Garbage In, Power Out in Ottawa
Ottawa takes its garbage seriously. Anyone who lives there or visits often knows that. As either house guest or cafeteria diner, you get used to sorting garbage, with any manner of recycling being removed first, followed by an aggressive composting sort.
Ottawa takes its garbage seriously. Anyone who lives there or visits often knows that. As either house guest or cafeteria diner, you get used to sorting garbage, with any manner of recycling being removed first, followed by an aggressive composting sort. When done right, as is the case at my brother’s place in suburban Stittsville, very little makes it into the actual garbage can. Now our nation’s capital has plans to divert even that away from methane-spewing landfill.
In one of the boldest renewable energy moves in 2012, Ottawa mayor Jim Watson and the city’s council have signed a long-term waste supply contract with Plasco Energy Group. At first blush it appears to be a solid win-win move for company and community.
In explaining the city’s support for the project in a blog in late 2011, Watson did not mince words.
“No one wants the next landfill anywhere near their neighbourhood. Nor does anyone around this table want to think about where they will find the quarter of a billion dollars required to locate and build the next landfill facility in our city.”
Plasco’s system gasifies the waste and refines the resulting gas using plasma technology. Clean, synthetic gas created from the waste fuels General Electric Jenbacher internal combustion engines. Together with a steam turbine driven by heat recovered from the process, these produce approximately 15 megawatts of net electricity that will be sold to the grid. Residual solids are refined using plasma to produce slag that the company says meets requirements for a range of applications, including construction aggregates and abrasives. Moisture in the waste is recovered, cleaned and made available for reuse in the community. In short, garbage in, anything but garbage out.
So what is the risk to the city? Short term, there appears to be none. Plasco developed the technology and tested it at the commercial pilot scale without direct investment from the city. They will scale up to full commercial on a site leased from the City of Ottawa, consuming almost 110,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, again without direct city investment. Should the project launch successfully as planned in 2015, the city will pay Plasco $83.25 per tonne of garbage used, indexed to inflation.
The high negative value of the feedstock is obviously a major factor in Plasco’s business model, providing the company with over $9 million annually before a single kilowatt of power is generated. In essence, Ottawa is “renting” landfill space for $763,000 a month. Yet the city also sees substantial benefits, as Watson explains in his blog.
“The city will benefit by sharing in Plasco revenue, it will benefit by increasing the life of our landfill, and it will benefit directly through increased economic diversification. And let me tell you I have seen my share of divisive and never-ending debates about where to locate ‘the next landfill’ in our community.”
Ottawa also benefits by taking the high road when it comes to waste management, greenhouse gas reduction, and renewable energy development. Yet, there is a business case as well. NIMBY issues aside, by delaying the need to build a new landfill by up to 28 years, Ottawa avoids the estimated $250 million in capital required to do so.
If Plasco’s and other technologies prove out (see Andrew Macklin’s cover story on Enerkem’s Edmonton plant on page 18), we can hope that this landfill expansion is postponed indefinitely. In that case, this bold move will have been paid for simply by avoiding the debt charges on a new landfill.
Scott Jamieson is the founding editor and current editorial director of Canadian Biomass, and is based in Simcoe, Ont., where the smokestacks of one of Ontario’s last running coal-fired power plants can be seen on the horizon, and garbage is sadly still just garbage.