Waste-to-energy idea laudable, but Anaergia’s plan not sustainable

March 18, 2015

By Doug McLeod, The Maui News

I support the mayor's idea of having a waste-to-energy facility on Maui, but I do not think the specifics of what Anaergia has proposed can be considered "sustainable."

Anaergia proposes to have two different products: a Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) and methane gas. For the RDF, it would squeeze trash into small pellets and try to sell that product as fuel. I am skeptical there are buyers for this material on Maui. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. is the only facility on Maui that still has an old-fashioned boiler capable of using this sort of solid fuel. All of Maui Electric's units and all of the county's generators run on liquid fuel. This RDF is basically marketed as a "hamburger helper" for coal. It is a cheap filler material. HC&S is the only importer of coal to Maui, and its air permits are under enough scrutiny I cannot imagine why it would take the risk of burning this material.

There is a coal plant on Oahu that might be able to take the material, but the whole notion of exporting this RDF makes it look less sustainable. Finally, we are ignoring some very expensive lessons learned by the City and County of Honolulu with regard to its HPower facility. It used RDF in its first unit but found that the RDF contained all sorts of compounds that would react during the combustion process and cause damage to the vessel. The new phase of HPower completed in 2012 does not use RDF due to these problems. RDF made from landfill trash will vary from day to day depending on what went into the landfill. Why would any entity risk its air permit by burning such unknown material?

With regard to methane, my issue is fairness, and I find myself in the unusual position of defending MECO. The price for gas from Anaergia is simply not competitive, and MECO is being asked to solve a problem of the county's own making. The county is asking MECO to pay a 50 percent premium because the gas would be made from wastewater that otherwise would have gone down an injection well. MECO is under pressure from the Public Utilities Commission to reduce costs, and it would be passing the county's problem on to the MECO customers. One of the reasons this gas would be so expensive is that you would have to pump all water uphill to get it to the location proposed by Anaergia. If we want to grow crops for energy, let's do it where we do not have to pump uphill. If the county wants MECO to take this gas, the county should subsidize the cost to make it competitive with MECO's other options.

I do not see Anaergia as a solution to the injection of wastewater from the county wastewater plants. Why? The county has three wastewater plants injecting treated wastewater, and Anaergia only proposes to take wastewater from the one plant where there is an active lawsuit. More importantly, wastewater is generated every day, but even in West Maui we will have wet conditions for days at a time at several points during the year. You cannot expect to apply wastewater every day. If the judge has already found that the use of the existing well violates the Clean Water Act, I do not see how we solve the problem by saying now we only violate the Clean Water Act in certain weather conditions. In the end I suspect the county would have to spend millions on storage of wastewater in order to satisfy both Anaergia and the court.

* Doug McLeod is founder of DKK Energy Services LLC. He was Maui County's energy commissioner until he left the position in January to start his own energy consulting services firm. He earned his juris doctor degree from the University of Kansas and a bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University.

© Copyright 2015 The Maui News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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