Solid Waste Conversion and Renewable Energy: A Review of California’s AB 2770, SB 1038, and SB 1078


Three legislative actions intertwined solid waste conversion and energy generation in the fall of 2002. The primary public and private attention focused on passage of California’s new Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, pursuant to Senate Bill 1078. Implementation of the RPS fell to the California Energy Commission (CEC), as defined in Senate Bill 1038. Both were brought by Senator Byron Sher to the Legislation for consideration and to Governor Gray Davis for passage the same day (September 12, 2002) as the RPS. Following by eight days, Senator Matthews carried Assembly Bill 2770 to the legislature, a bill addressing the conversion of solid waste into fuels for energy generation.

With attention on the RPS, passage of the Conversion Technology bill occurred almost without agency or public notice. Months were to go by before CEC staff became fully aware of provisions for solid waste to be converted to renewable energy, and of the implications for shared purview with the California Integrated Waste Management Board (“Board”, or CIWMB). Yet major sections of the language of SB 1038 and AB 2770 were essentially replicated, defining the specific conditions by which solid waste could be converted to clean burning fuels for generation of “renewable energy”. An important precedent for waste conversion to renewable energy generation has been set into law. Inconsistencies, technical inaccuracies and confusion inherent in that parallel bill language were also encoded. “Clean-up” legislation has already begun, with encoding of SB 183 harmonizing the relationship between impacted sections of the Public Resources Code and Public Utilities Code. Further assessment is almost certain to again revise the statutes.

SB 1038 also required that the CEC produce “Renewable Energy Guidebooks” to outline the regulatory path by which facilities complying with the harmonized language could then be deemed “eligible renewable energy generators”. Similarly, AB 2770 directed CIWMB to promulgate regulations surrounding implementation of conversion technology. Revision of Board permitting and enforcement structure proceeds toward consideration of a final draft by the Board and the public, prior to submission to the Legislature for final approval. CEC has now proposed revision of the Renewables Portfolio Standard Eligibility Guidebook to specifically address eligibility criteria for Municipal Solid Waste Conversion Facilities, in this interim period prior to full CIWMB regulatory implementation.

Legislative Analysis

Beginning with Senator Matthews’ Conversion Technology bill, a careful interpretation of each line helps highlight potential implementation difficulties, technical inaccuracies, and confusion of definition. Following AB 2770 assessment, consideration is given to specific sections of both SB 1078 and to SB 1038 that have particularly direct impact upon Conversion Technologies.

Seven “performance criteria” were established by AB 2770; this was expanded to eight, in the complementary language of SB 1038, as discussed below. Each encoded criterion is relatively and perhaps deceptively brief. Strict adherence to all of the stipulations is required for permitting, and separately, for certification as an eligible renewable energy generation facility.

One measure of efficacy in legislation is the degree of fairness achieved among competing interests: if one sector receives a particular mandate, is there a similar standard for similar and competing interests? Attempts to “level the playing field” must therefore identify and attend to instances where an unfair advantage, or disadvantage, is created by the applicable laws. Comments annotating each mandate are therefore intended to pose one basic question: is this element an achievable, desirable, and equitable requirement? If one of the stipulations fails this test, all must be considered subject to revision.

AB 2770, Matthews. Solid waste: conversion technologies. (Signed September 20, 2003)

In implementing a “non-combustion thermal process” for feedstock conversion to a clean burning fuel, in strict compliance with this criteria, the stoichiometric balance of oxygen to carbon must be maintained as a reductive, not an oxidative atmosphere. The relationship between air and temperature control is obtuse: temperature control can be affected by aeration management, but the concept of controlling temperature by varying air flow does not address the more critical issue of combustion bi-products control.

To cleave available carbon molecular chains into smaller segments is to cause an energy-releasing (exothermic) reaction that, in the parlance of the science of combustion chemistry, is considered “combustion”, whether or not a flame occurs. Retention of feedstock in this thermal processing condition progressively creates smaller and smaller carbon “clusters”, until the desired end-product is a gas, rather than a solid. That desired “clean-burning synthetic gas” or syngas is predominantly composed of single carbon atoms attached to one or more oxygen molecules (carbon monoxide, CO, or carbon dioxide, CO2). As carbon molecules are broken away from their more complex chains, something must be present to fill the valence void; oxygen is the appropriate complement, when combustible syngas is the desired product.

