Saturday, September 7, 2019

Turn NYC sewage sludge into biochar to save money and capture carbon

Turn NYC sewage sludge into biochar to save money and capture carbon  

See the biochar pages at for details, and an ask for the NYC Council 

To respond to the climate crisis, we'll have to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but that won't be enough.  We'll also have to remove massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as quickly as possible. Part of the strategy for removing the necessary 700 gigatons of carbon is planting trees - about three trillion.

Not just carbon emission reductions, but carbon capture

Another part is to keep the carbon in biomass from decomposing and returning to the atmosphere by capturing it in forms that are stable over the long term. Some approaches to carbon sequestration, like capturing CO2 directly from power plant exhausts, are unproven and expensive

Capturing carbon has a long history - and many uses

One approach has a very long history.  Before Europeans came, the indigenous people of the South American Amazon created the high-carbon terra prieta soils, that are unusually fertile to this day, by controlled burning of biomass. A modern version of this approach can be widely applied in both rural and urban areas. Biochar production is recognized as one of the top 100 policy responses to the climate crisis by Project Drawdown.

When biomass is pyrolyzed - heated in a low-oxygen environment -  instead of catching on fire, it turns into a form of charcoal called biochar.  In this form, carbon can be stable for thousands of years.  Ideally, massive biochar production will be part of a Green New Deal package of emergency actions.  Until then, we have to raise awareness of the many other benefits of biochar to make its production popular.

Biochar has many potential uses

It can be a soil amendment for farming, a compost accelerator, and a substitute for peat or vermiculite in potting soil.  It's chemically similar to activated carbon, and can be used as a filter for water and exhausts.  It can be mixed into asphalt, concrete and steel, improving their performance and properties.  It can be mixed into packaging materials, and used in a host of commercial products.  Many more uses are documented in Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth. 

Solving waste disposal problems

Turning biomass into biochar reduces its volume, which can help with the many types of biomass we struggle to dispose of: crop waste, seaweed washed up on beaches, trees destroyed by drought or disease, manure, and sewage sludge.   

The City has been looking into new ways of handling its massive solid waste streams that minimize what has to be sent to landfills.  A significant fraction of NYC's solid waste is sewage sludge, which after being processed at the City's wastewater treatment plants, is called biosolids.

NYC seeking new ways to dispose of its sewage biosolids

NYC generates 1,400 tons per day of biosolids, and pays contractors about $50 million a year to ship it to faraway landfills. 

NYC DEP has been researching biosolids alternatives for years.  I've been in regular contact with a DEP staff member working on the issue.  Some of DEP's planning is available to the public, but most is not. 

The four main approaches that DEP has been researching

- applying it to land;
- anaerobic digestion;
- incineration / waste to energy;
- and pyrolysis / gasification - the heating in a low-oxygen environment - which can yield biochar.

While NYC biosolids could in theory be applied directly to land, in practice the market is very limited. Anaerobic digestion is already a key part of how NYC handles sewage sludge.

The two other approaches are both forms of thermal processing, but there are significant differences.

With incineration, the waste is heated in the presence of oxygen, so it catches on fire and burns. There are about 86 waste to energy facilities around the US, which combine incineration of mixed municipal solid waste with some materials recovery.  Some of NYC's MSW already goes to the Covanta WTE in Newark, NJ.

With pyrolysis, the waste is heated in a low- or no-oxygen environment. Both types of thermal processing will sharply reduce waste volume, lowering disposal and transportation costs. The cost per ton, energy recovery, and yields of solid and gaseous end products will all vary depending on the types of  equipment, feedstock, and operating conditions.

The crucial difference is that pyrolysis / gasification systems can be set to produce a solid end product that's not just ash, but stable carbon.  Biochar made from wood has a higher percentage of carbon that biochar from sewage sludge. Exactly how much carbon could be pulled from NYC waste streams would have to be determined.

Municipal pyrolysis projects for NYC to consider

Incineration has been around for a long time.  Pyrolysis is a new disposal option for cities.
- Stockholm, Sweden has been turning municipal green waste into biochar for several years.
- Some cities in India have been pyrolyzing their sewage sludge.
- A pyrolysis facility to run on municipal biosolids is set to open in 2020 in Linden, NJ.
- Ithaca, NY plans to set up a pyrolysis facility for its biosolids. 

Rendering of the Aries facility in Linden, NJ

Since the NYC Council has already declared a state of climate emergency, shouldn't we be an early adopter of pyrolysis too? We can be a model for other governments, nationally and globally.

