Get Recruitment Personalized, More Than Ever
For Graphene too, the past few weeks have been peculiar times, not in the least regarding the way of interacting with our clients and candidates.
If one thing was made clear during this period, is that our partners, both clients and candidates, highly value personal contact when getting to know each other during a recruitment process. Simultaneously, it clearly appeared to us that no digital tool whatsoever, at any stage of the process, is sufficient as such to make a match happen between candidate and company.
At Graphene, we found it particularly challenging to adapt our usual way of working according to this new temporary reality. The switch literally took place in the nick of time, on Wednesday March 18th at noon, since we still had one last face-to-face meeting scheduled from 10:30 to 11:30 that same day.
Afterwards, we decided to go on full steam with all our interviews, switching them to teleconferences through one of the many videoconferencing software available. We probably tried the whole lot of them in the meantime.
Admittedly, at first, we believed the interviews with our candidates ran smoother this way. For one thing, it was easier to schedule appointments, since candidates were much more available than for a face-to-face interview for which they have to come all the way to our office in Brussels.
Another convenient aspect was that interviews were more straight-forward and efficient time-wise: you get online, you start the conversation, you finish the conversation, you log off. Simples.
The candidates as well seemed to appreciate this interaction and played along in a constructive way.
Once the interviews with Graphene had taken place, the next step between our candidates and our clients had to be organized. A couple of them showed some reluctancy towards video-interviewing, but in the end, they also went along with this way of interviewing. The result was positive overall: candidates and clients got promising first contacts, which opened doors for next talks.
This is where the limits of this interviewing system showed up: yes, Graphene had had good interviews with the candidates. Yes, our clients and candidates had had constructive talks as well. But… both parties came to the same conclusion: “There is no way we can take a decision without meeting each other face-to-face.”
Consequently, all the next steps had to be postponed until it was possible for companies to invite external visitors on-site again. No surprise really, because in the end, regardless of how smooth the videoconferencing had been going, only a face-to-face meeting can enable people to start to get to know each other. It’s about the non-verbal communication, it’s about things you don’t notice on the computer screen, it’s about what all your senses pick up, it’s about grasping the atmosphere of the future workspace. It’s about so many objective and even more subjective reasons. All this eventually gives an answer to both parties on following question: “Do we see each other working together or not?”
Speaking for Graphene, we also experienced the weaknesses of such digital interaction, especially when initially a candidate doesn’t feel entirely sure about an opportunity: the absence of real human interaction makes it harder to create a global context in which a candidate feels comfortable enough to move on in the process. The opposite might also be true: our perception about candidates might be altered by remote interviewing and consequently doubts and misjudgements can arise that would normally never show up in a face-to-face interview.
It was striking to see, once the global measures softened, how candidates, when given the choice between a videoconference and a face-to-face interview in a safe environment, immediately let us know that they preferred the latter. Undoubtedly, they were partially stimulated by the idea of leaving home for once for something else than the supermarket and by the abnormally smooth drive to Brussels, but most importantly, they valued the quality of an actual person-to-person talk.
It is most likely that, when eventually traffic jams in and around Brussels will show up again, scheduling face-to-face meetings will become tougher again, but here as well, we can easily tackle this issue by organizing meetings in a more sustainable way. A solution that we have already used on numerous occasions over the past few years is to meet the candidates in their area, in the surroundings of a train station. No doubt such type of meetings will become more usual in the nearby future.
Given the global current situation, it is a fashionable state-of-mind to reflect upon how things were “before” and should be “after”. In that perspective, accelerated and broadened digitalization often appears as the key solution to nowadays challenges, not in the least regarding home-based work and new ways of organizing professional meetings. People still have room for improvement when it comes to such new working processes, but even once they will be totally familiar with them, we believe that, in terms of recruitment processes, digitalization will continue to give only a partial solution.
A personalized recruitment processes through face-to-face meetings will remain essential. What’s more: based on how the Belgian engineering sector works, we sense that it will be more decisive than ever before. Because, in a global context which generates lots of uncertainties, it is even more important for a candidate involved in a hiring process at a specific company to know what this company stands for, how this company is organized, what the vision and the values of the company are and, most importantly, who the actual people of this company are. Only this way, candidates can take a decision while being fully aware and convinced of the company they are about to join. No corporate video, no corporate website, no LinkedIn company page, no online testimonials, no social media campaign and no online interviews will ever convince a candidate as much as a truly personal and personalized recruitment process taking place between two human beings who can look at each other straight in the eye and, to seal a future collaboration, share a sincere (disinfected) handshake.
How to truly commit as a candidate ?
Over the past few years, I’ve realized more and more how tough it is for candidates to effectively decide to whether or not go for a new professional opportunity.
After all, there are so many aspects to take into account: job content on the short term, perspectives of evolution on the long run, fit into the culture and organization of the new company, impact on private life, salary, leaving behind the current work environment…
This was already discussed more thoroughly in the article I shared one year ago: “The Candidate’s Emotional Full Monty”.
In this new article I would like to focus on 3 key elements that candidates should bear in mind in order to decide if a new opportunity is really worth the change.
1. A candidate never decides alone
The first element to emphasize is the influence of the life partner or –more extensively-the relatives on the choice of the candidate. It might seem odd, but to me it became almost like an evidence: even though choosing a new job is a very personal choice, it is never the candidate alone who will take the decision.
On numerous occasions, I was in touch with candidates who were genuinely thrilled about a new job, not only at the start of the recruitment process, but also at later stages, until the point they would really start discussing this new opportunity with their partners. As soon as it appeared that the partners would not be on-board, the candidates –sometimes even against their own will- withdrew from the process. Just to be clear: I am talking here about both male and female candidates.
On the contrary: in a recruitment process where tough decisions have to be taken, knowing that the partners or relatives are in favour of this professional change is often a decisive support to the candidates, who will thus be comforted in taking the final, decisive step.
Consequently, it is crucial for candidates to find a right balance between their own opinion about the opportunity at stake and the opinion of the persons whom they share their lives with. Unless you are the kind of independent person who takes decisions regardless of what others think, it’s a clever move to involve your relatives in a recruitment process: better sooner than later. This will definitely contribute to a clearer positioning of the candidates towards job openings. This is why I don’t hesitate to sometimes boldly ask this question right from the first phone talk to candidates: “Is your partner aware that you are applying for this role?”
In the end, whether directly or indirectly, we are all at some point influenced by the opinions of persons who matter to us. A potential new job always reflects a potential new image of ourselves. And this image is also shaped by what others think of it. Some time ago, a candidate who had been very excited about an engineering vacancy I was working on, declined last minute the contract proposal, based on the argument that he had talked about this new job to friends and former fellow students who considered that this job was not “prestigious” enough for him. Even though this candidate initially had a great opinion on this job, he withdrew from the process as apparently this opportunity did not match this new image he had of himself.
This leads me to the final comment on this topic: just like you should accept as a candidate to be challenged by your environment in an eventual career switch, you shouldn’t hesitate to challenge them back, based on your own believes. This phase in a recruitment process is an excellent test for candidates, to check for themselves how truly they are keen on a new job.
2. “I have no further opportunities at my current job”: really?
Around 80% of candidates I meet are in the following position: they currently have a job; as such things are going all right, yet they are open to new opportunities, especially since they feel that they are stuck at their current job, with no possibilities to grow. This last point is decisive: really, how sure are you that you don’t have any development possibilities at your current job?
If we take again this 80% share of candidates I collaborate with, I see 2 different types of candidates:
First of all, the ones who think they have no internal opportunities, based on assumptions and sheer gut feeling: they never actually discussed this topic thoroughly.
Secondly, there are the ones who, in a recent past, really explored internal opportunities at their current job, challenged their managers to further grow within the structure but who, in the end, come to the conclusion that no genuine evolution is likely to take place in a nearby future.
