Poop Apocalypse – The importance of thinking bio energy plans through

I’ve mentioned before that meeting a future oil crisis most will likely hurt. But how can we prevent it, and what are the draw backs of those solutions?

In Denmark, we look crisis in the eye, and underestimate it. So when we saw that the North Sea oil was running out, we established a climate commission that would work out how Denmark would become fossil fuel independent by 2050. The short version of the report can be found here, in english. I was fortunate to attend a lecture by one of the 8 people on the committee. Even more fortunate to receive one of his two hard copies of the climate report –I’m just that kind of gal. But back to the point. It is, according to the climate commission’s report, more than possible that Denmark become fossil fuel independent by the year 2050. And there was much rejoicing. However, there are circumstances. Most of the report promotes bio fuels, as the least expensive way to achieve this goal.

In short bio fuels are extracted from either crops such as sugar or corn, or from byproducts, such as household kitchen waste or animal waste. And yes, animal waste is feces and urine. This creates  biomass, from which bio- ethanol, biogas and other biofuels can be extracted.

It is speculated, that if Denmark goes all in on Bio fuels, while the rest of Europe stand by and watches, we will make a great profit on biofuels, and will experience the wind turbine adventure part two. But if the rest of Europe follows, we will struggle to produce enough biomass to meet our own needs.

Problem a) The definition of the system.

In the above mentioned, the system only contains Denmark. If we assume that our surroundings won’t act as we do, we will make a huge profit. But can we afford to think like that? When planning for your country’s future energy supply, you need to examine the situation holistically, from start to end. You can’t discard the rest of the world. I’m pretty sure they too would like heat, gas, electricity and something to run their cars on.

Problem b) The poop.

Bio fuel is great alternative to both fossil fuel and wind turbines, but we have to fully grasp their impact. Here an example. And yes, this really happened.

Some of my fellow students did a study on a biomass plant in Kenya, where the waste of a public toilet and bath house, was used to produce biogas. It’s was a 2-for-1 deal. Give the community good toilet and bath facilities, and get an energy source out of it. Use human waste to make gas. The students visited the plant to investigate and suggest improvements for the biogas facility. The plans for the facility were thought up almost 6 years go. Here’s the great part:

When the facility was planed, built and then 3 years ago taken to use, there was no plan, non what so ever, for how to dispose of the sludge. So in 2010 they had been operating for 3 years and now their tanks were full. No one had thought of what to do with the sludge once the tanks were filled. Now, when they needed to make some space in the tanks, they just kindof… well, emptied them in the Nairobi river. Let that one sit for a bit.

They did not foresee the eventual capacity of the tanks. There were no long term plans, and now all the sludge, all that human waste, is going into the Nairobi River. I wonder what else goes into that river? I wonder how many people wash themselves in that river? How could this happen? Is it the illiterate 3rd world countries that are just too far behind the tech curve to plan and operate such facilities? It must be, right? Nope. This project is a 1st to 3rd world aid project, like so many others. What whent wrong here, was communication and logistics. It was simply somebody else’s problem.


Problem c) The resources

You might be thinking ‘Why use poop? Why not keep using crops?’

Remember the global food crisis a few years back, when prices on corn and flower sky rocketed, sending millions of people into starvation? One of the main reasons for that was the increased use of crops to produce biofuel, which expanded the demand for corn and other crops that can be used for biofuels, making prices rise.

If you’ve got your beat on the biofuel pulse you might be saying ‘Well, yes that was the 1st generation bio fuel. Then came the 2nd generation where byproducts from farming was used, and now the 3rd generation of biofuels, where algae is used instead of crops, is showing great potential’.

Right you are. Algae holds a far greater potential energy that crops, without making food prices soar. However, you still need to produce a huge amount of algae if you want to provide fuel for the entire world. The algae has to be farmed, and this takes up a lot of space. The barren desserts in the U.S. have been suggested for mega algae farming facilities, which might look something like this.

Image by John MacNiell via inhabitat.com

But it’s in no way enough to meet energy demands of the world, even if you place such farms in all barren, but accessible, regions of the world.

Growing up we have all been told, that we should not put all our eggs in one basked. The future energy supply is not an exception. Betting on only one source of energy to sustain the energy need for tomorrow, whether it be wind power, biofuels, nuclear power or crude oil, will cause more problems than solutions. Holistic thinking, where more than just the neighbouring system is included. As well, viewing the full life cycle of your energy source, including resource availability and disposal of byproducts, is essential for securing energy and other resources. This along with global awareness, combined solutions and good communication will keep us from smashing all our eggs, that we so far still carry in one basket.

Extra note on bio fuels, added January 22: On the 21nd the Los Angeles Times ran this article about how the EPA will now allow for up to 15% ethanol blended in gasoline for cars produced after 2001. This will on one hand shift the power balance a tiny bit, from a crude oil dependent future, to a more sustainable economy, and better yet, to a smooth transition. But it is still important to not view biofuels as the only way to a renewable energy source. Replacing one addiction with another is not a cure.