Even with the promising start of the gas-to-energy plant at the Fighting Creek Landfill, there is a slight snag, Kootenai County officials concede.
There's no doubting that the $6.5 million plant turned on last year is humming along fine, funneling methane gas from the landfill to an engine that cranks out electricity for Kootenai Electric Cooperative customers.
But the plant isn't producing as much power as it could.
In fact, the county could be raking in twice as much revenue per month from the project, but for one nagging issue.
"It's not a new situation," said Solid Waste Director Roger Saterfiel. "We had planned on this from the very beginning."
The problem is leachate.
It's one of the less palatable aspects of landfills. Leachate is essentially garbage water that seeps out of the tons of refuse compressed and deposited at Fighting Creek.
"Take cardboard. It's 17 percent moisture," Saterfiel said. "When you put it in a landfill and compact it, it gives off some moisture."
And a lot of garbage gives off a lot of moisture.
Fighting Creek accumulates copious amounts of leachate, Saterfiel said. About 7 million gallons a year, in fact, compounded by our region's delightful rain and snowfall each year.
While Solid Waste can temporarily store the unseemly fluid in ponds at the landfill, Saterfiel said, the most efficient and economic way of disposing of the fluid is to burn it off.
The methane that would otherwise be sold to KEC to produce electricity at the energy plant.
So as the Solid Waste department burns leachate with immense amounts of methane, it sacrifices potential income the gas could make for the county.
"It's enough gas to run another engine (at the plant)," Saterfiel said of methane amounts burning off leachate. "So it's significant."
Saterfiel figures that the Solid Waste's monthly revenue from the project, about $5,000, could be double that if all of the methane available was applied to the plant.
KEC, which partnered with the county on the energy project, isn't worried, according to spokesperson Erica Neff.
The utility had expected leachate would be an issue initially, Neff explained.
The company is willing to wait for the county to find a solution, she stated, so the utility can finally start up the plant's second engine.
"We appreciate the county's efforts in this process and look forward to the (new leachate) system being in place, so we can increase the plant output," Neff stated, noting that half of the landfill's methane is currently used for the leachate process.
In the state-of-the-county speech, Commissioner Dan Green assured the county is hunting for "new disposal methods" to get leachate off its hands.
There are a few options, Saterfiel said. But none are simple.
Sending leachate to the local wastewater plant is out. The plant is too far from the landfill, and lacks the capabilities to treat leachate's sundry nutrients.
Maybe the county could cobble its own "mini waste water plant," Saterfiel said, then apply the treated water to county land.
But the testing and regulatory process for that could take years, he said.
Another option could be available as soon as the spring. Simply evaporating the water through a system of misters, which one company lauds can get rid of 3 to 10 million gallons a year.
But Saterfiel wants to know more, first.
"I'm not sold on it yet," he said. "That sounds too good to be true."
By the end of 2012, the energy plant produced 9,533,602 kilowatt hours of electricity, according to KEC.
The gas-to-energy project is projected to bring in about $4 million for the county over the next 20 years. Whether the leachate burning will affect that is hard to say, Saterfiel said, because there are so many factors that affect garbage and methane.
"As soon as we can get the leachate taken care of in another manner, then we're going to fire up another engine," Saterfiel said.
Brian Bradshaw, environmental systems technician with the Kootenai County Solid Waste Department, is exchanges an empty bottle for a bottle containing recycled anti-freeze while winterizing the leachate evaporator.