EDF and Dell: BrainStorming for a more sustainable world

How can the Internet drive innovation for sustainable business?

Read other's ideas, make your own suggestions, and vote. Register and participate at Dell Ideastorm.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Dell are teaming up to bring you a series of challenges called IdeaStorm.

As we work towards a sustainable economy, we need to reduce the negative impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) equipment and the Internet, while simultaneously accelerating our ability to use these technologies to solve global issues.

These two challenges lie at the heart of a series of Storm Sessions hosted by Dell and EDF. We are particularly interested in opportunities for business – how can managers and employees use ICT tools – computers, the internet, social media, and more – to improve operations, products, and supply chains.   These Storm Sessions are to generate a global discussion and brainstorming on a set of issues that can both drive down the sustainability costs of ICT while increasing its benefits.

Each Storm Session will last 2 weeks. Everyone is invited to participate follow the conversation, offer your ideas, and comment and vote on others' suggestions.  These ideas will be studied and summarized by Dell and EDF staff and used as input to further discussions and actions by our organizations and, hopefully, by yours as well.

We welcome your ideas and contributions to help the Net better contribute to a sustainable economy.

Stay tuned to the EDF Business blog for more information. In the meantime, you can learn more here.

Portland, here we come! EDF Climate Corps tour heads to Oregon for Net Impact

By Isabel Grantham, Project Analyst, EDF Corporate Partnerships

The EDF Climate Corps team is off to Portland tomorrow for the 2011 Net Impact Conference, and we are looking forward to the chance to network with enthusiastic students and forward-thinking organizations. EDF staff Sitar Mody, Emily Reyna, Katie Ware and Isabel Grantham will be there. While we’re excited to attend the conference’s workshops, spread the word about the EDF Climate Corps program and meet prospective fellows and host organizations.  It’s also a great chance to reconnect with EDF Climate Corps alumni, and a wonderful way for interested students and organizations to hear firsthand from alumni about their EDF Climate Corps experiences.

Just last month, we at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) announced the results from this summer’s Climate Corps class. With $650 million in potential energy savings from twelve short weeks, we’re still reveling in the excitement of the end-of -summer news. Nonetheless, the leaves have changed colors and coffee shops are inundated with pumpkin-flavored treats, which can only mean one thing – we have entered EDF Climate Corps recruiting season. Over the next 3 months, the EDF Climate Corps team will be busy meeting with prospective fellows and host organizations and gearing up for an even larger slew of EDF Climate Corps participants in 2012.

As you may know, EDF Climate Corps places specially-trained MBA and MPA students in companies, cities and universities to build the business case for energy efficiency. We plan to place up to 125 students in summer fellowships in 2012 and encourage interested students to connect with us at Net Impact (details below) or check out our “Become a Fellow” page on our Web site.  Also, get a behind the scenes look at what it’s like to be a fellow in our “Faces of EDF Climate Corps” video. We would love to chat with interested students and companies about this opportunity so be sure to come by and swing by one of our events if you’ll be at Net Impact this week. On Friday, October 28th, you can find us in three places:

10:30am – 4:30pm: Net Impact Expo

Come by our booth to meet the team and pick up some information about EDF Climate Corps.

12:15pm – 1:15pm: Lunch Session

Since the Expo will be busy, you can talk to EDF staff at our lunch session. Grab your lunch ahead of time and join us in room C-120.

6:00pm – 8:00pm: EDF Climate Corps Reception

Join us for the EDF Climate Corps Reception at the Ecotrust in Portland’s Pearl District. Prospective EDF Climate Corps fellows will have the opportunity to meet and mingle with alumni and EDF staff. The Ecotrust is located in the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center – 721 NW 9th Avenue (9th and Johnson) in Portland.

We hope to see you there!

