OUC floating solar grid
The Orlando Utilities Commission is testing floating solar panels at an area lake to see how well they can generate power.

As college students, Nicole Hall-Elser and Kinsley Gerks realized the world had a big waste problem: When the electronics at the heart of our modern society reach the end of their useful lives, they get thrown out like so much other garbage.

All of those printers, phones and other IT equipment amount to a staggering 50 million tons of e-waste globally every year. And the stream won’t end anytime soon. Researchers say buyers consume 66 million tons of new electronics annually.

But where the world saw a major challenge, the two students at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, saw an opportunity. They wondered: If discarded batteries still work, what could they be used for?

“The things we throw away should have been used to their fullest,” Hall-Elser said. “But so many of these batteries have life left in them. It’s wasted energy that has so much potential, especially for those who need it the most.”

To carry out a mission of reducing useful batteries in e-waste, the pair in 2018 created a cleantech company called BatterEASE. They plan to remove lithium batteries from the e-waste stream and repurpose them in solar power kits meant for victims of natural disasters, the homeless or outdoors enthusiasts in need of electricity.

The first time Hall-Elser and Gerks collected e-waste from local businesses in Orlando, they recovered 100 pounds of batteries and found that 73 percent passed BatterEASE qualifications for reuse in their energy kit. They are now working with Orange County’s solid waste division to collect batteries that would otherwise be destined for the landfill.

Along with engineers at the University of Central Florida, the two innovators developed a working prototype, which can be combined with others to provide more power. They intend to begin selling the kits in early 2020.

Investing In A Local Cleantech Industry

Hall-Elser and Gerks credit a raft of organizations around Orlando for nurturing them and their idea through market release.

“There are so many incredible programs here, from accelerators to university incubators and other startups,” Gerks said. “With so many opportunities, the walls to our success had already been brought down for us.”

Spurred by investments in innovation, cleantech and clean energy are becoming big business in Orlando. A wealth of cross-disciplinary talent in the field now calls the area home, and an ecosystem has formed that comprises a collaborative business community, progressive government and advanced research centers.

Research hubs like the Florida Solar Energy Center at UCF and the university’s Energy Conversion and Propulsion Cluster have pushed Orlando to the front of a global clean energy industry.

Local startups like BatterEASE, meanwhile, are thinking creatively to come up with sustainable solutions to hard problems. Incubators like Rally and competitions such as Megawatt Ventures cultivate ideas and leaders before helping to find financing.

If we can be a leader in cleanteach, we can sustain our own growth and improve our health into the 21st century and beyond while providing solutions that can help the world.

Chris Castro, City of Orlando’s director of sustainability and resilience

Efforts are being further supercharged by the presence of major industry players like Siemens Energy and Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems that produce advanced electricity generation, transmission and storage equipment. Big-name power consumers like Walt Disney World Resort, meanwhile, are creating a significant market for alternative energy and energy-efficient products.

The whole picture indicates a fertile garden for sprouting next-generation cleantech.

“The startup scene in general here is a very wholesome space where we all cheer each other on,” Hall-Elser said. “And the city and county governments have been incredibly supportive of us — we’re playing with the big boys in the cleantech ecosystem.”

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The City Sets The Tone

Government leadership in this space has also come in the form of policy decisions to conserve energy and transition to renewable forms.

“Cleantech and the transition to clean energy offer big opportunities for economic growth here,” said Chris Castro, Orlando’s director of sustainability and resilience. “People, planet and prosperity — that’s how we look at this investment.”

Workforce numbers show cleantech flexing its muscle. More than 15,000 people are employed in solar, wind and geothermal electricity generation in Florida, while nearly 113,000 people work in energy efficiency jobs like insulation and efficient lighting installation. Castro said solar panel installation alone is one of Orlando’s hottest jobs.

Officials have committed to getting all of Orlando’s energy from renewable sources by 2050. Other municipalities are also making big plans. Nearby Kissimmee has recently said it would connect all of its municipal facilities to solar power by 2020.County governments, meanwhile, have developed ambitious sustainability plans that invest in protecting resources and lowering atmospheric emissions.

Disney, a big cleantech customer, is pushing forward with its sustainability plans. The company recently brought onlinea 270-acre solar farm, which produces enough electricity to power two of its theme parks. It is also working to decrease the waste it sends to landfills by 60 percent and significantly reduce water use.

Aggressive Innovation

Of course, reaching these sustainability goals won’t just require a few solar panels installed on roofs. Millions of people call the region home, and that number grows daily.

That’s why Castro and his colleagues in government are launching a number of progressive projects. Among them, the city is converting its municipal fleet to electric vehicles. They are also embarking on renewable power and energy efficiency projects — like one pilot that is testing floating solar panels on the area’s many ponds and lakes.

It’s also setting efficiency mandates that will curtail energy waste. In 2018, Orlando started requiring city-owned buildings of more than 10,000 square feet and commercial and multifamily buildings of more than 50,000 square feet to track and report their energy use. The policy covers less than 5 percent of Orlando’s structures, but they’re responsible for 50 percent of total building energy use.

The policy, Castro said, is meant to help increase overall building energy efficiency and let people make more informed decisions about where they want to live and work. It’s also coupled with financing programs that help owners offset cleantech investments.

Separately, the city is home to innovative public-private partnerships like Drive Electric Orlando. This effort uses the area’s status as the largest car rental market and pre-eminent tourist destination to expose locals and visitors to electric vehicles. The program is spurring a large deployment of EV charging stations. Castro said there are now 400 chargers in the greater Orlando area and 200 within city limits.

James Fenton, the director of the UCF Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa, said Orlando is taking full advantage of an unprecedented opportunity unleashed by technological innovation and market demand.

The energy center is working on a number of cleantech research and development projects, including ones that aim to improve building and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning efficiency, water heaters, solar photovoltaics and energy storage. One FSEC initiative is pairing solar panels with electric heat pumps to produce residential hot water, a process that consumes upward of 15 percent of a home’s total energy use. Others have innovated significantly more efficient air conditioners and ceiling fan designs. It’s also partnered with the City of Orlando to achieve its ambitious energy plans.

“I’m hopeful because places like Orlando are committed to a renewable future, and they’re investing in the innovations to accomplish it,” Fenton said. “The city is a leader in getting ready for the new energy future.”

Castro said everyone in the region working on cleantech believes they are part of a professional community positioned to improve the health of people and the environment around the world. They see Orlando as a contender to be a global innovation hub in combating climate change while saving energy and water.

“All of us, we’re trying to foster a culture of creativity and innovation,” Castro said. “If we can be a leader in cleantech, we can sustain our own growth and improve our health into the 21st century and beyond while providing solutions that can help the world.”

Originally published in Forbes BRANDVOICE.