Sunday Sermon: From sewer to stovetop, it’s the little things.

Folks who’ve been reading this blog for a while might remember that when I moved into my current flat, its appliances were in less than stellar condition. It was almost two months before I had a fridge that was more than an insulated cabinet with a light, for example. The other noticeable problem was that only three out of four burners on the glass-top stove worked, and one of those three had a big crack across it. A couple months ago, the cracked burner died, and one of the two that remained would blow a fuse if we didn’t cut off power to the stove before turning the burner on or off.

I’m telling you all of this, because this week the property management company finally got around to getting us a new stovetop, and it’s frankly delightful to have a clean, functional stove.

It’s easy to under-estimate just how wonderful modern appliances are. In addition to your standard range of gas and electric ranges, I’ve cooked on wood stoves, a variety of camp stoves (one of which dumped boiling water on me – I don’t recommend it), and camp fires of various sizes. Through high school and college, I spent a lot of time camping in pretty much all conditions that occur in New England, including three summer jobs that had me doing so professionally. My preference for that has always been your standard camp fire (in high school I often had to light them without matches or lighters), but the reality is that there’s a lot of work involved in using and maintaining wood stoves. Not only that, but cooking with wood indoors generates enough air pollution to do real harm, over time.

Having a modern stove isn’t as important as having clean, running water, but I think it’s something that many of us are too inclined to take for granted.

It’s also something that’s worth considering, as it’s one of the uses of energy that a lot of people are going to have to change, if we ever get around to ending fossil fuel use. It’s my understanding that gas is the preferred stove type for people who love cooking, and I do understand why. It gives you the ability to easily control temperature, and switch from full heat to none at all almost instantly. Electric stoves take longer to reach the desired temperature, and to cool down. This means that you’ve got a dangerously hot surface just sitting there when you’re done with it, but it also means that if you want to reduce the heat of something you’re cooking, you have to remove it from the surface, like you would with a wood stove. That fact alone tends to mean that you need a bit more space to cook the same meal on an electric or wood stove than you do with gas.

That said, we have to stop extracting fossil gas. We should have stopped years ago. For most of us, that means the kinds of electric stoves I’ve been using for most of my adult life. For some people – and I’ve no idea how this would be decided – there is a renewable source of cooking gas that will always exist in reliable proportion to our population, plus livestock. That source, of course, is sewage. Biogas is not a new thing. The fact that every sewage treatment plant and garbage processing center in the world doesn’t have a biogas setup is yet another grim example of just how little our leaders care about climate change. The technology has been cheap and easy for so long that it was a key part of Mad Max: Beyond The Thunderdome, when I was was one year old:

There’s no question that the potential biogas supply, at least from human waste, is smaller than the fossil gas supply, but all of the carbon in biogas came from the atmosphere, and so at worst it’s carbon-neutral, and when it comes to replacing fossil fuels, reliability may count for almost as much as actual energy production. It means you can count on that amount of power being available, always in proportion to the population, just like you can count on the daily fluctuations in solar power generation.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that the amount of power that can be generated this way is significant.

Thames Water generated enough renewable energy from sewage in 2021 to cook 112 million Christmas turkeys.

The UK’s largest water company created almost 140 million cubic metres (m3) of biogas last year via its sewage treatment process. This was transformed into more than 300 million kWh of electricity.

Crossness sewage works in Greenwich was the biggest producer of renewable energy in 2021, churning out more than 18.5 million m3, enough to cook 15 million turkeys, while Mogden sewage works in Twickenham and Beckton in Newham generated approximately 18 million and 12 million m3 each.

“Creating our own clean, green energy is an important part of our sewage treatment process and we’re generating more and more each year,” commented Matt Gee, Thames Water’s energy & carbon strategy and reporting manager.

“Doing this allows us to power our sites with renewable, eco-friendly fuels, and as we continue to generate more, we want to export it to be used in our local communities.”

Eliot Whittington, director of the UK Corporate Leaders Group, of which Thames Water is a member, added: “As more and more of the world sets strong targets for climate change, it’s essential that action follows ambition.

“Thames Water’s investment in renewable energy is a great Christmas present to the UK’s climate targets and to the communities it operates in and makes a strong down payment on its long-term ambition to be net-zero by 2030.”

The company, which has already cut emissions by almost 70% since 1990, completed a biogas project at Chertsey sewage works in October last year. The £700,000 scheme is the latest in a roll-out which also covers Thames Water sites in London and the Thames Valley. Three-quarters of the firm’s boilers now run on biogas and it is aiming to convert all sites by the end of 2025.

Thames Water has been running biogas plants for a while now, and it’s been generating them a tidy profit, in addition to the ability to honestly say they’re doing something about climate change. They’re also a good example of how far we have to go when it comes to even the lowest-hanging fruit of climate action.

Half the reason global warming is so extremely dangerous to us is the speed at which it’s happening. If we’d stayed on the timeline Svante Arrhenius predicted around the beginning of the 20th century, we’d have hundreds of years before the planet’s temperature got to where it is today, and while we might not have been proactive about that change, we might well have had time to do it from generation to generation, and still avoid catastrophe.

I’m not saying that to frustrate you with what might have been, but to emphasize that reducing emissions really can buy us time, according to the same physics that tells us how great the danger is. There are a myriad of “small” things that can be done at local and regional levels that really will make a difference, and will likely improve people’s quality of life at the same time. Better insulation for homes, more efficient appliances, more people working from home, and yes – more sewage and other organic waste used to generate biogas – really can slow things down, and give us time to adapt, and to do other things that will also slow the change.

This problem is too big for any of us to tackle as individuals, but there are aspects of it that can absolutely be tackled at the local level, an that touch our lives pretty directly. That local action can inspire the same thing to happen elsewhere, and with things like the internet, one community can help others follow in their footsteps. We’ve never faced a crisis like this before, but we’ve also never had more capacity to coordinate with people on every part of this planet.

And we can keep on cooking with gas while we do it. In theory, anyway. I’m still using electric, but that’s more than fine, especially now that I have a shiny new stove!

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into this. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!


  1. planter says

    This post reminded me of a story doing the rounds on the CBC last week on the indoor air consequences of cooking with gas:

    Long-term I suspect that houses will have to go all-electric. It is much more flexible, and I do wonder about how much methane escapes from the residential distribution network. When we designed and built our current house we did not include a gas connection – when the envelope is well insulated enough electric heating (heat pump) is viable even on the Canadian prairies. Once you get rid of the gas furnace it is cheaper to use electric hot water.

  2. John Morales says

    Induction stoves are the go for electric cooking (ovens are no prob, a simple resistive element is enough), but it requires a specific subset of cooking implements. Still, closest thing to gas there is.

    On-topic, biogas is essentially polluted methane. To purify it costs $$$, which means it’s not as good as fossil gas for some purposes. But at least it’s renewable 🙂

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … too big for any of us to tackle as individuals…

    The “appropriate technology” movement’s attempts at household-scale methane production mostly (all?) turned into dangerous messy failures. As an industrial-size operation, Thames Water seems to operate on the right level for this (subject to change if reliable/safe tech develops from their efforts).

  4. says

    @Pierce – I’m generally of the opinion that humanity should deliberately become more of an urban species, as part of changing how we interact with the rest of life on this planet. That’s the setting in which I envision this being most useful.

    While we need to dramatically cut down on or eliminate animal agriculture, it’s also been encouraging to see places like dairies use their manure to power their operations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *