With ever rising oil prices alternative energy has not only gained national attention, but has also been coming from increasingly unlikely, and often rather pungent, sources.
Late last month there was an article published by the Associated Press about the recent steep increase in reported theft of used cooking oil.The skyrocketing price of petroleum has apparently pushed the demand for refuse cooking oil so high that many legitimate purveyors of the putrid yellowish sludge, which is generally kept in large barrels behind fast food restaurants, have found their sources to be completely depleted. Grease collectors have reported losses of several thousand dollars in individual locations, stolen in the night by (what I assume to be) rapier wielding grease pirates.
Cooking oil, which can be distilled into a form of biodiesel to power converted diesel vehicles, has become a multimillion dollar industry in recent years. Production has increased from 75 million gallons in 2005 to nearly 500 million gallons last year. Rising gasoline prices and general concern about global warming have stimulated the growth of the industry, which requires a permit from the EPA to legally produce the fuel. As a result, many biodiesel users still choose to illegally distill their own biodiesel with stolen grease in backyard sills.While this "problem" has supposedly gotten out of hand in areas such as Seattle, which reportedly loses 30,000 gallons a month of grease to oil bandits, the increase in production shows that there is a major demand for energy derived from human created waste (I personally am still holding out to power my Delorean with a trash fueled “Mr. Fusion.”).
The use of biodiesel produced from food waste is often considered to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to the fossil fuel intensive and food-riot inducing ethanol, which is commonly derived directly from crops such as corn. In both cases, the combustion of biofuel does not directly contribute to climate change, as the carbon released does not come directly from fossil fuel sources. Unfortunately neither option provides a long-term solution to the current energy crisis as potential sources for biofuel (especially waste derived biodiesel) will never come close to meeting the vast demand for fuel in the United States.
So now that you have donned your eye patch, gone dumpster-diving for cooking grease, and are gleefully puttering around town in a Volkswagen that smells of burnt French fries, you may be asking yourself, “this is all good, but is there any way that I can possibly obtain electricity for my home in a way that is both environmentally friendly, and comes from a waste source even more pungent than using fermented cooking grease to fuel my car?” Fortunately for you there is such a thing: methane gas derived from anaerobic digesters.
Anaerobic digesters produce methane gas through the breakdown of organic materials by anaerobic bacteria, which essentially entails collecting the gaseous waste byproduct of hungry bacteria. If this concept alone isn’t gross enough for you, consider the fact that one of the most common "foods" for these bacteria happens to be cow manure. That’s right, anaerobic digesters operate by collecting large amounts of manure in an oxygen free environment, collecting the resulting methane gas and using this to power natural gas generators. Having visited a digester myself, I can personally attest that there is absolutely nothing glamorous about it.
Like biodiesel, anaerobic digesters may not provide the perfect solution to ending our dependence on petroleum, yet remains an interesting option for using waste as a fuel source. So far digesters have been primarily implemented on dairy and cattle farms, in projects such as Vermont’s Cow Power program. While they often do not produce enough electricity to completely cover the electrical needs of a running farm, anaerobic digesters do greatly help to offset a farms load on the electrical grid. Collecting and combusting methane gas also has other benefits, including decreasing the potent greenhouse gas effects of methane gas on its own.
With the end of the age of cheap petroleum upon us, alternative energy sources are becoming increasingly favorable options. Utilizing waste products to provide environmentally friendly energy is especially appealing as it utilizes a vast reserve of untapped resources that would otherwise be unused, as well as helps to reduce to potential impacts of fossil fuels on global climate change (which, if it wasn’t scary enough already, is apparently leading to an epic "cold war" showdown between Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway and the United States over the rights to a newly melted northwest passage through the arctic… I’ve been watching the ice battle in "The Empire Strikes Back” in eager anticipation). We can only hope that the current spike in demand for biodiesel, and technology such as the anaerobic digester (which theoretically can create methane gas from other organic waste byproducts aside from just cow manure), will help to fuel investment and innovation in the field of renewable alternative waste based energy.
This was a guest post from Patrick Woolford. If you want to read more from Patrick he also blogs about Panama Real Estate.