One man’s trash could be another man’s energy.
Idaho’s wide open spaces haven’t lent themselves to waste-to-energy projects so far, but a panel of experts at the Boise Environmental Innovation Summit last week talked about the possibilities and how far the United States has to go to catch up on the technology. This panel was part of a half-day event held at the Arid Club in conjunction with Boise Entrepreneur Week that featured talks with industry leaders on cryptocurrency, the future of farming and energy in Idaho.
Two segments of the event were dedicated to the concept of waste-to-energy projects and how waste management could transition into the future. Idaho Regional Waste Services, a privately owned landfill in Elmore County, had a part in both talks and was a sponsor of the summit.
Waste-to-energy projects use a variety of processes to turn municipal waste into electricity. This can be performed by a variety of processes like burning the material or using anaerobic digestion to break down the material and create biogas, which can be burned for electricity. Ada County currently captures gas from the landfill and uses it to generate electricity, which is enough to power 3,000 homes for a year, the county says.
Projects to burn trash for energy, like the Dynamis proposal roughly a decade ago, are often criticized by residents who are concerned about the health risks from burning waste. The project was eventually scrapped after pushback from Ada County residents and still years later is mentioned as a negative project concept by residents in Northwest Boise.
Taking a nod from Europe
Waste-to-energy facilities are most common in more densely populated countries, like in Europe and Asia, where there is not as much room for landfills for waste disposal.
Tom Jones, an executive with specialty infrastructure company Primoris, said the United States is playing catchup with technology coming out of Europe that uses waste to create electricity. He said technology like anaerobic digestion to capture landfill gas is especially helpful because it allows gas that would just be burned off to be processed and put in a pipeline to be used for fuel, which lessens dependence on fossil fuels.
Another technology that he said is helpful are MRFs, or materials recovery facilities, that sort trash and remove recyclable materials and food waste, which have already been implemented in large metro areas like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But, he said the technology still has a long way to go before we can dispose of our waste in the absolute most environmentally friendly way possible.
“We’re trying to be a good steward of our earth, but we’re not quite there yet,” Jones said. “We need many many more years to get to that point.”
Glyn Jones, chairman of Periodic Financial Corp, told the crowd there are negative lessons to be learned from Europe as well. He said those countries have moved to limit landfill construction, while also having trouble getting permits to build waste-to-energy facilities. This makes it difficult to dispose of waste, even if on paper they are making progress toward sustainability.
“We make commitments for recycling, we make commitments for reductions of pollution but we don’t put in place a solution that delivers,” he said. “We end up with solutions where we are now finding there is a significant amount of hazardous waste in Asian or Africa from Europe. In theory, we have made progress, but the practice the reality is something that’s different.”
One reason the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection says waste-to-energy facilities aren’t as common in the United States as overseas is the high cost to build them compared to landfills.
John Crigler, with Idaho Regional Waste Services, said it can cost millions, or potentially billions, to construct waste-to-energy facilities, which puts them often out of reach for local governments to build and risky for private companies to take on. He said the rise of tax credits available to private companies from the government is helping to make these projects more in reach, but it will require governments to partner with the private sector to make it happen.
“The interesting thing is it does require us to change how we’re doing things because tax credits are only available to taxable entities,” Crigler said. “That eliminates our municipalities. It takes a private company to step forward and say ‘well bring our tax credits and we’ll use them to cover the capital expenditure cost’.”