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Green News: Competition in the Waste-to-Fuel / Energy Industry

(Everyone is sick of hearing about this government shutdown anyways right??)

The potential of the waste-to-energy industry is a recurring topic here at NN. To quote a NYT article on the subject, “THERE is an indisputable elegance to the idea of transforming garbage into fuel, of turning icky, smelly detritus into something valuable.” It seems that energy producers and waste management companies agree, as there has been a strong push in the past decades to turn energy based waste / fuel into commercially viable alternative power source. Most articles I have reviewed so far have referred to the gasification of garbage in specially designed power plants. A new concept proposes to capture the methane released from garbage already in landfills and turning it into energy/fuel:

Clean Energy Fuels will announce on Thursday that it has started selling a fuel made of methane from landfills and other waste sources at its more than 40 filling stations in California. The company, which is backed by T. Boone Pickens, is developing a nationwide network of natural gas pumps and plans to introduce the fuel elsewhere as well.

The company expects to sell 15 million gallons of the fuel in California this year, more than double the amount of similar fuels the Environmental Protection Agency projected would be produced nationwide.

To many in the industry, the pace of the fuel’s development has been something of a surprise.

“Though California and others have been investing in the development of this fuel, I don’t think people were expecting there to be a significant public supply or access this soon — maybe not even this decade,” said Tim Carmichael, who leads the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, a trade group.

A big factor in methane’s rise is the surge in natural gas production from shale drilling, which had already nudged the transportation industry to begin shifting to vehicles that can run on the cleaner-burning fuel, making it easier to meet emissions standards.

Another reason is powerful government incentives, especially in California, that have imposed strict regulations intended to help reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Under the program, suppliers that reduce emissions during the production, transportation and use of the fuel are awarded tradable credits.

These and similar federal incentives are allowing Clean Energy to sell the fuel, which is called Redeem, at the same price as its conventional natural gas fuel even though it is more expensive to produce.

But because of its source, the fuel counts as renewable and takes less energy to extract and process, making it more attractive to companies seeking to burnish their green credentials

The fuel’s environmental benefits also include capturing the methane before it is released into the atmosphere. When the methane-derived fuel is burned, it is far less harmful to the atmosphere than petroleum fuels. But the methane that escapes directly from decomposing waste is more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon.

For this reason, many large-scale farms, wastewater treatment companies and garbage companies have developed systems to capture escaping methane — known as biogas — for both transportation and electricity, and several start-up companies are working on systems of their own. There are projects in Europe as well, where biogas for transport is more common.

Beyond the bottom line, customers are increasingly interested in how clean the fuel is, said Andrew J. Littlefair, the chief executive of Clean Energy, adding that Redeem can burn 90 percent cleaner than diesel. “We’re seeing from these heavy-duty trucking fleets, and these shippers that hire these trucking fleets, they’re really interested in sustainability,” he said. “It’s gotten to be a very important part of the sale.”

John Simourian, chief executive of Lily Transportation, which uses a nationwide network of trucks to move a range of products, including construction materials and groceries, said that only a small portion of his fleet ran on natural gas but that the company was shifting over.

Not only is the fuel less expensive, but it gives the company a competitive advantage with customers on price and environmental concerns. “It’s just a win all around,” he said.

It is interesting to note all the different avenues being explored when it comes to turning waste into something valuable and environmentally friendly–and why not? According to Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for operational efficiency plans and programs “Waste is a problem, so if we could dispose of waste and create energy at the same time, that would be a silver bullet.” But you don’t need to be en expert to know that trash is a problem, especially in densely populated areas (such as major cities) which produce a lot of trash; it stinks, it takes up room, and it costs money to get rid of. It is safe to say that, with the current trash disposal system, we have a “surplus of trash”.

Now imagine a world where not only is trash not a liability, but there are actually companies biding for trash (both intra-industry and inter-industry; some want it for landfill methane extraction, others to gasify the garbage directly into energy)–a trash shortage! A stream of revenue could open up for large municipalities, instead of a large bill for waste management. It is true that eventually waste-to-trash will have to get off subsidies to become truly commercially viable. However, if as a society we are unwilling to reward waste-to-energy for it’s positive externalities (such as less emissions and less garbage around), we can still hold “dirty” energy producers accountable for their negative externalities via carbon tax / cap and trade. As waste-to-energy matures and becomes more efficient, and emissions prices stabilize due to a more complete global market, the industry should eventually be able to compete without subsidies. It would appear this world is not so unimaginable or far-off as one may think.

 

 


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Green News: Another Look at Recycling Organic Waste / Garbage

A small clerical issue; I have decided to add a new category, “Green News”, because environmental issues are such an important component of sustainable human development. I also feel like I have been focusing too much on conflicts and economic news, this new category will hopefully help balance out the content I produce.

