Energy Tech Talk
Let's Talk Energy with... Mike Scott, Nexterra Systems Corp.
For Vancouver’s Nexterra Systems Corp., being ‘green’ is about more than reducing greenhouse gas emissions—it’s about changing the way we think about power generation. We talked to Mike Scott, President and CEO, about how his company’s gasification technology is converting urban wood waste into a syngas that is used to replace natural gas at the the University of British Columbia. This is solution has great potential to provide a clean, reliable, local energy source for institutions, industrial customers and power producers.
How would you describe your technology?
MS: At the highest level, we’re creating energy from waste. More specifically, we design systems that convert organic biomass—primarily wood chips and other waste wood—into a gas we call ‘syngas’, which can be used much like natural gas to produce heat and power.
How is the technology being applied at UBC?
MS: We’re working with UBC on a commercial demonstration of our combined heat and power solution, which combines our gasification and syngas conditioning systems with a high-efficiency internal combustion engine developed by GE Energy. In addition to feeding the raw syngas into the boilers that heat the campus, we also clean and upgrade the syngas so it’s suitable for use in GE’s Jenbacher engine, which generates electric power. In doing so, we’re displacing 12 percent of UBC’s natural gas consumption—and that will lead to long-term fuel cost savings.
We’re actually one of the few companies in the world that can do gasification at the small- to medium-scale using locally sourced waste materials—and do so in a way that is both reliable and cost-effective.
Nexterra’s gasifier converts wood waste into combustible syngas, which can power the boilers that heat on-campus buildings or be upgraded for use in a gas engine that produces electricity.
What are the environmental benefits of the technology?
MS: By reducing demand for natural gas and other fossil fuels, our technology has the potential to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions. At UBC, we’ve decreased emissions by 5,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.
But that’s not the key selling point, is it?
MS: No. For me, the best part about our technology is that we’re able to use locally available feedstock to produce clean, reliable energy at a scale where it can be consumed on-site. Because our systems are relatively small, we can generate heat and power at the district or neighbourhood level. At UBC, we’re right in the middle of campus next to a residence and the power and heat is used right on the campus. And because our systems are remarkably clean, there’s little impact on people or the environment. To be able to produce energy to meet local energy demands in a way that’s community-friendly—and reduce the need for fossil fuels—that’s what’s really important.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
MS: The most significant challenge has actually just appeared within the past two or three years. The cost of natural gas has declined by about 70 percent compared to its peak in 2008, which makes the economic case for using renewable waste feedstock less compelling. So we have to deal with the ripple effects of this dramatic change in the North American energy market—but we still believe there are many opportunities, especially with air quality and clean, sustainable power generation being so important to many communities.
Facing an uphill battle in North America, Scott believes the global market will be key to the company’s success. In addition to the seven systems installed in Canada and the United States, Nexterra is now building its first plant in the United Kingdom.
“We’re very much focused on international expansion, particularly in markets in Europe and Asia where energy prices continue to be high,” he says. “The reason we have this opportunity to take our technology to the global stage is because of the support of our partners such as SDTC along with the tremendous job my team has done in overcoming the hurdles associated with taking multiple projects from the pilot to demonstration to commercialization phases—all while keeping our focus on delivering real value to our customers.”