Company behind Lewisporte energy plant has history of false starts and rejected projects
Synergy World Power has no completed plants and has been turned down by other governments
A company proposing to build a large waste-to-energy plant in Lewisporte, N.L., has abandoned similar projects — or had them rejected — in Europe and the United States.
Synergy World Power is proposing to build a plant it says will use clean technology to convert tonnes of plastic imported from Europe into electricity, in a process called gasification. It involves chemical reactions in a limited oxygen environment that reduce the plastic to synthetic gas. That gas can then be burned to generate electricity.
The company says it will invest $2 billion into the project and create 500 local jobs.
However, a closer look at the company reveals its directors have proposed those types of projects in other places too — ones that never came to fruition.
The main players are Keith Hulbert and Bary Wilson, people with a long history in the energy industry. Synergy World Power is connected to another company they own called EnviroPower Renewables.
EnviroPower has made similar proposals in Scotland, Ireland and Las Vegas since 2014.
The small, rural Scottish community of Hamilton rejected an application in 2014 and again in 2017, although the Scottish government overruled the first decision and permitted the company to enter the planning stage.
Hamilton James Wright told CBC News the project progressed no further.
"The site layout plan and elevational drawing of the building on their website are not what has planning permission and therefore should they wish to build those plans they would require to apply for planning permission for them," said Wright. "We have had no contact from Synergy World Power."
He said more than 5,000 people protested both applications, in part because they worried emissions from the plant would be bad for their health.
In Las Vegas, residents mounted a campaign against a proposed plant, again out of fear of pollution. In that case, the company suddenly pulled the plug on the project.
And in Gortadroma, Ireland, near Limerick, the council thought they were taking a cautious approach when they visited a similar plant, run by a different company in France before they committed to the EnviroPower proposal.
As it turned out, the French plant suddenly closed on the same day as their visit after an equipment breakdown.
They went ahead and signed a lease with EnviroPower, which enraged local residents who were opposed to the plant, which, among other things, planned to burn 45 tonnes of tires a day.
Council tried to get out of the deal, but it turned out to be binding — but they haven't heard from the company since January 2017.
Hulbert told CBC the company has no operating plants at the moment, but he disputes that there have been any rejected proposals.
"There's been opportunities we've pursued and voluntarily withdrawn because the market was not as we perceived as we got into an evaluation process," he said.
He says people should understand gasification is better than the alternatives.
"We're basically bringing it (plastic) back to an improved condition from its original because it's being returned as a diesel product that has very low sulphur," he said.
"So when I reference a 'clean' product, the substitute for this would be to pump new crude, process that and refine it, and that takes a lot of water, a lot of energy and other environmental impacts."
As well as health concerns, critics of the process cite waste and other forms of pollution as environment worries.
"'Green energy' is a great term because it doesn't actually have any specific meaning," said Neil Tangri of conservation group Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
"Anybody can call stuff green energy, and if you choose a comparison that's bad enough, then anything looks good. Is it better than the worst thing you could possibly do? Yeah, probably it's not as bad as the worst possible thing, but it's not the best thing you could do."
Hulbert argues the proposed Lewisporte technology will be as clean as possible.
"What is left at the end of our process from gasification, about eight per cent of the volume, will be turned into a very fine grit product, almost like sand. And it will have no leachables and no carbon content," he said.
Similar problems elsewhere
Some gasification plants are doing what they're supposed to do. The town of Renfrew, Ont., has been partners with an American company called Ensyn since 2008 in a plant that converts forestry waste to fuel.
An early Florida project by a company called MaxWest was having success until it went broke in the 2008 recession. Its assets were picked up by Aries Clean Energy, which is still in business today.
However, even if these projects are approved to begin with, there have been sustainability problems in some places.
In Canada, there have been a couple of notably troubled operations. A company called Plasco actually had a deal with the City of Ottawa, but ran into technical troubles and defaulted on loans that led to bankruptcy protection in 2015.
Even if Plasco had been able to pay the bills, the city had already decided to cut ties to the company.
In Hamilton in 2017, the Port Authority signed a lease to allow a gasification plant, scuttled when the company involved failed to meet deadlines and didn't communicate with the city for more than a year.
Internationally, there are other similar examples. In 2016, what was then called the largest waste-to-energy plant in the world in northeast England was shut down. The company that commissioned the plant said there were technical problems, it was expensive and it never worked properly.
A large gasification plant played a role in the City of Detroit's declaration of bankruptcy in 2013, as state and city governments kept funnelling money into it.
It frequently broke emissions rules and people complained for years about the smell. That plant closed for good back in March.
Tangri said there are several reasons why projects sometimes don't work out.
"Often they don't get the permits. Sometimes they build it and the thing just doesn't work. There was a high-profile case in Addis Ababa recently, in Ethiopia. They imported technology and they didn't really do a good waste characterization study and so they didn't know what they were shovelling in. And the thing just wouldn't function."
Next steps for Lewisporte
Hulbert says his technology is superior to that used in some of those failed projects.
As for the Lewisporte proposal, Hulbert says if all goes well, his company will be asking for provincial and municipal permits in two to four weeks.
If approved, it will take about three years to build the plant, provided the company can secure investors to cover the $2-billion price tag.
He's asking for a tax holiday while construction is going on, and wants the province to pay for a road and overpass to serve the site. The company plans to sell the electricity it generates back to the provincial grid, in anticipation of a growth in future demand.
"It's our understanding that while the province will be energy-rich, there will be a need for additional capacity," Hulbert said. "And that is before... the natural electrical load would be increased … just from the employment base at our project."
A Hydro spokesperson confirmed to CBC the company has been in touch.
The proponents of the plastic to liquid fuel production facility have presented some information to Hydro and have indicated interest in initiating a power purchase agreement," reads the statement.
"Hydro enters into a power purchase agreement when it provides value to customers — however, like any power supply opportunities, a great deal of analysis is required to determine if it is feasible and in the best interest of our customers from both a reliability and cost perspective."
Tangri has advice for the town and the province about how to treat this type of proposal.
They like going to smaller places where you don't have maybe an engineering university or somebody else to kind of knock them down a peg.- Neil Tangri
"Engineers and salesmen get together and they put together a fancy presentation with a bunch of engineering talk and they're like, 'Look! It's space-age technology,'" he said.
"And not to say that you guys are that remote, but they like going to smaller places where you don't have maybe an engineering university or somebody else to kind of knock them down a peg. And … yeah, they do a good sales job."
The provincial government has informed the company it must submit to a full environmental assessment, but so far the company has not applied for that.