Organics may offer most growth potential for creating renewable energy from waste

Combustion remains steady, but most of the action right now is in RNG.

By Cole Rosengren, Waste Dive.

Energy is among the many byproducts created during the waste management process, but in height of the country’s current clean power push, the industry’s role has yet to reach its full potential.

The waste industry has been creating various forms of energy from waste for decades, however output levels are still smaller than renewable sources such as wind or solar. While growth in the thermal conversion sector may be limited in the coming years, interest in new projects to create energy from landfill gas or anaerobic digestion is high. Spurred by federal incentives for transportation fuel and new state policy regulations, organic material may hold the key to making waste a bigger part of the country’s clean energy transformation.

"Food waste is the fastest growing component of the municipal waste stream and if you look at what is the technology that's best-suited to manage food waste, you come to either anaerobic digestion or composting," said Stephen Simmons, a senior vice president at the consulting firm Gershman, Brickner & Bratton. "That material isn't well-suited for a big combustion plant or a gasification plant."

Deciding which technology is right for each portion of the waste stream revolves around many economic and geographic factors, with the potential energy value shifting as well. As highlighted by a new report from the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the U.S. energy market is competitive and average prices are low. This makes projecting the growth potential for different sectors a complicated process.