Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Solar CITIES IBC Tank Biodigestor just got simpler!

 Actually it has been this simple for over a year now, but we just got around to learning enough Blender to make these 3D images.

 Gosh it's easy to build a family scale biodigestor!  All you have to do is buy a used IBC Tote Tank (those 1000 liter/275 gallon practically indestructible HDPE tanks that they ship liquids in all over the world; on Craig's List they can be had for about $125!) and put a 2 inch pipe (usually in two sections) running from about a half meter above the tank to about 15 cm above the bottom for introducing the feedstock (ground up food waste in our case),  a 1 inch pipe running from the middle of the tank to a valved elbow for letting out the effluent/fertilizer, and a 1/2 tank fitting with elbowed valve to let out the biogas that results.

You don't have to alter the tank in any way; all the inputs and outputs can be made through the cover.

You may find it a bit difficult to find the bulkhead tank fittings/adaptors in some hardware shops, but check out aquarium, pool and boating shops, or look online and you should find them.

To get the gas and the effluent out you can use garden hoses or clear plastic tubing. No big deal there; this stuff isn't under much pressure at all.

The gas comes right out the top so you don't need any pipe there.  The fertilizer comes out of the "dead zone" in the middle of the tank (fats and oils, which contain lots of energy, tend to float, and proteins and carbs tend to sink, so the top and bottom of the tank are biologically acive) so you want that one inch pipe going down to the halfway mark.  The feeding pipe should reach to about 10 or 15 cm above the bottom of the tank to leave room for the rocks and active sludge without the food getting blocked on its way down and into the tank.

But that's about it.  You'll want the feeding pipe up top to be about a half meter above the tank so that enough of a head can build up to force the gas out and so that you can pour all your food waste in without overflowing since the effluent outlet is half the diameter of the input pipe.  As you add the ground up food waste slurry (we use an Insinkerator brand garbage disposal to make it) fertilizer fluid will be coming out of the 1 inch pipe, but it will come out slower. You could use a larger pipe, but sometimes they don't fit the lid easily.  We've found with the proper feeding regime the dimensions depicted here work fine!

 Make sure the lid has an intact rubber O-ring gasket; one of ours didn't and while it eventually worked out using silcone, you can experience troublesome leaks. Some used IBC vendors sell you lids without the rubber ring inside; check and see just to be sure!
Then just fill your tank with about 50 to 100 kg animal manure, top off with water, screw the lid on and wait for a couple of weeks. When you get your first flammable gas you are ready to start feeding ground up food scraps -- about a 25 liter buckt of mixed food waste and water each day!

What is Solar CITIES and how can you help?

About us: 
 Founded in 2006,  Solar Cities is a nonprofit organization that works on capacity building in developing countries through an industrial ecology approach to sustainable developlement.  Through  green collar education, gender equity empowerment  and poverty alleviation we help families develop sensibly scaled technologies for creating affordable enivonmental solutions at the household level.

Solar C3ITIES e.V. is a not-for-profit organization based in Germany. We work all over the world, particularly Africa and the Middle East, developing home-scale sustainable development solutions with, by, and for families and communities.

Our current focus is on providing low-cost high-efficiency biogas systems and system integration training for "food-waste-to-fuel-and-fertilizer" biodigesters at the household and community level.  We incorporate in-sink food waste grinders like the "Insinkerator" brand garbage disposal into our biogas systems as the "jaws and teeth" of our "artificial sacred cow" biodigester. 

To Provide low income families, both nationally and globally, with safe, clean, climate friendly, hot water, sanitation, light and microenterprise opportunities. 

Who are We:
Founders; Executive Director;Dr. T.H. Culhane, Dr. Sybille Culhane
Ahmed Khalifa: Secretary/Treasure, 
Moustafa Hussein, Hanna Fathy, Heidi Fink, Hussein Farag, Joram Samoan, Mike Rimoin:  Solar CITIES Innoventors and Practioners  

Current Projects:
Soylent Green is People, but Food Scraps are Solar Energy!
We build biodigestors because we see proper utilization of  kitchen and toilet wastes as the best way to bring solar energy to the city!

It is our contention that  food wastes, whether in the form of high energy  raw table scraps and plate scrapings, or processed through an animal gut, are the most cost effective and reliable form of stored solar energy. Unlike fossil fuels, which are also stored sunlight, food waste is climate neutral and, when turned into methane and fertilizer through a biodigester, produces no harmful toxins or pathogens and can no longer provide sustenance to mammal, bird or insect vectors of disease. Unlike direct sunlight, or other forms of transformed solar energy like wind power and hydro power, food wastes are available come rain or come shine, night and day, 365 days a year.  And since so much of the world's stored solar energy is accumulated in our cities as uneaten plant and animal parts, left-over and thrown out food scraps and human and animal manures, we believe that any true "Solar CITIES" will transform these substances, now considered liabilities dumped into landfills or  discharged into rivers lakes and oceans, into the primary sources of fuel and fertilizer.  A real solar city would exhaust all of its organic wastes first before turning to other forms of sunlight, and would save fossil fuels, which are ancient solar capital reserves useful for investing in big infrastructure projects, for last. 

It is for this reason that our top priority is helping everybody on earth first make use of their stored solar energy by teaching them how to grind food wastes and tranform them into clean burning biogas for cooking, heating, lighting, refrigeration and electricity generation  and nutrient rich soil for growing healthy food and fighting desertification and deforestation.
By tapping into the spirit of community cooperation and extending it to a global scale, experiments in more sustainable living can be run on a huge scale at a very low cost and in a way that invites community and stake-holder participation. By using only off-the-shelf, locally purchased or manufactured, recycled and ‘found’ materials we strive to give everyone a chance to
take control of their own destiny as they pursue a dignified and comfortable path to fully sustainable

The low costs associated with the Solar CITIES project make it affordable and scalable and appropriate for microfinancing opportunities. We work in a modular „build as you go“ fashion. Each dollar spent adds to the growing capacity of the systems and capacity building in the communities.

For example, when you support solar CITIES, every donation has an important place in the ecology of development:

25 dollars will pay for a local metal worker, welder or plumber to spend a full day helping us build a renewable energy system.
50 dollars will purchase the glass for solar collectors for three families
100 dollars will purchase one of the two tanks needed for a family biogas system
150 dollars will purchase the copper pipes for a family solar hot water system
200 dollars will purchase the aluminum sheeting , paint, insulation and plumbing fittings to build a two panel family solar hot water system
250 dollars will purchase the materials an entire single family biogas system that provides 1 to 2 hours of cooking gas a day
300 dollars will purchase the materials to build a treadle pump so families without electricity can provide themselves with water
350 dollars will hire a local youth worker for a month to assist her community in building renewable energy and waste management systems.
400 dollars will provide an airline ticket to bring a Solar CITIES trained trainer to another African country to train more trainers
450 dollars will purchase the materials for a family biogas system that provides 3 to 4 hours of cooking gas a day (or can run a gas refrigerator for 24 hours).
500 dollars will purchase the materials to build and install a full solar hot water system on a family's roof.
750 dollars will pay the salary of a Solar CITIES expert to spend a week in a new location starting a project.
1000 dollars will purchase an airline ticket to send a Solar CITIES trainer to a new location to start a project.

There is a PAYPAL donate button to the right of this post at the top of the sidebar column. Go ahead and click and show your support today!

Because we TRAIN AS WE BUILD, every activity becomes an educational opportunity. Thus ever donation is directly contributing to re-education and capacity building. Beneficiaries pay for their education through donating extra time and labor to the project by sharing the expertise they acquired in their own home or community to others. This way every dollar stretches beyond the borders of any particular project site.

Vision: To produce a sustaibable asset-based, low income approach to income to poverty reduction through job training and hands on productionto provide capacity building of all the stakeholders involved.