These two different pathways will play a decisive role during the recruitment process. Indeed, for the first category of candidates, as the recruitment process goes by and the possibility of a real change comes closer, there will always be a moment when they will challenge their current work with this potential change and –after all- realize that their current job actually offers them more opportunities than originally thought. Best case scenario, this “eye-opener” will happen at the early stages of the recruitment process. Worst case scenario: at the final step of the process, after a contract proposal was made. Once again, let me be clear here: I don’t claim they will use this contract offer as a way to get a raise at their current job. No, I just mean to say that it’s only when they are about to start a job elsewhere that they will find the sufficient amount of decisiveness to finally confront their current company with a situation they would like to see evolve.
For the second category of candidates, the situation is different. As they already went through this process of analysing potential internal opportunities, they know there is very little to expect, even if they would come over with a contract offer from elsewhere: this wouldn’t change anything in the eyes of their managers. The recruitment process happens in a more serene and committed way. It doesn’t mean that they will sign a new contract blindfolded -certainly not- but it is obvious that such candidates know much better what they want.
The point is not to claim that every candidate should “belong” to this second category and –if not- that they should better resign from a recruitment process. It’s only a way to orient candidates: when you’re about to apply for a new job because you feel you don’t have enough perspectives at your current job, what are the reasons that make you believe that? If you are able to answer this question concretely, then once more your true commitment in a recruitment process will be revealed.
3. The subjectivity of change
The third and final point I would like to discuss is perhaps the hardest one to clearly define, as its essence is very subjective. We’re not talking plain money here or a new job title or a specific travel time between home and work or a well-defined amount of days off. It’s a mix of all this, and much more than that. It’s basically that decisive feeling candidates will rely upon to choose for that new job or stay where they are. It’s very hard to anticipate and –say to speak- “simulate” this feeling in advance. Candidates might have a very attractive offer in front them, on all levels, yet they might decide to stay where they are, simply because they were not ready to take that decision. This also happens to candidates who were genuinely interested throughout the whole hiring process. Despite that interest, it’s as if this opportunity remained “fictive” until the very last moment, when the candidates have to say “yes” or “no”: it’s only then that somehow this job offer becomes real and concrete to them. And by then, it’s already too late. Even though initially they might have had good reasons to leave their current job, they can’t picture themselves going over to their boss later that week and announce they will resign. And what would they say to their colleagues, their buds at work? “All in all, things are not as bad where I am now, are they?”, “Why should I change for the mere sake of changing?”
Getting yourself into the mindset that will truly enable you to picture yourself or not in a new job: it’s a must and this mindset is not easy to reach. And perhaps the 2 prior topics of this article are good means to get into that spirit. This is why all 3 topics are interconnected, in my eyes.
Getting involved in a recruitment process is a situation during which individuals have to take many aspects of life into account. Both objective and –more often- subjective elements will influence a decision in one direction or another. This is why it is important for candidates to define some milestones during a recruitment process that will allow them to keep their thoughts on the right track. Based on my experience, the 3 topics discussed here are such milestones:
- How does your opinion on a career opportunity matches with what your relatives think of it?
- How thoroughly have you explored opportunities at your current job?
- Are you able to picture yourself in a new job and define the reasons that will really make you change or not?
Answering these questions will definitely contribute to clearly shape your true commitment as a candidate.
Overpriced Offshore Wind doesn’t blow, it sucks
First of all, let’s be clear: wind energy -and especially offshore- is a very interesting and effective technology for guaranteeing a more sustainable future.
Over the past few years, I have closely followed the evolution of this industry and I consider it as one of my biggest professional achievements so far to have (on my own, small scale, obviously) contributed to the development of wind energy in Belgium, by recruiting solid candidates for companies directly involved in this industry.
This technology has reached maturity in the meantime, as we see that offshore wind farms of 200+ MW are no longer an exception, whether on the Belgian, the Dutch, the German, the Danish or the English coast. Wind turbines are more powerful than ever (from 2-4MW a couple of years ago to 6-8MW each nowadays), offshore maintenance strategies can rely on solid experts in that area, better connectivity with the onshore grid is in the making (see the Stevin project in Belgium) and… most important: offshore wind energy is no longer a ludicrously expensive technology to invest in.
This is why it is particularly damageable to the public image of wind energy that it appeared last week that the Belgian government is “over-sponsorizing” future wind farms to be built on the Belgian side of the North Sea. I am of course referring to the fact that over the next decades Belgium will pay an extra 2 billion € “tip” for the development of 2 new offshore wind farms, compared to what The Netherlands will pay for wind farms of similar size and technology.
The reason for that shocking discrepancy is to be found in the way offshore wind projects are assigned in both countries. While The Netherlands use a classic tendering process among several contestants in which a sharp price is of course a key criteria, Belgium doesn’t let the competition challenge each other, as -even before any price negotiation has started- the “winning” project developer is already known. In fact, we cannot even blame project developers to make so much money out of these deals, because absurd financial compensations are made perfectly possible by the Belgian system.
In times in which it is more important than ever to link past, present and future, we can only say that such practices in which private companies take advantage from the State are nothing new. One example: in 19th century liberal France, private consortia that were supposed to develop the French railway infrastructure managed to negotiate deals with the French State, in which the French State guaranteed fixed annual profits of 6% to the stakeholders of these consortia, even if these companies were loss-making! Needless to say that such practices led to outrageous situations, in which companies didn’t even bother to build railways, but just gracefully took the public cash in return for… nothing.
Of course here, the situation is not as extreme. It is, however, once more a real shame that, because of such unnecessary vast amounts of public money spent, a meritorious and sustainable technology such as wind energy gets so negatively tainted.
We know how damaging such bad press can be for technology: just think back on all the destructive fuzz about solar energy in Belgium, that was caused by a shaky public allowance system. There as well, I was in the front row to see how a young and promissing industry collapsed in Belgium.
Conclusion: such large-scale offshore wind projects are vital to really boost renewable energy in Belgium and to meet our COP21 and other environmental commitments. We can genuinely by proud to be one of the first countries in the world to develop offshore wind energy on such a large scale. But… financing such projects should happen in a more transparent way. Thinking about fairer ways to finance sustainable projects, my heart and mind immediately drive me to cooperatives created by and for citizens. Such local initiatives are already common in Germany. In Belgium as well their development is well underway. If energy cooperatives continue to rise, their -so far marginal- impact on national energy production will grow. They will become a widespread viable alternative way of producing clean energy, on which a fairer and more sustainable amount of money can be spent. For once, we could then say: History doesn’t repeat itself.
The Candidate’s Emotional Full Monty
One of the main reasons that deeply convince me that recruitment is a business like no other, is precisely the fact that the term “business” is actually not appropriate for this area of expertise.
In recruitment, we don’t sell a product, we don’t even sell a service. As a matter of fact, I even consider that, as a headhunter, I don’t sell anything at all.
The reason is simple: a process of selling is always based on the same logic: one party who sells something, and the other who buys it. The seller, the buyer. The provider, the client.
In my way of conceiving recruitment, there is no such dual structure. There is client 1 (the company that is hiring), there is client 2 (the candidate who is open for a new job) and then in the middle there is me, the partner who has to bring both clients together.
So the essence is not about one party buying something from the other, but about two clients starting an effective collaboration, thanks to the support and know-how of a third party.
For me, the absolute evidence that proves that recruitment is a world on its own is the emotional behaviour of a candidate during a recruitment process.
Whether a person is considering to buy a sandwich, a smartphone, a car or even a house, never ever will his reflection on this potential purchase involve his entire psyche as much as when he is about to go for a new job.
