Waste-based Renewable Energy
Innovation and leadership from the solid waste industry make it possible for Americans to use waste as a source of renewable and sustainable energy in one of two ways: landfill-gas-to-energy projects and waste-to-energy facilities. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, the solid waste industry currently produces more than half of America's renewable energy, more than combined energy outputs of the solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and wind power industries.
The use of landfill-gas-to-energy and waste-to-energy is helping advance our national security by reducing our reliance on foreign energy. These activities also help reduce emissions that cause climate change, because landfill-gas-to-energy projects involve capturing methane (a greenhouse gas), while waste-to-energy activities displace fossil fuel sources and lower landfill methane emissions by diverting waste from landfills.
Energy from Landfill Gas
As landfill waste decomposes, it produces methane and other gases. More than 75 percent of this gas is available for use as “green” energy. Landfill gas can be used to generate electricity, or it can be piped directly to a nearby manufacturing plant, school, government building and other facility for heating and cooling.
Trash, buried beneath a layer of soil, decomposes and produces gas. Landfill operators place collection wells that act like straws throughout a landfill to draw out the methane gas. The gas is then piped to a compression and filtering unit beside the landfill. Technicians make sure that the gas is filtered properly before it is piped to its end user. The entire process is carefully managed to prevent odors and leakage of waste material.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as of October 2012, at least 605 operational projects in 48 states generate approximately 1,858 megawatts of electricity per year and deliver 307 million standard cubic feet per day (mmscfd) of landfill gas to corporate and government users, enough renewable energy to power nearly 1.1 million homes and heat over 700,000 homes. It is worth noting that the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that landfill gas recovery directly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA estimates that using methane as renewable, “green” energy instead of oil and gas has the annual environmental and energy benefits equivalent to:
- - The greenhouse gas emissions from nearly 20,340,000 passenger cars
- - Or eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from over 11.6 billion gallons of gasoline consumed
- - Or sequestering carbon from over 22.1 million acres of pine or fir forests.
Higher energy prices have helped these activities become one of the fastest growing segments of our industry. As of April 2011, EPA estimates that about 510 additional landfills currently are candidates for landfill-gas-to-energy projects, with the potential to produce an additional 580 million standard cubic meters per day (mmscfd) of landfill gas and nearly 1,165 megawatts of electricity. And continued innovation will allow us to expand the use of landfill gas for energy. For example a “bioreactor” is the name for a landfill where liquids are added to the waste and re-circulated to make the trash decompose faster. It is a promising new technology that speeds the production of landfill gas.
This is not a hypothetical or pie-in-the-sky technology. There are many examples of manufacturing plants, schools, government buildings and other facilities currently are using landfill gas for heating and power. Learn more about how NASA, BWM, Mars, General Motors, Honeywell and the University of New Hampshire are using power generated from a landfill-gas-to-energy plant to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and save millions of dollars in annual energy costs.
The Role of Renewable Energy Consumption in the Nation's Energy Supply, 2011
Biomass includes waste-to-energy and landfill-gas-to-energy
Chart source: U.S. DOE, Energy Information Administration
|Waste-to-Energy plants in Florida, Maryland, New York.
Energy from Waste-to-Energy Facilities
In addition to using landfill gas, waste-based energy also is produced waste-to-energy facilities. According to the Energy Recovery Council, as of 2010, America’s solid waste industry operated 86 waste-to-energy facilities in 24 states with the capacity to process more than 97,000 tons of municipal
solid waste per day. According to the latest BioCycle estimates, 26 million tons of trash were processed
by waste-to-energy facilities in 2008. The nation’s waste-to-energy facilities have the capacity to generate the energy equivalent of 2,790
megawatt hours of electricity, including an electric generating capacity of 2,572 megawatts
and an equivalent of 218 megawatts based on steam exports estimated at approximately 2.8 million
pounds per hour, enough to power 1.6 million homes.
We are dedicated to doing everything we can to help meet some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century to make our country a better place to live and work for us and our children.
Want to learn more about what happens to waste after it is picked up from your home? Learn more here about how waste is processed.