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Bioenergy, TLUDs, and our 2012 stove camp

Here at the Ecovillage Training Center we just completed our first, hopefully annual, Biochar Stove Camp. And a good time was had by all.

Dr TLUD demo's the Mwoto double chamber gasifier

These stove camps are the brainchild of Paul “Dr. T-LUD” Anderson, a retired geography professor who is spending his remaining active years enjoying as much geography as he can extend into. We, and “Solar Bob” Fairchild, whom Doc recruited to organize this camp, find ourselves kindred spirits in that way. We like to travel and exchange information, and we’re getting older.

Doc got interested in stoves doing mission work in Africa, and started attending stove camps in places like the Aprovecho Institute in Oregon, where he picked up on the gasifier design and its capabilities to produce biochar. Tom Reed, one of the early organizers of the International Biochar Initiative, interested him in the climate benefits of biochar. We saw him at Newcastle for the Biochar, Sustainability and Security in a Changing Climate conference in 2008 and at the U.S. Biochar Conference in Boulder, Colorado in 2010, showing off his namesake TLUD — “Top Loading UpDraft” — biochar-making stoves to, among others, the Secretary of Agriculture and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Doc just came back from Uganda where last spring he set up a project near Kampala to manufacture TChar stoves, a TLUD kit design he developed collaboratively in CHAB (“Combined Heat and Biochar”) camps such as ours. The Ugandan project is called Awamu Biomass Energy, or ABE for short. Awamu means “together” or “juntos” in Lugandan language. Awamu will set up a shop to cut, bend, drill and assemble the TChar, grow and harvest fuels and make hand-presses for biomass briquettes. It will then wholesale the stoves, presses and briquettes locally. If successful, Awamu would next expand to Bungoma, Kakamega and maybe Nyamira. 

Engineers Without Borders, Micro-Compound-Lever Press / Easy BioPress.

HAND PRESS: The press has a low build cost (about US$18), is easy to build using hand tools, is lightweight at 26 pounds and can create a force far in excess of that required to make a high quality briquette (typically in excess of 4,000 pounds). Briquettes can be produced at a rate of about twelve in ten minutes depending of type of mold used.

After Uganda Doc went to Kenya, then to Haiti, Honduras, back to the States for the Biochar Conference in Sonoma, Uganda again, and home to his Brazilian wife, Noeli, in Bloomfield, Illinois before packing his car with TChars, Toucans, Mwotos, and assorted other kits and tools, and heading here to Tennessee for Labor Day.

An engineer by training, Robert J. Fairchild went off to Ladakh in the early 80s and became one of the key staffers for Helena Norberg-Hodge’s International Society for Ecology and Culture. All over the Tibetian Plateau Solar Bob designed and built solar cookers, water systems, power systems, and home retrofits to save energy and fuel. When he came back and homesteaded near Berea KY, he bought and rebuilt an old hydropower dam. Today he sells into the Kentucky grid, and the system runs itself well enough to let him occasionally travel, installing solar energy systems in distant places (-- he installed our array here in 1995). He has spent the last 3 years working in Haiti with a group of missionaries from Nashville — building the first oil-drum rocket stove in a refugee camp that feeds 300 children daily — and went to Doc’s CHAB camp Massachusetts in 2011 to better understand what to do about charcoal. That’s where he first met Doc. Now he instructs the camps. He is just back from Haiti and has some new ideas he wants to try out having to do with heat exchangers.

Both Solar Bob and Doc agree that trying to get charcoal-burning cultures like Haiti to give up making and burning charcoal is a lost cause, not worth spending much time on. One of Doc’s stoves, designed specifically for Haiti, is a three-stage unit that makes charcoal in the top, gasifying, stage before burning it for cooking in the lower stage, rather like a machine that roasts and grinds coffee beans before steeping them into your cup.

The Whitfield Home Garden Biochar Pellet Stove, undergoing trials in 2012.

Of course, it would be better not to burn the charcoal but instead to grind it fine, run it through the compost pile and then get it into the garden, but that kind of use is a hard sell in Haiti.

We are less convinced of the hopelessness of conversion of charcoal cultures than are Doc and Bob, having the card up our sleeve of eCOOLnomics still to play. Pop Culture can marry Mother Earth. We can make it cool to sequester carbon in the soil.

It might be a long shot, but then considering the alternative is that places like Haiti and Africa become intolerably hot and dry and unable to support life, we think taking that gamble is warranted.

NikiAnne makes a TChar

The biofuels/agribusiness issue always crops up, to abuse a metaphor, but we are of the persuasion that whatever risks that agriculture-for-energy may hold, they are worth the risks if we can reverse climate change and get the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million carbon, or below, on decadal time scales. 

The challenge is that in the rural areas where biomass is available in abundance and can be collected at little or no cost, gasifying stoves are not affordable. Another challenge is having dry fuel in the rainy season. Unfortunately gasifiers are very sensitive to fuel moisture and do not handle fuel well unless it is less than 20% moisture. Making briquettes and pellets from dry grasses and biomass that if left alone would become greenhouse gases is a potential village enterprise that would be sustainable.

This stove charges your laptop
off a USB port that derives electricity
from a bimetalic heat/cold current generator

We have no delusions about the potential of biofuels. It is hard to improve upon the renewable energy economies of the Greeks and the Romans even today — and they built empires on that kind of energy — but in the end Greek and Roman appetites for energy and consumer goods outgrew their empires’ abilities to enslave and deforest. Today populations are much larger, and better armed, and empires are again running out of far away places to enslave and deforest. They are having to do it at home to their own people and forests.

Part of the prescription for backflow in the carbon cycle is reforestation and afforestation, taking back fields converted to farms and suburbs and returning them to mixed-age, mixed-species food forests. (Other parts of the prescription include biochar, holistic management, mob grazing, keyline, organic no-till, and painting the built environment white or silver). We will hone in on this notion at our next workshop here at the Ecovillage Training Center, Building Food Forests for the 21st Century.

It is our strategy to build a permaculture army to turn this into a garden planet, using ecological services to meet all of our needs, while returning our Mother to the comfortable climate of the Holocene.

The Food Forest workshop starts September 23, runs to October 7, and places are still available. And for those who are in the Northeast, Albert Bates will be appearing on stage each day of the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania from September 21 to 23. 

They are giving away conservation heirloom chicken brood starters as a door prize. Won’t you join us?

Albert Bates, author of "The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, brings you along on his personal journey and "The Biochar Solution".

A former environmental rights lawyer, paramedic, brick mason, flour miller, and horse trainer, Albert Bates received the Right Livelihood Award in 1980 as part of the steering committee of Plenty, working to preserve the cultures of indigenous peoples, and board of directors of The Farm, a pioneering intentional community in Tennessee for the past 40 years. He has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than sixty nations. (More.)

Editorial Notes: Albert Bates is a longtime contributor to Energy Bulletin.

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