SNOW HILL — Reluctantly, but unanimously, the Worcester County Commission voted this week to withdraw support from the Worcester County Renewable Energy LLC (WCRE) methane gas-to-energy facility at the county’s Central Landfill in Snow Hill.
The commissioners made the call after learning that the facility has lost the support of private investors and the bank and would require a huge investment with uncertain returns to continue.
“The bank that provided the original financing has now called in the outstanding loan and the investors in the project have instructed WCRE to cease operations of the facility effective June 30, 2013,” John Tustin, director of public works, told the commission Tuesday.
The facility has lost financial backing because it is unable to meet its original methane expectations which were charted prior to Ocean City leaving the Worcester County waste program and taking its garbage with it.
“The gas generation rates as originally projected took a huge hit when Ocean City pulled out of our waste stream several years ago,” said Tustin.
In light of the financial reality, WCRE has made two proposals to Worcester. The first proposal is that the county either “purchase the facility at the fair market value estimated to be $965,000 and continue to operate or contract to operate with WCRE.”
An alternate proposal would have Worcester “purchase and install all materials necessary to construct the methane gas collection system at an estimated cost of $500,000 and then continue to have WCRE operate the facility at no cost to the county. However, with this scenario WRCE has requested the county to waive the current $25,000 per year gas rights payment to the county.”
According to Tustin, neither option is particularly appealing at this time as they would both require a significant capital investment form Worcester. Additionally, without Ocean City’s trash contributing to methane generation it would take an estimated six years minimum for the facility to break even.
“It’s been unfortunate. It was really a wild project that we were really proud of,” said Tustin. “It was a public and private partnership that took a lot of effort to get off of the ground. It seems to have fallen by the wayside due to lack of good, compressible, degradable trash.”
Commissioner Judy Boggs asked if there was any way possible to continue the program, which is a source of green energy.
“Are there any, even unlikely, alternatives out there that we can consider?” she asked.
There are not many viable options beyond the two proposals made by WCRE, Tustin replied, or the county washing its hands of the project. The latter option was the recommendation of County Attorney Sonny Bloxom.
“When the boat is sinking, at some point you stop bailing it out and let it sink once everyone’s out safely,” he said.
Mark Cropper, an attorney representing WCRE, echoed Tustin’s disappointment that the project proved to be unsustainable, agreeing that it was the loss of Ocean City’s waste that made appropriate methane generation impossible. His client, WCRE, would like to work with the county again in the future if possible but acknowledged that “the numbers are what they are.”
“It’s no longer fiscally responsible,” said Cropper of running the facility.
The vote was unanimous against accepting either proposal and instead allowing the WCRE facility to cease operation entirely.