Waste-to-Energy: WTE Market Poised For Expansion By 2001

The 105th Congress pro-mises to prioritize legislation that restructures the electric utility marketplace, and in the process highlight waste-to-energy (WTE) as a source of electric power.

Power plants that convert trash into energy by combusting waste in high-temperature furnaces frequently are mentioned as a disposal option for communities. However, with Congress and numerous states focusing on the power market - and how to assure consumer choice - the energy in waste may rise in importance.

There are 114 WTE plants, operating in 32 states, that convert about 15 percent of the trash generated nationwide into 2,650 megawatts of electricity. This electricity meets the power needs of 1.2 million homes and businesses; meanwhile, the facilities themselves serve the disposal needs of more than 40 million people, and generate enough energy to re-place about 30 million barrels of oil annually.

WTE long has been considered a renewable source of power. Trash is both sustainable and indigenous - two basic criteria for establishing what is a renewable energy source. Also, approximately 80 percent of municipal trash is biomass - a fancier name for organic material.

Last year, Congress began reviewing the electric utility market by holding a series of hearings to determine the status of the electric industry and its need for change. After a year of deliberation, Rep. Dan Schaefer (R-Colo.), the Subcommittee Chairman of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee of Commerce, introduced comprehensive legislation that included provisions supporting renewable energy sources such as waste-to-energy.

Schaefer's bill contains a provision that requires electricity generators to demonstrate that 2 percent of all electric power generated comes from renewable sources. Currently, renewable energy generation totals slightly more than 2 percent nationwide, including sources from geothermal, biomass, solar and wind. But, this bill envisions growth by calling for the renewable requirement to rise to 4 percent by the year 2010.

The Schaefer bill likely is just a starting point for further discussions on electric utility restructuring that will take place throughout the next session of Congress.

The stakes in this debate are high. The utility industry represents about 5 percent of the Gross National Product.

Ultimately, the WTE industry may be a relatively small player in the debate. WTE facilities generate less than 11/42 of 1 percent of the na-tion's total electricity generated. However, the in-dustry has some important selling points, such as its environmental controls.

New Clean Air Act rules for municipal waste combustors ensure that waste-to-en-ergy is one of the cleanest sources of power in America.

Energy can be produced from trash about as cleanly as from natural gas, according to a re-cent booklet re-leased by the U.S. Conference of Ma-yors and the Am-erican Society of Mechanical En-gineers. Since modern WTE plants usually replace older oil- and coal-burning technologies, they can actually improve the air quality in the communities where they operate.

Organic pollutants such as dioxin also are no longer an issue with the addition of more sophisticated pollution control equipment to existing facilities. As older plants are retrofit-ted in accordance with the Clean Air Act rules over the next few years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that WTE as a source of dioxin will fall to less than 11/42 of 1 percent.

Similar control is predicted on mercury emissions, with waste-to-energy contributing about 3 percent of all man-made mercury into the environment, according to EPA.

In addition, WTE reduces greenhouse gas buildup in the air, since combusting biomass does not add to the buildup of greenhouse gases. Waste-to-energy, as opposed to landfilling as a disposal option, actually reduced greenhouse gases last year alone by 130 million tons.

Other significant advantages speak well for WTE. For example, the resi-due ash left after combusting trash had been an issue for both regulators and the courts. Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that WTE ash must be tested for its toxicity. Since that time, the ash has consistently passed the test and has proven safe. Communities across the country now are considering the beneficial uses of the ash for roadbed material, landfill cover and building material.

As the congressional debate on utility reform wages next year, environmental concerns and renewable sources of power will be just two of the many topics open for discussion. Certainly, WTE is poised to play a greater role in America's energy supply.

Al-jon Inc., Ottumwa, Iowa, has won a Governor's Export Award from the state of Iowa for their success in selling solid waste handling products and services in foreign markets.

Community Waste Disposal Inc., Dallas, has been awarded the Dallas & Denton County Corporate Re-cycling Council's 1996 Environmental Visions Awards for its innovative methods in municipal recycling.


Dames & Moore, Los Angeles, has been awarded two contracts totaling $13 million by the U.S. Postal Service to provide environmental in-vestigation, design and remediation oversight services for the Midwest. and western United States.

Mayfran International, Cleveland, has recently appointed H. West Equipment Inc., Orange, Calif., as an exclusive Mayfran dealer/representative for the company's conveyors and recycling systems for the solid waste industry. H. West will sell, install and service the recycling equipment in California, Arizona and Nevada.