The North Carolina Bar Association’s Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Section is pleased to announce the winners of its 2018 Sustainability Essay Contest, which focused this year on the following topic:
“Explain the tradeoffs in the use of biomass. Tradeoffs include: their impact on the environment; their relative ‘carbon neutrality’; their impacts on surrounding communities, including job creation and environmental justice concerns. Conclude whether, in light of these tradeoffs, we should use the biofuel you analyzed as a renewable energy source in North Carolina.”
A link to the full essay prompt can be found here. All of the entries came from high school students across the state of North Carolina, and we appreciate all of the students who participated! Please join us in congratulating this year’s winners.
Emily Liu: “Wood Pellets as Biofuel: Is it Sustainable?” FIRST PLACE ($1000 prize + publication)
Catherine Trusky: “Biomass: Helpful or Harmful?” SECOND PLACE ($500 prize)
Ann Winstead: “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: Waste” THIRD PLACE ($250 prize)
The text of Ann Winstead’s third place essay, “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: Waste” is published below. We will publish the second and first place entries in the coming weeks.
A special thanks to Professor Maria Savasta-Kennedy, Ted Feitshans, and Blakely Hildebrand for their time and effort coordinating this contest!
Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: Waste
By Ann Winstead
If you type “NC pig farms” into Google, every search result on the first page is an article detailing the unbearable stench or the environmental injustices caused by the industry; North Carolina has become infamous for our hog farm odor and runoff water issues. The solution to this problem goes beyond how to manage waste, but to reduce waste. Our state is sitting on the potential to become leaders in the vast market of transforming waste to energy. There are approximately five billion gallons of waste produced each year by pigs which emits methane into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse gases (Seitter). Instead, when the animal waste is converted into energy, the cause of negative media is eliminated with the additional advantage of planning for a sustainable future. If plans, which have already been developed by Duke Energy, are fully enacted, the North Carolina’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS) 12.5% proposed renewable energy quota needed by 2021 can be reached. Despite the financial commitment that animal waste treatment requires, using this untapped recourse will become profitable in numerous ways. Its environmental impact includes carbon neutrality, job creation, and reusing otherwise wasted resources.
We are the second largest pork producer in the United States. From the beginning of life to the last usage of its body, a pig’s carbon footprint is extensive. By reducing the carbon emission in one of our major exports, it shows other states and businesses that something as unseemly as pig farms can be changed into a sustainable practice. This will also prove that sustainability and reversing the damage of environmental injustice is a priority to our state and citizens. It will take widespread initiative from local groups, such as the hog farmers, to decelerate the effects of global warming.
Environmental racism has occurred as a result of the pig farms disproportionately placed in low-income, minority communities. The 4,400 lagoons of sitting waste have contaminated the air and water in the surrounding areas; however, waste-to-energy methods can significantly reduce the use of lagoons. These foul pools of liquid are being hooked up to sprayers that fertilize nearby fields. In reality, they end up spraying the homes and people in the surrounding area with waste. Parasites, nitrates, viruses, and bacteria can be found in this liquid that is damaging to human health (Wing and Johnston). A study done by UNC Chapel Hill found that children going to public school where livestock odors pervaded indoors at least twice a month had a 24% increase in asthma symptoms than those without odor (Kravchenko). In 1993 and 1994, cases of miscarriage were linked to the excess of nitrogen in the water supply caused by swine farms (Kravchenko). There is undoubtable proof of the injustice done by pig farms, and while energy technologies will not directly address this critical issue, it will be a helpful start. Toxic fumes forced upon surrounding community members can be reduced with the implantation of methane extraction facilities by containing the smells inside machinery and covered lagoons. As methane is being extracted, an overall decrease in solid waste would make for a more efficient and sanitary community.
Burning renewable methane turns turbines that power the farm and other homes. North Carolina State University and their Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center have been researching environmentally friendly technologies for this purpose (Cadwell). Waste is heated in an anaerobic digester which produces methane with a byproduct of sludge, then stored in covered lagoons. Another option is a “Super Soil” system that breaks down each chemical component of the waste, leaving liquid to be reused in maintaining the system and in a covered lagoon for later fertilization use. North Carolina’s REPS requires an increase in the use of renewable energies for public electric utility, and it will come at a steep cost with converted waste energy. In other states where methane energy is sold, tax incentives have been needed to compete with the prices of fossil fuels (Bracmort). With the introduction of tax incentives and government investment in the new technology, methane will be an environmentally-friendly substitute to coal.
