Clean Energy from Waste and Coal


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How to achieve sustainable energy?

In a moment of fundamental transformation in the energy sector, three realities of waste incineration demonstrate the need for stronger definitions of renewable energy and lend support to grassroots efforts fighting to close the 76 waste incinerators that continue to operate across the country today:. Incinerators have proven risky investments for cities and utilities, particularly as energy prices decline and a growing number of plants are unable to cover operating costs or remain competitive.

Tip fees i. Incinerators also lose in a jobs comparison; composting sites, for example, can create four times the number of local jobs per unit of waste processed than incinerators.

The stinkiest, dirtiest, nastiest renewable energy you never heard of | Grist

Pollution produced by burning garbage subjects communities near waste incinerators — disproportionately made up of low-income, people of color — to harmful, costly, and avoidable public health risks. A majority of incinerators 52 out of 76 operating plants or 68 percent are located in states that classify municipal solid waste incineration as a renewable source of energy, as illustrated below. Such definitions, promoted by the incineration industry, make burning trash eligible for subsidies that put the practice in direct competition with renewable energy projects including wind and solar.

The report concludes by outlining ways to combat this dirty industry, calling on state legislators to strengthen laws that ensure resources and clean energy commitments billed as renewable are in fact so. It provides recommendations for how communities can instead invest in healthier, more economic, and ultimately more sustainable waste management and energy systems.

Waste incinerators are dirty and expensive. Despite this reality, many states classify the energy produced by burning garbage as a renewable resource. Today, as many as 23 states allow municipal solid waste incineration to be counted toward their renewable requirements or goals.

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Including incineration in legal definitions of renewable energy hampers investments in cleaner, more equitable sources of local energy and waste management alternatives. Instead, investments in distributed and renewable resources like solar provide electric customers——individually and collectively——with greater choice over the source and structure of their energy system.

Investing in recycling and composting programs to manage our waste builds wealth locally, creates jobs, enhances soils, and helps support more resilient and healthy communities. Today, 76 aging municipal solid waste incinerators across the U. Most trash incinerators in the U. Low-cost, nearby landfills filled up, while interstate battles were waged over where solid waste could be sent. The incineration industry capitalized on the s Energy Crisis by promoting energy production as a byproduct.

This policy allowed incinerators to sell electricity to public utilities through power purchase contracts, providing an additional source of revenue. According to experts, most municipal solid waste incinerators were designed to operate for a maximum of thirty or forty years. Since few new plants have been built since the s — the last incinerator built on a new site in Dickerson, Md.

Such projects are undertaken to comply with air quality standards, extend the lifespan of their units, or increase their electricity generation capacity. Although several incinerators have closed in recent years and more closures are anticipated, [3] the following map of incinerators from the U. Energy Information Administration EIA illustrates where incineration facilities with capacity of at least 1 megawatt historically operated and clustered.

At the time that these data were published, EIA estimates municipal solid waste incinerators could generate about 2.

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On average, Americans have thrown away more garbage over time, and total solid waste generated per capita in the U. However, both the amount and share of residential and commercial waste heading to incinerators has generally levelled off since its peak in the s, as illustrated below. Incineration pales in comparison to other solid waste management strategies. In , roughly half of all municipal solid waste in the U.

Electricity from waste incinerators also represents a small fraction of electricity generation. As noted earlier, estimated energy generation capacity of operating incinerators was about 2. For comparison, more than Decades-old incinerators are quickly becoming obsolete, as both cleaner waste management strategies, including recycling and composting, and cleaner energy from wind, solar, and storage technologies, expand.

Still, unlike coal plants, which are shuttering at a rapid pace, aging incinerators have managed to hang on and continue operating.

One state representative found this disconnect rather absurd. When accounting for the embodied, life-cycle energy — that is, the amount of energy used to source, manufacture, and transport materials for consumption — of solid waste burned at incinerators, there is a net energy loss. In general, recycling or composting the items typically found in municipal solid waste streams offers energy savings.

