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When Mottley met the man in the mirror


When Mottley met the man  in the mirror

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I was looking through the latest quarterly financial report from a company called Alter NRG shortly after Opposition Leader Mia Mottley met the Man in the Mirror with a full head-on charge which still has the entire Dolittle administration reeling.

Among its highlights for 2015, said the company, it supported business development efforts for a project in Barbados which is expected to take approximately 600 tonnes per day of the island’s waste and convert it to electricity . . .

Cahill Energy signed an agreement with the Government of Barbados on March 15, 2014 to build and operate a leading edge clean energy plant on the Caribbean island . . .

The project is currently looking for its development financing and is running a strategic process and upon success is expected to enter into engineering in 2015.”

Alter NRG will be the supplier of the key component of Cahill Energy’s waste-to-energy plant at Vaucluse.

I have to say “will”, because, according to Mottley, and Alter NRG itself, Barbados’ garbage has been delivered to Cahill on a golden platter.

Here’s a simple description of how it works: “At the heart of the technology is an enclosed gasifier. Waste is fed into a vessel and treated a very high temperature using plasma technology. This produces a gas commonly referred to as ”syngas”.

The syngas is treated, cleaned and then used as fuel in gas turbines to generate electricity.

Final emissions are minimised due to the high temperature used in the plasma gasifier”.

What could be simpler? It sounds like a bedtime story with a fairy tale ending, and comes from Lisa Jordan, who is the business manager for bio-energy at Air Products. That company is building two such plants using Alter NRG’s larger plasma gasifiers, which require 950 tonnes of waste material every day.

Each plant, located at Teesside, somewhere in England, will produce enough syngas to power up to 50 000 homes with electricity.

Alas, as with most things, there’s a downside. Air Products, a massive United States-based company which has been operating in Britain for half a century, is confident it can overcome the apparently major hazards associated with this still new technology.

In fact, things are not, repeat, not, so cut and dried and fairy tale-ish about gasification.

The quote above is from an article in a recent edition of Waste Management World, which asked experts to discuss the pros and cons of the technology. I guess we can put Jordan on the pro side, so let’s look at a con.

Like me, you were probably intrigued by one of Mottley’s technical revelations, the one about Cahill getting permission from the start – before one load of garbage is delivered to Vaucluse – to import old tyres.

I wondered why this was so important as to have to be built into a memorandum of understanding. Well, another expert, Edmund Fleck, may give us the answer.

In his contribution to the article, he writes that “alternative waste to energy technologies, however, keep falling short of converting mixed municipal solid waste into a fuel”.

What? You mean, no matter even if we could supply all of the garbage produced in Barbados to the Vaucluse plant it might still produce a poor result? Is he saying that not all garbage is created equal and some of it is, well, garbage? Wait a minute, though.

Fleck represents an organisation promoting the interests of grate combustion companies, a process which does not gasify the input material but burns it. So could he be, you know, a little bit biased?

Let’s hear his parting shot: “In order to move away from landfilling, waste to energy technology is best if it can accept all residual waste, while generating energy efficiently.

“For MSW (municipal solid waste), the clear solution is grate combustion, that is by far the most widespread, proven, reliable and cost effective technology.”

There are over a thousand grate combustion plants in Europe, but who’s counting?

So, we can safely put Fleck on the con side of the argument. Looks like we need a consultant to settle this. Maybe Simon Gandy, who is a waste management consultant at Ricardo-AEA can help.

First, he tries to clarify what this process is. “Gasification is only the first step of a two-step process,” he points out.

It produces syngas, as Jordan noted above, but to get electricity, that syngas must be immediately combusted in excess oxygen and the heat used to raise steam. Therefore, he says, the gasification process is really two stage combustion and it has its problems.

Gandy says he led a study a few years ago for the Energy Technologies Institute which found that “the biggest stumbling blocks” were “the preparation of the waste feedstock for gasification, and, especially, the clean up of the emerging gases so that they are fit for a gas turbine or reciprocating engine that can deliver the higher thermal efficiencies.” No fairy tale ending there.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at another article. Deb Pal, another expert in the field, notes that “the gasification of waste introduces a whole new series of safety issues more akin to chemical process plants than conventional combustion technologies.”

Among them: “A gasifier plant routinely passes through the flammable range, hence the need for purging to remove oxygen.

Therefore a potential explosion risk may occur during plant start up, at shutdown or in the case of uncontrolled air intake, for instance due to leakages.”

Here’s another: “The gasification process produces a highly flammable cocktail of gaseous components, including hydrogen, and the very toxic gas, carbon monoxide.

In plant sections where pressure build up exists, there is a risk of gas escape to atmosphere, which may lead to a toxic atmosphere.” And finally: “The areas outside the equipment must be adequately ventilated to prevent build up of an explosive atmosphere, but also to ensure that there is no toxic atmosphere build up to cause carbon monoxide poisoning of employees.”

Did he just say “poisoning of employees”? All that, according to Mottley, the MOU has been signed without an environmental impact assessment.

It was the march to demonstrate against the Municipal Solid Waste Tax which firmly established Mottley as the real, not just titular, leader of the Barbados Labour Party, and it was her tour de force performance last Tuesday in the House of Assembly which established, once and for all, her capacity to lead the country.