“A false solution to climate change”: why burning rubbish does not mean clean energy

A waste energy plant in Nuemuenster, Germany. Image: Getty.

U.S. cities have been burning municipal solid waste since the 1880s. For the first century, it was a way to get rid of trash. Today advocates have rebranded it as an environmentally friendly energy source.

Most incinerators operating today use the heat from burning trash to produce steam that can generate electricity. These systems are sometimes referred to as “waste-to-energy” plants.

Communities and environmental groups have long opposed the siting of these facilities, arguing that they are serious polluters and undermine recycling. Now the industry is promoting a new process called co-incineration or co-firing. Operators burn waste alongside traditional fossil fuels like coal in facilities such as cement kilns, coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers.

I study environmental justice and zero-waste solutions and contributed to a recent report about the health and environmental impacts of co-incineration. Since that time, the Trump administration’s lenient approach to enforcing environmental laws against polluters – including incinerators – has deepened my concern. I’ve come to the conclusion that burning waste is an unjust and unsustainable strategy, and new attempts to package incineration as renewable energy are misguided.

U.S. municipal solid waste generation, 1960-2013. Image: USEPA.

Incineration industry capitalises on renewable energy

Currently there are 86 incinerators across 25 states burning about 29 million tons of garbage annually – about 12 per cent of the total U.S. waste stream. They produced about 0.4 per cent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2015 – a minuscule share.

Classifying incineration as renewable energy creates new revenue streams for the industry because operators can take advantage of programs designed to promote clean power. More importantly, it gives them environmental credibility.

Image: author provided.

In 23 states and territories, waste incineration is included in renewable portfolio standards – rules that require utilities to produce specific fractions of their power from qualifying renewable fuels. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan – which the Trump administration has pledged to replace – allowed states to classify waste incineration and co-incineration as carbon-neutral forms of energy production.

Another EPA policy, the Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials rule, was amended in 2013 to redefine waste so that municipal solid waste can now be processed to become “non-waste fuel products”. These renamed wastes can be burned in facilities such as boilers that are subject to less-stringent environmental standards than solid waste incinerators. This is good news for an industry trying to monetise waste materials such as railroad crossties by treating them as fuel.


Why waste incineration is not sustainable

Many environmental advocates in the United States and Europe are alarmed over government approval of increasingly diverse waste fuels, along with relaxed oversight of the incineration industry.

Although municipal solid waste combustion is regulated under the Clean Air Act, host communities are concerned about potential health impacts. Emissions typically associated with incineration include particulate matter, lead, mercury and dioxins.

In 2011 the New York Department of Environmental Conservation found that although facilities burning waste in New York complied with existing law, they released up to 14 times more mercury, twice as much lead and four times as much cadmium per unit of energy than coal plants.

Disproportionate siting of incinerators and waste facilities in communities of color and low-income communities was a key driver for the emergence of the environmental justice movement. In 1985 there were 200 proposed or existing incinerators online, but by 2015 fewer than 85 plants remained. Many U.S. communities effectively organised to defeat proposed plants, but poor, marginalised and less-organised communities remained vulnerable.

Rally opposing a proposed waste-to-energy plant in Baltimore, Maryland, 18 December 2013. Image: United Workers/creative commons.

Now some companies are turning to co-incineration rather than building new plants. This move sidesteps substantial upfront costs and risky financial arrangements, which have created debt problems for host municipalities such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Co-incineration offers new markets for waste-derived fuels using existing infrastructure. It is hard to measure how many facilities are currently using co-incineration, since EPA’s Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials rule does not require them to report it. But as one data point, two affiliated building material companies, Systech and Geocycle, are co-processing waste in 22 cement kilns in the United States and Canada.

Co-incineration is not clean

As an example of concerns over co-incineration, consider the Hefty Energy Bag program, which is sponsored by Dow Chemical Company and promoted by the nonprofit group Keep America Beautiful. This project offers grants to municipalities to participate in a curbside pilot program that collects hard-to-recycle plastics for energy production.

Currently this initiative is collecting plastics in Omaha, Nebraska, and mostly co-incinerating them at the Sugar Creek cement kiln in Missouri. In 2010, the owner of this plant and 12 others settled with EPA for violating the Clean Air Act and other air pollution regulations, paying a $5m fine and agreeing to install new pollution controls. Although this is just one example, it indicates that concerns over air quality impacts from co-incineration are real.

Promotional video for the Hefty Energy Bag program.

Waste incineration deflects attention from more sustainable solutions, such as redesigning products for recyclability or eliminating toxic, hard-to-recycle plastics. Currently only about one-third of municipal solid waste is recycled in the United States. Rates for some types of plastics are even lower.


Dow’s partnership with Keep America Beautiful is particularly problematic becomes it takes advantage of local municipalities and residents who want to promote zero-waste, climate-friendly policies. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, burning municipal solid waste emits nearly as much carbon per unit of energy as coal, and almost twice as much as natural gas.

As the Trump administration reverses or abandons national and international policies to address climate change, many Americans are looking to local and state governments and the private sector to lead on this issue. Many cities and states are committing to ambitious zero-waste and renewable energy targets.

The ConversationThese policies can drive innovations in a greening economy, but they can also provide perverse incentives to greenwash and repackage old solutions in new ways. In my view, incineration is a false solution to climate change that diverts precious resources, time and attention from more systemic solutions, such as waste reduction and real renewable fuels like solar and wind. Whether it’s an incinerator, cement kiln or coal plant, if you put garbage into a system, you get garbage out.

Ana Baptista, Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management, The New School.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.