Category Archives: Energy

Big Men

Big Men Documentary

Photo courtesy of

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending Toronto’s hot docs, showcasing some of the latest and greatest in documentary filmmaking.

I saw the premier of Big Men, which tracks several actors through the exploration and exploitation of oil in Ghana. Private US investors, Kosmos Energy, the Ghanaian Government, militant insurgencies in Nigeria, and Exxon Mobil each play a part in the scramble for oil. As you watch the disparate groups clamour to get a piece of the pie, the film continually challenges the audience to think critically about the role of greed within our society.

Following the screening, director Rachel Boynton did some Q&A with the audience. She had lived and breathed Big Men for the past six years. One of her ideas stayed with me long after the session…

The film engages two types of people:
People who are desperate for the things they need (Ghanaian citizens) and
People who are driven by ambition (Western investors)
Although they may act in very different ways, their behavior is driven by a fervent need to be “Big Men,” as in powerful and wealthy individuals.

What I like most about this film is that it does not tell a simple story of good and evil. Rather, it entwines greed, poverty, politics and culture to help us discern the global pattern that we are weaving and inevitably responsible for.

A side note about Resilient Reality blog: The hiatus was due to some East African travels and Vancouver visitations. I’ve now relocated to Toronto but will continue to blog about my experiences in Ethiopia, potentially Tanzania and Kenya, as well as some Toronto tidbits. The frequency of posts will pick up!



During a three-day excursion in June, I had the opportunity to explore the town of Kötschach-Mauthen (K-M) and meet some of the energizing people who bring K-M to life. With a meager population of 3415, K-M is a model community for sustainability. 100% of its energy consumed is sourced from renewable energy.


Nestled in the Austrian mountains, K-M harnesses hydro, wind, solar & biomass power.

The vitality and liveliness of K-M’s people inspired me. I could see their eyes shine as they shared their personal successes and challenges with me.


Hotel Kurschner with Manager

Barbara Klauss refurbished a 236 year old house into an eco-friendly hotel. The transition from oil to renewable power was Barbara’s first step in the right direction. Although Barbara’s initial energy shift was for financial reasons, she continued to make environmentally conscious changes. She says her growing awareness of a threatened future generation spurred her to make change.

Hotel Kürschner, eco-hotel

Hotel Kürschner

From demanding recycle bins not yet available on the market, to using leftover schnapps alcohol for window cleaner, Klauss embodies resourcefulness. Most often, she explains, there is no fiscal benefit or loss in eco-initiatives. Guests do not readily choose her hotel simply because it preserves the environment.

Josef Kolbitsch owns a mobile camp powered by solar and local biomass wood pellets. What’s remarkable about the camp is its ability to match the energy needs of the guests to the camp’s production capacity. Through investing €130K in a self-optimizing program, Kolbitsch realizes 10K in savings annually.

Alpencamp Biogass Process

Josef with self-optimizing heating system (left); and annual waste from biomass (right)

You can view the system online here (under Demo, select OK within Login box, enter username “demo” and password “solarenlange”)

Another contribution to K-M’s sustainability is the local biogas plant, which uses farmer waste inputs, producing energy and fertile soil.

Biogas Process Diagram

The Biogas Process

Ruth Klauss is a fourth generation employee in the family owned company, Alpen Adria Energie (AAE). AAE builds production plants like hydropower, and supplies energy to regional distributors across Austria.

Through a slow and steady growth strategy, AAE has been strong for 126 years. According to Ruth, cashflow and capital investment constraints, combined with legal barriers, represent key challenges for AAE. Prudence, caution and gradual growth enable AAE to profit in all sectors of energy production, with the exception of biogas.

Alpen Adria Energie Building

Surprisingly, Ruth indicates that their marketing budget is 25 times smaller than one of their competitors. AAE performs minimal marketing and depends on a pull strategy – customers come to them.