Cruising on Energy Efficiency: EDF Climate Corps fellow searches for savings at Carnival

By Courtenay Stephens, 2011 EDF Climate Corps fellow at Carnival Corporation & plc, MBA Candidate at Dartmout College, Tuck School of Business

Carnival Corporation & plc is a global cruise company with a portfolio of 10 worldwide cruise brands making it one of the largest vacation companies in the world, attracting 9.1 million guests annually.  While most of this business occurs on board a fleet of 101 cruise ships, Carnival has expanded its shoreside operations to include managing three Caribbean ports.

My task for the summer was to focus on energy efficiency and cost saving strategies at Carnival’s Grand Turk Cruise Center (GTCC) in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Nestled on the southern part of the beautiful and barely developed island of Grand Turk, GTCC makes an impression on even the most seasoned traveler. The port consists of several retail shops, a large bar and restaurant, a very large pool, 10 cabanas and a number of port operating facilities

Electricity prices in Grand Turk increased more than 20% over 12 months, and as of July, Carnival was paying much more for electricity on the island than it was at its corporate headquarters in Miami.  Add this to the island’s higher water costs and consumption restrictions, and I had my work cut out. Generally EDF Climate Corps fellows don’t consider water when creating reports, but in this case it made sense to include it in my evaluations

Due to the high cost of energy,  steps had already been taken to make the port more energy efficient, but I was able to find additional opportunities through the use of LED lighting, energy efficient hand dryers, and programmable digital thermostats. The greatest opportunity for savings, however, would come from in-house water and power generation.

Carnival Corporation had been considering a reverse osmosis desalination plant prior to my arrival, but the company wanted to find a way of using renewables to power the system. I was confident that a strong case could be made for using renewables to power more than just the desalination plant.

After researching renewable energy systems, I presented Carnival with several proposals. My preferred solution was a small-scale concentrated solar power system that – coupled with concrete heat storage – could generate power almost 24/7. The use of wind power was a close second but would require a very large battery bank to consistently provide the power required by GTCC. By using renewables to power the desalination plant and much of the rest of the port, Carnival has the potential to see significant energy and water cost savings over the next couple decades while reducing its associated carbon emissions by several metric tons.

I began the summer expecting an exciting, fun and rewarding experience as an EDF Climate Corps fellow,  and I’m happy to say that neither EDF nor Carnival Corporation & plc let me down. Now, I can barely wait to revisit the island (as a scuba diver this time) to see my recommendations in place!

EDF Climate Corps places specially-trained MBA and MPA students in companies, cities and universities to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.

On the Right Track: Railroad efficiency made better

By Greg Zielinksi, 2011 EDF Climate Corps fellow at Union Pacific Railroad, MBA Candidate at MIT- Sloan School of Management

After attending the May 2011 EDF Climate Corps fellowship training at MIT Sloan in Boston, I felt prepared to do great things for energy efficiency at my host company, Union Pacific Railroad. Many of the efficiency improvements discussed at the training applied to commercial office spaces, so I was cautiously optimistic that my findings at Union Pacific would fit perfectly with the training I received.

While I did not spend much time in Union Pacific’s office buildings, the training did prepare me extremely well for understanding the fundamentals of energy use at Union Pacific’s biggest energy consumers: rail yards. My first month at Union Pacific was a crash course in railroad operations. The company operates trains across 23 western states with “Building America” as its vision. My time provided insights on how energy is used on a daily basis in a rail yard, and what effect these systems have on getting trains to and from their final destination on time. In July, we visited a few rail yards in Texas for a closer look at some of these systems:

Air compressors: Not only crucial for daily rail yard operations, but compressors serve a variety of functions:

  1. They provide yard air for brake tests on all cars and locomotives;
  2. Supply air for rail switches and retarders at Union Pacific’s hump yards (classification yards with high shunting capacities);
  3. And dispense air for pneumatic tools in mechanical shops.

Bay lighting: Typically, shops on Union Pacific’s rail yards are in large, industrial-type facilities. These are lit 24 hours a day, 7 days a week either for employees or for security purposes.

Yard lighting: To make rail yards safer, high powered lighting is necessary at many facilities. With some yards employing over 1000 streetlights, energy demands can approach 1 MW! After visiting North Platte’s Bailey Yard in late June, I now understand how lighting carries such a heavy load.

