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Monday, November 16, 2015

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Driverless Trucks, Robotic Service and Turning Trash into Fuel


In the 1980s, movies like “Back to the Future” introduced the concept that, by 2015, there would be flying cars powered by solid recycled and organic waste, and robotic service stations with robotic service personnel. These predictions have not happened yet―especially flying cars―but they are on their way to becoming true. 

Over the past few years, we have seen dramatic changes in technology.   Driverless cars and waste-to-fuel conversion have become reality.  Some forecasters say that by 2020, there could be nearly 10 million driverless cars on the road.  Although that prediction may seem implausible, its waste-related applications are not. 

Current laws in California, the largest driverless car market, prohibit driverless vehicles from traveling faster than 25 miles per hour.  As a result, the applications of driverless vehicles seem to be limited, but they may just work for certain service industries, including municipal waste service organizations.   Imagine a driverless waste collection, recycling or organic truck that uses chip and robotic arm technology to collect bins on a programmed route.  The technology is not quite there, but when it is, driverless collection trucks may be another way technology could mitigate costs in the waste service industry. 

One area where predictions have actually met reality is waste-to-fuel conversion.  In the “Back to the Future” series, waste was converted directly into fuel after being placed into a vehicle.  We haven’t realized this prediction completely, but technologies have reached a point where companies that collect solid waste and organics can convert it into compressed natural gas and use this fuel to power the collection vehicles.

This process is called anaerobic digestion. The California Energy Commission defines it as a “biological process that produces a gas principally composed of methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) otherwise known as biogas.” These gases are produced from organic wastes such as livestock manure and food processing waste. Anaerobic facilities come in many different sizes and can maintain cities with populations ranging from a million residents to a few thousand.

Because the majority of municipal solid waste companies operate in areas where it does not make sense to run a large lake facility, smaller enclosed anaerobic digestion plants come into play. These relatively new plants can handle between 10,000 TPY and 20,000 TPY of organic waste, and cost between $6 million and $10 million, respectively. With the right interest rates and the noted avoided tipping fee costs, coupled with government tax benefits, a new anaerobic facility can pay for itself in less than 10 years.

Managing an enclosed anaerobic plant onsite not only lowers fixed costs, it also produces a large amount of methane, while costing a nominal amount to maintain. If a collection company also adds on a cleaning and compression unit to convert the biomethane to a renewable compressed natural gas, the organic waste collection vehicles can run on the methane being produced. So the company not only lowers its carbon footprint, it eliminates it. By coupling the right technologies together, a new anaerobic plant can make a collection company carbon neutral.

Before joining the future and jumping into anaerobic digestion headfirst, however, companies need to step back and ensure that it is right for them. Determining which facility size works best and examining the organic collection tonnage are the right first steps to take. Obtaining the right financing plan, looking at the tax benefits and determining how long the facility will take to pay for itself all come next. Once these steps have been accomplished, a plan should be introduced to the city (most likely a contract extension) to ensure the facility’s success. Then a company working with the city can negotiate contract terms to ensure operation for this complex investment, thereby reaping the benefits for generations to come.

About Armanino
Armanino has extensive experience educating cities about new waste technologies and negotiating contract addendums that benefit both the company and the cities in which they operate. We also assist cities and companies in determining the financial responsibilities and benefits of these new technologies. In addition, we can help companies track, monitor and maintain the benefits of carbon credits, which can be a daunting task if handled alone. If you are unsure whether anaerobic digestion is right for your company, contact Armanino for your financial assessment and negotiation needs. We are currently involved in similar projects throughout the Bay Area, and we would be happy to help you with yours.

David Button, Solid Waste Department Lead of Armanino, has been involved in negotiation and consulting with solid waste haulers, consultants and cities. For more information on how solid waste haulers and other companies are dealing with negotiations within each jurisdiction, contact him at David.Button@armaninoLLP.com.

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