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

(Continued from page 1)

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

BY THE NUMBERS

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.

But it immediately highlighted potential conflicts, including whether the move would violate Maine's 23-year-old waste management hierarchy. The policy, enacted by the Legislature, sets a priority order: Reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, waste-to-energy and landfill.

Maine had more than 450 local dumps during the first Earth Day. Typically unlined, they often were near wetlands or streams.

Today, Maine has eight municipal waste landfills, one commercial landfill and state-owned Juniper Ridge, which is operated by Casella. Any policy changes that could modify the waste hierarchy and steer more trash to landfills are on hold until after the fall elections.

"I think that discussion will be held next year," said George MacDonald, who heads Maine's waste management and recycling program.

Maine's other three waste-to-energy plants are in Portland, Auburn and Orrington. If MERC closed, it would be technically possible for the remaining waste-to-energy plants to handle the in-state trash that now goes to Biddeford, MacDonald said. But costs would rise if waste is trucked from southern Maine farther north, at a time of high diesel prices.

"It looks good on paper," he said. "The issue then becomes the transportation of that waste."

Waste-to-energy plants must take in consistent volumes of trash as fuel to meet their electricity contracts -- not a problem in growing regions. But Maine's stagnant year-round population can result in trash shortages during the winter. That's one reason the plants, to varying degrees, accept trash from out of state. Roughly 65 percent of MERC's waste is trucked in, mostly from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

"Our waste stream isn't growing, as it was in the 1980s and 1990s," MacDonald said.

Recycling and composting also reduce the waste stream. The statewide recycling rate, which has averaged 38 percent or so in recent years, is likely to increase as more communities roll out "single-sort" recycling programs, MacDonald said.

But recycling also has economic benefits. The materials have value, and the reduction in waste cuts disposal costs for communities.

The state's largest recycling facility is at a waste-to-energy plant -- ecomaine, which serves Greater Portland. It recycled more than 35,000 tons last year. The nonprofit facility, owned by 21 communities, is considering a plan to pull out food waste and compost it.

"You can't burn lettuce," said Kevin Roache, ecomaine's executive director.

Roache, who will make a keynote presentation at the conference, said he expects Maine's four waste-to-energy plants to remain in operation because they dispose of waste closer to where it's generated.

"Storing waste in landfills will become more and more of an issue," he said. "How long can we send our waste to faraway places?"

But for now, a more pressing issue for Maine's waste-to-energy plants is the power-purchase contracts. The deal at the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington, for instance, expires in 2018. Lower power revenue in the future could increase disposal costs for the 178 communities that rely on the plant.

At ecomaine, low natural gas prices have cut power revenue from nearly $7 million to $3.1 million over the last fiscal year. But ecomaine's members are fortunate, Roache said, at least for now. The plant's outstanding debt will be paid off this summer, and revenue from recycling is higher than expected.

"That has allowed us to insulate the downturn in the electric market from our member communities," he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com

 

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