Renewable Energy from Waste Conference 2013: Pitfalls and challenges

Speakers discuss their experiences with delay tactics and economic deal-breakers in two recent projects.

December 6, 2013
Lisa McKenna

Delay tactics and economic deal-breakers are two major pitfalls to watch out for when bringing a waste-to-energy (WTE) project to completion, according to presenters at the inaugural Renewable Energy From Waste  Conference held in West Palm Beach, Fla., in mid-November. The  conference was organized by Renewable Energy from Waste magazine in partnership with industry consulting firm Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc. (GBB) and consulting company Smithers Apex.

From left, Pete Johnson of Dynamis Energy and Mark Hammond of the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.

Speakers for the "Pitfalls and Challenges" session referred to what they described as delay strategies launched by opposition groups apparently intended to slow or stop the projects.

Mark Hammond, executive director of the Solid Waste Authority (SWA) of Palm Beach County, discussed that agency’s experience as the authority is now about 60 percent through construction of its second waste-to-energy facility, a mass-burn plant that will handle 3,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day.

The new plant is being built on the SWA’s existing campus of about 1,300 acres which includes landfills, a materials recycling facility and an RDF (refuse-derived fuel) WTE plant.

Plans for the new facility were approved after SWA determined in 2005 that its landfill could be depleted by 2025. “We began a search for a new landfill,” Hammond said. However that initiative was not successful as a result of siting issues, so the SWA’s board instead decided to refocus efforts on expanding WTE at the current facility.

“We didn’t build this to generate power,” noted Hammond. “WTE for us is a volume-reduction machine that happens to make power.”

Although Hammond said the “stars and planets were seemingly aligned” for most of the project, the team did encounter some last minute opposition from The Sierra Club three or four years into the project, when the group asked for a review of alternative waste disposal methods.

SWA retained the help of consulting firm GBB, Hammond said, and prepared a swift, informed response to refute the group’s statements. “We had invested millions of dollars, and the thought that someone would come in at the 11th hour and try to scuttle the project was shocking to us and we weren’t going to take it lightly,” Hammond said.

Similarly, speaker Pete Johnson, vice president of Dynamis Energy, based in Eagle, Idaho, described the use of apparent delay tactics on the part of opposition groups in Ada County, Idaho, that were ultimately successful in putting an end to that county’s WTE project.

In 2010 company won the contract to build a mobile gasification system at the Ada County Landfill, to help the landfill expand its life. The company also negotiated an agreement with Idaho Power amounting to the delivery of 20 megawatts of power for close to $.10 per kilowatt hour.

In advance of permitting from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the company held numerous public meetings to provide comprehensive information on the project, during which Johnson said no major opposition was received.

Suddenly, Johnson said, “two county commissioner seats up were for grabs." In the ensuing election, “the candidates made our project their campaign platform,” Johnson added. “In a nutshell, all hell broke loose.” The opposition claimed environmental safety concerns, the use of experimental technologies and improper RFP processes. The Idaho Conservation League also threatened to bring a lawsuit against the DEQ should the facility be permitted, Johnson said.

Johnson says he believes these efforts were intended to delay the project to the point of failure. And he says while the company did have community support for the project, its supporters were not nearly as vocal as its opponents.

“In the end, it’s just very difficult to fight emotion and bias with logic and science,” he said.

Although permitting was eventually granted, it was received 6 months beyond its contracted delivery date, forcing Dynamis to apply for an extension. The new rate was offered at about $.06 below the initial amount. “Therein was the demise of the project,” said Johnson. “They effectively took us down by just that simple delay.”

Johnson says if he were to approach a similar project in the future, he would put in place a “micromanagement plan” to better handle Department of Environmental Quality proceedings and deadlines.

The inaugural Renewable Energy from Waste Conference was held Nov. 18-20, 2013, in West Palm Beach, Fla.