Information unleashed

Features - Cover Story

The 2013 Renewable Energy from Waste Conference provided a forum for the waste conversion industry to share ideas and information.

February 5, 2014
Kristin Smith and Lisa McKenna

In November 2013, Renewable Energy from Waste magazine joined forces with Gershman, Brickner & Bratton (GBB) and Smithers Apex to produce the inaugural Renewable Energy from Waste Conference. Information-packed sessions covered all aspects of waste conversion technologies, while the more than 200 attendees listened and asked questions.

The keynote sessions offered insights from experts in the field on where industry is headed and what has led to successes and failures in the adoption of waste conversion technologies.

Conference Co-chair Harvey Gershman, president, GBB, Fairfax, Va., opened the proceedings by getting attendees up to speed on the status of the waste-to-energy (WTE) industry in North America.

Change is afoot

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 are adding residential food scraps,” Gershman said. “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 customers pay for solid waste management. One-third of the cost is related to 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 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 United States have been aided by federal funding. He noted mass-burn facility expansions in Hillsborough County and Lee County, Fla.; Olmsted County, Minn., and Honolulu; as well as facilities under construction in the Durham-York region of 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; Fulcrum 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 municipal solid waste, operates a demonstration plant in Lawrenceville, Va.; is working on facilities in Blairstown, Iowa, and Elkridge, Md.; and has a 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 referenced 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, and that country now has 36 MBT plants.

“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.

Pitfalls and lessons

Delay tactics and economic deal-breakers are two major pitfalls to watch out for when bringing a WTE project to completion, according to keynote presenters during the second day’s proceedings. Speakers for the “Pitfalls and Challenges” session referred to what they described as delay strategies launched by opposition groups apparently intended to slow or stop the projects.

Mark Hammond, executive director of the Solid Waste Authority (SWA) of Palm Beach County, discussed that agency’s experience as the authority is now about 60 percent through construction of its second WTE facility, a mass-burn plant that will handle 3,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day.

The new plant is being built on the SWA’s existing campus of about 1,300 acres which includes landfills, a materials recycling facility and an RDF (refuse-derived fuel) WTE plant.

Plans for the new facility were approved after SWA determined in 2005 that its landfill could be depleted by 2025. “We began a search for a new landfill,” Hammond said. However that initiative was not successful as a result of siting issues, so the SWA’s board instead decided to refocus efforts on expanding WTE at the current facility.

“We didn’t build this to generate power,” noted Hammond. “WTE for us is a volume-reduction machine that happens to make power.”

Although Hammond said the “stars and planets were seemingly aligned” for most of the project, the team did encounter opposition from The Sierra Club three or four years into the project, when the group asked for a review of alternative waste disposal methods.

SWA retained the help of consulting firm GBB, Hammond said, and prepared a swift, informed response to refute the group’s statements. “We had invested millions of dollars, and the thought that someone would come in at the 11th hour and try to scuttle the project was shocking to us, and we weren’t going to take it lightly,” Hammond said.

Similarly, speaker Pete Johnson, vice president of Dynamis Energy, based in Eagle, Idaho, described the use of apparent delay tactics on the part of opposition groups in Ada County, Idaho, that were ultimately successful in putting an end to that county’s WTE project.

In 2010 the company won the contract to build a mobile gasification system at the Ada County Landfill to help extend the facility’s life. The company also negotiated an agreement with Idaho Power amounting to the delivery of 20 megawatts of power for close to 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

In advance of permitting from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the company held numerous public meetings to provide comprehensive information on the project, during which Johnson said no major opposition was received.

Then, Johnson said, “two county commissioner seats up were for grabs.” In the ensuing election, “the candidates made our project their campaign platform,” Johnson added. “In a nutshell, all hell broke loose.” The opposition claimed environmental safety concerns, the use of experimental technologies and improper RFP processes. The Idaho Conservation League also threatened to bring a lawsuit against the DEQ should the facility be permitted, Johnson said.

Johnson says he believes these efforts were intended to delay the project to the point of failure. And he says while the company did have community support for the project, its supporters were not nearly as vocal as its opponents.

“In the end, it’s just very difficult to fight emotion and bias with logic and science,” he said.

Although permitting was eventually granted, it was received six months beyond its contracted delivery date, forcing Dynamis to apply for an extension. The new rate was offered at about 6 cents below the initial amount. “Therein was the demise of the project,” said Johnson. “They effectively took us down by just that simple delay.”

Johnson said if he were to approach a similar project in the future, he would put in place a “micromanagement plan” to better handle DEQ proceedings and deadlines.

Corporate conversion

While conversion technologies sometimes meet with opposition from the public sector, there are several examples of successful use of waste conversion technologies in the corporate arena. Three such companies shared how they are fueling their facilities with waste.

John Winkels of the Kroger Co. Inc., told attendees that starting an anaerobic digestion (AD) system at the company’s Ralphs/Food 4 Less distribution center in Compton, Calif., yielded a positive return on investment for the grocery store chain. California’s ban on commercial food waste, in addition to the company’s “zero-waste” goal, prompted Kroger to look at alternatives to food waste disposal. The project offsets about 80 percent of the natural gas used at the distribution facility. Anaerobic digestion also has saved the company the expense of trucking waste to a composting facility two hours away.

