Why is Energy-from-Waste slow to catch on in the U.S.?


Nithin Coca reports in TriplePundit that Energy-from-Waste (EfW) is growing fast in Europe and parts of Asia. But it’s relatively stagnant here in the United States. In fact, the percentage of waste we burn for energy is actually slightly down in the past five years. What’s holding the U.S. back from this potentially sustainable solution?

This stagnation is even more surprising when you consider that the past decade has seen a real energy shift in the U.S., as coal usage falls and renewable energy grows. Here’s the problem – it’s not enough. We’re still burning far too much fossil fuel, and not utilizing enough low- or zero-carbon alternatives like energy-from-waste. Indeed, once recoverable materials are removed from a waste stream, burning the remains in a highly controlled incinerator can be a sustainable power solution.

So why hasn’t EfW taken off yet? Here’s what we uncovered, along with what it might take to bring change to our energy mix.

The U.S. is different

America, geographically, is unlike most of the countries leading on EfW. They tend to be high-density nations such as Germany, Denmark or the United Arab Emirates. Lack of readily available land space for landfills means that these nations have a much more difficult time managing waste than most of the U.S.

“Most of the countries that take advantage of waste-to-energy also have drastically higher population densities,” said Ryan Fitzpatrick, deputy director of the clean energy program at Third Way. Lacking space to build landfills, EfW thus provides a double benefit – energy and waste disposal – making it far more economically feasible.

Here in the U.S., we have plenty of land and plenty of landfills (probably too many). When it is so cheap to dump waste in landfills, there is little incentive to change waste management – and little reason to divert that waste to other uses.

In those few places where EfW makes sense, NIMBYism (“not in my backyard”) can deter local efforts to utilize it. When the country’s densest city, New York, looked at burning waste as a solution for its landfill crisis, residents refused to allow facilities to be built in their neighborhoods for fear of environmental pollution, even though planners said the facilities would have been quite clean. Still, the community effort was enough to dampen EfW efforts in New York City, and the garbage problem there is only getting worse.

The final concern is cost. EfW is not necessarily cheap, and it requires large upfront costs to build facilities. Thus, it can have a tough time competing.

“The U.S. . . . has ample energy resources,” Fitzpatrick explained. “While cheap and abundant natural gas definitely has its benefits, it does make it tough for other useful energy technologies like waste-to-energy, nuclear and some renewables to compete on price.”

Is energy-from-waste feasible?

And it isn’t just cost concerns holding back EfW in the U.S. One major concern is pollution. There has been pushback in several European countries due to the byproducts of incineration.

After coal is burned, toxic coal ash remains and is often left in giant coal ash ponds which can, sometimes, break. EfW facilities also need to dispose of low levels of dangerous ash. This is not always done properly: for example, in 2015, Swedish authorities were caught dumping toxic incinerator waste on an island near the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

These challenges mean that EfW is probably not a broad, large-scale solution. Still, there is space for EfW, if done properly and with the best technology. In fact, many argue it is a necessary step in larger efforts to draw down carbon, given that landfills themselves can contribute to global warming.

Policy changes

Another factor driving the growth of EfW in Europe and parts of Asia is that those countries have more fixed national waste and energy policies. The U.S., by contrast, features a patchwork of regulations that make it tough for investors to commit to the higher front-end costs of an energy-from-waste plant.

“It’s hard to plan a long-term project with only short-term certainty in your financial incentives,” Fitzpatrick told us. “Some other mechanism would be needed to properly incentivize new waste-to-energy plants.”

EfW is eligible for subsidies or tax breaks in the U.S., though in reality, it is hard to access those benefits.

This needs to change if EfW is to ever grow in the U.S. For Fitzpatrick, the reason is not to promote a single solution, but address the fact that we need to add more clean energy quickly.

“Climate change is the existential threat of our time, and we’re going to need a huge array of tools to drastically cut emissions from every sector of our economy and meet our national goals,” he said. “Waste-to-energy can certainly help with that . . . I guarantee you we’d see a lot more than we do today if our state and federal policies adequately priced CO2 and/or valued low-carbon options.”

EfW, if done properly, can be an essential part of the U.S. energy and waste management mix in certain contexts. But chances are our unique situation will mean it will never be as large a source of energy as in other, denser countries. And that’s absolutely fine.

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia. Follow Nithin Coca @excinit

Image: Incinerator (waste-to-energy plant; waste incineration plant), Industry Park Höchst, Hesse, Germany. Presumably the largest incinerator in Germany with a capacity of about 675,000 tons per year. (Image credit: Norbert Nagel via Wikimedia Commons)

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