When evaluating the overall environmental impact of renewable methane energy, many tradeoffs are considered. The switch from coal to methane is already occurring; in 2015 natural gas was a third of the energy used in America and projected to surpass coal (Lieberman). However, this is mainly due to non-renewable methane extracted from dangerous and environmentally damaging fracking. As coal supplies diminish, renewable methane can always be depended upon. In comparison to coal and petroleum, methane emits less carbon dioxide, making it the cleanest hydrocarbon (Gladstein). Since renewable methane reuses the carbon already emitted into the environment, it is a carbon neutral process (Gladstein). Without an immediate customer, methane is difficult to store because of its high pressure requirements. This is an issue other renewable energies such as solar and wind energy have, as those energy sources are not continuous. Working to balance these sources of energy will be necessary for our society to be constantly powered. This tradeoff, nonetheless, is worth the environmental advantages a switch to renewable methane can provide.
Unfortunately, the financial undertaking of a waste-to-energy project has hindered it from becoming an established source of renewable energy. Butler Farms in Lillington works toward a green future with their green farm, their motto being: “We recycle, shouldn’t you?” They are one of the first to transform their farms to generate energy. Using Butler Farms as an ideal sustainable hog farm, and if every hog farm in North Carolina had the same technologies, 256 kilowatts of power from renewable methane would be produced. This is worth $27.2 million of energy, enough to power 24,000 homes a year (Mendenall). It cost an upwards of one million dollars to equip Butler Farms with the right technology, three-fourths of which was paid of in grants (Peach). However, in selling the energy produced, this money can be recouped. In April of 2018 Smithfield Foods was sued for $50 million in damages for their hog farms in North Carolina (Billman and Hellerstein). Instead of the inevitable hit other hog farms will take as residents speak out, money should be spent now to remedy the problem. Until all farms are equipped with waste-to-energy technology, lagoon covers should be in place to contain odors. Not every farm may want to participate in such a costly plan, and until this technology becomes more affordable and realistic for smaller farms, covered lagoons will be a cheap alternative. Lagoon covers, however, will not produce any methane energy for their farm to profit off of. To incentivize farmers to make the switch from lagoon waste storage to sustainable methods, our government must specifically put aside more grant money. If a percent of profits made from selling the methane went back into the grant money the program itself would be sustainable. This would be a community lead, government supported initiative to make the environmentally friendly addition of waste-to-energy technology.
A transition to methane energy has already been supported by our state’s leading and nation’s second largest energy provider, Duke Energy. In Yadkin County, Google and Duke have partnered in creating Loyd Ray Farms dependent on the methane their farm creates (Swine). The anaerobic digester has reduced odors and eutrophication, easing the health risks of and lifestyles of residents near the farms. Duke Energy has also partnered with Butler Farms by buying energy the farm processes and easily transferring the energy from the generator through power lines (Mendenall). In March of 2018, Duke Energy started pumping waste from five Duplin county hog farms into power plants. This waste will then be used to power one thousand Richmond County homes (Duke). Our local community is successfully working towards perfecting technology for waste-to-energy use, now there is a need for a financial push to make these plans a reality.
The market of biomass is relatively new and has a substantial area to grow before becoming an established source of energy. This opens opportunities primarily to rising engineers whose generation has the opportunity to dramatically change our environmental situation. Many engineers come from the heart of North Carolina, the Research Triangle Park. As renewable methane grows as an energy source, those trained in science, law, engineering, design, and businesses will be necessary to make the process as efficient as possible. Critically analyzing how to create a new energy source for our state will transfer to other sustainable methods. Our current political standings have proven that job creation is valuable to our country and sustainability is an entire market of undiscovered opportunity. Representative Mike Hager voiced his views in 2013 that the REPS drives away corporate clients because of the high prices of methane energy (Clark and Deacan). Yet North Carolina is the only state that has mandated that a percentage of energy come from swine waste-to-energy, which attracts corporations with sustainable missions, such as Revolution Energy Solutions, a renewable energy company (Clark and Deacan). As the Research Triangle Park continues to be recognized as a reputable business location, there is space and willingness for environmentally friendly companies to find a home. Research done in other states have shown that incorporating food scraps and commercial waste into the digesters generates more methane and eliminates more waste (Zezima). One example of this is Vermont milk farms incorporating the same anaerobic digesters researched for pig farms, and adding 500,000 gallons of free, outdated Ben and Jerry’s ice cream into the digesters to reduce costs of waste disposal and generate more energy (Zezima). As the processes of hog waste to methane becomes more mainstream, legislation and partnerships with food corporations can promote further opportunity for prosperity in the waste-to-energy business.