What is the Problem:
Most of the energy and water consumption and waste generation in a household or community occur
in the kitchen and the bathroom.
Kitchens and bathrooms are traditionally female managed domains so most health risks associated
with energy, water and waste are incurred by ‘voiceless’ women and children.
The technologies associated with energy production, water supply and waste disposal are traditionally forprofit male domains that occur outside the household without consideration for the well being of women and children in poor communities.
Solar CITIES brings these domains together by bringing sensibly scaled technologies and design
information for creating household level industrial ecology solutions to families around the world.

Goals and Objectives:
Industrial Ecology Approach toSustainable Development
Asset-based Approach to Poverty Reduction
Stake-holder Participation Approach to Urban Planning
• “Green Collar” Job Training Approach to Education
Gender Equity Approach to Community Empowerment
Collective Intelligence Approach to Problem Solving

Honoring Diversity and Lessons Learned

Solar CITIES works on small infrastructure issues with an expertise in
renewable energy.  Solar CITIES is principally involved with
watergy’ issues that can be solved using appropriate technology.
Solar CITIES trainscommunities to build small biogas, wind and solar systems.
Solar CITIES conducts outreach and education workshops using holistic learning, multimedia and

Started by a husband and wife team while they were living in the slums of historic Cairo, Solar CITIES was conceived as a way of working with collective intelligence at the
household level to solve the daily challenges of securing basic amenities like clean water, hot water, energy, food and hygienic waste management. We take a neighborly ‘barnraising’ approach to solving global issues and making the world a better place

The Solar CITIES approach is to work at the level of the family, building capacity
through building relationships. At Solar CITIES we turn the normal development equation on its head. We choose to think locally -- i.e. we think of how to solve problems in our own homes,
in our own back yards, within our own communities -- with the faith that by coming up with solutions that are good for you, are affordable and can be created at home
using available materials, the best ideas will by themselves diffuse and spread through personal social
networks until they have reached the entire world. The key is to build a network of families and friends and acquaintances that is blind to nations, cultures, races, religions, and borders.

With todays social networking technologies, people now share information without great effort and news travels very fast. Solar CITIES takes advantage of this by working only with people we have gotten to know, and then expanding the network each time, so that we know ever more and ever more different people. Many people talk about the downsides of globalization and urbanization, but Solar CITIES, cofounded by a multicultural couple holding doctorates and specializing in urban planning and education, sees these two trends as potential solution generators

Solar Cities takes advantage of social networking to connect us with likeminded people and people in need that makes our global network expand each day.

Due to the vast migrations of people around the planet, and our interconnectedness through constant travel and telecommunications, awareness of each others needs and mutual problem solving can be vastly accelerated. Multiple perspectives can brought to bear that vastly reduce redundancy and wasted resources through needless trial and error. Through site visits and multimedia internet communications we have been able to bring technologies and ideas from India to Egypt and
from Egypt to California, from Alaska to East Africa and from Central America to South East Asia.

Solar CITIES at work around the World

Quotes from Solar CITIES stakeholders
Mother in the slums of Cairo: „ It used to take me up to 7 hours to bathe my 6 children because of the time it took to fetch and heat the water. We had to boil 20 liters at a time on an open flame and it was dangerous work. Many children in our community get third degree burns and some die each year because of scalds, and houses have burned down, to say nothing of the air pollution using kerosene stoves generated. Now, because I was able to build my own solar hot water system on my roof with Solar CITIES, I have 200 liters of safe, clean hot bath water every day at the turn of a tap. Because the sun never stops shining here, we know we will never run out of hot water, and everybody can bathe whenever they like. The burden is off of me and I can devote more time to studying and learning a trade.“

Young man in the garbage area of Cairo: „Garbage is my life, because I am a recycler. But garbage can be very dangerous – my baby niece was killed by rats that were attracted by the kitchen waste and ended up in her crib instead. Now that we build biogas systems next to our homes and on our roofs, the organic waste all goes into the sealed tank and has no smell. For this reason no rats, dogs, cats, flies or other disease causing or dangerous animals come around anymore. We simply don't have smelly garbage near our house or in our streets anymore. Instead we get all of our cooking gas from our kitchen scraps. So we've turned a terrible problem into a promising solution to clean up our city and improve our health and lives.“


There is a PAYPAL donate button to the right of this post at the top of the sidebar column. Go ahead and click and show your support today! 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Keep off the Grass": A Diet for Emerging Explorers

Slaves on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica "cutting the grass"...

My commitment to "keep of the grass" was clinched during a conversation I had last week at Base Camp with National Geographic "Explorer of the Year"  Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner -- the first woman to summit all 14 of the earth's highest mountain peaks without supplementary oxygen.

  The conversation included her husband  and frequent climbing partner Ralf Dujmovits as well as  John Francis, vice president for research, conservation, and exploration at the National Geographic Society.  And it revolved around the question "what is the  best diet for explorers who routinely go into extreme conditions?". 

Don't get me wrong -- the conversation didn't take place in extreme conditions, it  took place at the National Geographic Headquarters "Base Camp" in Washington DC,  a far more comfortable location for discussion than  the base camps Gerlinde usually hangs out in for weeks in the Himalayas or other daunting mountain ranges.   But it included discussion of my own visit to Everest Base Camp last spring and my recent trip to the base of Mera Peak in Nepal, and the difference I felt this year when I decided to eliminate sugar and starch from my diet, and last year when I trudged up the Khumbu valley toward Mount Everest trying to rely  on the daily and generous  provision of Mars bars, Snickers and Bounty bars offered to help us get that "quick boost" of energy that sugar is supposed to supply.

My observation was that without the carbs this year the trek up to 5500 meters was immeasurably easier than last year, even though the route in the Hinku valley, with steeper daily ascents and descents, and nights in cold snow bedecked tents instead of the the relative shelter and warmth of the  tea lodges in the  Khumbu, was technically more difficult.   

Gerlinde and Ralf and John confirmed this observation.  Gerlinde said "when you are climbing the highest mountains in the world, pushing your body to the limit, blood sugar swings become your enemy.  You quickly face exhaustion.  Starches, sugars, carbohydrates, they are the worst thing.  When we climb we focus on eating protein.  The body turns it into the necessary glucose for the brain and body to work most efficiently but it also keeps muscle from being lost."

Ralf chimed in, "We train and train before we climb and we would go onto the expedition with very strong, big muscles, but we noticed that when we returned we were always thin as a rail, having lost a lot of muscle mass. This is because your body digests itself when you are undergoing intense exercise and it consumes muscle protein before turning to your fat reserves.  But by increasing the protein in our diets and eliminating the starches and sugars we find we can keep our muscles."

Gerlinde said, "we start the treks with a diet high in protein and fat and very low in carbohydrates, but we noticed that at high altitude Ralf was getting bad headaches. It turned out that fat requires a lot of oxygen to burn and above 3000 meters the oxygen gets thinner and thinner. By 8000 meters there is almost no oxygen at all and fat in the diet becomes a problem. So while we normally will not worry about the fat content of our diet, we have to eliminate it for the high points of the expedition. But in general the secret is getting rid of as much carbohydrate as possible, and that means no breads and potatoes, and certainly no sugared drinks or candy bars..."

Ah.... candy bars.  In years past I packed my backpack with choclate bars -- Bounty bars, with their coconut filling, are among my favorite.  I rationalized it by parroting the same lousy advice I had gotten from my Gym teachers in high school, "when you are doing strenuous sports, you need the jolt of energy they provide and it is okay, because you are working out so hard you'll burn it all up anyway..."  


Explorers as well as athletes are beginning to understand, through accumulated experience, that the less sugar they dump in their bloodstream, the more steady their energy feels. 

Taking it to the Ends of the Earth

This year, from day 1, I gritted my teeth and politely refused the bowl of candybars offered each morning.  At the end of the day, after a hard, breathless, bone aching, muscle burning climb, when I lay in my tent, illuminated by my Solar CITIES aluminum tab torch, I would often discover a Snickers bar sitting in the side pocket, surreptitiously popped in there by a caring guide wanting to ensure that I didn't wake up with hunger pangs when the exhaustion let up.  Or was it one of my colleagues, trying to test my resolve and lead me into temptation?  I would hold the ever more delicious seeming chocolate before me in the dim glow of my aluminum can flashlight and read the label, dreaming of how good it would taste.  Sugar, cornsyrup, modified cornstarch, dextrose, sugar, sugar...  and though I knew that nobody would ever know or care if I ate it or not, I would put it back in the pack and tell myself "you can do this, if you just hang on, the cravings will surely go away."

