Waste not: B&W among energy players touting methane-cutting trash power

West Palm Beach WTE facility

By Rod Walton, Power Engineering and POWERGEN+ content director

Surely the power generation sector is a competitive world, with resources vying against each other and yet also meshing together to solve society’s energy and emissions challenges.

Maybe there’s time for throwing a little trash talk into the mix.

Boiler manufacturer and supplier Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) is touting the potential for waste-to-energy (WTE) power plants as a means of reducing what is perhaps the most problematic greenhouse gas. Landfills produce methane which is at least 30-40 times more potent in climate warming potential than even carbon dioxide, according to reports.

“Our understanding is that more than 330 million metric tons of global warming potential is emitted from landfills every year (in the U.S.),” said Brandy Johnson, Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) vice president for global projects, said during an exclusive interview with Power Engineering.

“That’s the equivalent to the emissions from 70 million cars,” she added. “When you burn the waste in a waste-to-energy facility instead of sending it to the landfill, you can reduce 99.97 percent of the global warming potential of the landfill —that’s pretty significant.”

Indeed. The U.S. Department of Energy and NASA seem to back up B&W’s contentions on the methane pollution potential of the world’s refuse. NASA scientists have identified landfills as methane “super emitters,” while the DOE estimated that methane (the primary component in natural gas) makes up roughly 50 percent of landfill gas (LFG).

Last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that only about 12 percent of the nearly 300 million tons of municipal solid waste produced in the U.S. was burned in WTE plants. In 2019, 67 U.S. power plants generated about 13 billion kWh of electricity from burning nearly 25 million tons of combustible MSW, according to the EIA.

B&W has participated in more than 100 waste-to-energy power projects worldwide. Many of those have been in Scandinavia, which is evidence of island nations concerned about land scarcity and costs for dumps, not to mention the environmental impacts.

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Babcock & Wilcox also has contracted on many projects in Denmark, China, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe where nations are embracing net-zero emissions goals for power generation.

A U.S. project closer to B&W’s home base is the West Palm Beach WTE facility in Florida. When completed in 2015, the West Palm Beach plant was the first U.S. trash-to-power project built in the previous 20 years, according to reports.

The plant uses state of the art scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) to cut the resulting emissions to minuscule amounts compared to the potential methane emissions if left to break down in the landfill.

“West Palm Beach is the cleanest, most efficient plant of its kind in the world,” B&W’s Johnson said.

B&W worked with KBR Inc. on the Palm Beach project and provided operations and maintenance services for a time. The Palm Beach WTE facility has 95 MW in generation capacity and includes boilers, combustion grate systems, ash and metals recovery, emissions controls and other components.

The emissions control system includes spray dryer absorbers for acid gas and sulfur dioxide controls. The SCR controls nitrogen oxide emission.

Many states and utilities in the U.S. also have aggressive carbon reduction goals, but many who advocate for WTE plants, like Johnson, believes there must be federal incentives. Given the low cost of electricity and of transporting trash currently, it’s difficult to make the WTE financials work on a purely free-market basis.

Forward-looking policy makers should take a deep look into how landfills pollute the world and cause long-lasting climate damage, in her opinion.

“We really think there should be a landfill pact that reflects” those concerns, Johnson said. “Something that helps drive up the cost of sending trash to landfills, similar to policies in Europe.”

Some equivalent to the solar and wind investment tax credits could help, too. Those WTE advocates are starting to talk to officials in Biden Administration, which has reentered the U.S. into the Paris Climate Accord and has openly pushed for stronger rules vs. emissions from carbon and other air pollutants.

“If you look at the Solid Waste Authority (of West Palm Beach), they did it because of the cost of landfilling,” Johnson pointed out. “That made its own financial case.”

No doubt that utility-scale wind, solar and energy storage will carry the day in terms of power generation emissions reduction through 2050. Biomass and waste-to-energy will account for a small fraction of the U.S. generation mix, but companies such as Covanta and B&W are pushing for consideration that could both solve part of the methane problem and preserve land use.

The WTE solution certainly should not be thrown out like so much trash, many believe.

Rod Walton

(Rod Walton is content director for Power Engineering, POWERGEN International and the virtual POWERGEN+ series. He is a 35-year veteran of journalism and 13-year reporter and writer covering the energy industry. He can be reached at 918-831-9177 and rod.walton@clarionevents.com. If you have ideas for stories or content sessions about the power generation industry, you can reach out to Walton.)

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