WASTE-TO-ENERGY: Reducing Emissions of Greenhouse Gases with Clean, Reliable, Renewable Power
By Frank Giordano, Municipal Waste Management Association Trustee
May 9, 2005
The IWSA can provide important reports detailing how waste-to-energy avoids the release of greenhouse gases emissions into the atmosphere (www.wte.org). Other sources of information: The Impact of Municipal Solid Waste Management on Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States, by K.A. Weitz, Research Triangle Institute, S.A. Thorneloe, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and M. Zannes, IWSA, 2001 discusses the overall contribution, including waste-to-energy's part, in reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from proper solid waste management practices. IWSA also has reported for eight years to the U.S. Department of Energy. Copies of recent reports from IWSA to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) may be acquired from either IWSA or the U.S. Department of Energy Information Agency, Voluntary Reporting of Greenhouse Gases Program. A recent presentation at the 2004 North American Waste-to-Energy Conference (NAWTEC), Accrediting Greenhouse Gas Credits for Marketing The Saugus Experience, explains how the EPA's Decision Support Tool was used to quantify the amount of greenhouse gas emissions avoided through the operation of the Saugus, Massachusetts waste-to-energy facility. Other studies documenting the significant positive impact waste-to-energy facilities offer towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions included Municipal Waste-to-Energy Facilities Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, by Hunter F. Taylor (1990); Incineration Waste and The Greenhouse Effect, by K.L.E. Nystrom (1993); The Waste-to-Energy Sector and the Mitigation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, by S. Fotis and D. Sussman (1996); and Greenhouse Gas Abatement: Assessing WTE and Landfill Disposal, by D. Batchelor, D. Eeraerts and P. Smits (2002). The Waste-to-Energy Research & Technology Council (WTERT) is another excellent source of information regarding greenhouse gases emissions reductions. For more information, go to WTERTs website at http://www.seas.columbia.edu/earth/wtert/wtertpublications
While Congress and the Administration debate the likelihood of national strategies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, America's mayors have acted in innovative ways. City buses burn cleaner fuels. City halls practice energy conservation. But the biggest contribution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions may come from a most unlikely place: taking out (and disposing of) the garbage.
Trash pickup and disposal is a basic city service. No one is happy if the trash doesn't get picked up, and put down in a safe place. The hunt for safe, reliable and environmentally sound garbage disposal led many U.S. cities to build and operate waste-to-energy plants. Waste-to-energy facilities produce clean, renewable energy through the combustion of municipal solid waste in specially designed power plants equipped with the most modern pollution control equipment to clean emissions. Waste-to-energy facilities reduce Trash volume is reduced by 90 percent, and the remaining residue is regularly tested and consistently meets strict EPA standards, allowing reuse or disposal in landfills. There are 89 waste-to-energy plants operating in 27 states managing about 13 percent of America's trash, or about 95,000 tons each day. Waste-to-energy facilities generate about 2,500 megawatts of electricity to meet the power needs of nearly 2.3 million homes, and the facilities while serving the trash disposal needs of more than 36 million people. The $10 billion waste-to-energy industry employs more than 6,000 American workers with annual wages in excess of $400 million.
There are numerous benefits to waste-to-energy facilities, but one of the biggest and until now most overlooked is its contribution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere.
How does waste-to-energy reduce Greenhouse Gases emitted into the atmosphere?
When trash decomposes, it produces methane a powerful greenhouse gas. Waste-to-energy facilities avoid land disposal, and thus the potential methane emissions. Similarly, the electricity produced by waste-to-energy facilities displaces burning of fossil fuels for energy and the carbon dioxide that otherwise would be emitted from conventional power plants.
The resulting greenhouse gas savings are significant. The use of waste-to-energy technology prevents the release of forty million metric tons of greenhouse gases in the form of carbon dioxide equivalents that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere on an annual basis, according to an analysis developed by the EPA and the Integrated Waste Services Association (IWSA). Annual reporting by IWSA to the U.S. Department of Energy's Voluntary Reporting of Greenhouse Gases Program confirms that waste-to-energy also prevents the release each year of nearly 24,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 2.6 million tons of volatile organic compounds from being released into entering the atmosphere each year.
Researchers also looked at the savings gained by operation of a waste-to-energy facility operating near Boston. The Saugus, Massachusetts, waste-to-energy plant safely handles 1,500 tons of trash each day and generates 37 megawatts of power. The analysis, using a model developed by EPA, included information about alternative landfill disposal, plant emissions, trash composition and other plant'specific data. The study determined that the release of more than 270,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions are avoided annually because of this one plant's operations. Company officials currently are talking to greenhouse gas credit brokers about marketing the reductions to buyers of GHG credits.
Cities with waste-to-energy facilities may soon be able to take real credit for the greenhouse gas savings attributable to their disposal plants. While there are only a few voluntary markets for greenhouse gas credits in America at the moment, a future marketplace is nonetheless expected to be robust. Buying and selling of greenhouse gases emissions credits offers cities financial reward for good city planning. Studies have quantified greenhouse gas avoidance credits attributable to the waste-to-energy facilities. Such studies show that America's cities have taken center stage with efforts to control global warming, and waste-to-energy facilities play an important role in those efforts.
Frank Giordano is a Trustee of the Municipal Waste Management Association, the environmental affiliate of The U.S. Conference of Mayors. He serves as Executive Director of the Pollution Control Financing Authority of Camden County, New Jersey.