Bags of trash are falling into place as towns and cities in the Bangor area and throughout much of central, northern and coastal Maine decide where they will send their residents’ household waste in 2018.
More than 60 towns have agreed to send their garbage to a yet-to-be-built waste processing facility in Hampden. Maryland-based Fiberight is planning to build, own and operate that facility, where processing equipment would extract recyclables, then convert organic materials from the remaining waste into a marketable biogas.
But a number of members of the Municipal Review Committee — which represents the waste disposal interests of 187 towns and cities that today send their waste to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Orrington — have yet to commit to the project the MRC has selected for the region’s post-2018 garbage.
A number of factors understandably still give some in the region pause about committing to Fiberight. Here’s how Fiberight and the MRC could start to assuage some of those concerns.
Release an economic analysis. Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul and Municipal Review Committee officials have touted flexibility as one hallmark of the Fiberight technology. There’s the potential for a variety of end products after processing the organic materials in garbage, from engineered fuel pellets to cellulosic ethanol. But, apart from recyclables, the project is starting with one end product — biogas to be piped through the Bangor Natural Gas distribution system and sold to industrial end users, or compressed and used to fuel CNG-powered vehicles.
It’s all technically possible, and Stuart-Paul has made arrangements with Bangor Gas and sought out customers. But as municipal officials have reviewed their garbage options, the MRC has made no independent economic analysis available to them that demonstrates the market demand for biogas and CNG or that proves the facility can run in the black off a combination of $70-per-ton tip fees for garbage and sales of recyclables and biogas.
The MRC’s nine-member board last year reviewed an economic assessment that evaluated the Fiberight facility’s financial performance under a number of operating scenarios. But the municipal officials who make up the board signed a confidentiality agreement to protect the document. The MRC has released only a two-page summary of its highlights.
Stuart-Paul said he plans to soon share a more detailed financial summary as the picture becomes clearer around towns’ solid waste commitments, customers for the plant’s products and, consequently, plant operating costs and revenues. Municipal officials and taxpayers need more data so they can have confidence that the $70-per-ton tip fee they’re being quoted is a reliable figure.
Clear up comparison confusion. Each element of the Fiberight process is a scientifically established one, and most of the technology Fiberight would combine in Hampden is in use at waste processing facilities in the U.S. and Europe. But much of the concern about Fiberight involves the risk of embracing an unfamiliar combination of technologies that hasn’t yet been deployed at a commercial scale in the U.S.
Stuart-Paul has tried to assuage those concerns. In a BDN OpEd in February, he cited 330 plants in Europe that use “the technology that will drive the Fiberight facility.” And at a town council meeting in Hermon earlier this month, Stuart-Paul said, “We’re building nameplate 331.”
Indeed, hundreds of facilities use mechanical-biological treatment for waste. But mechanical-biological treatment refers to a combination of mechanical sorting elements and a biological process, not a specific mix of technologies, much less Fiberight’s specific mix.
What differentiates Fiberight is its use of enzymatic hydrolysis, a process that uses enzymes to break an organic waste pulp down into sugars. Once those sugars are in liquid form, an anaerobic digester can convert them quickly and efficiently into biogas, according to Stuart-Paul.
Enzymatic hydrolysis isn’t new. What’s newer is its commercial application to waste. REnescience, part of the Danish DONG Energy group, is developing a commercial-scale waste processing facility in Northwich, England, that will use enzymatic hydrolysis and produce biogas. That’s expected to open in 2017. Fiberight would open the following year.
Should the enzymatic hydrolysis step fail in Hampden, Stuart-Paul said, Fiberight would operate much like the older mechanical-biological treatment plants online in Europe. Instead of biogas, the resulting products would be cellulose and a refuse-derived fuel, for which Stuart-Paul said he has lined up local customers.
Municipal leaders need to be able to dig deep into this information. They need to know which elements of the Fiberight process are at work in each comparison facility, and which aren’t. And they need all the information they can get their hands on about the plant’s finances and the market for Fiberight’s end products. In the end, more information can only lead to more confidence in towns’ final solid waste decisions.