Normative Narratives


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Green News: Army Program to Test Waste-to-Fuel Viability

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Continuing the narrative on the potential of turning waste-to-energy, an Army program will offer a natural experiment of the economic viability of the concept (original article).

THERE is an indisputable elegance to the idea of transforming garbage into fuel, of turning icky, smelly detritus into something valuable.

But big drawbacks have prevented the wholesale adoption of trash-to-gas technology in the United States: incineration is polluting, and the capital costs of new plants are enormous. Gasification systems can expend a tremendous amount of energy to produce a tiny amount of electricity. Up to this point, it hasn’t seemed worth the trouble.

Mike Hart thinks that he has solved those problems. In a former Air Force hangar outside Sacramento, his company, Sierra Energy, has spent the last several years testing a waste-to-energy system called the FastOx Pathfinder. The centerpiece, a waste gasifier that’s about the size of a shower stall, is essentially a modified blast furnace. A chemical reaction inside the gasifier heats any kind of trash — whether banana peels, used syringes, old iPods, even raw sewage — to extreme temperatures without combustion. The output includes hydrogen and synthetic natural gas that can be burned to generate electricity or made into ethanol or diesel fuel. The FastOx is now being prepared for delivery to Sierra Energy’s first customer: the United States Army.

Ethanol has long been promoted as an alternative fuel that increases energy independence, and federal law requires the use of greater amounts of it. But most ethanol in this country is produced from corn or soybeans, and many people worry that the mandate is pushing up food prices. Ethanol produced from trash — or agricultural waste, as others are trying — would allay such concerns.

The military is looking for ways to reduce its oil consumption, and to make it easier to supply the front lines with the fuel it uses in all its vehicles and generators. “These days, the supply lines are in the battlefield,” said Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for operational efficiency plans and programs. “And we consume a lot of fuel, which makes us a big target.

The FastOx gasifier is the brainchild of two former engineers at Kaiser Steel, patented by the grandson of one of them and commercialized by Mr. Hart. “It’s a modular system that can be dropped into any area,” Mr. Hart said, “using waste where it’s produced to make electricity where it’s used.” Once it’s off the ground, he said, “garbage will be a commodity.”  

Gasification is more efficient than incineration and eliminates toxic byproducts that come from burning trash. But it was especially appealing from a business point of view because it relied on a proven technology and used materials in wide abundance: blast furnaces being abandoned as the American steel industry was collapsing.

“What was compelling from the start,” Mr. Soderquist said, “was repurposing existing infrastructure into a generator of clean energy, with a second revenue stream from people paying you to take their waste.”

Results at the Defense Department’s testing facility near Sacramento have been promising; after about four hours, one ton of waste creates enough gas to produce 1,580 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which would power an average home in the United States for about a month and a half — at one-third the emissions of coal — and 42 gallons of renewably sourced fuel. And that’s with a 12-ton-a-day gasifier; existing blast furnaces can handle as much as 2,000 tons a day.

“California produces 30 million tons of garbage a year,” Mr. Hart said. “If it decided to turn its waste into clean fuels, at that rate it could meet all its oil consumption needs and still export more fuel than some OPEC members.” That is, if the FastOx can do what no other waste-to-energy gasification technology has done before: take any kind of trash, in any succession, without additional separation or preparation.

Any waste-to-energy plan, however, must overcome a major hurdle: the wild inconsistency of the waste stream. “Until you’ve demonstrated that you can handle it all, nobody’s interested,” Mr. Hart said. “I can understand it; they’ve heard similar promises before. We’ve got 150 cities, communities and businesses lined up to be Serial No. 2. Nobody wants to be No. 1.”

NOBODY, that is, except the Pentagon. The Defense Department is the country’s largest single consumer of energy, spending $15 billion a year just on fuel.

The appeal of Mr. Hart’s Pathfinder system is that it would produce fuel on site, eliminating the need to truck in fuel to dangerous military outposts. It would also reduce the need for trash-burning on bases, which creates pollution and noxious odors that have contributed to locals’ distaste for the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As a result, United States forces in Afghanistan are working to close burn pits.

