Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can NYC's 1,400 tons per day of sewage waste be turned into biochar?

NYC is lowering its carbon emissions, mostly through energy efficiency and conservation measures, and to a lesser degree, by adding more solar and wind power.  There’s an entirely different avenue that so far, NYC hasn’t ventured into: carbon sequestration. 

Carbon can be sequestered, or captured for long-term storage, before it can escape into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, which is what usually happens when fossil fuels or organic solids are burned or decompose.

The most widely discussed methods of carbon sequestration propose removing CO2 from exhaust gases at fossil fuel burning power stations, and storing it in underground reservoirs, but these are unproven as well as costly.  Proven natural methods, such as reforestation and raising carbon content of soil through regenerative agriculture practices, don’t directly apply to urban environments. 

However, it’s possible for NYC to sequester the carbon in sewage sludge, one of its biggest municipal solid waste streams, by turning sludge into a type of charcoal called biochar that can be reused or disposed of locally – potentially saving many millions a year in dumping fees.

When organic solids are heated in the absence of oxygen, instead of catching on fire, they turn into charcoal.  Most charcoal is burned as a fuel, but when made to meet certain standards, for a wide range of specific applications, it’s referred to as biochar

Production of biochar is a known way to stabilize carbon for hundreds or thousands of years.  It’s one of the top 100 climate change solutions researched by scientists of the Drawdown Project.

When added to soil, biochar improves agricultural productivity and water retention.  The structure of wood is preserved at the microscopic level, providing habitat for beneficial soil microbes and fungi.

This was common practice in South America’s Amazon region before the European arrival, as layers of unusually dark and fertile soils with high charcoal content attest.  

Scientific study of biochar has revealed many potential industrial uses, such as in water filters and building materials. 

Many forms of organic waste in NYC, such as paper, cardboard, yard waste and leaves are already being recycled.  Food waste is increasingly being collected for composting.    However, the sewage waste biosolids left over at the end of the City’s water treatment process are more difficult to dispose of.

NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection manages the City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, which together treat 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily.  Methane, the main constituent of natural gas, is always produced in the anaerobic phase of sewage treatment, and when waste decomposes in landfills.  It’s increasingly common for methane to be captured and burned at these locations to heat water into steam, run a turbine, and produce electricity.  Not only does this harvest a lucrative resource, it also avoids serious harm:  methane escaping into the atmosphere has over 25 times the greenhouse gas impact as carbon dioxide.  There’s a major initiative underway to collect methane at all 14 of the City’s plants and to put all of it to beneficial use.

Whether or not gas is extracted from sewage, there’s still a lot of sludge at the end of the process. NYC produces 1,400 tons per day of biosolids. Until it was legally prohibited in 1988, the City was dumping it in the ocean.

As the City’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan and its Biosolids Management appendix explain, biosolids can be used as fertilizer when spread on farms, parks, lawns, golf courses, and cemeteries, or it can be less usefully dumped in landfills. 

According to anecdotal reports from DEP staff, NYC biosolids are free of metal contamination or biological risk.  They’re even safe to use as fertilizer for growing food for human consumption.  However, because of the availability of other inexpensive fertilizers, the market for sewage biosolids may be limited.  NYC is paying contractors to take virtually all of NYC’s biosolids into landfills.

At $108 per wet ton, the City is now paying $151,200 per day in hauling fees, or about $55,188,000 per year. 

NYC may be better off turning its biosolids into biochar.  Relatively low carbon organic solids like sewage sludge or food waste must be mixed with woody biomass, high in both carbon and lignin, before it can be used as a good feedstock for biochar. 

Next questions for exploring biochar as an option for NYC

Before the operating costs of using this approach for NYC’s biosolids can be estimated, agency staff will have to consult with biochar scientists and other experts and stakeholders to assess what feedstocks are needed to mix with it, and what are available; the capacity of various biochar systems, their purchase cost and costs of operation.

