September 29, 2008

The Controversy Continues: Renewable Energy Revisited

In a previous post entitled "Waste for Welfare: Exploring Alternative Energy Solutions", I discussed a few examples of alternative energy programs that were being conducted in the developing and neighboring African nations of Kenya and Ethiopia. With a particular emphasis on bio-fuels and the use of waste (both food and human) in the production of fuel, I highlighted a bio-latrine project in Kenya's Kibera slums and a fuel briquette production program in the Akaki Kaliti neighborhood of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This past week, I found two particular postings in the blogo-sphere that pointed out additional energy action and controversy in Kenya concerning the adoption of more eco-friendly and sustainable energy sources into the local communities. The first blog, "AfriGadget Innovator Series: Simon Mwacharo of Craftskills", was from, a website which sheds light on new innovative technologies developed by Africans to solve everyday issues. The post works essentially as a transcript of an interview with Simon Mwachano, an entrepreneur based in Nairobi who owns Craftskills. Craftskills is a small business that works to create and construct sustainable renewable energy projects in locations where electricity is difficult to access. The interview discusses the inspirations, challenges, and successes that Craftskills has encountered with the execution of their various projects, ranging from harnessing wind energy (as exemplified by the windmill pictured to the right) in the Taita hills to a water pumping turbine in Chirifi. The second post I stumbled upon similarly focuses on Kenyan energy projects, providing an impartial explanation of the potential benefits and the disadvantages to government implemented energy projects. "Biofuels and Biodiversity in Africa" from Kenya Environmental and Political News Weblog, a blog created to cover environmental and political information in Kenya with a view to promoting poverty alleviation through awareness, addresses the controversial aspects concerning the agricultural production of alternative biofuels is discussed, citing both environmental and pragmatic lifestyle concerns as evidence. While both blogs deal with the similar broad topics of "Africa" and "alternative energy", one discusses the challenges yet successes achieved through small-scale local ingenuity, while the latter delves into the downside of large-scale projects and international involvement in biofuel production.

"AfriGadget Innovator Series: Simon Mwacharo of Craftskills"
I thoroughly enjoyed this post discussing Simon Mwacharo of Craftskills, and providing those of us who are not familiar with his business and its mission with a sufficient introduction into the world of producing self-sustaining renewable energies. First of all, I was particularly pleased to discover that Mr. Mwacharo was originally from a village in the Taita Hills, a place I learned a great deal about after studying abroad in the coastal province of Kenya in the fall of 2007. My personal attachment to the Kenyan coast aside, his native heritage is of huge significance to his projects, both emphasizing and celebrating African "home grown" ingenuity and creativity, pointing to the success of initiative and action from within the community for its own preservation and prosperity. Craftskill's flexibility concerning the financial strain on the local community, as well as its understanding of deep rooted practices and beliefs, are also to the advantage of the company. This increases local popularity and support of these programs, and makes their innovative actions a tale of sustainable development "by the people, for the people", with projects encouraging the involvement and participation of the local community. A second poignant element of Simon's operation was his own motivation: training himself and working from the ground up, now with a skilled and growing work force of technicians, engineers, and sales representatives. Additionally, the use of local and inexpensive materials also makes Craftskills' projects easy on the pocket of the community while, once again, encouraging local sustainability. Overall, this post was inspirational and informative about small scale fuel technologies that do not receive much recognition. My one critique of the post. and thus the interview, stems from the lack of in-depth explanations of some of the individual projects, such as the Chifiri Water Pan Project, in order to gain more perspective on how these programs function and operate. How do the ideas come to fruition? How are these turbines faring today, and what are the reactions of the local community in regards to these creative and innovative renewable energy sources? Has it inspired other community members to get involved in other alternative fuel projects? Once again, thank you for uncovering such a unique and positive account on the developing nature of alternative fuels, and I hope to hear more about Craftskills (and its successes) in the future!

