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Culhane shows off a high-efficiency LED-powered street lamp at an energy workshop in Iraq.

Iraq’s Green Zone Gets Greener With Biogas and Other Clean Energy Solutions

Iraq is longing for renewable and sustainable energy solutions, National Geographic Explorer Thomas H. Culhane found out. It just takes a little extra time to don body armor and get through security when you’re packing food-waste grinders, solar panels, water pumps, and bio-gas systems. Culhane filed this report from his travels to Iraq, a place with personal meaning for him as the homeland of his maternal grandfather:

Earth Day is special for me. I celebrated the first one, on April 22, 1970, by organizing all the children in my Dobbs Ferry, New York neighborhood and leading a cleanup of the Mercy College woods and streams that were in my backyard. At that time, they were a dumping ground for garbage and phosphates that came from our apartment complex and made their way downstream to contaminate the nearby Hudson River. I now teach environmental science as a visiting professor at Mercy College in my former home town, and the Hudson River watershed is now much cleaner thanks to U.S. environmental laws enacted beginning with the Earth Day Movement.

I spent this Earth Day, and in fact, the whole “Earth Month” of April overseas in the Middle East where the benefits of environmental thinking are now becoming a priority, where the problems have been recognized, and where I was invited to share in “solution celebrations.

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Culhane demonstrates a machine that generates energy when you crank or pedal it.

My trip involved a “Renewable Energy and Sustainability Road Show” sponsored by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, by Eco-Gas Israel in Mikhmoret Beach on the Mediterranean, and by National Geographic Society, Fox TV International, and Bosch Corporation in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in Turkey. This geographic whirlwind tour took me to nearly a dozen universities, ministries, embassies and missions. They included the United Nations and U.S. Embassy compounds, Iraq’s Ministry of Science and Technology, and Marmara Üniversitesi in Turkey, where we built six functioning bio-digesters in hands-on workshops. As a bonus, the trip started and ended with a stop-over trip to see my family in Germany, and cook organic food for them on clean fuel produced from kitchen wastes by our home biogas system. The road-show gave me a chance to share technologies and practices that I research in our college laboratory and use at home; I’ve found that any family and household can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Thanks to the U.S. Embassy I was able to purchase and bring on the road a wide variety of home-scale environmental technologies, including my personal favorite: food-waste grinders donated by InSinkErator. (You call them “garbage disposals;” I call them “biogas feedstock preparation devices” that turn all kitchen wastes into clean fuel and fertilizer!) I also brought six kinds of solar cookers, two types of “Life Saver” water purification devices, foldable CIGS cell solar electric panels, 12-volt water pumps, micro-inverters, portable Chinook wind generators, micro-hydro and stream generators, bicycle generators, 30- and 100- watt hydrogen fuel cells, high-capacity LED lamps, and wood gasifiers. There were conversion kits to make electric generators run on biofuels, and Chinese biogas system molds that enable any community to easily and inexpensively create their own efficient biogas systems, to turn all toilet and food wastes into endless renewable energy and liquid compost, eliminating diseases caused by organic refuse.

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We had to don body armor and helmets for our travels around Baghdad to talk about sustainable energy solutions.

It required both planning and cooperation to get the hands-on technology “to the people,” so they could see it and touch it rather than simply watch pictures on a screen. In Turkey, where we pared things down a bit,  it meant having a car and driver so we could transport the suitcases of goodies from lecture to lecture and from airport to airport so I could hand them out to the audience before each show and then engage them in “What do you think this thing is?” discussions.  Going through security so many times always provided fun occasions to answer questions about suspicious-looking items that raised eyebrows when viewed through the x-ray.  I’m accustomed to this, and for years have held impromptu lessons on environmental technologies at borders from Turkey to India to Nepal to Israel to Egypt.  It turns out the many border guards and security professionals I’ve been “interrogated” by have all been really interested in learning about the latest “green tech” and we always leave as friends, with the usual “Welcome to our country, professor, may God bless you and your work.”

Only in a couple of cases have we had to ship certain items separately that couldn’t be carried on the plane or in the luggage.  In Iraq, we got the same warm welcome and enthusiasm, but of course, the logistics of moving both the technology and the professor for the road show was a different story altogether.

