NC missing opportunity to convert waste to energy

Published June 27, 2014

by William "Gus" Simmons, past president Professional Engineers of NC, published in News and Observer, June 26, 2014.

While much of the renewable energy conversation is focused on solar and wind, most of North Carolina’s residents would be surprised to learn of the huge potential we have to turn our waste into energy – specifically swine and poultry waste, something we have in abundance. Unfortunately, North Carolina is not fully taking advantage of this energy resource.

Recently, the N.C. Utilities Commission voted to push back the timeline for requiring the development of renewable energy from biological resources as is specified in law. The N.C. Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard requires electric utilities in North Carolina to meet targets for developing electricity from various renewable sources including organic feedstock. The N.C. Utilities Commission cited lack of credible technologies and market-based solutions as reasons for continued relaxation of the timelines.

North Carolina is one of the richest carbon states in the country. Our climate and natural resources are ideal for creating a continuous supply of organic materials that may be used to create biofuels and bioenergy. These unique characteristics are what have led agriculture to be North Carolina’s No. 1 industry. Given our vast supply of poultry and swine waste, North Carolina could become a global leader in bioenergy resource development as well.

Since the state adopted its renewable energy standard, there have been both vocal advocates and strong critics. Most recently, there have been several attempts to totally repeal the REPS. As discussions continue, uncertainty keeps these market-based technologies from being developed in a state that is primed for just this type of investment.

A Duke University study released in April 2013 shows that creative solutions for converting organic waste to energy do exist. In the study, hog farms in North Carolina are shown to provide a viable and renewable resource with beneficial economic impacts to our agricultural community while protecting our state’s air and water resources. One finding showed that if all farms participated in collecting biogas, the system would generate enough electricity to power between 54,000 to 140,000 homes and meet more than 700 percent of the REPS requirement. Researchers also concluded that the capture and destruction of swine waste-derived biogas could reduce greenhouse emissions by 1.35 to 1.37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, assuming full implementation of the REPS swine set-aside by 2018. Farmers also benefit from increased revenues, meaning farms are more likely to remain in operation and sustain North Carolina’s agricultural economy.

The goals specified in the REPS were carefully established by a large group of stakeholders as a starting point. Given what we know now, were the standards too high and the timeline too aggressive? Would smaller steps over a longer period of time be more achievable and give more incentive to long-term innovation of technologies to capitalize on the valuable organic resources our state has to offer? Or, is there more opportunity beyond the original goal established, and if so, are we properly planning for the future?

Professional Engineers of North Carolina see a need to review the initial goals and more closely evaluate how those goals were established. What was the basis for that target? What has happened over the past three years that has changed the initial assumptions; and what needs to remain or be revised to make this critical capture of renewable resources become a further economic driver for North Carolina?

We need to continue our investment in the ground-breaking technologies that have already advanced the renewable energy industry in NC to No. 2 behind California in the number of clean energy jobs created. We must be careful not to undo all of the progress we’ve made. This would not have been possible if there had not been goals established in the first place.

Engineers, scientists and energy experts should lead our policy-makers through a careful and thoughtful planning process that supports renewable energy development as a positive economic driver for the state. From the Professional Engineer’s point of view, organic renewable energy resources will have a very powerful and positive impact on the future of North Carolina’s economy. We must not miss this opportunity by continuing to delay or lower our standards. We have the natural resources, the research platform, and the engineering expertise that can advance this technology at a rapid pace. Let’s raise up the science in the conversation and aid our state in developing an achievable road map for capitalizing on these valuable renewable energy resources.

William “Gus” Simmons, is a professional engineer with Cavanaugh and Associates in Wilmington and past President, Professional Engineers of North Carolina.