ELLSWORTH — Voters in 187 towns and cities that make up the Municipal Review Committee (MRC) will decide in 2016 whether to truck their refuse to a new, yet-to-be built $80-million waste disposal plant in Hampden that would turn waste into natural gas.
The 144,000-square-foot plant off Coldbrook Road would be built and operated by Maryland-based Fiberight, which has one trash-to-biogas demonstration plant in Lawrenceville, Va.
Other plants Fiberight has proposed in Marion and Blairsville, Iowa, to convert refuse into ethanol or biogas have yet to be put on line.
The MRC membership overall is in support of the proposal, but some say there are unanswered questions about the plant’s financial and operational viability.
The communities that make up the MRC include, among others, the whole of Hancock County other than Ellsworth, Eastbrook and Deer Isle.
The group was formed in 1991 as a way to protect municipalities’ interests with PERC, which began operations in 1988.
One MRC community, Orrington, said it needs to be convinced that the Fiberight solution is a sound alternative to MRC’s current waste disposal company, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Center (PERC) in Orrington.
PERC incinerates the waste to generate electricity.
The problem with PERC, says MRC Executive Director Greg Lounder, is that the higher-than-market rates Bangor Hydro and now Emera Maine have been paying for the power will vanish in 2018.
The federal mandate was intended to encourage alternative, sustainable sources of power generation.
Lounder said staying with PERC is not feasible, and that the tipping fees — what towns pay the plant to take their trash — will rise to $110 to $120 per ton from about $77 once the power subsidy ends.
With rebates, Lounder said, the communities are now paying about $59 per ton.
However, USA Energy Group LLC of Minneapolis, the majority owner of PERC, has offered members a 15-year agreement at $84.36 per ton and a 10-year agreement at $89.57 per ton.
Orrington has a vested interest in the PERC plant, which pays the town about $700,000 in personal and property taxes toward its $3-million budget and allows Orrington to dispose of its solid waste at no charge.
Orrington resident Michael Mason, a chemical and biological engineer and professor, said that although Fiberight’s process is plausible, the plant in Lawrenceville is not a good representation of how well it works.
The Virginia plant processes 10 tons per day but is equipped in all but one area — the pulper — to handle 50 tons per day, says Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul.
The new plant in Hampden would be set up to process 500 tons per day.
Lounder said the MRC has taken into account what is called the scale-up risk of going from a small plant to one that processes much more volume.
But he said their fears were largely allayed by a review conducted by the University of Maine for the MRC.
“They confirmed that the scale-up risk is manageable,” Lounder said. “That elevated our confidence on that side of the evaluation.”
Mason said it also is a mystery to him how the Fiberight plant can be profitable, even with the sale of the products it will generate from the trash — biogas and, should the market trend in that direction, sugars.
“I am concerned that we are proceeding down a path, the success and dependence of which is uncertain, while ignoring established programs that are proven to be stable, profitable and tax revenue generating,” Mason said.
Lounder said one of the beauties of the Fiberight system is that it can convert from producing natural gas to sugars, depending on what is currently in demand.
Under the proposed agreement with Fiberight, the MRC would own the land and lease it to Fiberight.
The MRC would spend an estimated $5 million to put in a 4,600-foot access road and provide water and sewage services, the natural gas line and overhead utilities.
Lounder said $5 million appears to be a major investment, but it would be eaten up in a few years if needed to subsidize tipping fees should the MRC remain with PERC.
Robert Knudsen, vice president of operations for USA Energy, said however MRC municipalities vote next year, the plant will remain open.
MRC communities now haul about 170,000 tons to PERC each year, which is slightly more than half of the 312,000 tons PERC processes, he said.
“We have a well-maintained facility that is very capable of operating efficiently,” Knudsen said. “It is fully functional, paid off, and we intend to use it. What we are doing now is looking at the total amount of waste available in the state of Maine.”
Lounder said going with Fiberight is the best solid waste alternative for MRC communities.
The $5-million investment, he said, is to buy a “participation rate” in the business.
The same involvement in PERC, Lounder said, cost $13 million.
“In each case those investments are more about having a say in the future of the project as opposed to a financial return,” he said.
The Municipal Review Committee will hold a special board meeting on Nov. 19 at 9 a.m. at the Orono Municipal Building. The purpose is to finalize remaining elements of the proposed agreement with Fiberight: a rebate sharing formula and disposition of MRC’s $25 million in assets.
The MRC will hold its annual meeting Dec. 16 at 3 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and will review the complete, proposed agreement.