Can We Produce Fuel in Our Own Back Yards?

Posted on September 7, 2011 by Courtney

Please welcome today’s guest poster, Jamison.

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Let me tell you a very odd story from our friends in China. China was having a problem in their poor farmland areas. They were losing massive amounts of forests and decided they had to take some sort of corrective action. So they decided to reintroduce biodigester technology – the process of converting organic waste into renewable sources of energy — to the countryside. They built a design that cost about $450 and started installing them for farmers. A third of that cost was covered with government subsidies.

The farmers were expected to provide the labor (digging the hole for the system) for the project, but basically it’s a large underground tank, a bit larger than the average American septic tank. As waste from humans and livestock flows into the tank, it breaks down and produces methane, as all organic waste does, and these biodigesters make it possible to produce more than enough biogas to run their households without need of additional fuels.

The effects have been staggering — most farmers who have the systems have managed to move their incomes from below the poverty line to incomes two or three times above it. Women have been freed up from the painful task of hunting for firewood. The forests around the farming villages have started to replenish themselves. The farmers have the byproduct of the biogas, which is a very effective fertilizer that can then be used to help improve their plant growth to increase their yields. 

The technical term for this technology is anaerobic digestion. Basically that’s a fancy name for organisms that break down materials in the absence of oxygen. This occurs in nature all the time. The natural gas we use every day came from ancient anaerobic digestion of plant matter; much like oil, a natural process made that energy source. The interesting thing for us is that the anaerobic digestion happens in human time scales rather than planetary time scales. Translation: We don’t have to wait very long to get the results.

Materials are usually locked underground and without exposure to the air we breathe, certain microorganisms start breaking it down and create lots of different gases. The one we are most interested in is methane. We are interested in this for two different reasons: It’s 22 times more effective than carbon dioxide, so every cubic foot of methane is a really bad thing to set loose on the environment; also, natural gas is a major source of energy in the United States. It’s been billed as a “clean” alternative to run power plants.

The mining of it has become a major priority with a method called “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing. The environmental impact of these methods have been the source of much debate, which have been mostly ignored at the national level.

There are stories about dairies especially taking cattle manure and converting it into electricity for the masses in America, but they can’t be family farms. They have to be huge corporate mass production facilities. The scale has to be massive to reach the break-even point of all the technology. As you can imagine, this technology has had very limited penetration into the U.S. energy market. To my knowledge, there has yet to be any biodigester setup that actually is used to generate a replacement for natural gas and use the existing infrastructure. Instead it’s all converted into electricity, which has its own inherent inefficiency associated with our outdated grid technology.

Via specialization and centralization, we’ve been able to make massive progress as a society. But my question to all of you is this: Is it time to take a step back from that specialization? Rather than continuing down the path that we’ve been on, can we afford instead of get back to the land that our food comes from? Can we start instead working towards becoming self-sustaining homesteads again? Do any of us have the time and/or the patience anymore to move towards this kind of vision? We talk about the process on The Greenists all the time, but ultimately the issue is something fundamental that we as a people have taken a decision about which approach is best for us as a nation. If we’ve taken a wrong turn with our approach, is it time for us all to look at going a different way?


  1. Why not biodigesters at every municipal sewage plant. Why not build them into new large corporate buildings? Companies could heat with natural gas, or profit from selling the energy. Imagine: bosses would encourage bathroom breaks!

    September 7th, 2011 at 8:31 am
    Comment by Linda Braid
  2. Linda, well the primary reason this works so well in the third world is because they aren’t as chemically dependent as we are. Our sewage contains tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals that we pour down the drains for assorted reasons. Which means our waste has to be handled very differently in the end. You almost have to clean it before you digest it. Or else, the chemicals will kill off the microorganisms that help with the digestion process. While I was researching this, I came across the following quote from the EPA.

    “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2008, 250 million tons of municipal solid waste (including organic and non-organic) was generated in the U.S. While 22 million tons of organic waste was diverted for composting, an estimated 43 million tons of organic waste was sent to landfills. The total electric and thermal power (assuming a combined heat and power application) associated with this organic waste is approximately 1 GWe and 1.4 GWth, respectively. The total electric output is equivalent to serving close to 1 million homes.”

    But once again, that’s digestion and then conversion of the digested gas into electricity and sending it over the outdated grid. Each conversion is a massive loss of efficiency. Not to mention that this built on the assumption that it’s using the high heat western version of the technology, instead of the slow low heat version being used by the farmers in China.

    But this combined with Solar, Wind, and Geo-Thermal technologies, could definitely provide a total energy solution for all of us. There is a great video about a Wine Company that does just what you describe in China. They had bio-waste that they turned into animal feed, then they had bio-waste from the animals, so they turned that into bio-gas to run the factory.

    September 7th, 2011 at 10:43 am
    Comment by Jamison
  3. Oh that’s the shorter version. Here’s the full version of the video on YouTube. Sorry about that.

    September 7th, 2011 at 10:56 am
    Comment by Jamison
  4. [...] the decentralization of control of energy production. In my earlier article about the production of biogas last month we saw a similar revolution [...]

    October 4th, 2011 at 6:56 am
    Pingback by Home Fuel Production

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