Waste to energy: Emissions no longer an issue

By | January 11, 2011

Emissions are no longer an issue when building waste-to-energy facilities today, thanks to technological innovations over the years. Rather, one of the biggest issues today is public perception and/or NIMBYism (not in my back yard).

That was one of the key points made during the second plenary panel, Maximizing an Embattled Biomass Stream: Waste-to-Energy Developments in the Pacific West, at BBI International’s Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show in Seattle, Jan. 10-12.

Three panelists discussed the benefits and advancements of waste to energy (WTE) and the nation’s increased demand for it, the challenges involved, and some examples of successful projects and investments.

Panel moderator Robert Grott, executive director of the Northwest Environmental Business Council, pointed out that many landfills in the Pacific West and across the country are at or nearing capacity, and options to reduce waste are limited. “We have technologies in development to convert trash into chemicals, heat, fuel and power but we face regulatory environments that make deployment of them nearly impossible,” he said. So for now and some time to come, waste to energy is the best available option.

Self-proclaimed garbage engineer Damon Taam, system contract manager for the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, said Spokane generates about 300,000 tons of the 5 million tons of waste Washington generates each year. Taam has spent more than 30 years in the WTE industry and played a significant role in the development of Spokane’s waste-to-energy facility, one of only three in the state. “It’s very clean, and very efficient and solves multiple problems for Spokane,” he said.

On the developer side, Taam points out that garbage is an attractive renewable energy resource. “It’s [attractive] because people pay you to take it, and you get energy from it and then people pay you for that. The development of renewable energy costs money, and this is a way to generate extra revenue.”

Because garbage is garbage there are some constraints, Taam admitted, but these constraints have to be overcome because the population is increasing and so is the amount of waste generated. “It’s a lot like a wastewater plant—it’s coming down the pipe, and you better take care of it,” he said.

Next, Waste Management-Pacific Northwest Area Vice President Dean Kattler discussed the company’s current waste-to-energy capacity, its investments in emerging technologies and plans for the future.

Waste Management’s Wheelabrator division currently operates 17 WTE facilities across the U.S., he said. The company is also involved in 124 landfill gas projects, is co-owner of the largest landfill gas-to-liquid natural gas plant in the country, and has investments in or partnerships with five WTE technology companies in North America.

One of the investments is a partnership with plasma enhanced melter technology company InEnTec, to form joint venture company S4 Energy Solutions. Together the companies have constructed a 25-ton-per-day (TPD) pilot facility in Arlington, Ore.,  at a Waste Management landfill, which is opening in early 2011 for testing.

The facility may be quite small, but Kettler points out that with WTE comes trial and error. “Scalability is a major concern with plasma gasification, so that’s why we’re taking very small steps with a 25-TPD facility,” he said. “You might have heard that plasma gasification is becoming the buzzword and there are some plants being built that are 200, 300 and 400 TPD, but we truly believe they are not sustainable and that technology isn’t ready for that size of commercial application at this stage.”

Final presenter Conrad Fichtner of AECOM discussed a study the company performed for Metro Vancouver to look at waste treatment, energy recovery and disposal solutions. Several options were explored, he said, including mechanical biological treatment, WTE (mass  burn), a new, remote landfill 200 miles away and various combinations.

AECOM’s findings were that WTE was the most economical option, and provided the best carbon dioxide benefits compared to landfilling. “Can you build a WTE facility in a big city? You bet you can,” Fichtner said. “We don’t need to be afraid of WTE from an emissions perspective anymore. There’s this [public] perception that we kill babies, but we don’t. In Canada, it isn’t regulatory issues, it’s public perception.”

On siting plants, Kettler admitted that the issues are rarely economic, rather, it’s a NIMBY situation. That’s the tough part. “You can show them all the graphs and charts all day long and show them everything but it’s still their mind state.”

On regulations, he said it’s usually just a matter of time. “You just have to have the patience,” he said.

Damon said the U.S. EPA is now a proponent for WTE facilities, rather than a hindrance. He said he gives more than 300 presentations a year to the public to inform them of the benefits of WTE. “We have to educate, educate, educate,” he said. “[In order to move forward] the community first needs to make the decision that this is a positive thing.”