Ms. Burke added, “Something for military operations has to be really rugged, deployable, simple to use — all of those things.” Consultants and municipal sanitation officials who’ve looked at the FastOx say it meets those criteria.

“Waste is a problem,” Ms. Burke said. “So if we could dispose of waste and create energy at the same time, that would be a silver bullet.”

Whats not to love about this story? An idea for turning trash-to-fuel, a seemingly futuristic and complex concept, with its origins in a 1980s steel plant. The process does not require complex new technology, but instead relies on modified blast furnaces, which are abundant due to the decline of the U.S. steel industry. Utilizing recycled capital and infrastructure only makes waste-to-fuel more appealing from a sustainability and affordability point of view. 

The idea was scoffed at, evolved through trial and error and by chance, and today has become the first trash-to-fuel concept to be adopted by the U.S. D.o.D. With minimal government aid (the article cites $8 million dollars from the federal and state government), and a little bit of American ingenuity and determination, garbage may someday be worth its weight in gold (not literally, but as the article says it will be a commodity, not a liability).

A little more research into the D.o.D energy consumption further emphasized the importance of “greening-up” D.o.D operations:

DoD analyses over the last decade have cited the military’s fossil fuel dependence as a strategic risk and identified renewable energy and energy efficiency investments as key mitigation measures.

As the largest energy consumer in the United States, the federal government plays an important role in the country’s energy system. In recent years, a number of factors have led it to reduce fossil fuel dependence through investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, including supply risks, high and volatile prices, and environmental impacts. In fiscal year 2010, DoD spent $4 billion on installation energy and $11 billion on operational energy. The full cost of fuel can be as high as $400 per gallon by the time it is delivered to a remote Forward Operating Base.

Recent U.S. Military operations in the Middle East have been too closely associated with U.S. energy interests. It is hypocritical to cite foreign energy dependence as a national security threat and not do everything in your power to reduce your own organization’s reliance on those very same energy sources.

I often write about the sustainability of U.S. military endeavors from an opportunity cost (programs we can’t afford as a nation because of high military spending) and human loss perspective. This form sustainability is about knowing when to use military intervention and when to pursue other means of foreign policy, within the D.I.M.E. paradigm. However, sometimes military intervention is necessary; another manifestation of military sustainability is ensuring that day-to-day operations and necessary military interventions are carried out in the most environmentally sustainable way as possible.

Furthermore, according to the NYT article, less reliance on fossil fuels would reduce the number of military deaths; “about half of United States casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2007 were of servicemen and servicewomen moving and protecting fuel convoys, according to an Army report.”

As a nation we spend a lot on military programs–far more than any other country. We also consume a lot of energy; these two characteristics of America are not completely independent of one another. Both of these forms of sustainability are about making sure every dollar that goes to the D.o.D. is truly needed an fully utilized, as it is one dollar that cannot go to a school, hospital, infrastructure project, or any other public good / program (not to mention both reforms would directly save lives). There are arguments for and against reducing military spending, which I will not get into here. It is, however, indisputable that the D.o.D. and the D.o.S. should work together in order to operate in the most strategic and environmentally sustainable way possible.

Waste-to-energy is a promising concept that could eventually transform how the military and municipalities deal with waste–I’ll be sure to keep my readers up-to-date about this exciting experiment.


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Conflict Watch: Secretary of State Kerry Visits Sub-Saharan Africa; Talks Human Rights

Two days ago President Obama made a speech envisioning a new direction for American foreign policy. Unsuprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry is doubling down on Obama’s vision (NYT article):

“Making his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as secretary of state, John Kerry urged Nigeria on Saturday to uphold human rights as it steps up its fight against Islamic extremists.”

“…reports that Nigerian forces have carried out extrajudicial killings, including against civilians, have become a problem for the United States, which provides law enforcement assistance and has cooperated with Nigeria, a major oil supplier, on counterterrorism issues.”

“‘We defend the right completely of the government of Nigeria to defend itself and to fight back against terrorists,’ he added. ‘That said, I have raised the issue of human rights with the government.’”

