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Coal Executive Says His Industry Must Confront Climate Change

Richard Reavey says climate denial is eerily parallel to the tobacco industry’s old tactics, which hurt that business long-term

It’s one thing when environmentalists say that fossil fuel companies’ positions on climate change are similar to Big Tobacco’s past deflections about the hazards of smoking.

It’s another entirely when it’s done by a coal official, who says his industry should heed tobacco’s costly lessons.

That’s what Richard Reavey, vice president of public affairs of Cloud Peak Energy Inc., a major coal miner in the western United States, appears to have done on June 29, 2015, when he presented a 24-page slideshow at an industry conference organized by the Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute in Snowmass, Colo.

Reavey said one of his goals for the presentation, titled “SURVIVAL IS VICTORY: LESSONS FROM THE TOBACCO WARS,” was to encourage the industry to move past debating climate change and talk to critics of the industry about addressing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.

“The tobacco industry spent a lot of time in the bunker not listening to its critics, denying that there was any legitimate concern about smoking and health, and effectively trying to parse hairs and debate science,” Reavey said in an interview, “instead of trying to get to where they finally got to, which was that recognition that regulation was a legitimate goal of the public health community and something that the industry could live with.”

Coal companies should take a proactive strategy and talk about solutions, such as carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) technology, Reavey said.

“There’s no good that comes from continuing to be in that kind of binary debate,” he said.

Reavey said the roughly 250 listeners to the June presentation had a swath of reactions. Some saw his suggestions as savvy and others glossed over it. Some in the crowd, “troglodytic types,” Reavey said, maintained that climate change is still debatable.

“I don’t really understand their point of view,” he said.

Before coming to Cloud Peak, Reavey worked in public relations for Philip Morris International Inc., the cigarette and tobacco company, when the Department of Justice was suing the industry in the 1990s.

“The parallels are remarkable and eerie,” one slide reads. It says tobacco was and coal is under attack from “well funded, well organized NGO opposition driving regulatory policy, media messaging, and shaping public opinion—often with poor/no science.”

Reavey said he wasn’t comparing behavior of coal and tobacco firms. “The analogy I drew was between the tactics of coal’s opponents and the opponents of tobacco,” he said.

Analogies between fossil fuel companies’ knowledge of climate change and cigarette-makers’ knowledge that smoking caused cancer are common in environmental circles.

Congressional Democrats held a briefing in June on the subject—an event titled, “Oil Is the New Tobacco” (ClimateWire, June 23). And some believe fossil fuel companies could be legally liable if they knew about climate change dangers but suppressed that information. That possibility is the crux of the investigations by New York and Massachusetts attorneys general into Exxon Mobil Corp.

The fossil fuel industry bristles when it’s compared to the tobacco industry. And some environmentalists are suspicious about Reavey’s motivations.

Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, an environmental advocacy group, said he came across the slideshow online last summer.

“It was unbelievable seeing it in writing,” Zimmerman said, adding that he’s familiar with the tobacco-to-oil analogy, but that the link to coal seems new.

Zimmerman seized on Reavey’s “poor/no science” line when reading the document.

“It’s maybe not an explicit denial, but it’s certainly an implicit denial,” Zimmerman said. “He’s still trying to undermine the science.”

Kert Davies, founder of the Climate Investigations Center and a former Greenpeace campaigner, read Reavey’s presentation, too.

“What he’s saying is ‘Coal, you can survive, look at tobacco,’” Davies said. “It’s a guy coming from tobacco sort of trying to teach coal,” he added. “Instructing them to go heavy on the clean coal, it buys you credibility, it buys you time.”

Concrete step on cleaner fuel

The first contractor in Hong Kong to use B5 biodiesel in its batching plants and equipment said it has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5,529 tonnes between 2013, when it started using the cleaner fuel, and the end of last year. The reduction is equivalent to one person taking 5,119 return flights between Hong Kong and Melbourne.

Gammon Construction is the first and only company in Hong Kong that uses the environmentally friendly B5 biodiesel in all of its plants, road vehicles and equipment, such as excavators, in its railway, housing, airport, bridge and other project sites.

Emma Harvey, manager of Gammon’s group sustainability and corporate social responsibility, said using B5 biodiesel also helps reduce landfill waste aside from cutting carbon emissions.

“Another benefit in its use is reducing waste oil that will end up in landfills,” she said, adding B5 biodiesel use has enabled Gammon to reduce its diesel carbon emissions by about 5 percent.

Gammon has also brought B5 biodiesel to retail filling pumps in Hong Kong with its fuel partner Shell. Last November, they introduced this clean fuel to a petrol station in Tsing Yi. Next month, a second petrol station near the airport will offer B5 biodiesel.

Last year, about 15 percent of Gammon’s land vehicles, mostly mixer trucks, used B5 biodiesel. They consumed about two million liters of B5 biodiesel last year.

Gammon procurement head Susan Siu Kit-ling said: “B5 biodiesel costs 30 HK cents more per liter [than ordinary diesel], but this can be offset by reduced usage with the higher efficiency of this fuel type.”

She said Gammon undertakes from time to time planning studies on construction equipment, aimed at reducing diesel consumption.

Siu said waste oil comes mainly from local food producers or grease trap waste, oil and grease separated in wastewater. Gammon only imports waste oil if local supply is not stable. Waste oil helps produce B5 biodiesel. More than 95 percent of Gammon’s timber and plywood requirements for form work carry Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. These wood types have a shorter life cycle and have less adverse impact on the environment.

Gammon also uses low-carbon materials, like low-carbon concrete and cement. It has been awarded the Carbon Care Label Certificate by Carbon Care Asia in 2014 and 2015 for its endeavors in creating low-carbon construction processes and for helping reduce carbon emissions.

Nuclear cover-up: environment ministry slaps penalties on errant crew over failures at Guangdong plant

Fourstaff members at a nuclear power plant in Guangdong have been punished for breaching ¬operational guidelines and trying to cover up the failures, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said this week, more than a year after the incident took place.

Three staff at the Yangjiang nuclear power plant in Guangdong, about 220km north of Hong Kong, were given administrative warnings, while the crew’s leader, Wei Haifeng, was stripped of his senior nuclear operator’s licence, a severe punishment.

Their actions caused a heat ¬removal pump on one of the key reactors to stop functioning for six minutes at the plant, the first to go online in China after the 2011 -Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The operators then tried to cover up the incident by failing to log it as required, the ministry said.

The incident did not result in a radioactive leak or pose a direct public safety threat, two nuclear experts said.

According to the ministry, the breaches occurred on March 22, 2015 when the reactor was undergoing maintenance. The pump is a crucial part of the reactor’s water cooling system.

The plant’s developer, China General National Power Corp, told the South China Morning Post the incident did not affect plant safety because it occurred during maintenance. It also said it did “thorough analysis and a deep ¬review” after the incident and initiated a “safety culture re-education” campaign among all staff.

It said the incident was discovered during “self-assessment” in February and it reported it to the ministry’s nuclear safety bureau “in a timely manner” for sake of “credibility and transparency”.

But some experts warned the incident exposed human weaknesses in nuclear safety in China.

