Scientists at the Rutgers EcoComplex in Bordentown are working hard to find new and more efficient ways to transform agricultural waste into energy. In the process, they stand a good chance of creating exciting new opportunities for energy and utilities attorneys in the Garden State.
The EcoComplex, launched in 2012 by Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, is a wide-ranging collaboration of academics, government officials and businesspeople. Its areas of research might sound a bit cryptic at first—they include the likes of anaerobic digestion, gasification and bio-methane to CNG/LNG—but the basic idea is simple enough: By leveraging technology to make smart use of unwanted byproducts such as crop and animal waste, businesses can turn problems into profit. And they can help the environment in the bargain.
This is no small matter for New Jersey, where about 10,300 farms generate annual sales of more than $1 billion. According to state officials, New Jersey farmland produced 120 million pounds of bell peppers, 550,000 barrels of cranberries and 30,000 tons of peaches in 2012 alone. The state’s sizeable equine industry—its fourth-largest agricultural sector—is valued $46 million.
All of this agricultural production, of course, translates into large volumes of problematic waste—tons of unwanted plant matter, fertilizer runoff, horse manure and more. Clearly, if New Jersey businesses can succeed in learning how to turn this waste into the energy needed to heat homes, run vehicles and add power to the regional electrical grid, they stand to boost the bottom line, and then some. But if profit is the carrot in this equation, there is also a stick—namely, ever-tightening federal and state regulations geared toward curtailing pollution caused by agricultural waste.
Agricultural concerns in New Jersey and around the nation are facing stricter regulations on nutrient waste runoff. In particular, regulations dealing with the nitrates and phosphates found in both fertilizer and animal manure promise to force the industry to find cleaner and more efficient means of waste disposal. Meanwhile, states continue to embrace ambitious energy- efficiency goals. By 2020, for example, New Jersey aims to obtain 20.38 percent of its energy from clean hydropower facilities, agricultural waste, wind, solar, geothermal and other alternative sources. In Eastern Kentucky, one of the authors is currently working on a project that involves building a round-the-clock, baseload power plant that will be fueled entirely by waste wood; negotiations for an interconnection arrangement with the regional electrical grid are underway. One of the authors is also helping a university campus in Tennessee build a green-energy system fueled in part by agricultural waste.
But the nexus between energy and agriculture is not just a new technological frontier—it is a new legal one. Demand is growing for expert attorneys who can help forward-thinking clients bring their new approaches to market without running afoul of legacy environmental and energy regulations. Contract-drafting and ratenegotiating opportunities are emerging as well. After all, the power produced by new sources of energy must be sold into the grid.
University researchers on the cutting edge of science are helping agricultural concerns learn about, develop and implement alternative-energy technologies. Knowledgeable attorneys are needed to help these clients handle the legal dimensions of the 21st century energy economy. One of the biggest challenges involves education— helping the public understand both the perils and the promises of harnessing energy from agricultural waste. In some cases, as part of the process of winning entitlements and securing community approval, specialist attorneys will be needed to help clients properly manage and mitigate factors such as noise and vehicle frequency. Smart strategic planning on where and how clients locate and operate their alternative-energy machinery and equipment will be critical. The public also needs to be educated on the downside of failing to enact these technologies: Growing domestic and international demand means that agriculture, along with its waste byproducts, will continue to expand in the future. Failure to act could therefore mean polluted groundwater and other problems.
The promises of converting agricultural waste to energy include achieving something heretofore only dreamed about—robust energy production without the dirty downside typically associated with fossil fuels. Bio-digesters such as those being perfected at Rutgers, for example, can be taken directly to landfills. There is no need to build a new bio-digester facility in the middle of a suburban community and then feed the machine with an unending stream of garbage trucks. With a bio-digester, the machine can be taken directly to the problem, rather than the other way around.
And this is why attorneys interested in this subject must be more than experts in the law. They also need to understand the technology involved, and even, to some degree, the underlying biology and chemistry. By staying abreast of both the science and the latest developments in the field, they will better position themselves to understand, anticipate and respond to emerging legal opportunities and environmental questions related to alternative energy. They will also need to pay attention to the fast-changing world of state and federal incentives. The latest iteration of the farm bill, for example, includes $900 million in mandatory funding for renewable energy and biofuels projects, to be initiated over 10 years.
Despite the fondest wishes of would-be alchemists down the centuries—believe it or not, the groundbreaking physicist Sir Isaac Newton was among them—man has never been able to pull off the hoped for transformation of lead into gold. But while capturing the energy in horse manure or woody fibers is certainly less miraculous than alchemy, it relies on a principle enunciated by Newton himself: “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed; it can only change form.