A student’s ‘aha’ moment becomes a nation’s alternative fuel

The problem had been nagging at Brittney McKenzie ever since she began her summer internship.

A microbiology major at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, Ms. McKenzie had been tapped along with a handful of other students to come up with a way to transform Barbados’ transportation sector into a climate-friendly model for the Caribbean. The project was the brainchild of Professor Legena Henry, an international expert in renewable energy systems. And the mission, as Ms. McKenzie describes it, was to develop an alternative fuel source that could power cars and trucks without releasing the greenhouse gases largely responsible for the planet’s rapid heating, and that have been particularly devastating to small island states like this one.

But the young team had run into challenges.

It started off by focusing on sugar cane. Brazil had successfully converted most of its cars to run partially on sugar cane-based ethanol, and the team thought Barbados might do the same. But it quickly became clear that there wasn’t enough of that crop, a legacy of slavery, left on the island. The students knew they could use rum distillery wastewater in their project. But they were stumped on what to mix with it to produce enough gas to power a car.

Then, one morning, Ms. McKenzie was gazing out the window of the van taxi she took to campus, bumping along the pockmarked coastal road that circles this easternmost Caribbean island. Her eyes lingered on the mounds of sargassum seaweed that had been choking beaches in 2019, part of an influx that began around 2011 and continues today.

She had an idea. By the time she got to campus, she couldn’t wait to share it. She rushed to her lab, pushed open the doors, and hurried up to Dr. Henry.

“Sargassum,” she said, out of breath. What if they were to use seaweed as the new biofuel base? Island officials had been struggling to figure out what to do about the increasing amount of foul-smelling sargassum inundating their shores, an explosion exacerbated by warming ocean temperatures. Using seaweed to make climate-friendly vehicles would be a win-win, Ms. McKenzie declared.

Dr. Henry sighed inwardly. There was already existing research casting doubt on sargassum’s use as a biofuel source.

She almost said no.

But to get to climate change solutions, she knew she needed to let the young people follow their hunches and ideas and excitement.

What happened next is a story about young people, innovation, and solutions, and the way countries like this one – small, climate-vulnerable Barbados – are becoming global leaders of climate adaptation and innovation.

From individual entrepreneurs and groups of young researchers to the country’s prime minister herself, Barbadians are developing new ideas and approaches to everything from climate technology to climate finance. Young people, who’ve traditionally emigrated from Barbados for better opportunities abroad, are starting to imagine – and build – a home-based future for themselves in sectors such as clean energy, sustainable design, and climate-friendly agriculture.

Dr. Henry, a Trinidad native who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started her lab here because she believes in the power of young people’s enthusiasm and creativity. It was a philosophy she learned from her mentors in college, she says, and one that has felt even truer in her field of climate change solutions.

Around the world, members of the Climate Generation – as we call the cohort born since 1989 – are transforming everything from food systems to the construction industry to technology, all with a climate lens in mind.

While these young climate innovators may be connected through green incubators or United Nations innovation groups or nonprofit-sponsored climate solution challenges, they don’t necessarily consider themselves part of a global movement, in the way of, say, the climate strikes started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.

Many don’t consider themselves climate activists; some shrug away questions about how climate change motivated their work. Some talk about “eco-anxiety,” or stress around what a heating world might mean for the future; others say it’s just something they’ve absorbed. To them, climate change is simply an ever-present fact, a reality learned in school. And if it is a threat looming along the Caribbean blue horizon, it is also opening new sectors and opportunities.

Together, these Barbadian innovators and others like them across the Global South are reshaping their world, says Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex in England.

“The climate crisis opens up opportunities for innovation,” he says. “New things will happen that completely shift and undermine what look like very stable businesses, sectors, operations.” Young people, he says, “know that something must be done, and they know the future belongs to them.”

Getting island cars off fossil fuels by 2030

Dr. Henry wanted to tap into this energy in the Caribbean, a region that has long faced disproportionate challenges to innovation, from a lack of financial investment to the brain drain of educated young people who don’t see professional opportunities at home.

At first, she taught in Trinidad, but she quickly found that her work put her on the fringes in her oil-rich homeland.

“It was like, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute,’” she says, recalling the way colleagues there reacted to her research on renewables.