Of course I had a precedent.  At Harvard in early 1980s, as a Biological Anthropology undergraduate, I had won a prize with a paper I wrote called "Of Man and Meat: Nutritional Imperialism and its effects on aboriginal cultures".  Reading classics like Weston Price's "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration" and William Dufty's "Sugar Blues" I had decided, since I wanted to spend my year after college at the Harvard Research site at Gunung Palung mountain in Borneo, that I would go on what I called a "hunter-gatherer diet".  I vowed at the beginning of my junior year that I would eliminate all "non-nutritional cash crops" from my diet, including not just alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and sugar, but all refined and processed carbohydrates and oils.  I did continue to eat grains, but only "whole grains".  

The experiment lasted for 2 years, right through graduation, until I left for the jungle, and I felt better than I ever had in my life.  I also invited a girlfriend on the diet who had been plagued by weight problems.  At 5 foot 2 inches she dropped from 150 chunky pounds to a svelt 112 while I maintained the 150 pounds appropriate for my 5 foot 9 inch mesomorphic frame.  It was 1985 and I had proven to myself the value of what people now call the "Paleolithic Diet". 

John Francis confirmed for me that his experience on the Paleo Diet had given him similarly good results, despite the fact that he was on it for a much shorter period of time.

Still, when I was doing that experiment, I was a mere 21 years of age. When everybody else was suddenly getting old enough to drink I was eliminating the excess calories but I was still  young enough that it was hard to say whether the unflaggable energy that got me through Harvard and into the deepest rainforests of Indonesia came from this extreme diet or mere youthful vigor.

During the lead up to my last  Nepal expedition I had somehow turned 50, and, apart from 2 years as a vegetarian and 7 months as a Vegan, had spent the intervening years eating all manner of junk food (for more than a decade, while working as a teacher in the ghettos of L.A. and as a grad student at UCLA, I practically lived on the Mcdonald's dollar value meals!).   I had gone from my college weight of 150 to a hamster cheeked, pot bellied 180.  It was getting to be discouraging to look at my reflection--- I kept checking each day to see if the man in the mirror was really me and if he might be induced to change his ways. I needed to find out if the hunter-gatherer diet would really work for those of us on the near side of the midpoint to the century mark.

Summiting the peaks and valleys of the diet roller coaster

Three things encouraged my decision to go radical again.

The first was the announcement that I would be having a baby girl in October.  I started thinking about my desire to see her graduate from college, realizing I will be at least 72 when that happens.  Another was my fathers ailing health as a man dependent on glucophage pills and a cocktail of medicines to deal with his type 2 diabetes -- I wanted to be able to act as a role model and ally to  encourage him to give up the sugar that is killing him so he can live to see my 4 year old son and my new daughter at the very least grow old enough to appreciate his genius, his kindness, and his treasure trove of fun and exciting information about film and circus history -- particularly Disney lore -- which are his fields of expertise.   The third was the desire to prove something I had started in Guatemala in the year 2000 when I lived for almost a month on nothing but Maya breadnuts, avocados and lemons from our rainforest research site.  I wanted to show that we can live happily and successfully without the agriculture that is currently destroying our planet's complex ecologies.

I had a precedent that gave me courage:  my UCLA colleague Angel Orozco, a Guatemalan friend with whom I had formed an NGO to promote agroforestry at the end of the 1990s and with whom I had lived at the Los Angeles Eco-village, had embarked on the hunter gatherer diet during the years I was overseas and hadn't seen him.  I remembered him as a heavy, round faced, large framed man; he was always my "big friend Angel".  When I finally got together with him to deliver a speech about my work with biogas as one solution to deforestation, I had to be reintroduced to him.  He sat smiling at me through my entire speech while I wondered, "why isn't my friend Angel here at my talk? He said he would be..."
At the end of my talk this tall, thin, muscular, thin faced and handsome man who had been smiling  shook my hand and said, "I am Angel. I'm so glad you didn't recognize me".  The transformation was astonishing.  He said, "I didn't go on any weight loss program or take any pills, I just did what we had discussed years ago in the rain forests of my homeland -- I adopted a strict hunter gatherer diet.  But to do so, I abandoned all vestiges of food from agricultural economies -- no sugar, no corn, no wheat, no rice, no oats, no barley.. "

"Sounds like you're avoiding all the grasses" I told him, impressed.

The problem with the Poaceae

On our long bus rides from Mexico City to the Peten Rainforests of his homeland, Angel and I used to discuss archeologist Dennis Puleston's idea  that the Maya couldn't have based their lowland civilization on corn because of its destructive impact the grass we call "maize" has on tropical soils.  We used to reflect that in general the planting of agricultural grasses is among the most destructive practices we humans have been engaged in for the past millenia.  My Master's Thesis focused on "tree cereals" that, through agroforestry, could replace the "weed cereals" that society depends on.

Working in horticulture at the Los Angeles Zoo for 4 years I had come to regard human reliance on the family Graminae/Poaceae as one of the biggest mistakes our species ever made.

Think about it -- there are approximately 463 plant families on the face of the earth (experts estimates vary slightly but all are close to this number). But the lion's share of the plants upon which civilization has come to depend belong to only one of them: the grass family.   This includes  sugar cane, wheat, rice, corn (maize), oats, barley, sorghum, and millet.  When you look at our supermarket shelves almost every product is a product of the top 4 -- wheat, rice, corn and sugar.  Corn syrup and sugar make up the bulk of the beverage section. And vast areas of the landscape are being transformed to a monocrop monocot factory to feed our hunger for these few members of this one family.  The devastation grass family cultivation and processing has on entire cultures was recently brought home to me while working with Maasai leader Kakenya Nataiya in Kenya, where the entire Maasai way of life is threatened by the transformation of the traditional grazing lands into sugar cane plantations.  Where once there were thousands of species interacting with the Maasai and their cattle, what some people naively called a "grassland savannah" is now become a true grassland -- home ot only one species of plant, the grass called Saccharum officinarum in the Poaceae.

(The video above shows the headmistress of Kakenya Ntaiya's Center for Excellence Dream School for Maasai Girls describing the impact the sugar cane industry is having on her culture and the future of the children)

It would be as if the Rockefellers or the Kennedy's made up 3/4 of the world's population.  When one family comes to  dominate culture and commerce  in an age of diminishing biodiversity, the prospects for maintaining a healthy ecosystem become nil to nothing.

So the quest to maintain a healthy body suddenly became linked to the more vital quest to maintain a healthy planet for our children and grand-children.

As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, dedicated to preserving our environment,  and reasonably expected to walk our talk the decision became natural.  I decided to adopt a new and very rigorous diet to complement the one I was on back at Harvard before my first Borneo expedition. It  would be a diet I would maintain not just when out  exploring, but every day, at home and in the field.  It  would be a diet  that, through  its complete dismissal of our "daily bread", would complement my desire to eschew the "non-nutritional cash crops" that destroy health and local economies.  It would be a diet that I will continue  for the rest of my life to model for my son and daughter as they grow to appreciate their role in this marvelous and fragile blue planet three rocks from the sun.  It is a diet that served me very very well on my last expedition with Alton Byers and Chris Rainier and Anrita Sherpa to explore "last mile technology" in some of the remotest places on earth.  It is a diet I have decided to bring home, out of the cold and into my own kitchen.   I have decided from now on that I will...


As with most explorations, we'll have to wait and see what we discover...

Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Looking Toward Zootopia

Looking Toward Zootopia
By T.H. Culhane, Ph.D.

