ORRINGTON — The Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC), which takes in much of the waste from Hancock County and surrounding counties and burns it to generate electricity, will be down for maintenance from April 5 through 25, said Plant Manager Henry Lang, as Versant Power works on the 115,000-volt lead line coming into the plant.
Although PERC can store roughly 10,000 tons of waste in its storage area and on its tipping floor, the rest of the deliveries will be landfilled at Juniper Ridge Landfill while PERC is closed, he said. Lang said waste can’t stay stored for long, however, “since the packed-in waste tends to self-combust if stored too long — like wet hay.”
While landfilling is at the bottom of the state’s hierarchy and “the least desirable disposal option,” said Lang, it’s a “critical part of the whole system.”
“With no access to the transmission system we can’t generate electricity,” said Lang. “It’s also our power supply. We’ll be on portable diesel generators for that period of time. I suspect we’ll be bypassing material.”
The plant is also due for a major turbine overhaul, said Lang, which staff will do while Versant is working on the lead line.
The PERC plant took in 194,912 tons of waste in 2020, which works out to around 16,242 tons each month. Roughly 60,000 tons of that, all from commercial sources, was sent to the landfill, while the rest was burned to generate electricity. That bypassing, said Lang in an email later, began in July, “when PERC began accepting the MRC [Municipal Review Committee] MSW [municipal solid waste].”
“It has been an important point to me that PERC has not bypassed waste from our municipal customers,” he added.
“Since the MRC material started arriving in July we’ve been struggling to try to bring our facility back up to handle the extra material we just spent three years trying to downsize,” said Lang, referring to an agreement reached with the nonprofit MRC, which is in the midst of preparing a reopening plan for its plant in Hampden, which shut down in late May of 2020. “We brought another shift back on. It’s been a little bit of a struggle.”
PERC, said Lang, essentially “bypassed our commercial contracts so that we could accept the MRC material.”
The agreement with MRC is an informal one at the moment, said Lang, but PERC will continue to work with the group until the Hampden plant is back in operation. Pennsylvania-based Delta Thermo Energy was recently announced as the prospective buyer for the Hampden facility, but the MRC has yet to issue a reopening date.
Until the plant in Hampden reopens, 75 percent of waste from MRC member towns (which include the Hancock County towns of Amherst, Aurora, Bar Harbor, Blue Hill, Bucksport, Castine, Cranberry Isles, Dedham, Franklin, Great Pond, Mariaville, Mount Desert, Osborn, Otis, Sorrento, Southwest Harbor, Sullivan, Surry, Swan’s Island and Waltham) will be sent to PERC.
“We’re not against new facilities, we really aren’t,” said Lang, “and they deserve an opportunity to try to get their process running.”
It’s been a tumultuous few years for PERC, which downsized from 77 employees to roughly 50 after losing a special agreement that paid the plant above-market rates for the electricity it generated. Before the agreement expired, PERC was paid between 17.3 cents per kilowatt hour for the electricity it generated; that dropped to between 3 to 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour after 2018. In part because of an increase in tipping fees prompted by the end of that agreement, more than 100 member towns of the Municipal Review Committee decided to send their waste to the Hampden plant, initially known as Fiberight. That plant, which experienced a number of delays in opening, then closed last spring after losing $14.7 million in funding.
After losing the MRC contracts several years ago, PERC looked into several ventures to increase revenue, said Lang, including a plan to build a facility on its property to sanitize wood chips for export. But that fell through after “the cost for moving the wood turned out to be higher than believed and there wasn’t the investment money,” said Lang.
Because the amount of waste generated in Maine fluctuates seasonally, increasing in the summer and decreasing in the winter (when there are fewer residents, some of whom are burning their combustibles), PERC must make sure it has enough on hand to keep equipment running. The PERC plant ran out of fuel twice last year, said Lang, a potentially dangerous situation that can result in pipes and equipment freezing.
“That’s very difficult for a steam-powered plant to go into the cold weather and not have fuel,” said Lang. “It’s a huge risk.”
Plants are built to withstand freezing weather, he said, but “that presupposes that the facility is in operation. No matter how well your building is insulated if you don’t have any heat source inside it it will get to ambient temperature. There’s too many pieces of pipe that you can’t drain.”
To ensure it has fuel to burn as a backup, PERC was testing out a plan to import solid recovered fuel (SRF) from Re-Gen Waste in Northern Ireland. The plan was abandoned after two of the 2,500-pound bales (composed mostly of paper and shredded plastic) fell into the ocean while being unloaded from the cargo ship MV Sider London on Dec. 2 at the Mack Point terminal in Searsport, which is operated by Sprague Energy Co.
While one of the bales that fell was eventually recovered intact, another broke open and pieces of plastic washed up on the shores of nearby Sears Island.
“I was horrified,” said Lang, who was first notified of the spill by a friend who alerted him to pictures on Facebook.
Sprague did not report the loss of the bales to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) until Dec. 9, a week after the incident. A resident walking on the beach of Sears Island reported small pieces of plastic tangled up in the seaweed on the shoreline to DEP, which then contacted Sprague, according to a notice of violation issued by the department in January.
“That’s not what we signed up for,” Lang said.
“We were looking for a stable, storable fuel and this material fit that bill,” said Lang. “It didn’t have any organics in it, it wasn’t going to break down. It was an insurance policy.”
The rest of the test shipment, roughly 11,000 tons, was delivered to PERC, said Lang, where it’s been used as a mixture, as “they burn quite well and have a lot of heat value.”
Until he saw the shredded plastic in the seaweed, said Lang, “We felt we were actually helping the recycling industry by not having it put in the ground. We felt good about that until we saw pictures of it on Facebook showing up on the beach. That hurt.”