Citizen Action Monitor

California farm community rise up against Canadian company’s plan to convert trash into energy

Opponents see through the company’s technological conversion process for what it really is — ‘incineration’

No 678 Posted by fw, February 18, 2013

“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.”

As soon as residents caught wind of a proposal from Ottawa-based Plasco Energy Group to build a plant to convert trash into energy at a landfill three miles outside of town, they began to organize against it. The conversion process is controversial, the evidence about the health hazards is mixed. But so far the folks in Gonzales, California are not buying. To read the original story, click on the linked title below. Alternatively, read a slightly abridged version, with added subheadings and links, in the following post.

Community Rallies Against Proposed Trash Incinerator, by Nate Seltenrich, The Daily Climate, February 18th, 2013

Plasco proposal not qualified for financial incentive because it does not operate with zero emissions

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.

Nearly 100 such projects have been proposed nationwide recently as states and communities struggle to reduce trash and find alternatives to fossil fuels.

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.

Plasco relies on controversial conversion technologies, a process which opponents label “incineration”

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. 

“These newer technologies undermine zero-waste efforts and destroy precious resources while producing very little energy” claims nonprofit alliance GAIA

Plasco Energy Group commercial-scale test incinerator in Ottawa.Credit: Plasco Energy Group

Plasco Energy Group test incinerator in Ottawa. Credit: Plasco Energy Group

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. 

“Critics say existing commercial-scale plants have established a poor track record of meeting emissions targets”

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 syngas 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 fails to respond to repeated requests for an explanation of how its system works

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.

Expert warns: “[These plants] are experimenting with the public’s health”

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.”

Demonstrators in Gonzales (Credit: Greeenaction for Health and Environmental Justice)

But US Dept. of Energy assessment found “no significant health concerns”

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.

But in Gonzales, the “incineration” label is a showstopper for Plasco’s gasification technology

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.

Demonstrators in Gonzales (Credit: Greeenaction for Health and Environmental Justice)

Demonstrators in Gonzales (Credit: Greeenaction for Health and Environmental Justice)

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.

Opponents say including newer “incineration” technologies as a renewable energy process is “greenwashing”

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.

The Daily Climate is a nonprofit news service covering climate change, and a Climate Central content partner.

Fair Use Notice: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing

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