Waste-to-energy conversion (WTE) involves the processing of many different types of unusable wastestreams into heat, electricity, and other forms of energy. In 2008, the U.S. alone produced 250 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) or 4.5 pounds per person per day, consisting of the componentsfound in Table 1.
As shown in Table 2, most MSW ends up in landfills, while a small portion is recycled, and an evensmaller percentage is converted to energy.
Key problems with landfills include 1) the release of potent greenhouse gas methane from decomposing trash, 2) harmful emissions from hauling transportation, 3) costly clean-up of toxic leakage from closed landfills, and 4) the danger and difficulty of landfill redevelopment due to high levels of methane emissions and toxic leakage into ground water. While incineration with energy capture is sometimesused on a large scale by municipalities and industry, incineration is still a controversial method of wastedisposal due to the potential of harmful emissions of gaseous pollutants and a low efficiency rate forenergy capture.
Why are WTE Markets Growing?Local authorities and waste management companies are experiencing difficulty in constructing new landfills due to opposition from property owners, municipalities, and environmentalists. As a result, solidwaste disposal must be transported further or managed by other means. These facts, along with growingsustainability concerns, have given rise to efforts to minimize the amount of waste disposed at landfills.
John Raspin, Energy and Environment Practice Director at Frost & Sullivan, says, “Waste to energy facilities are increasingly becoming profitable cash generators in their own right. The ongoing move awayfrom landfills is continuing to attract technological innovation and the current leaning towards waste toenergy in many parts of Europe is attracting major capital investment with improving opportunities forreturns.” The WTE market is also growing because of the increase in availability of maturing technologies designed to address the problem.
There are generally two waste-to-energy market sizes: 1) Large Municipality Processing and 2) On-SiteConversion.
Large Municipality ProcessingDriven by its growing role of electricity and heat generation, the large-scale WTE market is large and growing. According to a BCC Research Report (Code: EGY063A) published in May 2009, the globalmarket for WTE was $20 billion in 2008 and expected to increase to $26 billion in 2014. More than 900 thermal WTE plants operate worldwide and treat an estimated 200 million tons of MSW. According toFrost & Sullivan, the European WTE market will continue to grow for at least 10 years and almost 100new plants will come on line by 2012. According to Pike Research president Clint Wheelock, “Waste-to-energy plants serve an important dual purpose. They help alleviate the growing municipal solid wasteproblem, while simultaneously providing much-needed renewable energy and heat sources to localpopulations. Energy from waste contributes to energy security and diversification, and matches thegrowing demand for renewable energy in a carbon constrained world.”
The On-Site Conversion system market is new but perhaps even larger. In the U.S. alone, there are47,000 hospitality locations, 21,000 food processing plants, 17,000 industrial plants, 10,000 towns,9,000 higher educational institutions, 5,700 hospitals, 2,500 prisons, 1,800 arenas and stadiums, and3,000 military installations, in all representing 117,000 potential customers for compact, on-site, WTE conversion systems. The U.S. market alone could easily exceed $120 billion.
A variety of technologies are used to convert waste into energy. Several of the more prominenttechnologies include 1) Incineration which possesses low efficiency and high environmental burdens,and often requires a large footprint and high costs; 2) Bioconversion which has a low throughput, lowconversion rate, and large footprint, and requires large volumes of water per unit mass bacteria; 3)Plasma gasification which requires a large-scale system and demands high volume input for economicfeasibility; and 4) Downdraft gasification which demands a small-scale system and requires low volumeinput and results in the cleanest syngas.
Many companies are engaged in the WTE field. Table 3 displays some of the industry’s players. As you can see, the WTE market is large and growing. The players are numerous and the numbers are fully expected to rapidly increase over time.
This article was written by Stu Haber, President & CEO of IST Energy Corporation, the manufacturer of the “GEM”, a revolutionary, compact, on-site waste-to-energy system which converts 3 tons/day of MSW into clean electricity and heat.