When formulating public policy, regulators and lawmakers should consider the many benefits of using municipal waste as fuel for power generation (aka waste-to-energy technology) — including cost-competitiveness with other forms of energy, environmental performance that is comparable to natural gas, greenhouse gas reduction, encouragement of recycling programs and greater reliability than many other forms of renewable energy.
Waste-to-energy as an option for base load power generation enjoys some popularity in the southeastern and northeastern United States, where state energy and environmental policies have encouraged their construction. Nationwide, about 87 of these plants are turning trash into power. However, due to the lack of a comprehensive national energy policy or widespread state policies that take into account the many benefits of generating renewable energy from waste, the U.S. waste-to-energy industry lags in adoption compared to Europe (where more than 500 plants are operating or under construction) and Asia (where more than 1,600 plants are operating or under construction), where waste-to-energy is commonplace for generating heat and power.
Part of the problem, as we see it, is perception. Today’s waste-to-energy power plants are not the “dirty incinerators” of years gone by that garnered a reputation for spewing pollutants into the atmosphere.
Today, generating clean power from trash that would otherwise end up buried in a landfill can play an important role in fulfilling a great many public policy goals, including reduction of air pollutants and greenhouse gases, decreased reliance on landfilling and increased rates of recycling.
As a provider of proven combustion and environmental technologies for waste-burning plants, Babcock & Wilcox can play a leading role as states and municipalities to take a closer look at generating energy from trash. However, we feel the benefits extend far beyond opportunities for our own business.
A great example of that can be seen in West Palm Beach, Florida, which today has the cleanest and most advanced waste-burning plant in North America. The Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County’s Renewable Energy Facility No. 2, for which B&W designed and manufactured boilers, combustion systems and emissions control equipment, began commercial operation in the summer of 2015. The plant processes up to 1 million tons of post-recycled municipal solid waste per year while producing enough power for 44,000 homes, and is estimated to reduce the volume of waste going to landfill by at least 90 percent, extending the lifespan of the owner’s existing landfill by several decades.
The plant’s greenhouse gas emissions are also highly competitive with other renewable fuel sources. According to U.S. EPA data, waste-to-energy plants like the SWA’s REF No. 2 actually emit less net carbon dioxide per megawatt of power generated than fossil fuels, including natural gas. This is partly because these plants avoid combusting higher-carbon fossil fuels to produce power, and also because they recover recyclable metals, reducing reliance on the CO2-intensive process of mining of ore to produce new steel and other metals.
Waste-to-energy plants also help to significantly reduce emissions of another potent greenhouse gas — methane. When waste is landfilled and decomposes, it emits substantial quantities of methane, which studies show has 34 times more heat-trapping potential, pound for pound, than CO2. By combusting municipal waste to make power, the methane problem is abated.
Thanks to advanced scrubbers and other 21st century environmental controls installed on waste power plants, mercury, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, dioxin, nitrogen oxide and other regulated emissions are controlled at levels well below federal and state-mandated emissions limits.
An often-overlooked benefit of waste power plants is their usefulness in disaster recovery after storms, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Plant and tree debris, as well as damaged building materials, can be quickly processed and combusted in waste-burning plants, saving communities valuable time and resources when they’re needed the most.
Waste-to-energy also supports communities’ recycling efforts.
For example, in Palm Beach County’s successful curbside recycling program, 85 percent to 90 percent of recyclable metals, such as steel, aluminum and other non-ferrous materials that aren’t sorted out by residents and find their way into the waste stream, are captured at the plant itself.
In fact, Palm Beach County’s 2015 recycling rate of 72 percent was well above the state average of 54 percent among counties in Florida. Additionally, a study from the Energy Recovery Council shows communities using waste-to-energy have an aggregate recycling rate at least 5 percentage points above the national average.
Recycling and generating power from municipal waste are key elements of what has been dubbed the “Circular Economy.” The aim, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is to move to a more innovative model that seeks to reduce pollution and make better use of resources through conservation, recycling and repurposing of resources, rather than a more short-sighted, linear “take, make, dispose” model. This Circular Economy concept is an underlying principle of the European push to build waste-to-energy plants in countries with limited land and natural resources and restrictions on what trash, if any, can be sent to a landfill.
Waste-to-energy also provides a reliable, base load power solution, which is another advantage over competing forms of renewable energy. Unlike wind and solar generation, which are intermittent electricity sources, waste plants can operate 24-7 and don’t need a backup source of power when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing.
Additionally, the cost to build and operate a waste-to-energy plant is a highly competitive alternative for waste disposal for some communities, when the combined costs of permitting, building, operating and maintaining a landfill for municipal waste disposal are considered. Waste-to-energy plants typically receive a fee to accept waste, much like a landfill operator would. Those fees, as well as proceeds from the sale of electricity produced and the 90 percent or greater reduction in landfill reliance, help offset the cost of building and operating a waste power plant. These factors make the cost of electricity produced by waste-to-energy plants competitive with the most affordable forms of electrical generation.
Waste-to-energy goes a long way toward achieving many public policy goals: increased recycling, reduced landfilling, lower greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air, improved reliability and greater diversity of electricity supply. Waste-to-energy is worth a very serious look when formulating 21st century energy policies and regulations.
• Kimberly Clark is Vice President of Strategic Markets at Babcock & Wilcox.
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