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Sustainability Paying for Itself: International Biogas and UK Home-Grown Energy Wins at the Ashden Awards
Green Futures, 2 Aug 10

by Martin Wright

In a small farm on the hills above Nairobi, a slender woman in a flower-patterned headscarf is gently, politely shattering myths. Standing among the fruit trees on her shamba (smallholding), Mary Waringa Nguku dispels two of the most common clichés trotted out about the developing world. First, that people in Africa and elsewhere are too busy worrying about day-to-day life to share the West’s obsession with forest loss or climate change. “We cannot trust the weather any more”, she tells me. “It doesn’t rain like it used to, and the rivers are drying out. We do not always have the water we need…The forests are less, so we are going short of wood and it is more expensive. That is why, when I saw the biogas at my brother’s farm, and he told me how much money he was saving, I really wanted to give it a try.”

That last remark gives the lie to the second myth: that sustainable solutions always cost more than unsustainable ones. Mary is among over 200 customers of Skylink Innovators, a local Kenyan company which is installing biogas energy plants in the nation’s schools and even two of its prisons. The plants use a mixture of cow dung and human waste to produce cooking fuel via a process of anaerobic digestion (AD). It’s a well-established technology which tackles several problems at once: it provides clean fuel in place of smoky firewood for cooking; it helps to reduce pressure on dwindling forests and cuts out the greenhouse emissions from burning wood; and it saves people money. Once the biogas plant is in place, there’s no need for firewood. Many farmers save at least as much again on chemical fertiliser, too, as the nutrient-rich residue from the digester does the job just as well. Most plants pay for themselves in a couple of years. All of which makes it a sound business prospect for the likes of Skylink’s founder, Samwel Kinoti. “My father was a pioneer of biogas on his farm, so I grew up with it. I saw the beauty of it, and I knew others would, too.”

It’s this combination of entrepreneurship and environmental good sense which has won Skylink one of the 2010 Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, presented by David Attenborough at a ceremony in London. The Ashden Awards celebrate local sustainable energy success stories in both developing countries and the UK. In doing so, they echo and amplify Mary Waringa’s mythbusting, turning the pursuit of sustainability from something worthy into pure common sense.

The beauty of biogas is appreciated in Vietnam too – on an impressive scale. Here, Dutch development agency SNV is collaborating with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on a scheme to install 168,000 biogas digesters by 2012. Based on a hugely successful SNV program in Nepal, the project works with hundreds of masons across the country, training them to become self-employed biogas engineers. Anyone who’s eaten in a Vietnamese restaurant will know that pork plays a prime part in the country’s cuisine. It’s also at the heart of its biogas success: for thousands of pig farmers across the country, a biogas digester doesn’t just mean abundant cooking fuel in place of wood, coal or LPG. It’s also the perfect solution to the age-old problem of pig muck. Instead of (literally) shoveling the shit on an almost daily basis – which is just as unpleasant a task as it sounds – they simply sluice it down a hole in the pigsty and into the digester, where, by the miracle that is AD, it’s transformed into cooking gas.

“It’s so much quicker to cook meals now”, farmer Nguyen Van Vach told me, “and you don’t get smoke in your eyes the whole time… It’s a lot less smelly indoors and out – so I’m more popular with my neighbors!” As in Kenya, multiple benefits abound. “Before, we used to have to get rid of all the slurry, so we put it in the fishpond,” Nguyen explains. “But sometimes there was too much, the water turned black and the fish died. There’s no such problem with the purified residue from the biogas. On the contrary, it actually boosts production. Now the water stays clear and we’re selling around one-third more fish.”

A modest subsidy has helped the program take off, but increasingly the trained masons are simply selling directly to householders, who are eager to reap the benefits of biogas and unwilling to join the program’s waiting list: proof that, with the right technology, sustainability can pay for itself. Further evidence for that comes from Delhi, where solar start-up d.light has scored dramatic successes with its simple solar lanterns – over 220,000 sold worldwide in little over two years, almost all without any subsidy. Such rapid growth from a standing start belies another common charge leveled at sustainable energy: that it will struggle to reach scale. In Nicaragua, Ashden-winner TECNOSOL has sold everything from solar home systems, water heaters and pumps to solar fridges (vital for storing vaccines in areas without mains electricity), benefiting over a quarter of a million people. And in the far south of Brazil, the CRELUZ power co-operative has harnessed local rivers to provide clean, affordable electricity to over 80,000 of its members and their families.

In Uganda, by contrast, green energy is in its infancy. But it’s poised to grow fast, thanks to the efforts of another of this year’s Ashden winners, the Rural Energy Foundation. It’s aiming to kickstart a robust commercial market for solar power across the large swathes of countryside beyond the reach of reliable mains electricity. This means training local shopkeepers as expert solar vendors, helping them access and, in some cases, offer credit, and generally raising awareness of solar’s potential. As well as using familiar techniques like radio and newspaper ads, REF staff also adopt a more direct approach: standing on a corner in a busy marketplace with a portable power system, demonstrating solar’s potential to light a lamp, recharge a mobile – or even power a haircut or a shave.

In a ‘developed’ country such as the UK, of course, an electric shave is hardly novel. But as concerns over energy security and a looming ‘generation gap’ kick in, so the search for home-grown power is taking on a new urgency. It’s a quest taken to heart by the fiercely independent islanders on Eigg, off the west coast of Scotland. Having bought out a feudal landowner back in 1997, they’ve taken steps to green every aspect of island life – culminating in the installation of their own renewable grid. Powered by a 100kW hydro turbine, a small wind farm and a solar PV array, it meets 90% of the island’s electricity needs. Home-grown energy is a winning theme in Suffolk, too, where the council is helping local schools switch from oil- to wood-fired boilers – with fuel sourced from the county’s own woodlands. It’s knocked a quarter off the schools’ heating budgets – and cut their carbon emissions by 90%. Two other schools – Okehampton College in Devon and St Columb Minor in Cornwall – won Ashden Awards for making dramatic savings in energy use and carbon emissions while inspiring the wider community to take action, too. Meanwhile, over in Northern Ireland, a local family plumbing and heating business, Willis Energy Systems, has been rewarded for its ‘Solasyphon’: a device which allows householders to retrofit a solar water heater, without going to the hassle and expense of installing a big new water tank.

Saving money as well as carbon is key to the success of Northwards Housing, which has given ‘whole house’ energy efficiency makeovers to 70% of north Manchester’s housing stock. “The house used to be an absolute nightmare, it was so cold”, recalls tenant Susan Savill. ”I even considered renting privately, but I’m glad I didn’t now, as it’s so good. Now we can just have the heating on for a couple of hours instead of all day long.” And, echoing Mary Waringa, she adds: “It’s definitely reduced the bills.”

Martin Wright is Editor in Chief, Green Futures.

This piece originally appeared in Green Futures. Green Futures is published by Forum for the Future, one of the leading magazines on environmental solutions and sustainable futures. Its aim is to demonstrate that a sustainable future is both practical and desirable – and can be profitable, too.

The Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy is a Forum for the Future partner.

Editor's Note: Images and additional links added by Worldchanging.

Top Image: Mixing water and manure for a 16m3 biogas plant, Ngecha village, Kiambu West, Kenya via The Ashden Awards. | Second Image: Pouring slurry from a biogas plant on cabbage garden, Dong Xuan, Soc Son Province, Vietnam via The Ashden Awards. | Third Image: TECNOSOL engineer installing solar PV, Nicaragua via The Ashden Awards. | Fourth Image: Four 6kW wind turbines are connected to the electricity grid on the Isle of Eigg via The Ashden Awards.

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