Thursday, September 06, 2007

Day Five - Bioenergy Tours

A most satisfying and informative ending to the conference. Visited four places, four different aspects of bioenergy production and utilization here in Finland. Warning: pictures may be boring to some, but those interested in the future of the planet, press on...

Check your pulse, a landfill. But there is one aspect of this landfill you won't find in most other places in the world. The waste from about 200,000 inhabitants of the region is recycled into various products; organic compost, recycled raw material (for paper, plastic, steel, aluminum, etc.), fertilization sludge, construction materials, and the rest that can't be recycled is landfilled. OK, most good municipal dumps do that. But then, this small operation at its front gate is a biogas collection and pumping station. The methane gas generated in the closed section of the landfill (about 6 hectares, closed for about 20 years) is collected from underground pipes throughout the section, and then pumped through this station to an electricity generating station in Jyvaskyla, about 3 kilometers away, providing electricity for about 1000 homes a year. They are about to close another 10 hectares, which should about double their electricity generation potential, at least until the older section quits producing gas, and it is near the end of its expected life. They are building a new 20 hectare section on the same site, which will open later this fall, when the 10 hectare section will be closed, piped, sealed and connected to the distribution pipeline.

Well, pretty good, eh? But we're just getting started on the excitement...

The good folks of Jyvaskyla aren't satisfied with just one bioenergy project. These silver cylinders are heat exchangers; the one on the right has a 6 megawatt rating and provides heat from the unique boiler it sits aside to over 100 customers in the city. And that isn't just 100 homes; it's hospitals, municipal buildings, office buildings, and homes for good measure. The heat exchanger on the left feeds heat to the company next door, which dries logs to turn them into log homes. The company, by the way, provides the raw material for the boiler in the form of dried sawdust and bark.

And for good measure, another 1 megawatt of electricity is generated and put back onto the district's electric grid.

As you would expect, the Finnish Universities are collaborating on the science to make these things work. Below are a few pictures from the University of Jyvaskyla's Bioenergy Research Facility.

The picture above is the corner of the main building in which they have a local wood-fired heating system, which heats the entire complex. When the facility was build a few years ago, the faculty were charged with responsibility of acquiring fuels and maintaining the system. However, they came up with a neat new wrinkle...they had the students form a company, and they are responsible for system, and get paid for the heat generated at a specified rate. That means, when the systems performs well, they are compensated nicely; but when it performs poorly, they are paid less and have to sit in the cold much of the time. A great learning tool for the students to really get the feel for the bioenergy business, even as they attend college.

The next couple of slides show their biodiesel research unit.

They test all kinds of agricultural crops for their biodiesel yield and energy efficiency...

...and even run their own forklift on 100% biodiesel produced right there on the premises. You can put your nose right to the exhaust pipe when its running, and all you smell are McDonald's french fries!

They have also just acquired this test unit, which is a biomass digester that produces "biogas" for transportation fuel. Yes, gas from grass that can go right into your car! Their research in this field supports the facility that I saved for last, a "biogas farm."

This guy is my hero of the trip. He is a Finnish farmer (pretty suave looking farmer, wouldn't you say) running the family farm. And I mean family farm...they have run it for 18 generations, going back to 1666! Now that's what I call a commitment to the land.

Since crops weren't doing too well a few years back, he decided to enter into dairy farming. Only problem was, he had more cow doo-doo than he knew what to do-do with. So, being an enterprising gentlemen, he invested in a process called anaerobic digestion of his manure. That is, the manure is piled into a "lagoon", where it is left to ferment a while until it gets nice and rosy. Then they capped the lagoon...

...piped the raw smell to a digester...

...and then to a "scrubber" system that cleans up the gas with water to remove the elements that cause the odor...

...and finally, to a gas pump!

That's a local taxi that just happened to pull in for a fill-up while we were standing around. OK, so your 57 Chevy won't run on this stuff, unless you happen to be a mechanical whiz and monkey around with it. But Volkswagen, Volvo, Opel, and Honda all produce after-factory modified cars that run both systems; and the blue Volkswagen in the pictures below is actually one of two models that VW now mass-produces off the assembly line to run on either biogas, natural gas, or gasoline.

The car's system knows to switch over automatically to gasoline if the biogas or natural gas tank runs dry, and the driver only knows by being signaled on the dash; the car never misses a lick.

Well, the farm supplies all the biogas cars around (all seven of them) and they can run about 400,000 km a year between them with the biogas produced from the farm's current system.

They are currently putting in a new system, which will be able to produce ten times as much biogas, and the "gas station" will be located out on the road about 200 meters away, instead of in the farmer's back yard. The new system will not only convert cow manure into biogas, it will also digest the corn silage left over from feeding the cows, and the sludge waste from the system will be spread back over the crop as fertilizer. Now that's a tight closed loop system!

I need one of these things, but I don't have the cows. Wait a minute, six kids...based on the toilet paper I buy, we ought to be able to keep the cars running forever. At least then I could afford the soft TP.

So next time you hear a news story about how cows are the number one greenhouse gas emitters in the world, think "tap those Elsie's!"

Well, I fly again tomorrow, and I'm pooped (sorry), so this ends the Finland travelogue. Hope you enjoyed it! I did, but I'm eager to be back to my country where I'm free to screw up as much as I want, and my family makes me feel like a king doing it. See you tomorrow night, guys!

Sir Chuck, Earthly King of the Ray Clan