Sacramento Bee - 17 Nov 08

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 30 Oct 09)

Sacramento Trash-to-Energy Plan Raises Red Flags

By Terri Hardy and Chris Bowman
Published: Monday, November 17, 2008

Presented with a controversial and highly technical proposal to vaporize garbage into energy, Sacramento City Council members earlier this month wondered what other cities had found - and whether those lessons were being considered in Sacramento.

The plan's chief proponent, Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, said Friday that while she remains committed to working on a viable waste-to-energy plan for Sacramento, she believes the vetting process by the city's upper management was "done wrong."

"If we have to start all over, we start all over," Hammond said.

On Dec. 9, the council is scheduled to vote on whether to bind itself for decades to a company that vows to zap Sacramento's trash at the same price it would cost to bury it in a landfill.

Under the proposed deal, Sacramento-based U.S. Science & Technology and a consortium of energy and engineering companies would build a "plasma arc gasification" waste-to-energy plant at no cost to the city, then sell the energy for profit.

But a Bee review of two other municipalities that have considered the same technology - and evaluated proposals from companies involved in the Sacramento deal - raises several red flags:

  1. The effort is faltering financially in St. Lucie County, Fla. The developer there, GeoPlasma of Atlanta, has scaled back the proposed project by at least 80 percent.
  2. Los Angeles County rejected GeoPlasma's pitch at the outset, saying financial details and performance data were lacking.
  3. Environmental experts in both locales have questioned whether toxic metals would be filtered from the waste gas produced for sale to various energy buyers.

Process Touted as Clean, Safe

The technology is alluring, scoring high in "gee-whiz" value and as an alternative to filling landfills. Gas heated to temperatures approaching those on the sun's surface vaporizes trash, producing a synthetic fuel. Also, the residual molten glass and metals can be sold as filler for road and building construction.

U.S. Science & Technology has told Sacramento the technology has been used for decades in steel plants. The group portrays the process as safe and cleaner than many other alternatives.

"We don't just want to build a facility in Sacramento to address the problem on municipal waste," the company's president, William Ludwig, said recently. "We want to give Sacramento the opportunity to be in a leadership position solving environmental problems."

The deal before the City Council would have Sacramento relying on the company to process waste at a steady flow of 2,100 tons per week.

GeoPlasma, the energy company that would build and operate the St. Lucie County plant in Florida, told officials there that the process would empty the landfill in 20 years.

Troubles with Florida Contract

That promise fell through before construction even began. Initially, the plant was to process 1,000 tons of garbage daily, gradually ramping up to 3,000 tons a day. In September, two years later, GeoPlasma announced that it would vaporize only 200 tons a day, said Chris Craft, a St. Lucie County commissioner.

The St. Lucie team also includes Alter NRG and its subsidiary, Westinghouse Plasma Corp., which would design the plant. (Alter NRG and Westinghouse are part of the Sacramento deal, and GeoPlasma once was listed as a partner here, too.)

Craft said revenue troubles, not technological ones, were rocking the deal there. For instance, he said, a plan for GeoPlasma to sell steam from the facility to a nearby Tropicana juice plant didn't materialize.

Now GeoPlasma is scrambling to find more customers for the energy and recyclable leftovers, Craft said, to keep its promise not to charge the county more than it pays for sending its trash to a landfill.

Lack of Details Sends up 'Red Flag'

In Sacramento, financial details have not been shared with the city. U.S. Science & Technology said it would not divulge that information until the council had approved a binding agreement - a demand City Councilman Steve Cohn, an attorney, recently called a "red flag."

Officials in Florida said they, too, have been in the dark, though they have not pressed for financial details.

"We don't care how they pay for it," Craft conceded. "They have to own it and finance it and operate it for 20 years. They've kept their cards close to their vest about this."

How thoroughly Sacramento city staff members have vetted U.S. Science & Technology's proposal is being probed by the City Council. After The Bee raised questions about financial ties between experts who testified before the council and companies behind the project, council members told Jim Rinehart, the city's economic development manager, to provide unbiased information.

