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Greenville Business Magazine

Sustainability in South Carolina

May 01, 2024 09:29AM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

(Photo of Andrew Predmore, left, and James McKissick. Photo by Nill Silver)

South Carolina’s energy usage has increased in recent years as its population has grown, and with that increase, the search for renewable and sustainable energy sources has also grown.

What can and should individuals and businesses in South Carolina do to keep up with demand in an environmentally friendly way?

Integrated Media Publishing hosted a roundtable discussion with two leaders in the world of energy and sustainability on March 25, 2024.

Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

The panelists were:

Andrew Predmore, executive director, The Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities at Furman University

James McKissick, president of KAHUenergy

Integrated Media Publishing Editor David Dykes moderated the discussion.

Question: Let me start off with an overview from the U.S. Energy Information Administration about South Carolina. Natural gas deliveries to South Carolina's electric power sector increased more than 60 percent in the past decade. South Carolina's per capita natural gas consumption ranks among the lowest one-fourth of states due in part to our mild winters. South Carolina's four nuclear power plants supplied 55 percent of the state's total electric net generation in 2022. South Carolina's industrial sector, which includes the manufacture of chemicals, motor vehicles, and paper products, is its largest in-use energy sector and accounts for about one-third of the state's total energy consumption. South Carolina ranks among the top 10 states in residential sector per capita electricity use, and about 70 percent of the state's households heat with electricity, and nearly all of them have electric air conditioning. What is the assessment that each of you have about where we are in South Carolina, and more importantly, where we need to go and the best practices that you would recommend.

Andrew Predmore: I think you did a nice job capturing the challenge that's in front of us, which is, there's a growing population, there's growing manufacturing, a growing economy, and all of that takes energy. And so, the challenge is how to meet those demands and how to do that sustainably. So, I think you've captured the challenge well. My first thoughts … are not South Carolina-specific, but where does the world need to go? Where does the United States need to go? And then obviously, that relates to what South Carolina needs to do. … Thinking about the use of fossil fuels – there's a lot of reasons to begin moving away from fossil fuels. You could start with … geopolitics. There are things outside of our control that dictate the prices of that energy source. And so that's a reason maybe to begin moving away from fossil fuels. … Those are non-renewable resources. … I'm not suggesting we're about to run out of those. … But it could become less economically recoverable at some point. So, it becomes more and more expensive to extract natural gas and oil over time because we've gotten to the most easily accessible resources. I've given you two reasons -- volatility due to geopolitics. Those are non-renewable resources.

And then the third one, which is really more what the Shi Institute is focused on, is climate change. Our use of fossil fuels is what's putting greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. … You might say, well, what's 1½ or two degrees increase in mean global temperatures? Those tend to be like we need to stay below those measurements. ... If we move towards those, there are a lot of tipping points that create all sorts of volatility in terms of our weather, severe storms, droughts, heat waves. Those things are not just unfortunate or inconvenient. They impact people's public health and well-being and cost. … We need to move towards more renewables. We need to have a more efficient grid. We need efficiency in our homes, efficiency in our businesses to drive down demand, move toward renewables. And those are the things that are going to prevent the worst climate impacts.


James McKissick: I think it's interesting that in South Carolina, we don't really mirror what the U.S. does. And so, we are energy independent for the first time in 40 years, I believe it is. But the majority of our independence comes from fracking, shale. And how sustainable is that? What does that do to our environment? What does that do to the Earth when you're fracking this material and getting this material out of the ground? If you've seen the detritus of that, it's not a pretty sight. But we have access to nuclear (energy) here. And nuclear, obviously, the only byproduct or the bad part about nuclear is the waste. And what do we do with that? We need a better, longer-term solution for that. Interestingly enough, our technology, gasification, there were a group of folks back in the turn of the century from MIT that were trying to come up with a way to deal with nuclear waste. And that's where plasma gasification came from. And so that gets up to 18,000 degrees. And the idea was that you could plasma-gasify nuclear waste to eradicate it.

Unfortunately, I don't have all the answers. ... The demand for electricity is increasing, especially with AI. I mean, AI is great, but artificial intelligence is going to increase the demand for electricity a hundredfold. Who knows? We are going to have to have more and more data centers, and we're going to need clean energy for those. And can our current grid system support the electrification of the US?


