By Janine Benyus
It seems so obvious now: Innovators are turning to nature for inspiration in building, chemistry, agriculture, energy, health, transportation, computing–even the design of organizations and cities. Biomimicry is taught from kindergarten to university and practiced in all scales of enterprise.
But it wasn't always this way. When Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature first came out, none of the people featured in the book knew one another, nor was there a name for their nature-inspired approach. Wes Jackson was mimicking prairies to breed a new agriculture and Tom Graedel was coding forest design principles into industrial ecology, but their parallel paths never crossed.
Twenty years later, living systems thinking is widely embraced as the antidote to the machine thinking of our first industrial revolution. Just this year, Fortune named Biomimicry a top trend; McKinsey declared the nature-inspired circular economy a game changer; and I toasted Wes Jackson's stubborn resolve at The Perennial restaurant in San Francisco with a Long Root Ale—a brew made from his Kernsa wheat, an overwintering variety that skeptics had declared impossible.
David Suzuki: How Biomimicry Can Save Us https://t.co/7CKB3XidJr @GreenpeaceAustP @foeeurope— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1484571019.0
In 2017, you can become a Certified Biomimicry Professional; get your Masters or PhD; binge watch dozens of documentaries; publish in four academic journals; or invent at more than 200 purpose-built centers such as Harvard's Weiss Center for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Global Biomimicry Design Challenges are spawning brilliant businesses; investors are supporting what Steve Jurvetson calls a megatrend in clean tech; and regional biomimicry consultancies are popping up from Croatia to China, Chile to Chicago.
New models of product design, process engineering, packaging and local distributed manufacturing are springing daily from bio-inspired minds. A 2010 economic study predicted that Biomimicry could represent $1 trillion of global Gross Domestic Product by 2025, and in 2012, Biomimicry topped the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' annual list of "innovations that could change the way you manufacture." Fortune provocated: "If you're not incorporating the most brilliant ideas from the natural world into what you sell, you're leaving money on the table."
What this says to me is that the age of bio-inspired design has more than dawned—the sun is vaulting its way toward a tipping point. None of this comes too soon. In the uncharted age of the Anthropocene, Homo industrious needs a time-tested approach to healing the ruptures in our relationship with the living Earth and with each other.
I'm optimistic by choice. The trends that I see are very encouraging, including three excellent bets for investment right now: bio-inspired carbon sequestration, chemical breakthroughs to make the circular economy go round and NetPositive policies for Generous Cities.
Biosequestration and Agriculture
One of the ripest opportunities lies in agriculture and food systems designed in nature's image. The new quest in agriculture will be to "help the helpers," that is, to create conditions conducive to the mutualistic organisms that actually feed and water plants, shield them from harmful sun and wind, keep them safe from pests, and encourage their growth and reproduction.
Many of these helpers live in what's called the rhizosphere—the world around the roots—where we now know that the world's largest mining operation occurs. Before you think belching backhoes, think flecks of mica crisscrossed by delicate fungal threads that wrap themselves around plant roots. These are the nutrient-capture systems of mycorrhizal fungi that turn soil minerals into the nutrients that plants need. Imagine a sophisticated underground system networked to find, collect, and deliver vital nutrients to its headquarters above.
It's known fondly as the Wood Wide Web, and its health is key not only to agriculture and forestry, but to reversal of climate change as well.
When you see a patch of mushrooms, you're only seeing part of the picture. Cobwebby fungal threads extend below mushrooms to wrap around plant roots, then extend horizontally to connect other, unrelated species into a large network. Carbon, water, phosphorus, nitrogen and even alarm signals are exchanged. Certainly a fertilizer network any farmer would envy!
Unfortunately, tons of phosphorous and nitrogen fertilizers applied to our soils have interrupted the Wood Wide Web's conversations, telling fungi and rhizobacteria that they are no longer needed. But in a climate changed world, these helpers are needed, not only for plant health, but for turning carbon dioxide into long-storage carbon compounds.