For one thing, each venue (ministries and schools) had to be coordinated well in advance, but in secret. Nobody outside the embassy except the coordinators among our Iraqi counterparts could know where we were going in advance or what route we were taking. This was to prevent possible kidnappers or insurgents from targeting us. Then we had to wear body armor and helmets (called “PPE” — Personal Protection Equipment, see picture) and travel in an armored vehicle.  Our vehicle, containing me and Frank Finver, our embassy spokesman and cultural affairs officer, and Victoria Reppert, the media coordinator, and occasional folks from the economics division, had to travel in a convoy with two heavily armored support vehicles in front and two in back, all sporting massive antennas broadcasting frequency-jamming signals to disrupt any radio signals intended to detonate an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).

All the vehicles were staffed with alert and highly trained armed soldiers or security professionals, wonderful guys who would put their lives on the line for me if anything happened, and who kept us focused on maintaining vigilance and safety as we moved into the “red zone” (greater Baghdad) and  out of the “international zone.” (It’s also known as the “green zone,” and it’s getting greener by the day thanks to the solar hot water vacuum tubes on the new embassy housing building, and the new biological water treatment plant and the bio-digesters we built in the garden at both our embassy and at the U.N. compound!)

Once we were inside our venue (such as the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology), I had a security professional, wearing an “FBI-style” earpiece and sporting a loaded weapon, standing next to me at all times while two others continually scanned the horizon for trouble.  If I so much as moved more than a meter he would gently but firmly remind me to maintain my position, state where I wanted to move and wait for clearance before moving my feet.  This included going to the bathroom. It was surreal, but necessary: on April 15th, the day we were supposed to travel to the Baghdad University of Technology Sustainable Development Center, as we were donning our body armor and the convoy being prepared, we got a report that a string of bombs had gone off all over the city as insurgents tried to scare the Iraqi people from going to the upcoming elections.  We were told to abort the mission, and the television monitors started showing carnage and awful statistics of the scores of dead and injured. In the end, we had to conduct the lecture via live video conference, but sadly, we couldn’t do anything hands on!

A brighter spot was the visit to the Iraq Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). After we built a family-sized biodigester on the grounds with their engineers, they surprised us by unveiling a host of great technologies that they are working with: solar vacuum tube-assisted air conditioning, super bright LED street lights, Iraqi-manufactured photovoltaic panels, a different type of biogas system to the ones we had built and purchased. Best of all was a 10-kilowatt wood gasifier power pallette that the female scientists, in their hijab head coverings and white lab coats, demonstrated by filling with wood chips from the carpentry floor and firing up an engine that burned so clean we couldn’t smell anything at the exhaust.

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This wood-fired gasifier at the Iraq Ministry of Science and Technology burned so clean we could smell no emissions at the exhaust.

We also met for several days with Iraqi businessmen in the renewable energy sector and with the ministers of electricity who showed me data from 15 new large-scale solar and wind farms throughout the country and showed me maps of their new micro-hydro power installations.  “We have an obligation to get our traditional fuel infrastructure working well, but at the same time we are pursuing a wide variety of renewables,” they said. “We just need greater awareness from our public, and that is why we appreciate so much what you are doing here, and the small-scale technology gifts your embassy has provided us.  Our goal now, said Dhia Baiee from MOST, is to get a “travelling sustainability road show truck” to reach communities with word of these technologies. Once they have seen these things working and put their hands on them, we will go the next step, he said.

That next step, according to my colleague Dr. Mukdad Al Khateeb from the Baghdad University of Technology Sustainable Development Center, is to pick locations where the communities are enthusiastic about what they see on the road show and then commit funding and expertise to help them develop what Mukdad calls “sustainable neighborhoods” — living, breathing, functional eco-neighborhoods where best practice model technologies are put into place not for demonstration, but for daily living. All the Iraqis we met, being practical-minded survivors struggling through continued hardship with power outages and loss of municipal services, conveyed the message: “Seeing is believing. We don’t just want to talk about these solutions, we want to try them out, live with them, see how much we can rely on them.” That is what the road show and the sustainable neighborhood initiative is about.

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Culhane, Taha Majeed, and others at Iraq’s Ministry of Science and Technology work on a biodigester for converting waste into energy.

On April 16th and 17th, I went to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq to give workshops for  staff and an assessment of the energy, water, and waste challenges facing the entire compound. The aim was to help them with a “Greening the Blue” initiative which is spreading to other U.N. missions around the world, the result of the hard work of U.N. humanitarian affairs officer Karin Mayer. They agreed that turning wastes into energy and fertilizer was the best core approach to making the compound safer and more sustainable, and we set about building two 2-cubic-meter bio-digesters, the first in Baghdad, after determining the huge volumes of food and cafeteria waste their kitchens generate, how much irrigation water they use and how much space is available for growing food.

