Local governments are showing increased interest in having waste-to-energy (WTE) plants process their trash and produce electricity.

According to Frank Ferraro, vice president of public affairs at Hampton, N.H.-based Wheelabrator Technologies, government interest in WTE plants is being driven by high energy costs, near-capacity landfills and a need to boost revenue.

"I think it's somewhat of a combination of all of those," Ferraro told GPN. "We are all familiar with what happened with energy prices, and I don't think that any of us believe that they are going to stay as low as their current levels. And there's the opportunity … [for communities] to make some revenue from the sale of electricity."

According to the Energy Information Administration, 1 ton of garbage firing an industrial boiler in a WTE plant generates about 525 kilowatt-hours of electricity — enough energy to heat a typical office building for one day. What's more, in 100 pounds of typical garbage, more than 80 pounds can be burned as fuel to generate electricity at a WTE power plant, so there's less garbage winding up at landfills.

A Wheelabrator-owned and operated WTE plant in Maryland offers steady production, Ferraro told GPN.

"We supply 40 percent of the steam for heating and cooling the downtown buildings in the city of Baltimore through a district heating loop," Ferraro explained. "These kinds of plants also produce electricity that's sold to the local utilities, and that provides a nice baseload of power where the power's needed, as well as revenue to the local government."

The Wheelabrator Baltimore facility provides environmentally safe disposal of municipal solid waste for the city and county of Baltimore, and serves 850,000 residents by processing up to 2,250 tons per day of municipal solid waste. Wheelabrator Baltimore has an electric-generating capacity of 60,000 kilowatts — the equivalent of supplying the electrical needs of 68,000 Maryland homes.

Public purchasers have a role

Public-sector purchasing professionals have a role in shepherding a WTE plant from blueprints to completion, according to Robin Davidov, who is executive director of the Baltimore-based Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority. Eight Maryland cities and counties are members of the authority.

"The procurement officer is essential to a successful project," Davidov said.

For local governments assessing the feasibility of a WTE plant, Davidov offered these pointers:

  • Get help from a consultant who has managed a procurement for a public-private project; there are several who have direct experience with WTE.

  • Make sure that only technologies that are demonstrated for at least three years at the size required by the local governments are considered. Local governments do not need to be laboratories for emerging technologies, and there always is a cost.

  • Make sure the procurement regulations are "public-private partnership"-friendly. Many local governments' regulations are not conducive to such an arrangement.

  • If the project is going to be financed with revenue bonds, the government's bond counsel should be consulted early on. Bond counsel will know which contract terms will be acceptable to the bond purchaser (who is represented by the rating agencies for the most part). A bond counsel with WTE experience also is important.

  • The law department will need expert help during negotiations of the lengthy contracts with the vendor.

  • The financial officer should be included early on. Unless the local government has a system for managing system revenues, it cannot support a revenue bond for a WTE.

  • This is a team effort, and not for the faint of heart. But WTE is environmentally the best waste alternative for non-recycled waste, according to Davidov.

  • The local government will receive an added benefit by buying the power from the WTE plant directly in states that allow this type of transaction.

Davidov's group, the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, has a number of WTE operations, including the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility, which processes an average of 1,500 tons per day of solid waste, generating up to 55 megawatts of renewable energy — enough power for 40,000 homes.

A timely benefit

As more and more states adopt renewable energy standards, WTE plants offer a timely benefit, Wheelabrator's Ferraro noted.

"In the vast majority of states that have adopted renewable standards, the electricity from WTE plants is considered renewable," Ferraro said.

Last year in Ohio, for instance, state legislators passed a comprehensive electric regulation bill that included standards for alternative-energy generation. It calls for at least 25 percent of all electricity sold in Ohio to come from alternative sources by 2025. At least half of that must be generated by renewable sources, such as biomass, wind, solar, hydropower or geothermal.

IWSA membership could help

Government officials exploring the feasibility of a WTE plant for their communities may want to consider joining the Integrated Waste Services Association (IWSA).

The Washington, D.C.-based IWSA promotes integrated solutions to municipal solid-waste-management challenges, according to the organization. The IWSA encourages the use of waste-to-energy technology as an integral component of a comprehensive, integrated solid-waste-management program.

"Being able to associate with governments that have gone through the [WTE implementation] process, as well as the companies that are most heavily involved in operating these types of facilities, are benefits of joining," IWSA President Ted Michaels said.

Michaels added that his group can put IWSA members "in touch with key legislators and regulators, so you can be able to get a sense of where things stand."

"So there's a lot of expertise within the industry that a local government can tap into through the association," Michaels told GPN.

According to the IWSA Web site, the 87 waste-to-energy plants nationwide dispose of more than 90,000 tons of trash each day while generating enough clean energy to supply electricity to about 2.3 million homes across the United States.

'An interesting year' for WTE

Fairfield, N.J.-based Covanta Energy sees a lot of WTE activity on the horizon.

"The year 2009 is shaping up to be an interesting year for the energy-from-waste (EfW) industry," Paul Stauder, Covanta's senior vice president-business management, told GPN. "Covanta will finish the expansion of the Hillsborough County Resource Recovery Facility, a government-owned facility in Florida. The addition of a fourth boiler at the facility will be the second completed expansion in three years. In 2007, we completed the expansion of the Lee County Solid Waste Resource Recovery Facility. That government-owned facility expansion was the first EfW expansion in a decade. In addition, there are also plans for an EfW facility in York County, Pa., to expand.

"We also anticipate the upcoming bid award of, if not two, at least one new facility in 2009. Either or both projects would enter into the permitting phases immediately followed by construction."

Covanta is seeing an increased interest in EfW internationally, Stauder added.

"The company expects to break ground on Ireland's first EfW facility in 2009 and is seeing additional growth opportunities in the U.K.," Stauder told GPN. "China has also been eager to embrace EfW as a way to generate clean, renewable energy."

Covanta owns and operates EfW and power-generation projects. The firm's EfW facilities convert municipal solid waste into renewable energy for numerous communities, mainly in the United States.

Public-private partnerships make sense

City and county administrators should work with an experienced plant operator in a public-private partnership to expedite construction of a WTE facility, Mark Suchan told GPN. Suchan is project development manager of Schmack BioEnergy, which has more than 250 WTE plants in operation in Europe. Schmack has U.S. offices in Independence, Ohio.

"A public-private partnership makes sense because it gives you the most flexibility in trying to get everybody to do what they do best, and it probably is the fastest way to get up to speed," Suchan said. "The way to do it is, pay us a tip fee to process your material, and we'll take the headaches off of your operation. You [the government entity] can concentrate on basically getting the solids, and we'll concentrate on handling the solids in a facility that we own and operate."

Schmack opened a $7 million biogas facility in Akron, Ohio, in 2007 and is planning an expansion of that plant with the city government. The facility produces boiler fuel from sludge that is generated by a composting plant.

The public sector is a key player in the waste-management universe, including WTE. Governments remain the largest users of waste-management and remediation services in the United States. In 2007, total spending on these services (performed by both public employees and third-party contractors) exceeded $31.1 billion. By the year 2012, total spending on those services will reach $40 billion, a 28 percent increase, according to the Cleveland-based research firm Freedonia Group.