Passion #3: Sustainable Energy

I’m starting this blog by writing about 5 passions. An introduction, if you will, to some of the things I think about. This one is about energy:

In 2008 I completed an MSc in Sustainable Energy and the Environment at Cardiff University. For my MSc thesis I worked with a recycling company to investigate the opportunity for turning food waste from businesses in central London into energy using anaerobic digestion. It was fascinating and very mucky.

Equipped with a broad appreciation of energy generation and consumption, in the years following this I worked on a variety of energy efficiency projects at BioRegional. In 2011-12, I spent a year in Kenya working with access:energy – a start-up that builds remote, village-scale, renewable energy micro-grids. I take a pragmatic and thorough  approach to sustainable energy.  My areas of special interest are:

  • Monitoring: designing systems for measuring and tracking energy consumption.
  • Footprinting: energy-related carbon footprinting for organisations and communities, and modelling the impact of interventions.
  • Demand reduction: identifying key interventions for demand reduction. Experienced with designing physical interventions as well as understanding positive behaviour change opportunities.
  • Energy efficiency: identifying technologies and design.
  • Renewable energy assessment: evaluating the cost-benefit of different renewable energy solutions and selecting system specification.
  • Communication: developing communication material for organisations to engage their staff on energy usage and best practice.

Some thoughts on a green energy transition

The way we generate and use energy is generating greenhouse gases that are accumulating in our atmosphere. We are disrupting the planet’s carbon cycle so much that it’s now changing our climate. The bathtub provides a useful analogy to communicate this disruption. The running tap represents greenhouse gas emissions; the plughole represents absorption by plants and the ocean; and the water in the bath represents the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As we are release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than can be reabsorbed, the dynamics of the cycle are shifting. If we keep going along this path, we shift the carbon balance irreversibly and this has a knock on effects on our other earth systems, most notably, a steady climate which we need for survival.

bathtub-analogy

Put forward by John Sterman at MIT, and Linda  Sweeney at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the “bathtub analogy” suggests that the atmosphere is like a bathtub. 

Burning fossil fuels is one of the major ways we are generating greenhouse gas emissions. In his excellent book Sustainability Without the Hot Air, Professor David McKay dedicates his work to “the next generation who will not benefit from the two billion years’ accumulated energy reserves that we have”. Instead, our children are inheriting a world with dangerous levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere that severely threatens their chances of having healthy, comfortable lifestyles. As individuals, communities, businesses and politicians, we should take responsibility with a long-term view for humanity’s survival. A great energy transition is called for. But can we act with pragmatism and urgency?

industry

It feels we are all at different stages in our response to this issue. There’s stubborn folks in prominent positions who are dragging their heels, some who are still in denial, and others working on the change. And many who simply have other priorities, or don’t think the role they can play. That’s the uncomfortable state of play. Pretty uncoordinated, lacking momentum, and lacking urgency. 

There’s no golden bullet solution for our great energy transition. However there are huge opportunities to reduce energy demands across our housing stock and in our organisations, and power up with a range of renewables. The solutions are diverse with some which are simple, low impact and cost effective, and others which are expensive and/or less-developed. History has shown us how quickly transformations can occur through waves of technological development – consider the internet, the introduction of electricity, technology. We need innovation, strong commitment, and heavy investment of time and money.

I wanted to give a special mention to nuclear power, even though this short piece is not a place to cover much ground of this complex discussion. Nuclear power is a difficult technology for me to accept. It’s a centralised, expensive technology with uncomfortable connections to weapons and has supply chain issues that could be vulnerable in the long-term. I also believe we have a lack of skills and expertise on modern nuclear energy in our country. Despite all this, it can provide a huge amount of energy with very low carbon emissions. This doesn’t lead to a black and white answer and as I’ve tried to weigh things up, I’ve been so disappointed at how nuclear is portrayed by both it’s supporters and opponents. Although I don’t like it, I could accept it provided its considered with good reason and engineering. However my preference is always for localised energy solutions; supported by robust policy and legislation and retrofit schemes – and it’s here I see so many opportunities. 

Recommended reading and resources

Zero Caron Britain

Sustainability Without the Hot Air (Free Book)

Tyndall Centre for Climate Research

Centre for Sustainable Energy

Wind powered radio on Mfungano Island

Having strapped two wind turbines to the roof and a solar panel inside our yellow Pajero named Beryl, we took to the road bound for Mfungano Island. We drove from Kisumu to Luanda K’Otieno where we took the car ferry to Mbita. From there, we loaded all the equipment onto a small wooden passenger boat.

crossing-the-lake

Mfungano is a wildlife rich island on Lake Victoria with a population of around 30,000. Early settlers came to the Island from Uganda, escaping accusation of an attempt to assassinate the King. We were there to install two wind turbines and a solar panel on top of the mountain, Soklo. This will provide power for the new Ekielo Kiona community radio station and a high-speed line-of-sight internet link from Kisumu.

up-the-hill

The youth-driven radio station will broadcast in Suba and Luo language, and facilitate community-driven programs aimed at raising health and nutrition awareness, mobilising youth activism, improving social solidarity, promoting sustainable agriculture and fishing innovation, and preserve the endangered Suba language and cultural identity. This project is part of Organic Health Response’s fantastic work on the Island.

installing

The Island has just one road around its circumference. So we had to carry all our tools, the turbines, the solar panel and batteries all the way up the mountain – it was back breaking! But the beautiful views made up for it, and it was great to get down to work with lots of help from the local community, including Mr Ekelo, the local Mze who generously donated the land for the tower and turbines.