Months ago, I wrote a blog about the interesting idea of turning garbage into electricity. The blog focused on innovations and regulations that in recent decades have made the process much more sustainable:

Turning waste into energy may seem futuristic, but in this case the future is today. There is currently a high capacity operational waste-to-energy plant in Malaysia:

“K.S. Sivaprasad, an engineer from India, spent four decades perfecting a factory that accepts city trash, dries it, picks out the burnable elements and ignites them to create electricity. His first full-scale plant chews through 700 tons of garbage a day and delivers 5.5 megawatts to the power grid.”

In the U.S., waste-to-energy used to be unregulated and, as you could imagine, quite environmentally harmful. Burning trash, without taking the proper measures, released all sorts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Over time, the process has become more regulated and environmentally friendly:

“Proponents of WTE technology argue that thermal processing is a form of recycling and that new technologies and EPA regulations have eliminated the odor and air pollution many people connect with the process of incinerating trash. Professor Nickolas J. Themelis, director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University, said he thinks that much of the opposition to creating WTE plants in the city stems from people’s memories of the bad old days.

“At one point New York had 30 municipal incinerators and about 15,000 residential incinerators with no regulation at all. It was a mess,” said Themelis. “There is this kind of animus among people who have been exposed to incinerators in the past. They associate them with black smoke and horrific pollution. But the truth is, those are all gone now. The pollution generated by trucking waste to landfills can’t compare to how little a modern WTE facility produces. The people who oppose these technologies are like the Flat Earth Society, they are holding back progress.”

Mayor Bloomberg called for a pilot waste-to-energy program in NYC this past March:

“Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced on Tuesday that the city was looking for a pilot “state of the art facility” that could handle a maximum of 450 tons of trash a day — out of a total of 10,000 tons currently in need of disposal — with plans to double that capacity if successful. The plant, which must be in New York City or no farther than 80 miles away, would be privately built and operated.”

In related news, a milestone has been claimed in a related process of turning organic waste and eventually garbage into fuel:

After months of frustrating delays, a chemical company announced Wednesday that it had produced commercial quantities of ethanol from wood waste and other nonfood vegetative matter, a long-sought goal that, if it can be expanded economically, has major implications for providing vehicle fuel and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

The company, INEOS Bio, a subsidiary of the European oil and chemical company INEOS, said it had produced the fuel at its $130 million Indian River BioEnergy Center in Vero Beach, Fla., which it had hoped to open by the end of last year. The company said it was the first commercial-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic feedstock, but it did not say how much it had produced. Shipments will begin in August, the company said.

The process begins with wastes — wood and vegetative matter for now, municipal garbage later — and cooks it into a gas of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Bacteria eat the gas and excrete alcohol, which is then distilled. Successful production would eliminate some of the “food versus fuel” debate in the manufacturing of ethanol, which comes from corn.

The plant has produced “truckloads” of ethanol, said Mr. Williams [Chief Executive of INEOS Bio], but still has work to do to improve its yield. Mr. Niederschulte [Chief Operating Officer of INEOS Bio] said, “Now we want to produce more ethanol from a ton of wood, rather than just making ethanol from a ton of wood.”

The Department of Energy hailed the development as the first of a kind, and said it was made possible by research work the department had sponsored in recent years.

If ethanol can be produced at reasonable cost from abundant nonfood sources, like yard trimmings or household trash, it could displace fuel made from oil, and that oil, and its carbon, could stay in the ground, reducing the amount greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, experts say. Carbon from wood scraps or garbage would enter the atmosphere via cellulosic ethanol, but cutting down a tree or trimming a garden creates space for new growth, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air.

Funny enough, I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about garbage and recycling. I was wondering how to overcome the obstacle of people simply throwing away recyclable waste. I argued there should be public sector jobs for people to perform such a task. His response was that the private sector already has incentive to sift through garbage, and does via waste management businesses. Duh!

Back on topic, it certainly seems like recycling has reached a “golden age”. I am not just talking about conventional recycling, which people do themselves and other factors both private and public, formal and informal, supplement. This is about the possibilities of turning waste, garbage, rubbish, or whatever you wish to call it, into both electricity and liquid fuel. The only hurdle which remains (and admittedly a big one) is commercial viability. 

Sustainable development requires innovative thinking, like harnessing electricity from the sun, or wind, or tidal power. This is a perfect example of why we need subsidies and government funded R & D into renewable energy (and public education in general), because the power of innovation is what will ultimately lead to sustainable development in the 21st century. The creative economy is a major engine for sustainable growth, and must be fostered through investment in human capital.

Innovations such as these will only become more important as the worlds population continues to balloon. We have reached a point where one mans trash is literally another mans treasure–a consistent and sustainable source of treasure. 


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Transparency Thursday: Wal-Mart, a Microcosm of the U.S. Economy

Walmart is the nation’s largest retail employer. Walmart’s competitive advantage is no secret; by providing goods at prices lower than competitors, it has been able to capture market share by driving competitors out of business. This translates into savings for customers. But looking further into the specifics of how Walmart keeps its costs down, it may also translate into higher costs for consumers in the long run. As is often the case, the “devil is in the details”.

