Cool Plasma Gasification Claims Just “Blowing Smoke”

by Monica WilsonThe Global Herald
July 22nd, 2011

If I had a penny for each of Mr. Skrinak's claims in his The Global Herald interview that I've also heard from his competitors in recent years, I might not be rich, but I could probably afford a ticket to the final Harry Potter film.

Company after company in this industry makes remarkably similar assertions: claiming to be closed loop, to have no emissions, to produce clean energy, to have "the" breakthrough technology that will succeed around the world, to be completely different from other company's technologies. Yet most of the available data on the performance of these technologies comes from the companies themselves. As Mr. Skrinak says, gasification is not new — there must be a reason it hasn't succeeded so far. The fact is that his claims that cool plasma is different lack independent scientific backing.

For instance, Mr. Skrinak says that incineration is the opposite of plasma, but in reality these technologies have a great deal in common. Like direct combustion, plasma gasification technology is a thermal process that uses high temperatures to break down waste. Plasma is incineration that happens in two stages, while conventional incineration happens in one stage. This isn't just my opinion, the EU clearly defines plasma and gasification as incineration (see Art 3.4 Directive [2000/76/EC] of the European Parliament and of the Council on incineration of waste.), and the EU is one of the few regions in the world with experience of large scale facilities of this sort. That experience has shown that these types of incinerators have serious challenges, including accidents, long term operational shut downs, emissions problems, and an inability to reliably produce energy.

But even without these companies laying their own rhetorical traps to fall into, there are fundamental consequences of all incinerators that should not be ignored. For all their claims, all incinerators can release dioxins, mercury and other hazardous pollutants,  and serious malfunctions and accidents have happened at gasification, plasma, and other staged incinerators. Moreover these thermal waste disposal processes emit more greenhouse gases than coal power plants per unit of energy generated. Plus, in the United States, incineration for energy generation is by far the most expensive way to create energy, and it's the most expensive option for waste.

If we look at the facts, the story of the failed attempt by adaptiveARC to build an incinerator in Watsonville, California is illuminating. In 2008, the county of Santa Cruz on the central California coast considered allowing adaptiveARC to build a plasma incinerator for some of the county's waste. The plant was described in permit applications as emissions free, a claim that later came back to bite. County leadership initially supported the project, but after a letter from the county Public Works department stated that "AdaptiveARC has not been responsive to our requests for emissions information," county leadership voted down the project unanimously.

After the vote, Bradley Angel of Greenaction, one of the groups involved in exposing false claims by adaptiveARC, said: "Our communities need more recycling and waste prevention, not incinerators in disguise that will pollute the air, threaten the health of residents and use low-income communities of color as dumping grounds."

Rightly so, the sustainable solution is not about how to burn waste more efficiently but rather how to improve waste prevention, reuse and recycling rates. The more we recycle the less we need to invest in expensive experiments such as cool plasma. Cities such as San Francisco are leading the way in the US with a zero waste goal and a 77% diversion rate. In Europe there are many examples of how incineration of any kind has been unnecessary thanks to good waste separation practices which reduce the waste to be disposed 2 or 3 fold.

Waste prevention, reuse, composting, and recycling are key steps towards zero waste, which reduce climate and toxic pollution, conserve energy and natural resources, and create jobs. In fact, they create 4-10 times more jobs than incineration and landfills, and are wise investments in local economies.  But every perverse subsidy for incineration makes it harder for these zero waste strategies to thrive.


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