In the future, AAE plans to maintain its core competency, while developing joint ventures and greater community engagement through collective financing.
My final encounter in K-M was with Sabrina Barthel. Thanks to Sabrina, my entire trip was made possible. She acts as the coordinator of the K-M renewable energy association, which sees more visitors every year. The association bridges the community’s key environmental partners to host meetings and provide educational programs to the public. These educational programs operate on a fee-for-service revenue model. Consequently, the nonprofit association shows signs of becoming a business.

Play in Learning Garden

I had the opportunity to “play” in the learning garden, where engineers to kindergarteners can participate in interactive experiments.

Increasing the program’s scope to include interactive spaces like the learning garden help boost visitor numbers.

Not only can I appreciate the impressive sustainable practices, but also I am grateful for being allowed to actively learn about K-M.

Learning Garden Exercises

My friends and I hiked to the Austro-Italian Border.

Hiking around K-M

K-M Hike
K-M is a model community for sustainability in action. It takes the collaborative effort of each member to produce such a model entity. I look forward to seeing its environmental initiatives continue to blossom, and perhaps be back for a hike or two!

Sunrise in K-M

Hiking during sunrise

Energy Access for All

I recently attended a workshop on the topic of global sustainable energy development and local initiatives. The seminar was supported by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Society for International Development (SID) and Austrian Development Agency and hosted by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). With Rio+20 beginning today, the workshop took place at a very opportune time.

Each workshop session provided a kind of sneak peak into the lives of these inspirational academics and field researchers. Although the sessions covered a diverse range of material, there were several unifying qualities. Each presenter showed dissatisfaction with the status quo, highlighted the need for cross-sector cross-level collaboration, and emphasized the impact of local initiatives.

Here are some of the key take-aways I gained from the 2 day workshop:

Sustainable development is a global system, not a mosaic of countries. Therefore, we need to treat the world’s greatest challenges (energy, sustenance and poverty) as an interrelated system.1 [More]

Food - Energy - Poverty Venn Diagram

Conflicting criteria is inherent in implementing energy projects. Take the World Bank’s US$ 3.75 billion loan as an example.2 The loan was provided to South Africa to build a coal-fired power plant, representing economic and social gains at the expense of environmental protection.

Energy demand is guaranteed to rise in future demand forecasts and fossil fuel is necessary to meet our  thirst for consumption.2

Source: Global Energy Consumption by Energy, BP Energy Outlook 2030 (2012)


3 billion people currently lack access to clean cooking fuel. Although energy consumption would rise, the gain in energy efficiency from switching from biomass to cleaner fuel is surprisingly climate neutral.3 [More]

Annual investments of US$ 36 – 41 billion until 2030. Although this figure seems large, it represents 3 – 4% of total annual investments in energy projects globally. Implementation would involve microfinance and subsidy schemes, enabling the poor to purchase equipment.3

Many effective community-based projects in developing economies require small amounts of funding but have no communication channel through which to voice their needs. Projects could further benefit from increased access to technical support.

Local initiatives must be resilient and competitive in order to be adaptive. Resilience enables sustainability, while competition fosters innovation. Both are essential to adapting to change.4 The project lead from Solanterns explained its aid + trade strategy for switching Kenyans from using kerosene to solar lamps.

Solanterns Initiative

Well this is more of a personal take-away. IIASA is located in the regal palace of Schloss Laxenburg. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the palace was one of the summer residences for the royal Hapsburg family.

Schloss Laxenburg

Although the takeaways seem to diverge in different directions, I believe that the messy overlap of ideas and research can bring to light fresh solutions.

Five universities (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, University of Vienna, Vienna University of Technology, Vienna University of Economics and Business, and Modul University) were in attendance, which contributed to the richness and interdisciplinary nature of the discussions.

Research Representatives
1 Kabat, Pavel. Director/CEO IIASA
2 Wohlgemuth, Norbert. University of Klagenfurt
3 Pachauri, Shonali. IIASA “Promoting Universal Energy Access: Achievements and Challenges”
4 Lukesch, Robert. OEAR