To some, it may have seemed like a win-win situation when a group of more than 100 Maine communities announced early this month that it was planning to send a majority of its household trash to a familiar place: an Orrington facility that burns waste to generate electricity.
The temporary arrangement would provide a large boost of fuel to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. plant, which struggled to secure enough waste to operate its boilers during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic — after losing the business of those same 115 towns and cities two years earlier.
And following the abrupt closure in late May of PERC’s competitor — the new Coastal Resources of Maine plant in Hampden that’s partly owned by the company Fiberight — those towns would again be able to send much of their trash to somewhere less environmentally damaging than a landfill.
All sides now agree that it’s a good thing that more than 5,000 tons of garbage are no longer heading straight into the earth each month while the organization that represents those towns, the Municipal Review Committee, searches for new business partners to reopen the Hampden plant.
But the situation is more complicated for PERC, which has had to considerably downsize its operations since those communities decided to send their garbage elsewhere in April 2018, when the 30-year-old Orrington facility reached the end of a lucrative power-purchase agreement with Emera Maine.
PERC has recently been accepting around 9,500 tons of waste each month, but under the temporary arrangement with those communities that began on July 1, it is now expecting to receive more than 5,000 tons on top of that — a jump of more than 50 percent — according to Plant Manager Henry Lang.
That has brought new revenue for the Orrington operation, including fees from the Municipal Review Committee towns and proceeds from the sale of extra electricity that it generates.
But it has also brought steep new costs, including the extra fuel to run its machinery for longer hours, overtime pay for its approximately 52 workers and new fees to dispose of the ash produced by its incinerators in landfills, according to Lang. And it can be difficult for the plant to secure favorable rates for any electricity beyond what it’s bound to produce under a contract with British Petroleum, Lang said.
While it’s still not clear what the net gain or loss will be for PERC, Lang said, “If I had to guess, I would say that we’re not making a profit on it.”
However, while the short-term arrangement may not be sustainable, Lang said that it will be better overall for the environment and will help to preserve Maine’s unused landfill space.
“Overall, I think it’s worked really well,” Lang said. “Most of this material coming in is stuff we handled in the past. We’re very familiar with the towns the material is coming from. We’re in competition with the Fiberight facility, but none of us want to see that facility fail for any particular reason. There are a lot of people whose jobs are tied in with that.”
Numerous officials from the Municipal Review Committee have expressed gratitude to both PERC for accepting the new waste deliveries and the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock that’s owned by Waste Management. The committee’s member communities were contractually required to send waste to Crossroads whenever the Coastal Resources plant was down, but the landfill agreed to allow them to send three-quarters of it to the Orrington facility instead.
“They didn’t have to do it, but they did it because it’s the right thing to do to keep more [municipal solid waste] out of [the] landfill,” said Michael Carroll, executive director of the Municipal Review Committee.
It’s a little unclear what’s on the horizon for PERC now. After it lost the business of the MRC member communities in 2018, it has still not been able to make a profit after laying off workers and streamlining its operations. Now, it can only operate one of its two boilers at a time, as opposed to running both of them 24-7.
The total amount of waste that PERC received annually dropped by about 105,000 tons between 2017 and 2018.
It received about 160,000 tons of municipal solid waste last year and has received about 65,000 tons so far this year, according to data provided by PERC. About 29 percent of this year’s deliveries have come from other towns and cities that still contract with the plant. The majority, 61 percent, has come from commercial haulers in Maine, while just under 10 percent has come from out-of-state commercial haulers.
Waste deliveries were down during the first half of the year, which Lang said may have been partly related to a decrease in commercial activity during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, the plant had to stop generating power on two occasions, Lang said, bringing “significant” financial losses.
The majority owner of PERC, USA Energy Group, has been looking for new revenue streams.
But it has not yet proceeded with plans to build another facility next door that would use steam and power from PERC to kill pathogens in wood chips before they are shipped abroad to be used as biofuel. The company had originally hoped to break ground on the project early this year and open it in 2021.
“To the best of my knowledge, that has been in limbo,” Lang said.