At a time when sinking commodity values are sending an increasing amount of material to landfill, a new company is gaining traction in the South for its efforts to reverse that trend.
RePower South (RPS) was born in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, in 2013 to help recover more commodities in an economically feasible way. The company has done so by viewing not only traditional recyclables as commodities, but also waste that typically goes to landfill.
Justin Converse, Jim Bohlig and Brian Gilhuly founded the company with a license from Accordant Energy of Rutland, Vermont, for the technology to mechanically convert difficult-to-recycle waste into a non-waste engineered fuel as designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that can supplement coal in industrial and utility boilers. With processing systems from Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) of Eugene, Oregon, and fuel manufacturing systems from London-based Loesche Energy Systems, RPS’s facilities are offering solutions in areas where recycling is floundering.
“We took a landfill expense, and now we’ve turned that into a revenue stream,” says Gilhuly, who is the company’s CEO. “That changed the overall dynamic of the economic model, and that’s largely what we set out to do.”
Though the company was conceived in 2013, it hadn’t opened any facilities until early 2019. Now that they’re open, though, operations are fully in motion with new opportunities on the horizon.
Gilhuly says RPS facilities can be tailored to fit into any waste and recycling operation.
“Our focus is to help communities increase recycling recovery by operating within whatever structure or future structure they want to be in,” Gilhuly says.
The two facilities that opened this year illustrate the range of RPS-enabled solutions the company can offer. In February, RPS revived a failed waste processing facility in Montgomery, Alabama, refurbishing it and restoring recycling to the area’s residents and businesses. The facility is publicly owned, with RPS financing the facility refurbishments and fuel production system.
Meanwhile, RPS’s facility in Moncks Corner just outside of Charleston was a greenfield development project that was built from the ground up on 15 acres inside the Berkeley County landfill under 25-year waste supply and land lease agreements. The facility, which opened in April and accepts waste from across the county, is privately owned and was financed by tax-exempt bonds and private equity.
Prior to the Berkeley facility’s construction, residents in the county either had to hire a private hauler to pick up recyclables or drive them to a drop-off center themselves. Now, area citizens have a new resource for diverting material from landfill.
“This innovative approach to recycling is bringing Berkeley County, and South Carolina, into the 21st century,” says Bill Peagler, who served as the supervisor of Berkeley County until late 2018. “This model encourages citizens to do what is environmentally friendly without the hassle of sorting, proving it is possible to increase recycling efforts in communities.”
Both facilities are currently processing about 100,000 to 120,000 tons of mixed material annually, although they each have the capacity to reach about 200,000 tons. More than 50 employees work at the facility in Berkeley, while about 40 work in Montgomery.
“These communities have committed to delivering their waste streams to us for the next 25 years. For us, having that certainty was a critically important part of opening these projects,” Gilhuly says.
Through the system
While the two facilities offer different solutions, both are relatively similar in terms of processing. The Montgomery facility can process up to 45 tons per hour, while the Berkeley facility can handle 50 tons per hour.
The material first heads through a low-speed shredder to break apart any bags and create an even flow into the main system. Then, only a few manual sorters per shift work on the front end to sort out any material that would clog up the system.
From there, it enters a series of screens that remove large, bulky items, organics and other fine material. Additional pneumatic air separation is used to separate lights from heavies. Magnets are deployed to capture ferrous metals, while eddy current separators remove aluminum cans. The material continues through BHS’s FiberPure screen and optical sorters to automate the recovery of clean fiber.
Even in the few months that passed between the opening of the facilities, Gilhuly says RPS made minor improvements on its operating system in Berkeley. The Berkeley facility’s most significant upgrades include nine BHS Max-AI autonomous quality control (AQC) robots.
“Berkeley has additional innovations and sequencing and overall improvements to the process that have evolved over time,” Gilhuly explains. “On a long-term basis, we’ll be continuing to automate and make the process more efficient.”
Once they pass through processing, old corrugated cardboard (OCC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), aluminum and steel are baled with a PAAL Konti 500 to be sold into commodity markets. Meanwhile, lower grade papers and mixed plastics head to the Loesche Fuel System for fuel processing.
Waste to fuel
In the fuel system, after filters remove unwanted materials, the remaining material moves through mechanical size and moisture reduction equipment. After about 15 minutes, the resulting product is a homogenous fuel sized specifically for the end consumer and baled to be sold.
The resulting product doesn’t produce quite enough power to replace coal, but it does produce enough to act as an efficient supplement.
“Coal typically contains anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 British thermal units (BTUs) per pound,” Gilhuly says. “Our fuel is about 9,000 BTU, so it’s comparable to coal.”
Between the two facilities, RPS is currently selling its fuel to three cement manufacturers. “We’re at the earlier stages of those relationships, and that will continue to expand over time,” Gilhuly says.
"On a long-term basis over the next 25 years, we will continue to work with that waste stream and see if we can find a higher or better use for it.” –Brian Gilhuly, CEO, RePower South
He adds that cement plants have a history of experimenting with alternative fuels to supplement their coal power, making them the most receptive customers to work with up front.
Accordant Energy developed RPS’s fuel technology over a period of more than 10 years through extensive research, pilot trials and a full-scale trial in a coal-fired utility power plant, where it was able to replace more than 10 percent of coal by energy, Gilhuly says.
The resulting fuel quality led to the EPA approving the fuel, known as ReEngineered Feedstock (ReEF), as a non-hazardous secondary material. This means plants can burn it under existing fossil fuel permits as opposed to a Commercial and Industrial Solid Waste Incineration permit.
RPS says up to 50 percent of the carbon in ReEF is biogenic and considered carbon neutral.
Just getting started
For now, RPS is aiming to turn about 35 percent of its waste stream into fuel, while about 15 to 20 percent is recycled and the rest heads to landfill. Material that heads to landfill is typically inert material, diapers, textiles, organics and other non-recyclables.
“On a long-term basis over the next 25 years, we will continue to work with that waste stream and see if we can find a higher or better use for it,” Gilhuly says. “We are motivated to divert and remove as much as we can from the waste stream.”
In addition to improving recovery rates, Gilhuly says he also wants to expand upon the types of consumers who use the fuel product to power their facilities. “I think over time, with more history, data, proof of consistency and with the quality of our fuel, others will be more receptive to it,” he says.
As for additional facilities, RPS has the license to use Accordant Energy’s technology in seven different states across the southeastern region of the U.S. Now that two facilities are up and running, Gilhuly says RPS is back in the market pursuing new projects, looking to build “as many of these as we can.”
But for the immediate future, RPS is focused on honing its process and diverting as much material from landfill as possible.
“Our challenge is to extract as much material as we possibly can, so to be as efficient as possible is our daily challenge,” Gilhuly says.
The author is the assistant editor for Waste Today magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.