With 800 solar panels on the roof and a kite flying at a height of 150 meters, the Porrima boat, which has sailed around the world several times, is “a technological proof of the impossible”. The statement comes from Belgian entrepreneur, thinker, and economist Gunter Pauli, owner of this self-sufficient vessel.
Solar energy is used to power the boat during the day, recharge the batteries that allow it to sail at night and produce green hydrogen that is stored as a backup. For its part, the kite is controlled automatically thanks to artificial intelligence to make the most of the wind. In addition, on its journey to raise awareness of the “need to accelerate innovation”, the ship is being equipped with a system to filter micro-plastics and a solution to locate turtles with ultrasound, both inspired by natural mechanisms.
Porrima is also a demonstration on the water of the blue economy, a concept envisioned by Pauli in his book of the same name, published in 2010 and translated into dozens of languages. In essence, it promotes that companies and society take inspiration from nature to make the most of available resources, regenerate ecosystems and live in harmony with the planet. A definition that resembles that of circular economy and differs, although it is related, with that of blue economy as a way to take advantage of the seas and rivers as economic engines.
An advisor to the United Nations University in Japan in the 1990s and a member of the Club of Rome, a body of experts that seeks to find solutions to global problems, Pauli is not only a sustainability champion, but during his life he has set an example of how to make it tangible.
You started championing the importance of zero-emission and zero-waste factories a long time ago. Do you think that enough progress has been made in recent years?
I had a vision that all factories should operate without emissions and waste, and I designed the first one as early as 1991 [the Belgian eco-detergent company Ecover]. Now there are big claims that zero emissions will come in 2030 or 2050, but it doesn't make any sense. It's too late, we need it now. As an entrepreneur and investor, I don't understand why the goals are set in the long term. The time for the [energy] transition is over, but the technology is already available.
Now, achieving zero emissions in Barcelona may be more complicated than in El Hierro: with one kite you can't provide energy to a big city, but with a few I can get the energy needed for an island of about 10,000 inhabitants. Small-scale innovation has a profound impact.
What mix of renewable energy sources do you think would be the ideal mix to move forward to make the energy transition feasible?
The only way to do it is to make sure that the energy sources are less expensive. You can't replace nuclear or oil with wind, but what I have to ask myself is what do I use that energy for? The debate is too focused on the energy source and not so much on the service you provide with that source. We must focus on the markets where there is more basic need, because that is where it is more important to make the change. For example, diesel generators used to generate drinking water on small islands could be replaced by kites.
Every case has a solution, but many obstacles are imposed by human beings, by norms and market standards. In theory, solar energy is the cheapest today, but we forget that expensive batteries are necessary.
On the other hand, it is said that hydrogen is the future, when hydrogen is the present. It is argued that it is expensive, but it is the way it is generated that is expensive. We use free energy to produce hydrogen on the ship itself: by eliminating the cost of transportation, we get hydrogen at a super-competitive price. We have to forget that something is more expensive because it is more sustainable. On the contrary, in many cases it is cheaper and has a lower ecological impact.
“We have to forget that what is sustainable is more expensive.”
If you recommend focusing on individual cases and starting with the basics, do you think that sectors with a high environmental impact and that do not meet a basic need, such as fashion, should be the first to undergo a transformation?
It is obvious that our desire to resort to fast fashion is not a necessity. The main problem with fashion is not chemistry or microplastics, but the water consumed and the energy required to pump it. So, we have to ask ourselves, who has solved this problem by looking at nature? China believes that seaweed fiber will be one of the great materials of the future because it does not require water and is grown in salt water. So why do we continue to produce cotton clothing?
But worse than fast fashion are diapers. How is it possible that we thought that modernity was using so much cellulose to make diapers that we throw away? Why do we cut down trees for that?
What would be the solution to that problem, in your opinion?
What you have in your hand [Pauli's business card]. That's papier-mâché, made from mineral waste.
Besides being blue, what other colors or concepts do you think should define the economy of tomorrow?
Happiness, colors are not as interesting as happiness. People have lost happiness on all sides: they suffer from stress, coronavirus, work problems, lack of ambition, lack of enthusiasm… How many people don't feel trapped in their work? The world is suffering and that is why I believe that the true economy of the future is the economy of happiness. If we had an economy where we did not pollute, with full employment, resilience and where value is given to everything we have around us, it would be happiness.
Should it be a locally focused economy?
Obviously. The coronavirus has taught us that, if we continue with this fragile and globalized world, we are going to live through crisis after crisis and Europe is going to be a poor continent. In France, per capita income has fallen in recent years and in Spain youth unemployment remains very high. The statistics are not going in the right direction, so we have to think about what the prerequisites are to achieve a system that allows us to be happy.