RICHMOND(August 10, 2021) – Attorney General Mark R. Herring today joined a coalition of 17 attorneys general in calling on the U.S. Senate to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021 (PRO Act). The PRO Act strengthens and modernizes the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which enshrines the fundamental rights to organize, unionize, and bargain collectively. In the face of globalization, rapid technological change, rising income inequality, race, and gender wage gaps, and a pandemic-fueled recession, the PRO Act honors this country’s longstanding commitment to treating workers fairly and respecting the dignity of work. In today’s letter, Attorney General Herring and his colleagues highlight the urgent need to pass the PRO Act and respectfully urges the Senate to seize this historic opportunity to improve the lives of America’s working families.
“Virginia’s workers are the backbone of our economy, and it’s so important to give them the ability to advocate for themselves,” said Attorney General Herring. “Passing the PRO Act at the national level will protect workers in Virginia and across the country by allowing them to organize and collectively bargain for what they need. I will continue to stand up for our workers and fight to strengthen the protections for the individuals who work every day to keep our communities going.”
When the NLRA was enacted in 1935, it was broadly intended to promote workers’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. Between the late 1940s and the 1970s, union membership skyrocketed, and median household income rose in lockstep with increased productivity — both growing over 100%. Yet, in the face of a rapidly changing marketplace, the NLRA’s protections have not been able to withstand the test of time. Today, just 12% of American workers are represented by a union — down from 27% in 1979. This decline in union membership has contributed significantly to a historic rise in income inequality. Despite rising labor productivity, median earnings have barely budged upwards over the past four decades.
However, this dramatic decline in union membership is no accident. It tracks the rise in corporate opposition to organizing and aggressive anti-union campaigns. Indeed, these campaigns, which often spare no cost, seek to intimidate workers and often falsely imply that unionization will lead to mass layoffs or the closure of the workplace. And they employ a wide range of other pernicious tactics. To combat union drives, employers routinely enforce disciplinary rules with more frequency against pro-union workers, engage in pretextual retaliatory firings, interfere with union elections, hire union-busters, employ delay tactics, and impart misleading information via mandatory captive-audience meetings.
The PRO Act is comprised of commonsense reforms to the NLRA designed to curb these abusive practices and, more generally, restore the law’s original purpose of encouraging unionization. Restoring that purpose benefits all workers. Compared to their non-union counterparts, union members earn 10 to 15% higher wages, are more likely to have employer-sponsored benefits, like health insurance, paid sick days, and pensions, experience less wage theft, and are less reliant on public benefits. Importantly, in the midst of our national conversation about racial inequality in all its forms, we must not shy away from hard truths. Workers of color have suffered the worst effects of rising income inequality in recent decades and they have suffered a disproportionate burden from the pandemic-driven recession. For example, Black and Latina women have lost jobs at a rate three times higher than that of white men during the pandemic. Unions are a critical antidote to these disparate outcomes; the benefits of the PRO Act will be magnified for workers of color. Passing the PRO Act will help restore the ability of our nation’s workers to organize and bargain collectively for better pay and improved working conditions.
Joining Attorney General Herring in sending the letter are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
What they’re saying on Youngkin’s Education Plan to raise standards, improve transparency, and empower parents and teachers
Governor Youngkin released the Department of Education report on May 19, 2022: Our Commitment To Virginians: High Expectations and Excellence For All Students. Leaders across the country sounded off on the findings in the report.