Ekelo

To find out more about this work, visit accessenergy.org

done

Bringing electricity to fishing communities on Lake Victoria

Dotted around the shores of Lake Victoria are hundreds of villages that depend on fishing. As night falls, thousands of fisherman row out on boats to catch omena, nile perch and tilapia. The lake lights up like a city, as a thousand paraffin lamps flicker through the night, attracting omena fish (silver cyprinid) to the surface so fishermen can sweep them up in their nets.

Grid electricity is not available or affordable in these villages which means that the catch must be sold within hours, before the fish turn rotten in the heat. Ice-filled trucks arrive in the morning to take away the night’s catch to be sold in fish markets as far away as Europe.

I’ve recently spent a few days visiting some of these villages to scope out the potential for a project to install wind and solar systems that can power cold storage for the fish as well as charging stations for electric lights. I was with a group of university professors and two NGOs that we are partnering with. In our interviews, we talked with Beach Management Units (BMU). Each fishing bay has a BMU that everyone involved in the local fish trade are members of. From experience, we had decided not to approach the fishing villages to present our ideas, but rather gather information, understand their greatest challenges, and understand the suitability of an energy project and how it might fit.

Establishing cold storage facilities would enable the fisherman to have greater bargaining power, enabling trade at more reasonable rates on their terms. The other major energy opportunity is providing renewably powered lights for omena fishing boats. Omena are small fish, caught at night time and dried during the day. They are used in cooking but also as feed for chickens and other livestock. Even pets – I’ve seen my housemates feeding omena to the cat.

So what’s the opportunity for replacing paraffin lights with electric lights charged during the day from renewables? Each omena fishing boat has four fishermen and four paraffin lamps that are used all night. The fuel cost is significant, we were told around KSh 600 per night (about US$7). For a typical village such as Got Kachola, this amounts to over a daily expenditure of KSh 21,000 per night. At this price, renewable energy would quickly become within easy reach.

We aren’t the first to think of this. Osram are an organisation that have built solar powered charging stations that lease out solar lamps to locals. When interviewing the fisherman, they spoke highly of the idea, but most complained that the solar lamps could not hold enough charge to last the night. So the challenge is to provide better quality, longer-lasting lights, and also ensure they are within easy reach of the fishing communities (Osram stations aren’t always located nearby).

There’s one other important benefit to getting affordable electricity into the fishing villages. The fisherman we interviewed often talked about a trend of declining catches: overfishing on Lake Victoria is occurring and well-recognised. To try and manage this, there is an omena fishing ban from April-September. Some fishermen probably ignore the ban, but most switch to catching tilapia and nile perch, or continue on the Ugandan shores where no ban exists. Declining fish stocks means declining jobs and these villages don’t have many other means of income. Providing electricity provides opportunities for new businesses, for example, video stores, barber shops, manufacturing facilities. This is an indirect but important reason why fishing communities need affordable, clean electricity.

Rusinga Island: renewable energy assessment

I’ve spent the last few days on Rusinga Island, situated on Lake Victoria at the mouth of the Winam Gulf. We (access:energy) had been invited by the Village Vocations Programme (VVP) to conduct a site assessment for some potential renewable energy installations with a view to helping communities have more affordable electricity and less reliance on firewood.

The trip was about learning and we had discussions with a number of officials, community groups and households. This is an absolutely essential part of how we work since technologies are only as good as the end-users that use it. We also want to ensure everybody can input so we can propose the best possible energy solution. A successful energy project must integrate with the local culture as well as understanding current and predicted energy usage and behaviours.

rusinga-1

We also started gathering data on solar and wind resource. There are three sites that have been identified initially and we set up our anemometer to start gathering wind speed data. We also found the local meteorological weather station and after some enquires, we have been given permission to use this data. We are told the data is in a raw format – we aren’t exactly sure what this means yet, but have a suspicion it could be hand-written!

Rusinga Island was once a haven for naturalists, with a rich diversity in birds and vegetation. Over the last generation, over-consumption of firewood for cooking has resulted in deforestation on a grand scale, leaving a dry landscape where drought is commonplace, and soil quality and crop yields have been severely affected.

Although I hold much hope for Rusinga, it was upsetting to see the land so dry and empty. I believe things can be turned around. Forests can be replanted and methods for improving irrigation sorted out and so on, but we need enthusiasm and everyone working together with a shared vision.

Our hosts, VVP have been doing community empowerment projects on the Island for several years. Partnerships like this are really important for our projects. In this case, VVP already know the community well and have good relationships with several groups, which means we can focus on the technical design and implementation.

We found Rusinga Island to be a welcoming and beautiful island and we are looking forward to doing further work there. We also learnt a lot and witnessed some fascinating energy-related stories.

rusinga-3