An Awakening Giant?

Following a decade of hibernation, the waste-to-energy industry is poised for a comeback — and is hoping federal legislation can help pave the way.

Rising electricity costs and a growing interest in alternative sources of energy sparked the re-emergence of the waste-to-energy (WTE) industry a couple years ago, after the industry had endured more than a decade of stagnation. Since then, oil prices have spiked, raising the cost of fuel for trucks hauling waste to landfills, and landfill tipping fees have increased, providing more momentum for WTE's resurgence.

Plant expansions and new projects are springing up across the country. “New projects are underway, and we have responded to requests for proposals from Harford County, Md.; Los Angeles; and Palm Beach County, Fla.,” says Frank Ferraro, vice president of public affairs for Wheelabrator Technologies, Inc., Houston-based Waste Management's WTE subsidiary. Wheelabrator owns or operates 16 WTE facilities across the United States.

In fact, Wheelabrator is hoping to gain approval from Frederick County, Md., for what would become the first new WTE plant built in the country in more than 10 years. The facility would accept 1,500 tons per day (TPD) of waste and generate 55 megawatts of electricity, enough to power approximately 60,000 homes.

Fairfield, N.J.-based Covanta Energy, which owns or operates 38 WTE facilities around the world, is also expanding existing WTE plants and preparing to start new projects. “We are currently finishing the expansion of the Hillsborough County, Fla., facility, adding a 600 TPD capacity expansion to the existing county-owned 1,200 TPD facility,” says Seth Myones, president of Covanta Americas.

Covanta also recently received preferred vendor status in Durham-York, Canada, for a new WTE project, and the firm's international arm plans to break ground this summer on a 1,700 metric TPD project in Dublin, Ireland.

Both Wheelabrator and Covanta are encouraged by the Obama administration's push for energy independence. “We see this as a good thing for waste-to-energy,” Ferraro says. “Waste-to-energy helps solve two challenges: energy independence and waste reduction.”

The Clean Energy Bill

Meanwhile, the WTE industry is closely following the debate on the federal American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. The act would establish a national renewable portfolio standard mandating that utilities must get 25 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable sources. However, the original draft didn't define WTE as a renewable source of energy.

Furthermore, as part of a federal cap-and-trade system, the original draft bill would also have placed a limit on WTE facilities' greenhouse gas emissions and would have required the facilities to purchase credits to offset any emissions exceeding the cap.

On behalf of ERC members, Michaels authored a response to the draft legislation. Addressed to U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, the authors of the bill, the letter urged Congress to exempt WTE facilities from the bill's cap-and-trade mandate, citing the results of a life cycle analysis of the environmental and energy impacts of WTE.

According to that analysis, generating electricity with WTE avoids the carbon dioxide emissions produced by fossil fuel-based electrical generators. WTE combustion also eliminates methane emissions the burned waste would produce if landfilled. Finally, WTE combustion makes it possible to recover and recycle ferrous and nonferrous metals from municipal solid waste, which is more energy efficient than processing raw materials, the analysis says.

Michaels also cited research that says processing a ton of trash at a WTE plant instead of landfilling it prevents the release of one ton of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere. Annually, the WTE industry processes 28 million tons of municipal solid waste, which translates into an annual emissions reduction of 28 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. Michaels also noted that European clean air laws as well as the Kyoto protocol recognize the benefits of WTE and encourage its use.

For these reasons, Michaels contended, WTE should not be regulated under the cap-and-trade system.

Finally, Michaels argued that municipal solid waste is a renewable source of energy. He pointed out that policymakers have traditionally recognized trash as a renewable energy source, most recently in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia also define municipal solid waste as a renewable source.

When the revised draft of the bill came out on May 14, Michaels was pleased. The revised bill recognizes WTE as a generator of renewable electricity and categorizes the industry as an “other qualifying resource,” which means the industry can sell renewable energy credits the same as the wind and solar energy industries.

“The new draft also recognizes that WTE is part of the greenhouse gas solution and not part of the problem,” Michaels says. “We are not regulated under the cap as long as the fuel is 95 percent or more municipal solid waste — which, of course, it is.”

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.

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Environmental Performance

The waste-to-energy (WTE) industry may tout its facilities' environmental benefits, but the environmental movement has found fault with the plants. They use a dirty combustion process, activists say, pointing in particular to dioxin emissions. In addition, environmental groups contend that much of the trash that is burned should be recycled, thereby avoiding the need to expend fresh resources to manufacture new products.

In fact, WTE facilities comply with stringent emission standards. In response to the federal Clean Air Act, the industry has installed more than $1 billion in upgrades to emission control systems. The results led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to congratulate the industry in a letter dated August 10, 2007. In part, the memo read: "The performance of the MACT [maximum achievable control technology] retrofits has been outstanding. … Of particular interest are dioxin/furan and mercury emissions. Since 1990 [pre-MACT conditions], dioxin/furan emissions from large and small MWCs [municipal waste combustion units] have been reduced by more than 99 percent, and mercury emissions have been reduced by more than 96 percent. Dioxin/furan emissions have been reduced to 15 grams per year [from 4,400] and mercury emissions reduced to 2.3 tons/year [from 57]."

The EPA concluded that the overall reductions in emissions enable WTE to generate electricity with "less environmental impact that almost any other source of electricity."

As for the recycling complaint, a September 2008 study by Eileen Brettler Berenyi, a Ph.D. with Westport, Conn.-based Governmental Advisory Associates, found that communities served by WTE facilities on average recycle more than the national recycling average. The average recycling rate in a WTE community is 33.3 percent, compared to the national rate, as computed by the EPA, of 32.5 percent.

The study, entitled “A Compatibility Study: Recycling and Waste-to-Energy Work in Concert,” concluded that “waste-to-energy does not have an adverse impact on local recycling rates. The most influential parameters that affect recycling rates appear to be state policy and the proactive position of a municipality.”