With landfill closure on horizon, ACUA explores waste-conversion technology

With landfill closure on horizon, ACUA explores waste-conversion technology

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — With the Atlantic County Utilities Authority landfill set to close in the next few years, officials are searching for a new way to handle waste, particularly through emerging “waste conversion” technologies.

Among the new technologies available are processes that can convert the trash into energy either through the combination of electricity and high temperatures in plasma gasification, or a mechanical/biological treatment that sorts the trash, removing recyclables and then converting what remains, either through composting or an anaerobic digestion process that leaves behind a refuse-derived fuel. As part of the process, the refuse that remains can be as little as one-tenth of what now ends up in a landfill.

All of these new forms of transforming waste-to-energy go beyond the current methods, said Matt DeNafo, the ACUA vice president of Centralized Maintenance & Asset Management.

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“You hear waste-energy and you think incineration. That’s not really what waste conversion is today,” DeNafo said last week.

There are, however, challenges to overcome first, like securing permits and more importantly, bringing down costs of the new technology.

“We can get the air permit, we can build the technology, the technology can work, but if it’s not cost effective and we find a cheaper way to dispose of our waste, than it doesn’t make sense for us to do that,” DeNafo said to the ACUA board on Sept. 15.

Even when these economic, environmental, legal and technical problems are addressed and demonstration projects are successful, they can be difficult to scale from the demonstration-level into full-size operations.

“We’ve seen a lot of these technologies go from a demonstration project and then go from something really really big, really, really fast and it’s just not successful,” DeNafo added.

Regardless, the utilities authority needs to find a new way to manage waste collection. Its Egg Harbor Township landfill is set to reach capacity and close in 2027.

New technologies

Some of the new technologies can reduce the mass that needs to be placed in a landfill by 80% to 90%, ACUA officials said. They also avoid some of the greenhouse-gas emissions or other harmful byproducts that result from landfills, such as methane.

The ACUA is not a stranger to attempts to bring waste conversion to the county. It began collaborating with NRG Energy in 2008 and awarded NRG a contract to develop a waste-conversion project. DeNafo said they had received or were prepared to receive all permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection, except for the air permits. New NRG management, DeNafo said, ultimately decided against the project and dashed the prospects of bringing new waste-conversion technology to the county.

Despite challenges facing the industry, DeNafo said he was inspired by progress at different projects that were exhibited at the Waste Conversion Technology Conference & Trade Show he attended earlier this year. He noted that representatives from several large entities were in attendance, including those some from Google and the U.S. Department of Defense. There were presentations for various companies across country, including ones from California, Nevada, New York and Oregon. While these companies faced some of the challenges he laid out, he said they demonstrated how the waste-conversion projects can be viable and succeed in Atlantic County.

One company, for example, produced a syngas as an output that could be further refined into jet fuel — a process DeNafo said could be useful for the ACUA due to its facilities’ proximity to Atlantic City International Airport. The Atlantic County Economic Alliance has focused on making the aerospace industry a crux of future development in the area.

ACUA President Rick Dovey said there are already projects in the works that could benefit a future shift to waste conversion. He said the ACUA has agreed to a deal with South Jersey Industries in June to convert the emissions from its landfill into renewable natural gas. The project will involve a $30 million facility to be developed by South Jersey Industries and divert emissions that had been used in a less profitable venture to directly generate electricity. The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in August, helps guaranteed federal subsidies for renewable natural gas, further strengthens the deal over the current electricity-generation arrangement. Dovey said the project could be operational by 2024 and would benefit municipalities, taxpayers and ultimately future waste-conversion projects.

While the pivoting toward new waste-conversion technology continues, officials are looking to find a path forward for its immediate future.

The ACUA issued a request for proposal for hauling and disposal of solid waste in the county, which resulted in one bid, although it is possible the authority could reject the bid and issue another request for proposal — something that may fetch lower contract prices now, given that oil and gas prices have fallen substantially in the last several months. The ACUA had been considering working with the Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority and the Cumberland County Improvement Authority, although Dovey said those authorities are no longer comfortable politically moving forward with the deal, due to intensifying controversy over the future of waste handling in the county.

Rail-transfer station

The bid and exploration of waste conversion comes as debate continues over a proposed rail-transfer station for construction-and-demolition debris waste. The transfer station, planned for a lot off West Washington Avenue in Pleasantville, has attracted significant controversy. The station’s supporters, including its developer, James DiNatale, have argued it would help the county prepare for the impending closure of the ACUA landfill, taking waste from the county and shipping it to a landfill in Ohio. They have maintained it would be cheaper than the ACUA alternatives, although ACUA officials have disputed his figures and noted that the bid process is not yet complete.

For his part, DiNatale is critical of the ACUA’s pursuit of a new waste conversion method as a “pie-in-the-sky” idea similar to the flying cars in “The Jetsons” television show. He cited exorbitant costs and lack of a successful track record.

“There’s nothing proven,” DiNatale said. “I don’t know how they get away with it.”

The ACUA is moving forward with developing a waste-conversion technology for the region. Once it settles on a method, it expects to issue a request for proposals and solicit bids for a project by next January and award a contract in April. A project would then get underway within several years.

“Sooner or later, these technologies are going to be approved, and the economics will be there,” Dovey said Thursday, citing companies in the Los Angeles area that are exploring the concept. “They know that eventually this is the answer.”

Contact Chris Doyle

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