As taxpayers in northern Maine, we are being asked to make a critical decision about how we dispose of our municipal solid waste. The stakes are high because we are being asked to take a big leap of faith on an unproven combination of technologies. There can be no miscalculations.
The Municipal Review Committee states the reason for going with new technology developed by Fiberight rather than continuing with the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. facility in Orrington is, in large part, because the market value of the electricity generated at PERC will be very low when a favorable power purchase agreement with Emera Maine expires in 2018. MRC says that PERC is not viable with low electricity prices.
The same MRC justification specifically states that the methane produced by Fiberight is a “high-value” product ( stated by MRC on multiple occasions). This is a curious conclusion given the relationship between the price of electricity and methane (natural gas) in New England.
ISO-New England, the organization that oversees electricity markets in New England states, “natural gas typically determines the price for wholesale electricity.” Specifically, ISO-NE says that natural gas has set the price of electricity about 90 percent of the time in recent years. In other words, the price of electricity follows the price of natural gas.
In fact, ISO-NE has produced a multitude of charts showing how the prices of electricity and natural gas track one another. The relationship couldn’t be more obvious. The MRC wants taxpayers to backstop a major project, Fiberight, whose technology has not yet been used successfully on a large scale, with a justification that its primary product, methane, is “high-value.” At the same time, the MRC uses the low cost of PERC’s primary product, electricity, as justification to say it will no longer be viable. Yet, ISO-NE, the key organization running the electricity grid in New England, states unequivocally that the prices of these products are directly linked. The ISO-NE charts tell us that if the value of methane (natural gas) is high, then electricity prices will be high. And if the value of methane is low, the price of electricity will be low.
I am an energy engineer — formally trained as a bio-mechanical engineer — and a Maine-licensed professional engineer. To be crystal clear: I do not gain any benefit from either of these entities; no one is paying me to do this research. I have only the interests of my town, its residents and fellow taxpayers in mind and, with more than two decades of experience in these fields, am uniquely positioned to evaluate these municipal solid waste/energy options. And I have not made a final decision regarding which is the best option.
But I’m so stunned by the MRC documents, their lopsided justifications and the rush to make a decision, that I must ask some difficult questions of the MRC.
Why is it acting wholly on behalf of only one of the potential options when it has what I’d call a fiduciary responsibility to the member town taxpayers to act in their best interest? And, as shown, why is it using questionable arguments to advocate for one option and against another? Why must we accept the inadequate justifications that have been completed thus far?
It appears that the MRC and its board have lost their sense of impartiality. And that has me very concerned for our northern Maine towns.
Two things must happen in the near future: I, and other impartial, cool-headed community members must continue to complete our evaluations of the options and, most importantly, speak up. Second, the MRC must reflect deeply on its actions and explain why it has chosen to no longer act as our impartial representative. The MRC owes no less to the residents it represents.
As indicated, I’m stunned by MRC’s logic used thus far to make their decision. It tells me we must not rush headlong into making this critical decision.
David W. Norman is a Maine-licensed Professional Engineer who lives in Holden.