After Plasco leaves Gonzales, another gasification startup eyes Fort Hunter Liggett for pilot project.

Keeping Current: An electrician completes connections on the newest phase of an $18 million solar micro-grid at Fort Hunter Liggett.

The Humvees at Fort Hunter Liggett are just a few cogs in the U.S. Department of Defense’s massive network of power hogs, making the DOD the country’s single largest energy consumer – to the tune of $4 billion a year. 

Hunter Liggett is one of six bases nationwide that’s been selected as a net-zero pilot, part of the DOD’s vision for a greener – and potentially safer – future. 

To pilot the possibilities, Hunter Liggett is putting finishing touches on a 2-megawatt solar grid, and has plans for a trash-to-energy gasification unit in an old recycling warehouse.

In November, DOD’s Environmental Security Technology Certification Program approved $3 million for the FastOx Pathfinder System made by Davis-based Sierra Energy. 

“What’s exciting about this project is it addresses both net-zero energy and net-zero waste,” says Susan Clizbe, spokesperson for U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Hunter Liggett. 

Sierra Energy formed in 2004, when CEO Mike Hart, who also owns Sierra Railroad Company, learned about the technology while serving as a judge for UC Davis’ Big Bang! business plan competition.

The DOD in 2009 picked Sierra to build a demonstration project at a testing site in Sacramento. The Hunter Liggett project would be the company’s first commercial unit. 

The plan was announced just three months after Ottawa-based Plasco Energy backed out of a proposed gasification plant, backed by the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority, in Gonzales. 

Bioenergy industry leaders are hopeful this one will actually get built – this time on federal land. State opposition stalled Plasco, which failed to get the California Department of Transportation’s blessing. 

“Having a plant like this helps with the mentality of, ‘I’m not going to buy it unless I can kick the tires,’” SVSWA General Manager Patrick Mathews says. “We’re watching it closely.” 

So are some of the activists who opposed Plasco on the grounds that its location in a poor Latino community was an environmental injustice, and that the technology was unproven. 

“The federal government didn’t bother to notify members of the public who clearly were interested,” Greenaction Director Bradley Angel says. 

Angel and Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonsville, plan to request meetings with Sierra Energy and Fort Hunter Liggett officials in coming weeks. 

“I’m skeptical, because similar technology has not proven itself anywhere else in the U.S.,” Alejo says.

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Hart knows what he’s getting into when it comes to public relations. At a recent bioenergy conference, a presenter put up slides of newspaper excerpts and public comments against Plasco.

“What happened to Plaso wasn’t fair,” Hart says. “They weren’t reasonable arguments.” 

Hart’s hopeful that Sierra’s technology, a modernized blast furnace originally developed by Kaiser Steel, proves to be superior to competitors’. 

The FastOx injects steam and oxygen into a chamber and then superheats upon reacting with carbon contained in the trash itself. The reaction produces energy, recyclable metals and a smooth rocky solid called “slag,” which can be used in construction. 

“If we can show turning waste into energy makes economic sense,” Hart says, “then we’ve opened a whole new pathway for the industry worldwide.”

This story has been updated to reflect the following correction; there are no operational tanks at Fort Hunter Liggett.

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