The Charcoal Project

The mission of The Charcoal Project is to promote, facilitate, and advocate for the widespread adoption of clean burning technologies, sustainable fuel alternatives, and policies that support energy-poverty alleviation for those who depend on biomass as their primary fuel around the world.
Sep 5, 2012

Next Stop? A Better Stove.

View of the new shelter under construction.
View of the new shelter under construction.

Dear Friends,

First, a note of gratitude.

Since launching our effort a year ago on Global Giving, a total of 77 people like you have donated 94 times to raise a combined $7,810 for our Biomass Energy Efficiency Project in Rubaare, Uganda. Although the largest donations have come from the team effort of the student body at the Seven Bridges Middle School in Westchester County, New York, we are grateful to all of you who have stepped up to the challenge.

No one is more grateful, however, than school director Henry Twinemasiko. I say this because I know that Henry has had to make painful budget choices based on the ever increasing cost of woodfuel and gasoline for transport.

The funds you've contributed have helped the school start its own fuel-briquette-making project, which today is saving the school thousands of dollars each term in woodfuel cooking costs. Your donations have also helped build a shelter on the school grounds that will house the fuel briquetting activity. The shelter is especially important because the rainy season plays havoc on fuel-briquette production.

Out with the old. In with the new.

With some of the funds we have left on hand, our plan with Henry is swap out the old, inefficient -- and highly toxic -- cookstoves for more clean-burning and efficient ones.

Ma, why do they need a new stove?

Why is having a clean burning, efficient cookstove important? For one, it will save the school even more money on fuel costs. That’s because, when it’s time to cook, the better stoves will use fewer briquettes and/or woodfuel overall. The better stoves will also reduce the incredibly toxic smoke that chokes the kitchens during the cooking process. As you may know, toxic indoor air pollution from cooking on inefficient cookstoves kills about 2 million people each year around the world, mostly women and children. In short, clean cookstoves save lives and make business sense!

More money saved means we are one step closer to inagurating the first High School in Uganda dedicated to Renewable Fuels and Technologies. How cool is that?!

Finding the right fit

For our improved cookstove project, we estimate it will cost $5,000 to $7,000 USD to get a stove designed and built that can meet the school’s needs. We’ll be looking for stoves that can burn wood or briquettes and, believe it or not, they are not easy to find! Plus, we want to make sure the stoves we build at the school meet international indoor air pollution and efficiency standards and can be replicated at the other schools inside and out of the REF network. So your donation is not paying for just one stove, it's going to help build multiple stoves at the other REF schools. We will share with you the design of the stove over the coming weeks!

The TCP partnership with REF schools is not only about helping one school in one community. TCP and REF see this as a tremendous opportunity to establish a model for renewable energy and efficient technology. Our shared vision is to see our project replicated many times again in African schools over the coming months and years! So, please keep supporting us, if you can!

And please don’t hesitate to contact Sylvia or myself if you have any questions. We can be reached at sherzog@charcoalproject.org or jkimchaix@charcoalproject.org

And thank you for your continued support!

-- Kim

The students help build the shelter.
The students help build the shelter.
A work-study program provides hands-on experience.
A work-study program provides hands-on experience.
Next: upgrading these toxic, inefficient stoves
Next: upgrading these toxic, inefficient stoves
Jun 6, 2012

Update on Rubaare - June 2012

Rendering of the briquette shelter designed by 5H
Rendering of the briquette shelter designed by 5H

Dear Friend and Supporter:

Last time we touched base, Kim had just returned from Africa and had exciting news about the progress of our project at the Rubaare Educational Foundation in Rubaare, UG.  This time we are happy to announce, that based on your excellent response to our appeal and some fundraising by the Seven Bridges Middle School in Westchester County, NY, we are ready to build the much needed shelter for briquette production in Rubaare. 

As you can see from the rendering, the shelter is not only elegant, airy, and functional, it also integrates environmentally friendly features, such as rain-water capture, and all local materials that have been assessed for sustainability.  How do we know this? We’ve done the due diligence on the source of the materials, for one. More importantly, however, the shelter is designed by 5H Architecture in New York, a firm that specializes in high-end, LEEDs certified structures. (Full disclosure: Alex Stojanovic, one of the principles at the firm, is on the Board of Advisers of TCP. Thank you 5H!)

For financial sustainability reasons, our plan is to build the structure in two phases. The immediate priority is to get a roof over the heads of the briquette making operation and operators.  Once the shelter is built, the students will continue to produce briquettes unimpeded by rain.  We can then turn to the next phase of our program, which is providing the schools with clean cookstoves.  We are very excited about this phase, which will dramatically improve the health of staff and students involved in food preparation.  This step will also reduce the schools fuel consumption and the excess briquette production can be sold to the community for income to the school. The net result is better health, reduced financial expenditures, and reduced consumption of unsustainability harvested and inefficiently produced wood energy.

