You know the saying: One person’s trash is another’s treasure. When it comes to recovering energy from municipal solid waste — commonly called garbage or trash— that treasure can be especially useful. Instead of taking up space in a landfill, we can process our trash to produce energy to power our homes, businesses and public buildings.
In 2015, the United States got about 14 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from burning municipal solid waste, or MSW. Seventy-one waste-to-energy plants and four additional power plants burned around 29 million tons of MSW in the U.S. that year. However, just 13 percent of the country’s waste becomes energy. Around 35 percent is recycled or composted, and the rest ends up in landfills.
Recovering Energy Through Incineration
The predominant technology for MSW-to-energy plants is incineration, which involves burning the trash at high temperatures. Similarly to how some facilities use coal or natural gas as fuel sources, power plants can also burn MSW as fuel to heat water, which creates steam, turns a turbine and produces electricity.
Several methods and technologies can play a role in burning trash to create electricity. The most common type of incineration plant is what’s called a mass-burn facility. These units burn the trash in one large chamber. The facility might sort the MSW before sending it to the combustion chamber to remove non-combustible materials and recyclables.
These mass-burn systems use excess air to facilitate mixing, and ensure air gets to all the waste. Many of these units also burn the fuel on a sloped, moving grate to mix the waste even further. These steps are vital because solid waste is inconsistent, and its content varies. Some facilities also shred the MSW before moving it to the combustion chamber.
Another method for converting trash into electricity is gasification. This type of waste-to-energy plant doesn’t burn MSW directly, but instead uses it as feedstock for reactions that produce a fuel gas known as synthesis gas, or syngas. This gas typically contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen and water vapor.
Approaches to gasification vary, but typically include high temperatures, high-pressure environments, very little oxygen and shredding MSW before the process begins. Common gasification methods include:
- Pyrolysis, which involves little to no oxygen, partial pressure and temperatures between approximately 600 and 800 degrees Celsius.
- Air-fed systems, which use air instead of pure oxygen and temperatures between 800 and 1,800 degrees Celsius.
- Plasma or plasma arc gasification, which uses plasma torches to increase temperatures to 2,000 to 2,800 degrees Celsius.
Syngas can be burned to create electricity, but it can also be a component in the production of transportation fuels, fertilizers and chemicals. Proponents of gasification report that it is a more efficient waste-to-energy method than incineration, and can produce around 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity from one ton of MSW. Incineration, on average, produces 550 kilowatt-hours.
Challenges of MSW-to-Energy
Turning trash into energy seems like an ideal solution. We have a lot of trash to deal with, and we need to produce energy. MSW-to-energy plants solve both of those problems. However, a relatively small amount of waste becomes energy, especially in the U.S.
This lack may be due largely to the upfront costs of building a waste-to-energy plant. It is much cheaper in the short term to send trash straight to a landfill. Some people believe these energy production processes are just too complicated and expensive. Gasification, especially, has a reputation for being too complex.
Environmental concerns also play a role, since burning waste can release greenhouse gases. Although modern technologies can make burning waste a cleaner process, its proponents still complain it is too dirty.
Despite these challenges, as trash piles up and we continue to look for new sources of energy, waste-to-energy plants may begin to play a more integral role in our energy production and waste management processes. If we handle it responsibly and efficiently, it could become a very viable solution to several of the issues our society faces.