An energy-from-waste or waste-to-energy incineration plant is a facility designed to dispose of solid wastes by converting them into energy. More specifically. It operates by using waste materials as a fuel to produce heat that will drive electricity-producing steam turbines. This type of power plant is also called a waste incineration facility.
Note that most waste-to-energy plants are designed similarly to coal-fired or gas-fired steam-electric power plants. However, they also function as solid waste management facilities that include processes for sorting and recycling wastes. Nevertheless, because of their dual purpose, waste-to-energy through incineration has been positioned as a viable alternative to fossil fuels and a complementary technology for energy diversification.
Advantages and Benefits of Waste-To-Energy Incineration Plant
1. Doubles as a Solution for Managing Solid Wastes
One of the primary advantages of waste-to-energy plants is that they also serve as facilities for managing and disposing solid wastes. Hence, because they are also incineration facilities, they have the key benefits of waste incineration.
These benefits include the reduction and elimination of landfills. The World Bank noted in 2018 that global waste production could rise by 70 percent by 2050. Without other waste management solutions, this amount of trash would prompt the creation of more dumpsites.
Landfills have considerable drawbacks. For starters, they occupy land resources that could be conserved or used for commercial purposes. Activities within and around these dumpsites also have negative impacts on public infrastructures, especially roads.
They also produce pollutants that could contaminate groundwater, as well as the surrounding soil and bodies of water that in turn, can negatively impact the surrounding environment, decrease the value of lands, and affect the quality of life in nearby communities.
Waste disposal through waste-to-energy plants could reduce waste volume by up to 90 percent, thereby eliminating or completely reducing landfills. Furthermore, these power plants occupy less space, thus maximizing the usability of an allotted land area. Note that incineration can also promote recycling and the more specific upcycling, as well as support a circular economy.
2. Most Efficient Waste-to-Energy Technology
There are different processes and technologies for recovering energy from waste. These include waste incineration, specific plastic processing processes such as pyrolysis, other thermal treatment technologies such as gasification and thermal depolymerization, and non-thermal technologies to include anaerobic digestion, fermentation, and mechanical biological treatment.
From these processes and technologies, waste-to-energy conversion via incineration has a higher power production efficiency, better electricity generation yield, relatively lower investment cost, and lower emission rates using suitable complementary technologies.
More specifically, the average electrical efficiency of incineration facilities is around 14 to 28 percent. To maximize energy recovery, these power plants also include cogeneration capabilities to use excess heat for district heating.
A modern waste-to-energy incineration plant can generate 500 kWh to 600 kWh of electricity per ton of solid waste. Incinerating about 2200 wastes a day can produce about 1200 MWh of electricity, thereby making a particular incineration facility an attractive infrastructure for promoting and improving energy security.
For a more specific illustration, the Energy Recovery Council in the United States noted that 86 incineration facilities in the country supply 2700 megawatts of electricity per day. This generation capacity is enough to power about 2 million homes.
3. Cleaner Alternative to Energy Production Using Fossil Fuels
When compared with some sources of energy and other power plants, another notable advantage of waste-to-energy incineration facilities centers on less emission, as well as reduced dependence on emission-producing energy sources.
Using solid waste materials as a fuel source reduces the need for the extraction, transportation, and utilization of fossil fuels—processes within the upstream, midstream, and downstream components that normally require using even more fossil fuels. Remember that for several decades now, global warming and climate emergency have been attributed to the consumption of coal, oil, and gas for energy production.
Incinerators in the U.S. produce less pollution than power plants that run on fossil fuels because of the strict maximum available control technology or MACT regulations implemented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Promoting the conversion of waste materials into energy would certainly help improve the energy mix of a particular jurisdiction while minimizing dependence on fossil fuels. In other words, energy recovery via waste incineration is a viable solution to maintaining or advancing energy security sans coal, oil, and gas.
Disadvantages and Limitation of Waste-To-Energy Incineration Plant
1. High Cost of Building and Maintaining Incineration Facilities
However, most technologies and solutions related to energy production, waste-to-energy conversion via waste incineration has notable disadvantages and limitations. These drawbacks have also created a heated debate between those who support and oppose the construction and operation of waste incineration facilities.
