Electricity from Poop: Frances Darwin of ZooShare Talks Poo Power
16 Aug, 2016
Turning poop into electricity: sounds like a superpower right? If so, we’ve got some superheroes (pooperheroes?) in our midst.
Our TUSHY team member Annie got to chat with one of the masterminds behind ZooShare, a company developing North America's first zoo-based biogas plant. Frances Darwin is the Sales & Marketing Director behind ZooShare, which has collaborated with the Toronto Zoo and local grocery stores to take conventional “waste” and turn it into a resource.
Yes, of course I asked her how it’s possible to turn shit into electricity, how could I not? The process seems pretty complex, even though she explained it to me in the simplest terms possible - I guess I’m just not a sciencey person. However, it’s more popular than you’d think; rural communities in Thailand have also embraced the poo-werful concept and are becoming renewable energy experts, which is something we should all be, right?
The biogas plant just started construction and will be done later in 2017, so before you can watch crap make magic, read & listen to Annie and Frances talk shit, “waste,” and making excrement sexy.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity while preserving original meaning of statements from both participants.
Darwin: ...becomes electricity and use it to power a head & power system and that generates electricity for the grid.
TUSHY: Awesome! Sorry we had a little technical difficulties, so it might have seemed like I was distracted.
D: No worries.
T: That’s so interesting. Cool. So is all manure usable, or is it just some animals?
D: All the manure in general, including human poop, could be used, but in our project specifically though, we’re using animal manure and 14000 tons of inedible food waste. And the reason we need to mix the food waste in there is because poop itself has already been used as energy by the animal, including humans, to go about their daily business. Um, and so poo has less energy potential than food itself because food hasn’t been digested as energy. So poo is great, but we need a little more energy and that’s where the food waste comes in.
T: Awesome, I like how it’s a combination. That’s so interesting. And so, I read that the food waste comes from grocery stores?
D: Yes, so just to be clear, it’s not food waste that would go to food programs or food banks or anything like that, this is rotting food that is not considered edible. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of it, and um, that’s part of what we want to show people at ZooShare - waste is valuable, there’s no such thing as “waste” only wasted resources. We really want people to think carefully about the fact that poo is actually a resource.
It’s actually funny, when we go to farmer’s markets, people are really grossed out when we start talking about fertilizer, like eww, so we grow food and poo? And it’s like, what did you think fertilizer was? There’s a huge disconnect for most people and unfortunately there’s a very strong ick factor, as you may have encountered yourself, that poo is disgusting. Actually poo is a valuable resource and with poo we’re going to be making a mil a year, so it’s something that gets people’s minds going.
T: Wow, that’s interesting. I think I also read...So y’all had like, a zoo poo like, fertilizer thing a little while ago, do y’all still do that?
D: So actually, not up and running yet, but once we’re up and running, we’re going to be producing fertilizer that is made from the zoo poo and food waste. And yeah, that’ll be really great because it’ll complete the cycle for people. They’ll be able to see like, this goes in, this comes out. Otherwise, this wonderful nutritious fertilizer would be going to a landfill where it becomes toxic soup. So, it’s really good to get people thinking about that.
T: Yeah, that’s awesome, I love that you said it comes full circle, that’s so true. So, what was the main strategy raising the initial $2.2 mil? I think it was only three people raising that much, like that’s amazing.
D: Yeah, it is pretty amazing. So we we’re a nonprofit, but we don’t take donations, we sell investment. So the idea behind that is that you can leverage your supporters to help you fund your mission. And people who are really passionate about what you do will put up the cash for you to do what you have to do. So we leveraged our supporters, we currently have 600 members, and half of whom have invested an average, it depends, but the average is $5k in the project. The great thing about the project is that, because it’s an investment, you’re actually earning money at each year. Currently our bonds are at 5%, so lets say you invest $500 each year, you’re going to make $25 on that investment, and then at the end of five years you get your money back. So it’s better than a donation, because not only are you supporting what you believe in, but you’re making money and then getting your money back at the end which is pretty cool.
T: Yeah. I like never would’ve thought of that, it seems so much more interesting than a Kickstarter or something, it’s more involved.
