The Bloomberg administration is exploring new ways to harvest energy from the thousands of tons of garbage produced in New York City each day, but the plan is drawing criticism from all sides – including some proponents of converting waste into energy.
Some activists have condemned waste-to-energy facilities as environmentally unfriendly, no matter if they use older trash-burning combustion technology or the newer alternatives the city has called for in a March 6 request for proposals.
Others have fought against having facilities built in their back yard. Just last week, the Bloomberg administration quieted some of its loudest opponents by removing Staten Island’s former Fresh Kills landfill site as a potential location for the pilot project.
Even those who want to turn more garbage into energy have their complaints about the city’s approach, which they say is too limited.
Marco Castaldi, a Columbia University professor and a waste-to-energy expert, said the city was moving in the right direction but cautioned that excluding combustion was short-sighted.
“I’m not for one system or another, but just as an engineer, if you say you want to find the best possible solution, you need to include all options,” Castaldi said. “So right there, if you tell me I want to get the best car, but I don’t want to include cars with four wheels on it, you have constrained yourself where you may not find the best car now.”
Of course, the city already relies on waste-to-energy plants using combustion technology to process some of its trash, and expects to continue to do so in the future. For example, much of Manhattan’s waste is sent to a combustion facility across the river in New Jersey.
“We already know what we have with older combustion technologies,” said Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman for the mayor. “It’s time to see if something new and cutting edge can work, and be far cleaner. We think the technologies we want to test in the pilot are going to be a success.”
The RFP calls for a pilot project using newer and perhaps cleaner technologies, such as gasification or anaerobic digestion. A new facility built in or near the city would initially process 450 tons of garbage a day, a fraction of the 10,000 tons produced in the city each day.
Proposals are due by June 5, and the tentative plan is for a contract to be signed by early September.
Figuring out what to do with New York City’s garbage poses a significant challenge. The city collects more than 3 million tons of waste a year and spends more than $300 million to export it, mostly by truck and with much of it ending up in landfills.
The city’s waste-to-energy pilot is part of a larger, multipronged effort to divert more trash from landfills, including measures to boost the city’s subpar recycling rate, a black mark on Bloomberg’s otherwise strong environmental record.
Some environmental groups, like the New York League of Conservation Voters, have rallied behind the mayor’s plans.
But other backers have their concerns. Castaldi said only two waste-to-energy technologies are viable on a large scale: combustion and gasification.
Combustion facilities, which have been criticized over the years for the pollutants in their emissions, involve burning trash to produce heat, which is used to make steam that powers steam turbines. While their emissions control systems have improved, some environmentalists remain adamantly opposed to them.
By contrast, gasification involves raising the temperature so high that trash turns into a synthesis gas. The captured gas can be used to generate electricity or for other purposes, such as making fuel. But the complexity of the process, which typically involves sorting the trash, also makes it more expensive than combustion.
“They’re starting to think differently than just put it on a train or a truck or a barge and ship it somewhere else to be buried, or just put it in a landfill around here,” Castaldi said of the city’s efforts. “It was good because it was definitely a step in the right direction, just to extract energy from the waste, that’s critical, instead of burying it. But the fact that they’re excluding certain technologies, it automatically means they’re not going to find the optimal solutions.”
Nikolas Themelis, director of Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center, agreed that the city’s RFP should have been broader. He said that since any kind of facility has to meet stringent emissions standards, both older and newer technologies should be on the table and that the economics should be the decisive factor.
“Regrettably in less informed/advanced cities, this issue has been so politicized that some RFPs specifically exclude the existing technologies, as was the case in the recent RFP of Mayor Bloomberg,” Themelis wrote in an email. “The hope is that newer WTE technologies, such as gasification, will be more acceptable to people who for over twenty years have opposed any form of WTE for NYC; the result is that the City today landfills more wastes than in 2001.”
Trackback from your site.