Human Resources, Manufacturing, and Sustainability

Waste-to-energy plant earns award

Covanta runs it for Kent County DPW, which just got a new director.

February 6, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Covanta Kent Inc.
Randy Inman of Covanta Energy Corp. and Kent County DPW’s Darwin Baas and Chris Robinson, from left, oversee the county’s waste-to-energy facility. Photo by Pete Daly

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration — better known as MIOSHA — has just awarded Covanta Kent Inc. of Grand Rapids its most prestigious workplace safety and health award, for the third time.

Covanta who? Doing what?

Covanta isn’t exactly a household name in Kent County, but the New Jersey-based global corporation actually has had a 24-year direct link to tens of thousands of households in six Kent County cities.

Thirty-eight Covanta employees run the Kent County Department of Public Works waste-to-energy facility at 950 Market Ave. SW.

The plant runs around the clock, every day of the year, burning what people in the business call “MSW” — municipal solid waste. The heat makes steam, which generates between 312 and 336 megawatt hours of electricity daily, according to the plant’s facility manager, Randy Inman.

Chris Robinson, Kent County DPW’s WTE operations manager, said last year it took in 247,000 tons of waste that would otherwise have gone into a landfill, including the Kent County DPW’s South Kent landfill in Byron Center.

The county-owned facility is the primary solid waste disposal facility for the cities of Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker and Wyoming. The county has agreements with the cities as part of an integrated approach to solid waste management, including waste reduction, recycling, a household hazardous waste program and landfill operations.

The peak electricity output is nearly 18 megawatts, with a couple of those megawatts used by the plant to run its massive machinery, a pair of huge furnaces and two boilers. Air is forced into the trash as it is fed into the continuously burning furnaces, creating heat ranging from 1,800 to 2,000 degrees, according to Inman.

The electricity output of the WTE facility is enough to power the cities of Walker and East Grand Rapids, according to Darwin Baas, who just became the new director of Kent County’s DPW upon the retirement of Doug Wood in January.

The electricity is bought by Consumers Energy for 8.5 cents per kilowatt and put on the grid; that energy revenue is expected to total about $8.8 million in 2015, according to Baas.

Aside from the production of electricity, the other key revenue stream is the tipping fee charged to each commercial trash hauler bringing waste from the partner cities. The fee is $45 a ton and generates about $10 million annually.

Burning the trash — and then removing the scrap metal from what remains — reduces the original volume by 90 percent and the weight by almost 80 percent, “so that really reduces the landfill capacity needed for all that material,” said Baas.

The WTE facility has been in operation since 1990, and almost from the start has been run by Covanta under contract with the Kent County DPW.

Covanta operates more than 40 energy-from-waste facilities in North America, Italy and China.

Baas said the iron and steel that has been recovered after the trash has been burned is enough to build the Mackinac Bridge.

“We collect roughly 3,000 to 3,500 tons each year, and we sell that scrap back to the (steel) industry,” said Baas.

In 2013, Kent County generated about 1.2 million cubic yards of household trash that went into the South Kent and other landfills. Baas said, at that rate, the county DPW now estimates its South Kent landfill has about 14 years left before it is full, although there is room to expand if that someday proves necessary.

Baas said in coming months, there will be more discussion on ways to further reduce the amount of waste generated in Kent County.

“All the stakeholders and partners here are saying, ‘Let’s find a better way to do this. And let’s divert and reduce what we are generating,’” said Baas. “We want to take this to the next level.”

With a strong, rebounding economy and “great collaboration between the public and private sectors,” Baas said Kent County should be looking at ways to further reduce what goes into landfills.

“We need to capture that value” that can be found in waste, he added.

Baas took over as director of the Kent County DPW Feb. 2, replacing Doug Wood, who had been the director since 2006 and had spent 24 years with Kent County.

Baas previously was employed by Kent County from 2004 to 2007 in county administration. He then was employed by Valley City Environmental Services as general manager and was also a division manager at Youngs Environmental Cleanup service.

The Kent County DPW employs 55 and operates as a county enterprise fund, which generates its own revenue. It reports to the Board of Public Works, which is appointed by the Kent County commissioners. Its sole responsibility now is management of solid waste in the county.

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