Predmore: I think those are great points. I think artificial intelligence shouldn't be confused with wisdom, right? So, what is that technology driving towards? … If it eventually just drives up consumption, it's not really going to solve any of our energy issues. But if we deploy it in such a way to make things more efficient, it could help some. … I also think your point about fracking and natural gas is important, too. (It was) early 2000s or so when that boom took place. But again, how long is that going to last? That isn't without impacts. I think you're also right to point out that there is no simple answer to these things. And anybody that would tell you (they can) give you the three solutions to our energy challenges, I maybe wouldn't listen to them because these are really, really complex things.


Q. Let me put you on the spot, both professionally and personally. What are the best practices that you would recommend to deal with all of the things you're talking about?


Predmore: I think you have to be a little cautious in terms of saying, Hey, this problem that we face, particularly with greenhouse gas emissions and energy, is your personal problem and my personal problem. If I just rode my bike to Furman every day and never ate any meat, that we would solve all of our problems. I don't think that's an appropriate approach to this. I think there's big systemic changes that are needed. Companies need to be involved. Government at all levels needs to be involved. Then the citizens do need to do their part, and that can be a part of the change. But I just would be reticent to put it on each individual person because we're plugged into a system, and transportation is one of those things. I have to get to work, and the way I get to work is via an automobile right now. Now, yes, I should work towards having an EV … but that's not a be-all, end-all solution. Again, it's complex. But back to your original question, what can businesses and what can individuals do. You can be as efficient as you can be with your transportation. You can look at your home. It's not just turning out the lights. It's like, what appliances do you have? Are they the most efficient ones? What about your heating and cooling system? Then beyond that, can you think about solar at your home? And these are the same sorts of things that businesses should be looking at, but at a much larger scale, obviously.


McKissick: I believe that the true change is going to come from corporations. I think now we're seeing more and more corporations making sustainability part of their … M.O. I think that's going to be the ultimate driver. Consumers are going to play a big part of it. You're already starting to see that shift in consumerism. People are buying more electric vehicles. They're cutting back on their energy consumption where they can. Now, I think that the energy level has stayed the same, if not increased a little bit, but the sources of energy are coming in different ways, i.e., solar and wind and renewables in that sense. But we still have an increasing energy demand. And so as long as we can offset that increased demand with higher efficiency or less harmful methods for the environment, then we're going to be in a win-win.


Predmore: I've read an article recently (that) energy demand and consumption in the U.S. is actually on the rise. … That is really challenging (because if) we're adding some renewables onto the grids, but that's really just being added to meet growing demand rather than to drive down the use of fossil fuels, then we're not solving the problem that I framed up earlier. Again, this gets to tricky things like, how much can we continue to grow, or how can we continue to grow as an economy in the context of climate change? … We've got to have these hard discussions, and there aren't easy answers.


Q. James, let me start with you on this one. I was out at the Enoree Landfill recently, and we talk about the county growing and the population projections and the landfill space, which is going to be inadequate in the not too distant future. But I was surprised when you go to Enoree, you see a lot of things that you think could be recycled that are being dumped into the landfill. You've dealt with waste management practices. I don't want to make this a public policy issue, but do you think that the public has a good understanding of climate change, waste management practices? Where’s the disconnect these days?


McKissick: I think people are so accustomed to just buying something and throwing it away. It's just ingrained in our culture. I agree with you, that has to shift. I mean, landfills are one of the biggest sources of methane in the world. And methane, of course, is even more horrible than CO₂. So, something has to be done about that. … Landfills are reaching their capacity. So, something has to be done about that as well. Municipal solid waste can be used for energy. It's not the most efficient, but it would certainly get it out of the ground, and it would prevent the further leakage of methane downstream. But I do believe that consumers have to be educated that just throwing things away is not sustainable and not going to help us long-term. We have to do something to keep things out of the ground. I visited a landfill in either Oregon or Washington State ... I'm not sure which, but it's 11,000 acres, the biggest landfill in the country. And there were rail cars as far as the eye could see. And these rail cars were full of trash coming from New York, New Jersey, being shipped all the way across country to bury it out there. Just think about that. Not only are you just throwing it away, but the cost and the environmental cost to ship that by rail cross-country to plant it in the ground. It's a never-ending cycle out there. Back to your original question, we do need to educate the consumers that consumerism and throwing away and one use is just not sustainable, and it's not going to help us long-term. But there are ways to mine those materials and turn them into energy. It's not the most efficient way, but it's better than nothing. And at least it prevents the downstream of methane leak and the stuff getting into the ground. I mean, there are landfill liners, but look at forever chemicals. ... I mean, those things are going through the landfill liners and getting into our groundwater. So, there are some serious problems.


