Why have I never heard of the Ene-Farm?

While reading up on architecture in Japan recently, I came across a technology that I hadn’t heard of before: the Ene-Farm. It’s a domestic energy system that is being used in Japan and so far doesn’t seem to be available elsewhere, and it makes me curious. What is it, and why doesn’t anyone know about it?

First – what is an Ene-Farm? It’s a unit about the size of a refrigerator that . It draws on the gas grid, turns the gas into hydrogen, and then provides electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell. The heat generated in the conversion is captured and used for heating or for hot water.

The unit itself is often set up to run off a solar installation, but it still uses gas as a feedstock, making it a kind of hybrid system for domestic energy. Despite the use of fossil fuels, there are a number of real advantages. The most important is that the electricity is generated on site, so there are no losses in transmission. It’s a whole lot better than generating that power in a gas-fueled power station and then getting it to the point of use.

Secondly, it’s very efficient. When the heat and power are co-generated, an Ene-Farm can deliver – an impressive figure for any technology. For comparison, the grid in Japan delivers heat and power with 40% efficiency.

When you put this together, households running an Ene-Farm basically cut their carbon footprint from domestic energy in half. When combined with solar power, manufacturers reckon the savings are nearer 60%.

Another useful feature is that the Ene-Farm is a smart system that can run when needed, and then pause during times of peak demand. Households can save money by running it overnight and taking advantage of lower energy prices, and then using the power from the fuel cell during the day. It also helps to moderate demand, which is one of the big challenges when trying to incorporate renewable energy into the grid. The benefits aren’t just for the household running the technology – the more homes have an Ene-Farm, the easier it is to manage the grid.

Finally, because they have this mini-power station between them and the grid, households with an Ene-Farm don’t get powercuts. And that is the main reason why they have proved popular in Japan. Post-Fukushima, Japan began mothballing its nuclear power plants and there was an energy shortfall for a while. For those that could afford it, the Ene-Farm kept the lights on, and the government supported their roll-out because of the benefits to the grid.

That partly answers question two, the question of why we don’t use these ourselves. The Japanese government has supported hydrogen fuel cell technology, with Ene-Farms just one small part of that. The decline of nuclear power in Japan has driven a search for new solutions and greater efficiency. So there are incentives, and a sense of urgency around energy efficiency that we just don’t have in Britain. Japan essentially switched off a third of its electricity supply in 2012, gas took up much of the shortfall, and anything that could reduce transmission loss and get more out the system was actively encouraged. Ene-Farms are part of Japan’s unique energy story.

Will we get them eventually? Maybe, though they won’t be called Ene-Farms. That was a nationwide branding exercise to raise awareness of hydrogen fuel cells, and is unique to Japan. But I suspect we will get domestic hydrogen fuel cell systems one day. We need solutions to renewable heat, we have fairly dramatic transmission loss statistics, and there’s a real carbon saving to be had. They could well be useful – especially if we can combine them with green gas. As far as I’m aware, so far this form of micro-CHP has never got beyond in the UK and Germany.

The next generation of fuel cells, that and others are working on, won’t use gas and will be effectively zero carbon. They probably won’t do heat in the same way, but will function more as domestic energy storage to complement renewable energy, and that’s where we are most likely to encounter them.

Tasting notes: Sens energy bars with cricket flour

Yesterday I wrote about my plans to try some insect based foods over the summer. If your first reaction was ‘never!’, then you are not alone. That’s what most readers will have thought, I expect.

But insects are not going to enter the Western diet as insects. If it looks like a bug, there’s a big psychological barrier to overcome – especially if it’s whole. In Britain we’re not really used to eating anything whole, as I’ve observed at Tapas bars when English friends are confronted with pescaditos fritos.

Insects are going to creep into our diets as an ingredient first, and that makes the a good place to start. They use cricket flour as the basis for their snack bars, alongside other all-natural ingredients.

The company has designed these to be an easy way into eating insects. “We want to make insect eating the new normal” they say, and they’re a company on a mission to popularise insects and change the culture around eating them. Their challenge is to create an appealing, tasty and healthy product that just happens to include insects. It says ‘made with cricket flour’ on the packet, but it’s not shouting about it.

Sens began with a last year, and delivered their first snack bars this spring. They were kind enough to send me some samples – two energy bars, and two protein bars. So what are they like?

Energy bars:
There are two flavours here, dark chocolate and orange, and pineapple and coconut. I start with the first, and there’s a lovely smell as you open it, thanks to the orange peel and essential oil. The bar itself is dark and rich, speckled with tiny pieces of cashew nuts. It reminds me a little of the Nakd bars, but drier and more crumbly. It was very popular with both kids and even my wife begrudgingly admitted that it was very tasty.

The pineapple and coconut is also a hit, with lots of fruit and a pleasantly gummy texture. So that’s a win: insects successfully consumed by the whole family. As my wife commented, you wouldn’t know you were eating insects unless someone told you.

Protein bars:
Here we have a peanut butter and cinnamon bar, and a dark chocolate and sesame. I’m a sucker for anything with peanut butter, so I try that one first. There’s a nice cinnamon flavour and it’s certainly nutty, but this is too dry, almost dusty. The second bar is a little better. I like my chocolate dark and the sesame seeds break up the bar and make it less cloying, but I can’t say I would eat these again. Neither would the kids, who aren’t keen – but then this isn’t a kids product, it’s a protein bar. As Sens say on their website, “if you’re looking for sweets, buy a Kit Kat.”

