Energy | Renewable energy | Ecotrope

U.S. Gets As Much Energy From Trash As Geothermal

Ecotrope | Sept. 20, 2012 4:16 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:29 p.m.

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According to the Energy Information Administration, there is about as much electricity being generated from burning trash as there is from geothermal heat.

According to the Energy Information Administration, there is about as much electricity being generated from burning trash as there is from geothermal heat.

The Energy Information Administration put out this map of waste-to-energy output across the country. It represents the megawatts of power generated, essentially, by burning trash. The trash is burned to generate steam to drive turbines that generate power.

In 2011, the agency reports, the U.S. got 14 million megawatt hours of electricity from burning trash at 75 sites in the 20 states pictured in the map above.

That’s about .3 percent of all the electricity generated nationwide and “roughly the same as geothermal electricity generation,” according to the EIA.

According to the Oregon Department of Energy, there is only one of these plants in Oregon. It’s in Marion County north of Salem off of Interstate 5, and it produces about 13 megawatts of electricity every year. According to the plant’s owner, Covanta of Marion Inc., that’s enough to power the city of Woodburn.

Covanta operates 40 such waste-to-energy facilities worldwide, and makes the case that they are generating a form of renewable energy.

The state of Oregon does not consider waste-to-energy renewable. But the Environmental Protection Agency says some consider the energy from these facilities renewable because:

  • no new fuel sources are tapped other than waste that would otherwise go to landfills; and
  • they burn mostly renewable resources such as food, paper and wood products.

But the EPA also acknowledges that there are also non-renewable materials that can be burned at these facilities, too, such as tires and plastics made from fossil fuels.

Waste-to-energy certainly has its critics – many of whom don’t like the air pollution that comes along with the facilities.

According to the EPA, waste-to-energy facilities produce nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, and depending on the materials in the trash they can also emit traces of toxic pollutants such as mercury compounds and dioxins. While the biomass portion of the trash doesn’t contribute to global warming, the fossil fuel portion of carbon dioxide emissions from the plants represent about half of the total carbon emissions, the EPA says, and they do contribute some greenhouse gases.

But according to Covanta, the facilities can offset up to one ton of carbon dioxide equivalent for every ton of trash processed by reducing the methane gas generated by garbage dumps.

We are making more trash all the time. What do you think? Is trash a form of renewable energy?

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