China has embarked on a ¬nuclear power spree, aiming to develop 58 million kWh of nuclear power capacity by 2020 to ¬account for 5 per cent of overall energy supplies.

It is also promoting its nuclear technology overseas.

Revealing further details about the incident, a former National Nuclear Safety Administration employee said that as soon as the pump stopped working due to the crew’s operational error, an alert popped up in the central control room. Controllers immediately contacted the maintenance crew, asking what happened. Meanwhile, backup pumps started to avoid dangerous overheating.

Wei, the crew leader who received the heaviest punishment, had worked more than a decade to earn his senior operator’s licence, a qualification that can cost millions of yuan to obtain. His experience should have prevented him or his subordinates from carrying out the “suicidal” operation which would almost guarantee the shutdown of the main pump, the expert said.

“Why did they do this, that’s the question asked by many people in the industry. Even a cadet would have known it could lead to severe consequences,” the expert said.

“Like captains in airlines, operators in nuclear power plants also receive regular mental health checks. If they are unhappy at work or at home, they must report it. None of them filed any reports.”

The ministry imposed the penalties on July 26 and posted a notice on its website on Tuesday.

Kai Ji-jung, chair professor of nuclear engineering at City University, said a residual heat ¬removal pump was mainly used to cool the system as a backup in the case of an accident or power failure, so a six-minute stoppage under normal operations was not too big a technical safety issue.

“The bigger safety issue is the breaching of regulations as an operator is required to report this to the regulatory body within a given time frame,” he said.

“This reporting is required to ensure the quality of operations. A lot of small things being allowed to happen may indicate that there are problems with the operators.”

Greenpeace senior campaigner Frances Yeung Hoi-shan questioned why Hong Kong was not informed under the notification mechanism it has with Guangdong over nuclear accidents or events in the province.

“The fact that it was covered up is frightening. No one knew about this until a year later,” Yeung said.

“You cannot have ¬effective regulatory oversight without transparency.”

The Security Bureau said it was aware of the event but would not say if the plant informed the Hong Kong government.

Dr Raymond Ho Chung-tai, chairman of Guangdong Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station and Lingao Nuclear Power Station Nuclear Safety Consultative Committee, said such human errors needed to be rectified but his was a learning experience for the plant’s operators.

Xu Yuming, deputy secretary general of the China Nuclear Energy Association in Beijing, said the public reporting of the incident showed improved transparency on the government’s side.

“I think it is a good thing that the ministry reported the incident in a high-profile manner … It shows the government is serious about strengthening management of nuclear plants to improve safety standards.”

The notice about the punishment was among a series of administrative orders and notices published on its website. The ministry did not reply to requests for comment and information on Thursday.

Hu Xinmin, senior manager at Hong Kong-based electricity industry consultancy The Lantau Group, said: “Lessons should be learned from the Fukushima disaster, where post-accident investigations found that small procedural non-compliance incidents were not property reported to the national authority, contributing to a culture of complacency.”

Wang Biao, dean of the Sino-French Institute of Nuclear Engineering and Technology in Zhuhai, said: “It is normal that non-compliance incidences and their consequences are reported to the public this way, since safety is paramount from the government’s point of view. It must be noted that in every nuclear plant, there are multiple backup cooling pump systems, so even if one fails, the other systems will kick in to prevent any major problems.”

The Yangjiang nuclear power station went into commercial operation in March 2014. It was based on the CPR-1000 design found in most Chinese nuclear reactors commissioned since 2010.

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Hong Kong must seize the opportunity to cut fossil fuel use in favour of renewable energy

Albert Lai and John Sayer say the city’s negotiations for new terms and conditions with its two power companies offer a great chance to develop the green energy sector

Imagine if our chief executive announced that everyone had to pay an extra HK$5,600 next year for their electricity to cover the cost of dealing with the effects of fossil fuel use. While this is unlikely to happen, the government is nevertheless subsidising the use of fossil fuels here. Data from the International Monetary Fund shows that this annual subsidy came to more than HK$40 billion in 2015.

Electricity generation accounts for 54 per cent of the city’s fossil fuel consumption. As almost all local power generation uses coal and natural gas, we can conclude that power generation and consumption benefit from more than half of the HK$40 billion subsidy.

As a comparison, we note that the subsidy is equivalent to nearly 80 per cent of our health care budget – a good share of which is spent on treating the effects of poor-quality air on our lungs and hearts.

Attributing the real cost of fossil fuel use is important for several reasons. The profits that the two power companies are allowed to make are based on a formula in their respective scheme of control agreements, which is related to their capital investment and costs. If power companies and other direct users do not pay the real cost of the impact of fossil fuel use, the public has to bear this cost either directly in their bills or indirectly through taxes, which the government uses to clean up the effects of fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel subsidies stand in the way of changes needed to achieve the goals set at last year’s Paris climate summit of a net-zero carbon economy this century, according to both the UN and the World Bank.

In Hong Kong, the scheme of control agreements will expire in 2018, providing an important opportunity for change. The city has the potential for solar, wind, tidal and wave power. The key lies in shaping a beneficial renewable energy policy and an enabling market environment.

To shape policy, we can learn from the experience of similarly developed economies. First, market access and diversification is important. Beyond 2018, power company regulations should give priority access to all who are willing and able to generate renewable energy, with a guaranteed connection to the grid.

Second, investment in renewable energy must be supported by a guaranteed price for clean electricity. Guangdong province, for one, pays twice the rate for solar power as for coal-generated electricity.

Third, a redirection of existing funds is needed. The Environment Bureau wants to revise the scheme of control agreements so the return on fixed assets is lowered from 9.9 per cent to around 6 per cent. If all or part of the reduction went into a feed-in tariff fund, it could provide a stable source of funding to encourage the development of renewable energy in Hong Kong.

At a rough calculation, with 2 per cent return on revenue paid into such a fund, about HK$30 billion a year would be generated. Assuming the government would contribute another half, an annual HK$45 billion fund could be created. If the average feed-in tariff is set at HK$2.50 per kWh, the fund would be sufficient to buy 1.8 billion kWh of clean electricity per year. This would kick-start renewable energy power generation by raising its contribution to 4 per cent of total production.

Fourth, providing space for community participation is vital. Citizens and businesses with suitable rooftops could take advantage of clean energy programmes. The government could allot space in housing estates, public facilities and other suitable areas for groups to form social enterprises and plan community-based investment in solar or wind power facilities.

Germany has invested heavily in renewables, which now account for a third of its energy use. Some 92 per cent of Germans support the transition. One of the main reasons is that the government placed great emphasis on opportunities for ordinary citizens to participate in creating and benefiting from renewable energy programmes through funding and investment schemes.

In Hong Kong, there are 17 reservoirs suitable for the installation of floating solar power plants, similar to those now appearing elsewhere. Offshore waters are also suitable for the installation of wind farms.

Finally, there’s green finance for the new era. With a stable feed-in tariff, renewable energy schemes are predictable enough to attract green funds from around the world.

To allow more people to share the fruits of renewable energy development, the government could consider issuing green bonds.

There are many advantages to the transition to renewable energy. A transformation of our energy system to multiple technologies and diverse suppliers will stimulate the economy and create green jobs.

