Power to the Far-Flung People

Jatropha-fueled entrepreneur bringing biodiesel and self-reliance to both the military and the world's forgotten corners.
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Jatropha-fueled entrepreneur bringing biodiesel and self-reliance to both the military and the world's forgotten corners.

Imagine being able to produce fuel on a small scale near your home. With a facility no bigger than a shipping container, enough diesel fuel could be processed for your community using crops that neither compete with food crops nor use a lot of water.

Perhaps that sounds crazy in the context of developed nations, where energy is generated and consumed at a tremendous rate and often transmitted hundreds or thousands of miles through expensive cables and pipeline, but there are many remote places in the world where large-scale production facilities are unheard of. These are places that still do not have access to electric power.

Biodiesel Industries, a small company based in Santa Barbara, Calif., says it has a solution to that quandary. Dubbed ARIES (Automated Real-time Remote Integrated Energy System), the system consists of self-contained biodiesel production plants using computer automation to produce a consistent grade of biodiesel fuel from a variety of feedstock.

And while the benefit to Biodisel Industries client the U.S. Navy is apparent — energy independence at bases and battlefields worldwide — what works for a sailor will also work for a poor family living miles off the grid.

While there is flexibility with regard to the types of plants used as feedstock, much of Biodiesel Industries' emphasis is on jatropha and algae, both of which are resilient, don't use much water, produce high yields of fuel-grade oil and can be grown near the intended recipients of fuel and electricity.

"Instead of having a huge plant with wires everywhere and transmission costs, every community can utilize local resources to provide energy," said Russ Teall, the company's founder.

While ARIES offers flick-of-a-switch operability, it took awhile for Biodiesel Industries to get where it is. In 1993, Teall, a longtime boat owner, wondered how biodiesel could be made available for the boating community. Nobody seemed to know, so he took it upon himself to find out. Over the next few years, his quest turned him into a de facto expert in the burgeoning biofuel industry.

By 1997 he had formed Biodiesel Industries, and a year later he secured a Department of Energy contract to investigate the properties of cooking oil. The company's big break came in 2003 when it signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the U.S. Navy, which, aside from being the world's most prolific consumer of diesel fuel, gave the company access to the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center in Port Hueneme, Calif. A treasure trove of engineering talent, it facilitated rapid improvement of the small company's technology.

Projects in the United States and Australia have been a major part of Teall's work for the past decade, but he also has focused on smaller projects in developing countries — India, Mexico, and within the past year, Haiti and Bolivia — to create "energy islands" for isolated communities with a need for self-sufficiency.

Biodiesel Industries starts at square one, beginning every project with a multipurpose agricultural project aimed at feedstock production, economic stabilization and whatever is needed by the specific community it's working with.

Stabilizing Haiti, Empowering Bolivia
The only nation in the world born of a successful slave revolt, for much of its history, Haiti has been bathed in political turmoil and corruption. Today, it has what is arguably the weakest economy in the Western Hemisphere. Violence is common, infrastructure is unreliable and within the last century, massive deforestation has denuded most of the mountainous nation's steep slopes, leaving it vulnerable to devastating flooding and mudslides during wet weather — all too common during hurricane season.

Although Haiti shares Hispaniola — one of the Caribbean's largest islands — with the Dominican Republic, satellite images reveal a dramatically different landscape on opposite sides of the border. Juxtaposed against the lush green Dominican rainforest, Haiti's barren landscape is a reflection of its voracious hunger for charcoal, its primary source of fuel. Since 1925, Haiti's forested area has fallen from 60 percent of the country to 2 percent.

Biodiesel Industries was recruited by a U.N.-affiliated, nongovernmental agency in May to initiate a grassroots project in Haiti. Already, the company is successfully growing jatropha crops with Haitian farmers in Port-au-Prince and Gonaives.

"The approach is feedstock first. There's no reason to build a plant if you don't have a good source of feedstock," said Teall, adding that in Gonaives, a large city in the north of Haiti where more than 2,000 people were killed in the mudslides brought by Hurricane Jeanne in 2004, feedstock crops will help stabilize eroding hillsides. "In Haiti, people see a tree and they see charcoal. We're trying to shift perception to something productive. They won't want to cut down jatropha trees, because they can sell the nuts."

Endemic to the Caribbean, jatropha can also be intercropped with other plants to maintain diverse subsistence agriculture.

Although it has the second-largest natural gas reserves in South America, landlocked Bolivia also has one of that continent's lowest gross domestic products ($17.4 billion in 2008, compared with $1.5 trillion in Brazil or $14.2 trillion in the U.S.). The Bolivian state of Santa Cruz, in the south of the country, is a rich producer of mineral and agricultural resources, but the region's native population sees little of it. While natural gas pipelines bypass their communities, along with accompanying revenues, indigenous people there have a major factor working in their favor. Situated on an interior plateau 12,000 feet above sea level, Santa Cruz is fed by snowmelt from the Andes, giving it access to the second-largest aquifer in the world. Still, without money for infrastructure, native communities in the region have been largely dependent upon state assistance.

Working in the eastern part of Santa Cruz, Teall reached out to one of the beleaguered native communities this year, launching a biodiesel production setup, starting with a jatropha nursery and working up to a full crop.

"It's been a welfare society for years," Teall said, "but the tribal leaders want to be self-sufficient." By growing feedstock with other useful crops, he said they can produce enough biodiesel to produce electricity. Jatropha doesn't use much water, but he said the community has access to plenty of water by pumping the aquifer. All it took to get them going was a different approach using resources they already had.

Pressing Forward
With sights set on creating a more diverse fuel supply that has less of an impact on resources and can still be economically attractive to consumers, Teall said that Biodiesel Industries is constantly looking to improve its technology.

In addition to the projects in Haiti and Bolivia, two projects in rural Mexico and one in Mysore, India, a partnership with the Santa Barbara-based nonprofit Growing Solutions Restoration Education Institute also has led to 250 jatropha trees being planted in Santa Barbara. As in Haiti and Bolivia, the other projects are all still in a feedstock production phase, but, eventually, the plants will be used to make biodiesel in portable, container-sized plants — like those in operation at Port Hueneme and in Australia.

Once production begins, Teall said that the two byproducts created when brewing fuel batches — methane and carbon dioxide — can be reused. Methane, which makes up about 50 percent of the byproduct, will be used to power heat and lighting in each plant, while the remaining carbon dioxide can be routed into an onsite algal pond. Algae absorb CO2 and, by most estimates, produce more than 6,000 gallons of usable oil per acre.

There is no doubt that Biodiesel Industries is a business, but Teall seems to be in the game for other reasons. The technology that his company has developed is adaptable and, when applied, addresses a variety of problems. Although he has a background as an environmental lawyer, his eyes light up with an engineer's zeal when he explains various solutions he and his team have come up with.

In light of what they have discovered over the past 16 years, he has remained open-minded about potential fuel supplies, looking at beef fat from cattle operations, restaurant grease trap sludge; anything that can potentially be burned to create energy without taxing air quality and food supply. As for his company's projects in developing countries, even though the projects are small, he's thinking big. "The ARIES system really makes it possible to do these rural projects," he said. "Otherwise there would be no way to do it — not on the scale that needs to be done."

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