Puerto Rico to Turn Trash into Energy. Will the US be Next?
Written by Matt Kasper
Puerto Ricans will soon be turning their trash into renewable energy. On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its final approval of an air permit for a 77 megawatt EfW plant, owned by Energy Answers International, a first for the U.S. island territory.
The $650 million facility, which will be built in three years in the town of Arecibo, will create thousands of direct and indirect induced jobs, and turn more than 2,100 tons of garbage a day into renewable electricity for more than 76,000 homes on the island. Creating domestic renewable energy is a major necessity since Puerto Rico’s electricity is overwhelmingly derived from imported petroleum, natural gas, and coal.
Six public hearing sessions were held since May 2012, and over 3,000 public comments had been reviewed by the EPA. And while the comment period is open for this issued permit, Energy Answers has gone through a long and rigorous review process and there should be no objections that delay the project from moving forward.
Here are five reasons why energy from waste is a great opportunity for Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States:
Energy from waste reduces greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change
According to the EPA, for every ton of garbage processed at an EfW facility, approximately one ton of emitted carbon-dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere is prevented. This is because the trash burned at an EfW facility doesn’t generate methane, as it would at a landfill; the metals that would have been sent to the landfill are recycled instead of thrown out; and the electricity generated offsets the greenhouse gases that would otherwise have been generated from coal and natural gas plants.
Furthermore, EPA scientists concluded that sending waste to EfW facilities is the better than sending to garbage landfills with optimum conditions for capturing methane and turning it into electricity because these landfills will generate two to six times more greenhouse gases than EfW plants.
Energy from waste increases recycling rates
Communities can have both EfW and recycling strategies that are compatible. In fact, communities using EfW technology have an aggregate recycling rate above the national average. A 2009 study examined EfW facilities in the U.S. and found that communities using EfW have a 33 percent recycling rate. Puerto Rico currently has an 11 percent recycling rate. It is important to note then that the EfW facility in Arecibo will be the island’s largest recycling plant.
Energy from waste produces renewable energy
Puerto Rico is heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels for electricity. According to the EIA, 68 percent of the island’s electricity comes from petroleum, 16 percent from natural gas, and 15 percent from coal, and the remaining one percent of electricity comes from hydropower. While onshore and offshore wind, solar, and tidal energy must be developed on the island, EfW should also be a vital source of electricity to free Puerto Ricans from imported dirty energy.
Unlike other types of renewable energy sources, EfW is considered a base load power that operates 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. This means that EfW can pair nicely with wind and solar energy and provide electricity to the grid when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Energy from waste can save local governments money
Hauling trash to landfills is expensive for many cities and territories. New York City, for example, paid more than $300 million last year just to transport trash to out-of-state landfills. In these cases, EfW facilities could be immediately beneficial by saving governments money while generating jobs and local revenue from an EfW facility. On a long-term economic basis, EfW facilities cost less than disposing of waste in landfills due to returns from the electricity sold and even the sale of recovered metals.
Jeremy K. O’Brien, director of applied research for the solid-waste-management advocacy organization Solid Waste Association of North America, writes that, “Over the life of the [EfW] facility, which is now confidently projected to be in the range of 40 to 50 years, a community can expect to pay significantly less for MSW disposal at a [EfW] facility than at a regional MSW landfill.”
Energy from waste is an important solution to solving landfilling issues
Of Puerto Rico’s 32 landfills, government officials have said that only about five meet local and federal standards. This means that by 2014 the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board could close the majority of the island’s landfills causing Puerto Rico to run out of space to dispose of its trash by 2018.
Additionally, methane emissions in landfills are a problem since methane is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide emissions. Consequently, landfills are the third-largest contributor of anthropogenic methane emissions in the U.S., accounting for 16 percent of total methane emissions as a result of human activities in 2011 and preceded only by the natural gas and agricultural sectors, respectively.
Energy from waste is a key solution for fossil fuel-dependent regions like Puerto Rico to reduce their reliance on dirty energy, cut emissions from landfills and save money — all while taking out the trash.
This post was originally published at Climate Progress.
Photo from Thinkstock