The Sustainer is a unique solution to produce fuel and electricity in remote rural areas, for example in the African countryside where only 5 to 20 percent of the population have electricity. In many of these situations, access to energy would facilitate development, higher productivity and better education. Moreover, locally available resources can be used instead of expensive imports.
A conversation with Jan Hein Hoitsma
, one of the founders of Solarix
, the company that developed the Sustainer.
What is the Sustainer?
Jan Hein Hoitsma: 'The Sustainer is a containerised installation which can be used in rural areas to convert oil-bearing crops and seeds into edible oil and biodiesel. The seeds are stored in an integrated bunker which feeds the oil press. After the oil has been extracted, it is then refined into edible oil or it can be used as raw material for the biodiesel process. The 'press cake' by-product can be used as livestock feed. Many nuts have shells/husks which can be used as fuel for cooking. An integrated tank unit allows for the biodiesel to be directly dispensed into, for instance, diesel vehicles. The Sustainer is fitted with 4 wind turbines and its side panels consist of foldable solar panels which generate electricity. The electricity can be supplied directly to the grid or can be stored/buffered in a battery pack which can, for instance, provide electricity in the evenings or at night. The Sustainer is also fitted with a 25 kVA generator which runs on diesel or biodiesel and which guarantees a constant supply of electricity. The availability of electricity can make life more comfortable in many areas - just think of a refrigerator, lighting and a computer.'
What are the activities and ambitions of Solarix?
'Solarix develops, builds and supplies small-scale installations for the production of sustainable energy in general and biodiesel in particular. In addition to this, Solarix is engaged in the construction management of large second generation biodiesel plants - such as Greenmills Amsterdam with a capacity of 100,000 tonnes per year. Solarix also builds oleochemical installations for the refining and production of vegetable oil or animal fat. We organise training courses on biodiesel in the Netherlands and Africa and are involved in a number of innovative projects - algae, biodiesel-plus - in collaboration with other organisations and universities. Our ambition is to make sustainable energy available to everyone in a manner which does complete justice to the 4 Ps - People, Planet, Profit, Power. Biodiesel, in particular, can provide a major contribution to a responsible and sustainable production of Fuel and Food.'
What is the motivation behind bringing the Sustainer on the market?
'During our project in Kenya - Kenya Eco Energy - we experienced what the positive spin-off can be of producing biodiesel from locally available seeds. At the same time, there was a need for a reliable power supply in that particular area. This gave us the idea to provide an all-in-one integrated and flexible solution. This resulted in the Sustainer. The Sustainer is a decentralised - and small-scale - means of producing both biodiesel and electricity. In addition to this, the Sustainer is flexible and durable because it can be easily moved and can be up and running within 12 hours. Apart from energy production, food is also produced in the form of vegetable oil and livestock feed and the waste products - shells and husks - can be used as fuel for cooking. We notice that the Sustainer acts as an economic driver because it creates a local market for oil-bearing crops - which are already present and consequently generates a lot of employment. We also see that many people spontaneously start to plant trees on a large scale in the forest or on their land.'
Who is the Sustainer aimed at? Twofold: Who are the intended buyers and who are the intended end-users?
'The Sustainer is of interest to anyone who has oil-bearing crops and seeds - castor, jatropha, neem tree, croton, rapeseed, sunflower, palm - or has a need for electricity and fuel. Think, for instance, of agricultural cooperatives, farmers, plantation owners, municipalities and other authorities, sustainable business entrepreneurs and sustainable initiatives, vegetable oil or animal fat producers - slaughterhouses, organisations that manage wildlife parks, leasing companies and those who collect used cooking oil from chip shops. The buyer of the Sustainer can also be the end-user but can also sell the products locally. This applies to the biodiesel and electricity as well as, for instance, the press cake and shells.'
What exactly makes the Sustainer so well suited for use deep in the African interior?
'Because it is a stand-alone installation which is completely self-supporting. The only raw materials that need to be supplied are the commodities methanol and soda. Apart from this, the Sustainer has a simple and solid design so that any faults which may occur can be easily fixed locally, the maintenance required is minimal. Deep in the African interior, in particular, there is a large demand for diesel for instance for transport and agriculture but ordinary diesel is relatively expensive there because of the long supply lines. This while there are often oil-bearing crops and seeds available locally which can be quite easily converted into biodiesel. These can be used in those very areas to meet the fuel need in a sustainable manner whilst stimulating agriculture and employment and at the same time contributing to the food supply.'
