New waste-to-energy plant offers hope of future without landfills


Crane-mounted claws grab piles of rubbish and plant debris from the pit floor of the new incinerator power generation facility. The claws will move the debris to the mouths of the new incinerators.

Waste-to-energy plant offers hope of future without landfills

Posted: 12:20 p.m. Wednesday, June 24, 2015

By Joe Capozzi - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Photos and video by Thomas Cordy - Palm Beach Post Multimedia Journalist


Crane operators guide the lifting claw from special chairs with buttons and joysticks. “It looks like Captain Kirk’s chair,’’ a plant manager said.

Crane operators Heron Crosdale, left, and Timothy Wedeman listen to lead crane operator Eddie Turner during the first tests at the new incinerator facility. The operators run a giant claw to pick up 5 tons of waste at a time and dump it into one of three boilers.

At first glance, the command center at Palm Beach County’s new $672 million waste-to-energy plant looks like a lot like the one on the Starship Enterprise.

Curved rows of computer screens blink in the back. But the action takes place in the front, at the crane-operator’s chair behind a set of glass windows that offer a glimpse of the future — a future without landfills or their foul odors.

“It looks like Captain Kirk’s chair,’’ said James Riley, a plant manager, comparing the sleek boxy seat to the fictional Star Trek leader’s deck chair.

There are three of the cushioned seats, each one with joysticks on the arm rests and surrounded by a console of colored buttons.

“It kind of does feel like you’re playing a video game,’’ said Timothy Wedeman, a crane operator. But he knows his job is no game.

About 100 feet below is a concrete cavern called The Pit, which holds the remnants of everyday life from the county’s 1.4 million residents and its businesses – 15,000 tons, or five days’ worth, of garbage.

Trucks unload vegetation in the pit at the new incinerator power generation facility.

Guided by the crane operators’ joysticks, huge steel claws are lowered into The Pit — each claw is capable of grabbing 5 tons of garbage (the annual waste from about 2 households) — then raised back up and over to three chutes that will feed 3,000 tons of garbage per day into three boilers.

Temperatures inside the boilers range from 1,300 to 2,200 degrees, hot enough to turn trash into steam and drive a turbine to produce electricity — “renewable energy’’ is the preferred industry term.

Call it what you want; enough of it will be produced to power about 44,000 homes and businesses at any given time, or enough to light up all of the homes in Boca Raton.

County’s most costly project ever

A project nearly 10 years in the making, the incinerator known as Renewable Energy Facility 2 will go online permanently after a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday at the Solid Waste Authority’s Renewable Energy Park north of 45th Street on Jog Road.

While it’s the most expensive public facility ever built in Palm Beach County, SWA officials say it’s money well spent. The facility will reduce the SWA’s reliance on the county landfill across Jog Road by 90 percent while producing electricity that will be sold to Florida Power & Light.

“It’s a garbage disposal, but it’s also a power plant,” said Patrick Carroll, the SWA’s director of facilities development.

Only ash from the boilers will go into the landfill, after more than 27,000 tons of metals are recovered from the ash and recycled.

Without the new plant, officials say the landfill would run out of space in six years. Now, the landfill’s new life expectancy extends 31 years to the year 2046. And it might last even longer.

SWA officials are studying the idea of recycling incinerator ash into such uses as road construction material, which is done in many European countries.

If SWA can recycle the ash, officials say the life of the landfill could be extended another 10 years, to 2058. And by then, SWA officials hope emerging technologies will help avoid the need for a new landfill.

Construction statistics

Cost: $670 million
Groundbreaking: April 2012
Concrete used: 50,650 cubic yards
Pilings drilled: 5,000
Miles of cable: 379 miles
Miles of piping: 37 miles
Local labor: 36%
Local vendors: $135M
Re-bar: 9.35M pounds
Structural steel: 15,600 tons
Stack height: 310 feet
Source: Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County

‘Mount Trashmore’?

It was talk of a new landfill 10 years ago that ultimately resulted in the new incinerator. SWA officials had their eyes on 800 acres on the west side of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the northernmost remnant of the Everglades.

They ditched that idea in 2007 over public opposition to a “Mount Trashmore” so close to a South Florida environmental treasure.

“We basically told them ‘over our dead body’ and offered support for the waste-to-energy plant as an alternative,’’ said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida.

“You can count me in on the side of the debate that says rather than create more mountains of trash, waste-to-energy is the way to go.’’

But the technology has been slow to expand in the United States, where only about 7 percent of the country’s municipal solid waste is processed in 84 waste-to-energy facilities operating in 23 states, including Florida, which has 11, the most of any state. About 64 percent of the nation’s garbage is put in landfills while another 29 percent is recycled.