Healthy, microbe-rich soils can store (or biosequester) carbon at deep levels for centuries. Biomimetic agricultural practices such as ungulate-inspired managed grazing, rainforest-inspired multistrata agriculture and prairie-inspired agriculture are the surest way to accelerate carbon sequestration.
For the latest crop of agricultural innovations, stay tuned to the teams in the Biomimicry Institute's annual Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, the most promising of which are invited to join the Biomimicry Accelerator, where they work to bring their design to market with the help of the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize™ from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation.
A team from the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile, winners of the 2016 Ray of Hope Prize, created the BioPatch, which mimics the cooperative mutualisms of the cushion plant to restore degraded soil using "helper" plants. Entire fields could be regenerated this way, creating healthy soil to sink carbon.
Winner of the 2016 Ray of Hope prize, the BioNurse team from the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile designed the BioPatch. Team Ceres
To stop nitrogen and phosphorous from draining off farm fields into waterways, a team from the University of Oregon developed a filtration system that took inspiration from all the ways nature grabs nutrients. Their Living Filtration System wraps fungal-infused sleeves around agricultural drainpipes (commonly used in the Midwest and in urban infrastructure) capturing nutrients in runoff that is then fed back to the plants. Over years, the system could eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers altogether, reassembling the nutrifying, carbon-storing microbiome.
This University of Oregon team developed a living filtration system that captures nutrients in urban runoff settings. Team Penthouse Protozoa
Building a Circular Economy with Bio-inspired Chemistry
If we are going to build a true circular economy, we need to create the equivalent of the Wood Wide Web. Mimicking cooperative exchange networks like this can help us ID and recoup materials and minerals in our discarded products. Then, to reassemble these into products, we'll need to mimic how living metabolisms perform low energy, life-friendly processing–creating new products without having to mine virgin ores.
At Biomimicry 3.8, the consulting and training firm I co-founded, we've filed a provisional patent with a green chemistry lab and a furniture maker. It's a biomimetic substitute for the 1.2 billion tons of polyurethane foam made every year. Currently, polyfoam is manufactured using known carcinogens, and its "take, make, waste" disposal starts right in the home—with half of the foam dissolving into chemically hazardous house dust (over ten years), and the other half destined for landfill. Luckily, the natural world is full of material models that compress and bounce back, with none of the toxic burdens and a benign afterlife that skips the landfill.
Our clients have also asked us what it would take to whiten paper and packaging without chlorine. Again, the natural world showed us how to create white without regret. The Cyphochilus beetles that live among white fungi are camouflaged thanks to unique scales that scatter all wavelengths of visible light, leaving behind a brilliant broadband white. With this arrangement, only an ultra thin layer is necessary to scatter all incoming visible light and create that brilliant white–no toxins necessary.
Biomimicry is a guiding principle and innovation-provider (see Biomimicry 3.8 toolkit) in the excellent circular economy work being done by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Powered by a streaming abundance of solar energy, but limited by a finitude of materials, nature's systems are the envy of circular designers. Since the ultimate goal for any organism is offspring survival, restorative and regenerative behaviors come naturally.
Building Net Positive, Generous Developments
Biomimicry is also innovating the answers to regenerative development, which works to produce cascading benefits for everything we do, whether it's composting a city's green waste so it can be returned to agricultural lands or turning our manufacturing facilities into producers of clean air and water.
Biomimicry 3.8 is deep into a multi-phase, groundbreaking project with global carpet manufacturer Interface, Inc. to redesign two manufacturing facilities so they function like forests.
The Factory as a Forest program is practical and metric-focused, and at scale, could revolutionize the impact manufacturers have on the planet, moving us beyond zero impact into a net positive era. Factory as a Forest begins by measuring how much carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, air filtration, water storage, biodiversity support, etc. is occurring in local healthy ecosystems. These Ecological Performance Standards then set the bar for the factory. Mimicking the performance of native ecosystems requires out-of-the box designs such as bioswales, permeable pavement, pollinator-friendly green roofs and CO2-sequestering concrete. The return on these workplace investments compounds in increasing worker health, property values and community good will.