Walking with a throng of students toward the engineering department at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the morning, as we pass a construction site,  we are confronted by two imposingly large buck deer with impressive antlers who have decided to  nonchalantly cross the street with us.  It is hard to say where they came from, or where they are going – the city is ringed by mountains but we are nowhere near a so-called “natural” area;  still the residents of this campus environment don’t seem alarmed. They take it in stride, as if it is a perfectly natural occurrence to share the road with large wild mammals on the way to class.   During the evening,  as we drop a local friend off in her residential area,  mere minutes from the city center,  we pass an entire family of deer methodically walking along the sidewalk  in search of tasty flower plantings lining people’s driveways.   Our friend, noting our surprise, comments,  “we’re so used to such urban wildlife here that we have almost stopped noticing.  A lot of people figure, “it used to belong to them anyway,  before our subdivisions encroached on their territory,  so we might as well learn to live together.”

In a progressive area like Boulder, where people come from all over the world to study environmental  science,  it would almost seem as though a “zootopia” where humans and wildlife coexist peacefully within an urban landscape is possible.  Our friend’s son tells us they routinely host raccoons,  possums, skunks and other ostensibly wild critters in their backyards – occasionally they will  even see a puma mountain lion or even a bear pass through.  The animals don’t seem to mind the presence of human beings when they aren’t harassed and if anything they seem to find the gardens and garbage cans of human residents an easy and reliable food supply, perhaps even more convenient than foraging in the wild.  And many creatures seem to appreciate  our built environment for the easy shelter it provides against temperature  extremes and inclement weather,  to say nothing of the prodigious amounts of heat our buildings pump out. 

This is not only true for the native wildlife that urbanization is normally displacing.  Exotics also seem to find immigration to the city appealing.  In the city of Chicago,  when I was a child in the 1960s, a flock of tropical green parrots escaped from captivity  near lake Michigan and started breeding in the trees near my apartment in Hyde Park Boulevard .  Taking advantage  of the famous “heat island effect” of cities, the parrots survived the harsh winters by nesting in large ducts releasing waste heat  from the subway system.  In the spring they ventured back out to the trees in the parks by the lake.  During a recent summer I went back to one of the parks I used to see them in as a child and sure enough they and their descendents were there,  screeching and squawking from their nests as though they were  in a tropical rainforest.

That non-human animals would find cities habitable should come as no surprise; regardless of how well adapted they are to whatever  piece of  “nature” surrounds them , most organisms prefer to be sheltered from weather  extremes and from the elements  and prefer to have food, water  and nesting materials around them in abundance.  Human beings have pooled these resources in our own urban and suburban habitats, and other animals and plants recognize this.  If there is a compatibility problem between  cities and wildlife, it is usually because we humans resent the presence of non-humans and deliberately try to exclude or exterminate  them.  But we have to rethink this strategy in the 21st century.

The rapid rate of biodiversity loss is arguably the most pressing issue facing humanity today.  While we can probably engineer our way out of most of our resource bottlenecks and health crises given time and political will, Wilson and McArthur’s theories of island geography and our understanding of genetic drift and inbreeding depression suggest that many of the earth’s animal and plant species are at such critically low population densities that they can almost be considered “living fossils”.   The mantra “extinction is forever” has a haunting finality to it and while the history of planet Earth shows that even without  human pressure on natural ecosystems, climate change and habitat modification over time will make species extinctions inevitable,  what differs today from previous “natural” extinction events is the rate of species disappearance,  with gene loss and ecosystem degradation occurring at such a rapid pace that co-evolutionary systems can no longer operate adaptively.   It isn’t just specifics groups of organisms following the dinosaurs into oblivion, it is the unraveling of entire ecologies.  The result is what Harvard professor E.O. Wilson has called our entry into the “Eremozoic Era” – the great “age of loneliness”. 

Although most of the habitat destruction leading to extinctions can be credited to the agriculture and forestry industries, the built environment itself,  due to  the exponential expansion of urbanization,  is often considered a major antagonist to the preservation of biodiverse ecologies.  There is no question that urban demand for resources has always been a primary driver of  the landscape transformations threatening natural ecologies (the city-countryside relationship, with rising urban populations requiring  a substantial “ecological footprint” to maintain themselves,  is well understood) but in recent years urban sprawl itself has a emerged as a major force in habitat loss.

Yet while the city as currently conceived  poses a threat to wildlife we are also seeing the emergence of a new paradigm in urban form as wildlife itself seeks to reclaim its place in landscapes that we modify.  If anything, the agricultural lands and mining lands that feed the city their resources may be the most hostile places for wild and animals and plants to try to coexist.  Thousands of hectares of herbicide and pesticide laden monocropping are completely hostile to robust food-chains and complex ecologies, and are for the most part devoid of trees which are among the few organisms in terrestrial ecosystems that can provide the multidimensionality that permits overlapping and non-competitive  niche spaces conducive to biodiversity.  But, as a Mayan friend pointed out when flying from his rainforest research station in Guatemala to Los Angeles, “I looked out the window of the airplane as I crossed the United States, and all I could see was  the yellow and brown  of farmlands until we flew over your cities. Then I noticed the green.  Besides the few patches of wilderness parks and forest plantations, your cities are some of the last places where there is a lot of visible tree cover. “  From a migratory bird’s perspective,  cities and their suburbs are havens not only of diverse vegetation,  woody and herbaceous, but water  features as well.  They appear as islands in a sea of cropland uniformity and barren-ness.

Some animals have taken well to the presence of resources and shelter in the cities.  Richard Hoath at the American University of Cairo noted that the Egyptian weasel,   Mustela subpalmata,  which used to occupy a much larger part of the Nile Valley,  was in serious decline in agricultural areas, but that in Egypt’s major city of 20 million people,  this normally nocturnal species “can be seen in the day” though it is “most frequently encountered at night dashing across streets and disappearing beneath a parked car.”  The idea that the ubiquitous presence of parked cars might be seen by some animals as a defense shelter against predation may strike one as odd,  but most animals don’t have an automatic aversion to “artificial” environments and look at the world through fairly utilitarian rather than symbolic eyes.

This does not imply that human beings can simply build anthropocentric habitats and hope that other species will adapt; our structures and plantings can have a profound effect on “natural” and “artificial” selection processes.  A case in point is the current displacement in England of native red squirrels by “invasive” North American Grey Squirrels.  The former, now on the IUCN red list,  is susceptible to a parapox virus that the latter carries but doesn’t get,  and is also dependent on pine forests and pine cones which are also in decline in urban areas. Red squirrels also can’t easily digest acorns. The grey, on the other hand,  does well in oak dominated areas and on the kind of broad-leafed trees that dominate many residential and parkland plantings.  So it is no wonder that one is ubiquitous and the other rare.  

One way to ensure a more favorable mix of squirrel species (and other wildlife)  is simply for planners, architects and gardeners to use the landscape palette to attract and retain specific wildlife rather than merely conform to popular horticultural trends.  In fact, the National Wildlife Federation’s “Backyard Wildlife Program” encourages urban and suburban residents to “Turn Your Yard Into a Haven for Wildlife!”  They give certificates to people who do exactly that, saying,  “By providing food, water, cover and places for wildlife to raise their young, your garden can join the nearly 150,000 Certified Wildlife Habitat™ sites across the country.”

We might consider that if much of our planet’s wildlife is doing poorly in human habitat it may simply be because of paucity in the predominant palette of vegetation,  which  tends to be so very poor in diversity that it favors only a very small number of organisms, particularly those few that co-evolved  with the particular plants our unimaginative  gardens over-emphasize.  Landscape architects, lacking training in ecological sciences,  tend to view plants as mere ornamental decorations, forgetting that ecologies depend on intricate symbiotic and commensal  relationships that took millions of years to develop. 

When much of the smaller wildlife disappears from human modified habitats it usually has much less to do with these non-human’s fear of human “encroachment” or even direct conflict with people, but more with a drastic reduction in the supporting vegetation and associated food chains. 

