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Surges and Setbacks for Trash-to-Gas Electricity

Canadian firm seizes the lead in garbage gasification after low gas prices and activists sideline Boston’s Ze-gen

4 min read

22 November 2011—Gasification power plants can now vaporize municipal waste to generate renewable power with a greatly reduced risk of the dioxin emissions that soured neighborhoods on waste incineration in decades past. Nevertheless, pushing gasification technology to commercial scale has proven tough, especially in North America. Equipment-jamming trash, low electricity prices, and enduring community opposition to any facility that resembles an incinerator have derailed every proposed project in the United States and Canada to date.

This year’s casualty was Boston-based gasification developer Ze-gen. Its innovative technology uses molten metal to turn trash into syngas (a combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen), which is subsequently burned to generate electricity. Ze-gen’s gasification system was profiled optimistically by Spectrum in 2010, but the company scrapped plans for a plant in Massachusetts that it had vowed to complete by the end of 2011.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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