Five Alums with Vision Lead the Way: Alastair Smith '05, Ann Magnin '76, Tap Pryor '49, James Rice '87, and Kate Bailey '97
Empowering a Continent
Alastair Smith '05 Builds Community Microgrids
Alastair Smith '05 went way off the grid after graduating from Harvard—to Africa—far from family, friends, and creature comforts.
But $10-a-night hostels to begin with and spotty electricity in his apartment in Lagos, Nigeria, were a small price to pay to bring electricity to the developing world.
Since 2010, Smith has been building renewable energy power systems, including community microgrids, initially harnessing the power of wind and then the sun to help bring modern amenities to Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. He is cofounder and the head of the Nigeria office of PowerGen Renewable Energy, which is revolutionizing an untapped market on a continent where 500 million people don't have electricity.
A boarding school in Tanzania is among the many beneficiaries of the company's work. "They've never had light before in the evenings at their school," Smith says. "It really does change their life and their world. It really is a great sight to behold."
The engineering major did a thesis on building a wind turbine during his senior year at Harvard and then joined a friend in Africa later that year. They worked with schools and health clinics to build renewable energy power systems.
"After about two months, I realized I could build a small wind turbine locally for about 50 percent of the cost of one imported," Smith says.
A massive drop in solar energy prices shook up the market in 2011, however.
"It essentially made small wind uneconomic," he says. "We started to see the changing of the tide. It's better to have a diversified generation source, especially when dealing with renewable energy, as you're depending on the environment."
The burgeoning company started selling power on a kilowatt basis and building solar microgrids. Financing for the business, which now has 140 employees, came from U.S. seed investors and family friends, and project finance came from crowdsourcing campaigns and humanitarian aid organizations.
"You're basically dealing with two different worlds," Smith says. "It's been a great experience in seeing a completely different culture and perspective on values, especially in Africa. There's an interesting juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, especially in Nairobi, Kenya."
It wasn't easy transitioning to life in Africa. "I think I always remember the first few months that I moved to Nairobi. We didn't know anybody," Smith says. "We just lived in a hostel for $10 a day. It was a really good way to get us to know the city. We didn't have computers."
Direct flights from the U.S. to Africa are few and far between. "That's been one of the acclimations to living over here—you're just not close to a number of people you care about," he says. "I never expected to be here this long. Initially, it was more of fascination. Whenever my friends would say, 'When are you coming home?' I would say, 'six months.'"
Smith's work is not without risk. He helped build a solar-powered water pumping system in Dadaab, which is home to 235,000 refugees on the border of Kenya and Somalia. The UN base is the third-largest refugee camp in the world. Humanitarian groups typically discourage visits by civilians because of the threat of terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab.
"It's one of those things that oftentimes I think about what needs to get done and the work that needs to happen, and I don't reflect on things as much as I probably should," Smith says.
Minding the Store
Ann Magnin '76 is Leading the Crusade Against Single-Use Plastic Bags
Even the Land of Steady Habits, as Connecticut is often referred to, is capable of change.
Just ask Ann Magnin '76, who helped convince the Common Council in her city, Norwalk, to adopt a ban on singleuse plastic bags. Businesses that violate the ordinance, which passed in January, face a $100 fine for a first offense and a $250 fine for each repeat offense.
The public relations specialist and cofounder of the group Skip the Plastic Norwalk isn't stopping there, however. Not with a number of other municipalities looking to follow suit and the state under new Governor Ned Lamont moving to disincentivize the use of plastic bags.
"Some people say, 'Well there are retailers where you can return your plastic bag.' That's not really the solution," Magnin says. "It's refusing plastic in the first place and cutting it off at the source. Recycling is not the answer."
Magnin is trying to educate both consumers and policymakers about the environmental threats posed by plastic bags and straws, which have been blamed for a pair of giant debris fields in the Pacific Ocean. Closer to home, they are polluting Long Island Sound.
While a number of retailers tout the recyclability of their plastic, Magnin says that most communities are not equipped to handle those materials. At one point, Trader Joe's in neighboring Darien, for example, claimed its cornbased plastic bags were biodegradable in 90 days, which Magnin disputes.
"They're essentially the same as plastic," Magnin says. "I think the more we're able to raise awareness, the better. People simply don't know. They're just not aware."
What started as a Facebook conversation about the amount of trash produced in New York City, where Magnin runs an eponymous PR firm, blossomed into a grassroots campaign to ban single-use plastic bags in her own community.