True, shifting process controls toward an oxidative atmosphere with greater oxygen supply would increase rates of conversion (assuming constant feedstock conditions), resulting in an increase in chamber temperatures. Decreasing either or both the available carbon or available oxygen will in general lower the conversion chamber temperature. Yet increasing carbon availability far in excess of oxygen availability would be counter-productive to syngas generation, creating char, or other heavier molecular weight products in a process considered pyrolysis rather than gasification. Variability of feedstock, inherent in the composition of refuse derived fuels, requires constant minute changes in levels of oxygenation. Change in temperature therefore could ostensibly be monitored to indicate stoichiometric flux, but not to precisely manage conversion.

The impetus for addition of this line of “performance criteria” was apparently not predicated upon a sound scientific or legal foundation. Creation of a “clean-burning syngas” does not require exclusion of either air or oxygen. As an example, “oxygen flood gasification” common to certain forms of petroleum and coal processing are technical realities quite capable of matching regulatory stipulations for environmental quality. The composition of the syngas will reflect the stoichiometric balance maintained and the feedstock supplied. If the feedstock stream normally contains contaminants whose products of oxidation are particularly onerous, greater cleaning will be necessary. Control of the syngas product quality thus must be addressed throughout the process, from feedstock selection through conversion, to final cleaning. Establishment of product quality standards would equate to creation of appropriate performance standards; stipulation of arbitrary process control does not achieve the stated goal of ensuring a “clean-burning fuel”.

SB 1038, Sher: The CEC’s “Renewable Energy Program”

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) holds primary purview for the “Renewable Portfolio Standard”, pursuant to SB 1078 Sher, signed September 12, 2002. Implementation of the RPS continues; the CEC is formally enjoined as collaborator in this implementation, under provision of the “Renewable Energy Program” or REP, pursuant to SB 1038, Sher, signed the same day. Note that AB 2770 was encoded eight days later, on September 20, 2002. This lag seems to explain much of the agency confusion relating provisions of the companion Senate and Assembly bills.

The REP delves into many “energy” issues that extend well beyond the RPS, but the primary focus is on defining a mechanism for CEC financial support of RPS energy contracts. Eligibility for participation in the RPS, and for receipt of a Supplemental Energy Payments, or SEP, above the current energy market price, is exhaustively detailed. Implementation via regulatory development is occurring concurrent with CPUC’s RPS efforts, and concurrent with CIWMB’s own regulatory package for Conversion Technologies oversight implementation.

The degree of interagency collaboration and communication is significant, yet the CIWMB path is far less a collaborative effort directed toward “RPS Implementation”, than one dedicated to solid waste management. A “Double Jeopardy” is now becoming apparent:

(1) Where conversion technologies are designed to compete within the RPS marketplace for generate and sale of renewable energy, this separate yet parallel regulatory development jeopardizes eligibility, and yet,

(2) Where conversion technologies DO NOT intend to pursue sale of renewable electricity, the expected complexity of permitting regulations appears at least in part, unwarranted.

The “facility must certify” to the CEC, now in addition to the certification to CIWMB concurrently required by AB 2770 language. In the CEC’s Final Committee Report “RPS: Decision on Phase 1 Implementation Issues” (May 2003; # 500-03-023FD), the conversion facility owner “Certifies” to the CEC that a CIWMB “Finding” has been issued for compliance. Yet note that this is “source specific”: As this stands, a separate CIWMB “Finding” must be issued to the Facility owner, and delivered to and accepted by the CEC, for EACH “local agency sending solid waste”.

Note: The CIWMB referenced in the legislation became CalRecycle, a division of the CalEPA, at the beginning of 2010.

© JDMT, Inc 2011. All rights reserved. You are free to reprint and use this article as long as no changes are made to its content or references, and credit is given to the author.

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