Waste-to-Fuels: Innovation, Cost Parity Offset by Public Anxiety


While policy momentum behind biofuels has sputtered in recent months due in part to a slumping economy, indirect land use change debates, and life cycle studies concluding that “green” fuels cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels, using waste as a fuel feedstock represents a promising shortcut on the path to energy security.

Waste-to-fuel is nothing new, but it remains a vastly underdeveloped alternative despite being cheap, abundant, and according to the EPA, renewable. More recently, a convergence of environmental, economic, and energy factors have bolstered the development of increasingly innovative waste-to-energy solutions.

Against this backdrop, experts convened in San Diego, California May 17-19 for the 2nd Annual Waste-to-Fuels Conference and Trade Show to discuss case studies, policy developments, and innovative technologies as well as siting, permitting, and funding strategies for production facilities. The conference touched on a range of topics including: agriculture and sewage waste-to-fuels, energy recovery, waste conversion technologies, carbon credits from methane recovery, urban landfill diversion through sustainable bioenergy creation, and urban brown grease production and recovery.

Municipal Solid Waste Gets Top Billing

Although landfill capacity remains sufficient throughout much of the US, higher tipping fees are turning attention to municipal solid waste (“MSW“) as an attractive fuel feedstock. MSW includes everything from packaging, food scraps, and grass clippings, to old sofas, computers, tires, and refrigerators. According to the EPA, the total amount of MSW generated throughout the country has tripled since 1960. While recycling and composting programs successfully diverted 46 percent of waste away from landfills in 2007, the amount combusted or landfilled still totals around 3 pounds per person per day.

MSW has many advantages over biofuels, which despite receiving generous support through subsidies and tax breaks in recent years, still faces significant obstacles to widespread commercial viability. Ted Kniesche, speaking on the topic of Transforming Municipal Solid Waste into the Nation’s Most Reliable Domestic Fuel Source, noted that MSW has a logistical advantage over traditional biofuels because it is cheap and abundant, already concentrated near population/demand centers, organized (collected, stored, and transported), and not subject to life-cycle analyses.

Despite these inherent advantages, the conference also discussed obstacles to increased MSW uptake, which include NIMBY challenges (fueled primarily by negative perceptions about incinerators), campaigns mounted against MSW-to-fuel programs by the recycling industry, and a general preferences for heavily-subsidized biofuel solutions.

Fernando Berton of the California Integrated Waste Management Board and Paul Hauck of Camp Dresser McKee, both speaking on the subject of MSW-to-fuel, acknowledged the importance of educating the public about the difference between incinerators and waste-to-fuel production facilities to increase uptake going forward. Berton went on to argue that the US needs to adopt similar policies as the EU, which include:

  1. Banning green waste from landfills
  2. Incentivizing technology for turning waste-to-fuel
  3. Encouraging higher diversion rates
  4. Holding producers responsible for the downstream disposal of products and packaging

While not all these policies benefit waste-to-fuels directly, Berton noted that the whole “policy package” is important to generate momentum for innovative waste solutions.

From Woody Biomass to FOGS

Not the only waste feedstock in town, MSW shared the stage with other potential fuel sources including agricultural residue, sewage, “woody biomass” (wood and paper products), and “FOGS” (fats, oils, and greases).

Speaking on the subject of Forest and Wood Residues in a Low Carbon Future, Scott Miller, frequent contributor to the “Bioenergy by Biofuels Digest” LinkedIn group site, stressed the advantage of “woody biomass” over more traditional biofuel feedstock (like corn, palm oil, and soy). Forests, Miller noted, consume less resources like water, fertilizer, pesticides, and energy, and with better policy, could supply substantial quantities of regional feedstock. Current policy under the Energy Independence and Security Act (“EISA”) prohibits using wood found on federal land as feedstock. This has all but crippled woody biomass collection in the West where large tracts of national forest can be found. In an era of global warming, Miller contends, policy that supports better forest management programs would aid carbon mitigation efforts while simultaneously reducing the risk of carbon-polluting forest fires that have plagued many Western states in recent years.

Fats, oils, and greases were heralded as a significant resource for urban centers where a heavy concentration of restaurants can provide a steady source of biodiesel feedstock to power FOGS collection trucks as well as city bus and fire truck fleets. Klaus Ruhmer of BioDiesel International emphasized the importance of civic engagement to facilitate collection processes and ensure that programs reach the critical mass to meet municipal biodiesel facility needs. Public outreach and zero cost participation programs were heralded as key drivers of widespread participation. Ruhmer also noted three important factors for biodiesel plant profitability: feedstock costs, yield, and plant capacity.

From Idea to Revenue: “money is the key”

The main lesson coming out of the Waste-to-Fuels conference is that getting a facility up and running requires the crystallization of many factors, not least of which is financing. Duane Toenges, while speaking on the subject of Valuation, Financing, and Implementation, pointed out that a project proposal must, above all else, demonstrate that the production facility will generate a profit. Toenges added that, while carbon credits will translate into support for projects, they should only be treated as “icing on the cake” and not a guarantor of financial viability.

Guy Sheets of Langan Engineering & Environmental Services added that most companies usually only have one piece of the puzzle: feedstock supply, an innovative technology, permitting, funding, siting, or a feasibility study. To succeed, pilot projects should seek partnerships to access the other pieces.

As several speakers noted, permitting represents one of the more difficult challenges due to significant public resistance to waste-to-fuel production facilities and inadequate policy measures that have failed to keep pace with technological developments. Overcoming these obstacles requires addressing public perception in creative ways. The use of brownfields for siting facilities, innovative dome designs that obscure the visibility of smokestacks, and the integration of various capabilities like “utility campuses” that include sewage treatment, electricity generation, and water reclamation facilities, were among the strategies discussed.

A lack of successful demonstration facilities throughout the US was cited as a major obstacle to getting innovative ideas off the ground.

The Final Word

While the adoption of low carbon fuel and renewable portfolio standards in the US will encourage the development of waste-to-fuel capacity, the important lesson taken away from the conference is that the waste-to-fuel industry must neutralize public anxiety and strong opposition from environmental groups to get production facilities off the ground. Although policy is shifting increasingly in favor of waste-to-fuel solutions, a systemic overhaul of the waste management infrastructure is long overdue.

This post originally appeared in BioFuels Digest.

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1 Comment

  1. Dr. Smarajit Roy on

    In promoting bioenergy from waste, main problem I found that financing details for medium size plants ( say starting from 1 MT per day feedstock capacity plants)are difficult to access. Without any cost benefit data its not possible to prepare any feasibility study. One can always adjust the out put to local market rate. Also important to link in supply chain value creation such as waste disposal costs.

    This article correctly points out the fact that Municipal Solid Waste should get top billing. In U.K the tipping fee has been doubled from £21.00 per MT to £42.00 per MT from April 2010.