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A Case for Reinvestment
in Waste-to-Energy
in New Jersey

By James J. Kennedy
Mayor, City of Rahway
& Sunil K.Garg, Executive Director
Union county Utilities Authority

hand placing last piece of puzzle with grass and blue sky in place
Capturing even half of the 7.1 million tons of the state's MSW currently dumped in landfills will generate an additional 300 MW of clean, renewable electricity for our energy-dependent state -- all while mitigating climate change and reducing GHG emissions in a cost effective manner.

It is time that New Jersey took steps to re-incentivize conversion of waste to electricity in the state. Much has changed, and much experience has been gained, since the early 1990s when the last of the five waste-to-energy (WTE) resource recovery facilities presently operating in the state were commissioned—accompanied by often contentious and intense public involvement and debate. The climate, so to speak, is considerably different now—a change that is being driven by the realities we face as a state and a nation. These concerns include energy security, global warming and the need to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs), as well as the challenging financial condition of the state and its municipalities and the increasingly difficult task of providing services in the most financially optimal manner possible.

Waste-to-energy, a practice that has been operating in the state for more than 15 years, has demonstrated the potential to address these concerns, both locally and globally, by providing a solution that balances ecological impacts, energy production, and economic and financial benefits, while improving public health and safety through state-of-the-art solid waste management.

WTE uses municipal solid waste (MSW) as fuel in boilers that generate steam to drive a turbine to generate electricity. The electricity is sold on the distribution grid, generating revenue that is used to offset the cost of MSW management and other essential municipal services. WTE recovers more than 600 kW-hr of electricity per ton of waste; that is at least 10 times more than the electricity recoverable from a ton of land-filled waste. An average household annually generates about 2 tons of MSW that can produce 1200—1300 kW-hr of electricity per year through WTE. This is sufficient to satisfy about 6 weeks of electricity consumption of an average home in NJ.

In Union County, we have 15 years of experience with the 560,000 tons per year, 45 megawatt WTE facility located on Route 1 in Rahway that has provided real data showing that (1) WTE is a renewable source of 24/7 base load electricity, (2) WTE is clean and safe, (3) WTE promotes recycling, (4) WTE reduces GHG impact on the local and global environment and (5) WTE provides economic benefits locally and regionally.

WTE Is Renewable Municipal Solid Waste, the fuel for WTE, is produced locally. It is sustainable and renewable: it is an energy source that is replaced rapidly by a recurring process, household waste generation, and that is predictable throughout the day and on an annual basis. WTE is widely recognized as renewable at both state and federal levels, e.g., by Department of Energy, EPA, Biomass Research and Development Act of 2000, Energy Policy Act of 2005, Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act and in 25 states. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, recognized WTE as one of only eight “key renewable energy sectors” and “particularly promising in terms of…. abatement potential” for carbon emissions. The Chief of EPA’s Energy Recovery Branch recently stated that “[i]f you want to have an impact on greenhouse gas mitigation, focus on MSW [because there’s] nationally significant energy available from MSW combustion” even with 50 to 60 percent recycling rates.

WTE is Safe and Clean WTE is truly “green” technology that has proven to be safe and protective of human health and the environment. WTE facilities use the most advanced emissions control technologies, resulting in dramatic decreases in emissions. For example, emissions of dioxins have decreased by a factor of 1000, and WTE emissions are lower than landfill emissions for 9 of 10 major pollutants. USEPA has stated that WTE as a renewable source produces 2800 megawatts of electricity nationally with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity. The Union County WTE plant is a case in point. The average five-year emissions results for 2005—2008 demonstrate stellar performance when measured even against NJDEP air emissions limits, some of the toughest air pollution control regulations for such facilities in the nation.

The Union County facility is an OSHA VPP site representing a nationally recognized safe work place in terms of worker health and safety and injury free environment. Post-operational environmental assessments conducted using NJDEP approved protocols over the past 15 years, as measured from samples of sediments, soil and surface water most likely to be impacted by emissions from the facility and from analysis of produce grown in the potential impact zone, continue to show no impact from operations of the facility on the local or regional environment.

