Green Social Bioethanol (GREEN) is a Brazilian company working to create access to clean renewable fuels, promoting human development and energy independence. GREEN integrates sustainable agriculture by linking the appropriate feedstocks and technology to communities and their energy demands. GREEN has provided an efficient microdistillery unit to the community cassava and cashew apple ethanol project led by Nigerian National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).

1. Tell us a bit about your professional journey. How did it lead you to work with sustainable energy?

I am a forester by training. I worked for approximately 20 years in the American conservation movement as a county commissioner who was quite involved with farm issues, natural resource management, renewable energy and the environment. I became involved with Project Gaia when my father, an energy expert, and his colleagues, founders of Project Gaia (in 1995), asked me to step in and develop projects for them to show the way to the widespread use of alcohol fuels. The generation that founded Project Gaia, my father’s generation, had dealt with the challenges of World War II, its aftermath, the great expansion in the use of petroleum fuels, and the petrochemical revolution, including plastics. By the end of their careers, they had turned back to cleaner forms of energy, biofuels, renewables, and in particular the alcohols, which they felt would be the energy pathway for the 21st Century.

2. Nowadays, how are you involved in providing energy access to small communities?

I volunteer my services full time to Project Gaia as its unpaid executive director. I work with and support several staff people in our Gettysburg office, and work with and support our staff and our collaborators in Africa, Haiti and Brazil. Project Gaia is building or facilitating implementation of three micro distilleries this year—in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Haiti—and we are collaborating closely with GREEN SOCIAL BIOETHANOL. The biorefineries will produce ethanol for cookstoves and for other utility uses.

3. Why is ethanol the chosen fuel to work with these communities?

Ethanol burns so cleanly and so easily. It is a fuel that wants to burn. It is a superior fuel, derived from the sun’s energy. An efficient micro distillery like the GREEN distillery can achieve an energy gain from the sun of 4:1, meaning that for every unit of energy put into the process, 4 units of energy can be taken out. This is a very good gain.

Ethanol burns very cleanly, with few emissions. It is therefore an ideal cooking fuel, which reduces indoor air pollution to zero. It is also very good for the environment. Certain energy crops, like sweet sorghum, leave carbon—a lot of it—in the soil. This means that ethanol made from sweet sorghum can actually be a carbon-negative fuel. Ethanol, when it burns, produces almost no soot or black carbon. Preventing black carbon aerosols from entering the atmosphere is a very good thing, since soot in the atmosphere deposits in the polar regions and on ice caps and glaciers and promotes melting. Reducing the amount of black carbon released to the atmosphere from cooking fires alone could have a hugely beneficial effect on slowing the rise in sea levels and in reducing the effects that contribute to global warming. If ethanol were used not only as a transportation fuel but also for cooking—in place of fossil fuels, but particularly in place of wood and charcoal—it could have a significant impact on slowing climate change.

More than 2 million women and children die each year from the effects of dirty indoor air, caused by smoky cooking fires. Carbon monoxide caused by defective burning devices as well as high carbon fuels like charcoal, wood and kerosene also cause many deaths. Cooking with ethanol provides the solution. Cooking with ethanol is a clean as cooking with natural gas or bottled gas, but you have a liquid fuel, not a gaseous fuel, and you need not have to rely on stoves that are under pressure. Thus, with the CleanCook stove, cooking with ethanol is not only the cleanest way to cook—it is also the safest!

4. In this context, how do you see Social Bioethanol’s role?

We are so happy to have our partnership with Green Social Bioethanol. You were our missing link in enabling the supply of ethanol fuel for cooking, and other small scale utility uses, such as power generation, heating, and even refrigeration.

