Owner Eyes Waste-to-Energy Facility
TELLURIDE – Jonathan Greenspan stood outside the closed gates of the San Miguel Area Resource Transfer Station Park, known as SMARTS Park, in the Ilium Valley, gazing at torrents of recyclable materials from Telluride, Mountain Village and nearby towns. Dumped and sorted at the transfer station, the materials will be shipped elsewhere for resale.
The piles of recyclables are higher and there are significantly fewer workers than usual, Greenspan says, because SMARTS Park, facing severe funding shortages due to evaporating profit and a lack of government subsidies and investment, is temporarily suspending operation.
“What the community is losing is a facility that handles not just traditional recyclables like glass, cardboard and plastic, but also composting, electronics recycling and other hard to recycle materials that are illegal to put in a landfill,” Greenspan, the chief executive of SMARTS Park said. He conservatively estimates SMARTS Park has prevented more than 19,960 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere over its ten-year lifespan.
“The program has never been profitable, but someone has to run it,” said Greenspan. “Until the community wants to get behind this program we’re going to keep pushing these resources out of the county because the business model is currently unsustainable. In Colorado and throughout the nation, most transfer stations benefit from government subsidy programs to operate.”
Greenspan, who funded SMARTS Park largely with his own capital, has sought government subsidies to offset expensive shipping fees and unfavorable deals brokered with commodities purchasers. The organization requires an annual operating budget of $800,000 to $900,000, but has never received subsidies. Greenspan has, however, applied for local grants to help fund the Park, but his application was denied despite warnings that SMARTS Park’s business model was unsustainable without government assistance.
Almost the entire amount of SMARTS Park’s operating budget will need to be subsidized, Greenspan said, if regional governments want to achieve their greenhouse gas reduction goals of 20 percent fewer emissions by the year 2020. The county will also need to invest in more advanced sorting machines to increase efficiencies.
Greenspan sees the sorted garbage as a resource, not just trash. The SMARTS Park sells sorted recyclable materials to commodities purchasers across the country, and as far away as China. Commodities markets procure plastics, cardboard and often glass from the transfer station.
Recent price drops in the commodities market adds to the dramatic downturn in the facility’s profitability. China, historically a large purchaser of American recyclable commodities, is now increasing its recycling rates and is no longer purchasing as much from North America. The decline in Chinese demand for American commodities has had devastating effects for transfer stations across the United States, including SMARTS Park and others in similar rural communities. Without China as a large purchaser, finding a buyer turns into a national problem, Greenspan said.
In addition to generating greater emissions when local recyclables have to be shipped to a transfer station in Colorado Springs, the financial problems at SMARTS Park have resulted in 15 layoffs, nearly the entire SMARTS Park staff. Between 15 and 20 full-time employees are needed to operate SMARTS Park. These days, however, Greenspan has the budget for only three part-time employees to organize and divert the remaining recyclables.
The San Miguel County Commissioners discussed funding programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a June 26 meeting, identifying possible funding sources for the programs that included a repeal of tax exemption for residential utilities sale and use. While the meeting yielded only a consideration to create a ballot question to repeal the exemption, the proposition garnered support from the attending public as well as from the commissioners, even though no concrete revenue estimates were given for the proposed exemption.
“The benefit is that the money could be used to fund great programs throughout the county,” said San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May. “It does seem to make a lot of sense, because it’s not an expensive tax and there is a clear link between collecting money from energy use and using it for energy reduction programs.”
Commenting on the possible tax exemption repeal, Greenspan said, “The revenue generated, while important and proactive, will likely not be enough to make effective change in all of the desired projects and programs. We need to make funding these programs a high priority in our community for the reduction of emissions.”
One of the solutions, Greenspan said, would be to construct a waste-to-energy power station in San Miguel County. Through complex treatment procedures, engineers are able to generate energy from waste and recyclables while generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions than other conventional energy production facilities. Greenspan has not submitted any formal proposal to any regional government outlining the construction of the envisioned station.
But he estimates such a facility would cost between $16 and $18 million to construct. While that price may seem steep, Greenspan says a waste-to-energy station would be less expensive than feasible alternatives. Greenspan envisions a hybrid approach to fund construction and operation of the power facility: a combination of a bond issue, private investment and a tax on utility bills. Greenspan said the county would see returns on the investment after the first eight years, a considerably faster return on investment than, Greenspan cites, solar energy facilities.
“A facility like this would yield far greater emissions reductions than taking advantage of inexpensive programs like replacing light bulbs and extending the lifespan of government vehicles,” he said. “It would also generate 15 to 20 new jobs in the area.”
In addition to not shipping recyclable materials long distances, a waste-to-energy facility in San Miguel County would offer other reductions. Pointing to power lines that run above the transfer station, Greenspan said, “We would be providing the town with energy from only three miles away. The way we get our power now generates so much inefficiency which this waste-to-energy plant would nearly eliminate.”
“There are hundreds of these waste-to-energy facilities in Europe, allowing countries like Sweden to recycle or process almost all of their waste. This technology has made it so that communities like Telluride and Mountain Village could be near self-reliant on energy production,” Greenspan added.