Commentary: wasted energy: debunking the waste-to-energy scheme.

Author:Seldman, Neil

Like any other vampire, "waste to energy" technology, e.g., burning garbage for electricity, needs a good, swift stake to the heart.


Decades after garbage incinerators disappeared from U.S. cities, burning garbage with energy recovery made a dash for federal, state and city subsidies following the energy crisis in the 1970s and '80s. It had a brief flurry of activity but, by the time the '90s hit, was on the decline. Only 30 of 300 proposed plants were ever built--the last ones in 1995 as the result of some dubious political shenanigans in Syracuse, New York and Montgomery County, Maryland.

The scheme is more aptly described as "wasted energy," as the energy produced through incineration at the plants is quite small compared to the amount of energy needed for extraction, processing and distribution, to replace the materials destroyed.

While environmental dangers from acid gasses, dioxin, particulates, lead and mercury alerted citizens to the dangers, the proposed plants were really outdone by the financial weight of the capital outlay--the operating costs and liabilities that a community had to undertake to build 1,000-ton-per-day facilities or larger. Detroit spent $1.2 billion to support a garbage incinerator for 200 years. The city council and mayor just cancelled any further dealings with the facility. In New Jersey, former governor Christine Todd Whitman had to drain the general budget of over $1 billion to bail out five county incinerators, as haulers could not afford to pay the tip fees needed to sustain the finances of plants and they took their trash to cheaper landfills in Pennsylvania.

No amount of subsidies, including arbitrage bonding, exemptions from hazardous waste regulations, mandatory purchase of electricity, put or pay contracts, tax credits and court rulings could sustain such financially and environmentally outlandish technologies. The companies offering these technologies ended their runs. This was no small accomplishment for the millions of citizens and small business owners who banded together in a spontaneous grassroots movement to gain control over the decision-making process at the local level. These citizen-activists reclaimed America's birthright of local democracy, despite harassment, including SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuits.

Now a new wave of Wall Street consortia have pooled their billions and adopted a 'new' wave of technologies--plasma arc, pyrolysis...

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