For all its fervent advocates, recycling has come nowhere close to allaying the world's burgeoning production of garbage. Now Britain's Isle of Wight is presenting what proponents hope will be a parade example of how to deal with the megatons of waste that can't be reclaimed. This summer, a $16 million, 2.3MW gasification plant the first in Britain and one of only a few in the world will fire into action, turning 30,000 tons of rubbish a year into electricity for 2,000 homes.
Gasification mixes waste with small amounts of oxygen, then heats it at a high temperature around 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit in an air-tight chamber. The resulting syngas a cocktail of light gases, including methane and natural gas is burned, boiling water into steam to run a turbine. Gasification is an established technique, already used with fossil fuels, particularly coal. Applying it to rubbish opens a new and abundant fuel source. "As a waste-disposal method, it seems to make a lot of sense," says Jonathan R. Gibbins, an energy expert at London's Imperial College.
When it comes to trash, Britain, like much of the world, needs help. Its reputation as a green and pleasant land is at risk from the 16.9 million tons of trash it tossed into landfills last year that's more than any other country in the European Union. The Local Government Association recently warned that despite devoting 109 square miles to waste burial, Britain may run out of landfill space within nine years. Aggravating the problem for local communities are E.U. regulations due to take effect in 2010. To curb the release from landfills of methane, a major greenhouse gas, the E.U. will impose harsh fines on communities that don't greatly reduce the amount of biodegradable materials they shovel into landfills.
All that buried rubbish is a wasted resource, says the Institution of Civil Engineers, which claims the trash the U.K. throws away could provide 17% of its energy needs. But while some speculate that Britain could soon embark on an incinerator building boom, there are problems as well. Even with sophisticated and costly scrubbing technologies in place, critics say incinerator smokestacks still release too many pollutants. Moreover, because only very large operations are economical, incinerators are ever-hungry for massive amounts of waste, which can discourage recycling. The Isle of Wight impressively recycles 50% of its household waste, so the gasification plant will subsist on the other half, the so-called residual waste. One of gasification's selling points is that the plants can be scaled up or down, according to need, and still be efficient.
Environmental groups tend to be wary of many waste-to-energy schemes, and say the best remedy for bulging landfills is more recycling. But Tony Grimshaw, project director for Energos, the Norwegian energy company building the plant, says, "There are practical and economic limits to how much you can recycle." He claims the Isle of Wight project, which is partly funded with $5.4 million in government aid, will prove both an economic and environmental success
Energos which operates five gasification plants in Norway and one in Germany says that on balance, the plant will shrink the island's carbon footprint. It will emit the about the same amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as does decay from the landfill. "The benefit is, we're producing electricity" from a renewable source, Grimshaw says. Because those 2,000 homes won't be getting power from a fossil fuel plant, Energos estimates that will cut carbon emissions by 2,000 tons.
Is it cheap power? Not really, Grimshaw admits. "It's more sophisticated than incineration, it is an advanced technology, so it has a pricetag." A big reason for Britain's landfill addiction is that it's relatively inexpensive to bury rubbish. But those looming E.U. fines if biodegradable waste limits aren't met are making gasification cost-competitive. Certainly Energos wants the Isle of Wight plant to sell the concept to other communities in the U.K., Europe and beyond. Which is why it's also erecting something rarely seen at a power plant: a visitors' center.