Two municipal jurisdictions in Southern California are nipping at the heels of integrated waste management in this country with plans to utilize waste-to-clean-energy (WTCE) conversion technologies (non-incineration thermal, chemical, biological, or mechanical conversion processes, singly or in combination, that produce a clean-burning fuel to generate electricity and/or renewable fuel and excluding mass burn technology) to reduce landfill volume. The city of Los Angeles’s Sunshine Landfill is nearing capacity, and Los Angeles County’s large Puente Hills landfill is scheduled for a 2013 closure, and each is working to meet mandated diversion requirements, reduce environmental effects including greenhouse gases, and-perhaps most significantly-mine that renewable energy potential to be in solid waste.
Implementing this approach has required fundamental changes in institutional philosophy, innovative financing arrangements, public perception about how waste is handled and solid infusions of political will. Both are driven by a fundamental shift in philosophy away from the concept of waste disposal toward resource recovery.
Since the facilities the city and county are planning could potentially be the first of their kind in the state, a key objective is to demonstrate the technical, environmental, and economic benefits of WTCE technologies and forge permitting and legislative pathways that will ease the way for future installations.
In 2004, the Los Angeles City Council adopted Renew LA, a 20-year resource management blueprint that stipulates recovery and beneficial use of the residential waste the city is currently landfilling and sets an overall landfill diversion rate of 90% by 2025. Driven by population and commercial growth, the city is currently disposing of roughly the same amount of trash as it did in 1990-14,000 tons per day-despite a recycling program that has achieved the highest diversion rate in the country among cities of a million population or more.
“We believe we should make use of the energy potential of the material we currently landfill,” says Bureau of Sanitation Deputy Director Alex Helou.” And we see conversion technology as the way to do that.” Not to be left behind, Los Angeles County has initiated its own waste-to-energy program.
As defined by the California Integrated Waste Management Board, a zero-waste philosophy is based on a number of elements, fundamental of which is the management of materials to their highest and best use and harnessing the energy potential of waste into green fuel, gas, and/or electricity and various useful chemicals. Because the municipality of Los Angeles considers the highest and best use of its recyclables the income it generates on the international commodities market, its plans a two-prong approach that includes continued expansion of its recycling program and conversion of post-recycled black-bin waste to renewable energy that will support the Department of Water and Power’s mandate to achieve 20% renewable energy production by 2015.
“We’re approaching this from two different directions, says Helou. “With recycling, we’re currently achieving 72% diversion, and we believe with the expansion of that program we can reach 80% to 84%. That’s just through recycling alone. The remaining 15% to 20% of the waste will go to alternative technology facilities with a small 5% or less post-processing residual going to a landfill.”
Meanwhile the Los Angeles County Department of Public Work’s Environmental Programs Division is envisioning a more holistic model whereby recyclables will be sorted and retained and remanufactured locally using energy derived from waste-to-energy conversion technology. The county’s concept will locate sophisticated materials recovery facilities together with conversion facilities and, where possible, site them at existing landfills to take advantage of readily available feedstock, existing preprocessing capacity, zoning, and available land for development, thereby reducing environmental and transportation costs. George Gitschel, CEO of a company called Ecolution, which has recently negotiated an MOA with the Southern California city of Lancaster to develop a patent-pending GreenStream conversion technology preprocessing MRF, describes what the county’s concept could look like in operation.
“We’ve taken the approach that 90% of everything in the wastestream has a value-either a commodity value or an energy value. Our system separates out the recyclable materials, then we take the foodwaste and greenwaste and run it through a patented preprocess into an anaerobic digester that turns it into biomethane and soil amendment. We can take the biomethane and clean it and put it through CNG or LNG transformation and into the pipeline or use it to power an IC engine or for biodiesel.
“We can take woodwaste and convert it into energy with a biomass plant or put it into RDF along with the textiles and little bits of pieces of paper and plastic and convert that into energy. What we end up with is 85% to 95%-plus diversion from the landfill, and all this using existing material separation technology. The ultimate goal is to co-partner with strategic green collar manufacturing companies that will co-locate on our site-a whole manufacturing complex based on this aboveground mining system and powered by the green energy we produce onsite, which also powers the transportation vehicles that deliver the waste.”
What Gitschel describes is essentially what the WTCE industry is calling an “Eco Park,” in which all waste is either recycled or converted onsite. “The key to this kind of approach, says, Dr. Eugene Tseng, head of the UCLA Engineering Extension Recycling/MSW Management Certification Program and Professor, Mechanical Engineering Department at California State University Northridge, “is to include a range of technologies based on the goal of what you want to produce and the various kinds of waste you will use to produce it. As the preprocessing front end, MRFs will have to be redesigned to deal with changes in the composition of
“Each type of conversion technology has a preference for certain components in the mixed MSW stream. Materials that would be considered non-processable in a biochemical/biological conversion technology would be ideal feedstock material in a thermochemical/thermal conversion technology. For example, plastic is not readily biodegradable in a biochemical conversion technology such as anaerobic digestion but would be an ideal source of high-fuel content feedstock for a thermochemical gasification conversion facility.
