I’ve recently seen some posts and articles about “renewable energy” that just didn’t ring true with me.  Give a little thought to what you consider to be truly renewable in the world of energy.  What do you come up with?  Here’s my list:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Geothermal
  • Wave/tide action
  • Hydropower

The Natural Resources Defense Council adds “Biomass”, but warns that it must be managed with care, and I concur.  NRDC goes on to state that “Renewable energy comes from natural sources that are constantly and sustainably replenished”.  And that’s where my issue comes in.

The articles and posts of which I spoke suggested that Waste-to-Energy plants provided renewable energy.  Yet another post said that the methane from the local landfill provided good, clean renewable energy.  Think a minute about the renewable aspects of WtE plants and landfill methane.  What’s the base fuel here?  Trash!  No way around it.  For these things to be “renewable”, we humans have to keep on creating trash.  There are a lot of programs out there aiming to reduce landfill waste, so if we happened to get to zero landfill waste (not in my lifetime, but a thought), we’d eventually run out of landfill gas.

When you look at my list of renewable energy sources, do you see any types of environmental pollution associated with them?  Not a bit.  Yes, hydropower impacts fish, but I’m talking about air pollution, water pollution.  These guys yield clean energy.  Waste-to-Energy plants usually involve combustion of the waste, which is in no way clean; with the wide variety of wastes in the fuel stream, air pollution control equipment is pushed to the limit to minimize pollutants out the smokestack.

Now, there are advantages to WtE processes, sorta.  There is potential, emphasize potential, to capture the products of combustion.  If this waste went instead to landfill, much of it would degrade, in the anaerobic conditions in a landfill, to methane gas.  Landfills are required to have methane collection systems, which is fine, but they collect nowhere near all of the methane generated, so it escapes to the atmosphere.  You don’t hear much about methane being a greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide gets most of the press), but it’s several times more potent than see-oh-two.  The only good thing is that its atmospheric residence time is around, I think, 12 years, much less than that of carbon dioxide. But, at the end of the day, we generate trash, and from that we get either atmospheric pollution from the products of combustion or the generation of methane.

So now when you hear the claims of WtE being a renewable energy source, you’ll know better.  And you’ll be able to recognize a form of “greenwashing”, where nice environmental claims are made for a system or process than is not environmentally nice.  Like “Clean Coal”, one of my favorites.

Do something Green today!