Changing jobs is a process that –like no other- truly reveals a person to himself, and to the people who are involved with him in that decision (among which: the headhunter). This, because the perspective of switching jobs englobes so many personal aspects: ambition, pride, self-respect, evolution of social status, eagerness to grow and develop oneself, openness to change and leaving the comfort zone…
This applies in any case to the area of expertise of Graphene International: engineering and technology. For all the candidates who are involved with us in a recruitment process, switching jobs is not just “a change”: they consider their profession as an important part of their life, which implies that accepting a new “career opportunity” is a big deal for them indeed.
Bearing this in mind, it comes as no surprise that, over the years, I’ve realized that the part of my job that requires the most involvement and dedication, is not the search for candidates (even for the most “impossible” profiles), nor the interviewing phase, but when I accompany the candidate in the final steps of a recruitment process, when we both know that it is about to happen: that the candidate will soon receive a contract offer from the company at stake. If in the prior phases a candidate can still “play a game” and act aloof, everything changes when it’s money time. And I don’t mean “money time” just literally. Sure, the financial package plays an important role, let’s not be silly about that, but the reflection of the candidates with whom I collaborate goes beyond that. And this is when it’s getting real interesting, because then I truly get to know what the decisive factors will be for the candidate deciding whether or not to go for a new job.
In a way, this is also the phase when a candidate and I are becoming genuine partners and can only be open and transparent towards each other. Here again, we see that recruitment is a business area on its own: if we indeed want to stick to that dual view of seller-buyer/provider-client, we have to conclude that my “client” (the candidate), is a client like no other, because, in the end, he won’t owe me anything at all, but a “thank you” if indeed he goes for that new job and everything turns out for the best.
For this reason, I am convinced that a successful way of leading a recruitment process as a headhunter, is when we effectively accept to let go that classic vision of having only one client (the company that is hiring) and start treating candidates like clients who are equally important, yet who have a different status, that is not business related at all. This special status implies a genuine sense for empathy from the headhunter and a sincere openness to interact emotionally with the candidates, because, as professionals in recruitment, it would be a huge mistake to avert our eyes from that emotional full monty: that decisive moment when candidates are about to reveal what really matters to them.
Candidates are Hiring Managers too
Last year, when I was already actively thinking about my next career move and hadn’t decided yet to launch Graphene International together with my partners of Ysearch International, I applied at a major company in the banking sector, curious to give this area a sceptical shot.
After 4 years working as a headhunter myself, I considered this an overall interesting experience to return on the other side of the interview table and see how other companies actually treated their candidates.
For this specific recruitment process, everything started off according to the ideal road map of a hiring process: after I sent my resume, I was swiftly called by one of the corporate recruiters who masterfully assessed my competences and expectations, before telling me straight away that I would be invited for an interview at the HQ. So far, so good. Two weeks later, I showed up at this all-in interviewing round. The first step was an open talk with a senior banking expert backed-up by an HR officer. This conversation went smoothly, enabling both parties “to get to know each other better”. The next –and final- part was an assessment: the written guidelines were given to me, I had enough time to prepare and let my creativity loose, the actual assessment lasted for half an hour and afterwards the HR Officers even took their time to let me analyse my “performance”. Great! Once I was finished, had thanked them for their time and left the interview room, the feedback I got from that company was… squat. That’s not a lot. I decided to wait a couple of weeks, thinking that, as a multinational dealing with hundreds of applicants a day, it would need some extra time to process all the candidates and provide them with feedback. Alas, 1, 5 year later, I’m still waiting for a reaction. They didn’t even tell me “Hey, you, btw, you’re rejected.”. Even that, I would have appreciated better than this embarrassing silence.
The purpose of telling this personal experience shows one thing: regardless of how great the Employer Branding of a company is, how perfect the Talent Acquisition Program has been defined, how flawless the Application Tracking System is, if there isn’t just that simple, instinctive, natural one-on-one communication between two persons -a hiring manager and a candidate-, then all these HR concepts can be smashed right into the bin.
As far as I can judge from my experience as a headhunter, the companies with whom I have been collaborating so far and who were the most successful in attracting talent were the companies who managed to act according to what a candidate expects from a recruitment process and a potential new employer. These are the companies who understand that a recruitment process is “simply” a human interaction that can be influenced by many positive or negative, rational or irrational factors and consequently can be a genuine success or a real fiasco for the same reasons. This is why the minimum that can and should be done by recruiters and hiring managers is to show dedicated involvement towards the candidates with whom they effectively engage in the hiring process.
This way of interacting is all the more important in the area of expertise of Graphene: engineering. In this area, good candidates are scarce and –once they decide to get active on the job market- opportunities don’t take long to pile up in front of them. These candidates, at the end of the day, will become the hiring managers too. By this I mean that, in the engineering sector in Belgium, candidates do get the choice to pick the perfect company for them, just like companies get to pick their number-one candidate. I would even go further than that: in my eyes, since more frequently companies will be looking for new engineers than engineers will be looking for a new company, the engineers with the right skills are in the driver’s seat.
Here again, companies who acknowledged that reality prove to be the most effective in hiring the candidates of their choice. This doesn’t mean that companies have to get all crawly in front of candidates who would automatically behave like spoiled brats. It just means that companies are engaging with candidates in a mindset of mutual understanding: “We know that, as a company, we have our expectations and requirements, but we are also aware of your selection criteria and are not shocked by the fact that we should also convince you to join us.” This constructive interaction can take many shapes and the content of the discussions between company and candidate will always vary, but, basically, it boils down to this: accept to, even as a potential future employer, show as much empathy towards the candidate as would be expected from the candidate towards the future employer.
Sounds logical, but past experiences made me understand that reality is less obvious than that.
My personal story about what happened with this recruitment process at the bank is just one example out of (too) many. Things can improve. Let’s talk some other time about how this can indeed happen.
Top-notch dredging technology to keep going one of the world’s biggest harbours
In the engineering world, it is known that dredging works are as much a Belgian speciality as chocolate, beers or endless government formations.
It is not only for major international projects that Belgian dredging companies have to push their technology to the limit, but also on national level, their expertise can be much challenged.
This is the case for the port of Antwerp, one the world’s largest harbour. Over there, Europe’s biggest processing installation for dredged sediments has been up and running since 2011 to ensure permanent and smooth access to the port. To achieve this goal, about 2 million m³ of dredged sediment is processed every year.
How does this state-of-the-art process work?
It all starts in one of the canal docks, in an underwater cell with a capacity of 300 000 m³. There, the sediments supplied by dredging boats are temporarily buffered. This allows the dredging works and the processing to function independently.
From then on, an electrical-powered cutter dredger pumps the sediment from the underwater cell to the sand-separator unit on the quay: an installation processing up to 80 tons of sand per hour from the dredged sediments.
The next step is transporting over 4 km (!) the de-sanded sediment through steel dredging pipes, to the dewatering site.
On this location, the sediment is thickened in a large, circular buffer-pound, subdivided in 4 parts, each of them covering a surface of 12,5 hectares: not your everyday duck pound! The transported water is released and pumped back to the canal dock.
Above the consolidation pound rotates the eye-catcher of the project: the dredging gantry. This monumental crane (length of 173m) transports the thickened sediment into the dewatering hall, by means of dredging pumps moving along the entire span of the gantry.
In this part of the process, the sediment will be separated from the remaining water in membrane-chamber filter presses, using high pressure. The result: giant “biscuits” of dried sediment called “filter cakes” are produced, at a daily pace of 3000 tonnes. The filtrate water is treated in a water purification installation, while, on its turn, the air of the dewatering hall, containing ammonium, is purified.
Final step: conveyer belt transport the filter cakes to the deposit site, that over the next 30 years will pile up the dried sediment to a height of 50m spread over a surface of 35 hectares.
To sum it up: this is a quite impressive and thorough process that was invented here, definitely worth to be mentioned.
