China’s Massive Pollution Problem


The current environmental situation in China represents what America may have become without the environmental protections enacted by Congress starting in the 70’s and refreshed in the 90’s. In it mad dash to grow economically, China has relied far to heavily on dirty coal as source of fuel for power production, only weakly regulated fuel economy for vehicles, and obfuscated the growing health and social implications until quite recently, and even now only vowing to cut coal consumption 2%.

The effects of ignoring environmental concerns are serious, material, and widely expensive to solve. China’s policy decisions and their horribly obvious detrimental effects should be clear warning to American policy makers who may consider such legislation trivial or worse.

Via Keith Wagstaff at The Week:

How bad is China’s smog?
Sixteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China. The air in some cities there is so bad that, at times, visibility drops to 30 feet, traffic slows to a crawl, and nearly everyone wears masks over their noses and mouths. In Harbin, a city of 11 million people, government officials recently shut down roads, schools, and the airport when air pollution levels hit 40 times the safe limit set by the World Health Organization (WHO). During the “airpocalypse” in Beijing earlier this year, the density of small, lung-penetrating particles reached 993 micrograms per cubic meter — a concentration normally not seen outside of forest fires. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers anything above 300 dangerous, and maxes out its scale at 500. The smog was so thick in Beijing — which English-speaking residents call “Greyjing” — that a factory building burned for three hours before anyone even noticed that it was in flames.

Why is China’s air so polluted?
It’s the result of two decades of runaway economic development unrestrained by strong air-pollution laws, a dramatic increase in car ownership, and China’s overwhelming reliance on coal. China’s cities were filled with bicycles as recently as the 1990s, but thanks to the explosive growth of the middle class, the Chinese now own more than 120 million cars and another 120 million motor vehicles of other kinds. Fuel standards, set by a government committee stacked with oil industry members, have not kept pace. Auto emissions, however, account for only about 25 percent of the problem. Most of the blame rests on coal. China burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Despite making large investments in renewable energy, China still depends on coal to meet nearly 70 percent of its power needs. While air pollution is almost always bad in northern China, it really soars after cities turn on their coal-fired collective heating systems for the winter “heating season.” Temperature inversions often trap bad air for days or weeks.

What are the health effects?
They’re widespread and severe. In 2010, air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China, according to a study. Hospitals in Harbin reported a 30 percent increase in patients with respiratory problems after air pollution spiked in the city. Lung cancer rates in China have climbed by 465 percent over the last three decades, despite there being no significant increase in smoking rates. Scientists say the pollution in northern cities is so severe that 500 million people’s lives will be shortened by an average of 5.5 years.

How else is smog hurting China?
It’s damaging the country’s economy. In 2012, smog-related economic losses in four major Chinese cities totaled $1.08 billion, according to a study by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health. Largely in response to the “airpocalypse,” tourism in Beijing has dropped by 50 percent this year, the Beijing Youth Daily reported last week. The pollution has also hurt efforts by Beijing-based businesses to recruit top foreign talent. More potential employees are demanding hardship pay for having to deal with the city’s awful air quality. With studies connecting prenatal exposure to air pollutants with autism, depression, and long-term lung damage, many foreign and local parents are “second-guessing their living in Beijing,” said family physician Richard Saint Cyr, who is based there.

Are Chinese citizens angry?
Yes, and they are increasingly willing to show it. Chinese netizens this year defied a government ban and began sharing hourly air quality measurements from the U.S. Embassy in downtown Beijing. Microblogging sites like Sina Weibo have served as forums for citizens to express their frustrations with China’s air quality. “Our requirements aren’t high,” posted radio reporter Guo Yazhou. “We just want clean food, clean water, and clean air.” The dissatisfaction has given rise to a growing environmental movement, with 30,000 to 50,000 “mass incidents” of protest every year, according to former Communist Party official Chen Jiping.