The REPS gives our state officials a unique opportunity to prove to their constituents they can solve problems important to our needs. This new energy source will attract entrepreneurs and award environmentally driven companies, creating more jobs and a possible prominent sustainability future for North Carolina. Not only is the methane just as effective in providing electricity, but it is a carbon neutral substitute to destructive coal burning, fracking, or drilling. Consequently, we can start to address the obvious environmental racism that has occurred in our rural cities while reducing the health and lifestyle complications hog waste has caused. The methane could either be released into the air, adding to the amount of greenhouse gases, or, harnessed, profited from, and reduce disparities felt by effected citizens.
Bracmort, Kelsi. “Is Biopower Carbon Neutral?” Federation of American Scientists , Congressional Research Service , 4 Feb. 2016, fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41603.pdf.
Cadwell, Dave. “Two Waste Management Technologies May Be Alternatives for Swine Industry.” Perspectives Online, NCSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, projects.ncsu.edu/cals/agcomm/magazine/fall04/n_waste.htm.
“Duke Energy Using North Carolina-Based Renewable Natural Gas in First-of-Its-Kind Project.” Duke Energy News Center, news.duke-energy.com/releases/duke-energy-using-north-carolina-based-renewable-natural-gas-in-first-of-its-kind-project.
Hellerstein, Erica, and Jeffrey C. Billman. “Will a Raleigh Jury’s $50 Million Verdict Against Murphy-Brown LLC Force Big Pork to Clean Up Its Act?” Indy Week, Indy Week, 4 May 2018, www.indyweek.com/indyweek/will-a-raleigh-jurys-50-million-verdict-against-murphy-brown-llc-force-big-pork-to-clean-up-its-act/Content?oid=13864489.
Kravchenko, Julia. “ The Effects of Hog Farms Waste on Human Health.” Clean Carolina, Duke University School of Medicine , cleanaircarolina.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/BREATHE-2016-Breakout-CAFO-PPT-Kravchenko-4-8-16.pdf.
Lieberman, Bruce. “Pros and Cons: Promise, Pitfalls of Natural Gas » Yale Climate Connections.” Yale Climate Connections, 7 July 2016, www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2016/07/pros-and-cons-the-promise-and-pitfalls-of-natural-gas/.
Mendenhall, Grayson. “Capturing Methane to Make Energy.” Vimeo, Wholehognc.unc.edu, 2 May 2018, vimeo.com/99595104.
Peach, Sara. “What to Do About Pig Poop? North Carolina Fights a Rising Tide.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 20 Oct. 2016, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141028-hog-farms-waste-pollution-methane-north-carolina-environment/#close.
Seitter, Bailey. “The Carbon Footprint of a Serving of Pork.” WHOLE HOG – CARBON HOOFPRINT, 2014, wholehognc.unc.edu/footprint.html.
“Swine Waste-to-Energy (Loyd Ray Farms).” Swine Waste-to-Energy (Loyd Ray Farms) | Sustainability, Offset Network, 2011, sustainability.duke.edu/offsets/projects/lrf.
Wing, Steve, and Jill Johnston. “Industrial Hog Operations in North Carolina Disproportionately Impact African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians.” Facing South, UNC Chapel Hill, 29 Aug. 2014, www.facingsouth.org/sites/default/files/wing_hogs_ej_paper.pdf.
Zezima, Katie. “Converting Methane Gas From Manure Into Electricity.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Sept. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/09/24/business/businessspecial2/24farmers.html.