With its waste-to-energy systems installed in five plants in Japan, one in Israel and a system for Venezuela on the drawing board, Energy Products of Idaho is working to spread its technology throughout the world.
Although most of EPI's business comes from closer to home, with its systems installed in about 25 cities throughout the United States and Canada, the Coeur d'Alene-based company leaves few corners of the world untouched in its search for new customers.In recent years, EPI President Norman Sowards has traveled to China, Italy, France and several countries in Scandinavia and Africa, meeting with local business and government officials to discuss his company's "fluid-bed" technology.
EPI developed the waste-burning technology 15 years ago as a means to incinerate wood residues - a waste that started the company out a lot closer to home, with northern Idaho's many wood products companies.
Sowards, who worked at Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in Idaho Falls for almost 15 years, formed EPI in 1973 with backing from Idaho Forest Industries Inc. Today the company employs about 75 people at its Coeur d'Alene offices and manufacturing facilities.
EPI expects its total sales to almost double this year, from $7.6 million recorded in fiscal 1987 to $13-15 million for fiscal 1988, which ends Sept. 30. The privately held company does not release profit figures.
EPI could grow much faster, Sowards said, if it could obtain insurance backing necessary to work on really large waste-to-energy projects.
Waste-to-energy systems sold by EPI have ranged in price from $300,000 to $6 million - much smaller than the waste-to-energy plant planned by Spokane County, which will cost approximately $100 million.
"If we can get our bonding and underwriting problems solved, I think this company will experience major growth," Sowards said. "Everybody wants to recycle now."
After years of marketing its waste-to-energy systems primarily to wood products companies, EPI recently entered the municipal solid waste market, where recycling is now a hot topic, Sowards said.
Most of the systems sold by EPI over the past 15 years have gone to private companies, who use them to incinerate a specific waste, such as plant stalks or wood waste.
The company now hopes that many communities, both in the United States and abroad, will switch from landfilling their raw garbage to waste-to-energy systems that rely on sorted garbage. In such systems, some of the waste is recycled and the rest incinerated.
EPI's waste incineration systems are sized for communities in the 25,000 to 150,000 population range. The potential market is huge, Sowards said, with 850 cities in that range in the U.S. alone.
"All of those cities are going to need some sort of municipal waste reduction system," he said.
Although there's "a lot of resistance" now to waste incineration, it will become a more popular alternative to the landfilling of raw garbage, Sowards predicts, especially as incineration is proven safe and effective.
Compared to the landfilling of ash from waste-to-energy systems, the landfilling of raw garbage has become "socially unacceptable," he said.
With EPI's technology, waste is shredded into three- to six-inch pieces before being fed into a combustion chamber for burning and conversion to heat, or energy.
The heart of EPI's fluid-bed technology is a combustion chamber that uses a bed of sand or similar material. Heated air, forced upward through the material, suspends the waste particles as they burn, giving the bed the physical characteristics of a fluid.
Fuel or waste added to the bed is continuously agitated by the motion of sand or other bed material. The motion strips away combustion-generated water vapor and carbon dioxide, substances that slow down the burning process. That results in a cleaner, more complete combustion, Sowards said.
The heat is converted to electricity. One of EPI's largest projects - a $5 million waste-to-energy plant under construction for the city of Tacoma, Wash. - will generate 50 megawatts of power when it is completed in 1989, Sowards said.
The fluid-bed plant is designed to burn 350 tons a day of Tacoma's garbage. As more plants like it are built throughout the U.S. and other countries in this energy- and environment-conscious age, EPI is betting that demand for its waste-to-energy technology will continue to grow.