Skip to main content

Should Energy from Waste be Considered Renewable?

Posted by Student Blogger on August 21, 2014

An Energy from Waste facility in the UK
This Energy from Waste facility in the UK is capable of recovering energy from over 410,000 tonnes of residual waste per year and generates 37 MW of electricity - a small amount is used to power the plant itself, but the vast majority provides the domestic energy needs of about 50,000 homes.

There is much debate as to whether Energy from Waste (EFW) should be considered a renewable energy source.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), renewable energy relies on fuel sources that restore themselves over short periods of time and do not diminish[1]. Traditionally, these energy sources include solar, wind and biomass.

Solar and wind are considered renewable energy sources because the life cycle emissions produced during the manufacturing and usage of these sources are negligible compared to the emissions produced by fossil fuels. And biomass, which is biological material derived from cultivated living organisms, is also considered renewable because the amount of carbon released by burning the organism is equal to the amount of carbon absorbed by the organism during the cultivation stage. Thus, the total life cycle emissions from using biomass are considered negligible.

The EPA considers EFW renewable energy because the majority of municipal solid waste is biogenic – meaning it comes from natural sources – just like biomass[2].

Unfortunately, however, 33 per cent of the emissions produced from burning municipal solid waste do not come from biogenic sources – they come from burning plastics and other fossil fuel derived products[3] – making EFW a less environmentally friendly energy source than solar, wind and biomass.

Table 1: Emissions in Tonnes per MWh for various energy sources3.

Source

Emissions (Tonnes/MWh)

Solar

0

Wind

0

Hydro

0

Energy From Waste

0.3797

Oil

1.0201

Coal

0.7584

Natural Gas

0.5148

Nevertheless, energy produced from burning municipal solid waste is still cleaner than energy produced from fossil fuels and areas where fossil fuels are the predominant energy source, such as Alberta and Saskatchewan (see Table 2), should not be dissuaded from introducing EFW plants in order to reduce some of their fossil fuel dependency.

Table 2: Average overall emissions per MWh for various jurisdictions[4].

Jurisdiction

Emissions (Tonnes/MWh)

Canada

0.180

Alberta

0.880

BC

0.024

Saskatchewan

0.710

Manitoba

0.005

Ontario

0.100

Quebec

0.002

EFW should therefore not be considered a renewable source of energy by the EPA because of the significant amount of carbon released during the operation of these plants, which could accumulate to a significant amount of carbon released throughout the lifespan of the plant.


[1] United States Environmental Protection Agency, "Renewable Energy," EPA, 6 August 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.epa.gov/statelocalclimate/local/topics/renewable.html. [Accessed 1 April 2014].

[2] United States Environmental Protection Agency, "Energy from Waste: Burn or Bury?" EPA, 6 August 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/april2010/scinews_energy-from-waste.htm. [Accessed 1 April 2014].

Link to[3] J. K. O’Brien, "Comparison of Air Emissions From Waste-to-Energy Facilities to Fossil Fuel Power Plants," 14th Annual North American Waste-to-Energy Conference, vol. NAWTEC14, no. 3187, pp. pp. 69-78, 2006.

[4] Report, C. -N. (1990-2009). Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada.

Edited from original submission.


Filed under: Students on Sustainability


Categories

University of Ontario Institute of Technology logo