There's another lesson to be learned from Skippy, who in his living hamster-ness reminds us once again that not all fuels are fossil. And just as there are many ways to spin a turbine, there are lots of ways to make fuel. You can even extract it from your garbage.
Ten years ago, Steve and David Gill weren't thinking about energy solutions. They were looking for something to do with the 200,000 to 300,000 pounds a day of waste they had leftover from peeling and chopping onions for salsa companies and supermarkets. They originally tried using it for compost on the 15,000 acres of onion fields they tend in Oxnard, Calif., but as their business grew, it became, Steve Gill says, "a huge, stinking mess."
The Gills had been hit hard by the California energy crisis in the summer of 2000, when the manipulation of the state's electricity market caused blackouts across the state. It made Steve Gill think: What if onion waste could somehow be turned into energy?
Gill called his friend, Bill Deaton, a chemical engineer and energy consultant from Kayenta, Utah. Deaton had an idea for seeding the Gills' onion waste with tiny bugs that would digest the waste and turn it into methane. "Digester gas," as it's called, has already been made from beer waste to run boilers at breweries; dairy farmers from Maryland to California feed digesters with manure and make a profit on the fuel. New York City makes 4.7 billion cubic feet of methane from its wastewater sludge. No one, however, had yet made methane from onions.
Deaton consulted the California Biomass Collective at the University of California at Davis, which determined that the sugar in onions makes them particularly nutritious food for microbes. He got a Dutch company, Biothane, to build a specialized digester. "It's heaven for microbes in the digester," Deaton says. "We give them the right temperature, the right pH, and make the food available. They eat all this stuff, and they develop gas. That's methane." Deaton and Gill elected to use the digester gas in a fuel cell.
A fuel cell makes electricity through chemistry. It works like a battery that never needs recharging, as long as you keep feeding it hydrogen. FuelCell Technology Inc. of Danbury, Conn., manufactures a fuel cell that converts methane to hydrogen internally, mixing hydrogen electrons with oxygen electrons to make electricity, heat and water. It's quiet, emits nothing and with combined heat-and-power, it runs at 90 percent efficiency.
Fuel cells have limitations. They need pristine methane to run properly; the sulfur that stings your eyes when you chop an onion will poison a delicate fuel cell. The California Energy Commission awarded a $106,000 grant to an Illinois company, Gas Technology Institute, to figure out how to take the sulfur out of the onions. The solution will extend to other agricultural wastes in the future.
The system will take a few months to ramp up, says Deaton. The microbes, which came from Anheuser Busch -- they're "beer bugs," Deaton says -- have to adapt, eat and digest before sufficient gas can be harvested. For now, the Gills' two 300-kilowatt fuel cells operate on natural gas, connected up to Southern California Edison's grid. They inoculated the digester on June 8, and expect to have onion fuel by fall.
The state and federal governments have been supportive: California's Public Utilities Commission ponied up $2.8 million from its Self-Generation Incentive Program, and the Gills will get another $1.8 million from the federal government, money that would have trickled in as an investment tax credit before February's stimulus bill turned it into a grant. The entire project, including all the research, cost $9 million, but the Gills will save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on waste disposal. With the incentives, he expects it to pay for itself within five years. And he can be confident about the math: Although natural gas prices fluctuate wildly several times a year, the price of onion gas is always the same.
Steve Gill acknowledges that his transition to local power was far from simple. Negotiations with Southern California Edison were "time-consuming," he says. (Utilities typically extract a number of significant fees for the transition to local power.) He might have given up were he not intent on "getting rid of a huge problem," he admits. And "now we've turned the whole thing into a demonstration project."
The University of California at Santa Barbara has adopted Gills Onions as a teaching model for other agricultural operations, and now Steve Gill goes around, he says, "helping other guys do this thing. Because really, you shouldn't have any waste out of a food plant. There's a use for everything."