Waste-to-power: the white whale of baseload

Somebody at a big PR outfit recently contacted me about one of their clients, a waste management firm. They wanted me to know that their client had just launched a waste-to-power system capable of turning garbage at one of its landfill sites into enough electricity to power more than 2,000 homes. Wittingly or unwittingly, the PR firm was claiming that its client’s system will provide baseload—i.e., 24/7—electricity. You hear that from wind- and solar-power proponents all the time, and coming from them it is a preposterous claim—wind does not blow all the time, and the sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day. For wind and solar, baseload is a white whale they will never catch.

So just to be sure, I asked the PR person if that was really what she meant. Was there some documentary proof that the system actually does run at its nameplate capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year?

The PR person, who was very polite and helpful, said she would verify with the client that that was indeed the case. She got back to me very quickly with her client’s answer: yes, it runs 24/7/365. There is no actual documentation proving this; it’s really just anecdotal. In other words, take our word for it.

Which is not to say it’s not true. Maybe they really did catch the white whale of baseload. But if it really is true, the waste management firm really should go out of its way to show people. The “enough to power x thousand homes” claim has so often turned out to be such nonsense in the case of alternative power projects that people are beginning to roll their eyes when they hear it.

If there were no energy sources that actually can and do provide baseload electricity, more people would have a better idea of the nature and value of baseload electricity. It is on-demand power, there whenever you need it, regardless of the time of day or how much you need or how long you need it for. Probably the best way to illustrate its value is to ask who in their right mind would recommend running a hospital operating room solely on wind-generated electricity. Nobody would. What happens if the wind stops blowing in the middle of a life-or-death operation.

I have appeared numerous times on CBC radio and television shows explaining exactly this point in the case of of one particular waste-to-energy project, a plasma gasification operation in Ottawa. The proponent of that project used to make the same claim about baseload capability—in the plasma case, the claim is that the system can power over 3,000 homes. I told various CBC interviewers I am strongly skeptical of that claim. In one instance, the interviewer went back to the proponent and asked for proof that the system really can deliver baseload power. The proponent provided test run data that showed system performance over a test run that lasted a couple of hours. On that basis, the proponent claimed, you can infer that the system can run 24/7.

If you are running a hospital operating room, how reassuring is that?

Of course that proponent isn’t planning to sell all its power to a hospital. Rather, it says that its generator can power over 3,000 homes. Well, the people in those homes expect electricity every single hour of every single day through the entire year. The test-run data do not prove that the system can provide that.

Similarly with the waste management company I mentioned at the beginning. Presumably this company will take its system around to other cities and pitch it as a solution to their landfill problems. Presumably it hired the PR firm to get its story out through the media—the fourth estate is a critical player in the public arena; that is just as true in the local media as in the national. How effective is their pitch if it leaves out the main factor that distinguishes them from the competition?

If you have caught the white whale, prove it.

Update, May 2011: it turns out the PR firm wasn’t just idly chattering. Its client actually is producing something close to baseload power. I recently toured a landfill gas facility near Ottawa, run by Waste Management, and they do indeed run their generating engines most of the time. These are 16- and 20-cylinder piston engines. Waste Management should talk this up—unlike wind and solar proponents, WM can truthfully claim to power x homes. See my post on this.

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donb
10 years ago

My guess is that a waste-to-energy plant would be roughly as reliable as coal-fired plant, which means that it could be considered to be baseload generation.

In Spokane, Washington, we are “blessed” with such a plant. The polution gets generated here, but the power is shipped to Seattle.

Here is a link that shows the boiler and turbine/generator outages for 2008:
http://spokanewastetoenergy.com/WTEdowntime.htm
I really like the one outage for “drunk operator”.

For those who want even more detail and history, there is this:
http://missingtribe.com/RustBucket.doc
Don’t let the name of the link throw you off the path. The report is professionally done.

There is more than enough waste in the region to keep the plant going 24/7/365. There have been burning cut-backs in the past due to air stagnation (a feature of the weather here, especially in winter). Note also that the plant can burn natural gas, which they might now use to keep things going in these conditions.

Joffan
10 years ago

Well, I hate the x thousand homes formulation too, simply because it is so meaningless, and also becuse it gives the impression of serving a larger proportion of total energy needs (since industry and commerce don’t use power, do they?).

However, even if this scheme doesn’t run 24 hours a day, it could still be far more useful than wind if it can deliver power when needed – to the limits of its ability of course. We will always need responsive generation. The downside is that much of the waste they’re burning would likely have stayed in the ground – so they are probably de-sequestering carbon.

10 years ago

donB: thanks for those two links. That’s exactly what I wish the PR company’s client had provided—documentary proof of runtime. This automatically puts them into the credible category, and they should promote that.

Joffan: you are right about the carbon benefits/drawbacks. Proponents of landfill gas generation will argue that uncaptured landfill methane is 21 times as potent as CO2 when it comes to global warming potential, but they assume that ALL the carbon goes into the air as methane (instead of being sequestered as you say).

Your sequestration point raises an interesting economic issue. In Ontario (or anywhere else) is the alleged carbon benefit worth the feed-in tariff assigned to landfill gas? In Ontario, that FIT is around 12 cents per kWh—more than double the market rate at most hours of the day. The FIT is supposed to support low- or zero-carbon technologies, and landfill gas proponents could credibly argue that their technology is at least carbon-neutral in that it would replace natural gas on the grid.

But nuclear power in Ontario is better than carbon neutral, and it costs less than half what the government will pay for landfill gas.

I know nuclear is currently inflexible when it comes to load-following and -cycling, but I hear the Gen II+ reactors have some capabilities in that regard.

Sean Holt
10 years ago

All:

Waste-to-energy has the same “capacity factor” as does coal or any other “combustion fueled” generation. Although it is true that if there is only one combustor in the plant, (as I believe is the case at Plasco) maintenance outages would be problematic. The solution to that problem is obvious.

Landfill off-gas generation although better then doing nothing, essentially ignores the vast amount of fuel and resources concentrated in the landfill from which the gas is coming. As is currently done in Peel Region, waste processing with waste- to-energy diverts 97% of material from landfill and recovers all that is recoverable including the energy.

As for carbon sequestration, in view of what is known scientifically (Fischer–Tropsch Synthesis) already in commercial use to produce fuel in places like South Africa, why anyone would waste carbon via sequestration is an absolute mystery.

Waste-to-energy is what we should be spending our short term energy dollars on. It has a proven track record to be far more viable then both wind and solar combined. Landfills can be both recovered then made redundant. By wasting time and resources on useless technologies especially wind, we are only doing more harm to our environment and ultimately ourselves.

As for our long term energy dollar, it’s [super safe and efficient] nuclear all the way!

Sean Holt.

9 years ago

Sean, good points though the FT plants in South Africa gasify coal to produce syngas (the FT raw material) and because of that are not strictly examples of waste-to-power.

But you are dead right about incineration. It is by far the best and so far only proven way to destroy garbage. (Maybe Plasco will prove that plasma gasification can do it too, who knows.) Unfortunately lots of people have been misled into thinking it is “dirty” like coal. Hence the endless procession of diesel-powered— and NOx, SOx, and soot emitting—trucks from Toronto to Michigan.

And the best waste-to-power scheme of them all is to recycle nuclear fuel. I know you don’t like MOX-in-LWR (let alone MOX-in-CANDU), but it is better than the once-through cycle. For me, there is no reason not to re-enrich reprocessed uranium and enrichment tailings, and fast breeding could extend nuclear fuel resources for many hundreds if not thousands of years.

Reduce, reuse, recycle.