Gasification

THE DANGERS AND HIGH COSTS OF GASIFYING OUR GARBAGE

Maximo DeCastro Blake, Orange Environment’s Recycling Coordinator

The high costs of municipal garbage disposal and of electricity production have been cited as a justification for the Orange County government to contract with Taylor Recycling /Holdings Group LTD to gasify the county’s garbage to make electricity at a to-be-built plant in Montgomery with a proposed price tag of 160 million dollars. Gasification uses very high temperatures to break down any carbon containing materials, such as wood, paper, plastic, food waste or other typical municipal waste stream components into solid, liquid, and gas components. The gas syngas (synthesis gas) can then be combusted in a secondary process to power electricity producing generators. The remaining solids and liquid residues are highly concentrated and are more toxic than the original garbage.
While this may appear to be an improvement over the way the County currently handles garbage, in reality the use of gasification to destroy garbage is a move in the wrong direction. For over ten years Orange County has been trucking our garbage outside of the county. This of course requires large amounts of diesel fuel to be expended and just moves the pollution issues to our less fortunate neighbors. Because of these negative consequences, less polluting solutions for handling our garbage have been sought. However, gasification is not an improvement as it also has huge pollution issues similar to incineration. http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefings/gasification_pyrolysis.pdf. Gasification facilities produce gas: primarily carbon monoxide and hydrogen (85%) plus hydrocarbon oils, char ash, nitrogen-oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, ammonia, heavy metals, mercury and cadmium, dioxins and furans. Since there is no process that can capture all of these gases and particles, some of them will be expelled into our environment. If the polluting issues were not enough to push Orange County to look for alternative solutions, taking a close look at the economics of gasification reveals numerous negative high cost issues that negatively effect both the cost effectiveness and any predictions of the cost of the process. These include the infrastructure and energy requirements needed to:

  • Pre-sort municipal waste, prior to it being gasified. At minimum, metals, pressurized containers, and inorganic materials have to be removed.
  • Filter toxic hazardous organic compounds, tars and ash particulates out of the resulting syngas (gas) to stabilize caloric value for use as a reliable fuel that will not harm downstream combustion equipment. This cost is unknown because the technology does not exist on a commercial scale to perform this task http://www.energy.ca.gov/development/biomass/msw.html.
  • Dispose of the toxic hazardous organic compounds, gases, tars, char and ash particulates that are generated by the gasification and syngas production processes. The \”Taylor gasification process\” optimistically expects to incinerate the tars and char residue that are generated by the gasification process in a secondary incinerator. No disclosure has ever been made about the toxic ash disposal. Gasses are expected to be destroyed through an undisclosed method; if it fails, toxic gasses might escape to the area. And the project will not be greenhouse friendly. Syngas typically generates almost 400% of the CO² emissions of coal and between 700% and almost 800% of the CO² emissions of natural gas for the production of 1 kilowatt of power. http://expertpc.org/gasifier/howmuchco2.pdf
  • When it is inevitably determined that gasification is a failed technology for the handling of municipal solid waste, the plant would either have to close or seek permission to incinerate wastes with relaxed standards of safety. Eventually it will have to close and clean up (a new “superfund” site).

This analysis does not take into account these additional essential issues:

