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Waste-to-energy technology: a sustainable solution for region

Panel discussion at energy forum addresses emerging technologies and possible solutions to the region's growing waste disposal problems, and calls for government support. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010
Thursday, October 28, 2010

Treating waste as a valuable energy resource is a technology that should be embraced not only in The Bahamas, but also the entire Caribbean region, say environmental energy experts.

The issues of converting waste to energy and how emerging technologies can assist in Caribbean nations’ overflowing landfills were discussed recently at the second annual Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum (CREF) held at Atlantis Paradise Island.

Forum panelist May Adams Cornwall, executive director of the US Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority, explained how adopting a waste-to-energy programme has assisted her nation in not only eliminating its dependence on landfills, but also providing a positive economic impact.

In recent years, the US Virgin Islands has had to seek an alternative method for waste management due to shrinking landfill space and fines imposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency for excess solid waste.

“We had to close the landfills,” she says. “In our economic analysis, we calculated that it would cost $85 per tonne [to open] a new landfill.”

Since the development of a waste-to-energy plant, Cornwall says the cost of electricity has been reduced. “At one time we exceeded 40¢ per kWh; now we’re at 32¢ per kWh,” she says, adding that the project has also generated “114 permanent jobs and 208 construction jobs.”

Fellow panelist Andy Harris, vice president of development for Waste to Energy Canada Inc, says the issue of overflowing landfills is a problem that the Caribbean region needs to address through government support.

“What we in the waste-to-energy sector want to see is sound, consistent government support by way of regulation consistency. Government support doesn’t always have to mean dollars, but consistency in support could attract private equity investment,” he says. “What I do urge [the region] to do is get moving–landfills may be seen as white elephants, but by now they should be dinosaurs.”

Although past methods of waste-to-energy production involved incineration, which sparked air pollution concerns, emerging technologies, such as gasification, oxidation and plasma arc gasification, are being used to lessen the carbon footprint on the environment.

However, before a waste-to-energy programme is considered for development, Cornwall strongly recommends that it is studied meticulously for cost effectiveness and environmental performance. “We needed a proven technology before we came to a decision,” she says. “We are using old technology, but it is reliable and it is flexible to take advantage of newer [methods].”

In comparison to other renewable energy technologies, such as solar and wind power, the panelists agreed that waste-to-energy is primarily a base-load power source–a supply that meets demand all year round.

“Waste power means there is power available all the time, even when there is no sun or wind,” says Peter Chromec, vice-president of Energy from Waste with AE&E Inc.

“We have consistent waste production, which means consistent waste-to-energy power,” adds Harris. “We should view waste as a resource, not as an issue.”

Echoing English novelist Charles Dickens, former attorney General Tennyson Wells admitted that these are the best and worst of times “depending on where one sat.”

Speaking at the Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum, Frank Comito, executive VP at the Bahamas Hotel Association, said that the organization had completed an audit of the country’s hotel sector as regards energy usage.

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