It is generally held that there is a correlation between energy use and advances in human welfare. “As such, the importance of energy for the continuation of human development cannot be understated,” says Victor Taylor who heads up Phambili Energy, a subsidiary of Universal Pulse. Taylor’s statements come in the wake of the birth of the planet’s seven billionth person in October 2011; a milestone that underscores the challenges of balancing the provision of sustainable energy, a growing global population and climate change.
According to Taylor, about three billion people currently rely on coal or solid biomass such as wood, dung or charcoal to cook their food each day. Sadly, almost two million people die every year from the smoke emitted by burning these fuels with rudimentary cook stoves and open fires.
“In many developing countries, especially in rural areas, approximately 80 to 90 percent of the population uses solid fuels, and this number is expected to rise as population growth outstrips economic development and the availability of natural resources.”
Lending credence to this statement is the fact that the International Energy Agency estimates that by 2030, 100 million more people will use solid fuels than do so today. “The fact that most modern methods of energy production exact a significant toll on the environment doesn’t help matters,” adds Taylor.
“Climate change, air pollution and other primary and secondary effects associated with the production of energy have raised international concerns. Fortunately, steps are now being taken to counter climate change with the introduction of numerous ‘clean’ energy generating technologies. One such ‘new’ form of energy is derived from biomass which South Africa enjoys in abundance but which, up until now, has been overlooked to some extent.”
In terms of environmental biomass, Taylor says South Africa’s alien vegetation makes for the perfect ‘fuel’. “Our national parks are fighting an ongoing battle to manage invasive alien plants with government spending over R600m a year in an attempt to counter the problem. “Well-meaning as these efforts are, the uprooted plants are often left scattered across the landscape posing stream-flow reduction threats and fire risks.”
Taylor says another source of biomass are South Africa’s big timber and sugar mills which produce hundreds of tons of waste in the form of wood chips. This is where Phambili Energy comes into the picture. Phambili Energy has developed a Biomass to Charcoal Conversion Plant (BCCP) which uses industrial and environmental biomass to make charcoal.
“We come in and collect environmental and industrial biomass and convert it into a high quality, ‘clean’ charcoal named Jenga Eco-Charkettes. Importantly, we include people from local communities in the collection and conversion process.” Taylor says the South African Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs has lauded the product as a potential solution to a multitude of environmental issues.
“Jenga’s Eco-Charkettes are environmentally friendly as the process utilized to make them and subsequent combustion thereof is largely CO2 neutral,” remarks Taylor. He explains that this is made possible as the biomass used in the BCCP absorbs CO2. When the biomass is extruded into logs and carbonized during a pyrolysis process, the toxins that contribute to global warming are suspended in gas.
“We then condense these gases into a bio-oil, thus ensuring they are not released into the atmosphere. The bio-oil is then turned into a range of products, such as fertiliser, which actually adds nutrients back into the soil.”
Additionally, the charkettes are smoke-free and odourless, which will go a long way towards decreasing the incidence of respiratory disease amongst those using them.
In addition to the charkettes, Phambili Energy has also developed a clean burning, co-generation unit called the Jenga Eco-Powastove which works in tandem with the charkettes. The Powastove provides ‘off-grid’, low income households with all the energy they require for cooking, heating, refrigeration, ironing, hot water production, water purification and electrical appliances.