Renewable energy – Altai, Russia to San Francisco!

Here’s my report from a recent Pacific Environment event that I planned and executed. You’ll see that I don’t get much in the way of a mention, but that’s mainly because I did almost all the interpreting and all the running around. It was a ton of fun and I learned a lot too!

Alternative Energy Exchange
With participants from Altai, Russia
April 7-16, 2006
San Francisco/Bay Area

Over a 10-day period in April 2006, two activists and a county executive from Altai, Russia visited the Bay Area to learn more about alternative energy technology and green architecture. Coming from a remote region of central southern Siberia known for its rich water, solar, and wind resources but lacking or inexperienced in the financial, governmental, and infrastructural resources needed to take advance of these renewable energy sources, the group was excited about seeing the technology in action and learning about how to put it to use in their home community.

The exchange was specifically designed to address rural and small-scale applications of technology, rather than large, expensive urban installations. Misha Shishin and Ira Fotieva of the Fund for 21st Century Altai (Barnaul, Altai Krai, Russia) and Sergey Grechushnikov of the Ust-Koksa county administration (Ust-Koksa, Republic of Altai, Russia) participated in the exchange. Also participating were Jennifer Castner and Sibyl Diver from Pacific Environment and Alyson Ewald of The Altai Project (Center for Safe Energy/Earth Island Institute).

After some weekend sight-seeing in San Francisco and hiking along the Half Moon Bay coast, the group set out for Hopland, CA, home to the Solar Living Center and RealGoods store. The Center, on 12 acres, is powered entirely by renewable energy systems and has a 5000-sq.foot strawbale building at its heart of operations. The entire site uses passive solar design, permaculture, solar arrays, cob buildings, and recycled materials to demonstrate the possibilities of renewables, recycling, and organic gardening. The strawbale building contains a store and design counter selling and providing information on products and services in this sector. The group benefited from a 2-hour tour with a renewable energy consultant, Doug Livingston, who as able to answer a myriad of questions ranging from “How do solar ovens work?” to “What are flow and head requirements for a 1kW micro-hydroelectric turbine operating in Siberian conditions?”

After we had explored every inch of the Center’s grounds, Doug took us on a quick side trip to see a nearby 1kW microhydro generator on a nearby stream. The group immediately grasped the applications of this technology and agreed that it would be a great way to generate energy in remote Altai mountain villages. One kW of power is enough to power the better part of a single-family low-energy home, and the small scale of the technology means that the flow of a creek or river is not significantly impacted. We continued to discuss microhydro turbines throughout the trip, speculating on siting requirements, costs, power conversion, and power storage and agreed that we should spend more time on this question later in the exchange.

On another day, we drove out to the farming community of Rio Vista, in the Sacramento River Delta area. The hills bordering the south side of the Delta catch the wind coming in from the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and the site has become one of two large installations of wind turbines in Northern California. While the Altamont Pass windmills a few dozen miles south of Rio Vista are better known, Rio Vista wind farms use a higher percentage of newer technology turbines. The turbines, ranging in power output from 1-5 mW each, are taller, with larger blade spans, slower rotors, and a more streamlined design. All of these attributes combine to make them more bird-friendly, while at the same time resulting in excellent power generation even when wind speeds are low. We were given a guided tour of enXco’s wind farm, containing tens, maybe a few hundred, wind turbines capable of generating over 600 mW of power. That’s electricity enough to power a small city! Again, the group was excited by the possibilities. Despite high start up costs, southern Altai has great open, windswept plains that are well-suited to wind-farming. That and wind farms are frequently sited on lands leased from or shared with livestock farming – a foundation of the Altai’s economy.