As in the adage “for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the battle was lost” a cascade of unfortunate ecological events can occur when a single type of vegetation  is removed that once  hosted a wide range of interdependent microbes, fungi, insects, arthropods and vertebrates .  In subtropical and tropical areas, urban plantings tend to favor the “Mediterranean Zone 5” vegetation,  and thus these degraded habitats select for those organisms that co-evolved in that region, often with devastating consequences on native wildlife.  Some studies have shown that vacant lots, left to grow over with weeds, contain a much higher biodiversity than urban parks where manicured trees and lawns are unable to support more than a very few species of wildlife. From this perspective we should be “naturalizing” our parks with a wide range of habitat types (such as Prospect Park in Brooklyn is seeking to do) to attract and maintain as many different animal/plant assemblages as possible.  Right now our parks are the furthest thing from being modern arks.

There is a lot of concern about the introduction of “non-native” and “invasive” species into wild habitats; we often neglect to consider that our urban plantings are almost all made up of an “easy to grow and maintain” assemblage of trees, shrubs, ferns, flowers and grasses that were selected from around the world based purely on their market and aesthetic values.  They usually require heavy maintenance  and inordinate inputs of fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides to stay alive.   There has also been severe landscape modification to establish fast growing timber and firewood producing mono-crops of trees which now make up the major species over vast areas; the preponderance of Eucalyptus trees all over the world,  trees which originally come from Australia,  but which are now are the dominant life form in parks and highway, street and residential plantings in regions as diverse as Iraq, California, Rwanda and Spain, offer very little in the way of food or shelter to non-Australian wildlife.  Curiously, nobody has taken seriously our proposals to allow Koalas, which are endangered in Australia, and exclusively eat Eucalyptus leaves,  to freely breed in city parks outside Australia (even the Los Angeles Zoo, which is filled with and surrounded by Eucalyptus forests, still gives their few Koala’s contraceptives  to keep them from breeding  and employs human laborers to cut Eucalyptus branches to feed the rare marsupials).  Similarly, despite Panda Bears, which eat only bamboo and are on the verge of extinction in China where their bamboo forests are being cut down for agriculture and urbanization , we don’t see initiatives to give them a chance to breed in other regions of the world where bamboo serves as one of the chief ornamental plantings.  We decry their disappearance in the “wild” without considering that the plants they depend on for survival actually exist all over the world thanks to urbanization.

Usually when there are struggles between   humans and non-humans in the built environment they involve  society’s intolerance of  these larger animals rather than their intolerance of us.  Creatures such as mice and rats, squirrels and sparrows,  ducks and ubiquitous pigeons,  even raccoons , skunks, badgers and coyotes have found ways to co-exist and even thrive in our cities.  But so-called “charismatic megafauna” – the pandas and koalas that serve as the poster children of the conservation movement,  the “lions and tigers and bears – oh my!” sung about on the yellow brick road  to the Wizard’s  paradise of Oz,  the elephants which populate Paris in the children’s book “Babar”, the chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas which end up taking over the world in “Planet of the Apes” and all the civilized ,  well-dressed talking animals of the Disney cartoons – these are the creatures most endangered  through our rampant urbanization of planet Earth. 

In fantasy we hold out to our children the elusive hope of living in harmony with some of the animals whose  size approaches or exceeds ours, but our general fear of possibly dangerous or conflictual encounters with most of the “undomesticated” creatures of the Earth keeps most of them out of designated “human habitat”.

 Frequent trips that I make to pet stores around the world reveal  a growing affection for smaller “exotic” or “un-domesticated animals” as part of the accepted  species assemblage living with us in urban settings (I owned two iguanas, several quail, rabbits and hares, guinea pigs, cockatiels and parakeets when I lived in Los Angeles),  but only rarely do I meet people, like Birute Galdikas, who lives with scores of orangutans and gibbons in her home in Indonesia, or Daphne Sheldrick, who runs and orphanage for elephants near Nairobi, or  the couple that  kept two wolves  as watch-dogs in the  avant garde video store they owned in the Los Feliz neighborhood,  or  the nature-show television host in the Hollywood hills who showed me the large alligator he kept in his swimming pool, or legendary Hollywood Musical Producer George Sidney who told me about keeping an elephant for years in his back yard in Beverly Hills.   People who are pushing the envelope  of cohabitation by substituting llamas and yearlings and ostriches and emus for the usual house trained dog,and cat,  or backyard cow or chicken, are fare too rare at this time of incipient mass extinctions.

The recent police slaughter of a menagerie of  49 “exotic animals” (among them endangered Bengal Tigers) set free in a suburban neighborhood by a private owner in Ohio, killed because law enforcement personnel were too afraid of them to think rationally or didn’t know how to dart,  net and re-capture  animals that were doubtless more frightened than they, shows that society doesn’t consider large animals worthy of caring attention when they transgress certain boundaries. It seems we’d rather let them follow the dinosaurs into oblivion that rethink the human-nature relationship.

Yet almost every city boasts a rather large collection of charismatic megafauna, and has for hundreds of years.  A well run Zoo is considered one of the hallmarks of a great city. Most city planners, in fact, consider a city incomplete if it doesn’t have a zoological park (sometimes several) where families can introduce their children to the other animals with which we co-evolved.   The larger and least domesticated  creatures are the biggest draw. 

And where cities couldn’t afford to house these animals, circuses filled the gap, and served and still serve the vital function of carting big charismatic megafauna from town to town so humans detached from “nature” could contemplate their relationship with  these other large residents of our common spaceship earth.   Both institutions also offer the chance for co-evolutionary relationships to continue to occur, challenging both humans and non-humans to reconceive their relationships.

But Zoos and Circuses both evolved from Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions affirming man’s “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle,  and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”. And they owe their physical and psychological profiles to ideas based on  “Bentham’s Panopticon”: factories, schools, hospitals, insane asylums and poor houses.  Wild animals have been forced to stand-in for “criminals”, the insane”, “the feared feminine” and “the despised other” and for forces that fill people with anxiety and confusion.  So neither of these institutions has been able to solve the conundrum of how we can evolve  a society that permits the harmonious coexistence of  “all creatures great and small”.

There are models for successful coexistence of large domestic animals in the urban context.  Every time  I go to visit my friends in the informal “garbage recycling” community of Cairo’s Zabaleen people I marvel at the presence of pigs living on the ground floor of apartment buildings, cows residing in second floor bedrooms, goats, sheep and donkeys walking up and down the staircases, and ducks, chickens and rabbits populating the roof, each providing a vital urban ecology function and helping these poorest of the poor eke a living out of the refuse of the rest of the city.  The urban pigs transform the organic waste of Cairo’s millions into valuable meat, hide, bone and fertilizer (and in some cases biogas) while the urban goats and sheep and cows transform marginal vegetation  along the roadside and railroad tracks into milk and cheese.   We see this pattern  in many marginalized communities around the world – I’ve even been to the homes of Mexican immigrants in American cities who kept livestock in homes and grew nopal cactus, corn, chayote and other  agricultural plants instead of front lawns because they felt the grass and other ornamental plants that dominate our cities were a “waste of space”; one student of mine even kept a bull in the back yard in Los Angeles.  The Los Angeles Urban Eco-Village  where I lived for three years tended their permaculture garden with a “chicken tractor”.

Meanwhile, in Indian and Indonesian cities we’ve marveled  as  not only “sacred cows” walk the streets, but domesticated elephants, whose large size, intelligence and strong trunks enable them to  do a lot of important construction work.  We’ve seen sacred Hanuman monkeys (Grey langurs) and other primates  leap from urban porches to telephone poles and tightrope walk the high tension wires to the next apartment complex where people put out offerings of food to these furry relatives of ours, treating them little different than we treat squirrels in the West (with the caveat  that they do protect their homes with barred windows to prevent these curious cousins from stealing or breaking things.)  By understanding the needs and specific behavioral ecologies of many  “not-quite domesticated” animals humans find they can develop fairly close relationships with them, relationships that could one day lead to co-evolutionary relationships that can border on symbiosis rather than predation or parasitism.

