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Money drives US EfW market

A recent trip to the Air and Waste Management Association annual conference in San Antonio, Texas provided a great opportunity to learn first-hand what is currently on the agenda in terms of waste management in the US. With two US companies under the umbrella of the AEA group, we were keen to identify possible opportunities to explore how our UK experiences could translate into the North American market. We were particularly interested in EfW, and the role it has to play in the US, both now and in the future.

There were four days of conference sessions, from eight in the morning to well after six at night, plus an exhibition in parallel, giving us plenty of opportunity to get into some interesting debates about what’s hot and what’s not in the US waste management sector. EfW was evident across the four days, being represented across several sessions with papers and panels on topics such as alternative fuel use in transportation, waste plastics to biofuels, and enhancing biogas production. 

However, in the absence of strong legislative drivers to divert waste from landfill, landfill remains the norm for waste management in the US, and its dominance will continue for the foreseeable future. Landfills are seen as a sustainable and long term option for US waste management, and with gate fees as low as $21 (£14), it begs the question as to how any EfW facilities ever get off the ground. Despite this strong barrier to innovation, we saw first-hand at the conference that EfW is still very much a focus of research, development and investment.

It seems there is plenty of room for this development, as there are actually only 86 operational EfW plants in the US, a far lower number than one might expect. These tend to be focussed in densely populated states such as along the East Coast, but many of the larger states still rely solely on landfill for their residual waste. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has confirmed in its own research programme that they believe EfW producing electricity has less environmental impact than any other form of fuel or technology currently deployed. In the EPA Clean Air Act, there is international recognition that EfW can contribute to greenhouse gas reduction, and identifies EfW as one of eight technologies likely to make a meaningful contribution to a future low-carbon energy market.

Therefore, it seems that in the oil and power hungry US, the driving forces that do exist behind EfW development are energy and resource based, rather than purely environmental or landfill diversion – unlike in the UK. In President Obama’s Energy Plan, there is a call to refocus energy production on renewable sources, and it specifically called for a permanent extension to production tax credits for renewable sources, including waste to energy. So there is a growing interest in EfW policy, but it remains years behind the UK situation – thanks on the whole to legislative pressures from the EC.

This thinking was reinforced by US waste management giants Waste Management in their key note speech and subsequent panel discussions. They have recognised the need to evolve from being a landfill focused company, and are now investing heavily in a range of new treatment technologies. In addition to the conventional recovery of energy from waste, their focus is also very much on converting waste into intermediate states, and the conversion of waste into high value commodity products such as ethanol, biofuels and other chemicals. Rather than developing this themselves, Waste Management is taking a collaborative approach, and investing and partnering with dozens of smaller companies that are specialising in energy fuels and conversion technologies.

Gasification is Waste Management’s preferred technology, but they outlined permitting issues they have experienced across many US states as regulators still view it as incineration. Indeed, the consensus view of several panellists was that the US regulators are not keeping up with new technology development, and are finding it difficult to regulate what they don’t fully understand. This sounds familiar to the UK, and echoes work we have been undertaking on barriers to infrastructure delivery in the South East through the EP0W programme.

One of the companies supported by Waste Management is Enerkem, who is using gasification to convert MSW to ethanol. More specifically, Enerkem focuses on the commercialisation of cellulosic ethanol from MSW and have three full scale commercial plants currently in development and construction, with three facilities already operational in Canada. Markets for ethanol include transport fuels, solvents, polymer coatings and in the manufacture of adhesives. Enerkem see gasification as being more social acceptable, and being complementary to local recycling activities.

Even with these developments, landfill isn’t in danger of being left behind, and is itself the focus of research to maximise the energy recovered. Landfill gas is now being converted in to transport fuel in some cases, with the High Mountain plant in California producing 13,000 gallons of LNG daily.

One panel debate had mixed views on the most appropriate scale of EfW facilities. While the US is home to some of the largest EfW plants in the world, there did seem to be support for developing more appropriate sized facilities and more modular systems. While they recognised that larger EfW facilities make more economic sense, the view was that this market was limited, and that facilities as small as 120,000 tpa offered good value for money.

Other than having to compete with exceptionally low landfill costs, many of the other barriers faced by EfW developers were very familiar to those experienced in the UK. The US faces the same public perception and opposition to EfW as we do. The Energy Recovery Council is a trade body representing the industry, and is active in promoting the recovery of energy from waste as a renewable, clean, safe and underdeveloped energy resource. They are supported in this by 26 states defining EfW as 100% renewable, and not just the biodegradable fraction – what UK waste management companies wouldn’t give for this definition here in the UK.

End of waste criteria was another familiar hot topic. The EPA provides ‘comfort letters’ to companies that have demonstrated that their waste has a meaningful heating value and can be traded as a commodity. The difference in a material being a waste or a fuel can mean being regulated under CISWI (Commercial/Industrial Solid Waste Incinerators), or the much more straightforward Boiler MACT rule. Sounds a lot like the debates we have here surrounding end of waste protocols and developing standards for products and outputs.

Perhaps more prevalent in the US is the lack of joined up thinking. Each state is largely left to make its own decisions and policies, and the local political and economic factors vary much more widely than in the UK. For example, our host city of San Antonio established in a study that the economics of EfW were just not feasible (I wonder whether the fact that we were in oil rich Texas might have had something to do with this conclusion). Yet the state of Maryland has recently passed into law legislation that places EfW on an equal footing with other renewable sources such as landfill gas and biomass. It is hoping that this drives inward investment of EfW technologies, with energy scarcity seeming the driving force here.

So, it seems that while our drivers may be different, the US and the UK both have the same goal as we continue to investigate and develop and investigate alternative waste management options. So perhaps our UK experiences could be an asset in a developing a US market place, while we could also benefit from closer ties with US too – looking at their technology innovation as alternatives for our own developing market.

Dr Adam Read is global practice director for AEA’s resource efficiency and waste management practice.

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