Waste-to-energy is an innovative way to think about waste management and energy diversification. Ranjith Annepu, founder of the nonprofit ‘be Waste Wise,’ commented on how public perception of this energy source could be altered.
“I think change comes with new generations and increased availability of information and public dialogue,” Annepu said.
The following waste-to-energy facilities generate energy from municipal solid waste, the kind we throw away in our garbage cans every day. Not only are these power plants utilizing this resource, they’re doing it in style.
Sysav South Scania waste-to-energy facility in Malmö, Sweden
This waste-to-energy plant is the most energy efficient plant in Sweden and one of the most carbon-friendly plants in Europe.
The plant creates electricity and heat with waste from 500,000 citizens, and it’s used to sort, store, and recycle waste. The facility processes household, commercial, and hazardous wastes.
Waste-to-energy facility in Shenzhen, China
China plans to build the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant in the world, with construction set to end in 2020.
The facility will turn a third of Shenzhen’s trash into energy, processing 5,000 tons a day. The plant hopes to combat the large landfills and illegal dumps building up in the area.
The plant’s best feature is on-site renewable energy generation. Two-thirds of the facilities large rooftop will be covered in photovoltaic solar panels.
The facility will also feature a landscaped park and ramped walkway. The walkway offers visitors a look at the inside of the facility and access to a rooftop viewing platform.
Spittelau Incineration Plant
Built in 1971, a fire ironically destroyed major sections of the plant in 1987. When it was rebuilt, the new Spittelau was designed by environmentalist and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser as a work of art.
The plant now stands as a Viennese landmark, featuring an abstractly painted building, golden ball on its chimney, and green roof. By providing district heating and electricity to Vienna, the plant heats more than 60,000 households a year.
Waste-to-energy facility in Copenhagen, Denmark
If you ever take a trip to Copenhagen in the winter months, make sure to go skiing: on top of this waste-to-energy facility.
Due to finish construction in 2017, skiers at this site will be skiing on the roof of the energy plant. And that’s not all the facility features.
For every ton of CO2 burned, the power plant will emit a giant ring of steam into the sky. The smoke rings are a completely non-toxic representation of the toxic CO2 it emits.
This serves as a visible reminder of the plant’s environmental footprint and a tangible measurement of citizens’ waste habits. As citizens become more conscious of their waste habits and recycle, they will see less rings.
The trash we create every day is a resource that sits idly in landfills, generating methane emissions and seeping into the ground.
But what if this waste could be used for something useful?
Waste-to-energy is an alternative to traditional waste management. Many countries around the world have begun to turn to waste as a source of energy creation.
How does waste-to-energy work?
The most common process involves burning waste to create energy. This trash is referred to as a municipal solid waste source.
Trash enters a plant, is sorted, and stored until use. Waste-to-energy (WTE) plants remove hazardous and recyclable materials before burning.
Trash is added to boilers, where combustion creates a heat or electricity product. The ash by-product, if clean enough, can be used a raw material in other industrial processes, as in road construction.
Doesn’t that create an air pollution problem?
Like any other power producing plant, waste-to-energy plants generate carbon dioxide emissions. However, these facilities can actually help reduce CO2 emissions.
Ramesh Shankar from University of North Carolina at Charlotte, shared his thoughts on the matter.
“[Waste-to-energy facilities] produce less CO2 per megawatt hour than coal, oil, and natural gas.”
In addition, these facilities help avoid harmful effects of landfills. When trash is sent to landfills, during decomposition it produces methane. This greenhouse gas is a much more potent heat-trapping agent than carbon dioxide.
Waste-to-energy facilities can also help avoid issues of land use. In major cities, finding room for landfills can become a concern. Toxic chemicals from landfills can leak into the ground and contaminate ground water supply.
Morton Barlaz, Head of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University also addressed air pollution concerns.
Baralz stated that “Modern waste to energy combustion facilities have state-of-the-art pollution control and I consider them to be a clean source of energy.”
What does the current marketplace look like for waste-to-energy?
