Rain and the Circular Economy – E6

Great to chat to Kevin Mercer, CEO of RainGrid a company which uses IoT connected rain barrels to manage residential storm water. We discussed how RainGrid grew out of community outreach initiatives, how the concept of One Water works in a circular economy, the importance of building communities when trying to make change, why companies might choose to be a B corp, why we should build resilient infrastructure and more! Open the podcast on your mobile device by clicking here.

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: What can you tell us a little bit about RainGrid?

MERCER: The inspiration for RainGrid evolved over about 20 years, we actually began as a community based NGO. We worked on protecting Toronto’s Don River during the heyday of watershed restoration in the early 90s. I joined a local volunteer board called Bring Back the Don. A small cohort of us were more interested in the water quality issue, as opposed to the natural restoration issue. We asked, “why is this river brown?”. So we started researching and we got to the point where it was clear that what polluted the Don River was not industrial discharge, it was actually the heritage of a modern city; it was stormwater. 

That’s when we learnt that there is this delineation between the public realm and the private realm with an invisible line between the two, which divides how modern cities address stormwater. RainGrid evolved from a community based program called to get homeowners to engage in better water practices through a door to door initiative. One thing we had people do was have people sign up for a downspout disconnection program where people could use rain barrels. It was in essence, community based social marketing. So rather than just telling people about things, we actually gave them solutions. 

Then our program was replicated in the city of Ottawa. In the Ottawa campaign, we started to focus on actually buying and supplying the best rain barrel we could. And that was interesting because when the campaign ended, the company that supplied the rain barrels to the Ottawa water links project came to us and said, “We really like the work you’re doing. Here’s the mold for the rain barrel we just sold you. It’s our contribution to what you’re doing. Go and make as many as you can.” So we found ourselves in the business of actually doing the manufacturing for the product that we had been encouraging communities to use.

From there we created a program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where we put in 600 rain barrels, which is not a lot on the scale of a city, and then they had the engineers monitor the living daylights out of it and determine does this stuff actually work and they came up with remarkable results. We found that past 40% implementation, you get significantly more impact from residential rain barrels. 

MCWALTER: It sounds like there’s nearly network effects with those kind of rain barrels. Is the marginal value of a rain barrel higher once you reach a certain level of penetration in a city?

MERCER: That’s absolutely right. It is the utility approach that we used to call distributed infrastructure, which we’ve now started calling aggregated infrastructure. It’s better to recognize the collectivity of the undertaking rather than the decentralized or, separated nature of what is community based infrastructure. 

MCWALTER: So there needs to be a certain kind of minimum threshold for even a pilot program to start showing major benefits?

MERCER: That’s correct. And yet, pilots for startups are typically very small. So you’ll get a pilot program for 10 or 25 barrels, or something like this. And I’m sure you’re familiar with the term death by pilots. It’s where you never get past that, that threshold of intensity to actually demonstrate the real difference. Our main focus is community based social marketing, which recognizes that you can do aggregated and effective systems at the residential lot level. We are a connecting directly so that it’s the people who are the partners, rather than something being imposed upon them by the city like in traditional infrastructure

MCWALTER: How does using the internet of things help your product?

MERCER: The Internet of Things provides that remote automation that allows the rain barrel or cistern to read the weather. That’s the SaaS platform it communicates with a controller on the cistern. The whole process of how much water is in the cistern before the rain is managed by the quantitative precipitation forecast algorithm that measures the rooftop area, the intensity of the rainfall and the volume available in the cistern and it says if there is more predicted runoff from this roof from this size storm, we are going to empty the cistern ahead of time, and provide as much storage as possible. What’s remarkable about it is you can actually watch your cistern fill. Then after that, you get to use your phone to open the valve to reuse that water. This helps us address the root causes of minor flooding and urban drought; which is the recharge of groundwater in a very impermeable hard city.

MCWALTER: Where are the RainGrid cisterns stored?

MERCER: They’re installed under the downspouts of residential drained. It’s not a whole lot of whiz bang technology at the cistern level, our technological edge is in the software in the dashboards where you can actually see how much rain fell on your property, how much of it you captured, how much have you bypassed, the temperature, the barometric pressure etc. We built RainGrid as a utility for homeowners and we are building our own community, a community of people who care about clean water and want to see a different way of doing things.

MCWALTER: What is the concept of One Water and why is it important?

