Out of the Garbage Can and Into the Fire

- by Josh Schlossberg and Mike Ewall, The Biomass Monitor

So-called “waste-to-energy” (WTE) is usually a euphemism for trash incineration, disposing of waste while making modest amounts of electricity and sometimes steam for heating purposes. Now, waste-to-fuels (WTF?) — turning waste into liquid fuels for transportation — is starting to emerge as a subset of WTE.

Noting their acronym problem, the industry has redubbed itself from “W2F” to “waste conversion.” These waste conversion facilities would turn such things as trash, sewage sludge, tires, plastics, organic wastes, or agricultural wastes into liquid fuels such as ethanol, diesel fuel or other fuels and chemicals.

Fifteen years ago, several companies tried to get into the trash-to-ethanol business, but couldn’t get off the ground. One company president told us that everyone wanted to be the first to invest in the second facility. It didn’t help that the leading company in the field, Pencor-Masada Oxynol, got as far as getting permits for a facility in Middletown, NY to turn trash and sewage sludge into ethanol, then financially collapsed.

In the past few years a resurgence of proposals, spurred by government incentives, is starting to gain ground. The industry is holding annual “waste conversion” conferences, and the chemical industry trade association giant, the American Chemistry Council, is pushing any sort of “plastics-to-energy” technologies that it can, even daring to call it “renewable.”

The Municipal Solid Waste to Biofuels and Bio-Products Summit held on October 6-7, 2014 and February 20-21, 2013 in Orlando, Florida, is touted by its host, Advanced Biofuels USA, as a place to “receive leading waste and biofuels market intelligence and analysis from the very best in the business.”

The annual conference is an informational and networking smorgasbord geared towards helping industry players “penetrate the high energy value of the municipal solid waste stream.” The conference is attended by biofuels and chemicals producers, developers, and stakeholders, investors and financial institutions, government agencies, and multinational consumer product companies.

If you ever wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes in the emerging waste-to-fuels industry, your wish has been granted.

Zero Waste to Landfill: How Incinerators Get Promoted

- by Caroline Eader

The incinerator industry promotes a false belief that the only choices we have in handling our waste is to either burn it for energy or to bury it in a landfill. The existence of what is known as a "waste-to-energy" (WTE) facility does not eliminate the need for a landfill. First, 10% to 15% of the waste stream cannot be incinerated and secondly, after burning there is a significant amount of ash (10% to 15% by volume, or about 30% by weight) which is still sent to a landfill. 

The industry notion that trash incineration doesn't compete with composting or recycling is misleading. Industry would have people believe only material which can't be recycled is processed, but the truth is incinerator contracts do not exclude recyclable material from being incinerated. When I´ve asked industry representatives why they do not remove the recoverable material, they say, "It's not my job."

If you read Covanta and Wheelabrator incinerator contracts, you'll find that their job is to get BTUs from municipal solid waste (including plastic and paper) for energy recovery. 

CONFERENCE CALL: Talking Trash (to Fuels) on Feb. 19 @ 4pm PT / 7 ET

Biomass Truth National Conference Call - Talking Trash (to Fuels) 
 
Thursday, February 19, 2015 at 4pm PST / 5 MT / 7 ET
 
Guest Speaker: Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network
 
The trash incineration industry wants to ensure a constant stream of garbage so they can burn more of it for electricity or to make liquid fuels. Mike Ewall, director of Philadelphia-based Energy Justice Network, has been fighting the industry for over two decades due its toxic pollution, climate impacts, siting in communities of color, and taxpayer expense. 
 
Hear what Mike has to say about the issue and join us for conversation and questions on Thursday, February 19 at 4pm PST / 5 MT / 7 ET.
 
Email thebiomassmonitor [at] gmail.com for call in number and access code. 

Compost Chicken Manure, Don't Burn It

- by Mike Ewall, December 19, 2014, Baltimore Sun 

Dan Rodricks' recent column urged the new governor to get a large-scale poultry waste incinerator built on the Eastern Shore ("Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor," Dec. 13). This awful idea has been floated for 15 years now and has gone nowhere despite an array of government subsidies. In that time, these incinerators have been banned in Delaware and at least 10 proposals have been stopped throughout the U.S. (and several more around the world). I know because my organization, Energy Justice Network, supported most of these communities in their justified opposition. One has been built in the U.S., in Minnesota, and it was plagued by air pollution violations requiring expensive new pollution controls and was later caught burning unauthorized waste streams.

Nearly all of these incinerators are in the United Kingdom. Data presented by university researchers in Ireland at a biomass industry conference a few years ago showed that dioxin pollution from burning poultry waste was 2.6 times the legal limit in Europe. Dioxins are the most toxic man-made chemicals known to science and mainly accumulate in meat and dairy products, including contaminating poultry.