So in 2019, she accepted a position here in Barbados, a country that was on the front lines of both climate vulnerability and innovation.

Barbados is a relatively flat 167-square-mile land mass (no bigger than the city of New Orleans) on the eastern edge of the Antilles. Though located within the region’s hurricane belt, it has tended to avoid direct hits from these storms – at least in recent history. Some locals attribute this to the divine. (“God is a Bajan” is a common phrase here.) But meteorologists attribute it to something called the Coriolis force, a sort of atmospheric deflection caused by trade winds and Earth’s rotation that pushes hurricanes north of the country.

Recently, though, storms have become stronger. Flooding has increased, and officials worry about accelerated erosion. Heat waves keep the humid air hanging like a blanket, day and night. And a number of officials worry about what could happen if climate-
related changes to the region’s currents and winds end up sending a hurricane directly over the island.

But even without this speculation, Barbados’ government recognizes it needs climate-friendly solutions. Some of this is because of the threat of natural disasters. But it is also because of finances.

Barbados imports fossil fuels for about 95% of its energy load. And it has among the highest electricity prices in the region, at around 30 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, according to 2020 data from the Caribbean Development Bank. (That’s about double the U.S. rate.) The country also imports the bulk of its food – contributing to climate change and making it vulnerable to storms, port damage, and rising fuel prices.

But like many small countries, Barbados doesn’t have the international heft to change world energy systems or impact prices at the pump. Add to that the country’s substantial international debt, and many officials here say they are financially and ethically trapped in the status quo fossil fuel system – unless there are changes.

“We don’t produce or consume enough oil and gas or other energy products to influence the supply and demand chains,” Prime Minister Mia Mottley said in a 2022 speech. “But we suffer the effects of prices that we can hardly bear. ... Each day, we devote a high percentage of our time, our energy and our intellectual capacity looking for new ways to cushion the shock of our nation.”

Ms. Mottley has been attracting increasing attention, and a larger international platform, for her insistence that the world must overhaul its financial systems to address climate change, and for her innovative policy proposals to do just that. Not only must international banking institutions create new policies to alleviate debt pressure in the face of climate disasters, she and her administration have said, but also there should be new ways to unlock private capital to support climate innovations in developing countries. She and her government have also made their own climate pledges at home, such as getting cars and trucks off fossil fuels by 2030.

A solution tailored for Barbados

That initiative was the focus of Dr. Henry’s lecture one morning in 2019, when she says a student challenged her assumptions and helped spark what would become a new biofuel initiative.

She had been talking to the class about electric cars, she recalls, which were a relatively new technology for the island in 2019 and widely touted as the future of clean transportation. She was excited about the prospect of ditching gas-guzzling vehicles, and about Barbados’ efforts to build a small but growing fleet of electric alternatives.

But a student at the front of the classroom raised her hand.

“She’s like, ‘Well, Dr. Henry, I can’t buy an electric car,’” the professor recalls. “‘So you can tell me we are going to have to drive electric cars by 2030. But there’s no way I’m gonna buy an electric car between now and 2030.’”

The professor was taken aback. But then, she says, “I thought of my electricity bill, and I was like, ‘Yeah, me neither.’”

It got her wondering: What was the solution for people such as her students, or for her – everyday folk who couldn’t shell out tens of thousands of dollars for electric cars or hefty electric bills? In other words, what was a climate solution that could actually work for Barbados?

If anyone was going to have that answer, she thought, it would be her students. She asked a group to spend a summer working with her with the goal of transforming the Barbadian transportation sector.

So now Ms. McKenzie was in front of the professor, breathlessly talking about seaweed.

“I wanted to say no,” Dr. Henry recalls. But then she remembered her professors in Cambridge, who never shut down a student’s idea. “And I said, ‘Brittney, if you are going to be this happy and this enthusiastic for the next six weeks, then sure, go in the lab and test sargassum.’”

Within days, Ms. McKenzie says, she realized she had found the climate solution.

The mixtures she was testing were producing more biogas than their lab bottles could hold. Dr. Henry was astounded. The team continued its work, tinkering with and recording the results of different chemical reactions. It published its findings, and then spoke with Barbadian government officials. By the end of the summer, representatives of the Inter-American Development Bank had reached out to get briefings. Soon, university administrators suggested to Dr. Henry that she might want to commercialize her research.