The most rewarding aspect of my work has been the interaction with the employees of Union Pacific. From executives in Omaha, mechanical foremen in Salt Lake City and electricians in Little Rock, everyone had ideas and suggestions for energy efficiency solutions at their yards. All of the ideas I focus on originated from the employees. Some of the suggestions were to:

  • Repair leaky air compressor lines: Some systems are 40 years old, and associated energy costs can be thousands of dollars per year
  •  Install LED Lighting: Union Pacific shops are typically lit by metal halide or high pressure sodium light fixtures. With recent advances in the efficiency and durability of LED lights, this is an easily implemented measure for improving energy efficiency.
  •  Downsize air compressors: Using 50 HP compressors in place of 150 HP units that consume energy at a cost of $40k per year can save up to $20k annually per compressor.

As the summer draws to an end, I will evaluate projects in these areas. It will be nice to help Union Pacific continue to “Build America” more efficiently. My experience as an EDF Climate Corps fellow tells me this company is on the right track.

EDF Climate Corps places specially-trained MBA and MPA students in companies, cities and universities to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.

Cooling from the Outside In: AT&T and EDF Climate Corps uncover energy savings of up to 50 percent

By Mike McCarthy, 2011 EDF Climate Corps fellow at AT&T, MBA Candidate at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and John Schinter, Executive Director of Energy at AT&T

I’ve always been interested in how energy efficiency projects can reduce operational costs and environmental impact.  Not only are they a win-win for sustainability but I’d also like to focus my career on them  when I graduate from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business next year.  I was excited to learn that my EDF Climate Corps fellowship would be working with AT&T’s Corporate Real Estate (CRE) division this summer.  I knew that AT&T was working aggressively to increase energy efficiency and had a goal for 2011 to reduce company electricity consumption relative to network data growth by 17 percent over 2010.  I also knew that AT&T’s 2010 EDF Climate Corps fellow helped the company identify opportunities to cut lighting energy use by 80% at its 250 largest central offices, a project that is currently underway in many of these locations.  I looked forward to contributing to AT&T’s progress on energy efficiency.  My project to evaluate the energy savings from optimizing the use of free-air cooling—as opposed to mechanical cooling systems—uncovered real and scalable results.  Recently I sat down with my boss for the summer, John Schinter, AT&T executive director of energy, to chat about our key findings. 

John: Mike, with your help, we accomplished a lot in the past three months of your EDF Climate Corps fellowship.  The hard work certainly has paid off.  What energy efficiency opportunities did you discover this summer?

Mike: It turns out that about a quarter of AT&T’s largest heat producing buildings are located in cool climates.  Furthermore, their utility bills show a historic pattern that suggests that they can use more outside air for cooling instead of using air cooled by energy-consuming chiller units.  It was an important first step to identify 250 buildings that could benefit from optimizing economizer mode, or free-air cooling.

John: Participant buy-in is fundamental to any successful program.  Talk a little about how you helped ensure that the property managers were involved.

Mike: You’re right. Buy-in is critical here.  Early in the process, we sent a quick email survey out to the property managers of all the buildings to determine how well they thought they were using free-air cooling.  It was important to show that we were working with the property managers to secure funding for their buildings.  These managers execute the day-to-day components of energy management so it was important to hear their voices from the outset of the project.  It was amazing to watch as the responses came in.  The property managers and building engineers have a lot of great ideas for energy savings projects.  We just needed to help them build the business case for these investments.

John: The surveys made me confident that our data analysis technique was on to something big.  Describe what you found.

Mike: Based on the responses to the surveys, AT&T could reduce its carbon footprint by over 50,000 metric tons of CO2/year by using this technology.  That is equivalent to almost 9,000 cars removed from the road each year, according to the EPA greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator.

John: That’s great that the project uncovered a tangible way to help minimize environmental impact. But you also thought about the financial implications to AT&T.  What were the highlights?

