Waste-to-Hydrogen Technology Pitched to Williamstown Select Board
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The founder and president of a Williamsburg-based decarbonization advocacy group Monday told the Select Board that a proposal to process municipal solid waste at the local level will save towns money and address inequity built into the current system of waste disposal.
"The new trend with the closure of incinerators and waste energy plants and landfills in the states is to put them on trains and send them to very unfortunate communities that are receiving those materials, where they are being incinerated or being landfilled," Local Power President Paul Fenn told the board. "And they are being poisoned. This is unsustainable, obviously, it's also extremely inequitable.
"You're having a lot of the waste currently being sent to South Carolina by a lot of towns in Massachusetts but also to Upstate New York, on the Canadian border, on Indian reservation land. It's really quite grotesque what's being done right now throughout the states.
"We've developed a new approach."
Fenn was before the Select Board on Monday to ask Williamstown to take the first step in exploring that new approach: converting non-recyclables at the local level to produce hydrogen for fuel and industrial grade limestone.
Fenn Local Power helped usher in programs like the municipal power aggregation Williamstown has shared with a number of other Berkshire County communities
over the past decade. According to its website, more than 1,800 municipalities nationwide now have a community choice aggregation program in place.
Now, Local Power is partnering with California-based Ways2H to "upcycle" trash and non-recyclable plastic using gasification technology already being employed in Japan
The byproducts of the process both are usable, Fenn said: hydrogen as fuel and limestone in industrial applications.
The process will not satisfy a high percentage of a community's energy needs but it will address mountains of refuse in a more sustainable, environmentally friendly way, he said.
"It's not a ton of hydrogen, but it helps to offset the cost of conversion, so it's a cost effective alternative method to putting it on a train, sending it someplace else to be burned," Fenn said. "In terms of cost, the idea is to meet or beat your existing tipping fees — not to present an increasing cost, even though the quality of the service is quite superior."
A major part of Fenn's pitch on Monday was that the Was2H process handles toxic waste, like polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances, in ways that do not pollute the environment and end up in drinking water.
He also emphasized the increasing cost that area residents are facing for trash disposal, citing a 2022 price increase by Republic Services, which raised its price per ton from $80 to $97, a 21 percent hike in one year.
Fenn said Local Power was not looking for upfront funding from municipalities. Their contribution to what he sees as a privately owned processing facility would be as customers of the plant.
Right now, he is looking for towns to sign letters of interest as a preliminary, non-binding expression of a municipality's desire to be considered as a facility's host and, ultimately, customer.
"We just have to have some indication of interest to go out and develop the project," Fenn said. "It's to help us with [the Department of Environmental Protection], to help us get a site, to help us get more municipalities to sign on. It's non-committal, but it puts you in a group of towns that wants to hear back from us if we make progress."
To date, Local Power has received such letters from authorities in its hometown, Williamsburg and Worthington, Fenn said.
The Williamstown Select Board held no vote for or against the idea of joining the list and indicated that with just three members present it would want to let all five of its members review the idea. But Andrew Hogeland recommended in the meantime that Fenn reach out to the Northern Berkshire Solid Waste Management District, of which the town is a member, to determine its interest.
Fenn listed myriad reasons why a municipality would want to pursue the technology.
"In terms of the benefits, you're reducing [municipal solid waste] in Western Mass, you're creating zero emission hydrogen for local use, reducing legacy landfills that are now contaminating water tables, destroying PFOAs and trace emissions from pyrolosis, sequestering char into limestone, recovering landfill brown fields," he said. "It's cheaper than current waste management processes, eliminates transfer costs, eliminates greenhouse gas byproducts and airborne toxins.
"It's multiple benefits, but basically it's reducing a mountain, a disaster, to a manageable volume – that is, the toxic part of the waste, to sequester that into smaller volumes rather than have it leach or be incinerated in your community or another community."
Tags: alternative energy, waste collections,