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Tamminen: Wasting An Abundant Renewable Energy

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AP

A popular illustrated book, “Everyone Poops”, explains the obvious to our kids, while the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin” has characters spinning straw into gold. Thanks to the global effort to cut carbon, we could soon be spinning waste of all kinds—including poop—into big bucks, but only if lawmakers and environmentalists come to their senses.

Renewable energy is in big demand as states try to cut carbon emissions and more than half now have renewable portfolio standards, RPS, that mandate certain percentages of wind, solar, and geothermal in the total amount of electricity generated. The controversy surrounds what constitutes renewable.

The nuclear industry is claiming the mantle with technology that reprocesses old fuel. The coal industry wants methane from mines to be included and some Energy Dept.programs say hydrogen made from natural gas is a renewable fuel.

Environmental groups and many lawmakers oppose including any of these technologies in RPS laws, but the issue doesn’t stop there. Capturing waste heat from traditional power plants and converting trash into energy are equally controversial under the theory that we should not incentivize waste of any kind and that the only goal should be to eliminate it rather than treat it as renewable.

While I also have concerns about nuclear and coal, energy security and climate change concerns mean that we need much more clean energy ASAP. This means that laws must change for at least some additional renewables, especially those with numerous co-benefits, like poop.

The average cow generates 18 gallons of waste per day. Dairies and feedlots struggle to keep up with that load, limited by weight and volume for disposal options. The result is usually dumping the sewage into ponds that leak into ground water and generate vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

Converting that resource into energy and fertilizer has been stymied in many states by opposition to giving it the “renewable” label, although using it more productively would certainly renew water supply, air quality, and our climate.

The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

Chickens poop a lot too. Green Energy Solutions in NC converts chicken waste to energy and is trying to sell the power to Progress Energy and Duke Energy. Fibrowatt is doing the same in Pennsylvania and Minnesota—and both companies could use some support from enviros and regulators.
And in California, Waste Management has been harvesting methane from decaying landfill waste and using it to run some 500 garbage trucks. State regulators should give WMI renewable energy credits for that project and encourage other operators of the nation’s 270 landfills to take the waste-to-energy approach for fuel or electricity. Although many are taking baby steps in this direction, a clear signal from lawmakers about this being a renewable source would add value to the projects and stimulate many more.

Finally, humans generate lots of waste too. Sewage treatment plants are starting to harvest fuels from poop, but the economics improve dramatically if the results qualify as “renewable” and carbon credits are added.

Households could also one day make money from their waste—waterless composting toilets convert all solid and liquid waste into fertilizers, but consider the added savings of water and the reduction of energy used to move/treat the water. Sun-Mar is one of several American companies spinning human waste into gold - - their products deserve both the renewable label and carbon credits that could incentivize even more households to participate.

As the recent Copenhagen climate summit showed, too many governments are making perfect the enemy of possible—while the stakes grow higher by the day. We don’t need Rumpelstiltskin to tell us that with a little more creativity from lawmakers, some of the best solutions to these challenges are, well, “behind” us.

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Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).