Commonwealth Executive Leadership
“We have wised up to the dangerous rhetoric others use to divide us when all parents want to do is decide where their children should go to school. The data is clear: our children are not learning and this is a national security crisis.” -Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears (former Vice President of the Virginia Board of Education)
“As the son of an immigrant from a socialist country, I understand the importance of an education that fosters free speech, independent thinking, and creates an environment where every child has the opportunity to pursue their dreams. The recommendations contained in this report will ensure our K-12 education system supports and prepares every child for success and empowers both parents and teachers.” -Attorney General Jason Miyares
“We can’t get back to having the best education unless we have the cooperation of everybody from the school superintendent, the school boards, and parent-teacher associations. I love what Governor Youngkin said, he is giving parents back the right opportunity to speak. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t believe in Governor Youngkin.” -Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder (1990-1994)
“A free high quality education is what the Virginia Constitution guarantees to the young people of the Commonwealth. It is the gift that creates equal access to the American Dream. Today Governor Glenn Youngkin and Education Secretary Amy Guidera presented a comprehensive, data analytics driven critique our current ability to deliver on that guarantee. The incontrovertible measurements show we are falling woefully short on both the expectations and performance. The governor and his team have set a seven-prong vision for correcting this systemic problem. His powerful combination of setting high expectations, empowering parents and teachers, demanding innovation and transparency, and evaluating individual student job and career readiness, will provide a new day of achievement for young Virginians. I thank Governor Youngkin for his servant leadership and relentless pursuit of providing the very best education for the future leaders of Virginia and America.” – Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (2010 – 2014)
Leaders Across the Commonwealth
“While Petersburg is just miles away from Richmond, sometimes we feel like we are a world away given our challenges as a school division and community. I am grateful that the commitments made by state officials and the VDOE will shine a light on our students who do not always have the same access to opportunities in school as other students in Virginia.” – Superintendent of Petersburg City Public Schools Dr. Maria Pitre-Martin
“There is a misconception that superintendents and school systems don’t want data about student performance. This is not true. Now, more than ever, this information is critical in our plans to accelerate learning after the pandemic. As Superintendent of Stafford County Public Schools, I rely on honest data to best serve more than 30,000 learners and more than 4,000 educators. Diminished data transparency makes my job harder. I am encouraged by efforts to recommit to high standards and excellence, and I look forward to working in partnership with our community and my colleagues across the Commonwealth as we prepare every learner for work and life.” – Superintendent of Stafford County Public Schools Thomas Taylor
“The report released today emphasizes high expectations as we continue to support students, parents, and educators. And as we support our students, we must acknowledge that each one is unique and learns differently. That is why we must continue to evaluate our methods, recognize the growth our students make, and celebrate their achievements. At Louisa County Public Schools, I am surrounded by an incredible team of educators who inspire me with their determination, innovation, hard work, and positivity. I am confident that in Louisa County and across Virginia, educators, students, parents, and communities will continue to work diligently together to ensure that Virginia schools become the model for what public education should look like nationwide.” – Superintendent of Louisa County Public Schools Doug Straley
“Virginia is for lovers of liberty, learning, and opportunity. However, not all Virginians receive the quality education they deserve and that taxpayers should expect. To make matters worse, too many students we label as proficient will become frustrated when they have to face the brutal truth that we underprepared them for competitive jobs, salaries, and entrepreneurial endeavors. Thus, Virginia must also be for lovers of academic transparency. This report, sobering as it is, is a first step on a pathway towards a brighter future for all children and adult learners.”- Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson (2010-2011)
“When Virginia focuses on rigorous academic standards and provides support for meeting those standards, our students, teachers, principals, and administrators rise to meet the challenge. I am confident Virginia will regain its national ranking in education when students, educators, and schools are held accountable for achieving high standards and parents are included in policy decisions involving their children. Historically, the pendulum on educational policy tends to swing when student achievement spirals downward. Achievement data in Virginia suggests it is time to reverse the pendulum. Our students deserve no less.”- Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Patricia I. Wright (2008-2014)
“This report opens the door for an honest and long-overdue discussion on what is reasonable and appropriate regarding testing and accountability at the local and state level. Historically, this has not been a partisan issue, and it should not be today. There are no easy solutions. Success has always depended on bringing people together to understand these issues and to agree on the appropriate path. In the past, Virginia was recognized nationally as a leader in student achievement and progress. Unfortunately, over the past decade, we’ve gone backwards. This is painfully clear in the data from every state and national measure of student progress and achievement. This report is a good first step for Governor Youngkin and his administration to provide critical leadership to help Virginia’s students, parents and educators. The state Board of Education, school division leaders, and other stakeholders have a golden opportunity for conversations that can address important needs and refocus state policy on students and their readiness for today’s world.” -President of the Virginia Board of Education Dr. Kirk T. Schroder (1998-2002)
