The Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County’s waste-to-energy (WTE) facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., marks the first new plant of its kind to open in the U.S. in 20 years.
It is also the largest WTE facility in the country, as measured by its gross electrical capacity. It was designed, built and operated by Babcock & Wilcox Co., a clean energy technology and services provider for the nuclear, fossil and renewable power markets based in Charlotte, N.C.,
Waste360 sat down with Larry Hiner, boiler product line manager for Babcock & Wilcox, to discuss the company’s new plant and why it has been so long since the last of this type of facility has opened.
Waste360: Your company recently opened the first new waste-to-energy (WTE) facility to open in the U.S. in 20 years. Why was there such a lull in launching these types of facilities? What has happened to WTE in the past 20 years?
Larry Hiner: The decision to construct a waste-to-energy plant is driven by a variety of factors, including need for electrical capacity; need to dispose of municipal waste, landfill availability, cost, emissions regulations and legislation that is favorable to waste-to-energy technologies.
The majority of demand for waste-to-energy plants in the United States has historically been on the east coast, including New England, and the southeastern states, such as Florida, where landfilling waste is more costly and landfill space is scarce.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single reason for the apparent lull in new waste-to-energy plants in the 1990s and 2000s. Factors could include cheaper alternatives such as coal and natural gas and cheaper alternatives for waste disposal being available.
But as state and federal regulations begin to recognize municipal waste as a renewable fuel with significant environmental benefits, and as greenhouse gas emissions including carbon dioxide and methane fall under greater scrutiny, we would expect demand for these plants could increase in many parts of the country.
Waste360: What makes your process and/or project unique?
Larry Hiner: The Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County’s Renewable Energy Facility #2 is the most-advanced and cleanest waste-to-energy plant in North America. Its advanced combustion and emissions technologies reduce harmful emissions such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, dioxin and furans, lead, mercury and particulate matter to levels at or below those permitted by environmental regulations and the plant’s permits.
The new plant’s net electrical capacity is 97 megawatts and will provide power to 40,000 homes and businesses while reducing the amount of waste currently being landfilled in Palm Beach County by approximately 90 percent and recovering 33,000 tons of recyclable metals annually.
According to the U.S. EPA, a new WTE facility, similar to Facility #2, would produce 63 percent less CO2, 94 percent less SO2 and 10 percent less NOx than a traditional coal-fired power plant.
Waste360: Why are there groups opposed to WTE facilities? Who are those groups?
Larry Hiner: There are groups opposed to waste-to-energy technology. We feel it is our duty to inform them and the public of the inherent benefits of waste-to-energy, including reduced greenhouse gas and other emissions versus other fuel sources, reduced reliance on landfills and the beneficial use of waste that would otherwise be buried. When the facts are analyzed objectively, there is a compelling case to be made for the many benefits of using waste to produce power.
Advancements in combustion and air pollution control technologies since the last plant was built over 20 years ago have been significant and have greatly reduced or eliminated many of the environmental concerns of the past. Today’s waste-to-energy plants are not the facilities of years past. They are sources of clean energy with advanced emissions controls.
Waste360: What are the benefits of WTE?
Larry Hiner: By turning waste into energy, we also reduce what is landfilled by 90 percent. There is a significant cost savings and environmental benefit to that. What eventually is sent to the landfill is ash, which can be safely buried. Since it is no longer made up of organic materials that would decompose and emit large quantities of methane, we can essentially stop the creation of that potent greenhouse gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate chance and is recognized as being at least 25 times more potent, and perhaps up to 80 times more potent, than CO2.
Waste360: What are the challenges?
Larry Hiner: Like any power plant, a waste-to-energy plant’s boiler must be designed to handle a specific fuel. In the case of turning waste into power, the boiler must be capable of handling a variety of fuels with different properties and heating values, including biomass, plastics, paper, cardboard, and any other debris that is part of the municipal waste stream.
A plant’s environmental system also must be designed to reduce emissions to permitted levels. We have to design and install equipment to control NOx, SOx, particulates, metals such as mercury and lead, dioxin and furans and other emissions.
Waste360: Now that the West Palm Beach facility has opened, do you anticipate an influx of WTE facilities to come online now? Why or why not?
Larry Hiner: Much depends on U.S. energy and environmental policies. If the states and federal government recognize the environmental and economic benefits of waste-to-energy and place regulatory emphasis on this technology, then we would expect to see growth in demand. For example, in Europe, restrictions on landfilling waste and incentives for treating waste as a renewable fuel have resulted in a robust market for waste-to-energy for many years. B&W is currently building four waste and/or biomass plants for customers in Europe.