Take, for example, the fact that Wal-Mart systematically underpays their employees. The average Walmart associate makes $15,500 per year ($8.81 per hour). Walmart’s CEO Mike Duke will bring home over $23 million in salary and performance based benefits in 2012, a whopping 1034:1 CEO to employee pay ratio (by far the highest, the next being Target at 597:1, also this figure is based on a median Wal-Mart salary of $22,400, so based on which figure you use the ratio could be much higher). It is estimated that it would cost Wal-Mart shoppers on average another $0.46 per visit to if the company offered a minimum wage of $12 / hour.

On the flip side of this, it costs the nation an estimated $1 billion a year in social safety net use. Essentially, the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s  low wages, which systematically produce full-time workers living below the poverty line.

Next, consider environmental degradation. One common way to keep costs down is through “supply chain fractionalization”, producing certain products in low wage countries. This leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions, as goods are transported all over the world; without a system of taxing carbon, nobody pays for these emissions. “In the U.S. Walmart’s reported emissions grew by roughly 7% between 2005-2009. In Asia, its greenhouse gas emissions have doubled. The company expects 13 million metric tons of cumulative growth in emissions by 2015”. For all the lip service Walmart pays to environmental sustainability, this amounts to little more than a PR move.

Supply chain fractionalization—or outsourcing—has cost the U.S. an estimated 196,000 jobs from 2001-2006 due to Chinese Imports. This number has probably continued to grow, and represents jobs lost to production in other countries (outsourcing), and smaller domestic firms who were priced out of the market by Walmart’s business practices.

How is Walmart a microcosm of the current U.S. economy? This issue is highlighted in a recent New York Times article. According to the article, “Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and grocer, has cut so many employees that it no longer has enough workers to stock its shelves properly, according to some employees and industry analysts.”

“Labor groups and some employees say the low staffing levels are hurting the in-store experience.”

Like America in general, Walmart appears to be producing under capacity because of it’s reluctance to hire workers.

In an attempt to save money, Walmart has undermined consumer confidence in its produce—one of the bulwarks of Walmart’s profitability (“Grocery made up 55 percent of Walmart’s United States sales in 2012”). Does the concept of low consumer confidence sound familiar? It should, it is one of the things depressing aggregate demand and is related to stagnant wages, unemployment, and general pessimism of peoples belief in the economy.

“Before the recession, at the start of 2007, Walmart had an average of 338 employees per store at its United States stores and Sam’s Club locations. Now, it has 281 per store, having cut the number of United States employees while adding hundreds of stores.”

Walmart has undermined its consumer confidence, which threatens to hurt its bottom line in the long run (it has not in the short run, which I will address shortly). However, when questioned about the possibility of hiring more workers, “Ms. Scott [a manager at a Los Angeles Walmart] says she has pushed for additional staff or for more hours for existing staff, ‘and the answer that I receive is they want to focus on productivity with the workers that we do have.’”

Does this sound eerily familiar to an overall justification for stubbornly high unemployment in the U.S.? It should. Corporations (including Walmart) are sitting on record profits, yet have not increased hiring to post recession levels. Compounding the issue is that employee productivity and wages have diverged greatly. Employers, Walmart being the largest, are systematically relying on higher worker productivity to make up for a smaller labor force, with no inclination that the higher productivity they seek will result in higher wages.

Walmart, like many other large corporations, is answerable to its stockholders and high level executives. Executive pay is incredibly high, profit’s continue to rise, and stock prices are now well above their pre-recession levels. With all this positive reinforcement, why would Walmart change its practices?

Ultimately, market forces determine the success of a business. No-one is forcing people to shop at Walmart, they go there for low prices and good selection. However, there are systematic issues with how Walmart keeps its costs down—most notably paying low wages and increasingly relying on practices which damage the environment.

Some of these issues, such as minimum wage and environmental regulation, need to be addressed by government policy. People need to be aware of the facts, so they can vote for policies that hold large corporations responsible for the negative externalities they cause. More immediately, people can vote with their wallets, by shopping at Wal-Mart’s competitors (which, based on the breadth of their operations, can include almost all retailers).

If Walmart can post hundred-billion dollar profit margins, and pay its CEO over 1000x the median employee salary, it can afford a more sustainable and egalitarian business model. Walmart’s primary competitive advantage is taking advantage of economies of scale—there is nothing wrong with this. However, cutting corners in other ways unfairly shifts the burden of Walmart’s costs onto taxpayers and the environment. If Walmart’s profits begin to fall, they will rethink their corporate strategy. Until then, we can expect business as usual.

For the sake of it’s own profitability and the U.S. economy, Walmart should hire more workers at more livable wages.

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