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!"

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Fuel without end, Amen.

"And in the left corner, ladies and gentleman, uninvited methane flaming at a woman's sink in the middle of America from fracking (courtesy National Geographic). And in the right corner, ladies and gents, very happily desired methane flaming at a woman's sink in the middle of Germany -- from a kitchen garbage-via- Insinkerator fed biogas digester on our porch. courtesy of my wife Sybille Fruetel Culhane. Compare and contrast ... who will be the winner of the sustainability contest? Place your bets now!

This month the picture on the left -- of a woman igniting methane in her kitchen somewhere in the US -- appeared in National Geographic magazine.  Today, Christmas day 2012, (in what is apparently still a "world without end" -- sorry prophecy fans!)  I took this picture of my wife igniting methane in our kitchen in Germany.  The former represents a problem, the latter a solution. The former shows flames from a fossil gas  reserve, obtained by poisonous chemical fracking, the latter shows flames from a biological gas reserve on our porch, obtained by grinding our food waste with our Insinkerator in the kitchen sink and sending it to our biodigestor on the porch via a sump pump. The former is fuel with no future, the latter is fuel with no end, in a world without end, sustainability harvested, amen.

The question is, when will a major magazine or news outlet start showing images like the one from our kitchen with the  positive, wholesome message we small-scale biogas practitioners are sharing around the world about how methane can help us preserve our environments and civilizations? 

Why isn't the news getting out that women and children everywhere can immediately be spared the scourge of indoor air pollution and the world spared the scourges caused by deforestation, charcoal, oil and fossil based un-natural gas? Who among you is willing, this holiday season, to pick up this cross with me and bear witness to the miracle of microbial synergy that transforms all waste into rebirth and renewal and the possibility of a better life for all?
 To be fair, a great article on our work did come out a couple of years ago in Popular Science magazine

 and though the piece focused on work we were doing with biogas at an arts school  in the Mukuru slum of Nairobi, Kenya, the editor devoted his entire editorial to our concept of using the Insinkerator and other in-sink food waste grinders to turn kitchen scraps and plate scrapings into biogas, lauding the wonderful solution that we all have available to us for turning a problem (smelly garbage) into a solution (clean fuel and fertilizer). 
 But so far no magazine, newspaper or news show has done anything on what we at Solar CITIES feel is the real answer to this whole fracking/drilling/pipline debate: homescale and community scale biogas from kitchen, cafeteria, restaurant, grocery store and vegetable and meat market and slaughterhouse wastes. 
Grind it all up, put it in a tank that had some toilet wastes (humanure or animal manure)  introduced to it and keep the tank between 20 and 35 degrees C and it will make abundant clean methane every day, come rain or come shine, storm or calm, no matter the weather,  winter spring summer and fall. Keep feeding it ALL our organic wastes and it will keep making gas long after the cows come home.  Forever.  World without end. Amen.

 My wife and I cook on our home made biogas every day.  It comes from our two porch biodigesters which work all year round because they are heated by our bath and shower and dishwashing water.  Both digesters are made of recycled IBC tanks but the one on the right is a thousand liter IBC with 4 cm of styrofoam insulation around it held in place by black stretch wrap plastic (black so it will heat up the greenhouse in the sun) surrounded by the inexpensive (~ 250 euro) polycarbonate greenhouse panels, while the one on the left is a 700 liter IBC tank sitting in a 1000 liter IBC tank that had its top cut off.  The space between the 1000 liter tank and the 700 liter tank is filled with water that is connected to the solar hot water heater in the foreground. Then the 1000 liter tank is surrounded by 4 cm of styrofoam held in place by black stretch wrap (you know the kind they wrap luggage in at the airport, only black so it will get hot in the sun and thus help contain the heat inside the tanks since heat goes to cold and not vice versa).

 One of the digesters (on the right) is in a greenhouse, as I mentioned, the other (on the left) gets some of its  heat from the hand-made solar hot water panel in the center (decorated with the yellow National Geographic rectangle colors). 