However, as every silver cloud has a black lining, now that this processing unit has been functioning for a couple of years now, some important flaws appeared: at first, the sand-separator unit wasn’t able to deal with the high proportion of sand contained in the dredged sediments, requiring various troubleshooting interventions and capacity extensions to the site right from the start. Another major flaw (linked to the first) is that, in 2013 and 2014, about 50% of the sediments buffered in the underwater cell on the dock flowed back to the river, requiring in fact double dredging work.
In any case, the video on this link shows in detail how this entire process functions, it’s worth to have a look!
Biomass: a renewable source of energy… Isn’t it?
With the latest political fuzz in Belgium concerning two mega projects for biomass power plants, the question is raised again whether biomass truly is a sustainable way of producing energy and whether it is Worth to make huge investments in that kind of energy, especially if it has to be endorsed for a great deal by public money.
Brief recap of the current situation in Belgium:
Two new biomass power plants are planned to be built: one greenfield plant by BEE (Belgian Eco Energy) in the harbour of Ghent and one by German Pellets, in Langerlo, that will consist in a make-over of an old coal-fired power plant of E.ON.
The government of the Flemish Region agreed that these two projects would be supported by public allowances. In that perspective, former Flemish Minister of Energy Annemie Turtelboom had launched a new energy tax in 2015, which main purpose was to collect sufficient funds for these two biomass projects.
However, after she resigned last week, precisely after all the controversy generated by her so-called “Turteltaks”, her own political party, the right-winged Open VLD, now wants to resign from these public allowances for BEE Power Ghent and German Pellets.
Trough the arguments used by Open VLD, we can look at the bigger picture (not only on Belgian level) and focus on some of the main concerns about biomass that are typically raised:
- If the source of biomass is wood that isn’t considered as waste, then it has a clear negative impact on biodiversity, as entire forests are slashed down, with the sole purpose of just burning wood;
- Moreover, if the wood pellets for the biomass plants have to be imported from the other side of the ocean (mostly from North-America), the transport of these pellets for sure isn’t as sustainable as using local raw materials;
- Biomass projects are often very expensive, more expensive than investments in other sources of renewable energy, such as solar and wind energy;
- Biomass plants are not green if it comes to CO2 emissions.
These arguments definitely are valid as such, but it would be too bold to consider that, automatically, each and every large biomass plant will have this overall negative impact.
To illustrate this, let’s zoom in again on the current Belgian imbroglio:
First of all, there is a big difference between the financial health of BEE and German Pellets. Indeed, for months now, German Pellets is in major financial trouble, with no certainty whatsoever that it will avoid bankruptcy. Taking that shaky –to say the least- financial context into account, it is indeed necessary to seriously challenge the fact that public money should be spent on such a project.
On a technical level as well, German Pellets and BEE are different. German Pellets would rely on traditional technology, with lower efficiency, and would use wood pellets, which production process is polluting and expensive.
BEE, on the contrary, would invest in a more modern technology –fluidized bed combustion- that will allow a cleaner combustion process, with lower temperatures, resulting in higher efficiency with fewer SOx and NOx emissions. Additionally, the heat released from this process would be used for a district heating network in Ghent.
Another important point in the case of the BEE power plant, is the commitment of BEE to only use US wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and African wood considered as waste, as it threatens the local biodiversity. Of course, we should remain attentive here: it is vital to effectively guarantee that the raw material of the power plant will indeed respect these more sustainable origins, and that this will remain that way.
The same cautious attitude should apply when BEE claims that the transport by ship will also happen in the most ecological way possible, thanks to the limited speed of the ships: we know from the “Sea Blind” article published by Graphene on March 31th how polluting the shipping industry can be.
Finally: both in the case of German Pellets and of BEE Power, the price of the public allowances will be very high: +- 2 billion euros for each projects.
This confirms once more that it is relevant to question the relevance of investing massively in such projects. But, while asking this question, it is even more important to take into consideration multiple answers, and not only focus on one standardized answer, namely: “Biomass is not green.”
Depending on the technology at stake, an industrial biomass project can indeed be sustainable, as shows the current Belgian case.
Little footnote to end, “en passant”: one could seriously raise eyebrows at the fact that one right-winged governmental political party now wants to impede public allowances for these two new players on the Belgian energy market, but, at the same time, doesn’t question the public millions that were already paid to –and are still continued to be spent on- the inefficient and epic-failed Max Green biomass power plant of Electrabel. Transparency and coherence are left out here.
If recruitment is an art, then it is certainly relevant to share these verses of Wisława Szymborska, the well-known Polish poet, about the tricky -and sometimes frustrating- job of writing a resume…
Writing A Curriculum Vitae
Translated from Polish by Graźyna Drabik and Austin Flint
What must you do?
You must submit an application
and enclose a Curriculum Vitae.
Regardless of how long your life is,
the Curriculum Vitae should be short.
Be concise, select facts.
Change landscapes into addresses
and vague memories into fixed dates.
Of all your loves, mention only the marital,
and of the children, only those who were born.
It’s more important who knows you
than whom you know.
Travels––only if abroad.
Affiliations––to what, not why.
Awards––but not for what.
Write as if you never talked with yourself,
as if you looked at yourself from afar.
Omit dogs, cats, and birds,
mementos, friends, dreams.
State price rather than value,
title rather than content.
Shoe size, not where one is going,
the one you are supposed to be.
Enclose a photo with one ear showing.
What counts is its shape, not what it hears.
What does it hear?
The clatter of machinery that shreds paper.
And, of course, the original version goes like this:
Trzeba napisać podanie,
a do podania dołączyć życiorys.
Bez względu na długość życia
życiorys powinien być krótki.
Obowiązuje zwięzłość i selekcja faktów.
Zamiana krajobrazów na adresy
i chwiejnych wspomnień w nieruchome daty.
Z wszystkich miłości starczy ślubna,
a z dzieci tylko urodzone.
Ważniejsze, kto cię zna, niż kogo znasz.
Podróże tylko jeśli zagraniczne.
Przynależność do czego, ale nie dlaczego.
Odznaczenia bez za co.
Pisz tak, jakbyś z sobą nigdy nie rozmawiał
i omijał z daleka.
Pomiń milczeniem psy, koty i ptaki,
pamiątkowe rupiecie, przyjaciół i sny.
Raczej cena niż wartość
i tytuł niż treść.
Raczej już numer butów, niż dokąd on idzie,
ten za kogo uchodzisz.
Do tego fotografia z odsłoniętym uchem.
Liczy się jego kształt, nie to, co słychać.
Łomot maszyn, które mielą papier.
The COP-21 Aftermath: what’s next, please?
The COP21 climate summit has been a “green” leitmotiv so far throughout all the Graphene articles, and I just don’t want to let go, especially since very little follow-up was done by the media since the agreement was reached.
It is fundamental to understand the impact of such a milestone for global climate and this is what this article will try to sketch, based on the aftermath of the last 4 months.
The next important date is April 22th, when the Agreement Signing Ceremony will take place in New York. In the UN HQ, the climate agreement will be signed. At least 55 countries, being accountable for a total amount of 55% of the emissions worldwide, are needed to officialise the agreement. From then on, all countries have 1 year to ratify it on a national level and effectively start with the implementation of the measures to be taken.
One country that definitely seems to be taking the sustainable lead is China: although it is not yet official, the next five-year plan of the Communist Party of China commits to “implement and enhance its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to tackle climate change”.
China committed to arrest CO2 growth before 2030 and boost clean energy to 20% of its energy mix in its contribution to the Paris climate agreement.
But that’s only one part of the solution. Reducing energy consumption in the first place is also one of China’s commitment, just like the decision to lay-off 1.8 million workers from its steel and coal sectors, as it battles air pollution. Another explanation for this decision is the fact that China’s economy is shifting away from heavy industry to develop itself at a high pace in the services industry.