Poultry waste burning, like other forms of "biomass" incineration, releases 50 percent more carbon dioxide than coal, creating problems for global warming. Releases of several other key pollutants would also be worse than a new coal power plant, as permit comparisons have shown in North Carolina. Green Planet Power Solutions is currently being subsidized by Maryland to burn 466 tons per day of poultry litter in Somerset County and is seeking to be exempt from pollution control requirements usually in place for incinerators.

There's a reason why Exelon and other power companies aren't pursuing building these. They're prohibitively expensive and can only exist with regulatory exemptions, federal "renewable" energy tax credits and state subsidies including power purchase agreements as well as renewable energy credits in the state's incinerator-heavy "renewable" energy mandate which some are seeking to double.

A real green governor would stop throwing public money at expensive and polluting incinerator "quick fixes" and deal directly with the problem: that there is too much poultry production in one place and that the waste currently produced can and should be handled with green alternatives such as aerobic composting.

Biofuels Company Won’t Pay State of Mississippi After Bankruptcy

- January 10, 2015, Fuel Fix

Bankrupt biofuel maker KiOR and controlling shareholder Vinod Khosla say the state of Mississippi is using legal tactics in an attempt to squeeze money from the company.

KiOR, based in Pasadena, fired back Thursday at the Mississippi Development Authority’s December call to convert KiOR’s case from Chapter 11 reorganization into Chapter 7 liquidation.

“The motion reflects a continuation of the MDA’s aggressive and scorched-earth litigation in this case, which apparently is intended to extort a recovery from the debtor and the Khosla-related plan support parties,” lawyers wrote in a papers filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware.

KiOR denies MDA’s claims that it’s manipulating its case to benefit Khosla, a billionaire venture capitalist who has invested heavily in alternative energy. A new company controlled by Khosla is in line to buy KiOR’s assets, saying it will continue KiOR’s research meant to turn wood chips into a crude oil substitute.

New Report Urges Western Governments to Reconsider Reliance on Biofuels

- by Justin Gillis, January 28, 2015, New York Times

Western governments have made a wrong turn in energy policy by supporting the large-scale conversion of plants into fuel and should reconsider that strategy, according to a new report from a prominent environmental think tank.

Turning plant matter into liquid fuel or electricity is so inefficient that the approach is unlikely ever to supply a substantial fraction of global energy demand, the report found. It added that continuing to pursue this strategy — which has already led to billions of dollars of investment — is likely to use up vast tracts of fertile land that could be devoted to helping feed the world’s growing population.

Some types of biofuels do make environmental sense, the report found, particularly those made from wastes like sawdust, tree trimmings and cornstalks. But their potential is limited, and these fuels should probably be used in airplanes, for which there is no alternative power source that could reduce emissions.

“I would say that many of the claims for biofuels have been dramatically exaggerated,” said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, a global research organization based in Washington that is publishing the report. “There are other, more effective routes to get to a low-carbon world.”

The report follows several years of rising concern among scientists about biofuel policies in the United States and Europe, and is the strongest call yet by the World Resources Institute, known for nonpartisan analysis of environmental issues, to urge governments to reconsider those policies.

Biomass Destruction Entirely Predictable

- by Matt Miller and Raymond Plouride, February 4, 2015, Chronicle Herald

In a Jan. 9 story about damage to our forests as a result of the need to feed the giant new Nova Scotia Power biomass generator in Port Hawkesbury (“Biomass project raising green concerns”), Associate Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Allan Eddy suggested that these negative impacts were simply unintended consequences that “couldn’t have been predicted before the plant opened.”

This is simply wrong.

There were plenty of warnings that the proposed biomass project was too big to be sustainable and it strains the limits of credibility to suggest that the department responsible for managing our forests was unaware of the potential negative impacts.

Numerous stakeholders, individuals and experts predicted this outcome and laid out clear steps to try to mitigate the ecological damage that the advent of this huge new consumptive pressure would bring.

Dirt Cheap Clean Energy? | January issue of Energy Justice Now

Just in time, the January issue of Energy Justice Now — the national forum for the Dirty Energy Resistance — is here!

Inside this issue:

- Dirt Cheap Clean Energy

-  Energy Storage and Solar Inspiring Customers to Drop Utilities?

Destruction of Demand: How to Shrink Our Energy Footprint

...and more!

Please share the January 2015 issue of Energy Justice Now with your friends, colleagues, neighbors, media, and elected officials! 

Subscribe to monthly email issues of Energy Justice Now!

