Our Interim Energy Options During the Energy Transition: Natural Gas, Solar Power, WTE?

By Michael Hervey, 3L Staff Editor, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law

            Lots of environmentalists have difficulty balancing our need to provide efficient energy with reducing the effects of climate change. The slow shift from fossils fuels, like oil and coal, to more green sources of energy hasn’t been exactly met with a warm reception either. As experts collectively work towards long-term sustainable energy plans for the future, what’s keeping the lights on in the meantime? Let’s see what the options are.

Consider natural gas as a source of energy. Compared to coal, natural gas is certainly a cleaner source of energy; producing about half as much CO2. However, the extraction process comes with a host of environmental hazards and health risks for the people living near the extraction areas. Hardly an ideal solution.

Solar power seems promising, but access to solar power as an energy source can be cost prohibitive for some. A shift to solar power in the United States would likely require a federal initiative to fund manufacturing and necessary advances in research. That’s unlikely to occur, because the presently hostile political administration is seemingly intent on slowing advances in green-energy use. Still some states, like California, have had great success implementing solar energy programs. Solar power may be the green-energy solution of the future but not until the government steps into the light on this issue.

What about garbage as a source of energy? Across the Atlantic, Sweden is leading the way in transforming household waste into sources of energy. Said in cruder terms, Sweden is burning garbage, and lots of it. So much, that Sweden estimates that nearly 8.5 percent of its power comes from waste-to-energy (WTE) programs. Sweden recycles almost 99 percent of household waste in one way or another, with only one percent ending up in landfills. In 2015, Sweden burned nearly 2.3 million tons of household waste energy, and even imported 1.3 million tons of waste from other European countries. Germany has been burning garbage for energy for years. And China intends to build the largest WTE plant in the world. Sounds like a promising interim solution, right?

So why don’t we WTE in the United States? Surprisingly, we actually do, but not on a large scale. In the United States, only 12 percent of household waste is burned for energy; the rest ends up in landfills. Some critics argue that burning garbage for energy actually hurts the environment and hastens the effects of climate change. This is because burning garbage produced about 1/3 more CO2 than coal when burned, and 2/3 more CO2 than natural gas.

Yet, WTE does have some notable environmental advantages. For example, while WTE does produce more CO2 than other forms of energy production, WTE reduces the amount of methane in the air that landfills would otherwise produce. Methane is more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2, and methane emissions produced by landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States.

For more electrifying information and discussion about the world’s long-term energy solutions, attend the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law’s 2017 Symposium: The Energy Transition. Register here for the October 20th event. #weconduit