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Pupils' waste proves powerful

Using pupils' waste for electricity could mean more computer lessons for students
Using pupils' waste for electricity could mean more computer lessons for students  

MAPHEPHETHENI, South Africa (AP) -- In rural South Africa, where getting electricity is not a matter of flicking a switch, Myeka High School is looking to its pupils to supply an unusual source of power.

For several years, the school has only had solar power, but the system's output is erratic and computer classes can be held just two or three days a week.

Now the school plans to add electricity produced by burning methane gas from decomposing sewage from the school toilets.

Such innovations could be vital to South Africa, where the government is trying to extend electricity to 300,000 more households each year.

About 50 percent of rural families and 22 percent of urban dwellers now lack electricity -- a total of 3.6 million households.

Power production from so-called renewable sources like solar energy and waste matter also will be among the concerns at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development that begins on Monday in Johannesburg.

Will Cawood, whose company, Solar Engineering Systems, is constructing the biogas digesters, said: "The system at Myeka High, which will tap energy from human waste, is believed to be the first of its kind at a school."

The gas will be trapped in two tanks situated behind the school toilets, piped off and burned to produce enough energy to power a 3-kilowatt generator.

The system has been undergoing tests and should be operational soon.

Biogas systems cost about $1,800 to set up -- a large sum for poor rural schools -- but they are self-contained, require virtually no maintenance, generate free electricity, provide clean sanitation and are environment-friendly.

The odourless nitrogen-rich sludge they produce also makes ideal fertilizer.

More than 16,000 other rural South African schools lack electricity, and Cawood believes the government needs to broaden its current approach of supplying them with solar power or a connection to the national power grid.

Cawood said: "There has always been a problem with the theft of solar panels and the cost is prohibitive. We are missing a major opportunity on the biogas side."

'Tough time'

The benefits of electrification are clearly evident at Myeka High.

Although its 1,000 pupils share a single water tap and cram in three to a desk, the school's Grade 12 pass rate has soared from 32 percent to 75 percent since solar power was installed in 1995.

Most pupils are managing to acquire basic computer skills and learn how to use the Internet, an opportunity they never had before, said Thulani Chiliza, the school's computer sciences teacher.

Greg Austin, an engineer who designed the school's biogas system, believes gas generated from cattle dung is also an ideal power source in rural south Africa where more than a half million households keep cattle and rely on fossil fuels to cook.

He said: "With the dung from three cows, you can generate enough gas to run a fridge and cooker."

While the government is increasingly using renewable energy sources, especially solar power, its investigations on the use of biogas are only at a preliminary stage.

A biogas pilot site set up by Austin at one Maphephetheni homestead 18 months ago has proved a resounding success.

"I am very, very happy -- I don't even pay for this," Gogo Gwala, 60, said as she showed off her gas stove, which runs off the gas generated from the dung produced by her son's three cattle.

"I used to spend two hours in the bush collecting firewood and making fires really used to give me a tough time. Now I don't have to work hard anymore."

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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