WTE Promotes Recycling Studies have shown that communities with WTE typically have recycling rates that are at least 5 percent higher than the national average. Union County has a recycling rate of about 33 percent when compared with the average 28 percent nation-wide. In addition, the Union County WTE facility recycles in excess of 18,000 tons of ferrous metal annually and recently installed a non-ferrous recycling system to recover aluminum and other such metals. Simply put, since metals have no energy value, there is an incentive to take these out of the waste stream before the MSW is used as a fuel in the WTE process.

WTE Emissions
bar chart showing 2005-2008 emmissions Results
Figure: Union county WTE Facility 2005-2008 Emissions Results: HCL:hydrochloric acid; HG: mercury; PM: particulates; DD/DF: dioxins/furans

WTE Helps Mitigate Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions WTE reduces GHG impact in several ways: (i) reduction in carbon emissions from fossil fuels that will otherwise be used to generate an equivalent amount of electricity; (ii) avoiding the methane emissions that will be generated if waste is dumped in landfills (methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide); (iii) recycling increased amounts of ferrous and non-ferrous metals; and (iv) avoiding emissions from transportation of MSW to land fills that are increasingly located farther and farther away from where MSW is generated, e.g., to land fills in Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. WTE facilities, such as the Union County facility on Route 1 in Rahway are locally located. WTE mitigation of GHGs is clearly recognized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winning scientific organization, which has emphasized the dual benefits of (a) offsetting emissions from fossil fuel combustion, and (b) avoiding landfill methane emissions.

WTE Provides Local Municipal and County-wide Financial and Economic Benefits Management of MSW is, and will remain, a local government responsibility. As such, municipal and county governments will continue to spend taxpayer’s monies for providing, regulating and managing these services. WTE provides economic benefits locally, when compared with the land-filling option for waste management, by providing local jobs (Union County facility has about 85 high paying jobs), local tax benefits in the form of host community benefits and by controlling the costs of waste management and disposal due to the revenue derived from sale of electricity. Since the Union County facility is local, additional opportunities have been created for several hundred small collectors, haulers and transporters in the collection and transport end of MSW management in Union County further adding to local economic benefits and tax base.

The Union County experience is illustrative. The average cost of waste disposal in Union County in 1995 was around $120 per ton. In 2008, the average cost was around $75 per ton (in real, not inflation adjusted, dollars!) including debt service, the only service for which costs have gone down. (It should be noted that the peak rate for MSW disposal approved by NJDEP in New Jersey currently exceeds $135 per ton.)

This equates to almost $25 million per year savings in disposal costs in each of the past 13 years for a total exceeding $250 million, largely due to the impact of the revenue from sale of electricity on the MSW management system. The savings are significant even when compared with prevailing rates for management of MSW by using landfills. Union County’s recent bid for services revealed a $25 to 50 per ton higher bid price from bidders proposing to use landfills as the final disposal option when compared with the use of WTE technology. This represents a significant cost and tax savings for Union County’s taxpayers who generate in excess of 400,000 tons of MSW on average annually over the last 5 to 10 years.

The facility has also been a significant source of revenue for the City of Rahway in the form of host community benefits that exceed $35 million since the Union County WTE facility was commissioned in 1994. WTE represents a win-win for all concerned.

In 2006, New Jersey produced 22.68 million tons of solid waste of which 12. 4 million tons was recycled. Of the balance, 11.08 million tons was municipal solid waste (MSW). 3.93 million tons of MSW was disposed of in in-state landfills, 3.17 million tons was exported to other states, principally Pennsylvania and Ohio for disposal in landfills. About 1.5 million tons was used in state as fuel to generate clean, renewable electricity at the 5 waste-to-energy plants operating in New Jersey since 1994.

Capturing even half of the 7.1 million tons of the state’s MSW currently dumped in landfills will generate an additional 300 Mega Watts of clean, renewable electricity for our energy-dependant state—all while mitigating climate change and reducing GHG emissions in a cost effective manner. The state should take a lead in developing a sound solid waste policy that complements the energy and environmental needs of the state; we need to adopt policies to incentivize further development of WTE technology due to the significant environmental, energy, financial and tax advantages WTE, an underutilized energy and environmental resource, offers.


This article was originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 7, October 2009


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