Even if turning some or all of the City’s biosolids to biochar would cost more than the $55 million annually in shipping costs paid now, other benefits (in addition to carbon sequestration) may outweigh the extra cost.

Potential feedstocks

The NYC Parks Department, the Department of Transportation, and Con Edison are constantly pruning and removing trees within the City. How big is NYC’s supply of waste wood chips, and where it is going now?

How much wood is in NYC’s construction and demolition waste stream, and how much is being productively reused, or is going into landfills?  
Even if construction waste wood is chemically contaminated, charring it before landfilling would permanently sequester much of its carbon content and reduce its volume. Some contaminants can be rendered chemically inert or biologically unavailable after the material they’re in is turned into biochar.

August updates: According to the NYC Department of Sanitation's 2013 Waste Characterization Study, the City produces
3.25 million tons of waste annually.  Debris from construction and demolition has stayed the same as a percentage of aggregate discards between 2005 and 2013.

In 2013, treated / contaminated wood made up 1.3% of that total, and 0.8% was untreated lumber, pallets and crates. That may be 42,000 tons of contaminated wood and 26,000 tons of untreated wood.

Staff at NYC Parks Department report their inventory of wood chips ranges from anywhere from 35,000 - 70,000 cubic yards annually.  

Biochar production systems

NYC will have to research which of the many manufacturers of biochar production systems have a successful track record with municipal sewage biosolids, will be best suited for a pilot project, and can potentially scale up to NYC-sized volumes of sludge.

The International Biochar Initiative, the US Biochar Initiative, and the Ithaka Institute are biochar advocacy groups that can provide guidance among vendors.

Combined heat and power plants increase the energy efficiency of the fossil fuels they burn both by generating electricity and creating steam or hot water at the same time.  Can heat from existing in-city power generation facilities also be used simultaneously to produce biochar? Does this mean locating biochar ovens at power plants, and shipping waste for processing? Or if biochar ovens are best located at sewage treatment plants, can captured methane be burned for some or all of the heat they need?

Uses of biochar

In a project recognized by the European Mayors Challenge and C40 Cities, the City of Stockholm has started turning plant waste into biochar, and using it as a soil amendment for the city’s trees. 

The Ithaka Institute cites 55 uses for biochar. Some biochar processes can yield chemical byproducts that can be sold profitably to industrial users. 

If NYC can demonstrate a financially viable pathway for charring sewage biosolids, the model could be applied globally, boosting NYC’s role as a leader in climate response - and multiplying our carbon sequestration impacts.

Have some answers or suggestions? Please add your comment or contact me at 

Friday, July 21, 2017

LED lighting for NYC – and your apartment building

LED lighting for NYC – and your apartment building

Upgrading to energy efficient LED lighting is one of the easiest ways to reduce electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions.  Now that cities and states are leading the US response to climate change they can follow NYC’s example by supporting LED upgrades. Building owners and managers should carry out upgrades now while utility rebates are still available.  Here's how residents can get involved.

With our national government doing everything it can to support the fossil fuel industry and block climate change response, it’s urgent that cities and states lead the transition to a post-carbon economy.  Members of the US Conference of Mayors have agreed to work towards the Paris climate agreement, as have members of C40, a network of the world’s largest cities.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has already set the City’s goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.  He recently signed an executive order committing the City to the goals of the Paris Agreement, which includes holding the increase in the global average temperature to below 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  

New York City's Roadmap to 80 X 50 is a dense report that recaps the City's extensive research into local energy use, and the changes proposed to meet those goals.   About 70% of NYC’s energy use involves buildings (p. 56). 

The Buildings Technical Working Group "
analyzed nearly 100 low- and medium-difficulty energy conservation measures (ECMs) in existing buildings (typically with paybacks of 10 years or less) and found that these measures could reduce current building-based GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by up to 33 percent." (p. 59)  One of those was the expansion of Local Law 88 to cover the common area lighting in residential buildings.  We'll get to that in a moment.

