Conference keynote: landfills will become a thing of the past

By Anna Austin | January 17, 2012

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes made by the biomass industry is not following the lead of the natural gas industry to come up with an industry title that sounds more environmentally friendly, according to Sierra Energy CEO Mike Hart.

“Natural gas sounds much better than fossil fuel-derived methane, so maybe we should call biomass natural mass,” Hart joked.

Hart was the keynote speaker at the third annual Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show in San Francisco, Calif., Jan 16-18. He delivered a speech that emphasized the versatility of synthesis gas, as well as how the value of biomass—particularly municipal solid waste (MSW)—will drastically increase over the next couple decades.

Jokes aside, Hart said he believes that over the next 15-20 years, trash will become a valuable commodity as waste conversion technologies become widely implemented.  “As time goes on, we’re going to be buying it and making competitive bids,” he said, adding that feedstock flexibility will become a dominant factor in the biomass energy industry, particularly those that can utilize complex wastes such as MSW. 

From Hart’s perspective, a game-changing element of feedstock procurement is on its way: suppliers paying biomass plants to take feedstock, rather than plants paying to create their feedstock. As a focus on trash develops and it becomes a commodity, companies that designed technologies based on a specific feedstock that was typically free will realize the economics of their system no longer work. “This is because people with waste products will realize they have another product to sell,” Hart said. “My expectation is that we will see this with garbage.”

The concept raises an important question: who will be selling the garbage?  Currently, four waste companies in the U.S. control the majority of the landfill market, which consists of just over 3,000 landfills, down from around 50,000 a few decades ago. “Those waste companies would like to continue to control this market, and they’re beginning to realize this is a potential new source of fuel for waste-to-energy and waste-to-biofuel technologies, but there are many new players in the game and they’re coming in with interesting new technologies to convert waste into higher-value commodities,” Hart said.

He added that he believes landfills will become a thing of the past in the near future, because of a combination of things, the first being a carbon tax. “As greenhouse gases become recognized and quantified, especially the amount coming from landfills, that significant cost will  be passed on to the landfill owner,” Hard explained. “Secondly, I think there will be decreased tip fees, and finally, our local governments will be looking for ways to reduce the substantial cost of paying somebody to take waste, or even turn it into a profit center. Those changes, in my opinion, are going to put tremendous impact on the existing landfill industry.”

Moving on to conversion processes and potential end products, Hart referred to synthesis gas as the stem cells of biomass. “You can make almost anything with it, but it’s very low value itself because there are few technologies that can use it directly.”

After discussing the most well-known conversion technologies during the past few decades—incineration, pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion, downdraft gasification, fluidized bed and plasma arc gasification—Hart said that for the last eight years, Sierra Energy has been working on a technology that can turn any feedstock into a common syngas, and find an end process than can convert it into any end product. The company has been testing its FastOx gasifier at a U.S. Department of Defense-funded renewable energy testing center in Sacramento, Calif., for the past couple of years. “It’s a five-ton-per-day system that can convert waste very efficiently,” Hart said.

Sierra Energy is commercializing a 10-ton-per-day system that it will be selling, and is also building a 50-ton-per-day facility in Sacramento that will take in trash, railroad ties, auto shredder residue and more, and convert them into electricity, ethanol, diesel, hydrogen and other energy products. “We want to do this with full participation and support of state regulators, and so far it’s been extraordinarily successful,” Hart said.

He added that the expectation is to break ground by the end of the year.