D: It’s been, it’s like, raising money from communities has been around since like...Homer funded the Odyssey in a similar way, by getting all these people donating to his project. I could be wrong, but it’s like that. Um, so it’s like Kickstarter but instead of getting prizes, you’re getting actual money, which is nice.
T: Yeah, totally. And it seems much more involved for the person who’s investing.
D: Yeah, it’s definitely a higher amount than people give on Kickstarter, so they’re not only, literally invested, but they’re also emotionally invested, mentally invested, in every possible way to be invested in.
ZooShare's Executive Director, Daniel Bida, with Frances at the April groundbreaking.
T: Have you seen other initiatives like this? Like ZooShare?
D: Yeah, similar. So, what we sell are bonds called community bonds, and there’s actually an organization in New York, well actually I don’t think they use this model in New York, but there’s a building called the Centre for Social Innovation -
T: That’s where we are!
D: Oh, it is! Cool, that’s awesome. So, CSI started in Toronto, and to buy a building here, they actually used the same model. They sold bonds to the local community to raise money to buy a building and uh, I think they raised $4.3 mil that way. And we were really impressed by that and we realized we could use a similar funding model ourselves to build a biogas plant instead of buying a real estate investment. So yeah, it’s pretty cool. I’m not sure if the New York building was funded in the same way, I don’t think so.
T: Yeah I don’t know.
D: But CSI Toronto just did another fundraising for another building. So they bought two or three buildings now using that model. And there’s another group called SolarShare. We actually share an office with them. They do large scale solar installations on the rooftops of businesses and so if you want to support renewable energy but you don’t want to put solar panels on your house or something like that, you can invest in them to put solar panels on huge industrial buildings and that is through community bonds as well. There’s also different ways to invest locally in renewable energy and we’re just one of the options.
T: Yeah, yeah. Have you seen more like biogas plants now that you - I haven’t actually seen them, but have you seen those kind of initiatives in other places?
D: So, none of them are community owned that I’m aware of. Most of them are privately bought by dairy farmers. Currently in Ontario there’s about 36 biogas plants that are being built and are up and running. And most of them are owned by farmers, they’re privately funded, and they he;p farmers make use of, usually, cow or pig poo. It helps them earn a little bit more revenue. They can either use the biogas that’s created to heat the facilities on their farm or send the electricity to the Ontario grid. Germany is really far ahead of us as well, generally, India and China have lots of small scale biogas plants.
As I mentioned initially, biogas isn’t really low-tech technology. It’s been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In China, there’s records of biogas being used - human sewage was used to create cooking gas thousands of years ago. In Victorian England, they actually used biogas to light street lamps in London, and that was, ya know, over a hundred years ago. In North America, we’ve just been really, really spoiled with easy access to less renewable sources of energy. And really, when you think about it, especially human poop, because we’re one of the most populous species on Earth, there’s so much of this “waste,” that is just going down the drain and it’s not waste - we could be harnessing that and unfortunately we’re not doing that yet. So, hopefully, I think we’re just at the tipping point now where things will really start to develop as people become more aware of this technology.
The problem is, I think, from a marketing perspective, biogas plants aren’t sexy. They don’t have that tall, thin silhouette of a windmill or solar panels which look really cool. Biogas plants just look like a giant, round, short silo and most people driving through, if they saw one, they wouldn’t even know what it was. So, from a marketing perspective, it’s hard to kind of make them engaging, and that’s one of the reasons we decided to partner with the Toronto Zoo, because they get over a million visitors a year. We’re going to be right across from the zoo and we’re hoping that some of those millions visitors will stop by our plants and get a chance to learn about the value of waste and see that process and think about the whole picture. So we are definitely going to be one of the first urban-based biogas plants and we’re North America’s first zoo based plant.
T: Awesome. Yeah, I love the educational videos on your website with the little boy.
D: Yeah, he’s cute.
T: Yeah, such a cool opportunity to have different groups of people learn about something like that. So, how do we start those conversations of - like you said, it’s not sexy or marketable, so how can we start conversations about creative ways to have sustainable power sources? Like everyday conversations.
