New alchemy: Cash from ash

Money: Power companies are looking for ways to make money off the tons of fly ash produced by their coal-burning plants. How about synthetic bricks and wood?

March 12, 2000|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

At its three Maryland coal-fired power plants, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. burns about 6 million tons of coal a year. The result: about 600,000 tons of a gray powdery substance called fly ash -- and a bill every year to get rid of it.

But now BGE, as well as other utilities around the country, are looking for a modern version of the alchemist's quest -- turning ashes into gold.

Historically, utilities paid companies to take fly ash off their hands, or they dumped it in landfills. Now, with deregulation on the horizon for many states, including Maryland in July, utilities are more interested in generating revenue from the waste product.

BGE spends about $175 million a year purchasing coal for its three power plants -- Brandon Shores and H. A. Wagner in Anne Arundel County, and C. P. Crane in Baltimore County. A profitable ash management program would lower a coal-fired power plant's costs.

But there's one problem, said John L. Jeffcoat, engineering analyst at the Brandon Shores power plant.

"People don't exactly know what fly ash is , or what it can do for them," said Jeffcoat, whose job it is to rid BGE of its tons of ash.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has determined that fly ash -- which is made of sand, silica, alumina and unburned bits of coal -- is not a hazardous waste. BGE officials said it has the same properties of soil.

The most common use for the ash is to sell it to concrete makers as a cheaper replacement for cement. BGE has joined with Separation Technologies Inc. of Needham, Mass., to take advantage of that opportunity, but the competition is stiff.

There are about 1,000 or so coal-fired electricity generating plants around the country, many of which are also trying to sell their ash to concrete companies.

Fly ash is also used in various other building materials and processes. BGE recently ended a two-decade-long dispute with Anne Arundel County community groups over the utility's use of 4 million tons of fly ash to level the ground at a local business park.

The utility also uses fly ash to refill sand and gravel pits, to build embankments for the Key Bridge and to construct roads.

The American Coal Ash Association in Alexandria, Va., said it is only a matter of time before profitable ideas begin to take hold.

"In an increasingly competitive market, fly ash could be an opportunity for utilities to put more money back into their business," said Gregg Deinhart, spokesman for the industry group.

But the daunting task is getting an idea to the market, he added.

"Utilities have to ask themselves if there is good science behind an idea, and is it commercially competitive," Deinhart said.

Jeffcoat said he often receives solicitations from inventors who want BGE to invest in their new ideas.

Hot ideas include synthetic wood and brick made from ash.

Ecomat Inc. of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has a line of 15 prototypes that use fly ash, such as roofing tiles and decking materials, but none of them are in production, said Wade Brown, its president.

But he has found a market for his synthetic wood, which is 65 percent fly ash.

"Nothing's better than fly ash," Brown said. "It just sits there. It doesn't rust or rot."

Brown gets 10,000 tons of fly ash free from a New York utility, but he is expecting the arrangement to change.

"Utilities are getting more competitive. Just like they sell energy, they will sell ash to build their revenue stream," Brown said.

Until products like Brown's hit the market, BGE will continue to explore other options, Jeffcoat said.

The utility considered shipping tons of its ash to Puerto Rico as a soil replacement, but the deal fell through.

BGE is also considering re-burning the fly ash to create more electricity. But the process could be too expensive, Jeffcoat said.

In the meantime, BGE is planning to unload as much ash as possible on the concrete industry.

BGE and Separation Technologies jointly operate a $7 million facility at the Brandon Shores plant to remove the high carbon content of fly ash. STI is selling the low-carbon ash. The higher the ash's carbon content, the less useful it is for the concrete makers.

The plant started operating in May, and STI has sold 30,000 tons of fly ash. Sales this year are projected to be as much as 180,000 tons. The plant will eventually be able to handle about 400,000 tons.

STI and BGE expect to start making a profit in the next five years. "A lot of utilities are in the same position as BGE in recognizing the fly ash problem," said Michael J. Grady of STI. "But BGE is far ahead of a lot of them in resolving the issue.

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