Garbage. It’s smelly, a waste of space and an increasingly severe problem in a world with more stringent sustainability regulations and a rising population that just keeps producing it.
Thanks to technological innovations in the Upstate, however, garbage could power the economic growth we need, according to D4 Energy Group Chief Technology Officer Ron Baker.
After years of research and development, Baker, who is based in the Upstate, and his team are looking to be the bridge between landfills and industry by converting garbage into fuels that local industries and communities can use. The result is a community-tailored, waste-to-energy approach that fits the specific needs of the community, rather than sticking with the traditional, one-size-fits-all solution of capturing landfill gases and producing electricity, he said.
Baker spent 16 years with Michelin Tire as a field evaluation manager, and learned “there are a lot of entities out there that have their own set of issues … that are looking at what they can do with their waste. The first thing they want to do is try to avoid it, minimize it, recycle it, but then there comes a certain point where you’ve got this pile of something that nobody wants to buy, and they’ve got to do something with it.”
Take a small island or a rock-based area such as Nepal, for example, said Matt Baston of Taylors-based product development and engineering firm Yellow Root Design.
Baston’s firm has been working with Baker for years on these technologies. “They can’t dig in the ground and hide everything and park over it,” he said from his office in Taylors Mill. “They just need to get rid of the waste. Even though they have cheap hydroelectric power over there, they still want what we have to offer … you’re going to have to do something with it eventually.”
“A huge potential market”
Part of the drive for waste-to-fuel conversions stems from the inevitable push towards sustainable energy production and waste control, even more significantly in European countries. But rather than simply being an increased cost municipalities and firms have to deal with, waste-to-energy technology has the potential to make money, or at least offset the added costs through long-term purchase contracts, said Baker and Baston. If D4 and the investors behind their projects don’t see an opportunity for a return, they walk away, Baker said.
“Every city, every county, every state in the United States is facing a similar problem, some of which are more urgent than others,” he said, noting that projects for large municipalities could easily cost billions of dollars each. “It’s a huge potential market out there, which is the reason we’re trying to play.”
The company is involved with both international and domestic projects, one of which is a community in Oklahoma. The issue isn’t landfill space or overcrowding, Baker said, but an invasive evergreen taking over many of the pasture lands. Instead of simply burning the cedar – which is less than ideal for the environment – or using a traditional landfill or transit method of disposal, D4 is working to convert the biomass waste into dimethyl ether (a lower-emissions material), which can then be used for the region’s thriving poultry industry.
“Everybody wants to take waste material and convert it into electricity, but that is not a profitable venture in the United States,” because the highly regulated utility industry simply doesn’t have the profit margins to invest heavily in renewables, he said. “There is a tremendous amount of attempts both domestically and internationally to be able to do what we do.”
While at Michelin, Baker spent time investigating ways to create value-added products out of used tires, which included projects such as rubberized asphalt. “I would go to where these tires were piling up next to these huge landfills,” he said. “I started [asking], ‘Well, what’s out there that can take a tire at the end of its life and convert it into something without emissions and do it correctly?’ It’s the same thing to deal with MSW [municipal solid waste], with garbage.”
Baker left Michelin in 1994 and has been working on similar projects ever since, all the while keeping his home base in Greenville. While D4 Energy Group is technically based in the Midwest, Baker and his team – including Baston – are located in South Carolina and the surrounding region.
“If someone has a serious enough issue, they’re going to find a solution. It may be to push it onto somebody else, and while I’m in South Carolina, I would prefer not to receive waste from everybody else,” Baker said. “But if it comes this way, we would like to be able to take that material and convert it to something that is beneficial to our state and our region.”