An In-depth Look At Waste’s Role in Energy

Joanna Schroeder

A few months ago, I did a review of the book, The Story of Stuff. While the book was good, I was alarmed at the author Annie Leonard’s, unflattering views of waste-to-energy. For decades, municipal waste companies have been burning their trash. Known as incineration, Leonard says that this causes a multitude of problems, the first being burning pollutes and spews toxins into the air.

She writes, “Waste-to-Energy Plants Should Be Called Waste of Energy…But here’s the deal: first off, the little bit of energy recovered from burning trash is a very dirty energy, releasing far more greenhouse gases than burning natural gas, oil, or even coal. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, waste incinerators produce 1,355 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour; coal produces 1,020, oil 758, and natural gas 515.”

Leonard continues, “Second, let’s step back and look at the grand scheme of things for a moment. When you bum something, the most energy you can recover is a fraction of the energy value (the “calories”) of the actual material; you can’t recover any of the energy investments of that thing’s entire lifecycle….If the ultimate goal is to conserve energy, we could “produce” far more energy by reusing and recycling Stuff than we ever could by burning it.”

So in a nutshell, waste-to-energy pollutes, it has a negative net energy, it doesn’t create jobs, they don’t eliminate the need for landfills and they are not economically feasible to name a few reasons to not like the energy source. You’ll also note that for the most part, these are the very same reasons (minus the waste-to-energy reduces pollution) opponents support waste-to-energy.

So who is right and why should we care? Well I was bothered knowing that millions and millions of people have visited her website and watched her videos and they may be getting outdated information. So I’m taking action.

In just a few weeks, the Municipal Solid Waste to Biofuels Summit is taking place in Chicago. On February 10-11, 2011, hundreds of people will be coming to together to discuss the up and coming waste-to-energy technologies. Leading up to this conference, I’m kicking off a 7-part series, “An In-depth Look at Waste’s Role in Energy Development.”

This series will explore the developments of waste-to-energy from the 70s or so until now. It will delve more deeply into Leonard’s claim that waste-to-energy plants actually produce more greenhouse gases than coal, oil and natural gas, It will discuss the opportunities and challenges in the industry, and it will feature various companies’ technologies who are excited for the opportunity to “clean” up the misconceptions surrounding waste-to-energy.

bioenergy, biofuels, Electricity, Environment, Opinion, Waste-to-Energy