Lighting is the third-largest user of energy in the City’s buildings after heating and electronic appliances, responsible for 13% of the total. (NYC Energy and Water Use 2013 Report , p. 17, graph on p. 11)

Lighting is one of the top uses of power globally as well, accounting for about 15% of the world’s electricity use. One of the easiest ways to cut energy use and carbon emissions is to replace incandescent and fluorescent lights with LEDs (light emitting diodes).  LED lighting is one of the top 100 solutions to reverse global warming, as researched by scientists of Project Drawdown.
Diodes – crystal semiconductors that conduct electricity in only one direction – were first discovered in 1874.  Hundreds of applications for diodes have been developed since then, including LED bulbs in 1994.  While solar panels convert photons to electrons, LEDs convert electrons to photons.  They use 90 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, and 50 percent as much as compact fluorescent bulbs, to produce the same amount of light. Incandescent lights turn most of the energy they use into waste heat, while LEDs turn 80 percent of the energy they use into light. Also, LEDs last much longer than the other two types of bulbs – according to Project Drawdown, 27 years if used for five hours a day.

It’s just a question of time until LEDs become the standard lighting technology.  
General Electric is phasing out production of compact fluorescents.    The rapidly accelerating deployment of LED bulbs is on track to save U.S. consumers and businesses $20 billion a year in electricity costs in a decade, which would lower U.S. CO2 emissions by 100 million metric tons a year.  
LED lighting is especially valuable for low-income communities around the world without access to electric grids.  They can connect LEDs to small solar panels instead of costly, polluting kerosene lamps, for enormous quality of life benefits.                                  

While economic factors are moving the world toward near universal adoption of LED lighting, NYC is trying to speed up the process with its recent change in Local Law 88. This law had required LED lighting in the common areas (lobbies, hallways and fire stairs) of large buildings over 50,000 square feet in size.  In a few years, the requirement will be expanded to the much larger number of medium sized buildings above 25,000 s.f.  Here are two ways you can participate in NYC's push toward energy efficient lighting.

Upgrade your apartment with LEDs

Join the LED revolution by replacing the lights in your home or apartment.  Here are
light bulb guides from NRDC and from the US EPA’s Energy Star program.

Upgrade your building with LEDs

For a much, much bigger impact, get your entire apartment building to upgrade the common area lighting – lobby, hallways, basement, fire stairs – to LEDs. These projects provide
 a number of benefits for building managers, owners and coop / condo boards, and indirectly, to building residents. 
  • ·        Electric costs for lighting are sharply reduced.
  • ·        The savings will enable management to pay for other projects.  Since LEDs are very long lived, building staff will spend much less time replacing lights.
  • ·        Con Ed rebates will pay for up to 30% of the cost of the project. Building management must engage a Con Ed Market Partner to provide a lighting assessment, recommend and install Design Lights Consortium certified LED products, and apply for the rebates.
  • ·        Between the savings and the rebates, LED lighting upgrades will generally pay for themselves in about two years.
  • ·       LED upgrades of common areas will be required for all NYC buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to comply with Local Law 88.  While the law won’t take effect for several years, the Con Ed rebates for LED upgrades will be phased out before they are legally mandated.  Here’s how building managers should address LL 88 compliance.
  • ·        Here are initial steps for building managers considering LED upgrade projects.  To ensure the financial success of these projects, managers should look for LED products with very long warranties to guarantee they will be around, providing savings, for many years.

Green Partners will provide building management with a free lighting assessment, which will include estimated project costs, Con Ed rebates, electricity savings and return on investment. Green Partners, as a Con Ed Market Partner, is authorized to apply for Con Ed funding for these retrofits, and works with a Con Ed authorized electrician to install the upgrades.  Con Ed inspects the project before and after installation to ensure quality. 

Invite your building management to consider an LED upgrade

Connect me, as a 350NYC volunteer and the business development rep for Green Partners, with your building manager or coop board leader.  If your building goes ahead with an LED lighting upgrade, Green Partners will make a significant donation to 350 NYC, and will arrange a presentation for residents on LEDs and energy conservation.  