What is important to state here is that climate issues have been raising the awareness of China’s population over the last few years, up to a point that poor air quality and polluted water are said to be the major reasons for social unrest in the country. Such popular endorsement of ground shifting environmental measures to be taken is fundamental to effectively succeed in achieving this ambitious plan.
So far about China, who is showing that the COP21 targets is dead-serious, vital business.
What about the EU? Well, not proud to write this, but the EU is set to emit 2bn tonnes more CO2 than it promised at the Paris climate talks, thus threatening an agreement to cap global warming at 2C. Oddly enough, with the current UE targets for 2030, the member states shall book less progress in terms of CO2 reduction over de 2020-2030 period than during this current period, up to 2020.
The mechanism at stake here and that shows a clear lack of efficiency so far is the topic of a previous Graphene International article: the European Carbon Trading System (ETS). Short summary, according to an article of The Guardian: The ETS’s “cap and trade” scheme creates a limited emissions market, within which 11,000 power stations and industrial plants can buy or sell allowances. It is lauded by supporters for a market-based approach that rewards greener firms with tradable credits, while encouraging dirtier firms to clean up their act, or offset their emissions by paying for accredited emissions cuts elsewhere.
Critics have raised questions about the veracity of some of these schemes, the over-allocation of free allowances to heavy polluters, and the extent to which prices – currently hovering at around €5 a tonne – can help fuel switching.
The system does have a mechanism to gradually reduce the number of carbon credits available – and so raise prices – but an official EU note says that this will not be enough to cut emissions to at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, as the EU has promised.
No doubt that, with the Agreement Signing Ceremony in sight, the EU will have to battle hard internally to find an equilibrium between a clear and ambitious climate action plan for the next decades and the interests of more reluctant EU countries (such as Poland) who don’t want to be unfairly hit due to their coal-dependant economy.
The role-model of the EU at a global scale should not be underestimated, as its decisions might inspire or –on the opposite- discourage other countries in (over)achieving the COP21 targets.
Save the date: April 22th 2016. From then on, permanent attention should be given to what the UE, China and other major global players such as the USA and Russia will effectively do to implement clear, binding and measurable solutions to give our planet some time to catch breath again.
Additional readings & sources:
What do scientists think of the Paris Agreement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQf2WQnHhC0
About China’s climate plan:
About the EU’s struggle to reach CO2 reduction targets:
“Sea Blind”, or how the shipping industry represents a major threat to the post-COP21 climate challenges
“Sea Blind”, that’s the name of a recent documentary made by Bernice Notenboom, climate reporter and polar explorer. It casts an appalling light on the shipping industry: not only is it accountable for 3 to 4,5% of the global CO2 emissions, not only are the 17 biggest container ships emitting as much sulfur oxide (the so-called “SOx”) as all the cars worldwide, but the shipping industry also viciously lurks for major business opportunities “thanks to” the melting of the northern polar ice.
Indeed, the Northern Sea Route is the –literally- wet dream of this industry, as the once impenetrable Arctic Sea could now open its ways, thus completely reshaping shipping business.
For instance, the trip from Shangai to Europe would be shortened by 11 days, which represents a saving of 100 000€ per shipping day, per boat. These enormous economic stakes explain why the shipping industry was excluded from the climate measures to be taken after COP21.
In short, the situation is twice as nasty: this industry takes a considerable part in changing climate for the worst, plus, it also considers these changes as a situation from which it could hugely benefit, business-wise.
That’s a shame, especially if we look at the situation the other way around: how could the shipping industry, on the contrary, contribute with great impact on changing climate for the better?
The answers are concrete and multiple. For a start, switching from low-cost, highly polluting fuel oil to LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) would be a good thing to do.
In terms of groundbreaking technology –this is always what interests Graphene most- opportunities are arising as well: for instance, the German company SkySails developed a giant sail, based on the principle of kitesurfing, for hybrid sailing ships. In short, any cargo could be retrofitted with this automatic system. This way, cargos would be towed by this giant sail, catching high and stable winds, thus enabling average savings of 10 to 35% in terms of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. With optimal weather conditions, this could even go up to 50%. The video contained in this link clearly explains how this system works:
In 2007, the first commercial container ship was equipped with the SkySails technology. However, the ROI –an average of 3 to 5 years- still represents an investment hurdle for many companies.
Besides this technology for cargo ships, SkySails also adapted this system for wind energy production: on areas at sea where wind turbines couldn’t be installed, the idea would be to build farms of floating platforms, each of them being equipped with a generator, that would be activated by the permanent up-and-down movement of the “kite” at the end of the rope, flying at heights between 300 to 500m. More info through this link (as from 45:00):
This technological creativity shows once more that redesigning the transport industry, whether at sea or elsewhere, in a sustainable way is something feasible. Excuses are no longer valid, as the climate directly suffers from the shipping industry, the way it functions now.
Rubbish to Refurbish
In the port of Antwerp, a much debated topic these days is the potential project of Saudi Arabian Energy Recovery Systems, a company that is meant to develop a revolutionary high quality Waste-to-Chemicals plant.
The company claims it developed a world-premiere waste treatment process that embraces the principle of Circular Economy:
Basically, its technology transforms supposedly non-recyclable waste, through gasification, into syngas and, ultimately, two main chemical products: ammonia and urea. Ammonia is a raw material with many applications for the Antwerp chemical cluster, while urea is a sustainable fertilizer, with growing global demand.
However, controversy showed up concerning this monumental project: isn’t it a treat to the whole recycling R&D cluster and industry? Moreover, what will be the true impact of CO2 emissions of this plant?
While these questions still seek clear answers, it seems to me no waste… of time to take a deeper glance at the more traditional technologies for transforming waste in a valuable way.
The first principle is the classic incineration method for waste-to-energy plants. Follow my lead:
The waste is burned in a furnace and the heat created is used in a boiler with heat exchangers to make steam, which in turn drives a turbine that generates electricity: this final part, we already know from previous Graphene articles, such as Diggin’ Energy and Power to the Water.
Besides the electricity produced by this process, some waste-to-energy plants incorporate district heating system into the cycle. Here, the low pressure steam that went through the turbine is used to heat a closed water loop, leading out into the community. Here again, the rest of the story, we know thanks to that other Graphene article: Sustainable “Canned Heat”.
This traditional way of treating waste generates some concerns, in terms of byproducts and CO2 produced:
The residue left behind in the furnace is called bottom ash and although it is non-hazardous, it should be carefully disposed of, principally as raw material for the construction sector. More dangerous are the gas emissions from the boiler, called flue gas. That gas must be thoroughly treated, through a triple system of filtering, scrubbing and absorption. Another nasty residue is fly ash, consisting of solid particles contained in flue gas and containing toxic chemicals and.
Compared to incineration, waste-to-energy process through gasification doesn’t burn the waste, but breaks the molecules apart with heat and a small amount of oxygen and recombines these molecules to form syngas, a clean gas, used to make fuels, chemicals, fertilizers, consumer products and also electricity. Waste-to-syngas is actually the first generation of the technology now at stake at the ERS project in Antwerp.
It is clear that this is yet another large-scale industrial project in Belgium to closely monitor.
For more info, please check:
Detailed article about the ERS project in Antwerp:
Tutorial video about waste-to-energy plants:
Tutorial video about waste-to-syngas plants:
Recently, a major break-through occurred in Belgium in terms of deep geothermal energy. On the former industrial site of Balmatt in Mol, the Flemish Institute of Technology (VITO) performed a series of test drillings in 2 geothermal wells, to explore the geothermal potential of this site. The first results bode well, even beyond expectations, and the perspectives grew more realistic that both heat and electricity –more than 5MW- could be extracted/produced from 6 geothermal wells on this site.
