More and more waste-to-energy (WTE) project developers are targeting municipalities, proposing deals involving emerging technologies like anaerobic digestion, gasification and pyrolysis. Some of them overpromise and underdeliver, so decision-makers need to do their homework.
“Many people who elected officials are talking to are earnest and trying to build successful facilities. Unfortunately, they are often more optimistic than is warranted. And some of these officials are often pulled in. They can tell those coming in with propositions tend to believe, but belief is not good enough,” says Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA).
Scalable technologies like anaerobic digestion are undoubtedly advancing, but these systems are still being vetted in different scenarios, and there are fairly limited existing facilities, at least in the U.S.
A number of them have failed, with a former INEOS bioenergy plant leveraging a fermentation process among projects that have continued to be in the spotlight for years. The West Palm Beach area project, which received millions in government subsidies, launched years ago to make ethanol and electricity from waste. It hit brick walls and has run for only short periods since its start.
Germain notes a trend where municipalities have signed deals with companies that may not offer realistic expectations with regard to cost or capacity. They may not have figured in for pretreatments and odor control measures, among considerations.
“Eventually someone will get all the pieces right, and it will work. But sometimes costs to fine-tune [the system and process] are underestimated during development stages,” says Germain.
To guide municipalities as they do their research, NWRA and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) developed a document, providing vetted information. Titled “Effective Responses to Emerging Waste Management Technology Proposals,” it includes a checklist to assist decision-makers in evaluating opportunities that utilize emerging waste technologies or existing technologies in new applications. It’s intended to help identify and understand associated risks and challenges with these projects.
The document groups specific questions into eight categories such as odor, feedstock, preprocessing, processes following preprocessing, outputs or residue and financials.
Each category has its own complexities. For instance, with feedstock, municipal garbage is extremely heterogenous, presenting challenges in getting a compatible mix. And feedstock changes during the season due to varying moisture levels or fluctuating waste types, with more yard waste during certain periods.
Local governments need to make sure the developer has a system that is flexible to continue to work productively and efficiently despite changes to the waste stream. The systems must be able to recognize different feedstock requirements and necessary pretreatments.
Municipalities should ask what equipment will be needed and provided? What processes need to happen? Do developers know the region’s regulations related to air emissions, liquid discharges and solid residue?
“Ask developers the questions and make sure they have thought them out. If you go through the questions, you should be able to get the information you need to make a decision. If they’re reluctant to provide information, that might be an indication they are not the best fit,” says Germain.
The developer should have a track record at other locations with the same disposal technology.
“No one wants to be the first one to try a new system, and several facilities that were once considered pioneers at the time ended up closing for a variety of reasons,” says David Biderman, SWANA executive director and CEO.
Other key questions to ask developers include projected capital costs and ongoing operations and maintenance costs. If there are upstream changes to the waste stream, how will these changes affect the economics of the project and the quantity of energy generated? Is it considered “renewable energy” and eligible for various credits under applicable state and federal law? If those credits are eliminated, is the project still viable?
Municipalities should know the developer’s revenue sources including if they have long-term buyers. They should learn if they are going to sell gas on an open market, which is relevant, says Biderman, because in that scenario, they are competing with other sources of energy.
He suggests that municipal decision-makers consider hiring a consultant to review options, risks and technologies before inking a deal.