Impact Work

Poop, Pedaling, and Water Will Power the Future

Young entrepreneurs are making the future of clean energy accessible and affordable in unorthodox ways.

by Alice Rowsome
May 17 2017, 6:30pm

Photo via Unsplash

After a decade of building momentum, the clean energy sector is on a roll. There are now many viable, reliable alternatives ready to go. Legislation, largely thanks to the Paris Agreements, is finally catching up with the urgent actions that are needed and even US mayors and cities are getting #ReadyFor100 (and if not you can encourage them to).

But fossil fuel produced energy is still the norm in 2017. Renewable energy sources currently only account for 10 percent of the total energy consumption in the US and although the figures are a little bit higher in the UK at 24.3 percent, we're still very far off 100.

But why are we still so behind?

VICE Impact met up with some young entrepreneurs that are trying to revolutionize how we use energy. By harnessing the power of everyday things, like water, sewage, human feces and footsteps, these startups are attempting to make clean energy accessible and affordable.

From water to warmth

The UK is cold, gas bills are high and so, we end up heating our dingy flats (and the planet) expensively. It's not great. However, there seems to be a new solution: Bulb. Bulb is a utility company that provides 100 percent renewable electricity and 10 percent green gas to its customers at prices that don't cost the Earth.

Unless you are on top of clean energy already and have a solar panel sitting on top of your roof, you are most likely getting energy from the grid. You give money to your energy provider, they then buy units of energy on the wholesale market to cover your needs, which gets fed back into the grid. The aim: when you turn on your hob or you put the kettle on, it works. While the big utility companies buy and supply units of energy produced by fossil fuels, Bulb buys and supplies units of renewable energy.

"For electricity, we purchase mainly hydroelectricity," Amit Gudka, co-founder of Bulb tells me. That's energy made using the movement of water. "For gas, we buy and supply bio-methane."

This last type isn't so poetic. It is a naturally occurring gas, which is produced by the so-called anaerobic digestion of organic matter such as dead animal and plant material, manure, sewage, organic waste, or worse. But Gudka offered a rejoinder: "Basically, by switching to us, our customers make sure that it's renewable and not fossil fuels that are being bought and put on the grid."

However, to make a significant environmental impact, Bulb knew affordability was key.

The latest figure estimate that a shocking 10.6 per cent of the population in the UK face energy poverty. This means that if these individuals did meet the costs needed to heat their homes or boil some pasta, they would be left with a disposable income below the poverty line. "Providing renewables as a premium, as some energy companies have started doing, wasn't an option for us," Gudka underlines.

In fact, whilst working with the big utility companies, Gudka and Bulb co-founder Hayden Wood were both pretty outraged when they saw how inefficient and set up against the consumer the energy industry was.

Inside the Bulb offices.

"Companies were taking quite a lot of speculative risks, similar to mini hedge funds. They were often racking up big losses that were then passed back down to customers. Even if they did make profits, they'd just pay big bonuses to the big bosses. It was inefficient, and unfair. Not to mention the environmental damage," Gudka explains.

In an attempt to make clean energy more affordable, Bulb doesn't do the above. It has also hired a team of young engineers and developers that have designed back-end softwares that make their work more efficient and therefore cheaper. Wood added that they are also keen to be "obsessively transparent" about their prices, publishing detailed information about the wholesale energy market and their profit margins online.

"We think it's really sad that the big energy companies have continued to make a lot of money out of those that have less income," Gudka emphasises.

What he's referring to is the pre-payment meters that most living in energy poverty use. "They are paying extortionate rates. Higher rates than richer households. We think this is really unfair. There's no reason for it. So we're looking to introduce pre-payment meters for which people won't have to overpay," Gudka says.

But what about young people overpaying for energy?

"When it comes to energy, young people have been overlooked. London has the lowest switching rate and Londoners typically overpay more than anyone else in the country, and that's partly because of the number of young people and renters that there are. We think this is unfair. If you're paying for your energy bills even if you don't own the property, you have the right to switch suppliers," Gudka adds.

Tackling energy poverty as a crucial step to transitioning to a green energy market is as important for Bulb as it is for Sanivation.

