Up from the Ashes

Persuasive economic and environmental rationales are bringing the WTE industry back to life.

May 1, 2008

8 Min Read
Up from the Ashes

Michael Fickes

Throughout the Late 1990s and the 2000s, all was quiet on the waste-to-energy (WTE) front. That is now changing. “The waste-to-energy industry is coming out of a deep coma that has lasted 12 years,” says Steve Passage, CEO of New York-based Veolia ES Waste-to-Energy Inc.

The last WTE plant built in North America came on line in Montgomery County, Md., in 1996. About two years ago, the industry began to expand existing plants, and today, a number of communities are announcing plans to build new facilities.

More than 10 years ago, fuel prices collapsed and that, along with other factors, contributed to the shutdown of the WTE industry. “Disposal fees were low, and there was no reason to build WTE plants,” says Robin Davidov, executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority (NMWDA), which oversees WTE operations in Frederick and Harford counties. “But we believed that at some point, WTE disposal would become competitive with landfilling.”

Now, skyrocketing energy prices are reawakening interest in WTE sites.

Activity Overview

In early March, Hawaii County, Hawaii, gave Hampton, N.H.-based Wheelabrator Technologies tentative approval to move forward with a $125.5 million WTE plant in Hilo.

Toronto has been shipping waste to a landfill in Michigan for the past 20 years, Passage says. Recently, Michigan officials agreed to support an expansion of that landfill if the owner would stop accepting Canadian trash within three years. Now, Toronto and surrounding municipalities are requesting bids for a WTE plant. Also, in Canada, Metro Vancouver, which consists of 22 municipalities, is beginning a competitive procurement process to build either three large plants or six small ones.

There are other stirrings.

Frederick County, Md., is planning a WTE plant, and Harford County, Md., may build a new one or add onto its existing facility. Olmsted County, Minn., and York County, Pa., both are planning to expand their facilities.

In the past year, Covanta Americas, Fairfield, N.J., has completed one expansion and started another. “We added another boiler to our facility in Lee County, Fla.,” says Seth Myones, president of the company. “That's in operation now. We're adding new units to our Hillsborough County, Fla., facility, and we're busy chasing the greenfields business in places like Maryland and Canada.”

Public Opposition

Announcements of plans for new WTE facilities have been met with opposition in some cases. In Hilo, for instance, a public hearing at the end of March drew 73 people. Fourteen of 23 speakers addressing the meeting voiced opposition, saying the new plant would be too expensive and would reduce recycling.

In Maryland, opposition has sprung up against the Frederick County initiative. The local Sierra Club and the local County Environmental Commission oppose WTE for the same reason: they say it would reduce recycling.

“There are studies that deny this,” Davidov says. “One says that communities that have waste-to-energy also have the highest recycling rates. This is true nationwide, according to the study. Our figures show that it is true in Maryland. Harford County, which has a waste-to-energy facility, has the highest recycling rate of any county in Maryland.”

Harford County's recycling rate is 63 percent.

“It's logical that a community with a waste-to-energy plant would recycle more,” Passage says. “If a community is serious about managing solid waste, it will use all of the available tools: landfills, waste to energy, recycling and composting. If you recycle, recyclables are removed from the waste stream before they get to the waste-to-energy furnace.”

Wanting More

Neither Frederick County nor Hilo has ever had a WTE plant. Both projects face significant opposition. Industry members say that WTE projects in communities with existing facilities tend to see little opposition when expansions or new plants are proposed.

For example, NMWDA owns the small Harford County WTE plant, which accepts 360 tons per day. The county wants to replace that facility with one that will handle 1,500 tons per day, and service the county as well as neighboring Baltimore and Cecil counties.

Reaction to the proposal in Harford County has been the opposite of Frederick County. The Harford County Environmental Advisory Group has endorsed the project. “There is hardly any public opposition in Harford County,” says Ted Michaels, president of the Washington-based Integrated Waste Services Association, which represents the WTE industry.

When York County, Pa., just north of Harford County, announced plans to expand its 20-year-old facility, the public had little to say. “Who knows what will happen, but so far county officials have been pleasantly surprised at the lack of opposition,” Passage says.