“There is no path to a more inclusive Virginia that doesn’t involve dramatic improvements to our education system. This report pulls back the curtain to lay bare just how far we have to go to provide a consistently high standard of excellence for all students across the commonwealth – especially for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students. It’s uncomfortable but vital reading for all Virginians and tees up a long-overdue conversation about our schools that should be bipartisan, forward-looking, and solution-oriented.” – Member of the Virginia Board of Education Andrew Rotherham (2005-2009), Co-Founder and Partner of Bellwether Education
“The Commonwealth of Virginia is known for having a well-trained and highly educated workforce. Our economy requires a strong educational system to assist every individual. This report identifies challenges in our K-12 system. The Virginia Chamber of Commerce looks forward to partnering with Governor Youngkin and Secretary Guidera to address the challenges pointed out by this report.” – President of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce Barry DuVal
“At Virginia Learns we envision a day when all Virginia students receive an education that prepares them for the world and workforce, including learning experiences and environments that empower them to thrive in childhood and become positive contributors in their communities. To achieve this we share Superintendent Balow’s commitment that we must all work together to ensure high expectations and excellence for all learners. Our pledge is to bring together business and education leaders around these shared interests in education and a common agenda to modernize Virginia public schools so that all students gain the knowledge, durable skills, and experiences to be successful now and in the future. All children, regardless of where they live, deserve this from the adults and the data are clear that the most effective way to ensure this occurs is by giving educators the respect and support they need and deserve.”- President and CEO of Virginia Learns Robert Nomberg
Leaders Across the Nation
“This report and detailed gameplan is spot on. The starting point must be honesty about where we stand, and not brushing under the rug the seriousness of the learning loss our kids have suffered. Governor Youngkin’s call for full transparency with parents, aggressive interventions when needed, and higher standards throughout are exactly where all Governors should be leading their states. I especially salute the call for unbiased, robust history and civics education and to support teachers with the training they need. With its high standards, vision, and thoughtfulness, it is reminiscent of other great Virginians–the founders of our Great Republic.” -U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. William J. Bennett (1985-1988)
“The Youngkin Administration’s students-first approach to education is a welcomed change, not only for our students and families, but for our state’s economic future. By prioritizing parental control, college and career readiness, early literacy, and ensuring the education system is held accountable, all of our students will have an opportunity to flourish throughout their K-12 journey. I applaud the Governor and his Administration for prioritizing education and releasing this important plan.”-U.S. House Majority Leader (2011-2014) and U.S. Representative Eric Cantor (2001-2014)
“Governor Glenn Youngkin’s education plan lays out an important agenda that serves the interests of all Virginia students by empowering parents, focusing on early literacy, improving college and career pathways, setting high expectations, and making Virginia’s education system more transparent and accountable to parents.” -Florida Governor Jeb Bush (1999-2007)
“The extent of learning losses in Virginia during the pandemic, and their disproportionate impact on more vulnerable groups, are hugely concerning. A commitment to remedying these differential losses is extremely important for children.” -Brown University Economics Professor Dr. Emily Oster
“Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education plan lays a foundation for improvement by focusing on the fundamentals: Putting students first, providing families with microgrants, raising expectations, strengthened accountability measures, and implementing the recently passed Virginia Literacy Act. ExcelinEd looks forward to working with the Administration’s efforts to make this vision and plan a reality for the benefit of Virginia’s students.” -CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education Patricia Levesque
Youngkin Administration to raise standards, improve transparency, and empower parents and teachers
On May 19, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin received the Department of Education’s report “Our Commitment to Virginians: High Expectations and Excellence for All Students.” The education report builds upon Governor Youngkin’s direction in Executive Order One, issued on his first day in office. The Governor affirmed his guiding principles to address troubling data trends and outlined policy recommendations to restore excellence in education in Virginia.
“Virginia’s public schools have long enjoyed a reputation for academic excellence,” said Governor Youngkin. “But the data in this report demonstrate that Virginia’s student achievement gaps are disturbing and cannot be ignored. This report documents a clear and sobering lesson on the consequences for students when state leaders lower academic standards and dismantle accountability.”
The 33-page report from the Department of Education details how state policy choices and priorities over the last decade have resulted in lower student achievement in reading and mathematics, wider achievement gaps, reduced transparency, and eroding parent confidence in the Commonwealth’s public schools.
“Virginians deserve to know the truth about how our children are doing,” said Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera. “Under Governor Youngkin’s leadership, we aim to be the most transparent and accountable state in the nation while empowering parents and teachers with the knowledge and choices to do what’s best for each learner.”
Key findings in the report include the following:
• Virginia now has the lowest proficiency standards in reading and mathematics in the nation, resulting in the wide “honesty gaps” between the performance of students on state Standards of Learning tests and performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
• Despite statistically significant declines in the reading performance of Virginia students on the 2019 NAEP and on state assessments, the Board of Education voted in 2020 to lower the proficiency standard on all elementary, middle school, and high school SOL reading tests.
