Waterloo, Ontario, is investing in a new kind of start-up project — using dog poop to produce biofuel.
The process is called anaerobic digestion and it involves breaking down organic waste in an oxygen-free environment. With the help of anaerobic bacteria, the waste turns into a dark sludge called digestate along with water, carbon dioxide and, importantly, methane gas which can be siphoned off, refined and used either as a fuel or burned to create electricity.
The Waterloo pilot project, which the city’s mayor, Dave Jaworsky, calls “poop power” will be the first of its kind in Canada. “It’s actually a big issue, dog waste,” says Jaworsky to the Canadian Press. “If you look at our municipal litter bins … it’s 40 to 80 per cent dog waste.”
Special containers looking like rural mail boxes will be set up at three parks in the city including a leash-free dog park. Dog owners can deposit their poop bags into the bins where it will be collected and sent to a processing plant outside of the city. From there the poop will join up with other organic waste to produce the biogas and fertilizer. American groundwaste company, Sutera, will be heading up the Waterloo project.
Biomass fuel sourced from anaerobic digestion is said to be the next big thing in renewable energy. In the United States, the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, California, was the first sewage treatment facility in the country to use the technology at the municipal level, in this case as part of its wastewater treatment operations. Converting post-consumer food waste to energy through anaerobic digestion has allowed EBMUD to produce 135 per cent of its own energy needs and to sell off the additional power.
“One of the things that’s exciting about the type of renewable energy that we produce is that it’s 24/7, and when you look at things like solar and wind, they don’t have that baseload capability,” said EBMUD manager of wastewater engineering, Jackie Zipkin, to the Smithsonian Magazine. “I think there’s more and more interest nationally in renewable energy, and particularly from biogas.”
In the United Kingdom, where biomass technology is being widely embraced, the country just last week celebrated its first “coal free day” since the Industrial Revolution, thanks in no small part to biofuels. According to the BBC, on Friday, April 21, about half of Britain’s energy needs usage came from natural gas, 25 per cent from nuclear power and 25 per cent from biomass, wind and imported energy combined.
To meet its climate change commitments, the UK is in the midst of phasing out coal as well as other fossil fuels, with the last of its coal power stations set to close in 2025. “Using less coal is not just about changing the fuel used in power stations, it’s a shift in the way we generate, store and use energy from big centralized solutions like large power stations and the national network of pylons and cables we use to move electricity around,” says David Elmes, of the Warwick Business School’s Global Energy Research Network. “We already see a move to more local, distributed ways that energy is made and used, in our homes, communities and in industry.”
Yet, not everyone is convinced that investing in biomass technology is the way to go. While premised on the idea that human-produced waste can now be transformed into an energy source, thus creating a more efficient, closed loop in production, anaerobic digestion’s detractors are ill at ease with the acceptance of waste, especially food waste, as a natural and unavoidable element of the equation.
Instead, food security advocates would rather see an end to the production of food stuffs that never get eaten. “So the challenge to governments and business is to find new and innovative ways to prevent this loss of perfectly good food at every stage of the production and supply chain,” says Mark Linehan, managing director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association in the UK, for the Guardian.
Last week, plans to build the UK’s largest anaerobic digestion plant were put on hold after a series of protests and campaigns from citizens critical of both the visual impact of the building as well as the project’s questionable value as a green resource.