Later that year, Dr. Henry traveled to New York City to present the findings at a U.N. global climate solutions summit. She caught the attention of representatives from the Blue Chip Foundation, which directs early funding for sustainability efforts. After learning more about Ms. McKenzie’s discovery, the foundation pledged $100,000 in seed money for the project.

The professor founded Rum and Sargassum, a company that would continue to develop and market this new biofuel, in partnership with her continuing flow of students.

Investing in creativity

Climate financing is at the center of a lot of debate these days – in particular, when it comes to how and whether wealthy countries, which are disproportionately responsible for the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, should support lower-income countries like Barbados, which are disproportionately suffering from what those gases have done.

But as Ms. Mottley and her climate envoy, Avinash Persaud, have reiterated to international leaders, most funding for the world’s climate adaptation and mitigation efforts will come not from foreign aid, but from within the private sector. Mr. Persaud regularly points out that the world needs to invest $2.4 trillion a year to address climate change. It’s a mind-bogglingly massive number that comes from a U.N. expert report and suggests the clear need for some innovative solutions. The amount of foreign aid distributed now by all countries for all purposes, after all, is around $200 billion.

Governments still have a role, though. In 2022, the United States, China, and the European Union invested a combined $867 billion in climate sector research and development, as well as innovation grants and other early-stage business efforts, according to the market research firm BloombergNEF. This gives entrepreneurs and inventors needed cash before they can attract private sector investors. Private sector financiers have also become increasingly interested in climate initiatives, with climate-oriented equity transactions increasing more than 2.5 times between 2019 and 2022, according to the consulting firm McKinsey.

But relatively little of this capital has flowed to the developing world. This isn’t because there aren’t climate ventures there. To the contrary: Entrepreneurs here say that they are, in many ways, best positioned to innovate when it comes to climate solutions.

“In Barbados, we ... are living the changes and the disruptions,” says Joshua Forte, a 29-year-old Barbadian entrepreneur whose company, Red Diamond Compost Inc., is part of a climate business incubator here. “But innovations come because you have some type of difficulty or conflict. It stretches the mind [and makes one] a lot more creative.”

The problem, explains Anderson Lee, a research associate in the World Resources Institute’s Finance Center, is that structural factors penalize investors for financing projects in countries like Barbados.

Investments in the developing world often carry what’s called “foreign exchange risk” – or the chance that the local currency might lose value. They also might carry political risks, or the chance that government actions could impact the business, whether by nationalizing industries or creating civil unrest or making any number of risky policy decisions. While financiers can hedge those risks with what’s basically bank-backed insurance, this adds cost to an investment.

“The reason why investors are not investing a lot in developing countries is not because of the projects per se,” Mr. Lee says. “What really is blocking a lot of private financing going to developing countries is the cost of capital on the macro level.”

This means that many entrepreneurs in Barbados, and other less wealthy countries, struggle to get funding. And without investment, many great ideas never make it out of concept stage.

“We don’t have the same entrepreneurial pipeline” as in the U.S., says Debbie Estwick, a design and innovation strategist who was the country lead for ClimateLaunchpad Barbados, part of one of the world’s largest green-business ideas competitions. “You can go from [business] competition to competition, but it’s never enough.”

This is a problem not just for Barbados and countries like it, but for the world.

That’s because those places on the front lines of the climate crisis are, in a lot of ways, most likely to come up with the solutions that the whole world might soon need. In other words, young people who most need climate innovation today could be crucial first responders in a crisis that much of the world has been able to push out of mind – if they have the resources.

“We must have the cultural confidence to develop technologies of our own kind,” Ms. Mottley said in a 2020 speech. “On a timeline that plays to our strengths and which captures the imagination of our own people.”

An idea dawns while growing greens for pet iguana

Mr. Forte had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, ever since he woke up early before school in order to catch Bloomberg News on TV at his mother’s modest home in Weston. He spent hours on YouTube, researching tips and techniques for starting a business.

It was in college, after he started growing leafy greens for a pet iguana (a way to cut back on pet care costs) that he started wondering why there weren’t more places to get high-quality, locally grown food for humans.

