County will consider bids for waste-to-energy plant

Maui County has received 20 bids from potential developers to build and operate a waste-to-energy plant that is proposed for a 10-acre site next to the landfill in Puunene, county officials said.

The closing date to receive the bids was Thursday. It will take about a month to review all of the proposals, said Kyle Ginoza, the county’s director of environmental management.

Interviews with the top bidders will occur probably in March or April with the winning bidder announced in August. The plant could be operational by 2017, he said.

Ginoza did not disclose the names of the 20 bidders, saying that the county only is required to make public the name of the winning bidder. He did share that the bids all were from off-island entities, because no one on Maui has a proven track record for this type of technology, although some of the bidders do have ties to Maui companies. The bidders also were required to have established technologies that have been proved on a commercial scale at two facilities each operating commercially for at least three years.

The county is seeking to convert the island’s solid waste into energy in an effort to reduce the amount of trash that ends up in the Central Maui Landfill in Puunene. However, the bidders do have flexibility in how they do that.

One option would be to sell the energy derived from the trash to Maui Electric Co., with whom Mayor Alan Arakawa would like to work on the project.

Last month, it was reported that Arakawa said publicly that MECO was not willing to accept all of the “firm” power that the plant could produce. The Mayor’s Office threatened to explore the possibility of the county creating its own electricity utility if MECO did not reconsider its decision.

Things have changed since then. Arakawa’s office said this week that the mayor has received assurances from Hawaiian Electric Industries, the parent company of MECO, and MECO officials that they are willing to work with the county on this project.

“This waste-to-energy project is important because for the first time we will be able to generate firm, renewable power,” said Arakawa in an email. “At the same time, we will be able to reduce the volume of trash in our landfill.

“One way or another, we need to get this project online. The county wants to work with MECO, and we are glad that they have committed to helping make this happen.”

In a statement, MECO acknowledged that its president, Sharon Suzuki, did contact Arakawa to discuss ways to accept the power. The utility is seeking a competitive bidding process waiver from the Public Utilities Commission to start negotiations with the county for purchasing power from the proposed plant, the statement said.

The MECO statement made the point that the waiver request was not triggered by Arakawa’s statements but was already being considered.

MECO had been working on its own competitive bid, considering it the best way to seek many different options for adding more firm renewable energy on Maui. However, the utility did understand that the county needed to address its trash issues before its own bid could be completed and sought the PUC waiver, the news release added.

When MECO has a contract and Maui County’s waste-to-energy project comes online, MECO said it will adjust to accept the plant’s power. The utility said it was too early to provide cost estimates of upgrades that MECO will need to make to its grid for the proposed plant, because it needs to understand the planned operational characteristics of the facility first. The utility does not know the details of the technology, location and size of the plant and other key details.

In general, accepting new firm generation power, while maintaining its system reliability, requires integration with the electrical grid, which includes company generation equipment, third party independent power providers and customers with self-generation equipment, MECO said.

MECO still plans to issue its own request for proposals for up to 30 megawatts of firm renewable energy under the PUC framework and hopes to release the request “as soon as possible this year.”

“Our goals are to provide for the energy needs of Maui residents at the lowest possible cost, while reducing our island’s dependence on oil. We will work with the county with these goals in mind,” MECO said.

Even if the waste-to-energy plant comes online, it will not necessarily lower electric rates for the public, both Ginoza and Maui Energy Commissioner Doug McLeod acknowledged. In fact, McLeod said the amount of energy that could be produced by the plant will not change electrical bills for residents.

The project’s main benefit lies in cutting costs for waste management, Ginoza said, noting commercial haulers pay a $71 per ton tipping fee, while it actually costs $100 per ton to get rid of the waste. He said that the department gets a general fund subsidy to help with the costs and that the county is seeking an experienced developer that could come in and save the county money.

McLeod said that if the waste-to-energy project moves forward, there would be at least three ways that the project would benefit the public. It would:

* Allow people to get rid of green waste directly into the waste-to-energy project. McLeod said some people have issues with the current compost system process used for green waste.

* Mean more metal material might be kept out of the landfill, depending how and what waste is processed.

* Save the county money in processing waste if the project is done right.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at