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Trash to treasure promises

By Melissa Rigney Baxter

A massive energy project proposed for Milwaukee would introduce technology never before used in the United States.

The Project Apollo plant would convert trash to energy and create 250 construction jobs and 45 long-term positions in the area. But questions about feasibility, safety and environmental effect are following in the wake of the proposal.

Those questions could derail the proposal, as was the case with a similar plant proposal in Dane County as well as plants in California and New Mexico, among others.

A Connecticut company approached Dane County in fall 2009 about a project that would use plasma gasification, the same technology planned for the Milwaukee project, said John Welch, Dane County recycling manager. The process uses the intense heat of plasma to transform garbage and other waste into a synthetic gas that can be used to generate electricity, steam or biofuels.

When Dane County officials started asking tough questions, Welch said, about environmental effects and energy and water use, the company backed off the project.

“It’s usually really well-meaning people,” he said. “At this point, as much as I’d love to see something like this succeed, you also have to be practical and realistic.”

One concern is whether Milwaukee can realistically provide the massive amount of waste required to successfully operate such a facility long term, said Steve Brachman, waste reduction and management specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

“The (proposed Project Apollo) facility is described as processing 1,200 tons per day of materials,” he said.

“The question is: Where is the material going to come from? It might be hard to contract.

“This isn’t the kind of facility where you build it and they will come.”

Alliance Federated Energy LLC, Milwaukee, the company behind the Project Apollo proposal, has an agreement with Badger Disposal of WI Inc., Milwaukee, for 30 percent of the needed waste, AFE spokesman Josh Morby said. Negotiations are under way with other suppliers, he said.

“The advantage with this type of generation project is there are a number of different feedstocks it’s capable of using,” Morby said. “From a baseline standpoint, what we’re doing is taking someone else’s waste. There certainly could be bigger problems to address. It’s not a major concern for the company.”

Recycling and waste analysts disagree, however, and said identifying and securing a steady stream of usable waste material will be a major challenge.

“You need a pretty tight contract for the material if you’re going to get investors comfortable,” said John Reindl, retired recycling manager for Dane County. “When you’re dealing with solid waste, it varies daily and with season.

“It’s a mishmash of stuff and very hard to control.”

AFE works closely with Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Plasma Corp., which has a facility in Madison, Pa., for testing different waste material, Morby said.

Even if Apollo contracts for dependable, safe material, other large questions remain, said Carol Diggelman, a professor in the engineering and building construction department at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Questions such as: Who will buy the energy and how much it will cost?

“How much more money will it mean to the citizens of Milwaukee?” she said. “There’s a fragile financial situation in Milwaukee. What is the justification for this? If they get the first cost covered, how will it be maintained?”

Morby said AFE is working with local energy companies that could buy electricity from the plant, but no agreements had been reached as of press time.

As to who will help pay for the $225 million project, Morby said, AFE is in discussions with city and state officials to see if grant money is available.

“Given the sector of renewable energy and waste management, there might be opportunities for funding or partnerships,” he said.

Brachman said the company likely would be ineligible for renewable energy grant money, however, as trash is not considered a renewable energy source.

Many other details of the project — some as basic as location — are still up in the air as well.

Morby said the company has an option on land on Milwaukee’s north side and is exploring other brownfield sites in the city. The goal is to break ground on the project within a year and be fully operational in late 2013, he said.

Many people in the area, including city officials, are waiting for details, however.

“It’s so new that none of this stuff has been vetted,” said Dave Misky, assistant executive secretary of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee. “We haven’t seen any site designs. We don’t know the technology. We’re waiting for more information.”

Diggelman said she was caught off guard by the project and the lack of questions being asked.

Rosemary Wehnes, associate regional representative at the Milwaukee office of environmental advocacy group the Sierra Club, said she is astonished there has been little examination of the proposal thus far. Sierra Club members have expressed concern about the project’s environmental effect, she said, in particular, how much energy it will take to run the plant and if there will be any toxins released as byproducts of the process.

“There are concerns about emissions,” Brachman said. “None of these plasma facilities have been built in the U.S. They’re not really tested here.”

According to AFE’s Web site, statistics vary on pollution emitted in the process, but the emissions are very low.

Nationally, a San Francisco-based organization called Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice is working to stop such gasification projects, due to environmental concerns.

“The claim that syngas is clean is not true, as it will contain a wide range of toxic contaminants,” said Bradley Angel, the group’s executive director.

People associated with local recycling and waste processes are skeptical of the project, but want more details before rejecting or endorsing it.

“It’s a little loose at this point,” Brachman said. “It’s an emerging technology that will have a place, but I’m not sure this is the right one.”

Recycling manager Welch said he wants projects such as Apollo to succeed but has yet to be convinced.

“You set goals with your heart but make decisions with your head,” he said. “My heart says we need alternative energy sources, but my head says this is not the right way to go. It doesn’t sound right.”

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