Technology

Recycling: Garbage power

How three Canadian companies produce energy from household waste.

Plasco Energy Group Inc.

Whatever you do, don’t call Rod Bryden’s latest venture — one that turns garbage into energy that can power homes — an incinerator. Heck, the former owner of the Ottawa Senators hockey team, now the CEO of Plasco Energy Group Inc., doesn’t even particularly like saying he’s in the waste management business. “What we are, really,” he says, “is a technology company.” It just happens to be a technology company that uses garbage as part of the process.

Bryden, 66, has been travelling a lot lately, touting the virtues of Plasco’s patented system for converting waste into electricity. “I consider every tonne of waste that goes into a landfill as actually being two months of household power that is simply being buried,” says Bryden, a former law professor turned entrepreneur, during a stop in New Brunswick.

While drumming up support and future clients is part of Bryden’s job, what’s probably more crucial to Plasco right now is the recent “commissioning” of its plant in Ottawa, taking it out of the realm of research and testing, and turning it into a true demonstration facility to show its commercial viability. The Plasco conversion system (PCS) plant will soon be accepting Ottawa waste (that would otherwise be going into nearby landfills) and churning out electricity for the city. The initial amounts of garbage will be relatively small at first — gradually increasing to 85 tonnes per day. Bryden envisions a day when Ottawa has a processing plant that includes four modules, each processing up to 100 tonnes of garbage daily. “We’re confident it will be the best answer to a significant amount of waste for a long time,” says Bryden, who founded tech company SHL Systemhouse in 1974 and was CEO of artificial heart maker WorldHeart from 1996 to 2004.

Exactly what is the technology that Bryden is so evangelistic about? Well, the first thing he wants to make clear is that it’s certainly not incineration — since nothing gets burned. Plasco uses intense heat and catalytic action from plasma arc generators in a tightly controlled oxygen chamber to convert the off-gases produced from the initial conversion of waste into simple molecules, which are then refined as synthetic gas. Bryden says PCS is the result of nearly 30 years of research and development, with early assistance from the National Research Council.

There are several byproducts of the system. The most important one is a synthetic gas that is produced when the garbage is being broken down and carefully cooled. This “syngas” can then be used to generate electricity by being fed into an internal combustion engine that normally uses natural gas or methane.

Another byproduct is slag, a glass-like solid aggregate that is produced when the waste leftovers melt and blend together. There are about 150 kilograms of slag per tonne of waste that can be sold as a road or building material; the going rate is $9 a tonne. Yet another byproduct, about five kilograms per tonne, is solid pure sulphur, which can also be sold commercially. Finally, there are the heavy metals that are screened out of the process — about 1.3 kilograms, including the screen, for every tonne of waste processed.

Plasco’s efforts are being supported with a $9.5-million commitment from the Sustainable Development Technology Canada foundation, of which about $7.5 million has already been dispersed. “Our government is excited to see such innovative technology being fostered here in Canada,” Environment Minister John Baird said in an August statement. He noted that 99% of the waste used in Plasco’s process is converted into something else, leaving less than two kilos per tonne that must be disposed. Plasco also received a $4-million secured loan from the Ontario government through its Innovation Demonstration Fund. The rest of the money for the $32-million plant comes from private investors who specialize in renewable energy.

If everything goes according to plan during the commissioning process — Plasco has a two-year contract to run the plant — 85 tonnes of Ottawa garbage will produce four megawatts of electricity, enough to power almost 4,000 homes. About 20% of the energy produced through the process will be used to power the plant; the rest will be sold into the distribution network. (Plasco hit a milestone on Oct. 23, delivering some waste-generated electricity to Ottawa Hydro.)

Critics of Plasco and other firms with similar technologies have two main beefs. The first is that focusing on technology to solve society’s waste problem takes away from the more important task of producing less waste in the first place, and reusing or recycling what waste is created. “The question is wrong,” says Stephen Hazell, executive director of Ottawa-based Sierra Club. “It [waste-to-energy technology] might be the right answer, but it’s the wrong question that’s being asked.” He explains that such systems depend on a steady flow of garbage into their plants, so waste diversion programs would actually be undermined by the needs of companies such as Plasco. The environmental groups Pembina Institute and Ecojustice voiced the same concern in a joint statement.