 

 

Dirt Cheap Clean Energy

The most exciting news is coming sooner than I expected. The moment where the biggest fights become where to put all of the wind and solar, rather than having to endlessly fight off plans for nuclear, coal, oil, or gas power plants, or biomass or waste incinerators.

The lines are already crossing. These are the economic lines where the cost of wind and solar actually becomes cheaper than the cheapest of dirty energy sources (which, at the moment, is natural gas). In the past handful of months, research has shown that -- even without subsidies -- land-based wind power is now cheaper to build than natural gas combined cycle power plants which, themselves, have been undercutting nuclear, coal, biomass and trash incinerators in recent years, causing some to close because they can't compete with the momentarily cheap gas.

Solar power is on a path to undercut fossil fuels within five years, leading to headlines about how solar power could slay the fossil fuel empire by 2030 and whether new super efficient affordable solar panels could trump fossil fuels. The Boston Globe recently reported on how renewable energy is starting to win on price.

The most amazing chart is this one published in Bloomberg in October, titled "Welcome to the Terrordome." It shows solar prices coming down from the sky like a lightning bolt in the last few years, shooting down to levels under Brent (oil) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices, and fast approaching U.S. bituminous coal and Henry Hub (natural gas) prices.

...and it's just in time, since we'll soon be running short on natural gas. As fracking for natural gas takes over in recent years, the myths about gas supply echo that of coal -- supposedly hundreds of years of supply left. However, coal production in the U.S. has peaked and U.S. gas production is likely to peak by 2017. When a resource peaks, we've used up the cheap half. This means costs will rise as production can't keep up with demand, and more extreme extraction methods become necessary.

Thankfully, nearly all of our energy needs can be met by a combination of conservation, efficiency, wind, solar and energy storage. Demand reduction must be prioritized, cutting use at least in half, which would put the U.S. on par with per capita energy use in Europe. A 2012 study out of the University of Delaware showed that wind, solar and energy storage can meet our electricity needs with 99.9% reliability by 2030, cost effectively, with no government subsidies. Stanford University researchers have shown that all energy (including transportation and heating sector use) can be provided by conservation, efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower (including ocean power) by 2050, while saving money, improving health and creating jobs.

Of course, there is no free lunch. Normal wind turbines use about two tons of a rare earth metal, neodymium, which is mined in horribly destructive ways in China, yet neodymium-free turbines exist and could be something we demand. Solar has a toxic reputation, for good reason, yet solar technology keeps evolving. Some newer types (like nanotech varieties) could be highly toxic, while others reduce or eliminate use of toxic materials. Even energy efficiency can be wasteful where it involves having to replace materials in buildings, lighting, appliances and motors. Material shortages can limit the clean energy dream, and it's hard to say where this limit may be. However, the status quo is terribly worse. This transition must be done as soon as we can, and as just and as democratically as we can.

This clean energy revolution is freaking out the energy utilities, who are seeing the writing on the wall if wind and solar are produced in a decentralized way where their centralized business model isn't needed. Some are even organizing and getting states (like Arizona) to make it more expensive for people to put solar on their roof and are using race-baiting tactics such as encouraging the Congressional Black Caucus to see net metering as harming their constituents (a claim that NAACP and other environmental justice advocates are pushing back against).

Ultimately, we need our movement for energy justice to be a movement that not only stops dirty energy in its tracks, but builds solutions that are decentralized, publicly-owned, and democratically controlled. Public utilities must truly be public to have economic incentives to use less. We can do this. We must.

Trash Incinerators: Don't Call it a Comeback

The New York Times ran an article on Jan 11th, 2015, acting like incinerators are making a comeback, and featuring the huge Energy Answers incinerator proposed in Baltimore as if it's "being built" (which is not true).  Incinerators are trying to come back, but our movement is effectively beating back the industry almost everywhere they go, with Florida a rare exception.

We submitted this Op Ed to the New York Times, but they chose not to print it (or those submitted by several others to correct their reporting).

It's also worth nothing that in Massachusetts (one of the four states where the Times says large new trash incinerators are being considered) it's illegal to even build them, and none are being considered.  See our webpages on incineration and zero waste for more info.

 

Trash Incinerators: Don't Call it a Comeback

The Times' Jan. 10th "Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback" article portrays a false trend.  Trash incinerators are the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to dispose of waste.  Since they impact health and property values, they're one of the most unpopular technologies in the world, and are actually on the decline in the U.S.