The power companies may see asset growth stemming less from generation and more from an expanded role as providers of a smart grid. A new energy model for Hong Kong can reduce pressure on the government to import power from the mainland. It will also mitigate pubic calls to merge the two existing power companies, or to separate power generation and distribution.

For the public, implementing a feed-in tariff does not increase electricity tariffs. On the contrary, introducing more diverse renewable energy sources would reduce future vulnerability to increases in gas prices and electricity costs. The public would also benefit from reduced pollution and avoid hefty health care costs.

Meanwhile, local business can find new opportunities in engineering design, equipment supply, installation and maintenance in the fast-growing renewables sector.

For the financial sector, the development of local renewable energy projects is the best opportunity for Hong Kong to become a credible green finance centre. By 2030, it is estimated the world needs US$2.4 trillion invested in renewable energy to reach targets set in Paris.

China’s National Energy Administration has set a national average target for utility companies to generate 9 per cent of total electricity from renewables by 2020, not including hydroelectric or nuclear power. For Guangdong province, the target is 7 per cent.

In this context, the plan outlined above for Hong Kong to put in place incentives to generate 4 per cent of its power from renewables should be seen as only a first step in the right direction.

Who in Hong Kong will have the decisiveness, courage and vision needed to set ambitious targets for renewable energy development? After all, Hong Kong’s contribution to national and international reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately be even more important for the city’s development and the well-being of its people than the next chief executive election.

Albert Lai is policy convener at the Professional Commons. John Sayer is director of Carbon Care Asia
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The Unholy Alliance Between Big Oil and Big Tobacco: It’s Been Going On For Decades

Over the past several months, The Ring of Fire and other Progressive media outlets have reported on how Big Oil (particularly Exxon-Mobil) has been covering up evidence of climate change since the 1970s.

It turns out that the cover up has been going on far longer. In fact, Exxon-Mobil’s corporate ancestor, Humble Oil, was manipulating scientific information in order to influence public opinion as long ago as the 1940s. It’s similar to the way Big Tobacco had been covering its own rear end since medical science started making connection between smoking and lung cancer in the 1930s.

Similarities between the two are no coincidence. Egregiously, these two corporate criminal enterprises were sharing marketing strategies and methods of spreading disinformation for decades.

On the surface, it would appear that Big Oil and Big Tobacco are unlikely corporate bedfellows. But consider that convenience stores represent a major retail outlet for both cigarettes and other tobacco products and gasoline. Since they are a high-markup item, the oil companies that kept cigarette vending machines back in the day were anxious to preserve their profits. It was a textbook case of a symbiotic relationship.

This lurid tale has been uncovered by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Washington D.C.. A short documentary film produced by the organization tells the story of the entangled relationship between Big Oil and Big Tobacco. It is a relationship that dates back more than sixty years.

Back in the 1950s, Monroe Rathbone, head of Standard Oil (another one of Exxon-Mobil’s corporate forebears) was also on the board of the American Cancer Society’s Committee on Smoking and Public Policy. At the same time, oil companies – in which tobacco companies held financial interests and vice-versa – were developing cigarette filters and sharing testing methods. It doesn’t take a genius to see the clear conflicts of interest here, and it doesn’t stop there.

For the past several months, CIEL has been researching more than 14 million documents showing the collusion between Big Oil and Big Tobacco. Earlier this year, CIEL released documents proving that oil company executives, engineers, and scientists were acutely aware of carbon dioxide’s role in global climate change since 1957 – and probably long before that. According to Carrol Muffet, President and CEO of CIEL, instead of exploring options to mitigate environmental damage and come up with alternative energy sources, oil companies decided to “invest in research to explain away the climate risks.”

What is even more unforgivable is that the oil industry had the technology to reduce and eventually eliminate CO2 emissions in 1963! On December 31st of that year, yet another of Exxon-Mobil’s corporate predecessors, Esso, filed Patent #3,116,169 with the U.S. Patent Office for “Fuel Cell and Fuel Electrodes.” The device was a catalyst, using oxygen to produce clean, efficient electrical energy.

Why didn’t oil industry players pursue this technology? Let the Exxon’s own words condemn them:


It’s simple; It was cheaper and more profitable to keep on drilling. Instead of exploring and investing in ways to mitigate and reverse the massive environmental damage they knew their product was causing, Exxon-Mobil and its partners in crime poured their resources into ways of adapting – new, taller oil rigs, for example, that could withstand rising sea levels, as well as insane and unworkable ideas to control the climate.

One of these ideas – on which Exxon actually filed a patent – was to literally pave over large, dry regions of the planet in order to create heat and increase rainfall. That brilliant idea was developed by one of Exxon’s own scientific advisers, James Black. Black was one of the scientists who warned the industry of the impact of fossil fuels on climate, but his solution was essentially more of the same (of course, what else would he tell the people who signed his paycheck?).

Another great plan was to spray black carbon into the air in order to create winds that would simply blow away the smog. It must not have occurred to the folks at Exxon that even if such an idea was workable, the smog would have to go somewhere. And of course, there was money to made; after all, asphalt is a petroleum product.

Furthermore, while the industry would be internalizing all those profits, they would be able to saddle the rest of us with the costs by getting rid of noxious wastes on the cheap.

Today, we are all paying the price for this insanity.

And how does this all relate to the relationship between Big Oil and Big Tobacco? Basically, it was a marriage of convenience, but hardly a love affair. To be sure, the two shared common financial interests. But there was more to it.

With the increase in the cancer rate in the latter part of the 20th Century, the tobacco and oil industries began pointing fingers at each other. According to Muffet, Big Tobacco had an obsession with Big Oil that “bordered on paranoia.” As the two industries watched each other, they came up with new and creative methods of “plausible denial” and ways to confuse and mislead the public. Between that and the way the industries have bought off lawmakers over the decades, little has been done to address the disastrous consequences to public health.

Now that the evidence has come out and CIEL has released documentation for the world to see, will there be consequences?

In July of 2014, a Florida woman was awarded $23.6 billion in a lawsuit against tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. That was only the most recent victory in a long battle to hold Big Tobacco accountable.

Late last year, the State of New York started a major investigation into Exxon-Mobil’s deception of the public over the climate change issue. As of March, 17 more attorneys general have joined the investigation. Then, this past May, the Massachusetts-based Conservation Law Foundation began legal action against the oil company juggernaut over pollutants leaked into the confluence of the Mystic Island End Rivers from one of its terminals. It is the first lawsuit to link a localized incident to the broader threat of global climate change and the oil industry’s culpability.

Big Oil is a different animal. Not only does it have more resources than big tobacco, it sells a product that runs so much of society’s machinery. Nonetheless, the opening salvos in what promises to be a long, hard battle have been fired. As people wake up to the gargantuan lies that Exxon-Mobil has fed them for over half a century, and as they realize that a “Corporate Person” was willing to put the entire future of humanity at risk for the sake of making a few extra billion dollars, it’s a good bet that the day of reckoning will come.

We can only hope that it comes in time.