"Biofuels and Biodiversity in Africa"
I would like to thank you for tackling the issue of biofuel investigation and production, and uncovering the difficulties and disadvantages facing Kenya and Africa as a whole. While there are certainly benefits to the “green revolution” that has sparked the production of various alternative biofuel technologies, it is important to understand the potential repercussions of these actions. While I am not exactly sure to what extent a “moratorium on biofuels” in Africa, which as you mentioned was suggested by certain African non governmental organizations, would be an appropriate or correct choice, I understand the necessity to protect both the African people and the environment from those who wish to usurp and exploit its resources. I particularly appreciated the parallel you drew towards Darwin’s Nightmare and the issue of the Nile perch in the local fishing communities of Lake Victoria. After having spent a semester studying on the Kenyan coast last fall, I certainly heard a great deal of discussion concerning the fishermen living in Kisumu, and that point encompassed a great deal of personal resonance and perspective for me. I found the point you raised concerning the loss of land to non edible crops like flowers for international markets intriguing, and I was curious as to what source that information is stemming from, as I would like to broaden my understanding of the agriculture market in Kenya and Africa as a whole. I have also read from other blog postings and news sites about the issue of sugar-based ethanol farming in Kenya and the controversy regarding nomadic herdsmen and their concern over sufficient grazing lands for their cattle. Do you have a stance of this issue as well, and do you believe that this is yet another cause for critique concerning biofuel production in Africa? Additionally, there is certainly a lot of discussion concerning the rise of biofuel production and the increasing cost of food, which you reference in regards to the article, “The New Face Of Hunger” by Ban Ki-Moon. I think this is an important point to make, and certainly the most significant disadvantage to biofuel production. It is discouraging to that these lands are being converted in vain and are merely contributing to a crisis that is already so substantial internationally. I would love to know more about Jatropha and these other species called “miracle crops”, as I know very little about the variety of crops employed in the hopes of producing a viable energy source. While I do believe that the detrimental effects of these particular agricultural efforts for biofuel production need to be dealt with effectively and avoided in the future, I do not feel the answer lies in a widespread halt in the search of new energies. The inspiring stories of certainly point to the possibilities of small-scale and sustainable innovation for new energy technologies, and hopefully we will see more of them in the future. Again, thank you for this post and for shedding light of the controversies surrounding African biofuel production.

September 23, 2008

Waste for Welfare: Exploring Alternative Energy Sources

As the price of crude oil suggests, at a high $130 per barrel yesterday, the concern over America's energy agenda continues to plague the United States. Americans make up 4% of the world's population, yet we consume approximately 25% of the world’s oil, according to The soaring cost of energy has weighed heavily on the American economy, and has thus become one of the critical issues in the upcoming presidential elections. Both political parties share a common goal of less foreign dependency on oil and increased funding for alternative energy research. While the parties remain divided on more specific issues such as domestic drilling, the emphasis has been placed on exploring the alternatives energies, such as coal, wind, solar, and biofuel, which we can harvest here at home. However, while we continue to work to find fuel sources that can sustain our nation's high demand for energy, other countries have already found some margin of success in addressing their own local obstacles brought on by this international dilemma. As countries across the globe are working to alleviate the rising cost of fuel, it was the work of two African nations, Kenya and Ethiopia, whose efforts caught my attention by exhibiting small-scale success in this endeavor, prioritizing sustainability and environmentally conscious techniques. Both countries were able to maximize monetary and technological support from international organization and donars and put their acquired knowledge and man-power into use, constructing projects with potential for long-term success.

The first tale of energy activism occurred in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya's capital city, Nairobi. The inhabitants of Kibera found success in combating the high cost of energy and food with one significant and omnipresent resource: sewage. With funding provided by international donors, Kibera residents along with Practical Action, an international non-governmental organization, were able to construct public “bio-latrines”, which filter out methane gas from human waste. The collected gas can then be used to heat water, turn on lamps, and light stoves. In addition, the remaining solid waste, once treated and re-filtered through reed beds, can be sold as fertilizer, an additional bi-product of the system. These particular bio-latrines, which were based off a model of similar design in Tanzania, were built adjacent to a school for orphaned children in the slum. The high traffic among these latrines has in turn generated enough gas to cook for the 68 orphans. Additionally, the money that the school saved from not buying charcoal for fuel has enabled them the funds to pay for two extra teachers. What is particularly resonant is the community’s single-handed management of the latrine project. By charging residents 3 cents for use of one of the eight drop-toilets, there is enough money to keep these latrines clean and properly maintained, with any surplus recycled into helping fund other bio-gas projects or other community-based development. Another advantage to these eco-friendly restrooms is the significant decrease in “flying toilets”, the unfortunate culmination of a lack of places to relieve oneself, the urgency to go, and a plastic bag. Those who are most relieved by the advent of bio-latrines are the unfortunate passers-by who find themselves in a head-on collision with one of these winged-waste bags.