Is the Chinese government listening?
The grumbling has become too loud to ignore. This year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang claimed that the country’s smog made him “quite upset,” while the state-run China Daily bluntly referred to major cities like Beijing as “barely suitable for living.” That is a big change from 2011, when the state media referred to China’s choking air pollution with the euphemism “heavy fog.” Now, China says it will spend $817 billion on a plan to drastically cut pollution by 2017. While that might sound like real progress, provincial officials and state-owned businesses in China have a history of ignoring policies handed down from the central government. Critics also note that the new air-pollution plan calls for only a 2 percent reduction in coal consumption — the result of the Chinese coal industry’s powerful influence. Tong Zhu, an air pollution specialist who travels between Princeton University and Beijing, sees political infighting in China’s giant bureaucracy as the biggest impediment to progress. “There is technology available” to fix the problem, he told NPR. “I think as long as there is political willingness, the environmental situation can be drastically improved.”

Fashion-forward protection
Not everybody hates the smog. Companies that make protective face masks are selling millions of them, surpassing records set after the SARS outbreak in 2003. On the streets of Beijing, it’s strange to see someone not wearing a mask, designer Chen Dawei told the South China Morning Post. The result has been a boom in fashion-forward face masks adorned with everything from animal prints to counterfeit designer logos. Wealthy businessmen and government officials are also shelling out for indoor air purifiers, which sometimes sell in upscale showrooms for as much as $3,000. In the first half of 2013, IQAir, a Swiss company, saw sales of its luxury air purifiers triple in China. The trend, however, has bred some resentment from average Chinese families. Their annual income? About $2,100 a year.



TED Talks: Businesses Can Help Solve Social Problems

This video is part one of 2 TED Talks I want to feature on the role of business and market theories in solving social problems, in light of the recent success of some local company dear to my heart (/shameless self promotion).

After working in both the non-profit and private sector, I’ve become a firm believer in the potential for corporations and for-profit businesses with good people to make a positive impact in the world. In the environmental and liberal communities especially, too often the business community as a whole is denigrated for past mistakes or modern bad apples. But the potential impact of a successful, mission-driven company is enormous and the value it brings to scalability and the impact it can have in terms of local jobs and profit should not be ignored.

Why do we turn to nonprofits, NGOs and governments to solve society’s biggest problems? Michael Porter admits he’s biased, as a business school professor, but he wants you to hear his case for letting business try to solve massive problems like climate change and access to water. Why? Because when business solves a problem, it makes a profit — which lets that solution grow.

Michael E. Porter wrote the books on modern competitive strategy for business. Now he is thinking deeply about the intersection between society and corporate interests.

Get on the Bus

A bus is a much more efficient use of crowded space than a private car, Photo by Chip East/Reuters
A bus is a much more efficient use of crowded space than a private car,
Photo by Chip East/Reuters

Via Matthew Yglesias at Slate:

Improving bus service—not building new trains—offers the best route to better mass transit.

When it comes to moving large numbers of people efficiently through urban areas, it’s hard to beat good old-fashioned heavy rail subways and metro lines. But these projects come at a steep price, especially in the United States, and don’t make sense in many areas. Yet, politicians looking for cheaper options too often fall for the superficial idea that anything that runs on train tracks must be a good idea. The smarter strategy in many cases is to look instead at the numerically dominant form of mass transit—the humble bus—and ask what can be done to make it less humble.


After all, relatively few of the things that make bus travel a low-status option have anything to do with the fact that they run on tires, not rails. The main goal of transportation infrastructure is get people where they’re going.


Buses often fall down on the job—not because they’re buses, but because they’re slow. Buses are slow in part because city leaders don’t want to slight anyone and thus end up having them stop far too frequently, leaving almost everyone worse off. Buses also tend to feature an inefficient boarding process. Having each customer pay one at a time while boarding, rather than using a proof-of-payment where you pay in advance and then just step onto the bus, slows things down. That can generate a downward spiral of service quality where slow speeds lead to low ridership, low ridership leads to low revenue levels, and low revenue leads to service that’s infrequent as well as slow. Closing the loop, a slow and infrequent bus will be patronized almost exclusively by the poor, which leads to the route’s political marginalization.

