Normative Narratives

Green News: Army Program to Test Waste-to-Fuel Viability

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Continuing the narrative on the potential of turning waste-to-energy, an Army program will offer a natural experiment of the economic viability of the concept (original article).

THERE is an indisputable elegance to the idea of transforming garbage into fuel, of turning icky, smelly detritus into something valuable.

But big drawbacks have prevented the wholesale adoption of trash-to-gas technology in the United States: incineration is polluting, and the capital costs of new plants are enormous. Gasification systems can expend a tremendous amount of energy to produce a tiny amount of electricity. Up to this point, it hasn’t seemed worth the trouble.

Mike Hart thinks that he has solved those problems. In a former Air Force hangar outside Sacramento, his company, Sierra Energy, has spent the last several years testing a waste-to-energy system called the FastOx Pathfinder. The centerpiece, a waste gasifier that’s about the size of a shower stall, is essentially a modified blast furnace. A chemical reaction inside the gasifier heats any kind of trash — whether banana peels, used syringes, old iPods, even raw sewage — to extreme temperatures without combustion. The output includes hydrogen and synthetic natural gas that can be burned to generate electricity or made into ethanol or diesel fuel. The FastOx is now being prepared for delivery to Sierra Energy’s first customer: the United States Army.

Ethanol has long been promoted as an alternative fuel that increases energy independence, and federal law requires the use of greater amounts of it. But most ethanol in this country is produced from corn or soybeans, and many people worry that the mandate is pushing up food prices. Ethanol produced from trash — or agricultural waste, as others are trying — would allay such concerns.

The military is looking for ways to reduce its oil consumption, and to make it easier to supply the front lines with the fuel it uses in all its vehicles and generators. “These days, the supply lines are in the battlefield,” said Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for operational efficiency plans and programs. “And we consume a lot of fuel, which makes us a big target.

The FastOx gasifier is the brainchild of two former engineers at Kaiser Steel, patented by the grandson of one of them and commercialized by Mr. Hart. “It’s a modular system that can be dropped into any area,” Mr. Hart said, “using waste where it’s produced to make electricity where it’s used.” Once it’s off the ground, he said, “garbage will be a commodity.”  

Gasification is more efficient than incineration and eliminates toxic byproducts that come from burning trash. But it was especially appealing from a business point of view because it relied on a proven technology and used materials in wide abundance: blast furnaces being abandoned as the American steel industry was collapsing.

“What was compelling from the start,” Mr. Soderquist said, “was repurposing existing infrastructure into a generator of clean energy, with a second revenue stream from people paying you to take their waste.”

Results at the Defense Department’s testing facility near Sacramento have been promising; after about four hours, one ton of waste creates enough gas to produce 1,580 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which would power an average home in the United States for about a month and a half — at one-third the emissions of coal — and 42 gallons of renewably sourced fuel. And that’s with a 12-ton-a-day gasifier; existing blast furnaces can handle as much as 2,000 tons a day.

“California produces 30 million tons of garbage a year,” Mr. Hart said. “If it decided to turn its waste into clean fuels, at that rate it could meet all its oil consumption needs and still export more fuel than some OPEC members.” That is, if the FastOx can do what no other waste-to-energy gasification technology has done before: take any kind of trash, in any succession, without additional separation or preparation.

Any waste-to-energy plan, however, must overcome a major hurdle: the wild inconsistency of the waste stream. “Until you’ve demonstrated that you can handle it all, nobody’s interested,” Mr. Hart said. “I can understand it; they’ve heard similar promises before. We’ve got 150 cities, communities and businesses lined up to be Serial No. 2. Nobody wants to be No. 1.”

NOBODY, that is, except the Pentagon. The Defense Department is the country’s largest single consumer of energy, spending $15 billion a year just on fuel.

The appeal of Mr. Hart’s Pathfinder system is that it would produce fuel on site, eliminating the need to truck in fuel to dangerous military outposts. It would also reduce the need for trash-burning on bases, which creates pollution and noxious odors that have contributed to locals’ distaste for the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As a result, United States forces in Afghanistan are working to close burn pits.

Ms. Burke added, “Something for military operations has to be really rugged, deployable, simple to use — all of those things.” Consultants and municipal sanitation officials who’ve looked at the FastOx say it meets those criteria.

“Waste is a problem,” Ms. Burke said. “So if we could dispose of waste and create energy at the same time, that would be a silver bullet.”

Whats not to love about this story? An idea for turning trash-to-fuel, a seemingly futuristic and complex concept, with its origins in a 1980s steel plant. The process does not require complex new technology, but instead relies on modified blast furnaces, which are abundant due to the decline of the U.S. steel industry. Utilizing recycled capital and infrastructure only makes waste-to-fuel more appealing from a sustainability and affordability point of view. 

The idea was scoffed at, evolved through trial and error and by chance, and today has become the first trash-to-fuel concept to be adopted by the U.S. D.o.D. With minimal government aid (the article cites $8 million dollars from the federal and state government), and a little bit of American ingenuity and determination, garbage may someday be worth its weight in gold (not literally, but as the article says it will be a commodity, not a liability).

A little more research into the D.o.D energy consumption further emphasized the importance of “greening-up” D.o.D operations:

DoD analyses over the last decade have cited the military’s fossil fuel dependence as a strategic risk and identified renewable energy and energy efficiency investments as key mitigation measures.

As the largest energy consumer in the United States, the federal government plays an important role in the country’s energy system. In recent years, a number of factors have led it to reduce fossil fuel dependence through investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, including supply risks, high and volatile prices, and environmental impacts. In fiscal year 2010, DoD spent $4 billion on installation energy and $11 billion on operational energy. The full cost of fuel can be as high as $400 per gallon by the time it is delivered to a remote Forward Operating Base.

Recent U.S. Military operations in the Middle East have been too closely associated with U.S. energy interests. It is hypocritical to cite foreign energy dependence as a national security threat and not do everything in your power to reduce your own organization’s reliance on those very same energy sources.

I often write about the sustainability of U.S. military endeavors from an opportunity cost (programs we can’t afford as a nation because of high military spending) and human loss perspective. This form sustainability is about knowing when to use military intervention and when to pursue other means of foreign policy, within the D.I.M.E. paradigm. However, sometimes military intervention is necessary; another manifestation of military sustainability is ensuring that day-to-day operations and necessary military interventions are carried out in the most environmentally sustainable way as possible.

Furthermore, according to the NYT article, less reliance on fossil fuels would reduce the number of military deaths; “about half of United States casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2007 were of servicemen and servicewomen moving and protecting fuel convoys, according to an Army report.”

As a nation we spend a lot on military programs–far more than any other country. We also consume a lot of energy; these two characteristics of America are not completely independent of one another. Both of these forms of sustainability are about making sure every dollar that goes to the D.o.D. is truly needed an fully utilized, as it is one dollar that cannot go to a school, hospital, infrastructure project, or any other public good / program (not to mention both reforms would directly save lives). There are arguments for and against reducing military spending, which I will not get into here. It is, however, indisputable that the D.o.D. and the D.o.S. should work together in order to operate in the most strategic and environmentally sustainable way possible.

Waste-to-energy is a promising concept that could eventually transform how the military and municipalities deal with waste–I’ll be sure to keep my readers up-to-date about this exciting experiment.

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