Garbage as Energy Commodity? Industry Booms in Europe
Oslo, Norway is known for many different characteristics; being Norway’s government capital, for one, along with being the economic hub for trade and home to over 1.4 million citizens. One thing most people don’t know about Oslo however, is how much they really want your garbage.
“I’d like to take some [garbage] from the United States…sea transport is cheap,” said Pal Mikkelsen, mechanical engineer and managing director of Oslo’s waste-to-energy agency.
Sound a little weird?
It’s really not as bizarre as it seems. Norway, along with many other northern European countries, has built a network of cogeneration plants that produce heat and electricity from recycled waste. Referred to as waste-to-energy facilities, the process is relatively simple. Garbage is burned in a portion of the facility, creating steam, ash and flue gases. The facility collects the steam and uses it to turn turbines, which generates the electricity used throughout much of the country. The ash is trucked away to a landfill, while the remaining gases are either filtered and dispersed into the atmosphere, or collected and used for additional products like biofuel.
Below is a great visual example of how a garbage burning plant processes waste. (via industrytap.com)
‘It’s a commodity’
And this is no rinky-dink side project that spits out a few megawatts and creates some strong PR. No, the Oslo waste-to-energy projects mean business, literally.
”There’s a European waste market – it’s a commodity,” states Hege Rooth Olbergsveen, senior advisor for the program. Mikkelsen concurs, “Northern Europe has a huge generating capacity.”
This process of generating power, along with the prevalence of factories within the region, is quite common. Many other northern European countries have done the same for decades, which has actually spurred competition within Scandinavia. Stockholm, Sweden, for one, has lured several municipalities to truck in an abundance of waste from many locations, including Norway, for their benefit.
Collectively, Oslo residents rely on over 400 incineration facilities in the region for many elements of their daily lives. For one, half of their residential heat and energy needs come from a consistent supply of waste-to-energy plant output. They heat most of their local schools using the same energy. And even the city’s Metro bus system relies on recycled gas fumes from the facilities to create the biofuel they use, increasing energy efficiency between seventy-five to one hundred percent. As odd as it may sound from an American perspective, the necessity of collecting waste to thrive in Norway is as vital as ever.
Even after importing garbage from countries like England, Ireland and Sweden, the agency operates at a fraction of its incinerating capacity, according to Mikkelsen. Despite receiving over 150 million tons of waste to process every year, their factories are able to handle upwards of 700 million tons.
US Potential to Participate Overseas
The prospect of bringing in garbage from the United States is still an option, but stumbling blocks remain in the process. In Norway, the garbage industry is highly organized and technologically savvy; free garbage bags are offered at local grocery stores and they’re color-coded depending on what’s being discarded. Blue bags denote plastic materials, green bags are for food waste and other recyclable materials are disposed elsewhere.
Conversely, a sizable portion of American garbage is considerably less organized, which could pose an additional environmental hazard for the incineration process, as well as potential complications that could arise from either sorting through the garbage or choosing to burn it as is and wasting recyclable materials. The concern is notable, but the opportunity certainly appears viable based on Mikkelsen’s interest mentioned earlier.
US Potential to Participate at Home
Similar concerns about environmental hazards have affected the livelihood of waste-to-energy facilities in the United States. While there are 89 facilities that still function today across the country, almost none of them were built within the last 15 years. The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges “economic factors” being the main culprit of limiting new construction, although a considerable level of concern among certain environmentalist groups has also played a role in the discussion.
At least one US company has achieved success with working to create an alternative template for operating a waste-to-energy facility with newer technologies. The big difference however, is that they doesn’t use incineration to do so. Maryland-based Fiberight converts up to 20 tons of garbage an hour by running trash through a processing center which keeps temperatures low, rather than the conventional high-pressure, high-temperature method. The end result is a sterilized, odor-less pulp that is made into sugars and biofuels, along with clean, unharmed plastics and metals which can be sorted easily in the process. Although there is more physical ‘waste’ at the end of the process compared to incineration, there’s also less risk (and less money spent on the filtering) of airborne toxins to consider.
Perhaps the answers for long-term waste-to-energy solutions can be found with methodology similar to Fiberight, but if one thing’s certain, burning garbage isn’t going anywhere any time soon in Oslo. Although the industry will continue to evolve over time, their reliance on the resources being generated from it is too strong to change much for now.
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