“Conversion technology project developers need to recognize the different types of preparation and operations required to produce a preferred feedstock for their selected technology and sort for this. If thermal gasification is being used, the inorganic (metals, glass, etc.) portion of the waste stream would be sorted out because it doesn’t have a high fuel value. Likewise, plastic, textiles and leather aren’t suitable for a biological process such as anaerobic digestion because they decompose so slowly.
“Preprocessing improves the reliability of overall systems performance. For thermal gasification, the goal of preprocessing will be to concentrate on the high-value heat content materials such as paper, plastics, et cetera, while removing high-moisture, low-heat-content materials (foodwaste, glass, metals) to create a feedstock of homogeneous size and mixed material that has consistent heating value, and most importantly for thermal gasification conversion technology projects, so the emissions will be improved.
“These kind of sophisticated material recovery facilities are in use in Asia and in Europe where, because the countries are signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, nothing that can biodegrade and create greenhouse gases can be disposed of in a landfill. They’re the centerpieces of this kind of integrated waste management approach, where you design the MRF not only to optimize the feedstock but also to minimize emissions. The trend is to automate as much as possible. This reduces work injury, which is a social and environmental justice issue, and reduces human error, which is important when you’re trying to get a feedstock that’s processed and optimized. And it’s not just about recovering energy. Energy tends to be one of the lowest value products. Chemicals like ethanol and methanol are worth a whole lot more.”
“One of the benefits of co-locating a conversion facility with a MRF,” says LA County Conversion Technology Project Manager Coby Skye, “is the MRF has been in the business of separating out and marketing products for years, in some cases, decades. Now there will be another suite of materials to market, and the MRF provides both flexibility and the opportunity to really tailor what we send to the market or to the conversion facility. Let’s say the price of commingled paper drops significantly as it did in ’08 through ’09 when a lot of paper ended up being disposed of in landfills because it sat so long it degraded and couldn’t be recycled. With this kind of an operation, we’ll have the opportunity to convert that material and not waste it.
“What it amounts to is if you have a full material recovery facility upfront, you’re not only pulling out the materials for higher and better use; you have increased this flexibility, additional revenue stream, and you’re providing a much better feedstock for the conversion process, which boosts its efficiency.”
The City of the Angels
In 2002, the city of Los Angeles generated 9.3 million tons of waste, diverted 5.8 million tons, and otherwise disposed of 3.5 million tons. To address the 3.5 million residual, the city plans seven regional conversion technology facilities, one each in the city’s six refuse collection districts and one sited as opportunity presents. The plan is for initial facilities to process 500 to 750 tons per day and subsequently expand to 1,250 to 3,000 tons per day, generating, depending on the mix of technologies developed, 100 to 430 MW of renewable energy toward the Department of Water and Power’s renewable energy goal.
The city evaluated 140 different technology vendors, whittling it down to three finalists, and last year the Board of Public Works authorized the Bureau of Sanitation to begin negotiations with Rye, NY-based Green Conversion Systems for a 1,000 TPD commercial scale advanced thermal recycling facility that will produce approximately 20 MW of electricity. The facility also features an air-treatment system that will meet the city’s strict air-quality requirements, including 5 ppm in nitrogen oxides, and the necessary upfront presorting system that will sort any residual recyclables from black-bin waste. Green Conversion Systems will front the estimated $250 million to $400 million construction cost and operate the facility. The city will pay a tipping fee for 20 years, at which time it can exercise a purchase option.
Critical to the success of the operation is that the city can supply the reliable, consistent feedstock the facility requires, because it controls residential MSW collection through a combination of its own staff and 128 permitted private haulers. Economics, however, may be another matter. According to the city’s Renew LA blueprint, the city’s landfill tipping fees are still in the range of $20 to $30 per ton, perhaps the lowest of any US metropolitan area, whereas conversion technology installation tipping fees are likely to be somewhere around $50 per ton. However, the report further stipulates that a true cost/benefit analysis would include negative “externalities” of transportation and health impacts, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and future liabilities balanced against the positives of “homegrown” renewable fuel and energy and resource conservation. It goes on to say that taking these into consideration would make landfill disposal much more expensive than a new system of WTCE facilities designed for maximum resource recovery.
Additionally the city makes the argument that what’s being implemented is not a plan for long-term solutions which will not ultimately compete with cheap local landfills but with the transfer/long-haul by truck or rail that will replace them when they reach capacity, which it calculates will cost $60 per ton in current dollars and make conversion technology facilities not only competitive but cheaper.
Los Angeles County
Los Angeles County includes 88 cities and 134 unincorporated communities for a combined population of more than 10 million. Currently residents and businesses generate 24 million tons of trash a day, and the county has developed the largest and most complex solid waste management system in the country to handle this load, with over 140 permitted waste haulers, 28 large transfer stations/material recovery facilities, 11 solid waste landfills, 11 inert waste landfills and 350 recyclers. Fifty percent of the 24 million tons of waste LA County generates is currently being diverted through source separation and recycling, which leaves 12 million tons of trash headed for its dwindling landfill space at the rate of 40,000 tons per day.
