Renewable Energy: Solar, Wind, Geothermal Heat and… Waste?

By Lynn Brown, Vice President of Communications at Waste Management

Sunshine, wind and geothermal heat are all examples of renewable energy, as they are all replenished naturally and thus have a lower impact on the environment. Now imagine if there was an energy source right here in America that humans generated at a rate of approximately 250 million tons per year?

There is, and it’s likely sitting in your waste bin right now.

Through innovative technology, waste can be converted into energy that is cost-effective and sustainable. In fact, waste is already hard at work producing electricity and fuel across the country. For example, Waste Management alone currently produces more electricity with landfill gas to energy (LFGTE) facilities than the entire U.S. solar industry.

Landfill gas to energy is a process that collects the gases naturally produced by decaying waste and converts it into electricity. Special wells are drilled into a landfill to collect the methane naturally emitted from the waste. The gas is then pumped to a special facility to convert it into electricity.

Explore this interactive infographic to learn more.

According to the EPA, there are currently more than 575 LFGTE facilities in operation in the United States, producing more than 14 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. In layman’s terms, that amount of electricity could power more than 10 million homes. The EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) estimates that hundreds more landfills could be tapped to begin producing even more renewable energy in the future.

The computer you’re reading this from could be powered by the waste you disposed of months or years ago. But what if your car was also powered by waste? The technology to make that scenario a reality already exists and is become more and more popular every year.

For example, at Waste Management’s Altamont Landfill Resource and Recovery Facility in Livermore, California, waste produces up to 13,000 gallons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) per day. This LNG fuels hundreds of trucks in Waste Management’s fleet and reduces particulate and greenhouse gas emissions.

Even without a landfill, companies are developing innovative ways to convert waste into fuel. One renewable energy company, Agilyx, has developed technology to convert difficult-to-recycle plastics (mixed, contaminated or hard plastics) into crude oil through a process of gasification. The technology takes finely-ground chips of plastic, heats them until they evaporate into a gas and then condenses them back into a synthetic crude oil. That oil can be processed into gasoline or other products.

Another company, Renmatix, can convert organic waste products (inedible agricultural waste, wood chips, etc.) into sugars that can be used to create fuels – much like corn sugars can produce ethanol. All organic material is made up of sugars, and the Renmatix Plantrose™ process breaks organic waste down into sugars using water at its “supercritical” state. These sugars can then be used to produce fuel and other chemical products. As a matter of full disclosure, Waste Management is an investment and development partner with both Agilyx and Renmatix.

Both of these companies – and others like them – currently operate on a relatively small scale, but the future is bright. October is dedicated to energy awareness, and across the nation, more and more individuals and organization have made it a priority year-round.

Lynn Brown is Vice President of Communications at Waste Management.

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4 responses

  1. I’m wary of these types of schemes. Rather than promoting highest and best use (like composting organics or recycling plastics), new technologies spring up to promote more consumption with (admittadly) better utilization of waste at end of life. Case in point: Recycling plastic to reduce upstream oil inputs in production would be better than “converting difficult-to-recycle plastics (mixed, contaminated or hard plastics) into crude oil through a process of gasification” in most cases. Waste to energy/transformation has a place in the zero waste scheme, but in my mind it’s a last result and should not be worthy of much fanfare and celebration. Same thing with methane recovery at landfills. It’s certainly a good practice for landfills (and should be required). But by this logic, we all should throw more [organic] things away so that we can power our homes. Seems like a disconnect to me – I’d rather recycle things, compost my organics, and reduce other waste as far as possible. What’s left over could possibly be incinerated or transformed into energy if we can’t find another or better use for them. I don’t fault WM for looking for better alternatives, but can’t we look a bit up the supply chain as a country? The waste-tail shouln’t wag the recycling-dog… let’s follow the heirarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.

    1. Well put – I completely agree with your points. We need to learn to be more responsible with what we DO with our resources; ie, would we pollute less even if 100% of our energy came from solar (or any other super clean / efficient source)? Something tells me that we’d just keep making more stuff…

      Still, kudos to WM and others like them for being innovative with what we have at hand – a whole lot of garbage.

  2. In my opinion

    We need to replace the fossil fuel power plants, the primary source of GHG. Now!

    At a scale required to accomplish this task:

    Ethanol starves people: not a Viable option.

    fracking releases methane: not a Viable option.

    Cellulose Bio Fuel uses Food Land: not a Viable option

    Solar uses food land: Not a Viable option

    Wind is Intermittent: Not a Viable option

    All Human and Agricultural Organic Waste can be converted to hydrogen, through exposure to intense

    Radioactive Materials exist now, and the Organic waste is renewable daily.

    Ending the practice of dumping sewage into our water sources.

    Air, Water, Food and Energy issues, receive Significant positive Impacts.

    Reducing illness / health care costs as well!

    Dennis Baker
    106 998 Creston Avenue
    Penticton BC V2A1P9
    cell phone 250-462-3796
    Phone / Fax 778-476-2633

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