“I miss the mountains. Something seems strange to me when there are no mountains. There’s a sensation that something is missing,” reminisces Asheville native and Montreat College alum Hunt Briggs. As an undergraduate at Montreat, Hunt’s love of the mountains drew him to the Environmental Studies department, and thus began his journey to becoming an award-winning innovator for sustainable waste and energy systems.
Growing up in Appalachia, Hunt always admired the beauty of the natural world, but at Montreat he learned to view it through a new lens. “The wilderness became the classroom,” Hunt recalls.
“We learned about the origins of the Appalachians by scrambling up Table Rock. Dr. Brad Daniel took us up Black Balsam so we could touch metamorphic rock, and taught us the Leave No Trace ethic of backcountry travel. Dr. Mark Lassiter demonstrated how to mimic a Carolina Wren’s distress call, attracting all the birds within earshot.”
One of Hunt’s favorite classes at Montreat was Dr. Brad Daniel’s course on American Ecosystems. “North America has such a variety of diverse ecosystems. We toured the United States for a month and visited some form of each ecosystem. It was a great way to experience the things we’d been learning.” This class deepened Hunt’s love for God’s creation, and his desire to care for it.
As Hunt’s interest in ecology grew, his classes also exposed him to the ways that human systems harm the environment. “Montreat opened my eyes to the concept of an “ecological footprint,” reports Hunt. “How everything from our food and transportation choices, to energy production and our built environment affects the world around us. I started to see that some things aren’t the way they should be. For instance, people generate a staggering amount of trash, but throughout the rest of the natural world, there is no trash. For the first time, I began to understand the huge impact humans have on the planet. That was scary for me.”
Not one to stand by and do nothing, Hunt decided to become part of the solution and switched his academic focus from pre-med to environmental sustainability. Under the guidance of Dr. Lassiter, Hunt gained invaluable experience in the lab. Hunt became curious about the ways that today’s waste could be converted into tomorrow’s resources by participating in one of Dr. Lassiter’s projects that sought to generate bio-fuel from household paper. Little did he know that this first foray into waste-to-energy systems would lead to a similar professional pursuit many years in the future. “Dr. Lassiter was a very influential mentor. He always encouraged me and really inspired my vision for finding innovative, sustainable solutions.”
At Montreat, Hunt’s paradigm shifted with regard to the environment. “I grew to perceive humans less as isolated beings surrounded and supported by the fruit of the environment, and more as interconnected participants within a larger ecosystem.” He also started to seek a future wherein a love for God’s creation—including each other—propels us toward more sustainable systems and lifestyle choices. Recognizing that the world’s business community needs to promote environmental justice through innovation and action, Hunt sought out graduate programs in entrepreneurship. “We need to make it financially feasible for folks to get on board with caring for people and the environment,” assesses Hunt.
After graduating from Montreat, Hunt went on to get his master’s degree in entrepreneurship from Western Carolina University in 2006. He taught high school science for several years, and served as an energy consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund at Biltmore Farms in Asheville. In 2008, he returned to school to get an MBA and a master’s in environmental science through the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.
There, he teamed up with several other Michigan graduate students to launch ReGenerate Solutions, a company dedicated to revolutionizing how society perceives and processes waste. Specifically, Hunt and his ReGenerate partners have developed a new waste management technology dubbed the “COWS.”
An acronym for “Compact Organic Waste Station,” the COWS™ system is essentially an“eco-dumpster” that composts food waste while creating energy. Through a process called anaerobic digestion, the machine uses bacteria to convert food waste into a methane-rich gas, which is used to produce hot water on site. This innovative technology eliminates waste while providing sustainable and affordable energy.
ReGenerate seeks to promote the type of business model that aligns with architect Bill McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” design concept, which models human industry on natural cycles. Renowned evangelical environmental scientist and professor Dr. Cal Dewitt addresses the disconnect between current human systems and God’s creation in his book Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues: “Ours is mainly a flow-through economy. It taps creation’s wealth at one point and discards byproducts and wastes at another. Nature’s economy is cyclical; ecosystems sustain themselves by cycling materials. Our economy threatens creation’s economy.” ReGenerate hopes to help amend this reality and uses God’s waste-free creation as the primary model for the COWS™ unit.
Summing up their vision for the project, Hunt relays: “ReGenerate sees organics going to a landfill as a wasted opportunity. We want to help the food industry to get more of the embedded energy out of their food, and then return unused nutrients back to the soil rather than send them to a landfill, where most of the carbon is released to the atmosphere as methane, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as CO2.” When this product reaches the market, customers will include food-service operators such as college cafeterias and supermarkets. Hunt and his partners have a small-scale prototype running now, and further prototypes are just around the corner, leading to the launch of a commercial pilot program.
The potential impact of the COWS™ project is huge. According to Hunt, a single Compact Organic Waste Station can divert one to two tons of food from the landfill annually, avoiding the production of greenhouse gases equivalent to 600 tons of CO2. Hunt and his partners anticipate that in a few years, the COWS™ herd will save annual emissions equivalent to over 50 million gallons of gasoline.
Hunt and his ReGenerate partners have won a number of distinguished awards for the COWS™ unit, including a $100,000 “Think Green” prize sponsored by Waste Management at the Rice Business Plan Competition, the University of Michigan’s Dow Sustainability Student Innovation Challenge, and first prize at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation competition last December.
“Jesus’s message of love and care for others aligns with the core principles of eco-justice,” underscores Hunt, “and many environmental problems could be avoided if everyone shared the Christian ethic of stewardship for all of creation.”