According to the Energy Information Administration, the average American throws away about 4.5 pounds of trash daily, and nearly 1,600 pounds per year. Finding smart, innovative ways to deal with this waste is one of many major environmental challenges facing our society. Surprisingly, the garbage we throw away may actually be part of the solution to diversifying our nation’s energy mix.
Waste, it turns out, is one of our leading energy alternatives.
Our garbage, called municipal solid waste, or MSW, is recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as a renewable fuel. In fact, trash has been a source of alternative energy for at least a century. In 1898, New York City began recovering energy from its garbage through incineration techniques. Today, with our nation burning 14 percent of its solid waste, incineration is the most common form of waste-to-energy (WtE) processing.
p>WtE plants work just like coal plants. In fact, the same steps are used to create electricity in WtE plants as are used in coal-fired power plants. The only difference is that WtE plants use garbage to fire their industrial boilers, not coal.
Today, there are about 90 WtE plants across the country working hard to turn our grass clippings and food scraps into steam which is then used to create electricity. These plants produce enough electricity to power more than two million homes, while disposing of more than 90,000 tons of trash each day.
A recent segment on MSNBC reported on a WtE plant in Fairfax County, Virginia. This plant alone produces enough energy to power 75,000 homes, and its parent company prevents 30 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere with 34 plants across the country.
While incineration is the most popular method of converting our waste into clean energy, there are numerous other technologies in use. Among them is gasification, which creates an alternative fuel called synthesis gas, or syngas. Syngas can be used as a fuel itself, or it can be converted to several other types of valuable energy sources.
Another technology, called thermal depolymerization (TDP), converts our everyday garbage into crude oil. In fact, conservative estimates say that if the United States was to recycle just its agricultural waste with TDP, our nation could generate approximately 4 billion barrels of light crude oil each year.
At More Diverse, More Domestic, More Efficient report, we called for increasing the role of renewables in our power generation mix. Alternative energy sources, including MSW, have the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
With surging energy prices and our nation‚s increasing dependence on foreign sources of energy, it has never been more important to achieve a diverse, dynamic national energy portfolio.
While municipal solid waste energy is not the only solution, it is one of many elements to help us achieve greater energy independence. Along with clean coal, increased domestic oil and natural gas exploration, and a broadening array of alternative fuels and technologies, MSW has a unique role to play in our cleaner, stronger energy future.
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