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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.

Texas CO2 Capture Demonstration Project Hits Three Million Metric Ton Milestone

On June 30, Allentown, PA-based Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. successfully captured and transported, via pipeline, its 3 millionth metric ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) to be used for enhanced oil recovery. This achievement highlights the ongoing success of a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and managed by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).

The project demonstrates how a gas separation technology called vacuum swing adsorption can be implemented into an operating facility. The technology is being used at a hydrogen production facility in Port Arthur, Texas, to capture more than 90 percent of the CO2 from the product streams of two commercial-scale steam methane reformers, preventing its release into the atmosphere.

In addition to demonstrating the integration of Air Products’ vacuum swing adsorption technology, the project is also helping to verify that CO2-enhanced oil recovery (CO2-EOR) is an effective method for permanently storing CO2. CO2-EOR allows CO2 to be stored safely and permanently in geologic formations, while increasing oil production from fields once thought to be exhausted.

The CO2 captured from the Port Arthur facility is being used for EOR at the West Hastings Unit (oilfield) in southeast Texas. Injected CO2 is able to dissolve and displace oil residue that is trapped in rock pores. It is estimated that the West Hastings Unit could produce between 60 and 90 million additional barrels of oil using CO2 injection.

In total, projects sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy have captured and securely stored more than 12 million metric tons of CO2, equivalent to taking more than 2 million cars off the road for a year. Investing in projects and technologies, such as Air Products’, are critical to paving the way for more widespread use of CCS technologies.

The Air Products project is supported through DOE’s Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage (ICCS) program, which is advancing the deployment of CCS technologies for industrial sources at commercial and utility-scale. CCS innovation is important to not only reduce future greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, but it also helps to ensure that U.S. industries are powered in the most efficient, sustainable, and clean way possible, while continuing to use America’s long-standing and abundant energy resources. (US DOE)

Fossil Fuels May Not Dwindle Anytime Soon

The U. S. Energy Information Administration foresees continued dominance for coal, gas and oil

Based on its latest projections, EIA said global carbon dioxide emissions from energy activities will rise from 36 billion metric tons in 2012, the baseline year used for the 2016 outlook, to 43 billion metric tons in 2040.

Rapid economic growth in China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and other emerging countries will drive global energy consumption to nearly double by 2040, according to new projections released yesterday by the Department of Energy.

But the associated rise in carbon emissions will not keep pace with overall energy consumption, thanks to a shifting global energy portfolio that relies less on coal for power generation and more on natural gas and renewable energy resources, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in its 2016 International Energy Outlook.

Based on its latest projections, EIA said global carbon dioxide emissions from energy activities will rise from 36 billion metric tons in 2012, the baseline year used for the 2016 outlook, to 43 billion metric tons in 2040.
That’s a 34 percent increase in energy-related CO2, compared to a 48 percent increase in overall energy consumption from 2010 to 2040, when EIA says the world will consume a record 815 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy.

But some critics of EIA’s methodology say the projections on global energy use and CO2 emissions failed to adequately account for major international policy initiatives, including last year’s pledge by nearly 190 U.N.-member countries to make sharp reductions in energy-sector greenhouse gas emissions.

In a public rollout of the data at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski said that the agency used more sophisticated modeling tools for the 2016 report than previously available, especially in the transportation sector, and that the world’s demand for fossil fuels will continue to grow.

“Even in the aftermath of Paris, I think that our numbers suggest that growth and need for petroleum in transportation and industry is still going to be pretty strong,” he said. “Those numbers could come down over time, but it’s still really hard to compete with the energy density that’s in oil.”

Don’t count out fossil fuels

Among other things, the new report portends continued rising demand for natural gas, along with sustained growth in wind, solar and nuclear energy production. Renewables, led by wind and hydro power, are projected to be the fastest-growing energy resource over the next two decades, according to EIA, expanding by 2.6 percent annually through 2040.

Nuclear will also see solid growth, at 2.3 percent annually, underscored by China’s commitment to add 139 gigawatts of nuclear capacity to its grid by 2040. Natural gas, long the No. 3 source of global energy behind oil and coal, will by 2030 become the world’s No. 2 resource as coal consumption plateaus with the onset of new international carbon regulations.

