Waste To Energy: It's Not That Simple


June 27, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Members of Carroll's Citizen Waste to Energy Committee got a quick lesson in solid waste calculus on their recent trip to a

municipal waste-to-energy plant in Lancaster, Pa. They also discovered this particular solid waste disposal equation has a lot more variables than they originally thought.

At first blush, turning garbage into energy sounds like a simple, or, as my calculus professor used to say, elegant solution for the ever-vexing problem of garbage disposal.

For a county such as Carroll, which is running out of landfill space, the prospect of burning garbage and reducing it to one-tenth its original volume is inviting. Add on the prospect of producing energy, and, hey, this solution is a no-brainer.

In the real world, however, the solution is not so easy, as visitors to Ogden Martin System's $105 million waste-to-energy plant in Lancaster quickly realized. Burning garbage is a complicated process that involves economies of scale, a predictable source of garbage, favorable financing and purchase arrangements and political climate amenable to high-tech garbage disposal.

Not all of these variables exist in Carroll. To get the equation to balance, the county and its residents would have to take some unprecedented actions.

To begin with, Carroll doesn't need a plant the size of Lancaster's. Fact is, Lancaster doesn't need one as big as Lancaster's. With a population of about 450,000, the county in the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish Country generates about only three-quarters of the trash necessary to keep its incinerator running at capacity. To make up the shortfall, the county "mines" garbage from its 350-acre landfill.

By contrast, Carroll, with a population of about 130,000, generates about 450 tons of trash a day. While Carroll doesn't need a plant the size of Lancaster's, Glenn Hoag, the plant manager, said the smallest waste-to-energy plant Ogden Martin builds requires about 550 tons of trash daily to be run on an economical basis.

At some point, Carroll will generate enough trash for such a plant, but when?

If Carroll were to build a metropolitan incinerator that would take garbage from outside the county, then such a plant might make some sense, but that isn't going to happen. Locating a plant to burn Carroll's garbage will be contentious; locating one to burn garbage from surrounding counties would be the commissioners' worst political nightmare.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, there is enough trash to burn; can such a plant sell the energy it produces at a profitable rate?

The Lancaster plant has an extremely favorable arrangement with Metropolitan Edison, the local electrical utility. It is selling its 35.7 megawatts of electricity at a rate of six cents a kilowatt, about twice the rate utilities pay for electricity generated by outside power suppliers. This money is used to pay for the operating costs of the plant and leaves several million dollars to pay for the operations and staff of the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority.

While the plant's executives like to point out that no tax dollars were used to construct the plant or pay for its operations, the consumers (read taxpayers) of Met Ed's electricity are helping to pay for the plant through higher utility rates.

While federal law encourages Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to buy power from companies generating power, there is no guarantee that the Maryland utility will agree to the sweetheart -- deal its Pennsylvania counterpart did.

Selling power is not the major source of revenue for the Lancaster plant. It gets the bulk of its revenue from the $69-a-ton tipping fee it charges the county's haulers. This money, about $24 million a year, is used to pay off the waste authority revenue bonds that were issued to finance the plant.

Because the plant is so dependent on tipping fee income, there is a disincentive for the authority to cut back on the volume of garbage being generated. While towns in the county have recycling programs, no mandatory recycling exists. There is a composting program for grass clippings, but only because when they are burned, they elevate the nitric emissions from the plant.

Judging from what was shown to the visiting delegation from Carroll, it appears the Lancaster plant is clean. Taking advantage of high technology precipitators, baghouses and temperature controls, it is able to capture most of the noxious gases before they go up the stack. The plant has a very sophisticated emission monitoring system that is constantly sampling the air coming out of the three furnaces.

There was no visible smoke coming from its smokestack, and from the readings we were able to see on their monitoring equipment, the emissions were well within the permissible limits.

The problem facing the citizens committee is this: In the course of solving the Carroll's solid waste problem, will it create a new set of problems that may be more difficult to solve? Will the problems associated with keeping a waste-to-energy plant operating efficiently and economically be worse than the problems of dealing with Carroll's current solid waste?

To answer that, the citizens committee will have to acknowledge this problem has some variables and factors it never contemplated. Getting the right answer is not going to be as easy as it may have seemed.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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