MARCH 2008

Alternative energy production from power parks visualized for communities

The City of Avalon, the only city on Santa Catalina Island just off Los Angeles, is expected to go forward with its plans to develop a power park that would produce energy from alternative sources in an effort to wean itself off of fossil fuels as much as possible.

Avalon, with a population of more than 3,000 people, hosts over one million tourists annually. In 2003, the city council approved its 2020 Vision Plan and in December 2005, it unanimously appointed Tustin, California-based Eco Soul to prepare a White Paper outlining the integration of technologies for establishing a sustainable power park on the island.

In addition to generating solar and ocean (most probably wave or current) power, the power park would maximize energy production from waste via biomass (wood chips and other paper/wood products), anaerobic digestion (food scraps and green waste – grass clippings, leaves, etc.) and pyrolysis which converts municipal solid waste remaining after recycling into power and fuel.

“The plan puts together a system of components or elements that are highly integrated. Each component can be optimized and the system can be optimized to take advantage of indigenous resources on the island to provide energy needs,” says Skip Staats, founder of Eco Soul. “It can also cover other needs such as water clean-up and conservation and provides soil amendment for agriculture. It’s just a matter of taking this study to the next level to make sure that it is possible to do politically and economically.”

The island is dependent upon imports for nearly everything it consumes. Save for a few standard vehicles, each household is limited to one golf cart for transportation purposes.

Catalina imports approximately 2.7 million gallons of diesel fuel annually to generate electricity and meet other energy needs. Its sole landfill is scheduled to close in 2012 based on deposits.

Because the landfill is based on an old system, it was not designed to recover methane gas. Staats says that aside from mining the top layers of the landfill, it will likely be capped once it is full. The dump site could actually be converted to an alternative use due to a 90 percent reduction of municipal solid waste volume with a useful by-product of carbon char remaining. “The plan is to no longer have a need for a landfill and for the tiny amount of residual waste from pyrolysis to be shipped to the mainland,” says Staats.

With such a large number of tourists, the island generates a substantial amount of solid waste, food scraps and other types of refuse that can be harvested to generate power and recyclables that could be sold to dealers on the mainland. Within the power park, pyrolisis would generate syngas and carbon char; and anaerobic digestion would generate bio-methane, compost and nitrogen-rich water. The majority of the island is designated as a nature reserve.

“There are several areas on the island that are ideal for solar power because they are at a higher altitude and above the marine layer,” says Staats. “Technically, there is no problem. It’s just a matter of looking at the processes and permitting jurisdictions.” Should the power park concept prove a success, similar installations could be set up on other islands, isolated and rural communities and in major cities across the globe.

More studies are required to determine how much energy could be generated by wave power and whether the investment is justified compared to biomass and other technologies. While low in the hierarchy of alternative power sources, there are companies that do manufacture undersea turbines to take advantage of currents.

For Catalina, this power source could take advantage of the ocean currents flowing past the island.

Should council approve the project, an investment in technology will lead to economic resources staying on the island.

Financial support may also be sought from the state and federal government.

The Hawaiian island of Lanai, which is similar in size and population to Catalina, has expressed an interest in having a power park, as has Ulysses, Kansas, the feedlot capital of the United States cattle industry.

“We met with the city manager of Ulysses,” says Staats. “Ulysses has huge amounts of waste that the city has difficulty in getting rid of. They have a big interest in renewable technologies.”

Ulysses is interested in converting the manure and the leftover material from the slaughterhouses into power.

“Lanai has the same type of issues as Catalina and we have been discussing this with state representative Mina Morita,” says Staats. “She is one of the top advocates for sustainable technologies for Hawaii. This technology can be applied to the bigger islands. Islands are the most stringent tests for sustainability because they are very often 99 percent dependent on imported fuel and other supplies.”

Hawaii currently ships solid waste to landfills in Oregon. “For remote communities,” says Staats, “it is very expensive to connect to a mainland power grid.”

The Eco Soul model utilizes appropriate technologies to fit the local situation. There could be micro hydroelectric sources and for island situations, solar, wind power and geothermal sources along with waste to energy options.

“Integration is the key, as is the amount of capital that any community can raise,” he adds. “For example, if you could handle one waste-to-power application, you don’t need the whole set of possibilities – you can build it up over time.”

While some alternative power generation technologies are beginning to reach the commercial production phase, others are still being developed and are still the subject of pilot projects. Once the technologies reach the commercial phase, municipalities and counties will have a wide range of options to choose from.

Power parks would also be perfect for large cities such as New York, Chicago and Dallas. NYC exports about 12,000 tons of solid waste daily to landfills in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

“If we convert our waste to power” says Staats, “we could get 15 to 20 percent of our energy from this source alone. That is what the Eco Soul model shows. There are no silver bullets. We need integrated, appropriate models for sustainability.”