Tuesday evening (January 5, 2016), I attended a public hearing on North Carolina’s strategy for compliance with the Clean Power Plan. The hearing was facilitated by NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (EMC) in Wilmington. It was the third such hearing giving the public a chance to comment on North Carolina’s strategy regarding the Clean Power Plan. The two previous hearings were held in Charlotte and Raleigh.
North Carolina has purposely and intently developed an inferior plan, anticipating rejection by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). NC is one of 27 states that have stated that they will sue EPA over the Clean Power Plan rule, and will challenge EPA’s authority to implement the Clean Power Plan, which requires states to develop a strategy for reducing power emissions from the power sector. Many may view the strategy of purposely developing an inferior plan as sending a signal of combativeness and disregard for the environment and potential health impacts from carbon emissions.
Upon our arrival, attendees were given the opportunity to sign up to speak. Many members of the public chose to speak on negative environmental impacts of greenhouse and/or carbon emissions, including such topics as sea level rise, glacial melting and potential impact to a variety of species resulting from the climate warming, with some comments reflecting on observations and perceptions on impacts to human health, risks to person or property, as they pertain to catastrophic climatic events, including flooding, hurricanes, and other storm occurrences. The punchline of most of the comments criticized the State for its strategy of combating the Clean Power Plan, rather than embracing it working to develop a plan to address carbon emissions and climate change. A few speakers offered direct guidance as to how North Carolina should move forward to develop a meaningful plan, and criticized the steps that had been taken thus far. In contrast, my comments – albeit later in the evening – were based on the rich opportunity that the State of North Carolina has relative to harvesting the energy value from waste organics.
A More Positive Approach…. Harvesting the Energy Value from Waste Organics
I prefaced my comments with my desire to not simply repeat many of the things which had already been said, but rather to offer some new and helpful comments to the representatives of EMC and DEQ facilitating the discussion and taking notes. I referenced the fact that EPA is not the only agency that has been active in evaluating ways to better manage the carbon cycle; agencies such as USDA and DOE have been collaborating with EPA and other public agencies and private think-tanks to address carbon management – not only through the elimination of the combustion of carbon-based fuels, but through opportunities to displace the use of fossil-based subterranean carbon fuels with those fuels that stem from recycled atmospheric carbon. Why? Because the use of biogenic carbon (waste organics, in particular) makes good sense for the environment, and it makes great sense for our economy.
The conversion of organic waste into biogas, which may easily be refined to renewable natural gas, is an extremely positive approach to addressing carbon emissions. Such organic-waste-derived renewable natural gas allows us to continue utilizing existing electricity generating infrastructure (existing power plants that use natural gas to make electricity) and supports the electric utilities continuing to do what they do best – convert fuel into electrons. It also reduces carbon emissions (more on this in a minute), supports existing NC economic engines such as agriculture and forestry, and provides revenues and motivation for improved waste management across all sectors.
The final Clean Power Plan rule by EPA recognizes that carbon emissions from the decomposition of organic waste has a net neutral impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Simply put, organic stuff is created from atmospheric carbon, and when organic carbon decomposes, it re-releases the carbon to the atmosphere from which it came. Capturing the carbon emissions (methane) from this decomposing organic waste and then using it to create electricity along the way to being released does not add to atmospheric carbon levels. This is called organic recycling.
Biogenic CO2 emissions are defined as CO2 emissions related to the natural carbon cycle, as well as those resulting from the combustion, harvest, combustion, digestion, fermentation, decomposition, or processing of biologically based materials. Examples of biogenic CO2 emissions include:
- CO2 from the combustion of biogas collected from biological decomposition of waste in landfills, wastewater treatment, or manure management processes
- CO2 from combustion of the biological fraction of municipal solid waste or biosolids
- CO2 derived from combustion of biological material, including forest-derived and agriculture-derived feedstocks
North Carolina is recognized by many reputable sources such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), as the third richest state in organic waste resources in the country as expressed as ‘biomethane potential.’ (reference page 3 of the NREL Biogas Potential in the United States Fact Sheet). The abundance of this rich resource in NC continues to grow, as our state population grows and creates even more organic wastes. Disposing of these organic resources is the same as throwing cash in the garbage or flushing coins down the toilet.
While my comments offered at the Public Workshop were a brief paraphrasing of the concepts described in this posting, I plan to submit detailed comments for inclusion and review of the EMC as it moves through its decision making process relative to the plan development proposed by DEQ. Doesn’t it make sense to use our most plentiful resources wisely? As an engineer, I am constantly looking for solutions that are economically, environmentally, and socially sound. Perhaps this is why I see a strategy to addressing the Clean Power Plan so obviously before us – harvest the renewable natural gas potential of our immense organic waste resources, use the RNG to fuel our energy needs, and buy North Carolina fuel, created by North Carolina resources. When you have an abundance of a renewable resource that you are currently wasting, dedicate yourself to becoming a good steward of this resource. Along the way, you will find yourself making good choices that have a positive impact for our State.