• The Board of Education’s Standards of Accreditation — once an accountability model for other states — now de-emphasize grade-level proficiency in reading and mathematics and mask wide achievement gaps.
• Pre-pandemic results from college entrance examinations taken by 2019 Virginia high graduates show wide disparities in college readiness, especially in mathematics.
• Last fall, 42% of Virginia second-graders scored below the benchmark on the Commonwealth’s early literacy screening assessment.
• Homeschooling increased by 56% in 2020-2021 as the parents of 59,638 school-age children chose not to send their children to public schools. Despite the return to in-person instruction this year, the parents of 55,769 students chose homeschooling over enrolling their children in a public school. In addition, 5,828 students have transferred from Virginia public schools to in-state private schools since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.
“I want to stress that this report is not an indictment of our teachers, principals, and other school leaders. They have worked tirelessly over the last few years under extraordinary conditions and circumstances,” said Superintendent Jillian Balow. “But local decision-making inevitably reflects priorities and policy choices determined at the state level. I am committed to working with Governor Youngkin, the state Board of Education, and the General Assembly to reorder Virginia’s K-12 priorities, raise expectations for all of our students, and create an accreditation system that is transparent, honest, and prioritizes grade-level proficiency.”
The report also identifies Governor Youngkin’s guiding principles in education that will guide the work of his Administration in restoring excellence in education:
• Establish and maintain high expectations for students, schools, and ourselves.
• Advance parent and teacher empowerment to best serve students in partnership.
• Demand zero-tolerance for discrimination in education and beyond.
• Foster innovation in all education environments.
• Provide transparency and accountability so that each child is seen and receives what they need to succeed.
• Ensure post-secondary readiness so that all learners can succeed in life.
• Protect and nurture freedom of speech and inquiry to ensure every student is taught how to think, not what to think.
“The future prosperity of our Commonwealth depends on how well we prepare our students,” said Governor Youngkin. “Working alongside parents, teachers, and policymakers, we will restore excellence in education and ensure that all students have access to quality education opportunities that prepare them for success in our workplaces, our communities, and our democracy.”
The complete “Our Commitment to Virginians: High Expectations and Excellence for All Students” report is available here. Superintendent Balow’s presentation deck is available here.
Virginia is building a comprehensive strategy of inclusion in state government employment practices
RICHMOND, VA – On May 17, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced that the Virginia state government has implemented an alternative hiring process for individuals with disabilities, serving as a model for inclusive employment practices. The process embeds the employment of individuals with differing abilities as part of standard hiring policy and the state work culture.
A collaboration of state and community partners, the Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM), and the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) have spearheaded the continuing effort to employ, integrate and accommodate more individuals with disabilities in the state workforce.
“My administration fully supports expanded economic and job opportunities for individuals living with disabilities. This is a significant step in the Commonwealth’s commitment to the overall goal of increasing employment opportunities for all Virginians,” said Governor Youngkin.
The state hiring policy will be updated to incorporate the new alternative hiring process.
Applicants with documented disabilities, as certified by a DARS certified rehabilitation counselor, are eligible for consideration.
Interested applicants will apply at jobs.virginia.gov and upload a Certificate of Disability to their employment application.
Approved applicants may receive priority consideration during the recruitment process.
Agencies are strongly encouraged to provide a 6-month provisional period to these new hires to ensure accommodation needs are met, and employees are set up for success.
“This process is only the beginning of our strategy to demonstrate our commitment to individuals with differing abilities to improve the state workforce. It is one facet of a more comprehensive strategy, which includes accommodations, communication, education and awareness, compliance and retention of individuals with differing abilities,” said Margaret “Lyn” McDermid, Secretary of Administration.
“This policy opens doors for job applicants with disabilities to seek state employment, paving the way for new career paths. DARS’ collaboration with DHRM is essential to its success in assisting those who are underrepresented in the state workforce,” said DARS Commissioner Kathy Hayfield.
“To bolster this initiative, DARS received a $9.2 million federal grant called ‘Pathways to Careers using Partnerships, Apprenticeships and Equity,’ that will serve at least 750 Virginians with disabilities to acquire skills-based training and registered apprenticeships in high-wage, high-demand fields, including STEM and state government,” said John Littel, Secretary of Health and Human Resources.