The goal of Factory as a Forest is to create facilities that not only fit their place, but actually give back in the form of ecosystem services (cleaning air, cleaning and storing water, building soil, nurturing biodiversity, storing carbon) that match or exceed those of native wildlands. And why stop at manufacturing facilities? Our corporate campuses, homes and schools, managed supply-chain lands, all the way up to our cities, should all function like the wildland next door. When our cities are as generous as native ecosystems, that's when we'll be at home on the planet.
Over the next 25 years, I believe the "made" world will function more like the "born" one. The simple material palette (starting with carbon dioxide as a feedstock) used in our products will cycle upward like nutrients in a forest, constantly recouped and reincarnated into new products. Designs will travel the world instead of things, and thanks to additive manufacturing, nature's elegant, modular, lightweight blueprints will be able to enliven those designs. We'll eventually distribute everything, including energy generation, manufacturing, farming and place-based learning. Our local ecosystems will teach us how to meet our needs with resilient grace, exhaling goodness to the watersheds beyond.
The ROI on biomimicry—the return on inspiration—will be an economy that creates conditions conducive to the long-term success of all species. We know it's possible because it's happening all day, every day right outside our doors. How do we make a world as lush and livable as a wildland? We meet our mentors, start emulating and then count the positive cascade of benefits that we produce. Fitting in as a contributor is our natural next move. It's what all successful species do.
Janine Benyus is the co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute. She is known worldwide for her influence in naming the practice of biomimicry in her seminal book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature and spreading the message of its power as an innovation tool that can solve some of humanity's most pressing challenges.
This article was originally published in GreenMoney's 25th Anniversary issue (July/Aug 2017).
by Rebecca Adamson
The McKinsey Global Institute's report, The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women's Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth, concluded that, "Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. If women … do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer."
The report identified three elements that are essential for achieving the full potential of gender parity: gender equality in society, economic development and a shift in attitudes. According to the report, 95 percent of company CEOs are still male and of the 22,000 global firms that were reviewed, 60 percent failed to have any women on their boards.
Facing this disparity head on the Intentional Endowments Network (IEN) held the first webinar on Gender Lens Investing: The Business Case, Opportunities and Action. Gender Lens Investing is defined as "the integration of gender into investment analysis" and it makes a strong business case for more female CEOs. Panelists, Kathleen McQuiggan at Pax World and Julianne Zimmerman at Reinventure Capital, shared research on the business case for investing in women. The conclusion was that the case for gender investing has never been stronger and that companies where women are better represented in leadership simply perform better.
At the same time, both the IEN webinar and McKinsey report point to evidence of persistent misconceptions about women founders and leaders, along with significant discriminations and market inefficiencies connected to gender and race. Over the past six years, researchers and experts in the tech industry have begun to consider the effects of this gender bias.
Ninety percent of tech employees are men and at the senior levels men account for 96 percent. Of the women entering the tech industry, 56 percent leave citing that they were pushed out by sexism and of the 6,517 companies receiving venture funding from 2011 to 2013, only 2.7 percent had women for CEOs.
As such, gender lens investing is crucial for breaking through the glass ceiling in these companies, but it's not just within the rank and file of the tech industry that women face discrimination. As McKinsey points out, gender parity requires a shift in attitudes and here again the tech industry offers no better place to see cultural attitudes towards women than on the Internet.
Across websites and social media, gender discrimination exists along a spectrum of illicit sexual surveillance, creep shots extortion, doxxing, stalking, malicious impersonation, threats and rape videos. Misogyny on Twitter, a report by Demos found that over a six-week period more than 6 million instances of the word "slut" or "whore" were used in English on Twitter. Of these tweets, 20 percent were deemed to be threatening.
Originally filed under "controversial humor," the social media companies recognize such postings can be overt efforts to silence women, but so far, the sanctity of free speech is taking precedence over freedom for women to engage in online communities. At the same time, "When it comes to copyright and intellectual property interests, companies are highly responsive. But violence against women frequently gets a lukewarm response until it becomes an issue of bad press," stated Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly in 2014.