Another example of bio-fuel success can be found in Akaki Kaliti, an impoverished neighborhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. A local organization, Women in Self-Employment (WiSE) teamed up with Mercy Corps, a non-profit dedicated to humanitarian and development work, to support a group of neighborhood women transform leftover food waste such as potato skins and fruit peels into fuel briquettes. These women were passionate about raising their own families up from the poverty line and creating environmentally non-harmful alternative fuel sources. These briquettes produce less smoke and have demonstrated equal burning capability in comparison to wood charcoal, which subsequently alleviates the dependency on already-scarce wood material in the area. These female entrepreneurs manufacture the fuel briquettes through a process of slowly burning the organic material, grinding the remaining matter, and mixing it with clay and water in an agglomerator. The women have also received the necessary training, equipment, and support to start more of these environmentally conscious businesses that will create a similarly earth-friendly and inexpensive alternative fuel source. Eventually, these businesses will attain a certain level of success and will expand, creating more job opportunities for other residents of Ethiopia’s capital, while also manufacturing an increased number of briquettes. While this example of fuel source exploration is younger and thus less developed than the model discussed in Kenya, it’s monetary support from international organizations and the determination and aptitude of these young women help to ensure its survival in the short term. Hopefully, the fuel briquette production will prove successful in the long run as well, and will encourage economic growth and opportunity in the impoverished neighborhoods of Addis Ababa.

In both Kenya and Ethiopia, these assertive actions for alternative energy sources have great potential and social benefits as well. These programs provide more job opportunities in an area of the globe where unemployment hovers around 40% to 50%, while also creating products that are non-disruptive, safe, and even positive for the environment. In addition, a key component of their success thus far derives from their initial modest scale of production, which allows for more experimentation and less room for failure. After seeing the success in countries where oil dependency is not as high as in the United States, what progress has our own country made in the development of eco-friendly fuels?

The United States has been experimenting with domestic alternative forms of energy for several years now, and most recently has been active in researching ethanol gas. While ethanol fuel has proven to be a cleaner energy source with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, its production, which requires the use of corn, has the unfortunate consequence of creating additional strain on the rising cost of food. In the state of the union address in 2006, the alternative energy development expenditure was $10 billion, with undoubtedly more funding on its way as demonstrated by the political agendas of both presidential candidates. However, the issue within our own nation lies not only in finding alternative methods of supporting our fuel demands, but also in reducing our needs. As stated in an editorial from The Washington Post entitled “There is an Energy Crisis”, American energy independence “lies in conservation". "The average American burns 26 barrels of oil per year, compared to 12 for the average European; if Americans drove cars of the same efficiency as Europeans -- even if they continued driving just as many miles as they do today -- they would save in annual oil consumption the equivalent of Iran's entire annual production”. Unfortunately, it seems that our demand for energy is only growing, with a projected increase of 35% between 2003 and 2025, according to the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. While the research and technology the United State’s has developed may not be as obvious nor as tangible as the bio-fuel programs started in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, we have certainly made great strides in understanding the pitfalls of our oil and gas dependency, realizing the domestic potential of energy resources available, and working towards energy-conscious conservation at the national level. Developing a sustainable and non-toxic energy form that will support the diversity and complexity of the United States economy will take time and patience, and will require some room for trial and error. However, the responsible and conscious environmental projects created by the people of Kenya and Ethiopia exemplify how part of our energy problem lies within our lack of action. In two countries that have suffered continually hardship with high unemployment rates, extreme poverty and unstable governments, those who were passionate about the cause were still able to make a palpable difference within their community. Despite all our technological advancements followed by greater international independence, our high consumption of the World's oil relinquishes any independence we may have gained through our science and endless research. Maybe it is time the United States to reconsider working on the micro-scale, or even acting on it.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.