Switch to renewable energy for your home or apartment.

You can personally divest from fossil fuels.

Here’s another easy way action for individuals: switch to wind power. 
For most NYC residents, only 2% of the electricity from Con Ed or National Grid comes from renewable sources, the other 98% is from a mix of oil, gas, coal, hydroelectric and nuclear power.

If you’re a homeowner, or live in a coop or condo in a small apartment building, you could install solar panels, so contact Here Comes Solar for free guidance.

But most New Yorkers who pay their own utility bill will find that the easiest thing to do is switch to wind. Con Ed or National Grid will buy power from a wind farm.  You get the same monthly bill.  It will cost a few cents more per KWh (kilowatt hour) than your current electricity from fossil fuels, but you’re personally divesting from fossil fuels and investing in wind energy production.  As more people follow, the demand for wind will increase, more wind turbines will be installed and the price will drop further.

There are many energy service companies (ESCOs) that supply green energy. You can buy directly from Con Ed. You might be able to find green energy suppliers through the NYS Public Service Commission - but good luck navigating through their website. 

Or you can sign up with Clean Choice Energy.  Volunteers with researched and have endorsed Clean Choice Energy.  And, for each new subscriber, the company will make a donation to 350NYC. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Local climate leadership opportunities for New Yorkers after the Paris withdrawal

Trump recently announced his intent to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord. While this may not be as catastrophic as some suggest, as a reflection of the administration's evil, insane climate denial, it's still pretty bad.  NYC environmental and progressive groups quickly organized a rally downtown in front of City Hall.  Protests, as well as progressive campaigns to pressure elected officials, are necessary but not enough.  The elites running the show have enormous power, and many Americans are asleep.  How do we leverage our limited resources? Organize for NYC and NY State initiatives that advance our climate agenda, and also align with organizing for the 2018 midterms and other elections.

Some silver linings? For perspective, here are some reasons the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement is not completely bad news. 

- - The process for withdrawing the US from the treaty will take four years, so the final decision goes to US voters, making climate potentially a major topic in the next presidential election.

- - Perhaps without the US blocking international action as it has in the past, the world's nations will be better able to agree on more demanding actions.

- - Under the Paris agreement, the national contributions to carbon emission reductions were voluntary and unenforceable.  While it was good that countries agreed to the goals of keeping global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees C and preferably 1.5 C, we were going to blow past those limits anyway.  Stronger and faster action would still be needed.

-- Even North Korea ratified the Paris agreement.  Besides the US, only Nicaragua and Syria are not part of the agreement.  Nicaragua doesn't think it goes far enough, and Syria is distracted by its current civil war.  Highly visible and embarrassing actions like this may serve
to rouse the complacent, distracted and propagandized citizens of the US.  

- - The Trump administration's display of greed, ignorance and insanity in the face of global crisis is accelerating the growth of climate leadership around the world. 

Many nations, states and cities are stepping up their climate responses. 

China is making massive investments in renewable energy.  The new French President Macron made an epic reply to Trump, in English, inviting America's engineers and entrepreneurs to come to France and help "make our planet great again."

The Commonwealth of Nations, an intergovernmental organization made up of former British Empire states, may emerge as an international climate response force. Paul Hawken and a team of scientists
 researched the 100 most promising solutions to climate change and ranked them on cost, feasibility and effectiveness.  The Drawdown team spoke to a rapt and supportive audience of Commonwealth leaders.  Imagine if they were able to get that kind of response from the US Congress and Senate.   

Governor Jerry Brown of California announced a new alliance of US states, starting with California, New York, and Washington State, that will comply with the Paris accord even without Federal support. Many large cities around the world and in the US are acting.

But as evidence of the Trump administration's climate denial it's still pretty bad news. 

There's no point in speculating about how much damage the administration will cause in the next few years. Our situation is clearly much worse than it was in 2016.  So what's next?

Effective ways to resist includes contacting elected officials.