At the annual SRI Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing last November, a panel was held for the very first time on The Truth About Violence Against Women and Gender Inequality. Jamia Wilson, executive director of Women, Action and the Media, recounted how a group of women were able to elevate the online violence against women to "an issue of bad press." Advertisements for Dove, iTunes, Finn Air and others were appearing on live pages with names like "I kill bitches like you," "I Love the Rape Van" and many others with worse titles.
Thus Women, Action and the Media and other feminists launched a campaign directed at the advertisers, asking, "Were these values a reflection of the company's values?" The advertisers responded immediately and the social media companies followed. Pat Zerega, senior director of shareholder advocacy at Mercy Investments, shared how teaming with feminist stakeholders led to using shareholder advocacy as the means for increasing corporate accountability and awareness of extractives, trucking, hotels and other industries in the forefront of violence against women. Check out Mercy Investments' groundbreaking effort: Truckers Against Trafficking.
Perhaps the extractive industries might not set out to perpetuate violence against women, but it certainly is a widespread by-product of how they do business. Take the tragic scene of conflict, environmental destruction and violence against women that is playing out under a national media spotlight at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) site in North Dakota. The Bakken region of North Dakota started experiencing its oil boom back 2010. The rapid oil development brought an influx of cash and thousands of oil workers living in "man camps" with time and money on their hands.
The rates for murders, aggravated assaults and robberies have tripled and rates for sex crimes, forcible rape, prostitution and sex trafficking have increased by 20.2 percent, according to Kathleen Finn, scholar in residence at the American Indian Law Clinic University of Colorado. The response by the state of North Dakota to protect the women and children from the escalating oil-induced violence has been to allocate $100,000 over a five-year period for the victims. The response by the state of North Dakota to the company building DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners, has been to allocate more than $23 million over a five-month period for the law enforcement, National Guard and security forces to protect company equipment.
The fight against DAPL has implications beyond the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It is a fight for everyone who wants clean air, clean water and gender equality. As governments increasingly prove incapable or unwilling to protect these things, citizens are turning to the market and the market is responding. Thanks to DAPL, social responsibility is on every ESG (environmental, social and governance) investor's radar.
As of this writing, a coalition of more than 150 investors representing more than $1.3 trillion in assets under management called on banks financing DAPL to address or support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's request to reroute the pipeline and avoid their treaty territory. Lead investor Boston Common Asset Management was joined by Storebrand Asset Management and Calvert Research and Management along with CalPERS and the comptroller of the city of New York in a statement about reputational and potential financial risks for banks with ties to DAPL. The investors are concerned banks may be implicated in conflict and controversies related to the pipeline and could face long-term brand and reputational damage resulting from consumer boycotts and possible legal liability.
Within the investment community, ESG investing is mainstreaming at an unprecedented rate. Considerable progress quantifying environmental risks and building them into the business model has been made. For example Carbon Tracker provides "financial and regulatory analysis to ensure that the risk premium associated with fossil fuels is correctly priced." The emergence of unburnable carbon, stranded assets, wasted capital and fossil fuel risk premium has equipped investors with a wealth of tools to integrate environment into their decisions. Likewise, governance is also making progress. evidenced by the creation of many funds and indices designed around CEO pay, board diversity, etc.
Social, on the other hand, has not made as much progress. While investors are able to easily assess companies based on women represented on boards, equal pay, etc., there are few if any tools for investors to gauge how companies are addressing violence against women in their operations and supply chains. Complicit in the lack of progress is the fact that the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require corporations to report on community relations or human rights, due to their perceived lack of material relevance, so they fail to disclose what could be deemed material social risks and social costs and corporate accountability to the victims.
But the times, they are changing. ESG investing is mainstreaming at an accelerated rate. To stay true to our original purpose—creating a better world through the market—we must create the tools, methodologies and social metrics to achieve relevance with the female half of our stakeholders.
Rebecca Adamson, an Indigenous economist, is founder and president of First Peoples Worldwide.
