The amount of electricity produced from so-called waste-to-energy plants is beginning to decline after remaining mostly stagnant for the past decade, and a combination of low energy prices, local opposition, and environmental concerns about carbon emissions are to blame, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA).
These sometime controversial facilities take in shipments of municipal solid waste (MSW), incinerate them, and then use the heat from the combustion to produce steam. The steam then spins a turbine, which produces electricity. At a mechanical level, they operate like any coal, natural gas, or nuclear-powered generator, except the fuel is people's trash.
The EIA reported earlier in August that 188 megawatts of waste-to-energy capacity was retired between 2018 and 2022, and that another 36 megawatts are set to go offline by 2027. This compares to an average of 2,219 megawatts over the last 24 years. For context, one megawatt hour powers roughly 400 to 900 homes per year.
The practice has a fraught history. While trash incineration goes back to the 19th century, plants that recover energy from the process are a more recent development. Most waste-to-energy plants were built between 1980 and 1995, in part because dumping waste in a landfill was more expensive at the time. This started to change in the mid-1990s, with rising concerns over carbon emissions and new requirements around air pollution controls. Those facilities that didn't upgrade were forced to shut down, and soon construction ground to half. The last new waste-to-energy plant was built in 2015.
Outside of environmental concerns, energy markets are also working against the business model of waste-to-energy. As the EIA pointed out, historically cheap electricity in recent years has undermined the value proposition of such capital-intensive plants. "In addition to emissions concerns, the upfront capital costs of building a new MSW combustion plant can be significant, and the plant could provide only limited economic benefits when electricity prices are low," the agency said. "A new plant generally requires at least $100 million to finance construction; larger plants can require double to triple that amount."
A major waste-to-energy plant outside Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, is effectively shutting down, due to a combination of low energy prices and a lack of local and state support to make upgrades that would make the facility more efficient. The waste streams of dozens of Connecticut communities now have to find a new final destination. The goal is for much of this waste to be reduced or diverted to recycling facilities, but it's still unclear if they'll be able to take in all the trash that was previously being incinerated.
A similar situation played out in Hampden, Maine, where a trash incineration facility with plans to process waste from nearby communities into energy was shut down soon after opening in 2019 due to a slew of financial and operational issues.
"There were permit delays. There were lawsuits, and then COVID hit," said
Michael Carroll, executive director of the Municipal Review Committee, a nonprofit corporation that manages waste disposal for 115 communities in the region. "During those three years, they were just hemorrhaging money."
The organization has since purchased the plant for $1.5 million and plans to reopen it, and one reason it was able to get community support for a reopening is because the plant promises to recover the majority of its trash for recycling rather than incineration. "It's a rural area of Maine, so the only options were really to landfill or incineration," Carroll said. "This was a more environmentally friendly solution."
However, concerns about the environmental impact of trash incineration continues to fuel local opposition to waste-to-energy plants. In Chester, Pennsylvania, for instance, a grassroots advocacy group has worked for three decades to shut down a Covanta-owned waste-to-energy plant, which is one of the biggest in the United States.
For Zulene Mayfield, founder of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL), even the terminology is deceptive. "It's not a waste-to-energy plant," she said. "It's an incinerator. Making energy is absolutely a byproduct of what they do, but through their greenwashing, they want that energy piece to marinate in people's minds."
The group's basic arguments against the plant track with other grassroots environmental organizations that have advocated against waste-to-energy as a practice. Mayfield said the plant is destructive to the environment, and a drain on the city's already beleaguered economy, as more desirable businesses usually don't want an incinerator as their next door neighbor. "Who wants to smell trash while you're trying to eat a wrap?"
Chester, notably, is considered one of the birthplaces of the "environmental racism" movement, and has a well-documented record of experiencing higher levels of respiratory illness such as asthma and lung cancer, due to its closely clustered industrial waterfront.
Back in April, the group held a protest to stop the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority from re-upping its contract with Covanta. The effort ultimately failed, but CRCQL is now taking a more piecemeal approach, working with nearby municipalities to sign "zero waste" agreements that effectively cut off and eventually "starve" the plant of waste. There are limits to this approach, however, as Delaware County produces just a third of the waste, while the majority comes from Philadelphia and New York City.
Other municipalities have had some success getting Covanta to clean up its emissions. Two of the company's waste-to-energy plants in North Virginia recently announced plans to install new technology designed to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by nearly 50 percent.