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The Student Energy behind Waste 2 Energy


At the 2009 national IGERT meeting, Trainee Steve Plachinski’s poster “Got Gas? Dairy Farm Manure Digestion as a Sustainable Development Strategy in Wisconsin” was one of the Trainee Poster Challenge winners. Over time, the original ideas changed as the students’ knowledge grew and as it is common with a truly interdisciplinary, collaborative project, the cast of participants and the project emphasis shifted over time.

The prize for Plachinski’s winning poster was supplemental travel funding for our IGERT. Steve and trainee Aleia McCord, who works on the links between climate change and tropical disease vectors, used the travel funding to visit Germany with a delegation of researchers, policymakers, and officials from Wisconsin. This group analyzed German efforts to promote biogas development in its agricultural sector. Using this information, and conducting similar reviews and interviews back in Wisconsin, Aleia McCord, and their other CHANGE Captsone project team members, including Trainee Sarah Stefanos, a sociologist, and Associate Jeff Starke, an environmental engineering PhD candidate, produced a report for the WBI that showed how the widespread adoption of biogas digesters in various agricultural settings could provide a wide range of environmental benefits.

After completing their capstone project in December 2010, the students were more familiar with the waste management and energy implications of low-tech biogas development, and began asking questions about biogas use in Africa, particularly in Uganda. McCord, Stefanos, and Starke began to examine what it would take to expand biogas use in Uganda. They used the 2011 Climate Leadership Challenge competition to develop a proposal for collaborating with Ugandan biogas entrepreneurs to expand adoption of the technology. They did not win the CLC grand prize but the experience led them to consider alternate ways to fund and promote their proposal.

By late 2011, Trainees McCord and Stefanos had decided to take the plunge and use their training and connections to become true social and environmental entrepreneurs. They became the co-founders of an organic fertilizer and compressed natural gas company in Kampala, Uganda called W2E Uganda, Ltd. W2E stands for Waste 2 Energy. McCord and Stefanos immediately put their grant-writing and communication skills to work. In 2012, W2E was awarded a 20,000 euro grant from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to conduct a feasibility study for the business. In 2012 they submitted their business plan to the Global Stewards Sustainability Prize Competition, coordinated by UW-Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment and were selected as an award finalist.

Although the plan is for W2E to become a profitable venture on its own, Stefanos and McCord have continually worked on not-for-profit biogas projects in Uganda as part of their commitment to promote this sustainable technology. During the summer of 2012, they developed a project with their Ugandan partners to demonstrate the feasibility and desirability of biogas digesters. Working with former CHANGE-IGERT Associate Jeffrey Starke, now a professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, Stefanos and McCord put together a service-learning project in which West Point cadets worked with local contractors to construct W2E’s first small-scale biogas digester in western Uganda. This digester provided the Kasiisi School with new latrines, a clean source of cooking fuel, and high-quality fertilizer. McCord and Stefanos recognized that the success of their projects in Uganda required an ongoing exchange of ideas and information between the academic and biogas construction community in Uganda, and the academic and biogas business community back in Wisconsin. They arranged for their Ugandan colleagues and biogas experts, Alex Tumukunde and Vianney Tumwesige to accompany them back to Madison in August, 2012. McCord, Stefanos, and their colleagues discussed Uganda’s biogas efforts at the UW-Madison’s Global Health Initiative’s Fall Seminar Series, and then took a whirlwind tour of farms, companies, and Wisconsin State government offices to share their insights. It turns out that the Ugandan approach to biogas generation, using low-tech, low-input systems, may be an economically feasible approach for some Wisconsin farms.

This year, McCord and Stefanos developed projects that clearly establish the educational value of their entrepreneurial efforts. They were recently awarded the “Charlotte Zieve Service Learning TA Award” by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. To win this award, they proposed developing a service-learning capstone course for UW-Madison’s undergraduate major that will be delivered in Fall 2013. They have established a partnership with the Farley Center for Peace and Justice, a Wisconsin non-profit that, among other projects, works with local Hmong and Latino farmers to improve the viability of their farms. The Farley Center wants to explore developing a small scale, low-tech biogas facility. Stefanos and McCord will lead 15-30 undergraduates in developing a technical, regulatory, and social feasibility study for such a facility.

Stefanos and McCord continue their ventures by recently submitting a $68,000 Baldwin Grant proposal to provide a service-learning opportunity partnering undergraduate and graduate students from Makerere University in Uganda with their UW-Madison counterparts to design and construct a biogas system at the Lweza Primary School in Uganda. The system is designed to convert a mixture of latrine, food, and animal wastes into a clean-burning source of cooking fuel and organic fertilizer. If the proposal is funded, the system will provide 700 Ugandan children and 20 teachers with improved public hygiene and a reliable source of renewable energy while empowering Ugandan graduate and undergraduate students with applied environmental skills training from the UW-Madison.

Address Goals

This activity addresses NSF’s “Learning” goal because it shows students from several different disciplines (Atmospheric Modeling, Sociology, Environmental Engineering, and Environmental Health) working together over years and shaping research projects for several different clients and outcomes. These students, and the domestic and international collaborators they worked with, developed a strong respect for one another’s areas of expertise as well as a collective strategy for tackling complex research problems. One particular insight from this project is that technological approaches to sustainability developed in countries of the Global South may be applicable to environmental problems in industrialized countries. This turns our conventional notion of technology transfer on its head.

The various biogas projects described above, particularly the service-learning courses developed by McCord and Stefanos, address the goal of “Discovery” because they expose a wide range of US and Ugandan students to the science and policy of Biogas use in multiple contexts. The shifting projects also required the team to apply their knowledge and experience to unique situations. For example, CHANGE students originally adapted Germany’s policy insights to a Wisconsin context, while McCord and Stefanos’ current projects require students to understand the social conditions in Uganda that might lead to the successful dissemination of biogas technology. Their ability to share knowledge broadly, and to continually incorporate new information into their plans demonstrates a strong enthusiasm for adaptability, learning, and science communication, all of which expand the frontiers of knowledge.