Google added Duke. Duke is in the Google circle.

Since Duke is a socially connected campus, that may not have surprised you, but would you have guessed the connection was made over hog waste?

In early September, Google announced it had partnered with the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative (DCOI) to invest in and purchase offsets from the recently operational Loyd Ray Farms Swine Waste-to-Energy Project developed in partnership between DCOI and Duke Energy.

Before I go any further, let me remind you that an offset is a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Under proposed cap and trade programs, for example, offsets would come from reductions that take place in a sector of the economy that is not regulated under the cap. In the currently unregulated market, offsets are essentially one person saying to another “I will pay you to reduce your emissions because I can’t reduce mine, but I’m going to take the credit for that reduction.”

This is exactly the case for Google. In 2007, Google decided that it would become carbon neutral. According to the Google Green Blog, it has pursued neutrality on three fronts: increasing its energy efficiency, purchasing and driving the market for renewable energy sources and purchasing offsets for the remainder of their emissions. According to company literature Google has been carbon neutral since 2007.

Duke is not a mint like Google with its ad revenue. Google’s role in the offsets market is primarily to drive demand for high quality offsets; the mission of the University and the DCOI is slightly different. Instead of simply purchasing existing offsets in an underdeveloped market, DCOI was established in June 2009 with a dual objective. The first objective is to develop a portfolio of offsets for Duke to purchase in 2024, the target date for carbon neutrality. The second objective of the DCOI is to act as a catalyst for innovation and standards development within the burgeoning North Carolina offsets market in particular, and in so doing, share that learning with the broader community.

To fulfill this mission, DCOI is developing projects, banking offsets and brokering offsets to develop more offsets. DCOI is engaging the University research community, students, funding agencies and Duke Energy to develop the knowledge base for future offsets models in an open and transparent way.

In the brief history of the DCOI, the Loyd Ray Farms Swine Waste-to-Energy Project is an excellent first.

It took about three years to develop and construct the open source system from off the shelf technology. In addition to destroying the methane produced by the hogs, the system powers a 65-kW microturbine that feeds electricity back onto the farm and also powers the waste water treatment process which treats odors, ammonia emissions, nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals. The system, which came online in May, 2011, also controls releases to surface and groundwater.

Before full success can be declared, reliability of the system must be confirmed, other co-benefits must be measured and verified and the cost of the system needs to come down so the benefits are a net positive for the farmers.

Google, it turns out, has high standards for its offsets. Their involvement on the project not only lends a high level of production value, it is also an endorsement of the DCOI and Duke Energy project in particular.

So is all of this a green-washing hogwash?

As Google’s Green Team will tell you, capturing and converting methane into carbon dioxide may seem counter-intuitive. But, methane, the target pollutant of agricultural and landfill gas collection systems is a potent greenhouse gas, 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So the conversion works out to a significant reduction.

On the other hand, the offsets generated by this project and enabled through a cap and trade scheme are an end-of-pipe solution. They achieve a marginal improvement. Plus, both of these sources of methane, agriculture and landfills, don’t just exist naturally, society creates them through supply and demand for meat and a disposable lifestyle.

So DCOI, now with the support of Google, is doing more than just putting lipstick on a pig. But we need to remember that the DCOI is just one initiative under the Climate Action Plan and Duke’s journey toward being carbon neutral.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.