PERTH - Rural municipalities, even if they band together, may not produce enough trash to make waste recycling viable.
A project in Red Deer, Alberta, spear-headed by Ottawa-based Plasco Energy Group, brought together nine rural municipalities to see if the company's groundbreaking waste recycling program could be replicated on the prairies.
"They wanted it in their communities," said Amanda Gorchinski, marketing and communications specialist with Plasco, speaking to the Probus Club of Perth meeting at the Royal Canadian Legion branch on Wednesday, Feb. 6. "(But) they couldn't quite get enough waste...(and) the transportation of the waste didn't offset any of the emission benefits," with so much trucking required in 'big sky country,' over many miles, to a central site.
In order to make it work, "it would have to be several small communities close together to get it done."
Ottawa, as Ontario's second-largest city, however, has more than enough garbage to go around (feel free to insert joke here.)
"It was very important for Plasco to build on this scale," said Gorchinski. "So that we can show that we can produce. This facility in Ottawa is currently the only one like it in the world," she said of the commercial-scale demonstration site, which converts left-over waste into electricity, through a process called plasma gassification.
"Historically, waste has been handled one of two ways," said Gorchinski, with the refuse either being burned or buried. Currently, Ontario only has two incinerators, with one planned for Durham region east of Toronto. "In Europe, there is a lot of incineration. I am talking about the waste that cannot be recycled."
But Gorchinski was at great pains to point out that, no, her plant is not an incincerator, with no smokestacks.
"We often get mistaken for being an incinerator," said Gorchinski. "Plasco does not have a smokestack."
Instead, garbage is heated to 600 degrees at the beginning of the process.
"There is not enough oxygen in that chamber to start a fire," said Gorchinski. The fumes generated however form a synthetic gas which runs engines which then generate power which are "more efficient than turbines."
The company has about 150 employees, with more than $340 million in capital raised since 2005, including the likes of famed investor and philanthropist George Soros, who had third party engineers look into the company before he put in a penny.
Gorchinski said that 1 ton of waste could produce seven to 15 kg of recovered metals, 1.3 megawatt hours of green energy, 300 litres of clean water, and 150 kg of commercial aggregate, during which, only 04. mega watt hours of power are used, with any left over power going back into the power grid.
"In areas like California, that's a big deal," said Gorchinski. "We are a net producer of water (too)," since there is often a lot of moisture in garbage. The company has its very own water treatment facility on site, where it is treated to sewer grade level. In future, the water will be treated to a higher standard.
The aggregate, meanwhile, looks like a glass black rock, which are sometimes made into pellets used in construction aggregate and used to make things like roads. In the end, however, not every scarp of waste can be salvaged.
"Five per cent of that, we are just not able to process," admitted Gorchinski, though that still results in a 95 per cent diversion rate from the landfill. She admitted that while the process does produce emissions, in 2011 a comparison between its process in Ottawa and a Vancouver landfill, they came out on top as being more environmentally friendly.
"We can actually improve local air quality by using our technology over a land fill," said Gorchinski. "We are trying to do something that has never been done before in the world. It has definitely taken us longer than we thought it would...to make sure we get it right."
She did point out that the City of Ottawa is not paying anything for the facility, which is all paid for through private capital.
"We, our investors, are taking that risk," said Gorchinski. The city has, however, agreed to send about 109,000 tonnes of garbage to the facility each year, even though it can handle up to 140,000 tonnes, at a cost of $83.25 per tonne of waste processed, double what a municipality would pay for a landfill tipping fee. However, the plant will allow the Ottawa land fill to extend its life for 28 years.
"This is what made it comfortable for Ottawa to be the first," said Gorchinski, who predicted that the technology would save the city about $250 million in finding and developing a new landfill site. She added that, by her company estimates, there could be as much as $500 million in positive economic impacts in the province. However, our southern cousins may be a little more slow to embrace the technology.
"Many states are not ready to start looking at a jump from a $20 tipping fee to an $80 tipping fee," said Gorchinski. "(But) I think that the technology will speak for itself. (And) just like solar, our costs will eventually go down."
She envisions smaller satellite sites in the east, west and south ends of Ottawa so as to cut down on trucking's emissions to get the waste to a central location.
Asked if existing garbage already taking up room in a land fill site could be used at the facility, Gorchinski said that the business case was simply not there.
"The short answer is nothing is impossible, but it all comes down to economics," said Gorchinski. "It would be a very large effort that Plasco could not afford at this time...right now, we are focussing on new garbage.
She also alluded that she wished her company had had access to the same types of government supports that so-called "green energy" companies received.
"Think about the incentives that wind got when they first came in. It was very expensive," said Gorchinski. "If incentives are not there to help new technologies, it is difficult to get off of the ground," she said, recalling that, in her time with the company, starting in 2009, "I've gotten to ride the waves, the ups and downs. It has been an uphill climb."