Technology and regulation changes the outlook for garbage burners.
Christopher Dann and Joseph Vandenberg are partners with Booz & Co., based in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Pramod Thota is a senior associate and Joshua Stillman is an associate with the firm.
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.