D: Everyday conversations...so, I mean, once you know the technology’s out there, you’re more likely to talk about it because you actually know like, “Hey did you know you can turn poo into power?” We start a lot of conversations ourselves, our main sales tactic is going to farmers markets and telling people there, “Hey, you think about buying locally - you ever think about supporting local renewable energy that comes from food waste?” And so, those conversations really pique people’s interests and they’re like “What? How does electricity come from food waste and poop?”
So we start a lot of conversations ourselves and we’re hoping that when the physical plant is built, which we’re hoping - we’re starting construction very soon - hoping it’ll be up and running early next year. Once the physical plant is there, it’ll really be a conversation starter, especially for a lot of families that go to the zoo. Many members have specifically said they can’t wait to take their grandkids or children there at point to it and say, “We helped to make that”. So it’s pretty cool.
T: Yeah that’s awesome! It’s like opening a new generation’s eyes.
T: So with production about to start, what are the main obstacles you think you’ll face in actually making it?
D: I think the main obstacle has been the last couple of years. We had to get a lot of different permits and approvals to move forward and begin to start construction. Financing, in terms of raising community bonds, has been tough because it’s a long process and most people who have experienced any type of investment will tell you it’s easier to go to a bank or get $5 mil from one investor rather than getting that money from hundreds of people, but that challenge has been really wonderful because it’s part of our educational mission to teach people about biogas. So through raising those funds, we’ve been fulfilling that mission.
The main challenge technologically is that main biogas plants are setup to process what is known as “unclean waste” - essentially organics that have plastic in it, like a fork. So I don’t know if you have an organics recycling program in NYC, do you?
T: Um, we have...I don’t know. I actually don’t know, I don’t want to make up something.
D: No, that’s ok. Do you recycle and also separate your food waste into a food bin?
D: Ok, so you do have organics recycling. We have that here, too. The problem is that, ya know, most people are kinda lazy. And if you’re gonna throw out some moldy corn, let’s say it’s in a styrofoam package, they might just throw the whole package in the bin, not just take the corn out. And most biodigesters are agricultural designs, which means that they’re not expecting to have to deal with all this styrofoam or plastic, like when a person throws a plastic fork in there, and that can really damage the technology. So the challenge has been, one, finding clean organic waste, and that’s why we partnered with grocery stores, because they have much cleaner processes. But also, kinda figuring out a way that biogas plant is sturdy as possible, so if we do somehow start accepting waste that is less cleaner - less clean - then we’ll be able to do that and not risk the biogas plant getting the hiccups, so to speak.
T: I don’t think I got this on tape earlier, so you’ll have to repeat this. Could you explain, in simple terms, how the animal waste turns into electricity?
D: Sure, yeah, so…[technical difficulties]...taking the methane that is released by the poo and turning that into gas that becomes electricity. What happens in a large zoo cycle through the whole process, so what happens is when you put poop and food waste in a biogas plant, also known as a ______ digester, it’s churned for about 50-60 days. There’s some bacteria in there that eats the waste, the bacteria phartomethane (??), that methane would normally go in the atmosphere, and methane is 25x worse than carbon dioxide, but instead of letting that escape into the atmosphere, we capture it. That’s what we burn to actually produce electricity. When you burn methane, you also produce CO2, carbon dioxide, but carbon dioxide is 25x less harmful that methane, so we’re still reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by reducing 10,000 tons every year.
Long term plan, is that we’d love to take that CO2 and turn it into a greenhouse, so we’d have a greenhouse, perhaps a community owned greenhouse, would breathe in that CO2 and breathe out oxygen. In addition to kind of closing the food cycle, we’d also be closing off any emissions that’d be letting out. So that’s our main long term goal.
D: Yeah, does that answer your question?
T: Yes! One last question, and then we will be done. What is your favorite part about working with ZooSHare?
D: That’s a great question. Like a typical millennial, I really love having a job that allows me to do my part to “save the world.” And that is really meaningful, I really love my work, the people I work with are really passionate and our members, the people who invested, are also really passionate. So it’s great to be aligned with a community that strongly believes that we can make change and that we are doing our small part to make that happen.
T: Awesome! That’s such a creative idea, like, I love that utilization of something people would never think of using.
D: Yeah exactly!