One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Energy

Spokane, Wash., officials were simply looking for a way to deal with the city’s solid waste two decades ago when they stumbled upon a solution that could turn that trash into treasure.

City officials and the community made the decision to invest in a waste-to-energy facility, burning solid waste from the Spokane region to create energy. City Administrator Theresa Sanders said the waste-to-energy facility has given Spokane a solution to the solid waste issue that is environmentally sound, and also gives the city an alternative energy and a new business opportunity.

“It’s a thing to find that sweet spot where you can make an investment to have those kinds of outcomes,” she said.

To maximize that new business opportunity, however, the city needed a little help from the state legislature. Although the Environmental Protection Agency designates electricity from municipal solid waste as a renewable energy, the state of Washington’s designation wouldn’t apply to the Spokane facility.

So the city made proposed legislation to grant renewable energy designation to electricity generated at its waste-to-energy plant its top legislative priority this year.

“It’s important because the value of the energy produced from a renewable source can be sold at market at a higher price, so it improves the profitability of the resource,” she said.

Job Creation

That designation also helps in economic development, she said.

“We have an opportunity to connect businesses to energy from a renewable source and that matters to business these days as they’re looking for site selection and areas to grow their companies,” said Sanders.

States across the country are looking into waste-to-energy for much the same reason as they are looking at other renewable energies. Job creation and retention are just part of that.

When Washington Sen. Brian Hatfield introduced the Legacy Biomass bill in this session, for instance, he was looking at helping the state’s timber industry. The bill was an amendment of sorts to Initiative 937, which set the state’s renewable energy standard in 2006. Senate Bill 5575 loosened the regulations of Initiative 937 to include new sources of biomass energy and allow biomass facilities in operation before 1999 to qualify as renewable energy.

Before this bill passed, only facilities built after March 31, 1999, qualified for renewable energy credits.

“Using the black liquors in the pulping process—basically wood chips and bark and things like that from the mills—to power those mills has been in operation for decades, if not almost 100 years,” Hatfield said.

The change, he said, helps to stabilize the portfolios of the timber industry and save jobs.

“The utility gets that credit. It helps with the bottom line of the mill, which of course, helps protect the desperately needed jobs in parts of rural Washington,” said Hatfield.

But jobs are just part of the benefits states and municipalities tout when advancing the idea of waste-to-energy facilities. They also see benefits in a reduction in energy costs and getting rid of an ever-growing supply of garbage.

Energy Costs

Many people may not know that Alaska—with its abundance of oil and natural gas—has some of the highest energy costs in the nation, Alaska Rep. Pete Petersen said. Diesel in some parts of the state costs about $6 a gallon, while electricity costs can be more than 50 cents per kilowatt-hour in some areas, he said. The average U.S. cost per kilowatt-hour for residences is 11.6 cents, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Alaska passed a renewable energy loan fund five years ago and has been putting around $50 million a year into it, Petersen said.

“In many cases, the goal is to displace diesel fuel with renewable energy,” he said.

With the dual problems of solid waste disposal and high energy costs, “waste-to-energy seems like a no-brainer to me,” Petersen said.

He introduced a resolution this year urging support for turning garbage into power for Alaska communities. His goal is simply to educate municipalities that waste-to-energy technology exists and can help lower energy costs.

“If you could displace 10 to 15 percent of your dependence on diesel, that would lower the cost per kilowatt-hour,” he said.

Petersen said Alaska is similar in climate to Sweden, which has a successful waste-to-energy program, producing electricity at a cost of less than 4 cents a kilowatt-hour in some cases. The technology is already in use at the Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. And Anchorage will be opening a facility in January 2013 that harnesses the natural gas from the regional landfill that will produce power for the equivalent of 2,500 homes, Petersen said.

Many Alaska municipalities are already burning trash in the colder months, he said, because the ground is sometimes too frozen to bury the garbage in landfills.

Solid Waste Disposal

Using that garbage to produce energy addresses Spokane’s original problem, and one that many cities still face today—disposing of an ever-growing pile of waste.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in March released a request for proposals to build a waste-to-energy plant as part of the city’s goal to double the amount of waste diverted from landfills. The city processes about 10,000 tons of waste per day, according to a press release from Bloomberg’s office.

“Using less and recycling more are the most effective ways to address the problem,” he said in a statement, “but this project will help us determine if some of that waste can be converted to safe, clean energy to meet the city’s growing power needs.”

But groups opposing the technology challenge any benefits the governments tout. The Natural Resources Defense Council, for instance, says the more trash burned in waste-to-energy facilities, the less trash is recycled.

“More than half the material going to existing waste-to-energy is either nonburnable glass and metals or recyclable paper, plastics, metals, glass, textiles,” said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist and director of the solid waste project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

He said building waste-to-energy plants is very costly, as is the process to produce energy at them. Hershkowitz argues that burning waste for energy is more costly than producing energy from coal, even with carbon capture, natural gas and oil.

“It is not a cheap way to produce energy,” he said.

In addition, Hershkowitz said states and municipalities could produce more jobs by investing more in recycling efforts rather than waste-to-energy plants.

“For every one job produced by incineration, 400 jobs are produced in paper recycling,” he said. “Almost 1,000 times more jobs are in plastics recycling compared to waste incineration.”

Sanders, whose city strives for one of the highest recycling rates in Washington, agrees any plan for waste-to-energy must include a comprehensive environmental plan that promotes recycling.

“I wholeheartedly agree with the environmental groups that we cannot ignore our opportunity to recycle and reuse post-market recycled materials,” she said. “We shouldn’t just burn them if we could use them in other ways.”

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