“Earlier this month, Mr. Kerry, in a statement, noted ‘credible allegations’ that Nigerian forces had been engaged in ‘gross human rights violations.’”

“Asked about reports of human rights violations — there have been reports of large-scale civilian killings by the army and police in Nigeria — Mr. Kerry said the Nigerian government had acknowledged that abuses had occurred.”

“‘One’s person’s atrocity does not excuse another’s,’ Mr. Kerry said, when asked about reports of serious human rights violations by Nigerian forces.

“What is needed ‘is good governance,’ Mr. Kerry said. ‘It’s ridding yourself of a terrorist organization so that you can establish a standard of law that people can respect. And that’s what needs to happen in Nigeria.’”

Secretary of State Kerry also met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, in attempts to support Egypt’s rocky transition towards effective democracy:

“Mr. Kerry was scheduled to meet with the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, later on Saturday. At a March meeting in Cairo, Mr. Morsi promised to move ahead with negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, and Mr. Kerry announced that the United States would provide $250 million in assistance to Egypt. But concerns have mounted since that Egypt is not prepared to undertake serious economic reforms.

The African Union, the organization that Mr. Kerry is in Ethiopia to celebrate, remains, half a century in, a work in progress. First molded by the Pan-African ideals of Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana in the 1950s and 60s when it became the first African state to break its colonial bonds, the union, then known as the Organization for African Unity, emphasized African self-reliance and independence.

But those notions quickly curdled into a doctrine that led African leaders to believe that they were above reproach. Autocratic, corrupt leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo; Idi Amin of Uganda; and Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast earned the organization the nickname “dictator’s club.”

Many dictators have fallen in the “Arab Spring” revolutions. The article also discusses the Syrian civil war, frayed relations with Pakistan, terrorist networks in Yemen, pulling out of Afghanistan, and sectarian conflicts in Iraq and between Sudan and South Sudan. As far as extreme poverty and human rights violations are concerned, there is a very strong argument that these issues are becoming more and more exclusive to the African continent. While this is a disturbing if not suprising trend, it also provides a strong mandate for where the vast majority of future humanitarian aid, assistance, and debt forgiveness should be focused (not that there was really much of a question on this to begin with).

Obama and Kerry continue to be a sort of super-team on foreign affairs; their pragmatic and diplomatic approach towards foreign economic and security issues have the potential to bolster America’s standing in foreign affairs while simultaneously spending fewer resources on military endeavors.

I hope my readers realize that by writing about “The End of Team America World Police” that I am in now trying to belittle the efforts of our brave men and women who serve in the armed forces. You can support the troops without supporting some of the Wars they are told to fight in (which the troops themselves have very little no say over). You can support the U.S. D.o.D. While believing that a more even distribution of resources between itself and the D.o.S. would allow America to have a more meaningful impact in global affairs. And you can certainly give military personnel training in human rights, so that our normative vision for this nations role in global affairs can be practiced in the field, instead of our military presence inciting anti-American prejudices.

Another article in the Times today picks apart Obama’s speech. And while I cannot argue with the issues raised in this article, I can question the overall point of the article. The the basis of the argument is that it will not be easy to accomplish what Obama has set out to do, and he did not offer many concrete examples of military action in his public address.

Of course it will not be easy to accomplish the global vision President Obama set out. As I said before, the transition will be neither quick nor linear, there are many obstacles in the way and many more unforseen obstacles will present themselves as vested interests struggle against the forces of modernization. And of course President Obama did not lay out the specifics of his national security agenda; only this nations top security advisors will ever be privy to that information.

After over a decade being engaged in a costly “War on Terror”, America has an administration who is willing to work with the global community to achieve real results on issues that we require coordination to be adequately addressed, instead of ineffective and inefficient unilateral action. This approach will unlock resources that can be spent at home, and raise America’s standing abroad by creating more lasting alliances.

One indisputable fact remains, and that is that America cannot continue its military operations indefinitely as it has since 9/11/01–this is not a sustainable position fiscally or theoretically. The changes Obama has laid out are something Americans should embrace–nobody should ever want us to have to use our armed forces.

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