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Waste no more: introducing renewable energy in Philippine jails

25-03-2011 Feature

Even detention facilities are exploring renewable energy to heat water or cook food for inmates. Allison Lopez shows how biogas and solar power in Cagayan de Oro and Bukidnon jails are slashing food costs and helping to preserve the environment.

Visitors to Cagayan de Oro City Jail will be tempted by the scent of freshly baked bread wafting from its small bakery. The bakers – who are detainees themselves – prepare an assortment of monay (special Philippine bread), and bread with cheese, pineapple, or peanut butter fillings on metal trays, before heating them in the oven.

"Malakas naman ang benta namin. Parating ubos yung tinda (Our sales are really good. We often sell all the bread)," says 28-year-old Nick as he opens two valves. One is connected to an LPG tank, but the other leads to a  biogas tank – quite uncommon in jails, even outside the Philippines.

"Sa biogas, nakakatipid kami at environment friendly. Maganda rin yung luto ng tinapay sa biogas kasi tuloy-tuloy naman yung apoy (Biogas saves money and it's environment friendly. The bread also comes out well because the fire is consistent)," said the inmate, who has been baking bread in the jail for six months.

Using biogas or methane to cook food began in Cagayan de Oro (CDO) jail in 2009, just as the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) ordered the elimination of firewood in its detention facilities. CDO was one of five jails chosen by the ICRC to implement the biogas project, and it remains a prime example of an innovative programme for reducing both financial and environmental costs.

In the kitchen at CDO, for example, cooks use biogas for fish and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for the huge pots of rice needed to feed more than 1,000 inmates. Julius, the head cook, is relieved that he no longer has to inhale smoke from firewood: "Mausok dati, pawis na pawis kami. Mahirap i-control yung apoy, tapos ang tagal bago maluto (Before, the kitchen used to be filled with smoke, and we sweated so much. The fire was difficult to control, and it took quite a while to cook the food)."

Better sanitation

LPG is expensive, whereas biogas is free. "Biogas has a natural source of energy, which in this case is human waste. From the toilet, the waste goes to an inlet box where it breaks down and gives off methane. From the production chamber, the gas goes to an outlet box and flows into the pipes used for cooking," said Gavin Macmillan, the ICRC's water and habitat engineer. “Going for alternative sources of energy is a good choice nowadays, given the rising prices of crude oil and other non-renewables,” he added.

Apart from minimizing cooking costs, the biogas project also improved the jail's sewage system because it replaced the less-effective septic tanks. "This technology reduces the impact of greenhouse gases and of pathogens that make people sick. It also saves BJMP money, because a huge percentage of their budget goes on feeding inmates," said Macmillan.

The organic waste is also turned into fertilizer for the jail's own vegetable garden. "The government has limited resources, so the biogas project is a big help to us. We are grateful to the ICRC, because they are helping both the inmates and the environment," added Junior Superintendent Russel Tangeres of CDO Jail.

Hot water from the sun

Further down south, another eco-friendly innovation is helping a Bukidnon prison control costs and is opening up the prospect of further sustainable projects.

Valencia City Jail is heating water using solar panels on the kitchen roof. Already, just a month after installing the panels, cooking times are substantially shorter and the kitchen is using much less firewood.

"Before, we used tap water and heated it over firewood from cold. It usually took three lots of firewood to get it boiling. Ngayon mabilis na maprepare ang pagkain at nalengthen ang consumption ng kahoy. (Now we prepare food faster and the firewood lasts longer)," said Senior Inspector Francis Acelo, who has been Valencia's warden since 2001.

Acelo was visibly happy about the developments, because Valencia was one of the most overcrowded jails before it moved to a spacious three-hectare property leased by the local government in October 2010. "The old 200 square-metre jail was intended to house only 48 inmates. When Valencia became a city in 2001 and the number of inmates rose to 100, the prison became overcrowded and detainees got ill. The heat and the smell were just too much," he said.

As the warden explains, the new facility and the solar water heater have brought a number of improvements. "Pati perwisyo nabawasan (We have less trouble now) because we haven’t had to go into the forest for firewood for some time," he explained.

Savings from the solar water heater will be used to fund prison infrastructure. "Once the necessary facilities are in place, we’ll be able to spend the money on improving the inmates' food," Acelo said.

While much has still to be done, the warden is confident that the prison will soon have its own vegetable garden or piggery – projects that would help the jail to become more self-sufficient. They also plan to construct a school building.

"The coordination efforts of the LGU, BJMP and other organizations like the ICRC have a huge impact. This shows that problems can easily be solved when people work together. It's rare for projects to come together like this," he said.


Photos

Cagayan de Oro City Jail, Philippines. Inmates can use either biogas or LPG to bake bread. 

Cagayan de Oro City Jail, Philippines. Inmates can use either biogas or LPG to bake bread.
© ICRC / A. Lopez

Cagayan de Oro City Jail, Philippines. The prison kitchen uses biogas instead of LPG, to save money. Head cook Julius lights the biogas to cook a meal for the jail's more than 1,000 inmates. 

Cagayan de Oro City Jail, Philippines.
The prison kitchen uses biogas instead of LPG, to save money. Head cook Julius lights the biogas to cook a meal for the jail's more than 1,000 inmates.
© ICRC / A. Lopez

Valencia City Jail, Philippines. Solar-heated water saves precious time and manpower. The water is used to cook rice for more than 100 detainees. 

Valencia City Jail, Philippines. Solar-heated water saves precious time and manpower. The water is used to cook rice for more than 100 detainees.
© ICRC / A. Lopez

Valencia City Jail, Philippines. Senior Inspector Francis Acelo of Valencia City Jail and ICRC engineer Sotero Ocariza inspect the solar panels and water tank installed by the ICRC for the prison kitchen. 

Valencia City Jail, Philippines. Senior Inspector Francis Acelo of Valencia City Jail and ICRC engineer Sotero Ocariza inspect the solar panels and water tank installed by the ICRC for the prison kitchen.
© ICRC / A. Lopez