Waste-to-Energy Plants Would
by Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann & Douglas Gilmore
When Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels recently returned from the Conference of Mayors in Chicago, he had a stunning declaration in hand -- unanimous approval from his fellow mayors for the "Climate Protection Agreement."
The resolution, proposed by Nickels and endorsed by King County Executive Ron Sims, sets out emission reductions to meet the objectives of the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international treaty on global warming that went unsigned by the United States.
This is a laudable goal, but it cannot be achieved under the status quo. For Nickels and Sims to reach their objectives, they will have to make some tough political and economic decisions and re-examine a number of local practices.
Reducing greenhouse gases is the key call to action. To reach the resolution's aggressive goals, Seattle and cities across the country must reduce greenhouse emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The agreement calls for this to be achieved by shifting our "dependence on fossil fuels and accelerate the development of clean, economical energy resources and fuel-efficient technologies such as conservation, methane recovery for energy generation, waste-to-energy, wind and solar energy, fuel cells, efficient motor vehicles and biofuels".
Certainly, the recently passed Washington state laws for cleaner vehicles, green buildings and cleaner water are all positive steps in reaching the objectives of reducing greenhouse gas. But as regional power demands continue to grow, so too does pressure on power suppliers to reduce their dependence on hydro-generated power in order to protect and restore salmon runs. This means Western Washington power companies must diversify their power production.
Alternative power sources such as the wind and sun provide benefits to industry and consumers, but are not nearly as reliable as hydro, nuclear or fossil-fuel sources. What other sources can we turn to? The answer: landfill gas and waste-to-energy.
Waste-to-energy (WTE) is the thermal treating of municipal solid waste by burning it at very high temperatures, extracting metals for recycling and generating significant amounts of clean power. The most advanced form of WTE is thermal recycling (TR), which turns 100 percent of municipal solid waste into usable products. Waste-to-energy currently serves over 500 million people worldwide, powers more than 2 million homes in the United States and already reduces the nation's carbon dioxide levels by 33 million metric tons annually.
Neither the city's nor the county's current solid waste methods incorporate either of these solutions. Even though King County is currently installing a landfill gas generator at the Cedar Hills landfill, the broader issue remains of what happens to municipal solid waste after closure of that landfill in 2012. Currently, Seattle exports its solid waste to Oregon landfills, and King County has a similar plan. This practice contradicts the Kyoto Protocol and Nickels' and Sims' commitment to it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many governments throughout Europe have studied landfill emissions and found that no more than 60 percent of greenhouse gases can be captured. On the other hand, both the EPA and the Department of Energy hail waste-to-energy technology as "a clean, reliable and renewable source of energy."
Roughly 1 million tons of greenhouse gases could be eliminated annually if Seattle and King County were to abandon use of landfills and switch to waste-to-energy. Since waste-to-energy was last visited by King County and Seattle in the early 1990s, technology in this field has improved exponentially. Mercury is virtually eliminated and dioxins are not even detectable; 100 percent of the waste input is turned into reusable products; 150,000-plus homes can be supplied with power; no odors or noise emanate from such facilities. Fifteen years of studies confirm that higher recycling rates apply to cities utilizing waste-to-energy, such as Spokane (46 percent vs. Seattle's less-than 40 percent). In addition, many more jobs would be created building and operating waste-to-energy facilities than would be created by building and operating rail transfer stations for export of Seattle's and King County's waste.
The Northwest prides itself on being environmentally conscious. Much is done to protect wildlife, marine life and the citizenry, but the chosen solution to municipal solid waste disposal is to ship it out of sight and not utilize the best practices available -- thermal recycling.
The mayor's formal commitment to climate protection is a good start. But the mayor and the county executive's environmental stewardship plans must incorporate new solutions such as waste-to-energy; otherwise, talking about the Kyoto Protocol remains hot air.
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