"I help a lot with the messaging," Magnin says. "Everyone's working hard to reduce plastic pollution. It's a landfill issue and an incinerator issue."
Just because the group opposes plastic bags, doesn't mean that its advocating for consumers to use paper bags, Magnin says. In Norwalk, the city's ban allows retailers to charge 10 cents for more costly alternatives such as paper bags.
"We're advocating for reusable," Magnin says. "Paper has its own issues."
At the Capitol in Hartford, lawmakers are weighing a 10-cent per plastic bag surcharge proposed by the governor. Magnin says Norwalk's ban would still stand if the surcharge is approved by the legislature unless the state passes something that explicitly overrides local law.
Norwalk's plastic bag ordinance stopped short of banning plastic straws, but that doesn't mean straws are getting a pass from conservationists like Magnin and environmentally conscious businesses.
"We did kick off Skip the Straw," she says. "There were a number of local restaurants that were only providing straws upon request or have already made the switch to paper."
Magnin traces her environmental activism to her upbringing in San Francisco.
"I grew up with the idea of drought and water conservation," she says. "Conserving resources and protecting our planet is really important to me."
Beyond the Sea
Tap Pryor '49 Pioneers Land-Based Oyster Farming
Tap Pryor has salt water in his veins.
It comes from 50 years of harvesting oysters, the briny delicacy treasured all over the globe, from the exotic South Pacific to the rocky shoreline of Maine.
But you won't find the 87-year-old marine biologist, aquaculturist, and entrepreneur in waders or in the muck.
What started off as an experiment in 1971 has turned into a cottage industry for Pryor: on-land and indoors oyster farming.
"You're in shirtsleeves year-round," Pryor says. "Here in Maine, why can't we grow them year-round?"
Pryor is cofounder of Maine Shellfish Developers in the fishing resort town of Waldoboro, where the small business has taken over a large warehouse for its aquaculture venture. Inside, Pryor uses a proprietary feed formula for farming large numbers of oysters in a 60-foot-by-60-foot room protected from environmental changes and other threats.
The process takes about nine months, compared to two to three years for near-shore oyster farming. Pryor adds well water, imported salt, calcium, and manganese to the feed.
"When we harvest them, they are fat because they have been growing 24/7 for all those months," Pryor says. "It's largely the result of warm water and continuous production for the whole time. They spend a lot of energy making shells."
The cocktail-size oysters, known as Eastern or Atlantic oysters, then get sent to local near-shore estuaries for two weeks finishing.
"The oyster picks up the local flavor profile and salinity profile right away," he says. "The flavor is inconsequential when it leaves our warehouse."
In contrast to Pryor's operation, the typical offshore harvesting season only goes from July through October in Maine. Oysters raised offshore face a myriad of threats, from viruses to red tide, an algae bloom that can deplete oxygen in the water and release toxins.
Then, there's the red tape associated with environmental permitting. One of Pryor's offshore counterparts has spent $100,000 on permitting and gone through three public hearings and still had not received approval yet, he says. Pryor got his permit to farm oysters indoors in less than a month and at no cost.
"Coastal landowners are very vigorous opponents of aquaculture in Maine," Pryor says.
After being stationed in Hawaii as a Marine aviator, Pryor went on to study marine biology at the University of Hawaii. He spent 30 years in Hawaii and 20 years in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. Now, he's been in Maine for nine years. "I left the pearl farming behind," Pryor says wryly.
Oysters are big business in their own right. Close to two million oysters are harvested from a single room in a year, according to Pryor, who has been recognized by groups such as the United Nations for his innovation. In 1982, at the German European Food Fair, he won the outstanding food product award.
"Nobody's doing what we're doing," he says.
For Pryor, oysters are not simply an acquired taste. "You're missing a gourmet experience," he says.
New School of Thought
James Rice '87 Designs the Learning Centers of Tomorrow
In life, like in architecture, you need a solid foundation.
For James Rice '87, it started when he was 16, designing and building a "net zero" cabin in the Green Mountains of Putney, Vermont, for a summer project.
He oriented the small house toward the south to get maximum sun exposure and fitted it with solar panels, a woodstove, and ample insulation to keep out the cold.
The structure is still in use on the campus of the Putney School to teach students about sustainability and living off the grid, lessons that Rice has carried with him for the past 25 years designing and building K-12 schools, higher education facilities, and custom homes.
