Alterna

To learn more about Alterna, visit their site here.

There are people who are just born do get there hands dirty. They are do-ers, they see a problem and they look for a solution. If a solution already exists, they make it better – if there isn’t one yet, they invent a new one. This is what it’s like at Alterna. The office is a bee-hive of activity, with tools piled on tables and machines in various states of disrepair lying around the office. When we visited, they were converting their workshop into a production plant for efficient cookstoves, and we had to struggle to get the filming done during the few moments someone wasn’t sawing or hammering or just banging around trying out something new.

Alterna is a different kind of organization, and the constant hum of innovation is only part of it. Though they started as a non-profit, co-founders Waleska Aguilar, Steve Crowe and Daniel Buchbinder became frustrated with the traditional NGO model, especially the constant dependence on the priorities of outside donors, which don’t always correspond to the needs of local stakeholders. Instead, Alterna now runs as a center for entrepreneurship, encouraging local entrepreneurs by helping to develop innovative business models, and working to develop alternative energy systems for Guatemala that can be produced 100% locally and sold at a price that makes them accessible to the local market.

There are efficient woodstoves for instance. Alterna has designed a version of the famous rocket stove that corresponds to Guatemalan cultural and culinary needs, with a separate space for heating tortillas and special care taken to avoid burning children who play around the kitchen.

There is micro-hydro electricity generation too. Guatemala is a country with mountains and water and a tremendous potential to generate its own energy – and yet by Steve Crowe’s estimate, only 15% of that potential is being tapped. Small micro-hydro systems can generate enough electricity for entire villages, using technology local people can maintain and repair on their own, promoting energy independence.

Perhaps coolest to our minds though are the biodigesters. These little machines are known throughout the world, working basically to capture the methane which is naturally produced by decaying organic matter and then to send it off to be burned either as cooking fuel or as a source of electricity. At Alterna, they have designed systems that will fit on the roof of a city house or in the garden of a small farm.

Having thought about the Earth Charter imperative to “Reduce, reuse, and recycle the materials used in production and consumption systems, and ensure that residual waste can be assimilated by ecological systems” and to “Act with restraint and efficiency when using energy, and rely increasingly on renewable energy sources,” a biodigester seems like a miracle: waste becomes energy and fertilizer, a harmful greenhouse gas (methane) is captured and burned, forests are left standing, natural gas is left in the ground – it’s almost too good to be true.

“Too good to be true” – at Alterna they call that “just another day at the office.”

5 Responses to Alterna

  1. Lisa says:

    Cool stuff! I can’t wait to see how the two of you will take charge of life, the universe, and everything after your years of exploration, education, and volunteering. I love to learn more through your discoveries every time you post. Happy Christmas and best wishes for a continued adventurous new year. May it be filled with more wonderful discoveries and knowledge that you share.

  2. Tysa says:

    Wow Anna & Dave!
    amazing, how cool. How does one get the biofuel into the system? Can one convert a current gas system to this system and can you use the effluent in the garden? what is it when it comes out? Compost minus the fuel source? Is that still good for the garden. I know it is a small point , and not the point at all. Is anybody doing this on a comercial scale and can I implement this in VT do you think? Can it be used for heating and not just cooking? Are these too many questions?
    I hope you have a happy Christmas, we will be missing you in VT,
    My love and continual admiration for you and for these great guys – You are making a difference. WOW
    Tysa

  3. Dave says:

    Thanks so much Lisa! Happy Christmas to you too, we hope you’re well wherever you are right now!

  4. Dave says:

    Hola Tysa,

    The idea is that the organic matter goes into the machine and it decomposes there, releasing methane (a greenhouse gas far worse than CO2). The same would happen with natural decomposition in a field, with the methane released to the atmosphere. The difference is that here, the methane is captured and diverted to a stove where it is used for cooking. The remains of the organic matter is then harvested as a really rich fertilizer that you can dilute and spread on your fields. Genius isn’t it?

    There are people who do these things on an industrial scale – we just met a Dutch fellow who works for a company that does this in the Netherlands, actually. It is usually as a sort of waste management system, and then the methane can be used to generate electricity even. We also heard of a farm-scale system in Munich.

    There is one point we’re not quite sure on though, and that is warmth. The thing about these systems up north is that they need to be warm (decomposition comes from the living bacteria, and they need warmth to stay alive and active). So on an industrial scale it can work, but on the home scale it can be tricky to keep them working year-round, and sometimes they need some heating to keep them active through the winter, which starts to make them a little less efficient and interesting. But then, we’ve heard of people doing it, so maybe this isn’t such a big concern after all?

    Also, because it is a living system, the bacteria inside need to be fed regularly (like little pets kind of), and so you need a steady supply of at least 4kg (9lbs) of organic matter a day. So up in VT, you guys would need to pool together with other people on the property probably – or just get a pig. We vote for getting a pig, personally, they’re adorable!

    Never too many questions – we hope that helps clear things up a bit!

    -Dave

  5. Linda says:

    James, The section on the Biodigesters does offer the farmers in the warm climates an easy alternative for efficient fuel for cooking; plus eco friendly (cost effective) fertilzer for their fields. Way to go! Although I do compost kitchen scraps, in the northern hemisphere, it takes a long time to breakdown but it does enrich the soil. We all need to do our part to keep our air and water cleaner. Perhaps those who live in the warmer Southern part of the Globe, who are using your biodigester systems may in the end produce more fertizer than they can use. The extra remains of the organic matter which is harvested, could become an export – a rich natural fertilizer that could be diluted and spread on fields in the Northern hemisphere. Think about it… it does have far reaching possibilities. Thank you

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