Worst of all, even though a bus is a much more efficient use of crowded space than a private car, it ends up stuck in the same traffic jam as everyone else.


The best light rail systems avoid these pitfalls, giving trains dedicated lanes, a sensible way for customers to pay, and stations that are far enough apart that the train isn’t stopping every three blocks. But low-quality rail can have the exact same problems. The much-hyped H Street streetcar line being constructed in Washington, D.C., is beloved by real estate developers, but is going to leave riders with a train stuck in the exact same traffic jams as the existing buses on the corridor. Detroit’s M-1 streetcar project suffers from the same flaw, making it more of an exercise in civic boosterism than a real transportation improvement. But by the same token, it should be perfectly possible to construct bus lines that have the major virtues of light rail and just happen to run on roads rather than rails. This kind of so-called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) can typically (though not always) be done at substantially lower cost than new rail construction.


Montgomery County, an affluent Maryland suburb of D.C. with a strong tradition of anti-sprawl politics, is moving closer to a very ambitious BRT push that if successful should serve as a national model. According to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s rating system, only five existing lines in the United States qualify as true BRT and none of them meet the high-end “gold standard” criteria. The current version of the Montgomery plan would create two gold standard corridors, with dedicated busways running in highway medians just as decent light rail lines do. Adding extra concrete to an existing roadway is substantially cheaper than building brand new tracks, so opting for a BRT option will let the county buy more transit bang for its buck.

But the biggest possibility for bus transit wins requires something even more contentious than spending money—repurposing lanes.

Virtually every street in America dedicates the majority of its space to private cars, whether as travel lanes or parking lanes. Far and away the cheapest way to speed the movement of people through congested space is to take some of those lanes away from cars and give them to buses. That will decrease your movement of vehicles, but increase your movement of people since buses are a much more efficient use of space. And it can be done at a fraction of the cost of building new transportation infrastructure from scratch.

Of course the problem is people who drive cars won’t like it—the exact same reason that shiny new streetcar lines are often built to drive in mixed traffic. But public officials contemplating mass transit issues need to ask themselves what it is they’re trying to accomplish. If promoting more transit use, denser urban areas, and less air pollution is on the agenda, then annoying car drivers is a feature not a bug. If the idea is to have a make-work job creation scheme or something cool-looking to show off to tourists, buses may not be the best idea. But while upgraded buses clearly isn’t the right solution for every transit corridor in America, it deserves much more widespread consideration as an affordable path to mass transit.

It’s Time to End Ethanol Subsides




Via John Aziz at The Week:

Earth only has a finite amount of fossil fuels. This simple fact alone makes renewable energy worthy of investigation and research, and in the long run, it makes a move toward renewable energy a necessity for human civilization.

Of course, there are many types of renewable energy, all with very different characteristics — photovoltaic solar, hydroelectric, wind, geothermal, artificial fossil fuels, nuclear, biofuels like ethanol, etc. Beside financial cost, two main factors determine whether an energy source is viable in the long run. First is the total amount of energy available:


Second is the energy required to use the source. This is known as energy returned on energy invested (EROI). A viable fuel source like oil or coal takes relatively little energy to extract — typically, you dig a hole, pump oil out of the ground, refine it, and transport it to users. With wind, you need energy to build a wind turbine and hook it into the grid. With solar, you need energy to build a collection system like a photovoltaic panel. With ethanol, you grow corn or other organic matter, which is then fermented and distilled to produce pure grain alcohol.

