Throw It Out And It Powers Your Home: Puerto Rico Turns To Garbage For Renewable Energy

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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.

Matt Kasper is the Special Assistant for Energy policy at the Center for American Progress.

10 Responses to Throw It Out And It Powers Your Home: Puerto Rico Turns To Garbage For Renewable Energy

  1. Matt, sorry to disappoint, but there’s a HUGE movement against Energy Answers International’s waste to energy plant in Puerto Rico, and groups including the Sierra Club and Coastkeeper are picketing as we speak in Arecibo, and they have started a write-in campaign to the EPA and local governments to stop the permits. Apparently they were in the hearings, and their antagonism towards the project was ignored. Talk to the people on the ground, because right now, you wrote an article that was a one-sided greenwash, not actual fact.

  2. Michael Bombaj says:

    Garbage incinerators compete directly with recycling. It’s a fact. Trash incinerators burn primarily paper and plastic that could be recycled. You should not count the slag and ash from incinerators, used for landfill cover or aggregate for certain construction projects as recycled material — as it’s highly contaminated and a low-value use of waste.

    The garbage incinerator lobby has been making the same claims since the early 1970s. The technology of garbage incinerator remains largely the same, even if the EPA finally in the mid-1990s started to clean up these plants that used bletch black dioxin laided smoke over cities. The smoke is cleaner, but it still filled with toxins to this day.

    Highly progressive cities have aggressive recycling programs, that recover 90%+ of waste material through recycling and composting of organics. By banning things like styrofoam, most food waste and packaging is compostable.

    Make it easy, and most people will recycle. That means not locking up recycling bins, or making them rarer and harder to reach then the garbage can. Likewise, give people buckets so their soiled paper, food scraps, and alike can go to composting operations and be used as fertilizer and clean fill for construction projects.

    Finally: Which corporate funders paid for this post? The Center for American Progress Action Fund should be required by law to disclose it’s donors. I suspect this post was funded by the Waste-to-Energy industry.

  3. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, I realize that you’re probably compelled to print CAP products such as this, but this piece is truly a train wreck.

    Projects such as this are intended to lock in current wasteful practices (notice the price tag?) for decades to come, blocking the transition to Zero Waste (and zero GHG emissions from waste) that we really need if there’s to be any hope of a sustainable future. As well, that $650M is bound to make it much harder to fund the solar and wind that PR really needs (as do we all).

  4. rollin says:

    Better to start cutting the waste stream at the source than to try to recycle or burn for power.

  5. PCalith says:

    Yeah, sorry, this is a bad idea and you should feel bad.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    When the great disruption hits, we will all be forced to get back to the old ways of eating everything edible and composting the rest, not buying rubbish and repairing our broken machines, ME

  7. elisabeth says:

    So disappointing to read this on ClimateProgress. Waste-to-energy is in reality a waste-of-energy. (Frederick County in Maryland has been fighting an incinerator for years.) The projects are expensive, leaving communities with debt. Incinerators consume massive amounts of resources that should instead be recycled, reused or composted. Lots of energy is required to burn waste as well. Waste prevention is the direction we should be moving, rather than being locked into 50 years of feeding these machines.We should not enable industry to keep producing things that have to be dealt with in an incinerator. People living near incinerators also have higher rates of leukemia, so siting is an environmental justice issue:
    And here are links that includes other links: AND AND this specifically looks at effects on climate:

  8. Rich says:

    There are a number of misunderstandings in the comments:
    – EA will recycle as much as possible in the front end and only non-recyclable materials will fuel the boilers
    – EA recycles the residue from the boiler to valuable road-building aggregate
    – PR has no more space to put their garbage! While more recycling and waste minimization sound good, the reality is that it’s hard to change a culture, so the waste volumes won’t be reduced by much, so what is to be done with the trash? Might as well get some benefit from it.
    – the suggestion of toxic fumes up the stack is absurd. The technology used for the air pollution control is far superior to any currently used in the US on a WTE plant. The multiple stages of gas cleaning which remove contaminants to levels far below the EPA reqts.
    – the cost is high BECAUSE of the high degree of up front recycling and air pollution control equipment included. This is privately funded venture.
    Without this plant, PR will have no options to deal with the inevitable volumes of trash that are and will be generated. Furthermore, it provides a source of needed power to the island at much lower cost than wind or solar. The power is generated 24/7 unlike solar or wind.
    Great article!

  9. PeterW says:

    Joe I have to agree with the others. This story reads like PR.

    This is Puerto Rico, the perfect place for solar, wind and composting. Imagine what you could do with $650 million.

  10. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Wealth from Waste and CASH FROM TRASH should be our motto in keeping the surroundings and habitat clean.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India