Metro Los Angeles has established itself as a national trendsetter in creative landfill reduction solutions. Having released an RFP for waste-to-energy technologies, L.A. City is looking at a number of emerging technology as an innovative way to recycle waste as well as to produce clean energy locally. With the variety of benefits offered by waste-to-energy technology in mind, TPR spoke with Alisdair McLean, vice president of marketing at Plasco Energy Corp., whose plasma technology was among the applicants to the city's waste-to-energy RFP process.
Plasco Energy Group's touts its waste-to-energy technology as unique. How so? And how AB 32 compliant will it be?
Plasco Energy has been working on plasma-related technologies for about 25 years. We've developed a waste to energy technology that is unique in its application of plasma by using the plasma to refine a synthetic fuel gas into something that is of a consistent quality and can be fed into an engine to create power. The advantage of that is that we'll generate more than double the power from a ton of waste than any other competing technology.
The relevance of our technology to climate change challenges is that waste that goes to a landfill produces greenhouse gases from methane. If that waste comes to us instead, we'll avoid the methane that would have been generated had the material gone to a landfill. We'll also displace greenhouse gases that would have been created from a more GHG-intensive power source.
What solids survive Plasco's plasma process, and what other economic benefits result from the use of your technology?
The philosophy of the company is to maximize the value from a ton of waste. Therefore, we are extracting as much energy as possible from the waste. We've also designed a process so turns 99.8 percent of the incoming solid waste into a beneficial product. We'll produce aggregate that is suitable for the pre-cast concrete industry; we'll produce sulfur that is suitable for the agricultural industry; we'll produce salt that is suitable for industrial applications; we'll produce water that we'll treat on site to meet local potable water quality standards so that water can be reintroduced into a gray water program. With all these technologies lined up, we're producing power and beneficial products. Only about three pounds of material per ton of waste needs to be disposed of in some way.
Plasco has been around for a few decades, but it recently completed a 100-ton-per-day commercial-scale project. What are the benefits of that facility?
Plasco Energy has built a commercial-scale conversion technology in Ottawa. We started construction in September 2006 and completed construction in June 2007. We started producing electricity from post-recycled municipal waste in February 2008, 17 months after construction began.
That plant is the result of 20-25 years of research and development on a pilot plant. For our business to proceed (in fact, for our industry to succeed) the conversion technology needs to be demonstrated at a commercial scale so cities can see that the technology works-that the production of power, the production of beneficial products, and the emissions from the engine exhaust are what we say they're going to be. The plant is a huge success in that respect already. We have many cities around the world that want to come see our commercial-scale plant running.
What is the current and potential size of the global waste-to-energy market?
The market is too broad to call it a niche. Every city in the world is running into two difficulties: they are finding it increasingly difficult to dispose of waste in an environmentally-friendly way and it's getting more difficult to get enough energy into the cities to keep the lights on. Our technology supplies a solution to both of those problems.
If you look at the waste side, the concept of zero waste is now global. There are cities in Europe, North and South America, and Asia, all trying to pursue zero waste. Our technology comes close to that: 99.8 percent of the waste that comes to our plant is turned into a beneficial product. So, from a waste perspective, we give the cities that zero waste solution they're looking for.
On the energy side, we can produce energy within city boundaries so that transmission losses resulting from distant power plants are avoided. Also, production of power within cities reduces the requirements for new transmission lines if the existing system is at capacity. The market for our technology is any city in the world that is trying to go to zero waste; we can plug into their integrated waste management plan. If they already have recycling programs for materials like glass, paper, and plastics, our technology takes what's left over and turns it into something useful.
What differentiates Plasco's plasma process from more traditional waste combustion technologies?
Look for the smokestack. In plants like ours, where we're converting the waste into synthetic fuel gas, there are zero air emissions. It's a closed system. There are no smokestacks. If you look at an incinerator or combustion process, there's a smokestack. That smokestack can often be 200 feet tall. On our site, the tallest piece of equipment is 45 feet tall, and it's not even a stack. From a non-technical perspective, the most obvious difference is that there's no exhaust from a plant like ours.
