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GARBAGE IN / ENERGY OUT Add to ...

The problems at the Ottawa plant forced the company to delay its planned construction of a $96-million commercial plant in Alberta's Red Deer County, where a consortium of nine municipalities had agreed to provide land and deliver waste for a tipping fee of $60 a tonne.

In the current environment, public money is critical if Plasco is going to meet its ambitious targets, according to Mr. Bryden, who says investors are now demanding government support for capital-intensive, renewable-energy projects.

Plasco has applied under the federal "green infrastructure" program for financing of the Red Deer project and the CEO is hoping for an answer within weeks.

Although the company has tapped international investors for the vast majority of the $120-million it has raised in the past five years, foreign investors will be reluctant to finance 100 per cent of projects in Canada when refundable tax credits or grants covering 25 per cent of such projects' capital costs are available in the United States and Europe, Mr. Bryden says.

"It is unlikely a Canadian project will be built without a capital contribution from government, so long as other countries are routinely providing support for the same types of projects," he says.

If it can get plants operational, Plasco will benefit from a different type of government support - the higher power rates being offered to renewable-energy producers. Ontario's new feed-in tariff system, as yet not finalized, promises developers a high price for their power. Plasco also expects to generate revenue by selling carbon offsets, which are tradable credits created by renewable-energy projects that displace coal- or gas-fired power.

'Holy grail technologies'

Plasco is just one of the many companies racing to mine the gold in garbage. Montreal-based Enerkem Inc. is partnering with the City of Edmonton to build a waste-to-energy plant that will produce ethanol. Calgary-based Alter NRG Corp., which trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange, has two gasification plants operating in Japan, and is negotiating to build one in Ontario.

"It is one of those holy grail technologies," says Rick Whittaker, vice-president of investments at SDTC. "Gasification is a technology that can take virtually any feedstock in, avoids all those air pollution problems you find with other technologies, and pulls off a very clean gas you can use to generate electricity."

Gasification is a low-emissions method of extracting energy from a range of feedstocks, from coal, to forestry wastes, to municipal solid waste. Incineration occurs in the presence of oxygen, which creates carbon dioxide, a key culprit in climate change, but gasification uses high temperatures and airless chambers to break down molecules into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which are then reformed into a synthetic gas.

Plasco's innovation is the use of a plasma, an ionized, superheated cloud akin to lightning and often referred to as the fourth state of matter. Plasco's plasma torches efficiently break down molecules into basic elements, that are then reformed into synthetic gas that is used to power generators.

Mr. Bryden insists the kinks in his company's technology have been worked out, and Plasco is ready to build in Red Deer, pending a decision on federal funding.

The company is also in the final stages of negotiations with the City of Ottawa for a commercial plant that would divert as much as two-thirds of the city's non-recyclable, residential garbage to a waste-to-energy plant that would generate 24 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a small town.

Ottawa City Manager Ken Kirkpatrick says Plasco's technology promises a clean and efficient method of extracting energy from municipal waste. The city is not interested in incineration, which can also produce electricity but raises concerns about emissions, particularly of dioxins and furans.

Several municipalities in Ontario have energy-from-waste incinerators, and Durham Region has filed for an environmental assessment for a planned 400-tonne-a-day incinerator to be built by New Jersey-based Covanta Energy Corp.

While incineration is controversial, Durham's Commissioner of Works, Cliff Curtis, says all emissions will be well below provincial standards, which he described as the toughest in the world.

Durham spent some time looking at Plasco's technology, but the company simply wasn't ready for a commercial project when the bids went out. "Conceptually, it is quite attractive," Mr. Curtis says. "But as a municipality, we don't want to gamble with taxpayers' money. We wanted something that works, and we couldn't afford to wait."

His colleagues in Ottawa believe the wait may be just about over, though they're not convinced yet. Mr. Kirkpatrick, for one, wants to see the demonstration plant function smoothly for another month before taking the proposal to city council.

"It is world-changing technology, if it can be viably commercialized," he said.

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