Burning waste better than burying it

Waste-to-energy can help Maryland meet its renewable portfolio target

April 05, 2011|By William F. Brandes

In the waning days of this year's session, the Maryland General Assembly is considering critical legislation to include waste-to-energy as a "Tier 1" renewable resource, putting it on a par with wind and solar. Waste-to-energy, or WTE, is a proven source of clean, renewable energy that converts municipal solid waste into electricity and steam via combustion. It is essential that this material be categorized as renewable and that this legislation be passed. By doing so, Maryland would continue to lead the way toward producing renewable energy.

Recent events in Japan and continuing turmoil in the Middle East make it even more imperative that the United States develop domestic sources of renewable energy that capitalize on existing, continuously available resources, like municipal waste.

For 30 years, I served proudly in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, focusing on finding sources of energy from materials that would otherwise be thrown away. During that time, it was abundantly clear to me that this country needs to promote the recovery of clean energy from waste materials because there was a potentially large amount of energy available that can be recovered via proven technologies. We conducted studies that showed modern WTE facilities provide the strongest opportunity to recover renewable energy from waste materials. We calculated that up to 4 percent of the nation's total electricity demand could be provided by converting municipal solid waste into energy. Modern WTE is clean and efficient, recovering between 550 and 750 kilowatts of electricity per ton of waste.

The United States generates a massive amount of trash — an estimated 260 million to 410 million tons per year. Only 7 percent is converted into energy. The majority, some 60 percent of it, is landfilled and therefore truly wasted (the rest is recycled). By contrast, many European nations convert up to 50 percent of their municipal waste to electricity and steam to heat and power homes and businesses.

Right now, nearly 3.5 million tons of Maryland's municipal waste is being landfilled each year. It is time to make sure that a significant part of this resource is converted into an essential commodity — energy — and not wasted via environmentally destructive disposal. We should do this even as we work to ramp up recycling and composting of that portion of the waste stream that is recyclable.

The Maryland Senate and House committees that are considering this legislation recently heard testimony from interested parties on the value of including WTE as a Tier 1 renewable resource (it is currently classified as Tier 2). Environmental groups were almost universally against it. They insist it is expensive, polluting and destructive to recycling rates.

I disagree with their analysis. Per-kilowatt hour rates for WTE are competitive. WTE facilities, including the three in Maryland, operate under the stringent air emissions standards promulgated by the EPA and implemented by the states. And nowhere in the world has it been shown that building up WTE capacity undermines needed, desirable recycling capacity.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Thomas M. Middleton, pressed the representatives of the environmental groups to answer a fundamental question: Would you rather post-recycling waste be landfilled, or used for energy recovery? Their ultimate answer was to prefer landfilling. To me, it makes no sense to oppose electricity created from material we all generate every day, that is produced and available around the clock, and that reduces overall emissions of greenhouse gases, in favor of throwing this resource away into landfills where it sits almost forever, generating methane and causing potential long-term environmental problems. I am even more convinced now, when nuclear energy is back under intense scrutiny, state renewable energy portfolios are in need of reliable energy sources, and fossil fuels continue to be environmentally problematic.

The General Assembly is on the right track in establishing meaningful policies that will bring Maryland more in line with successful policies in Europe that promote both recycling and waste-to-energy, while minimizing landfilling. This important legislation recognizes that waste-to-energy reduces net greenhouse gas emissions, exceeds compliance with the most stringent state and federal emissions regulations and is compatible with high recycling rates.

With passage of SB 690 and HB 1121, Maryland is poised to lead the way in the generation of clean, renewable energy from waste. We must continue this leadership role if we are to create market opportunities for renewable energy sources that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

William F. Brandes, an Easton resident, is an independent environmental consultant who has done consulting work for the waste-to-energy industry. He is the former chief of the Energy Recovery and Waste Disposal Branch in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery. His email is brandes.william@gmail.com.

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