MERCER: One Water is important because it is the future state we are trying to reach. We are eventually going to wind up in a world where we value rain as a resource rather than treating it as a problem. Today we separate out our conception of water into different silos, for example there’s storm water and there’s drinking water and there’s sewage. One Water says there is no such thing as drinking water or stormwater. It’s all One Water and so you can create a circular economy out of water. For example when rain falls on the property it can be held and reused on the property. Its like the challenge that you have on the International Space Station. There’s no rain on the International Space Station, but they brought all the water that they are ever going to use up on a flight. And they continually reuse that water, they drink what they urinate. Similarly we will take most of the rain that falls on our properties as part of the circular economy. 

MCWALTER: What are the main barriers to the circular economy today?

MERCER: One of the barriers is that we have embedded infrastructure. It’s extremely expensive and it’s very valuable. So if you change the business model, from water in silos to One Water models you threatened to abandon some of those assets. As we move into a One Water world, I think we can do it in stages and one of the first stages that’s really successful is taking the water that falls on your roof, storing it and reusing it. 40% of the water that water utilities produce is put on to our lawns and surfaces, but if you’re harvesting the rain, then you can offset potable water. The other most important thing about water harvesting or rain harvesting is we can recharge the groundwater aquifers. 

MCWALTER: I noticed that RainGrid is a B Corp. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of a B versus C Corp for tackling problems?

MERCER: I think it really comes down to the corporate culture. We grew out of the not for profit world and it is a joke we tell that, to be more effective, we closed our NGO and became a corporation. Our B Corp experience was very, very interesting. The first year we applied for B corp status we got it. And we got it with a number of 139 vs the average B Corp which gets an 89. We were actually selected as best for the world in both the overall and environmental categories, and we have a nice little round wooden B Corp medal designating us as the best for the world. And then the year after that we decided not to reapply. B corps are for companies who need to demonstrate to the world that they are better than what they have been in the past, its a way to virtue signal  how you intend to practice your business in an ethical and sustainable way. Whereas, RainGrid is sustainability personified already because of our genesis from the NGO world. 

MCWALTER: One of the things I’m thinking a lot about is the trade off between improving resiliency at the most at risk cities on the coast and floodplains versus starting to move or build infrastructure to less at risk cities. What are your thoughts on that trade off?

MERCER: Let me put it this way. Rain is the manifestation of climate change, you either get too much of it or too little of it. The other side is that we tend to look at how to make conventional infrastructure we’ve already built resilient to climate change. I think that’s a mistake. We have typically believe that technology will save the day. The truth of the matter is that people are the source of climate change, and people will solve climate change.  So building community is very important. 

MCWALTER: What are the biggest areas you’d like to see large scale infrastructure investments as we try and restart the economy coming out of COVID?

MERCER: I think water security is very much the key not not just for the public health elements of addressing how we all cope with COVID but in the whole notion of public health, security of supply, etc. Sure, drinking water is a product, but it ought it to be a human right. We can’t afford the infrastructure we’ve made in our cities and often there are non-sustainable entities which we throw huge sums of money at to try to keep from falling apart. Because that’s the way cities are built. And they evolve over time over generations over millennia. We learn certain practices, and we look back at them and we go, geez, what were you thinking at the time? How could we have been so stupid? 

Someone once talked to me about chlorine. Chlorine is both the scourge and the saviour of modern life. It gave us secure, safe drinking water, but it’s also the thing that gave us really tragic examples of water pollution. So we’re going to stumble along, but in that stumbling along we find new methods of doing things. Like the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, those are going to weave into more and more areas. And RainGrid is part of that wave of weaving those societal services into aggregated infrastructure at the property level.

MCWALTER: What is the largest climate problem but no one seems to be tackling at all?

MERCER: I’d say maybe in our efforts to go off coal and to use natural gas as a bridge, we are getting large amounts of methane emissions from anything associated with natural gas production. That’s a huge one. That’s kind of the black eye of what would otherwise be a really nice bridge technology. There’s also the question of the The Faustian bargain with nuclear energy. So I think those are two big picture issues. Another thing that’s really important is the separation between the haves and the have nots. Who gets access to climate resilient technology?

MCWALTER: Is there anything that I should have asked you about but did not?

MERCER: Community is so important. We don’t look at community as a brand. Within the climate world there needs to be not just  the community of practice but the practice of community. Alot of climate focused communities traditionally had a really negative connotation, for example the idea of the tree hugger.  But the truth of the matter is, is that we do need to build a brand of a community of people who say, this is how we choose to live our lives. And to talk about things like RainGrid and how it affects where people live. So in the world of climate adaptation and stormwater management it fits together with people. And, and it’s how we’re going to move forward.