Last year, the city issued a call for waste-to-energy proposals. A panel with members from the city and California State University, Sacramento, and University of California, Davis, evaluated the responses and focused on plasma arc gasification. Officials from the City Manager's Office, staffers from the Economic Development Department and City Council members viewed a small-scale plant in Japan, although that facility does not vaporize only garbage.

City Manager Ray Kerridge was not available Friday for an interview regarding the city's vetting process. Nor was Rinehart, who is acting as the city's point person on the project. In the past, Rinehart has said his staff has "absolutely" done thorough due diligence.

Councilman Rob Fong said that with more information to be presented, he believes the city is on the right track.

"We're very excited about the possibility of figuring out a clean way to get out of the landfill business - but we've got to do it right," Fong said. "In a perfect world, there would have been more discussion upfront. But the good news is that's happening now."

Firm's Proposal too Fuzzy for L.A.

Fuzzy financing was what kept GeoPlasma from advancing its pitch in Los Angeles County, according to Coby Skye, a county engineer who has analyzed a variety of alternative technologies.

On a scale of 0 to 100 set up by those reviewing the proposals, Skye said GeoPlasma scored 0 on "economics," 25 on "operational experience," 25 on "engineering the complete system" and 50 on "supplier credibility."

"The economic data supplied to us was not well detailed or supported," Skye said. "They had limited, pilot-scale experience managing municipal solid waste using their technology."

Over four years, Los Angeles County evaluated 28 suppliers of alternative waste technologies before settling on four of them to build pilot waste-to-energy plants, each using a different technology. Officials also selected potential sites for the plants and identified prospective energy buyers - all in preparation for county supervisors' vote on the plan, anticipated early next year.

The county sent no fewer than six representatives to inspect each of the four companies' pilot projects in Japan, Israel, Poland and England. Unlike Sacramento city officials' tour of a Japanese plant earlier this year, the Los Angeles delegation was all technical experts and no politicians.

"We looked at each stage of the process for potential breakdowns, how they prevented the operation from creating a public nuisance, and what they might need to do differently if they built in Southern California," Skye said.

They also required independent verification of air pollution data based on actual, not predicted, emissions. U.S. Science & Technology officials have not made their emissions data public, and Ludwig did not provide comment on Friday.

Disagreeing on Potential Dangers

Environmental concerns extend beyond what comes out of the plant stack to the safety of the gas produced for sale, said Thomas Cahill, an air pollution expert and retired UC Davis atmospherics physics professor.

The combination of super-high heat, chlorine-rich paper and plastics waste and metals in an oxygen-poor environment creates a particularly toxic gas that Cahill likened to what wafted off the smoldering World Trade Center. Cahill analyzed emissions in the aftermath of 9/11 in a groundbreaking scientific report.

When that gas is sold to be burned, say at a power plant, it could emit ultrafine particles of nickel, lead and other toxic metals that can lodge deep in the lungs, enter the bloodstream and raise the risk of a heart attack, Cahill said.

"If you were near a power plant that burned this, you would be in serious trouble," he said.

U.S. Science & Technology officials, however, disputed Cahill's conclusions, saying that references to the World Trade Center are "completely inappropriate."

Plasma gasification operates at higher temperatures in a controlled environment. Synthetic gas created by the process would be cleaned, so it is equivalent to natural gas in purity, said Nick Narsavidze, a company vice president, in an e-mailed statement.

"These details will be heavily scrutinized by experts through the environmental permitting process," Narsavidze said. "We will work through the environmental processes to ensure that all aspects of the process are safe for our neighbors and the community at large."

But in a 2007 evaluation of plasma arc gasification, Florida state environmental officials also noted that the high temperatures could "increase the concentrations of volatile metals" in the resulting gas. The Florida report said the technology shows promise but falls short on data to determine its viability or safety.

"There is insufficient information available to know if this technology will be successful treating large volumes of (trash) on a continuous basis," the report concluded.