We don't know which vendors and facility operators DEP has been in touch with, what proposals they have already made to the City, and what the comparative costs of incineration and pyrolysis might be.  But since a pyrolysis process is potentially a new, important climate crisis response, it shouldn't be evaluated just on the basis of its costs to the City.   We have to educate our elected officials about how carbonizing waste streams supports the City's climate plans. Then, we have to get them to push DEP for updates - and a faster process.

NYC Council should schedule a hearing with NYC DEP on the status of research into biosolids disposal options.  They should ask DEP to speed up its research, and report back regularly - not just on disposal costs per ton of each option being considered, but on how much climate-protecting solid carbon the City could produce through each option.  Also, officials should consider how the City could use that carbon internally or encourage development of commercial and industrial uses for it.

See the biochar pages on for an expanded version of this summary, with links to references, and for more about NYC wood wastes, pyrolysis manufacturers / system developers, and new uses of biochar, as well as a request for NYC Council.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Volunteer now! A blue wave is not guaranteed.

The election is less than two weeks away. This is no time for hope, despair or complacency.  Democrats will only take control of Congress if there is extremely high voter turnout - enough to counteract the many forms of Republican voter suppression.  It is not enough for you simply to vote.  Please spend some time volunteering for candidates, whether knocking on doors, making phone calls, or texting.  This is an emergency.

There's a suitable option for everyone.  If you don't want to knock on doors, you can make phone calls and send texts with other volunteers at events, or on your own, from home.  Uncomfortable calling people up out of the blue, have a tight schedule? No problem, sign up to text from home - that's what I've been doing. If you can afford to donate, do that too.

Do what's right for you, but do something.  The final get out the vote phase is upon us, and it's extremely important to get to everyone who has been identified as a Democratic voter, and remind them to vote.  Click on the groups below to find out about their volunteer opportunities.

A blue wave is not guaranteed at all.  Are you horrified at what is going on, but do nothing? (And no, posting articles and comments on Facebook does not count.) Your choice makes it more likely that dirty tricks will leave the Republicans in full control of the Federal government.  I don't think I need to spell out the implications.  Ask yourself how you'll feel if that happens - and you knew you could have done something, but chose not to.  So choose differently, and let's try to make the blue wave a reality.  Here's your opportunity to take action!

Sign up now for The Last Weekend, and find out how you can take action between now and Election Day. 

Big Blue Dial

 - Saturday, October 27, 1 – 6 PM
Thoughtworks, 99 Madison Ave, 15th floor, New York, 10016 

- Sunday, Nov. 4, 1 - 6 PM
1 Metrotech Center North, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Vote Yes on Proposal 3 - Term Limits for Community Boards

On Election Day, New Yorkers will be able to vote on Ballot Proposal 3, which would limit Community Board members to a maximum four consecutive two years terms, after which they would have to take at least a term off before seeking reappointment.    I strongly endorse voting yes on this proposal, based on my experience as a former District Manager of a Manhattan Community Board.  

Board members have often been nominated because of their political connections.  This reinforces cronyism and entrenched social networks, and blocks innovation, open-mindedness and flexibility.  Once on Boards, members are reappointed automatically upon their request, leading many to consider themselves essentially entitled to a lifetime appointment.  I saw members celebrated for remaining on the board for decades, even though their times of significant contribution were long past.  This is wrong in so many ways.  Why do many elected officials and their political allies argue against term limits? They don’t want to offend board members - who are often also members of their teams.  

The strongest argument against term limits is that some board members have developed expertise and institutional memory, essential for making land use planning decisions.  Yes, some members do have such expertise, but the argument is bogus: former members are always able to attend board meetings, which are public, and offer their input to current members.  Instead, elected officials and board members should prioritize ongoing efforts to find, nominate and cultivate new cohorts of neighborhood leaders who can follow in the footsteps of veteran members. After a two-year break, former members can reapply for the board, but they should be encouraged to seek out new venues for community leadership.  The Manhattan Borough President’s office is doing a good job of recruiting community activists and those who have demonstrated professionalism, competence and civic engagement.  Other boroughs should follow this example.  Term limits would speed up a healthy evolution of board culture and membership.

Check out your local community board.  Many CB staff and board members are working hard to address community needs.  Other boards have serious problems, and elected officials and their communities should try to fix them.   Voting yes on Proposal 3, in favor of term limits, is a good next step.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Please volunteer - there's no Blue Wave without you

Please volunteer - there's no Blue Wave without you.

