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Linda Schuyler Horning: An organic approach to power production

Linda Schuyler Horning
Climate Connections
Algae Aqua-culture Technology, Inc uses algae to consume the carbon dioxide, then converts the algae into methane, another greenhouse gas, which is then burned to produce electricity.
Michael Smith/ Regenitech LLC

The purpose of this ongoing series of articles on Climate Connections is to move beyond the arguments around our climate chaos and to find area we can agree on. You may not believe in the climate issues of today … but you may be concerned about the use of plastics and the oceans. You may also be concerned about air and water quality. Whatever you want to call it, the planet needs our stewardship. The writers here will share their perspectives from many angles. Perhaps some or all will resonate with you, and bring to our awareness the necessary actions we can take. We will leave the arguments and differing beliefs to others. — Marilyn Nyborg, Climate Connections

My obsession with eight-sided domes is beginning to worry me. The same mental image follows me day and night. I dream about it, insert it into every conversation, and accept this won’t go away until I one day see it for myself.

No, I have not been visited by alien beings. Unlike the lead character in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” I know why I find this shape so appealing. It represents a beacon of hope to communities like ours, beleaguered by energy shutoffs, fires and canceled insurance policies. This so-called Green Power House of Columbia Falls, Montana is the pinnacle in clean energy technology derived from the combustion of wood waste and forest by-products. It is so efficient, so Earth-friendly, that it actually results in a negative carbon footprint. That I obsess about it as a solution to our current predicament should come as no surprise.

Former Bay Area software engineer, Michael Smith of Whitefish, Montana, co-founded Algae Aqua-culture Technology, Inc (AACT) to deal with wood waste and slash left behind after logging operations at F.H. Stolze Land and Lumber Company in nearby Columbia Falls. Biomass has been debunked in recent years as a source of alternative energy, since burning it creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas identified as a major contributor to climate change. AACT has a different approach, in that it uses algae to consume the carbon dioxide, then converts the algae into methane, another greenhouse gas, which is then burned to produce electricity.

The Green Power House is eight-sided due to the number of pie-shaped pools that form the floor of the building. Each pool grows algae which must be harvested after eight days and fed into geothermally-heated bioreactors. It’s a closed-loop system that converts the organic matter into methane, green energy and soil amendments.

AACT systems also produce hydrogen and bio-oils useful as fuel for farm and industrial equipment. High grade organic fertilizer and bio-char, an organic soil amendment, are by-products that enrich soils depleted by large-scale farming techniques and chemical fertilizers. The structure of each Green Power House is itself a self-sustaining vertical greenhouse that can be used throughout the year for production of food regardless of outdoor temperatures. More recent upgrades to the system have led to the founding of a new company called Regenitech LLC which encompasses a variety of new waste streams and allows for improved development of the technology so that it can be shared with industries and municipalities from around the world.

Electricity generated by these biomass systems can be used to complement other green energy solutions, such as solar and hydro-electric energy, to create an independent grid of electricity, freeing our local communities from dependence on large public utility companies. California’s increasingly frequent power outages have proven the economic vulnerability of small forested communities like ours to monopolistic practices.

Bottom line, each 10,000 square foot facility can process 6 tons on biomass daily while producing 6 megawatts of electricity, enough for roughly 100 homes. Revenue from 900+ tons of fertilizer per year plus other potential revenue streams could result in a capital investment return within five years. A string of these Green Power Houses would go a long way in our community toward creating markets for wood chips and green waste which must be removed to reduce fire danger.

You may wonder why I care about Green Power Houses. Maybe it’s because I began my working life at a public utility company during the energy crisis that spawned Jimmy Carter’s fireside chats. Back then, I was asked to promote nuclear energy as an energy source, because it was cleaner than coal. The Green Power House is a better idea because it doesn’t create hazardous wastes that must be stored, and it’s an organic approach that uses the abundance we already have in Nevada County to give us products we can actually use. It paints a picture of the kind of future we all want for our children, one in which Mother Nature is respected, and she, in turn, provides all the energy we need.

I will satisfy one aspect of my obsession next summer while visiting Glacier National Park. It turns out the Green Power House is located close to the western boundary, and they offer tours. More information can be found at https://www.algaeaqua.com/full/GPH.html.

In the meantime, I think I’ll take up clay sculpting of eight-sided domes – just kidding.

ACTION: Consider your options.

Linda Schuyler Horning is a member of Citizen’s Climate Lobby and the author of Buhari — A Family Odyssey in Nepal (2017). More information at https://lindahorning.me.


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