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!"

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Solar CITIES e.V. Report: Where we've been and whither we are tending...

"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it." -- President Abraham Lincoln, Illinois Republican State Convention, Springfield, Illinois June 16, 1858

 Solar CITIES Solutions e.V. is a German  based  "Verein" or association, a  non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the promise of home and community scale biogas and associated solar energy based  'independence tech' solutions around the world that received funding from the Blackstone Ranch Foundation and National Geographic, among others, to pursue a vision of collaboration across disciplines to meet the innovation challenges of the 21st century.

 Biogas was placed front and center of our efforts in Solar CITIES because we had discovered that it is the simplest and most effective form of solar energy capture, storage and use available to humanity, given that it's clean fuel and nutrient rich fertilizer outputs can be produced from kitchen and toilet wastes.  These normally troublesome and often disease causing outputs of society are  two things that every human being and community has in abundance, and in the process of their transformation through harnessed anaerobic digestion we found that they are ironically the best bet for our species in our efforts to meet our UN Millennium Goals.  We found that small scale biogas and fertilizer created from food and toilet wastes in our burgeoning  urban areas can help eliminate indoor air pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, malnutrition, and conflict over scarce resources.

  Formalizing our non-profit into other entities around the world that can pursue similar goals multi-laterally, in a rhizomal rashion, represents a  "levelling up" of our vision (to use gamer lingo), a culmination of work I had done since 2006 when I and my wife and colleagues living in the slums and informal areas of Cairo started  a German/Egyptian/American partnership that would operate as an open-source green-collar technology training hacker space initiative  dedicated to  "Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Solutions"

Maintaining that vision, I am  now assisting Catalytic Communities, an NGO created by my friend and fellow biological anthropologist trained urban planner Theresa Williamson, who was an inspiration for Solar CITIES' approach, working in the  favelas of Rio De Janeiro to continue work we started together there this summer to help solve urban waste problems in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics, hoping to move awareness of the small scale biogas solution to the world stage. When we prove the value of easy to build community and home scale biogas systems in Brazil, we hope to set the stage for a rapid multiplier effect to take place.

As we grow, now working in turn with a partner organization, New York based Solar CITIES Solutions, Solar CITIS e.V., looks back over the past three years of activities and progress achieved since completing our first biogas education training tours of the Middle East and Africa and Nepal on our first Blackstone Ranch Foundation/National Geographic Innovation Challenge Grants that got us started (those achievements are covered elsewhere).

 This report has been prepared primarily for Dr. Katey Walter Anthony as a summary for our funders and friends at National Geographic.


In 2010, in preparation for synergistic work with Dr. Katey Walter Anthony on small biodigesters and the potential to extend their range using psychrophilic anaerobic microbes in Alaska, I returned to our Solar CITIES NGO site team in Egypt to develop inexpensive biogas systems out of ubiquitous local materials that could be found in every country in the world.  The work was funded by the Blackstone Ranch Foundation through National Geographic working with the University of Fairbanks and the Denali Commission.

There are two basic kinds of biodigesters in the world – the Chinese fixed dome system and the Indian Floating Drum digester.  Neither seemed suited for temperate zone climatic zones or for small scale builders with limited resources.

What emerged from the trip to Egypt was our development of a low cost DIY biogas system based on the use of pallette based 1 cubic meter International Bulk Containers (IBC Tanks) that are relatively easy to find on the after market (normally they are used for shipping liquids and other amorphous materials around the world) and can be sealed and insulated for use in cold climates. We knew that the traditional Indian Floating Drum digestor, even when built from local plastic water tanks, and the Chinese fixed dome digestor, built using local bricklayers, both of which we were experimenting with in Egypt, would not be appropriate for colder climates or situations where budgets, space and land use permissions were limited (Figure 1).

In Alaska Katey and I, along with our teams and with Adam Lowe and his students from Cordova High School, developed a laboratory based on deployment of these tanks and began experimenting with mixed tanks containing both cold tolerant microbes (psychrophiles) and warm loving microbes (thermophiles), finding that they do well together and increase gas production when used together as opposed to used alone, possibly because they inhabit different niches in the tanks. (Figure 2).

From these experiments I began tinkering with small scale biogas on my own home porch in Germany, and was able to create a reliable system that provided about ½ hour of cooking (and occasional gas lamp lighting and electricity generation) most days of the year.  Innovations such as using solar heated shower and bath and grey water to keep the tank temperatures above 20 C helped. (Figure 3,4)

I experimented with using psychrophiles gathered in the winter from local duck ponds and started mini-digesters in my bathroom using my baby's diaper wastes (Figure 5) I also demonstrated to my satisfaction that in cold climates we could use PVC bags for reliable gas storage rather than a water based system, eliminating the need for anti-freeze or heating as long as the digester itself were kept at 20 C or higher.(Figure 6)

New York
When I took a post as a visiting faculty researcher at Mercy College, New York in January of 2013, I created an indoor lab based on our work with Katey in Alaska, to test various scenarios for food and toilet waste based biogas. In this relatively  unventilated and confined space we captured the gas in truck inner tubes and demonstrated the safety of closed tank biogas system for indoor use.  We kept methane alarm sensors on hand and demonstrated that we could get useful yields throughout the winter without extra heating using food scraps from the cafeteria.  We also demonstrated that we could grind the cafeteria waste using a bicycle powered food grinder (Figures 7 through 10).  Unfortunately Mercy College later decided they needed that indoor space for other purposes.

