Waste to power: beautiful concept, and demonstrably viable

I recently visited a waste-to-power project in my home town, Ottawa Ontario. This is the Carp Road landfill gas project. The Carp Road landfill is a private facility, run by Waste Management Inc., a Houston-based multinational whose name aptly describes its business. The Carp Road facility consists of a mountain of municipal garbage into which perforated pipes are inserted into pre-drilled holes. Methane from decomposing garbage is sucked into these pipes, which join in a central manifold that carries the methane to an array of Caterpillar reciprocating generating engines specially designed to run on landfill gas. Collectively, these engines can produce around 6 MW of power.

Carp Road receives around 75,200 metric tons of garbage each year. It is one of three landfills that serve Ottawa. Ottawa is a small city—its population is around 774,000—but creates over 377,000 tons of garbage every year (based on the OECD’s estimate that each Canadian produces 490 kilograms of garbage per year). There are 1,157 active landfills in Ontario.

If Waste Management weren’t doing something useful with the methane from decomposed garbage, the gas would eventually get into the atmosphere—either as raw methane, through leakage either on- or off-site; or as carbon dioxide (CO2) from an unintended fire or explosion, also either on- or off-site. Raw methane would contribute to the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) in the atmosphere: as a GHG, methane is around 21 times as potent as CO2. And for obvious reasons, nobody wants methane to turn into CO2 outside of human control.

To avoid unintended conversion of landfill gas into CO2—which is a nice euphemism for an accidental fire or explosion—most landfill operators rig up a system to collect it and then “flare” it—i.e. burn it at the top of a tall chimney. That’s the cheapest way to avoid fires and explosions. But it’s not the cleanest way. Landfill gas is only 40-50 percent methane; the rest is CO2, water, and a heterogeneous mix of “non-methane organic compounds,” as well as sulfur and other inorganics like mercury from compact fluorescent lightbulbs. When burned, this mix can release toxic emissions.

Waste Management’s alternative to flaring, i.e., burning landfill gas in special generating engines, therefore represents a giant step forward from flaring. First of all, it turns waste into electricity: as I mentioned, the company’s array of generators makes 6 megawatts of power. Company representatives tell me those generators run mostly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (I wrote about another Waste Management facility in the “White Whale of Baseload.”) This electricity is eligible for Ontario’s 11.1 cent per kilowatt-hour Feed in Tariff for landfill gas.

I have criticized the FIT program in previous posts. I think it is for the most part a pure public relations ploy. Under this ploy, Ontario electricity rate payers, most of whom live in cities, are forced to pay rich environmentalists, who live out in the country and have lots of space, to put up windmills and solar panels.

Wind and solar are intermittent, low-quality energy sources. They are therefore a Trojan Horse for natural gas-fired power generation, which will have to pick up the slack when clouds obscure the sun or when the wind stops blowing. And in case anybody has forgotten, natural gas is an expensive, explosive carbon-emitting fossil fuel. Gas will produce by far most of the non-coal power in Ontario; therefore, wind and solar are pure public relations.

So, for the most part, the FIT program forces millions of Ontario rate payers to fund a giant PR campaign that benefits only a tiny group of well-connected, already-rich environmentalists and gas companies.

But I think the FIT for landfill gas is good idea. Every citizen in Ontario is responsible for some 490 kilos of garbage each year. If the FIT makes it worth while for companies like Waste Management to turn some of this waste into power, then we all benefit. I should point out that this is baseload power. Neither wind nor solar can produce baseload power; they are intermittent and therefore provide low quality electricity. Why wind and solar fetch FIT rates that are far higher than even landfill gas simply makes no economic or technical sense.

Moreover, turning landfill waste into power provides an automatic economic incentive for Waste Management to clean up the raw gas prior to putting it into its Cat engines. Those engines run better when the methane content in the feed gas is more “even” and the amount of non-methane compounds and inorganics is lower. Therefore the company has invested money in cleaning up the feed gas: developing separations systems to remove sulfur and other non-methane compounds prior to combustion. Cleaning up the feed gas makes the exhaust gas cleaner. So the FIT for landfill gas is a good use of rate payer money.

As I mentioned above, the Carp Road landfill receives 75,200 tons of waste every year. Waste Management effectively turns that into 6 MW of baseload electricity. Contrast that with nuclear waste to power. Look at the Yucca Mountain controversy in the United States: a major political issue over 65,200 tons of used nuclear fuel. Those 65,200 tons represent almost every bit of the nuclear fuel the US civilian nuclear power industry has used in its 60 year history. By weight, that is not even one-fifth the amount that goes into Ottawa’s three landfills every year.