Since I don’t really have any experience of protein bars, I’m not going to be the best judge of this particular product. Perhaps this texture is normal for a protein bar? It’s certainly got plenty in there. Each of the protein bars is 20% cricket flour, though again, you wouldn’t know that unless you read it on the packet. There is no discernible cricket flavour, and it’s a good demonstration of the nutritional benefits of insects.

In summary then, the energy bars are a success, and I’ll stick with those rather than the protein bars. The ‘ick’ factor of the Sens bars is low, and everyone in the family ate them. Would we eat them again? Quite possibly. I don’t know if we liked them more than other energy or snack bars that we might eat while out and about, so they’re probably not going to be a regular purchase. Sens are definitely onto something though, and I hope they find a market for their products.

You can buy Sens bars .

Let’s eat some insects!

When I was at primary school in Madagascar, I had a game that I played with a friend of mine in the playground. We’d get thin canes, about six feet long, and go out into the long grass to look for grasshoppers. You couldn’t get close to them or they’d fly away, but if you crouched down and moved slowly you could get into range without them jumping. Then it was a matter of bringing the cane down fast enough and accurately enough to whack the insect.

It felt like a game to me, but this wasn’t gratuitous slaughter. We’d bag up our catch, and my friend would take the grasshoppers home with him at lunch time, and then bring them back fried and salted for an afternoon snack. This was normal for him, though the other children would tease him for it. Eating insects was a sign of poverty and I was the only one who would join him in catching them.

Back at home, I remember some men coming to do some building work, and watching them catch big grey beetles from the trees down the side of the house. They were to go with their rice after work. I didn’t get to try any this time, but they did give me one to play with. They tied a little loop of thread round the leg of the beetle, and I held the other end and watched it fly in confused circles.

Where I come from, there’s nothing particularly odd about eating insects. I got the impression it wasn’t common in the city, and neither was it aspirational, but it certainly wasn’t disgusting or strange. More people ate them in the countryside. A study in 2013 found that people in rural Madagascar eat some , depending on the season.

Here in Britain, it’s a different matter. Eating insects is an activity for survivalists or freak-shows – most notoriously the ‘bush tucker trials’ in the sadistic ‘reality’ TV show I’m a celebrity, get me out of here. Nobody eats insects, with the possible exception of novelties such as chocolate covered ants, or bottles of Mezcal with the larvae in them. But even those are only bought to freak out your friends.

That’s a shame, because insects are one of the most sustainable sources of protein on the planet. They can be raised with a fraction of the water and land needed for most livestock, and with much lower greenhouse gas emissions. Feeding the world’s growing population is a major challenge, and insect protein is a really useful tool in the box.

I’ve been saying this for ten years, and there hasn’t been much to show for it really. That began to change recently, and this time last year I was able to highlight a few pioneering companies. When I came to revisit the topic this summer, I discovered that the number of insect foods on the market has boomed. There are all sorts of companies crawling out of the woodwork, so to speak.

So it’s time to put my mouth where my mouth is and try some insect foods. I’ve been in touch with a number of companies and sourced a range of different products, and over the next few weeks I’m going to try them out. I’m interested in what they taste like, and I hope to find a few things I can actually add to our household diet on a more regular basis. I’m also interested in what the obstacles to wider adoption might be, and how far we are from a tipping point where insects become a normal food. I’m curious to see how the children react, and whether I can persuade my wife to try any of them at all…

I’ll post my first insect tasting notes tomorrow.

Sono launches its solar car

In January I asked how far we were from a self charging solar car. At the time there was nothing on the market, just two or three prototypes that involve some kind of solar charging. That changed a couple of weeks ago with the launch of the Sion, from German start-up .

Last year Sono ran a successful crowd-funding campaign to develop the vehicle, and at the end of July they unveiled the final design. It’s a family sized car that comes completely clad in solar panels – 330 solar cells, adding up to 7.5 square metres. The company claims that will buy you 30 kilometres of driving most days, with the high efficiency panels able to charge even in cloudy weather. That may be enough for most people on shorter journeys, but a full charge will take the car 155 miles if you’re going further.

There are a couple of unusual features. The natural moss air filter is certainly an odd one. The bi-directional energy flow means you can use the car to run other devices, or even to charge other electric cars if you needed to for some reason. But perhaps the main selling point is that the Sion costs £14,500, or $17,600. That’s a genuinely affordable car, half the price of the much hyped Tesla 3, which is supposed to be the company’s first affordable mass market electric car.

Is it any good? Does it deliver on the self-charging promise? All that remains to be seen. But if Sono get 5,000 pre-orders, it will go into production. So perhaps a self-charging electric car isn’t that far away after all.

Agricool’s strawberries in the city

is a French start-up that has developed an intensive farming technique for growing food inside old shipping containers. They can produce a crop 120 times larger than what you could grow on a patch of land of the same size, with 90% less water and no pesticides, and with 100% renewable energy. Since a micro-farm can be placed anywhere, it brings food production right into the heart of the city – lower food miles, and much fresher food.

Agricool are now selling strawberries in Paris, with plans for 75 containers around the city this year. The company hopes to expand into other fruits and vegetables and other cities in the near future, creating new jobs in agriculture in urban environments.

Little video introduction below, and for any other questions see the .