April 22, 2012

Amid debate, waste-to-energy grows

Controversy over a Biddeford plant overshadows industry expansion plans, to be explored at a conference.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Getting rid of Maine's garbage was easy in 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated. Trash was shoved into piles at the town dump and set afire.

click image to enlarge

The owners of the Maine Energy Recovery Co. waste-to-energy plant in Biddeford are once again talking with city officials about closing the plant and sending the trash elsewhere, due to longstanding complaints about truck traffic, noise and odor.

2012 File Photo/Gregory Rec


Maine's four waste-to-energy plants burned 856,941 tons of trash in 2010, disposing of 35 percent of the state's municipal waste.

Maine Energy Recovery Corp.'s plant in Biddeford has a capacity of 310,000 tons a year. The Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. plant in Orrington is rated at 304,000 tons; the ecomaine plant in Portland can handle 170,000 tons, and the Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp. plant in Auburn can handle 70,000 tons.

The four facilities have a combined electricity capacity of 62 megawatts, equal to a small power plant.

The plants reduce trash volume by 90 percent and weight by two-thirds. Ash and other residue are sent to three special landfills.

Maine's four plants also have an important economic value, according to a University of Maine study published last year. They generate combined annual revenue of $93.4 million, employ 228 people and pay $19.5 million in wages and benefits.

The pollution caused by open dumps was one of the driving forces behind Earth Day, and the landmark clean air and clean water laws that followed.

Forty-two years later, roughly 35 percent of Maine's municipal solid waste is recycled. One-quarter goes to modern landfills designed to protect groundwater.

Most of the rest is still burned, but in four plants that control air emissions, reduce the volume by 90 percent and generate electricity.

Maine is a national leader in turning waste into energy. Behind Connecticut, Maine ranks second in the country in the percentage of trash handled by these plants.

But waste-to-energy has a public relations problem in southern Maine. Longstanding complaints about truck traffic, noise and odor at Maine Energy Recovery Co. in Biddeford have the city and the owner talking -- once again -- about closing the plant and sending trash elsewhere.

The friction involving MERC obscures the vital role waste-to-energy plays in preserving Maine's limited landfill space, as well as trends to expand and build new plants in the United States and overseas.

The propects for growth will be discussed by experts starting Monday, when the 20th annual North American Waste-To-Energy Conference opens at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland. More than 300 people are expected to attend.

The three-day event is taking place as both the industry and its expansion plans face some obstacles.

Many waste-to-energy plants were built in the 1980s and 1990s. They were able to negotiate lucrative, long-term power contracts, earning revenue that kept disposal fees down.

Those windfalls are ending, in an era when low natural gas prices are cutting the wholesale cost of making electricity. So waste-to-energy plants are under pressure to control their tipping fees, to compete with lower-cost landfills.

"It's really a matter of economics," said Ted Michaels, president of the Energy Recovery Council, a trade group that's helping organize the conference. "It's not an easy path to a resurgence, but there are opportunities."

After years of limited development, the industry is starting to grow again. Five waste-to-energy plants are expanding in the United States and four new ones are being built, according to Michaels.

A recent report by Pike Research, a clean-tech market forecaster, is projecting multibillion-dollar growth in Asia, where population and urbanization are taxing waste disposal. There's also a move to refine technologies that go beyond combustion, such as pyrolysis and gasification, to create oils and transportation fuels from trash.

These topics will be explored at the conference. Presentations include news on a 3,000-ton-per-day waste-to-energy plant in Palm Beach County, Fla.; comparing the environmental performance of gasification plants versus mass-burn units, which combust at high temperatures; the rapid growth of waste-to-energy in China, and the impact of removing food waste on heating values.

Of particular local interest is a presentation on how to restructure plant operations and contracts at an older plant that burns refuse-derived fuel, which is made by separating metals and other non-combustibles.

MERC fits that description. The 25-year-old plant currently is the subject of talks between Biddeford and Casella Waste Systems, the owner. But rather than improving MERC's performance, the city wants to close the plant, which burned 284,718 tons in 2010. One option being discussed involves taking some of the waste to the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town, 136 miles north.

This idea was embodied in a controversial, last-minute bill in the Maine Legislature to allow Casella to sell the plant and buy Juniper Ridge. The proposal was tabled earlier this month, for lack of time to consider it.

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