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Greening the CEO: Business lessons from an environmental leader

Beyond the coal sector, we are working to apply our strong expertise in chemisorption, or sorbent technology, to other environmental concerns created by energy, such as methane emissions.

Air pollution risk is a function of the hazard of the pollutant and the exposure to that pollutant. Image by Janak Bhatta (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Air pollution risk is a function of the hazard of the pollutant and the exposure to that pollutant. Image by Janak Bhatta (CC BY-SA 4.0)

To improve the environment and address energy demand represents an increasingly important societal concern. The problem is how to undertake such an endeavor and create a successful business from it.

What does it take to become a successful business leader of a ‘green’ company? To gain some valuable lessons, Digital Journal spoke with Richard MacPherson, President and CEO of the company ME2C Environmental.

Digital Journal: Can you provide a brief background on ME2C Environmental?

Richard MacPherson: I founded ME2C Environmental, which is a trade name of “Midwest Energy Emissions Corp.,” in 2008 to commercialize the patented, Sorbent Enhancement Additive (SEA®) two-part process for mercury emissions capture at coal-fired power plants. ME2C’s technologies have over $60 Million invested in R&D to develop and enhance this highly-effective approach to reduce mercury emissions, which uses less material than traditional means, eliminating corrosive effects to the equipment. The SEA® process is currently in use by over 40 percent of the U.S. coal-fired fleet. As a business partner to our utility customers, we work to optimize their overall plant efficiency.

DJ: What success have you had?

MacPherson: Our leading-edge services have been shown to achieve emissions removal at a significantly lower cost than traditional means and with less operational impact, maintaining and/or increasing power plant output and preserving the marketability of byproducts for beneficial use. In 2018, ME2C was the recipient of Vistra Energy’s Annual Supply Chain “Nexus Award” for supplier excellence. We have a long-term relationship with Vistra, along with our other customers, who include major utility companies with power plants located across North America. We actively support industry organizations and are invited to present at annual conferences through our memberships with the Southern States Energy Board, International Energy Agency (IEA), the Institute of Clean Air Companies (ICAC) and many others.

Our objective, from our early days, has been focused on mitigating environmental concerns for the energy sector using an economical, sustainable approach. We will continue to support the coal-fired energy sector with our mercury emissions capture technologies, as well as new technologies aimed at other environmental areas of concern as we transition to a carbon free world.

DJ: What are mercury emissions and why is it important to have solutions to capture them?

MacPherson: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “The inhalation of mercury vapor can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal. The inorganic salts of mercury are corrosive to the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract, and may induce kidney toxicity if ingested.”   (WHO, 2017)  While mercury is present in our environment from different sources, power plants fueled by coal emit mercury into the environment in significant ways. Reducing mercury from our atmosphere significantly minimizes the harmful effects of contaminated drinking water and food sources.

The U.S. has regulations in place through the EPA’s MATS (Mercury Air Toxic Standard) that dictate the percentage of mercury allowed to be emitted, and this percentage is not conservative. The sorbent technology developed by ME2C Environmental is proven to be more than 90% effective in capturing mercury emissions from coal-fired boilers. We believe that over 40% of these coal-fired power plants in the U.S. are utilizing our patented approach to reduce mercury emissions, which was a groundbreaking technology when this was introduced to the U.S. energy sector in the early 2000s.

However, the regulations that are in place in the U.S. are not in place across the world. China and Southeast Asia are the world’s largest sources of coal-fired power and mercury emissions. China and India continue to install major coal-fired plants with no enforcement on the reduction of mercury.

DJ: Is this supported by research?

MacPherson: Academia and research institutions in China have published a number of reports presenting a correlation between higher diseases and sickness in areas with high mercury contents found in rice. In 2013, in partnership with the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), a global agreement on environment and health, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, was formed. The name “Minamata” is a reference to a bay in Japan where, in the mid-20th century, mercury-tainted industrial wastewater poisoned thousands of people and lead to severe health damage that became known as the “Minamata disease”. Today, there are 132 countries who participate in this global agreement; however, government regulations that enforce a certain percentage of mercury emissions capture are currently only present in the U.S. and Europe.