Consumption of oil and other forms of liquid petroleum will fall modestly over the next 24 years, from 33 percent of total marketed energy consumption in 2012 to 30 percent in 2040. Oil will continue to be a primary fuel for the transport sector, as well as a key fuel for industrial uses in emerging countries.

But experts cautioned against the idea that fossil fuels will become 20th-century energy anachronisms by the middle of the 21st century. In fact, fossil fuels will still account for 78 percent of global energy use in 2040, even as the growth in non-fossil fuels exceeds that of oil, coal and gas.

“Abundant natural gas resources and robust production—including rising supplies of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane—contribute to the strong competitive position of natural gas,” EIA said in the outlook.
While considerably diminished from a decade ago, coal-fired power generation is expected to grow by 0.6 percent annually over the coming years and will account for between 28 and 29 percent of global power generation by 2040, compared to 40 percent in 2012.

Natural gas and renewables, including hydropower, are also expected to claim between 28 and 29 percent of total global power generation by 2040, with the remainder coming from existing and new nuclear plants.
“This is going to happen in many places around the world, and it will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a significant amount,” Sieminski told energy policy experts and journalists gathered at CSIS’s granite-and-glass headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue.

In one of the first high-level analyses of how U.S. carbon regulation will affect global energy markets, EIA projects that U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan would further shave coal consumption by roughly 1 percent after 2020 while driving a comparable increase in renewable energy deployment.

“It changes the global numbers a little bit, it changes the U.S. numbers more, and it particularly changes coal in the U.S. by more,” Sieminski said. “You can see coal plateauing.”

Critics slam projections

Among the world’s three largest coal users—the United States, China and India—only India is projected to see an overall increase in coal consumption by 2040. China is expected to begin reducing its use of coal after 2025, while the United States is already seeing a downward trajectory in coal use, one that could grow steeper if the Clean Power Plan is upheld in court.

While U.S. markets and policy will continue to be critical benchmarks for global energy, the United States will not be among the fastest-growing energy markets going forward, EIA found.

In fact, by 2040, nearly two-thirds of all of the world’s energy use will be in developing countries outside the 34-member Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Among non-OECD members, Asian countries like China, India and Indonesia will account for 55 percent of all new energy use through 2040, the analysis found.

Increasing oil and liquid fuels consumption for industry and transportation will be particularly strong in countries like China and India, Sieminski said, where rising incomes and a proliferation of privately owned cars and trucks has led to significant increases in vehicles miles traveled (VMT).

But critics like David Turnbull of the climate-focused nonprofit group Oil Change International said EIA should have given stronger consideration to shifting national and international climate policies, especially over the last several years.

“We all know that we’re moving in a different direction now,” Turnbull said. “The Paris Agreement was a clear indication that the fossil fuel era was ending. To make a projection that ignores some of these major shifts in public opinion, in energy markets, in renewable energy policy, is leaving out a big piece of the picture.”

A spokesman for EIA stressed in an email that the agency did not ignore the Paris accord or other international agreements in its analysis.

In fact, the report makes clear that EIA “has tried to incorporate some of the specific details,” such as renewable energy goals put forward in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, in its 2016 IEO reference case. “However, a great deal of uncertainty remains with regard to the implementation of policies to meet stated goals.”

In his comments at CSIS, Sieminski acknowledged that long-term projections like those in the IEO are imperfect and that policy and technology changes can lead to radically different outcomes than the best analysis can predict.

“There’s probably a lot of flex in these numbers,” Sieminski said. “Does that mean that we are wasting taxpayer dollars doing it? The answer is no. It’s hugely valuable to policymakers, it’s hugely valuable to the public.”

Widening scandal over vehicle emissions threatens climate accord

Governments are counting on regulatory action and voluntary pledges by companies to meet climate targets. The scandals and shortcomings involving carmakers show the pitfalls of the strategy.

Goals set by governments that signed the Paris climate change agreement last month were based on figures determined to be attainable. A widening scandal involving carmakers that cheated on testing to make their vehicles appear more environmentally friendly than they actually were could weaken the accord or even make it meaningless.

About one-fifth of greenhouse gases causing global temperatures to rise come from emissions related to the transport sector. Confidence and trust have been shaken, which is reason for increased oversight and research into better mobility solutions.

Millions of cars, most of them diesel, are likely to be recalled for buybacks or repairs.