Waste-to-energy is being increasingly considered as a way to diversify energy generation. As many countries attempt to reduce coal use to fight climate change, alternative options are considered.
According to political standards, some countries have more incentive to invest in waste-to-energy generation.
Shankar stated that “Some countries have the cost of CO2 factored in their system so that it incentivizes non- or less-carbon emissions.”
Shankar explained these countries may also be more socially responsible, depending on the amount of available land and a commitment to conservation. He commented that Scandinavian counties seem to be at the forefront of waste management.
“Sweden has to import trash because they are so efficient in disposing their own,” he said.
Sweden is the current leader in waste-to-energy production, with over 99 percent of all household waste avoiding landfills. Western and Northern Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and the USA also remain leaders in solid waste management.
So, the environmental and economic impacts outweigh the costs?
Ranjith Annepu, founder of the nonprofit ‘be Waste Wise,’ explained an important factor is local conditions.
“For example, if the organic percent of the waste stream is higher than 50%, then WTE is not suitable,” he said.
Annepu also explained that feasibility depends on regulations and tariff fees for electricity in place.
Blair Pollock, Solid Waste Planner at Orange County, North Carolina, cautioned against waste-to-energy as the primary management form. When considering waste-to-energy, Pollock said this should not be a substitute for other forms of waste management.
In the waste hierarchy, reduction and recycling measures always come first. This is more energy and pollution efficient than generating energy from trash. He cautioned that waste-to-energy should not be treated as an alternative that would decrease recycling rates.
Pollock also considers two questions key in the waste-to-energy process.
“Have you retrieved most readily recyclable materials and taken out potentially contaminating type fractions?” Pollock said. “And are you burning it in the most efficient and environmentally sound manner possible?”
Nuclear energy has long been a stigmatized energy source. We are bombarded with information about how the process can go wrong. We do not, however, receive much information on the process itself or any large successes.
It’s up to the general public to go digging for this information themselves if they want to have an educated viewpoint. Students at UNC-Chapel Hill are a perfect example of the general knowledge of many citizens.
“I feel like I’m much more knowledgeable on other types of energy sources,” Amoryn Martin, a junior psychology major from Erie, Pennsylvania, said. “I feel like there are numerous better options that are more widely and thoroughly discussed because they are better options in the first place.”
“I know very little,” Shelby Rawlins, a senior biology major from Charlotte, North Carolina, said. “Is it nuclear fission? Like the breaking of atoms? And they use that energy? Am I completely wrong?”
It’s time to get to the bottom of popular opinion—is nuclear energy a bad idea or not?
The best way to proceed is to first understand how nuclear energy works. The process is more complex than a simple collision of materials to make energy.
The nuclear power process involves uranium atoms hitting neutrons, which splits the atoms. This split makes more neutrons leave the uranium, which then split more atoms, and so on. The danger here is that if left unchecked, this process can result in a huge explosion.
These uncontrolled reactions are what we see in nuclear weapons. Nuclear energy, however, uses controlled reactions to ensure that energy is generated without risk. The controlled reactions heat water to 520 degrees, which then spins turbines that generate electricity.
The big risk involved here is that the products of these reactions are highly radioactive. If there was some kind of accident, radiation could potentially escape and infect both the environment and people. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission exists for the sole purpose of making sure this doesn’t happen.
The commission works to keep plants as safe as possible. It requires strong protection around the uranium, a highly reinforced reactor vessel, and a heavy-duty, well built containment building. They also require water to be on hand to cool off the fuel if needed.
But, some people don’t think that these precautions are enough. Large-scale accidents are cited as examples of why the technology is dangerous.
Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were both environmentally hazardous events that caused either many fatalities or cancer problems later on. It is important to remember that many technologies have problems at the start that are then completely eliminated later on.
Another argument against nuclear energy is its link with nuclear weapons. People think that developments in the nuclear energy arena could easily be adapted to weapons of mass destruction. It also can be quite costly to manufacture nuclear energy when you consider government aid.
However, we must still consider that using nuclear energy takes the place of the heavily polluting fossil fuel energy. And, unlike many renewables, nuclear energy is reliable—it does not depend on weather factors to function. The actual cost of fuel is low, which makes relatively cheap electricity.
