Plasma gasification projects fire up amid controversy

by Lisa HaidostianClimateWire
June 10th, 2008

A recent study estimated that Americans produce about 245,700 million tons of garbage per year, making the United States the No. 1 waster in the world. About 30 percent of the waste is recycled, so the vast majority is left to be either buried or burned.

Or maybe not.

According to a recent report called "Stop Trashing the Climate," landfills are the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the United States, and incinerators emit more CO2 per megawatt-hour than fossil fuel-fired power plants. Industry leaders are scrambling to find sustainable answers to this great garbage-and-emissions question. Meanwhile, environmental players continue to spar over the most effective way to slash trash and limit dangerous emissions.

Garbage in, electricity out -- at least, that is the hope of the builders of this plasma gasification plant, being constructed by a company in Nagpur, India. Photo courtesy of Alter NRG.

One technology that has recently begun to emerge is plasma gasification. While incineration has been around for decades, proponents of plasma gasification claim that this much hotter process (operating at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit) breaks down the molecular structure of garbage, vaporizing the materials and significantly lowering the amount of toxins emitted. It creates a synthetic gas that can be burned to make electricity. Thus, one man's garbage powers another man's dishwasher and illuminates his wide-screen television set.
All talk and no game?

What's odd, though, is that for all the talk, the process isn't widely applied. "In general, there are a lot of companies out there who say they can do it, and I don't know any who have done it," said Jim Childress, executive director of the Gasification Technologies Council.

However, projects are beginning to come off the drawing boards, including proposed facilities in Tallahassee and St. Lucie County, Fla.; New Orleans; and International Falls, Minn. Most of them are scheduled for operation in 2010 or later, once the companies involved get their permits to use the so-called "plasma torch" process.

David Ciplet, a co-author of the report and the U.S. coordinator of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, said, "We're seeing proposals coming up all over the place," but only one such facility in the world is actually operating.

The only full-scale operating plant of its kind is in Utashinai, Japan, and that sells just a "nominal" amount of energy to the grid, said Danny May, chief financial officer of Alter NRG, a company that sells the technology involved with the plant's operation.

Childress said he thinks plasma gasification shows great potential for growth, but because there are so few examples of the technology in action, cities and investors are hesitant to come on board.

He also said inexpensive landfilling is partly to blame for the fact that there aren't any plants in the United States. "As long as land is cheap for landfilling, people will do that," Childress said. "But what's happening today is that land is becoming more expensive."

And, he said, as opposition to coal-fueled power plants continues to grow, investment dollars headed towards plasma gasification will rise.

May said that both regulators and investors are beginning to explore the details of the process. "Each and every month, we're starting to get more and more interest generated," he said.

Officials from the Calgary-based Alter NRG said that there are about 50 projects around the world in some stage of consideration. About half of those projects are based in North America and half are abroad. Two small plants in India are furthest along in their development, slated for completion by fall of 2008 and early 2009.

Although the Utashinai plant is generating a negligible amount of surplus energy, May said it is a "different model" than upcoming plants, and a newer one would be "a major exporter of energy." The proposed facilities, he said, would export to the grid about 80 percent of their potential energy.
Opponents say claims of clean gasification are 'largely without basis'

But while U.S. EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn says the process has "the potential to be very clean," it has its opponents. Ciplet adamantly rebuked claims made by companies promoting the plasma gasification technology, saying that they were "misleading" and "largely without basis" in arguing that the technology was clean.

"This is absolutely the wrong way to go for both the climate and for community health," he said. Ciplet said that the process still emits dioxins and that there are no independently verified studies that support the technology. He also said that some companies will make claims based on a small pilot facility that doesn't have to deal with day-to-day operations and a large waste stream.

Instead, Ciplet and others who collaborated on the report suggested, reusing, recycling and composting materials are the most economical and sustainable ways to save energy.

"Typically -- this is what the industry itself likes to do -- is make the debate between landfills and incinerators," he said. "The truth is that these aren't the only two options on the table."

He asserted that the plasma facilities would prove to be an "economic disaster," due to the high cost of construction and cheaper alternatives for waste removal. The taxpayers, Ciplet warned, would pay the price. "If these facilities get built, it's the communities that will bear the brunt of it," he said.

May disagreed, saying that in many areas, plasma facilities could turn a profit. "Based on current power prices in populous areas and current [garbage] tipping fees in populous areas, these facilities would be economically viable," he said. "They'd be worth investing in."
Experts spar over the economics of waste disposal

But Eric Lombardi, a co-author of the report and the director of Eco-Cycle, a proponent of zero waste communities, said that reusing and recycling materials would be the bigger moneymaker.

"The big question is: If you're not gonna bury or burn it, what are you gonna do with it?" he asked. "You're gonna sort it, and you're gonna sell it."

He said that the value of recyclable materials has doubled and "there is a market for 85 percent of the stuff we're throwing in trash cans." The authors of the report said the zero-waste approach was the "fastest, cheapest and most effective strategies" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

May said that while recycling is "always your best option," plasma gasification is an "active part of a good recycling program," since not all materials can be recycled. "I think a lot of what you get is saying, 'Well, you should have zero waste,' and that is obviously a great goal, but it's not necessarily a realistic goal," he said.

He also noted that the levels of toxins emitted from the process are "far, far, far below" what other incinerators or landfills might release.

Ciplet countered that because gasification facilities require a guaranteed waste stream for decades in order to cover their high costs, they serve as a disincentive for recycling. He also explained that the materials that are best to incinerate in terms of energy extraction are also the materials that people readily recycle, like plastic bottles.

For now, industry leaders will have to wait and see how new plant development projects pan out and if the plasma gasification process turns out to be garbage or gold.

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