Waste-to-energy study could see cost split: Bloomington utilities, Monroe County solid waste

The aerial image of the city of Bloomington Blucher Poole waste water treatment plant northeast of Bloomington, dated April 2020, is from the Pictometry module of Monroe County’s property lookup system.

Energy Power Partners has responded to a city of Bloomington utilities (CBU) request, with a proposal to conduct a $129,220 waste-to-energy feasibility study.

The study would cover scenarios involving the generation of biogas by using anaerobic digestion of primary sludge from the Blucher Poole wastewater treatment plan, adding FOG (fats, oil and grease) and food waste as feedstock from various large waste generators, and the workability of private-sector partnerships for construction, operations and maintenance—among other possibilities.

Last Thursday, a proposal to share the study’s cost between the Monroe County solid waste district and the city of Bloomington utilities was put off until next month by the governing bodies of both public agencies.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the agencies will likely appear on an April meeting agenda for both of the governance groups.

On Thursday, it was the board of directors of the solid waste management district that took the first crack at the MOU.

Board member and Bloomington city councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith noted that the MOU also appeared on the utilities service board’s meeting, which was set for the same day, but an hour later. Piedmont-Smith wanted to know if that meant there was some sense of urgency to getting the MOU approved.

No, was the reply from assistant city attorney Chris Wheeler. He said the USB regular meeting for the following week had been rescheduled for earlier out of consideration for Indiana University’s spring break. The fact that the rescheduled time landed on Thursday, the same day as the solid waste management district’s meeting, was a coincidence, Wheeler said.

Piedmont-Smith said she was inclined to put off a decision on the MOU for a couple of reasons. First, she wanted the citizens advisory committee for the solid waste district to have a chance to weigh in. Second, she wanted the board to think through the proposal in the context of what other big projects the board might want to undertake.

Piedmont-Smith serves on the solid waste district board in a seat defined by state law  as “from the membership of the legislative body of a town if the town is the municipality having the largest population in the county.” Also serving under state law in a seat specifically designated for the city executive is Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton.

Also serving on the board are the three Monroe County commissioners—Lee Jones, Julie Thomas, and Penny Githens—county councilor Cheryl Munson, and Ellettsville town councilor Dan Swafford.

The divide between city and county government surfaced on Thursday, when Penny Githens asked CBU director Vic Kelson about the benefit from a waste-to-energy facility that would come to Monroe County residents who live outside of CBU’s customer service area.

Githens put her question to Kelson like this: “We have people that are serviced by CBU, and those who aren’t, within the county. How would people who don’t receive service from CBU benefit from this?” Githens added, “They will be asked to pay taxes for something that they may not have absolutely any benefit from.”

Kelson responded by saying, “It benefits all the residents of the county, in that it allows for reuse and energy generation from solid waste—regardless of who generated it. And regardless of where it came from.”

Kelson continued, saying that fats, oils, and grease are very good feedstock for making gas and the proposal would look into the possibility of marketing the service of managing grease and turning it into energy.

The feasibility study would look at a variety of waste streams and financial streams, Kelson said. He put it like this: ”So all those different streams of waste, and all those different streams of dollars all go together.”

Kelson concluded, “In the end, all the residents of Monroe County— inside the city or outside of the city—will benefit from the fact that these wastes are used in a beneficial manner.”

Later during the meeting, Piedmont-Smith responded to Githens by saying, “I wanted to remind my county colleagues that a majority of people who pay taxes to support the Monroe County solid waste management district live in the city of Bloomington.” She continued, “City residents are county residents, and a majority of county residents live in the city.

(The 2022 certified levy for the solid waste district is $2,826,560 at a rate of $0.0238 per $100 of assessed value.)

Piedmont-Smith also said the purpose of the solid waste district is to reduce the amount of waste going to a landfill. The study would help determine if a waste-to-energy project is feasible, Piedmont-Smith said, which is a project that would reduce the amount of waste going to a landfill. She wrapped up her turn by saying, “So I urge my county colleagues to keep that in mind when considering this project.”

At the utilities service board (USB) meeting that followed shortly after the solid waste district’s meeting, Kelson briefed the USB on the postponement of the item by the solid waste district. He also gave the USB a rundown of the project.

Kelson included a description of an in-house task force study a couple of years ago that considered what it would take to convert the Dillman Road wastewater treatment facility to an approach where “primary sludge” is first created as a part of the treatment process. Currently the process used at the Dillman Road plant goes straight to aeration, without a step where primary sludge can settle out, Kelson said.

It’s that primary sludge that is suitable as feedstock for an anaerobic waste-to-energy facility.

In mid-January 2020, Kelson presented the results of the in-house study to the Bloomington city council. At that time, the cost to convert the Dillman Road to a primary sludge type facility was pegged by Kelson at $30-35 million. The annual debt service for that would be about $2 million a year, Kelson said.

Balanced against that cost would be savings from the fuel that a biogas facility might be able to produce. In his mid-January 2020 presentation, Kelson said the biogas could reduce the city’s roughly $800,000 annual vehicle fuel bill by one-third. At the time, Kelson concluded that operations savings alone couldn’t pay for a project like that at Dillman Road.

One big difference for the now-contemplated feasibility study is the potential siting of the waste-to-energy facility at the smaller of the city’s two treatment plants—Blucher Poole waste water treatment facility.

Kelson told the USB on Thursday that the Blucher Poole plant already generates primary sludge. But Kelson said it’s probably too small to justify an anaerobic digester all by itself. That’s where additional waste streams from big producers of food waste—like Indiana University or IU Health—could make a difference, Kelson said.

One thought on “Waste-to-energy study could see cost split: Bloomington utilities, Monroe County solid waste

  1. The county can be paid the same share of the project’s revenues as it contributes to its costs, no?

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