A citizen movement committed to restoring Vermont to an independent republic, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness unimpeded by the demands of an imperial, corrupt and disintegrating United States.
An Interview with Biomass Vermont-trepreneur Gaelan Brown
While working with a number of iconic Vermont companies – Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, GroSolar, and 1% For The Planet – native Vermonter Gaelan Brown found himself increasingly interested in our energy future. Driven by Peak Oil concerns about fossil-fuel energy scarcity in this new millennium, and curious about renewable alternatives, Brown spent years researching traditional, forgotten and “disappeared” methods for energy generation. His quest led him to a 19th century French farmer named Jean Pain and a biomass approach to energy that seemed all but forgotten in our age of Petroleum Man. Not content to simply theorize, Brown got busy in his front yard, constructing a “Pain Mound” to test hot water flow through the winter, and then expanding his work to other biomass projects for neighbors. Now, Brown runs CompostPower.org, serves on the senior management team of Agrilab Technologies, the world’s leading compost-heat-recovery company, and has authored a new book called The Compost-Powered Water Heater. We caught up with him for this interview while he was in South America researching new sites for energy regeneration.
Q. “The Revolution will be composted.” Explain what you mean by this.
A. For me, realizing that we can convert “waste” materials that pollute the environment into healthy soil and emission-free renewable energy has been an epiphany mentally and spiritually. Instead of seeing doom and gloom from all the waste in our culture, I now see opportunity. That shift in mindset has been revolutionary for me in terms of my attitude and in terms of how I invest my time, and I think that inspiration is contagious for others.
Q. How did you first discover Jean Pain and his biomass heating approach?
A. In 2008 my friend and CompostPower.org collaborator Ben Falk sent me a YouTube video documentary about Jean Pain that was made in 1981. I spent months searching the web looking for other people that had tried the concept and learning about Jean Pain, but to my amazement I could find no examples of anyone doing this. So I decided to try it myself.
Q. You learned about biomass through trial and error, by building biomass in your front yard. Any funny stories?
A. As I was experimenting with this in my yard I found a PDF of Jean Pain’s book and invited other people to be involved in research/experiments. Eventually lots of other people showed interest and asked me for help on their projects/experiments. Eventually I organized the www.compostpower.org nonprofit research group, bringing together experts in engineering, perma culture, forestry, and compost science to develop best practices on the concept. A couple summers of turning my front yard into a dumping ground for wood chips and compost power mounds resulted in a lot of learning and enough success to keep a fire in my belly about the concept. (And my garden has more than a foot of compost on it now, which is great!) People involved in CompostPower.org had several fun project days with people dancing to gypsy music on top of mounds of wet woodchips, a compost-heated hot-tub that I jerryrigged for my son to play in, and lots of UVM student projects and community groups drumming up interest in the idea. I started teaching workshops around the US and through Yestermorrow and got lots of great feedback. It turns out that during this time period as compostpower.org was getting organized there was in fact another group of people right here in Vermont working on compost heat recovery, led by Brian Jerose at a large scale farm project in Sheldon, Vermont. Small world, huh? Brian’s method became known as the Isobar system. Isobar systems are now a patented and proven approach for large scale compost heat recovery with several systems in operation, including one that is heating a large greenhouse at Jasper Hill farm in Greensboro, and a system at the University of New Hampshire’s organic dairy farm. Between 2010 and 2014, the compostpower.org network, Highfields Center for Composting, and Brian Jerose’s team started working together and eventually www.agrilabtech.com was launched by many of those involved, to bring this concept to market in a commercially viable way.
Q. What are the biggest political and technical challenges to successfully achieving your vision?
A. The biggest economic challenge with any “disruptive” new technology is that you have to convince people to change the way they do things in order to put the new idea to use. “If this works how come everyone’s not already doing it?” Any farm or compost production site could put compost heat recovery to work in economically viable ways, but all of them will have to make some changes to their operation in order to do so. The good news is that compost heat recovery investments can pay for themselves in just a few years, in terms of Isobar systems, and the modified Jean Pain method can also be very strong in terms of economics, without need for any subsidies. So we really just need to get the word out and put effort into showing people how viable the concepts are. The way human psychology works, if something is not being sold enthusiastically with a price tag, people will assume it doesn’t work. Really it all comes down to people understanding that the concept is viable, getting the word out, empowering people to put this to work in their lives. That’s why I wrote this book, hoping that millions of people will be inspired by the stories and case studies and information presented so they feel confident to dive into their own project. The main political challenge is that people need to understand that politicians are not going to solve any of their problems for them, and that compost powered energy is one great way they can save money and reduce pollution at the same time.
Q. Say more about AgriLab.
A. Agrilab Technologies is a Vermont-based startup company that is bringing a patented engineered compost heat recovery technology to market. The Isobar system is essentially an automatic compost aeration system that pulls air down through the composting material into pipes or channels in the ground, and then runs that hot steamy air through a special heat exchanger to instantly convert that hot air into hot water. To turn manure, food scraps, etc into compost requires that the material be given access to oxygen. Many compost operations do that by using tractors and heavy equipment to tumble and stir the material regularly, which takes a lot of time and fuel. The active aeration method that Agrilab Technologies uses does that aeration with a small fan that runs for 15 minutes per hour, saving tons of energy compared to mechanical tumbling, and creating the ability for that hot steamy air to be run through the heat exchanger. The other interesting advantage of this aeration approach is that the exhaust air after the heat has been captured can be run through a very simple bio-filter, to remove odors. Odor control is a big challenge for most compost operators.
Q. So brown really is the new green…?
A. Biomass energy is hot shit, and it might help us save the world.