Waste-to-energy (WTE) – the process of generating energy (via electricity or heat) from the primary treatment of waste – is on the rise across Europe, China, Japan and other Asian countries. The Chinese city of Shenzhen recently announced plans to construct the world’s largest WTE plant, which will convert at least a third of the city’s trash into electricity. India, which has a huge amount of waste potential, is starting to explore policy incentives (e.g., purchase agreements and tariffs) to encourage WTE projects, and six new plants will be commissioned this year. In Europe, Sweden has emerged as a leader in WTE, with more than 30 WTE plants incinerating half of the country’s total waste as well as 700,000 tons of imported trash.
WTE solves two major challenges for these countries: it reduces waste buildup in landfills, and it offers an alternative energy source with fewer emissions than fossil fuels. A typical WTE facility can generate 500-600 kWh of energy per ton of waste, the equivalent of 2 weeks of power for the average U.S. household. In addition, industry representatives claim that each ton of incinerated waste reduces GHG emissions by one ton, due primarily to offsetting methane emissions from landfills.
Yet despite the benefits of WTE, its adoption has been limited in some places, including the United States and Caribbean. In the United States, only 12% of municipal solid waste is currently being converted to energy. While several WTE facilities have expanded their existing capacity – and greenfield projects are occurring for the first time since the 1990s – this development still pales in comparison to Europe and Asia. Prospects are a bit more promising in the Caribbean, where several new plants are under development in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Barbados and St. Kitts & Nevis.
Why, then, has WTE been so successful in some countries (like Sweden) but not in others (like the U.S.)? And does WTE have the potential to succeed in new markets like the Caribbean?
An interesting 2011 article by Matt Williams (with the American Council on Renewable Energy) addresses exactly these issues. Williams discusses several factors which are necessary for successful WTE programs:
- High landfill tipping fees – Landfill tipping fees are the charges levied by landfills to accept a given quantity of waste, in order to offset operations and maintenance costs. The higher the landfill tipping fee, the more cost-effective the WTE alternate becomes. In Sweden, for example, landfill tipping fees are more than $150, compared to only $44 on average in the U.S. Similarly, in the Caribbean, low tipping fees (due in part to the risk of illegal dumping) can work to dissuade WTE.
- Policies favorable to WTE – Policies like a WTE-exempt carbon price and landfill taxes or restrictions can help to encourage WTE by making fossil fuels less attractive and landfills less accessible. In addition, recognizing WTE as a renewable resource can make it eligible for certain policy incentives. For example, while the EU recognizes organic WTE as a renewable resource, only half of U.S. states do – which affects its inclusion in states’ renewable portfolio standards.
- High price of electricity – High electricity prices allow WTE producers to receive a higher price for energy produced, improving the business case for the technology. For example, in northern European countries, electricity prices are upwards of $0.30 per kWh – much higher than the $0.10 average in the United States. This factor helps to bolster the WTE case in the Caribbean, where electricity prices can reach as much as $0.40 per kWh.
- Limited land resources – The less land available for landfills, the more compelling the case for WTE incineration. This is true, for example, in Denmark and densely populated regions of the U.S. – as well as for small Caribbean islands.
- Ample supply of waste – High waste outputs offer an easy supply of fuel for WTE plants. Surprisingly, per capita waste levels in Scandinavian countries are on par with the United States, suggesting that neither region struggles with this barrier. However, for small Caribbean islands, this presents one of the highest barriers to WTE adoption.
- Extensive district heating & cooling network – A district heating and cooling network distributes thermal energy from a combined heat and power plant (CHP). Because WTE can achieve much higher efficiencies (85-90%) with CHP applications than with traditional electricity generation (20-30%), a district heating network is often seen as a plus. This is the case with Sweden and the Northeastern U.S., but not yet the Caribbean (where district cooling is still being studied).
These factors help to explain why WTE has been so successful in Sweden and other northern European countries, while not as much in the broader United States and Caribbean. In particular, low landfill tipping fees, a lack of policy incentives, low electricity prices and ample land resources discourage WTE adoption in many U.S. states. Similarly, in the Caribbean, low tipping fees and low levels of waste act as strong disincentives.
However, other conditions in the Caribbean suggest that WTE might one day achieve success. Like Sweden, the Caribbean faces limited land resources and high electricity prices, both of which encourage WTE. Moreover, many of the remaining factors are policy-dependent. For example, efforts to increase landfill tipping fees or taxes, promote district heating and cooling options, and import additional waste supplies from other countries or cruise ships would go a long way toward building the business case for WTE.
Morgan Rote is a sustainable energy research analyst at Sustainable Capital Advisors. She is currently an MA candidate studying Energy, and Environment and International Economics at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Crew, Bec (2016). “China Is Building the Largest Waste-to-Energy Plant in the World.” Science Alert. February 26, 2016. http://www.sciencealert.com/china-is-building-the-largest-waste-to-energy-plant-in-the-world
IndianExpress (2015). “Six Waste-to-Energy Plants to Be Set Up Under Swachch Bharat Mission.” October 4, 2015. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/six-waste-to-energy-plants-to-be-set-up-under-swachch-bharat-mission/
Lamos, Evan (2015). “Electricity Prices in Europe.” EurActiv. December 18, 2015. http://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/video/electricity-prices-in-europe/
Pyper, Julia (2011). “Does Burning Garbage to Produce Electricity Make Sense?” Scientific American / ClimateWire. August 26, 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-burning-garbage-to-produce-energy-make-sense/
Sweden Sverige (2015). “The Swedish Recycling Revolution.” https://sweden.se/nature/the-swedish-recycling-revolution/
U.S. EPA (2016). “Energy Recovery from Waste.” https://www3.epa.gov/wastes/nonhaz/municipal/wte/index.htm
Williams, Matt (2011). “Waste-to-Energy Success Factors in Sweden and the United States: Analyzing the Transferability of the Swedish Waste-to-Energy Model to the United States.” American Council on Renewable Energy. http://acore.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/WTE-in-Sweden-and-the-US-Matt-Williams..pdf