Burning issue: 'Waste-to-energy' plants take off in bid to cut garbage, fuel use
Community activists rally against a proposed trash incinerator in Gonzales, Calif. Nearly 100 such projects have been proposed nationwide recently as states and communities struggle to reduce trash and find alternatives to fossil fuels. Photo by Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.
Feb. 11, 2013
Proposals are proliferating nationwide to incinerate trash and generate energy. They're also firing up the local opposition.
By Nate Seltenrich
The Daily Climate
OAKLAND, Calif. – The farm town of Gonzales, in the center of the Salinas Valley, has been known throughout its 140-year history as "Little Switzerland," the "heart of the salad bowl," and, today, the "wine capital" of Monterey County.
Now a proposal from a Canadian energy company could change Gonzales' moniker yet again: It hopes to build a commercial-scale plant for harvesting energy from trash – the first of its kind in the United States.
The project's future is decidedly uncertain. But roughly 100 similar proposals to turn trash to energy have cropped up nationwide the past six years, as local and state officials scramble to meet mandates to divert waste from landfills and find more renewable energy sources.
The Gonzales plan, led by Ottawa-based Plasco Energy Group, seemed like a sure thing until last fall, when a state board ruled that the technology cannot qualify as green energy because it does not operate with zero emissions, eliminating a financial incentive. The decision, while not necessarily enough to kill the project, may have alerted developers to steer clear of California, the nation's largest and most lucrative renewable-energy market.
But other proposals, scattered across the country, are still proceeding and look much the same: They rely on a few related and often controversial technologies known as pyrolysis, plasma and gasification to apply high temperatures to trash in an oxygen-controlled environment. A few of the 100 or so U.S. proposals to date have planned to burn medical or hazardous wastes.
In each case, heat converts the waste material into ash and syngas — the latter composed mainly of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The plants then either burn the syngas in turbines to produce electricity or convert it to ethanol with the aid of a catalyst.
Opponents have a shorthand for the process: incineration. And while no plant of this sort has yet been built in the United States, 2013 could bring an end to a 16-year span in which no new commercial-scale incinerators were constructed in the United States.
According to the nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, these newer technologies undermine zero-waste efforts and destroy precious resources while producing very little energy, often barely enough to power the plant itself. Japan has around 20 such incinerators, while Europe has just a few, with proposals underway to add many more, said Monica Wilson, director of the organization's US and Canada program.
Like older incinerators, the newer technologies have the potential to release dioxins, particulates, heavy metals and acid gases.
'Temperature is critical'
Carcinogenic even at low levels, dioxins accumulate in human tissues and in the environment. Early incinerators were a major source through the burning of plastics, and newer technologies also produce them during the first heating stage, said David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York, Albany.
Keeping them out of the air depends on burning the snygas cleanly. "The temperature of that burning is the critical issue with regards to dioxins," he said. "It has to be very, very hot."
Critics say existing commercial-scale plants have established a poor track record of meeting emissions targets.
In July, operations were restricted at a three-year-old gasification plant in Scotland after it admitted to releasing dioxins at two-and-a-half times the permitted rate. In October, it again exceeded safety limits but failed to file proper notification. During its first two years of operations, in fact, the Scotland plant experienced approximately 200 breaches of emission limits, the Herald Scotland reported.
Plasco Energy Group claims on its website that its technology uses a "gas quality control suite" to remove sulfur, acid gases, and heavy metals from the syngas before burning, though it does not explain how this system works or where the materials end up. The company operates a test facility in Ottawa; last December it announced plans to construct a commercial-scale plant in the province capable of processing 143,000 tons of trash per year, generating up to 15 megawatts.
Plasco did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Paul Connett, a retired professor of chemistry from New York's St. Lawrence University who since 1985 has researched the dangers of incineration, is concerned that the underlying chemistry of the plants is not well understood. "It's being promoted with a dearth of data," he said. "They're experimenting with the public's health."
A federal assessment of one proposed pyrolysis plant in Green Bay, Wisc. found no significant health concerns, however. Emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, soot and sulfur dioxide would not exceed national ambient air quality standards, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded.
Whether or not Plasco's proprietary plasma gasification technology – and similar approaches – should be considered "incineration" is a matter of both semantics and practical concern, given the baggage the word carries and the many incinerator moratoriums in place. The industry hopes some could be swayed by claims of modern waste-to-energy plants that can make garbage disappear while producing surplus energy or fuel.
Gonzales, however, isn't one of them.
The town sits in the middle of one of the most productive agricultural regions in California, 80 miles south of Silicon Valley. Almost 90 percent of the town's 8,200 residents are Hispanic. Median household income – $52,928 a year – is 16 percent lower than the state's, while almost one in seven of residents live below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census figures.
As residents caught wind of Plasco's proposal to build a plant at a landfill three miles outside of town, they began to organize against it, with the support of San Francisco-based GreenAction for Health and Environmental Justice, whose executive director, Bradley Angel, has fought hundreds of traditional and newer-style incinerators over the past 25 years.
Roberta Gonzalez is one of the few English-speaking members of Asamblea de Poder Popular de Gonzales (Assembly of the People's Power of Gonzales), a health advocacy group worried the plant will increase truck traffic as well as emit harmful pollutants. "All of that is dangerous for us and for our kids," Gonzalez said.
Pending incinerator proposals in Boise, Idaho; Cleveland, Ohio; and Lake County, Ind., also have met resistance. In the last two years, at least seven proposals nationwide have been defeated by activists, said Wilson of the Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. Last October, the Green Bay City Council revoked its permit for the $23 million, 5 megawatt pyrolysis plant, citing community opposition and concerns that developers had misrepresented facts about the plant's emissions.
However, a handful of proposals, such as one from California company Fulcrum BioEnergy to build a plasma gasification facility outside Reno, Nev. – with the help of a $105 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture – appear poised for completion within the next couple years.
The industry is getting a lift from the growing number of states requiring utilities to work more renewable fuels into their power mix. Two thirds of 30 states that have adopted a renewable fuel standard consider municipal waste renewable. In those states, incineration plants may be eligible for public subsidies.
Worse than coal plants?
Opponents argue that incineration's inclusion in renewable portfolio standards is "greenwashing." Not only is trash not renewable, they say, but incinerators' already slim energy output doesn't account for the extra energy needed to produce virgin rather than recycled goods. Nor do modern incinerators fare well on the carbon front: Depending on the fuel, they can perform worse than coal plants in terms of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of energy, Wilson said.
But Massachusetts has a trash problem. So in mid-December, tired of exporting trash as far as Ohio, state officials proposed exempting newer technologies from Massachusetts' existing ban on new incinerators. A similar proposal in 2009 failed. Regulators are still gathering public comment on the proposed exemption.
The state's moratorium, in place for 23 years, may be stifling innovation, said Kenneth Kimmell, commissioner of the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
Forty miles south of Boston in the city of Taunton, Mass., local leaders have been in talks since 2009 with Pennsylvania-based Interstate Waste Technologies to build a waste-to-fuel facility. If the exemption were to be enacted, Kimmell said, the proposal would move one step closer to approval, and more cities in Massachusetts would likely follow suit. "We feel that it's something we should look at and it's an option we should explore." Kimmel said.
"I expect that there will be a lot of interest in it."
© Nate Seltenrich 2013. All rights reserved.
Nate Seltenrich is a freelance journalist covering science and the environment from Oakland, Calif.
The Daily Climate is an independent, non-profit news service covering climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] dailyclimate.org
Find more Daily Climate stories in the
Recent DailyClimate.org coverage