The DHRM website has more information at jobs.virginia.gov, including Frequently Asked Questions for Applicants. A Certificate of Disability may be requested from DARS or by calling 800-552-5019. Sign language users may use the videophone at 804-325-1316.
Virongy Biosciences Inc. to invest $471,000 to begin development of diagnostic technologies for viral pathogens
On May 17, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced that Virongy Biosciences Inc., a developer of viral diagnostic technologies, anti-viral drugs, and therapeutic viral vectors, will invest $471,000 to expand in Prince William County. The company recently relocated to occupy over 2,000 square feet of the Northern Virginia Bioscience Center, where it will begin to develop new diagnostic technologies to monitor and quantify SARS-CoV-2 variants and other viral pathogens. The expansion project will create up to 70 new jobs.
“Prince William County has emerged as a hub for the life sciences industry, offering the infrastructure, R&D assets, and talent to attract and retain innovative biotech firms like Virongy,” said Governor Youngkin. “We applaud the company for its groundbreaking developments that will have a positive and far-reaching impact on bioscience advancements and disease prevention and treatment.”
“Virongy’s expansion in Prince William County reinforces the region’s robust industry talent, world-class education institutions, and advanced culture of innovation that supports the company’s mission,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick. “We thank Virongy for creating valuable jobs while improving the health of our communities and look forward to its continued growth in Virginia.”
“Virongy Biosciences Inc. chose Virginia as its company location mainly because it is inside the rapid-growing biotech park of Prince William County and right beside the Science and Technology Campus of George Mason University,” said Virongy’s Chief Scientific Officer Brian Hetrick.
“I toured the Virongy Biosciences lab at the Northern Virginia Bioscience Center’s grand opening in March, and I was impressed not only by the important discoveries from the Virongy team, but moreover the business’ dedication to hiring from and growing the local talent pool of life sciences employees,” said Chair Ann B. Wheeler, Prince William County Board of Supervisors. “Over the last two years, Prince William County saw significant growth and advancement in the biotechnology industry, and this is validation that we are one of the fastest-growing bio-clusters in the state.”
“I’m excited to see the expansion of a critical arm of the healthcare sector as we continue to build on our successful local economy in Prince William,” said Senator Jeremy S. McPike. “I look forward to working with Virongy.”
“The field of bioscience has made great strides in the last several years,” said Delegate Michelle Maldonado. “With Northern Virginia’s Bioscience Center here in District 50, we are joining this conversation with critical research, contributions, and impact for the Commonwealth through jobs, health solutions, and more. I am excited for Virongy’s expansion in our community and look forward to partnering together for the benefit of all Virginians.”
Established in 2014, Virongy focuses on creating cutting-edge technologies in virology, viral vector-based gene therapy, virus-host cell biology, and viral immunology. The company develops new technologies that can be used for scientific discoveries, clinical diagnostics, and disease treatment. Virongy has discovered and developed key technologies and products, including rapid quantitative COVID-19, neutralizing antibody test, Infectin, Cellment, HIV Rev-dependent Lentiviral Vector, and HIV drug and neutralizing antibody discovery technologies. The company’s mission is to provide scientists and clinicians with innovative technologies for studying viruses and viral vectors and to provide virological services that meet the highest academic and industry standards, facilitating scientific discoveries, clinical diagnostics, and disease treatment.
The Virginia Economic Development Partnership worked with Prince William County to secure the project for Virginia and will support Virongy’s job creation through the Virginia Jobs Investment Program (VJIP), which provides consultative services and funding to companies creating new jobs in order to support employee recruitment and training activities. As a business incentive supporting economic development, VJIP reduces the human resource costs of new and expanding companies. VJIP is state-funded, demonstrating Virginia’s commitment to enhancing job opportunities for citizens.
Governor Glenn Youngkin announces violent crime task force
RICHMOND, VA – On May 16, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin today formally announced the creation of a task force of executive branch and office of the Attorney General officials to better align strategies to reduce violent crime in cities and communities across the Commonwealth. Leaders from the Task Force will continue conducting community leadership meetings across the Commonwealth. Governor Youngkin attended a community leadership meeting in Petersburg on Monday, May 9th.
“There is a clear recognition of a violent crime crisis in Virginia, and my administration is committed to joining with community leaders, law enforcement, and Virginians around solutions with the Violent Crime task force. We will take a comprehensive look at how we can address the rise in violent crime by providing more law enforcement resources, creating alternative and after-school activities for children, and addressing the fear that results in witnesses failing to show up for a criminal hearing,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin.
