Renewable Energy from Waste Conference 2013: Growth continues in North America

Renewable Energy from Waste Conference 2013: Growth continues in North America

GBB’s Harvey Gershman sets the stage for the inaugural conference by providing an overview of how the industry is progressing in North America.

December 13, 2013
Kristin Smith

During the inaugural Renewable Energy from Waste Conference, Conference Co-chair Harvey Gershman, president, Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Fairfax, Va., opened the proceedings by getting attendees up to speed on the status of the waste-to-energy (WTE) industry in North America.

“Two-thirds of our waste goes to landfill,” he told the more than 200 attendees. “We are burying a lot of materials and Btus we could use otherwise.”

He said, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans disposed of 250 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2011 or according to some estimates, more than 389 million tons.

He pointed out that not much has been done with food scraps, which make up about 20 percent of landfilled municipal solid waste (MSW) in the U.S. Plastics also make up a significant portion of what is landfilled at 17 percent, he said.

Gershman gave a breakdown of the waste management infrastructure in the U.S. as follows:
Technology Operating Plants

material recovery facilities (MRF)    586
composting facilities    2,300
mixed waste processing facilities (MWPF)         51
mass-burn WTE       65
modular WTE        9
refuse derived fuel (RDF) processing or combustion      20
anaerobic digestion        19
transfer stations     n/a
landfills    1,908

Gershman said many changes are taking place across the country on the collection side of the waste business. He referenced many communities shifting to single-stream collection over the last five years and other communities that are considering one-bin collection such as Houston and Montgomery, Ala. Many other communities have two-bin, three-bin or four-bin systems. More of an emphasis is being placed on commercial food scrap collection as well, he said.

“More and more communities adding residential food scraps,” he added. “The growth of commercial food waste collection programs is dramatic in the U.S.”

Gershman emphasized that the cost of collection is two-thirds the cost for solid waste management that customers pay. One third of the cost is related is what happens to the waste after it is collected. “So if you have an inefficient system, or you are layering on services, you are looking at adding significant cost.” Gershman said.

According to Gershman, if a solid waste management system can save money by making the collection more efficient, those funds can be redirected toward more on the processing of the materials, including making renewable energy from waste.

GBB is tracking 579 companies which offer various waste conversion technologies. Worldwide 150 plants are operating with some of these technologies, said Gershman. He noted that one reason for doing something different with waste than using a traditional WTE plant to make electricity is that making ethanol or methanol can generate more revenue; but, he warns, the economics have to be competitive with the alternative disposal options.

Many of the projects implemented in the U.S. have been aided by federal funding. He noted mass-burn facility expansions in Hillsborough County and Lee County, Florida; Olmsted County, Minn., and Honolulu; as well as facilities under construction in Durham York, Ontario, and in Palm Beach County, Fla.

As for gasification, Gershman mentioned Covanta’s commercial scale demonstration unit in Tulsa, Okla.; the Ineos Indian River County BioEnergy Center in Vero Beach, Fla.; Enerkem’s facility under construction in Edmonton, Alberta; Flulcrum BioEnergy’s Sierra BioFuels’ commercial plant under construction in McCarran, Nev.; and Plasco Energy’s commercial scale demonstration facility and contract with the city of Ottawa, Ontario. Fiberright, a company using fermentation to process MSW, operates a demonstration plant demonstration plant in Lawrenceville, Va., is working on facilities in Blairstown, Iowa, and Elkridge, Md., and a has contract with the city of Marion, Iowa.

Gershman also noted 19 anaerobic digesters in North America processing food waste and a well-established landfill-gas-to-energy industry. Projects that combine the gas produced from both technologies could provide more opportunity for biogas, he said.

The last topic Gershman discussed was mechanical biological processing (MBT) which is taking place in Germany. He reference a conference he attended in that country in June. “It gave me a good perspective on what is going on there and how it relates to our situation here,” he said.

Gershman said MBT started in Germany in 1999. Germany has 36 MBT plants, and other countries also have them.

“They decided they don’t want any organics going to landfill, so they came up with this concept to process primarily the residential waste into several fractions,” Gershman explained. Those fractions include recyclables, fuel, organics, mixed waste and biogas from mixed waste.

He noted that several European countries have less than 3 percent of waste going to landfills. They accomplished this by taxing landfills and creating an economic ceiling under which a lot could operate, he said.

According to Gershman, MRFs and MBT plants look similar with advanced processing equipment like infrareds, eddy currents and trommels. He said the technology is coming to America, and some of it is already here.

Gershman concluded by summing up the regulatory climate in the U.S. for renewable energy from waste. “We need better federal and state laws and regulations that allow more renewable energy from waste happen and with economics that we can afford to make them happen,” he said.

The Renewable Energy from Waste Conference was Nov. 18-20, 2013 at the Marriott West Palm Beach, in West Palm Beach, Fla.