Metro looks to level field for incinerator alternatives

Board votes to send waste-to-energy procurement strategy back for rethink

Port Moody Mayor Mike Clay speaks in debate on waste-to-energy procurement at Metro Vancouver's Sept. 21 board meeting.

Metro Vancouver directors who oppose building a new garbage incinerator have persuaded the board to rethink its planned procurement rules, arguing they could thwart new greener waste-to-energy technologies.

Metro directors were poised to approve the procurement strategy Friday but instead voted to send it back to staff and the zero waste committee to refine the regional district’s approach to developing a new waste-fired plant.

Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer said emerging waste-to-energy technologies that might be much less polluting than a conventional incinerator could be blocked because of a planned requirement that proponents have operating plants where they can prove their system works.

That gives incineration, with its long history, too much of an advantage over rapidly evolving alternatives that might still be at a small demonstration stage but on the cusp of being commercially viable, she said.

“We have been burning garbage in large piles since we figured out how to do fire,” Reimer said. “It’s been happening for 50,000 years.”

Port Moody Mayor Mike Clay said he’s also concerned the proven track record requirement will block emerging operators in the first phase of Metro’s planned multi-stage bidding process.

The region intends to first identify viable technologies and proponents, then potential sites in and outside the region, before winnowing the potential P3 partners to a short list of three who would compete in a final bidding phase.

“All of this leads down the path of probably one large mass-burn incineration facility serving the region,” Clay warned.

Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt supported Reimer’s call to widen the scope for alternate technologies, which is to be considered further in committee, adding fairness is critically important.

Richmond Coun. Harold Steves also supported the change, saying Metro is otherwise on track to build a “fossil fuel power plant” that will burn plastic and increase particulate and greenhouse gas emissions.

Metro staff say the procurement of an extra 370,000 tonnes of waste-to-energy capacity is already highly complex and subject to a provincial directive that all sites and technologies compete fairly.

They say the aim is to ensure proponents can demonstrate their ability to perform, and loosening that rule would add more risk to an already challenging process, since the board won’t make a final decision on what will be built where until 2015. The plant or plants wouldn’t open until late 2018, after extensive consultations and environmental assessment.

“If we try to incorporate the vagaries of a promising technology, it’s going to make it a lot more complicated,” Metro chief financial officer Jim Rusnak said.

Addressing concern the plan required proponents have a “full-scale reference facility” on which they would be judged, Metro managers say it need not be a large plant, but perhaps one with a minimum size of 30,000 to 50,000 tonnes per year.

Burnaby Coun. Colleen Jordan said she’s worried more delay in the process – because some politicians hope a “magical” and more palatable WTE technology will pop up – might result in rejected bidders going to court to challenge Metro’s eventual decision.

“People outside this room are looking at this process too,” she said.

Reimer said she is reluctant to re-fight the issue in committee and cause further delay, noting the Metro board is fundamentally split on technology, with some directors comfortable with incineration and Vancouver council among others staunchly opposed.

Also to be reconsidered is whether an earlier decision to require any new plant is “publicly owned” be tightened to just Metro Vancouver-owned.

Some directors say the looser public ownership term – which Hunt wanted so local cities could be co-owners – may lead private firms to start talks with cities, other levels of governments or even Crown corporations, adding more chaos to the process.

“You could have the port, you could have the universities, the airport authority, the health authorities,” Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said. “You’re potentially opening it up very widely.”

He noted that even if Metro is the only permitted owner, other entities like the port or airport could still offer to host the new plant when the region asks interested land owners to step forward next year.

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