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December 15th, 2011:

Council endorses Plasco deal: 22-1

Council endorses Plasco deal: 22-1

Councillors deem risk to taxpayers ‘virtually nonexistent’ in garbage deal


The Plasco contract contains provisions to ensure the city only pays for garbage the company actually processes.

Photograph by: Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Citizen

Pinning their hopes to a pledge that Ottawa taxpayers are supremely well protected from any financial risks, city council has signed off on a long-term contract to have Plasco Energy Group dispose of garbage with its “plasma gasification” process.

The vote at Wednesday morning’s meeting was 22-1, with only Councillor Diane Holmes of Somerset ward dissenting.

Holmes is concerned Plasco’s demonstration plant by the city’s Trail Road landfill hasn’t proven it can handle enough garbage consistently to justify building a facility three times as large – and conversely, that if Plasco’s process works too well, that it’ll distract the city from recycling and diversion efforts.

The attitude that carried the day was perhaps best expressed by College Councillor Rick Chiarelli, who declared that the “risk to taxpayers from this deal is virtually nonexistent … if it turns out it fails, we’re back to where we are now.”

Chiarelli rejected the notion that the fact Ottawa is Plasco’s first big customer is significant: “That’s the definition of being in on the ground floor of it.”

In all, said Chiarelli, “I think this is easy to vote for, because it provides an opportunity for significant upside and because there’s almost no downside risk associated with it.”

He was one of many councillors to lavish praise on city manager Kent Kirkpatrick, who negotiated the framework of a contract with Plasco, led by technology entrepreneur Rod Bryden, that’s to last 20 years, with the option for four extensions of five years each.

Plasco would take 300 tonnes of city garbage a day (about half of the non-recycled, non-composted garbage Ottawa produces now) and process it into burnable gas and slag, at a cost of $83.25 a tonne in the first year, rising with inflation after that.

To answer skepticism about Plasco’s technology, which has never been used on such a scale before, the contract contains numerous provisions to ensure the city only pays for garbage Plasco actually processes. And in recognition of the city’s contributions to Plasco’s development, the city is in for royalty payments if the company grows.

The exact legal language has yet to be finalized.

According to the city’s calculations, once all the major costs and revenues are accounted for, the deal will cost between $400,000 and $950,000 a year over a full 40-year contract, compared to the status quo of landfilling Ottawa’s leftover garbage. All the scenarios assume great success in getting Ottawans to divert more recyclable and compostable waste.

Councillor Maria McRae swore that no matter how successful Plasco is in getting rid of Ottawa’s garbage, neither she nor the “awesome” council environment committee she chairs will rest when it comes to promoting recycling, composting and other diversion efforts.

The city’s recycling contracts are coming up for renewal and staff are scouring the market for companies that will take Styrofoam and “film plastics” like bags and food wrap that aren’t currently blue-binnable, she said.

Mayor Jim Watson likewise argued (and voted) for signing the Plasco deal, saying it’s a crucial move in diversifying Ottawa’s economy, promoting a local green-technology business that’s already attracting interest from around the world.

“This is a business deal from which the city will benefit as Plasco moves to large-scale commercialization,” he said. And above all, the contract will protect the city if Plasco can’t deliver what it promises. It simply won’t be taxpayers’ problem, he said – all that will be lost is a few years of time examining other alternatives to a landfill that’s already projected to stay open till 2042 before the Plasco deal is taken into account.

Bryden says Plasco’s plan is essentially to build three carbon-copies of the demonstration plant it’s modified and upgraded and tweaked over the last several years, and for which it secured provincial environmental approvals in October.

It has emerged in the 10 or so days of debate over the contract that the longest the plant has run at a time is six days, including scheduled maintenance shutdowns, and has consistently processed about 56 tonnes of garbage a day in that time. But that was good enough for an independent engineer who reported on the run for Plasco’s investors, who in turn came through with more than $100 million for the company afterward.

Councillors took their vote despite earlier revelations that a senior member of Plasco’s executive team, Brian Guest, had also recently worked under Kirkpatrick on city files from light rail to the 2012 budget, and that a technical report on technologies that compete with Plasco’s contained information that was up to two years out of date. Indeed, McRae said in the meeting that memos updating and clarifying things councillors had previously been told were flying around as late as Wednesday morning.

