Biogas still holds solution to energy problems.
If you filled a room full of Nobel Prize-winning scientists and told them they could not leave until they came up with a simpler form of energy than biogas, they could never do it.
To make biogas, all one has to do is take the Tupperware container of mystery leftovers out of the back of your refrigerator, and place it in the sun. Within 48 hours, the gases making the top bulge will be primarily methane - the same flammable component in fossil natural gas presently being fracked out of the ground.
How much energy can you get out of those holiday leftovers? Actually, quite a bit. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of food waste can provide 20 minutes of cooking time, or fuel an electric generator long enough to watch 10 hours of TV. Biogas can produce five times as much energy per acre as any liquid biofuels, and five times more energy per installed capacity than solar, while also mitigating landfilling and recycling nutrients for gardening and local agriculture.
Seven years ago - Nov. 2, 2009 to be exact - when I first came to Oregon on my one-man crusade to spread biogas use throughout America, I had a guest viewpoint published entitled, "Biogas wrongly ignored as an alternative source of energy." I thought it would be interesting to revisit this old article and see what - if anything - had changed since then.
At the time of the original article, Eugene and Springfield were undergoing a $200 million expansion of their energy- intensive, Reagan-era wastewater plant. I proposed that the wastewater commission incorporate local food waste in its existing biogas digesters - which would produce dozens of times more gas than sewage alone - and together with the Lane Transit District, use the gas to fuel the area's transit buses.
The proposal was received as if I had dropped in from Mars. The city of Grand Junction, Colo., however, did this exact thing and today fuels all city buses with biogas, saving ratepayers millions instead of flushing it down the sewer.
In December, 2013, a state-of-the-art 150-ton per day biogas facility was built in Junction City, capable of recycling all of Eugene and Springfield's organics presently sent to Short Mountain landfill. But Lane County has a contract with the Emerald People's Utility District - which generates electricity from methane generated at the landfill - to not divert any waste that would reduce their gas yields.
Instead, the Junction City plant was forced to truck food waste from 100 miles away in Portland. A 21st-century project ran aground on the rocky shoals of local politics. This situation is made all the more tragic by the fact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since then - correctly - determined that landfill gas is not renewable energy, because all the nutrients are unrecoverable.
Since 2009, a number of world events presented missed opportunities to use biogas to help reduce human suffering. When a massive earthquake hit Haiti in January, 2010, I was furiously emailing and calling my local, state and federal representatives to tell them how to make improvised biogas digesters to keep sanitary waste - and the cholera in it - out of waterways. However, during an emergency is not the best time to prepare for an emergency.
In the Fall of 2012, Hurricane Sandy pounded the East Coast, leaving millions without electricity or cooking fuel. Ironically, at the same time the plans for our do-it-yourself home biogas digesters were featured in Home Power Magazine. In my experience, most people have a strong enough opinion about biogas to ignore it, without knowing the first thing about it.
Biogas predates fire. The micro organisms that produce biogas - what we call archaea - are the oldest life forms on Earth, appearing more than 3.5 billion years before the Earth had an oxygen atmosphere to allow anything to burn. They remained trapped in the volcanos and hot springs of the newly-formed crust, becoming trapped in the ice that eventually covered the planet. They helped to form the primordial methane atmosphere that warmed the surface enough for the liquid water to form, and for life to exist.
Without them, we would not be here having this discussion. What we call biogas was here long before the plants and animals that fossilized to become today's fossil fuels, and it will be here long after mammals have taken the next step in our own evolution. It is wise for us to use it in the meantime to reduce the power struggle over fossil fuels and help create a better present for our children and grandchildren.
Warren Weisman of Eugene is chief executive officer of Hestia Home Biogas.