Reposted with permission from our media associate GreenMoney.
Solar panels can provide electricity for decades, and they have few maintenance needs compared with other energy generation systems. However, regular solar panel cleaning is important to ensure they remain productive. When dust and debris accumulate on the surface of photovoltaic cells, they block sunlight, and less electricity is produced.
The best solar panels come with a power production warranty of 25 to 30 years. Like any device, they lose performance capacity over time. High-quality modules will only lose around 0.5% of their capacity each year, but this is only true for solar panels that are cleaned regularly. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, soiling can reduce panels' annual electricity output by up to 7% in some parts of the U.S.
Rain can naturally wash away dirt and particles from the surface of solar panels, especially if they are tilted. So if you live in a place with regular rainfall, your panels will be less affected by soiling. However, solar panel cleaning services are still recommended two to four times per year to make sure your system stays productive.
Recommended Solar Panel Cleaning Schedule
Solar panels are exposed to dust, dirt and bird droppings all year long. Depending on where you live, there may also be seasonal issues that affect panels, and you must make sure these are handled properly. Below are our solar panel cleaning tips for each part of the year.
As you might guess, a large amount of falling leaves can block a lot of sunlight if you let them accumulate on your solar panels. However, even a small number of leaves can have a major impact on power generation, due to how solar panels work:
- The photovoltaic cells that make up a panel are wired in series. When even one cell is covered completely by a leaf, the entire panel becomes less productive.
- Consider that the solar panels themselves are also wired together in strings (series circuits) and connected to an inverter. If one panel in the circuit has issues, all others will be affected.
- As a result, a single large leaf can affect an entire row of panels if it fully covers one solar cell. As more leaves accumulate, the electricity output continues to drop.
You can clean the leaves on your own, but you should get a rake that is specifically designed for solar panels. Otherwise, you can damage the surface of the solar panels, and your manufacturer warranty may be voided due to rough handling.
Snow and ice become the main issue for solar panels when the winter arrives. Most high-quality modules have low temperature ratings and will not be damaged by cold weather, but a thick layer of snow can block sunlight and stop electricity production.
- Snow should be cleaned from solar panels and other roof surfaces as soon as possible.
- Otherwise, the snow can melt and freeze back into ice, which is more difficult to remove.
The sun can help you by melting some of the snow and ice on your roof, but solar panel cleaning might still be necessary after a heavy snowfall. Again, you will need a specialized solar panel snow rake. Avoid ice scrapers and any other tools that may scratch or damage solar cells.
There is plenty of pollen in the air during spring, and it can accumulate on solar panels and lower energy production. Regular washing is recommended during this season to prevent pollen buildup. If you're not sure how much pollen you're expected to get, many weather forecasts provide information on pollen levels, and there are also online resources where you can check pollen counts for your zip code.
Pollen allergies are very common, and they tend to worsen during spring. If you or someone else in your home is sensitive to pollen, you might prefer to hire a solar panel cleaning service to avoid direct exposure.
During summer, the cleaning needs of solar panels will depend on your climate and weather conditions:
- In regions that get plenty of rain during summer (hurricane season), there is little need to clean your panels because the weather will do the job for you.
- Regions with less rainfall tend to be hot and dry during summer (fire season), and regular maintenance may be necessary to remove extra dust, ash and other particles.
Solar panels can achieve their highest electricity savings during summer, since there are more hours of sunlight per day. However, this is only true when they are kept clean of grime. Dirty solar panels will always have a lower energy output, no matter the season.
How to Clean Solar Panels
Cleaning solar panels on your own can be dangerous — especially if they are installed on a hard-to-access roof area. In these cases, paying for a solar panel cleaning service is a safer option.
- Many of the best solar companies offer cleaning services. Some local solar installers may even offer free cleaning for a limited time after your purchase.
- You can also get in touch with professional cleaners who specialize in solar panel maintenance.
