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.”
Furthermore, despite its sound financial footing at the moment, critics argue that Ecomaine’s waste-to-energy business model still faces struggles. Last month, the organization projected losses of $2.3 million for the current fiscal year compared to the budgeted loss of $2.1 million that was approved in April, 2015. Ecomaine projected a loss of $400,000 for disposal fees because the amount of waste it receives has dropped by 4 percent.
With the recent drop in fuel prices, revenue from the organization’s electricity sales dropped $3.4 million last year to $2.7 million earlier this year. Both USA Energy Group, PERC’s majority owner, and Ecomaine have lobbied for state legislation that would require ratepayers to subsidize waste-to-energy incinerators. Recently, the two entities got behind LD 273, which would have asked for $10 per megawatt hour instead of the 23 cents per megawatt hour that they currently receive for waste-to-energy (WTE) power as a Class II renewable energy source.
“This is still less than half of the $23 per megawatt hour that is currently paid for methane gas recovery from landfills, a Class I renewable energy,” wrote Wolff of Ecomaine. “Landfills should not be treated in a more preferential manner than WTE. We are simply asking to be lifted part way to where landfills are currently classed.”
But the measure was opposed by both Central Maine Power and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, who pointed out that trash-to-energy is not renewable power.
“Waste incineration is second-to-last out of seven priority tiers in that hierarchy, far behind waste minimization, recycling, and composting,” said NRCM lobbyist Dylan Voorhees in testimony against the proposed legislation last March. “Requiring that an ongoing percentage of power come from waste incineration would not only weaken the incentive to reduce waste, but also would create financial incentive to perpetuate current levels of collection and burning of trash.”
The Composting Question
NRCM isn’t too keen on the MRC/Fiberight plan either. Sarah Lakeman, NRCM’s Sustainable Maine project director, argues that because Fiberight’s “hungry trash monster” business model relies on deriving profit from organic waste, it will discourage towns from adopting composting programs. It’s estimated that 40 percent of the waste stream is made up of organic material, mainly comprised of food scraps and paper.
“I’m not done fighting the good fight of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle, compost,’ and basically some of the people who support this [plan] are,” said Lakeman.
Echoing that point, Tom Ford, Hope’s representative on the Mid-Coast Solid Waste Corporation board, dumped a bucket of food scraps into a bowl at Monday’s meeting to illustrate the need for MCSWC’s four towns to find a local composting solution for their organic material.
“There’s no reason in the world, that if we put our minds together, that we cannot creatively and constructively in our midcoast take this type of material … and convert it into something that is useful for the citizens and the future of our community,” said Ford.
But that appears to be far easier said than done.
While some companies offer compost pick-up for a monthly fee in more densely populated areas of the state, a 2013 report commissioned by Ecomaine found that it would be cost-prohibitive for it to adopt a composting program for its member communities. The study, conducted by environmental consultant Northern Tilth, estimated that it would cost each of its southern Maine households about $125 per year for a separate curbside compost collection service, $24 per year to collect household compost from separate colored bags, and $5 to alternate between collecting compost and trash and recycling every other week.
According to MCSWC Director Jim Guerra, setting up a food composting facility at MCSWC’s transfer station, which is located in Rockport, would be difficult because compost freezes in the winter, stinks in the summer and many people would hesitate to use it. Guerra estimates that if such a facility were to capture half of the organic waste the transfer station receives, which would be unlikely, it would translate to about 16 tons a week and would require him to purchase three automated composting units, erect a pole barn and hire a half-time staff member to keep up with the peak summer load.
“All in, it will be a significant cost as there is a fair bit of tending,” said Guerra.
Rockland City Manager Jim Chaousis said the capital costs to build a composting facility in Rockland would be approximately $120,000. He said that the city would be better off pursuing a regionally sized program, which he said would likely take about three to five years of planning to get off the ground.
In defense of his “hungry trash monster” business model, Fiberight CEO Stuart-Paul said that separate collection of food waste in a rural state like Maine also comes with a hefty carbon footprint, due to the fuel it takes to ship it around. And while food scraps don’t burn well in the Ecomaine incinerator, he said, they can very efficiently be processed into biofuels using Fiberight’s anaerobic digester.
“We’re not an ugly two-headed monster,” said Stuart-Paul. “We’re a rational solution to a real problem. But we agree, and we will trumpet from the rooftops, compost your food in your backyard. That’s the best way to manage it.”
Alison McKellar, who sits on the Camden Conservation Commission and budget committee, argues that the money it would take to set up a composting program would be better spent maintaining and closing MCSWC’s landfill as well as developing a plan for composting yard waste.
“Are we really going to propose curbside compost pick-up in Hope?” said McKellar. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense. There are a lot of people that, no matter what, are not going to compost.”
The Landfilling Question
At the end of the day, perhaps the most important environmental question is how much waste each option will be able to divert from landfills.
Both Ecomaine and the MRC/Fiberight plan include landfill components. Ecomaine dumps about 24 percent (by weight) of the waste it receives in the form of residual ash from its incinerator at its own landfill. Fiberight would contract with the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock to dump 20 percent of its residual waste.
But because Ecomaine is currently at full capacity, taking in an extra 30 to 40,000 tons of waste from MRC towns would require the facility to displace uncontracted waste brought in by commercial trash haulers. Whether some of that waste will end up in landfills is an open question and not one Ecomaine spokesperson Wolff answered.
MRC board chair Chip Reeves believes that for each ton of midcoast waste that is sent to Ecomaine, a ton of commercial-hauler trash would need to be landfilled.
Meanwhile, PERC’s majority owner USA Energy Group has been urging towns to stay with PERC, but without subsidies it will have to dramatically increase disposal fees from the subsidized $54 per ton to between $84 and $89 at the unsubsidized per-ton rate. USA Energy did not return multiple requests for comment, but PERC critics note that it has also signed a contract with landfill operator Casella Waste to dump municipal garbage for $60 per ton at the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town.
Given USA Energy’s earlier statements that the plant would not be economically viable after March 2018, MRC chair Reeves says it raises questions about the company’s intent. He believes that USA Energy’s only serious plan is to landfill with Casella.
Meanwhile, if the MRC fails to secure enough tonnage from its member towns for the Fiberight plan, they could conceivably end up dumping their waste at Waste Management Inc.’s Crossroads Landfill Norridgewock landfill as a last resort, and that scenario, says the MRC, would not only pose environmental problems, but also economic challenges, because the municipal cooperative would no longer have a say in how profits are shared as it has for the past 25 years.
“If for some reason the MRC isn’t successful in getting this set up,” said Reeves, “I think you will quickly see that there aren’t going to be any checks and balances in the system regionally and that waste costs will go up.”
But Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul says he’s confident that the facility will be up and running by 2018 as 60 communities have already committed to sending nearly half of the tonnage needed to make the Fiberight project viable. Most recently, South Thomaston voters rejected its solid waste board’s recommendation to go with Ecomaine, and voted instead to stay with the MRC and its Fiberight plan.
Said Stuart-Paul, “I can tell you that with the momentum we’ve got and with what we know of the remaining communities who will be signing up with us, we’re going to build it.”