At 2010 levels, the EROI of various energy sources is estimated as follows:


As you can see, ethanol and biodiesel are some of the least efficient energy sources. It takes a lot of energy to grow corn. And unlike photovoltaic panels, which are improving technologically to capture larger quantities of light to turn into electricity, the amount of energy required to grow corn stays steady. What’s more, the substances used in the production of ethanol already have an important use — as part of the food supply. People eat corn. Corn converted into fuel for cars is corn that isn’t converted into fuel for humans. And since the U.S. government has been subsidizing ethanol, the price of corn for food has been skyrocketing:


One of the key reasons for the growth in ethanol production has been government subsidies for ethanol — $45 billion in tax credits giving 45 cents to ethanol producers for every gallon they produced between 1980 and 2011. This was a strange subsidy considering ethanol’s inefficiency as a fuel, and given the fact that unlike other renewables, burning ethanol continues to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It’s not like the farmers growing subsidized corn for ethanol production didn’t already have a market for their produce. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones calls it “shoveling… ag welfare to a group of people who were already pretty rich.”

In January 2012, the legislation that authorized the ethanol tax credits expired. But this didn’t end the subsidies for ethanol. Why did the powerful corn ethanol lobby let the tax credits expire? According to Aaron Smith of the American Enterprise Institute:

The answer lies in legislation known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which creates government-guaranteed demand that keeps corn prices high and generates massive farm profits. Removing the tax credit but keeping the RFS is like scraping a little frosting from the ethanol-boondoggle cake.

The RFS mandates that at least 37 percent of the 2011-12 corn crop be converted to ethanol and blended with the gasoline that powers our cars. The ethanol mandate is causing corn demand to outstrip supply by more and more each year, creating a vulnerable market in which even the slightest production disturbance will have devastating consequences for the world’s poor.[AEI]

So the ethanol subsidies are still alive through government-guaranteed demand from theRenewable Fuel Standard mandate.

And there still exists a separate tax credit for ethanol made from non-foodstuffs such as grass, wood chips, and even the leaves and stalks of corn. The production tax credit is up to $1.01 per gallon. That may not directly affect food costs, but it doesn’t make ethanol more efficient or abundant, either.

If we’re going to have subsidies for renewable energy development, shouldn’t they be focused on the most abundant forms (solar), the forms with the highest energy return (hydroelectric, wind), and the most reliable forms (nuclear)?

The evidence shows that corn ethanol is not competitive, and is not becoming competitive — and it’s impacting food costs. It’s time to consign ethanol subsidies — both direct and indirect — to the ash heap of history.

Cambridge Solar Challenge on Venture Cafe!

Cambridge residents and green-economy friends,

Check out this podcast with Audrey Shulman of HEET on Cambridge’s Venture Cafe Studio about our solar program and the ways we are trying to make it easier for people in Massachusetts to get solar energy for their homes.

Learn more about solar energy and going solar through the Cambridge Solar Challenge!

Another Wall Street Journal Global Warming Article Misses the Target

To avoid strange formatting behavior that accompanies excess quotation with WordPress, this blog will not be entirely formatted in the centered, italic look of my usual quotes. But it is all still a quote; namely, another great defense of legitimate science in media by Phil Plait, who I have cited before for his take downs of Wall Street climate op-eds.

Read on for Mr. Plait’s take on the misinformation that continues to be publicized in one of the nation’s leading journals:


If you’ve read my [Phil Plait’s] blog for any amount of time, you know I am no fan of the Wall Street Journal OpEd section. In fact, I think it’s simply awful: They will print mind-numbingly badand outright ridiculous climate change denial articles like clockwork.

The other day, though, a slightly different kind of opinion article appeared there. It’s not outright denial, but shows many of the same signs. It was penned by Matt Ridley, a British science writer. He claims he does not deny the reality of global warming, or even that it’s caused by carbon dioxide; he just claims the future effects of it are exaggerated.

But given what he wrote for the WSJ, I’m skeptical. Titled“Science Is About Evidence, Not Consensus”, it dances around the topic, making confused and ultimately erroneous points about global warming. The headline is ironic as well, since the evidence he cites is uniformly wrong.

