Waste-to-energy plan loses steam

A costly, multi-phase plan to allow a private contractor to reopen a shuttered 50-megawatt steam plant located on the tideflats and generate electricity by burning the city’s garbage will likely fail when the City Council votes on the issue next week, according to a discussion at yesterday’s council study session.

“This is an answer looking for a problem,” said Councilmember-elect and former Tacoma Public Utilities Chairman Jake Fey, adding that the property at 1171 Taylor Way has economic value other than becoming a so-called “waste-to-energy” site, and the city should focus its attention on efforts to educate citizens and implement plans to reduce, reuse, and recycle in order to reduce the city’s garbage production.

Councilmember Tom Stenger echoed that concern.

“We need to focus on reducing, reusing, and recycling before we get to a waste-to-energy alternative,” he said. Councilmember Stenger expressed concern over the “stranded cost” of operating the plant, referring to whether Energy Answers Corp. (EAC), an Albany-based firm that received the attention of the city after submitting a request for proposal earlier this year, would be able to sell the energy in a market focused largely on cheap hydroelectric power. “We don’t have much public support for waste-to-energy in this city, and I feel the intensity of the people in Northeast Tacoma.”

Councilmember Stenger was referring to Northeast Tacoma residents living on a hillside overlooking the plant, who raised concerns over the health risks posed by burning garbage near populated areas. Residents also complained about the congestion associated with increased truck traffic in the tideflats area, which links Northeast Tacoma residents to downtown.

The vote Dec. 6 will determine if the city will sign a contract with EAC to begin a study to gauge the economic feasibility of restarting the plant. The so-called “phase one” agreement would require the city to invest $250,000 and EAC to invest $150,000 to fund the study, which would take six months. If the project is determined economically viable, the council would decide next summer whether to continue further phases of the project, including permitting (which could cost the city approximately $2 million), retrofitting the plant (which would cost EAC approximately $50 million), and creating an operating agreement. The plant could open as early as 2009.

The plant was built in 1931 and used as a coal-burning facility. In 1987, the city remodeled the plant to burn garbage by Tacoma Power from 1990 to 1998. It was a money-losing operation, however, and the utility lost $30 million.

The idea to restart the plant has come and gone over several years.

In 2000, the city’s solid waste utility, a division of the Public Works Department, renewed interest in restarting the plant. However, state officials refused to provide a regulatory waiver to burn the garbage, and the idea died.

In 2003, steam plant operator NRG Energy, Inc. approached the city with similar plans for the site. The deal between the city and the steam plant operator fell apart, however, and lawyers for the city have tried to recover costs. NRG Energy, Inc. has since declared bankruptcy.

Last year, public works officials prepared a request for proposal, and five companies submitted plans. EAC’s plan stood out because of its commitment to community participation and environmental excellence, as well as comprehensive approach, according to city staffers. Waste-to-energy supporters claim that the process is better for the environment and less expensive than traditional landfilling. The city dumps its garbage at a landfill in Graham, and has a contract with landfill operator LRI through 2020.

EAC President Larry Richardson told councilmembers he believed the plant could be economically viable because rising energy prices have helped drive a resurgence of interest in waste-to-energy plants. Richardson said that Puget Sound Energy has already expressed interest in buying electricity produced by the plant.

Still, waste-to-energy in Tacoma has received opposition from residents, environmental activists, and city leaders whenever the idea is proposed to the city.

Earlier this summer, dozens of people crowded into a conference room at City Hall when the council committee on Environment and Public Works Committee met to discuss the issue.

City leaders bristled at the costs associated with the plan. Initially, city staffers estimated that the cost to conduct a first-phase feasibility study could reach $750,000, and as much as $2 million to create a scope of work, outline a cost proposal, and make improvements to the facility during a second phase.

During that meeting, Mayor Bill Baarsma commented, “I’ve taken those votes that led to $7.1 million losses.” The mayor was referring to the city’s earlier deal with NRG Energy, Inc. “I was at the meeting when people in expensive suits told us they would do the job for us.” He called the city’s experience with NRG Energy, Inc. a “fiasco.”

The council’s doubts over the plan continued during yesterday’s meeting.

Councilmember Rick Talbert was concerned that the EAC would need to burn 300,000 tons of garbage annually in order to make the plant profitable. The City of Tacoma presently produces 200,000 tons of garbage annually. “My concern is that we’ll be attempting to import waste into Tacoma,” said Councilmember Talbert. “I really don’t see that putting any more money in this is in the best interest of taxpayers.”

Mayor Baarsma, who called himself a “Doubting Thomas,” agreed. “For the plant to work, it would need to import tons of garbage from some other source,” he said. “Out of necessity, it would become a regional garbage site. That’s a whale of a lot of garbage.”