That tissue, food packaging or diaper you toss into the garbage might have no value to you, but it’s worth something. In fact, it becomes something.
The question for 187 communities throughout Maine is, what do you want your trash to become?
At the moment, the 180,000-or-so tons of solid waste those towns generate each year become electricity that Emera Maine delivers to its customers’ homes and businesses. But in the coming years, the Municipal Review Committee, the organization that represents the towns’ waste disposal interests, will push for the nonrecyclable waste from those towns to become a marketable fuel.
So, the 187 towns — which encompass the Bangor region and stretch from Mars Hill in the north to Wiscasset in the south — have decisions to make about their solid waste future.
The Municipal Review Committee last week unveiled plans to locate a new waste-processing facility in Hampden. The Municipal Review Committee says the new facility — which would open by 2018 — would remove at least 80 percent of the waste that comes through its doors and recycle it or process it into compressed natural gas; “trashanol,” a trash-derived substitute for corn-derived ethanol; or another biogas. The waste that remains would go to a landfill (though not a landfill run by the Municipal Review Committee; the state rejected the group’s bid to develop one in Argyle or Greenbush earlier this year).
The development of the waste-processing facility would mean a move away from the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., or PERC, plant in Orrington, where the 187 towns’ waste is incinerated to produce electricity — about 162,000 megawatt hours per year, or enough to power 25,000 homes.
The Municipal Review Committee is a partner in that venture, but it’s preparing for the waste-to-energy facility’s dissolution in 2018. That’s when the Municipal Review Committee officials say the facility will no longer be viable because of the expiration of a power-purchase agreement with Emera Maine that guarantees PERC an above-market rate for its electricity. That date also marks the expiration of the Municipal Review Committee towns’ agreements with PERC — 30 years after the waste-to-energy plant came online.
But PERC’s other controlling interests aren’t exactly on board.
“If you maintain this unit, a power plant half life is about 30 years,” said Robert Knudsen, vice president of operations for USA Energy Group, which has a 52 percent stake in the PERC operation. “We’re just approaching what we think is our half life. We think we have another 30 years if we take care of her right.”
PERC took in about $40 million in revenue in 2011 — primarily trash tipping fees (which are supposed to work out to $55 per ton of trash for the Municipal Review Committee towns) and electricity sales. It depends on the Municipal Review Committee towns for about 60 percent of the waste it processes. It also takes in some waste from southern Maine and out-of-state waste.
The loss of that waste and the loss of the guaranteed, above-market price from Emera will complicate PERC’s business model, but, according to Knudsen, not to the point where it can’t be a viable operation.
While PERC took in about 315,000 tons of waste last year (which incineration reduces in volume by 90 percent), Knudsen said the plant can operate sustainably with about 100,000 fewer tons. That leaves about 80,000 tons to make up from other sources — which could be other towns in Maine looking for trash disposal options besides operating their own landfills, in addition to garbage from outside Maine.
Plus, there are a few financial factors that would work in PERC’s controlling partners’ favor:
— By 2018, Knudsen said, PERC will be debt-free.
— That year also will mark the end of a long-time obligation for PERC to share one-third of profits with Emera (previously Bangor Hydro).
— Plus, without the Municipal Review Committee communities as partners, USA Energy Group and PERC Holdings will be able to claim about four times more surplus revenue for their own coffers. Surplus revenue reached $9 million last year; part of it is returned to the Municipal Review Committee communities to reduce tipping fees.
— Electricity prices are trending upward — a trend that could continue as the region’s ability to secure enough natural gas remains uncertain and nuclear and coal-fired power plants in the region shut down.
“As that goes up, it provides us with more income, which allows us then to hold the tipping fee down,” Knudsen said. “I, then, have the ability to cover more of my costs with the electrical revenue.
“We’re really looking to re-sign our customers back into PERC,” he said.
In other words, as the Municipal Review Committee is counting on PERC to shut down, PERC is preparing for the competition. Town officials and state regulators must be mindful of the complexities of this situation as they determine Maine’s trash future.