Up on the eighth floor of Orlando City Hall, public works director Alan Oyler is doing his best to channel Al Gore via a PowerPoint demonstration. Oyler's even got a slide about the rise in carbon dioxide levels compared to the rise in the earth's temperature.
The problem, Oyler says, is that natural gas reserves will reach a critical point of depletion within 30 years, leaving coal — a resource thought plentiful enough to last another 300 years, but one that produces large quantities of carbon dioxide when burned — as the primary means of generating electricity.
"How bad would you like to get beat up in the global economy?" he asks. "Not to mention if you've seen one of those liquid natural gas tankers. Talk about a target for terrorists. You have a natural gas explosion from one of those things, you'll wipe a city out."
The doomsday scenario is Oyler's setup to introduce Orlando's solution: a "gasification" plant that will transform garbage that would otherwise end up in landfills into enough electricity to power 9 percent of the Orlando Utility Commission's usage. It's trash into treasure, and one of the companies behind the technology being considered by the city, Thermoselect, says it can be done without creating harmful emissions or enlarging the city's carbon footprint. It would even eliminate the need to separate recyclables from household garbage.
If that sounds too good be true, it is, according to an environmental group that has done extensive research on this technology in other cities worldwide and has concluded that it isn't cost-effective, isn't pollution-free and doesn't produce much electricity.
"Sounds great," says Bradley Angel, executive director of the nonprofit group Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, based in San Francisco. "Just one problem: Reality is not public relations."
In the Thermoselect gasification process, garbage is compacted and pressed into a chamber. Paper and organic matter are heated, creating a gas that is then cooled and purified and can be used to fuel power-generating turbines. Metals, glass and other solid materials are melted, creating material that can be used for construction. Theoretically, there is no waste.
In 2005, Orlando produced 89,810 tons of commercial garbage, 53,041 tons of residential garbage and 13,000 tons of yard waste, which boils down to about 427 tons per day of municipal solid waste. All of this is delivered to the county landfill on Curry Ford Road to join Orange County's daily refuse of 3,100 tons.
According to Oyler, each ton of solid waste can produce 936 kilowatts of usable energy. The average residential energy use in the city is 36 kilowatt hours (or kilowatts per hour) per day. With Orlando's garbage alone — 427 tons per day — the city could power 11,102 homes. If the county got on board with 80 percent of their trash, gasification could power 64,480 homes. Oyler says the county's cooperation is essential. Without it there isn't enough trash.
The $300 million plant would be fully subsidized by investors who would make money from garbage tipping fees and by selling any power generated to OUC, Oyler says. (The utility has promised $50,000 toward the research process.)
Oyler says there are a number of likely investors thanks to similar plants already being proposed in California. He plans to have the initial phase of the project before the city council in early June. Members of Orange County's senior staff have expressed interest, he says. In fact, the county already participates in the first landfill gas-to-energy project in the state, the Landfill Methane Outreach Program, which uses 40,000 feet of pipes to collect methane from the landfill and convert it into power. (There is also a clean-coal gasification project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy in the works in Orange County.)
The fact that OUC's Stanton Energy Center, which utilizes the recovered methane, is already within code for gasification makes Orlando the ideal candidate for this new technology, Oyler says. "The opportunity here is probably one of the best in the country to be able to site one of these."
And then there's the savings that would come from eliminating the need to recycle. The city spends $1 million a year on its recycling program, even though only 40 to 50 percent of the population participates. Gathered materials net the city only $75,000 a year.
"It's not being done to be cost-effective," he says. "It's being done as an environmental measure, and because I have to. The state requires that I do a certain amount of recycling, so in order to meet those state mandates, I'm paying a million dollars to have that program in place."
Gasification eliminates the need to recycle, he says. "Put all of your stuff in that brand-new, beautiful garbage cart that we've provided to you. It holds everything. Don't worry about the cat food on your hand as you're putting your can in the thing. Don't worry about that. It all goes in your garbage can. And now you can feel good, because even if you weren't separating before, you're now recycling by doing this. No skin off your nose, and I get to recycle 100 percent. They can get this mindset that throwing those things away still will constitute recycling."
Bradley Angel of Greenaction just returned from a three-country tour of Asia, visiting existing gasification plants. There, he says, the tone is not quite so optimistic.
At a plant in Nagareyana, Japan, a gasification company made the same claims being made here in Orlando: They could generate electricity with zero emissions.
"By the end of our tour, the plant managers indicated that all of their key claims were false," Angel says. "Greenaction has dealt with many of these around the world. If a company claims that we can gasify the waste, then they're saying that we are magicians."
The Japanese plant was importing 30 percent of its power from Tokyo Electric, he says, producing one-third less than it promised and using kerosene to power its generator. Accidents were a regular occurrence.
Thermoselect's flagship plant at Karlsruhe, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, had an even more checkered past. It operated in a test phase from 1999 through 2002, finally going commercial from 2002 through 2004. According to a case study provided by Greenaction, available on their website at www.greenaction.org, the plant closed temporarily in 2000 "after releases of toxic gas were discovered, and operational problems during the years of test operations included an explosion, cracks of the high temperature chamber's concrete due to corrosion and heat, and a leaking sediment basin that held cyanide-contaminated wastewater."
Emissions of carbon and nitrogen oxides at that plant prompted a government lawsuit in July of 2000, and by the time it closed in 2004, it had suffered losses of $500 million and been resigned to the dubious title of "Thermodefect" in the German newspapers.
"They can be talking about an alternative to global warming," says Angel. "But the reality is that they emit global warming."
In 2003, the city of Alameda, Calif., was looking into a gasification plant and wanted to site it in a low-income area. The plan was stopped when Greenaction stepped in and forced the company — Bright Star Environmental — to admit the potential for toxic emissions.
"I would hope that if low-budget Greenaction can find out the truth," he says, "then a big city like Orlando could do the same."
Presented with this information, city spokesperson Heather Allebaugh responded in an e-mail that the city would conduct extensive research and analysis prior to making any decisions about gasification.
"In fact, one of the first stages of that process is to secure a company to complete the due diligence research. To my knowledge that contract has yet to be finalized," she wrote. "Having said that, the city will not rely solely on information provided to us by that company and will do our own research. Staff welcomes any information available on this product and the process, and will take that into careful consideration before moving forward with this project."
But it's that moving forward that worries Angel the most, especially at the expense of the city's recycling program.
"That is an environmental disaster for the planet," he says. "It basically says we can continue using all the resources on the planet and just toss them into our miracle magic machine. Garbage is not a renewable energy. There is a finite amount of resources on this planet."
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