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Varme pitches Innisfail huge waste-to-energy project

Plan includes $175 million plant, dozens of new jobs but other Central Alberta municipalities must buy into plan to make project a reality

INNISFAIL - Ten weeks into its relationship with the Town of Innisfail, Varme Energy took the plunge to meet every day Innisfailians about its ambitious plan to build a cutting-edge plant that has the potential to make the town a municipal leader in Canada for its trust in new waste-to-energy technology.

Senior officials with Varme Energy, a leading Canadian developer in waste-to-energy and bioenergy projects, were front and centre at an Aug. 25th town hall meeting at the Innisfail Library/Learning Centre to outline their bold plan for Innisfail and the surrounding area.

They also fielded many questions about the still new waste-to-energy technology; a process aimed at eliminating future landfills by involving the incineration of waste – including solid household refuse collected by most municipalities – and converting it to electricity.

Mayor Jean Barclay is a huge booster for the project. She noted Innisfail is transporting its waste all the way to a landfill in Camrose, a round-trip of more than 350 kilometres.

“This is technology that's proven in Norway, and it's not something new we're trying,” said Barclay. “It's going to take some time, and it's going to take a lot of work. But that's OK. I think we're all up for the challenge.”

But while most of the 40 Innisfailians appeared positively intrigued with Varme’s presentation, some wanted more answers, not only from Varme but from town council and administration.

“I think it's still very, very early. I think there has to be a whole lot more discussion,” said local resident Patrick Gleason. “I'm still not convinced as far as how much traffic there’s going to be, and as far as how this is going to impact us, and what are the costs incurred of breaking (waste disposal) contracts that we have already in existence?”

Local businessman Mark Kemball noted there have been similar proposals pitched in the past but times have changed and was not sure if the Varme project can be pulled off.

“There's much more sensitivity to environmental concerns,” said Kemball, adding that while Varme’s plan is an “interesting” concept there are many challenges ahead. “Getting the right amount of tonnage is a major hurdle.”

For more than an hour Sean Collins, the chief executive officer of Varme Energy, gave a detailed pitch to Innisfailians. He also took many questions, covering everything from technology, carbon captures, costs, timelines, plant footprint, and the need for community engagement. His audience was definitely not hostile. Everyone was keenly interested, and respectful.

Collins said the Innisfail project will include a private investment of between 150 to $200 million for a new state of the art plant on 13 acres of land in the town’s new Southwest Industrial Park.

He said the completed plant would employ about 30 full-time jobs, including plant manager and power engineers. The crowd was also told the construction and facility commission would take about two and half years, and employ up to 125 workers.

Collins reminded his audience the competed facility would be a consistent source of municipal property tax revenues.

He said the project could also be a “real magnet” in attracting additional economic activity to the town.

“This is a real opportunity for Innisfail to take a provincial leadership position,” he said.

However, he conceded there are serious “head winds” the plan must overcome, most notably having enough waste to process to make the project viable.

Collins noted that while Varme Energy has signed a letter of intent with the Town of Innisfail that “signals intent” to sign a final agreement it remains contingent on the company securing waste-to-energy contracts outside the community.

“That commitment to the Town of Innisfail’s waste is not enough for us to make a decision to spend $170 million. You need to have a fully contracted facility before you would close your investment decision,” said Collins, whose company is in the early process of securing deals for two waste-to-energy projects in Edmonton.

He noted Innisfail now produces between 3,000 to 5,000 tonnes of waste a year, which is only five per cent of the minimum requirement of about 100,000 needed for the facility to be financially viable.

“What would be ideal for us would be to be able to secure a couple of major anchors from the regional landfill,” he said. “There is potential to create a waste energy facility to become the landfill solution for the region. We’re really trying to position this project as an opportunity for regional cooperation.”

He said the “hunting grounds” for this project are from Red Deer to Calgary and around central Alberta, an area that has a total population of about 1.5 million residents.

 “So, not impossible by any stretch of the imagination to deliver that,” he said, noting there is now a rail spur line into the town’s industrial park. “You'd have the potential of training in waste provider jurisdictions,” he said.

Collins added his company will be meeting between 25 to 30 mayors from throughout Central Alberta at a private Innisfail forum on Sept. 8.

“If any of you are friends with mayors or councillors in any of the surrounding towns we would appreciate a bug in their ear,” said Collins to the audience. “The most significant headwind to overcome for us is securing long term contracts for waste facility operations.”

He added another potential headwind could be provincial environmental permitting and approvals processes, which he added, “can be quite lengthy and costly.”

With a letter of intent already signed with the town, and land already picked out, and council seemingly behind the plan, what else is Varme seeking from Innisfail?

“One of them would be a community that's a champion for this and trying to punch above its weight class in delivering a project of this size and magnitude. It requires a significant amount of effort,” he said. “If this is something the town and region sees as an opportunity, sees it as economic development, sees it as a climate leadership opportunity, and grabs the opportunity by the horns, that would be what we would dream of.”


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