Power to the poop

Based in Kenya, Sanivation is a pioneering social enterprise that provides household toilets and energy services to the urban poor. Specifically, they provide toilets to locals, from which they collect the feces that they ultimately transform into sustainable and affordable fuel cooking briquettes.

Just as Africa jumped over the landline, Andrew Foote and Emily Woods, Sanivation's co-founders, are hoping their start-up will help Africa bypass unsustainable forms of fuel, like charcoal, for renewable and healthy options.

But how did they end up in the human waste business?

After traveling the globe -- Foote worked in international development and Woods worked in the engine room of a ship -- both became convinced that nothing had more simple but wide-reaching impacts than sanitation.

"We looked at two statistics: over 90 percent of human feces in developing countries is disposed of untreated, and diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of death for children. If we could cost-effectively treat more human feces, we could reduce diarrheal prevalence by up to 47 percent," Foote explains.

For these two driven engineers, those statistics were pretty motivating. So they started tinkering.

"First, we wanted to find ways to treat human feces. We realized we could use the free thermal energy from the sun to raise feces to high temperatures and effectively inactivate pathogens, rendering feces safe," Foote said. "As we were literally cooking human feces on a simple curved mirror, people asked, 'Can I cook on this?'" He continued. "This got us thinking: with feces' high calorific content, could we transform it into an aspirational fuel product? Turns out, you can!"

Today, Sanivation collects the waste from toilets, puts it through processing plants, neutralizes the pathogens and combines it with carbonized agricultural residues. After grinding, the mixture eventually becomes charcoal briquettes that are sold back to locals as an affordable and sustainable alternative to charcoal.

Charcoal, the main biomass fuel used in Kenya, is not economical, or healthy. 63 percent of charcoal is unsustainably sourced and 90 percent is illegally produced, the team tells me. In addition, with forests dwindling, Kenyans are being charged even more for charcoal, spending upwards of 30 percent of their income on cooking fuel. "Moreover, the pollution from firewood and other poor fuels, leads to respiratory infections, which are the leading cause of death for children under five," Foote added.

Rows of Sanivation's cooking fuel briquettes.

The briquettes have the same energy content, pound for pound, as charcoal. And selling them back to locals has (surprisingly) not been an issue.

By recovering value from human waste and selling an in-demand product like affordable cooking fuel, Sanivation is cost-effectively processing the waste.

And with 95 percent of human waste in Kenya disposed into the environment without treatment and 17,100 children dying each year from preventable, diarrheal diseases, it seems the team is solving two crises in one.

With 4.1 billion people worldwide living in places where waste is not safely managed, where others see waste, Sanivation see both a huge problem but also a business opportunity.

Pedal power

Laurence Kemball-Cook, founder of Pavegen, saw a business opportunity, where others see irritation.

He explains, "I was walking through Victoria Station in London and it was so crowded, so I started thinking: what if we could use the energy of these people? Then I read that 38,000 people walk through the station everyday. So I had this moment of realization: what if I could harness the energy of every single footstep?"

And that's exactly what he did.

Pavegen tiles look pretty much like a bouncy type of tarmac. Nothing special at the outset. The difference? When you step on them, your footstep produces electricity. But how?

Rows of Pavegen tiles.

The weight of your foot, almost unnoticeably, presses the tile into the ground, creating a lateral (sideways) movement of between five and ten millimeters, which causes the electromagnetic generators in the Pavegen tiles to rotate.That, in turn, produces a current of electricity.

Although he installed his first tiles illegally (he needed to convince unconvinced investors to invest), Pavegen tiles have been bought and installed by companies, organizations, and government across 30 countries: from Heathrow Airport, to outside the White House, to a favela in Brazil.

"200 of our tiles are embedded in a football pitch in a favela in Rio de Janeiro," Kemball-Cook explains. "The energy of people playing football is stored up in batteries throughout the day and in the evening this energy turns on floodlights over the pitch."

"Powering communities who would otherwise have little access to energy or only access to expensive diesel generators is a big part of what we do."

Feeling inspired? Do you have a clean affordable energy idea too? Submit it via the United Nation's Solve initiative. You can also get local and vocal in your hometown - there's already a big push underway to get more US mayors on board with clean energy.