In his efforts to downplay the effects of global warming in the future, Ridley makes two claims: One is that in the past, rising temperatures started before the rise in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air (therefore implying the addition of more atmospheric CO2 is not driving increased temperatures); the other is that Michael E. Mann’s famous “hockey stick” temperature graph has been proven wrong.

Folks, let me give you a very useful piece of advice: When you hear a claim that goes against the consensus opinion of climate scientists, type that claim into Google followed by the words “skeptical science”. Because the website Skeptical Science is very thorough, and it rebuts both claims by Ridley.


Photo by Shutterstock/rnl

First, it’s true that in the distant past (hundreds of thousands of years ago) a rise in carbon dioxide sometimes did follow a rise in temperature. As Skeptical Science points out, that’s to be expected: If the temperature goes up (which can have a number of initial causes), a lot of CO2locked up in the oceans gets released. However, this does not mean carbon dioxide doesn’t cause warming; in fact weknow an increase in COcauses an increase in temperature. That in turn increases the amount of COreleased from the oceans, further increasing temperature. This is called a positive feedback loop. Happily, in general, positive feedback loops like this tend to flatten out, preventing the heat from cranking up past the point where temperatures become unstable.

Mind you, as Skeptical Science again points out, in the past most of the increase in temperature did in fact happen afteran increase of atmospheric CO2. Some initial trigger caused temperatures to go up a little bit, but then the increased CO2 drove a much larger increase in temperature. Ridley is simply wrong here, and the debunking is quite easy to find online.

Still, Ridely claims that “In the ice cores, it is now clear that temperature drives changes in the level of carbon dioxide, not vice versa.” I’m puzzled by this; is he saying CO2 does not cause increased temperature in modern times? He never comes out and says this (except with that one sentence, and with the caveat “in the ice cores”), but he implies it pretty strongly. But that contradicts his stated stance that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and humans are at least partly responsible for global warming. His position on this appears to be untenable.

Hockey stick diagram

The much-maligned “hockey stick diagram”, which has now been extended well into the past.
Graph by Marcott et al. (via Climate Desk)

His second claim is just as wrong. About the hockey stick diagram, he says,

[It] was effectively critiqued by Steven McIntyre, a Canadian businessman with a mathematical interest in climatology. He showed that the graph depended heavily on unreliable data, especially samples of tree rings from bristlecone pine trees, the growth patterns of which were often not responding to temperature at all. It also depended on a type of statistical filter that overweighted any samples showing sharp rises in the 20th century.

This is, once again, simply not true. McIntyre’s critique was not effective at all. For one thing, the reconstruction of past temperatures in the hockey stick diagram relies on a lot of evidence besides bristlecone pine tree rings, including ice cores and coral growth. Not only that, but in the time since the original graph was published there have been numerous other reconstructions using many different methods, and they show that the hockey stick graph is largely accurate.

Second, the claim that Mann’s use of a statistical filter artificially increased a modern rise in temperature is also wrong. When analyzing a lot of data points, there are many ways to use statistics to draw conclusions. Some are better than others, to be sure, but one way to be more confident of your results is to apply different methods and see if they agree.

And it so happens that this was done by other scientists, using a variety of statistical methods, and they found that Mann’s hockey stick graph to be “robust”. In fact, they say quite clearly in that linked paper that the biggest conclusion of Mann’s hockey stick reconstruction—that the sudden rise in temperatures in recent times is anomalous—is correct.

So what do we make of Ridley’s conclusions? He says he is swayed by evidence, but the evidence he cites is wrong. We know carbon dioxide is increasing steadily in our atmosphere, we know that increases temperature, we know past temperatures were driven up by carbon dioxide, we know temperatures are going up now, and we know the hockey stick graph is accurate. And despite Ridley’s claims that future predictions show “huge uncertainty”—a proposition I would dispute—even the low end of the predictions indicates the future we face is dire indeed.