The second issue critics have with technologies such as Plasco’s is that great results often come out of the initial test and demonstration phases, but the benefits aren’t as good when taken to the commercial level. “They claim they are producing energy,” Hazell says, but adds that the net positive impact on the environment is likely to be minimal.

Bryden is confident the commissioning process will prove that Plasco’s technology is viable, both environmentally and commercially. He points out that if Ontario processed 10 million tonnes of waste with PCS technology, it would produce nearly half the energy output of the province’s largest coal plant, at Nanticoke. That’s about 1,600 megawatts of power “out of waste we’re putting into the ground right now,” he says. Bryden says that PCS technology gets more than double the energy out of a tonne of garbage than traditional incineration — a process that environmentalists consider a pollution monster — while the emissions are well below regulatory limits.

As for determining commercial viability, Bryden suggests the tipping fees that Plasco will charge municipalities for accepting their waste would almost always be cheaper than the typical rate — between $50 and $75 a tonne — for dumping garbage in landfill sites. Plasco’s two-year contract with Ottawa cites a tipping fee of $40 a tonne, similar to what the city pays to send its waste to a landfill, but Bryden suggests a $65 fee would be more likely in future contracts.

Moreover, if the power that Plasco generates could be sold as “green energy,” it could earn a much higher price than electricity created by conventional generating methods, such as coal, hydro and natural gas.

Responding to critics’ arguments that the Plasco plant will stall community efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle waste, Bryden says he doesn’t think turning garbage into energy will undermine these goals. To ease concerns, Plasco has provisions in its contracts to allow a community to be released from, or to reduce, its obligation to supply waste if programs are developed that substantially reduce the amount of garbage produced — unless the company can match the benefit of diversion.

But, with factors like a growing population and escalating standard of living contributing to our garbage problem, Bryden says he doesn’t see a day soon when it will all just disappear. To not consider technologies that would actually turn garbage into something useful at little environmental expense, “now that would truly be a waste.”
by Zena Olijnyk

Alter NRG Corp.

When you look at that bag of garbage sitting at your back door, you see a bunch of junk. When the folks at Calgary-based Alter Nrg Corp. (TSXV: NRG) look at that same bag of garbage, they see potential energy. That’s because Alter Nrg uses a complex process, called plasma gasification, to vaporize everyday household waste and turn it into power. “We take that stuff that people don’t want, or stuff that is very low value, and turn it into stuff that people do want that’s high-value,” says Danny Hay, Alter Nrg’s chief financial officer.

That high-value stuff includes products such as electricity, steam, methane, diesel fuel, gasoline or hydrogen. So besides reducing the amount of garbage shipped off to landfills, the result is environmentally friendly energy. “Canada historically has not been a leader in much related to the environment, especially the thermal treatment of waste,” says Hay. “We’re significantly behind on how we handle our waste and what we do with it. We see that there’s a long way to go in Canada, and we can be part of that solution.”

How does it work? Plasma gasification uses extreme heat, up to 2,500°C, to break down carbon structures in everyday materials such as tires and garbage. The process turns them into synthesis gas, which can then be used to generate power. It’s not a new technology: plasma gasification was first developed back in the 1960s by Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Plasma Corp. for NASA’s Apollo space program, to simulate space vehicle re-entry conditions of more than 5,500°C. Since then, the WPC process has been used commercially for more than 15 years. In Japan, for example, two plants co-built by Westinghouse and Hitachi have been transforming municipal solid waste, non-metal scrap auto waste and sewage sludge into electricity since 2002. Alter Nrg, which started in March 2006, acquired the gasification technology from Westinghouse in April 2007.

So far, there are no gasification projects in Canada, but the potential is clear. Hay says there are a few new companies — ones without a long commercial history — that are entering the market these days, such as Ottawa-based Plasco Energy Group (see page 157). But when it comes to major competition, Hay and Kevin Willerton, Alter Nrg’s vice-president of business development, say their biggest rivals are landfills. As Willerton points out, no one wants to pay $200 per tonne of waste to be gasified when it costs $75 per tonne to dump. Which is why Willerton says that at an Alter Nrg facility the cost to collect waste will be the same, or even less, than what’s charged to dump it at landfills.