The solar hot water heater is just an old radiator painted black in an insulated wooden box with a plate of glass on it.  It has a 12V water pump behind it that runs off of the 50 watt solar electric panel lying on the solar hot water heater. There is a thermostat in the box that turns on the pump whenever the heat gets to 40 C or higher and turns off when it drops below that. This pump circulates hot water to the 'water jacket' tank on the left.  But both the greenhouse digester and the water jacket digester get their primary heat from hot water feeding -- i.e., whenever we use our Insinkerator to grind up the kitchen waste that is our primary feedstock we use hot water while we are grinding, which is pumped with the ground up food scraps into the tanks.  They are also heated by our bath and shower and dishwasher hot water (yes, you can put soapy hot water into your biodigesters because the soaps, as long as they aren't specifically anti-bacterial, become additional food for the microbes in your digester, being made of glycerol and fatty acids and phosphates, all good food for microbes once they have done their cleaning work in the sink or bath). 

All of our nice warm greywater goes into the biodigester tanks which are filled with plastic bioblocks to ensure that the bacteria can form good biofilms throughout the tanks, at all the depths and temperatures and feedstock concentrations,  and so that they and the food particles don't get washed out every time we load the digesters with a hundred liters or so of  hot bath water.

We have a vacuum tube heat-pipe solar hot water system on our roof for our baths and dishwasher and clothes washer (it gets up past boiling on sunny days because vacuum tubes are so efficient, and even works on cloudy days) but though our bath water heat is "free" we feel it is a waste to stand under the shower and let that great hot water pass over our head and body for mere seconds before washing down the drain.  So much heat and energy investment lost -- until you hook it up to your biodigester and realize that the longer the shower you take the warmer you are making your biogas system bacteria. And that makes them HAPPY (while taking long hot showers or baths makes us happy, so it is a win win)!

 So we really have two solar hot water systems -- one for us domestically and the other our little hand made one to keep the water jacket warm on sunny days and help the bacteria along.

   Behind the yellow hand made solar hot water heater is the gas holder, made from a 300 liter garbage can upside down in a 500 liter rain water barrel with some pvc tubes around it to keep the gas holder from falling when it is full. Because the 300 liter barrel is taller than the 500 liter barrel it sits in (which is filled with water) we can't get all the gas out.  We lose 100 liters of dead space when the tank is "empty" so we are really only working with 200 liters of usable biogas a day.  That isn't so bad -- it still gives us more than a half hour of cooking gas every day from the previous days garbage, but if we were to start all over we'd try to find tanks of matching size (that isn't easy in Germany!) and we'd make them larger to store more gas (it is theoretically possible for a family of four to six people  to generate a cubic meter of biogas from their food and toilet wastes every day, which would give the use values indicated in the following picture:

Chinese Biogas manual from Knowledge showing what can be done with 1 cubic meter (1000 liters) of biogas.
 Those values are the following:

1 cubic meter of biogas is equal to:

Illumination equaling that of a 60-100 watt bulb for 6 hours.
5.2 kg of CCl4 (Carbon tetrachloride)
0.7 kg petrol
can run a 1 horse-power motor for 2 hours
can generate 1.25 k electricity
can drive a 3-tonne lorry 2.8 km
can cook 3 meals for a family of 5-6

 On the coldest days this December, when the outside temp got below freezing, the hot water feeding from our grey water  kept things going.  Here you see the temp in the water jacket in the left tank.  The outside air was about 2 C and the bottom of the water jacket was 11.1 C while the water at the  top was 16.4 C. That's not all that bad considering things had dropped below freezing over night and the biogas bacteria keep working (albeit more slowly) at 15 C.

 The greenhouse biodigester did a bit better.  The water in there stayed over 20 C (and the air temp surrounding the greenhouse, though there was no sun, was near 3 C).

 Between the two digestors we keep getting our daily flame, day after day, year after year (our digestors have been running reliably for almost 4 years now!):

 So we can cook no matter what energy crises the rest of the world is experiencing. And if we need to we can use the methane we make to in turn make electricity by piping it into the carburetor of our 4 stroke generator.

 Biogas is a very safe fuel, which is why my wife feels confident holding the gas pipe and igniting it in the kitchen as we set up a picture intended to echo the famous one in National Geographic showing the tragedy of gas leaking into people's kitchens through fracking.  In our case we are delighted to have free fuel which we make ourselves along with rich fertilizer from our garbage (the biodigester eliminates the need to compost).