Scott Lassell, a nuclear engineer in the triangle area, says that nuclear power is “a viable part of the energy mix.”
Lassell says that all traditional reservations against nuclear power are technical issues that can be easily solved, and that the biggest problems today are political and economic. The low price of natural gas is also inhibiting the growth of nuclear power.
One of our goals as a planet is to stop global warming by ending the reign of fossil fuel. Although nuclear power is not entirely clean, its reliability is a big aid in switching to other energy sources.
Renewables like solar and wind continue to develop, but until they can cover all of our energy needs, nuclear power may be the perfect fill-in.
To provoke conversation on biofuels’ future in the energy industry, questions need to be answered.
Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were asked what their questions on biofuels were to help gauge a common understanding of the marketplace.
Students shared positive attitudes towards biofuels. However, some confusion remains as to the specific value of biofuel investment. Below are the questions posed by students.
“What are biofuels? And I’m not looking for a simple definition- I want a more in-depth explanation.”
Biofuels are fuels derived from the living matter of plants and animals. This matter typically refers to plant matter such as grasses, algae, or agricultural residue. This can also include animal fats and waste.
These materials are commonly referred to as feedstocks, or the raw materials used to create the fuel product. This biomass can be converted into various fuels, chemicals, and materials.
The conversion of biomass into a fuel product involves the use of microorganisms for fermentation. The fermented product is then created into a biofuel. The fuel can be used in a diesel engine and blended with traditional fuels.
There are major advantages of integrating a bioproduct in our fuel supply. A biofuel market will decrease the use of fossil fuels in our oil supply for conventional automobiles.
An increase in demand for biomass materials will necessitate an increase in farming practices to meet demand. By creating such a market, rural economies are supported while dependency on foreign oil markets is reduced.
This product results in a cleaner fuel supply that will improve air quality as well as human health.
“Where can you get biofuels? Where is this supply coming from?”
Imagine that at your nearest gas pump, biofuels are the fuel source used to power your car.
The imagined scenario is already partially true–ethanol, a corn based fuel, is part of the traditional fuel mix in the United States. In the future, more competitive feedstocks can be integrated into the mix as well.
If biofuels experience successful market introduction, biofuel access could be so integrated it would go unnoticed by the average citizen. As drilling for oil becomes less economical, biofuels will become more competitive and will slowly become a larger portion of supply.
The three main biofuel products in the global market are bioethanol, biodiesel, and biogas.
Jordan Kern, Professor with the Institute for the Environment at UNC Chapel Hill, explained there is not one optimal feedstock choice.
“It depends on where you’re growing it and the resources available,” he said.
Jay Cheng, Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at North Carolina State University, shared his thoughts on the matter.
Cheng explained that Brazil has a large bioethanol industry that accounts for approximately half of all automobile biofuel. Brazil’s success story in the biofuel industry goes back to the resources available to the country.
Cheng said their success was mainly due to their relatively cheap and high-yield sugarcane.
“What is the United States doing in the biofuels industry?”
Currently, biofuels provide about 1 percent of total United States’ energy needs. Ethanol, the primary biofuel in the US, is more expensive than gasoline on an energy content basis.
In January 2016, the department announced that 15 million in funding will be provided through 2020. Applicants hoping to capitalize on the opportunity must address technology improvements in processing and productivity.
In addition, the industry will be bolstered by military investment. In 2009, the Navy broadcasted that by 2020, half of fuel sources would be non-fossil fuels.
Since then, aircraft and ships have been have been powered by beef fat, municipal waste, palm oil, and algae. This aligns with the military’s commitment to security by reducing reliance on foreign oil.
Cheng also expressed a potential for the United States to utilize local biomass. A large amount of “wood pellets (are) shipped to Western Europe from southeastern states of the US for bioenergy production.”
Cheng thinks that the United States could better use this resource in order generate bioenergy as well as local jobs.
“What problems will you face in implementing biofuels?”
Unfortunately, biofuel production involves several drawbacks in terms of environmental best practices and industry infrastructure.