Mr. Forte remembers being troubled by his island nation’s reliance on imported food, both because of the climate footprint of importing goods across the ocean, and for what he saw as health drawbacks of processed and industrially produced food.

He decided to grow greens for himself, as well. But he couldn’t find a commercially available compost that met his standards. So he decided to make one himself – and realized that he had stumbled across a business.

“This was 2014, and in the U.S. the compost industry was booming,” he says. “You were seeing a lot of companies raising millions of dollars here and there, all these new technologies, really exciting stuff.”

He began by building traditional compost piles in his mother’s backyard. But soon, he decided to test sargassum as a base for an organic “agro-enhancement” product that would both improve soil health and help plants grow better. He collected bags and bags of the seaweed and started experimenting with it in his mother’s kitchen, using her stove to cook different ingredients and her counters to hold his lab equipment.

Much to her relief, he says with a smile, he has since invested in his own processing facilities, the newest of which he plans to open later this year. He now has three full-time employees and a product line that focuses on liquid fertilizer, which he calls Liquid Sunshine, and a Supreme Sea Biostimulant that increases plant germination rates. He supplies Barbadian gardening centers and says he is in the process of contracting with companies in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Africa, and other Caribbean islands.

His goal is not just to export his own product, he says, but also to consult with farmers on how to replicate his process within their own local environments.

He says he’s been fortunate to have his business included in the Bloom Cluster, a Barbadian clean-tech incubator that houses entrepreneurs working on everything from solar energy to bioplastics to an electric vehicle rental service. But finding long-term funding has been a perpetual struggle, he says. And he is one of the entrepreneurial survivors.

“I can tell you firsthand ... there are a number of my colleagues who, for one reason or the other, have abandoned their projects because of lack of support,” he says. “And they’re really talented people with really great ideas. But, you know, you need that [entrepreneurial] ecosystem to be able to be successful.”

But he also says that he sees changes.

“We’re starting to see more private sector investment companies and investors starting to have an interest in ... clean-tech projects in Barbados and the Caribbean region because of this macro shift in the atmosphere,” he says. “It’s definitely happening.”

Sharing innovation abroad

On one humid afternoon earlier this year, Shamika Spencer opens the door to the back room of Dr. Henry’s Renewable Energy Teaching and Research Laboratory, an air-conditioned space of computers and classroom tables in a small cement university courtyard.

The 28-year-old is monitoring dozens of glass bottles containing different combinations of rum distillery waste product and sargassum and using the results to work on her thesis, which will also help shape Rum and Sargassum’s business product. Dr. Henry has continued to tap young people to both pursue her biofuel research and help design her business – an effort that, the professor says, will help build the sort of climate solutions the world needs.

“Ah, you see this one here? The water level is down,” says Ms. Spencer, checking her beakers. This is an indication that a particular concoction is releasing more gas.

Rum and Sargassum has been getting increasing attention around Barbados, as well as funding. This year, it finalized a contract with the Barbados National Oil Co., which is re-branding itself as an “energy” company. Dr. Henry says her own car is being converted to run on Sargassum and Rum’s biofuel next year as a prototype.

This spring, Ms. Spencer traveled to the University of San Diego to work with faculty and students in the department of environmental and ocean sciences, as well as with the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. Her mission was both to share her findings and to bring insights from her work in Barbados to American researchers looking to develop biofuel from their own local waste products, such as kelp and beer wastewater.

For three months, Ms. Spencer worked with other scientists as they tested possible inputs for biofuel, from fish remains to sheep waste to kelp. She figured out that when they weren’t getting results similar to those the Barbadian team had recorded, they should look at the diets of the animals whose waste they were incorporating into their experiments. The American sheep, for instance, were not grass-fed like their Barbadian counterparts – and that made a huge difference when it came to biofuel production.

Today, Ms. Spencer is working to finish her thesis, monitoring rows of beakers in the back room. She isn’t sure if she wants to continue in business – she likes academic research more than commercial pursuits. But she is eager to share the innovations that she and others are finding in this small laboratory on this small island. And she is embracing her role as a climate ambassador for a region and a world craving solutions.

“Every time I do a seminar, or a presentation, I talk about climate change,” she says. “We need to be fossil fuel-free by 2030. This project is actually helping with that.”

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