Is it better to burn or bury waste for clean electricity generation?


The use of municipal solid waste (MSW) to generate electricity through landfill-gas-to-energy (LFGTE) and waste-to-energy (WTE)projectsrepresentsroughly14%ofU.S.nonhydrorenewable electricity generation. Although various aspects of LFGTE and WTE have been analyzed in the literature, this paper is the first to present a comprehensive set of life-cycle emission factors per unit of electricity generated for these energy recovery options. In addition, sensitivity analysis is conducted on key inputs (e.g., efficiency of the WTE plant, landfill gas management schedules, oxidation rate, and waste composition) to quantify the variability in the resultant life-cycle emissions estimates. Whilemethanefrom landfills results from the anaerobic breakdown of biogenic materials, the energy derived from WTE results from the combustion of both biogenic and fossil materials. The greenhouse gas emissions for WTE ranges from 0.4 to 1.5 MTCO2e/MWh, whereas the most agressive LFGTE scenerio results in 2.3 MTCO2e/MWh. WTE also produces lower NOx emissions than LFGTE, whereas SOx emissions depend on the specific configurations of WTE and LFGTE.

In response to increasing public concern over air pollution and climate change, the use of renewable energy for electricity generation has grown steadily over the past few decades. Between 2002 and 2006, U.S. renewable electricity generationsas a percent of total generationsgrew an average of 5% annually (1), while total electricity supply grew by only 1% on average (2). Support mechanisms contributing to the growth of renewables in the United States include corporate partnership programs, investment tax credits, renewable portfolio standards, and green power markets. These mechanisms provide electric utilities, investment firms, corporations, governments, and private citizens with a variety of ways to support renewable energy development. With several competing renewable alternatives, investment and purchasing decisions should be informed, at least in part, by rigorous life-cycle assessment (LCA).

In 2005, a total of 245 million tons ofMSWwas generated in the United States, with 166 million tons discarded to landfills (3). Despite the increase in recycling and composting rates, the quantity of waste disposed to landfills is still significant and expected to increase. How to best manage the discarded portion of the waste remains an important consideration, particularly given the electricity generation options. Although less prominent than solar and wind, the use of municipal solid waste (MSW) to generate electricity represents roughly 14% of U.S. nonhydro renewable electricity generation (1). In this paper we compare two options for generating electricity from MSW. One method, referred to as landfill-gas-to-energy (LFGTE), involves the collection of landfill gas (LFG) (50% CH4 and 50% CO2), which is generated through the anaerobic decomposition of MSW in landfills. The collected LFG is then combusted in an engine or a turbine to generate electricity.Asecond method, referred to as waste-to-energy (WTE) involves the direct combustion of MSW, where the resultant steam is used to run a turbine and electric generator.

Clean Air Act (CAA) regulations require capture and control ofLFGfrom large landfills by installing a gas collection system within 5 years of waste placement (4). The gas collection system is expanded to newer areas of the landfill as more waste is buried. Not all LFG is collected due to delays in gas collection from initial waste placement and leaks in the header pipes, extraction wells, and cover material. Collected gas can be either flared or utilized for energy recovery. As of 2005, there were 427 landfills out of 1654 municipal landfills in the United States with LFGTE projects for a total capacity of 1260 MW. It is difficult to quantify emissions with a high degree of certainty since emissions result from biological processes that can be difficult to predict, occur over multiple decades, and are distributed over a relatively large area covered by the landfill.

CAA regulations require that all WTE facilities have the latest in air pollution control equipment (5). Performance data including annual stack tests and continuous emission monitoring are available for all 87 WTE plants operating in 25 states. Since the early development of this technology, there have been major improvements in stack gas emissions controls for both criteria and metal emissions. The performance data indicate that actual emissions are less than regulatory requirements. Mass burn is the most common and established technology in use, though various MSW combustion technologies are described in ref 6. All WTE facilities in the United States recover heat from the combustion process to run a steam turbine and electricity generator.

Policy-makers appear hesitant to support new WTE through new incentives and regulation. Of the 30 states that have state-wide renewable portfolio standards, all include landfill gas as an eligible resource, but only 19 include wasteto- energy (7). While subjective judgments almost certainly play a role in the preference for LFGTE over WTE, there is a legitimate concern about the renewability of waste-toenergy. While the production of methane in landfills is the result of the anaerobic breakdown of biogenic materials, a significant fraction of the energy derived from WTE results from combusting fossil-fuel-derived materials, such as plastics. Countering this effect, however, is significant methane leakagesranging from 60% to 85%sfrom landfills (8). Since methane has a global warming potential of 21 times that of CO2, the CO2e emissions from LFGTE may be larger than those from WTE despite the difference in biogenic composition.

Although WTE and LFGTE are widely deployed and analyzed in the literature (9-13), side-by-side comparison of the life-cycle inventory (LCI) emission estimates on a mass per unit energy basis is unavailable. LCI-based methods have been used to evaluate and compare solid waste management (SWM) unit operations and systems holistically to quantify either the environmental impacts or energy use associated withSWMoptions in the broad context ofMSWmanagement (14-16).

The purpose of this paper is to present a comprehensive set of life-cycle emission factorssper unit of electricity generatedsfor LFGTE and WTE. In addition, these emission factors are referenced to baseline scenarios without energy recovery to enable comparison of the emissions of LFGTE and WTE to those of other energy sources. While the methodology presented here is applicable to any country, this analysis is based on U.S. waste composition, handling, and disposal, with which the authors are most familiar. In addition, parametric sensitivity analysis is applied to key input parameters to draw robust conclusions regarding the emissions from LFGTE and WTE. The resultant emission factors provide critical data that can inform the development of renewable energy policies as well as purchasing and investmentdecisions for renewable energy projects in the prevailing marketplace.

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