Key decisions will soon be made by Metro Vancouver politicians on how the region will try to build modern incinerators or other waste-to-energy plants.
New Metro board chair Greg Moore predicts there will be intense interest from international companies that want to partner with the region to showcase the evolving technologies to convert garbage into energy.
"I think we'll all be surprised by the number of companies that will put their names forward," Moore said.
Landing Metro Vancouver as a client would be a coup for any successful bidder because the region's reputation for green leadership may encourage other jurisdictions to break with the North American pattern of landfilling waste.
Metro wants to build new in-region waste-to-energy plants and last summer secured the province's approval of its solid waste management plan to proceed.
But the initiative remains contentious, particularly among Fraser Valley residents who fear increased air pollution from burning garbage, as well as recycling advocates who think incinerating the waste problem away will take pressure off the region to reduce the garbage generated and put what remains to better use.
Moore, the Port Coquitlam mayor who stickhandled Metro's solid waste plan to approval with Victoria, said the project has been on hold through the civic elections, but he expects debate to begin in earnest soon.
The region already has one incinerator in south Burnaby that burns nearly 300,000 tonnes a year, but it wants additional waste-to-energy capacity to handle another 500,000 tonnes of garbage so it can stop trucking that amount east to the Cache Creek regional landfill.
Moore hopes most of the key issues can be settled by the end of March, paving the way for a call for private partners to step forward later this year and a formal bid call after that.
Rather than an open call for bids to handle all 500,000 tonnes, Moore expects Metro may carve some out – perhaps 100,000 tonnes – that would be reserved for emerging technologies that claim to gassify or use other processes other than combustion to convert garbage with almost no emissions.
Metro's greenest-minded civic leaders have been pushing hard to give a leg up to those options, because a wide open call would likely be won by proposals for conventional incineration, which is low-cost and established.
"There's a general understanding that the emerging technology isn't scalable to the size we need yet," Moore said.
"But it's showing promising results in some parts of the world. We need to ensure they can bid on a proper playing field. Otherwise they just won't be able to compete."
Moore also noted Metro may have need for more waste-to-energy capacity after the initial plants are built.
The flow of garbage going to the Vancouver Landfill in Delta – now around 500,000 tonnes – is supposed to be gradually cut down to less than 100,000 tonnes a year by 2020 as waste reduction and recycling strategies improve.
Moore said that may leave Metro requiring more waste-to-energy capacity at that time, which potentially could be procured by alternative technologies if the initial phase of construction goes well.
Also to be decided is whether Metro would own new plants – it owns the Burnaby incinerator but contracts out operation – or if they would be financed, built and owned by a private firm that would charge Metro a per tonne disposal fees.
If the latter, Metro would have to commit to a long term garbage supply contract.
Nor is it clear yet exactly where the new incinerators might be built, although sites in New Westminster and on Tsawwassen First Nation land have been raised publicly in the past, and some Surrey politicians are keen to host a waste-to-energy plant in their city.
An alternate location is a former pulp mill on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, where Covanta Energy wants to build an incinerator that could take Metro waste.
That could be the ultimate choice to address Fraser Valley concerns, but it may be more costly for Metro because of the need to barge waste there.
Metro argues in-region sites hold better potential to connect to a district heating network that could increase the amount of money earned from energy sales.
Also on the to-do list is creating a working group to try addresss the Valley's concerns over health risks from pollution.
"We need to start that process and try to find some common ground," Moore said. "We have 12 months to figure it out together."
If the two regional districts are still at loggerheads over incineration, he noted, the provincial environment ministry will act as arbitrator.
Part of the process will include public health impact assessments of whatever specific proposal emerges, under the direction of medical health officers from the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal health authorities.
That work will look not just at air emissions that can waft east to the Valley but also the potential for local exposure to toxins near any proposed waste-fired plant.
Metro's waste plan does not solely focus on waste-to-energy solutions.
It also calls for recycling rates to rise from 55 per cent now to 70 per cent in 2015 and 80 per cent by 2020, with much of the gains to come by collecting organic waste for use as compost or biofuel.
Existing Waste-to-Energy Facility in south Burnaby. (Bing.com aerial image)