Plasco puts trash gasification plant on hold after state declines to redefine renewables.
Thursday, August 30, 2012
The 30 million tons of garbage Californians cart of to landfills every year will keep piling up for a while. Ottawa-based Plasco Energy Group is halting plans to build a gasification plant in Gonzales, shifting its focus to projects outside the U.S. – and experts say the entire industry is likely going with it.
That’s because of a recent reversal by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery on gasification technology, in which trash is super-heated into gas, then passes through lightning-hot plasma, leaving clean carbon, oxygen and hydrogen to burn as fuel.
Whether that fuel qualifies as green energy has been a point of contention – and one that brought Plasco head-to-head with Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville.
In 2010, CalRecycle delivered a legal opinion on gasification, which helped Plasco earn pre-certification from the California Energy Commission as a green energy source. That would’ve allowed Plasco to sell power for a premium, which the company needed to make the plant cost-effective.
After CalRecycle Director Carroll Mortensen reneged in May, withdrawing the pre-approval, Plasco lobbied state legislators to carve out an exception. But with the legislative session ending Aug. 31 and no bill on the floor by the deadline, Mortensen’s opinion stands.
Plasco paid the Sacramento lobbying firm KP Public Affairs $100,000 to make their case for a “carve-out” to the standing renewable energy definition. But Plasco still didn’t find lawmakers willing to author the bill.
That’s because Alejo urged them not to. Plasco and KP approached several legislators, including state Sens. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo and Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres; and Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Carmel.
Alejo says several of his colleagues inquired about the bill. He says it’s protocol for legislators to get buy-in from a local representative before sponsoring a bill. “I let them know what my concerns were and then, out of respect, they decided not to carry it,” he says.
“THEY WANT THE EXEMPTION BEFORE THEY PROVE THE TECHNOLOGY WORKS.”
A June draft of the proposed carve-out began: “A facility engaged in the thermal conversion of municipal solid waste shall not be considered an eligible renewable resource unless it is located in Monterey County.”
“Once they’d find out it’s only my district, why would they carry that?” Alejo says. He says he’s supportive of Plasco pursuing the environmental impact report, which would perhaps mitigate some of his concerns about air emissions. “They want to have the exemption before they prove their technology works,” he says.
But for Plasco, which has already sunk millions into the Gonzales project, it’s a business decision. Plasco Senior Vice President Alisdair McLean says investors, including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, won’t wait around forever.
“We’ve decided it’s irresponsible to continue to spend our investors’ money trying to develop a project in California,” he says.
For Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority General Manager Patrick Mathews, it’s a disappointment to see Plasco pull the plug – especially because he feels the state’s definition of gasification is outdated.
“The regulations are scientifically incorrect, and they’re vague,” Mathews says. “As long as they remain the way they are, they are subject to interpretation by people who are for or against these technologies, and that’s the kind of political game being played.”