It's a go for MSW-to-ethanol plant near Chicago

By Kris Bevill | June 17, 2011

A long-proposed municipal solid waste (MSW)-to-ethanol project in Lake County, Ind., has locked in the financing needed to construct the facility and is expected to undergo construction in July. Powers Energy of America Inc. plans to construct a 42 MMgy facility in Schneider, Ind., approximately 35 miles south of Chicago, which will begin producing ethanol and electricity in 2013. The $300 million project had previously been plagued by difficulties in securing financing and local opposition to the plant, but according to local officials and company CEO Earl Powers, those issues have been resolved.

Powers said his company has been working with a hedge fund for more than six months to secure $600 million for the construction of two identical facilities, one in Schneider and the other in Fairfax County, Va., near Washington D.C. The hedge fund agreed to supply the necessary amount in exchange for stock in the company, he said. He declined to provide the name of the fund due to concerns that the group would become inundated with requests from other project developers.

Jeff Langbehn, executive director of the Lake County Solid Waste Management District confirmed that he spoke directly with the hedge fund chairman and said he has received documentation confirming the financial obligations were secured. “The money is done,” he said, adding that site work could begin in early to mid-July while the company awaits air permit approval from the state of Indiana.

Powers Energy will employ a gasification process to convert MSW from nearby communities to ethanol and electricity. The technology is the same as what is being used by Ineos Bio, which is currently constructing an 8 MMgy vegetative waste and MSW-based ethanol plant near Vero Beach, Fla. Once operational, Powers expects the Schneider facility to take in up to 8,000 tons of MSW per day, 2,000 tons from Lake County and up to 6,000 per day from nearby Chicago. Langbehn said Lake County has established a collective interlocal purchasing agreement, which offers the 19 communities within the county the option to join and pay Powers Energy $17.25 per ton to take their waste, as opposed to the approximate $40 per ton charged by local landfills. “There’s no penalty if they don’t join, however the cost savings is significant,” he said. On top of the reduced tipping fee equivalent, the municipalities that participate will receive a portion of the host community kickback, further offsetting their costs, he said. “So we can’t imagine them not contributing to it, but there’s no mandate that they must.”

Langbehn has been involved in the project’s proposal process for some time and admits that the company had to gain the approval of many skeptics, including himself. “The watershed moment for me was when I went through the plant for the first time and actually got to see the pilot plant functioning,” he said. “It removed any and all question that it is a viable process.”

The pilot plant is operated by Ineos and is located in Fayetteville, Ark.

The local waste industry has been one of the ethanol project’s largest opponents, according to Langbehn. “That’s because it’s going to take an enormous amount of waste out of the landfills,” he said. “That’s where they make their money and I understand that. [But] from the citizens’ standpoint, it reduces our costs and gives us an alternative energy source, not only in the ethanol but also in the electricity that it also produces.” Community members and elected officials in Lake County are also in favor of the project because it is expected to provide 400 construction jobs and 400 well-paying, full-time positions when the plant is complete, Langbehn said. “We’re an economic blighted area so there’s a lot of excitement around the plant,” he added. He said it is not unreasonable to believe the plant will be operational near the end of 2013, but admitted the start date for a project of that type is a moving target.

Powers said the company also plans to begin construction of the Virginia facility this year, adding that a company there has agreed to provide 6,000 tons per day of MSW. Powers Energy’s long-term plan calls for four more plants to be finalized next year and each following year, ramping up to an eventual total of 45 plants producing 2.1 billion gallons of MSW-based ethanol. Langbehn said he encourages other waste managers to entertain the prospect of these types of facilities and offered to provide all of the information related to the Schneider project to any interested party. “It’s not near as scary as it sounds,” he said. “It’s a long process and you’ve got to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard, but now that we’re looking back as opposed to having to look forward, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”