This would mean a continuous and autonomous supply of energy for over 20 000 households of the surrounding municipalities, for a fixed, low price. By the way, this would make the Balmatt site the 4th biggest geothermal plant in Europe. Not too shabby.
In general terms, geothermal energy is about making the most out of the heat contained in the several layers of the earth’s crust. The global principle is that the hot water and steam of these layers can be captured and used whether for heating purposes or for electrical production.
Most of the thermal energy coming for the earth (especially on a lower level below ground) is not hot enough to produce electricity. This water is lifted all the way up and –through a heat exchanger- will transfer its thermal energy to a secondary piping system filled with water, that will on its turn heat –for instance- a building (see also Graphene’s article about sustainable building).
When steam is extracted from the earth, it can directly contribute to power generation, when temperatures are above 150°C. Here, the principle is classic: the steam spins a turbine, then activating a generator in order to produce energy.
Nevertheless, technology makes it now possible to generate steam, as from 80°C, through an alternative version of the Rankine cycle (the classic water-steam cycle for power generation): the ORC, or Organic Rankine Cycle. Here, the lower geothermal heat can be used for an alternative cycle, where an organic liquid (such as propane or ammonia) will be transformed into steam on a much lower temperature than 100°C.
On the Balmatt site in Mol, VITO is analyzing the possibility to integrate an ORC system.
Getting back to this specific project, it is also interesting to stress additional ground-shifting technological features: VITO is developing a CO2 caption project on the Balmatt site. Here, it would not be a matter of capturing the carbon dioxide and store it deep down the ground, as it usually happens (the Carbon Capture and Storage principle). The point would be to use CO2 to produce sustainable chemicals. Indeed, according to a scientific article of S. Fujita, M. Arai, and B. M. Bhanage CO2 is recognized to be an abundant, cheap, recyclable, and nontoxic carbon source that can sometimes replace toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide or phosgene. For example, synthesis of dimethyl carbonate from CO2 and methanol could be an option. Dimethyl carbonate (or DMC) finds applications as a solvent, among others, thus replacing poisonous chemicals.
As a whole, it is clear that this Belgian geothermal project could create lots of technological and sustainable opportunities, on several levels. Let’s closely watch what this will give on the longer run. In any case, after being pinpointed for its “worst-in-class” practices at COP21, Belgium has to invest more in such projects to regain credibility and show the way to achieving the COP21 targets.
For more info:
“Short-but-sweet” video on how geothermy works: http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/the-heat-is-on-as-australia-plumbs-the-depths-20150516-gh35jr.html
Sustainable “Canned Heat”
As already pointed out before (see article about hydrogen cars): energy efficient technologies are not only a topic of the 21st century. Technologies developed decades and even centuries ago can serve as an example for current sustainable challenges.
This is the case of district heating: an energy concept where waste heat from industrial sites (industrial processes, biomass energy production, combined heat and power production plants…) or heat from deep under the ground (geothermal energy) is used for the heating of the public water distribution network.
These systems were already developed on a commercial scale in the 19th century in the USA and, as from the 20th century, in Europe. In Iceland for instance, 90% percent of the total heat consumption comes from district heating; in Denmark 60% of the buildings are connected to this system and in Sweden and Finland approximately 50%.
Belgium shouldn’t be too shy here, as several systems were already installed throughout the country, mostly connected to waste treatment plants, university campuses and power generation plants.
Basically, a district heating system consists of 4 main components:
- The main piping network of the industrial facilities: this network will transports the hot water (85-100C°) to the substations and, in the other direction, redirects the water that cooled off, for a new ride in the loop.
- The substations between the main piping network and the distribution network: hese substations will transfer part of the heat of the hot water to the cooled water on its way back. This process happens through heat exchangers.
- On its turn, the distribution network will redirect the hot water from the substations (now at a temperature of 70-80C°) to the delivery station of the client.
- The delivery station: here the junction is made between the distribution network and the piping system of the client. The hot water (with a final temperature of 35-65C°) is ready to be used for the central heating system or the warm tap water of the client.
The advantages of district heating are clear:
- Optimize the heat produced by industrial facilities: instead of just going up the air, it is used for heating the public water distribution network, in a much more energy and cost efficient way.
- Carbon emission will be reduced.
- As a client, you will need less space in your house or building for a boiler system, as all this is “externalized”, thanks to the delivery station. This means you only pay for the heat you effectively use.
- As a direct consequence of this external system, there are no risks of CO poisoning inside the house or building.
However, some essential conditions should be respected, in order to make district heating really worth it:
As this whole system requires high initial capital financing, it should only be considered as a long-term investment. District heating is less attractive for areas with low population densities, as the investment per household is considerably higher. Also it is less attractive in areas of many small buildings; e.g. detached houses than in areas with a few much larger buildings; e.g. blocks of flats, because each connection to a single-family house is quite expensive.
In short, district heating is yet another realistic, achievable technology applicable on a large scale, to prove the COP21 targets right.
More info on:
Pimp my Bike!
This weekend, surrealistic Belgium served a world premiere in terms of mechanical dope, as Belgian U23 cyclo-cross rider Femke Van den Driessche was caught during the world championship with an electrical bike in her paddock.
In the meantime, plenty has been written and said about this incident, but what really interests us here is to unveil the technology that enables such fraud.
Obviously, we are not talking about the classic grandpa’s e-bike here, but about the latest technology, that completely occults the electrical system.
This “easy pie” is made like this:
The motor, which measures 22cm in length, is fed into the seat tube and connects with the crankshaft via an interlocking gear.
The motor is connected to a battery pack via the electronic control unit housed in the seatpost provided. By default the battery lives in a saddlebag, but it can also be concealed in a bidon seated in the seatpost bidon cage or in the frame of the bike.
Two simple buttons to start and stop the motor are then mounted on the underside of the handlebars and routed to the control unit in the seat post. These could easily be mistaken for satellite shifters used with electronic gears.
Activating the motor is a simple case of turning the pedals and then pressing the start/stop buttons. The motor kicks in after roughly a second or so. On an average, the unit provides somewhere in the vicinity of 110W to the driveshaft. This is in addition to whatever the rider is pushing through the pedals. The motor doesn’t create any extra resistance in the drivechain when you’re riding with the motor disengaged; it feels just like you’re riding a normal bike.
To disengage the motor you simply stop pedaling.
Other optional “clever” feature: noise from the motor could theoretically be dampened by the use of insulating materials inside the frame. But arguably the sound wouldn’t need to be dampened at all.
If you’re keen on impressing your naive cycling buddies on the next bike trip, but don’t want to compromise in the meantime on your shaky physical condition, just have a look at:
And if you’re willing to invest a rough 3000-3500€ for this pimping session, you’ll soon be good to go!
The European Carbon Trading System explained, for dummies (like me)
One of the (what should be) most powerful means of the European Union to achieve the COP21 targets in terms of reduced greenhouse gasses emission, is the European Carbon Emission Trading System.
Carbon trading is a practice not only entitled to the EU. It exists in several schemes around the world. While this vast and complex mechanism would be too tricky to explain on a global level (since there isn’t one single, homogeneous system), I prefer to focus on the EU carbon trading system: an initiative worth to be mentioned, although it still lacks optimal efficiency.
First of all, it’s important to understand its context and way of functioning:
In 2005, the EU created the first multi-state carbon market. Ten years later, in 2015, it has become the largest emission trading scheme in the world.
Key to this system is the definition of an emission cap -or maximal amount of CO2- that can be produced for a certain time period. In 2013, for example, it was set at 2,084m tons of CO2.
Afterwards, this cap is shared and traded among market players (typically big industries) in form of tradable allowances. Each allowance represents a permission for each player to emit 1 ton of CO2 equivalent.
