From Concept to Construction

Fiberight’s new Maine waste-to-energy plant has persevered development challenges, and will soon turn the waste of over 100 communities into biogas and compost.
By Patrick C. Miller | March 05, 2018

Later this year, a new waste-to-energy plant built by Fiberight LLC in Hampden, Maine, will begin processing trash from 115 communities in the state, marking a milestone in the conversion of municipal solid waste (MSW) into a renewable biofuel source.

If all goes as planned, Fiberight’s new facility will be completed in May and optimized by year’s end, converting more than 180,000 tons of MSW into biogas and other new products. The company expects just 20 percent of the waste to go to landfills, saving the communities involved more than $2 million a year.

The participating Maine municipalities are part of a nonprofit joint venture group known as the Municipal Review Committee (MRC). Formed in 1991, the organization’s goal is to ensure long-term, affordable and environmentally sound waste disposal service for its members. In February 2015, the MRC board of directors approved an agreement with Fiberight to plan for the development of a new waste-to-energy facility near Hampden.

“Getting a project across from the conceptual stage to actually financing to construction is a huge effort,” says Michael Burns, who heads Novozymes’ biorefining business development for the Americas. “It’s obviously a very important step for the industry.”

Novozymes’ Biotech Platform
Burns works out of Novozymes corporate U.S. headquarters in Franklinton, North Carolina. He specializes in the use of a biotechnology platform that breaks down pulp through hydrolysis—a process that will be used in Fiberight’s new plant. “We have technologies that can help in other parts of the facility,” he adds. “We also have a second-generation yeast technology that can help turn the broken-down biomass—after it’s been hydrolyzed—into refined products.”

Novozymes has been a strategic partner with Fiberight—headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland—since 2009. Burns has been working with company CEO Craig Stuart-Paul and Steve Davey, its chief operating officer, on the Maine project for more than two years. He commends Fiberight’s team with getting the plant to the construction stage and for planning the operations beyond. “All plants are unique in their own way,” Burns notes. “One thing that stands out about this plant—from our perspective—is that it is a new feedstock in a new region, meaning it’s for solid waste. That’s exciting to the space. It obviously gives a broader outlook to our technology platform. They have some unique challenges, but nothing that others haven’t also faced.”

Stuart-Paul emphasizes that most of his team’s experience is in the waste industry. “We’re much more a waste company than we are a biomass company,” he says. “With biomass, you’re contracting with farmers or contracting with entities. With waste, you have a whole series of permitting and contract requirements that are very specific to waste. So the pathway to biomass—MSW or waste solutions—are very much a niche with a very discreet and distinct set of requirements.”

Incineration Alternative
Construction on Fiberight’s $70 million, 144,000-square-foot plant started last summer. For 115 MRC members, it will replace a waste incinerator in Orrington, Maine, built in 1988 and operated by the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. Under a 30-year contract, it served 187 Maine communities in eastern, northern, central and mid-coast Maine, generating electricity from MSW. “The incinerator was coming to an end of its useful life,” Davey says. “More importantly, PERC had a power purchase agreement which was expiring. At that point, without the subsidy, the cost for disposal was expected to go way up.”

Knowing its contract with PERC expired in 2018, MRC began looking for other options, including continuing with PERC. In 2013, MRC announced its intention to work with Fiberight, after it responded to the committee’s request for expression of interest. Fiberight’s proposal—which uses the company’s proprietary biotechnology—was peer-reviewed by the University of Maine Engineering Department.

A report issued by the department’s evaluation team in early 2015 concluded: “Fiberight’s processing technology is sound and capable of converting the insoluble portion of MSW organics to a simple sugar solution.” The university also noted that at Fiberight’s pilot plant in Lawrenceville, Virginia—in operation since 2012—the company had “successfully used sugar solutions from both the insoluble and soluble portion of MSW to produce biogas through anaerobic digestion.”

Fiberight relies on a targeted fuel extraction process, which the company says cost-effectively and efficiently converts MSW into cellulosic biofuel. The system separates, cleans and processes organic and hydrocarbon fractions of the waste stream. The recyclable fraction is sold as feedstock to end markets to make new products. The organic fraction is converted into renewable fuels. “The way I describe it is homogony from entropy,” Stuart-Paul says. “You have a very highly entropic mix and it changes on a minute-to-minute basis. What we do is create a series of clean, homogenous outputs that are then ideal for a further process. Our output treatment is most of what we do because there’s no way you can take just mixed organics and hope to make something of value from them. By the time we’re done with the cellulosic feedstock, it is a very good feedstock—very clean and ideal for enzymatic hydrolysis.

“The intent at the end of the day is that it will find its way into the pipeline to be used as CNG (compressed natural gas) for transportation so we can realize the RIN (renewable identification number),” he continues. “We want to make sure it’s clean enough. We’re going to be starting off by using biogas for plant energy, build on that with our own transportation fleet and then we’ll send it to a broader market.”

