The Optimistic Futurist: Local leadership can fuel change
Published 12:00 am Friday, September 21, 2012
By Francis P. Koster
Who ever thought that the route to a better America might be through garbage dumps?
When measured at the dump, each American citizen disposes of around 7 pounds of garbage each day. This is collected at great taxpayer expense and buried in what used to be called a dump. As knowledge of the dangers accumulating in dumps grew, an entire body of science developed to reduce risk to the citizens. What are now called landfills are costly to set up and run and require careful attention due to the chemistry that occurs when you pile lots of garbage from homes, industry, hospitals, automobile repair shops and garden stores in a big heap. A lot of chemical “speed dating (and mating)” occurs in this dark environment. This behavior produces all sorts of unusual products while cooking away underground, and landfill operators have to monitor what is going on to keep the public safe.
For example, all landfills give off methane gas as the old garbage decays. This gas is a notorious climate-changing substance. Many people have heard that methane has a climate-changing impact 20 times greater than CO2 – but that is its average impact over 100 years. What is not well known is that methane is “front-end loaded” in its impact – having around 70 times more impact over the first 20 years than the same amount of the better known threat, carbon dioxide, and much less in later years. Would it not be wonderful if we could save money for the taxpayer while fixing this problem? Well, it is possible.
There are roughly 3,000 landfills in the United States. Less than 1 in 5 is seizing a well-documented opportunity to take this mess and make something valuable out of it. The 550 landfill leaders take this dangerous gas and lower taxes with it. There is an outstanding example close to home.
In Newton, Catawba County runs a large landfill that takes in all the trash from more than 400 square miles. Using the methane produced by the garbage dumped in the landfill, the county currently runs three electrical generators that make enough electricity to power 1,400 homes. When they add two new generators, they expect this number to go to 4,300 homes – or one in every 12 homes in the county! The county sells the power to Duke Energy at a rate that will bring the county coffers $9 million over the project’s 20 year life!
These generators, like generators around the world, make a lot of heat while making electricity. One of the distinguishing features of the Catawba landfill is that this heat is captured and piped into a biofuels production and refinery station on site. Making biofuel requires a lot of heat, which in this case is essentially free. This plant makes the bio-diesel which is put in the fuel tanks that run the bulldozers and backhoes that are required by a modern landfill. Additionally, a lot of research is going on in partnership with Appalachian State University about how to produce more and cheaper bio-fuels in settings like this, so that the process can be improved.
In other words, the managers of Catawba County reduce taxpayer expense by taking garbage, capturing a dangerous gas, making electricity from it which they then sell, and also use the waste heat to make bio-diesel used to fuel the landfill fleet. And by doing so, they help reduce climate change.
Installing such generation and waste-heat scavenging systems is expensive and not all landfills are good candidates. However, North Carolina ranks third in the nation, after Texas and California, for the potential for landfill-to-energy projects. Thirty-eight of North Carolina’s landfills are identified already as good candidates, but only four of them are seizing the opportunity.
In the past, I have written about the use of private capital invested by local citizens in situations where the local government either cannot or will not use taxpayer money for such a purpose, regardless of how good an investment it is. These investors can earn a better (and safer) rate of return by helping solve a local problem than they can investing in stocks these days, and they can receive tax credits for which the local government does not qualify. These financing techniques could be used on landfill methane projects. You can read more about how this works at www.TheOptimisticFuturist.org – search for the article titled “Investing in Energy Savings.”
I often have people tell me they feel overwhelmed by all the problems facing our country. It does not need to be this way. If we have the will, we can make real progress by imitating good ideas already in place elsewhere in our country (or just down the road). By doing so, we can lower taxes and create jobs while we clean up our environment and reduce the dangers of climate change.
Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis. His “Optimistic Futurist” column appears every other Sunday. For more information, visit www.TheOptimisticFuturist.org or contact him at FuturistFran@aol.com.