Mercury emissions are not only present in the air, but mercury is also emitted into coal ash, which is a byproduct of these emissions. High-quality coal ash is a recyclable commodity for these power plants as it is a key component in creating cement used in heavy industrial, construction, and transportation industries across the world. Coal ash that is not salable is dumped into coal ponds owned by the power plants. The coal ash heavily contaminates the soil and water runoff from these ponds with mercury and other contaminates. However, the coal ash is also rich in critical minerals and rare earth elements.

Our SEA® Technology maintains the quality of the coal ash through the emissions reduction process; thus, our customers can recycle and sell their coal ash for use into these industries.

DJ: How are you helping the global power industry and our planet?

MacPherson: Since 2008, ME2C Environmental’s patented SEA® process has allowed coal-fired power plants to significantly reduce their mercury emissions in a cost-effective manner. This technology also improves the quality of coal ash, allowing this byproduct to be recycled and sold rather than being dumped into coal ash ponds. Roughly two years ago, in 2019, ME2C Environmental began a collaborative partnership with Dr. Scott Drummond to utilize a sorbent technology, similar to our SEA® technology for mercury emissions, for other ancillary applications, such as coal ash and wastewater. Contaminated coal ash has been a silent poison for many years.

While regulations were in place to keep our air cleaner, the coal ash created by the mercury emissions from coal power have been dumped in ponds for decades. The coal ash contaminates these ponds with mercury and other harmful chemicals that leach into the soil and runs off into water, which is referred to as wastewater. The environmental group, Earth Justice, published a report referencing a study conducted by the EPA in 2010 that found hexavalent chromium, a major carcinogen, to be present in coal ash.  

DJ; How is the technology developing?

MacPherson: The technology that we are working to develop will remove harmful contaminants from coal ash and in wastewater. This same technology will also be effective in selectively capturing rare earth elements from the coal ash, which is rich with these critical elements. We are currently undergoing confirmation testing of our sorbent technologies with Penn State University’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. We expect to move into pilot-scale testing later this fall and are working to bring a commercially viable solution to market by early 2022. We believe that coal ash and wastewater remediation is the largest environmental concern currently faced by the U.S. and the energy sector. Michael Regan, Director of the EPA appointed by President Biden, led the charge against Duke Energy a few years ago when Regan was at the helm of the DEQ in NC. Duke Energy’s coal ash pond cleanup is the largest of its kind to date costing Duke Energy more than $1 Billion.

In the U.S., there are more than 1,100 coal ash ponds in 37 states. China is the world’s largest producer of coal-fired power, as well as the largest producer of rare earth elements. In addition to mines, rare earths are largely found in coal ash.

Beyond the coal sector, we are working to apply our strong expertise in chemisorption, or sorbent technology, to other environmental concerns created by energy, such as methane emissions. Our development of a sorbent to capture methane remains in the early stages. While our results are promising thus far, methane is difficult to capture given its properties and capture technologies are limited and quite costly for the oil and gas industry.

As an environmental technology company, we will continue to use our expertise and capabilities to improve our world while creating efficiencies for the power sector.

DJ: What are your thoughts on the recent UN report on climate change? What can technologies companies do to combat climate change?

MacPherson: We have known for decades that our climate was not improving. As our population increases, and with industrial and technological advancements, our progress and expansiveness come at a significant cost. Policies set for energy and environmental issues have been interwoven for some time. Within the energy sector, we have known that environmental technology developments would be necessary to move forward in our world. As a leader in environmental technologies, we feel incumbent to continue to make progress for the power sector. While our first objective is support utilities in the U.S., we hope to share our expertise and know-how to other technology firms in other countries. 

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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