The Biden Administration aims to implement energy policy to address climate change and protect the environment for future generations. Waste-to-energy, a renewable source of baseload electricity that can eliminate landfills and avoid harmful methane emissions from trash, must be part of the solution.
As a U.S. leader in energy technology with decades of experience designing and building renewable energy facilities, Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) is working with leaders in Washington, D.C. to address climate change through both proven and emerging technology solutions. One critical issue that often comes up in these discussions is methane, the potent greenhouse gas emitted from decomposing trash in landfills, man-made sources including agriculture, and during natural gas and oil extraction, transport, storage and use.
Methane packs a powerful punch compared to carbon dioxide. According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane has roughly 84 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide on a 20-year basis. In terms of GWP, methane accounts for nearly a quarter of U.S. emissions. Adequately addressing climate change requires addressing methane including avoiding sending trash to landfills and methane into the atmosphere.
Landfill Methane in the U.S.
Consider this: roughly one-fifth of U.S. methane emissions from human activity come from landfills. There are more than 2,600 active landfills in the U.S., more than 3,200 inactive municipal landfills, and they emit more than 330 million tons of 20-year basis GWP each year. That’s comparable to the emissions from 70 million cars, and the problem is growing, with 140 million more tons of waste added to landfills annually.
Today, the U.S. has about 70 operating waste-to-energy facilities where waste is burned to produce baseload electricity. Pollutants are controlled and captured with advanced environmental control technologies, and the remaining ash can be repurposed for road construction and other uses. Instead of being buried in a landfill to decompose and emit methane, trash is used to produce power and heat.
However, for most communities in the U.S., dumping trash in landfills, and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, is the norm.
Proven Technology & Job Creation
B&W has a solution to address this growing problem—our waste-to-energy technologies can be game-changers in eliminating methane emissions. B&W’s renewable technologies are installed in hundreds of waste-to-energy plants around the world, including the Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility No. 2 in Florida. Opening in 2015, it is the cleanest and most-advanced facility of its kind in the U.S., and reduced the amount of waste going to landfills in that region by 90%. Globally, B&W-supplied units convert over 20 million tons of household waste to energy annually, eliminating the future release of 68.4 million tons of GWP methane emissions from landfills.
While solar, wind, and hydropower are greenhouse gas neutral, only waste-to-energy actively reduces greenhouse gases by taking methane-emitting waste out of the environment. But unlike solar and wind, waste-to-energy is baseload power, available 24 hours a day. Waste-to-energy technologies should be treated like other renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower with respect to clean energy standards, tax credits and other incentives.
Many countries in Europe and Asia are ahead of the curve on waste-to-energy, deploying these plants with great success. The European Union’s Landfill Directive introduced restrictions on landfilling of waste and aims to limit the landfilling of municipal waste to 10% by 2035. Many communities now rely on local waste-to-energy facilities for heat and power, virtually eliminating landfills.
Beyond environmental benefits, a cost-effective, reliable, and sustainable solid waste management system also spurs economic growth. Building one typical waste-to-energy facility creates about 500 construction jobs, and about 65 more for subsequent operations and maintenance.
U.S. policymakers can learn from the experience gained in Europe and Asia, including how tax credits and other legislation can incentivize large-scale deployment.
The Facts About Waste-to-Energy
Unfortunately, in the U.S., misconceptions about waste-to-energy facilities have hampered their use.
Supporting waste-to-energy is pro-recycling, and communities with waste-to-energy facilities tend to see an increase in recycling. Waste-to-energy and recycling complement each other, and the best U.S. policy will support and incentivize both.
Today’s waste-to-energy technologies also destroy or capture toxins from trash, including lead, mercury, volatile organic compounds, halogens and other pollutants, eliminate landfill odor and destroy contaminated waste. The plants utilize reverse air pressure to contain odors from the stored trash, which is enclosed in a concrete bunker so the trash is not visible and odors are eliminated. In fact, these facilities are often a part of the community in Europe; the Amager Bakke facility built by B&W in Copenhagen, Denmark, features a park, café, and ski slope on top of the plant. It is both a functional plant and a vibrant part of the community.
At the point of electricity generation, waste-to-energy facilities also produce less carbon dioxide than natural gas power plants, according to the EPA. When netted against the methane emissions avoided, the reduction in GWP is staggering. One ton of landfilled waste emits 3.42 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent GWP, but waste-to-energy reduces its net GWP by 99.97%.
A renewable energy site could feature a combination of solar with battery storage, wind and a waste-to-energy facility. This mix allows for baseload power on the grid and stabilization of the peak power from wind and solar. In cases where changing weather may affect wind and solar, the waste-to-energy facility will continue to operate and provide baseload power.
Today’s waste-to-energy complements recycling, supports local communities, produces clean, renewable baseload power and significantly reduces harmful methane emissions. There is no reason to wait, and every reason to deploy waste-to-energy in the U.S. to fight climate change today.
• Jimmy Morgan is the Chief Operating Officer of The Babcock & Wilcox Company. Headquartered in Akron, Ohio, B&W is a leader in energy and environmental products and services for power and industrial markets worldwide.
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