Leveraging microgrids in waste-to-energy applications

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Courtesy of Waste Advantage Magazine

What do the waste-to-energy and real estate sectors have in common? In both, location is the key factor influencing the bottom line. Although waste-to-energy conversion technologies continue to improve their efficiency, energy will always be worth more when it is in the right location. With rising energy costs and increasing concern over electric power reliability and sustainability, the potential for waste-to-energy operations to sell electric and thermal energy directly to energy consumers is increasingly attractive. Located close to areas of dense, high-energy demand such as urban centers, some conversion operations are beginning to look at microgrids as a means of tapping into this exploding market.

What is a Microgrid?
A microgrid is an energy system comprised of local energy resources that generate and deliver electric and thermal energy to multiple users. Not all locations are suited to exploit the benefits of microgrids. Landfills, waste processing and recovery facilities far from substantial loads are generally not ideal candidates. However, a wastewater treatment plant in the heart of a city, surrounded by potential energy off takers is a promising fit for microgrid development, as is a hospital or hospital campus that considers processing its medical waste onsite to recapture some of those expensive tipping fees. In fact, many waste-to-energy operations currently selling electricity into the transmission queue at wholesale rates stand to substantially increase revenue by selling energy to nearby consumers over a microgrid—at retail rates.

Consider gasified waste, a particularly rich source for energy generation (see “Gasification of Refuse- Derived Fuels for Lower Cost, More Efficient”: Waste Advantage Magazine, March 2011). A microgrid is a powerful tool to ensure that generation resources— such as fuel from gasified waste—are optimally exploited. By maintaining a connection to the local utility feed, a microgrid treats utility grid power as just one of the available power resources at its disposal. Typically, it will employ combined heat and power (CHP) to maximize generating efficiencies. By capturing and delivering the thermal energy generated in the process of electric generation, a microgrid with CHP can achieve efficiencies around 80 percent, far better than the national average of generation efficiency—only 33 percent. Microgrids make it possible for energy users to buy locally generated energy, both thermal and electric, directly.

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