Waste Gasification Goes Commercial

Start-up Ze-gen is planning the United States' first commercial waste gasification plant

4 min read
Waste Gasification Goes Commercial

10 May 2010—Ze-gen, a start-up that has developed a process to turn waste into an energy-rich synthesis gas, says it plans to build a 7-megawatt commercial power plant in Attleboro, Mass. This small plant, which the company expects to complete in late 2011, would be the first commercial waste gasification plant in the United States.

The plant uses a relatively new process that turns waste into a hot, combustible gas by drowning it in a bath of molten copper. The resulting 7 MW will power an industrial park occupied by a community college and various businesses, including a wastewater treatment plant. The tenants, who currently pay waste-collection services to take their trash, will pay a lower rate to send some of their refuse to Ze-gen. The company will use the waste—about 137 metric tons per day—to generate electricity and steam for heat, which Ze-gen will then sell back to the tenants. The park’s electricity load ranges from 3 to 10 MW, so for much of the day, it will be independent of the grid, and the company can sell the park’s excess electricity to the local utility. During peak hours, the grid will supply the shortfall.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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