Volkswagen in the US and Mitsubishi in Japan have so far been the biggest casualties, but investigations are now also under way in Europe into diesel vehicles manufactured by Daimler, GM and PSA Peugeot Citroen. About 630,000 cars made by Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Porsche and VW are voluntarily being recalled to tweak software involved in emissions of nitrogen oxide. There is good reason to suspect that petroldriven vehicles that produce carbon dioxide gases, the main cause of global warming, will be next.

VW has been the face of the scandal, its admission last September after US investigations that it had installed software in 11 million diesel cars worldwide to deceive environmental regulators causing outrage. It has set aside US$18.2 billion to deal with the fallout and its share price has plummeted. Mitsubishi Motors’ stock value has also plunged, hit by last month’s revelation that the firm falsified test results to overstate the fuel efficiency of 625,000 vehicles produced for the Japanese market by between five and 10 per cent. What that means for emissions in Japan is unclear, but the US Environmental Protection Agency is more certain about the impact of VW’s cheating; it contends the firm’s diesel cars were emitting up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than they were supposed to. In Europe, carmakers deny wrongdoing, although a British study has found 37 models, while meeting legal limits in the laboratory, exceed levels by up to 12 times when on the road.

Governments are counting on regulatory action and voluntary pledges by companies to meet climate targets. The scandals and shortcomings involving carmakers show the pitfalls of the strategy. Watchdogs have a crucial role in keeping authorities and firms on track. Encouraging the development of better technologies and more sustainable transport systems is as important.

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San Francisco adopts law requiring solar panels on all new buildings

Tech capital is first major US city to require all new buildings of 10 storeys or under to have solar panels, reports BusinessGreen

San Francisco has this week passed landmark legislation requiring all new buildings under 10 storeys in height to be fitted with rooftop solar panels.

The city’s San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the new rule on Tuesday, making the metropolis the largest in the US to mandate solar installations on new properties.

Smaller Californian cities such as Lancaster and Sebastopol already have similar laws in place, but San Francisco is the first large city to adopt the new standard.

From January 2017 all new buildings in the city with 10 floors or fewer must have either solar PV or solar thermal panels installed. The measure builds on existing Californian state law which requires all new buildings to have at least 15% of their roof space exposed to sunshine, in order to allow for future solar panel use.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who introduced the legislation, said the new measure would put San Francisco at the forefront of the US fight against climate change.

“In a dense, urban environment, we need to be smart and efficient about how we maximise the use of our space to achieve goals such as promoting renewable energy and improving our environment,” he said in a statement.

Wiener is also working on legislation that will allow “living roofs” – which provide low-cost insulation, minimise storm flooding issues and provide new wildlife habitats – to also be eligible to meet the new requirements. The proposals are expected to be introduced in the coming weeks.

“This legislation will activate our roofs, which are an under-utilised urban resource, to make our city more sustainable and our air cleaner,” Wiener added.

San Francisco has a target to source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and has emerged as one of the US’s leading clean tech hubs with a raft of Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs backing a host of green technology start-ups in the region

Report: Coal, biomass mix may be in military jet fuel future

The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology recently released results of a research project that investigated the technical feasibility, commercial viability and environmental compliance of the use of liquefied coal and biomass mixtures as a military jet fuel replacement.

Overall, the research “showed potentially highly effective alternative fuel resources that can end the current debate,” according to the project report. Objectives of the study included the investigation, through analyses and testing of the use of domestic coal and biomass mixtures to make liquid fuel (CBTL), with a focus on gasification.

The project team executed gasification testing and analyses of 150 coal-biomass feedstock tests, performing them at five different partner and facility locations—the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks. N.D., the U.S. DOE National Carbon Capture Center in Wilsonville, Alabama, Westinghouse Plasma Corporation at Madison, Pennslyvania, ThermoChem Recovery International, Inc. in Durham, North Carolina, and Emery Energy Company in Laramie, Wyoming.

All CO2 footprint projections of alternative jet fuel made from solid feedstocks tested were below the petroleum baseline for blended jet fuel (50 percent alternative fuel plus 50 percent petroleum-based fuel), thereby satisfying Section 526, according to the report.

