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Marion, Iowa nearing contract proposal for trash-fueled power

Steve Gravelle, CR Gazette –

Marion could be the first city in the nation to zap its garbage into energy in about five years, but the plan requires more garbage than the city could provide itself.

“The biggest issue is flow control,” Ryan Miller told city council members at this afternoon’s work session.

Miller, Marion’s public works director, was referring to the flow of waste Plasma Power LLC says it needs to make a plant economically viable. Miller said the plant would require 250 tons a day, but Marion only generates about 100 tons.

Plasma Power’s current contract proposal calls for Marion to commit to guaranteeing the full 250 tons a day. If the city failed, it would pay a $1.5 million annual penalty to the Florida-based firm.

“It would be a significant financial burden if we can’t find the tonnage,” Miller said.

City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said the city’s attorneys are still negotiating with Plasma Power. He said a draft contract should be ready for council review by Feb. 23.

Council member Joe Spinks said Plasma Power’s current proposal “rubbed me the wrong way. It is a new technology that’s in need of a showcase, but they’re going to need to do better than that.”

Miller said the city collects about 25 tons of residential waste a day, and private haulers collect about 80 tons from business and industry in the city. Under a new solid waste ordinance adopted last year, the city can direct private haulers where to dump their loads – a condition it hasn’t yet invoked.

The answer may lie with the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency, whose reopening of its landfill off County Home Road north of Marion prompted the city’s interest in plasma-arc technology. The technology passes a gas through powerful electrodes to create a high-temperature torch that would instantly convert solid garbage into a gas and a small amount of harmless slag.

Plasma Power’s plan calls for using the waste-derived gas to fuel a boiler. Its steam would be sold to nearby customers for heating or electrical generation as Alliant Energy did at its Sixth Street Generating Station near downtown Cedar Rapids before it was wrecked in the June 2008 flood.

“There’s a definite steam market,” Pluckhahn said.

Miller said the metro area generates 700 to 800 tons of waste a day, more than enough to meet Plasma Power’s needs – if the waste agency’s board would agree to the project, which would reduce its revenues from landfill tipping fees.

“I think it’s time to put them on notice: ‘Here’s your opportunity,’” councilmember Paul Draper said. “They’re the ones who came out and said, ‘Oh, this is a great technology.”

Plasma Power’s new estimate of its waste needs is about twice what it told Marion and waste agency officials last year. Miller said the firm wants a 25-year contract.

“That is a very, very long contract in this industry, but it is very typical of waste-to-energy facilities,” he said.

That holds another potential pitfall for the city: some newer technology, and competition for solid waste as a fuel, could make a plasma plant obsolete before a contract is up.

“We (need) protection in there so we’re not left with a more expensive method of disposing of waste” if technology changes the market, Pluckhahn said.

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