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!"

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.

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