Normative Narratives


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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: 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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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: Recycling New York City’s Garbage

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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.”

Mr. Sivaprasad wants to expand his operation, not in NYC, but in India.

“Mr. Saxena’s involvement will help the company apply for a grant from the Trade and Development Agency in the United States for the next project that Mr. Sivaprasad would like to build: a plant that would absorb 1,200 tons of trash a day and produce 10 megawatts of power in the southern Indian cities of Chennai or Bangalore.

“Some improvement is coming in, and with American money I can clinch a project,” he said. “This has taken a very long time.”

If he is applying for American financing, the project should be in America. Seeing as Mayor Bloomberg is a proponent of the project, and Mr. Sivaprasad clearly has the ability to create a high capacity fully functional waste-to-energy plant, a NYC project seems like a natural fit for both parties.

“There are currently 10 WTE facilities statewide licensed by the Department of Environmental Conservation to burn municipal waste and convert it into steam and electricity. One is located in Peekskill, about 50 miles up the Hudson River. The facility is owned by Wheelabrator, a subsidiary of Waste Management, the country’s largest waste processor, which serves more than 20 million residential, commercial and municipal customers nationwide.”

This idea sounds like a great way to deal with New York City’s garbage in a sustainable and profitable way, whats not to like about it? It is literally making money from trash, brilliant!