From a technical perspective, in incineration, you burn waste so you can create heat. That heat creates steam, and that steam creates electricity. That is a grossly inefficient process, and the emissions that you need to scrub are difficult because they're very dilute. At plants like ours, we don't burn the waste. Rather, we convert the solids into a synthetic fuel gas. That product can then be fed into an engine to create electricity in a far more efficient manner.
With AB 32 and other legislation having passed, local governments and the private sector here in California are looking at methods of compliance. How do you read this market, and how are these types of policies driving opportunities for Plasco?
California is a complex market, where one of the key issues is the definition of diversion. Cities are compelled to divert their waste from landfills. There is no question that our technology diverts waste from landfills. But how do you define the start and the end of that process? If we consider our process to begin when we receive waste and end when we produce the synthetic fuel gas and the other beneficial products, then we are clearly a diversion solution. We take the waste and do a very complex recycling process to produce new products that can then go into the marketplace. From that perspective, we're very clearly a solution that will be very valuable in California.
The alternative is if the policymakers consider our technology to begin when we receive the waste receipt through to the exhaust in the engines. Then we have an air emission and will not be eligible for diversion. That would be a distortion of the intent of the legislation.
The city of L.A. has released an RFP on this technology and L.A. County just released an evaluation of waste-to-energy technology. How has Plasco interfaced with those processes?
The Los Angeles County process started before Plasco had started construction on its commercial facility, so we're not part of that process. We're an observer. We've made presentations to committees who are aware of us, but we're not participating in the county's process.
We've submitted a proposal to the city of Los Angeles. We made our oral presentation to the selection committee and the selection committee will visit our commercial scale facility on July 14. We're very excited about our opportunities in Los Angeles. The concept of having a specific RFP for emerging environmental technology is an example that other cities should look at.
You're in Ottawa, where you have a demonstration project running at commercial scale. What are the laws and incentives in place in Canada, and how do they differ regarding the technology you've employed for diversion and waste energy from the laws and incentives in the U.S. and California?
Before we built the plant in Ontario, the legislation didn't know how to classify us, so at the provincial level, where air emissions are regulated, a special regulation was passed allowing us to operate at tighter environmental emissions than anyone in the province has had to meet. We welcomed that challenge. The permitting process, because we were new in Ontario, had to adjust to allow us to operate. California is going to face that same challenge. Looking at power pricing, the province priced the power that we'll produce based on the environmental benefits of our process.
You spoke at the GreenXchange Xpo Conference in December of last year and described Plasco Energy as a "new recycler." What does that term mean?
That's a key concept. When people think of recycling, they often think of separating various components of waste, like glass. You separate the glass and send it somewhere to be made into more glass. People recognize that as recycling.
With our process, we are taking garbage, we break it down into its elemental form-hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and so on-and we combine those elements back into new products. We take garbage and make synthetic fuel. We make aggregate. We make sulfur. It is recycling in that we're taking the garbage and turning it into something that can be reused. It's not the direct process of making glass from glass, but it is taking the waste and making something that is beneficial to society. That is a more complex way to recycle, but it also extracts more value out of the sum of the waste than you can out of the more traditional recycling methods.
Has the waste-to-energy market gone global, and are there global technology standards?
This is a global business; there's no question about that. When we entered the market in Ontario, our goal was to be the dominant global supplier of conversion technologies. If we're going to compete in Ontario, we need to be able to compete against the world, so we might as well take on the world from the start. It's a huge global opportunity. There are no set global standards in terms of what's required, except that there is a global desire to extract value from waste instead of putting materials in a hole in the ground.
If interviewed next year, will there have been material changes regarding procurement in your industry?
One of the significant changes that will happen within the next six months is that more jurisdictions will understand the difference between thermal conversion processes and incineration. Jurisdictions will recognize that thermal conversion processes fit the intent of their legislation to solve their waste management problem. We've seen that in Ontario; and I think we'll see it in other jurisdictions.