Sticking with PERC

Several Hancock County municipalities now have made what they believe to be the right move in voting to continue sending their trash to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) facility in Orrington.

Municipalities throughout a large part of Maine have been confronted with the need to choose between PERC and a Hampden-based trash-to-gas facility proposed by Fiberight and endorsed by the Municipal Review Committee (MRC), which represents 187 Maine towns and cities.

As the decision process began to unfold, several Mount Desert Island area communities followed the lead of the MRC and made a commitment to the still unproven and unbuilt Fiberight facility, which would rely on a technology that has not yet been tested on the proposed operating scale anywhere else in the United States.

More recently, however, a number of towns and cities – especially here in Hancock County – have voiced concerns about the unknowns involved and have opted to continue their longstanding association with PERC, which has been burning trash to generate electricity for nearly three decades.

The Fiberight proposal backed by the MRC is tempting in that it offers lower tipping fees than those that will be offered by PERC after the favorable above-market rates for the electricity it produces expire in 2018. But at this point, there is no basis for comparative analysis because no other commercial-scale trash-to-gas plant is operating anywhere in this country. A plant in Iowa proposed by Fiberight in 2010 has yet to be built. And for the Fiberight tipping fees proposed for Maine to become a reality, a number of hurdles still must be overcome.

At this point, Fiberight and the MRC do not have the needed approval to build the proposed facility in Hampden. Should that approval be granted, there still appears to be uncertainty over the financial backing required to make construction a reality.

Fiberight’s tipping fees are pure speculation, based solely on conceptual cost estimates. And there exists the very real possibility that construction delays, cost overruns and modifications to meet performance standards could drive those fees higher before the plant is up and running.

The technology involved in the Fiberight proposal – separating recyclable materials and non-organic matter from the mixed waste stream and putting the organics into an anaerobic digester to produce biogas – has not yet proven itself on an industrial scale.

Some uncertainties also surround the PERC proposal. Both PERC and the MRC have established minimum amounts of trash tonnage needed for their operations to be feasible. There is the risk that when all of the towns and cities involved have reached their decisions, neither PERC nor the MRC will achieve its goals. The PERC plant is nearly 30 years old, but its equipment has been well-maintained and updated. Company officials say it is well-positioned for years of continued service.

The bottom line is that even if its tipping fees are somewhat higher than those proposed for the Fiberight facility, PERC operates with a proven technology and has established a lengthy history and record that can be examined readily.

Those towns and cities still on the fence would do well to continue their association with the Orrington-based PERC facility and not gamble their taxpayers’ dollars on a proposal that, at this point, remains a largely speculative venture.

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