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Tampa, Florida, became the second city in the U.S. to own and operate a waste-to-energy facility when it took over operations of the McKay Bay Waste-to-Energy Facility this June.

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October 7, 2020

Photos courtesy of the City of Tampa

Operations at the McKay Bay Waste-to-Energy Facility in Tampa, Florida, commenced in 1985. Each day, the waste-to-energy (WTE) facility converts over 2 million pounds of household and commercial refuse into electrical energy. In 2019, the WTE facility processed more than 310,000 tons of waste, generating enough electricity to power approximately 15,000 homes. This process saves over 302,000 barrels of oil and reduces the need to landfill the city’s solid waste.

The site had been operated by Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Wheelabrator for the last 25 years, but that all changed in June, when the city formally took the reins, becoming just the second municipality in the U.S. along with Spokane, Washington, to own and operate a WTE plant.

According to McKay Bay Plant Manager Christopher Eckert, the decision to take over operations was born out of a 2018 feasibility study commissioned by the city and conducted by Highlands Ranch, Colorado-based Arcadis U.S.

“When we started to try to figure out whether [taking over the facility] was a good idea or not, we actually hired a consulting firm to do a feasibility study on the multiple different options that we had,” Eckert says. “The options ranged from selling the plant, to demolishing the plant, to landfilling everything, to doing a different contract with another operator or with the current operator—we looked at everything that we could to try and make sure we did the best we could for our taxpayers and for the city of Tampa.”

Following the feasibility study, the city of Tampa’s Department of Solid Waste & Environmental Program Management developed a transition plan along with Arcadis U.S. to hash out what taking over ownership of the facility would entail in full. Eckert says that while developing this transition plan, the solid waste department looped in all of the departments within the city to try to make sure it was identifying any potential hurdles and addressing solutions to those hurdles before the city actually committed to taking ownership of the plant. To make sure all departments were unified in their thinking, the city formed an internal working group that met regularly to discuss the initiative. After extended discussions, the city agreed in 2019 it would assume ownership of the plant.

Eckert says that after evaluating all the options and considering the feasibility study and transition plan, the city determined that Tampa could actually save around $5 million per year by taking over. This savings was based upon how much money the city of Tampa was spending with Wheelabrator at the time and how much it would save maintaining and operating this size facility on an annual basis.

“We didn’t feel like Wheelabrator was a bad partner,” Eckert explains, “we just felt like we wanted to operate this facility from a reliability standpoint, and a nonprofit standpoint, to be able to provide our citizens with excellent service rather than for a for-profit model.”

Mark Wilfalk, the city’s solid waste director, notes that the city also factored in how its contract with Wheelabrator would amplify its tipping costs over time when considering the benefits of assuming control of McKay Bay.

“Considering the growth of Tampa and the Hillsborough County region, we had to look 10, 20 years down the road and try to determine what would best fit our needs for this department,” he says. “Now, keep in mind, they had a CPI [consumer price index] that was going to continue to increase, and as that went up, our tipping fees would go up with Wheelabrator. So, our cost of operation went up every single year. Taking over operation of the facility was another way for us to displace a little bit more financial responsibility for our overall operating system.”

Maintaining McKay

Eckert says that the difference in operating cost between Wheelabrator running the facility and the city hinges on the approach to preventative maintenance.

“You have the two big entities that run these plants in the U.S.: Wheelabrator and Covanta,” Eckert says. “They are always trying to get the boilers and the plant to be running with the least unscheduled and scheduled downtime that they can. So, it’s always rush, rush, rush. Now, I’m not saying they don’t do a good job, but the way their mentality is, and the way they approach a maintenance issue revolves around how fast they can get their equipment back online so they can start processing more waste because that’s where their money is—in the electricity that’s ultimately produced. They’re focused on the availability of the equipment. We’re more focused on reliability, so when something goes down, we aim to replace it to make sure that we get a good, solid, predictable runtime rather than getting it fixed quickly.”

"They’re focused on the availability of the equipment. We’re more focused on reliability, so when something goes down, we aim to replace it to make sure that we get a good, solid, predictable runtime rather than getting it fixed quickly.” –Christopher Eckert, McKay Bay Plant Manager

Eckert says that this mindset manifests itself in maintenance personnel taking a more methodical approach during service. While fixing one issue, techs are now encouraged to consider fixing unrelated issues they may see as well to help prevent having to stop operations and spend the time to fix it at a later date.

To help facilitate this maintenance, Eckert says that the city added over 15 positions to this plant. These additions were made to allow for more frequent preventative maintenance schedules and to amplify the number of people tasked with monitoring and doing rounds assessing the equipment.

COVID complications

While Tampa officially took over the McKay Bay Waste-to-Energy Facility in June, it started the hiring process in December 2019.

Wheelabrator ran the facility with approximately 35 to 40 employees, but in order to meet the site’s renewed maintenance and oversight goals, Eckert says the city aimed to grow McKay Bay’s number of employees to around 55.

Beyond the need to vet existing staff (Eckert says the city ended up retaining slightly over half of the facility’s workers), the city needed to conduct a wealth of interviews for new candidates. This grew increasingly difficult late in the first quarter when COVID halted in-person meetings and site visits. Eckert says this both made it difficult for the city’s waste department to evaluate workers and for workers to ascertain whether the opportunity was right for them.

However, with the June 1 transition date firm, the city forged on despite the challenges—often relying on video conferencing and virtual site tours to build out its staff.

“I think the mentality of everybody we have working here now is very good,” Eckert says. “I think we have a very good team at this plant and they’re seeing the city of Tampa’s vision. I think that’s what’s making them pretty happy about being here and staying here. Before, the philosophy was rush, rush, rush, put a Band-Aid on some of the issues, and sometimes whatever was being fixed would break a couple of days later. Well, we’ve taken the approach now where we are concentrating on taking our time and fixing the equipment right, and it’s made for a safer and more reliable environment. I think the employees really appreciate that.”

And despite some of the turnover with McKay Bay’s staff, Wilfalk says that the personnel the city retained have been invaluable in imparting their knowledge during this time of change.

“We’ve retained people that have been [here for a while] and that’s a lot of knowledge,” he says. “That’s valuable. So, we’ve tried to let these people spread their wings and it gives us a chance to learn from them. And they feel good because now they know that their ideas and concepts are being implemented and being listened to and respected. They feel like they have a voice now. That’s a big deal.”

After a busy 2020, Wilfalk says that there might be more change in store for the McKay Bay facility. He says the city is currently developing plans to relocate its solid waste department headquarters out of Tampa’s high-value West Shore district and into part of the McKay Bay site. Not only would this free up commercial businesses that contribute to the city’s tax base to inhabit the space currently being used by the department’s headquarters, it would help improve routing efficiencies and transportation costs at McKay Bay by allowing the city’s trucks to start and end their collection routes at the same location.

Although becoming the second city in the country to own and operate its own WTE facility hasn’t been easy, Wilfalk hopes what Tampa is doing might serve as a model to others of what is possible with some diligent planning and hard work.

“I don’t think we knew how busy we were going to be in the beginning, but I look at it as if we are really kind of paving the way,” he says. “Within the next couple of years, we hope that this will be a facility where other municipalities come and visit and pick our brains. It might look effortless and smooth from the outside, but they won’t know, like a duck, how feverishly we have been paddling underneath the surface to make this a reality.”

The author is the editor of Waste Today and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.