Mike: Yes.  Looking at our database of existing energy audits to estimate costs at a high level, we found that on average, the free-air cooling building retrofit projects pay back in around two years.  We’ve identified real potential savings in reducing the electricity used for cooling our buildings.

John: Your plan to identify energy savings projects in AT&T’s buildings using trends in utility bills and weather data really worked.  In ten weeks, you helped us accomplish what would have taken years using site visits and third party energy audits.  From an outside perspective, what do you think were the keys to success?

Mike: Sometimes making a breakthrough in energy efficiency requires a creative approach that combines thinking from several disciplines.  We couldn’t have gotten to these results without using Six Sigma data analysis, statistics, geography, and engineering.

John: So the project found economic and environmental benefits of optimizing AT&T’s use of free-air cooling.  What’s your recommendation on the future of free-air cooling at AT&T?

Mike: I designed the project with an ongoing monitoring mechanism that will be extremely useful to AT&T down the road.  We can use the method of analyzing utility bill trends in the future to “flag” buildings in the system that could benefit from an upgrade.  Because this project is scalable, the business case is that much stronger.

See a video case study on this free air-cooling project here and check out the video case study on AT&T’s lighting project mentioned above here.

EDF Climate Corps places specially-trained MBA and MPA students in companies, cities and universities to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.

Sparking Champions of Energy Efficiency at Joie de Vivre

By Avra Winograd-Hutner, 2011 EDF Climate Corps fellow at Joie de Vivre, MBA Candidate at Stanford Graduate School of Business

On my first day at Joie de Vivre, I was taken down to the basement of the Galleria Park Hotel, whisked past doors with “Staff Only” signs, and led into a windowless office to meet with the head housekeeper.  A few minutes into our conversation I was already blown away by her understanding of energy efficiency and commitment to incorporate sustainability into every decision. From knowledge of light bulbs to ordering uniforms made of organic bamboo, she has deeply embraced the hotel’s commitment to green practices.  The amazing part is that she believes she can make smart environmental choices at very little cost.  The Galleria Park is one of Joie de Vivre’s boutique hotels that has met the rigorous requirements to become a San Francisco Green Certified business.   The head housekeeper is just one member of a hotel management team that continually makes decisions to improve energy efficiency, reduce waste and minimize environmental impact.

Why isn’t everyone like that?

I thought a lot about that over the weeks following the meeting. If it’s easy to make positive changes that don’t cost more, why isn’t everyone doing it? This nagging and often perplexing question most frequently arises around the issue of energy efficiency. Resulting from my work as an EDF Climate Corps fellow, I’ve found myself wanting to approach hotel staff and suggest they change light bulbs and save money.  It’s hard for me to imagine that managers know cost-saving options exist, and yet still conduct business as usual.  So what’s going on?  Well, according to a recent survey of CEOs by Johnson Controls, here are the top reasons that corporations aren’t making investments in energy efficiency:

  • 30%  – Lack of funding
  • 19% – Insufficient ROI
  • 12% – Uncertainty Regarding Savings and Performance
  • 9% – Lack of Awareness
  • 9% – Lack of technical expertise to evaluate/execute projects[i]

Despite these findings, I keep coming back to what I saw this summer.   Financial constraints can limit certain types of investments, but from what I learned, education is lacking and increasing access to information is the key to changing habits.  It’s hard to measure costs and true returns on investments if you don’t have access to a full array of options. And education isn’t just for managers and isn’t about posting signs around the workplace to remind people about recycling and turning out lights.  Education means providing substantive information to foster and develop true champions for energy efficiency and environmental practices.  Education means helping employees internalize their actions.  In my mind, education means creating curious energy efficiency monsters constantly seeking information and initiating change.  Easier said than done

How much does one champion matter?

The answer to that question is: a lot. At Joie de Vivre, I’ve been impressed by how much of a difference a few dedicated employees have made at individual hotels and on the organization as a whole.  Of Joie de Vivre’s 30 hotels, 12 are green certificated and many others are working to get there.  Dedicated corporate employees and hotel management and staff have been crucial in achieving these results, and   I’ve found that the hotels lagging in these efforts often just don’t have top managers driving sustainability efforts.

