I live on the Catawba River in Belmont just downstream of the proposed ReVenture Park. I am an engineering chemist and I work primarily with pharmaceutical and alternative energy firms helping them improve their operational efficiency, sustainability and environmental impact. I am an avid environmentalist and knowledgeable regarding municipal waste to energy.
As part of my commitment to the environment, I recently spoke on sustainability at the 3rd Annual Symposium on Green Chemistry in Boston; International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering in Boston, Montreal, Raleigh and San Francisco, The International Society of Automation in Philadelphia and Wilmington, and I will be addressing the EPA Energy Star Pharmaceutical Subgroup in March. In addition to being an avid environmentalist, I am also a strong supporter of ReVenture Park.
I would like to focus the ReVenture discussion on three little words: simple, easy and practical.
The solution to our municipal waste problem is simple. Just stop generating it. No waste, no problem; simple solution. But what would that mean? Is our culture really willing to give up the convenience of packaged goods? Can we really turn the clock and quality of life back 100 or more years? No, that won’t be easy. It’s like the obesity problem. Stop eating too much and exercise more. Simple … just not easy.
Many people say the key is recycling. Sounds great, but only a small fraction of waste is recyclable. So while it might seem simple and easy; it is not a practical solution to our problem. Recycling discussions also suffer from a false dichotomy. Certainly recycling appears better than landfills, but that’s not the only choice. Recycled materials do not magically get transformed into new virgin products. They need to transported (often to China) where they undergo substantial chemical and thermal treatment derived from oil and coal. It is sometimes better to cleanly release the energy stored in these materials through gasification technology, as proposed by ReVenture than it is to “recycle” them.
The only easy thing is continue to do what we are doing now. Nothing! Collect the waste, ship it someplace and bury it. Let our grandchildren inherit all of it. The polluted planet, the energy insecurity and global climate change. Well, I can’t do easy.
Simple is out and easy is out. That only leaves us with practical. ReVenture Park is a practical solution to the problem. The technologies selected are clean, safe and orders of magnitude better for our health and environment than easy; by which I mean, doing nothing. The discussion about ReVenture has been a war of words. Words that have been used to frighten, misinform and enrage. A simple tactic to try and derail a practical solution.
As an unaffiliated but knowledgeable industry person, well informed on the facts of waste to energy and gasification, I offer my experience and insight to any organization interested in ReVenture Park. If you would like to better understand the issues, the technologies and words, including the little ones, Simple, Easy and Practical, please feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dave March is an engineering chemist and a resident of Belmont.
Turning trash into electricity is a better bet for the environment and local government budgets than burying it in landfills, said experts who convened at UNC Charlotte last week.
In the world of waste, they say, landfills are considered the crudest form of disposal. They gobble land, burp up greenhouse gases and waste potential energy sources.
North Carolina relies so much on landfills, burying 84 percent of its trash, that it ranks with Slovakia on an international index of waste-management sophistication, said Columbia University scientist Nickolas Themelis. That doesn’t mean trash-fueled power plants, like the gasification design proposed for Mecklenburg County’s ReVenture Park, are slam dunks. (Gasification heats trash at high temperatures, releasing gases that are used to make electricity.)
It’s tricky business for the projects to make economic sense and to attract investors, said Bill Davis, who founded the Boston waste-to-energy firm Ze-gen. Fuel costs can rise and fall. Pollution controls may eat up much of the electricity the plant generates. And trash has to be carefully processed into a fuel of consistent quality that’s free of hazardous materials.
“This is the source of my skepticism of waste-to-energy,” said John Bonitz of the Knoxville, Tenn.- based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “We have a huge challenge to make sure we can make the waste stream clean enough.” Because the United States has been slow to adopt modern gasification technology, much of Ze-gen’s business is outside the country. But the ReVenture concept is “state-of-the-art thinking” in much of the world, Davis said.
The U.S. has 87 waste-to-energy plants, including one in New Hanover County, and many more are in Japan, China and Europe. Critics of ReVenture Park say the county should instead move toward a “zero-waste” policy to minimize the amount of trash it produces. But countries that recycle and compost most of their trash — the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, among others — also rely heavily on waste-toenergy plants.
