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Waste-To-Energy, A Tale of Two Nations

Nov. 25, 2011

On the face of it, Americans seem to love trash. Canadians, not so much, as the story of Plasco Energy Group highlights. The company is capitalizing on that apparently national desire to put trash in its place; in Canada’s case, diverting its municipal solid waste, or MSW, to waste-to-energy streams.

Plasco Energy is a “clean” technology company that converts post-recycled MSW from trash into treasure – the kind you can use to power a lightbulb or an all-electric radiant floor home heating system.

The system is called plasma gasification, which converts waste to a rough form of synthetic gas, or syngas. This is then transfered to a plasma arc chamber where the unrefined syngas is again heated, sometimes to temperatures as high as 25,000 degrees. Inert wastes (sand, gravel, dirt, etc.) are reduced to inert vitrified glass, and the technology also permits waste heat recovery for a truly “green” profile.

The conversion process can tackle any type of waste, from paper to plastic, at volumes of about 20 tons per hour per plasma reactor. The process is cleaner than incineration or other types of gasification, producing fewer emissions, with not even water vapor left on completion. This is in direct opposition to older MSW waste incineration facilities, which released both airborne toxic pollutants and aresidue of ash, often contaminated with heavy metals and dioxins that have to be disposed of in regulated landfills.

For Plasco Energy, the real treasure is Ontario, where – in the wake of the Kyoto Protocol – the provincial government pledged to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2012 by establishing the Waste Diversion Act (2002) and implementing it via a fund.

Under provisions of the act, Plasco got a preferable pricing guarantee for the power it produced, and thus incentivized upgraded the Ottawa demo plant from 75 metric tons per day to 135 metric tons – a volume capable of supplying 4.2 megawatts of electricity to the Ontario grid.

Next, Plasco says, it plans to open a 300-metric-ton-per-day plant at an Ottowa landfill, which could come online at the end of 2013, providing provisions of the Waste Diversion Act aren’t altered or abandoned in Ontario’s increasingly divisive stand on “green” energy technologies.

It is this divisiveness that most recently brought out about 100 residents to question Alter NRG Energy’s (OTCBB: ANRGF) use of Westinghouse Plasma technology to build a plant at Dufferin County’s Eco Energy Park (DEEP). Still, how much real dissent did the meeting represent when one considers that the total population of Dufferin County is over 52,000?

But at least in Canada they are still talking. In the United States, efforts to clean up unsightly waste in an environmentally responsible fashion failed again when Boston-based gasification firm Ze-gen Inc. dropped its multimillion dollar plan for a plant in Attleboro as a result of local community group (Attleboro Residents with Important Safety Concerns, or @RISK) opposition. The plant was slated for completion at the end of this year.

The picture is largely the same across America, with citizens generating 249.9 million tons of trash per year – according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (the equivalent of 720 pounds per person, as compared to an average of 491.8 in the rest of the world) yet refusing to have a gasification plant in their neighborhood/municipality/ciy.

Where does this NIMBYism come from? For one thing, Americans have lots of landfills, remarkably effective trash compaction systems,low electricity prices (for now) and an aversion to MSW incinerators thanks to formerly highly polluting technology.

Then, too, notes Dr. Lou Circeo, a former Georgia Institute of Technology Research Institute researcher and now chief scientist at Applied Plasma Arc Technologies LLC (a private Atlanta consulting firm with close ties to the Georgia Tech), the problem may lie with the U.S. Department of Energy, which annually releases a study on new developments in MSW and the energy sector, but has yet to use the word “plasma” in their documents. Even though, Circeo adds, the U.S. has been vested in plasma gasifications technology for 40 years.

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