As I write this, I have just lit the fire on my first batch of home-made biogas. Food scraps, grass clippings, and pig poop have been successfully transformed into a gas that is similar to propane or natural gas we can cook and heat with. If you’re familiar with making compost, you’re a short side trip away from making biogas.
Compost is the aerobic (with oxygen) microbial breakdown of organic material into a simpler form of organic material, along with heat and carbon dioxide. Biogas, sometimes called swamp gas, is a combination of methane and carbon dioxide and is a byproduct of anaerobic (without oxygen) decay of biomass. The solid material left over from this process of “anaerobic digestion” can be further composted and used as a soil amendment. Both compost and biogas happen in nature just as easily as the sun shines or the wind blows. If we’re inclined, we can capture and use this energy.
The challenges in harnessing these energetic gifts from nature lie in collecting, controlling, storing, and often transforming the primary energy resource into a form that can be used to meet a particular need – like converting sunlight to electricity. I’ve spent lots of professional and hobby time exploring options and the processes involved in meeting my family’s energy needs through natural and/or locally available resources. I do this mostly because it’s fun, but also because I want to wean myself off the myopic, destructive, and often corrupt global power structure of energy addiction. A side result of all this fun has been a certain level of autonomy from the energy supply machine, and that feels pretty good.
From personal experience, I’m here to tell you that these resources are available to all. There is no requirement for you to give your money to fossil and nuclear energy suppliers if you find yourself dissatisfied (like me) with high costs and global impacts of today’s energy economy. Nature has been providing earthly inhabitants with abundance for millennia, and it works best if we simply get out of the way and let nature do its thing – without asking for more than we need. Making your own energy comes with a new awareness of efficiency and facilitates an easy change of perception around comfort and convenience.
For years I’ve wanted to make biogas, it’s the perfect example of making something useful from what would otherwise be waste. But I admit to some intimidation by what appeared to be complex and exacting science in the recipe required for optimum gas production. But experience is the best teacher, and after all, this simple process of biomass decay happens all by itself in nature, so how hard could it be if I actually created the environment for gas to happen? I found a 55 gallon barrel in “inventory” as I like to call it (my wife calls it something else) behind the garage, threw in some food scraps, a bucket of poop from our 2 pigs, a pile of grass clippings and mixed in enough water to fill the barrel half way. Then I sealed the top with an airlock and waited. One week later, combustible gas was bubbling out of the barrel – no high tech recipe or scientific calculations required.
Making your own energy is in every sense of the word, empowering. Watching the biogas burn reminded me of the feeling I had when I bought my first solar panel 25 years ago and set up an off-grid room in the rental house I shared – thrilling! This is the feeling that set me down the path of exploring renewable energy and energy efficiency as both vocation and avocation. But that’s just me. You may have different reasons for making (and saving) energy. Whatever the reason, now is the time to take it personally and take action!