CAPTIONS: (top/middle) JAY HARMAN used biomimicry (the study of nature to solve human problems) to maximize the efficiency and reduce noise in the running of an ordinary exhaust fan.
(bottom/middle) HEATHER SARANTIS created a website that provides women with information on health and environmental contaminants and how they can make healthy changes in their homes and JOHN STAYTON is the cofounder and director of Dominican University’s Green MBA program—the first from an accredited institution.
(bottom) LINDA CLEVER founded RENEW, a nonprofit CPMC project intended to help health professionals cope with their high-pressure lives.