The Great Debate at the Biomass Forum

The California Biomass Collaborative staged a two day conference on Biomass in the middle of UC Davis 2011 Energy Week, addressing a rapt audience of about 100 people… many of whom already knew each other, the usual suspects who have been hammering away at improving biomass utilization over the years. Shoulder-rubbing was encouraged, and just enough actual progress was reported to keep everyone listening.

The highlight of the event was the “Urban Organic Residuals’ Place in California’s Low Carbon Fuel and Renewable Energy Standards” Panel. The audience was reminded at the beginning that the building was equipped with fire sprinklers, and to put our electronics under out tables if Panel sparks set off the in-door rainfall. And then the Fight Began… Not really, folks; everyone was cool and civilized. Well, almost. But that’s the story of the Great Debate.

The Great Debate

Like I said, the Really Big Fun was the four-way moderated brawl between representatives for Covanta, Plasco, CEERT and CAW over what sort of MSW (municipal solid waste) conversion Is and Is Not, Should and Should Not, MUST NOW or NEVER CAN be considered “renewable”.

Let’s break it down: The moderator had given each combatant Four Questions in advance (we didn’t get to know the queries until Show Time). And pardon the paraphrasing, ’cause I still don’t have the Exact Questions in hand as this is written up…

Q1: Are thermal Conversion Technologies (CTs) ready for Prime Time implementation, renewable energy certification and permitting as acceptable resource recovery methods in California, and if not, why the &%@*! not?? (I warned you that I’d be paraphrasing…)

Q2: Do CTs offer improved green house gas (GHG) reduction for MSW management, compared to constantly paying to stomp our resources into a Big Hole, frantically trying to catch the methane that’s escaping, and then forever paying to maintain the whole pile? (Oh wait, they called that “Landfilling”)

Q3: In California regulations, direct combustion of MSW is considered “transformation”, and as such the electricity generated is not considered “renewable”. California now seems to favor gasification over combustion WtE. Is this approach Good, Bad or Ugly?

Q4: What is “Zero Waste”, now and in the future? How does this concept play out for carbon management, environmental impact minimization, GHG reduction, recycling, composting, packaging, manufacturer’s responsibility, the Inconvenience of Change to societal habits… and what does it all mean, Alfie?

I’ll tell ya, the back-and-forth got me seriously dizzy, the detailed responses had us all tuned in, and the room temperature went up like at a Saturday Night bar-fight. Nobody left the room.

Now, given the Players, you might rightly guess the jist of an awful lot of the responses; everybody pretty much stuck to their Party Line. Yet these guys are nobody’s fools, all very experienced and deeply committed, and some excellent insight came from each in turn. Let’s just hit some of the better zingers, by the Numbers.

Q1: CTs for Prime Time

CEERT expressed honest suspicion that there was always a lot of over-promise, and under-performance, and that when it came down to it, cleanliness was always a matter of the daily Operations & Maintenance (We agree: you can run any system well, or poorly).

Covanta reflected that with the rash of new EPA regs landing on the Industry, the tableau was changing toward a far more tightly controlled framework, establishing clear differences between older technologies and advanced, state-of-the-art conversion.

CAW voiced the common concerns that (a) implementing CTs would disadvantage our Recycling Industry, and (b) that the difference between “incineration” and “gasification” was in reality only going from One-Step Burning to Two-Step Burning. (We sorta agree, but wish CAW had followed up with some thought about what happens between Step One and Step Two… the ability to intercept, test and modify that syngas prior to final use – combustive or otherwise – makes ALL the difference in the world, and defines “conversion”).

Plasco offered that of course CTs are ready for the Big Time, but much remains to be done; piping that syngas to feed a Fuel Cell would take the currently minor emissions down to almost Zero.

Q2: CTs and GHG Reduction

CAW made it clear that both thermal and microbial conversion technologies offer better GHG control than landfilling, but that with 15% of our MSW being Food Waste, we need to put the current focus on getting anaerobic digestion systems up and running. The next most common biomass in MSW is wood, and it will always be a good candidate for thermal conversion (of course, waste-sourced wood is an EPA sore spot right now).

CEERT agreed that AD was best for food waste, but cautioned that we need more attention to both the data and the assumptions: CTs may be best for energy, and still not be the best answer overall. There was reminder to Reduce, then Reuse, then Recycle, before we consider last-step alternatives to disposal (Alternatives like, perhaps Waste Conversion for Resource Recovery?).

Plasco argued for heuristics: CTs fit in at Community Scale, and greatly reduce transport impacts and costs, while everything else requires a whole lot of send-it-over-there. When we manage the post-recycling residuals locally, at scales of maybe 200 to 400 tons per day, we avoid shipping tonnage to those remote Big Holes in the Ground.

Covanta laid down the bet that once we really take a holistic approach and internalize all the associated impacts, cradle to grave, local conversion will come out on top.

Q3: Conversion, Transformation, and the Adequacy of State Standards

Covanta led in with the simple statement that you can’t tell if our standards are inadequate or not, because they just keep changing. Developers and Agencies alike can never tell whether what is proposed today will meet the standards by the time it is built, because our regulatory platform is build on shifting sand.

Plasco lit into the PRC “criteria”, calling for performance based, not prescriptive, set of standards and conditions… then announced their New Baby: both CalRecycle and CEC had pre-certified their conversion technology for their Salinas Valley project as an “eligible renewable energy generation facility”.

CAW offered the ominous if obscure opinion that “if you want Diversion Credit, you are going to have to go Above and Beyond”… (beyond what, please tell us)

About here, CEERT showed signs of Angst… “What is the Policy Basis? WHO KNOWS??”… and gave the Dire Warning of the Day: “The Environmental Community is Loading Up, and this isn’t gonna be any fun, no fun at all…” (watch Teru Talk for more on this, fo’ sure)

To which Plasco (God bless ‘em) replied, “Oh, I don’t know… I happen to think it’s gonna be a whole lotta fun…” (queue Wild Cheering).

Q4: Zero Waste

After the confetti began to settle, Covanta offered that Zero Waste must be a community-specific determination taking into account real-world local economics as well as lofty societal goals.

Plasco asked, where do you draw the line? When is the cost of returning that last drop of resource back into the marketplace by Reduce-Reuse-Recycle just too much? Perhaps in these crunch times, most communities are already past that magic line. Right now, we need “every arrow in our quiver” to get to Zero, and that has to include CTs.

CAW met Covanta’s earlier bet, that on an LCA basis, Recycling still is less costly than Conversion, and upped the ante with the need to put less in that Black Bin in the first place.

CEERT agreed on that point: Make Less Waste. Oh, and while we’re at it, remap the entire MSW management scenario for this state. Then came the Reality Check, one a lot of us recognize in our Heart of Hearts – this is a political decision, and we just don’t know yet what our New Governor is going to do.

Parting Shots

Take it to the Street- Clearly, we have needed to get these differences of opinion out in the open; they’ve festered in the dark and damp recesses for far too long. Kudos are due to the CBC for the whole Magilla, but especially for the Great Debate. And honestly, folks, I have to hand it to all four Panel Contestants… ah, Participants. Well done, one and all.

© JDMT, Inc 2011. All rights reserved. You are free to reprint and use this article as long as no changes are made to its content or references, and credit is given to the author.