At the end of the year, the market sharers have to demonstrate the balance between their allowances and their emissions. They then have 4 months to get the balance right:
If they produced more CO2, they have to buy excess allowances from the market or purchase offset credits. The latter represent emission reduction achieved by other geographic zones or sectors. Of course, failing to comply will result in fines and the obligation to provide the missing allowances.
On the contrary, if a company produced less CO2 equivalent than expected, it can bank these excess allowances for future years or sell these allowances to other companies.
In 2015, the European Carbon Market covered almost 50% of Europeans CO2 emissions and includes almost 16 400 of the most polluting production facilities in 31 countries (so not only EU countries)
The target by 2020 is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by -21% compared to 2005. The target by 2030 is -43%.
To achieve this feasible goal, it is fundamental to lower the cap each year and to set a solid carbon price.
This carbon pricing system will offer two choices to companies: whether invest in allowances (when their price is lower than the cost of investing in low carbon technology), whether invest in energy efficient and renewable solutions, when their cost is lower than the one of the allowances.
Consequently, a strong carbon price in the long term is vital for the success of this system. And this is precisely the issue at the moment:
While the EU determined that a price of 30€ per ton of CO2 equivalent would be fair enough, the last few years, the price per allowance varied between 5€ and 10€. This is a direct consequence of the excess of allowances available on the market. This price drop is a clear signal of investors lacking confidence in this system on the long term.
To ensure the viability of the system for the next decades, the EU thought about (and already applied) some measures: delay the issue of allowances, in the hope to create an immediate permit shortage or develop a market stability mechanism, where it will stop issuing permits if there are more than 833m in circulation.
According to a very interesting read in The Economist, by Arthur van Benthem & Ralf Martin, the best solution would be to determine a solid bottom price per allowance, as it already happens in California, and at the same time to suspend free allocation of allowances.
The article says this would represent no harm to competiveness of the industrial players involved and make investments in clean tech much more attractive, while allowing the EU to invest more in these sustainable technologies.
If your curiosity is still frustrated after this bit of lecture, please move on the complete article:
Other source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxdxBfZKoa0
Sustainable building: lead by example
Passive housing, low energy construction, eco-building, zero-energy construction, BREEAM, Valideo… all these concepts are fashionable nowadays, and may this tendency last. But did you ever wonder about what really determines whether a building is sustainable or not? Is it just a matter of putting a couple of solar panels up the roof? Is it about impeccable glazing, top-notch insulation and collecting rainwater? And what about waterless loos?
The easiest way to find out might perhaps be to take a look at a relevant example of such a green building and illustrate some of its key elements in terms of sustainable engineering.
My attention was caught by the Bullitt Center, in Seattle, WA. This building was elected in 2013 as the greenest commercial building in the world. This seemed to me fair enough to zoom in on some of its brightest technological features:
The Bullitt Center is heated (and cooled) by a dense system of radiant pipes, beneath the concrete overlay of each floor. The source of the heat for this system comes from 26 geo-thermal wells diving about 120 meter below the building. This ground-source heat pump uses a closed-loop tube containing a mixture of water and glycol that receives and gives off heat quickly to the surrounding soil and groundwater, which remains at a constant temperature of 12 degrees Celsius. When heating the building, the glycol mixture absorbs the ground’s warmth, before it is pumped back up and run through heat pumps in the mechanical room that warm 12°C fluid into 32°C fluid. In the summer, the system can be run in reverse, restoring this heat back into the ground. In this sense, the ground is used as a “battery” for heat.
Massive amounts of treated air can be lost through a building’s ventilation system. This means that the heating and cooling systems would have to work extra hard to keep the building thermally comfortable.
The concept of a heat recovery ventilator is quite simple: the tempered outgoing exhaust air gives off its warmth or ‘coolth’ to the incoming ventilation air. The transfer occurs within a honeycombed, rotating drum. The material of the honeycomb is very thin and very conductive, so the heat can be transferred efficiently. The purpose of the drum is to transfer as much heat as possible without contaminating the incoming air with exhaust air.
The air then passes through a hot or cold coil depending on the season, to further preheat or pre-cool the ventilation air. This coil is supplied by the ground source heat pump system.
The bones of the Bullitt Center are comprised of three principal materials: wood, concrete, and steel. These materials are carefully used according to their specific load-bearing characteristics and great care was taken to reduce carbon emissions during construction of the Bullitt Center. Concrete is one of the most notorious carbon emitters in the construction industry, but is also valued for its capacity to handle enormous amounts of compression. So the design team limited the use of concrete to the bottom of the building, where it is most needed to carry the loads of the building, hold back the earth, and retain water in the rainwater cistern. Above the second floor, the Bullitt Center is constructed with heavy timber framing. 100 percent of the wood used is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, ensuring it came from a responsibly managed forest. Wood functions well for vertical loading, and is quite ductile in the case of earthquakes. Steel is still an optimum material for carrying horizontal loads in the case of high wind or earthquakes. A steel core with cross-tension members helps the Bullitt Center bring horizontal loading to the ground.
Human waste, waste and rain water
At the Bullit Center, human waste will go from the toilets to the composters, using a (near) waterless system, consisting of a biodegradable soap-like substance and about 3 tablespoons of water. In the composters, aerobic digestion heads material up to 88°C, enough to kill all pathogens. After approximately 18 months, the solid waste will be converted to compost.
On its turn, greywater from the taps and showers is pumped to the garden from a 500-gallon tank in the basement of the building. Once at the third floor terrace, it is dispersed into an artificial wetland. Here, the water can be evaporated and the plants can soak up the nutrients that would be harmful to a normal ecosystem. The water is then collected at the bottom and pumped through several more times until the water is sufficiently clean, then it is pumped into the bio swales. Here, more organic matter can be absorbed by the plants before the clean water makes its way down the 20 foot deep gravel tubes which deposit the water into the aquifer.
A parapet roof captures rainwater and brings it to a 56,000-gallon, concrete cistern in the basement. On its way down, the water is funneled through a vortex filter, which removes large particulates. Next to the cistern is a “day-use tank” that holds 500 gallons of clean, potable water. To create the potable water, the rainwater is “ultra-filtered” through three ceramic filters, with the finest removing viruses. The rainwater is also passed under ultraviolet light and through activated charcoal and a small amount of chlorine is added. While chlorine is a toxic chemical, research showed examples of people getting sick from bacterial growth on faucet heads, so the team decided to use a small amount of chlorine – then remove it at the faucet head with activated charcoal – to protect public health.
And even the… elevator!
The elevator is a bit of a technological marvel in its own right. It works with a regenerative mechanism to capture energy as the elevator slows down. A motor at the top of the shaft takes the energy from stopping the elevator car and converts it into electrical energy, which can then be used elsewhere in the building. This elevator is said to be about 60% more efficient than standard elevators and careful placement that discourages its use only adds to this efficiency multiplier.
Besides these features I highlighted, there are of course some other essential characteristics of the building, such as 575 solar panels, a sophisticated Building Management System, a bike park and repair shop, showers for the cyclists and the clever location of the building, in the middle of the public transport network of Seattle.
You will find more information about these building features through this link:
What’s the link between an old Soviet cab and the targets of COP21?
I’ve always liked to put my nose into all kind of archives probably only few people care about. This can lead to some interesting findings, for example when bumping into current hot topics, but in a totally other epoch and context than nowadays.
Recently, I was perusing The Moscow News edition of… January 11, 1981. Back then, this weekly newspaper was published by the USSR, to “promote friendship and cultural exchange with foreign countries”: old school, feel-good news with a tasty propaganda twist.
How big was my surprise when I suddenly let my eye drop on an article entitled “A hydrogen-powered Volga”. The Volga was a typical cab of the USSR and the article was dealing with the launch in the city of Kharkov of a new Volga model, which engine was working through a mix of petrol and hydrogen.
