Signal Cos. After Services Operated by Government

Times Staff Writer

Alfred B. DelBello wants some of your garbage. He also wants your airport and your wastewater treatment plant.

DelBello, who until earlier this year was lieutenant governor of New York, is now shepherding the efforts of La Jolla-based Signal Cos. in the "privatization" of services that were formerly the sole province of government.

Signal Cos. is interested in owning and operating wastewater treatment plants, municipal bus lines, airports and, especially, the growing number of "trash-to-energy" plants, DelBello said.

Signal Environmental Systems (SES), which includes Signal's former RESCO division, already operates five trash-to-energy units in the United States. A sixth plant is scheduled to open this year in New York City. In addition, SES has contracts in hand to build plants in six other cities.

SES has already spent $140 million to develop existing plants worth nearly $1 billion.

By decade's end, SES wants to be burning trash in San Diego, and generating more than 60 megawatts of electricity for sale to San Diego Gas & Electric.

That is enough to meet the needs of 60,000 households, or 5% of SDG&E;'s total electric demand, said DelBello, who is lobbying his cause in San Diego and other West Coast cities this week, as well as meeting with Signal Cos. officials in La Jolla.

Nicknamed SANDER (San Diego Energy Recovery Project), the $300-million project is a joint San Diego county and city project.

The plant, proposed for a city-owned 35-acre tract at Miramar Naval Air Station, would burn 2,250 tons of garbage that would otherwise be added to the Miramar landfill just north of the planned facility.

Although the San Diego City Council has yet to approve a contract with SES, DelBello said he is willing to spend $3 million for environmental permits, based on San Diego's "good will."

SES is also committed to invest $50 million in the plant and use industrial development bonds (IDBs) issued by the California Pollution Control Financing Authority to finance the remainder of the $300-million facility.

SES, as operator and owner of its plants, relies on operating profits to make the ventures worthwhile. Although trash-to-energy plants are not the gold mines they once were thought to be, the economics behind facilities such as the San Diego plant are sound, DelBello said.

Figures developed by SES and San Diego County indicate that the SANDER facility will generate a profit, in part due to Miramar's low "tipping fee"--the fee paid to unload garbage trucks at the landfill. SES is also counting on income to be generated by the sale of electricity to SDG&E;, and the company has the option of selling steam produced by the plant to nearby industries.

DelBello said a properly run plant can generate profits even though the federal government regulates how much utilities are allowed to pay for waste-generated electricity.

"In terms of the future market, I've talked to enough professionals in the field to know that this (mass burning of refuse) is the option that looks most viable," said Nikki Clay, SANDER project director for San Diego County.

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