Using Mercy college as  my academic home base I started  experiments  outside on campus with Envisaj Mercy, the Environmental Sustainability and Justice Club and began working with the  Greenburgh Nature Center and  Hartsbrook Nature Preserve. We designed a new way of using the IBC tank so that it more nearly approximated the engineering of the Chinese Fixed Dome digester design, and hybridized it with the ARTI type Indian floating digester design for gas collection, creating the “Solar CITIES IBC/ARTI Hybrid'.  This system enables both tanks to be used in the warmer months but permits the gas collector to be located outdoors and the main digester indoors so that one of them can work all year round in a heated indoor environment.  Discharge of warm water in the overflow to the gas holder helps keep it unfrozen in winter in most situations. The tanks can be heated by waste shower and bath and dishwasher  water.
With the students in our Envisaj Mercy club we also developed a classroom based mini-digestor demonstration system and made public appearances and did workshops that lead to collaborations and fund raising opportunities (Figure 11 and 12).

  We were able to leverage these experiences into a new grant from the Blackstone Ranch foundation that enabled us to purchase a new design of Puxin Chinese biogas molds that were created for the Solar CITIES Solutions effort  by the Puxin company when I was in Shenzen China last summer (Figure 13, 14)

 The grant also enabled Solar CITIES Solutions to  bring 10 of the world's small scale biogas experts to New York to gain experience in building the Chinese Puxin mold system  (ultimately only 7 could make it, from Israel, Babylon, Egypt, Italy, Oregon, Washington and New York; our colleagues from India and Kenya and Palestine had travel problems but will come to our training meeting next year)  (Figure 15 and 16). Through this Blackstone Grant we were able to create what we call the “Best BET” – an international Biogas Education Team – that can improve systems and do trainings all over the globe. This event was covered in local newspapers like the Rivertown Enterprise and the Indy Star.

We chose to use the Puxin molds because I had tried them out in the Phillipines in 2011 with a group of German doctors (Chance for Growth e.V.) doing preventative medicine at a retreat school on the island of Palawan for abused girls from the slums of Manila.(Figures 17, 18)

(One thing we learned from this experience was that when people build they need to understand the hydraulic pressure function of water level in pushing gas out of a digester -- the feed inlet and fertilizer outlets need to be taller than the top of the gas holder and as tall as the maximum height that the water will reach above the holder and filled so that when the gas holder is filled with gas the water reaches the top of the basins and when it is empty the water still covers the gas holder. In the Phillipines these basins were built too low and had to be made higher for proper functioning).

From what we learned in these preliminary experiments and conversations, we went on to the favelas of Brazil and  started teaching small scale biogas construction with colleagues from  Architecture for Humanity and Catalytic Communities, an NGO dedicated to empowering local groups in poor areas. (Figure 19,20).

The effort led to funding from Insinkerator corporation (manufacturer of food waste grinders)  to build larger scale Chinese Puxin biodigesters sized for entire communities.

We now have three digesters at a new  elementary school in the impoverished section of Niteroi that is near  the site of a landfill collapse that claimed many lives, and one under construction in a favela in the rain forest favela "Vale Encantado" (Enchanted Valley)  overlooking Rio. We use Blender 3D to create models and animations and renderings as part of our previsualization and education campaign across cultures (Figure 21, 22, 23, 24)

Israel and Palestine
In the meantime, projects I had started in Israel and Palestine on the original grant that Katey and I got from the Blackstone Ranch foundation needed tending, so I followed up by introducing my new Solar CITIES Hybrid IBC solution there.  I took my  Envisaj Mercy students and a young biogas engineer working on our project in Brazil on a two week “Biogas research and construction tour”  from the West Bank with Engineers without Borders, the Palestinian Wildlife Society and Brother's Engineering Group  to Eco-Gas Israel, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and  Kibbutz Lotan Eco-Village "Green Apprenticeship Program." It culminated in a workshop build of the new  improved biogas system we had tried out at Mercy college based on our initial work in Alaska (Figure 25, 26). One important finding we are investigating is that it appears that manure from cows fed on grain seem to lack active methanogens as we haven't produced gas in the 8 weeks since the system was loaded.  One study suggests that grain fed cows produce too much acidity for a good balance of microbes. These experiences -- especially the "failures" -- are very important to our efforts.  Without a dedicated laboratory able to run large numbers of real world trials, these kind of experiments can only be effectively done if we have enough builds around the world in different.countries and if  we can cross compare data from dedicated citizen scientists. That open source collaborative engagement is what our facebook group "Solar CITIES Biogas Innoventors and Practitioners" helps us to achieve.

