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The Electricity in Your Garbage

Posted on Aug 2, 2009
AP / Timothy Jacobsen

A farmhand loads fresh cow manure into an open-air cargo bed. The smelly stuff is currently used for fertilizer, but the farm’s owner hopes to turn it into methane gas that he can use to make electricity.

By T.L. Caswell

(Page 2)

It is heartening to see that the recovery act, however dubious some of its other provisions might be, provides $78 billion for renewable energy projects, green transportation and energy efficiency. That sum alone far exceeds the $45 billion that Washington spent on incentives for renewables over more than 50 years.

Further billions for renewable energy are contained in the climate bill—the proposed American Clean Energy and Security Act—which is awaiting Senate action after narrowly clearing the House in June. (This legislation contains the controversial “cap and trade” provisions.) Under the legislation, utilities would have to generate 15 percent of their electricity from biomass, solar, geothermal, wind and other renewable sources within roughly 10 years, by 2020.

There was news last month of even more federal money becoming available to the public. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that his department is accepting applications for up to $50 million in projects that foster biofuel production and use.

Present and proposed clean-energy funding is large but not large enough, according to some. In July, 34 U.S. Nobel laureates sent President Obama a letter urging him to press for additional research and development funding in the climate bill. They want a clean-energy technology fund that would cost $150 billion over 10 years, a proposal that Obama has called for.

Common sense and recognition of the world’s climate and energy crises dictate that Washington be generous across the board in promoting clean-energy endeavors like the one at Gills Onions. And like those at Minnesota’s Haubenschild Farms, a dairy company that has operated biogas-generating equipment for the last 10 years and is now among a number of companies trading in “carbon credits.”

In the distance I hear some green warriors crying out that nothing about a cattle operation can be laudatory, but I won’t get into that briar patch here. (For a look at the activities of Haubenschild—which has no shortage of cow flops—and at how carbon credits work, click here.)

One of the non-barnyard animals that has found a role in the green scheme is the exotic and lovable panda. Which of course raises the question: Does a panda bear squat in the woods? Indeed it does. And it does the same in animal reserves, where the dung can be gathered up. I’d like to tell you that this collected scat is being used to power half of China, but that would be a fib—the panda is not producing biofuel, at least not yet. What the recycled droppings are being used for is to make pricey paper, as well as puppets, brush pots and souvenirs. Chinese researchers got the idea for the panda paper, some of which is said to smell like the fresh bamboo that pandas eat, from a zoo in Thailand that sells popular souvenirs made of panda and elephant feces.

American canines, not willing to play underdog to Chinese pandas, also are contributing to recycling. Here’s just one instance. The East Bay Municipal Utility District—MUD to Northern California’s Bay Area residents—is using dog waste to power some of its equipment. In a telephone interview with Truthdig last month, a spokesman for the company that does the collecting said the waste is picked up from a small number of facilities where there are dogs and is fed into utility district digesters that convert it into clean-burning methane.

Being clever with manure is not confined to the land of Yankee ingenuity. Here are only a few of the thousands of examples of biomass progress across the pond, westward and eastward: Biogas from chicken droppings has been used to power a Stirling engine in Japan. In the Netherlands, the world’s largest biomass power plant is burning gas from chicken excrement to supply electricity to 90,000 homes. Scotland soon will have a plant that will allow whisky drinkers to claim they are merely helping the biomass revolution. Permission has been granted to a biomass company and a distilling consortium to construct a plant that will use smelly residues from the distilling process, along with other renewable materials, to generate enough electricity to serve about 9,000 homes. Similar efforts involving distillery and brewery residues have been launched elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.

Even with its gains, biomass technology is still a mere babe requiring dutiful care and feeding. Government, industry and society in general must confront major challenges in developing biomass systems that can break through existing roadblocks and help provide the widely distributed renewable energy that the planet needs so desperately. A major undertaking, sure, but one that holds the potential for an extremely large payoff.

In the Middle Ages, alchemists fervently worked, without success, to turn lead into precious minerals. Today, as natural resources are depleted, thousands of scientists, researchers and developers are working earnestly with biomass materials to find low-cost, efficient and practical ways to draw out something of great worth—clean, renewable energy. Prominent among the materials that fill their daytime labors and nighttime dreams is one of high promise that has insulted the human nose ever since human noses began and that, for many of us, is best kept out of sight and smelling range. To biomass scientists, it is an object of shining hope: To you it’s poo, but to them it is pure gold.

T.L. Caswell worked for many years at the Los Angeles Times and now edits for Truthdig.


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By Bliss Doubt, August 6, 2009 at 5:33 am Link to this comment

To Ardee, I refer to the dirty coal retrieved from mountaintop removal in Appalachia, and I’ve read that 5-7 percent figure in many articles recently.  Most of them cite EPA for those figures.  On they say that all this devastating destruction is for less than 5 percent of our country’s energy needs.

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By ardee, August 5, 2009 at 5:29 pm Link to this comment

Bliss Doubt, August 5 at 9:47 am

I am curious as to your statistics, can you post a link to them?

Coal itself provides 57% of our energy to date.