  • The plant is likely to use more energy than it makes http://www.capca-carolinas.org/Fall%202007%20Presentations/John%20Sudnick.pdf. Because of the low caloric value of waste, gasification is only able to capture small amounts of energy by destroying large amounts of reusable materials by burning fuel to heat the garbage to a level where it produces syngas, a low BTU fuel (25% of the BTUs of natural gas), to produce electricity. Using high quality fuel to produce heat to gasify garbage to produce low quality fuel from which to make electricity may not be a good use for the overall energy involved. So even counting the incidental benefit of electrical power production, building a polluting gasification plant in the county is not an improvement in comparison to our existing methods.
  • Gasification is a burning process that results in toxic emissions into the atmosphere similar to incinerators, which are long know to be polluters. Disposal of the unconsumed slag is also a pollution issue. Complete consumption would require an unattainable 6332 oF degrees – the consumption temperature of pure carbon.
  • Gasification destroys raw materials that are in high demand by regional industries. Used paper, plastic, and food waste have industrial buyers who produce marketable goods from these materials. These industries want these recovered materials since they utilize a fraction of the energy needed to make them from raw materials. Not having these materials available stymies local employment growth and economic development in general.
  • Gasification’s need for large volumes of waste material competes with the incentives to recycle. As a result, the associated movements to reduce consumer goods packaging, to manufacture consumer goods with more recyclable components and in general promote cleaner air, water and food for a healthier living environment are weakened. New York State’s new solid waste regulations and 90% recycling goals are also undermined when materials are destroyed rather than being recovered.
  • A gasification plant of the size being proposed by Taylor is more efficient with high volumes of garbage and a more continuous “burning” process. Naturally, the plant will want as much garbage as possible. If it cannot get sufficient garbage locally it will have to expand the area it serves. Importing garbage would be the consequence. Importation would mean a significant increase in air and water pollution throughout the region as diesel powered tractor-trailers on the highways or tugboats on the river haul trailers or barges full of municipal waste into the area from a geographically wider range.
  • Lastly, gasification is an unproved technology. There are no operating gasification plants in the world of a size required to handle Orange County’s municipal waste stream of 500 tons a day. There are a number of much smaller experimental projects that are testing a variety of gasification processes (i.e. achieving the needed high temperature from electrical plasma arcs and a variety of gases.) The majority of these experiments are gasifying single materials (wood chips & grass) not the multiple materials of mixed garbage. Gasification of municipal solid waste, household garbage and commercial waste products was tested in the United States in the 1970s, but those plants were closed because of operating and financial problems. The largest European expeiment in gasification of garbage failed within the first year. Today there are only a handful of gasification units burning municipal solid waste, located in Japan, Taiwan, Great Britain and Canada. Each of these experiments has experienced problems and many have been forced to shut down because of toxic emissions. http://www.bredl.org/pdf/wastegasification.pdf

Below is a list taken from news reports of massive gasification failures and the costs involved to clean up and/or close down facilities:

  • Occidental’s flash pyrolysis unit in Sad Diego: $100mm
  • Britestar/EDL pyrolysis unit in Australia: $200mm
  • Range Fuels: $300mm
  • Molten Metals: $90mm (mostly DOE earmarked funds)
  • Hawaii IGT/EPRI/Westinghouse/HPL/ gasification unit: $30-50mm
  • Battelle’s dual fluidized bed gasification system: $60mm
  • Thermoselect’s two-stage combustion system: $125mm/plant, 4-5 plants closed except one in Japan still operating.
  • PRM’s Philadelphia sewage sludge gasification system: $2-3mm (The system blew up and was shut down very shortly after installation.)
  • Italian sawdust gasification plant near Venice, Italy. They were unable to get the syngas fueled engines to run more than 40 hours between valve jobs due to tar fouling of the engine’s intake valves.
  • Farmland’s acquisition of the Daggett, California Texaco coal gasification power plant and reconstituting it in Coffeville, Kansas to run on pet coke for ammonia production. Texaco was thrown out of the project

From examining these factors it is easy to see that gasification has little chance of being less expensive than current garbage disposal methods. Other proven less polluting methods of handling municipal solid waste should and must be considered. Orange Environment’s efforts closed the polluting Orange County and Al Turi Landfills more than a decade ago and introduced recycling to the county. But, an undesired result was the export of our wastes to far off landfills, a costly and irresponsible practice. As we move to take care of our own garbage, however, we must make intelligent decisions that do not sacrifice the quality of our air, land, water and local food. Our health and businesses will suffer if the planned gasification plant goes into operation. Orange County should not commit to gasification projects until the alternatives have been fully examined. We need to put gasification on the back burner at the very least until the technology has proven itself and expand our recycling efforts.

Coverage of this issue made possible with a grant from Clean Air Cool Planet Foundation.