Thursday, May 5, 2011

Innovative Fund Mechanism Turns Trash into (Potential) Energy

Late last month, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) cut the ribbon on a transportable, plasma waste to energy system at Hurlburt Field in the Florida Panhandle. Terry Yonkers, the ASAF for Installations, Environment and Logistics is quoted as saying, "This is the first waste-to-energy project of this technology to go into an air base. It has been a long time in the making.". I first saw this briefed in February 2009 and at that time the plan was to begin in FY08 and finish in FY10 at a cost of $6.5M. According to the article, the final cost was $7.4M, which, for a research and development experiment, is pretty close to the mark.

The system consumes about 11.5 tons of waste a day to include an intended 8.3 tons of domestic trash from Hurlburt Field itself. Burning at 5,000 degrees Celsius, the system can burn anything to include medical waste and its product is a useable syngas and a glassy rock that can be sold commercially. Although this is still an experimental facility, the ability to destroy any and all solid waste could save the base the cost of its recycling center and program.

The system has been widely billed as a waste to energy project, but for now is just a waste destruction process. It is hoped that it will be a net energy producer but has yet to demonstrate that capability. A simple gasification process with which I am familiar, uses engines specifically designed to operate only on syngas (as opposed to “sweetening” with natural gas) can produce 2 MW from a defined waste stream of 42 tons a day. The key is that that system produces electricity at a kilowatt per hour rate that is competitive with the local utility. That the Hurlburt system produces a net excess of energy is one thing; the cost per kilowatt hour will be another. We wish them luck on the experiment.

There are a couple of very interesting features to this story. One is was the driving force behind it and the other is how it was funded. The effort was sponsored by the Air Force, nurtured by the quiet professional of the Air Force Special Operations Command, but is truly the baby of the AFSOC Environmental Chief, Ron Omley. Mr. Omley has been championing this project for the past four years. Typically, these efforts are led by Directors of Public Works or Resource Efficiency Managers. This shows the inextricable link between energy and the environment and Mr. Omley lives this every day. Well done, Ron.

As for the funding, this project had a combination of Air Force Smart Operations 21 and OSD Comparative Technology Office funding. The CTO funding came from the Foreign Comparative Testing Program (FCTP). The FCTP’s mission is to “test items and technologies of our foreign allies and friends that have a high Technology Readiness Level (TRL) in order to satisfy valid defense requirements more quickly and economically.”. The Canadian origin of the system, built by PyroGenesis Canada, qualified it for these funds. This is an innovative way to fund an R&D project. I wonder where the system to which they are comparing it is operating. Pocatello, Idaho?

If DOD is to attain all of their very aggressive goals for demand reduction, smart distribution and renewable/alternative energy production in a dwindling resource environment, champions like Ron Omley and innovative funding like this must become the norm. Had this same project been done as an enhanced use lease, I dare say that we would just be finishing up the environmental impact statements instead of cutting the ribbon. I wonder if the ribbon was made of red tape? Dan Nolan

Acronym Decoder Ring

ASAF – Assistant Secretary of the Air Force

OSD - Office of the Secretary of Defense

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