Over the Hill

Methane booster ahead of his time

The late Curt Baxter of Paso Robles would have smiled at one headline in the Jan. 6 Tribune. It said, “FROM GARBAGE TO GAS.”

The story concerned the landfill dump that serves San Francisco and Oakland. Its decaying contents emit methane gas. Its operators capture the gas, process it and use it to fuel almost 500 garbage and recycling trucks.

Curt Baxter was the proprietor of Paso Robles Office Supply. Back in 1973 he convinced me that you could produce usable gas from chicken manure, or almost any waste product, possibly including almond hulls. Almonds were then still considered a major North County crop.

In 1973, we Americans were having our first energy panic since World War II, with soaring gasoline prices, electrical brown-outs, long lines at gas stations, the Arab oil embargo and an unlit national Christmas tree in Washington, D.C.

America sought new energy sources, but Mr. Baxter remembered an old one. In the 1920s, his parents had a dairy farm in Washington state. On it they had a gas generator, which generated burnable gas from sawdust. Its gas storage tank was eight feet high and 12 feet across.

Mr. Baxter wanted to publicize this energy source so he called me. I was the KPRL radio news guy and a stringer for the Telegram-Tribune, now The Tribune. He said he had a scale model gas generator, much like his parents’ full-size apparatus. He got the model in 1937 from the proprietor of Smee’s Plumbing in San Luis Obispo. It was made in the 1920s for demonstration purposes. It looked like a step-on garbage can connected to a miniature furnace.

In 1973. Mr. Baxter also recruited a volunteer technician, Irl Denniston, who taught grades 1-4 at Bradley School in southern Monterey County.

Mr. Denniston fixed up the clogged, corroded model, and I was invited to a demonstration at the school.

Mr. Denniston spooned chicken manure into the little oven compartment, clamped the door shut and lit a wood fire in the little firebox. To keep it simple for me, he said he was sort of baking the gas out of the manure. Soon, the gas filled the storage tank; its inner section telescoped upwards.

Then he opened a valve and lit the gas. It burned with a clear, barely visible flame.

I don’t know if they ever tried almond hulls. They’re scarce around here today, but grape pomace isn’t. Pomace is what’s left after wineries crush out the juice. People are now talking about treating the pomace with bacteria to produce methane gas. That would also please Mr. Baxter.

Contact Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobl.net or 238-2372.