South African Airways makes first flight using fuel from tobacco

South African Airways completed a flight using jet fuel made from a tobacco plant, its first contribution to the global push to power more air journeys from renewable resources.

SAA used 6,300 liters of bio jet fuel for the one-way trip to Cape Town from Johannesburg, the state-owned carrier said on Friday. The initiative was carried out in conjunction with plane maker Boeing Co. and jet-fuel producer SkyNRG.

“We want to be flying 50 per cent of our airliners using biofuels by 2022,” Acting Chief Executive Officer Musa Zwane told reporters.

SAA’s maiden biofuels flight comes as it battles insolvency and relies on government-guaranteed loans to survive.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on Thursday asked parliament to grant an extension for the tabling of SAA’s financials for the year ending March 2015, which are now a year overdue, as the Treasury considers whether to grant further support.

Airlines are examining ways to power more flights from biofuels to limit the environmental impact of aviation and ease dependency on oil. Unprofitable SAA aims to have used 20 million liters of bio-jet fuel by the fourth quarter of 2017, Ian Cruickshank, its head of environmental affairs, told reporters in Cape Town. He said the company is seeking to use 500 million liters by the same time in 2023.


Meet the US farmers turning their tobacco into airplane fuel

As the demand for tobacco declines in the US, farmers in Virginia are experimenting with turning the crop into viable biofuel

Most of the tobacco growing across 80-acres at Briar View Farms in Callands, Virginia is chosen for its flavour and high nicotine content. The leaves are hand-harvested, flue-cured or dark-fired and sold as smoking or chewing tobacco at premium prices.

One two-acre plot stands apart from the rest, its flavour and nicotine content are irrelevant. The June and October harvests are mechanised and the entire plant, including leaves and stems, are cut with a silage chopper and tossed into metal bins. All of the tobacco plants harvested are turned into biofuel.

On Briar View Farms, first-generation tobacco grower Robert Mills hopes tobacco-based biofuel can spark a profitable future for tobacco growers. “With the uncertainty of tobacco, growers are always looking for new opportunities,” he says.

Over the past four decades, the demand for tobacco in the US has declined. In the 1970s, US farmers grew more than 2bn pounds (900,000 tonnes) of tobacco; by 2012, production dropped to about 800m pounds (360,000 tonnes). The number of tobacco farms declined from 180,000 in the 1980s to just 10,000 in 2012, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since 2009, the US biofuel company Tyton BioEnergy Systems has partnered with agronomists from Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University and tobacco growers to research the potential for turning tobacco into biomass. Mills grows two acres of energy tobacco under contract with Tyton.

“We’re experimenting with varieties that were discarded 50 years ago by traditional tobacco growers because the flavours were poor or the plants didn’t have enough nicotine,” explains Tyton co-founder Peter Majeranowski.

Researchers are pioneering selective breeding techniques and genetic engineering to increase tobacco’s sugar and seed oil content to create a promising source of renewable fuel. The low-nicotine varieties require little maintenance, are inexpensive to grow and thrive where other crops would fail.

“There is a lot of land not being used in tobacco regions that isn’t good for growing row crops,” Majeranowski says. “Instead of growing low-value crops like hay, farmers can earn more revenue per acre growing ‘energy tobacco’.”

Tyton BioEnergy Systems isn’t alone in its quest to turn tobacco into a viable biofuel. In 2013, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in partnership with UC Berkeley and University of Kentucky, received a $4.8m grant from the US Department of Energy to research the potential of tobacco as a biofuel. While in South Africa, Project Solaris, a collaboration between Boeing and South African Airways, is focused on developing aviation biofuel from tobacco crops with a goal of operating its first tobacco-fuelled passenger flight in 2016.

For tobacco producers, the transition is simple: growing energy tobacco is similar to growing smoking tobacco and requires the same equipment and skills; because the harvest is mechanised, it takes less labour to produce a crop.

One acre of tobacco can yield up to 80 wet tons of biomass and all of the byproducts, including sugars, oils and proteins, can be used in products ranging from biofuel and animal feed to soil amendments (nutrients added to improve soil).

“I know we’re not going to get the same returns we get on traditional tobacco but we have a lot less labour so it’s a lot cheaper to produce and it’s more competitive per acre than commodities like corn and soybeans,” says Mills, who started growing tobacco under contract with Tyton in 2011.

The potential to turn tobacco into a different kind of cash crop enticed grower Chris Haskins to sign a contract with Tyton in 2013 to grow 1.5 acres of energy tobacco on his 50-acre farm in Chatham, Virginia.

“Tobacco has been a mainstay for farmers in this area,” Haskins says. “It’s nice to see it getting some positive press and building hope for farmers that it can be used in positive ways.”

While Haskins is hopeful, some tobacco growers are sceptical. These are just pilot projects and energy tobacco is not yet being sold on the open market, so there are no established prices. “I think there’s still a large amount of ‘wait and see if this is for real’ attitude among growers,” says Tim Pfohl, grants program director for the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

According to Pfohl, the commission supports opportunities to build new markets for tobacco growers, noting that alternative buyers for tobacco crops will keep growers from being tied to the cigarette manufacturer contract system. The commission gave Tyton BioEnergy Systems a grant of $2.78m in 2012, to further its research.

“The end game for the commission … is new jobs and private investment in tobacco region production facilities,” Pfohl says.

Tyton has 30 acres of research trials under way and, in 2014, created a partner company, Tyton NC Biofuels, pledging $36m to start a tobacco ethanol refinery in Hoke County, North Carolina. As investments increase and bioenergy gets more attention in the media, interest from farmers is growing.

“Now that I’m going into my fourth season as a contract grower, I can see how far we’ve come and I can see tobacco being a viable source of energy for the future,” Mills says. “There is a new generation of farmers that are more progressive and looking for alternatives and this gives farmers opportunities for diversity. Now is the right time to focus on tobacco as a biofuel.”

Piles of Dirty Secrets Behind a Model ‘Clean Coal’ Project

A Mississippi project, a centerpiece of President Obama’s climate plan, has been plagued by problems that managers tried to conceal, and by cost overruns and questions of who will pay.

DE KALB, Miss. — The fortress of steel and concrete towering above the pine forest here is a first-of-its-kind power plant that was supposed to prove that “clean coal” was not an oxymoron — that it was possible to produce electricity from coal in a way that emits far less pollution, and to turn a profit while doing so.

The plant was not only a central piece of the Obama administration’s climate plan, it was also supposed to be a model for future power plants to help slow the dangerous effects of global warming. The project was hailed as a way to bring thousands of jobs to Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, and to extend a lifeline to the dying coal industry.

The sense of hope is fading fast, however. The Kemper coal plant is more than two years behind schedule and more than $4 billion over its initial budget, $2.4 billion, and it is still not operational.

The plant and its owner, Southern Company, are the focus of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, and ratepayers, alleging fraud, are suing the company. Members of Congress have described the project as more boondoggle than boon. The mismanagement is particularly egregious, they say, given the urgent need to rein in the largest source of dangerous emissions around the world: coal plants.

The plant’s backers, including federal energy officials, have defended their work in recent years by saying that delays and cost overruns are inevitable with innovative projects of this scale. In this case, they say, the difficulties stem largely from unforeseen factors — or “unknown unknowns,” as Tom Fanning, the chief executive of Southern Company, has often called them — like bad weather, labor shortages and design uncertainties.