Building with Bamboo – E5

Brilliant chat with Troy Carter, Co-Founder of Rizome, a company that converts bamboo into a cutting edge, decarbonizing building material. We discussed the goals of the Rizome team, the amazing properties of bamboo and why it has taken so long to scale as a major building material, the possibility of bamboo skyscrapers, the importance of building a fully integrated supply chain when scaling a product like bamboo, why bamboo makes a great candidate for carbon offsets, the work-life balance of the tech community in Hawaii and more!

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: What drove the initial decision to start Rizome? Was decarbonization the end goal, or was it you have found this amazing material that was bamboo, and you’re looking basically for an application of bamboo and decarbonisation was a nice side effect?

CARTER: It was both; the climate crisis is the biggest theme of the century, at least so far. And bamboo has a particularly unique role to play because it grows so fast. And it also grows in equatorial regions and the global south, in places where there’s been massive deforestation. Climate equity is a real issue. Our team has been working in bamboo for a long time. David, one of our co founders has been one of the foremost bamboo architects for the last 26 years. And we have a pretty amazing team of people from diverse industries from aerospace manufacturing to running some of the largest energy companies in the US to software development. And our team came together to say, what is the biggest climate impact we can have? What are the technologies we need to implement?
And bamboo is just a super scalable future building material that over the next 10 years will be seen as the obvious next major construction material.

MCWALTER: What are the advantages of bamboo as a building material? 

CARTER: It’s technically a superior material to wood. It’s super strong, at least two and a half times as strong as Douglas Fir. It’s very fire resistant so it’s got a class A fire rating. So that solves two major problems in construction, which is strength and fire resistance. And it’s also quite cheap, it grows really fast. And so at our next scale of manufacturing, it’ll actually be cheaper than comparable structural wood. And that’s a big deal. We don’t want to have to make a developer choose between a technically superior material that’s regenerative and something, that’s really expensive. So, bamboo is technically superior, the same price or cheaper, very strong, better fire resistance that’s all on the technical side. And on the regenerative sustainability side, it grows super fast, sequesters 10 times as much carbon as trees, and has really great effects on water, soil health. It’s also an annual crop so that our local partners in local indigenous communities can actually have an annual crop rather than waiting 40 years for forestry projects to come online.

MCWALTER: So why do you think it has been underutilized? 

CARTER: Broadly speaking due to supply chain reliability. Historically, in the US and Canada, there’re a lot of trees and we actually do a pretty good job at harvesting them sustainably. 100 years ago, you could cut up a Douglas Fir for super cheap and they were big trees, we got them all down. That’s really no longer the case. Our tree age has been getting younger and younger, even in the US. So there’s more and more softwood internationally. You go to India, Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, there are no trees left. And I can’t overstate this. It’s not that there’s just logging moratoriums, you simply can’t find the trees. So if all the new buildings that will be built in India, in Indonesia, in Bangladesh, if all those buildings are built with steel and concrete, we’re going to hit some major climate thresholds that we don’t want to hit. So we need an alternative. And we can’t plant trees in these areas quickly enough to actually make them a viable construction material. Bamboo is really the scalable solution that will grow very quickly. And right now we’re pioneering a manufacturing model. There’s just never been the level of sophistication in technology brought to bamboo. We’re also using a species of bamboo that’s a much larger store  which pushes costs a lot lower. And there’s never been a supply of this bamboo that’s been large enough to actually scale a major industry around. And broadly, if a developer is building a $2 billion building, they want to be able to guarantee that the materials will arrive on time. And that’s just never been the case with bamboo.

MCWALTER: If the supply chain has been such a blocker in the past, have you had to vertically integrate across the entire supply chain? Or have you just found really good partners all along the way?

CARTER: We’re doing everything and also making really good partners. From planting, to processing, to final step manufacturing, and sales, we need to innovate at every level. We’re also the first company doing very detailed data tracking. That’s from everything from plant genetics to basic supply chain data to tracking things like how long does it take to get from the clump to the truck and from the truck to the factory, and through each machine line? It’s just a level of data tracking that hasn’t been done before in this industry.

MCWALTER: What scale are you currently at?

CARTER: I would say we’re at version 0.1. And with the next funding round that we’re doing in a couple months, we’ll go to version 1. And version one is about $17 million revenue per year per plant. And that’s a replicable model that will be able to be copied in other places of the world. So we’d love to go to Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, and India and provide a replicable model so this industry can really take off.

MCWALTER: What form does your main bamboo product take? 

