Canada and waste gasification – what can Canada do in China?

Today’s Globe and Mail contains a great article entitled GARBAGE IN / ENERGY OUT which focuses on technologies being developed and implemented by Canadian companies for converting municipal trash into carbon sources for energy production.

Where in the past, waste-to-energy meant simply burning trash to create heat for steam turbines, gasification uses ultra-high temperatures and a zero-oxygen environment to break materials into their basic atomic elements, and recombine the carbon into carbon monoxide which is useful for all sorts of chemical and energy reactions, including conversion into fischer-tropsch liquids, methanol or through combustion, to electricity.

Combustion produces nasty by-products such as dioxins which have made waste incineration not just politically unpopular, but also dangerous for public health.  Gasification, on the other hand, completely destroys hazardous organic chemicals, while making other contaminants relatively easy to collect.  In the meantime, gasification collects all the carbon into a useful energy product, meaning that there are no direct carbon emissions resulting from the destruction of garbage.

So far, gasification hasn’t made a big spash in China outside the coal-to-methanol sphere which, let’s admit, is not exactly a low-carbon energy.

But let’s look at this.  China is interested in energy security — particularly petroleum security.  It’s got lots of garbage.  It’s interested in a low carbon economy.  Waste-to-fuel would seem to be a key technology for reducing GHG emissions from the transport sector, which China (and the rest of the world) are struggling immensely with.

There’s got to be a place for Canada somewhere in this equation.

What needs to happen?

As it stands right now, the fuel supply in China is tightly controlled.  Only 5 plants can produce bioethanol and sell it into the PetroChina / SinoPec fuel distribution networks. The reason for this is that the government is worried about all of China’s food supply being used to make fuel ethanol by small, uncontrollable companies.  Government doesn’t even want to deal with small biodiesel producers, who barely make a dent in China’s diesel demand.

In order to sell clean fuels to market, some policy changes need to be made, which will allow particular, certified producers of clean fuels to sell their fuels into the national fuel distribution system.  Such a policy should include criteria for fuel sustainability, technological and economic feasibility, lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, etc.  It should also include a verification system so that companies can be monitored to ensure that food is not being used to make ethanol to sell into the distribution system.

If change is going to happen, we need a good policy analysis with a complete policy suggestion (which iCET is currently working on), a technology provider, and importantly, an investor who is ready to put his/her money where his/her mouth is.  It’s the best way to get a meeting with the powers that be, and the best way to make change for cleaner transport fuels in China.

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