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By Bliss Doubt, August 5, 2009 at 5:47 am Link to this comment

I read that mountaintop removal for dirty coal provides 5 to 7 percent of our nation’s energy needs per year.  If only the mining of garbage for energy could be advanced quickly enough to cover that, the coal companies would have no apologetic for their abominable practice!

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, August 4, 2009 at 12:29 pm Link to this comment

Wow, it’s nice to read some good news. Onion juice, of all things - and I thought it was just for breakfast!

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By rollzone, August 4, 2009 at 11:29 am Link to this comment

hello. biomass is not garbage, it is recyclable composition. recycling is a green energy that could expand in today’s economy. nanotechnology applies embedded metals in paints so you can now actually paint solar receptors on your house. i agree that getting government out of the way and directing incentives to the user end of the energy spectrum could motivate investment that would put people back to work. redirecting even incrementally at first will eventually break the stranglehold of the fossil fuels industry. their biomass stinks.

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By Inherit The Wind, August 3, 2009 at 4:26 pm Link to this comment

Gives new meaning to “Electric Kool-Aid” doesn’t it?

Seems one of the easiest ways to reduce consumption is paint roofs white, except in extreme northern climes.

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By hippie4ever, August 3, 2009 at 2:50 pm Link to this comment

I received a sales pitch to “go green” by putting in a solar heating system. I tried to explain to the guy that my apartment was designed to catch solar heat so I didn’t need his expensive system. Rather than turn on the heat (and further degrade the environment) I open the curtains.

Why aren’t more houses built with passive solar? It seems like the best solution, to use less, because there’s always opportunity costs when you buy energy. Bio fuels are responsible for mass hunger in Latin America, where the price of corn has soared.

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By marcus medler, August 3, 2009 at 10:45 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nice article, but the importance of these changes and initiatives is not energy from biomass, what do you think coal and oil/gas are made from. No! The important points made here are; 1. Incentives from the top; federal rules and subsidies moving away from established interest to a new interest 2. Decentralization, incentives to the user not the producer. It is the second change that is hard to institute and sustain since it hurts monopoly capital.

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By ardee, August 3, 2009 at 5:31 am Link to this comment

I applaud the small steps in forward thinking indicated by this article. I would urge michaellamb to footnote his criticisms in order to evaluate them.

I have noted in the past that, to replace our offshored industrial capacities we will lead the way in new technologies. This article shows that premise to have at least a bit of weight.

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By michaelannb, August 2, 2009 at 8:26 pm Link to this comment

Every one of these plants has to be evaluated individually—“biomass” per se means nothing.  Of the three biomass plants proposed for Western Massachusetts, two will burn wood from our forests and have been designated carbon-neutral because in 40 years, another tree will mature and take the place of the tree that is cut.  I thought we didn’t HAVE 40 years to get control of global warming.

The third plant, proposed for Springfield, will burn up to 75% “construction and demolition” wood, which can be saturated with arsenic, covered with lead paint and worse.  Palmer Renewable Energy admits the plant will add an additional 4 tons of lead to the atmosphere every year. 

As a trade-off for our health and our forests, the plants will meet quite a bit less than 1% of Massachusetts’ energy needs.

We don’t need these plants, they’re a big scam, and we’re fighting to keep them from being built.

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By rollzone, August 2, 2009 at 6:18 pm Link to this comment

hello. 3mil in government and utility incentives- very deceptive. this onion plant is much better off, than the farmers that are knee deep in biomass, if they are able to invest 9mil. it is so small a scale, although incrementally it will help- still this does not present itself as a huge doable commitment that will help more than 1 million people across our entire country. this presents itself as the beginning of the propaganda, to pass ‘cap and trade’, to tax every homeowner $100/month on their electric bill. as the article mentioned- it just needs to squeak through the Senate. can you smell it? this is a good place for line item veto. i do agree algae holds the most promise for capitalization of biomass, and breaking the hold of the oil and natural gas barons is good for the present, as well as the future. this is remarkable to see the onion factory taking initiative, even if their motives were fueled by the bottom line.

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By coloradokarl, August 2, 2009 at 6:03 pm Link to this comment

Colorado Springs burns a train load of Wyoming Coal every 3 days for electricity thus generating 220 Lbs. of mercury in our air every year (ever wonder why we have so many Christian zealots?) We have 170,000 acres of dead pine less than 30 miles away from several fires that just rots and blows over in the wind. The power plant could convert in days and you know why they do not? The coal companys and the rail road would lose CONTROL and until the the re-newable energy congressional bribes out pace the standard energy company bribes it is STATUS QUO !!!

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By coloradokarl, August 2, 2009 at 5:40 pm Link to this comment

Obama calls for tire guages and gets ridicule, We could install small computers to read out our MPG second by second and turn driving into a video game that saves us money for about $100.00, white roofs to reflect the suns radiation into space, Plant trees to suck CO2. It is endless, people! but why not? The corporations want our energy for them selves. By putting solar panels on ones house, recycling waste water and driving lets say a Plug in Hybrid, One removes the control from the Corporation and this can not be tolerated, not today. I am planning a green house and a 120 MPG vehichle, YOU??

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, August 2, 2009 at 5:40 pm Link to this comment

That’s great, really. But it has the same problem as using waste vegetable oil as feedstock for biodiesel production. That is, the amount that’s available is limited. Personally, I think micro algae shows the most promise.

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