Fiberight’s Sales Pitch
After MRC’s board of directors approved a development agreement with Fiberight in February 2015, the next challenge was getting enough communities to commit to waste disposal contracts to use the Fiberight plant. As Stuart-Paul explains, the company had to prove to the communities and other stakeholders that it could process their MSW. “The waste is a lot more than just biomass, of course,” he says. “It’s the plastics, metals and other such things. You can’t just say, ‘Sorry, we can’t take it today.’ What are the people with the waste going to do with it? With traditional biomass, if you can’t sell it, you just plow it back into the ground. Trash is different.”

Stuart-Paul says this is why Fiberight spent years developing a process and combining systems that helped convince MRC and potential investors that its technology wasn’t only viable, but also reliable. “It gets to the point where the people with the waste trust that—under all circumstances—you can deal with it,” he explains. “In addition to the technical part, we have backups after backup that, if something happens, there is always a pathway to dispose of the waste. We have the obligation and the technical expertise to process the feedstock.”

Fiberight’s approach appealed to many of the decisionmakers of MRC’s member communities. “There was a process where communities made a decision about where to take their waste,” Davey says. “Some opted to stay with the incumbent (PERC). Some opted—probably for geographical reasons—to follow a third option. Most of the communities opted to go with MRC's recommendation, which was the Fiberight plan.”

As Davey explains, MRC delivered the preponderance of contractive waste Fiberight needed to make the project investable. He says the company then secured additional commercial waste contracts for some of the products it recovers and sells—takeoff agreements that made the project even more attractive to investors.

Fiberight announced in early January that it had received financing—$45 million of which came from a tax-exempt bond issue from the Finance Authority of Maine and $25 million from private equity.

A Proven System
Stuart-Paul says the front end of the facility—the waste processing plant—is proven throughout Europe in mechanical-biological treatment plants using anaerobic digestion to produce energy from waste. “Our additional part, the pulping, is well proven for waste in Europe and in China,” he says. “What we’ve done is create a clean biomass using proven technology. Working with Novozymes, we take the clean biomass, dehydrolyze it and create sugars. We’ve worked with Novozymes for seven years on optimizing hydrolysis.”

Burns believes Fiberight understands the risks and has mitigated them where possible, while lowering costs where needed. “The important thing is that they’re building a robust platform,” he says. “As they get more operating hours and more understanding of the process, they’ll be able to drive the cost down further, and work with our team to help provide value on the biotechnology side.”

In July 2016, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued the permits necessary to construct the Fiberight plant. However, PERC and other groups filed an appeal with the Maine Superior Court. “It was seven months of legal wrangling,” Davey recalls. “It really did create a delay, because if you’re thinking about making an investment in a project, you can’t unless there are clear permits available. It put our financing on hold, which made things a little uncomfortable for the communities that had decided to back the project.”

Despite this, construction on a road and other infrastructure needed for the project began in fall 2016. In March 2017, a Maine appeals court upheld DEP’s decision to issue the permits—a major boost to obtaining project financing. “The biggest lesson we learned was the timing of it all,” Stuart-Paul says. “It all came together pretty much at the right time. The trick was to get the financing community engaged at the same time we were developing the project. Diligence from the investors is an expensive thing. They’ll do it and they’ll take the risk—provided they’re confident you can get to a financial closing. You have to satisfy them that you’re well down the pathway to having the permits approved and the contracts in place.”

Construction gets Underway
Construction began in August last year, although the official groundbreaking for the plant was in October. Building construction has been slowed by a harsh winter in Maine, but Stuart-Paul expects it to be complete by March—weather permitting. “The equipment starts rolling in in April,” he says. “We should be commissioning it in the summertime—certainly the front end. Then all the systems should be in place, optimized and at full capacity by the end of the year. This is actively in construction. We’re not thinking about it. We’re doing it.”

When the Fiberight plant is completed and operating commercially, Stuart-Paul says one of the most significant advantages it will provide to the MRC communities is lower tipping fees, which are less than what the waste incinerator would have charged. In addition, in an environmentally conscious area of Maine concerned about CO2 emissions and the recovery of organic materials, he notes that Fiberight’s facility provides a recycling and recovery rate near 80 percent. “The other thing is that we’ll be producing gas,” Stuart-Paul adds. “Maine has a habit of running out of gas in the wintertime. We’ll be putting 50 million Btu a day into the gas grid. You take a combination of CNG trucks, our own demand and then excess gas, we can have a material impact to the energy supply side in that marketplace.”

Davey says the towns aren’t putting any of their money at risk; they’re simply committing to allow Fiberight to process their waste for a market rate. Fiberight’s expectation is that as the plant operates, meets its goals, services its debts and funds the private equity used for construction, it will become more profitable. “We’ll be able to kick rebates back to these communities, giving them a net reduction in the cost to process their waste,” he explains. “The more we repurpose and reuse, the more profitable the plant is because we avoid disposal costs and better serve the communities.”

It’s taken years, but Fiberight can at last see the end of the road to a completed plant that meets the needs of dozens of Maine communities in an efficient, economical and environmentally responsible manner. “We’ve been confident in our technology for years,” adds Stuart-Paul. “The biggest part is the due diligence, the financing and getting all the contracts in place. It’s just so many moving parts in order to get to a financeable project. It takes time and a whole heck of a lot of effort. We had the knowledge base to do it in an orderly fashion. We pulled it off.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, Biomass Magazine