Think about that for a second. All the hoopla over nuclear “waste” in the US is over a tiny pile of stuff, produced over sixty years, that is less than one-fifth the amount of garbage that a very small city produces in one year—i.e., in one-sixtieth of the time. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a US industry lobby group, all the used nuclear fuel in the US would fit onto a single football field, six meters high.

What municipal councilors would give if, over 60 years, their communities produced such a tiny amount of waste.

And what they would give if municipal garbage had the potential of producing the sheer amount of power that nuclear “waste” can. I use quotations because, if it were recycled, that used fuel could, according to the French nuclear company Areva, power the entire US nuclear fleet for six full years. The US nuclear fleet represents about 90,000 megawatts of capacity. That amount of capacity, running for six years at a, say, 90 percent capacity factor, would generate over 4.8 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity.

And at the end of those six years? Well, then there would be a pile of used recycled nuclear fuel that is slightly smaller less than 65,200 tons. So a tiny problem would have become somewhat tinier. And that pile could be further recycled.

France, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom already recycle nuclear fuel. France also recycles nuclear fuel for Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland. I visited Areva’s recycling facilities last summer (see article); there is nothing like seeing for yourself. This is a mature technology that is producing benefits as I write this.

You would never know that from media headlines. Of course there are a lot of things you’d never know if you only got information from media headlines. The media are like the loudmouth alpha males in the schoolyard: you hear only them. Most non alpha male school kids have, or develop, the ability to screen out the self-important noise and learn to think for themselves. (Or at least I assume they do; I should admit that I myself was one of those loudmouth alpha males. Maybe I still am.)

Unfortunately, media stories tend to buy into anti-nuclear hyperbole and run with the nuclear “waste” myth: that it is an “unsolvable” problem. This even though it is obvious to anybody with a modicum of common sense and observation skill that unless the “waste” problem had been solved, nobody could ever have even started up a reactor.

As Gwyneth Cravens points out in a brief, excellent article on the American Nuclear Society website, even the problem of high level military nuclear waste was solved decades ago, at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. Yucca Mountain was, as Gwyneth says for purely bureaucratic reasons, proposed for civilian waste. But because Yucca Mt. has been successfully opposed for political reasons, Gwyneth recommends to a presidential panel that the non-recyclable high level civilian waste be put into the WIPP. The non-recyclable portion of civilian used fuel represents only a small proportion. The rest can be turned into clean power.

The issue of used nuclear fuel is the most overblown pseudo problem in the history of hyperbole. That is why a presidential panel is even looking into this issue. The president and his political advisers do not have the backbone to buck a constituency that has so thoroughly conned the media into believing that nuclear “waste” is a problem. Therefore they have kicked the issue over to a panel. That panel, like every management consultant, knows what its client wants, and like every management consultant wants to avoid giving the client what the client doesn’t want: recommendations to actually deal with the issue. Hence the panel has recommended, as Meredith Angwin notes in another brilliant and brief piece on the same ANS website, further study.

Mean while, the 65,200 tons of unused carbon-free electricity sits there, waiting for someone who can tell hyperbole from fact.

2 comments for “Waste to power: beautiful concept, and demonstrably viable

  1. Keerthana Kamalavasan
    July 6, 2011 at 18:29

    Many high profile business leaders have signaled their support for clean energy including former Premiers Mike Harris and Erne Eves. (http://bit.ly/r0NUfZ)

    And now, the Pembina Institute, an independent organization, has released a study which says the wind, solar and biogas power producers under Ontario’s feed-in tariff program are being blamed unfairly for rising power prices.

    The alternatives are no cheaper. The FIT program would never add more than 1.5 per cent, or about $2 a month, to the typical consumer hydro bill, the study says.

    Read it here: http://bit.ly/r0NUfZ

    • Steve Aplin
      July 6, 2011 at 21:07

      Keerthana, thanks for your comment. I also support clean energy, in the form of nuclear. My problem with Pembina is that it is anything but independent. There is no difference between Pembina and every other mainstream “environmental” lobby. They are all anti-nuclear and pro-gas. That is, they actually support the expansion of the gas market in Ontario. Gas is the very same fossil fuel that is causing oil sands GHG emissions to skyrocket.

      Nuclear is the second cheapest electricity source in Ontario, and the cheapest of all the non-large-hydro zero-emission alternatives. Wind and solar must come with gas, or at least that’s what the “green” groups like Pembina want. Think of it: they actually want electricity prices to rise.

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