Q. Andrew, could you talk a little bit more about the programs you're working on?


Predmore: It’s really important to me and to Furman not to just tell others how they might approach the sustainability challenge, but instead, try to do it right there on campus the very best we can and to tackle these problems transparently and openly and learn as we go and share that. We try to embody that with our work on campus. I'll just name the main thing that we're working on this year, which is revisiting the campus's Climate Action Plan, which is really just, how is Furman going to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? What are the approaches? We got a grant from a nonprofit called Second Nature last year. … Not that we hadn't thought about it carefully, but we hadn't gotten a consultant and said, OK, what are the strategies in play that could work? And how is this going to play out financially to move the campus towards carbon neutrality? So, we've been working on that for the past year and a half. And I can't say it now, but we're working on integrating a new carbon neutrality commitment into the university's strategic plan. … The first thing you do with any climate action plan is look at your energy systems and (ask) how can we be more efficient on campus? The good thing is, Furman had done a lot of that already. But are there any other lighting systems on campus that can move towards LED, which is far more efficient? ... Look at your green building standards on campus. Are all of our buildings up to standard? And any new buildings or renovations, are they going to be as efficient as possible? Then you've got to look at your source of energy, and not to get too nerdy with greenhouse gas emissions and all that. … Our buildings are heated with natural gas currently – boilers at each building, basically. What are we going to do with that in the future? That's a very efficient, cost-effective way to heat a building. We're going to have to move probably towards electrification. That's a long plan. It'll take engineers and consultants to figure out how to do that, but that's part of our plan. 

Q. Let me ask you this, why electrification over natural gas?

 Predmore: Well, because natural gas has greenhouse gas emissions associated with it. If we're going to get to carbon neutrality, we're not going to get there if we continue to burn natural gas. So that's not the first thing that we're doing, but that is in the long-term plan to get Furman towards carbon neutrality. The other thing is to begin getting more renewables. … The solar farm that's on the other side of Poinsett Highway (is) really indicative of our commitment to renewables, but we may need to have more of that. Currently, that offsets around 5 percent or reduces our energy consumption around 5 percent based on that electricity. … Those are the things that we're going to do to move the campus in that direction. … We do have students involved. We’re doing it both because that’s what it means to be a responsible global citizen, but we’re also doing it to have students involved. It can be shared beyond the campus boundaries.

Q. Let me follow up on that then. If you were advising a student these days, what would you recommend he or she study?

Predmore: I wouldn't tell a student to study something based on the challenges in the world with sustainability. I would encourage them to follow their core interests. Now, if sustainability is one of those, then great. But even within that, there's different ways to make a difference. You could be an expert in communications and work on sustainability. … You could be a business major and work on sustainability. You can work in the nonprofit sector. And those are all different skill sets. … I would say, Hey, explore your passions and your interests, and you'll find where you can make the biggest difference. 

Q. James, when you're hiring employees, what kind of background do you hope they have? You would prefer some interest, I'm sure, in sustainability. 

McKissick: Absolutely. Our lead engineer is a man named Bob Joyner, and he's phenomenal. Just an encyclopedia of facts. And one of the things that attracted us, not only was his experience in gasification, but his care for the way that we treat the environment and how we're going to pursue our path of making things better for the world. Yet, he has to have passion about where we are headed as a company as well. Frankly, Bob Joyner notwithstanding … it's so hard to find good people at any level these days. But we certainly look for people who have a passion for the environment and want to do the right thing. … In our business, we're dealing with things that can be nasty and can be harmful. And so, we have to make sure that we dot every “i” and cross every “t” and make sure that we're doing things aboveboard and doing them the proper way.

Q. Have either of you had a green epiphany, something that happened in your personal professional life when you said sustainability is more important than I thought. A particular occurrence, particular development, particular policy that you've been up against?