So how do we inspire these educated, energy efficiency champions everywhere we go? What sparked the current champions to lead the charge, and how can we replicate that at hotels and other businesses across the country?

EDF Climate Corps places specially-trained MBA and MPA students in companies, cities and universities to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.

 

Not a Particle of Waste

Last year WBCSD released “Vision 2050: The new agenda for business,” its pathway to a world of 9 billion people living well, within the resource limits of the planet. On a Future of Green call we talked about this report with Bob Horn who helped illustrate the complex path required.

Today, I’m in Orlando to join colleagues from a number of businesses, associations, and government agencies to talk about how to make one piece of the pathway reality — how we can create a value chain that produces “not a particle of waste”. This ambitious target will require a mix of approaches including closed loop manufacturing processes, doing more with less and increases in the eco-efficiency of resources and materials.

The pathway posits a set of milestones that need to be achieved for success:

  • Landfills are phased out, while strong nation-wide recycling, composting and other product take-back infrastructure is developed
  • Energy efficiency in production and delivery/transportation of consumer products is greatly improved
  • Product design principles and production processes for closed-loop circular systems are achieved
  • Businesses achieve innovation through value chain review, redesigning products and services, re-engineering processes and revalorizing products
  • Producers and consumers co-innovate to increase product longevity and quality and reduce overall resource consumption
  • Business model innovations restructure traditional products into product-enabled services (i.e. green servicing)
  • True value pricing for natural resources and carbon is mainstreamed

The event is part of the Green Innovators in Business Solutions Lab series and the result of cooperation between RILA, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, WBCSD, GreenBlue/Sustainable Packaging Coalition, EPA and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). We are in Orlando as we’re holding it adjacent to RILA’s annual Retail Sustainability Conference.

The morning session includes introduction of all participants (we’re expecting about 60), a panel representing the value chain to identify opportunities and challenges, and small group discussion to talk about innovations and collaboration. We are talking about business drivers, successes, barriers to success and brainstorm ways to overcome these barriers. In the afternoon we are joining RILA’s conference for the “Leadership for Sustainability” session led by Darcy Winslow and Sara Schley, focusing on how to help motivate the changes we imagined in the morning.

Representatives from about 40 companies are participating including Best Buy, CVS, DuPont, Pepsi, Veolia, Waste Management and Walmart. I’ll report back, after the event, to let you know how this collaboration worked and what conclusions, if any, we reached.

Where You’ll Find Us in October

Fall is in full swing and so are our conference appearances! With so many to choose from we’re bound to meet somewhere!

Starting today, Friday, October 7, Namrita Kapur is speaking at The Columbia Social Enterprise Conference in New York City.

As we move through the month, we’ve got the Growing GIBN Call: Experiences from Climate Corps on October 11 and the Future of Green Call with Judy Samuelson from Aspen on October 14.

A huge group of EDF’ers is going to Greenbiz's Innovation Forum 11 from October 11-13 in San Francisco. Will you be there? If so, you can meet Elizabeth Sturcken, Jasper Jung, Emily Reyna, Beth Trask, Audrey Davenport and Sitar Mody.

Our next Solutions Lab: Vision 2050 is being held on October 12 in Orlando, FL, with Dave Witzel, Katie Ware and Jenny Ahlen.   This “unconference” focuses on materials and consumer products, as well as creating a zero waste future.

Speaking of consumption, RILA’s Retail Sustainability Conference is also in Orlando this year from October 12-14. If you are interested in sustainable retail, try to catch up with Jenny Ahlen.

EDF’s 2011 Catalyst Circle Forum, our major giving program, is hosting its annual half-day conference in New York on October 14, where you can meet Andrew Hutson.

Financial Times Business and the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association (EMPEA) present Capital Impact 2011 on October 17-18. Tom Murray is attending.

