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 Downwinders At Risk - Articles: March 2009

Monday, March 23, 2009

Buda cement kiln turns to alternate fuels

Buda cement kiln turning to alternate fuels
Tires, wood chips expected to help cut emissions.
By Asher Price

Friday, March 20, 2009

BUDA — From the ninth-floor catwalk of the cement kiln facility in Buda, a person can see the past and possibly the future of industrial manufacturing.

At the terminus of a rail spur sit piles of coal and petroleum coke, old-school combustibles used to heat the kiln, a metal furnace 13.5 feet in diameter and 190 feet long. Inside the furnace, limestone rock melts at temperatures up to 2,700 degrees, or nearly a quarter of that of the outermost part of the sun.

On the other side of the plant, a conveyor belt bears what the plant's environmental manager calls "green fuel," a combination of wood chips and shredded tires.

The fuel experiment is the product of the unlikely partnership of a longtime cement man and one of the founders of the Save Our Springs environmental movement. If successful, it could blaze a path for manufacturers to cut their carbon emissions and costs at the same time.

The experiment comes in one of the nation's most carbon intensive and polluting industries. Cement kilns release carbon dioxide not only in the burning of coal to heat the kiln but also through the changing of the composition of limestone. Concentrations of carbon emissions nearly double that of some coal-burning power plants.

Initial results show that if the company uses the "green fuel" to displace 20 percent of the coal burned at the facility, it says it will cut its carbon emissions by at least 20,000 tons a year, or 5 percent of its total emissions. It is burning enough to displace 10 percent of the coal.

Bob Kidnew, who has been in the cement business for 25 years and has been president of Texas Lehigh, which owns the kiln, since 2003, said he does not think humans contribute to global warming and worries that carbon regulations could cost his company money.

But with the presidential candidates touching on carbon legislation last summer, he began thinking about ways to reduce his company's carbon emissions and get an edge over competitors.

"I realized something was going to happen on climate change," he said. "I'm skeptical of the science of it, but if it becomes legislation, I've got to deal with it."

The fact that the cost of coal had tripled in the past five years, to about $100 a ton, didn't help, he said. If emissions are regulated, experts estimate that the credits required to emit carbon could range from a few dollars to $40 a ton.

Brigid Shea, an environmentalist who helped found the Save Our Springs coalition in 1991 and who was elected to the Austin City Council in 1993, approached Kidnew around that time about cutting CO2 emissions and reducing cost from the plant. Shea, along with Terry Moore, who has worked with the Sierra Club, had started Carbon Shrinks, a consulting outfit helping companies cut their carbon output.

"It's a huge wake-up call for companies to learn what's proposed under the law," Shea said.

But the cement industry, like most heavy manufacturers, has long had an antagonistic relationship with environmental groups, and even after Kidnew agreed to meet in August, at Texas Lehigh headquarters, the cement people were suspicious.

"It was a little tense," Kidnew said. "We were not sure whether they were spies, if they were seeing if we were doing something wrong."

The Buda cement kiln makes about 1.4 million tons of cement each year, or about 10 percent of the cement used in Texas.

About 60 percent of the kiln's carbon dioxide emissions come from the change in chemical composition of the rock from limestone to clinker.

Shea and Kidnew are concentrating on reducing the other 40 percent , which generally comes from the annual burning of 160,000 tons of coal and petroleum coke, a carbon-heavy material similar to coal, to heat the kiln.

They have an advantage: For about six years, Texas Lehigh — part-owned by HeidelburgCement, a German company that has signed onto international carbon tracking measures — has kept track of its carbon emissions. It can figure out how much the addition of the green fuel has cut them.

Shea and Moore have put together a binder, more than 200 pages long , with 19 strategies for saving money and cutting carbon emissions ahead of federal legislation. They range from changing fuel to purchasing power from alternative sources to adding technology to capturing carbon emissions to paying for carbon offsets, such as the planting of trees.

To make sure the experiment is performed genuinely, Shea has consulted with staffers at the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and Downwinders at Risk, a Dallas-area group that has challenged the burning practices at cement kilns in North Texas, where kilns have come under attack for burning hazardous waste and tires.

The experiments at the Buda plant come as the Texas Legislature grapples with whether to spurn efforts in Washington to regulate carbon emissions or to join in negotiations.

Proposals by state Sen. Kip Averitt , R-Waco, and state Sen. Kirk Watson , D-Austin, would push Texas companies to track their carbon emissions. Although Averitt has clout as chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, the proposals stand little chance of getting into law, given the broader skepticism among the state leadership on the effects of carbon dioxide.

Kidnew says he is spending "well in the six figures" to address the cement factory's carbon emissions. He declined to say how much the company was paying Shea. He said the alternative fuel costs less than $100 a ton, which is how much the company has to pay for coal. The alternative fuel mix, which is about three parts wood and one part tire, by weight, is provided by Texas Disposal Systems, a waste and recycling company in Creedmoor.

Bob Gregory, who runs Texas Disposal Systems, said the untreated lumber is recycled from Austin's Green Building program and the tires come from stockpiles in San Antonio.

He said he aims to get the fuel cost down to $60 a ton.

He said his environmentalist friends have accused him of "burning jobs" because the material could be recycled for other uses; he counters that the fuel could help cut carbon emissions and address global warming.

Kidnew says he has gotten pushback from some of his colleagues in the cement business who ask why he's not fighting carbon caps.

"The legislative train on climate change is going to leave the station," he said he tells them. "You can spend energy trying to stop it or get the best seat on the train."

asherprice@statesman.com; 445-3643