McKissick: I don't know when it shifted. I tend to be very conservative politically. and there was a time … maybe eight to 10 years ago when I realized that, hey, I think climate change is more for real than the politicians are giving it credence. I think this is a bigger problem that needs to be addressed. And I think it was about the time we were really investigating incineration versus gasification. And I saw why we were reducing the number of incinerators in the U.S. and the benefits of gasification instead of that. Gasification isn't perfect by any stretch, but it is taking things that would normally be passive and converting those to some kind of energy. So, I would think eight or 10 years ago when we were investigating incineration was really when it dawned on me. I grew up on the beach every summer, and we have a house that's 30 feet from the ocean. I certainly don't want the ocean levels to rise, from a selfish perspective. But I love seeing our children, and … at some point grandchildren, growing up at the beach just like I did. I want to make sure that we preserve our environment as much as we can. And so those are my selfish reasons for environmental stewardship. 

Predmore: There are many what they call positive feedback loops when it comes to climate, and they're not positive in that they're good. They're positive in that one impact drives another impact drives another impact. But it's a great question about epiphany. I don't think I have exactly an epiphany in that I was like, Oh, gosh, now I care about this, and before I didn't. Because like you, I grew up in the Upstate. My dad took my brother and I out backpacking. … I spent a lot of time outdoors and just cared about that from the beginning, and still do. I spent a lot of my career in the Midwest, and now I'm back in the Upstate. 

If nothing else, it's reinvigorated my passion because this is where I grew up. I want this place to be more sustainable. I want, like you do, my kids to be able to enjoy this incredible biodiversity and natural resources and recreation that we have in the Upstate. But some of those things are under threat and jeopardy. So that gets me up each day to work on this. But I think in terms of an epiphany or a change in course for me, I went from being interested in ecology and the science of what's going on in forest and ecosystems and all that, and published a paper or two on that.

And I was like, This is really a human problem, right? We're the ones creating climate change. We're the ones consuming a lot. And it's our governance systems that need to figure out a way to handle these big systemic problems. And so, I had more of a career shift where I went from professor wanting to study natural ecosystems to like, Hey, I got to get involved where the action is. And the action is in talking about these things, getting more people to talk about these things, thinking about policy and governance, and how can we really create a sustainable future. And so that's why I do what I do as opposed to the more research professor type of stuff. 

Q. Well, if you go beyond South Carolina, you look at the world stage. The New York Times had a front a page story recently talking about Paris, the Olympic Games, and being on a climate diet. And the lead was, how do you produce a global sporting event with millions of people swooping down on one city in the age of global warming? Do you think that in this country that we're thinking cosmically enough about being on a climate diet, or are we just proceeding as thinking it won't affect me and it's not in my backyard? 

McKissick: I don't think that as a country, we're where we ought to be. I think that the winds are shifting, and the tides are turning, but I believe that we have a long way to go. Of course, China is the biggest energy consumer in the world, and even China, they're taking steps to alleviate the source of energy that they consume. I mean, right now, I think coal is still their biggest source of energy, but they are investing in alternate technologies, and it would be great if we could see more of that in the U.S. I think we are taking a somewhat passive role. Lately, there's been a big focus on hydrogen, for example … and I don't know that hydrogen is the answer. I mean, it's certainly better than what we're doing. But there's a lot of development that has to take place around hydrogen in terms of fueling stations and delivery systems. But I think more and more has to come. 

Predmore: Certainly, more has to come. I wouldn't presume to say how Americans view this issue because I think there are many different viewpoints on sustainability and climate across the country. … You mentioned China. China is leading the world in terms of manufacturing of solar and other renewable energy products. And the U.S. is missing the opportunity here, which I think is one way to flip around this. It's like, look at all the opportunity to create a healthier society, more active transportation, cleaner air, more beautiful places and conserve natural resources. … Instead of looking at like, Oh, no, this is a threat to business as usual, why don't we look at this and say, Well, we have the resources right now to create the energy system for the future that will position the U.S. for prosperity in the long haul and human well-being over the long run. And so, I think that's the paradigm shift or the mind shift that's needed is, let's not look at this as like, Oh, this is so hard. What are we going to do? You mean we're going to have to burn less fossil fuels? … We have this technology. Technology continues to grow and expand and help in these situations. Let's really put our eye on the ball in terms of a better future that meets everybody's needs and look at it that way instead of from a restrictive sense. … Let's embrace it. 

Q. As you look back over the course of the work you've done and the things that you've been involved in, if you wish that one thing had been done differently, what would that be? 