“There’s not a one size fits all approach to combating crime in the Commonwealth. It requires collaboration and communication with law enforcement, local officials, and community leaders. My team is excited to be a part of this new task force, and we’re eager to work with our partners in the executive branch to carry out new, innovative solutions that will help to reduce crime and keep our communities safe,” said Attorney General Jason Miyares.
The Task Force is led by Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bob Mosier, with additional leadership provided by the Chief Deputy Attorney General Chuck Slemp. Additional participants include leaders from the Governor’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Criminal Justice Services, Virginia State Police, and others. To date, state leaders have met with local leaders in Virginia Beach, Newport News, Norfolk, and Petersburg, with additional meetings planned in the coming weeks.
The Task Force will recommend executive, administrative, and legislative actions on an ongoing basis to the Governor.
Gardeners transform food waste into fuel, aiding the climate
RICHMOND, Va. — “It’s free cooking gas,” said Monica Alinea.
Monica Alinea and her husband, Tim, are proud owners of a HomeBiogas system.
Situated in the sunny backyard of their Pensacola, Florida home, the system looks like a 7-foot rectangular, black balloon. But it’s not inflated with air, it’s methane.
The Alineas use HomeBiogas, a product that transforms household food waste into cooking gas through a composting process called anaerobic digestion. The product became commercially available in 2016, according to the HomeBiogas website.
Shakira Hobbs is an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Kentucky and did her postdoctoral research at the University of Virginia. Hobbs researches sustainable environmental engineering and compares anaerobic digestion to the human digestive system.
“If I eat an apple, I chew it up, and I break it into smaller pieces, and then it goes down my esophagus and eventually into my stomach,” Hobbs said. “I have these natural enzymes that will further break down that food waste and process it through my digestive system (to) produce two things, a solid and a gas.”
The Alineas take food waste, like vegetable scraps or banana peels, and feed it into the anaerobic digester through a tube. The waste collects in a large chamber, and within a few hours, the microorganisms in the chamber begin decomposing the food waste, which releases methane. The gas rises and collects in a flexible tank and can be piped directly into their kitchen to fuel a stovetop burner, providing them free cooking gas.
The Alineas are part of a growing group of avid home chefs and gardeners in the nation who seek self-reliance and use food waste to tackle climate change.
“We hate to waste things,” Tim Alinea said, “and we knew our food scraps could be used for good.”
Environmental impact of methane
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that carbon dioxide and methane are the most abundant greenhouse gasses emitted from human-influenced actions. This can impact global temperatures, changes weather patterns, and contributes to human health problems.
But methane can be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, so decreasing methane emissions could have rapid and significant positive effects. Landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.
“Composting produces methane,” said Bruno Welsh, founder of Compost RVA, “but it produces far less methane than a landfill.”
The EPA estimates that in 2018, the most recent year of available data, U.S. households generated 25 million tons of wasted food; 66% was landfilled while just 3% was composted. The remainder went to wastewater management or combustion services.
When food waste goes to a landfill, it decomposes with inorganic materials like plastic and metal. Consider a kitchen garbage bag. Airflow is diminished and the food rots, slowly leaking methane into the atmosphere.
But when captured, methane can become a form of renewable energy called biogas. It can be converted to electricity or used as fuel for cooking and heating.
“We can produce [BioGas] in about ten days, depending on the substrates and the conditions,” Hobbs said. This is in contrast to natural gas, a commonly used non-renewable form of energy, which could take millions of years to form.
Benefits of household biogas
Zak Dowell’s suburban home sits in the rolling hills of Blacksburg, Virginia. Dowell, who has a background in building science and environmental design, is a Virginia Tech BioBuild fellow researching anaerobic digestion systems for household use. He’s built several anaerobic digesters in his backyard over the past decade, but he also purchased a HomeBiogas system a few years ago.
“I’ve got a 6,000-watt solar system on my house,” Dowell said, “but I’m doing my part for the environment more by sorting my food waste and disposing of it responsibly.”
Dowell diligently composts for his family of four and hasn’t thrown away a scrap of food in almost 15 years.
Dowell views anaerobic digestion as an eco-innovation. Most anaerobic digestion users say they spend several hours a week feeding and maintaining backyard digesters.