But by creating a market for the electricity produced by burning solid waste, incinerators discourage efforts to conserve resources, reduce packaging and waste, or recycle and compost. Instead of turning waste into energy, incinerators are wasting energy — and money. Capital costs for new waste incinerators, as well as their operation, maintenance, and meeting regulatory compliance of these facilities, are no small investment for local governments. HERC has not always met its operating costs or debt obligations, relying on county subsidies to continue operating.

Some knew better than to expect an economic windfall from incineration. Lawmakers in Rhode Island passed a law in the early s, for example, banning municipal solid waste incineration in the state. What Rhode Island had the foresight to realize, other communities have had to learn the hard way. In , for example, hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and debt guarantees that Harrisburg, Pa. Not only do incinerators cost a lot to build and operate, but they are also rarely cost-competitive compared to other forms of local waste management. Incineration costs at the HERC in Minnesota have fluctuated but never fallen low enough to compete with alternatives.

An illustration of these waste management strategies, costs, and savings from recycling and composting in both Baltimore and Hennepin County, is below. Unfortunately, by spending public dollars on tip fees at incinerators, local governments may not have many resources left to invest in more cost-effective recycling or composting sites and programs. Incinerators also lose out in a job creation comparison. An analysis comparing the employment impacts of different waste management strategies by ILSR Composting for Community Initiative illustrates how compost sites can create four times the number of jobs per unit of waste as incinerators.

Incinerators generate harmful pollution posing a risk to human health in nearby communities. Burning trash releases dioxin, lead, and mercury in many areas, incinerators are the largest sources of these pollutants , [26] greenhouse gas emissions including both biogenic sources and carbon dioxide, [27] and hazardous ash. The CO2 is produced when coal is burnt. Burning coal also releases substances harmful to human health, like mercury, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxides.

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Waste of Energy

It is estimated that thousands of deaths every year can be attributed to these pollutants. Not all coal plant conversions are energy-producing ventures. Google is turning one old facility in Alabama into a data centre. Although it has abandoned more than coal plants , China still relies heavily on this dusty black fossil fuel for its energy needs.

And Germany, which has decided to close all of its nuclear power stations, currently gets more than a fifth of its energy from coal, including lignite — an even more polluting form of the fuel. Meanwhile, some markets have questioned coal and then returned to it. At the time, politicians believed the facility would close within 10 years but then electricity prices in the region hit the roof. Faith in coal may not always be rewarded, though.

In Poland, energy giant PGE has been investing heavily in old coal infrastructure, hoping to keep coal units burning for years to come.

Why Indonesia

But this costs hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when the price of renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, is falling rapidly. Take biomass. But not everyone agrees that this truly makes biomass carbon-neutral. Echoing the main pro-biomass arguments, one boss at Drax tells me this is offset by replenishing the forests that supplied the biomass in the first place. But it takes new trees decades to grow. Plus, on a global scale, forests are shrinking in size overall.

True, but not enough to convince some environmentalists. Drax is hoping to mitigate its emissions in another way: with a pilot of bioenergy carbon capture storage BECCS technology.


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Gases from burning biomass at the plant will, if it all goes ahead, be passed through a solvent that reacts with emitted CO2 , capturing it before it enters the atmosphere. This CO2 can then be retrieved so that the solvent can be used for capture again and again. There clearly can be life after coal. But if we are to make the most of these lumbering old plants, we need to be savvy, green-minded and prepared to pay in advance for meaningful results. Coal powered the world for many decades. It was a symbol of Victorian achievement.

Instead of simply sweeping it away, we might well benefit from making novel use of the structures that the once great industry is leaving behind. We have also clarified the number of generating units at Drax that are currently devoted to biomass. We regret the errors. If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.

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Clean Energy from Waste and Coal Clean Energy from Waste and Coal
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Clean Energy from Waste and Coal Clean Energy from Waste and Coal
Clean Energy from Waste and Coal Clean Energy from Waste and Coal
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