Waste-to-energy plants have a controversial history in the United States. The first plant was built in the mid-1970s in Saugus, Mass., and is still active today. But in the 1980s, residents in suburban towns across the United States where trash-to-energy plants were being proposed debated vigorously whether the financial benefits to the municipality outweighed environmental risks.
Even though these waste management facilities were quite different from the trash incinerators commonly used until a few decades earlier, the stigma of those old pollution-emitting burners would not die easily. Add to that the rumors that organized-crime-backed trash haulers were getting into the business and the technology faced a steep hurdle to gain acceptance.
Even today, despite significant technology advances, and rules that qualify some waste-to-energy plants as renewable energy, there is still some skepticism.
But the case in favor of waste-to-energy plants can be compelling. Few make a better argument than John (Bucky) Kitto—an ASME Fellow and a former member of the Board of Governors—and Larry Hiner, who co-authored this month’s cover story, “Clean Power from Burning Trash,” on page 32. Kitto was the Babcock and Wilcox development manager for the Palm Beach Waste-to-Energy Project they describe and Hiner is the project developer for industrial steam generation at B&W.
The facility generates enough electricity to power 44,000 homes in Palm Beach County, Fla., and reduces the volume of waste to be landfilled by 90 percent. All the while, earning millions of dollars annually from the sale of electric power to the local power company and reclaiming metals left in municipal waste after recycling. From an environmental perspective, the plant helps eliminate the burial of problematic wastes that emit volatile organic compounds and chemicals. Plus the emissions are as low, or lower, than the cleanest gas-fired turbine generators.
It is the “cleanest, most efficient plant of its kind in the world,” Kitto and Hiner boast.
Unlike the U.S., where fewer than 80 facilities are in operation, communities in Europe short on landfill space have turned to waste-to-energy plants. Nearly a quarter of all municipal solid waste in Europe is burned in nearly 500 facilities across the continent. Countries with the highest rates of garbage incineration—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden incinerate at least half their waste—also have high rates of recycling and composting of organic materials and food waste.
The Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility No. 2 is the first greenfield waste-to-energy plant for municipal solid waste built in the United States in two decades. I’ve yet to visit the facility, but from conversations with Kitto, and photos he showed me that didn’t make the final layout, it’s clear that this architecturally beautiful plant is nothing like the ones I toured years ago.
But even as the design of this facility is the envy of many modern office buildings, it pales in comparison to a waste-to- energy plant in Copenhagen, Denmark. It features a roof-wide artificial ski slope open to the public. If that doesn’t change the perception of incineration plants, then maybe the renewable energy efficiency will.