Waste-To-Energy Facilities: A Successful Alternative To Landfills
The Covanta plant in Long Beach processes 1,380 tons of waste per day. (Meg Morris)
Standing seven stories above the tipping floor at the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility in Long Beach, a mixture of noises make earplugs a necessity. The jerky sounds from the hydraulics of two huge cranes maneuvering over a towering avalanche of refuse clash with the roaring motors of garbage trucks depositing trash on the floor. Furnaces and spinning turbines rumble in other chambers of the plant, while fans constantly hum in the background.
This scene is the first stop in a typical waste-to-energy (or WTE) facility. WTE is the practice of burning garbage to create energy. Plants such as the one in Long Beach primarily burn municipal waste--garbage consisting of everything and anything that people throw away in their homes. The heat generated from the burning trash converts water into a steam that spins turbines to create electricity, referred to as energy-from-waste.
According to Covanta Energy, the nation's largest energy-from-waste corporation and the company that runs SERRF, a typical kitchen-sized trash bag contains enough power to feed a 100-watt light bulb for more than 24 hours. This electricity can be utilized by the plant itself and sold to local power companies, while the surrounding community benefits through convenient waste disposal and revenue from the facilities.
"The biggest advantage is we can control our own destiny," said Charlie Tripp, the manager at Long Beach's Electric Generation Bureau.
Since SERRF was opened in 1988, Long Beach has been able to keep waste disposal costs down for residents and has generated millions of dollars in revenue. In the last 11 years alone, the plant has contributed close to $60 million to the city's general fund, much of it through the $48 "tipping fee" it charges trucks to deposit their trash at the facility.
"About 40 percent [of the waste] comes from Long Beach," said David Hopper, the business and accounting manager for Covanta at SERRF. "The rest comes from Lakewood, Culver City, Orange County."
SERRF processes 1,380 tons of waste each day, generating enough energy to power 35,000 homes.
Though owned by the city, SERRF has been operated by Covanta since 1994. Each year, Covanta plants process around 20 million tons of municipal solid waste, or over 5 percent of the United States' total. This conserves more than 25 million cubic yards of landfill space annually. For every one ton of waste burned, the energy created also replaces the need to import one barrel of oil and consequently avoids the emission of one ton of greenhouse gas.
"The first thing to do is reduce and then recycle or reuse," Hopper said of managing waste. "But when you're all done, all of us--we throw something away. So what do you want to do? Do you take it to the landfill or do you want to capture the energy that's in it?"
The Rise of WTE
Long Beach first began exploring WTE in the late 1970s, right after Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act. The act mandated that utilities purchase power from non-utility sources, such as solar- and wind-generated energy. Many WTE facilities were then built across the country throughout the 1980s, including SERRF and two other plants like it in California.
"The Puente Hills landfill was supposed to close in 1983, so we embarked on a program to explore different waste options," Tripp said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans deposit over 50 percent of their municipal solid waste in landfills, down from 89 percent in 1980. The country's landmass and the cheap cost of landfills account for their popularity. Yet despite strict government regulations, landfills present many environmental challenges, such as leaking toxins into groundwater supplies and emitting methane gas as the trash decomposes. While the number of programs that convert this harmful greenhouse gas to power is increasing, many landfills still emit methane unabated.
"We're now starting finally to look at the gases that are coming out of landfills," said Meg Morris, director of Covanta's environmental science and community affairs department. "Well-recognized scientists and well-recognized agencies [are saying] 'Maybe all that methane isn't that good. Maybe we should be recovering residual materials before we put anything into a landfill.'"
For Long Beach, being able to bring a portion of its waste to SERRF was an attractive and green alternative to the 42-mile round trip journey to Puente Hills. This trip not only required fossil fuels to transport the trash, but was also wearing on the trucks themselves.
Communities on the East Coast dealt with similar issues.
The city of Bristol in Central Connecticut began exploring WTE in the late 1970s when their landfill was about to fill up. Through a partnership with other cities in the area, it opened a WTE facility--now also owned by Covanta--in 1988. The plant burns 650 tons of waste per day and powers 10,000 homes.
"It's actually been cost effective for the communities," said John Leone, Jr., who served as mayor of Bristol during the 1980s.. "A lot of their [waste management] prices are held down because they work together."
Creating these new plants did not come without concerns. Citizens in Bristol were worried about truck traffic, noise, odors and possible toxins. But research by the city and state concluded that the facility would be safe and clean enough to build both an industrial park and a hotel nearby.
"All in all, it passed everything with flying colors," Leone said of the tests. "It's one of the better projects we did as a community."
American WTE plants are held to high state and federal emissions standards. SERRF uses a system called continuous emissions monitoring where all aspects of the WTE process are constantly scrutinized by engineers from within and outside of the company. While there have been cases of accidental fires in WTE facilities over the years, the EPA has stated that the energy-from-waste process produces power "with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity."
"We're continuously improving and complying with any laws that are passed," Hopper said, citing state assembly bills, air quality control standards and regulations mandated by the EPA. "We meet or exceed all the requirements."
Despite these reassurances, there is still opposition. In cities across the country there have been numerous controversies over WTE facilities.
Some communities fear emissions, while others feel that they will eliminate the drive to recycle, conserve or compost.
"They have opinions formed from the past," Nickolas Themelis, founder and chairman of the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council at Columbia University, said of critics. "There was one time where these plants were big emitters of dioxins...before people realized this was a problem...Go and see any other developed country. They make great use of these plants."
Negative reactions in the U.S. contrast WTE's general acceptance and widespread use in Asia and Europe.
"We choose to ignore the effect that [WTE has had] in places like Denmark and Germany," Morris said.
According to a recent New York Times article, Denmark alone has 29 WTE plants in a country of 5.5 million people, while the U.S. has 87 for a country of 300 million people. Many of the Danish plants are adjacent to communities and neighborhoods without issue.
Future of WTE
Nationally, there are no plans to give government money to support the research or construction of WTE plants. At the beginning of May, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture announced a plan to fund biomass research and development, but it focuses more on plant-based fuels and products than on using waste to create energy.
"The simplest way to think about biomass is [as] a waste product," said Jeff Waffenschmidt, Covanta's vice president of environmental science and community affairs. "We should combust it to make power and then sell it into the grid."
Utilizing biomass or waste in this manner might help California, which struggles to meet its energy needs. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an order in 2006 mandating the state to "meet a 20 percent target within the established state goals for renewable generation for 2010 and 2020" for electricity from biomass. The state's "2009 Progress to Plan Bioenergy Action Plan for California" found that WTE will be an essential part of meeting these goals.
"Without major initiatives to make legislative and regulatory changes, and state and federal financial incentives and policies that recognize the benefits of using 'waste' material for energy, California will fall far short of the goals outlined," the plan concluded.
Ultimately, however, increasing the number of WTE plants in California and the U.S. may come down to community activism.
"It's the local governments that have to be convinced and have to invite them in," said Jill Buck, founder and executive director of the environmental awareness group the Go Green Initiative.
Though the initiative is based in Southern California, Buck has discussed environmentally friendly options with many schools and communities throughout the U.S. "Many didn't even know they had energy-from-waste as an option," she said.
Whether or not the awareness and acceptance of WTE as an energy source increase, greener solutions will be an essential part of addressing the environmental challenges associated with how the U.S. handles waste and energy.
"In the end, energy is going to be one of the most important issues that we face over the next 100 years," Waffenschmidt said. "What we're trying to do is successfully communicate to the outside world so they can see energy and waste as a component of the overall waste management system."