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Monterrey plans to turn rotting garbage into electricity

Latin America's first of its kind power plant is expected to be done by the end of the year.

By Cheryl SmithSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 2002



MONTERREY, MEXICO

When President George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox meet today in Mexico's third-largest city for the United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development, local garbage probably won't be a hot topic of conversation.

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Yet Monterrey is home to an innovative example of the potential of private-sector investment in public works. The collaboration will turn fumes from the area's rotting garbage into electricity.

The government here has teamed up with local energy company, Sistemas de Energia Internacional (SEISA), to construct a waste-to-energy plant on the Salinas Victoria Landfill, just north of the city. The Bioenergia de Nuevo León power plant will turn methane produced by decomposing waste into energy that will be sold to local municipalities at a discount rate.

"This sort of technology is a showcase for the rest of Mexico and Latin America," says Adrian Loening, a project consultant.

Only a handful of garbage-to-energy landfill plants exist in the developing world, says Mr. Loening. Monterrey's plant, currently under construction, will be the first of its kind in Latin America.

The technology has widespread potential in underfinanced regions because landfill plants provide electricity to rural areas not connected to main power grids.

They also have strong potential because trash in such regions is highly organic, says SEISA director Jorge Gutierrez Vera. Only organic material can produce the necessary methane gas.

According to Mr. Gutierrez Vera, Mexico's residential, commercial, and industrial garbage is more than 55 percent organic, comprised of food and yard waste. The economic situation of many Mexicans leads them to recycle much of the remaining 45 percent, leaving the country with more than 90 percent organic waste, he says.

A money-saver

Public-private sector collaborations like Bioenergia de Nuevo León are integral to the concept of development financing, says David Eaton, president of a Monterrey-based multinational consulting firm. He says cash-strapped governments can give resources to items that otherwise wouldn't be a financial priority. It is complicated and more expensive to make energy out of traditional fossil fuels such as diesel and coal, says SEISA spokesman Raymundo Gonzalez, explaining the reason for the savings. "You just reach in and suck out that methane, and you have your fuel to burn," he says.

Six neighboring municipalities – which along with Monterrey make up the greater Monterrey area – have also signed on to the project. They anticipate savings of 10 to 15 percent on monthly electricity bills.

"We'll be able to save money that we can use on other projects," says Jorge Machado, finance director of Santa Catarina, one of the area's poorest municipalities. The city of 250,000 pays $109,000 per month for electricity, its largest public expense.

While Mexico's Constitution calls for federal control of its electricity market, in order to supplement a strained national energy supply, it permits private renewable energy projects. The federal government, however, still controls distribution of any electricity by requiring use of state power lines.

The federal electric company – the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) – will feed the energy generated from the plant into Monterrey's street lighting system – the city's largest monthly electricity cost. The Bioenergia de Nuevo León plant will generate enough power to take care of about 60 percent of the city of Monterrey's lighting needs.

Despite benefits such as reducing greenhouse gases and reduced burning of fossil fuels, the garbage-to-energy project has received little fanfare in Monterrey, a city that takes great pride in its relatively neat streets, air-conditioned office buildings, and modern manufacturing facilities.

Problem with droughts

Being the first project of its kind is part of the reason, says SEISA's Gonzalez. Political leaders have been reluctant to tout it, fearing the project won't go as smoothly as planned.

For one thing, it's difficult to predict the rate at which garbage will decompose, he says. If trash in a landfill has broken down too much, it will be depleted of methane before it can be extracted. Likewise, if an area suffers a drought and the landfill doesn't receive sufficient moisture, garbage won't decompose at a fast enough rate to make the plant effective.

Some local residents remain skeptical of the power plant. Roberto Ramon, a local baker, says he recalls similar projects, that ultimately went unfulfilled when political administrations changed.

"It all sounds really good," says Mr. Ramon, "but they never do what they say they are going to do."

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