Related Issues

A number of topics related to ecological engineering economics are presented below. Many steps are required for a project to be implemented, and the project can be stopped for any of a number of reasons. While this text focuses more on the technical and specifically the ecological dimensions of ecological engineering, various economic, business, and policy concerns deserve attention.


Financing involves developing the capital necessary for paying for a project. This action obviously involves economic and business-oriented information but politics can also be a critical factor. Ecological engineering projects can be financed with either public or private funding sources. Some examples, such as domestic waste-water treatment, are financed as public projects with traditional methods (Green, 1932). Monies raised through taxes or similar means are available for these types of projects, and engineering firms submit bids to undertake them. Usually, the firm with the lowest bid wins the contract and conducts the project. Ecological restoration is being funded in this fashion, though these projects must compete for public funds with other projects. In this situation the government decision makers decide the allocation of the monies. Thus, the financing of restoration projects is often a political decision.

Other financing methods are used to fund ecological engineering projects from private sources. Interesting examples come from situations where a private company causes pollution or environmental impact, requiring an ecological engineering system for cleanup or restoration. In this case the company must pay for damages, which are assessed through legal means. Large-scale examples are cleanup of superfund sites and of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which have been dramatic and contentious, but many other examples are small-scale.

An exceptional example of private funding of an ecological engineering project was Biosphere 2 in southern Arizona. In this case a wealthy individual became convinced of the merits of the project and provided funding. A company was formed, named Space Biosphere Ventures, Inc. (SBV), to develop technologies from the construction and operation of Biosphere 2, in particular for space travel and for the eventual colonization of Mars. This was an example of a venture capital business. SBV ultimately failed, as do many of these kinds of businesses that involve high financial risk.

A final example of private finance is the situation with strip-mine restoration or wetland mitigation. In this case mining companies or developers pay money into a fund in proportion to their activities of clearing land. These monies are later used to reclaim or restore the land that was disturbed in the case of mining, or to create new ecosystems elsewhere in the case of wetland mitigation. This is similar to the situation where a polluter must pay for environmental damages. Costanza and Perrings (1990) have developed this idea further as an assurance bonding model.


Ecological engineering projects are regulated by government agencies, in various cases from city or county, to state, to federal scales. Regulation is necessary (1) to document and maintain system performance, (2) to protect the environment, and (3) to ensure human health and safety. Wastewater treatment systems have perhaps the most developed regulatory system because environment and human welfare depend on their effective operation; they are used as an example below.

Regulation usually begins with evaluation of plans or designs for a proposed treatment system. These documents must be signed by registered professional engineers as a first step in validating the proposed project. Plans and designs are examined for adequacy by the government agency and if they are found to be satisfactory, a permit for construction and operation is issued. Permits usually stipulate performance ratings that must be achieved for continued operation of the system and a monitoring program to provide information to the regulatory agency that verifies that the performance ratings are being met.

Regulations establish standards or criteria of performance and hold the operators of the treatment systems accountable based on these ratings. The absolute values of the standards or criteria are very important because if they are not met, then the system must be upgraded or closed. Thus, regulatory standards and criteria can become contentious with large amounts of money at stake from the perspective of the treatment plant operator who suffers the costs of plant closure or upgrade, or with environmental and human health at stake from the perspective of the regulator who represents the public interest. Unfortunately, there is often insufficient information available to establish standards or criteria for ecological systems and many problems occur as a consequence. For wastewater treatment systems these standards are concentrations of chemicals or other materials in the discharge waters released from the system. Regulatory criteria for restoration or mitigation projects may be levels of vegetation coverage or the presence of particular plant species that indicate overall ecosystem character.

Because ecological engineering alternatives are relatively new and therefore relatively unknown, there is a resistance to them by potential clients and regulators. This is a general phenomenon with any new technology (Bauer, 1995). Clients and regulators are comfortable with conventional technologies that are known and reliable, and they naturally resist new alternatives because of their risk of failure. The resistance is natural and prudent up to a point. However, at some point in the development of a new technology, resistance becomes nonadaptive and can cause resources to be wasted. This occurs when the new technology has been tested and proven effective in a number of trials. The state of the art of at least some examples of ecological engineering seems to be at the threshold of overcoming resistance. More data and studies are needed on these systems to help convince clients and regulators on the attributes of ecologically engineered alternatives. Figure 8.8 presents a general model showing the role of resistance, which comes from several sources, in reducing the flow of technology for the solution of a problem. See Chapter 2 for a discussion of resistance to the development of treatment wetland technology.


The U.S. Patent System consists of a federal unit within the Department of Commerce and a set of laws that govern invention rights. Patents are granted for inventions, which provide a property right to the inventor. The patent system is important not just because it protects the rights of inventors but also because it promotes the progress of technology at the larger scale. At the scale of the inventor the patent gives the patentee the right to exclude others from practicing the invention and thus

FIGURE 8.8 Energy circuit model of the flow of technology in problem solving. The flow of new technology to the solution, shown on the right-hand side of the diagram, is high if the technology is effective (high T) or if the problem is urgent (high P), but it is reduced in proportion to the resistance (R).

FIGURE 8.8 Energy circuit model of the flow of technology in problem solving. The flow of new technology to the solution, shown on the right-hand side of the diagram, is high if the technology is effective (high T) or if the problem is urgent (high P), but it is reduced in proportion to the resistance (R).

gives the patentee rights to profits from the sale of the invention for a limited period of time (20 years). After the allotted time period the exclusion rights expire and the invention enters the public domain. The patent system promotes technology at a larger scale by the disclosure to the public of the invention in the patent document which can stimulate the creation of other inventions. According to the legal statute, any person who "invents or discovers any new or useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent." An invention must exhibit three qualities to be patentable: novelty, utility, and nonobviousness. Descriptions of the patent system are given by Anonymous (1997), Gordon and Cookfair (1995), and Tuska (1947).

The patent application includes a complete written description and drawings that illustrate the invention. Once the patent is granted these materials are published through the Patent Office which constitutes disclosure. Thus, a patent is both a technical publication and a legal document. In a sense, patents represent one of the best available sources of information on current technological developments. Moreover, patents take the place of the traditional, academic publications in scientific and engineering journals for some inventors. For example, Thomas Edison published little on any of his inventions, but he was granted 1093 patents over his lifetime. Buckminster Fuller, perhaps best known for inventing the geodesic dome, similarly emphasized patents over academic publication for his technical work (Fuller, 1983; Robertson, 1974).

Some ecological engineering designs have been patented and examples are given in Table 8.8. These are interesting because they represent constructed ecosystems,

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