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The Electricity in Your Garbage
Posted on Aug 2, 2009
By T.L. Caswell
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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