Literally! Ok, here’s the scoop:
According to the United Nations, 2.6 billion people currently lack access to adequate sanitation services. Without proper waste disposal systems, these people are often forced to “do their business” near their only water supply, thus polluting their drinking water and exposing themselves to a whole host of nasty germs. One can also infer that these same people likely lack access to other services which we consider staples, such as electricity.
Apparently, two MIT business students made this very inference and decided to found Sanergy. Sanergy builds $200 “sanitation centers” that are owned and operated by locals in areas without sanitation systems. Human waste is collected from these centers and fed to an anaerobic digester (a collection of microorganisms that break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen – apparently it’s very commonplace in waste management). This anaerobic digester feeds on the waste and subsequently produces biogas. Biogas (a combination of methane and carbon dioxide) is widely used as a source of renewable energy, according to Wikipedia. It can be used directly as cooking fuel, it can be placed in a gas engine that converts the energy from the biogas into electricity and heat, or it can be upgraded in order to create gas-quality biomethane.
I’ll admit it, this is not a savory topic, but what a cool idea! This process reminds me a bit of how certain tribes of people will use every last part of an animal, down to its teeth, so that nothing goes to waste. Here, not even waste goes to waste!
Plus, the Sanergy project creates employment opportunities for people in these impoverished areas. Much like a microloan empowers an individual through community lending and accountability, having these centers run by locals will place sanitation in the hands of the people while providing jobs and energy. A local person can be responsible for transporting the waste to an anaerobic digestion center (with training on safety, of course), and others can be taught to work with the equipment that harnesses the biogas produced by the anaerobic digesters. A large chunk of the community can be put to work while dramatically increasing the quality of life for an entire town or village.
I think this project demonstrates just how widely varied and commonplace sources for renewable energy can be. There is a surprising amount of potential energy stored throughout our natural surroundings, and it just takes a bit of creativity to figure out how to utilize it.