Monday, July 23, 2012

From waste to energy to poverty reduction

Technology makes a difference. And we are in a paradigm shift with renewable technology that are happening so fast that it is hard to keep up.  Is it fast enough?

400 pounds of oxygen are consumed with every tank of gasoline.

Paradigm shifts are needed in transportation, electirc power, building design, conservation and community design. There is a chance to re-engineer the entire society  How can we do it better in the next 100 years than we did in the past?  I knew this question was important, but I had not appreciated how far the technology and the early market conditions were moving in this direction.

Fuel cell power is making tremendous gains in transportation and electrical power. California is one of the leading areas for this change; it has agreed to reduce its emissions by 30% by 2020, and an additional 80% by 2050.  Stationary fuel cells - with 20 years of commercisalisination behind it and a wide portfolio of applications makes it a proven technology. The market demand is growing. There is growth of interest in Korea, Bloom Energy, and nearly all of the major electrical companies. Google, EBay and some of the major tech industries have been paying attention and the overarching cost of the technology is decreasing as the market becomes more competitive.  There are increasing numbers of automobile companies - Nissan, Toyota, General Motors - who are investing in automobiles with fuel cell technologies.  They say they are committed to this as the technology of the future. The World Bank is paying close attention. It might not be long before developing countries can take up these technologies with greater velocity.  Korea is also showing the way in terms of visionary policy.

He discussed having renewable energy stations - providing 0 carbon as human waste would be used to produce the fuel.  Going from waste (sludge) to 'digesters'. The new technology would lead to 'bio-hydrogen.  Human waste to produce electricity? Sounds too good to be true. But it is already in operation in the Orange County Sanitation district.

How are the oil companies taking this shift? They aren't too happy. But the past few years, even the past few months, a lot has shifted. He feels that we are going through a tipping point to accelerate the markets of the future in terms of overcoming past resistance - including legal constraints.

UCI can do a fair amount of experimentation. A large University with a fair amount of on-site housing, they are able to have a 'smart grid demonstration' where they can experiment with demonstration sites that enable better utility and consumer use.  The smart grid allows a far, far greater level of interaction with the grid than one might normally have.

Questions from Fellows from developing countries tended to focus on cost, price and key places in the system to enable change.  Water is necessary for fuel-cells; in CA, that comes to about 1% of water in the California aquaducts - not a tremendous amount. In water-scarce regions, this might be more problematic.

I found myself thinking of communities around the world who do not currently have any reliable energy, much less fuel cells. How much can fuel cell technology reduce poverty and enable greater community empowerment? In a lot of ways this feels like a technology shift more than the deep level of sustainability.  Especially when I look at the big players quickly moving into this space: I'm not sure how much I trust the interests of major automobile companies. When I think 'sustainable future' I like to think that we won't have so many highways - and I won't call something 'sustainable' if it can't reduce poverty and enhance well-being.

Or so I thought until I had some follow-up discussions with Dr Scott Samudien. Was it true that this technology requires a high level of expertise?  No, not for maintenance. The bigger issue is getting the fuel behind the fuel. In situations with natural gas, that's easy. However, not all countries - much less communities - have that. Which is where the waste-to-energy plant described above can make such a difference.

Which leads us to a natural solution: put stationary fuel-cells into slum communities that are fueled by human waste from those communities. Sanitation is generally recognised as one of the biggest challenges for slum communities. So is the lack of energy.  This could solve two of challenges facing slum communities: energy and waste - through a solution that enables greater sustainability.

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