Date and time: from now until Nov. 6 - the clock is ticking
Location: from your own home, or many potential locations

We're less than a month away from a historically important election.  On Tuesday, November 6, if we work very hard and we're very lucky, Democrats can gain control of the US House of Representatives and the NY State Senate, maybe even the US Senate, and put the brakes on the radical, extremist GOP administration.  I don't think it's useful today to discuss the consequences if this doesn't happen.  What's urgently important right now is whether you can find some time to join me in volunteering on some campaigns. I hope you can.  

Volunteering for campaigns has gotten much easier in recent years.  You can travel within NYC, or nearby, to knock on doors for candidates - the traditional method.  There are events where you can meet up with other campaigners, and make phone calls or send texts to voters together.  Or you can make phone calls and send texts from home on your own schedule. (I'm sending texts.)  You can contact a candidate of your choice and see what they're doing, or visit the campaign groups listed below, and see what options appeal to you.   Post a comment or contact me directly if you have any questions or thoughts.
Please share this with your contacts

Thanks! - Dan

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Protecting NYC from storm surges - some ways will work, others won't


The US Army Corps of Engineers is looking at building gigantic flood barriers at  NYC harbor entrances to protect against storm surges.  It might work for a short time, but would cost at least $30-50 billion and not offer any protection from climate change driven sea level rise.  Building land-based resilience measures on our coastlines would cost only a fraction, and would address both issues.  Let's not waste billions on projects that won't work - and let's stop building in flood plains like LIC and the Rockaways.

(This letter has been sent to Queens elected officials and Community Boards)

The US Army Corps of Engineers is considering how to protect NYC from future storm surges.  They expect to narrow the list of six alternatives in their plan down to two, perhaps by winter of 2020.  We ask municipal leaders to stand with NYC Council Member Costas Constantinides, who has called the plan woefully inadequate, and its public notice insufficient.

Most of the Corp’s alternatives center on building gigantic flood barriers in the water to close off entrances to the NY harbor in the event of storms. The Corps estimates river barriers (Alternative 2) could cost up to $140 billion dollars, without counting for annual maintenance or cost overruns.  It would be difficult to modify the gates to cope with higher sea levels, and they could have a functional lifespan of as little as 20 years. And as they will remain open most of the time, these in water barriers will not address sea-level rise. 

In contrast, one of the alternatives would make
our shorelines more resilient by building land-based flood walls, dunes and levees.  This approach is already being taken by NYC, is supported by environmental organizations, and would address both storm surge and sea level rise. The Corps estimates this alternative would cost between $2 billion to $4 billion.  Shoreline measures can improve quality of life for waterfront communities, can be individually customized, can be modified or expanded over time, will have very small maintenance costs, and will be essential for local sea level rise protection, whether offshore barriers are built or not.

New Yorkers should be able to review Federal projects to protect our shoreline, and to reject plans likely to fail while wasting taxpayer money. We urge all Queens elected officials and Community Boards to request that the Corps extend its public comment period, schedule hearings in Queens, and to submit their own responses and resolutions. 

It’s time to look more carefully at NYC’s own plans for its low-lying areas.  Climate change guarantees that sea levels will rise, as will the frequency and strength of storms, even if the details are uncertain.   Besides ensuring that the Corps helps make our shorelines more resilient, we should do our part to minimize future damage, by avoiding more construction in flood plains instead of encouraging it.    

Mark Laster and Dan Miner
Co-Chairs, Forest Hills Green Team

= = = = =


US Army Corps NYC Storm Surge Plan

Council Member Costas Constantinides statement on the USACE plan

NYC coastal resilience plans

NYC’s Big U lower Manhattan shoreline protection plan

Riverkeeper backgrounder and fact sheet on storm surge barriers:
Sample municipal resolution on the USACE Storm Surge Proposal

Columbia University Professor Klaus Jacob has long advocated relocation away from NYC flood plains to higher elevations.

= = = = = = = =

Council Member Constantinides - Resolution No. 509
Resolution calling on the United States Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider the proposals made in the New York – New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to consider sea level rise and flooding caused by rain in addition to storm surge.

