[NEWS] Maine Towns Vote Whether to Burn Trash or Make Biogas
– by Andy O’Brien, April 7, 2016, The Free Press
On March 31, 2018, it will no longer be economical for midcoast towns to send their household trash to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) incinerator in Orrington. That’s the date when the facility loses a lucrative energy contract to sell its electricity at above market rates. With PERC out of the picture, two nonprofits are bitterly competing for thousands of tons of midcoast waste.
In one corner is the Municipal Review Committee, a municipal cooperative serving PERC’s 187 user communities and governed by representatives of its member towns. After determining that PERC was too expensive to continue running, the MRC developed a proposal with Maryland-based fiber-to-fuel company Fiberight and waste-to-energy giant Covanta to build a $67 million waste-to-biogas processing plant in Hampden. Fiberight claims it will be able to convert 100 percent of the organic material in the waste stream into compressed natural gas by using an anaerobic digestion process. In order to secure financing for the project, it needs a commitment from at least 80 percent of PERC’s user municipalities.
In the other corner is Ecomaine, a municipally owned nonprofit that operates a waste-to-electricity trash incinerator in Portland. MRC would charge a $65-per-ton disposal fee and Ecomaine would charge $70.50 per ton. But unlike Ecomaine, MRC offers its communities ownership benefits that would give member towns energy rebates from the biogas it would sell in future years. With Ecomaine, midcoast towns would only be contracted customers.
The big question for many town leaders is whether MRC’s Fiberight plan is a practical, environmental sound solution for waste management or “hocus pocus,” as one Camden selectman recently described it. Last week, the board of Mid-Coast Solid Waste Corporation (MCSWC) — which covers Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville and Hope — and the waste board serving Thomaston, South Thomaston and Owls Head voted to recommend that their member towns go with the Ecomaine option. At a Monday night meeting of MCSWC town officials, Camden Town Manager Patricia Finnegan argued that Ecomaine has a proven track record, but there is too much uncertainty about the proposed Fiberight facility because it would be the first commercial-scale plant of its kind built in the United States.
“We do not doubt the good intentions of the MRC board, the technical expertise of the partners or the science of the Fiberight plan itself,” said Finnegan. “However, we feel we have a responsibility to the people of our communities to recommend the best option that meets sound fiscal and environmental standards, and Fiberight does not meet those needs at this time.”
But Fiberight supporters point out that the plan was developed by a team of solid waste experts and public officials from the towns the MRC serves, including MCSWC Director Jim Guerra. They argue that Fiberight’s demonstration facility in Virginia was reviewed by a team of researchers from the University of Maine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, who determined that the company’s processing technology is “sound” and similar to existing equipment and processing steps found in the pulp-and-paper industry.
“Yes, our form here says it’s not proven in the United States, but the same technology is in use all over Europe at varying scales,” said MCSWC board member Bill Chapman, who is also a Rockport selectman. “So to say that this is not totally proven technology is false.”
And, added Chapman, if midcoast towns decide to pull out of the MRC cooperative to contract with Ecomaine, they will miss out on the kind of energy rebates that have kept trash disposal costs low for the past 25 years.
“We’re leaving a lot of money on the table,” he said.
But the fight isn’t over for the MRC, as residents will have the final say on what they feel is the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable solution to manage their waste at their town meetings or at the ballot box in June. In the end, their votes could have far-reaching economic and environmental consequences for the region.
Recycling & Recovery Questions
Both Ecomaine and the MRC/Fiberight plan include single-sort recycling components, which mechanically sort recyclables from one recycling bin rather than requiring people to self-sort at the transfer station. Under the current self-sort system, the recycling rates for MCSWC towns and Rockland are under 30 percent. Ecomaine says it will be able to increase recycling rates by 13 to 15 percent due to its single-sort process and recycling education programs. The MRC claims that its own facility could match or exceed Ecomaine’s estimate not only because of its single-sort option but also because its facility would remove additional recyclables mixed in with household waste. Both plans would allow towns to opt out of single-sort and continue selling recyclables on their own.
There is a vigorous debate about which option will most improve recycling rates. Art Durity, chair of Mid-Coast Solid Waste Corporation, pointed out that the contract between Fiberight and MRC would require the municipal cooperative to provide the facility with a guaranteed 150,000 tons of waste per year, which could discourage towns from recycling.
“The choice was between the Fiberight plan that would allow us to keep doing what we’re doing, producing the same amount of trash and recycling at the same level,” said Durity. “or Ecomaine which gave us the flexibility to try to reduce waste and increase recycling.”
MRC Board Chairman Chip Reeves, who is also Bar Harbor’s director of public works, acknowledged that the Fiberright plan needs a certain amount of tonnage to be viable, but said the contract allows MRC towns to use a portion of its $25 million reserve fund to keep the plant running if it doesn’t receive enough waste.
For some Ecomaine supporters, the major draw is that the organization has full-time staff who coordinate recycling outreach programs in schools and in the community.
“Based on what I knew, I felt that Ecomaine had a really great education program and they work with communities to try to reduce garbage overall,” said MCSWC board member Cindy Gerry of Lincolnville.
Fiberight supporter Alison McKellar, a Camden environmental activist who runs a website dedicated to waste issues, counters that the education program is only available to towns that choose to use Ecomaine’s single-sort option.
“Currently, we actually make money some years on our recycling program, but Ecomaine will charge us $38 per ton to process our recycling. That doesn’t include the cost of hauling the material, which is $32/ton,” wrote McKellar in a letter to municipal officials. “Current Ecomaine member communities deliver their recyclables to the facility for FREE, but they will charge us the private hauler rate. Essentially, we will be subsidizing the Portland area waste disposal program.”
According to Fiberight, it would charge the same rate as Ecomaine for recyclables, but hauling costs would be lower because the Hampden facility is about 36 miles closer.
The Carbon Footprint Question
Ecomaine spokeswoman Lisa Wolff would not comment on MRC’s Fiberight proposal but said that her organization’s employees are “mission-driven champions” of the state’s waste hierarchy mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, incinerate and, as a last resort, landfill. Although incineration is only one step above landfilling in the waste hierarchy, she noted that Ecomaine’s facilities have met the ISO 14001 certification, which she called the “gold standard in environmental management systems.”
However, MRC waste management consultant George Aronson of the Boston-based CommonWealth Resource Management Corporation argues that Fiberight’s biogas plan is much more environmentally sustainable. While Ecomaine needs 16,000 Btu to make each kilowatt hour of electricity, natural gas–fired plants need only 7,000 to 10,000 Btu to make each kWh of electricity, he said.
“Thus, Ecomaine is much less efficient, needs more Btu per kWh generated, and has far higher [greenhouse gas] emissions than natural gas-fired plants,” wrote Aronson in an email. “And the whole Ecomaine approach to displacement of electricity is less efficient than direct displacement of natural gas.”
According to the Fiberight plan, the compressed natural gas produced from household waste will also be used to fuel their trucks, which it estimates will displace about 100,000 gallons of fossil fuels a year.
“Ecomaine is 84 miles away from the transfer station and we are 48,” said Fiberight’s CEO, Craig Stuart-Paul. “So we’re using 48 miles on CNG-powered trucks. Ecomaine is 84 miles on diesel-powered trucks and you can calculate the air emissions from that.”