Sweden has long been an established leader in the cleantech industry and is regularly ranked among the greenest countries in the world. It ranks #3 on the Global Cleantech Innovation Index and is currently hosting Stockholm+40, an international conference on sustainable development. In a report recently produced for the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), Matt Williams examines the potential for transferring Swedish cleantech waste-to-energy practices to the United States. As part of his studies at the George Washington University School of Business, Matt worked on a consulting project focused on examining the market feasibility of various Swedish clean technologies in the United States (for more information on the program see our previous article here and the program’s official website here). For the project, Matt visited Sweden and toured several cleantech companies and learned about their operations. His continued interest in Sweden’s cleantech sector lead to his internship work with ACORE researching the transferability of Sweden’s waste-to-energy model to the American market. While there are multiple ways of converting waste to energy, the report focuses primarily on energy recovery from household wastes.
Briefly explain how you came to do the consulting project in Sweden. Did you pick the program? If so, what drew you to Sweden?
All full-time MBAs at GW participate in an international consultancy project during their first year. I had the choice of 6 countries, but I chose Sweden because the core focuses of the Sweden program were clean-tech and sustainability, which are big interests of mine. It is also a country that I have never been to, and so I was excited to visit it for the first time.
What would be some of the biggest benefits of the US drastically increasing its waste-to-energy capacity?
It would yield some major benefits, especially if the increase happens in conjunction with a decommissioning of coal-fired power plants. First of all, waste-to-energy reduces the waste that gets sent to landfills by 90%. It also reduces greenhouse gas emissions significantly because of the avoidance of C02 emissions from fossil fuels and the prevention of methane emissions from landfills. Since municipal solid waste is made-up of nearly 70% organic matter, it is mostly a renewable resource. However, unlike solar or wind power, it can provide baseload power because it can generate electricity even when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. The greenhouse reduction benefits are greatest when the waste-to-energy utilizes cogeneration, whereby waste heat is captured and used for heating. Waste-to-energy with cogeneration is used much more frequently in Sweden.
Why are more companies not taking advantage of the opportunities for growth in the U.S. WTE market? Do you see this changing in the near future?
I think it is primarily due to a differing set economic factors in the US when compared to Sweden or other countries where waste-to-energy has thrived. Tipping fees at landfills are much lower in the US than they are in Sweden. Sweden also has a well-developed district heating infrastructure, which means that most Swedish waste-to-energy plants can earn revenues from the sale of both heat and power. Also, coal is an abundant and inexpensive source of power here in the US, which makes it hard for renewables and cleaner sources of energy to compete in the absence of a government-imposed price on carbon or other government incentives.
There was actually a boom in US waste-to-energy in the 80s, but this fizzled out when the EPA implemented new standards that required expensive retrofits at plants. Now, cheaper natural gas from shale reserves has driven down natural gas prices, making it harder for waste-to-energy and renewables to compete. That said, there are locations in the US where it already does make economic sense, such as in parts of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic where electricity is more expensive and landfill tipping fees are higher. Waste-to-energy may be poised for a comeback if the price of electricity increases and reduced landfill capacity results in increased landfill fees, thus tipping the economics more in favor of waste-to-energy for more regions of the US. Hopefully the US will someday impose a price on carbon, as Sweden has done with its carbon tax. This would go a long way to spur development of waste-to-energy, especially if done in conjunction with higher taxes on landfilling. I am optimistic that waste-to-energy will catch on here in the US, as it has in Sweden. I think that it is just a matter of time.
Where do you hope waste-to-energy technology will go in the future?
In my report, I only focused on waste-to-energy from incineration. However, I also think that waste-to-energy from anaerobic digestion and waste gasification technologies are also very promising technologies. When I was in Sweden, I visited a plant near Västerås operated by VafabMiljö where they were converting food waste into biogas that was being used to fuel city buses and private cars in Västerås. The digestate matter left over was being used as fertilizer for agriculture. It was very cool to see this technology in action and it made me wonder why it wasn’t being used more in theUnited States. I think that there are ample opportunities to do much more with biogas from waste in the US, but to accomplish what Sweden is doing would require us to do a lot better job of sorting organic waste-from non-organic waste.
It is very inspiring to see what Sweden has done with waste management. Sweden currently recycles 49% of household waste and converts 49% to energy, meaning that less than 2% goes to landfills. This is pretty incredible to me coming from the US where most of our waste is currently landfilled. Although Sweden has unique factor conditions that don’t exist in the US making landfilling a less viable option there, I think that theUScan still look toSwedenas a model for managing its waste in a more sustainable manner.
For more information on waste-to-energy technology check out Matt’s full report on the ACORE website: http://www.acore.org/waste-to-energy-success-factors-in-sweden-and-the-united-states/
Matt Williams is currently a second-year MBA student atGeorgeWashingtonUniversitywith a focus in Environmental Management and Policy. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Marketing from theUniversityofTexasatAustinand subsequently worked in sales for the wine industry before pursing technology consulting. As a technology consultant he worked on projects in the energy and financial services industries. This summer Matt worked as a Graduate Intern at the American Council on Renewable Energy. After receiving his MBA he is looking to leverage his technology consulting experience in the energy or environmental sustainability space.