Garbage to Gold: Putting Waste Conversion at the Center of the Clean Fuel Market

Advanced biofuels have the ability to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while creating economic growth in an environmentally sustainable way.

Wesley Bolsen

As the U.S. explores new technologies to transform our energy supply and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, one of the most exciting clean energy solutions has the potential to transform the waste handling industry as well.

Cellulosic ethanol, a clean burning advanced biofuel, can be derived from a wide variety of renewable, non-food sources, including municipal solid waste (MSW) and agriculture waste. While technologies that turn waste into electrical power have been around for decades, this new technology can turn trash into a product with a much higher value: fuel-grade ethanol. Best of all, the technology is ready today.

Advanced biofuels have the ability to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while creating economic growth in an environmentally sustainable way. Companies are already producing fuel at semi-commercial volumes in plants across the country. The technology is “shovel” ready. However, for these benefits to be realized, the industry needs enduring government policy to help motivate private investment in commercial facilities.

An Environmentally Beneficial Technology

Waste to fuel technology is one of the most environmentally beneficial technologies available today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, by using trash to produce energy, we divert it from traditional landfills where it could otherwise emit 24 times its own weight in C02 and methane during decomposition. Instead of having the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) principle for sighting a new landfill, communities will fight for the waste-to-fuels biorefinery to be in their county, adding hundreds of millions in construction dollars and long-term jobs to the community.

This technology has the potential not only to improve our environment, but also to revitalize the nation’s economic strength and energy security. Advanced biofuels offer the ability to displace 30 percent of oil imports over the next two decades with the production of 90 billion gallons of American-made, renewable fuels. They can also result in the creation of nearly one million new green jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact across the country.

The widespread adoption of cellulosic ethanol technology can lead to enormous economic growth for the waste industry.  In fact, the advanced biofuels industry has the potential to transform the actual value of waste as a commodity by turning it into a principal feedstock source.  This kind of sustained growth can create thousands of jobs. No other renewable industry can provide this level of domestic job growth.

The fundamental question is this: “Why would we burn agricultural waste, or bury municipal waste, when we can turn it into a clean burning fuel?” Instead of sending our trash to a landfill or incinerator, it can become one of the primary resources powering America’s cars. With this new technology, we convert MSW into a product that can make a profound economic and social impact. Renewable fuel technology is no longer something that will revitalize only rural America. By using a variety of biomass, including MSW, it makes clean burning fuel available outside every one of our major cities.

Changing the Way of Thinking

The problem is that many states and municipalities still classify gasification of waste material as incineration. This is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the technology, which has nothing to do with the dirty incinerators of the past. Incineration involves burning solid waste in highly oxygenated environments, and releasing large quantities of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. Gasification happens in the absence of oxygen – so instead of burning, the waste decomposes into a synthetic gas that we can then convert into fuel, without releasing harmful emissions or byproducts. Modern synthesis gas conversion technologies are also more efficient than creating electrical power from waste, taking advantage of more of the carbon in MSW during the conversion process.

We need a very coordinated permitting effort to help environmental groups understand that gasification of waste material is an environmentally superior solution, and bears no resemblance to incineration. In addition to overcoming the incineration obstacle, the industry needs enduring government policy to begin building commercial facilities. Over the next few years, Congress will debate on how to create “green jobs”. Supporting the production of biofuels will create hundreds of thousands of longlasting domestic jobs. Now that the Environmental Protection Agency considers a large portion of municipal waste, and all of the agricultural wastes, to be cellulosic biomass, everyone who has a stake in biofuels needs to contact their Congressman or Senator and ask that they support a 30 percent refundable investment tax credit (ITC) for biofuel refineries. This will put biofuels in parity with the investment tax credits that support wind and solar energy. We also need to see the Production Tax Credits for cellulosic biofuels that expire in 2012 extended to at least 2016, so even the first of these commercial facilities can be built.

The time for our industries to act together is now. The U.S. is tired of relying on foreign sources of oil. Advanced biofuel companies can offer an alternative, but we need government action. With your help and government resolve, we can begin to unlock the waste resources in our country for the sustainable development of domestically produced transportation fuels, all while creating the jobs and economic growth this country needs. Please help to advocate for legislation that fast tracks the permitting and ultimately the financing and construction of waste to fuel facilities.

Wesley Bolsen is the Chief Marketing Officer and Vice President of Government Affairs at Coskata Inc. (Warrenville, IL).He has been responsible for publicly unveiling the company, creating and executing their communication strategy, developing some of Coskata’s strategic partnerships, and managing relationships both in Washington, D.C. and at the International level.Previously, Wesley was the Chief Financial Officer of ICM, Inc., a U.S. corn ethanol design and build firm, based outside of Wichita, KS. Prior to ICM, Wesley was a senior consultant with McKinsey & Co. in both their Chicago and Silicon Valley offices, where he worked with the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies around the globe.For more information on Coskata, call i630) 657-5800 or visit www.Coskata.com.


Pending Legislation

Coskata encourages you to contact your Congressman or Senator to tell them that you support legislation that will move forward commercial cellulosic biofuel facilities in America. H.R. 5142, the GREEN JOBS Act of 2010, introduced by Representative Allyson Schwartz (PA) in the House of Representatives, and S. 3338, the Advanced Biofuel Investment Act of 2010, introduced by Senator Bill Nelson (FL) in the Senate, were introduced this year. These bills would allow cellulosic companies to choose a refundable 30 percent Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for cellulosic biofuels, spurring investment that will lead to facilities.

Also, any future energy legislation introduced in Congress must include mechanisms to enable advanced biofuels to commercialize and allow the country to begin reducing our dependence on foreign oil while providing meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and creating jobs.

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