August 2016

Charity of Ideas

Industry Leaders, Technology and Social Justice Converge to Create New Possibilities for Tikkun Olam (Healing the World)

By Jaq Greenspon

“If charity means giving, I give it to you.”

— from Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot 


There’s a thing about charity. Seemingly everyone wants to participate. If a natural disaster happens, we rush to open our checkbooks or go door to door to raise money. When I was as kid, about this time of year, the islands at every stoplight would be populated with off-duty firefighters holding out a boot to collect spare change from passing motorists. And afterward, once you’d signed your check, or dropped your change into the boot, you felt good about yourself. You’d done your part, right?

Yes. And no. 

For some people, there’s a lot more to it than unthinkingly checking a box or tossing change away. For some people, the idea of changing the world is bigger than simply changing it. These are the people out on the front lines, using whatever resources they can to make the world a better place for everyone. And no matter the personal reason for doing it — even if it’s what we call “benevolent philanthropy” – the idea of doing good through good business — they are walking a path that will allow them to leave the world a better place. 

One of those people is Elon Musk, the creative leader of Tesla Motors. The South Africa-born Canadian-American has stated that one of his goals is to change the world and humanity. After starting and selling two incredibly successful internet companies (including PayPal), the Stanford graduate has devoted himself to solving the energy problem. While other companies and other people focus on technological innovation (Musk himself sits on the board of other companies he’s founded, which are developing solar energy and space flight), Tesla concerns itself with improving what’s needed to make sure these innovations continue to run. For him, this means batteries, which he believes can help solve a number of energy issues and possibly make for a cleaner environment. 

Battery technology has lagged advancements in other industries. Ask anyone who owns a smartphone. In a recent interview in Business + Innovation, Musk explained it this way: “Power is how fast you can run. Energy is how far you can run.” He says battery innovation is achieved incrementally. “It’s really rare that there’s a big breakthrough because there are so many constraints,” Musk says. “You can easily improve, say, the power, but then it’d make the energy worse.”

So batteries might be the answer to a lot of problems. Tesla has been developing a home-based system that will store solar energy during the day to be used once the sun goes down. The company also wants to create a lower cost model of the Tesla Automobile, whose prices start at $85,000. The new car, with a proposed price tag of $35,000, looks promising. But there’s a hitch: too few batteries are available to allow what Musk wants to do. His option, according to Business + Innovation, was to “either build a whole bunch of little factories or one big factory. And a whole bunch of little factories sounds like quite a bother. Why not just have one big one and maximize your economies of scale?”

That “big factory,” dubbed Gigafactory, opened July 29 in Northern Nevada. It is the world’s second largest building. Gigafactory, whose roof is covered with solar panels, will not only produce the batteries Musk needs for his affordable electric cars, but will use recycled materials to do it. “We will bring in trains (old box cars) that come out as batteries,” Musk told an investors conference last year. 

Tesla and Musk stand to make a lot of money, of course, when the affordable, mass market Tesla 3 hits the streets. But it can’t be bad to be advancing battery technology, and possibly creating a cleaner environment at the same time. 

Neither can bringing fresh water to people who desperately need it. 

Imagine a land where millions of people live and work, and though there’s an ocean nearby the water in it is undrinkable. That would be San Diego. And the solution to that city’s water problem can be found half a world away, in Israel. 

IDE Technologies started the ball rolling with the Sorek desalination plant in the Jewish state. It is designed to provide about 20 percent of Israel’s potable water needs. Not only is the plant fulfilling a much needed service, it’s doing it as cost-effectively and non-invasively as possible. Aside from being one of the world’s lowest cost desalination plants, it’s also environmentally sensitive.

The plant minimizes the impact on both the ocean and nearby landmasses, due to large diameter pipelines and an innovative structure that comprises a vertical arrangement of 16-inch membranes. These membranes, organized in a large-scale facility, result in a cost-saving, smaller physical footprint. And IDE has created a proprietary Pressure Center Design, Double Line Intake and (Energy Recovery System); it increases efficiency and reduces energy consumption in the intake, while a separate system accomplishes the same effect of reduced energy and chemical consumption for sludge treatment as well. 

The result is that 26,000 square meters of water are being processed every hour to meet the needs of more than 1.5 million people, a harbinger of the day when Israel may enjoy a water surplus. Not so long ago, Israel faced an existential threat due to critical shortages of the life-sustaining liquid. Uri Ginott, the government relations manager for EcoPeace Middle East, believes more available potable water could even ease regional tensions. He recently told Circle of Blue, a Michigan-based information clearinghouse, that since “every drop doesn’t have to come at the expense of another … desalination is turning the water issue from a zero-sum game to a win-win.” 

But what does all this have to do with San Diego?

Last December, IDE opened the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, just north of the Southern California metropolis. It is the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, with a capacity of about 190 million liters of potable water daily. This project “not only provides San Diego County with a drought-proof water supply,” says California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, “it also demonstrates how California can meet the water needs of future generations.” IDE is also involved in at least 10 other U.S. projects. 

These are but two examples of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, even when profit taking is involved. And there are more., an Israeli charity, uses mobile “cloud”-linked solar panels to provide refrigeration and lights in nations where such technologies were previously nonexistent. Because these panels can be monitored, they can be realigned constantly to ensure that they receive the most sunlight possible. Elon Musk would be proud. 

Other organizations are trying to develop strands of pollutant-resistant coral in the Great Barrier Reef. And Doctors without Borders has provided critically needed medical treatment around the globe, often in war-torn areas, and at great peril, and occasional death, to its practitioners. 

With these disparate, sometimes heroic efforts around the world, people are getting their hands dirty, replacing good intentions with time, energy and solutions, providing hope for their clients and much of humanity. 

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