Renewable Energy for Urban Homes

Renewable Energy for Urban Homes

Culhane (right) and 'Amm Hussein, a carpenter, install a hot water system on 'Amm Hussein's roof.

Urban planning graduate student and Fulbright fellow T.H. Culhane introduces handmade solar water heaters in Cairo and thinks about how energy projects can address both poverty and environmental problems.

His projects focus on meeting energy needs in urban environments, they also seem to have a social impact.

Published in Winter 2009, Graduate Quarterly

The slums of Darb Al Ahmar in Islamic historic Cairo are separated from the nearby Coptic Christian community of garbage recyclers called Zurayib by the City of the Dead graveyard, but the two neighborhoods are united by their deep and pervasive poverty and lack of water, electricity, and other common urban resources. As he observed the problems, T. H. Culhane wondered "why there was so little evidence of the home-scale, renewable energy solutions being used in similar communities around the world."

Putting his question to representatives of nonprofits working in Cairo, T. H. was told it was "because somebody with your interests and your enthusiasm isn’t here. If you want to come, you are welcome." The rest flowed quite naturally. Six years later, most of them spent in Cairo, T. H. is hard at work trimming the 900-page first draft of his dissertation on how slum dwellers there are meeting their needs for hot water. It includes more than 500 pages of pictures and diagrams related to his personal efforts to help residents build solar-powered water heaters on the rooftops of their ramshackle homes.

While he’s writing, he’s also back in Cairo starting a second project in the same neighborhoods, this one to provide people with biogas digesters that will allow them to "cook today’s meals on yesterday’s garbage," T. H. says. And both of those projects are part of a nonprofit he’s started called Solar C3Cities—Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Solutions.

All of the above efforts have earned him a $10,000 award as one of 2009’s National Geographic Emerging Explorers. That money will help him to complete work on making the nonprofit’s headquarters (and his home) in Essen, Germany, completely energy-independent—the third major project on his current agenda.

T. H. brings to all of these tasks a lifetime of experience in diverse places and knowledge-gathering of various kinds, beginning as a child in Chicago, when he divided his time between studying exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry and accompanying his mother into the adjoining neighborhood, where she worked as a Head Start teacher and administrator. "There was this incredible museum landscape on the lake and the ghetto right next to it," he says. "I had foot in both worlds for the first eight years of my life."

T. H.’s mother was of Iraqi and Lebanese heritage, and his father was a news correspondent in the Middle East in the 1970s, so T. H. also began at an early age to ask questions like "How are the media representing people? How is development affecting people? What are people really angry about," he says.

At Harvard University, he studied biological anthropology, looking to understand "where we’d come from and where we were going," then he took "a suitcase full of Utopian literature" on a two-year journey to the rainforests of Borneo and the urban environment in Baghdad. T. H. thought "the rainforest ecology had a lot to teach us about our societal dilemma and how we might design a better city" and got a receptive response when he shared his ideas with psychologist B. F. Skinner.

Rather than pursuing these ideas directly, however, T. H. decided "to go into the ghettos of Los Angeles to fashion a career trying to solve the dysfunction of society, which I blamed on faulty education." Over the next decade at Crenshaw, Jefferson, and Hollywood High Schools, he developed innovative curricula that combined biology and science with multimedia technologies, leading students, among other things, to rap their biology vocabulary lessons. In the process, he was named one of seven NASA Challenger fellows, a program honoring outstanding educators.

With all this success, however, Utopian visions still danced in his head, and he looked to UCLA for "some theoretical grounding," seeking out graduate adviser in urban planning Vanessa Dingley. Proposing what he thought might seem a "somewhat outlandish" combination of rainforest ecology, sociobiology, and urban design, he was pleasantly surprised when Dingley started listing all of the departmental faculty who were traveling down kindred roads.

One of those was Susanna Hecht, who was an adviser on his master’s thesis in her area of expertise, Central America. On trips to Guatemala and Mexico, T.H. built a sustainable development center and began to study agriforestry for urban purposes. He had formed a nongovernmental organization aimed at "bringing back the breadnut," a staple in the Mayan diet, and was well on the path to a dissertation on this subject when September 11, 2001, changed his direction.

"I realized that I was working with every people but my own people at a time of great tragedy," T. H. says. Instead of another summer in Central America, he got fellowships to study Arabic in Beirut and then Cairo, where he was working when Professor of Urban Planning Randall D. Crane decided to make Egypt the setting for a spring study abroad session for graduate students. He asked T. H. to make ground arrangements and accompany the class of two dozen or so graduate students.

After that pivotal moment in the Cairo slums, T. H. picked up the challenge he had been thrown and began to work out with Professor Crane what he would need to address the issue, planned a demand survey, and chose to focus on hot water. T. H. began by "building a solar hot water heater with my own hands," he says, figuring that "if I can do it myself, maybe I can introduce it to the people in the ghettos and the slums." A key hurdle was finances, as the necessary materials for a single heater cost about $500, often more than half a month’s income for typical residents of Darb Al Ahmar and the Zurayib. His wife, Sybille, provided money from her teaching income until U.S. AID came through with an important $25,000 small infrastructure materials grant.

That work is the core of his dissertation, co-chaired by Professors Crane, Lois Takahashi, and Vinit Mukhija, which focuses on three key issues: economics, infrastructure, and perception. Gas and electric water heaters are often more attractive to community residents because of their association with upper-class people and the relatively low cost of buying fuel, given government subsidies, which are now shrinking. In some places, the building infrastructure will not support appliances, and people are wary because of bad experiences with electric and gas heaters, which can prove dangerous in this environment. Houses, for example, may explode when rats eat through gas pipes.

T. H.’s plans for the future go well beyond hot water heaters and Cairo to a much larger world that is beset by problems of poverty and diminishing fossil fuel resources. While his projects focus on meeting energy needs in urban environments, they also seem to have a social impact.

As a 13-year-old trial recruit in the Ringling Brothers clown college, T. H. had his first vision of this phenomenon, he says: "People of all different nations, cultures, and languages could work together somewhat harmoniously under the same tent to put on a show." In Cairo, bringing together people from the Muslim quarter and the Coptic community toward a common goal has created "true lasting bonds of friendship," he says. "I’m no longer sure which is the goal and which the side effect."

Published: Thursday, April 09, 2009