These are just the beginning, because one of their head engineers, Noel Park, used to build farm bio-digesters in his native Philippines. “After these workshops we can take it from here,” he said. “As you’ve explained and demonstrated, this urban bio-digester solution is easy stuff. We just didn’t know that food waste was the best feedstock, and that we can grind it up easily with an InSinkErator and feed it to a simple digester made from local water tanks, and now we know.”

I was invited to present all the “road show solutions” in a gala dinner event in the U.N. garden where ambassadors and dignitaries from Iraq and Europe and the United States came to discuss the “greening of the U.N.” and the greening of Iraq.  Thanks to the hard work of Humanitarian Affairs Officer Karin Mayer, our biogas solution was put front and center and the rest of the pieces of the development puzzle (solar, wind, LED lights, water reclamation) simply fell into place for everyone in the audience, freed from the problems of “intermittency” and price by the constant of transformation of free and problematic garbage into baseline energy and fertilizer whose cost is covered by the need to deal with wastes in the first place.  This was the watershed moment for our tour, when it became obvious that the first step toward sustainability is simply turning all wastes into value-added products. The rest then becomes easy. (Imagine a world where it is so clean and efficient that you begin looking toward other energy and fertilizer sources because you’ve run out of garbage!)

On the evening of April 18th, I was conducting a live video class from Baghdad online with my environmental science students at Mercy College, when I was informed that within the hour I had to evacuate Baghdad and get to Kurdistan, where I would be doing three more days of workshops, before the last helicopter left the Green Zone and Iraq shut down all airspace. I had 20 minutes to get packed and to the airfield. The reason: to prevent more suicide bombings and attacks before the Saturday elections, the government felt it had no choice but to impose a sudden surprise, no-travel curfew so insurgents couldn’t set up booby traps and explosive devices in the day before the elections. So I had to drop everything and race back to my room (taking careful note of each labeled missile attack shelter as I had been instructed to do in my security briefing), throw everything together and get to the helipad to be flown in a military transport copter to a special secured part of the airport where they then put me on an embassy jet to Kurdistan.  The security checks in these moves were interesting. I found myself declaring my various devices alongside security folks surrendering loaded weapons for inspection as we went through the metal detector.

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Culhane demonstrates one version of a solar cooker at a workshop in Iraq.

In Kurdistan, the situation was safer, but I still had to travel in an armored vehicle (but with no convoy) and remain within a heavily secured cement and steel T-wall defended compound that, like the compound in Baghdad, felt a lot like being in the movie, The Truman Show. We did get out to a private home as well as to the government buildings and schools so we had a bit more latitude than Baghdad, where it was just the ministries and universities we visited. Since I arrived a day early, I decided to use the extra time to see if I could schedule a hands-on biogas-building workshop.  Unfortunately, getting anything done spontaneously in such a security environment is an anathema. Getting materials for our local bio-digester build would have been impossible except that two soldiers, Bryant Ellis (a.k.a. “animal”)  and David Marshall,  took a liking to the idea of teaching folks how to turn kitchen garbage into clean reliable energy and introduced me to an Iraqi contractor onsite, Mu’ayyid Shakir,  who was a buddy of theirs who builds the security walls. He could freely leave the compound and shop for materials on the local market (normally we had to go through a long and difficult procurement process that Frank took care of long in advance for Baghdad).

This wonderful man, Mu’ayyid,  said excitedly: “I know  about biogas. I built a small demonstration system years ago when all of our gas and electricity was cut by the war, and I’ve kept the idea in my head that one day I want to build a bigger and more useful one!” I said to him, “This is your chance! I’ll pay for the materials if you will get them.”  And so, this was a special opportunity after all my presentations to electric and energy  ministers and officials and engineers and governors and  planners from Erbil to Kirkuk.The soldiers and Mu’ayyid and I, working by flashlight until midnight, built the first family-size bio-digester in Kurdistan.

To celebrate I took some of the ashes of my maternal grandfather, Iraqi lawyer Noel Rassam, who had died in a nursing home in New York during the war as a refugee, and spread them not only on the land he called home but into the bio-digester we built. My hope is that his spirit can mingle with the microbiome that turns waste into fuel and fertilizer, helping transform his  beloved Iraq into a symbol of sustainability, a symbol of hope for civilization, rising from the ashes like a green phoenix.

T.H. Culhane is the co-founder of Solar CITIES and is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (Class of 2009.) He is a visiting faculty research at Mercy College in New York.