The largest environmental barrier is that large amounts of land are not readily available for the production of feedstocks. Biofuel production can lead to increased food and land use prices.
Biofuels create competition for land-use with food production. Increased crop-demand causes the price of those crops, and thus food derived from those crops, to increase. Meat and dairy product prices also increase, as it becomes more expensive for farmers to feed their livestock.
An increased demand for crops also leads to increased deforestation and destruction of natural habitats. This not only displaces indigenous peoples and endangers wildlife, it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
Fortunately, algal biofuels can address many of these issues because it does not compete with food for land use. Algal biofuel is a more expensive biofuel option. However, algal fuels could avoid issues of higher food prices and destruction of natural habitats.
Kern stated the issue surrounding infrastructure is a “chicken or the egg” kind of conversation.
He explained that the companies that refine fuels are different than those that produce cars. He illustrated no one will build a biofuel production facility if there are no cars on the market that can use the fuel.
Currently, issue also surrounds biofuels’ ability to compete with traditional fuel products.
“One of the main challenges for biofuels is the scale,” Cheng said.
He explained that most production facilities are small in size. This occurs “because the cost of the raw material transportation would be too expensive if the facility is big.” In contrast, most fossil fuel production facilities are huge, which gives fossil fuels a “competitive advantage.”
However, Cheng also noted that fossil fuel resources are limited, “and the cost for biofuel production is getting lower.” He expressed that in time, biofuels will become a better fuel option.
There is so much to love about nuclear energy. It is a zero-emissions energy source, producing none of the pollution or greenhouse gases that come from burning fossil fuels. And it is reliable, often considered the most reliable energy source.
Let’s not forget how cheap it is. To start, the cost of uranium is pretty low. Set-up costs of nuclear power plants are relatively high while running costs are low, and the average life of a nuclear reactor ranges from 40 to 60 years depending upon its usage. These factors combined make the cost of producing electricity very reasonable. Even if the cost of uranium rises, the increase in cost the of electricity will still remain minimal.
Nuclear energy can even help make the world a safer place by reducing nuclear arms. For the last two decades, old Soviet weapons material has supplied part of our nuclear fuel as a result of a deal to buy uranium from Soviet bomb stocks in 1996. Who knows how many light bulbs in America are now powered by former Soviet weapons.
But let’s remind ourselves why it would be a bad—terrible, abysmal maybe—idea to make nuclear energy the crux of the clean energy transition.
The clean energy transition is about more than just the environmental benefit. While we need to cut carbon emissions, renewable energies go beyond the environment; they spread the benefits of energy production across social spheres and income levels. The social benefits of renewables include but are not limited to: improved health, consumer choice, greater self-reliance, work opportunities and technological advances. A reliance on nuclear energy diminishes—if not eradicates—all of these benefits.
Nuclear energy’s history is marked by a series of disasters that resulted in severe detriments to human health. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 in Ukraine is one of the most frightening, but well-known, examples of the catastrophic consequences inherent to nuclear energy. An estimated 220,000 people were displaced from their homes. The radioactive fallout made 4,440 square kilometers of agricultural land and 6,820 square kilometers of forests in Belarus and Ukraine useless. Don’t worry, it turns out animals like wolves and deer are thriving there without people these days.
Even if considered a form of clean energy, nuclear power produces serious radioactive waste, and disposing of it is one of the hot topics in the nuclear power debate. From uranium mining to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, radioactive waste is produced at every stage of the of the nuclear fuel cycle.
But here’s the real issue: nuclear energy is the strongest option for electric utilities to retain their monopolistic hold on the electric industry. Electric utilities have maintained an unchallenged hegemony for almost a century, and the renewable energy transition threatens this grip. In the perfect storm of policy and economic incentive, distributed renewable energy technologies could burn the utility business model to the ground.
This idea isn’t the domain of freethinker hippies—it’s a concept the utilities have realized themselves. From the viewpoint of the utilities, every kilowatt-hour of small-scale solar looks like a kilowatt-hour of reduced demand for the utility’s product. And no business would enjoy a loss in demand, which equals a loss in revenue. So in an era proving to be pivotal for climate change and a transition to clean energy, utility giants know investing in nuclear energy production is their best shot at keeping this seat as the absolute ruler of the electricity world.