As its first step toward addressing this situation, in 2004, the county contracted with an outside consultant to conduct a preliminary evaluation of conversion technologies and suppliers and began identifying MRFs and transfer stations that could potentially host WTCE facilities. In Phase III of its Southern California Conversion Technology Demonstration Project, three pilot projects were green-lighted. Given the economy and other complications, only one is on track for development, a 150-ton-per-day anaerobic digestion facility proposed by CR&R Inc., a local solid waste management company, and supported in part by a $4.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission.
The project will separate the wet biodegradable organics from the wastestream, feed these to an anaerobic digestion system to create biogas that can be further processed into pipeline quality natural gas or compressed natural gas. According to the county, the company is also exploring additional options to use some of the biogas in an engine or fuel cell to generate onsite power and/or for sale. Current projections have the project scheduled to break ground this year and be up and running two years from now.
In the meantime, the city of Lancaster, in partnership with Ecolution, has leapfrogged the demonstration project phase in its proposal to develop a commercial scale facility that will feature a sophisticated single-stream MRF that will separate feedstock for use in an onsite energy production facility as well as to produce additional marketable commodities.
“Our focus has always been agnostic in terms of technology,” says Syke. “Whether the technology is biological or chemical or thermal, our position has been that it has to be proven to convert residual solid waste into energy or fuel or other product without combustion.” According to Ecolution’s Gitschel, the Lancaster facility will use off-the-shelf technology combined in its unique way to separate 20 different categories of materials into marketable recyclables, wet and dry organic waste, electronic waste, household hazardous waste, and such inert materials as concrete, rocks, or soil. Initial processing capacity will be 200 tons per day, eventually expanding to 4,000 tons per day.
“Because of their sophisticated sorting process,” says Skye, “they can partner with any number of a broad spectrum of conversion technologies. That’s actually the ideal situation, because we’re promoting local production and green manufacturing in addition to creating energy and green jobs.
“The systems will mutually benefit one another. For example, the thermal conversion process will pull air from the MRF, which means you’re minimizing odors and creating air circulation, and the energy produced will offset the high energy demand of the processing, and you can process and treat any wastewater that comes with the waste.”
Plans call for selling 12 high-value recyclables into already established commodity markets (Gitschel says Ecolution already has brokerage chains established for all grades of plastic, fiber, glass, and metals as well as a strategic alliance with a company that remanufactures bottle plastic into food-contact packaging containers) and is in the process of locating the 40 acres it will need to include additional onsite conversion operations.
“They’re going to provide a preference for companies that will actually develop a facility located with their MRF and conversion plant,” says Skye. “So they can actually have recycling and remanufacturing locally rather than shipping it out of the country. So we will have a fully integrated facility, a real Eco Park model that is not just recovering materials but also actually using them for manufacture locally. And as the economy turns around, and as China and India are booming and the demand for fuel increases exponentially, we’re going to see the pressure build again for local renewable alternatives for our transportation fleets and energy usage. We’re excited that we will be part of that.”
Key will be setting up agreements for supplying the wastestream. The two landfills in the Antelope Valley are owned by Waste Management, which is the franchise hauler for the city and most of the valley for both commercial and residential. On the other hand, the county is the permitting authority on the landfills and a condition of WM’s Lancaster permit is that the operator must either provide funding for conversion technology or develops its own facility. And in addition to host fees to Lancaster, Ecolution is planning a “feeder fee” to municipalities that provide waste to its facility.
“Economics is probably the primary driver.” says Skye. “We’ve actually had landfill rates decrease because of the glut of capacity created by the economic downturn. If landfills are very cheap, it will difficult to sell these projects even with all the environmental benefits. But as we get projects developed and figure out the value for renewable fuels and the value for the carbon credit, we can further reduce the price to where it’s even less than the landfill price. I hope to reach that point in the next five to 10 years. Right now we’re seeing tipping fees for conversion technology facilities right about where MRF and certain landfill costs are. Given the value for the renewable fuels and for the carbon credits, we can even further reduce that.” (The county predicts that tipping fee for its Puente Hills landfill will be $45 a ton at the time of closure and the gate fee for the rail-haul disposal that will replace it will be $70 a ton by 2018 and $100 a ton by 2023, figures it considers competitive with potential initial operating fees for a conversion technology facility at $50 to $70 a ton. Nonetheless, its 2007 report suggests that it might do well to be prepared to anticipate a need to “bridge the economic gap” as conversion technology facilities get up and running.)
“Back in 2008, I had the idea that within five to 10 years we’d be cost competitive,” says Skye. “But the financial downturn has pushed that date back. With the economy starting to recover, however, and with the close of the Puente Hills landfill, I think we’re very close.“Another problem will be if these facilities are permitted as disposal facilities, and their energy is not counted as renewable, and if they have to compete with natural-gas power plants with cheap natural-gas prices, that will be problematic. There is also the matter of public support. We’ve made significant strides in increasing awareness of conversion technology and how effectively it’s working in other countries. But each community may have different priorities. Some will want to focus on costs, others on community benefits such as the number of jobs created.”