NEWS

Trash-to-biofuel takes new turn in Marion

Fiberight will turn garbage to biogas in Marion, not ethanol in Blairstown

A waste pulper prepares cellulose and organics found in the waste stream for further processing at a Fiberight demonstration plant in Virginia. The process also allows Fiberight to recover recyclables in the waste stream for recycling. (Fiberight LLC)
A waste pulper prepares cellulose and organics found in the waste stream for further processing at a Fiberight demonstration plant in Virginia. The process also allows Fiberight to recover recyclables in the waste stream for recycling. (Fiberight LLC)
/

MARION — No one has claimed that making biofuel out of garbage is as simple as tossing leftovers into the trash.

So it is that Craig Stuart-Paul, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland-based Fiberight LLC, said this week that his company is shifting gears again on its two-year-old plan to build a trash sorting and shredding operation in Marion.

The idea now is to make the Marion facility more than it was expected to be a year ago.

The Marion project always has been tied to a small, shuttered ethanol plant in Blairstown, in Benton County west of Cedar Rapids, which Fiberight bought in November 2009 with an idea to turn the organic components of municipal solid waste and other garbage into ethanol.

But Stuart-Paul said this week that the garbage-to-ethanol project has been put on hold for now.

In its place, he said Fiberight will expand its plans for the proposed Marion facility, add a digester to the Marion project, and turn the digested organic material into a different biogas — compressed natural gas — instead of hauling the organic material to the Blairstown plant to turn most of it into ethanol.

Stuart-Paul said he has not given up on the ethanol idea or the Blairstown plant.

“The whole story of fuels from trash still is there,” Stuart-Paul said. “We’re not abandoning it (ethanol or the Blairstown plant.) We’re deferring it.”

The latest shift in Fiberight’s plan, he said, comes because of the extension of what he called a “significant” renewable energy credit at the federal level for companies that create digester gas on-site. At the same time, the climate to attract investors for a project that turns garbage to ethanol is not favorable right now, he said.

Stuart-Paul said creating biogas at the Marion facility always has been in the plans — though the idea dropped out of the initial phase of the project last year.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

It makes sense to look at biogas in Marion anew, he said, because Marion, with its commitment to become a “zero waste” community, has seen the Fiberight project as a way turn its city vehicles into ones that operate more cleanly and more inexpensively on compressed natural gas.

Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn on Thursday said Marion continues to plan to convert its fleet of vehicles to compressed natural gas as the Fiberight project moves ahead in Marion.

Private companies are converting their vehicles to use compressed natural gas where filling stations are located, Pluckhahn said. Stuart-Paul said he will create such a station in Marion to sell biogas to any vehicle equipped to operate on compressed natural gas.

He said, too, that some of the biogas may be fed directly into the natural gas pipeline system.

Garbage war

Marion’s quest for a company to locate in the city to convert garbage to energy is a decade old and has been fueled by the city’s interest in making sure that the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency’s landfill at County Home Road and Highway 13 on Marion’s border doesn’t expand again.

Marion has worked with Florida-based Plasma Power on a plan to zap garbage into energy and, when that prospect dimmed, the city signed on with Fiberight and its plan.

In March 2014, the Marion City Council approved economic development incentives worth up to $850,000 to support Fiberight’s plan to build a $15-million sorting, shredding, and recycling facility in Marion’s “eco-industrial” park at 44th Street and Third Avenue. The facility was intended to prove that Fiberight’s small demonstration plant in Virginia could work on a larger scale.

A year ago, Stuart-Paul said he hoped construction would start in June 2014 with the Marion facility operational by December 2014.

This week, he said he now expected the Marion facility to cost $30 million with the addition to the project of a digester to create biogas. Construction should start this summer with operations to begin in 2016, he said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

In February of this year, Fiberight signed a development agreement to build a similar but larger facility in Maine in 2018. That’s one reason, Stuart-Paul said, that it’s important to get the Marion facility up and running, he said.

The Marion and Fiberight plan brings with it the prospect of a local garbage war of sorts as Marion, which is a member of the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency, and Fiberight steer garbage to the Marion facility and away from the Solid Waste Agency’s landfill on Marion’s border.

The landfill takes in about 500 tons of garbage a day, and Stuart-Paul said the Marion facility will need 300-plus tons a day.

He said there is enough garbage to go around, but Karmin McShane, executive director of the Solid Waste Agency, on Thursday said Fiberight’s 300-ton appetite will bite into what the agency takes in.

“It matters,” McShane said.

She said the revenue that comes to the agency via a $38-a-ton tipping fee allows the agency to run an integrated solid-waste operation that handles recyclables, hazardous waste, construction debris, and more and operates a large composting operation.

A drop in revenue will put pressure on the agency, she said.

Stuart-Paul said about 30 percent of what the Marion facility takes in won’t be used and will need to go to the landfill, and McShane said the landfill likely would accept it.

Stuart-Paul said the Marion facility’s tipping fee will beat the agency’s as a way to attract garbage, and McShane said the agency likely will drop its fee to remain competitive.

“I’m an advocate,” she said of Fiberight’s plan to convert some waste to biogas before it gets to the landfill. “But it hasn’t been commercially viable.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The Solid Waste Agency itself is converting waste to energy in a different way at the landfill on Marion’s border. In a new setup, the agency captures methane produced by decomposition, which is then burned to drive an engine that produces electricity.

The electricity is fed into the power grid, and heat produced from the operation is used to heat the landfill’s new recycling center.

In May 2014, the city of Iowa City stepped back from Fiberight’s proposal to use of garbage going into Iowa City’s landfill. The city wanted to wait to see the progress in Marion and Blairstown, city officials said.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.