Another option to keep your solar panels clean is installing a sprinkler system like that from Heliotex. These remove dust and other particles automatically. With this type of system, solar panels can also be cleaned more frequently, as nobody needs to climb on your roof. With no chance for dust to accumulate, you generate more kilowatt-hours of energy over time and your power bill savings are higher, lowering your overall solar panel payback period.
DIY Solar Panel Cleaning
Cleaning solar panels on your own is also an option, especially if you have a ground-mounted solar system that you can reach easily. However, you must make sure the panels are not damaged while taking all the necessary precautions to avoid accidents.
To clean your solar panels without damaging them, take note of the following recommendations:
- Use soapy water, avoiding harsh chemicals. Something as simple as diluted biodegradable soap should do the job.
- Use a non-abrasive sponge or a soft brush and squeegee.
- Use a standard garden hose, since a pressure washer can damage your solar panels.
To keep yourself safe, be extra careful when cleaning a rooftop solar system, especially if you have a high-pitched roof. We recommend wearing personal protective equipment including a hardhat and safety harness at the bare minimum.
Also, make sure you stay hydrated while cleaning your solar panels, and avoid working in extreme heat. The risk of heatstroke should not be underestimated, and you will need emergency medical attention if it happens to you. Early morning and evening are the best times of the day for solar panel cleaning, or you can wait to wash your solar panels on a cloudy day.
Cost of Solar Panel Cleaning Services
Solar panel cleaning companies normally either charge per module or charge a flat rate for the entire array. You can expect to pay between $5 and $10 per panel, or $150 to $200 for the entire system, though prices may vary depending on location, season and other factors.
If you don't have solar panels yet, some installers may offer free cleaning for a limited time after your purchase. However, this shouldn't be the main factor when choosing your solar provider. Free cleaning is a nice perk, but make sure you're actually getting a high-quality installation.
How to Tell When Your Solar Panels Need Maintenance
As mentioned above, solar panels are very durable and 25- to-30 year warranties are standard in the industry. However, solar power systems are only productive when their surface is kept clean. Dust, particles and objects will not cause permanent damage, but their electricity output can be reduced drastically.
If your solar panels are producing less electricity than usual, even with sunny weather, they could need cleaning or maintenance. There are two main ways to detect electricity production issues:
- Many solar inverters now come with energy monitoring apps, and you can simply check the electricity production with your smartphone. If there is a significant drop in the daily kilowatt-hour output, the app will let you know.
- When your solar panels are producing less electricity, there will also be an impact on your electricity bill. You will notice that more kilowatt-hours are consumed from the grid, which means you pay a higher bill.
Checking your energy monitoring app regularly is a good habit when you have solar panels. You can detect issues faster and get them fixed, instead of waiting for the next power bill. By then, you will have already used a lot of electricity from the grid.
FAQ: Solar Panel Cleaning
Do solar panels need to be cleaned?
Yes, solar panels need regular cleaning, ideally two to four times per year. They are only productive when sunlight reaches their solar cells, and anything that blocks sunlight reduces their output. This includes dust, dirt, pollen, leaves, snow, ice, bird droppings and any other particles or objects that remain on their surface.
What should I use to clean solar panels?
To clean solar panels, you should use a cleaning method that will not damage the cells. Solar panels should be washed with soapy water and a non-abrasive sponge, or a soft brush and squeegee. If you need to remove leaves or snow, look for a specialized solar panel rake and avoid any cleaning tools that could scratch their surface. An easier and safer option is hiring a professional solar panel cleaning company.
Does cleaning your solar panels make a difference?
Yes, cleaning your solar panels has a major impact on panel productivity. According to NREL, soiling can reduce the annual output of your solar panels by up to 7%.
How much does it cost to hire someone to clean solar panels?
When hiring a solar panel cleaning service for your home energy system, you can expect to pay around $5 to $10 per panel or a flat fee of $150 to $200.
Leonardo David is an electromechanical engineer, MBA, energy consultant and technical writer. His energy-efficiency and solar consulting experience covers sectors including banking, textile manufacturing, plastics processing, pharmaceutics, education, food processing, fast food, real estate and retail. He has also been writing articles about energy and engineering topics since 2015.