At the site of a former agricultural chemical processing facility in south Baltimore Maryland, Energy Answers of Albany, N.Y. is working on a different kind of renewable energy electrical generation facility. The power source? Trash. That’s right, garbage – the company hopes to take refuse off the curb and bring it right back to you through the meter. The generator would produce a moderately sized 120MW of electricity directly to the grid plus steam heat available locally to industrial consumers by burning up to 4,000 tons of garbage a day.
The project is classified as a renewable energy venture because it won’t be using fossil fuels to generate power. Because of that it is eligible for lucrative federal funding. Instead of functioning in the capacity of a normal incinerator, the facility will use Processed Refuse Fuel (PRF) which is essentially sorted and shredded residential and commercial garbage. The PRF burns cleaner and hotter than refuse that is used as fuel in traditional incinerators. The boiler will also use moderate amounts of Tire Derived Fuel (TDF) because of the high energy density of the material.
Energy Answers would also like to develop the 90 acre site surrounding the proposed facility with a so-called “Eco Industrial Park.” Currently, the property is considered to be a “brownfield” meaning the land is contaminated with residual pollutants from industry that was located there in the past. Energy Answers will remediate the site as part of the development plan. Once complete, partner industries that choose to locate on the property will be able to make use of reduced-price electricity and steam from the plant. The Mock-ups of the planned project bear stark contrast to the surrounding industrial complexes, with grassy open spaces and tree-lined walkways along the adjoining river. All of the buildings that Energy Answers plans to construct on the facility will be LEED certified.
However, the venture is not without its detractors. Opponents say that the facility is nothing more than a glorified garbage incinerator and that it will increase pollution in an already beleaguered area. Concern is mostly centered around airborne contamination from heavy metals like lead and mercury as well as increased particulate and greenhouse gas emissions. Energy Answers has countered by pointing out that the Fairfield site will be among the cleanest facilities of its kind in the nation and it will deploy state-of the art pollution reduction technologies. It will also save tons of material from going into landfills – an estimated 115 acres of landfill space would be spared by the plant each year.
To be sure, the Fairfield plant is at the crux of the much larger debate about what needs to be done with garbage – our garbage: the vast amounts of refuse of all kinds that our society produces. Do we burn it as biomass to produce electricity, or do we just continue what we have been doing – bury it in landfills? Certainly any contaminants produced by a plant of this type are by their very nature unavoidable. Either they are going to be emitted through combustion at a facility like Fairfield or they are going to be exposed to the environment through leaching after being deposited in landfills. As far as greenhouse gasses are concerned, the CO2 produced by an incinerator is probably on par impact-wise with the much more potent methane and hydrocarbons emissions that landfills generate. Net/net, using the garbage now as a source of “renewable” energy may just be the lesser of two evils. As long as an emphasis is being placed on maximizing recycling efforts prior to the garbage being processed as fuel, emissions control systems are in place and properly regulated and proper care is taken to make sure that hazardous materials are excluded from the fuel stream, the facility will carry a positive impact on the environment and the community by generating fossil-fuel-free power, diverting huge amounts of garbage from landfills and providing literally hundreds of green collar jobs.