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The new alchemy needs a boost

02 October 2012 - 02:32 By Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver

If you want to change mindsets about renewable energy, there's no better place to start than in schools. So I was fascinated to hear about work being done on biogas in remote schools in the Eastern Cape.

 For some time, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa has been running environmental awareness programmes in these schools, and now a not-for-profit company called Growing Power has been taking it one step further.

The schools take all the organic waste they produce - waste water, food scraps, garden waste - put it into a digester, and capture the methane gas that is given off. This is used for cooking and heating, just like ordinary gas. And what is left over is fed into ponds as a nutrient source for algae, which are in turn used as fertiliser in food gardens. The whole process is highly educational for pupils - there is a whole textbook's worth of lessons to be learnt about biology and chemistry, not to mention engineering and agriculture.

Mark Wells, the moving force behind this programme, lights up when he talks about the "alchemy" of turning waste into useful energy and food. The biogas systems seem to work best in remote rural villages, where the communities are willing to put in some effort to feed the digesters and maintain the food gardens. They have installed systems in two schools near Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, and word has spread among principals, who are bombarding them with requests to come and install systems. Wells thinks the system can work as effectively in urban schools, provided that school governing bodies are prepared to champion the project.

What's particularly interesting is the financial viability of the system. Just taking the value of the gas into account, Wells reckons the system pays for itself over 10 years. But when you add in the value of fertiliser and the food gardens, the payback time is even shorter.

The vision is to roll this out to the 735 schools across the Eastern Cape that do not have access to sanitation. And this is where Growing Power has hit bureaucratic obstacles. Despite getting the premier's endorsement, the lack of initiative within the education system has proved to be a huge problem. The technology has been shown to work and is ready to go to scale. What they need is leadership to champion the programme.