Waste-to-energy facilities are popular in Europe, but the Palm Beach County plant will be the first to open in North America since 1995 in Montgomery County, Md.

Industry officials hope Palm Beach County’s new plant will be a model for other communities around the country because of its unique features.

“It has emissions-control technology that no other (waste-to-energy) plant in the United States has. It’s going to be very efficient and very clean,’’ said Ted Michaels, president of the Energy Recovery Council, a trade association for waste-to-energy plants.

The county’s new plant, built by Babcock and Wilcox and KBR, uses Selective Catalytic Reduction technology, which reduces harmful nitrogen oxide emissions by converting them into water and nitrogen.

Why the landfill won’t stink

Three boilers reach temperatures of up to 2,200 degrees F.

The new plant, along with an existing but older waste-to-energy plant a quarter-mile to the south, is expected to eventually generate annual revenue to the authority of nearly $40 million from the sale of electricity to Florida Power & Light.

“A waste-to-energy plant is really a power plant that burns garbage,’’ said John Schert, director of the Hinkley Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management at the University of Florida. “Garbage doesn’t have the heating value of coal, but it has a lot of heating value, so the revenues from the sale of electricity are very significant.’’

Palm Beach County’s first waste-to-energy incinerator, opened in 1989, generated $21 million in revenue from the sale of electricity in 2014. It burns 2,000 tons of garbage per day that is screened for non-burnable material, including wet decomposing food waste that winds up in the landfill.

A worker adjusts wiring in the new SWA incinerator facility. The newest waste-to-energy plant in 20 years in the U.S. starts working Saturday.

The new plant is called a “mass burn” plant because everything is put in the boilers, even recyclable material that winds up in the regular trash.

The county has no plans to abandon its recycling program and it still encourages residents to continue using the designated bins for paper, cans and bottles.

“We encourage everybody to recycle as much as we can, but don’t feel bad if it ends up in the garbage. One way or the other, we’re going to benefit,’’ said Mark Hammond, the authority’s executive director.

The county will benefit because state rules allow SWA to include energy produced by the new incinerator toward the county’s efforts to reach a state-mandated goal of 75 percent recycling by 2020. The county currently recycles about 56 percent of its trash, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The SWA will receive a ton of recycling credits for every megawatt of energy produced by a waste-to-energy plant, said Dan Pellowitz, the SWA’s managing director. That should enable the authority to eventually achieve 80 percent recycling.

“We’re not giving up on recycling. The curbside program is alive and well,” Carroll said.

The incinerator also will improve the smell of the air around the SWA facilities along Jog Road because it will burn all of the wet decomposing food that otherwise would’ve been tossed into the landfill.

“One of the (SWA) guys described it to me as ‘a $600 million odor-elimination machine,’’’ said Schert.

“They won’t be putting anything in the landfill anymore that creates odor. The only downside to the new plant is that the birds you see in the landfill will have less to eat.’’

The public grand opening and ribbon cutting is at 6751 N. Jog Road in West Palm Beach, Saturday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

The ribbon cutting ceremony is at 11 a.m., followed by an open house picnic with free food and drinks, and tours of education center and incinerator.


THE PIT: Trucks hauling trash from six transfer stations will deposit their loads into a man-made cavern called The Pit. It is 400 feet long, 100 feet wide and 70 feet tall – enough space to hold 15,000 tons of trash, about five days’ worth. Cranes will then collect 3,000 tons of trash a day from The Pit and drop it into the three boilers.

'WORLD’S BIGGEST RAIN BARREL:' That’s the nickname SWA officials gave to an outdoor cistern that holds 2 million gallons of water, mainly rainwater collected from the facility’s roof. The building was designed with slanted ledges that direct the flow of the water from the roof to the cistern. Rain water and recycled water from the SWA’s other incinerator nearby are the new incinerator’s primary sources of water.

SPECIAL POLLUTION CONTROL: Of the 85 waste-to-energy plants in the United States, the Palm Beach County facility is the only one that uses a special emissions control technology called Selective Catalytic Reduction. The process, like a catalytic converter in a car, reduces nitrogen oxide emissions. It is part of an air-pollution control system that includes a series of tiny mesh filter bags that collect soot.

EDUCATION CENTER: “Away” – as in, what happens to garbage when you throw it away — is the name of an education center that SWA officials predict will be a popular destination for school field trips. It includes museum-quality interpretive exhibits, including a giant game board made up of 10 54-inch computer screens offering interactive games and maps. The education center will be open to the public year-round and is connected to the main plant by a 500-foot skybridge.

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