Seven companies vie to convert Portland area food scraps into energy, compost
Seven companies submitted proposals to Metro offering to build a Portland-area facility to convert the region's banana peels, chicken bones and other food scraps into renewable energy or compost.
The regional government is soliciting a private company to build a facility while it fashions a new mandate requiring large restaurants, food processors, groceries and others to separate out their food waste instead of tossing it in the trash. That would guarantee a steady supply of raw material for the company Metro selects.
The proposals Metro received by a late-Wednesday deadline range from two relatively small Oregon-based companies to the nation's largest solid waste company to two international operations headquartered in Europe.
Metro released the list of companies Thursday afternoon, but is refusing to let the public read what the various companies proposed, such as the technology they'll deploy and where they'd build their facility. Most of the proposals are believed to be for indoor anaerobic digestors, which use microorganisms to break down the food waste in an airless environment and turn it into biogas or electricity. The proposals also might include simpler compost sites, which likely would be done outdoors.
Metro's attorneys denied a public records request submitted by the Portland Tribune for the seven proposals, ruling they are exempt from public disclosure because they constitute "trade secrets" or otherwise "confidential" material.
Metro only intends to release the names of the seven companies, said Ken Ray, the regional government's spokesman for solid waste issues.
"Beyond that," Ray wrote in an email, "there isn't much we'll likely be able to disclose until Metro issues a Notice of Intent to Award, which will likely come this fall. If the proposers have listed any portion of their proposals as confidential or proprietary, it will limit what we can ultimately disclose."
In other words, the public might not learn the details of what's being proposed until the agency settles on a winning proposal.
It's "very valid and not unusual at all" for a government to keep such proposals confidential, says Nora Goldstein, editor of the Pennsylvania-based BioCycle trade journal, which focuses on food and other organic waste recycling. Often such technologies entail significant investment and proprietary information, Goldstein says.
However, the public and key stakeholders need to know what's being proposed, Goldstein says. "It's important to know what these systems do, what is the design of them, and how they're addressing the critical parameters that make you a good neighbor or not a good neighbor."
Portland and Metro often fancy themselves on the cutting edge of recycling, but some ambitious efforts have soured:
• Metro worked closely with Art Riedel and his company, Riedel Environmental Technologies, to convert Portland-area garbage into compost at a Northeast Columbia Boulevard site in Portland. The composter was a fiasco, beset by terrible odors and operational problems, and Riedel shut it down in 1992 before it ever got off the ground, losing $30 million.
• In 2013, Washington County barred future shipments of food waste from Portland restaurants and grocery stores at the Nature's Needs composting site in North Plains, after owner Recology was unable to overcome persistent odor problems.
• In 2015, Columbia Biogas abandoned its proposed $55 million anaerobic food waste digester, also planned on Northeast Columbia Boulevard, when it failed to obtain financing and a steady supply of food waste.
• In 2013, J.C.-Biomethane opened the Northwest's first anerobic digester to process food waste and turn it into energy, in Junction City near Eugene. The company suffered cost overruns, failed to meet its energy targets and was unable to pay its property tax bills, according to a June 2016 investigation by Eugene Weekly.
The seven contenders
J.C.-Biomethane is apparently connected to one of the seven contenders — JCB Partners LLC — though it's not clear if it's proposing a new facility or relying on its Junction City plant.
SORT Bioenergy LLC, of Wilsonville is the other locally based company putting in a proposal. Paul Woods, company president, says he's proposing a mesophilic anaerobic digester next to the Willamette Resources garbage transfer facility in Wilsonville. SORT already has permits to start construction.
Waste Management, the Houston-based giant of the U.S. solid waste industry, says it has a site in Portland, where it proposes an anaerobic digester that produces an engineered bio-slurry from food waste. The slurry boosts energy production at municipal wastewaster treatment plants, says Matt Stern, the company's director of recycling and recovery for the Pacific Northwest.
Recology, a San Franciso-based company that operates the North Plains compost site, did not respond to a request for comments on its proposal. Goldstein says the company is experienced in composting, but she's not aware of it managing any anaerobic digesters.
John McKinney, president of Columbia Biogas, may be working with one of the seven companies, because his local spokeswoman initially said he'd be glad to talk once proposals were submitted to Metro. However, on Friday, McKinney said he wouldn't talk until Metro picks the winner.
Organic Waste Systems, based in Gent (also spelled Ghent), Belgium, proposed its own proprietary "dry continuous anaerobic digestion process," says Norma McDonald, the company's North American sales manager in Cincinnati, Ohio. The company would produce renewable natural gas that can be compressed to fuel trucks and other vehicles, McDonald says.
She declined to say where it would build its metro-area plant, but says the company has built 30 facilities, half of them in Europe but also in Japan and South Korea. It has other U.S. projects in the pipeline, she says.
Urbaser S.A., based in Madrid, Spain, lists on its website a vast number of solid waste treatment facilities around the world, many of them in Spain but also elsewhere in Europe, South America, Africa and the United States.
Revolution Infrastructure is the least-known of the seven contenders, the only one that Goldstein and McDonald never heard of before. A company by that name is working on a solid waste transfer facility in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The companies that proposed to process the Portland area's food scraps:
• JCB Partners LLC
• SORT Bioenergy LLC
• Waste Management of Oregon Inc.
• Recology Portland
• Organic Waste Systems
• Revolution Infrastructure