There are currently 71 waste to energy (WTE) plants in the United States. WTE plants only account for 0.4% of total electricity generation, although there is great potential to increase this percentage in the future.

Is Waste to Energy Set to Increase in the Coming Years?
Is Waste to Energy Set to Increase in the Coming Years?

Emily Folk | Conservation Folks

There are currently 71 waste to energy (WTE) plants in the United States. Another term for waste to energy is bioenergy. Energy is generated by burning waste at high temperatures, which produces electricity. WTE plants only account for 0.4% of total electricity generation, although there is great potential to increase this percentage in the future.

The implementation of more WTE plants also depends on the cost of energy in the coming years, as well as alternative waste management processes. More countries are looking for solutions to dispose of waste, with global limits being placed on exporting recycling. WTE plants offer a possible solution.

Current electricity levels account for about 20% of total energy expenditures. Waste to energy plants produce electricity by heating waste to high levels to generate energy. The electricity produced by these plants can fulfill the demands of 2 million homes. Utilizing waste to energy plants is not only a solution for waste management but also a valuable energy resource.


Is It Renewable?

Waste management exists in a hierarchical system. The first level is waste prevention, meaning that the first step in handling waste is creating less of it. This measure is followed by recycling, energy recovery, treatment and landfill disposal. One criticism of WTE is that it minimizes the incentive to recycle. However, according to a recent study, countries in the EU that have the most WTE plants also have the highest recycling rates.

If WTE plants keep waste out of the landfill and generate energy, are they a renewable resource? This is the main question in an ongoing discussion regarding how to define waste to energy. One significant factor in the future potential of the waste to energy industry is whether it can be considered a renewable resource. Because WTE plants do have a significant carbon footprint, there is an ongoing discussion as to whether they are truly renewable.

The impact of WTE plants is hard to quantify. On one hand, they have a significant carbon footprint. On the other, they offset methane emissions from landfills. While waste incinerators do release significant amounts of CO2, it is important to view these numbers in comparison with those of fossil fuel plants. WTE plants are also improving their technology over time and looking to reduce air pollution.


Waste to Energy Today

Between 2018 and 2026, research estimates that the waste to energy industry will see a 70% growth rate in the global market.

One popular opinion is that while WTE technology may be renewable, it is not clean. Health concerns over air pollution caused by WTE plants are a real concern. Particulates, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide are just a few of the chemicals that can cause serious health problems for neighboring populations. The Baltimore city council passed legislation requiring air monitoring at its WTE facility.

However, new policies may also help the growth of the waste to the energy market. With an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, WTE plants may have less of a negative impact on the surrounding environment in the coming years. Additionally, policy changes may assist the expansion of waste to energy as other power sources become less available.


Innovations in WTE Technology

Waste to energy technology is evolving in its processes. Now that energy generation is more of a focus than trash reduction, innovative technology is making these plants more energy-efficient. It is also reducing the carbon footprint often associated with burning waste. There is a deliberate effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by advancing the energy recovery process.

One thing that waste to energy plants have on their side is the push for municipalities to become more self-sustainable. With technological and design innovations, there is the potential for the industry to do more than provide power.

For example, there is research on combining water treatment facilities with WTE plants. As urban areas advocate for self-reliance, WTE plants may provide the opportunity to contribute to a more circular economy.


The Future of Waste to Energy

The potential expansion of the waste to energy market depends heavily on external factors. For example, waste management around the globe is still looking for recycling alternatives after China decided to limit imports in 2018.

Other factors include the relatively low price of electricity in the United States, the availability of cheap natural gas, and the lack of policy regarding landfills.

With countries looking to decrease their dependence on fossil fuels, there is great potential in the renewable energy sector. While not as widely discussed as a renewable energy resource, waste to energy is considered renewable. With factors such as population growth and rising consumption levels, there is potential for the waste to energy market to increase in the next few years.

Waste to energy plants today are far more advanced than the trash incinerators of the past. Considering the innovative technology and design that is taking place in the waste management industry, it is very likely that waste to energy will become more widely utilized in the future.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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