DeWitt: Claims of viable waste-to-energy process ring hollow

County officials have fallen for flimsy promises of companies with unimpressive records.

Published June 14 2016
Updated June 16 2016

It's a seductive idea.

A company takes all or most of Hernando County's garbage, mechanically sorts out recyclables and converts whatever remains to gas or fuel pellets that can be burned to produce clean energy.

No sorting of cans or newspapers. The end of wasteful landfilling. Ultimately, big savings for the county.

Problem is, at this point it's a fantasy. With just a few calls it becomes clear the county has spent two years chasing a mirage.

This is not just about influence, though the County Commission obviously caved to Brooksville businessman Tom Barnette's politicking last month when it chose the least impressive of three thoroughly unimpressive applicants.

It's about the judgment and efficiency of staffers who failed to expose the hollow claims of these companies — including Freedom Energy Hernando LLC, which may be in line to receive as much as $78 million in county fees over the next 20 years.

But let's start with Energy3 LLC, because this was supposedly the solid choice.

Staffers selected it in what was touted as an influence-free process in 2014, and the company looked like the victim last month when it was pushed aside in favor of Freedom Energy.

Cliff Manuel, the most prominent engineer in Hernando, was on the Energy3 team. Other business leaders were recruited as cheerleaders.

In its bid documents, Energy3 said it was allied with a company, Chinook Energy, that employs a process far more efficient than incineration, which is used in Pasco County, and "has nine fully functioning commercial gasification plants . . . (that) operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week."

One of these plants, Energy3 said, is in Louisburg, N.C., which was news to Tony King, the town's assistant city manager.

"I can tell you that operation is not happening here," King said last week.

Several years ago, Chinook built a plant to process recycled metals, he said. But from what he's heard lately, even that is running far below capacity. And he knows for sure the plant has never accepted and processed his town's solid waste.

The same is true of the Chinook plant in Altoona, Pa., said John Frederick, the executive director of regional solid waste and recycling program based in the city.

The notion that the Chinook plant in Altoona "eats" garbage, as Energy3 claims, and then converts it to clean, BTU-rich gas "couldn't be anything further from the truth," he said. And such claims undermine legitimate recycling programs by suggesting there's a shortcut to the job of separating recycling from garbage, said Frederick, a board member of the National Recycling Coalition.

The gas generated is difficult to market because the temperatures used in the process are too low to produce a clean, energy-dense product, said Jacob Chung, a University of Florida professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who is developing new ways of producing so-called syngas from burned waste.

The current method, he wrote in one study, produces "low-quality syngas that contains undesirable char, tar and soot due to the lower reactor temperatures."

The two remaining waste-to-energy companies — Barnette-backed Freedom Energy, which was chosen as the front-runner for the job by the County Commission last month, and runner-up WastAway LLC — rely on a simpler process: compressing solid waste into burnable pellets.

WastAway's plant in Warren County, Tenn., once actually did process most of the county's solid waste, said Steve Hillis, county director of sanitation.

But "now they don't take more than 800 to 900 tons" per year, Hillis said. "I think when they need to show somebody how the system works, they order up two or three loads."

At least WastAway has a plant, which puts it a step ahead of Freedom Energy, which the county will hire if it proves to be financially solid and able to meet the terms of the contract. Anything is possible, given the county's history on this project. But it's difficult to see how that could happen.

Freedom Energy CEO Nat Mundy has admitted financial struggles, including an IRS tax lien on property in Lake County. The only proof of his process' viability is a plant he operated at Walt Disney World, and it shut down more than a decade ago.

The financial side of his pitch is, at best, misleading. He's not asking for any money from the county upfront and just $39 per ton, his bid says, and because commercial customers now pay $54 per ton, "this results in an immediate savings to Hernando County of more than $1.6 million per year."

But he requested that $39 per ton for at least 100,000 tons per year over 20 years, which would suck up most of the solid waste revenue that now pays for operations as diverse as running the county's convenience stations and hazardous waste disposal.

"We run an integrated solid waste operation," said Scott Harper, the county's solid waste services manager. "That takes funding of some sort."

Nevermind, Mundy said in an interview with Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt and I shortly after the commission picked his firm.

History and science are on his side, he said; waste-to-energy is the technology of the future.

Maybe so. But, unfortunately, we live in the present.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.

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