 The gas comes into our kitchen at a pressure we determine by placing bricks on the gas holder (for cooking we don't need any bricks at all because the weight of the plastic barrel is enough to push the gas to the stove once you have removed the usual restrictor pin from the stove).  "Brickage" is useful for running an electric generator on the gas, or a gas space heater, but isn't necessary for either the stove or the Dometic gas refrigerator we have, which uses a very small flame.

The fire produced by biogas is clean, odorless, blue and hot, even though it contains about 30 percent CO2 and 70% methane. The CO2 reduces the flashpoint and makes it safer to work with. There are trace amounts of Hydrogen Sulfide which we don't bother to filter out when we aren't using the generator (when we do, we simply put steel wool in the tube for the sulfur to interact with so it doesn't eat at the engine).  But we like having some H2S in the gas to give it that distinctive gas odor that would let us know if we left the gas on unlit.  Once ignited it has no odor at all.  Here my wife is cooking bacon covered dates today for our Christmas meal. There's nothing like cooking on gas -- clean, hot, delicious!

  When the picture below of the woman with the flaming sink first appeared in National Geographic it made the rounds in all of our facebook groups with the query: "What's wrong with this picture?".  The intent was to stimulate a debate about the merits and demerits of the world push to replace oil and coal with natural gas and to call attention to the severe environmental and social/health costs of chemical 'fracking'.   When the picture appeared on our Facebook Biogas Group "Solar CITIES Biogas Innoventors and Practitioners", I wrote the following response:
  " What's wrong with this picture? 
"  I'm going to express a very unpopular opinion here and get myself in trouble -- what I think is really wrong with this picture is that the woman isn't capturing a "free" source of relatively clean energy that is coming right out of her faucet. This image and ones like it are being used, in my opinion, to distract us from the real dangerous sources and uses of energy and their extraction. Methane is the most benign of our fossil fuels and once the infrastructure has been put in place, swtiching us from liquid petroleum products to gaseous ones, it will be easy to switch to biogas or hydrogen/biogas blends. Until that happens - until infrastructure and public awareness of the benefits of gaseous fuels in general and methane and hydrogen in particular -- are well in place we will continue to do unimaginable damage through the extraction, transport, refining and use of petroleum, coal and uranium. If I were this woman I'd be smiling from here to thursday, and would quickly hook up my faucet to a gas storage bag or an ARTI style floating tank.

 I would hook my faucet up to my own biogas digestor. Methane is lighter than air and outgasses from water. I would collect the water and pass it through a filter and drink it or cook with it -- once the methane has outgassed it is fine -- it is the same as using swamp or pond water, which has lots of methane bubbles dissolving in it, and filtering it. 

The only problem with fracking, in my opinion, is that the greedy profiteers are unregulated and irresponsible and use toxic chemicals to get the methane out. These heavier hydrocarbons poison the water. They don't need to do this though -- they do it because it is cheaper. But those insidious chemicals don't show up in pictures like this -- they are invisible. And we don't discuss them enough as the real problem with fracking. 

We make it an "either or" issue, turning environmentally minded people against a rapid conversion to natural gas which paves the way for a biogas or hydrogen future. This is dangerous to me, more dangerous than a few contaminated wells. There may not be any easy way to get to clean coal, but there are easy ways to get to clean gas.

 What I'm not too keen about reading the nat geo piece this month is that it talks about methane, whether coming from the thermokarst lakes explored by our friend Katey Walter Anthony in Alaska and Siberia, or from fracking, as a controversial "problem" but doesn't talk about biogas as long term and quick to reach solution and the transitional nature of fossil natural gas to get there.

