On Not Wasting the Energy Potential in Waste

By Tim Portz | October 08, 2012

Biomass-to-energy projects often fail to attract investors and debt partners because of their inability to demonstrate a reliable and consistent feedstock plan along with some assurance of long-term price stability. Coupled with the fact that large volumes of biomass feedstocks often found well away from major population centers, it becomes readily apparent why biomass-to-energy projects often struggle to move beyond the conceptual stage.

Viewed in that context, municipal solid waste is a veritable dynamo as a feedstock. The U.S. EPA estimates that on average, every American generates nearly 4.5 pounds of waste each day. When it comes to waste, feedstock availability and population—and energy demand, by extension—are highly correlated. Waste also has a well-established, robust and efficient collection system that is paid for by collection tipping fees.

Why then, does the U.S. lag so far behind other parts of the world in waste to energy? The International Solid Waste Association reports that Europe boasts nearly five times more waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities than the U.S.  Perhaps the abundance of available land to dispose of waste plays a role. Waste professionals often talk of a mythical place known as “away,” a location that the public believes is the final destination for its refuse. When attempts are made to retrieve this valuable feedstock from “away” and produce energy from it, however, public outcry often begins. Opponents of WtE facilities quickly hang the “garbage burner” label on a project and developers find themselves forced into a public education role to keep their project moving forward.

This month’s issue of Biomass Magazine is nothing if not a firm reminder that the WtE industry in this country continues to innovate and evolve in spite of the rampant misinformation that persists about its technologies and environmental footprint. Anna Simet’s feature “Maximizing Metal Recovery” highlights the value delivered to WtE facilities and the general public through the continued advances made in front- and back-end metal recovery at these facilities. Luke Geiver’s feature on downdraft gasification is not only a compelling technology feature, but also reinforces how WtE projects so often solve multiple problems simultaneously.

Waste does not go “away,” nor should it. In all forms it carries energy, and because of its long list of advantages as a feedstock, developers will continue to eye it for conversion into power, thermal energy and, increasingly, liquid fuels. While the general public can wring their hands, our industry knows that a refusal to capture energy from this ubiquitous feedstock would be an incredible waste.