Cost is one of the disadvantages of waste-to-energy incineration plants. Findings from the 2021 study of D. Moon showed that an incinerator would require USD 134,000 to burn 1000 tons of municipal solid waste and generate 573,000 kWh of energy.
The same study also showed that managing the same amount of waste through separate collection, recycling, composting, and controlled use of landfills, as well as generation of 573,000 kWh of energy from solar power, specifically solar panels, would only cost USD 56,000.
In addition, a 2018 report from the World Bank also mentioned that energy generation from waste incineration facilities costs 4 times more than solar power and wind power. They also cost twice as much as natural gas and are even more expensive than coal power plants by 25 percent.
A financial and economic model of waste incineration plant construction developed and analyzed by S. Shilkina and A. Niyazov further showed that the construction of a new waste-to-energy incineration plant is cost-inefficient because the entire project would not push through or repaid without substantial subsidies from the government.
2. Incineration Plants Can Still Be a Source of Pollutants
There are also concerns over the capacity of incineration facilities to reduce or eliminate byproducts that are harmful to the health and environment. The combustion of waste materials produces dioxins, acid gases, nitrogen oxide, and heavy metals.
Dioxins are carcinogenic. They can cause problems with reproduction, development, and the immune system. Long-term exposure to acid gasses can lead to severe illnesses while the release of nitrogen oxide is a greenhouse gasses that can also affect vegetation.
Particulate matter released that could escape waste-to-energy incineration plants are small enough to enter the lungs and cause serious respiratory issues or aggravate existing ones. Heavy metals are environmental contaminants that can affect nearby wildlife and human settlement.
A report by J Pyper published on Scientific American cited a comment made by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation or DEC. It argued that waste-to-energy via incineration should not be considered as clean energy because it emits air pollutants at rates greater than coal-fired power plants. Hence, it may not be a viable solution to mitigate global warming and respond to the ongoing climate emergency.
The DEC also mentioned that the government denied the entry of an incineration facility in 2004 because its 2000 investigation showed that mercury emissions from existing facilities in the state were about six times higher than coal-fired power plants.
3. Availability of Other Alternative and Cleaner Sources of Energy
On the subject of energy diversification and energy security, there are other alternative sources that are cleaner and more sustainable. Waste-to-energy facilities are essentially not a clean source of energy when compared to nuclear power and renewable energy sources.
The cost and benefit analysis presented by D. Moon showed that a municipality would spend less on investing in renewable energy technologies such as solar power than constructing and maintaining incineration power plants.
In addition, the high cost of building and operating waste-to-energy incineration plants means that these facilities are almost exclusive to developed and developing countries. Underdeveloped countries or jurisdictions with low income and poor economic outlook would not be able to afford constructing and running these facilities.
A Note on the Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy Incineration Plants
There are some overlaps and contradictions regarding the advantages and disadvantages of waste-to-energy incineration. More specifically, the ambiguities stem from claims and counterclaims about the energy efficiency and environmental soundness of these facilities.
Undeniably, energy recovery and power generation via waste incineration has costs and benefits. The goal is to maximize the benefits while minimizing the costs. A notable example would be improving and utilization technologies that would reduce or eliminate emissions from these power plants while maximizing energy production potential.
Another complementary workaround involves government bodies implementing strict regulatory and monitoring policies aimed at creating and raising protocols, as well as ensuring that plants are operating within the established standards.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Levaggi, L., Levaggi, R., Marchiori, C., and Trecroci, C. 202). “Waste-to-Energy in the EU: The Effects of Plant Ownership, Waste Mobility, and Decentralization on Environmental Outcomes and Welfare.” Sustainability. 12(14): 5743. DOI: 3390/su12145743
- Moon, D. 2021. The High Cost of Waste Incineration. Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. DOI: 46556/RPKY2826
- Pyper, J. 2011. “Does Burning Garbage to Produce Electricity Makes Sense?” Scientific American. Available online
- Shilkina, S. and Niyazov, A. 2018. “Financial and Economic Model of Waste Incineration Plant Construction.” IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering. 365(6): 062024. DOI: 1088/1757-899x/365/6/062024
- Weber, K., Quicker, P., Hanewinkel, J., and Flamme, S. 2020. “Status of Waste-to-Energy in Germany, Part I – Waste Treatment Facilities.” Waste Management & Research. 38(1S): 23-44. DOI: 1177/0734242×19894632