For people interested in anaerobic digestion, it’s possible to build a system using commonly found hardware store supplies. HomeBiogas produces a system for residential and backyard use.
The basic HomeBiogas system costs less than $1,000 and can generate up to two hours of cooking fuel per day, according to its website. But that timeframe depends on other factors, like climate and how consistently the system is fed. Warm weather allows for faster decomposition and methane creation.
“The HomeBiogas, it’s meant for Florida; you can drop that thing in the warm weather, and it will produce gas, it’s an awesome product,” Dowell said. But people in Northern U.S. climates may be limited to only using a digester during the warmer months or be forced to build a greenhouse to keep temperatures up during the winter.
Michael and Britney Maness live on a 6-acre farm in Puerto Rico and use renewable energies, including solar and biogas.
“I like to drink tea daily, and I no longer have to feel bad for boiling water,” said Brittney Maness with a chuckle.
She grows her own tea and uses biogas for cooking which provides a sustainable way to do something she enjoys, Maness said.
Byproducts and limitations of anaerobic digestion
The EPA explains how anaerobic digestion also produces digestate, which is a biofertilizer or effluent. When considering the human digestive system analogy, this would be the “solid we all produce,” Hobbs said.
“A big plus is the biofertilizer,” Mike Maness said. “That stuff is really good for plants.”
The Manesses have a passion for horticulture and noticed a significant improvement in their crop yields since using the digestate.
But for households without a robust vegetable garden or small farm, the biofertilizer may turn into buckets of sludge that must be dealt with.
Some municipal wastewater management facilities and large-scale farms in the U.S. have been producing biogas and digestate for decades.
When Roy Vanderhyde installed an anaerobic digester on his Southwest Virginia dairy farm in 2008, he wanted to use the digestate as a pathogen-free bedding for his animals. But he soon found the value in the biogas.
The digester’s only input was manure, and the biogas was converted on-site into electricity. Vanderhyde’s electric bill was $13,000 per month before the digester, he said.
“(It) was generating enough electric power that I did not have an electric bill,” Vanderhyde said. “Plus, I would sell enough kilowatts for the average 300 homes.”
The Central Marin Sanitation Agency in Northern California is a wastewater treatment plant that runs two 80-foot anaerobic digesters. The biogas is transformed on-site into electricity and powers the facilities for an average of 19.3 hours per day, according to the agency’s Green Business Report for the fiscal year 2021. The digestate is processed and used locally as fertilizer and daily landfill cover.
Food waste from local restaurants and grocery stores was added to the agency’s digesters in 2014. The agency now accepts nearly 6 tons of food waste each day. The digesters created about eight hours of electricity per day before food waste was used, which is less than half the energy it currently produces, according to General manager Jason Dow.
But anaerobic digestion has other drawbacks in addition to managing the digestate. Systems often have complicated pieces that could require sophisticated engineering to troubleshoot. Residential users, such as the Alineas, cite the time commitment to feed the system as a limitation. The Manesses find the system to be water-intensive.
Posters on the HomeBiogas System Owners’ Facebook group frequently visit the page to troubleshoot system problems. Owners have experienced leaks, insufficient methane production, trouble inoculating new systems, and pH imbalance, according to user posts. Since HomeBiogas is headquartered in Israel, receiving new parts can be time-consuming for Americans, some U.S. users say.
Engineering obstacles are not isolated to individuals doing backyard anaerobic digestion. One of the two digesters at the Marin County wastewater treatment facility experienced a failure in 2021, which halted electricity generation for over six months, Dow said.
The pre-formed concrete dome on Vanderhyde’s digester collapsed in November 2017 due to a buildup of sulfuric acid, according to Vanderhyde. This ended his nine-year production of renewable energy and sparked a four-year legal battle with his insurance company on whether the system was covered.
Despite the potential shortfalls, experts and users like Dowell still find the technology magical.
“Being able to see something that’s considered to be waste … be able to produce energy, was eye-opening to me,” said Hobbs, who first learned of anaerobic digestion in college.
Hobbs has since earned a doctorate in the field of sustainable environmental engineering and started a nonprofit called BioGals, which seeks to empower women of color and engage communities to co-create solutions for a more sustainable world. According to its site, a major project for the organization is building and implementing anaerobic digesters.
By LARIN BRINK
Capital News Service, Virginia Commonwealth University
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.