On October 20, The Sustainable Industries: Economic Forum is being held in San Francisco, and Andy Wunder and Elizabeth Sturcken are attending.

Our Innovation Exchange Director, Dave Witzel, heads to the Creativity in Business Conference in Washington, DC on October 23.

After that, Dave Witzel will fly south for the Pew Conference: Business of Innovating in Atlanta, GA on October 25-26.

For those of you working in the financial sector, the Investor’s Circle Fall Venture Fair is hitting Philadelphia on October 26-28, and there you can meet Lee Coker.

On October 27-29, Net Impact 2011 will take over Portland, OR and our EDF Climate Corps staff will be there to talk to you about this amazing program. If you are attending, look for Emily Reyna, Isabel Grantham, Katie Ware and Sitar Mody.

The National Minority Supplier Development Conference (NMSDC) is meeting in Atlanta, GA on October 30-November 2, and Emily Reyna is attending.

Beth Trask is speaking on a panel at The Social Enterprise Alliance Conference from October 30-November 2 in Chicago.

To close out the October conferences, Dave Witzel is attending the TEDxMidAtlantic conference on October 29 in Washington, DC.

Also, if you are a graduate student interested in corporate sustainability, keep your eye out for our EDF Climate Corps On-Campus Presentations. The team will be touring the country for the next couple of months to speak about this amazing program.  Here is the October schedule:

EDF Climate Corps On-Campus Presentations

10/25- Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School

10/20- University of California, Davis

10/19- University of California, Berkeley

 

Shifting the eBay Mindset for a More Naturally Integrated Energy Management System

By Gabrielle Maguire, 2011 EDF Climate Corps Fellow at eBay, MIB Candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

My EDF Climate Corps at eBay is coming to a close, and amid the flurry of project deadlines and presentations, I’m taking a moment to reflect on the past 2.5 months. I’ve been tasked with analyzing the best way to make our on-campus data rooms more efficient, and I outlined many of the barriers in my last post (How do you shrink while you grow?). Gabrielle Maguire

I’ve found that my colleagues have been making the best decisions based on their given parameters determined by silo-ed ownership and a shorter-term focus—even though they desire a better overall solution. In short, the system is forcing them to make less than optimal decisions from both a cost and energy efficiency perspective. Ultimately, my analysis focused as much on proposed efficiency changes as on the larger operational process changes that should occur.

In my analysis and recommendations, I compared “business-as-usual” to incremental changes in the business model. To make a case for a process change, I expanded the financial analysis beyond savings from simple energy efficiency investments to some other critical components in this system:

Operational Risk – By incorporating the financial costs of continuing at business-as-usual, I was able to demonstrate that the current situation cannot hold. eBay is growing too quickly to maintain the status quo. These risks were compared to the varying investments that the changes would involve, and the risks quickly outstripped the initial costs.

Budget Allocation – I looked at the overall costs to eBay Inc., rather than to each business unit. This would allow us to find the best decision for eBay, regardless of where the cash from investment would come from. As a secondary step, I considered how the future decisions would be affected by aligning budget, expenses and responsibility. This is where a process change would promote energy efficiency decisions for years to come.

Employee Experience – In an industry that heavily competes for top developers, the employee experience is a critical part of eBay’s culture, and impacts on this experience must also be included in the analysis. Certain changes I analyzed would negatively impact developers’ daily functions. By calculating this impact in terms of potential losses in retention and recruitment, it is clear that although they may be financially sound from an efficiency point of view, they are too expensive overall. On the flipside, other investment decisions would enhance the employee experience and lead to higher returns on investment.

With these aspects in mind, I worked to quantify the previously uncalculated risks and returns that play into eBay’s current model and compare them to costs of creating a process change. With this information eBay will be able to inform (and shift) a larger process mindset so that subsequent efficient energy decisions from here on out will occur within a more naturally integrated system.

This content is cross-posted on In Good Company: Vault's CSR Blog.

Crowdsourcing Green

By Marc Gunther, senior writer at GreenBiz.com and a blogger at www.marcgunther.com

We is smarter than me.

