For anyone considering a waste conversion project, make sure you engage local partners early to ensure permitting goes smoothly and understand the community’s unique drivers to turn residents into project advocates.

By Rashael Parker and Arima Claypool

Technological advancements have produced precision lasers for surgery, placed powerful computers in our pockets, and have launched man and machine into outer space. Yet for all of humankind’s incredible progress, we continue to bury our trash in the ground. With seemingly every other industry marching forward into the technological revolution, why does there appear to be a void in waste management innovation?

Over the past half of a century, the global population has grown exponentially, along with the resulting mountains of garbage. Subsequently, technologies were developed to reduce waste, recycle waste products, and find the best use of our planet’s finite resources to reduce the strain of an expanding populace. During this time, technology has advanced from simple volume reduction, as seen in incineration, to something much more comprehensive—molecular recycling.

When refuse finds its way to a landfill, it has hardly reached the end of its utility. Modern waste conversion technologies target waste at the molecular level, and are unlocking and rebuilding these molecules to valuable energy products such as electricity, transportation fuels, hydrogen, ammonia and more.

Since these advanced technologies exist, why is there still a gap in the implementation of these technological advancements after 50 years of development and optimization?

The waste conversion industry is comparatively young, and thus, susceptible to legislative and economic fluctuations. Venture capitalists and city officials are hesitant to accept the risk of implementing emerging technologies. And finally, the industry must combat several myths and misconceptions that have resulted from a history of trial and error.

 

A Case Study for Success

Past technical failures haven’t discouraged Sierra Energy, a California gasification company working with the Department of Defense and California Energy Commission to commercialize the FastOx® gasifier. Through the injection of steam and oxygen, FastOx gasifiers reach internal temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit without burning.

Sierra Energy is delivering equipment to its first commercial facility at a U.S. Army garrison in California, with the commissioning of their FastOx Pathfinder expected at the end of the year. Few systems have made it to this stage in California due to technical, economical or public barriers. Sierra Energy studies the historical and contemporary efforts of conversion technologies to learn and address the pitfalls that have caused many in the industry to trip and fall. Here are a few of these lessons that have been learned and implemented during their commercial development.

 

Permitting

Never underestimate the permitting process as a potential stumbling block for waste conversion projects. There are regulations for waste handling, air emissions and water use that vary widely by state, county and, in some cases, city.

Additionally, there may be existing contracts regarding the region’s waste. Often, the waste is controlled exclusively by a municipality, or through private contracts. These issues make the permitting process a nuanced undertaking that often significantly impact, a project’s timeline.

To ensure the permitting process is as efficient as possible, engage local partners, regulators and policy makers. Get everyone in a room—early and often—to explain the technology plainly, be transparent with any known risks and plans for risk mitigation, and enlist their knowledge, network and expertise throughout the permitting process.

 

Municipal Waste is Complicated

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is a wild card feedstock. Waste storage can be a smelly, messy process. Securing a waste stream is often logistically challenging and the overall makeup of MSW is complex and inconsistent. Before waste even gets into the conversion process it can create obstacles: explosions, bridging and binding, to name just a few.

To confront these issues, gain a thorough and intimate understanding of the waste stream and communicate the composition, ash point, fixed carbon and moisture content of the waste to the technology provider. Due to the ongoing fluctuations and variations inherent in municipal waste, successful waste conversion projects have flexible feedstock handling systems.

 

Community Engagement

Many projects are derailed due to a lack of public support. Generally, this negative reception is a result of misconceptions about the technology. It is important to ensure that community education programs start early and continue throughout the project timeline to dispel preconceptions about waste conversion technologies.

Communities don’t like to think about waste, preferring an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach. To begin the conversation, shed light on local waste generation and handling processes. Identify resultant impacts and define the problem plainly. Non-profit organizations, community programs, city governments, public forums and social media are all excellent outlets for communicating with local residents.

Once a community understands the sociological and environmental problems associated with their current waste handling strategy, quickly identify solutions and benefits. Explain what the community will receive in the short-term and in the long-term.

Listen to and address unique community concerns. For example, customers from remote locations often have exorbitantly high costs for disposing of waste. Contrarily, densely populated areas have limited capacity and may be shipping their waste hundreds of miles away—or in the case of impoverished areas—living amongst heaps of waste. In developed regions, community concerns may have to do with traffic impact, ensuring the ongoing success of existing recycling programs, wildlife impact, etc. Identify these unique drivers and tailor your message to each community’s needs.

 

Web Presence

Community engagement never ends. Remaining transparent throughout the process of planning and construction will minimize the risk of a public relations crisis later. The best way to keep up with the public is to maintain an active Web presence.

No matter what the size of the system, to get and keep people invested in the success of the project, show consistent progress. Consider how frustrating it would be to see a cordoned-off public highway, seemingly unchanged for months. Even though it is logical for every project to have setbacks and slow-downs, the public wants to see progress on their investment. If the public can’t see progress, help them to understand the hold-ups.

Web content provides constant reassurance by providing accessible information regarding the technology, people involved, project goals, set backs and accomplishments. Share what is happening in every step of the process to garner support, and even enthusiasm for the project.

Relate your content to the local economic, ecological and social climate—always emphasizing the positive impact these strides will make—to further improve support.

 

Expect the Unexpected

Waste conversion projects are cutting-edge infrastructure projects. As such, these projects are uncharted waters. There is no definitive path to success, so be prepared for setbacks. There will be obstacles, failures, do-overs, missed timelines and surprises. Build a team that can take these issues in stride. Learn from the missteps and appreciate your successes. Even the best-laid plans should have backup plans B and C.

Most importantly, remain open to opportunity even when your plan seems to be going right. For example, Sierra Energy’s first commercial facility was initially slated to move forward in the Sacramento region with funding from the California Energy Commission (CEC) to explore the production of renewable diesel. The Department of Defense (DoD) later approached Sierra Energy to create a system to demonstrate electricity production, in support of their net-zero installation initiatives at domestic army bases.

The small company could have stayed on the set course, creating two separate systems with two separate end products with limited resources. Instead, the company seized an opportunity to consolidate efforts for the benefit of both customers. The FastOx Pathfinder promises to exceed both DoD and CEC expectations by demonstrating electricity and diesel production from waste. It is important to expect failures, but it’s equally important to be flexible enough to take advantage of surprising new opportunities when they appear. Sierra Energy expects more in these last, critical months before commissioning. But by remaining flexible and vigilant, the company is poised to rack up a major victory for all waste conversion innovators. It may hurt to be the first through the wall, but Sierra Energy looks forward to breaking through.

 

Looking Ahead

For anyone considering a waste conversion project, make sure you engage local partners early to ensure permitting goes smoothly, understand the community’s unique drivers to turn residents into project advocates, be transparent on project progress through a strong Web presence, gain a thorough and intimate understating of the waste streams, and expect the unexpected. | WA

Rashael Parker is Chief Marketing Office for Sierra Energy (Davis, CA). With a Bachelor of Science in Design, Rashael builds sustainable and holistic brands rooted in excellent design and dynamic messaging. With 15 years of experience in the design and marketing industries, Rashael brings a breadth of expertise to Sierra Energy’s corporate branding, Web development, marketing, and communications. She can be reached at [email protected]

Arima Claypool is Business Development Analyst for Sierra Energy. She earned a degree in environmental policy and anthropology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a certificate in sustainable agriculture. Her passion for sustainable product development and sales drives Sierra Energy’s business development and sales strategies forward. Sierra Energy looks forward to FastOx gasification projects being implemented in communities all over the nation. Arima can be reached at [email protected].

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