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Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags Print

New York Times, 12 April 2010

The lawyers and engineers who dwell in an elegant enclave here are at peace with the hulking neighbor just over the back fence: a vast energy plant that burns thousands of tons of household garbage and industrial waste, round the clock.

Far cleaner than conventional incinerators, this new type of plant converts local trash into heat and electricity. Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago.

In that time, such plants have become both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark, from wealthy exurbs like Horsholm to Copenhagen’s downtown area. Their use has not only reduced the country’s energy costs and reliance on oil and gas, but also benefited the environment, diminishing the use of landfills and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.

With all these innovations, Denmark now regards garbage as a clean alternative fuel rather than a smelly, unsightly problem. And the incinerators, known as waste-to-energy plants, have acquired considerable cachet as communities like Horsholm vie to have them built.

Denmark now has 29 such plants, serving 98 municipalities in a country of 5.5 million people, and 10 more are planned or under construction. Across Europe, there are about 400 plants, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands leading the pack in expanding them and building new ones.

By contrast, no new waste-to-energy plants are being planned or built in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency says — even though the federal government and 24 states now classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel, in many cases eligible for subsidies. There are only 87 trash-burning power plants in the United States, a country of more than 300 million people, and almost all were built at least 15 years ago.

Instead, distant landfills remain the end point for most of the nation’s trash. New York City alone sends 10,500 tons of residential waste each day to landfills in places like Ohio and South Carolina.

“Europe has gotten out ahead with this newest technology,” said Ian A. Bowles, a former Clinton administration official who is now the Massachusetts state secretary of energy.

Still, Mr. Bowles said that as America’s current landfills topped out and pressure to reduce heat-trapping gases grew, Massachusetts and some other states were “actively considering” new waste-to-energy proposals; several existing plants are being expanded. He said he expected resistance all the same in a place where even a wind turbine sets off protests.

Why Americans Are Reluctant

Matt Hale, director of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, said the reasons that waste-to-energy plants had not caught on nationally were the relative abundance of cheap landfills in a large country, opposition from state officials who feared the plants could undercut recycling programs and a “negative public perception.” In the United States, individual states and municipalities generally decide what method to use to get rid of their waste.

Still, a 2009 study by the E.P.A. and North Carolina State University scientists came down strongly in favor of waste-to-energy plants over landfills as the most environmentally friendly destination for urban waste that cannot be recycled. Embracing the technology would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution, but also yield copious electricity, it said.

Yet powerful environmental groups have fought the concept passionately. “Incinerators are really the devil,” said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Investing in garbage as a green resource is simply perverse when governments should be mandating recycling, she said. “Once you build a waste-to-energy plant, you then have to feed it. Our priority is pushing for zero waste.”

The group has vigorously opposed building a plant in New York City.

Even Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has championed green initiatives and ranked Copenhagen’s waste-fueled heating on his list of environmental “best practices,” has shied away from proposing to get one built.

“It is not currently being pursued — not because of the technology, which has advanced, but because of the issue in selecting sites to build incinerators,” said Jason Post, the mayor’s deputy press secretary on environmental issues. “It’s a Nimby issue. It would take years of hearings and reviews.”

Nickolas J. Themelis, a professor of engineering at Columbia University and a waste-to-energy proponent, said America’s resistance to constructing the new plants was economically and environmentally “irresponsible.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/13/science/earth/13trash.html?src=me&ref=homepage

 
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