CARTER: Our primary unit right now we call slats, and this is when you take a round pole of bamboo and you cut some rectangles out of it. And these rectangles are 10 feet long. These small boards we then laminate together into panels or other engineered wood products, and one of the processing facilities we are building would make about 20 million panels per year. 

MCWALTER: What types of things could be built with these panels?

CARTER: We’ve already said that bamboo is a really technically great material with great fire resistance and strength and also durability. And also aesthetics, it looks great, and you can have exposed beams because of the fire resistance. Where we want to go and where our end goal is, is in large scale structural materials. And so right now we make panels. This is the plywood. This is the thing for walls for flooring for underlayment, stuff like that. In the long term, more and more architects and designers will be building for the material, which means a movement towards panel based construction versus stick construction, for example, studless walls, reduced CLT member size because of the strength characteristics, exposed beams because of the fire resistance, it solves a few major issues in mass timber design. And so we can imagine everything from skyscrapers to residential houses being built with bamboo.

MCWALTER: Skyscrapers? That’s interesting, is the technology there to build, let’s say something like a skyscraper from bamboo today?

CARTER: We’re still waiting on a few things. So one, I would say that the academic and testing side is mostly there. But there you know, there’s still code compliance, it’s going to be another two years and half a million dollars for us to actually be able to go build a skyscraper on the compliance side.

MCWALTER: That’s pretty quick. On the code and compliance, how have you found working with regulatory bodies?

CARTER: You don’t want to dis regulatory bodies, they do a great job. They ensure the safety and longevity of buildings. And there’s such a big movement right now towards low embodied carbon construction. You look at the bill that was just put in the House of Representatives a couple weeks ago for netzero construction. You look at any architectural magazine coming out, it’s all about low embodied carbon or net zero buildings, and that’s a trend that will continue. So on the regulation side, we’re seeing a lot of support. People want these materials, there’s going to be a major move towards more mass timber, and bamboo in particular, as a next wave of material that’s coming. So we actually see a lot of support and people very willing and excited to work with us.

MCWALTER: Who are your primary customers? 

CARTER: This is a B2B business, at least at the moment. In the short term, we are selling to high value customers, which means they’re using the material as a hardwood replacement for cabinets and flooring, and that goes to wood distributors. We’re currently taking contracts for our next manufacturing facility and these are wood distributors, but also lumber companies, particularly in the Pacific Northwest who want to make bamboo wood hybrid products. Also, flooring manufacturing companies who want to do hybrid products. And, even conventional big retailers who maybe want to sell to consumers, but we’re not not selling directly to consumers at the moment. 

MCWALTER: Can the bamboo plantations be part of carbon offsets?

CARTER: That is a whole other category of the business. We’re manufacturing bamboo lumber, and we’re planting bamboo for agroforestry, and also native forest. And when we’re planting forest and doing bamboo agroforestry, we can generate a lot of very high quality carbon offsets with holistic benefits. Our goal is to be doing 50,000 hectares a year of planting by 2024. That’s a pretty doable goal. It’s pretty fast and easy to scale planting. It’s pretty hard to scale manufacturing. And so yes, we are selling carbon offsets. Right now we’re selling through brokers. And hopefully soon we’ll also be selling directly to industry partners or people who want to set their company up to offset their emissions. Incorporating bamboo agroforestry makes it profitable from a carbon offset side rather than just covering costs. There’s a lot of new investment models that are possible once it’s actually profitable.

MCWALTER: Thinking about the indigenous groups in the Philippines you work with, what did the initial conversations look like? Because often those groups have been by outside businesses coming in. What was your approach to building relationships with that community?

CARTER: We’ve been in conversation with groups in the Philippines for about four years now, we really only started implementing planting this year and, and manufacturing this year. So it’s been a long time relationship building. And that’s about establishing trust that’s making relationships. And now I think we’ve finally worked out a model where everyone is incentivized in a way that’s healthy for the planet, healthy for the communities and actually provides a regenerative building material to the global market. But it’s been a long journey, and it does, you’re right, it’s a careful and paced way of doing business.

MCWALTER: Where do you see Rizome in about 10 years time?

CARTER: If right now we’re going from version 0.1 to 1.0, over the next 10 years we’re going from model 1 to model 100. And this isn’t necessarily technical innovation. It’s just replicating the same thing over and over in new regions. And that’s a 500 hectare bamboo plantation surrounded by native forest, a processing facility that harvests that area, and then a regional lamination facility that makes final finished goods for the local or global construction market. By 2050, we have the internal goal of sequestering 10 gigatons of carbon. That’s a pretty ambitious goal. That means we need to be in a lot of different countries, a lot of different regions, producing a lot of material, but also planting quite a lot. You know, that’s planting probably 2 million Hector’s of bamboo and native forest.

