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Reconsidering Waste-to-Energy

Technology and regulation changes the outlook for garbage burners.

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2012

The average American generates 4.6 pounds of trash per day. Rather than simply disposing of this trash, along with other types of waste such as agricultural refuse and sewage, we can instead use it beneficially as a clean energy resource. Technologies already exist that could turn our waste into an energy fuel, solving our disposal dilemmas and energy needs simultaneously. In fact, waste in America is projected to have an energy potential of approximately 11 to 15 GW, which would amount to 20 to 25 percent of non-hydro renewable U.S. generation capacity.

While waste as an energy source has often been underappreciated—and as a result, under-utilized—certain characteristics make waste an attractive source of fuel for energy production. Power plants burning waste fuels have baseload characteristics, and their levelized cost of energy generation is competitive with plants burning fossil fuels. There’s also significant potential for carbon abatement through avoiding emissions of methane, a gas with 21 times the greenhouse gas impact of carbon. Additionally, technologies to produce energy from waste are mature and infrastructure development is largely de-risked by public policy financial support.

All of these characteristics make waste an attractive source of fuel for utilities looking to diversify their portfolios and build carbon abatement backstops and capabilities in case a future carbon regime is implemented.

Disposing America’s Waste

Waste disposal is big business. The U.S. spends $18 billion every year to landfill more than half of the 243 million tons of municipal solid waste it generates. However, disposal options are becoming less available. Due in large part to EPA emission regulations forcing out small landfill operators who couldn’t afford compliance measures, the number of landfills in America has shrunk from almost 8,000 to 1,900 since 1988. As generation of waste continues to increase with population and economic growth, landfills have ballooned in size, tripling over this same period. Current remaining landfill capacity is projected to last another 19 years, down from 23 years in 1991. While new capacity will be created, it’s expected to come from expansions on current sites, since permitting new landfills has become increasingly difficult.

With fewer but larger landfills, waste increasingly needs to travel longer distances from pickup to disposal. As the number of landfills decreases and transportation costs increase, the costs of landfill disposal will rise. Some U.S. municipalities, such as Del Norte, North Carolina and San Francisco, California, have abandoned landfilling as a disposal option all together and set zero landfill goals, much as Europe has done in recent years.

The need for disposal options, however, won’t disappear altogether. Although recycling has increased, especially of paper and plastics, there haven’t been dramatic improvements in recent years. From 1970 to 2000, recycling rates improved by 5 percent a year, but in the last decade they have only improved by 2 percent