Other major findings included:
– When coal was the sole feedstock, the CO2 footprint was the largest and required the most capture.
– Increasing percentages of biomass in the solid feed generally resulted in lower CO2 footprints and smaller amounts of required capture.
– Torrefied wood offers advantages in blending with coal and lowering the CO2 footprint for the CBTL plant.
– Municipal solid waste and biomass (considered to be “nuisance plants” in areas where they are abundant) may be economically feasible for use as feedstocks.
– Feedstock preparation and feed system design are critical to the successful development of a large-scale CBTL project.
– Electricity generation and CO2 displacement credits from CBTL are significant contributors to lower GHG emissions. At a ratio of 30 percent biomass, emissions were 38 to 62 percent below the baseline; with 10 percent biomass, 13 to 33 percent below the baseline; and with no biomass, 2 to 18 percent below the baseline.

On economic findings, the study found that on the rough order of magnitude, cost estimates using the techno-economic model for a 50,000 barrel-per-day CBTL plant with an entrained flow gasifier or transport gasifier showed average required selling price (RSP) of jet fuel ranged from approximately $134 to $170 per barrel, on a crude oil equivalent basis. Instances where coal was the sole feedstock resulted in the lowest RSP; increasing the percentages of raw biomass in the solid feed generally resulted in a higher RSP. Using torrefied rather than raw biomass resulted in a lower RSP, according to the report.

The project team concluded that blending various grades of coal with biomass presents a credible approach for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and producing alternative jet fuel.

The report also includes several factors that can improve commercial viability of CBTL technology, as well as recommendations for future study.

US forests under threat as demand for wood-based biofuels grows – report

An increase in US wood pellet exports intended to reduce reliance on fossil fuels may be threatening ecologically important forests across the country, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council

European Union (EU) rules intended to reduce power plant reliance on fossil fuels are threatening significant areas of ecologically important hardwood forests across the southeastern US, and will do little to mitigate carbon emissions, according to a new report.

The report, produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in collaboration with the Conservation Biology Institute, detailed a 150% increase in wood pellet exports (pdf) from the US during the past three years. Most are bound for Europe, where power companies are replacing coal and other fossil fuels with wood-based biofuels in order to benefit from EU incentives on renewable energy sources.

Debbie Hammel, senior resource specialist for NRDC’s Land and Wildlife Program, said that the EU has few safeguards to ensure that wood pellet biofuel comes from plantation-grown trees and wood remnants, rather than wood harvested from mature forests. That calls into serious question EU claims of carbon-neutral biomass fuels, she said.

“When you burn wood pellets you are immediately and instantaneously releasing carbon into the atmosphere,” said Hammel. “And there’s very little certainty that those forests will continue to grow over the long term.”

The report detailed geographic information system mapping (GIS) conducted in bottomland hardwood forests and wetlands in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and southeastern Georgia – areas that have experienced rapid expansion of wood pellet manufacturing since 2012. It identified parts of Louisiana as another emerging zone of concern.

The report warned that 24m acres of unprotected forest lands across the southeastern US are at risk, largely from European biomass operations. It predicts that wood pellet manufacturing throughout the region could increase twelve-fold by 2020.

As new pellet mills come online, the report said, the areas they target for wood harvesting are likely to overlap with those of existing mills, creating what the report referred to as wood sourcing hotspots and intensifying potential ecosystem damage.

Southeastern forests in the US have long been under threat from urban sprawl, agriculture and the pulp and paper industries. Today, they are also increasingly under threat from rising sea levels. With the rise of the wood pellet industry, the risks to these ecosystems, which include hundreds of endangered, imperiled and threatened species, could escalate dramatically, warned James Strittholt, president of the Conservation Biology Institute.

“It makes perfect sense that we work toward a non-fossil fuel energy source – no argument there – but the issue is the alternatives we pick are not always benign and we need to be thoughtful about that,” Strittholt said. “Just because it’s trees and not fossil fuel, it shouldn’t be everything goes, because everything will indeed go if there aren’t some kinds of controls.”

Strittholt observed that development of new wood pellet facilities is moving much faster than regulators can respond. He noted that some of the forest lands identified just last year in the mapping project as future harvest sites have already been affected.

“From the looks of the data we’re seeing … there’s an economic opportunity, there’s a market, so the corporate response can be quite rapid compared with any safeguarding mechanisms already in place,” he said.

