Waste to Energy Projects Picking Up Steam
Renewable Energy Resources
Remember the good old days when barges roamed the oceans dumping garbage, or looking for ports that would accept their garbage?
Improvements in waste management technologies over the past two decades have transformed once quaint stories of garbage shenanigans into complex garbage engineering stories.
Currently, both small and large communities can choose among three major waste to energy technologies, waste to electricity plants, methane from landfill electricity plants and waste to fuel plants, as their more or less environmentally friendly waste management options.
According to 2007 IWSA Directory of Waste-to-Energy Plants, "In 2007, 87 plants operate in 25 states and process 28.7 million tons of trash.... Electric generating capacity is estimated at 2,720 megawatts."
All but a handful of those plants operated in the large population centers of the Eastern United States with a 30MW electricity generation capacity. Compared to their waste incinerator predecessors, they are relatively clean technologies that can help communities manage their waste by avoiding the traditional landfill alternatives.
The top video shows the technology side of the MVR Waste-to-Energy plant in Hamburg, Germany. It's a state of the art plant with low emissions that is also capable of recycling a good deal of the byproducts of their treated waste.
Communities with already established landfills continue to adopt methane generated electricity projects. The EPA Landfill Methane Outreach Program estimates that approximately five hundred projects are operational and five hundred additional projects sit somewhere in the planning process.
Their environmental benefits speak for themselves. On the front end of the process, they removing methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas more powerful and less long lived than carbon dioxide (CO2). On the back end of the process they generate electricity that might otherwise be generated by less climate friendly fossil fuel sources.
Waste to fuel plants operate on similar principles as waste to electricity plants. However their waste management byproduct can be either a solid fuel in pellet form or a liquid fuel such as ethanol or liquid natural gas.
The Altamont Landfill, for example, near Livermore, CA, currently operates both a methane electric power plant and a waste to liquefied natural gas operation that is used to fuel its garbage trucks. Away from the landfill, the newest solid waste technology allows municipalities to build plants capable of sorting recyclables such as metal and glass from combustibles such as paper, and transforming the combustibles into fuel pellets for use in small and large scale electricity and thermal plants.
Opposition to the adoption of these technologies comes from zero waste proponents who argue that these waste management projects encourage, rather than discourage waste production, thereby creating an environment conducive to increased natural resource extraction.
Given the fact that waste is a fact of modern life, and a large fact of life in urban centers, enlightened municipal planners would do well to merge waste reduction strategies with the newest waste management technologies to create more comprehensive waste management strategies. Waste not, want not can be equally applied to both the individual planner and the community planner.
Still, a big picture examination of the waste to energy movement shows it is neither a waste nor energy panacea.
Start with the energy issue. The Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, Europe's largest waste to energy industry group, provides a best estimate scenario of its contribution to the EU's 20% renewable energy goal by 2020.
They state, "Waste can potentially fill 95 from the gap of 1500 TWh", or roughly 6.3% of the renewable energy necessary for the EU to achieve its goals.
Moving to the waste issue it is also important to recognize that the construction of Waste to Energy plants can reach a saturation point. In other words, as the number of waste to energy plants increases, their waste management capability will eventually exceed the amount of generated waste.
Given the fact that waste to energy plants can not operate without waste, an excess of plants means that the plant operators are placed in a dependency position, vying for waste on the open market to continue operating.
In the extreme, consider a scenario where future conflicts over the supply of garbage replace today's conflicts over the supply of oil.
As the above video demonstrates, in a local or distributive energy context, waste to energy provides a more or less environmentally friendly waste management tool. Scaled up to a the level of a centralized waste management or energy management plan, waste to energy could very well be translated into a waste of energy.
© 2010. Patricia A. Michaels