In fact, in the late 1800’s, the Australian Acclimatization  society championed the idea that all animals and plants should be brought into “domestication” so that they and their human partners  could enjoy the mutual benefits each might confer on the other.  At that time there was a sense among many that dogs and cats and farm animals were merely “early adopters” in an world where animals “chose domestication” as much as we chose them to be domesticated,  and where , as humans fulfill their biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”, we get closer and closer to fulfilling the biblical prophecy in Isaiah: 6 where  “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

Nowadays, in permacultural and “industrial ecology” and “urban ecology” circles, we are beginning to popularize a similar idea of harmony among humans and non-humans, learning to see the mutualistic functional relationships we can create if we start valuing the “ecosystem services” and “environmental services” that non-humans contribute to our urban well being.  From “Effective Microbe” Bukashi compost, biogas, and fermented foodstuff techniques, that honor the role of “probiotic” micro-organisms in maintaining our  health and that of our soils, to the use of Zebra mussels, snails and a “schmutzdecke” assemblage of aquatic organisms to create living machines to purify our water,  to cities employing ungulates to keep highway and power line strips free from weeds and putting endangered manatees to work clearing  navigable waterways  from water hyacinth and other river and canal choking aquatic plants,  we see more and more places recognizing the contribution animals can make to make cities more livable for both us and them.

The city isn’t the problem, our mentality is.  From a bird’s eye view, and from that of many other animals and plants, the city hasn’t really taken any land away from nature, in fact it has merely raised it up, and in so doing it has created  even more dimensions for niche space and livable habitat.   The Caixa Forum Museum in Madrid, for example, sports a 24 meter high vertical  garden  along its south facing wall that hosts a prodigious number of insects, amphibians, reptiles and birds, fed by a gravity led stream of rain water. 

Where the pre-urban landscape in Madrid once offered only the ecological footprint defined by the two dimensional area of what is now the roof of this building, now it offers many times the surface area in three dimensions for living beings.  And this would be true of all our buildings, if only we would learn to see them that way, and invite our non-human relatives to work with us instead of fighting so hard against them.

Because of the complex surfaces it provides, the myriad opportunities for shelter and the pooling of water and food and resources and energy that characterize the urban environment, the city may very well turn out to be the best place to build our arks to save what is left of biodiversity.

If we learn to see the environments we  have built and occupy through the eyes of other organisms that don’t divide the world into facile categories like “Civilization” and “Nature” we might be able to help the non-human passengers with whom we share planet Earth to survive. And we might be able to call this kind of new urban form “Zootopia”.  I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Dr. T.H. Culhane lived at the Los Angeles Eco-Village while attending graduate school at UCLA and worked with colleagues there to create one of the first urban permaculture experiments in a dense built environment in a low income neighborhood.  Culhane's entire apartment was off the grid for 3 years, had its own home built composting toilet  and recycled much of its greywater.  The eco-village itself had nutritious gardens instead of lawns and kept earthworms, rabbits and chickens, using a chicken tractor for weeding and pest control. It was frequently visited by opposums and racoons and many species of birds, lizards and amphibians.  The buildings themselves sit along what was once a riparian streambed that Chumash Indians used as prime hunting ground. Currently the Eco-Village is working with the Bresee Center which has partially restored the stream.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Taking up the Energy Challenge in Maasai Mara

A proposal by National Geographic Emerging Explorers Dr. T.H. Culhane and Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya

"Fool on the hill" or "Fuel on the Hill"? As our Maasai colleagues at Kakenya's Dream - the Academy for Girls load the region's first food waste to cooking fuel biodigestor with cow dung for the bacterial starter culture, a 3000 TCD sugar cane processing factory is rapidly being built on the hill. The million dollar question:"can we turn the factory into a positive thing -- an infinite source of clean free fuel for a biogas future -- or will it become a source of polluting wastes?" Proper investment and capacity building will be the deciding factor. Stay tuned...

An ominous threat looms on the hill overlooking the Kakenya Center for Excellence in Maasai Mara. It towers over this hope inspiring school  where nearly 100 Maasai girls are learning as fast as they can how to integrate into the modern world without losing their Independence and cultural heritage. 

The threat to a sustainable future for these girls, who are going in one generation from a millenia old tradition of nomadic cow herding to finding their place in a post-modern sedentary agricultural and service economy, comes in the form of a massive sugar processing factory, one of the first of its kind to be built in this remote area. 

Started in the fall of 2010, the factory, which now operates night and day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, was  completed and operational by the fall of 2011.  Now the pressure is on -- the hungry crushers and boilers of the massive industry demand constant and continual  input of sugar cane feedstock, driving the Maasai inexorably from self-sufficiency to full participation in the cash crop economy and putting an incredible strain on their environment. 

Already, huge and expensive colorful banners patterned after the Kenyan national flag with big photographs of sugar cane fields grace every roadside intersection and declare in several languages “Grow more cane, get more cash!” enticing the people to give up cow herding and grazing and even give up growing subsistence crops and nutritional cash crops like Maize and beans and rice and Sukumawiki (a type of kale containing vital nutrients) in order to participate in what is being touted as a “development boon” for the Maasai Mara, one of the last strongholds of wildlife and traditional nomadic people.

The Masai community is worried, in fact, that the growing of the cane will lead to greater deforestation and soil exhaustion and loss of biodiversity. And at the other end,  at full capacity the use of the cane by the factory is expected to generate 40 tons of solid waste every hour of every day, with possible  impacts on the river flowing by the plant, while the burning of fuel to drive the machinery and steam boilers is can create air pollution problems.

So is everything rotten in the state of Maasai Mara?

Not necessarily!

Solar CITIES co-founder and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dr. T.H. Culhane,  with relatives of fellow National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya and the village chief of Enosaeen,  spent several hours over a two day period touring the factory and meeting with factory owner Mr. Shah and his chief engineer Rajesh Kumar. 

The Solar CITIES team told Mr. Shah that they were on a Blackstone Innovation Challenge Grant to build the first ARTI India style food waste fueled biogas digestor at Kakenya’s Dream School, using an Insinkerator given as a gift from Emerson Electronics to grind up the school’s kitchen waste and turn it into a clean and inexhaustible fuel and source of fertilizer, not only to help stop deforestation and lung disease, but to create chances for reforestation.

Shah, who is originally from India, said without hesitation “in fact, not only am I very familiar with the promise of biogas, but I know Dr. Anand Karve, who invented the ARTI system, very well. I would love to help support this initiative as I would like my sugar cane factory to be a driver of sustainability for the region, not a problem for the community.  In fact, I can commit to you now that if you can get your biogas initiative going, I will supply any family or farm or school or business that is doing biogas with all the bagasse feedstock they want for free, bailed and ready for pick up in 200 kg to 500 kg bundles.  Bagasse, as you know, as a sugar cane processing residue, is one of the best sources of biogas in the world.  But because there are currently no biogas facilities in the area it is a waste product for us.  But we can make this a win-win.”

Shah told us that he conceived of the sugar project in Maasai land in 2006 and invested 30 million dollars in it, hoping to make it a center for social and economic growth in Africa along the Indian model. 

“When I started this project there were no roads here. I wanted to make something, remarkable, incredible, a factory that would change the local community for the better.  I will have 400 to 450 direct employees and indirectly 50,000 families will be taken care of.  Between 15 and 25,000 small scale farmers will be producing for the factory and within 5 years they will have good money.  I am trying to be a strong pillar for good growth.  I have sponsored 20 windows in the local girl’s school, put roofing sheets on another school, donated 5,000 bricks to the Kilgoris Girls school, and given 3500 liter water tanks, footballs, trophies and even 3 sewing machines to the Orphan School Widows."

