Metro Vancouver's existing Waste-to-Energy Facility is located at the southernmost tip of Burnaby

Less garbage leads Metro Vancouver to downsize waste-fired plant

Not necessarily an incinerator, despite shift in waste-to-energy bid process

Metro Vancouver is chopping the size of a new waste-to-energy plant it intends to build to help consume the region’s garbage and stop landfilling it in the Interior.

The regional district now says the new plant will need to process only 250,000 to 400,000 tonnes of garbage per year, down from a previous estimate of 500,000 tonnes.

The change would make the intended plant closer in size to Metro’s existing garbage incinerator in south Burnaby, which burns just under 300,000 tonnes per year.

Metro board chair Greg Moore said the decision to downsize the project reflects a decline in garbage generated in the region from 1.3 million tonnes in 2007 to just one million last year.

“It’s quite remarkable the amount of tonnage decrease we’ve had,” he said.

He attributes the drop to a combination of a weaker economy, higher garbage tipping fees, better public education on how to recycle and compost, and the adoption of curbside organic waste pick-up in more than half of local cities.

The decline in garbage flow is projected to continue in 2012.

Metro staff intend to adjust the final capacity to ensure the plant isn’t overbuilt.

Critics of the solid waste strategy have argued Metro could ramp up recycling enough to avoid building a new incinerator altogether.

Metro officials maintain the new waste-to-energy (WTE) plant is needed and that it will not necessarily be an incinerator.

The region must consider all possible technologies, including newer ones like gasification or anerobic digestion – methods that promise near-zero emissions with potential to produce biofuels.

But Metro has backpedalled on an idea to ensure an emerging technology gets at least a chunk of the waste.

Moore had previously favoured reserving some waste-to-energy capacity for those technologies so they aren’t simply outbid by incinerator proposals, thought to be cheaper and more efficient.

That idea of two separate calls for bids has now been scrapped – all bidders will compete in a single request for proposals that considers all technologies together.

Metro directors deny that means the fix is now in for incineration.

“Not at all,” said Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt, a member of Metro’s Zero Waste committee.

He said the move to a smaller scale plant reduces the efficiency advantage for incineration, improving the odds for other providers.

Moore said alternative technologies have continued to improve, so he is now less concerned about the need to give them special treatment.

Metro aims to open the bidding to build a new waste-fired plant this summer and shortlist the proponents by the end of the year.

Those firms are expected to have a proposed site packaged with their technology.

And Moore said he believes most of the likely contenders have already chosen their sites for a new incinerator or other WTE plant.

Other directors worry that when those locations are revealed they will prove to be inefficiently located or too controversial.

Hunt said he wishes Metro would first decide on the technology and then determine the appropriate site, with cities getting more say in the location.

He argues a WTE plant close to a dense urban area – perhaps Surrey’s City Centre – will be better placed to make money pumping heat into nearby buildings than a more remote site.

Surrey could be a partner, he said, because the city can ensure development uses a waste-fired district heating network.

“I’m concerned these companies may sign up some industrial land somewhere and waste a bunch of time and energy on something that could be very counterproductive,” Hunt said.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, the committee vice-chair, said he also worries company-selected sites will turn into “political hot potatoes” that prove unworkable.

“Instead of it being the city’s initiative, it becomes the developer’s initiative,” Corrigan said. “We need to get sites that fit with our municipal interests and fit with the regional interests.”

Based on those concerns, Metro will allow cities or other property owners to volunteer sites for consideration.

Hunt said he hopes the process will be flexible, allowing Metro to select a bidder’s technology but swap an unsuitable site it’s paired with for a better one elsewhere.

Surrey and Burnaby both could be interested in hosting the plant, Hunt and Corrigan said.

The Tsawwassen First Nation is also considering it and a former industrial property in New Westminster is also thought to be a potential site.

Bids are also expected that would barge Metro garbage to out-of-region sites like Gold River or Powell River.

Crucial decisions that will guide what is built and where still remain to be made in the months ahead.

Among them is how bids are evaluated. Will, for example, financial considerations such as the cost of the plant and the power revenue it would generate trump environmental or social factors?

Metro must also still decide the business model, including how the project will be financed.

Waste-to-energy talks with FVRD to start soon

Metro Vancouver will start consulting its neighbours in the Fraser Valley immediately about its plans to burn more garbage, even though it has no idea yet what technology will be used or where a new waste-to-energy plant will be located.

A new incinerator would pose no concern to the Valley if it was built at an out-of-region site – such as Covanta Energy’s proposed site at Gold River on the west side of Vancouver Island.

But FVRD leaders remain deeply concerned about worsening air pollution if a plant is built in the Lower Mainland, sending emissions east into the Valley.

Metro board chair Greg Moore said much work can be done with Fraser Valley representatives ahead of decisions on waste-to-energy technologies and sites.

He said the region may decide in advance what air emissions standard must be met, so bidders know in advance how stringent the rules will be and what level of pollution scrubbing technology to use.

Metro could examine emission levels and standards at various WTE plants around the world, he said, and then decide it wants the toughest pollution standard here.

Metro also plans to hire an independent third-party expert panel to provide advice and ensure there’s no bias in favour of any technology.

Three people are to serve on the panel – one with waste-to-energy technical experience, one expert on sustainability and energy and one expert on air emissions and health.Twitter: @jeffnagel