Bicoastal US:

There was also interest in the US as several community leaders in impoverished areas of California and Washington DC asked if I could help them get started in home scale biogas. Most found us through the wonderful promotion we've received since I was awarded as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2009.  Schools and individuals find out about Solar CITIES through National Geographic Learning and we are asked to do talks and workshops around the country and the world. We did a training workshop and build in “the 'hood” in South L.A. with  a former student of mind in an area once  famous for drug deals and gangs where he is leading "green collar job training" to revitalize the community, and we built with  friends trying to go "off the grid"  in the San Pedro National forest area (Figures 27) .

 I was also  able to build at a foreclosure house in Northern California and then to bring one of our original Solar CITIES Egyptian colleagues, former carpenter and Solar CITIES founder Mostafa Hussein, from the slums of Cairo,  to Washington DC and New York to assist in the effort of building in inner city schools, continuing a practice of East/East, South/South, Community/Community technology and knowledge transfer that  Katey and I had started when we brought another Egyptian  Solar CITIES founding leader, Hanna Fathy, from the trash recycling community  (Zabaleen) to four countries in Africa to share knowledge (Figure 28).

Iraq and Turkey:
News of these successes spread through the networks of  development specialists we had worked with in the US Embassy in Jerusalem and contacts we had made through National Geographic, and in the spring of 2013 I found myself called to my mother's native Baghdad Iraq and Kurdistan and then on to Turkey to continue the trainings and builds.

 From the US Embassy in Baghdad with Public Affairs chief Frank Finver to the “Greening of the Blue” at the  United Nations (working with Humanitarian officer Karin Mayer) to the Ministry of Science and Technology to Kurdistan  and on to the streets of Istanbul, we did  builds and hands-on trainings and lectures that showed how small scale biogas systems turning kitchen and toilet wastes into clean fuel and rich fertilizer were the “missing piece of the sustainability puzzle.” (Figure30 through 33).

I even put my Iraqi grandfather's ashes into one of the tanks in Erbil to celebrate the cyclical and transformative nature of this technology, a simple technology  which environmental journalist Hillary Rosner, in Popular Science magazine, in an article on our work, declared the  “low hanging fruit” of sustainable development (Figure 34)

From Africa to Eastern Europe to Western Europe, to the Americas to the Middle East and Asia and back again I've been cross pollinating areas with the fertile ideas of biogas  in an endless cycle, visiting on average 10 different countries a year and watching with excitement as others in our network do the same.

As the network expands, the model of itinerant, peripatetic “apostles of sustainability”  preaching the “gospel of biological transduction” grows rhizomally. People I had met in Nairobi while on the first National Geographic/Blackstone Innovation Challenge asked me back to teach in the Mukuru slums there with the German  Arts NGO Simama e.V, and while working there I met Christian missionary groups who asked if I would introduce the technology to Hungarians and Slovakians to help with other issues that could benefit from this easy waste-to-energy-and-fertility technology such as the problems facing the gypsies and other marginalized groups in Europe.  Through presentations at UNESCO the network grew to include former President Obasanjo of Nigeria who invited me to  build systems and teach workshops at his home and in several schools and church hospitals.  Presentations I had made at the Los Angeles Eco-village led to introducing this technology to the Global Eco-village network in Damanhur Italy and the Solar village of Tamera, Portugal. This in turn led to our Solar CITIES Open Source Biogas system being deployed in the favelas of Sao Paolo by students I trained in their global campus  in Portugal. Through our facebook group “Solar CITIES Biogas Innoventors and Practioners” our solution has also been adopted in several other countries and locations I've never had the chance to visit, including Senegal, shown here (Figure 35, 36).

Meanwhile, the builds in the Middle East go on, with a large scale Puxin from the molds  that we brought to Iraq recently completed by the marvelous Baghdadi engineer Taha Majeed and the team from MOST (Figure 37) at a sacred Shiite Shrine in the desert , while I continue my own research into small scale DIY biogas systems for colder climates using local material and thank all of the people and institutions who have invested in this work.

My vision and hope now is twofold:

1) To introduce the larger Chinese mold based systems of 4m3, 6m3, 10m3 and larger in strategic community locations around the world  for institutions with significant amounts of food and toilet waste that can help spread awareness and build capacity.

2) Use the public awareness that the community builds and workshops create to inspire  an interest and demand for the true (r)evolution in waste management and renewable energy: the introduction of market based mass produced home scale biogas systems that can create true independence from centralized and unwieldy and disaster vulnerable systems.  As Solar CITIES e.V. we already have partnered with several suppliers of home biogas and will be helping them introduce their products (like the TevaGas systems integrated with hydroponics gardens shown below)  into the appropriate locations in the world until we reach a time when kitchen and toilet wastes cease to be considered a problem in development, and are seen as the solution to our troubles that they really are once we create a truly recycling economy (Figure 38, 39)

Food and toilet wastes are embedded solar energy. They are the only resources we ALL have in common, whether we live in Alaska or New York or Baghdad. They will always be with us.  And as such, properly transformed through biogas systems,  they are the real solutions that Solar CITIES e.V. believes can be our true path to creating a sustainable "Heliopolis", an enduring and joyful "City of the Sun".