A project, the eMonti Green Hub concept, initiated by People’s Power Africa (PPA), a small Eastern Cape-based consultancy, recently attracted the attention of Dutch royalty by way of receiving first prize in the Moola for Amanzi competition.

Moola for Amanzi can be described as “a battle of concepts”. A product of a cooperative agreement between the Water Institute of South Africa (WISA) and the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP), the competition’s primary aim tackle local water and sanitation-related issues a head start in realising their proposed aims with a (R143 518.62) prize funded by the Dutch Embassy. “The real value of the competition was to awaken participants to the wonders of entrepreneurship, especially within the water industry,” says Bernelle Verster, a water professional from WISA and one of the primary forces behind the competition.

Entrants pitched their creative ideas in the form of a business plan at the World Water Week held earlier this year in Cape Town to an independent jury consisting of eminent UCT academic and water specialist, Professor George Ekema, a representative from the United Nations and representatives from the scientific and business worlds. Also included in the audience were guests of honour, His Royal Highness Willem Alexander Prince of Orange and the South African Deputy Minister of Water Affairs, Rejoice Mabudafhasi.

Co-funded by the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) and in partnership with Elemental Consulting, PPA’s technical feasibility study formed the basis of their submission to the competition and was entitled The eMonti Green Hub. This hub is “essentially, a one-stop shop to recover resources from wastewater, sewage sludge and the organic fraction of municipal solid waste including garden refuse”, explains David Oldfield, one of the two team members responsible for PPA’s entry into the competition. Oldfield has been involved in integrated biogas solutions in the Eastern and Western Cape and is passionate about what the technology can do to promote social and economic upliftment and reduce environmental impacts at rural community and urban scales.

In a break from the traditional, linear way of treating waste water which ultimately ends up in the ocean, the Green Hub concept treats waste as a resource converting linear flows to circular flows whilst realising the value of the waste at each part of the treatment process by way of nutrient beneficiation and energy production from biomethane. “When looking at the economics of wastewater treatment currently, money is thrown into costly chemicals, technology and energy-intensive processes,” says Mark Wells, who completes the PPA winning duo. “Using natural systems in the integrative way that the Green Hub does, actually creates value.” he adds. Wells formerly qualified as an industrial process engineer, and after a successful career locally and abroad that included a stint at Intel’s chip manufacturing operation, has turned his attention towards zero waste as well as being an ardent proponent of a methane-based economy.

In a nutshell, wastewater is treated anaerobically in what is termed an upflow anaerobic sludge blanket. Digestible organic municipal waste is treated along with sewage sludge in heated reactors that are continuously stirred. Woody garden refuse is gasified for the production of heat for this purpose, whilst the remaining non-woody organic material is composted. The effluent from the anaerobic reactors is upgraded to process quality water using low-energy, nonchemical natural systems. The slurry from the stirred reactors is concentrated, pasteurised and co-composted with the remaining fraction of garden refuse, producing biogas which can be used for additional heat and power generation.

The process results in what effectively amounts to a 1.3MW power plant, roughly the capacity of a medium sized wind turbine, and 30 MWh of clean electricity production per annum, equivalent to about 20 000 tons of CO2 that would otherwise have been released through dirty energy production.

In addition, 6 tons of biomethane is produced per day, which amounts to the equivalent of 107 000 litres of liquid petroleum, while 16 million litres of water for re-use and 30 tons of biofertiliser is produced per day. Other environmental benefits would include the elimination of 10 million litres of raw sewage and sludge discharge into the adjacent ocean and reduced pressure on already overtaxed landfills which currently receive in excess of 250 tons per day of organic waste – creating odours, emitting greenhouse gases and impinging negatively on public health.

In terms of green job creation, the facility has the potential to create 70 jobs to maintain it and 400 dignified and sustainable jobs involving separation of the solid waste at source, waste collection and dry waste stream recycling within residential and commercial communities. Already, a highly successful separation at source and recycling pilot project has been conducted in Duncan Village, one of the poorest communities in East London. The project leverages some of the institutional infrastructure from the Community Work Programme, initiated by the Presidency which seeks to develop public assets in poor communities and to promote social and economic inclusion. The pilot also had backing and support from the DBSA, The Institute of Zero Waste in Africa and the South African National Civic Organisation and resulted in the formation of five waste collecting and East London-based recycling cooperatives.

Although only a concept at present, the feasibility assessment is certainly not just a figment of the imagination of a collective of fringe environmentalists. It includes numerous inputs from a range of local and international experts in fields such as biogas recovery, renewable energy, zero waste production, environmental science and civil and mechanical engineering with inputs into secondary treatment and algae production from the Institute of Environmental Biotechnology at Rhodes University.

Being based in Eastern Cape, where more than 90% of wastewater treatment plants are not operating properly and are failing to meet the effluent standards of the Department of Water Affairs, “PPA hopes to show that developing and implementing systems as exemplified by the Green Hub concept is both technically possible and economically feasible and that in three years’ time, some of these systems will be accepted and adopted in a number of communities, institutions and municipalities,” says Wells. PPA also recently designed and implemented an integrated biogas solution at Three Crowns School near Lady Frere which employs much of the integrated thinking of the Green Hub but at a far smaller scale. They are also part of the implementation team for a project involving the rollout of rural biogas in schools in the Chris Hani District Municipality in the Eastern Cape.

The Green Hub concept was also classified as a flagship project at the recent Eastern Cape Climate Change Conference and will be highlighted later in the year at the COP17 Climate Change Convention in Durban. “It is hoped that such accolades will serve to fast track the evolution of the project from concept to adoption within the Buffalo City Metro and as part of the development of the East London Industrial Development Zone, as well as being a sustainable alternative to the planned sewage pipeline that would come in at a cost of R250 million with no economic benefit and a host of environmental disadvantages,” adds Oldfield. The industrial zone is already home to a number of sustainability-related initiatives, including an aquaculture facility and a state of the art solar thermal collector manufacturing facility supplying the local solar water heating industry.

According to Oldfield, the prize money from the competition will be adequately invested in securing business partners to join PPA in making the eMonti Green Hub a reality.

The original article appeared in the August-September 2011 issue.