“The renewable energy benefit isn’t the majority of the benefit,” Winkels explained to conference attendees. “The majority of the benefit is the trucking offset.”

Winkels said the project saves Kroger 500,000 miles per year in trucking. Sorting material for use in the digester also was simpler than prepping it for composting. Any waste containing organic material can be used in the system, according to Winkels.

An additional benefit for Kroger is the customer and associate engagement from the project. “This is something that customers and our associates get excited about,” said Winkels.

“It hasn’t been without growing pains, but it has been operating for over a year now and we are pleased with the results,” Winkels concluded.

Ashley White, manager of logistics sustainability at Kroger, told attendees that producing fuel from AD actually has a negative carbon dioxide output because it offsets more carbon dioxide than it produces. “This is a really unique opportunity that moves these sort of projects along,” she said.

White talked about where Kroger was headed in the future with AD. While the company already is producing electricity and natural gas, she said the company is considering using renewable natural gas (RNG) in its fleet. She noted that the cost of using the digester biogas to make RNG for trucks is a more expensive use.

Following the presentation from Kroger, Jay Henry, director of operations support for Shaw Industries Group Inc., Dalton, Ga., posed the question, “What if carpet never had to go to a landfill?”

The world’s largest carpet manufacturer’s first major investment in renewable energy was in a waste-to-energy gasification plant back in 2005. It uses carpet trimmings and flooring dust from the production process to create steam. Because the company uses steam to dye its carpet, he said, opportunities exist to use this type of technology.

Henry acknowledged that postconsumer carpet is where the real issues with disposal exist. Toward that end, he noted that 3.5 million pounds of carpet ends up in landfills per year.

“That’s just unacceptable,” he told attendees. Henry said that while it is consumers who are disposing of Shaw’s product, the company “want[s] to do things that are going to help take responsibility for that product.”

Henry said Shaw is the leader in its industry for recycling. He talked about different recycling and recovery options for used carpet, saying nylon 6 carpet can be made into new carpet and nylon 6,6 and polypropylene can be made into new plastic parts. That is not the case for polyester or PET carpet. “It cannot be recycled feasibly,” Henry said. “There are not a lot of opportunity uses there so we use that for carpet energy.”

Henry discussed Shaw’s Re2E plant which was featured on the cover of Renewable Energy from Waste in Fall 2012. It is the first energy plant that is fully fueled by carpet, including 60 percent postconsumer and 40 percent postindustrial carpet, he said.

“We built it because it is an enabler,” explained Henry. Being able to take in all types of postconsumer carpet keeps costs down. “When we can take that PET carpet and use it here as a fuel, it enables the recycling of other carpets to take place,” he said.

The carpet arrives baled and is source-separated. The plant produces steam for two carpet plants and produces electricity to power itself.

It is designed to process 84 million pounds of carpet, although Henry noted the plant is “not quite there yet.”

Monica Sowders, alternate fuels manager for Cemex, the largest cement manufacturer in the United States, discussed the company’s use of alternative fuel sources other than coal to heat its kilns and make its product. She said Cemex’ European plants operate on 90 percent or more alternative fuels. In the U.S. the company has a goal of 50 percent coal substitution with alternative fuels. The difference, she said, is that in the U.S. there are “no incentives, and the market is very difficult.” The company operates 13 plants in the U.S.

“Making cement is very energy-intensive,” Sowders pointed out. She added that the cement-making process produces no residuals and that it is important to closely monitor the fuel type as it affects the chemistry of the cement.

Sowders said there are many differences from state to state on what materials are acceptable as fuel and how they are viewed. “That can be a barrier,” she said adding, “There are huge benefits of alternative fuel.”

“We see a significant, provable, demonstrable decrease in carbon dioxide emissions,” she said.

In 2012, the company used the following alternative fuels in its kilns:

Tires............................................ 109,875 tons
Wood........................................... 96,856 tons
RDF.............................................. 5,371 tons
Biosolids.................................... 11,904 tons
Agricultural residues................ 43,454 tons
Ashes.......................................... 548,502 tons
Alternative solids....................... 57,056 tons
Alternative liquids...................... 636,929 gallons

The benefits of alternative fuel are both environmental and economic, Sowders said. She explained that many manufacturers are working toward zero-waste alternatives and have material that can’t simply be recycled. If there is a cement plant nearby that can serve as an outlet for the materials, it can be an incentive for a manufacturer to locate or stay in that location, she contended.

Sowders said that people have become accustomed to coal, saying it is “what our regulations have come to accept, so when they hear refuse-derived fuel or engineered fuel—even though the emissions are better—it is still an education process to get to the point of understanding.”

The Renewable Energy from Waste Conference was Nov. 18-20, 2013, at the Marriott West Palm Beach, in West Palm Beach, Fla. More coverage from the event, including video clips, will be featured in upcoming issues of the magazine and on our website at


The authors are managing editors with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at and


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The Renewable Energy from Waste Conference returns in 2014. The second annual event will be Nov. 18-20 at the Doubletree by Hilton San Jose in San Jose, Calif. More details will be available in the coming months at