A Visit To The Poop Factory

That’s not to say that the factory produces poop. Humans seem to be doing a fine job of artisanal production of poop. The problem is getting rid of it. And that’s where the poop factory comes in. Its principal raw material is poop and its product is electric power (and fertilizer). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have given a bunch of money, and a Chinese engineering firm, Chengdu Datong Engineering, is building a demonstration biogas plant near Ouagadougou. And my friends Yusuf and Harouna Gouem work there. They invited me around to take a look at the construction site, and this morning I took them up on their invitation.

The project is still in the early stages. When complete, as I understand it, some of the product of Ouaga’s sewers and septic tank trucks will flow into these tanks

Biogas 1

It will settle and separate and be divested of non-digestible things like paper and so forth. Then, it will go into these digesters:

Biogas 3

(That’s my trusty steed in the middle ground next to the container. The employees were resting in the shade of the container drinking tea.)  Where helpful bacteria will convert it into methane, which will then be pumped to a gas-powered generator, which will produce electricity to sell to the national electricity company, Sonabel.

This probably sounded like a much better idea when it was originally proposed, when petroleum was selling for $150 a barrel, than it does now when petroleum is down to a positively 1980s level of $20-something a barrel. Natural gas is also quite cheap these days. Don’t tell Sonabel, though. They still charge 109 CFA a kilowatt hour, which even with the strong dollar works out to approximately $0.18, or more than half again what electricity costs in Portland at $0.11. Down in Eugene, under the socialist Eugene Water and Electric Board, it is a mere $0.08 a kwh. So, for a poor country, Burkinabè pay a heck of a lot for electricity.

I was forcibly reminded of this today. I was in the neighborhood because the office of Sonabel is, naturally, not far away. I was paying my electric bill for December: 110,000 CFA or almost $200.

Burkina’s high electric rates are a product of poor infrastructure and especially poor generation capacity. Burkina gets a good deal of its electricity from Ghana’s Akosombo Dam. Hydro power is cheap (one reason EWEB’s rates are cheap is because under the rules of the equally socialist Bonneville Power Administration, publicly-owned utilities have preferential access to hydropower from the Columbia River dams). However, it is a long way from Akosombo to Ouagadougou – I make it about 650 km on Google Earth – and that means a lot of resistance in the lines. A lot of kilowatts get burned up making the wires hotter before the remainder make it to my air conditioner. Burkina also has some oil-burning and gas-burning generation plants, which are cheaper to operate now than they were a few years ago but the cost of transporting oil and gas here, mostly by truck, also pushes up the cost. So Burkina is still a good place for renewable energy production.

Biogas sounds like a really good idea for Burkina Faso. It takes something that has to be disposed of at some expense and causes potential illness and nasty stenches (boy are they nasty out there, whoo!) and turns it into something useful. There are a few potential problems. First, only a small percentage of Burkinabè households are connected to central sewers. Many houses in Ouagadougou have cisterns, septic tanks (not so many) or latrines (mostly). For the cistern users, there is a large industry of “vidange” trucks that will come around and empty your cistern. While I was at the biogas plant, several of these stopped to discharge at the neighboring sewage treatment plant. That’s fine as far as it goes, but even that system only gets a tiny fraction of the total human waste produced in this country. As I was riding out to the site, I passed a sign that I wish I had thought to get a photo of, a little image of a guy squatting down over a pile of poop with the universal “don’t do this” sign on it – presumably the facility in question did not want any little piles of poop in its yard. Public defecation is not too common in West Africa, but there are often spots in the bush near villages where everybody goes, absent latrines, to do their business. Everybody knows where it is but as a newcomer you’d better find out quick if you want to keep your shoes clean. None of that waste is currently captured, of course, and even with the most optimistic plans for rural development, most of it isn’t going to be captured anytime soon. The big improvement in rural sanitation that’s happening right now is the construction of good old-fashioned latrines. The best kind have sealed tanks that can be filled, then capped and allowed to digest on their own for a couple of years, then emptied and used as fertilizer. Tough sell, though, to convince people to eat food grown in a field that they have seen being fertilized with their own poo. Expanding the “vidange” network to empty those “improved pit” latrines would be an infrastructure challenge and presupposes that somebody is willing to pay for truckloads of poop to be transported to the biogas plant. There have been some experiments with very small-scale biogas generators that might power villages; so far, no sign of this in Burkina that I know of.

The cost is a potential drawback. This project is being paid for by the Gates Foundation – thanks – and so its cost-free for the Burkina water company, ONEA, the ultimate owner. But it is a big industrial facility. The whole thing will be thousands of square meters and probably cost tens of millions of dollars. And it will only use a fraction of the fraction of Ouaga’s human waste that makes it to the sewage treatment plant. A biogas plant costs more up front than a regular gas-burning plant, obviously. Where is the money going to come from to build the next ten facilites like this?

Operation costs could be less than a normal gas-burning plant, depending on the price of natural gas and the cost of transporting it, versus the cost of operating the biogas production part of the facility. I don’t have any data to judge this. As I say, I think it probably penciled out in 2010 or so when the project was started. I think of this sort of thing as an investment for the long term, and I expect that prices of oil and natural gas will go back up again, so the project should be profitable in the future. And with the special circumstances of Burkina’s geography and generation capacity might make the project profitable anyway.

Let’s hope so, because for all of the stinkyness and snark associated with a poop factory, this is a very hopeful development. This country needs more power generation, and without any oil it’s got to be renewables. There might be a little potential for hydro and there sure is a heck of a lot of sunlight and wind but biogas is a good potential part of the mix. Also, it’s nice with all the current tension between the US and China to see an American foundation and a Chinese construction company cooperating on this project. Hopefully common interests – in saving the planet from global warming, for example – will overcome nationalist posing in the China Sea and help us work together for the common good.

5 thoughts on “A Visit To The Poop Factory

    1. I was brought up in a city-which had toilets, waste disposal etc, much as today. Poor areas often had communal johns–in the back allies, shared with neighbors. The allies remain in communities such as Hyattsville in Maryland, without the johns.
      In North Africa we had army facilities–but in the countryside the system was much like that later on in France and Spain. Small villages generally relied on potties under the bed for respectable working- and middle-class women. The men got up early and climbed up to the remaining medieval fortifications (if any) to poop. So if you wanted to explore these you were careful. Women waited until the cows were chased out to pasture and pooped where the cows had, in the cowshed.
      From your mother, Anne King


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