With this monopoly would remain the lack of consumer choice—a choice offered by distributed renewable energy.
But if this industry does not use nuclear energy production to stay rooted and the good ole boys’ club is challenged, consumers will have a choice of where their electricity comes from. With this choice comes competition, driving prices down and affordability up and allowing energy technology to further advance at a rapid pace for the betterment of society.
I saw firsthand how such energy democracy can lead to a thriving society in the small town of Schönau, Germany. Nestled in the Black Forest, this town of less than 2,500 people owns and operates its own grid, EWS Schönau, a highly successful German energy cooperative.
EWS was founded when Schönau’s electricity provider refused to phase out nuclear or move towards a cleaner energy future after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The citizens of Schönau realized the only way to change their energy landscape was to own the grid themselves. After years of negotiations, fundraising and deregulation, EWS was born. Today, Schönau is a net exporter of clean energy, serves 130,000 customers and has a supply of 95 percent renewable energy sources. EWS subsidizes renewable energy equipment units for its customers and provides workshops for those interested in learning more about advancing renewable energy.
You don’t have the be in Schönau very long to see the visible impacts of this energy landscape. Solar panels cover the town, even draping churches. Everyone here is reaping the benefits their energy democracy. The Black Forest and surrounding mountains create the perfect backdrop for this portrait of the clean energy future not dominated by monopolistic utilities.
Schönau has been a model for Germany, a global leader in the energy transition, and demonstrates that if nuclear energy is not the core of the clean energy transition, distributed renewable energy will be able to usher in the era of energy democracy.
Question: In 2050, what fuel do you think the US will mostly be using for energy?
“Nuclear. Because coal and fossil fuel energy resources are unsustainable and I think science can catch up to make nuclear energy safe for the mass population.”
“Probably fossil fuels. Probably. I don’t think there’s enough time to switch over. I don’t think people are willing to buy different cars or electric cars, they want their big trucks and other vehicles.”
“I would hope that we would move towards more sustainable energy resources, but…considering the results of the 2015 goals set by the United Nations, almost ten years ago, considering how those goals are largely unmet now…I feel like we’ll still be on fossil fuels and dependent upon them for the future.”
“In 2050 I would say it’s going to be a combination of multiple energy sources, combination of wind, solar, hydroelectric—I don’t think we do enough of hydroelectric—fossil fuels, probably. Honestly, some things you’re not gonna be able to get away from. But definitely more of renewables.”
“I’d say probably not fossil fuels. That certainly doesn’t seem feasible in thirty-five years, or at least not wise… It seems like there’s a lot of progress, especially in biological resources and like waste products with current processes and paper mills and things like that, so maybe there’s a chance to come up with creative solutions that involve potentially renewable resources… A lot of people talk about wind power, but I’m thinking it’s going to be more subtle.”
“I would certainly hope it would be wind or solar or hydroelectric something like that, at that point, but I feel like we’ll still be winding down fossil fuels. Hopefully we’ll be at the tail end of it. But I’m not sure which renewable energy source at that point, so I’ll say natural gas or fossil fuels at this point. As kind of a safe guess. But hopefully I’m wrong.”
“I hope it’ll be clean and renewable. I think it will be a mix of clean and still fossil fuels, I don’t know which ones. Natural gas might be on the increase.”
“I guess solar energy would probably be used much more than it’s used now and I feel like we’ll have the technology to be able to use it in more areas in our lives.”
“Probably the sun. Solar power. It’s gonna be easier to absorb and there’s going to be less problems because everything’s going solar now. At 2050, probably cars going to be solar. Gonna have a big panel on there and it’s gonna be driving by then. It’s a good thing because it’s good for the environment.”
“I’ve got no clue. I guess I’ll say solar power or something, why not. I guess we’re sort of moving in that direction [renewables]. By 2050, with all the new technology that will come out over the years, it seems like it’s sort of heading that way.”