Many problems plaguing the project were broadly known and had been occurring for years. But a review by The New York Times of thousands of pages of public records, previously undisclosed internal documents and emails, and 200 hours of secretly though legally recorded conversations among more than a dozen colleagues at the plant offers a detailed look at what went wrong and why.

Those documents and recordings, provided to The Times by a whistle-blower, an engineer named Brett Wingo, and interviews with more than 30 current or former regulators, contractors, consultants or engineers who worked on the project, show that the plant’s owners drastically understated the project’s cost and timetable, and repeatedly tried to conceal problems as they emerged.

The system of checks and balances that are supposed to keep such projects on track was outweighed by a shared and powerful incentive: The company and regulators were eager to qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal subsidies for the plant, which was also aggressively promoted by Haley Barbour, who was Southern’s chief lobbyist before becoming the governor of Mississippi. Once in office, Mr. Barbour signed a law in 2008 that allowed much of the cost of building any new power plants to be passed on to ratepayers before they are built.

Seeing so many of the problems from the inside, at least one employee felt the need to speak up.

“I’ve reached a personal tipping point and feel a duty to act,” Mr. Wingo wrote in a 2014 email, which was among several that he sent to officials of Southern Company and Mississippi Power, the state utility that runs the plant, alleging that the company had broken federal law and engaged in corporate fraud. “Hope is not a strategy,” he added. “This is a high-profile project with many misguided enemies, so why give them free ammo?”

In their recorded conversations with Mr. Wingo, at least six senior engineers from the plant said that they believed that the delays and cost overruns, as well as safety violations and shoddy work, were partly the result of mismanagement or fraud.

“It has nothing to do with the design, it has nothing to do with the technology, it just has to do with poor project management,” Landon Lunsford, an engineer at the plant, said during one recorded call with Mr. Wingo last December, when they discussed an email from Southern’s legal department telling senior employees to retain all emails because of a continuing S.E.C. investigation.

The company will never admit the project-management problems because they will attract more scrutiny from regulators, Mr. Lunsford said. “As long as they can talk away the results as attributable to something else other than just poor performance, the other public service commissions can’t hold them over the fire as much,” he added.

Officials from Southern Company and Mississippi Power, which is a Southern subsidiary, said that they could not comment on Mr. Wingo’s allegations but that all decisions about cost and budget projections were made by consensus. They also said that Mr. Wingo’s accusations had previously been investigated by the company and could not be substantiated. Mr. Wingo was fired in February, a move that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration later ruled illegal.

Ed Holland, the former chief executive of Mississippi Power, added that one of the project’s biggest mistakes was to start construction with little of the plant designed. “We still believe that from our investors’ standpoint, this was a wise investment to prove the technology,” he said in an interview.

In the end, the Kemper project is a story of how a monopoly utility, with political help from the Mississippi governor and from federal energy officials who pressured state regulators in letters to support the project, shifted the burden of one of the most expensive power plants ever built onto the shoulders of unwitting investors and some of the lowest-income ratepayers in the country.

Kemper’s rising price tag and other problems will probably affect the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules on new power plants, and also play into broader discussions about the best way to counter climate change. E.P.A. regulations in effect require new coal plants to have carbon capture technology but are being held up in federal court partly by arguments that the technology is not cost-effective.

The importance of this technology grows, as well, after President Obama said last week that the United States would join Canada and Mexico in pledging to reach a shared goal of generating 50 percent of North America’s electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2025, up from 37 percent today, with a power mix that includes wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear energy and coal or gas power paired with carbon capture technology.

“The big question with clean coal has always been whether it’s a moonshot or a money pit,” said Charles Grayson, the director of the Bigger Pie Forum, which advocates fiscal conservatism in Mississippi and has been critical of the Kemper project for years. “The Obama administration and my state made a really bad wager in trying to use Kemper to make the economic argument for this technology.”

High Hopes

Coal represents a conundrum: It is among the dirtiest sources of fuel, producing roughly 45 percent of the emissions that contribute to climate change. And yet the world still relies on it for power, with more than a quarter of the electricity used globally coming from coal plants.


Southern Company proposed a promising idea with the Kemper project. Providing a cleaner way to use coal, which is cheap and abundant in the United States, the plant also offered the means to preserve many coal-mining jobs that are fast disappearing in this part of the country.

Kemper County, with mostly two-lane roads cutting through clay hills and pine forest, has an average per capita income of $14,837 and an unemployment rate roughly double the national average. To the region, the plant offered more than clean power: It promised hope, at least 12,000 jobs and long-term savings. As construction ramped up, the county took in over $8 million annually in extra tax money, which went toward repairing roads, bridges and schools, lowering local property taxes, and clearing debt.

In the summer of 2005, as Hurricane Katrina toppled drilling rigs and uprooted pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico, the price of natural gas rose by more than 40 percent. In Mississippi, utility regulators saw the Kemper plant as a way to diversify its energy options in a state that relies on natural gas for nearly 80 percent of its electricity.

The plant, which broke ground in 2010, would run on lignite, a type of coal that is difficult to process but is plentiful in the region. Most of the carbon dioxide produced by the plant would be captured, compressed, sold and piped to oil fields. There, it would be pumped underground in a process known as enhanced oil recovery, to help push up previously unrecoverable oil to levels where it could be reached.

Though carbon capture technology is proven and widely viewed as a potentially important tool to slow global warming, the question has been whether it can be scaled up affordably.

Before becoming governor, Mr. Barbour helped orchestrate the transfer of about $270 million in federal subsidies from a canceled coal plant in Florida to the proposed Mississippi plant. As governor, Mr. Barbour then signed the Baseload Act, which shifted much of the cost and risk of building power plants from investors to consumers, and allowed utilities such as Mississippi Power to charge ratepayers for projects before they were completed.

Carbon capture has been considered a holy grail for decades. For Ronald Reagan, it was a solution to acid rain; for Bill Clinton, an alternative to nuclear power. George W. Bush billed his FutureGen project as the world’s first zero-emissions coal plant but mothballed it when it became too expensive.

As the emphasis on fighting climate change grew, the Obama administration hung many of its hopes on Kemper. Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator, cited federal support for the project as proof that her agency was not anti-coal, despite strict new rules on power-plant emissions. The Energy Department repeatedly wrote state regulators emphasizing the importance of the project.

By 2012, though, “Miss Power,” as locals called the state utility, was facing mounting criticism about the plant. In May of that year, after the utility said that the Kemper project was $366 million over budget, it announced a plan to raise its customers’ rates by 13 percent.

Campaigning for a seat on the Mississippi Public Service Commission, Thomas A. Blanton, an opponent of the project, ran television ads featuring an older woman eating dog food and warning of sacrifices that poorer people sometimes make to afford electricity. In cramped trailers where some of the poorest people in the state live, summer temperatures topped 110 degrees — potentially deadly for older residents who could not pay to keep their air-conditioning running.

