State Sends Mixed Signals Over Future Of Plasco; CalRecycle Reversal Could Kill Gonzales Plant.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
The process sounds almost like science fiction: Trash is super-heated into gas, which passes through lightning-hot plasma, leaving clean carbon, oxygen and hydrogen to burn as fuel.
But regulation might signal the end of gasification in California before the industry even heats up.
Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority is partly through an environmental impact review of Plasco Energy Group’s proposed trash-to-energy facility in Gonzales, under the watchful eye of state lawmakers and regulators who see a place for gasification in the future of California’s clean-energy portfolio.
“This is a critical test case for gasification,” says Jim Stewart, chair of the BioEnergy Producers Association.
Stewart’s feeling pessimistic about the future of the trash-zapping technology in California because of mixed signals from the state. In a May 23 letter to Plasco Senior Vice President Alisdair McLean, California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery Director Caroll Mortensen reneged on the department’s 2010 legal opinion that the proposed plant would meet California’s definition of gasification.
Backed by the 2010 CalRecycle opinion, Plasco received pre-certification from the California Energy Commission as a green energy source. That meant it would qualify as part of the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, allowing Plasco to sell its power for a premium.
Without that premium, the project is a no-go for Plasco.
“If we lose RPS eligibility, we cannot build a plant in Gonzales that’s going to be economically viable,” McLean says.
SVSWA’s board selected Plasco over other gasification vendors largely because of the Ottawa-based company’s lower price point, attributed to the higher rates Plasco could get with RPS certification.
Environmental and eco-justice groups view the CalRecycle reversal as a victory. Asamblea de Poder Popular de Gonzales, along with five other groups, warned Mortensen on Jan. 23 of their intent to filed a petition alleging the department had been too loose with its interpretation of gasification as a zero-emissions technology.
CalRecycle spokesman Mark Oldfield says the new opinion is just part of CalRecycle’s routine reviews, though the department hasn’t issued any similar opinions.
McLean and SVSWA General Manager Patrick Mathews are hopeful that a handwritten note scrawled at the bottom of a June 1 letter from Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive secretary for legislation signals Brown’s willingness to stand up to CalRecycle.
“We can make this work,” secretary Nancy McFadden wrote to McLean.
Prior to her appointment to the Brown administration, McFadden served for five years as a senior vice president at Pacific Gas & Electric. In her letter, McFadden pledges the governor’s support for legislation that would allow Plasco’s project to proceed, at least on a pilot basis.
Mathews has been meeting with the California Conversion Technology Coalition, an informal group of solid waste agencies, private recyclers and environmental groups. They’re working to ensure legislative and permitting pathways for projects like Plasco’s hold up.
Mathews is hoping for new guidelines for renewables, including trash gasification.
“The regulations were written in a way that aren’t scientifically correct,” he says. “The Legislature did not intend to create a standard that no one could comply with.”