“ I am happy now to give the bagasse fuel for biogas,” he told us, “ -- you can tell all the schools; and I will make my factory workshop, tools and staff available free of charge for building and assembly of the biogas digestors.  And we can purchase the materials at bulk factory prices.  What you have to do is get the local community trained and committed to a biogas future and raise the money for the materials themselves and for the labor. And you have to organize and coordinate the creation of this village scale biogas initiative -- I am not in the biogas business and will be far too busy running the sugar factory. But I see a way for us all to meet our goals here. I want to cooperate.”

We discussed the issue of cash crop production causing infertility of the land and the cycle of farmers becoming ever more dependent on artificial fertilizers and pesticides.  Mr. Shah said, “of course all the nutrients that sugar cane takes out of the land can all be returned to the land once the sugar is processed, and this is where your biogas initiative comes in.  We already plan to give the molasses fraction back to the farmers as animal feed to put many of the nutrients back, but a lot of what the cane takes out is in the bagasse residue.  The farmers know they have to let the land lie fallow every three years or so to regain fertility; certainly if you have a biogas initiative going and we give the farmers the bagasse and they ferment it for gas, the fertilizer that they get from it will be the perfect way to get the nutrients back to the land.  Biogas fertilizer is better than compost and easier to manage and distribute. It is in liquid form and readily soluble for uptake by plant roots without causing field souring and without blocking sunlight like solid compost.  It is formed rapidly and loses no nitrogen.   It creates a closed cycle.”

Shah smiled, saying “So biogas could  really be the missing piece in making the factory sustainable for the community, returning what it takes from the land back to the farmers in a cost effective way with minimal labor.  In addition your biogas systems will take pressure off of the forests that maintain the fertility and prevent erosion of the hillsides by stopping people from cutting down trees for firewood and charcoal.  So it would have benefits long into the future.  I have already committed, as a social entrepreneur, to planting one million trees around the community -- I’ve started already around the factory and Kakenya’s school -- trees which I will not harvest for 20 years.  We should be eligible for carbon credit. With biogas protecting the trees from cutting and providing fertilizer for reforestation we should be in very good shape.”

I asked Engineer Kumar about the air pollution and water pollution from the factory.  He said, “First of all, our factory will be almost entirely powered by the burning of the bagasse, so we are using a biofuel with no net carbon pollution. To keep smoke and particulates down we will be installing a series of electrostatic air filters.  But in effect the plant will be non-polluting; it certainly won’t put out any greenhouse gases.  We won’t need any fossil fuels at all.  But the best thing is that if we can get the proper investment funding and government incentives we can move on to phase II of our planning.  In this phase we can become a net clean energy producer -- you see we will have a 3000 TCD Sugar Factory that is capable of producing sugar, alcohol fuel and power through co-generation in addition to supplying the bagasse for a domestic biogas program.  We can eventually provide liquid fuels for transportation like Brazil does, and electricity, just from our wastes.   Our boilers will be producing steam that, through the co-generation turbines, could produce 20 MegaWatts of Power. The factory, running at full capacity, only needs between 3 and 6 MegaWatts, giving us a surplus of 14 MW of clean green power to sell. We could thus supply stable and clean electric power 24/7 to the entire region, not just the village of Enosaeen. And as you know, electricity is a big problem here.   We’ve talked to the MP, Gideon Konchella, and he likes the idea, but we do need to get more investment and help to get to that level. Coupled with a good biogas program there is no reason this factory couldn’t provide a model for Industrial Ecology, making the Maasai one of the first people to create a sustainable business and development model for rural Africa.”

With this vision in mind, it is clear that there is great potential here.  The fear of the Maasai leaders and teachers though, is that the technical expertise is not yet in place and the investment commitments are not there.  They fear that the factory will be driven by economic necessity and a shortage of skilled labor to import non-Maasai workers from the urban areas to fill the technical jobs, bringing all sorts of social disruptions and diseases. They fear that in the years before funding comes in for phase II their area will be polluted and the soil will be exhausted and their lives as some of Africa’s last independent peoples will be transformed until they become mere wage slaves on cash crop plantations.

Solar CITIES and the Kakenya’s Dream School leadership also met with the MP and all agreed that for the transformations that the sugar factory is bringing to their community to bend toward the positive rather than towards disaster, we all need to coordinate and move fast to build skill and knowledge capacity and to get waste-to-energy through domestic and farm biogas solutions in place even as the factory begins production.

When I arrived in the village, the chief shared with me a copy of “The Organic Farmer in Kenya” , a magazine that talked about the need for biogas to solve Africa’s energy and waste problems.  “We have been thinking about this for some time now, but we need support” he told us.

When we had finished the region’s first small biogas system at Kakenya’s school, connected it to the Insinkerator in the school cafeteria and demonstrated it’s potential  to the chief and the MP and the village council, there was an air of excitement and hope lifting our spirits.  The MP and the Chief looked up from the biogas system we had built together to the sugar cane factory being built on the hill.  “We now have a plan.” said the chief  with a smile.  "There will be no more worries about waste or pollution or loss of fertility or soil erosion or deforestation if we can get this biogas initiative going.  We truly can make the first Maasai industrial ecology system, and it will be our way to show the world how our people, who have been independent for centuries, can now teach others how to develop without losing their culture, their health or dignity.”

In this spirit, we ask that those of you reading this can help support this most urgent, and yet promising, of Great Energy Challenges!

Culhane demonstrates the use of the Insinkerator, one of 10 donated to the project around the world  by Emerson Electronics,  to prepare food wastes for biogas.

Proposal Details:

1. Provide project background;

Solar CITIES e.V., established in Germany as a registered NGO and operating on home scale renewable energy projects since 2007, primarily in the slums and informal areas of Cairo Egypt,  has been building modified ARTI India style food-waste-to-clean-fuel biogas systems since January of 2009. 

Now we are in full cooperation with fellow National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, and are devoting our attention to solving the energy and waste and health problems in the Maasai Mara region because of the urgency of the problem.

 We have currently built more than 50 household and community scale biogas systems, ranging from 1 cubic meter to 8 cubic meters,  in the following countries:

Urban areas of Cairo Egypt: 8 systems; Rural areas of Egypt: 6 systems; Suburban Germany: 5 Systems;  With NG Explorer Dereck Joubert and Great Plains Conservation Eco-Lodge at Ol UrDonyo Waas conservation region with Maasai: 5 systems;  Town of Kigoma, Tanzania and village of MKalinzi near Gombe Chimpanzee reserve with NG Emerging Explorer Grace Gobbo and Jane Goodall Institute: 4 systems.  AbeokutaWildlif, Nigeria with Naijatomo Holistic Waste Management and former President Obasanjo’s Green Economy team:  4 systems; with Jouberts and Great Plains conservation Eco-Lodges Selinda, Zarafa and Base Camp, Botswana: 4 systems.  Mukuru Slum School Nairobi and Kakenya’s Dream School, Maasai Mara: 2 systems.  Palestinian Wildlife Society, Al Najah University and East Jerusalem High School: 3 Systems; Arava Institute of the Environment, Israel in Cooperation with NG Emerging Explorer Beverly Goodman: 2 systems; South Central Los Angeles, Latino community, Santa Rosa California Latino Community: 2 systems.  Seattle Washington Green Initiative: 1 system; Cordova High School, Alaska on 1st Blackstone Challenge Grant with NG Emerging Explorer Katey Walter: 7 systems.

We specialize in capacity building and construction of biogas systems that utilize low cost readily available local materials and knowledge. Our work also includes instruction in construction of local solar hot water systems and human powered treadle pump systems; these systems also help improve the amount of gas and energy savings that the biogas systems produce (the bacteria need to be kept at mammalian body temperature for best results and the water has to be pumped in many cases).

Biogas is an energy rich byproduct of the anaerobic decomposition of organic matter by bacteria. Sharing many characteristics with natural gas, it can be burned to produce heat, light, and electrical energy. It’s composed of 60% methane and 40% CO2. Biogas is a clean, renewable, and carbon neutral form of energy.