“You don’t want to pay to build my home, and I don’t want to pay to build your plant,” John Gooding, a cabinetmaker from Bay St. Louis, who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, said during a public hearing about the rate hikes. “Some people are still living in trailers, and now you want to build a plant you can’t guarantee.”

Other critics piled on. Environmentalists called the plant the “Solyndra of clean coal,” a reference to the heavily subsidized but failed federal solar project. They asked whether the plant’s climate change benefits were overstated because the carbon it would capture from coal was going to be used to pump more oil.

Why was Kemper being cited as a model worthy of replicating, they asked, given that other plants would not share one of Kemper’s main advantages: a plentiful supply of cheap coal nearby.

Alleging that Southern Company and Mississippi Power had overstated the plant’s cost-effectiveness, the Bigger Pie Forum sued to unseal project records. To help make their case that the Kemper plant would be competitive with natural gas, which is coal’s main competitor, utility executives predicted to investors and regulators that the per-unit price for natural gas would be higher than $11 by 2016. But gas remains less than $2 per unit, undermining the business case for the plant.

The project did create jobs, but Mark Klinedinst, a retired economics professor from the University of Southern Mississippi, said that more were lost in the region as businesses laid people off to pay for the higher electrical bills caused by Mississippi Power rate increases from plant construction. The University of Southern Mississippi also raised annual tuition $236 per student, partly to offset its additional $1 million in higher electrical costs, he said.

The Whistle-Blower

Mr. Wingo, 48, had lived paycheck to paycheck for years, working at small, struggling engineering firms. When he was hired in 2007 by a subsidiary of Southern, it was a big step up. He doubled his salary to become a midlevel manager to help oversee scheduling and some design decisions on a project that he believed would make history.

Before long, Southern began flying him around the country to explain the project to others. He received glowing performance reviews and was awarded an annual $2,000 “Southern Excellence” employee award.

By 2012, though, Mr. Wingo had begun his transition to whistle-blower. About two weeks after state regulators renewed the license for the project to continue, Mississippi Power admitted to regulators that it had concealed cost overruns of about $366 million.

In increasingly testy meetings and emails over succeeding months, Mr. Wingo told his supervisors that other scheduling information that Mississippi Power and Southern Company were providing to the public was infeasible and misleading.

Ed Day, Mississippi Power’s chief executive at the time, tried to tighten control over what was shared. “I would like to remind everyone ‘again,’ no numbers, schedules, or information in general should be communicated to external parties until I review it/them first,” Mr. Day wrote in an Aug. 8, 2012, email to senior staff.

Others shared Mr. Wingo’s growing concerns. Tom Theodore, a scheduling consultant who worked on the Kemper project for about eight months in 2012, described the company’s stated schedule as little more than “a pretty picture to show everybody that we’re all doing wonderful as opposed to what reality showed on the ground.”

His predecessors had altered the software so it no longer automatically adjusted the final price and completion date to reflect problems as they emerged, he said.

Greg Zoll, who had been hired by the state to be the project’s independent monitor, also grew skeptical. While engineering expenses and purchases went up, reported construction costs went down and scheduling timelines were shortened.

“These trends are illogical,” he wrote in of one of a series of highly critical reports that he filed with regulators from 2012 to 2014. Documents show that in a rush to qualify for federal subsidies, Mississippi Power started construction with less than 15 percent of the plant designed, Mr. Zoll told regulators.

Mississippi Power rejected Mr. Zoll’s criticism, responding that the delays were caused by glitchy software and shifts in design, and that the company was absorbing most of the additional costs.

But Brandon Presley, now the chairman of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, said that the project was troubled from the start and he voted against it. “The train left the station,” he said, when, in a rush to qualify for millions of dollars in federal subsidies, the commission approved the project.

He added that the problem was not the federal subsidies, which are necessary to develop innovative technology, but the failure by all parties to slow down and ask enough questions.

On May 20, 2013, Mr. Day abruptly stepped down as chief executive. His replacement, Ed Holland, told regulators that Mr. Day had directed or allowed employees to withhold from regulators documents about cost overruns. That sparked public outcry because the information was withheld from the commission while it was deciding whether to reapprove the project. “I will see that it never happens again,” said Mr. Holland, according to news articles at the time.

An Internal Battle

In February 2014, an argument erupted at the plant. Engineers told upper-level managers that the company should not promise to regulators and investors that the project would be done before the end of the year, emails and recorded calls show. Weeks later, the company did so anyway.

The next day, the owner of the project’s scheduling firm sent an email saying that he could not in good conscience continue to work on a project that did not “fairly and accurately represent the work that still remains.”

Mr. Wingo wrote in a subsequent email to an official at PricewaterhouseCoopers, an auditing firm that was helping to manage the project, “This has really put the entire project at a crossroads.” The other engineers in his division were in “utter disbelief” that the company had published a false schedule, he added.

On March 10, Mr. Wingo called Mr. Fanning, the chief executive of Southern Company, to ensure the message reached him. “I’m glad you brought this to me,” Mr. Wingo said Mr. Fanning told him. “I plan to get to the bottom of this.”

Instead, Southern Company and Mississippi Power focused in subsequent months at least as much on damage control as they did on rooting out wrongdoing.

In meetings, Mr. Wingo and other engineers said that they were told by plant managers that they needed to present an optimistic timetable for the project or the utility risked “financial Armageddon” of lost tax subsidies, spooked investors, possible bankruptcy, and harsh criticism from the news media, regulators and lawmakers.

After Mr. Wingo provided company officials with a binder of documents corroborating his allegations, he said he was ordered to stop sending emails on the matter because they could become public through litigation.

After he told his manager in an email that most project engineers agreed that the plant could not be completed by 2014, the manager continued telling executives that “to a man” all of the plant’s engineers thought that finishing by 2014 was feasible, Mr. Wingo said, and Mr. Lunsford, the engineer at the plant, reiterated in a recorded call that the manager’s comment was false.

Mr. Wingo, who began speaking to reporters, refused an offer of roughly $975,000 from the company to keep quiet, according to interviews and court records related to his whistle-blower claims. Southern was then granted a restraining order, later dropped, forbidding him from speaking publicly about the plant, court records show.

Mr. Wingo said that he began recording his phone conversations in August 2014, hoping to protect himself. During those calls, at least two of Mr. Wingo’s colleagues said that they strongly disagreed with what one of them called “his grand conspiracy.” A half-dozen other engineers told Mr. Wingo that they shared his views.

The Times contacted each of the engineers whose conversations were recorded and shared by Mr. Wingo. All declined to comment.

The recordings include commiseration among colleagues, and ambivalence from engineers who vacillated between criticizing and defending the project. They include typical workplace grousing about bosses who workers say are in need of “Viagra for the brain” and are incapable of running even a Popsicle stand.

They also reveal an internal struggle that Mr. Wingo faced: While still a believer in the possibility of clean coal, he was uneasy to find himself on the same side as environmental groups that oppose fossil fuels.

“My enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend,” he said in one recorded conversation in February 2015.

What troubled the engineers most was the poor quality of work: leaking gaskets, cracked ductwork, and pipes missing inspection records, valves and supports. Ryan Brown, a plant engineer, said during a phone call that he was having to “go back and do some sort of repair or rebuild” for every piece of work handed to him by the plant’s construction teams, which were under intense deadline pressure.

