COLUMBIA — The chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality visited Columbia on Wednesday morning, talking with city officials downtown before touring the Biogas Energy Plant located at the city landfill.
Nancy Sutley, who also serves as the principal environmental policy adviser to President Barack Obama, said she travels the country to talk with municipal leaders about their efforts in generating renewable energy.
"As we thought about coming to Missouri, Columbia stood out as a community that was doing a lot in clean energy and in the environment and someplace we wanted to hear and see what was going on," Sutley said.
Mayor Bob McDavid, City Manager Mike Matthes and other city officials spent an hour with Sutley inside the offices of Regional Economic Development Inc. explaining Columbia's efforts to increase renewable energy, which currently accounts for 2 percent of the city's total energy.
McDavid said Columbia's sustained growth will necessitate the need for alternative energy sources, including wind, solar and biomass, as well as increasing efficiency at the Biogas Energy Plant.
"Challenges remain ahead," he said.
Following the roundtable discussion, Sutley visited the plant at the city landfill with Christian Johanningmeier, Columbia's power production superintendent, and Ronnie Tennill, a technician supervisor.
Johanningmeier explained how trash at the landfill decomposes and produces methane. The gas is run through engines hooked up to 1-megawatt generators, which create electricity for the city. Any excess gas is burned.
"Methane gas is a greenhouse gas, so it is more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is," Johanningmeier said. "So you're better off taking the methane, doing something with it — converting it to carbon dioxide — because it's actually less damaging to the planet than in methane form."
The plant has an output of 2.1 megawatts, supplying about 1.5 percent of Columbia's energy use per year and enough power to supply approximately 1,500 homes. The city hopes the plant will increase output enough to meet 2.5 percent of Columbia's power within five to 10 years.
"Well I think it's very impressive to see a community taking advantage of what they have," Sutley said. "And the fact that the city owns the utility and the landfill creates an opportunity that in some communities would be harder to do."
Sutley concluded her visit to Columbia by answering questions from about 50 MU students at the Reynolds Alumni Center. Topics ranged from student involvement and awareness to the biomass boiler used in the MU Power Plant.
The discussion, co-coordinated by MU's Campus Facilities and Department of Student Life, was a chance to communicate with "our next generation of leaders," Sutley said.
"Students here are going to inherit this planet and have a lot to say about its health now and in the future," she added.
Sustain Mizzou President Kat Seal attended the meeting and said opportunities for students to meet with public officials should occur more often.
"These college people — us — we are what's happening next," Seal said. "It's incredibly important for us to voice our opinion and for us to be educated on everything that's going on. Because if we don't know what has happened and what's in the works, how do we know where to go next?"
The visit to Columbia concluded a two-stop trip to Missouri for Sutley, who visited Kansas City's Green Impact Zone on Tuesday. Trent Bauserman, the White House council's associate director for legislative affairs, said Sutley usually makes two trips per month, with the most recent being to Columbia, S.C.
"I think part of the reason to get out of Washington and to talk to people is to hear what's on their minds, and we did get a good cross-section here in Columbia," Sutley said. "It's important to be in touch with folks around the country and also to make sure that they hear directly from us on some of the things we're working on. And that dialogue is very important for us as we do our jobs to help set goals and priorities for the country."