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Clean Water And Clean Power Through Algae

It’s an entire cycle where you’re dealing with not only a water pollution problem.

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biodiesel from microalgae
A biochemist shows different types of microalgae for the study and manufacture of a biofuel in high displacement diesel engines for reducing emissions of gases and particulate matter in Santiago, Chile. VOA

“Nature sometimes isn’t pretty,” said University of Maryland environmental scientist Peter May, grabbing a clump of slimy green-brown gunk.

That gunk lines the bottom of what’s called an algal turf scrubber at the Port of Baltimore. The meter-wide, shallow channel runs the length of a football field alongside one of the port’s giant parking lots.

“Actually, it’s always pretty,” May corrected himself. Even the gunk. Because that gunk is removing pollution from the Chesapeake Bay. Plus, May’s colleagues are turning it into clean, renewable electricity.

The Chesapeake needs the help.

Algal feast

Like many waterways around the world, the bay is polluted with excess nutrients from farm fertilizer runoff, city wastewater and other sources. Algae feast on those nutrients, triggering massive growth that chokes out other aquatic life. Last summer, algal growth left an average of 4.6 cubic kilometers of the bay without oxygen.

A third of the pollution reaching the bay literally falls out of the sky.

Fossil fuels burned in power plants, cars and elsewhere create nitrogen oxide air pollution, which ultimately ends up in the bay, either attached to airborne particles or dissolved in rainwater.

Forests would soak up that pollution. But like many urban areas, the Port of Baltimore has a pavement problem. There’s not a tree to be found at the entire 230-hectare Dundalk Marine Terminal, where the algae scrubber is located.

So regulators require the port to remove as much pollution from the bay as its parking lots allow in. That’s where the algal turf scrubber comes in.

Algae
Algae is seen near the City of Toledo water intake crib, Aug. 3, 2014, in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio. VOA

Putting algae to work

The scrubber is like “a controlled algal bloom on land,” May said, “which puts the algae to work pulling nutrients out of the water.”

The city of Durham, N.C., is planning to build another scrubber to clean up a local reservoir. A pilot study found it would cost about half as much as typical pollution control measures, such as constructed wetlands, and much less than retrofitting existing systems. Others are up and running in Florida.

The algal turf scrubber creates one big challenge, May said.

“What do we do with that algae? You have to have an end use or else you’re going to pile that algae up very quickly,” he said.

It’s high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s been turned into animal feed. It can be fermented into biofuels. Some of May’s colleagues have used it to launch a fertilizer business.

But here at the Port of Baltimore, they’re turning it into electricity.

Baltimore, Algae
Containers are unloaded from a ship at the Port of Baltimore, Oct. 24, 2016. The port uses an algae scrubber to remove pollution from the Chesapeake Bay. VOA

Digesting for power

May works with University of Maryland colleague Stephanie Lansing, an expert in a process called anaerobic digestion. It’s not much different from our own digestion.

“You have bacteria in your gut that break down food. We’re doing that same process in an anaerobic digester,” Lansing said. “We’re breaking down the material, and we’re producing energy in the process.”

In this case, the microbes digesting the algae produce methane biogas. The biogas runs a fuel cell.

“The fuel cell is actually a very efficient way to use the energy,” she said. This small, pilot system produces a modest amount of electricity.

Also Read: India’s Floating Solar Panel a Gateway To Clean Energy For Asia

“You can use it to charge batteries. You can use it for lights. You can use it for fans,” she added.

The Port of Baltimore plans to build a larger system that will cover about a third of a hectare, which could produce a few hundred kilowatts — still modest, but not bad, when you start with just polluted water and algae.

“It’s an entire cycle where you’re dealing with not only a water pollution problem, but an air pollution issue,” Lansing said. (VOA)

Next Story

Private Sector Companies Join Hands to Support Refugees’ Access to Clean Energy

Private Sector Joins Clean Energy Drive for Africa's Refugees

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Solar Energy
A miniature solar energy panel at the Refugee Forum in Geneva. VOA

By Lisa Bryant

In northern Ethiopia, tens of thousands of mostly Eritrean refugees are getting connected to families back home, partly thanks to last year’s peace deal between Addis Ababa and Asmara, but also to clean energy.

A Spanish alliance that includes three power companies is linking refugee camps in Shire, near the border with Eritrea, to the country’s energy grid, which largely relies on hydropower. The next step is equipping refugee households with solar energy.

“It’s a catalyst,” said Javier Mazorra, partnership coordinator for the group, Alianza Shire. “You need energy for health, for education, for protection, especially for women.”

Humanitarians hope what is happening in Shire will someday become the new normal, amounting to a game changer for refugees, 90% of whom have limited access to electricity, according to the United Nations. Indeed, energy access counted among key issues addressed this week at a global refugee forum in Geneva, with Africa considered a top priority.

“The current situation in Africa is pretty poor, pathetic,” said Andrew Harper, climate action special adviser for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which co-hosted the meeting.

Often refugees have a single solution, “which is going to surrounding forests, woodland, and cutting it down,” Harper said.

Greening Africa’s energy 

refugees energy
Climate action special adviser Andrew Harper of UNHCR, which has launched a sustainable energy strategy for its refugee camps. VOA

The refugee agency has launched a four-year strategy to transition to clean energy in all of its camps, although Harper offered no fixed deadline or price tag for doing so. A UNHCR-sponsored report out this week also found renewable energy to be a cost-effective and reliable energy source for refugees.

For Africa in particular, the stakes are high — inside and outside refugee settings. Along with Asia, it has among the world’s highest rates of reliance on charcoal and firewood. Adding in charcoal exports, that has translated into massive deforestation in parts of the continent.

Firewood- and charcoal-based energy also carry myriad other problems, posing health risks from smoky fires and security threats for women collecting charcoal, and heightening tensions between refugees and host communities who also rely on the fast-thinning trees.

Kathleen Callaghy clean energy
Kathleen Callaghy of NGO Clean Cooking Alliance believes the private sector should partner with humanitarian efforts in bringing clean energy to refugees. VOA

Many of these problems can be seen in East Africa, home to some of the continent’s largest refugee communities.

“There are some energy solutions,” said Kathleen Callaghy, senior humanitarian program associate for Clean Cooking Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “But the funding, the political will and the capacity of organizations in the humanitarian community is not enough to sustain or expand these projects over time.”

In drought-prone Ethiopia, the government launched a massive reforestation initiative that saw more than 350 million trees planted countrywide in a single day.

“This challenge is one of the prominent challenges we have,” he said, adding host communities are facing the fallout.

Convincing private sector

Energy drive
Fisseha Meseret Kindie, of Ethopia’s refugee agency, says the country needs support to develop clean energy for the refugees it hosts. VOA

Transitioning to green energy in Africa will mean tapping a private sector that may be wary of investing in refugees and a continent deemed risky.

“Quite honestly, there’s very little in it for them right now,” Callagh, of the Clean Cooking Alliance, said, suggesting alliances with humanitarian agencies as the way forward.

But for Mazorra, of Alianza Shire, the payback is more than financial.

“There are a lot of incentives,” he said, including learning to operate in risky settings. “When you are struggling with really poor resource situations, innovation is key. And there are some innovations that could go back to Spain.”

Harper, of UNHCR, believes there’s another, broader case to be made.

Also Read- Smoking Declines among Men for the First Time: WHO

“We’re basically saying the market for this in Africa is not just 6, 7 million refugees,” he said. “It’s 1.2 billion people. We’ve got to look at it as much more part of the rural electrification process across the continent.” (VOA)