Whereas, In 2012, coastal storm Sandy ravaged the New York City metropolitan area
causing 60 documented fatalities and damaging significant resources throughout the area; and

Whereas, As a result of Sandy New York City was left without power, with damaged
critical public and private infrastructure, and many New York City residents had limited access to food, drinking water and healthcare; and

Whereas, The storm inflicted an estimated $19 billion in damages and lost economic
activity across New York City; and

Whereas, Coastal flooding and storm surge remain a significant risk six years later and
present a threat with deadly consequences for people and wildlife; and

Whereas, The New York City metropolitan area has a gross metropolitan product of over $1.66 trillion and there was a $15 billion federal investment in post-hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects; and

Whereas, The United States Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps), working with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in partnership with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, have proposed to develop measures to manage the risk of coastal storm damage in the New York City metropolitan area; and

Whereas, The Army Corps plans to address coastal risk management focus primarily on the creation of in-water surge barriers that do not address sea level rise; and

Whereas, The coastal risk management feasibility study acknowledges that no coastal risk management project can eliminate the risk of flooding and that given time each design will eventually be exceeded; and

Whereas, The Army Corps feasibility study focuses on a number of options which involve the construction of large permanent in-water barriers that could result in adverse impacts to the New York and New Jersey harbor ecology while still failing to address flooding risks from sea level rise and rainfall events; and

Whereas, Sea level is rising along the East Coast of the United States faster than it has risen for the last 2,000 years, is accelerating in pace, and could rise by one to two meters this century, threatening millions of Americans with severe flooding; and

Whereas, The New York New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Coastal Risk Management Feasibility Study does not include an evaluation of the impact of sea level rise on the study area; and

Whereas, The New York City panel on climate change has predicted that sea level will rise at least a foot by 2050 and possibly more; and

Whereas, Local environmentalists and community members and groups have voiced concerns that the Army Corps needs to conduct a more thorough review of the environmental impacts of each alternative measure and allow for more meaningful public input and participation; and

Whereas, The information provided in the study’s scope of work does not give the public sufficient ability to comment on the program design, including the frequency and duration of barrier closures, the barrier heights or the reliance on risk-based assessment, and fails to evaluate "ecosystem services;" and

Whereas, The extremely large in-water barriers and gates that will close or open for shipping fail to protect New York City and the surrounding communities against sea level rise and flooding caused by rain; and

Whereas, These huge barriers are likely to restrict the migration of striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon, herring, shad, eel and other species important to the Hudson estuary; and

Whereas, These storm surge barriers would also restrict natural flushing from the ocean and inhibit free water movement along the length of the Hudson and its estuary, causing contamination to once again be concentrated in New York Harbor; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Council of the City of New York calls upon the United States Army Corps of Engineers to share information about the studies it is evaluating in this process; to evaluate "ecosystem services;" to have regular and sustained outreach to stakeholders throughout the potential impact areas in New York New Jersey, and Connecticut; and to reconsider the alternatives being evaluated in the New York – New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to include consideration of sea rise and flooding caused by rain in addition to storm surge.

Monday, July 23, 2018

CulturePass NYC: still a few bugs in the system

Many of NYC's cultural institutions are fairly expensive.  To counter this, NYC introduced CulturePass.NYC, through which NYC library card holders can reserve free admission to 33 cultural institutions.  Sounds good, yes?

A quick tour of the site a week after its mid-July roll-out revealed that the shelves were mostly empty, with passes available immediately for only a few of the institutions.  For some others, one could reserve passes only for a future date.  But many attractions had neither available passes or any link to a calendar to indicate when future dates could be reserved.  What happened?

Apparently the program was very popular.  Four days after the CulturePass website went live, passes were sold out for ten of the most popular institutions. Program representatives say they are speaking with venues to offer more passes and to add new venues.  

The FAQ page 
reveals a catch: passes are made available on the website two months in advance on the first of every month. "For example, on October 1, December passes will be made available and Culture Pass patrons will be able to reserve any available passes for dates between October 1st and December 31st." 

So mark your calendars for the first of the month to see if you can nab some passes far in advance.  Perhaps set an alarm for just after midnight.  

Maybe someday I'll be able to visit the Guggenheim without dropping $25 or enduring the lengthy wait on the around the block lines for its Saturday 5 - 7:45 PM pay what you wish hours
Until then, I'll appreciate the NYC museums that are always pay what you wish, like the Museum of the City of NY, and my favorite, the Metropolitan Museum

Monday, October 16, 2017

Three paths to stronger NY energy and climate response

To cope with climate change, we must aim for transition to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible


The Solutions Project and scientists at Stanford University have come up with plans for all 50 US states and 138 countries to transition to 100% renewable energy. founder Bill McKibben calls for politicians to commit to converting to100% renewable energy while working to keep remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

Senators Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey have introduced the “100 by’50 Act” to completely phase out fossil fuel use and replace them with renewable power by 2050, while supporting workers and prioritizing low-income communities.