That’s the premise behind a partnership between the  Environmental Defense Fund and InnoCentive. You probably know EDF–they’re a (mostly) business friendly nonprofit that looks for solutions to environmental problems. InnoCentive is a company that has built an open Internet platform to connect other firms, governments and NGOs to creative people all over the world who can help them solve problems.

Last week, EDF and Innocentive declared a winner in their first challenge, which looked for a new approach to the old problem of agricultural nitrate pollution: He is Patrick Fuller, 23, who is studying for a PhD. in chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern. He’ll be awarded $5,000 for his idea, about which more below.

To learn more about the partnership, I spoke with Beth Trask, who leads, along with David Witzel, leads what EDF calls its innovation exchange, an effort to spread new “green”  solutions among companies.

“Like many people,” Beth told me, “we’ve been looking with much interest at the open innovation space. Basically, the concept is that there are many more ideas and possible solutions out there in the world than any given company or organization can tap into on its own.”

This isn’t an entirely new approach. Prizes have been used an incentive to solve scientific problems for centuries [See my 2009 blogpost, The Strange Power of Prizes]. More recently, companies including Kraft Foods (“Do you have a new product or packaging idea?“) and GE, with its EcoMagination Challenge, have used the Internet to look outside their own walls for new ideas. Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge offered a $25 million prize for a commercially viable plan to reverse climate change by removing CO2 from the air, while the $10-million Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE was set up to inspire new low-polluting cars.

EDF’s challenges aren’t as sexy, sweeping, or pricey. But, says Beth: “There are a lot of nuts and bolts sustainability problems that we believe could be solved but aren’t being solved.” The group is looking for new technologies to better measure point sources of water pollution, and for a cost-effective way to analyze crop growth. Other challenges are in the works.

Breaking down big problems into their discrete parts is a key to success on Innocentive, according to Dwayne Spradlin, the company’s president and CEO. “Our view of the world is that very few problems are large, structural problems,” he told me by phone. “If you frame the challenge right, you dramatically increase the odds of getting a solution. I can’t say how religious we are about focus.”

InnoCentive was developed by drug company Eli Lilly in 2001, and spun out as its own firm in 2005. Today, Spradlin says, it manages challenges in a variety of fields, some unexpected. [I can't wait for the company to solve this one -- Increasing People's Ability to Start and Stay on Task. A $10,000 award awaits the winner.] InnoCentive has workedon challenges with Procter & Gamble, NASA and the Rockefeller Foundation.

They get to tap into a network of about 250,000 “solvers” who are located in more than 200 countries. About 60% have masters degrees or PhD’s, the company says.

Pat Fuller, the Northwestern student, is on his way. A fellow grad student who had won an award told him about Innocentive, and as he scanned the site a few months ago, EDF’s request for help with fertilizer runoff got his attention. He was inspired to come up with a solution not so much by his current reserch–which is mostly computational, he told me–but by something he’d seen growing up in Rhode Island where he’d worked in a store that sold fruits and vegetables. A farmer there told him that he’d used algae collected from local ponds to help his plants grow faster. So Pat wondered what would happen if the runoff could be captured, and the nitrogen-rich water recyled to grow algae, as fertilizer.

“I sat down for a weekend, worked out the mathematics and wrote the paper,” Pat told me. Nice way for a grad student to earn $5,000. Says Beth: “We never would have found this kid.”

This is more than a nice story, though. Patrick’s idea will be tested by Iowa soybean and corn farmers, who have built a good working relationship with the Environmental Defense. As EDF explains, while farmers have good reason to want to cut down on wasted fertilizer, so do the rest of us–sediment and fertilizer runoff  “create algae-filled ‘dead zones’ and pollute drinking water supplies” in the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, maybe, EDF, InnoCentive, Iowa farmers,  a $5,000 prize and a 23-year-old grad student will find a way to change that.

This content is cross-posted on Greenbiz.com and on www.marcgunther.com.