DCEN Brownbag lunch room with attendees
– photo courtesy of Chris Weiss, DCEN

Yesterday, DCEN hosted a very well-attended brown-bag lunch to discuss a proposed study that the Department of Public Works (DPW) will undertake with funds allotted to them through Sustainable DC. The wording in the press release for the funding awards follows:

The Department of Public Works (DPW) was awarded $300,000 to study the costs and benefits of establishing a waste‐to‐energy conversion facility within the District. “The District has an opportunity to craft a long-term waste-management strategy that redefines solid waste from a burden to a resource with economic, political and social value,” said DPW Director William O. Howland, Jr. “This award will fund a comprehensive feasibility study to answer the question of how the District can best capture energy from materials that are routinely discarded as trash.”

Almost immediately, people started sounding the alarm, buzzing about a planned incinerator in DC.

Except for me.

I was confused because this was a Sustainable DC grant and I’d been in the Waste Working Group that had recommended the study. I was sure this wasn’t about incineration, because our recommendation had been for a study of waste-to-energy conversion technologies that excluded incineration (others include anaerobic digestion, hydrolysis, pyrolysis). In fact, this was the wording on #15 out of our 25 final recommendations:

The District shall form a task force to explore waste-to-energy and waste conversion technology options outside of incineration / mass burn for the District by 2013. The task force must take into consideration decreased C&D waste levels (i.e. less wood will be available) driven by another line item.

I may have been mistaken.

It seemed clear by the end of the conversation that incineration was still being considered by DPW, among other waste-to-energy options. It also seemed clear that there were plenty of people ready to battle an incinerator to the death if it were ultimately recommended.

However, Hallie Clemm, from DPW, also explained to us that the RFP for this study has not yet been written and that nothing is predetermined with respect to building an incinerator in DC.

I could still be right!

The fact that the RFP hasn’t yet been written means that it can say whatever we need it to say. It can request a study that explores non-incineration waste-to-energy and waste conversion methods as part of a much more comprehensive strategy moving us towards zero waste, which is the overarching goal for the Waste component of Sustainable DC. This was Neil Seldman’s suggestion, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Anaerobic digestion, for example, should be explored as part of a municipal composting strategy. It’s not likely to be a huge source of energy, but is preferable to regular composting in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, which could help us meet climate goals.

Shalom Flank, of Pareto Energy, mentioned that small-scale thermal solutions such as pyrolysis may be well-suited to site-specific distributed energy projects, especially those that capture and reuse heat. The syngas created through pyrolysis could provide an alternative fuel to natural gas. Mike Ewall, of Energy Justice Network, equates pyrolysis and incineration and strongly opposes both.

I suggest that the study remain somewhat neutral on this point of controversy. Any proposed waste-to-energy solution should be considered within the context of aggressive recycling, composting, and waste reduction efforts, and required to meet strict emissions, water contamination, neighborhood impact, and waste constraints. We can use this study to identify those targets and constraints for DC, and then map out technology options comparatively to see which can best fill our needs within our constraints. We can also identify opportunities where waste-to-energy options can support or complement other goals in the Sustainable DC plan.

Let’s keep our priorities straight.

Also important to remember is the point that Larry Martin made – if our goal is zero-waste, and our recycling rate is still just over 25%, it’s preliminary to talk about using the rest of our waste as a fuel. We need to focus on improving our diversion rates and using less first, then see what’s leftover. Favorite quote from him:

“Waste should be treated as a verb, not a noun.”
– Larry Martin, DC Sierra Club

Learn more and contribute your thoughts.

This 2011 report from the California Council on Science and Technology investigates and compares landfill gas, aerobic composting, anaerobic digestion, hydrolysis, pyrolysis, gasification, and incineration as waste-to-energy/waste conversion technologies.

Please comment if you have other ideas about how to make this study the one you’ve envisioned.

January 4th, 2013

Posted In: Sustainability