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City trash talk: Vancouver's plans to turn garbage into power

A proposed $400 million Metro Vancouver facility to convert garbage to electricity could reverse recent gains in waste reduction, say critics
Metro Vancouver's Burnaby incinerator subsidizes its operation through electricity sales. Critics say using garbage to create energy counters efforts to create less trash

Canadians, it turns out, are really good at creating garbage. A recent Conference Board of Canada report revealed Canada tops 17 other developed countries in the per-capita amount of trash produced.

Here in the Lower Mainland, we contribute to this gross domestic product to the tune of one million tonnes of garbage annually. It's Metro Vancouver's job to figure out what to do with it all.

The regional district plans to stop landfilling garbage and, in 2018, open a new $400 million waste-to-energy plant that would generate electricity – and profit – from trash.

But with attitudes toward garbage changing, Metro Vancouver has already had to modify its plan. When garbage production dropped in 2011, the size of the planned facility was reduced to 370,000 tonnes from 500,000 tonnes. The regional district will now have to redo its business plan to take the change into account.

Garbage power

Paul Henderson, the manager of solid waste for Metro Vancouver, doesn't see an end to garbage as we know it anytime soon. The region currently landfills 700,000 tonnes and sends another 300,000 to a garbage incinerator in Burnaby. An ambitious goal to reduce, recycle and compost 80% of what is thrown away by 2020 will still leave at least 370,000 tonnes to deal with – and that, says Henderson, is a conservative figure.

The regional district wants to move away from landfills, which Henderson says are expensive to maintain and pose an environmental threat because they emit methane, a contributor to global warming.

"Landfills should be the last resort after waste reduction and recycling and recovering energy," said Henderson. "Our conclusion, and my personal conclusion, is that the least-cost option … is waste-to-energy as compared to landfilling."

Metro Vancouver's garbage incinerator in south Burnaby burns 240,000 tonnes of garbage each year and produces enough electricity to power 17,000 homes.

"Burnaby is one of the best-performing assets we have in our fleet," said Tom Lyons, vice-president of business development for Covanta, the New Jersey-based company that runs the Burnaby incinerator and 43 other plants worldwide.

Waste-to-energy plants make money in three ways:

•tipping fees

•steam and electricity sales; and

•metals recovery.

But although the Burnaby plant performs efficiently, it doesn't make money. In 2011, the facility generated $10 million in revenue but cost $18 million to run.

In contrast, the proposed new facility is projected to generate net revenue of $20 million over 35 years of operation. The numbers are based on the original plan for a 500,000 tonne mass-burn incinerator.

"A key factor is the value of electricity," said Henderson.

He said the regional district is renegotiating its electricity sales for the Burnaby plant with BC Hydro and expects to work out a more lucrative deal.

Owners of waste-to-energy facilities can apply to B.C.'s Ministry of Energy to have the electricity they produce designated as clean energy and be eligible to be bought at a higher rate by BC Hydro.

Lyons said that makes B.C. an attractive place to do business. Covanta plans to build a 500,000-tonne incinerator in Gold River on Vancouver Island and wants to ship waste from Metro Vancouver and other parts of Vancouver Island to it.

Neither Henderson nor a BC Hydro spokeswoman could confirm whether negotiations around the electricity sales from the Burnaby incinerator included a clean energy designation.

Economies of scale

Lyons doesn't see a problem with transporting waste in order to gather the critical mass of trash needed to efficiently run an incinerator. Waste-to-energy plants work best when processing large amounts of garbage.

But if that volume shrinks, the facilities can also go small – they can be shut down to operate in a smaller "modules," according to Henderson.

Metro Vancouver is also looking at the pros and cons of having several smaller facilities near urban areas, where they can be used to create a heating system (called district heat) for nearby homes. Building a larger plant that might accept waste from neighbouring regional districts is also a possibility. Henderson pointed out that the city of Squamish transports its waste to a landfill in Washington, and Vancouver trucks its garbage to Cache Creek.

"Our process will look at the full life-cycle costs … and we'll pick the solutions that deliver the least full-cycle costs," said Henderson. "You look at the transportation implications, you look at the economies-of-scale implications."

The regional district is now accepting statements of qualifications from waste-to-energy companies and will narrow down a short list of bids. Metro Vancouver has not yet chosen a location for the facility.

In the air tonight: Fraser Valley emission fears

Concerns about how a garbage incinerator would affect air quality in the Fraser Valley have dogged the project for years. Metro Vancouver and Covanta point out that they operate within provincial guidelines that regulate air pollution. Emissions from the Burnaby incinerator make up 0.04% of all lower Fraser Valley emissions.

University of British Columbia professor Douw Steyn has studied Lower Mainland air quality and said the region between Abbotsford and Hope, where pollution from the entire Lower Mainland airshed gathers, is especially vulnerable.

"Chilliwack and Hope are now barely in compliance with the Canada-wide standard for ozone," said Steyn.

He said Metro Vancouver should not be considering adding another source of emissions to the area.

"This pollution comes from combustion. I therefore argue that we should not be willing to countenance any further combustion in the Valley. In fact, we should be working to reduce combustion."

Feeding the beast: massive garbage volumes needed to make incinerators economical

Using garbage to generate electricity might appear to be the ultimate green solution, but there's a catch, said Andrea Reimer, a Vancouver city councillor and Metro Vancouver director. She described it as a "feed the beast" scenario.

"The data from around the world shows that it will eventually undermine the efforts around materials recovery and overall reduction of materials use, because the only way to make your money back with a mass burn incinerator is to burn things." Sweden, an early adopter of mass-burn incinerators, makes energy out of its trash and runs a robust recycling program. But the country must now import garbage from Norway and other European countries to keep the incinerators running. "Sweden … chose the lesser of two evils, which is to import other people's waste," said Reimer, "but then you're reducing other people's incentive to divert more and produce less waste.".

Waste-to-energy options

Waste-to-energy options Metro Vancouver is considering:

Mass burn

Garbage is burned and used to heat water to generate steam. The steam can be used directly for district heating, or to drive a turbine and generate electricity.

What's left over: Ash, recovered metals and emissions

Gasification and pyrolysis

High temperatures are used to convert waste into a gas or vapour, which can then be burned to generate electricity in an engine or gas turbine.

What's left over: Ash, chemicals, recovered metals and emissions

Refuse-derived fuels

This system converts waste into a solid fuel. The fuel can then be combusted or used as a coal replacement for energy-intensive industries such as manufacturing cement.

What's left over: Waste water, ash, recovered metals and emissions. When RDF is used to manufacture cement, the ash ends up as an ingredient in the cement

Mechanical biological treatment

Converts waste into additional recyclables, biogas, compost and sometimes fuel. Anaerobic digestion occurs in a sealed, oxygen-free environment; and uses bacteria to convert organic matter into biogas. The biogas is cleaned and can be burned to generate heat or electricity in an engine.

What's left over: Waste water, compost, emissions and residuals that must be landfilled.