The article celebrates the qualities of this revolutionary engine: not only is hydrogen a clean fuel, without harmful emissions (CO2 or other), its transportation is also way easier and cheaper than it’s the case with fossil fuels. Moreover, production of hydrogen is unlimited and renewable, as hydrogen can be obtained through decomposition of water and, once used as a fuel, hydrogen’s only waste is… water!
Circular economy, Soviet style. Could it be?
In any case, such vocabulary could be part of any article published nowadays promoting green technology.
More than 34 years later, let’s have a look at how this technology evolved:
In the meanwhile, there are two ways to use hydrogen as a fuel. Either by burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, or by reacting hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to run electric motors. This first way was already used in Kharkov back in 1981. The second way deserves a small word of explanation: fuel cells enable to produce electricity through a chemical reaction, without burning any fuel, thus powering electric motors in a car.
The current advantages of hydrogen basically echo the article of The Moscow News.
However, it’s also a fact that hydrogen, at this stage of development, shows some major flaws, among which:
- Its high production cost
- The difficulties and cost linked to its storage and transportation (that’s not what The Moscow News claimed)
- If it’s true that hydrogen as a fuel doesn’t produce CO2, it’s equally true that other non-renewable sources such as coal and oil are needed in an earlier stage to produce hydrogen, to separate it from oxygen. And last but not least:
- If we talk about the fuel cell method: why producing electricity through such an expensive fuel as hydrogen, when electricity can be made available through other renewable and cheaper means?
The last few years, it’s especially in the USA that major (political) debates about hydrogen took place, after George W. Bush decided in 2003 to take a bet on hydrogen cars. It appears now that investing in other types of alternative fuel vehicles should be preferred over hydrogen cars, whether they are plug-in hybrids, all-electric vehicles or natural gas vehicles.
Conclusion: hydrogen engines might have been a technological breakthrough back in the 80s, but for your next trip to Russia, if you want to make your own contribution to the COP21 targets, it’s probably better to take a the Trans-Siberian Express instead of an old Volga cab…
More info through:
No Phosphate, No Life
A sustainable future is not only about a CO2-neutral planet or 100% renewable energy production, it’s also about ensuring the permanent availability of core raw materials.
This is the case of phosphate, a raw material which absolute necessity for mankind remains fairly unknown to most of us (or -in any case- unknown to me until recently…).
Phosphate simply is part of us all: it’s in our bones, in our organs, in the food we eat, whether we’re veggies, foodies, vegans or good old meat lovers.
But that’s not all: the main application of phosphate is to be found in the fertilizer industry. To make it possible to feed over 7 billion people worldwide, phosphate consequently is a key element in our food chain.
The problem is the following: the phosphate mines, from which a majority of the phosphate production comes, are scarce: only in China, the USA, Morocco and to a smaller extent countries like Tunisia and Finland, such mines can be found.
In function of the population growth (estimated at over 9 billion people by 2050), the phosphate mines could already be emptied of their precious content by the end of this century.
Needless to say a sudden huge shortage of phosphate would have severe consequences for life on earth.
Luckily, man wouldn’t be man if after making a mess out of it, he would try to save the day:
Basically, so far, phosphate, after being used, just go down the drain. Literally. This means there is a huge potential in recovering phosphate from waste, which would enable us to rely less on the phosphate mines.
NuReSys, a Belgian technology, is already used on an industrial level to extract phosphate from industrial waste water.
It works like this: in water with a high concentration of phosphate, magnesium is added. The result is that at the bottom of the recipient, phosphate crystals will develop. Once dried, this granular product can directly be used for classic applications of phosphate. The circle is closed, and keeps moving.
At the Belgian coast, a French fries factory uses NuReSys technology to recover phosphate through following process:
The water used in the process to clean and cut the potatoes will absorb the phosphate of the potatoes. Afterwards, in the water treatment units, dealing with 60 000l/hour, the extraction of phosphate occurs through the crystallization reactor. Outside the factory, big recipients collect the final product, which can immediately be re-used in the agricultural sector.
More globally, this principle can be applied in the food industry, and potentially also to the kind of waste containing the largest amount of phosphate: human and animal excrements.
Curious to see whether investors will smell business opportunities in this specific technological area…
More info on NuReSys technology :
Have also a look at the Canvas documentary “Alles kan schoner”:
Power to the Water
When talking about renewable energy, wind, biomass and the sun are always mentioned as the main resources to benefit from. But let’s not forget about the huge potential of water power.
This source of energy goes beyond the classic way of generating hydroelectric power through huge dams built on rivers or lakes. These constructions are not always that eco-friendly and reliable. Just ask Brazil or India, which recently suffered from huge damages on hydroelectric plants.
For many years now, R&D centers worldwide (mostly in Northern America, the UK and Scandinavia) have been investigating on new means of using water power at its best to generate green electricity.
Basically, the principle remains the same as with hydroelectric power:
The power and pressure generated by water is used to activate a turbine, which -on its turn- will activate the generator, thus producing electricity that will be injected on the grid.
To achieve this, turbines can be set into motion by the waves, the tides or the streams of seas and oceans.
One system I would like to highlight here illustrates particularly well this mechanism:
It’s a pilot project in the state of Ceará, Brazil, involving among others Belgian engineering expertise.
As you can see on the picture on top, two huge buoys (10 meters diameter) are connected to the shore, each by a gigantic, moveable mechanical arm (22 meters long). These mechanical arms are connected to a hydraulic pump, in a closed circuit of fresh water. As the buoys constantly move up and down thanks to the waves, the mechanical arms follow the movement, thus activating the hydraulic pump. The hydraulic pump will, with the help of an internal high pressure system, release an extremely pressured stream of fresh water. This stream will activate the turbine and consequently the generator.
As simple and brilliant as this innovation sounds, such projects are not yet developed on a large scale, as the investments needed to build such –until now- immature technologies remain very high.
Nevertheless, it bodes well for the future of green energy production, especially since such technology is available for so many countries all over the world, thanks to their direct access to seas and oceans. No offence here to Luxembourg or Switzerland…
To see the video of this system, follow this link:
Belgium at COP21: one step beyond
That, these days, Belgian politicians show themselves very little COP-erative is an established fact. This absurd situation reached its climax at the Fossil of the Day Award, an NGO event organized at COP21, to “celebrate” the world actors who are a disgrace towards the climate.
But before the “Belgium bashing” goes on, let’s have a closer look at the current figures at stake:
While in Paris, the focus is set on defining clear targets for the period 2020-2030, Belgium has only just sealed a deal for the period 2013-2020. In other words, it’s only now that Belgium reached an agreement based on the measures to be taken after COP15 in Copenhagen in… 2009!
Back then, it took the EU 6 months to define the national objectives of its member states. Belgium, apparently, needed 6 extra years to implement the measures to hit this target.
Some of the essential goals:
While Flanders has to reduce its CO2 emissions by 15,7% in 2020, the objective for Wallonia is -14,7%.
In terms of renewable energy, in 2020, green energy production in Flanders should represent 10,3% of the total energy production (currently, it’s only half of that percentage…), while Wallonia has to guarantee that, by 2020, 12,6% of its energy produced is based on renewable resources.
On the brighter side, according to the Climate Change Performance index (an instrument supposed to enhance transparency in international climate politics), Belgium is ranked 13th out of 58 countries taken into account.
Which isn’t that bad. Especially in terms of CO2 emission of buildings and increase of renewable energy over the last few years, Belgium is scoring positively.
Obvious points of attention remain the energy consumption per person and the CO2 emission per capita (see previous post).
In this ranking, Denmark, Sweden and Great-Britain are top-of-the-chart.
In any case, lots of effective sustainable efforts are still waiting ahead, and Belgium can’t remain one step behind, in terms of political commitments and technological solutions. Because, let’s be clear about this: waiting another 6 years to embrace the future targets of COP21, wouldn’t that be pure… madness?