Producing Biogas is a fairly straightforward process: Organic waste is collected in the community, loaded into an Insinkerator unit installed in a kitchen (or other area), and then ground into liquid form. This raw material is piped (using gravity) from the sink into a sealed tank called a digester (or bioreactor) where it is broken down by naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria. In the absence of oxygen these bacteria consume the organic matter to multiply and produce biogas and rich fertilizer as a by-product. The biogas rises and collects in the upper section of the digester. It is then piped directly back into the homes to be burned as fuel. Simultaneously, the digester produces a nutrient rich liquid fertilizer which is used to replenish the earth that the sugar cane and other plants are grown in.

Organic waste of any type can be fed to the digester to produce biogas and fertilizer: bagasse from the factory, manure, human excreta, fruit and vegetable waste, etc.

2. Include basic diagrams or any visual documents that supplement understanding of the project (if needed);

Henry Okeyo, a plumber and teacher at the Mukuru Arts and Crafts school in Nairobi’s Mukuru slum, created this schematic for the biogas systems we are building at both Kakenya’s school in Maasai Mara and in the urban slum as a joint effort to help end the deforestation and health and environmental problems associated with firewood and charcoal and to provide cost-free clean energy to all of Africa. What is not shown in the diagram is the connectiion to the Insinkerator food grinding solution that dramatically reduces labor and increases productivity and social acceptance.

These primitive sketches and notes show the concept we used for the two-phase 7300 liter food waste biogas system currently operating at Kakenya’s Center for Excellence, made out of local materials (a 5000 liter polytank as primary digestor and a 2300 liter polytank with an inverted 1800 liter tank as gas holder, connected via 40 and 50 mm pipes to an Evolution 200 Insinkerator donated by Emerson Electronics.

The Kakenya Center For Excellence and Solar CITIES biogas team pose in front of the completed biogas system next to the school kitchen below the sugar cane factory.

3. Discuss project benefactors;

The project benefactors will be an ever widening circle of family, friends and community members growing around  the 150 immediate people who were beneficiaries from our pilot project - the students and staff of Kakenya’s Center for Excellence in the Maasai village of Enosaeen, Kenya.  This visionary school acts as the epicenter of our initiative.

With proper funding we would start by conducting training workshops and building digestors in every school, church and social center in the community (there are more than 20 in the immediate area) including the chief’s compound and the local vegetable market and carpentry center where currently organic wastes are burned, creating a major health hazard to the community. 

Once we have built about 20 smaller digestors to accomodate all the organic wastes from the immediate community and have built enough expertise, the next phase would be to employ the community to build a large scale digestor on property near to the sugar cane factory to accomodate the bagasse and processing wastes of the factory.  The gas from this larger digestor would be cleaned and compressed for use throughout the village and for generating electricity and co-generating hot water, following the German model. The fertilizer would be used for reforestation and soil amendment.

4. Provide a description and significance of the results expected, including--relevant quantitative details, such as output;

Within the first phase of the project, during which 20 small scale digestors will be built in the schools, churches, family farms and local markets, a culture of waste-to-biogas expertise would be created that would build confidence and interest in the technology and foster local expertise.  The initial phase would take approximately 2 months, with a new digestor being commissioned every two to three days (with accelerating returns as expertise is gained, simultaneous training and building is possible, as trainees become trainers of trainers; the timeline could end up much shorter).

The second phase of the project would involve coordination with the local sugar cane factory and would result in the building of a much larger pilot community digestor for use with the sugar cane factory wastes. This phase would involve capacity building of the local Maasai community in greater technical skills such as project design, sheet metal work, riveting, industrial plumbing and ergonomic loading and unloading. As a result of this training and the construction of the larger scale community digestor (approximately 30 cubic meters) the local Maasai would come away with more of the skills needed to fully participate in a green economy and industrial ecology future for their homeland so that there is a lessened need for external skilled labor and so that they can plan their own future.

The specific type of biogas digestor which will be used is the Puxin digestor.  This particular digestor will be highly efficacous as it it simple to construct, consisting of molds in which concrete is poured, forming the different parts of the digestor.  The level of expertise required to construct this system will be an effective bridge between phases one and three; it will introduce the Maasai to the construction techniques and ideas behind a more complicated biogas generation system, while building upon the basic skills and knowledge gained in phase one.  Furthermore, the digestor itself is easy to maintain, and has a long service life (on the order of 30 years).  This will allow the Maasai to maintain the system themselves, enhancing sustainability, and continuing to increase their familiarity with sustainable energy sources.  The Massai’s ability to use this digestor to effectively convert the waste from the sugar cane factory (bagasse) in to an energy source (biogas) will quickly create ties and foster a cooperative relationship between them and the sugar cane plant.  These ties will be increasingly important as the Massai begin to enter the third phase of the project.

These are the Puxin molds for the 6 and 10 m3 biogas systems that cost between 5,000 and 6,000 dollars (shipping costs about $1500) .
In this photograph Culhane builds a 10 cubic meter Puxin digestor at a jungle village school on Palawan Island in the Philippines in spring of 2012.  The materials were purchased through a generous grant from Novartis Pharmaceuticals.  We will build the same system in Kakenya's village at the market place and on family farms.

In the third phase of the project, the experiences gained from phases one and two will be leveraged to help the sugar cane factory and other relevant industries become clean electricity and biofuel co-generators so that the region could develop a clean tech model of economic importance. Full stake holder participation in this more ambitious phase is the outcome of starting at the household, farm and local market scale, then moving up to the community scale before connecting the local community to the larger industrial and international efforts.

An image of the 100m3 Puxin digestor molds that we will build at the Sugar Cane factory to handle all of its waste and keep it from polluting the watershed and air in the village.

A schematic from Puxin showing how the system is set up. 

The Puxin 2.5 cubic meter  portable "family system" made of fiberglass with a blue plastic bag gas holder which we built at the Allouette foundation lodge  on Palawan island in the Philippines. This system produces about 4 hours per day of cooking gas from the previous day's kitchen waste and costs about $1500 plus shipping.  We will install at least one of these in Kakenya's village so people can experience a range of systems and thus become experts in small scale biogas production. 

5. Include a general budget, which lists funding needed and funding received.

So far we have put $1400 dollars into the building of the first demonstration biogas system at Kakenya’s Center for Excellence.  The cost of the 3 tanks (5000 liters, 2300 liters and 1800 liters) to accomodate the schools food wastes was 75,000 shillings (approximately 750 Euro), while plumbing supplies, tractor rental for cow dung, labor  and material transport costs consumed another 25,000 shillings (about 250 Euros). Additional systems of similar size would be in the range of 1000 to 1200 dollars each (reduced from 1400 because of the ability to buy in bulk at wholesale and rent tractors and trucks only once to move the supplies for many systems).

The Insinkerator Evolution 200 feedstock grinding units , valued at $420 dollars for a 220 volt unit (such as we have installed in two locations in Cairo,  2 in Nigeria, two in Botswana, 2 in Kenya and 1 in Nepal, were donations to the biogas effort from Emerson Electronics.  Even with a wholesale reduction that Emerson has suggested they would help us with, with customs and shipping for this project we estimate a cost of about $500 per unit, making the cost of each biogas installation about $1500.


It is thus estimated that the construction of 20  small systems would consume about 34,000 dollars.

A community system of 100 cubic meters would cost approximately 50,000 dollars in materials and labor.


Airfare and per diem compensation for the  Solar CITIES coordinator/trainer husband and wife team for a period of 4 months (2 months for the initial small systems and 2 months for the large community system) would come to approximately 4000 dollars for airfare (two trips for two people  at 1000 dollars per ticket, with a break in between), and 250 dollars for the couple per work day x 20 days per month x 4 months = 20,000 dollars for compensation, plus 1000 dollars over the four months budgeted for food and lodging in the village and  incidentals (visas, medicine, phone and internet expenses) = approximately 25,000 dollars.

Compensation for 8  local community craftspeople/engineers working on the project would add another 10,000 dollars to the budget.

Thus the whole project could be run for approximately 115,000 dollars.  For just the initial capacity building phase, a budget of 60,000 dollars would be feasible.