Boston-based Vicinity Energy took over operations of the Kent County-owned incinerator at 950 Market Ave. SW on Thursday, Feb. 2, under a new, 10-year operating agreement with the county.
Plant operations were previously run by another private company, Covanta. Covanta officials two years ago sent the county a letter stating they did not wish to renew their plant operating agreement, which expired Wednesday.
“For more than 30 years, Waste-to-Energy has been a key part of Kent County’s integrated waste management system, and it allows our community to responsibly and reliably dispose of solid waste while producing local energy and reducing the amount of waste going into landfills,” said Dar Baas, director of the Kent County Department of Public Works.
“We’re continuing to invest in the Waste-to-Energy Facility, and this new partnership with Vicinity will ensure it operates safely and efficiently for years to come.”
Nearly all residential and commercial curbside and dumpster waste generated in the cities of Grand Rapids, Wyoming, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Grandville and Walker ends up at the county-owned Waste-to-Energy facility. The incinerator generates electricity for about 11,000 homes.
While private companies operate the incinerator, Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW) staff will continue to oversee inbound trash and the areas where incoming loads are weighed and dumped.
Baas said the switch to Vicinity is expected to save the county about $1 million annually over the previous contract with Covanta.
All Covanta employees who worked at the Waste-to-Energy Facility were hired by Vicinity, Baas said. Vicinity underwent a 10-month transition period with Covanta before taking the reins Thursday.
The annual savings, however, aren’t expected to immediately translate to lower “tipping fees,” which are the price per ton of municipal trash dropped off at the Waste-to-Energy Facility, due to an ongoing, multimillion-dollar refurbishment of the facility.
The Waste-to-Energy Facility is currently undergoing a $40 million refurbishment that will see some original equipment replaced and other upgrades necessary to keep the facility operational through its 50-year lifespan. The facility is a little more than 30 years old.
Baas said he’s hopeful the savings will result in lower tipping fees at a later time.
While the leaders didn’t raise tipping fees at the Waste-to-Energy Facility in 2023, they did in 2022, increasing the fees by 34.5%, from $55 per ton to $74, to help fund the refurbishment project. The move drew opposition from a number of area mayors.
Baas said Vicinity is able to achieve the roughly $1 million in annual savings passed on to the county by having its leadership team already in Grand Rapids and by running a leaner operation.
Vicinity owns and operates the historic Fulton Street steam plant and steam loop that heats and cools numerous downtown Grand Rapids buildings, including the Amway Grand Hotel, Devos Place Convention Center, Van Andel Research Institute, St. Mary’s Hospital and more.
“We are proud to serve as the new operator of this critical piece of Kent County’s waste management system and look forward to continuing to work with the community well into the future,” said Kevin Hagerty, deputy CEO and chief operating officer of Vicinity Energy. “In addition to ensuring a smooth transition from the prior operator, our team has been hard at work on providing the most reliable, resilient, and sustainable services possible.”
Each year, the Waste-to-Energy facility diverts 190,000 tons of waste from going to landfill. It also generates enough energy to power 11,000 homes and recovers enough steel to make 3,000 cars, according to the county.
County officials say the facility upholds the highest environmental standards and operates, on average, 90% below permit limits set by regulatory agencies.
The new Waste-to-Energy Facility operator comes as Kent County works with Anergia to create a roughly $350 million mixed waste processing facility and sustainable business park that would handle 400,000 tons of garbage a year, as well as 30,000 tons of recyclables, to produce renewable natural gas, fertilizer and recyclable commodities.
Kent County would pay about $70 million of that estimated price tag. The business park would be located on about 250 acres of vacant land straddling the Kent-Allegan county line just south of the South Kent Landfill.
Anergia is working out designs and cost estimates for the mixed-waste processing facility, and the county on cost estimates and plans for outfitting the business park with utilities and infrastructure. Baas said those are expected to come before the Board of Public Works and the Kent County Board of Commissioners this spring.