The deal with Plasco is solesourced – no other company was invited to bid, on the grounds that no other company could meet certain standards that Plascodoes: taking garbage as it comes off the back of a collection truck, processing it into energy using thermal technology, charging as little as $83.25 a tonne, and already holding a certificate of approval from Ontario’s environment ministry.

A late memo from Dixon Weir, the city’s general manager of environmental services, did allow that a competitor called Alterna NRG has five operating facilities around the world and is working on one in Dufferin County, but said that at best its approvals in Ontario are “months away.”

At this point, said Alterna NRG spokeswoman Shannon Sharp in an email, with the council vote already taken, “Alter NRG’s only request to the decision makers within the City of Ottawa, is that they recognize that there are other successful technology companies in this space beyond Plasco.”

Watson said something better is always just around the corner, and it’s time to get on with a technology that’s ready to go now.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Ban on idling engines begins

South China Morning Post – Dec. 15, 2011

A ban on idling engines came into force on Thursday in Hong Kong, although wardens will enforce it initially with warnings instead of fines.

The new law sets a fixed-penalty fine of HK$320 for drivers who fail to switch off idling engines, the Environmental Protection Department said on the first day of the ban.

But the department said it would be lenient to begin with, warning drivers instead of fining them for the first month. Those who ignore warnings, however, will be issued a fixed-penalty ticket.

Environmental Protection Department assistant director Mok Wai-chuen visited a busy street in Causeway Bay on Thursday morning with inspectors to publicise the ban. Some drivers said there was little need to switch on their engines for air conditioning on such a cool day.

The ban, which applies to all vehicles, grants drivers three minutes’ exemption in every hour.

Critics of the new law, first mooted 10 years ago, say it is too little too late, with many vehicles exempted.

Exemptions will be given to electric cars, and all vehicles on days when official weather warnings are issued for high temperatures or rainstorms.

Taxis waiting at stands may leave their engines idling, as may the first two minibuses parked at bus stops.

A red minibus at a bus stop with at least one passenger on board and the minibus immediately behind it are also exempt.

This exemption has raised concerns that minibus drivers may use decoy passengers to evade the rule.

“If they arrange [to have] somebody sitting on board so that they can keep the engine on, I would say this is unnecessary, wastes fuel and increases the pace at which their vehicles will wear out,” Mok said.

An EPD officer hands out a leaflet about new ban on idling engines to a driver at Causeway Bay on Thursday.

Law has become an idling curiosity

South China Morning Post – Dec. 15, 2011

For those who regularly have to put up with exhaust fumes emitted by stationary vehicles, there is finally some good news. After a wait of 14 years, the ban on idling engine comes into force today. But it is much too early to feel we can take a deep breath with confidence. It is unlikely that this law will make much of an impact on roadside pollution.

An array of exemptions and a delay in its enforcement to get around our city’s hottest season have already weakened public confidence in the law. Some critics have rightly questioned whether the ban will make any difference at all. To ensure the law means what it says, strict enforcement is therefore essential.

Up to 280 traffic wardens in uniform and 400 inspectors from the Environmental Protection Department will be looking out for vehicles parked with running engines. Hot spots like Causeway Bay and school areas will be the prime targets. But drivers have been assured that for the first month the fixed penalty of HK$320 will only be issued if verbal warnings are ignored. Understandably, the government wants to ease in the law without creating disputes. As drivers become more familiar with the scope of the ban, zero tolerance is needed to show the government’s determination in enforcement.

The real challenge, however, comes from the difficulties in policing a law that grants far too many exemptions. For instance, drivers have three minutes’ grace every hour. Taxis at ranks, buses and school vans that contain passengers are also exempt. The ban is even put aside during rainstorm and hot weather warnings. Confusion and disputes are therefore inevitable. There are already discussions about how drivers might get around the law.

The ban on idling engines is long overdue. Now that it is finally put into force, it is important to get it right. The law will become meaningless if enforcement is only half-hearted. The government should assess the impact of the ban and review the penalty and the scope of exemptions in light of experience.