“To not do ReVenture is to landfill, that’s the unfortunate truth,” said Helene Hilger, director of UNCC’s Infrastructure, Design, Environment and Sustainability Center, which hosted the two-day conference. Hilger serves on ReVenture’s advisory board. ReVenture Park, its developer Forsite Development, and three other companies with ties to the project were among conference sponsors.
Not like incinerators
Longtime residents might remember Mecklenburg’s failed foray into trash-burning. A $28 million county-owned incinerator ran only six years before being shut down in 1995 because of high costs and lead-contaminated ash. ReVenture developer Tom McKittrick repeatedly distinguishes gasification plants, which produce electricity and heat, from incinerators that simply dispose of garbage.
Both release air emissions, including carbon monoxide, fine particles, acidic gases and smogforming compounds. Modern pollution controls and combustion techniques catch most of those emissions, said N.C. State University solid-waste scientist Morton Barlaz. “In general, this industry is doing way better than the standards” set by government agencies, he said. Backyard trash-burning is now the leading U.S. source of dioxins and furans, cancercausing compounds that have long been linked to municipal trash incinerators.
ReVenture’s pollution-control vendors guarantee emissions will be within safe limits, McKittrick said. Emissions will be continuously monitored, he said, so problems can be quickly detected. But people who live along the Catawba River in northwest Mecklenburg, where the plant would be built, don’t need another pollution source, says resident Tom Davis. His neighbors recall the groundwater contamination at the Paw Creek tank farm and live within view of the Riverbend coal-fired power plant. The ReVenture tract itself is a federal Superfund hazardous-waste cleanup site. “Our main concern is what’s going to come out of that plant,” he said. Despite two years of prototype tests, no gasification plant of the design intended for Mecklenburg County is in commercial operation.
Sierra Club chair Bill Gupton says the technology is unproven and, he told county commissioners last week, “will turn Mecklenburg County into a test lab.” Gupton charges that the ReVenture project hasn’t received the public scrutiny it deserves. County solid-waste director Bruce Gledhill acknowledges that time is shrinking to either strike a deal with ReVenture to take 370,000 tons a year of residential waste or find other options. The county’s contract with a Cabarrus County landfill expires in mid-2012.
But questions remain about technology used by waste-to-energy facility
Plans for a waste-to-energy plant continue to change as the team behind ReVenture Park gets closer to closing a 20-year deal with Mecklenburg County.
Forsite Development President Tom McKittrick told members of an advisory panel last week that the project “has evolved and continues to.”
McKittrick noted ReVenture has changed dramatically from more than a year ago, when the 667-acre “eco-industrial” park was first announced.
In particular, the project’s anchor, a power plant that will use garbage as fuel, has been downsized to 20 megawatts from 49 megawatts.
The developers also punted plans to press the county’s residential garbage into fuel pellets.
If the project is successful, it will be the first commercial waste-to-energy plant of its kind in the country. Colwich, Kan.-based ICM Inc. has been signed to develop the $156 million gasification plant, which is based on a smaller unit that has operated in Kansas for two years.
“There is no doubt this is a demonstration project,” says Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research for the Solid Waste Association of North America. O’Brien is a member of the ReVenture Advisory Council.
He supports the project but notes that its technology has “been piloted, but not proven.”
Emissions equal eight SUVs
Power plants that use “refuse derived fuels,” or RDFs, are few and far between in the country.
ReVenture’s developers estimate there are 102 conventional waste-to-energy plants in the United States, but only 13 use RDFs. The rest are conventional mass-burn facilities.
The proposed gasification plant is different. One member of the ReVenture Advisory Council, Chris Hardin, says it’s imprecise to describe the plant as an incinerator because gasification is not a full combustion process.
The process isn’t state-of-the-art. Rather, it’s akin to the process that turns wood into charcoal.
ReVenture’s developers will be required to get a minor-source air-pollution permit, which greatly restricts the level of emissions that would come from the facility.
Hardin, an engineer in the solid-waste industry, says the permit restrictions mean ReVenture’s emissions would equate to those generated by eight SUVs on the road.