REF has six schools, each feeding at least 200-300 students, and standard clean cookstoves cannot accommodate the large pots used for institutional cooking.  With your generous financial support, however, we can build a custom institutional stove for each school, which will accommodate their needs.  Fortunately, Global Giving has a Donor Matching Day coming on June 13th, which will increase the value of each of your donations. 

In the 18 months since we began working with Henry and the REF team our understanding of the project has matured beyond our original intention to produce better fuels and better stoves for the school and the community. Today, it is clear to our African partners and ourselves that together we are training the next generation of developers of energy efficient and renewable energy solutions.

So thank you again for all your past support and please consider helping get the REF schools to the next level on the path to energy sufficiency.

Kind regards,

Kim and Sylvia

Mar 13, 2012

Postcard from Africa's Green Energy Frontier

Postcard from Africa’s Green Energy Frontier

I returned just a few days ago from visiting our project and partner in Uganda, just in time to submit this update for the Global Giving Matching Day, Wednesday, March 14th.

I was in Rubaare to check on the progress of the first phase of our clean tech/renewable fuel project with our local partner, the Rubaare Education Foundation schools.

As you might recall, we invested your generous contributions last fall to buy 10 hydraulic briquette-making presses to kick start our fuel-briquette-making industry at the school.  The goal is to use the fuel briquettes to reduce, and eventually displace completely, the use of wood in the school’s kitchen. 

What I saw in Rubaare

Overall, the project is working as intended.  Briquettes are being produced.  They burn well. And they are reducing the school’s dependence and costs of using traditional wood fuel.  In fact, I was pleased to learn that, by Henry Twinemasiko’s estimates, (the REF school director), they have saved the equivalent of three truckloads of woodfuel in the course of this term! Financially, that means a savings of about 1M Ugandan shillings (about USD 300).  The savings are important but we expect to do better when we are able to ramp up production and introduce more energy efficient stoves to replace the very smoky, crude mud stoves currently in use.

Problems and Proposed Solutions

Henry and I sat down with some of the members of the Briquette-Making Club to learn what’s working and what’s not.  Here’s what the students and kitchen staff said:

1.  Production is right now limited due to the fact that the briquettes are currently being produced outdoors.  This is supposed to be the rainy season, but everything’s messed up. Either way, it still makes it difficult for the briquettes to dry when it does rain.  The solution to this problem is straightforward: build a shelter to house operations.  And that’s what we plan to do thanks to the successful fundraising carried out online and through the Green Team from Seven Bridges Middle School in Westchester County, New York.  Thank you!

Part of my time with Henry was spent pricing out materials and designing the shelter.  I’m confident we can build a good shelter for under US 2,000.00

2.  Securing the raw material for the briquettes.  The briquettes are currently made using a combination of sawdust, charcoal fine, and paper (which acts as a binding agent).  There are two problems with using these materials. The first is that none of these ingredients originate from true renewable sources, as would be the case using agricultural waste. What’s more, without a large, concentrated urban base, waste paper is not easy to come by.  The second problem is that some of the locals are catching on the potential value of the byproduct of their wood milling and charcoal trading operations.  This means they are raising their costs for our raw material.

Our solution is to experiment with carbonizing various types of agricultural waste available to use as a substitute to charcoal dust and/or saw dust.   We also would like to purchase a chipper or grinding mill to improve the quality and size of the raw material used.  One additional benefit is that the school can also use the grinding mill to grind the maize (corn) that is a basic ingredient of the ubiquitous “posho” dish.  The grinding mill would further reduced the price of each 100kg of maize purchased from around 140K – 180K Ugandan Shillings down to 100K – 120K.

3.  Reduce use of briquettes per meal cooked and improve indoor air pollution. It’s very apparent that the stoves currently used are hugely inefficient and very polluting.  I was only able to stay in the kitchen for a few minutes because the air inside was so quickly choked with smoke.  Our plan is to quickly identify a brick and mortar design for a better stove that will boost efficiency and reduce emissions.

4.  Explore different briquettes designs.  One of the important goals of the project is not just to reduce wood fuel consumption, but also create an income generating opportunity for the school. The current briquettes are not optimal for cooking in the traditional stoves used in homes.  We think the school could produce either an extruded briquette or a “fireball” type briquette, which could more easily be used as a substitute in wood and/or charcoal-burning stoves.

In my roundtable with the members of the Briquette-making Club, it became evident that REF and TCP are together nurturing the country’s next generation of energy efficiency and green fuel engineers.  In light of the recent report that shows this as a potentially huge economic opportunity, we’re excited to be at the forefront of training and building Uganda’s future green economy.

As our donors and investors, we hope you will also share our enthusiasm for our venture, especially because we could not do this without your support. Thank you!

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