“The trick here is you need the economics for one of these facilities to work,” says Willerton. “It’s simple: whenever someone dumps garbage, they pay you to take it, and when you make power, someone pays you for your power. You need an adequate combination of tipping fees and power prices to ensure the facilities are economic.” Willerton says that while landfills are a cheap competitor in wide-open places like Western Canada, “our markets would be places where landfills are much more difficult to permit, like the Greater Toronto Area, the eastern United States, Vancouver.”

Right now, Alter Nrg is pursuing two avenues: the waste-to-energy market and the coal market. (Instead of burning coal, the company would vaporize it.) “We’re already working with numerous companies as their technology provider,” says Hay. “We’re looking to create relationships that can get this [technology] to market as quickly as we can in various industries.”

One such opportunity is in Alberta’s oilsands. Gasification can take petroleum coke, a waste product from the upgrading process, and turn it into something the oilsands companies can use. “You can gasify that petroleum coke and by doing that, you can create two things: steam that they need to inject underground to get the oil out, and hydrogen that you use in the upgrading process,” explains Hay. “You can take the petroleum coke to create the energy for the extraction process on both sides, the mining and the upgrading.”

Hay and Willerton see opportunity not only in North America but around the world. Everyone is looking for ways to handle waste, and gasification can help lighten the environmental footprint. So light, in fact, that Alter Nrg will vaporize the very boot that made the footprint.
by Michelle Magnan

SmartSoil Energy Inc.

On a weekday morning at Mexico City’s massive Bordo Poniente landfill site, trailer trucks loaded with trash pass through the gateway in a steady, dusty stream. “They come with garbage from the Federal District, from other municipalities, from private companies, from all over the place,” says Juan Mejilla, one of several policemen registering licence plate numbers on a clipboard.

Their malodorous heaps comprise a large percentage of the 21,000 tonnes of garbage the metropolitan area produces every day. And at the ripe old age of 30 — and having accumulated an even riper hoard of 60 million tonnes of waste — the Bordo’s 751 hectares are just about full. The current dumping ground is three kilometres away from the gate.

Where some see a vast urban wasteland with vultures circling overhead, Robert Langlois, SmartSoil Energy Inc.’s director general for Latin America, sees huge opportunity. “This would be or could be the biggest landfill site-to-energy project in the world,” he says. “Everybody is after this project, inside Mexico, outside Mexico, so we know that there is going to be a lot of competition.”

Montreal-based SmartSoil has already won two smaller projects in Mexico this year. In joint ventures with local firms in Ciudad Juárez and Cancún, it will begin producing energy from those landfill sites next year. Langlois calculates each site will generate 6.4 megawatts of electricity, 24 hours a day, for 15 to 20 years — together, enough to power 30,000 homes. But the possibilities of the Bordo dwarf those numbers utterly. Its aging refuse and noxious methane gases could produce more than 80 megawatts for up to 20 years.

Currently, vertical ventilation chimneys in the Bordo discharge methane and CO2 from decomposing garbage. That helps prevent fires, but also contributes greenhouse gases to Mexico City’s already contaminated air.

Instead, SmartSoil installs horizontal underground wells that capture landfill gas more efficiently than traditional vertical wells, and so produce more electrical power. The company’s main advantage, however, is its software, pefected at a 10-megawatt plant in Lachute, Que., and since patented in 18 countries. Using on-site detectors, the software monitors all kinds of information on the conditions affecting gas production, such as temperature, pressure, and humidity levels, as well as biogas components. It also allows the power station operator to manage that production through a system of valves and blowers that maintain a stable supply and ensure the gas is optimal for energy use. As a result, says Langlois, “We can produce up to 250% more gas and electricity than any other conventional technology. It’s vastly superior.”

What’s more, he adds, “There’s no investment required by the municipality, no cost at all on their part for the whole duration of the project. And on top of that, we give them a royalty.”

Profits come from the sale of electricity to local state-run energy providers, boosted by salable carbon credits available from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. SmartSoil’s two current projects in Mexico, for example, will remove 400,000 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere, the equivalent of planting 153,000 acres of trees, or removing 106,000 cars from the road.

While Langlois is confident that SmartSoil has “the right technology” for Bordo, which will be one of the world’s largest biogas electricity projects, he acknowledges that “sometimes you need more than this. You need to have the right strategic partners with the right amount of capital, to give your proposal enough credibility.” But, he adds confidently, “This is going to be a project where we’ll play on all three levels.”
by Augusta Dwyer