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July 9,2009 Tri City News

A tiny square window glows fiery red and a peek through it is like a look inside a dragon's gullet.

It's 1,200 degrees Celsius in the belly of this beast, Metro Vancouver's Waste-to-Energy plant in south Burnaby.

Into the inferno goes 800 tonnes of garbage each day from homes and businesses around the region.

Pipes carrying water snake through the combustion chamber and the resulting steam turns turbines to generate close to 18 megawatts of electricity.

It's enough to power more than 15,000 homes.

The steam is also piped to the paper mill next door, providing it with power.

The waste-fired plant earns net revenues of more than $10 million a year from the energy it produces.

It's a model regional officials would like to replicate.

Metro Vancouver hopes to win public and provincial approval to build new waste-fired plants to treat garbage less like waste and more like a resource.

Each tonne of waste generates about as much energy as a barrel of oil and, considered in those terms, it makes little sense to entomb garbage in a landfill, says Metro Vancouver waste management committee chair Marvin Hunt.

"We're doing the equivalent of burying close to a million barrels of oil each and every year," Hunt said.

Right now, the Burnaby incinerator takes 280,000 tonnes of Metro Vancouver garbage a year, eight per cent of the region's waste stream.

If Metro's strategy is approved, waste-to-energy plants here could consume 25 per cent of the region's waste by 2015, the target date for new incinerators to be running.

Recycling would also increase  from the current 55 per cent to 70 per cent.

And the 37 per cent of the Metro waste stream that now goes to landfills would shrink to just five per cent.

Such a shift towards using garbage as a fuel, in concert with more recycling, would help wean the region off landfills, such as the Cache Creek dump, set to close next year.

But waste-fired plants like the one in Burnaby are controversial.

Critics fear emissions heading up the Fraser Valley will compromise air quality.

And locals may try to bar new incinerators from coming to their neighbourhoods.

Hunt said the current thinking is that three new waste-to-energy plants might be built  one South of the Fraser, one in the northeast sector and one on the North Shore.

Although the 21-year-old Burnaby plant runs well within standards, Hunt says new, modern plants would have more sophisticated emissions controls.

"This is one of the cleanest stacks in North America, but we can do better," he said.

In much of Europe, new incinerators don't even have conventional smokestacks.

"In Copenhagen, the embassies are near the waste-to-energy facility because the air coming out of the waste-to-energy facility is actually cleaner than the ambient air."

Hunt said a new waste-to-energy plant in downtown Paris blends in with the surrounding buildings, not far from the Eiffel Tower, powering neighbouring businesses and apartments.

"They're right in a very urban setting and most people don't even realize it's a waste-to-energy facility."

That's likely the model that would be pursued here.

It would be a departure from the Burnaby incinerator, which is in an industrial park near the Fraser River, with no nearby residential neighbours.

"The intent would be to put these into more densely populated areas," Hunt said.

That opens up more potential for district heating systems, whereby the waste-fired plant supplies the energy needs of surrounding buildings.

Downtown Vancouver has a natural gas-fired district heating system and buildings in North Vancouver's Lower Lonsdale area also use a system that shares heat generated by local industry.

But trash hasn't yet been used on a large scale here and the Burnaby plant's more isolated location has proven a disadvantage on that front.

The Norampac Inc. recycled paper mill next door once took 70 per cent of the steam the incinerator generates.

But hard times in the pulp and paper business have shrunk the mill to just one operating paper machine and it now takes just 30 per cent of the steam produced.

While the incinerator still generates electricity with the steam, managers would prefer to find a new industrial customer for the steam.

Hunt rejects charges that new waste-to-energy plants would add air pollutants to the already stressed Fraser Valley airshed.

"I believe we can have a net decrease in emissions," he said, arguing waste-generated energy will let other industries and buildings cut their use of fossil fuels.

Norampac stopped burning conventional fuels as soon as it was able to start using steam from the Burnaby incinerator.

If doubts can't be resolved about the air quality issue, Hunt said, Metro has the option of choosing an out-of-region site for a waste-to-energy plant that wouldn't send pollutants into the Fraser Valley.

Firms on Vancouver Island and in Howe Sound have tabled proposals to incinerate Metro waste there.

But there are trade offs to taking that route.

District energy likely wouldn't be an option. And transportation costs and emissions from trucking or barging garbage around would be significantly higher.

Metro officials say anxiety about pollution is misplaced and the existing Burnaby plant's emissions are negligible.

On most types of contaminants, the plant releases a tiny fraction of what is permitted.

Another concern is that building expensive incinerators would lock the region into feeding them, instead of finding better ways to recycle or reduce waste in the first place.

New waste-to-energy plants would be costly to build likely from $500 million to nearly $1 billion.

But compared to land-filling, they'd be cheap to operate, because of the money they earn from the sale of energy.

Turning waste to energy here would also eliminate emissions from burning diesel to truck garbage to the Interior.

Nor would garbage fester in the landfill and burp out methane, a major greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

"Garbage has to go somewhere," said Ron Richter, a vice-president at Veolia Environmental Services, which operates the Burnaby plant.

"It's a question of responsibility. Are we responsible or do we want to bury it in someone else's backyard? For me that's the key question."

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