The Florida Keys islands, known for their lush tropical palm trees and extensive coral reefs, may sign off on a plan this spring to convert its residents’ yard waste to electricity through gasification, in a cost-saving effort to reduce greenhouse gases.
Monroe County, which encompasses Key West and about 95 percent of the rest of the Keys islands, is finalizing a contract with Annapolis, Md.-based Energy3 LLC to build a gasification plant capable of processing 50,000 tons of organic material. The county had sought an RFP in 2014 to improve the sustainability of its yard waste elimination program, and signed a roughly $7 million contract then with Energy3 to examine building the plant. The county’s Board of Commissioners plan to meet Wednesday with the company to go over final terms for the contract.
The project, if built, would be one of the only gasification plants in the United States, and the only plant to be built primarily for yard waste material. Patrick Saty, a partner at Energy3, says Florida’s new focus on sustainability, plus increased waste removal and electricity costs, combined to make the project feasible.
“In areas where electricity and/or waste disposal costs are low, gasification is just not financially feasible,” Saty says. “However, there are areas on the coasts where electricity has become much more expensive, and waste removal costs are also high, that the resulting net revenue stream of waste savings and electricity generation offset the capital costs of the project.”
Gasification, which takes in waste and produces fuel through a chemical process instead of burning, is used in other countries, but also has a U.S. history. The process has been used to generate fuel at times when petroleum supplies are low, such as during World War II. Then, there were even gasification-powered vehicles. However, the technology has only grabbed a U.S. footing again as sustainable processes become popular. There is only a handful of operating gasification plants in the United States, partly due to the recession. A $120 million plasma gasification plant was canceled in St. Lucie County, Fla., in 2012, for example, due to a lack of money.
Saty’s firm is footing the bill to build the plant in about 30 months after the signing the contract, with plans for use of RODECS technology made by U.K.-based Chinook Sciences. Profits will come from the sale of electricity produced by the gasification-created fuel, as well as some income from a contracted yard waste removal fee from Monroe County. While contract negotiations continue, Energy3 has removed the county’s yard waste to a composting facility in Moore Haven, Fla., saving residents about $100,000 to date.
Saty says once the gasification plant is online, the county will be only paying about $67.20 per ton for removal, a savings of about $700,000 per year. “The yard waste problem they have in Florida is unbelievable,” he says. “It’s not like the snow-bound cities to the north, they’re growing vegetation 24-7.”
The Keys location at basically sea level is also a large factor for the county’s interest in keeping greenhouse gases, which threaten to melt polar ice and raise ocean levels, out of the atmosphere. Vulnerability to water levels and storm damage is particularly sensitive to the Keys, where hundreds of residents have died in previous hurricanes, including 200 military veterans killed while building the Seven Mile Bridge structure in the 1930s.
The gasification process produces virtually no emissions, Saty says, a factor that helped his firm win the contract with Monroe. “They’re concerned about sea levels probably more than any other city in America,” he says.