We then took a day trip to Lodi, CA, an town sustained by crop and livestock farming all around it. Two staff from RCM Digesters, a Bay Area company specializing in design, installation, and operation of methane digesters accompanied us. Upon arriving at Castelanelli Brothers’ Dairy, we met with Larry Castelanelli and began our tour of the dairy and farm grounds. Ust-Koksa County in Altai has a great deal of milk production, so Sergey was particularly fascinated by the tour, finding that the dairy facilities are quite comparable in basic design and structure, but that this Lodi dairy is more economical in its energy consumption due to some customized pumping and cooling technology. The cows, when not being milked, spend a portion of their time standing in long cow sheds, generating, of course, lots of manure and liquid waste. That waste is ultimately washed into a covered lagoon, where the ratio of solids to liquids is carefully balanced and combined with bacteria (sort of like a sour dough starter) to generate and separate out the methane. As the methane rises to the top, it is pumped out and burned in a generator. That energy is more than enough to power the entire milk dairy, and the remainder, in theory, be poured back into the energy grid. This last step is awaiting regulatory approval at the CA-state level.

Methane digesters can be designed to operate in a multitude of conditions, at large and small scales and with or without lagoons. This flexibility makes them ideal for customized installations in the Altai region. Aside from the exacting ratios required to make the process work efficiently, the equipment is generally lower cost and less specific in its manufacturing requirements than solar or wind energy. That and the input required, in the form of organic waste (crop waste, animal waste, food manufacturing waste) is plentiful and cheap! Sergey commented that his community was already discussing possible applications for methane digesting, and that seeing the technology in action in Lodi made it very clear to him how to put it to work in Ust-Koksa.

We devoted one day to meetings in San Francisco. In particular, we met with Allan Dusault at Sustainable Conservation to discuss policy development, research, and advocacy activities around power generation from methane digesters. Although California is in many ways a leader when it comes to renewable energy resources and technologies, there are competing and conflicting interests in the power generation industry as well as complications in making the regulatory climate in the state responsive to the new technologies at the rate they are coming into use. This discussion was very well structured and presented by Allan and gave the Altai visitors a glimpse of the complex regulatory work that must take place in government circle in order to implement renewable technologies at a large scale and/or try to tie net energy producers back into the state and national power grid. A “net energy producer” is an energy source or installation that produces more energy that it needs for its own applications and can channel excess power back into the grid.

On the final working day of the trip, Misha Shishin, Alyson Ewald, and Sibyl Diver headed north to Humboldt County, where they explored the numerous small communities there that are living mostly or entirely off-grid or powered 100% using renewable energy sources. They visited several microhydro specialists and small demonstration centers. Aside from further exploring the technology, the trio were also interested in acquiring the essential parts of a Pelton Wheel microhydro turbine, something they were able to accomplish with a small grant from The Altai Project. Upon their return home in April, the Fund for 21st Century Altai began to work with the volunteers in Ust-Koksa County to determine optimal siting and design the full installation of this microhydro generator. They plan to have it operating by the fall of 2006, possibly operating a small dairy or beekeeper’s processing equipment!

Along the way, we were able to attract some attention to the visitors in the local community. We published a number of press releases, which generated a bit of attention. We were extremely pleased to get a lovely article and pictures in the Ukiah Daily Journal, following our visit to the Solar Living Center in Hopland, CA. In addition, there is a large and active Russian-speaking community based in San Francisco, complete with its own radio program – Russian Voice. Misha Shishin and Sibyl Diver gave two radio interviews on consecutive Saturdays talking about their experiences and thoughts on alternative energy techologies in general.

In talking with the group during the trip, we frequently checked in to make sure that the meetings and trips we had chosen were useful for all the participants and, because of all the time we spent in the car, we had lots of time to discuss each meeting or visit thoroughly! Sergey, as we were standing along a remote creek in front of the microhydro installation in Hopland commented, “Seeing this little machine here is what makes this ENTIRE trip worthwhile for me!” A few days later, Misha remarked that he’d been on a lot of different trips, trainings and exchanges, but that “Pacific Environment events are always practical, hands-on, and informative, not like ‘—–‘s meetings.” We continue to stay in touch with all three participants, and are regularly sending them translated materials and news stories on the subject. Over the next year or two, both Pacific Environment and The Altai Project are planning additional exchanges on alternative energy and sustainable design.