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Municipal Solid Waste Resources and Technologies

Black and white photo of a bulldozer pushing a large mound of trash in a landfill.

The National
Renewable Energy
Laboratory's
high-solids digester
converts wastes to
biogas and compost
for energy
production.

This page provides a brief overview of municipal solid waste energy resources and technologies supplemented by specific information to apply waste to energy within the Federal sector.

Overview

Municipal solid waste, also known as waste to energy, generates electricity by burning solid waste as fuel. This generates renewable electricity while also incinerating landfill and other municipal waste products such as trash, yard clippings and debris, furniture, food scraps, and other discarded items.

The U.S. currently uses two waste to energy facility designs:

  • Mass burn is the most common technology. In this design, municipal solid waste is combusted much like fossil fuels and other direct combustion technologies to generate steam, which drives a turbine to generate electricity.

  • Refuse-derived fuel facilities process municipal solid waste before incineration. This process typically includes shredding and removing metals in addition to other sorting activities.

Incinerating municipal solid waste generates energy while reducing waste volumes by as much as 90% with ash disposal and air polluting emissions as the primary environmental impacts. Effective environmental management is needed to remove toxins prior to combustion to minimize pollutants.

Federal Application

Before conducting an assessment or deploying energy technologies, Federal agencies must evaluate a series of questions.

What are my energy goals?

Energy goals range from meeting regulatory requirements to powering remote applications to increasing energy security.

  • Regulatory Requirements: Electricity produced by municipal solid waste falls under the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005 definition of renewable energy and can be used to meet EPAct 2005 renewable energy requirements.

  • Remote Power: Current municipal solid waste energy systems are dependent on large amounts of urban waste and are typically not appropriate for small-to-midsized remote power applications. However, several new technologies are being developed to fill the need.

  • Energy Security: Municipal solid waste is a viable renewable energy resource found in almost every community across the U.S. It is a predictable energy resource that can reduce utility peak demand for increased energy security.

What kind of energy do I use?

Federal agencies must understand what type of energy is used before determining if municipal solid waste is applicable. Municipal solid waste can be used for electricity production.

When do I need the energy?

Even with substantial recycling and reuse programs, municipal solid waste is inevitable in most communities. As such, it is a dependable and predictable resource that can typically be used on-demand, around the clock.

How much power do I use/need to produce?

Municipal solid waste technologies generate varying amounts of electricity depending on the size of both the technology deployment and urban area itself. It is important to consult an expert for a professional evaluation to plan accordingly.

Where am I located?

Before initiating a project, resources in your area must be measured and verified. It is important to consult an expert for a professional evaluation before implementing municipal solid waste energy projects.

Is a landfill available?

Municipal solid waste energy applications are dependent on landfill and other urban waste resources. For this application, Federal facilities should be in close proximity to local landfills. The steam plant should be within 1 mile if steam is being transferred from the municipal solid waste plant to a Federal facility. If the waste is being transported to the Federal facility as fuel, the distance will vary depending on the volume and quality of fuel needed. Typically, a 100 mile or less collection radius is necessary. Be sure to check with facility resources, as well as municipal and county landfill contacts, to see if implementing municipal solid waste technologies is possible for your facility.

Is this a building- or campus-scale project?

Municipal solid waste renewable energy technologies are well suited at the campus level. Implementing a municipal solid waste system for a standalone building or facility is typically not cost-effective.

What is my budget?

It is important to consult an expert for a professional evaluation to see if municipal solid waste energy fits into your current budget.

What resources are available for operations and maintenance?

Municipal solid waste technologies require ongoing operations and maintenance. It is important to factor these operations and maintenance costs and staffing needs in any facility energy management plan.

Next steps

Visit the project planning section for detailed information on planning and deploying renewable energy projects. Federal case studies are available to provide specific examples of viable energy projects.

Resources

Detailed information on municipal solid waste energy resources and technologies is available through: