Innovation turning garbage into greenbacks

Telling a hard-working family there’s a positive side to high utility bills and $4 a gallon gasoline is like convincing four-year-olds that swallowing bitter medicine is good for them.

There is no doubt higher energy costs are hurting people, particularly those in the low and middle income brackets — those who scrape by from paycheck to paycheck.

But what if families could offset additional costs for groceries, heat and fuel with lower garbage and sewer rates?

That could happen if new technology under development can generate more electricity at wastewater treatment plants and landfills and if local elected officials would pass on the savings to taxpayers.

For example, in Des Moines, Iowa, a new process called MicroSludge significantly reduces the amount of sewage sludge by converting it into methane gas and energy.

Through the new process, a wastewater treatment plant can typically reduce the total quantity of waste solids trucked to landfills by 40 to 60 percent.

Considering that disposal accounts for half the operating costs for large municipal wastewater treatment plants, biogas could be a win for taxpayers and the environment — if local governments use the higher energy sales to reduce taxes, rather than spend that money on expanding the bureaucracy.

Innovations are also occurring at landfills, where methane gas is the main culprit.

Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas that is a key contributor to global climate change.

It is more than 21 times stronger than CO2 and municipal solid waste landfills are the largest human-generated source of methane emissions in North America.

The EPA estimates 60 percent of the methane production is from human activities but says there are natural sources as well, such as wetlands and forest fires.

In British Columbia, the Nanaimo area has a regional garbage dump that is being outfitted with new state-of-the-art methane gas collection systems to trap more of the gas and burn it to create electricity.

It is estimated to produce 1.4 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve 1,500 homes, which is significant for a rural section of Vancouver Island.

Again, what if local government officials passed those savings to the ratepayers in the form of lower garbage rates?

Although they’ve been vilified by many activists, fossil fuels are not evil — and they are necessary to power our economy.

Looking ahead to 2030, our nation will be more reliant on those sources than today, even with every bit of energy conservation and alternative fuel energy source we can bring on line.

Nonetheless, we can still find ways to eliminate greenhouse gases.

For example, scientists at Columbia University are developing a “synthetic tree” that resembles an upside down fly-swatter planted in the ground.

Each tree can reduce one ton of carbon dioxide each day.

Plant a forest of “synthetic trees” next to a coal-fired plant and much of the greenhouse gas problem is eliminated.

The American west has an abundance of low-sulfur coal, and Alberta is rich in oil sands.

Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey reports the Arctic bordered by the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark contains just over a fifth of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable oil and natural gas resources and one third of that is in Alaska.

Couple that with the amount of oil and natural gas known to lie off our nation’s coastline and America can wean itself from foreign nations — many of whom are hostile to the U.S. — and do so while reducing emissions thought to cause global warming.

The goal should be to provide enough affordable energy for our homes, hospitals, schools and businesses so poor and middle-class people who have jobs and families can make ends meet and save a few dollars for their children’s college education.

In order for that to happen, our elected officials must include coal, oil and energy gases such as methane in our national energy strategy and embrace innovations that reduce emissions from cars, trucks, trains, planes, chimneys and power plants.

That strategy does not mean that we diminish our work toward wind, solar and tidal generation, it means we can bridge the gap to the future without a huge upheaval of our lives while we make the transition.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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