April 21, 2011 | General

Editorial: Neighborhood Power

BioCycle April 2011, Vol. 52, No. 4, p. 4
Nora Goldstein

THE vulnerability of a region’s energy supply has become all too real with the natural disasters in Japan that caused the massive failure of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. While events of that scale are fortunately not commonplace, the situation certainly begs a serious discussion about decentralized energy systems. In addition to local solar and wind farms, communities need to explore anaerobic digestion (AD). Not only do digesters operate 24/7 (i.e., they are not dependent on the sun and wind), they are a source of electricity, renewable natural gas, heat and vehicle fuel.
Two BioCycle Global articles in this issue really hammer home the potential of AD to provide neighborhood power. In Tanzania (see page 45), the country’s Biogas Development Program focuses on training masons and subsidizing the building and use of small-scale biogas units that serve households and farms with 4 to 10 cows or 10 to 20 pigs. More than 500 masons are now trained and, in 2010 alone, more than 1,000 digesters were built; 2,500 more are targeted for 2011. In Guatemala (see page 48), a small-scale digester was installed at a community school and farm. Although initially skeptical about the benefits, once the local community literally saw the light fed by biogas illuminated, they understood that it takes just a few animals to have a continuous source of energy. In both countries, the biogas replaces wood and charcoal, both very unsustainable sources of fuel. “The biodigesters keep them from having to need something they don’t have,” said a university professor quoted in the article.
While the scale in industrialized nations may be more than 4 to 10 cows or 10 to 20 pigs, the decentralized approach is directly transferable. This month’s Community Sustainability article (page 32) profiles Kristianstad, a city in southern Sweden. Twelve years ago, the executive committee of Kristianstad municipality declared its will to become Fossil Fuel Free. Through anaerobic digestion, district heating fueled primarily by woody biomass, energy efficiency and more riders on public transport, the consumption of fossil fuels has been cut in half. Digested residuals from industries, farms and wastewater treatment – all locally generated and available – provide heat, power and vehicle fuel.
Yes, in a complete natural disaster such as what struck Japan, there will be upset in any power and fuel supply system. But the ability to take control of the situation with “neighborhood power” is not far-fetched. Imagine households or relief centers quickly assembling biodigesters from kits to meet the basic needs of cooking and heat.
And one last thought. Neighborhood Power applies to more than just energy. Take the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, described in this month’s cover story on organics recycling in Hennepin County, Minnesota (page 21). There are 2,500 residences eligible for curbside collection of source separated organics (SSO), which are diverted to composting. About 1,300 residences are participating. Linden Hills Power & Light (LHPL), the nonprofit collaborating with the city of Minneapolis on the SSO program, recruited 120 residents to serve as block captains. “The compost block captain part is really crucial,” says Felicity Brinton of LHPL. “People believe people they trust rather than me saying, ‘This is a good idea, you should do it.'”
There is a likelihood that in the not-too-distant future, some SSO in Hennepin County will be finding its way to anaerobic digesters. (In fact, LHPL has been pursuing a decentralized AD project for several years.) When that happens, the title of the editorial will be: Empowering Neighbors To Power Neighborhoods. That will be a joy to write!

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