The waste-to-energy sector may seem moribund. Only one new facility has come on line the past 20 years (a facility that opened in Palm Beach County, Fla., one year ago). Several others have closed or are planning to close.
Yet proponents of waste-to-energy as an alternative for solid waste remain bullish.
While it remains difficult to permit new facilities, expansions are taking place (about six were completed in the past year and other are in the works). And nearly 80 facilities overall continue to operate and generate energy across the country.
“Capacity and production have essentially remained the same … since the growth in the industry has occurred simultaneously with the closure of some older, generally smaller, less economic facilities,” says Ted Michaels, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Energy Recovery Council. “The daily throughput capacity at today's 77 WTE plants is roughly 95,000 tons per day. This is almost identical to the throughput capacity both five and 10 years ago.”
But Michaels says the future of WTE is bright because the need is so pressing.
“Far too much waste is being wasted, which creates enormous opportunities for increased recycling and increased WTE. While these markets have flourished in Europe, U.S. markets are currently very difficult due to the low cost of landfilling and the low cost of energy,” he says. “However, climate policies and sustainable materials management policies should create demand for the recovery of materials and energy from waste, which will drive investment in new WTE capacity. Corporate zero waste-to-landfill policies will also serve as a key driver.”
Morristown, N.J.-based Covanta’s James Regan, director of communications and media relations, agrees that corporate zero waste goals are key to the future of WTE.
“We are seeing … many businesses and industries in the U.S. striving for ‘zero-waste-to-landfill’ by recycling as much as possible and utilizing WTE over landfilling as the more sustainable choice for what remains,” he says. “It's safe to say that the WTE industry will continue to be an important part of sustainable materials management as the U.S. becomes more and more aware of the negative short- and long-term effects of landfills.”
WTE facilities provide solutions to some of our biggest sustainability challenges, according to Regan.
“For every ton of municipal solid waste processed at WTE facilities, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are reduced by approximately one ton,” he says. “This is due to the avoidance of methane from landfills, the offset of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel electrical production and the recovery of metals for recycling. WTE is the only energy generation technology that actually reduces greenhouses gases.”
WTE is an internationally recognized source of GHG emissions mitigation, says Michaels.
“Numerous international governments, NGOs, and researchers recognize the climate benefits of WTE, including the U.S. EPA, U.S. EPA scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Economic Forum, the European Union, CalRecycle, the Center for American Progress, Third Way, and others,” he says. “Many U.S. states have also recognized the GHG benefits of WTE through climate action plans and other policies.”
WTE also is environmentally beneficial for providing sustainable, safe waste disposal that complements recycling; producing clean, reliable energy and steam; and using less land per megawatt than other renewable energy sources.
“The U.S. wastes seven and a half million tons of metal in landfills each year that could be used to build 90 Golden Gate bridges,” says Regan. “Covanta facilities recycle over 500,000 tons of ferrous and non-ferrous metal annually—the equivalent amount of steel that would be used to build five Golden Gate Bridges and in the production of over 2 billion aluminum beverage cans. Covanta facilities produce renewable electricity for more than one million homes and generate nine billion pounds of steam.”
In addition to environmental benefits, revenues, employment, and labor earnings derived from managing post-recycled waste, recycling post-consumer metals, and producing energy are the economic advantages of WTE.
“The WTE sector creates $5.6 billion of gross economic sales output, encompassing nearly 14,000 jobs and nearly $890 million of total labor compensation,” says Michaels. “More than 5,300 direct employees earn $459 million in wages, salaries and benefits with 8,550 additional full time equivalent jobs created in the U.S. sector outside the WTE sector, earning an additional $429 million in wages, salaries and benefits.”
Regan says the most important economic value of WTE is that sustainable waste management creates jobs.
“If we increased the U.S. recycling rate from the current 30 percent today to 65 percent and diverted most of the residual waste from landfills to WTE facilities, we could generate approximately $126 billion in direct economic activity and create over 340 thousand new permanent jobs,” he says. “Each new WTE facility has the potential to generate about $1 billion in direct and indirect economic activity, providing up to 1,000 construction jobs and as many as 100 permanent jobs. In addition, these facilities purchase many goods and services locally, further supporting local economies.”
Despite all of the benefits of WTE, Regan says changes in national public policy are needed for a significant number of WTE facilities to be built in the future.
“Without meaningful sustainable waste management, energy or climate policy initiatives at the Federal level, similar to those enacted by the European Union—65 percent reduction in landfilling of biodegradable MSW, significant landfill taxes and other incentives to recycle and recover energy from waste—we are unlikely to see a persistent increase in the construction of new WTE infrastructure here in the U.S.,” he says.