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.


Cam Siemer said...

This is a very well written post that details a fascinating dilemma and poses a compelling argument. I found myself forgetting to critique because I was so engaged by the issues. Your writing is strong, and I especially like the range of links you provided. The "flying toilets" video you linked to was a particularly nice touch. Furthermore, I like that you begin by addressing the Unites States' oil problem and then return to it with a strong analysis at the end. It brought the whole post full circle and makes for a nice, neat package overall.

My first suggestion to improve this post would be to possibly propose a reason for the United States' "lack of action" in creating environmental projects similar to those in Kenya and Ethiopia. Are people not passionate enough as you suggest they are in these communities or does the problem lie elsewhere? What prevents people from such action in our own local communities? Also, I would have liked to see you perhaps describe some of the disadvantages, if any, of these energy projects. I would imagine that because the bio-latrines deal with burning human waste, are there problems with smells that might deter people from wanting them? Also, just to point out a minor typo, I think you need a "for" so the sentence reads "Maybe it is time for the United States..." Despite these minor details, I really enjoyed reading your post! Keep up the good work!

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