Greenfield Ethanol, Canada’s largest ethanol producer, and gasification-system developer Enerkem announced this afternoon that they will jointly build and operate (and possibly own?) what they’re claiming will be the world’s first industrial-scale facility dedicated to converting municipal solid waste into ethanol. The $70 million plant is expected to be in operation by the end of 2010, and based on past presentations from Enerkem will process 100,000 metric tons of MSW per year — i.e. the residual stuff that’s left over and would otherwise go to landfill after recycling and composting. It will initially produce 36 million litres a year of ethanol (nearly 10 million gallons a year). The City of Edmonton, which is the capital of Alberta, has signed a 25-year contract with Greenfield/Enerkem to supply residual MSW to the plant. It’s unclear what kind of tipping fee Greenfield/Enerkem will get, but Enerkem claims its process is competitive with current landfilling costs, substantially reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and can divert more than 90 per cent of residual MSW from landfills.
The race is on. Rivals, such as Khosla Ventures-backed Coskata, have set similar targets. Coskata has plans to have a 50 million to 100 million gallon plant up and running by late 2010/early 2011. What’s interesting about the Edmonton project is that the municipality initially wanted to use the Enerkem process, under license to provincial utility Epcor, to produce syngas that would be used to produce electricity. But they decided, and it appears rather quickly, that producing ethanol made more sense economically than producing electricity. It begs the question for other municipalities that may be considering the electricity route.
What I like about this Edmonton project (and similar projects in the pipeline) is that it bypasses pretty much all the criticism currently around producing ethanol from food crops. It also eliminates a lot of transportation from the equation. Fact is, corn ethanol facilities tend to be located in the country where the corn is located, requiring lots of transportation to bring the corn to the facility, and then to take the ethanol to market. But producing ethanol from local MSW means the plant can be located near an existing landfill, so it adds virtually nothing to the transportation of feedstock. One can even envision mining the current landfill for feedstock, though I guess you wouldn’t get a tipping fee for that. And because the ethanol is produced near the city, it doesn’t have to go far to market. In Edmonton, greenhouse-gas reductions from the 25-year project will be the equivalent of taking 12,000 cars off the road.