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Fears grow at Metro over price of garbage-fired power

A crane operator in charge of loading garbage at Metro Vancouver
A crane operator in charge of loading garbage at Metro Vancouver's existing Waste-To-Energy Facility in south Burnaby.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

There's growing trepidation among Metro Vancouver politicians that BC Hydro may not pay as much as the regional district has assumed for electricity from a future new garbage incinerator.

The plan to burn more garbage to generate power and stop dumping waste near Cache Creek has been under fire from critics, who say Metro is wrong to assume in its updated business case that garbage will qualify as a clean, renewable power source worth $100 per megawatt hour – four times higher than market prices for conventional electricity.

An April 30 letter from BC Hydro energy planning vice-president Doug Little cautions Metro that Hydro has made no commitment to buy power from a new plant but is willing to explore the potential value of the electricity.

"The energy prices that have been quoted by Metro Vancouver are not necessarily for comparable product under comparable supply/demand conditions," his letter said.

Little said new waste-to-energy power doesn't qualify under existing purchase programs and wasn't part of Hydro's base resource plan for securing new power sources.

Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer called the letter "concerning."

The Metro board voted Friday to accept the updated business case for the region's planned waste-to-energy expansion, but they also want staff to gather more information.

The board wants an analysis of the waste-to-energy and landfill technology options based on various Hydro purchase prices and other factors, such as the cost of shipping garbage to a new site in or out of the region.

Directors also want to know what impact the same options would have on efforts to recycle more, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions from both landfilling unrecyclable garbage or using any of three short-listed waste-to-energy technologies.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan warned Reimer and others against backsliding on Metro's 2009 decision to pursue expanded waste-to-energy, particularly after substantial amounts have been spent and proponents have spent much time and money in the multi-stage bidding process.

He also insisted a decision to proceed with waste-to-energy should not depend on its economics beating out a landfill alternative.

"We made a decison regardless that we were getting out of landfilling," Corrigan said. "Power is not the purpose of this facility. We're building it because we want to stop waste going to landfills. Electricity is a byproduct."

He said "everybody knows" that not all waste can be recycled, so opponents of waste-to-energy in effect support landfilling – burying the problem in the ground for future generations.

"Be realistic, it's going to landfill," Corrigan said. "The price is not being paid in carbon dioxide by you now, but over a thousand years."

The regional district hasn't disclosed exactly what price it needs from Hydro for the project to remain viable.

Capital costs of a new incinerator are estimated at $424 to $517 million, depending on whether it's built to burn 250,000 or 370,000 tonnes of garbage per year.

The larger size is needed if Metro only manages to recycle 70 per cent of its waste, up from 58 per cent now, while the smaller size may be enough if recycling rates hit 80 per cent.

Fraser Valley Regional District politicians, who oppose a new incinerator, said they're taking the Hydro response as a sign the province won't force other power users to subsidize Metro by allowing a premium price needed to make a new plant viable.

"Not only has Metro Vancouver clearly overestimated the dollar value that it can secure from BC Hydro to bolster its flawed business case, but they have also routinely played down the health implications associated with burning garbage," said FVRD board chair Sharon Gaetz.

Metro staff say there's ample time to gather more information.

The region intends to shortlist proponents and potential sites ahead of issuing a final request for proposals in mid-2015.

The winning bidder would be picked by mid-2016 and the new plant would open in 2019.

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