I’ll note that President Obama has finally decided to take action on U.S. carbon dioxide emission, but his course of action is at best weak sauce compared to what’s needed (and I fully expect the climate-change-denying Congressional majority to throw roadblocks in his way). Still, it’s a step in the right direction. In a sense, so is Ridley’s article; at least it isn’t an outright and entire denial of global warming, even if he uses outdated and incorrect arguments.

But in the end, Ridley’s Wall Street Journal article does what the denialists want: It sows doubt.

And we are way, way past the kind of doubt these people are peddling. The evidence is in, and it’s firm. The Earth’s climate is changing, and it’s playing havoc with the weather and environment; we need to take it seriously, and take serious measures to deal with it.


The Case for the “War on Coal”

Hamilton Project
Hamilton Project

In light of the President’s recent address on climate change and new regulations on coal plants, I thought a little economic breakdown would be in order.

Two best points: even with outdated estimates for social costs of carbon, coal is simply not a reasonable economic choice. Targeted shutdowns of the most expensive (socially and economically) plants makes perfect sense even while factoring in the cost of new infrastructure necessary for the deployment of renewables.

Secondly, the real debate should be over how aggressively to pursue renewables versus other more established alternatives. A bit of chicken or the egg argument follows regarding whether greater support and deployment of renewables or lowered costs driven down by market demand come first. This only makes sense disregarding the dire timeline environmental concerns places on us; we don’t have five years to wait.

See this article by Matthew Yglesias at Slate for more:

President Obama’s climate change speech went pretty far out of its way to explicitly say that what he’s trying to do is get the United States to burn less coal, but that didn’t stop coal-fired politicians like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., from denouncing the White House’s alleged “war on coal.” Since you can’t actually trick coal industry insiders and their political supporters, I often wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense for the administration to get more explicit about this. After all, the case for a war on coal is pretty darn strong.

Above is a 2011 Hamilton Project chart that begins to make the case (the “see notes” proviso on nuclear is weird—what the note says basically is that this bar entails ignoring the possibility of catastrophic meltdown). It shows that the only way to consider new coal-fired plants a remotely plausible undertaking is to completely ignore the social costs of burning the coal. By the same token, simply throwing all my garbage into my neighbor’s backyard could look like a cheap and appealing alternative to proper trash disposal if I were allowed to completely ignore the costs to my neighbor.

Existing coal plants are a closer call since the private costs of a plant you’ve already built are naturally quite low. But we can see quite clearly that phasing out existing coal in favor of new natural gas is a clear winner. It’s worth dwelling on that for a moment, since it’s actually quite extraordinary for the cost of a brand-new infrastructure project to be lower than the cost of continuing to run what you’ve already built. The moral of the story here is that if you were able to completely ignore political considerations, the case would be very strong for an aggressive and robust war on coal even if you don’t care a whit about renewable energy. And, obviously, if you were to wage war on coal, you wouldn’t need to shut down existing coal-fired facilities at random. You’d want to specifically target the ones that are dirtiest (highest social cost) or for whatever logistical reasons are the most expensive to operate (highest private cost), and the gains would be very large. And this analysis was actually conducted with an outdated social cost of carbon estimate. If you apply the new higher standard, coal looks even worse.

The debatable public policy question actually has nothing to do with how aggressive we should be about waging war on coal, it’s about how aggressive we should be about trying to deploy renewables. The price of wind and (especially) solar power has been falling dramatically, which you could read two ways. One would be that the U.S. should spend the next several years waging an aggressive gas-powered war on coal and just wait to shift into renewables gear in five or six years when it’s cheaper. Another perspective would be that aggressive deployment of renewables is part of the process of driving the costs down.

Disagreement about that tends to take on a quasi-religious aspect that I find hard to parse. The point, however, is that the case on the merits for a war on coal is pretty overwhelming. No new coal-fired plants should be built, and the average existing coal plant ought to be shut down as soon as possible. There’s absolutely no politically plausible schedule for cracking down on coal-fired electricity that would be too aggressive.

Whey from NY’s Greek yogurt used to produce power


Via Michael Hill at the AP:

The Greek yogurt boom in New York is being harnessed to make electricity.