Legislation has also been introduced at the federal level to transition to 100% clean electricity by 2035

The Climate Mobilization calls for a government-coordinated emergency effort to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy as soon as possible, modeled after the US mobilization at the outset of World War II.   

Changing New York State’s Climate and Energy Policy

The Solutions Project’s New York State plan outlines how by 2030 electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry energy infrastructure could be converted to run entirely from wind, water, andsunlight, provided by: 10% onshore wind (4,020 5- megawatt / MW turbines), 40% offshore wind (12,700 5-MW turbines), 10% concentrated solar (387 100-MW plants), 10% solar-PV plants (828 50-MW plants), 6% residential rooftop PV (5 million 5-kW systems), 12% commercial/ government rooftop PV (500,000 100-kW systems), with smaller numbers of geothermal, wave, tidal and hydroelectric systems.

New York can switch to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030.

New York needs to commit to this goal, and can make it by investing in energy conservation, energy reduction, wind, solar and geothermal (e.g., heat pumps) not oil, gas, coal, fossil fuel infrastructure, or nukes. We must immediately halt investments in fossil fuels and related infrastructure.

Legislationto require this has been introduced by Assemblymember Colton (A5105) and Senator Hoylman (S5908). NYSERDA is working on a study on how fast NYS can move to 100% clean energy. A draft is expected by the end of 2017.

NY must speed up its transition to renewable energy. Cuomo unfortunately is giving more money ($7.6 billion over 12 years) to bail out old upstate nuclear power plants than he is giving to renewable energy. We also need increased efforts by local governments to move to 100% clean energy (see GELF’s A Local ClimateAction Agenda).

We need stronger commitments by NYS and NYC re off shore wind (e.g., a commitment for New York State to purchase 5,000 megawatts (MW) of wind power by 2025, and 10,000 MW by 2030.

Mandate that Buildings Stop Wasting Energy

With around 1 million buildings in NYC, most of them older, only making new buildings more efficient is not enough. Large private buildings over 25,000 square feet account for just 5% of all the City’s buildings, but use more than half of the City’s total energy. Many are very inefficient. It’s crazy for apartments to be so hot in the winter than tenants have to open a window to stay comfortable – but very common. Many energy efficiency upgrades will pay for themselves in a short period of time, but building owners tend to ignore upgrades unless they are legally required, such as the City’s successful switch from dirty #6 heating oil to cleaner heating fuels.

The Climate Works for All plan would require comprehensive mandatory energy use performance targets in existing buildings, instead of prescribing individual requirements via cumbersome building code. Decision-making on specific efficiency upgrades would be left to owners. By 2025, large buildings should be required to cut energy use by 10%, and then by another 10% by 2030. Requirements for rent-regulated housing should be deferred until state law is changed to prevent landlords from raising tenant’s rents using the Major Capital Improvements (MCI) loophole.

Mayor di Blasio’s building retrofit proposal doesn’t hit the pace needed to reach even just the Paris agreement 80x50 cuts. It doesn’t require enough of large building owners, it lacks local hiring standards, and it will lead to rent increases on low-income tenants.


NY State Climate and Community Protection Act

The NY State Energy Plan sets positive goals for 2030. While an important roadmap, there’s a serious problem - its goals are only aspirational. NYS government agencies and officials are not legally required to put them into practice.

The Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) is needed to fix this. The CCPA was drafted by climate law experts at the Sabin Center for Environmental Law at Columbia University, and is backed by NY Renews, a coalition of 110 labor, community and environmental groups.

The CCPA would legally require NY State government to enforce its climate commitments, set new labor standards and worker protections for those in the renewable energy industries. It would allocate 40% of the budgets for community resilience and green jobs training projects in the State’s Clean Energy Fund to disadvantaged communities.

The New York State Assembly voted to write the CCPA into law in both in 2016 and 2017, but the Senate won’t even bring the CCPA up for consideration.

Senator Tony Avella of Queens and all 8 members of the Independent Democratic Conference – the group of 8 Senators elected as Democrats who now vote with the Republicans – signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. They introduced it into the Senate near the end of the 2017 session. Instead of pushing the Senate’s Republican leadership to bring the bill up for an immediate vote, Sen. Avella suddenly took a 180 degree turn, claiming profound misgivings about the bill and deciding to shelve it until further study.

It looks like the IDC’s last minute endorsement of the CCPA was a cynical scam to allow them to claim they support climate action, while actually helping Senate Republicans to block climate action. The IDC can disprove this theory by passing the legislation as soon as possible, by including it in their next conference budget proposal.

Here's a more detailed review of the CCPA and what happened in the NY State Senate.