It’s a rare Snakebite where we update something we’re not directly working on, but so many folks have inquired about all the trash-to-energy projects and controversies at landfills around Idaho that we thought we’d give our two-cents’ worth and explain why we’re not more involved in the most controversial project.

Some of these issues are surfacing around the state where local governments are finding money in the garbage-to-energy businesses while sending some additional power the utilities’ way. Conflicts are most evident in Ada County, where an escalating brouhaha is taking place over the proposed and extremely controversial Dynamis plant designed to burn landfill garbage to convert to power. More on that in a minute.

Added to the Dynamis fiasco is the second of two generators that would burn methane produced by decomposing landfill trash and convert it into electricity. It’s an idea that is proven and that makes some sense, given that the methane was once “flared” off, or burned. One such plant has been providing power under a contract with Idaho Power for years; the second is mired in a dispute with Idaho Power at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that involves, you guessed it, Dynamis.

We want to explain the Alliance’s take so far in these projects, and why the Alliance is not taking a more visible role in the Dynamis imbroglio.

First, with regard to the methane-to-electricity plants, the Alliance generally supports such projects and supported the first one at the Ada County Hidden Hollow landfill. Methane is a super-potent greenhouse gas, and converting it to energy, when done right, can put the methane to a better use. Landfill gas is about half climate-changing methane and half climate-changing carbon dioxide, so if it can be cleaned and made more pure, converting it into energy makes sense.

In the case of the G2 Energy LLC power plant at Hidden Hollow, which went online in 2006, Ada County sells the gas to the company for about $250,000 a year to power two Caterpillar engines at the landfill, with the generated electricity sold to Idaho Power under a contract approved by the Idaho PUC. Each of those engines can produce 1.6 megawatts, so the plant produces about 3.2MW, which while not a huge amount is enough to power about 2,400 homes and is far more power than generated by one of those big wind turbines you see across southern Idaho. Since being installed, the Hidden Hollow methane-to-energy power plant has worked pretty much as advertised.

That process is much different than the process proposed to be used by Dynamis Energy, which wants to build a power plant with an untested technology that would burn through 400 tons of garbage a day and crank out 22MW for Idaho Power.  Aside from the fact that the plant would consume so much toxic trash that some would need to be imported from elsewhere, the plant seems to have fallen through the regulatory cracks, as nearby residents have been pointing out for months. The Idaho Public Utilities Commission approved the Idaho Power-Dynamis contract in February 2011.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality needs to review the plant’s design with an eye to regulating emissions and, according to news reports, that’s good enough for two of Ada County’s three commissioners. But DEQ is not scrutinizing the technology proposed by Dynamis, which has never built such a plant. Nor is it looking at the plant’s safety including the possibility of explosions or other toxic releases. According to the Idaho Statesman, DEQ has issued Hidden Hollow Energy a permit for the second methane-to-garbage plant, while the permit for the first one remains in effect.

The Dynamis project was further clouded when the owner of the methane plant, Hidden Hollow Energy, filed a $30 million tort claim (a predicate to a lawsuit) against Ada County, charging the county breached its contract by planning to divert some of the methane needed for a second 3.2MW methane power plant instead to Dynamis, cutting back on the fuel needed for the methane plant. Hidden Hollow also took its case to the PUC after Idaho Power voided its contract to buy the power from the second plant, which has not been built and for that reason the utility said its deal to purchase power from the second two generators is off.

The Snake River Alliance supports responsible, appropriately sited, and appropriately designed renewable energy projects. Converting methane from a landfill is considered renewable. Burning toxic garbage? Not so much. Further, the Alliance lacks the technical expertise required to determine the safety of a plant like Dynamis’, or the kinds and amounts of toxic emissions it would produce. There are so many unanswered questions swirling around the Dynamis proposal that, in our view, it is impossible based on what is known to endorse such a plant. For instance, according to the Idaho Statesman, which has done a yeoman’s job covering the Dynamis story, the Dynamis plant could gasify – burn – as much as 6 tons of tires a day.

Having said all that, the Alliance routinely participates in electric utility cases before the PUC, and it could do so here with regard to the methane plants depending on what happens next. But it almost certainly will not do so in the Dynamis case, which we believe must first be vetted by state environmental regulators before state utility regulators.

On top of all this is a thickening stew of political intrigue at the Ada County Commission, where two commissioners are doggedly pushing the Dynamis plant along while a third, Dave Case, has called for a more thorough review of the plant’s potential impacts and the county’s role in handling the contract. And that is definitely not an arena in which the Snake River Alliance operates. The Alliance works best in promoting sound and sustainable energy policy, not in political warfare at the county level.

It’s one very complicated mess. It would be unfortunate if Ada County loses an important revenue stream from selling the methane for electricity, but even more so if we lose access to what by all accounts is an environmentally sound electricity resource in the methane generators.