More Greek yogurt production has meant more whey, a watery byproduct from the process. Yogurt makers commonly ship it back to farms for use as feed and fertilizer, but it’s also is being used to generate power in several places.

At the Gloversville-Johnstown wastewater plant west of Albany, it’s pipelined from the nearby Fage yogurt plant, where it goes into a 1.5 million-gallon tank filled with anaerobic bacteria, called an anaerobic digester. The resulting methane gas becomes combustible fuel that generates nearly enough electricity to power the plant.

“If the generators are off, we have a $500,000-a-year electric bill. So 90 percent of that is kind of offset by this kind of generation,” said consultant George Bevington. He said about 500,000 gallons of whey come into the plant weekly, about two-thirds of the organic waste that goes into the digester.

New York has benefited from America’s increased craving for Greek yogurt like nowhere else. Market leaders Chobani and Fage both have large production plants upstate, an area dotted with plants making different types of yogurt. The Muller Quaker Dairy plant in western New York, a joint venture of PepsiCo and Germany’s Theo Muller company, began making yogurt products this month.

It takes four gallons of milk to make one gallon of Greek yogurt, so more Greek yogurt means more acid whey (as opposed to the less acidic sweet whey associated with hard cheese making). Though not toxic, producers have to do something with it.

“It’s a profit problem for the plant. They’re buying four gallons of milk and making one gallon of yogurt. And they’ve got three gallons of this stuff. It’s mostly water but they got a bunch of volume of stuff,” said Andrew Novakovic, a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University.

Up to 80 percent of the whey from Fage’s U.S. plant is piped directly to the wastewater treatment plant. The rest goes to farmers with anaerobic digesters for energy or feed, company spokesman Russell Evans said.

“It certainly is a cost-effective way of using whey,” he said. The plant is in the midst of nearly doubling its capacity and is working to keep a high percentage of whey in digesters.

Chobani spokeswoman Lindsay Kos said most of the whey from its central New York plant is shipped back to farms for feed. Roughly a third of Chobani whey is used as fertilizer and a small percentage is used to produce energy, she said.

Though not an especially valuable cattle feed, it can be blended with other feeds to replace protein and energy nutrient requirements that otherwise would be met with more expensive feeds, Novakovic said.

Finger Lakes dairy farmer Neil Rejman, who keeps 3,300 cows, regularly accepts whey from Chobani. Though whey usually makes up less than 5 percent of what goes in his digester, it helps Rejman keep running his digester at maximum 1,000-kilowatt-hour capacity.

“Everyone’s talking about whey and yogurt as if it’s a new problem or a phenomenon. It’s an old story,” he said. “It’s really not a problem for the industry. It might be a little bit of a cost for yogurt manufacturers. But the processors, they’re getting a home for it on the farms, so that’s a good thing. For farmers, it’s a good thing because they’re using it for feed, electricity and fertilizer. And the consumers are getting renewable power.”

But it can be a costly solution out of reach of smaller or struggling farms. Rejman said his farm’s digester cost about $4.5 million to set up, with a $1 million grant from New York Energy Research and Development Authority.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this year that NYSERDA would double the maximum incentive to up to $2 million per installation, part of the administration’s commitment to helping the yogurt industry in New York, said authority spokeswoman Kate Muller.

There are at least a couple of municipal wastewater treatment plants that take in whey. Aside from the Johnstown-Gloversville, the plant in Ithaca takes in a smaller amount of whey from Fage. Bevington expects more treatment plants to take it in as the word spreads.

“It’s gaining momentum,” he said.

TED Talks: How behavioral science can lower your energy bill


What’s a proven way to lower your energy costs? Would you believe: learning what your neighbor pays. Alex Laskey shows how a quirk of human behavior can make us all better, wiser energy users, with lower bills to prove it.

Alex Laskey helps power companies to help their customers cut down — using data analysis, marketing and a pinch of psychology.