 It doesn't talk about our own work with Katey on those flaming lakes harnessing the psychrophilic bacteria to replace fossil fuels. So yes, it is a dramatic photograph, but when I see it I see the wonderful flame of methane and think only of how quickly we can bring down the net carbon load in the atmosphere and the poisons and wars and terrorist threats from petroleum, coal and uranium. Please feel free to take me on about this, and share the debate with everyone you know. I think we need to push for safe fracking, compensate families that have had their water suppllies contaminated, pay the full costs of cleanup, and continue extracting natural gas in safe ways while turning all wastes into the real natural gas -- biogas. So... that's what's wrong with this picture as far as I'm concerned."
 In contrast to those now finding unintended  methane appearing  in their kitchen sinks, we love having truly natural gas in our kitchen.  It is there every day, and always will be because as long as we are alive we will have garbage and toilet wastes.  And both of these can and should go in the biodigester, returning all the nutrients that were in our food back to the soil through the liquid fertilizer that results while enabling us to capture the useful truly natural gas that the microbes release as they make the nutrient rich fertilizer.
If making your own methane is so simple, how come I haven't heard of this before?
Some people will say that the reason this simple solution to the fracking problem and our domestic energy woes isn't better known is because there is some kind of conspiracy against the autonomy that DIY or decentralized energy solutions like this food-and-toilet-waste-to-fuel-and-fertilizer technology provides. 
  If such a conspiracy exists then we are all part of it, all complicit in keeping silent about the "low hanging fruit" of energy production that anybody can do at home. You know what they say: "if you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem"

If there is a bigger conspiracy than the usual evil but banal twins of ignorance and club convergence ("we just do what the neighbors do, and they don't do biogas at home, so why would we?") it probably isn't the fault of big business or government. It could be a "conspiracy of the middle men" who are, as ever,  resistant to any changes (see my previous post "Is big oil against the develoopment of small scale renewable energy systems?").

 We talked about this with oil company execs who were our friends and band-mates  in Egypt. They agreed with our logic: With home and community scale biogas and solar technologies in place  we can stop subsidizing gas and electricity for the poor and middle class (and certainly the upper class) Private companies and governments can sell their  fossil holdings to the highest bidder on the international market. The amounts they have available for sale at the higher price increase dramatically, easing tensions about shortages or unrest that drive investors away.  Our proposal to them was that we use public funding and private grants to help groups like Solar CITIES do the simple training and building that lets every family have the security of the amount of gas their garbage can produce (about 2 hours per day).  For-profit entities can rest easy  knowing that all consumers will then be willing to pay top price ( in the case of the poor if and when they have money, but in any event enlarging the consumer base) for extra gas that they want for  luxury uses (cooking for big parties, taking long hot showers, running air conditioners and refrigerators and plasma TV screens etc.) The lions share of the gas can go to industry and business who have the money to pay full market prices but need never fear costly and destabilizing shortages again.
 Tiered pricing is already a reality and the top tiers are  where utilities make their real money, not from the poor. The subsidies that are in place around the world  to keep the poor from rioting are a net loss to society and to the companies. No oil company wants their pipelines bombed by people who are in a rage. And many executives and policy makers really do want to help make energy affordable for the masses. So  they and governments feel obliged to take losses to profits just to make sure that low income people are able to squeak by while unwittingly creating perverse disincentives for society to create higher efficiencies (see Jevon's Energy Efficiency Paradox for more on that!).
Our solution is a win win -- garbage produced methane won't enable factories or truck fleets to operate, and these are the areas where the big companies can always sell petroleum based fuels at top dollar. Biogas at our level just enables the "other 90%" to pursue a dignified and more secure life, and enables subsidy transfer or removal while enabling the poor and lower income/middle income people to eliminate the  grave public health problems produced by toilet and food wastes and while enabling them to have enough gas to get through the week and through disasters or crises when supply shortages are inevitable .

 So I think the problem -- the reason we aren't seeing more pictures like the ones from my home --  isn't interference from  the big companies or  governments.  I think it is the ignorance and mythology that has infected  the rest of us. We, ourselves,  are actually the ones keeping these solutions from wider acceptance through belief in our own conspiracy theories and the  inadvertant fear mongering and laziness they create.
 Once we accept our own responsibilities for sharing the good news -- this new gospel of this very old natural technology, we can truly sing with John Lennon "So this is Christmas, and look what we've done, another year over and a new one just begun... have a very merry Christmas, and a happy new year; let's hope its a good one... without any fear..."
 War is over... if you want it!
God bless us, everyone. Merry Christmas.