In a call on Aug. 22, 2014, Mr. Wingo confronted one of his superiors, Brett Wingard, about photographs covertly taken by an inspector who was concerned about defective pipes at the plant. Mr. Wingard dismissed the threat, saying that the pipes were only in a section of the plant not yet in operation (part of the project is running on natural gas already). GPS information in the images indicates otherwise.

Other workers recounted in phone calls to Mr. Wingo that they had discovered a large section of outdoor exhaust pipe that was glowing cherry red one night in September 2014 because 1,400-degree gases were misdirected through it. “That’s so bad that it made people all over the company stand up and say this is ridiculous,” Mr. Lunsford said in an October call with Mr. Wingo.

Several co-workers warned Mr. Wingo against being “a martyr.” One engineer, Donald Falletta, told him in a phone call that jumping on a grenade “when there ain’t nobody else in the damn room don’t save nobody.” In a call six months later, Mr. Falletta added that he too believed that managers were being “told to lie” about the pace of progress.

In February 2015, Southern sued Mr. Wingo, alleging that he had agreed to a settlement but failed to comply with its terms, which included keeping quiet about the plant. Mr. Wingo said that he never signed or agreed to any settlement.

Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for Southern Company, added that Mr. Wingo’s allegations had been thoroughly investigated by the company and by outside counsel and were found to be unsubstantiated. He added that with any project of this scope, detractors are inevitable.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Mr. Wingo’s colleague, Robert Adams, called him to say that he was leaving the company and to ask whether he would be legally allowed to speak publicly about the plant at that point. “Once we resign, do you think they will try to silence us?” asked Mr. Adams, who left the company shortly thereafter.

In March, the company dropped its case against Mr. Wingo. “Hug that wife,” Donald Falletta said in a phone conversation congratulating Mr. Wingo. “She’s been through a damn roller-coaster ride.”

The utility was on a roller coaster, too. In February 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled that Mississippi Power had to repay ratepayers roughly $377 million for increasing rates by 15 percent in 2013 and 3 percent in 2014 without proper approvals. Utility officials responded that the requirement would bankrupt it, and several months later persuaded regulators to approve a new increase, 15 percent.

Meanwhile, engineers discussed the pressure to hurry construction. One of them, Brent Duncan, recounted in a phone call that he told a scheduling contractor how discouraged he was that managers were being allowed to “screw” with the schedule and “then claim they can meet all these dates, and there’s no way.”

The engineers joked that Mississippi Power, eager to show progress to investors and regulators, overstated certain milestones. For example, it bragged of achieving the “first fire,” which involves the lighting of the gasifier, when what they did fell far short of the actual definition, according to Mr. Wingo.

“We burned natural gas in a pilot” light, Brandon Davis, an engineer, said during one phone conversation. “I accomplish that every day in my garage.”

Some engineers wondered aloud whether accurate information was making it to the top. “By the time the message gets to Tom Fanning,” Mr. Lunsford said in a September 2015 call, “it’s so muddled and messed up that he’s not even hearing the truth.”

In March, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration alerted Southern that it had violated whistle-blower protections. The agency rejected the company’s claim that it was justified in firing Mr. Wingo because he could “not be trusted to support the chain of command.”

Mr. Wingo filed his whistle-blower claim against Southern Company under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. While that law does not lead to paying a cash bounty to successful whistle-blowers, Mr. Wingo declined to say whether he has also filed a claim with the S.E.C. under the Dodd-Frank Act, which does pay awards for successful cases.

In April of this year, Southern informed the S.E.C. for at least the eighth consecutive month of a new delay and cost overrun, this time for $60 million, bringing the total spent on the Kemper project to about $6.7 billion. In May, the Obama administration said that it planned to cut spending on clean-coal technologies by 3 percent in next year’s budget.

Supporters of carbon capture say that Kemper’s problems are not representative of the entire industry, and that one part of the plant — the gasifier that converts cheap coal into synthetic gas — is primarily causing the delays. But critics say that the principal challenge of carbon capture is cost, and that the gasifier’s ability to use cheap coal has always been advertised as key to making the project affordable.

As Mississippi Power and Southern Company have continued struggling to bring the plant online, Southern has repeatedly promoted in calls to investors its plans to help offset the project’s cost by selling the carbon-capture technology abroad.

For now, Mr. Presley, the chairman of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, says he is taking a wait-and-see approach, hoping that when and if the plant finally comes online, it works as promised. Mississippi Power has said that every month of delay adds more than $20 million to the overall cost, but it will charge customers for extra costs from the plant only with approval by the commission.

Mr. Presley will eventually have to grapple with what he called the “awful task” of not pushing the utility into bankruptcy while determining how much electricity customers, taxpayers and investors should pay for the billions of dollars in cost overruns.

Urban biowaste, a sustainable source of bioenergy?

This article was originally written by Mariel Vilella, Zero Waste Europe Associate Director & Climate, Energy & Air Pollution Campaigner for the EU BIoenergy Blog

Although most bioenergy is produced by burning agricultural and forestry biomass, it is also generated by burning the organic parts of municipal solid waste, biowaste or urban biomass. This includes food waste from restaurants, households, farmers markets, gardens, textiles, clothing, paper and other materials of organic origin. But have you ever tried to fuel a bonfire with a salad? Probably not, so this may not be the most efficient use of urban biowaste.

At the EU level, urban biowaste, far from being managed by one set of straightforward policies, is instead held at the intersection of several competing mandates: the circular economy, climate, bioenergy and air pollution. Policies which have an impact, yet fail to drive the most sustainable use of this resource.

Most waste and circular economy policies aim at increasing recycling and resource efficiency of urban biowaste resources by promoting composting and biogas production, while climate and energy policies incentivize burning biowaste to generate energy under the assumption that the energy produced is ‘renewable’, ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘sustainable’. This presents a significant contradiction at the heart of EU environmental policy, one that gets particularly hot within the current sustainable bioenergy debate.

Far from being ‘sustainable’, energy from urban biowaste is often produced under very inappropriate circumstances, particularly when organic waste is mixed with the rest of residual waste (anything that cannot be recycled or reused) and sent to an incineration plant or so-called waste-to-energy plant. These plants then claim that the burning of this organic fraction is ‘bioenergy’ or ‘renewable energy’. In the UK, for example, incinerator companies can claim that an average of 50% of the energy produced is ‘renewable’ under these assumptions.[1]

Under the Waste Hierarchy, incineration of municipal solid waste is not only one of the worst options for waste treatment, it’s actually a real waste of energy and resources when one considers the low calorific value of organic waste. Incineration is a terribly unfit technology to burn organic waste which then requires a significant amount of high caloric materials to be added, e.g., plastics or other potentially recyclable or ‘redesignable’ materials so that it functions properly. Under these circumstances, efficiency and sustainability do not score highly. But even more troubling, the financial and political support that should be committed to clean, sustainable and reliable sources of energy is being misused in the most inefficient way by supporting the burning of resources which could be composted, recycled, reused or simply never wasted to begin with.

