The Potential for Energy from the Combustion of Municipal Solid Waste

T. Randall Curlee

DOI: 10.2190/Q4H3-DBDA-8Y21-BBN7


This article assesses the potential for energy from the combustion of MSW during the 1990 to 2030 time frame. Information from a variety of sources is used in a four-step process. In the first step, the total quantity of MSW is projected in five year increments. The current and future heat value of a typical pound of MSW is assessed in the second step. Step 3 addresses the total U.S. capacity to combust MSW over the projection time frame. The final step combines the results of the first three steps to formulate base, low, and high projections of energy from MSW combustion. Energy from the combustion of MSW is estimated to account for about 0.3 quads currently, or about 0.3 percent of all U.S. energy consumption. In the base case, energy from MSW combustion is projected to increase to 1.6 quads, or 1.5 percent of total U.S. consumption by 2010. In the low case, MSW combustion accounts for 0.7 quads, or 0.6 percent of total energy consumption in 2010, and in the high case MSW accounts for 2.5 quads, or 2.3 percent of the total. While not insignificant, combustion of MSW is likely to have only marginal impacts on the consumption of other energy forms. The current inability to narrow the range of MSW energy projections is due in large part to great uncertainties surrounding the future adoption of waste-to-energy facilities. The future success or failure of combustion as an MSW management option will likely depend more on that option's environmental and social acceptability, rather than the "out-of-pocket" costs of competing technical approaches. Uncertainties surrounding the quantities and heat values of current and future MSW further complicate the projection process. More refined projections must await more complete data on the quantity and composition of MSW and additional work on how and why communities adopt different management options.

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