Maui County officials are negotiating with two incinerator operators, one of which has proposed a facility so big it would need a 250-foot smokestack and so much trash the Big Island would have to contribute some of its garbage, according to company brochures and proposals on file with the county. While it’s unclear which, if any, of the two companies has the edge, the Mayor’s office is preparing a recommendation for the County Council sometime this fall.
So far, Fort Collins, Colorado-based Barlow Projects and ARES Corporation, headquartered in Burlingame, California, have offered the county incinerators that would burn trash to make energy. Both companies approached the county, and both are offering much the same facility, though substantially different in size.
Barlow has proposed building a 4.5- to 23-megawatt incinerator while ARES offered a larger, 30-megawatt operation. In addition, both companies say they can have their respective incinerator up and running by 2010—a timetable a county official familiar with the incinerator proposals called “extremely ambitious.
“A half dozen meetings have taken place,” said the county official, who requested anonymity. “No one is favoring any one group. A clear message was given that this all has to go to the County Council. They have to look at it with an open mind.”
A smaller company than ARES, Barlow currently runs five waste-to-energy incinerators in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Barlow has also proposed building a second incinerator on Oahu.
When asked why the company was pitching one of its incinerators to Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, Barlow Projects Development Director Jody Allione gave two reasons.
“There’s a concern that the landfill’s life is shorter than people thought,” Allione said in a phone interview. “We want to make sure the landfill lasts as long as possible.”
This may or may not actually be a problem. Though it’s clear that Maui has limited landfill space—this being a relatively small island and all—it’s not so certain that a landfill crisis exists.
“You can’t just open a landfill anytime, anywhere,” said the county official who asked for anonymity. “It’s a long, convoluted exercise. But we’re quarrying at a rate faster than we’re putting stuff in. Maui doesn’t have landfill issues like others do.”
In any case, Allione had another ready reason why Maui residents should embrace burning garbage.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen your energy bill, but the price of oil has gone up,” she added. “Energy costs have gone up considerably. MECO [Maui Electric Company] is very interested in renewable power.”
According to Barclay Lew, an official with the ARES group, it was a request for proposals issued back in March, 2005 by Renewable Hawai’i, a subsidiary of Hawai’i Electric—which also owns Maui Electric—that first brought his company to the table.
“We’re in detailed discussions with Hawai’i Electric,” Lew said in a phone interview. “I’m not really able to discuss much else.”
The RFP Lew mentioned is even more vague, asking for “opportunities for equity investment in commercially viable and cost-effective projects to produce electricity for Hawai’i from renewable resources, such as sun, wind, hydro, biomass, ocean or geothermal energy.” It also requires that projects produce “at least one megawatt and [have] a planned date of commercial operation no later than December 31, 2010.”
As for MECO, the power company would love a waste-to-energy incinerator, said MECO President Ed Reinhardt.
“Renewable energy is something we need,” he said. “There are a lot of plusses. And it’s a firm source—not like the wind. It would be a plus, something we’d certainly favor.”
ARES, which is linked to a Hawai’i-based limited liability corporation called Waena Renewable, is proposing something on a far grander scale than Barlow.
Currently, the Central Maui Landfill—where Arakawa has proposed building an incinerator—takes in about 450 tons of garbage every day. But ARES wants to build a massive, 30-megawatt incinerator there that would burn 1,000 tons per day.
With a building height of 140 feet and a smokestack height of 250 feet, there are real questions as to whether such a facility is possible, considering it’s virtually directly beneath the arrival flight paths into Kahului Airport. But there are bigger concerns.
The only way the ARES proposal would work, according to county officials and the company’s presentation, is for Maui to secure a second fuel supply—in this case, the Big Island. ARES is proposing to “pelletize” Big Island waste, then ship it over to Maui for incineration. As far as what would happen to the county’s energy production and ability to pay off facility construction bonds should that garbage lifeline ever get cut, no one can say. For good reason, the “other island” trash source proposal appeared in the ARES presentation to the county under a “Challenges” headline.
In any case, both firms’ incinerator concept plans were more like sales brochures and corporate brochures than actual construction plans. There were simple schematics, but also plenty of rosy scenarios and cheery statements like incinerators pose “no new environmental concerns” and “Ash is environmentally neutral.”
In fact, there are myriad environmental problems associated with incinerators—even modern, supposedly clean-burning ones. There’s fly ash—a solid, dense byproduct saturated with dioxin and other toxics—as well as a smell remarkably similar to that of a burning chicken coop (See Maui Time’s “Big Waste,” Sept. 15, 2005 for a more thorough accounting of these issues.)
Ultimately, how much any of this will cost is anyone’s guess. There were no cost numbers in the presentations and brochures viewed by Maui Time, and officials with both companies declined to give out specific numbers.
“We would attempt to build the project so it would not incrementally increase what anyone is paying now,” said Allione.
The ARES presentation to the county was even more optimistic: “NO out of pocket costs to the county,” one PowerPoint slide read.
If either statement ends up true, it would be contrary to much recent municipal incineration experience. In the late 1980s, Jackson County, Michigan agreed to build a small incinerator priced at $15 million. It wasn’t long until construction costs rose to $23 million. Lower-than-expected trash volume headed into the facility meant more debt for the county.
That’s nothing. Other communities like Washington and Warren Counties in New York ended up paying $87 million for their incinerator, which they never even ended up owning. In small towns across the U.S., promises of high-energy production never met the reality of low waste streams, bankrupting incinerators and the counties that ran them.
Maui, we can only hope, will be different. As it stands now, county officials are looking to finalize some kind of agreement with one of the firms sometime next year. There’s also talk of the county hiring a consultant to get a handle on the complex, unfamiliar technological issues involved in burning garbage for energy.
“I can’t say I’m for or against this,” said the county official familiar with the proposals. “But I could probably get behind a pilot project a little more easily than something requiring 1,000 tons a day.” MTW