© 2012 E&E Publishing, LLC
Reprinted with permission

By Tiffany Stecker

Correction appended

In a hotel ballroom filled with entrepreneurs, angel investors and government bureaucrats hungry for opportunities in the evolving field of turning household trash into energy, Ivan Henderson delivers some sobering advice: Waste to energy is not an easy ride.

“It’s been a bumpy road,” the soft-spoken commissioner for Cleveland Public Power told an audience at the Waste Conversion Congress in Philadelphia earlier this month.

Cleveland’s efforts to bring a promising, if unproven, technology to provide a local source of power and manage its waste stream has faced a few hiccups: local opposition, federal criticism and the firing of a top consultant.

Cleveland trash

Six years ago, the city began looking into how to convert its 230,000 tons of trash per year into energy, both to control its expanding landfill and to satiate the needs of a population nearing 400,000.

So began the concept of the Cleveland Recycling and Energy Generation Center, a facility that would accept up to 3,000 tons per day of municipal waste, recover the recyclable materials, mold the remaining waste into pellets and then combust the pellets in a boiler.

The center insists it will not burn trash but instead will use gasification — a process in which waste is burned in a low-oxygen atmosphere, allowing for fewer pollutants to escape. The ash can be used as a building material — in Cleveland’s case, decorative bricks. It also, unlike incineration, creates more incentives for recycling, as less recycling material creates a cleaner feedstock.

But turning garbage into energy has a rough history in the United States. The unappealing idea of inhaling burning trash fumes has fueled public outcry since the 1970s, and the public’s distaste has left its mark. Twelve percent of Americans’ trash is incinerated each year, according to U.S. EPA. To compare, Germany — a country that instituted a ban on new landfills in 2005 — incinerates 35 percent of its waste annually.

More and more cities lured to trash

Gasification creates a synthesis gas, or “syngas”, of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This gas is combustible, much like natural gas or biogas, and has been used extensively in chemical processes, as well as for coal and other biomass for energy. The center plans to use the syngas to run a turbine for energy.

“Ohio’s had a long history with waste to energy. … So when I first talked about a waste-to-energy project, the first reaction was ‘incineration, incineration, incineration; no way, no way, no way,’” Henderson recalled. “But I kept saying, ‘No, it’s not incineration, it’s gasification.’”

The 15-to-20-megawatt Cleveland Recycling and Energy Generation Center could open in 2015 if the city makes a final decision to pursue gasification. Cleveland’s advanced energy portfolio standard seeks to source 25 percent of its energy from “advanced energy” sources by 2025. Currently, the city does not produce power locally, buying contracts from plants as far as New York and Pennsylvania.

As populations increase and landfills reach capacity, municipalities continue to be drawn to trash. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose sanitation department spends close to $300 million per year to send its waste to landfills along the East Coast, announced a request for proposals for municipal solid waste projects in March. Los Angeles County is overseeing three demonstration projects, and Ottawa, Ontario, is developing a gasification plant in a public-private partnership with Plasco Energy Group.

Municipal solid waste plants are far from releasing zero emissions, but gasification allows for lower levels of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and hazardous air pollutants than traditional plants, according to the Department of Energy. Carbon dioxide is more easily sequestered in gasification and can be stored underground or used in industrial processes.

Creating energy or a smokescreen?

Using municipal solid waste also avoids the land-use conflicts that plague wood-based or crop-based energy. And as long as the recovery of recyclable material remains profitable, there will be a sifting process to take out any potentially hazardous elements before incineration.

While gasification is a well-trodden technology in some fields, it is a relatively new procedure for household waste. To date, there are various municipal solid waste gasification projects in the works, but none in commercial operation in the United States. As a result, many of the reports and studies on the Cleveland plant are hypothetical, say critics.

Citizen groups believe Cleveland Public Power’s gasification talk is a smokescreen for another incinerator project.

“They don’t want to call it an incinerator because they know the public opposition to incineration,” said Sandy Buchanan, executive director of Ohio Citizen Action.

In February, U.S. EPA criticized the Ohio EPA for issuing a draft air pollution permit for the Cleveland Recycling and Energy Generation Center. If the center emitted 194 tons of acid rain-causing nitrogen oxides each year, as projected in the permit application, it would be releasing 94 tons more than is allowed under the synthetic minor permitting limits in the Clean Air Act. The center would need to apply for a Prevention of Significant Deterioration permit, much like high-emitting fossil fuel plants.

In addition, because Cleveland Public Power would process 70 tons of trash per day, it would have to be considered a major emitter under the category “municipal incinerators capable of charging more than 50 tons of refuse per day.”

Kucinich rails against the plant

Cleveland Public Power responded, saying that nitrogen oxide emissions would be below the 100-ton-per-year threshold and that the emissions rate would be nearly half of the figure in the draft permit. Hazardous air pollutants would be removed with the best available control technology.

A month later, the city of Cleveland fired its consultant on the project, Peter Tien, alleging he provided erroneous information and questionable calculations in reports. Tien had analyzed the project using the gasification technology of the company Kinsei Sangyo from Japan, a country with two commercial gasification projects.

“They fired him for incompetence, yet they still seem to be relying on these numbers,” Buchanan said. “They say they’re not reliant on Kinsei Sangyo, but all mentions they would be comparable to that.”

Buchanan added that U.S. EPA’s letter classifies the plant as an “incinerator.” EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Even Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has spoken out against the plant.

“You’re not going to shove this down their throats,” the lawmaker said at an Ohio EPA meeting, along with more than 200 citizens. “Your bureaucratic process might be OK to satisfy some legal minutiae. But it’s not going to satisfy a community that’s intent on protecting the quality of the air.”

Gasification remains promising, despite concerns

Henderson is unfazed by the criticism. The opposition, he said, is a “deliberate attempt” to spread false information on the part of environmental groups.

“They understand the difference,” said Henderson, between incineration and gasification. “It’s an attempt to mislead the public.”

After the firing of Tien, Cleveland Public Power once again sent out a request for proposals. It has yet to establish a contract with any one company. Gasification is still the preferred technology, but it is not the only one.

“We still believe that gasification is a very viable and very good option; however, there is a lot of concern as it relates … to the potential for adverse effects,” said Shelley Shockley, marketing manager with Cleveland Public Power. “Our goal is to do the project in the cleanest, safest manner for the residents of Cleveland.”

Veolia Environmental Services, a branch of the largest waste management company in the world, had established a waste-to-energy division within the company but sold it to Covanta Energy Corp. in 2009.

“We’re a fairly conservative company,” explained Curtis Mabry, vice president of communications for Veolia. “We don’t typically want to stamp the first nameplate on an unproven commercial technology.”

Nevertheless, the company will be entering the sphere once it has been established as commercially viable, said George Martin, vice president of technology development for Veolia Environmental Services.

“We’ll be in this business,” Martin said. “I believe gasification is coming, for sure.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Cleveland Recycling and Energy Generation Center is slated to open in 2015. The facility could open in 2015 only if the city of Cleveland pursues gasification.

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