How big is the market for the Sustainer?
'That is difficult to quantify but what is certain is that the Sustainer can fill a large need.'
The production of biodiesel has come under a lot of fire these last few years. What is the position of Solarix on this?
'At the root of the Food for Fuel discussion lies bioethanol, which is often produced from crops such as grain and maize. Biodiesel, on the other hand, can also be cost-effectively produced from non-edible oils and waste fats. However, in the media biofuels are often treated as one and the same so that biodiesel suffers from this unfair argument. In fact, the opposite is true. In many cases biodiesel contributes to the food supply because the crop rotation of oil-bearing crops such as rapeseed also creates the necessary room for the cultivation of food crops. Moreover, rapeseed improves the soil quality through the introduction of oxygen and organic matter and contrary to opinion contributes to the yield of food crops. We have our eyes and ears open to the criticism but when the production of biodiesel is carried out in an intelligent manner in harmony with man and nature, the benefits can be huge. The great thing is that this is also already possible on a very small scale and locally and in those very areas - for instance in Africa - where the production of biodiesel in a sustainable manner could make the difference. Any money made does not just disappear out of the country but is instead invested locally where it stimulates development at a micro level in a way which benefits people directly and in a very short time span.'
How do you see the price relationship between sustainable energy and fossil fuels evolve?
'Because fossil fuel resources will eventually become exhausted, they will become scarce in the long term. Once the global economy starts to recover, prices will therefore undoubtedly increase again. As our entire western economy is based on this oil - energy, transport, plastics - the transition to sustainable resources should really already be taking place right now. If we fail to do this, we will all be hit by enormous price increases as a result of exploding oil prices. This effect will be even further compounded by inflated prices caused by speculation. If we wait too long and if we let ourselves be guided by potential dangers instead of seizing opportunities, this will have a negative impact on the environment, mankind and our economic progress. But by investing in sustainable energy right now, for instance by promoting innovation, the search for more efficient and cheaper sustainable energy will be stimulated. This is a prerequisite for ensuring that this sustainable energy will be able to compete with fossil fuel energy in the long term. The sooner we start doing this and really commit to it, the quicker we will reach the point where sustainable energy will become available at a comparable cost price. For me personally, a liquid transport fuel, such as biodiesel or bioethanol, still has the highest added value. Although driving powered by - green - electricity is something that will start to happen more and more where shorter distances are concerned, it still keeps us reliant on the 'fossil' heavy battery for the time being. Moreover, biodiesel fits in perfectly with the existing logistical infrastructure and current diesel engines and consequently requires few investments. A truly innovative technology for mobile buffering of electricity is not something I see happening any time soon.'
How do you see the future of sustainable energy?
'In the short to medium term, I expect there to be a greater diversity in the technologies and energy used. Electric transport for short-distance and inner-city travel, for instance, is something that will start to happen more and more. The use of hydrogen - as an energy carrier and not an energy source, biogas, hybrids and ethanol will also become increasingly more common but I do not expect any one of these methods to really make a difference in our lifetime. The same cannot be said for biodiesel. I think that, particularly in rural areas with lots of agricultural land and where distances are vast, biodiesel will indeed start to play a major role. Particularly also because of the positive side effects of the production of biodiesel. This is also exactly where the opportunities exist for the Sustainer. It is irrefutable that sustainable energy is ultimately the only solution. In this sense, this then is where the challenge lies and we also have to see the use of this sustainable energy as a game with nature. Is there anything more fun that powering your boat - or tanker! - by means of sails or flying jib or powering your boat by algae oil.'
Solarix supplies modular biodiesel installations which use a unique technology to convert waste fats, animal fats or pure vegetable oils - such as rapeseed oil, palm oil and soya oil - into biodiesel. In addition, the company provides custom-made installations which are supplied to any required capacity. Solarix combines practical and theoretical expertise of biodiesel technology, agriculture and business management. This allows the company to provide a turnkey and profitable solution for the production of biodiesel from a large range of oils and fats.
Watch the video on Kenya Eco-Energy, a biodiesel project by Solarix in Kenya