Predmore: I don't know if this answers your question, but my previous answer was mindset, paradigm. These are not things necessarily in my control, in my work, although I try to hint at the sorts of changes in mindset paradigm that might matter. But I think we've had this tremendous wealth and growth and all these wonderful things, and still do in the U.S. But I think we need a mindset shift to the future. What is the future? What are our kids inheriting? Let's really think deeply about human well-being over the long haul and create the systems that are going to allow for that. So, I hope that we're still in an era where we can make that mind shift and it can be productive. But I do think things are getting more urgent. That business as usual is less and less a good option. And one way to point that out is that the science would tell you that globally we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half by 2030. …  I think globally, greenhouse gas emissions are still going up each year. So, we can't continue on that path, but we have an opportunity where we still have energy surplus, pretty cheap available energy. Let's build the system for the future right now, as opposed to just using all that energy for business as usual. I think we're coming to the end of that window to make this dramatic shift. 

Q. Is it a public policy issue or is it a human behavior individualistic issue? 

Predmore: All the above. Because we're not going to get there just by asking people to change their behavior. … I think people will do some of that voluntarily. I think we're going to need incentives and shifts in tax structures and all sorts of things that are going to move us towards something that works. So, it's going to be a mix of public policy, individual behavior change, activism, political change. All that's going to have to come together to meet the challenge, in my opinion. 

McKissick: I agree with that. For example, in our business, we always bought vehicles that had the best fuel efficiency. Now, granted, I didn't do that because that was best for the environment. I did it to save money on our transportation costs. It just so happened that that was a win-win. So, my mindset has always been focused on the bottom line and economic incentive. But now I've got a moral obligation that I didn't have, I would say, 15 years ago. 

Q. In closing, is there anything else you'd like to bring up? 

Predmore: The other work of the Shi Institute off-campus is around this idea of resilience. Some of the climate change that we're experiencing is already baked in. Those emissions are already in our atmosphere and will be for a period of time. Even if we were able to really ratchet down emissions right now, we're still going to have warming for a period of time, and that's going to create impacts in our communities and in South Carolina. So, one of the things we're doing is trying to help communities with climate resilience. We have someone working down in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, helping communities, more vulnerable communities, socio-economically, and see if we can't build equity into some of the solutions and help down there. So that's important. And we're also working on some things in the Upstate. A simple example would be, there's something called urban heat island. Places where you don't have a lot of trees or green covering huge pavement and in rooftops. They tend to hold heat and create higher temperatures during a heat wave. And so that's called urban heat island impact. And so, we can map those. We know where that's going to be worse. But in addition to that, we should look at where people don't have the ability to get out of that situation. Maybe they don't have air conditioning in their homes. So, we can overlay these things and help folks that are more vulnerable be ready for the change that's coming. … That's our applied research that we do off campus. I think it's really important. It's not just about reducing emissions and seeing what we can do. It's also about how can we adapt and help people be ready so that we can do the best we can during this period. 

McKissick: We touched on the oceans a little bit, and I'm very passionate about oceans. And one of the things that we want to do at Kahu is to make sure that we're helping clean the oceans as much as we can. We've talked to several nonprofits about partnering with them to go in where they're arresting plastics, especially before it gets into the ocean, and using those. There are some companies already that are recycling that plastic, but we could come in with a degraded plastic and turn that into energy, things that have already been wasted in our rivers and polluting and even Trash Island in the Pacific. I have a dream of building up a gasifier on a barge and taking it out there, scooping up that trash and running it through our gasifier, using that to power the gasifier on the barge, and the barge. Those are some of the things that we hope to achieve, too, with our platform.

Q. How close are you to that?

McKissick: The technology is available, and we're talking to several different companies about partnering with them to do it. So, we hope within the next 18 months to have something deployed.

Q. Because you've talked about the gasification of waste provides only one climate friendly solution, so you must be working on others.

McKissick: That's our focus. I'm just saying that that is something that we can do, and that's something that we can control. (And looking at) pharmaceuticals. There was a study (that said) fish in the Florida Keys are so full of antidepressants from people just flushing their pharmaceuticals down the drain afterwards. And we're consuming that fish, too. And so, I'm getting Prozac by default because I eat fish. So, if we can make sure that we're arresting those things before they get into the natural flow of the world, then we're going to be much better off. And if we can divert those things that would have to be incinerated or put in the ground and turn that into some kind of energy, that's something that we, at Kahu, can control and benefit from and help others. 

Q. I want to thank you for your time this morning. It's been a good discussion.