This blog will keep exploring the complex question of what to do next.   Future posts will look into how New Yorkers can effectively combine resistance to the administration while advocating for more renewable energy and lower fossil fuel use and carbon emissions.

After the election, progressive former Congressional staffers issued the Indivisible guide. They learned from the Tea Party protests that coordinated campaigns to call and write elected officials, as well as showing up at public meetings, are effective ways to apply pressure.  There are now nearly 6,000 local Indivisible groups.

The Five Calls app provides a list of progressive issues and connects users with the offices of their representatives.  It's simple: citizens can call the offices with their requests without reading off the entire script or becoming experts on the issue.

By the way: emailing elected officials or signing online petitions is pretty much a waste of time, so don't bother with it.

Protests are important too.    

Go to protests, like the Climate March in DC in April 2017  and smaller ones since then. Show with your presence that
many Americans do not consent to the actions of their national government.

Protests can counteract the bystander effect. Experiments have shown that people are less likely to help a victim or respond to an emergency when all the other bystanders are ignoring the problem.  It increases apathy. So try to join protests about your priority issues or spread word that they happened, to remind the public that some of us are jumping in.

Why is only a minority actively pushing for progressive change? 

The musician Moby has a great animated video accompanying one of his songs.  It illustrates the mind-numbing power of the matrix of commerce, entertainment, and social media.  It will remind you of what you already know. Take a break to watch it now...

Many Americans are aware that climate change exists, and believe something should be done about it, but are not doing anything differently, let alone going to rallies.  Maybe they're distracted, hypnotized, brainwashed, looking at their phones, or busy with their own lives. Or they don't believe that climate change will affect them directly.

Maybe they bought into the subliminal stories that someone else will fix it, or that new technology will be invented that will erase the problem.  There's a body of literature on communicating about climate change.  I recall that messages that do well beyond the choir of activists include the creation of green jobs and economic growth from embracing renewable energy, so those should be key themes.  That needs more research.

Either way, when only a tiny minority is willing to get involved, and the majority does nothing, the kleptocratic (the rule of thieves) Trump administration and their allies  will plunder and destroy the nation and the planet for short term profits.

How do we wake up more people and get them involved? 

Since we're in New York City, what can we do locally? How do we focus our actions so they generate yet more positive social change, in NYC, in New York State, nationally and globally?

I'm a volunteer with 350NYC, the local chapter of the international climate change group,

"350 uses online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions to oppose new coal, oil and gas projects, take money out of the companies that are heating up the planet, and build 100% clean energy solutions that work for all. 350's network extends to 188 countries."

350NYC has focused on the campaigns to divest NY City and State pension funds from fossil fuel companies.  Group members have been very involved with campaigns against fracking and fossil fuel infrastructure.  To get more New Yorkers involved with our group and the climate movement, we're looking for City and State initiatives that we can get behind and for which we can build grassroots support.

This is not a simple task.  Since Mayor Bloomberg launched PlaNYC in 2007, the City has been making continual improvements in sustainability, energy use and resilience.  Many of the initiatives have been within City agencies and go unnoticed by the public.

Some trigger public controversy.  Bloomberg offered congestion pricing, a plan to raise fees on vehicles driving into midtown Manhattan during peak traffic hours, to encourage more use of mass transit, as part of the original PlaNYC rollout.  State legislators from suburban areas fought back against imagined inconvenience to their constituents and the initiative was withdrawn.  More recently, legislation to put a small fee on plastic bags at grocery stores was defeated by State legislators.

This may be an ideal time to raise the bar and push for climate initiatives that may have been easily beaten in the past, and to shine a light on officials who oppose them.

What are the best NYC initiatives for environmental groups to support?

