Citizens Voice Concerns Over SOBE Thermal Project

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – About a dozen community members attending a City Council Public Utilities Committee meeting Thursday say they want more information about a proposed gasification project planned for the city.

SOBE Thermal plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Youngstown to convert old natural-gas burning boilers into more efficient ones that can run on synthetic gas made from recycled waste such as tires and plastic.

“We need a public hearing to get this further flushed out,” city resident Lynn Anderson said to Chairman Mike Ray. “We need a lot more data.”

Ray said that he would gather more information for additional meetings, noting that he understands that the public still has questions about the project.

Anderson said she’s concerned about potential toxins being emitted into the air as a result of the gasification process.  She also questioned how the city could effectively monitor pollution levels from the site.

She suggested that SOBE bring in its technical team in order to explain the process and the plant’s operations.  

David Ferro, SOBE president and CEO, answered questions from committee members and residents for nearly an hour during the first half of the meeting.

He says the system SOBE uses is different than other waste-to-fuel operations because the operation does not incinerate tires or plastic.  

Instead, the process is a closed-loop system that converts shredded materials into gas through heat, limiting emissions. 

Resident Mary Krupa noted that other waste-to-fuel plants in Europe and parts of the United States had failed.  “What makes you think this will work here?” she asked.

“We focus on making 100% gas,” while other systems, for example, are used to produce oil. “Our system is a gasification system.”

Under SOBE’s plan, the company would revitalize the former Youngstown Thermal plant on North Avenue with new efficient boilers. The company is in the process of razing the old boiler building at the site and would move new boilers into another building next door. 

SOBE has 34 downtown customers for its steam-heat and chilling services, Ferro said. 

A second part of the project is to build a 100,000-square-foot tire and plastics processing facility in Lowellville. The operation would shred the material that would come into Lowellville via rail, and then truck it to Youngstown to be used as feedstock for the gasification process, Ferro said.

“Emissions are below those of natural gas,” he stated.

First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver asked Ferro whether the company had a means to measure whether these emissions are within safety levels.

“I do,” Ferro replied. 

He related how a pharmaceuticals company that he worked with requested that Ferro come up with a strategy to eliminate fossil fuels from the company’s energy program.

Ferro said that he tested the gasification system through a pilot facility in Germany that was vetted through two independent engineering firms.  

“With that test, we demonstrated to the EPA that our emissions would actually be cleaner than what our Title 5 permit allows us to do today.  We’re removing coal, we’re reducing emissions and we’re providing clean energy.”

Others attending the meeting were concerned about the system’s redundancy and what type of backup system would be used should the waste feedstock run dry. 

Ferro said the boilers could be converted to run on natural gas if necessary. “If we can’t operate on tires and plastics, we could immediately flip the switch to natural gas,” he said. 

The committee also heard a proposal from Replenish Water Power. The company has an idea to generate hydroelectric power by employing a system of Archimedes levers at city water resources. 

Under the proposal, the city would own the system but license the technology, said principal Ron Eiselstein. 

Pictured above: Residents Jack Slalina and Lynn Anderson

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.