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Orlando thinking ahead on trash

From the Orlando Sentinel:

If Orlando leaders get their way, your trash will eventually be used to power your refrigerator and TV.

City officials are working on a plan to build a high-tech plant capable of taking plastic, food scraps and other household garbage, extracting a flammable gas and piping it to the Orlando Utilities Commission to fuel its power plant. A test plant — which could lead to a bigger operation capable of taking all of the area’s garbage — could start construction in as little as 18 months.

For the city, the advantages are clear: energy without the pollution that comes from coal and natural gas, and a way to divert old shoes and dirty diapers from a landfill that costs tens of millions to expand. “The environmental benefits are numerous,” said Orlando Public Works Director Alan Oyler.

But it’s far from a sure thing. The technology is unproved; there’s not a single plant of this type operating in the United States.

How it works

It’s called “waste-to-energy gasification.” Instead of paying Orange County to bury the city’s trash at the landfill, Orlando’s garbage trucks would dump their loads at an as-yet unbuilt gas plant. A private company would remove recyclables such as aluminum, then feed the rest into a super-hot sealed chamber.

The heated trash would release a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide — so called “syngas” — which would be used to fuel a turbine generator at OUC’s nearby power plant.

Because the process wouldn’t produce the carbon emissions found in fossil fuels, OUC could count the power it produces from the garbage gas as “renewable energy.” As pressure grows to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, state and federal officials are expected to eventually require that a percentage of all electricity come from renewable sources.

The project is a partnership between Orlando, Orange County and OUC. Orlando supplies the trash, the county supplies land at the dump for the gas plant, and OUC buys the gas that is produced. A private company chosen by the partners would incur the expense of building and operating the plant.

OUC may need a new generator to burn the gas, but a utility administrator said that won’t be known for sure until later this year, when the partners receive specific proposals from private companies interested in the project.

Stumbling blocks

Orlando officials have been enthusiastic about the project for nearly two years, and OUC officials long ago said they were willing to buy the gas. But county officials, who control the landfill, have slowed the project, in part because they worry the technology won’t work.

It’s a legitimate concern. Gasification plants are operating in Europe and Canada, including a test plant in Ottawa rated to process as much as 85 tons of unsorted garbage a day. But though some plants in the U.S. use specific types of trash, such as carpet scraps, there are none processing municipal garbage. Trash is an unpredictable energy source; some produces more gas than others. And wet material — such as food scraps or rain-soaked refuse — takes more energy to process.

A plant in St. Lucie County has been delayed while its developer tries to secure a commitment from a utility willing to buy its gas. Another in Sacramento, Calif., faces questions about its finances and its untested technology. Locally, Ocala is in early discussions about partnering with a private company to build a plant as it runs out of room at its landfill.

Orange County officials still aren’t completely sold on the idea. But the county recently agreed to allow a demonstration plant to be built at the landfill. Orlando residents and businesses produce about 427 tons of trash a day, and as much as three-quarters of it could go to the test plant.

‘The perfect opportunity’

“We’re hopeful this technology will be the answer in the future for garbage disposal,” county utilities director Mike Chandler said.

Oyler thinks a plant has a good chance of succeeding.

Other cities “don’t have the perfect opportunity that we have here in Orlando. Our perfect opportunity is the landfill exists, there’s space at the landfill we can use, the power plant is right next door and has already said, ‘Sign us up — we’ll take it.'”

Oyler said several companies have expressed interest in building a plant here at a cost likely in the tens of millions — so they can prove to other cities and counties that their technology works.

Once other jurisdictions see that proof, more waste-to-energy projects will spring up, Oyler predicts.

“Everybody is dying to be second,” he said.

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