Covanta buys 'trash-to-steam' plant in Plymouth Township

You and I call the Montenay Energy Resources operation near the Blue Route in Plymouth Township a “trash-to-steam” plant.

Covanta Holding Corp. calls it an “energy-from-waste” facility.

To-may-to, to-mah-to. Both are apt descriptions for an incinerator that runs day and night, burning household municipal and commercial waste to produce steam and generate electricity.

But for Covanta, Montenay represents something else: a major expansion of its holdings in the United States and our region.

The Fairfield, N.J., company yesterday completed the purchase of the Montgomery County plant and five others from Veolia Environnement, based in Paris. In addition, Covanta picked up from Veolia the Abington Transfer Station on Fitzwatertown Road in Upper Dublin.

The Montenay plant, on Conshohocken Road, can process up to 1,216 tons of trash per day and has the capacity to generate 32 megawatts of electricity.

Since 2005, Covanta has run an even bigger trash-to-steam plant in Chester. Covanta Delaware Valley can handle up to 5,700 tons of trash per day and generate 75 megawatts of electricity at maximum output.

Plus, Covanta closed in May on its purchase of two transfer stations in Philadelphia from Republic Services Inc. for $17.5 million. Together, those operations can handle up to 4,500 tons of trash per day.

Wind farms and solar arrays get all the attention in the renewable-energy sector, but the Waxman-Markey energy bill that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June lumps the nation’s 90 energy-from-waste plants in that category, as long as they meet certain criteria.

Covanta CEO Anthony J. Orlando has said those criteria might mean the company will have to spend $50 million on its 44 existing plants to meet new emissions standards.

Depending on how the energy bill winds up, there may be no rush to build new plants that were protested with regularity by environmentalists and community activists during the ’80s.

If so, Covanta will likely turn its attention to a market where several hundred energy-from-waste plants are expected to be built over the next two decades: China.