Deal valued at $10M annually
Under the pending deal, Mecklenburg County will stop shipping its residential garbage to the Speedway landfill in Cabarrus County when its contract with operator Republic Services ends June 30, 2012.
Instead, the county would pay ReVenture to take the trash for $25 per ton. That’s $1 less per ton than what Mecklenburg pays Republic.
Total value of the deal over 20 years: $200 million
All the county’s waste would then go to a sorting facility on Amble Drive, near the county’s existing recycling center that’s operated by FCR Casella. ReVenture has teamed with FCR to build a $30 million facility to sort the garbage and pull out recyclable metals and plastics.
About 10% to 15% of the waste, including PVC, will be unsuitable as fuel and will be shipped to a landfill, developers say. ReVenture initially planned to turn the trash into fuel pellets for use at the waste-toenergy plant and to sell to other power companies as a coal substitute. But McKittrick says the pellet part of operations on Amble Drive would require an air permit, which would take too long to secure.
Instead, FCR is looking into different ways of sealing the garbage into air-proof, watertight bags that could be stored for months or years before being used as an engineered fuel at the ReVenture site in northwest Mecklenburg, near Mount Holly.
The ash that remains from the energy-generation process will be taken to a landfill. ReVenture developers say an agreement with an operator is under negotiations.
Approved with conditions
Disposal of that ash was one of 30 concerns raised by the ReVenture Advisory Council, which voted 8-3 on Jan. 14 to support the project’s contract with the county. The approval came with conditions that include the panel’s continued oversight of the waste-to-energy plant for as long as it operates. Two council members who voted on the proposal disclosed conflicts on interest.
Ollie Frazier, who voted in favor of the project, is a consultant for Calor Energy, which is part of the ReVenture team. Linda Ashendorf, who voted against the project, works for Republic Services, the Speedway landfill operator.
Both Frazier and Ashendorf are members of the county’s waste-management advisory board, which must now vote on the ReVenture Advisory Council’s recommendation. (Calor consultant Rich Deming is also a member of that board.)
The waste-management advisory panel is expected to vote Feb. 15. County Solid Waste Director Bruce Gledhill will use its input in his negotiations with ReVenture’s developers. Ultimately, a contract will go before the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.
Derita residents want to know more about proposed waste-to-energy site.
North Charlotte residents will meet Thursday with officials from Forsite Development, the company that wants to buy and recycle the county’s trash to create fuel pellets for an electric power plant in western Mecklenburg.
Members of the Derita-Statesville Road Community Organization invited officials from Forsite to their monthly meeting because they want first-hand information about a proposed recycling plant near North Graham Street and Interstate 85.
They say the plan to send hundreds of trash trucks to the recycling center at 1200 Amble Drive, before the trucks head to a landfill, could cause congestion on North Graham Street.
“The idea behind it, for our environment, is a wonderful idea,” said Sylvia Cannon, the group’s vice president. “I just want to see it done right, with the least amount of impact on our area and our neighbors.”
Forsite Development has proposed building a $126 million waste-to-energy power plant to anchor ReVenture Park, a planned 667-acre energy complex near the Catawba River in western Mecklenburg.
Kansas-based ICM Inc. would build and operate the plant, which would use 370,000 tons a year of the county’s residential trash.
The $30 million recycling center would be at a separate site, near an existing county recycling center. Charlotte-based FCR Casella also would operate the new facility and would participate in developing it.
Waste would be sorted to remove harmful trash and recyclable material, shredded and pressed into pellets that could be heated to produce a gas that would become fuel for making electricity.
The gas would be used to make steam that turns a generator and makes electricity.
The county currently pays $26.50 per ton to dispose of trash at a landfill. It would pay $25 a ton under the new proposal, said Bruce Gledhill, county solid waste director.
Gledhill estimates “a couple of hundred” trucks a day would make a stop at the proposed 17-acre Amble Drive site, which would house a 165,000-square-foot recycling plant.
Most of those trucks would get to the recycling center by traveling on I-85 to the Graham Street exit, said Tom McKittrick, Forsite’s president. McKittrick said he is aware of concerns about additional traffic on Graham and believes it is a valid concern.
“We want to address all comments and ideas,” he said. “It’s in our best interest to keep traffic moving.”