Sewage-Powered Car Boosts the Case for Biogas Energy

A promotional vehicle in Australia called the Poo Car aims to raise awareness of the potential for converting human waste into energy.

Thanks to several decades of focused greenwashing by various companies, the phrase alternative energy usually conjures up images of cheerful sunshine and stately wind turbines overlooking amber fields of grain. But the real details tend to be quite a bit messier.

So it's nice to see some companies go the other way entirely. For example, a forward-thinking utility company in Australia recently unveiled its newest promotional vehicle, an electric car powered by – hmm, what's the polite term here? – sewage sludge.

Well, kind of. The vehicle actually runs on electricity generated by the Oxley Creek Sewage Treatment Plant west of Brisbane, which converts sewage sludge from 300,000 residential customers into pressurized biogas. The biogas, in turn, powers generators that help run the facility itself.

By plugging electric cars into this on-site power plant, the utility company hopes to run its entire fleet through – and this is the technical designation – “poo power.”

Queensland Urban Utilities has dubbed their first vehicle the Poo Car, and it features a tasteful illustration on the side — a toilet bowl with a fueling hose coming out the bottom. The illustration also features a man sitting on said toilet bowl, doing what our species tends to do in that particular posture.

“If you live in Brisbane’s south or west, every time you flush the loo, or use your shower and sink, you’ll be helping to power our Poo Car,” said Queensland Urban Utilities spokesperson Michelle Cull in press materials announcing the new initiative.

As to the vehicle itself, it's a Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle (i-MiEV), first launched in the Asian Pacific market in 2009. The car plugs into a standard 240-volt charging station and has a range of up to 150 kilometers (93 miles).

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For now, the utility company's unique fleet vehicle is basically a rolling promotional tool, alerting current and potential customers to the green-energy technologies being deployed by their local water and sewage company. The Poo Car has been making the rounds at local fairs and festivals, and even took a tour of Brisbane's annual RACQ Motorfest, a popular gathering for classic car buffs.

Queensland Urban Utilities currently operates three biogas generation units at its two biggest sewage treatment plants. By generating energy from the very sewage that's being processed, the utility is able to cover up to half of the facility's electricity consumption in-house, according to company officials.

“This is a great example of how modern sewage treatment plants are becoming more like resource recovery centers where we’re turning waste into something useful like energy,” Cull said.

Click around online, and you can find other examples of corporations having fun with the untidy realities of biogas production. A few years back, UK officials deployed a fleet of airport shuttle buses running directly on biomethane gas produced by sewage plants. The UK buses also sport some compelling imagery.

Speaking to the Brisbane Times, Cull said that driving around the promotional Poo Car usually means answering a lot of the same questions.

"We get asked all sorts of funny questions like does the car smell, or does it leave skid marks," she said. "No, it doesn't smell at all — because it's an electric car it doesn't even have an exhaust pipe so it doesn't have any emissions."

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