Waste-to-energy plasma technology meets skepticism

An Assembly motion to study feasibility sidetracked in vote

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2009

There's been a buzz for months about bringing a bleeding edge waste-to-energy plasma gasification plant to Juneau. But the prevailing attitude among policy makers and entrenched business interests appears to be one of skepticism and inaction - not only in Juneau, but across the country.

Juneau Assemblyman Randy Wanamaker made a push Monday for the city to test that skepticism, but was sidetracked in a 7-1 vote.

"I'd like to examine it, see if it truly is a closed solution for Juneau," Wanamaker said, before his motion to seek a feasibility study of plasma options was supplanted by one from Mayor Bruce Botelho to review a 2007 city solid waste report before considering specific options.

Plasma gasification uses superheated gas and electricity to molecularly disassemble matter, releasing energy and a synthetic gas that can be converted to fuel or burned for electricity. The process has been used for decades in industrial applications, but is nascent as a means to destroy municipal waste and create energy.

A handful of companies in recent years have begun shopping around zero-emission plasma gasification plants as an green alternative to landfills. Their processes produce another byproduct, an inert slag that can be used as fill or sold on commodities markets.

There is little credible data to contest the claims of the technology's proponents, but only a handful of working examples in the world to validate them. It's likewise with some environmental groups' doubts about how clean and green the plants truly are.

Plasma came up in a question from the audience during a community meeting Waste Management held last month at Centennial Hall. Waste Management is the $20 billion company that runs a recycling drop-off center and Juneau's only landfill in the Lemon Creek area.

A regional Waste Management official at the meeting characterized it as an unproven technology that's more expensive than traditional waste-to-energy options, and unlikely to be financially viable with Juneau's relatively small waste stream.

The mayor had a similar take.

"Truly, there are certain things that are inappropriate for Juneau to be on the cutting edge of. ... We should not be the guinea pig," Botelho said in a December interview.

The plasma buzz follows a presentation the Assembly heard in June from a representative of Plasma Waste Recycling, based in Huntsville, Ala. Wanamaker had arranged the visit.

Of course, Waste Management stands to lose a lot of business if the promises of the technology became a reality overnight. Lynn Brown, a corporate spokeswoman at the company's headquarters in Houston, said Wednesday that plasma and other emerging technologies are on the company's scope.

"I will confirm (plasma gasification) is one of the things we're looking at. ... We are looking at that and we are investing in it," Brown said. "It's good environmental stewardship and corporate stewardship."

She declined to elaborate on the scope of the investment.

Many skeptics question why the apparent wonder technology isn't mainstream already.

Joseph Longo, CEO of a Connecticut company named Startech Environmental that builds plasma gasification plants, gave an answer in a Popular Science article from March 2007: Money.

The make-or-break question in any given community doesn't appear to be "Does it work?" but rather "Is it cheaper?"

According to Longo, cheap land, cheap energy and soft environmental regulations for most of the technology's existence has made landfill disposal and incineration the more economical solution for trash. Now, the scales are tipping the other way.

Places that have pursued plasma gasification of trash in earnest, such as Sacramento, Calif., New Orleans, St. Lucie County, Fla., and Vancouver, Canada, seem to have economies of scale on their side. Plants proposed in those locations are geared toward handling thousands of tons of trash per day. Juneau produces only about 83 tons a day. Even if all of Southeast Alaska's trash were pooled, that would only work out to about 145 tons a day, according to the city's 2007 solid waste report.

Existing plants in Japan operate on a much smaller scale in line with Juneau and Southeast's trash output, though details about them are not readily available.

Some of the communities that have jumped into the plasma business have been burned, figuratively. Officials in Sacramento, for example, axed plasma plans last month because executives with U.S. Science & Technology, the local company the city was negotiating with for months, had a number of red flags in their business history and couldn't provide hard data backing their claims, The Sacramento Bee reported.

St. Lucie County officials had been negotiating with an Atlanta company named Geoplasma since 2007 to build a facility slated to come online in 2010 and handle 3,000 tons of trash per day, likely to be the largest in the world, the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers reported. In October, Geoplasma drastically scaled back its plans to only 200 tons per day with little explanation.

For now, plasma gasification is still on Juneau's back burner and the city's trash is just trash.

"I'd love to think our landfills were all just piles of energy," said Eric Vance, Waste Management's district manager.

The pace of the landfill's growth has become much faster since 2004, when Waste Management shut down its incinerators in Juneau due to cost, age and tightening environmental regulations.

The city's voluntary drop-off recycling program began shortly thereafter and diverts about 1,300 tons from the landfill a year. Despite the success of recycling, the landfill is expected to hit capacity in 25 to 30 years, versus 75 years while the incinerators were running.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.

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