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Waste to Energy Firms: A Greener Waste Solution?

| Friday March 6th, 2009 | 0 Comments

With landfills across the nation bursting at the seams, there are signs of renewed interest in burning solid wastes. Using advanced gasfication methods, companies can now produce energy from a host of materials with virtually no emissions.
And while this is certainly better than just dumping trash in a landfill, is it really better than simply recycling and reusing those materials?
Burn, Baby, Burn!
Plasco Energy Group Inc., an Ottawa, Canada-based firm has introduced an innovative system based upon an electric plasma torch system whose combustion process burns cleaner than traditional trash incinerators.
In the plasma burn design, temperatures are raised to greatly elevated levels compared to traditional incinerator systems. At this higher temperature, gasification opens the door for a “superior combustion” potential – so much so that Plasco claims that it can divert 99.8% of solid waste from landfills. Its Conversion System is “the only waste transformation technology that can generate more than a megawatt-hour of net power per ton of waste processed.”
And Plasco is not alone. Another rising star on the horizon of gasification includes Ze-gen, which launched a functioning pilot plant a year ago in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Gasification at this plant has been producing “syngas” – a flammable mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be used as a fuel. Tony Perkins, founder of tech mag Red Herring and the CEO of Always On, named Ze-gen to its list of “The GoingGreen Top 100″ in 2008.
According to Ze-Gen’s website: “Ze-gen was founded to develop and deploy advanced gasification technology which converts renewable biomass waste streams into energy and other beneficial products with virtually zero emissions. In addition to the environmental problems associated with conventional means of waste disposal, there is considerable energy content in ordinary waste streams. Industry data suggests that in the United States alone, over 50,000 megawatts of latent energy potential is unexploited every year as these waste streams are buried in landfills
So is this a great way to get clean energy from things we were throwing out anyway, or simply a technology that allows us to maintain a wasteful mindset that is ultimately unsustainable?
Is Cleaner Burning Better than Recycling?

Public interest groups, notably Global Alliance for Alternatives to Incinerators (GAIA), however, question the wisdom of investing in the development of such technologies. Regardless how much more efficient and “clean” plasma methods are, the philosophy seems to reinforce a mentality that used waste materials can and should be just tossed aside, rather than reused and then recycled. Also, they point out that these facilities are designed to be operating constantly, which encourages overuse and the energy needed to keep them running at high temperatures.
According to Dave Ciplet, U.S. coordinator for GAIA, “Trash has more economic value and a lighter impact on climate change when reused, recycled or composted than when incinerated or placed in a landfill. Burning valuable materials that instead could well be recycled” wastes the life cycle energy of products to produce a small amount of energy,” Ciplet said.
Plasco’s facilities provide revenues from the sale of their system, which they refer to euphemistically as “premium green electricity.” Plasco’s argument is that in the end, “by recycling waste into valuable products, it will cost communities less to manage their garbage.”
While this is undoubtedly true, the real question is whether we need to burn it first to get a “valuable product.” Recycling a pile of cardboard and plastic takes both water and energy – but when you’re done you’ve got usable materials. Advanced gasification can deliver energy – but will it have enough left over to make new materials with?
Initially, implementation of new gasification system is being designed expressly for municipalities. There are 89 such trash-to-energy plants in the the US. However, none of these are commercial-grade gasification systems.
Meanwhile, a more potent application might be in using gasification to improve efficiencies and reduce emissions of the coal-fired power plants which still provide the lion’s share of America’s electricity.
Coal Industry a Beneficiary of Gasification Process?

Increasingly stringent environmental requirements are pressuring coal-fired power plants to clean up their act. It’s likely that coal-fired plants will seriously consider adopting this new gasification technology in an effort to reduce emissions. Indeed, it is thought that by running these new plants in a “flex-fuel” capacity using both coal and synthetic gas produced in this new process, utilities might be able to actually prolong the “longevity” of existing coal facilities.
Alter Nrg, a division of Westinghouse Plasma, has established that there are over 320 coal-burning facilities in North America that are candidates for “repowering” by employing plasma torch technology. Alter Nrg recently signed a contract with NRG Energy to revamp the firm’s coal-fired facilities by employing this new plasma system.
Surprise Ending for Gasification?

According to Plasco, in the end, the degree to which its novel plasma succeeds will depend upon just how the economics works out. This is of course true with any new technology, which in this case could offer several “surprise” endings:
- If gasification can be used to clean up landfills and produce energy, it may be a positive.
- If it simply becomes an excuse to keep filling up trash bags across the country every week without seriously investing in a closed-loop manufacturing economy, it will be just another sad twist in our “story of stuff.”
- And if it becomes further justification for supporting the myth that digging up mountains of coal is somehow “clean” if you just burn it right, then it could actually have a hand in contributing to global warming, climate collapse, and other serious damage to the environment.
The jury is still out on advanced gasification. Will it be like the food-to-fuel fiasco that causes more harm than good? Or will it be another tool in our growing supply of sustainable solutions?
Let us know what you think!
Image Courtesy of Alter NRG. Andy Mannle was co-author of this post.


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