Waste is Only Waste if You Don't Use It

Interview with Michelle Firmbach Nadeau
Senior Manager | Wheelabrator Communications & Community Engagement

This interview was conducted as a companion to our article on Baltimore's district energy system, which is managed by Veolia. Most of us think of waste to energy as a small player in our overall energy mix. The Baltimore story shows that waste can be a key component of our energy mix.

Please tell us about the Baltimore project.

The Wheelabrator Baltimore energy-from-waste facility uses up to 2,250 tons of post-recycled everyday waste from Baltimore area homes and businesses. It is a local, sustainable fuel that generates as much as 64 MW of clean, renewable electricity for sale to the local utility.

That's the equivalent of supplying the electrical needs of an estimated 40,000 Maryland homes, as well as our own operations. 

A significant partner in the City of Baltimore’s revitalization for the past 32 years (1985), Wheelabrator has helped the city reduce its carbon footprint while providing Tier 1 renewable energy to tens of thousands of Maryland homes and businesses. In addition, it has been a supporter and contributor to several green initiatives within the city as well as partnering with and engaging a number of city schools on environmental projects. We provide green steam to fuel Veolia’s downtown heating and cooling loop — which serves more than 255 businesses including M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens — in addition to providing power to thousands of Baltimore-area homes. By using local waste as fuel to create a local-energy ecosystem, Wheelbrator recycles metals, provides power, reduces the need for landfill while reducing CO2 emissions. 

What kinds of waste are you able to handle? 

Our feedstock is primarily residential and commercial waste that is generated in the local area. We do not accept any construction or demolition waste. Daily, we provide disposal for up to 2,250 tons of post-recycled waste from Baltimore County and the City, diverting waste that otherwise would have been sent to landfills. We accept a very small amount (1.3% of our volume) of Special Waste which requires assured destruction, materials such as defective, damaged, recalled or outdated consumer products. However, we do provide additional, unique recycling opportunities that allow for the recovery of valuable metals that cannot be otherwise captured in local recycling programs.

For example, last year, we recycled 15,000 tons of metals, and recovered or recycled 176,880 tons of ferrous and non-ferrous scrap metals. 

What we have found is that energy-from-waste has been proven to encourage greater levels of alternative materials management – including source reduction and reuse, recycling, composting and energy recovery through alternative technologies.What this means is that our facilities complement local recycling programs and foster a higher overall recycling rate than communities without energy-from-waste plants.

What is your output and does your output qualify as a reusable resource under local standards?

We are a Maryland Tier 1 renewable energy, with an output of roughly 60,000 KW/hr, which is the plant capacity.  We generate roughly 500 Kw per ton of waste processed. More than 50 percent of the steam delivered to Veolia customers is provided by Wheelabrator’s Baltimore energy-from-waste facility.

Through a continued supply agreement, Wheelabrator and Veolia are helping to reduce Baltimore’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 47,000 tons per year. That's the equivalent of removing 8,400 cars from the road.

In addition, the U.S. EPA has endorsed energy-from-waste as a renewable source of energy. It is a great alternative to fossil fuels, like natural gas, or coal and oil, as well as a preferred method for waste disposal instead of landfilling within the EPA's waste management hierarchy. As important, we're reliable 24/7. Unlike wind or solar, our electrical generation is not dependent on external factors. Unlike gas powered facilities, we do not cycle production in order to take advantage of peaks and troughs in the market. Unlike oil, coal, nuclear or gas, we do not burn fossil fuels to generate electrical energy, and there is no mining of raw materials or environmental impact from extracting the material used to generate our fuel source for electrical generation. Rather, energy-from-waste takes a non-recyclable waste product and produces renewable, green, clean electricity from a sustainable and non-depletable source. All of those are reasons that we are a genuinely renewable resource.

Could you comment on how Wheelabrator contributes to the Baltimore community?

Many things: we have successfully provided a sustainable environmental and economic solution for Baltimore City and Baltimore County for 32 years. Between payroll, purchases of goods and services, and tax payments, Wheelabrator contributes an estimated $50 million in economic activity annually to the city, county and state, and we indirectly support an estimated 175 additional jobs in transportation and support services. We're one of the top principal property taxpayers in Baltimore, and we contribute $5 for every ton of waste processed as part of our host community agreement. Finally, we directly employ 70 Maryland residents — 75 percent of whom live in the local Baltimore area.

What is in Wheelabrator's future?

As the second largest U.S. energy-from-waste business, and an industry leader in the conversion of everyday residential and business waste into clean energy, across the U.S. and U.K., our facilities are a critical part of the environmental infrastructure, providing local, sustainable solid waste management, support for local communities and economic development in the regions in which we operate. Through our work with customers and communities, Wheelabrator’s vision is to develop, deliver and realize the potential of clean energy solutions including waste reduction, recycling and the recovery of valuable metals and other resources in moving towards zero waste.

With 92 percent of solid waste disposal in the US still occurring at landfills, we see a clear future working with municipalities to manage their trash and deliver renewable, stable, always available energy.