"The best part of being net zero or being off the grid is your awareness of the environment," Rice says. "You're not going to leave your lights on, especially if it's a cloudy day. You become one with nature in a net-zero building."
Today Rice is Energy Positive program manager for Firstfloor, a Raleigh, North Carolina, based architectural and construction administration firm that is revolutionizing the way buildings are designed, created, maintained, company's office in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he's lived for 15 years.
"Because the 21st-century student is so different from the 20th-century student, the architecture has to adapt," he says. "The number one thing in our buildings is the people. Our architecture reflects the program and the teachers' methods."
At Sandy Grove Middle School in Lumber Bridge, North Carolina, Rice and his colleagues came up with a design for a 75,930-square-foot building that creates 60 percent more energy than it consumes. The cutting-edge design uses solar panels, a well-insulated building envelope, and energy efficient windows. It's earned Rice and his colleagues numerous awards.
"It's crazy how much money municipalities spend on energy," Rice says. "We're able to deliver buildings that are much better than your regular buildings and are also much less expensive to and even paid for. He works out of the operate. There's a lot of modeling that goes on during the design phase."
Firstfloor and its sister company, SfL+a Architects, are also redefining how school projects get built—they come up with financing and will operate the facility for a set term, such as 30 years. Sandy Grove Middle School, serving 650 students, is the nation's first energy positive, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certified, leased public school.
"All the district has to do is agree to the monthly lease payment. After seven years Sandy Grove decided they want to own building," Rice says, adding that the school district was expected to close on the building sale in the spring.
The revolutionary financing program has paved the way for high quality schools to be constructed in some of the nation's poorest areas.
"We do a lot of amazing things," Rice says. "A lot of it we didn't plan on happening."
Since he was 5 years old, Rice wanted to be an architect. Taft, he says, reinforced that for the Naugatuck, Connecticut, native, who was recruited by Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, to go to their architecture program when they learned of his net-zero Vermont cabin project.
"I've always been project oriented and I'm a collaborator, too," he says.
Kate Bailey '97 is the "Zero Waste" Guru
It's not easy going green.
So when communities and citizen groups need direction on recycling, reducing carbon pollution, creating green jobs, and environmental best practices, more and more of them, from Boston to Brazil, are turning to Kate Bailey.
Bailey is the policy and research director at Eco-Cycle Solutions, a Boulder, Colorado, based nonprofit that has gone from a group of volunteers collecting aluminum cans and newspapers for recycling in 1976 to an international authority on resource conservation.
"Part of my job is sharing our success stories, our hands-on experience around the country and around the world," Bailey says.
The University of Colorado graduate gives tips to communities with colder climates to keep compost materials from freezing at the bottom of trucks, for example. Some need help identifying areas for improvement, from developing zero waste plans to cutting back on single-use plastic bags. Others need training webinars.
"We will often have a group of citizens reach out to us," Bailey says. "It's great to see more and more local communities take action."
Bailey's work coincides with a national conversation about the Green New Deal, the much-buzzed about and contentious legislation seeking to address climate change and income inequality. It also comes as a number of states and cities have banned single-use plastic bags, with California becoming the first in 2014. A 2016 referendum upheld the ban.
"It's like the momentum in the last year has really picked up," Bailey says. "It's fun to see that from all corners of the country."
But Bailey says that plastic bags "are just a small fraction of the problem."
"You may have schools that have no recycling at all," she says. "We've got some work that we need to do. It doesn't happen overnight, but it's one of those more easy-to-do solutions."
Last year, Bailey helped Boston adopt a zero waste plan. She was also a presenter at a Zero Waste Cities Conference in Brazil and traveled to the Netherlands to learn about the circular economy initiatives. Her work has also taken her to more than a dozen states in the U.S.
The onus is often on individual communities and groups to raise awareness and come up with an action plan.
"My work typically is with local cities," she says. "It's hard having such a lack of leadership at the national level." Bailey says that many cities and towns are not equipped to handle the everchanging packaging of products.
"Manufacturers are constantly putting new products on the market," she says. In Europe, there is better communication between packaging designers and the recycling community, according to Bailey, who says, "We have a little bit of a free-for-all over here."
Getting consumers and businesses to change their habits can be tough, but Bailey sees progress. Take plastic straws. "People are looking at straws as unnecessary," she says. Other habits aren't as easy to break, such as providing 15 soy sauce packets with takeout orders.
"We're big fans of, ask first," Bailey says.
Neil Vigdor '95 covers politics for the Hartford Courant.