MCWALTER: Just get a sense of the scale of 50 gigatons of carbon?

CARTER: 50 gigatons of carbon dioxide drawdown is about 1% of all anthropogenic carbon emissions. 

MCWALTER: What do you think about Fortune500 companies making supply chain decarbonisation pledges?

CARTER: I think it’s amazing that major companies are making decarbonisation pledges. This is one of the points of collaboration where Rizome and other companies doing reforestation can collaborate directly. So the carbon offset market hasn’t been super effective over the past 20 years. And one of the reasons is it’s mostly avoided emissions rather than actually taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it in the ground or into durable goods. And so what we are seeing more and more is a bifurcation in the carbon market where there are avoided emissions and then there are sequestration solutions using plants or direct air capture. For example, where the co2 is taken from the air and put into a durable form, and then there are getting paid for storage solutions, which means, you know, biochar or building materials actually just storing the carbon in a form that is durable. And what our solution is, is a very high quality, easily trackable and measurable system for extracting co2 from the atmosphere and putting it in buildings and in the ground. So let’s partner on carbon offsets. Let’s partner on reforestation. And let’s build all the new buildings out of regenerative building materials.

MCWALTER: One of the critiques of carbon offsets has been the double counting problem – what are your thoughts on tracking carbon in a way to avoid double counting?

CARTER: We track everything. We have a unique identifier for every clump of bamboo that we plant and harvest that allows us to get very precise data on how much co2 is being sequestered, where it goes in the manufacturing process from into a building material or back into the ground. This is something that hasn’t been done before. Historically the flow of carbon accounting in forests and industries is pretty nebulous. This is something that needs to change and something that we’re changing in terms of carbon offset quality. Right now we track with a geotag. In the future, we might do RFID or something similar.

MCWALTER: Whether it’s with Project Drawdown or some other framework, are there any like really large decarbonisation problems no one seems to be tackling at all?

CARTER: Yes, there are. I don’t want to go out too much on a limb there. There are some really big areas and more than that almost anyone can become an expert in one of these categories in six months to a year. Because there are so many new opportunities, if you think of ocean co2 and kelp farming and low co2 concrete and renewable energy systems. And particularly financial vehicles for financing all of these operations, there are so many areas that need work, that it doesn’t require a huge step of technological innovation. The technology exists to address climate and to adjust ecological restoration. It’s mostly a financial issue that affects the speed of scaling. So one of the areas that I’m most excited by right now is new models for financing reforestation, if we can actually create an investable product that incentivizes living on a beautiful, natural biodiverse planet. Great, let’s go make money by reforesting the earth. And I think that’s possible, particularly incorporating bamboo agroforestry. 

MCWALTER: I believe you’re based in Hawaii. What are your thoughts on the local tech scene in Hawaii?

CARTER: With COVID right now, there’s a bit of an exodus happening from cities as people more and more realize that work can go online. I started a business in San Francisco a handful of years ago, ran it for a few years and sold it. And during that time, I worked really hard and worked in a way that was unbalanced. Like very, very progress oriented. And there is something about working in a region like Hawaii where a sense of lifestyle balance and nature connection is more at the forefront. If people are happy and living balanced lives they are just inherently more creative. I really admire when some companies have gone to four day workweeks, and that doesn’t actually decrease the level of productivity and actually gives people more. More enthusiasm to work on something for a really long time. Because, we’re going to be doing this for decades, and we’re assembling a team of World Class implementers and thinkers and finance people and lumber technologists and plant biologists. We want to be engaged with this team for a really long time and have everyone’s needs fully met. And that’s a lot less easy in an area where people will face burnout a couple years down the road.

MCWALTER: You mentioned a business that you were involved in, Troy cider?

CARTER: Yes, back in the day I started a cider company. At that time, there was no cider made on the west coast in the US. And so it was one of the original cider companies. It grew super quickly, because it occupied a niche in the market. And it was fun, you on a purely lifestyle basis. It was an amazing business to be a part of, and in the end, it was really profitable, and set me up for a level of freedom and exploration where I could give my energy to projects very freely without being concerned by money. And for anyone interested in going into climate or, or another area that probably does take a lot of research. So to start in this area maybe you don’t know what you want to work on necessarily, so maybe it’s six months or a year of volunteering at companies or doing consulting projects to get the income to make the jump. And so working on that also gave me the freedom to experiment a lot over the last few years.