The Economic Rationale

A couple years ago, Frederick County, Md., accepted a bid of $52 per ton to haul trash to a landfill in Virginia. The price was considered high for the region, and the agreement included an annual fuel cost adjustment.

At the end of the first year, the price had risen from $52 per ton to $60, Davidov adds. Today, Frederick County is paying $63 per ton, and Davidov believes that future contracts will include language permitting a once-a-month fuel cost adjustment.

NMWDA commissioned a study to determine when a WTE site was more cost effective than landfilling waste. The study projected the costs of landfill disposal for 20 years. To compare that number to a WTE plant, the study computed the capital cost of a plant plus debt service and operating costs over 20 years. That number represented the total cost of the facility.

Next, the study looked at WTE revenues that would defray the cost. It projected electricity prices over 20 years and determined the level of income those prices would generate. WTE plants recover metal from the waste before and after burning it, and sell it to recyclers. Income from sales of recycled metals boosted revenues.

The study analyzed scenarios with high and low incomes from electricity and recycled metal sales, as well as high and low fuel costs. The study found that a landfill tipping fee around $60 per ton was the point at which it was more cost effective to have a WTE facility. Since landfill fees have risen above $60, the economic model has tilted in favor of WTE. What's more, after a WTE plant pays off the bonds sold to build the facility — typically 20 years — costs drop dramatically.

The Environmental Rationale

“The economic study showed Frederick County that WTE was a better deal,” Davidov says. “But the county also wanted to look at the environmental impact of WTE. County officials were willing to forego the project if there would be an adverse environmental impact.”

The county hired a consultant, who used a software-modeling program furnished by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to analyze the emissions produced by the two different options. The consultant concluded that a WTE plant, if built locally, would have less of an adverse environmental impact than trucking waste to an out-of-state landfill, which would generate the greenhouse gas methane.

“WTE is making a comeback because it solves three environmental problems,” Myones says. “WTE is recognized by the federal government and by 23 states as being a renewable source of energy. WTE reduces greenhouse gases compared to the alternatives, and it reduces reliance on imported fossil fuels.”

While surging fuel prices awakened the sleeping WTE industry, observers say the environmental benefits offered by WTE will sustain industry growth in the long term. According to Covanta estimates, if WTE finds public acceptance and comes into widespread use, it would be possible to reduce the amount of trash disposed of in landfills by 65 percent. Also, converting that trash into energy would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 150 million tons and provide more than 2 percent of the nation's electricity, the firm says.

Unlike 12 years ago, powerful economic and environmental forces are driving WTE today. Also, industry observers say those forces will make it difficult to derail the industry again.

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


Omaha, Nebraska-based HDR Engineering plans to send a contingent of engineers to Asia this summer to review alternative waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies. “In Asia, they are doing some gasification, and we are going to go and kick the tires,” says Elwin Larson, executive vice president and director of the solid waste program at HDR.

A gasification plant heats garbage until it turns into a gas; the gas feeds into an adjacent furnace where it is burned to generate electricity.

Plants in the United States and Europe rely on mass-burn WTE technology. “Mass burn means burn the garbage as it is when it comes off the truck,” says Steve Passage, CEO of New York-based Veolia ES Waste-to-Energy Inc. “It is an inefficient process because you are burning trash with glass and metal cans that won't burn, plastics that burn very hot, and large and small things like sofas and paper cups.”

While the industry is interested in gasification, many questions remain. HDR is going to Asia to ask how much energy it takes to gasify garbage. What effect do those energy costs have on WTE economics? What is left over afterward? Is it hazardous or easy to dispose of? How reliable is it over long periods of time?

Another experimental technology takes the gasification idea a step further. Called plasma arc, the idea is to burn garbage at a temperature and a pressure high enough to vaporize it and recover the energy that is released. “The dilemma with this technology is that you need an enormous amount of power to raise the temperature high enough to vaporize garbage,” Passage says. “There are pilots that burn straw and grass. But it takes too much energy to burn 20 truck loads of garbage on a commercial scale.”

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