Criteria include how much the initiative will:

-  reduce energy use, costs and carbon emissions
-  increase renewable energy production capacity
-  reduce pollution and waste
-  reduce human health consequences
-  address environmental justice issues (the siting of polluting facilities in economically disadvantaged and minority neighborhoods)
-  support green economic development and green jobs
- make NYC more resilient to extreme weather events such as flooding and heat waves

Also, is the initiative:
- capable of gaining the support of the NYC Council and the di Blasio administration
- offer perceived benefit to a wide range of New Yorkers
- get more New Yorkers involved beyond the narrow demographic of environmental activists
- offer benefits rapidly and widely enough to generate public appeal
- not be so technical or abstract in its benefits that it can't be easily explained

NYC is perceived to be a blue city in a blue state, but we are not homogenous and should not be complacent.  Further, if campaigns for NYC / NY State climate friendly initiatives aren't aligned with 2018 midterm election organizing, we're missing the point and dispersing our energies, perhaps fatally. and 350NYC are not partisan and do not focus on specific elections.   One climate group that does is The Climate Mobilization.  
TCM says we are in an urgent climate emergency and need a World War II scale climate mobilization to lower carbon emissions much more rapidly than commonly discussed.  For example instead of 80% reductions by 2050, their goal is 100% renewable energy and zero carbon emissions by 2030. 

Their strategy report analyzes political, economic and social factors, and calls for electing Congress members in 2018 and a new President in 2020 that support emergency climate action.
There may or may not be members of the NYC Council who are standing in the way of climate initiatives.  This needs to be researched.

Organizing in support of City initiatives can at the same time identify and recruit activists for NY State initiatives.

There are certainly going to be members of the New York State Assembly and Senate who are standing in the way of climate initiatives.  This needs to be researched.

Are there progressive candidates who plan to challenge non-supportive Councilmembers, Assemblymembers and Senators? That too needs to be researched.

Efforts to promote climate-supporting initiatives can be specifically targeted to particular districts.  Identifying and recruiting pro-climate activists in those districts will lay the groundwork to make climate an issue in that district for the next election.

NY State climate initiatives, and NYC initiatives that can be easily replicated by small cities and towns, can be offered to NY State activists and candidates in swing districts. 

Swing Left has identified 65 Congressional districts in which the last House of Representatives election was determined by 15% or less of votes. "If we hold the 17 vulnerable Democratic-held districts, we only need to flip 24 House seats—exactly half of the 48 Republican-held districts on our list—to take back the house in 2018."

For example, two NY State swing districts not far from NYC are #3, the north coast of Long Island, whichTom Suozzi won by only 17,241 votes (5.6%), and #19, the mid-Hudson. John Faso won it by only 26,000 votes (8.6%)

I'd appreciate your comments and suggestions.  

Future posts will include close looks at upcoming and potential NYC legislation, and climate initiatives for NYC. 

- - - - - - -

Addendum: my personal opinions on a few background factors to the 2016 election

- - The trends taking us to this point have been going on for a long time.  The Story of Stuff traces the history of our consumer economy.  In the early 1970s, the Powell memo catalyzed decades of massive big business funding of anti-progressive lobbying and propaganda.

- - The Democratic National Committee and Hilary Clinton, as well as the Republicans, were captured long ago by big business and military interests. Those interests have been making the rich richer at the expense of the working class, the middle class, and a sustainable infrastructure and energy system, both in the US and globally, for a long time.

- - Bernie Sanders offered a genuine populist response and would have beaten phony populist Trump.  Hilary was unable to speak out against the neoliberal, corporate consensus, which she basically supported.  Hilary and the DNC squelched Sanders, refused to reach out to his progressive movement, and ran a bad campaign.  Many desperate but ignorant voters were conned into voting for Trump.  Many didn't bother to vote. Those non-voters may be more easily convinced to vote in 2018 and 2020 than members of the pro-Trump base.

- - The Republicans have expanded their control over US government by massive voter suppression (Operation Crosscheck, as documented by Greg Palast), gerrymandering (drawing election districts so that districts include a majority supporting the party drawing up the districts, leaving supporters of other parties as permanent minorities), propaganda networks like Fox News, and powerful stealth social media operations like Cambridge Analytica (connected to Steve Bannon) that played Facebook.

- - It will take a massive and focused progressive organizing effort to overcome these factors.