Today in the EU, harmful subsidies from renewable energy policies are one of the major obstacles to fully implementing a Circular Economy, because they continue to finance and green-wash the construction of waste-burning facilities across Europe. What should be done with urban biowaste instead? The Waste Hierarchy as seen below provides a clear detailed guideline which should be at the foundation of any policy looking at Municipal Solid Waste.


First, organic waste can be reduced through various measures, e.g., improved labeling, better portioning, awareness raising and educational campaigns around food waste and home composting. Secondly, priority should be given to the recovery of edible food so that it is targeted at human consumption first, and alternatively used as animal feed. Next, non-edible organic waste should be composted and used as fertiliser for agriculture, soil restoration and carbon sequestration. Additionally, garden trimmings, discarded food and food-soiled paper should be composted in low-tech small-scale process sites whenever possible. In larger areas, composting could be done in a centralised way with more technologically advanced systems.

As an alternative to composting, depending on local circumstances and the levels of nitrogen in the soils, non-edible organic waste should be used to produce biogas through Anaerobic Digestion technology, a truly renewable source of energy as well as soil enhancer. If there was any organic waste within the residual waste stream, a Material Recovery – Biological Treatment (MRBT) could be considered because it allows for the recovery of dry materials for further recycling and stabilizes the organic fraction prior to landfilling, with a composting-like process. In the lower tier, landfill and incineration are the least preferable and last resort options.

Ultimately, energy policies for a low-carbon economy should progressively move away from extracting as much energy as possible from waste and instead increase measures to preserve the embedded energy in products, a far more efficient and sustainable approach to resource use.

Zero Waste Europe network and many other organisations around the world have called on the European Commission to use the Waste Hierarchy to guide the EU’s post-2020 sustainable bioenergy policy and phase out harmful subsidies that support energy from waste incineration. The revision of the Renewable Energy Directive and the development of a Sustainable Policy on Bioenergy is an opportunity for Europe to become a leader in sustainable and renewable energy, but it’s critical to ensure that these sources are clean, efficient and their use evidence-based.

Garbage in, energy out: creating biofuel from plastic waste

An Australian startup has found a way to transform end-of-life plastics into bio-crude fuel. But is this a sustainable solution or just pollution displacement?

A McDonald’s container washed up on the beach.

A McDonald’s container washed up on the beach.

At first glance, the polystyrene container buried amid the beach detritus was unremarkable. Closer inspection however yielded something jarring about this discarded filet-o-fish box. Discovered by locals cleaning up in the wake of a storm last month on a South Australian beach, the polystyrene-based clamshell container bore a stylistically-dated design and logo, yet the packaging itself appeared as good as new.

It wasn’t new – McDonald’s stopped using such containers in 1991, so it had drifted in the Gulf St Vincent and beyond or lain buried within sand dunes for at least two-and-a-half decades.

By the life cycle standards of plastics however, this humble burger container was just beginning its journey; polystyrene foam remains intact for about 500 years before breaking down into chemicals that linger far longer than that.

Historians typically define eras by the type of material civilisations leave behind: the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age. The archeologists of the future may well look back on the modern era as the plastic age, our legacy piling up in landfill, clogging up rivers, floating about the oceans, and choking or poisoning wildlife – and the humans who eat the wildlife – for centuries to come.

If University of Sydney Prof Thomas Maschmeyer has anything to do with it, the historians of tomorrow will have to, at a certain point, refer to a different material to chart human progress. That’s not because he has worked out a way to replace plastic, but rather a way to get rid of it.

Maschmeyer’s renewable energy startup Licella is taking a more refined approach to the idea of waste incineration, pioneering a method to transform end-of-life plastics into a bio-crude petroleum substitute.

Renewable Chemical Technologies Ltd (RCTL), backed by UK energy investor Armstrong Energy, is investing A$10m (£5m) into Licella’s plan to build the world’s first commercial hydrothermal waste upgrading plant. Licella will develop and test a recycling plant in Australia before shipping it to the UK, with the first plant to be integrated into an existing facility, which Licella hopes will be the first of many.

The aim of the partnership is for RCTL to develop projects to convert end-of-life plastics into high-quality oil, suitable for blending into standard hydrocarbon fuels, using Licella’s proprietary catalytic hydrothermal reactor platform that has been developed in partnership with the University of Sydney.

Maschmeyer says the partnership will tackle the issue of what to do with end-of-life plastics – the remnants of mixed plastics with small amounts of paper and cardboard that are left over from more easily recyclable components.

“Dealing with end-of-life plastics is challenging and expensive, as they vary considerably and have traditionally had to be sorted in order to be recycled effectively,” he says.

“This investment will allow for the deployment of our technological solution on a commercial scale, with up to 20,000 tonnes to be transformed from waste to product annually from next year just from the first plant alone,” says Dr Len Humphreys, chair of Licella.

Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are interested in making use of such fuel, and the process can also turn waste products from the pulp and paper industry into bio-crude, a possibility that has attracted Canadian pulp and paper producer Canfor onboard to develop a full-scale commercial operation.

However, experts warn that bio-crudes are not without their own environmental consequences.

Dr Tom Beer, honorary fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and former leader of the transport biofuels stream of the CSIRO energy transformed flagship, says turning plastics into bio-crude does present an environmental trade-off in respect to carbon emissions.

“Of the oil that gets extracted out of the ground, about a third is used to produce plastics, which effectively locks the carbon up into plastic,” he says.

“If you then turn it into bio-crude and burn it, that is no longer the case. It depends what you value most, do you want to get plastic out of landfill, and out of the oceans, then fantastic, but it does mean carbon emissions.”

Prof David Cohen, a specialist in the use of nuclear techniques to track fine particle air pollution at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, says carbon would not be the only thing emitted in the use of bio-crude.

“At the front end, production of a product like this is going to involve an energy component to convert it into fuel,” he says.

“Then at the back end, if you convert organic material into fuel and then burn it – then you are going to end up with a combination of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and byproducts that could include soot, volatile organic carbons and carbon dioxide, which are all not so good for the atmosphere.

“Technologies like these are a step in the right direction, but in my opinion it’s renewable or low emission energies that will deliver the output you want – power – without what is essentially pollution displacement.”

“It’s like squeezing a long balloon. You squeeze the middle and the ends get bigger. You squeeze both ends and the middle gets bigger. You squeeze one end and the rest gets bigger.”

Maschmeyer says that in terms of processing, Licella has managed to dramatically reduce carbon emissions via a groundbreaking technique that involves extracting hydrogen from water, and has a much lower carbon footprint than typical crude oil processing.

“The crude oil refining process takes about 12% of the oil ending up as CO2 before burning the oil, just in the process of taking it out of the ground,” he says.

“What we do is taking something already purified, and all we are doing is re-purifying.”

In terms of the end use of the bio-crude, he says that the economy is not 100% green just yet, and for as long as fossil fuels need to be used – such as in jet fuel – bio-crude is a more environmentally-friendly option given the comparatively lower carbon emissions and the added benefit of removing plastic from the environment.

“It is reusing, not renewable, but whilst [we’re still] using fossil fuels, reuse is certainly more attractive.”