Far from a comeback, of the currently operating commercial-scale trash incinerators in the U.S., the last one to be built at a new site came online in 1995.  From 1995 until now, at nine existing incinerator sites (including West Palm Beach), operations have expanded, adding nearly 6,000 tons/day (tpd) of new capacity.  In that same time, 74 U.S. incinerators have closed, shutting down nearly 21,000 tpd of capacity.  Another 2,250 tpd incinerator (Florida's North Broward plant) is talking about closing soon for lack of waste to burn, as waste is sent to the new 3,000 tpd West Palm Beach incinerator one county north, to the displeasure of West Palm Beach residents.

Many hundreds of proposed incinerators have been stopped in the past few decades as well.  One compilation shows that 280 incinerator proposals were defeated in the decade between 1985 and 1994, and that trend has continued to this day, with several proposals defeated just last year.

At the industry's peak in 1991, there were 187 commercial trash incinerators in the U.S.  There are now about 80, with two more looking to close in the next year.

Waste Management, Inc., the world's largest waste corporation, has moved away from incineration.  Last year, they sold off their Wheelabrator subsidiary, abandoning their role as the nation's second largest operator of conventional waste incinerators.  Several experimental types of incinerators, using gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arc technologies have failed to prove capable of commercial operation.  WMI invested in a variety of these companies in recent years just to abandon them as well.

With this industry, there is a lot more "blowing smoke" than actual fire.  The plan in Baltimore for the nation's largest incinerator is permitted, but not actually "being built" as the article portrayed.  Incinerators supposedly "under consideration" in four other states aren't anything likely to happen, either, and are largely unknown to state permitting agencies.  One of those states, Virginia, confirmed that they have no active applications for incinerators anywhere in the state.  However, an informal proposal for one was "shot down due to public opposition" last year, after a year-long battle.

The same happened in Frederick, Maryland last November after a decade-long fight with the community caused the incinerator deal to crumble, even after all permits were issued.  The deal began to unravel when the partner county paid $1 million to back out of the contract thanks to their fiscal conservatism.  If only Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's leaders listened in 2003 when I warned them that the city faced bankruptcy if they invested in rebuilding their incinerator.  Eight years later, after listening to their consultants instead, the city was the largest at the time to seek bankruptcy protection.

Sadly, this is not so unusual, as incinerators must lock in energy sales and long-term waste supply contracts, even if construction is privately financed.  Local governments signing long-term waste contracts often get locked into bad deals where they pay too much for too long and are punished if they reduce waste or recycle more, since they still pay fees on waste they no longer supply to the incinerator.

Trash incineration is more expensive than landfilling which the waste industry (even the trash incinerator industry's trade association) has publicly admitted.  Of course, incinerators do not avoid landfilling as they need landfills for their ash.  Every 100 tons of waste burned results in 30 tons of ash that ends up landfilled.

Two studies done for the Energy Information Administration since 2010 show that trash incineration is also the most expensive way to make electricity.  It's the most expensive to build, and also the most expensive to operate and maintain – even though they get paid to take waste as their fuel, while other (non-renewable) energy sources pay for their fuel.

The industry avoids using the unpopular 'i' word, preferring to refer to incinerators as energy facilities, even though they're primarily waste facilities.  If you compare their pollution to other energy facilities, you find that they're far dirtier than coal power plants.  To make the same amount of energy as a coal plant, the average trash incinerator in the U.S. releases 28 times as much dioxin (the most toxic man-made chemicals known to science), 2.5 times as much carbon dioxide (impacting global warming), three times as much nitrogen oxides (impacting asthma), six times as much mercury and nearly six times as much lead (both affecting the brain and more), and 70% more sulfur dioxides (affecting breathing).  Incinerators are this much more polluting even though the average incinerator was built in 1987 and the average coal plant was built in 1968, with fewer pollution controls.

A state-wide analysis by New York's environmental agency, found that the state's ten trash incinerators put out 14 times more mercury per unit of energy produced than the state's eight coal plants, and more mercury in total, even though the coal plants are much larger.

Recycling is stagnating where political leaders haven't really been leaders.  However, in over 7,000 communities around the country, people are using Save Money and Reduce Trash (SMART) programs where they pay less if they throw out less trash (also known as "pay as you throw").  Just like any other utility, if you pay for how much you use, you'll use less.  Communities switching to these programs find immediate reductions in trash generation of 44% on average.  Over 80% of Wisconsin communities and over half of Iowa communities use it.  These programs are now mandatory in Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, and are being considered in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Using the most expensive and polluting way to reduce tons going to landfills by 70% makes no sense, when some cities are already showing the way with "zero waste" plans that divert 70% or more from landfills and incinerators through source reduction, reuse, recycling and composting.  In doing so, they create 10 times as many jobs as landfills or incinerators.

Mike Ewall, Esq. is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national organization supporting communities threatened by polluting energy and waste facilities.

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