Sunday, December 28, 2014

'Sustainability' project prompts excitement, skepticism

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 28 December 2014

When I first heard of the Powerdyne-City of Terre Haute partnership, I was excited. I teach a course on sustainable development in the fall semester, so I am focused on “possibilities” and “realities” of new, more sustainable technologies, the challenges of transitioning to a “post-carbon” society, and being scholarly about it all. When I first read about a company that proposes to transform sewage sludge to a motor fuel, sustainably speaking, that is a big deal. 

My first inclination was to examine the technology, as I am familiar with a variety of waste-to-energy processes, from burning garbage to produce electricity, to bio-digesters in Thailand producing methane gas for cooking and home use from home kitchen wastes, to large commercial biogas facilities in Europe. So, I knew there were things that were possible. But biodiesel? That was new, so I did some research and found recently published breakthroughs in the process in South Korea and a demonstration plant there. However, I could find nothing about the experience with the demonstration plant. Hmm, troubling. Yet, I remained excited at the prospect of a cutting edge technology and such an important development in the U.S.’s virtually nonexistent transition to a “post-carbon” society, happening right here in Terre Haute.

As more information comes to surface, and because of a Facebook discussion group on the Powerdyne deal, I reluctantly became disillusioned, both at the prospect that the technology was viable and whether this arrangement was a good one. Just because a technology is theoretically sustainable, and in energy issues it has much to do with the energy return on energy investment (EROEI), it must also be economically and socially sustainable as well. The secrecy surrounding the deal, the less-than-forthcoming information from the company and then the economics of the deal raise questions about how sustainable the project truly is.

The discussion group on Facebook has been a model for what passionate civil discussion can be. The technology has been discussed with local experts in chemistry and engineering reading and sharing various research articles on the process of transforming sludge to biodiesel, some thoughtful searches for patents in the name of either Powerdyne or company personnel that might suggest some technical expertise on the part of the company (none were found). The contract between the City and Powerdyne was analyzed line by line by various people. One would think that contract language would be intelligible to the layman, but I have learned that legal language only resembles English and it’s a good idea to have a trained interpreter. I’m not sure if any lawyers deciphered the contract. It seems confusing to me and there appear to be many errors in it. In any case, those who discussed the contract itself were unsettled. Add to the discussion group Arthur Foulkes’ terrific investigative reporting in the Tribune-Star, and I have significant doubts about this “deal.” My greatest concerns, however, are not what you might think.

Turning waste into gold is one way to look at sustainable practices. And turning sewage sludge into biodiesel is about as good as it gets (assuming the process of turning the waste into biodiesel has a favorable EROEI). This is not just a matter of pricing, as pricing does not always capture the true cost due to a variety of political and social practices. Biodiesel, generally, does not have a favorable EROEI. What could make that return more favorable is the use of sewage sludge instead of corn or other plant materials. It depends on the process involved and we do not know what that process is. This doesn’t mean that the Powerdyne deal won’t make money, but it might not be very “sustainable,” especially if the EROEI is low and could become unprofitable should any of the energy inputs rise in price without an equivalent rise in the price for biodiesel.

I applaud Mayor Bennett for even considering turning Terre Haute sewage waste into transport gold. I know him as a leader who is willing to seriously consider thinking about sustainable practices as Terre Haute moves forward. And regardless of what happens with the Powerdyne deal, I hope he will continue to be open to the more sustainable option.

I worry that the public may not readily distinguish between the particular “deal” with Powerdyne and “sustainable solutions” and equate all such “crazy” ideas like turning sewage sludge into a transport fuel with Powerdyne and dismiss similar future proposals as a sham at best and a scam at worst.
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