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Pioneering onion power
There's another lesson to be learned from Skippy, who in his living hamster-ness reminds us once again that not all fuels are fossil. And just as there are many ways to spin a turbine, there are lots of ways to make fuel. You can even extract it from your garbage.
Ten years ago, Steve and David Gill weren't thinking about energy solutions. They were looking for something to do with the 200,000 to 300,000 pounds a day of waste they had left over from peeling and chopping onions for salsa companies and supermarkets. They originally tried using it for compost on the 15,000 acres of onion fields they tend in Oxnard, Calif., but as their business grew, it became, Steve Gill says, "a huge, stinking mess."
The Gills had been hit hard by the California energy crisis in the summer of 2000, when the manipulation of the state's electricity market caused blackouts across the state. It made Steve Gill think: What if onion waste could somehow be turned into energy?
Gill called his friend, Bill Deaton, a chemical engineer and energy consultant from Kayenta, Utah. Deaton had an idea for seeding the Gills' onion waste with tiny bugs that would digest the waste and turn it into methane. "Digester gas," as it's called, has already been made from beer waste to run boilers at breweries; dairy farmers from Maryland to California feed digesters with manure and make a profit on the fuel. New York City makes 4.7 billion cubic feet of methane from its wastewater sludge. No one, however, had yet made methane from onions.
Deaton consulted the California Biomass Collective at the University of California at Davis, which determined that the sugar in onions makes them particularly nutritious food for microbes. He got a Dutch company, Biothane, to build a specialized digester.
"It's heaven for microbes in the digester," Deaton says. "We give them the right temperature, the right pH, and make the food available. They eat all this stuff, and they develop gas. That's methane."
Deaton and Gill elected to use the digester gas in a fuel cell. A fuel cell makes electricity through chemistry. It works like a battery that never needs recharging, as long as you keep feeding it hydrogen. FuelCell Technology Inc. of Danbury, Conn., manufactures a fuel cell that converts methane to hydrogen internally, mixing hydrogen electrons with oxygen electrons to make electricity, heat and water. It's quiet, emits nothing and with combined heat-and-power, it runs at 90 percent efficiency.
Fuel cells have limitations. They need pristine methane to run properly; the sulfur that stings your eyes when you chop an onion will poison a delicate fuel cell. The California Energy Commission awarded a $106,000 grant to an Illinois company, Gas Technology Institute, to figure out how to take the sulfur out of the onions. The solution will extend to other agricultural wastes in the future.
The system will take a few months to ramp up, says Deaton. The microbes, which came from Anheuser Busch—they're "beer bugs," Deaton says—have to adapt, eat and digest before sufficient gas can be harvested. For now, the Gills' two 300-kilowatt fuel cells operate on natural gas, connected up to Southern California Edison's grid. They inoculated the digester on June 8, and expect to have onion fuel by the end of the year.
The state and federal governments have been supportive: California's Public Utilities Commission ponied up $2.8 million from its Self-Generation Incentive Program, and the Gills will get another $1.8 million from the federal government, money that would have trickled in as an investment tax credit before February's stimulus bill turned it into a grant. The entire project, including all the research, cost $9 million, but the Gills will save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on waste disposal. With the incentives, he expects it to pay for itself within five years. And he can be confident about the math: Although natural gas prices fluctuate wildly several times a year, the price of onion gas is always the same.
Steve Gill acknowledges that his transition to local power was far from simple. Negotiations with Southern California Edison were "time-consuming," he says. (Utilities typically extract a number of significant fees for the transition to local power.) He might have given up were he not intent on "getting rid of a huge problem," he admits. And "now we've turned the whole thing into a demonstration project."
The University of California at Santa Barbara has adopted Gills Onions as a teaching model for other agricultural operations, and now Steve Gill goes around, he says, "helping other guys do this thing. Because really, you shouldn't have
any waste out of a food plant. There's a use for everything."
Clinging to coal, oil and natural gas
E.F. Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful 36 years ago, when political shifts in the Middle East suddenly awakened the world to the reality that its petroleum might not last forever. In the years that followed, we were supposed to start driving smaller cars, wearing cardigans in the house and plastering our rooftops with solar panels. Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) in 1978, requiring utilities to buy electricity from independent renewable generators at competitive rates. Millions of solar roofs were set to bloom.
But it didn't happen. Instead, cars got big again and the sweaters came off, along with the solar panels on Reagan's White House roof. And large, centralized fossil-fuel plants solidified their hegemony: Between 1980 and 1999 in the United States, 155 new coal plants came online. Photovoltaics and wind could not begin to compete with the price of electricity generated from coal. Consequently, PURPA did little to promote any kind of renewable energy except combined heat-and-power.
Coal's steady pulse of cheap electrons seduced us into doubting whether efficiency itself was worth the trouble. While a few states have followed California's lead in "decoupling" utility profits from electricity sales, for most of our electrical history, utilities made a profit per kilowatt-hour. Along with those profits came a parade of gadgets to encourage profligacy: electric can-openers and toothbrushes, garage-door lifters and dishwashers, all of them creating a need where there once wasn't even a desire. GE, as its slogan went, brought good things to life.
In an essay published in the 1983 book Nuclear Power: Both Sides, Amory Lovins described how French energy-efficiency planners in the 1970s figured out that most of their electricity went into heating buildings. Because France fueled almost all of its generators with oil, and oil supplies were suddenly in peril, efficiency experts started looking to other sources—waste heat from on-site generators, passive solar, natural gas—to warm the country's buildings.
At the same time, however, the country's energy supply planners, "who were far more numerous and influential in the French government," discovered nuclear power. By the mid-1980s, the country had more than 50 reactors, generating so much electricity that heating buildings with it didn't seem so wasteful anymore. In fact, "the only way they would be able to sell all that electricity would be for electrical heating."
Lovins' point was this: If you start at the consumer end, you can calculate how much energy we need to live and build what you need to supply it. If you start at the supply end, you predict future demand by adding numbers to the current demand. And you can only satisfy that demand with ever-larger supplies of power.
If it's hard to separate reliable electricity from behemoth generators, it's harder still to think of getting by without coal, oil or natural gas. As former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger and Energy Department veteran Robert L. Hirsch wrote in a recent editorial for the Washington Post, "Solar and wind electricity systems must be backed up 100 percent by other forms of generation to ensure against blackouts. And in today's world, that backup power can only come from fossil fuels."
They're partly right: In general, wind farms and solar plants generate power at the mercy of nature. But as onion fuel demonstrates, backup power can come from multiple sources. It can even come from the sun.
Small-scale sun power
About 2,500 miles across the Pacific, Darren Kimura has a cough. "It's the 'vog'," he says on the phone, a condition that occurs when ash from Hawaii's Kilauea volcano mixes with moisture-laden southern breezes. "I'm allergic to it."
Still, he soldiers on to explain the mechanics of the organic Rankine cycle, the process his company, Sopogy, uses in its compact concentrating solar thermal power generators to make and store electricity.