Pellet manufacturer Enviva and British utility Drax Power are leaders in the region’s expanding biomass industry. In an email, Enviva’s vice president of communications, Kent Jenkins Jr, countered some of the report findings. He said the majority of wood used by Enviva’s production plants in Virginia and North Carolina comes from upland forest and mixed stands rather than mature bottomland hardwood.

“Regardless of the source, we use only leftover and low-grade wood that undergoes a rigorous sustainability assessment, certified by independent third parties,” Jenkins said.

Hammel dismissed wood pellet makers’ sustainability standards as “extraordinarily insufficient”. She said companies need to be more transparent about the source of wood used in their products and decrease reliance on mature forests that might take hundreds of years to regrow, thereby undermining any potential emission mitigation.

The NRDC is urging the EU to enact more stringent standards for biomass carbon accounting. The organization is also asking the EU to cap the amount of biofuel permitted in power generation so the demand doesn’t outstrip the supply of actual low-carbon biomass like sawdust and remnant wood.

“These forests are our best defense against climate change,” Hammel said. “They soak up carbon and provide habitat for critically endangered species. EU policymakers need to do the right thing and protect forests and climate.”

Water Utility Inaugurates Waste-to-Energy Project

The District of Columbia’s water utility, DC Water, has unveiled a $470 million waste-to-energy project that will produce a net 10 megawatts (MW) of electricity from the wastewater treatment process. The result is energy that powers approximately one-third of the Blue Plains treatment plant’s energy requirements.

The project began in 2011 and brought in new technology to North America such as the CAMBI thermal hydrolysis process. Thermal hydrolysis uses high heat and pressure to “pressure cook” the solids left over at the end of the wastewater treatment process. This weakens the solids’ cell walls and the structure between cells to make the energy more easily accessible to organisms in the next stage of the process, anaerobic digestion. The methane these organisms produce is captured and fed to three turbines to produce electricity. Steam is also captured and directed back into the process.

Finally, the solids at the end of the process are a cleaner Class A biosolids product that DC Water uses as a compost-like material. Biosolids products are currently being used around the District for urban gardens and green infrastructure projects. DC Water is also working to bring a compost-like product to market.

The project was based on more than a decade of research before bringing these facilities online. The project also received a 2012 Grand Prize in Planning Award from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers & Scientists, a 2012 Global Honor Award in Planning from the International Water Association and a WERF Excellence in Innovation Award was presented in 2011.

DC Water develops $470m waste-to-energy project in US

DC Water has opened a $470m waste-to-energy project, designed to generate clean, renewable energy from the sewage solids generated after wastewater treatment process, at the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, Washington, D.C, US

The 10MW power facility is expected to generate power to meet about one-third of energy needs of the Blue Plains plants.

DC Water board chair Matthew Brown said: “The Board of Directors approved this voluntary investment to create a better class of biosolids and generate 10MW of power to cut the electricity bill at the Blue Plains plant, which is the single largest consumer of electricity in the District.”

Featuring a dewatering building, the facility comprises 32 sleek thermal hydrolysis vessels, four concrete 80ft-high anaerobic digesters with a capacity of 3.8 million gallons of solids each and three turbines equivalent to the size of jet engines.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said: “DC Waters Blue Plains facility is converting waste to clean water and a nutrient-rich soil byproduct, producing energy and helping to put the District on the path towards a zero waste future.”

The CAMBI thermal hydrolysis technology at the facility uses high heat and pressure to “pressure cook” the sewage solids, which are the byproducts of the wastewater treatment process.

The sewage solids are treated as a sterile food source (carbon) for the microbes in the digesters, which then converts the carbon to methane.

The resulting menthe is then captured and fed to three large turbines in order to produce electricity while the generated steam will be captured and directed back into the process.

The solids at the end of the process are a cleaner Class A biosolids product, which can be used as a compost-like material for urban gardens and green infrastructure projects.

“Additionally, the cleaner biosolids can be applied locally, saving millions of dollars in hauling costs,” Brown added.

DC Water CEO and general manager George Hawkins, said “This project embodies a shift from treating used water as waste to leveraging it as a resource.

“We are proud to be the first to bring this innovation to North America for the benefit of our ratepayers, the industry and the environment.”

DC Water also seeking ways to bring a compost-like product to market.