With your distilleries, farmers can get into business to produce fuel, and they need not rely on highly regulated fuel blending for automobiles as their market—they can sell their ethanol into their community for cooking fuel and fuel for other appliances. This is what Project Gaia does—it helps to identify, adapt, develop and supply the appliances. But we have also had to get into the business of supplying fuel, because we have not been able to rely on large producers of ethanol supplying into this market, and, also, we are active in markets where there is a shortage of fuel, and a lack of ethanol altogether, to provide the energy needed for living. This is where the GREEN distilleries come in. They can be installed by small-holder farmers in communities where clean fuel is needed and where markets are needed for what the farmer grows. The ethanol produced can command excellent prices because both charcoal and kerosene are already expensive, and there is plenty of room for ethanol to compete in price, and in fact be cheaper than charcoal and cheaper than kerosene, and much more desirable to use.

By linking the GREEN micro distillery and stoves, one has a complete circle: The distillery produces its ethanol for the stove fuel market, which pays the farmer or the fuel distiller well. The consumers who own and operate their ethanol stoves have fuel security, because they know the producer and can form a direct relationship with him or her. The fuel producer knows his market and knows that it will not desert him—it is reliable and he can invest and produce with confidence.

The resources are being invested and produced and used all in the same community, and the revenues earned from the sale of the fuel are staying in the community and being reinvested. About 60% of the cost of producing ethanol is the cost of the feedstock—what is being paid to the farmer for his or her sugar cane, sweet sorghum or cassava (or other crop). If the stove users are in the same community as the farmers who are growing the crops for fuel production, it is a closed loop and the community benefits.

5. Tell us about the importance of providing clean, efficient, affordable and safe cooking for impoverished homes. What are their biggest benefits?

The promise of ethanol is as follows: It is a cheap fuel to produce and thus can be an inexpensive fuel for the consumer. It is a high quality fuel that burns cleanly. It is a safe fuel, being the least toxic of all known liquid or gaseous fuels, highly biodegradable if spilled, and miscible in water, which means it can be put out by water. Compare this to kerosene. When water is put on a kerosene fire, it only promotes the spread of that fire.

Most of all for the family is the elimination of indoor air pollution. Our pilot studies in Brazil showed that many families who use wood and who cannot afford to buy and use LPG were well pleased with the ethanol stove. One of the leading reasons was that the use of this clean fuel eliminated indoor air pollution and thus alleviated symptoms or conditions such as asthma, shortness of breath, eye irritation, and so on.

The health gains from removing indoor air pollution from the home were even more pronounced in African homes.

6. On which projects is Project Gaia working at the moment?

We are working on building three micro distilleries this year—one in Haiti, one in Nigeria and one in Ethiopia.

We are also working in the refugee camps in the Horn of Africa. We hope there will be a plan soon to build a micro distillery at one of these refugee camps so that farmers who live in the camps can grow energy crops and produce their own fuel for cooking, right in the camp. Often, these camps, once established, go on for decades. The High Commissioner for Refugees wants to make these camps more sustainable.

7. How does it feel have won the World Bioenergy Award 2012?

It was fun to win the award and nice to be recognized, but now it is time to get back to work! However, I hope that by virtue of having won the award, I will be able to speak with a louder voice and people will listen with more attention to the solutions that Project Gaia and its partners have to offer.

The previous winner, two years ago, was Dr. Laercio Couto, a Brazilian and a forester, educated at the Universidade Federal de Viçosa, for his work with fast growing Eucalyptus plantations.

8. What are your predictions for the future of energy usage in developing countries? What are pros and cons?

We believe the alcohols are the “fuel of the future,” with the one caveat that they are in fact ready to be developed now. But the future holds great prospects for the production and use of alcohol fuels.

There are enormous pros or benefits to the alcohol fuels. To be truthful, I do not see any cons or negatives that can’t be managed to solve any social, environmental, or economic problem.

Many people try to claim that renewable fuels will be more expensive than fossil fuels. They are already cheaper in many applications, and by the mid term, they will be much cheaper. I am talking price. If you consider externalities—e.g. pollution, oil spills, global warming, etc.—then fossil fuels are MUCH more expensive.