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Carl Rush

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Using Trash to Help Secure America's Energy Future

Posted: 10/26/11 05:56 PM ET

In the two decades since the Department of Energy created National Energy Awareness Month, which runs through October, Americans have been experimenting with alternative sources of energy. But despite some great technological advances and increased societal pressure to find more domestic, environmentally-sound ways to power America, today only eight percent of our nation's energy is derived from renewable sources.

Part of the problem is our overly narrow view of what constitutes renewable energy. Solar and wind energy are without question part of the solution to our reliance on fossil fuel. But so is trash.

Yes, trash. Every day, Americans throw out 1.4 billion pounds of trash -- that's 4.6 pounds of trash per person. Some of that is recycled. However, not all municipal solid waste can be recycled, leaving us with some 250 million tons of trash a year that is diverted to landfills. That trash can be turned into clean, renewable energy with environmentally-proven technology. We call it "waste-based energy" and it includes the conversion of trash or landfill into energy that can connect directly into electric distribution networks, minimizing costs associated with building pipes and transmission lines.

However, inconsistency reigns when it comes to promoting some forms of waste-based energy, namely waste-to-energy, as a renewable energy option. Certain states recognize waste-to-energy as a Tier 1 renewable energy source on a par with wind and solar, but many do not. We could increase the amount of energy generated in this way two-fold if we create more consistent standards for renewable energy portfolio inclusion across states. With Europe on track to build hundreds of new waste-to-energy facilities within the next several years, we're lagging in terms of our definition of renewable energy. Broadening our view of what constitutes renewable energy will prompt the momentum, we need to deliver on U.S. President Barack Obama's goal to cut our dependence on foreign oil by one-third within the decade.

Waste-to-energy facilities generate electricity and steam using municipal solid waste (MSW) as the primary source of fuel. The facilities convert waste in specially designed boilers to ensure complete combustion and employ modern pollution equipment to reduce emissions. Nationwide, 86 waste-to-energy plants operating in 24 states safely dispose of millions of tons of MSW per year. These plants generate upwards of eight billion kilowatt hours of clean, renewable energy per year -- about 20 percent of all non-hydro renewable electricity generation in the U.S. Combined with landfill gas energy, this waste-based energy source can help power America.

Not to be overlooked are innovative waste processing and conversion technologies with the promise to bring us to next generation waste conversion. These technologies have the power to transform our energy supply chain and should be treated equally with more traditional alternative energy technology to help advance our domestic energy capabilities.

With gas prices soaring, it is as important to reach this goal for economic reasons as it is for environmental ones. Including waste-based energy as a key component of the strategy will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ease our dependence on fossil fuels, and keep us competitive in the race for clean-energy jobs. Waste-based energy needs to be recognized as a key energy source in a state's renewable energy portfolio alongside wind and solar generation.