Taking Our The WTE “Eurotrash,” But Not Our Own


This story appeared on the front page of the New York Times yesterday, including the following (and I think Tony Auth, whose cartoon is featured above, was reading not only my mind, but a lot of other people’s also)…

HORSHOLM, Denmark — The lawyers and engineers who dwell in an elegant enclave here are at peace with the hulking neighbor just over the back fence: a vast energy plant that burns thousands of tons of household garbage and industrial waste, round the clock.

Far cleaner than conventional incinerators, this new type of plant converts local trash into heat and electricity. Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago.

In that time, such plants have become both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark, from wealthy exurbs like Horsholm to Copenhagen’s downtown area. Their use has not only reduced the country’s energy costs and reliance on oil and gas, but also benefited the environment, diminishing the use of landfills and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.

With all these innovations, Denmark now regards garbage as a clean alternative fuel rather than a smelly, unsightly problem. And the incinerators, known as waste-to-energy plants, have acquired considerable cachet as communities like Horsholm vie to have them built.

Denmark now has 29 such plants, serving 98 municipalities in a country of 5.5 million people, and 10 more are planned or under construction. Across Europe, there are about 400 plants, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands leading the pack in expanding them and building new ones.

By contrast, no new waste-to-energy plants are being planned or built in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency says — even though the federal government and 24 states now classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel, in many cases eligible for subsidies. There are only 87 trash-burning power plants in the United States, a country of more than 300 million people, and almost all were built at least 15 years ago.

Indeed, this tells us that no new operational WTE plants have been built since 2000, and author Nickolas Themelis, member of the National Academy of Engineering and director of Earth Engineering Center, Columbia University, is currently urging Massachusetts to lift its WTE ban (here)…

Is it really better to build more and more landfills that have a finite lifetime of about twenty 20 years rather than generate electricity from waste?

If the Sierra Club and other organizations opposing WTE examined the facts, as my students have to do while working on their theses, they would be hard pressed to say yes. They would realize that if SEMASS had not been built, the 40 landfills that were closed from 1991 to 1995 would have been replaced by another 40 by now, either in state or out of state. Overall, we have estimated that SEMASS in its 21 years of existence, has avoided the conversion of 306 acres of greenfields to landfills; generated nearly 11 billion kwh of electricity; recovered 800,000 tons of metals; and avoided the equivalent emission of 20 million tons of greenhouse gases.

So why the continued, misguided opposition to waste-to-energy facilities?

The last-resort argument of “environmental” groups is that incinerators impede recycling. This is simply not true. In Sandwich, we recycle close to seven types of wastes and send the non-recyclable materials to SEMASS. In fact, the most environmentally minded nations in the world, such as Denmark and Germany, recycle the most, combust the most, and landfill the least. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum noted that WTE is one of the large-scale technologies that can help communities achieve a low-carbon infrastructure.

Themelis may be the leading proponent of WTE in this country; he is quoted as follows in Rosenthal’s Times’ story…

“It’s so irrational; I’ve almost given up with New York,” he said. “It’s like you’re in a village of Hottentots who look up and see an airplane — when everybody else is using airplanes — and they say, ‘No, we won’t do it, it’s too scary.’ ”

Attitudes could hardly be more different in Denmark, where plants are placed in the communities they serve, no matter how affluent, so that the heat of burning garbage can be efficiently piped into homes.

Planners take pains to separate residential traffic from trucks delivering garbage, and some of the newest plants are encased in elaborate outer shells that resemble sculptures.

“New buyers are usually O.K. with the plant,” said Hans Rast, president of the homeowners’ association in Horsholm, who cut a distinguished figure in corduroy slacks and a V-neck sweater as he poured coffee in a living room of white couches and Oriental rugs.

“What they like is that they look out and see the forest,” he said. (The living rooms in this enclave of town houses face fields and trees, while the plant is roughly some 400 yards over a back fence that borders the homes’ carports). The lower heating costs don’t hurt, either. Eighty percent of Horsholm’s heat and 20 percent of its electricity come from burning trash.

(By the way, I want to emphasize that my point here isn’t to beat up environmentalists; I’m merely trying to lend a voice towards what I believe it a more efficient means of disposing our waste. And I have a feeling one of the reasons why we’re behind is because we’ve endured presidential administrations and congresses that were loathe to invest in this for fear of the dreaded charge of allegedly forcing some crushing tax burden on another U.S. industry, or something.)

And this tells us that the “Bluegrass State” is implementing “stim” funds in part to implement its own WTE project…

The Kentucky Horse Park spends an average of $200,000 per year to dispose of horse manure. The construction of the new manure bionergy management facility is a practical and sustainable solution that will eliminate costs associated with waste disposal while providing many environmental benefits. The productive reuse of horse manure to generate electricity is expected to substantially offset electric charges incurred. Energy from waste produces less greenhouse gases than the continued transport of manure to the landfill. The project will serve the North Elkhorn Creek watershed and provide regional water quality benefits to the area. The on-site storage of manure will not contribute to ground or surface water pollution, which will help to maintain the unnamed tributaries to Cane Run that flow into North Elkhorn Creek.

In 2009, the EPA distributed $49.9 million in ARRA funding to KIA to help the state finance overdue improvements to water projects that are essential for protecting public health and the environment. The funding augmented Kentucky’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) program, which provides low-interest loans for water quality protection projects for wastewater treatment, non-point source pollution control, and watershed and estuary management. The Kentucky Horse Park project received $1,950,000 in assistance through the SRF, including $950,000 in ARRA funds.

I think it’s definitely time to revisit WTE projects once more, seeing as how our neighbors “across the pond” have advanced further with this technology than we have; it sounds like we have some catching up to do.

And I guess it’s time to rethink that expression about something “being rotten in Denmark”; one day, that may come to mean the smell of “effluent” from our shores instead.

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One Response to Taking Our The WTE “Eurotrash,” But Not Our Own

  1. […] Taking Our The WTE “Eurotrash,” But Not Our Own […]

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