Rutherford County is in the early stages of planning for a waste-to-energy facility designed to turn garbage into power or fuel as an option to dispose of trash when Middle Point Landfill runs out of space.
"We're not talking about a simple solution. We're not talking about a solution that's going to cost a million dollars," said Mayor Ernest Burgess. "It could be a hundred million dollars ... and it's critical to the future of our county.
The privately-operated landfill's life expectancy is estimated at anywhere from eight to 15 years, according to Burgess, based on information operator Republic Services provides to the county.
Consequently, the county is looking at long-term alternatives for garbage disposal, possibly two or three approaches, depending on developing technology, none of which include what would be considered a traditional landfill, according to Burgess.
Deputy Mayor Jeff Davidson, who is heading up the effort, calls it a very "complex" project from all aspects, including legal, organizational, business, scientific and technical.
Cooperation from Rutherford County's municipal governments will be a factor as well, said Davidson, who points out the initiative will be much more intricate than the county's $73 million judicial complex project, which is being overseen by the county's Public Building Authority.
One of the first steps in the process could involve formation of a solid waste authority committee, which would be responsible for the initial planning. More than likely, a private consultant with expertise in the field would be hired next to provide the panel with more information.
Rutherford County's municipal mayors could be asked to participate and pitch in on a consultant fee early in the process, according to Davidson.
Middle Point took 910,000 tons of garbage from 19 Tennessee counties in 2014, with more than 28 percent coming from Rutherford. Of the waste disposed there from Rutherford, 3.7 percent comes from Murfreesboro Solid Waste Department, 5 percent from Rutherford County Solid Waste Department and 19.6 percent from third-party haulers. The remaining 71.6 percent comes from outside counties, according to information from Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, a group complaining about odor emanating from the landfill.
Getting municipal leaders to cooperate would be a minor point, compared to going through permitting processes and other steps, Davidson believes.
Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland said the city plans to participate, and he believes it is time to hire a consultant to lead the county and municipalities in the right direction.
"I think there is going to be some kind of waste-to-energy (facility). We've just got to figure out what it is," he said.
A Solid Waste Authority likely would be appointed, Davidson said, to oversee the future of Rutherford County's garbage disposal, including collection of recyclable materials and operation of a waste-to-energy system, which would burn garbage once recyclable materials are removed and produce steam, which would be used for power.
A public-private partnership could be set up to handle the operation, according to Davidson, but that is just one scenario.
Such a move would be a serious financial step for Rutherford, which nets about $1 million annually in landfill fees, as the county host, and also is allowed to dispose its garbage free of charge.
Said Burgess, "The problem must be addressed. How we address it and who we address it with is still working itself out to be developed. We haven't gotten quite that far as to who this study group will be and what their authority would be. That is still very, very early on with us really just exploring how that might look."
Davidson attended a solid waste conference in Orlando, Fla., which he said provided good information. Burgess noted a solid waste facility in Palm Beach County, Fla., could be used as a model.
The Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, Fla., contracted with Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group and its partner, KBR, Inc., for a $670 million waste-to-energy power plant that began operation in June 2015.
The facility provides energy to run the Palm Beach County Renewable Energy Park and was expected to provide enough power for 55,000 homes in the area, selling the electricity to the Florida Power & Light Co.
The renewable energy park houses an administrative building, vehicle maintenance, household hazardous waste area, wastewater treatment, a recovered materials processing area (recyclables) and the power plant. Palm Beach has another facility, as well, built in the 1980s and modernized in recent years, according to Willie Puz, public affairs and recycling director for the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.
Mayor Burgess said he also would like to visit a modern facility in Edmonton, Canada, where Enerkem Alberta Biofuels is the world's first major collaboration by a city and waste-to-biofuels producer to handle garbage disposal, turning municipal solid waste into clean fuels and green chemicals such as ethanol and methanol, according to the company's website, www.enerkem.com/facilities/enerkem-alberta-biofuels.
Done through a partnership with the city of Edmonton and Alberta Innovates - Energy and Environment Solutions, the facility produces 10 million gallons of methanol and ethanol a year, the website said.
Writer Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.