As the agency responsible for developing and overseeing the implementation of energy policy in the territory, the V.I. Energy Office fully supports the utilization of waste-to-energy technology as a component, in conjunction with wind and solar power, of the Virgin Islands’ energy portfolio. The conversion of municipal solid waste to a usable fuel represents a commercially-proven, renewable source of energy and provides a desirable alternative to oil-burning generating units for meeting utility base load requirements. The Energy Office is presently leading efforts to reduce the territory’s dependence on fossil fuel as a source of energy by 60 percent from the benchmark established in 2009. In achieving this goal, we anticipate that at least 12 percent of our energy needs can be met through waste-to-energy conversion of municipal solid waste.
While it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that clean energy can be derived from burning garbage, real world experience and emissions monitoring demonstrates that waste-to-energy facilities emit significantly less pollutants than fossil fuel power plants burning coal, petroleum coke or oil. The waste-to-energy industry in the United States changed dramatically in 1995, following EPA’s development of Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards under the Clean Air Act for municipal solid waste combustors. Modern waste-to-energy plants on average produce 95 percent less pollutants than similar facilities did prior to 1995. As an example, in 1990, emissions of dioxins by waste-to-energy facilities in the U.S. totaled 4,260 grams per year. By the year 2000, as a result of stricter regulations, annual emission of dioxins from all waste-to-energy facilities in the U.S. totaled just 12 grams, a decrease of more than 99 percent.
The Alpine Energy Group facility as proposed will produce less harmful air pollutants during its operation than any of the Water and Power Authority’s current oil-fuelled power generating facilities. That is in addition to the 400,000 barrels of oil that will no longer need to be consumed at the Richmond Power Plant. To the benefit of the densely populated residential communities that surround the current plant, that portion of our power production would be shifted to a cleaner, more modern facility within the industrial zone as some have advocated for. The Alpine Energy Group project would create fewer pollutants in the generation of 16 megawatts of power on St. Croix than the Richmond Power Plant currently creates to generate the same amount of power.
Finally, waste-to-energy facilities are recognized as cleaner alternatives to landfills, even those that are properly designed and permitted. Again, while it may seem counterintuitive, the combustion of biodegradable products such as wood, paper and food wastes produces comparatively less greenhouse gas emissions than if that waste was allowed to decompose. The decomposition of biomass produces methane gas, a potent contributor to global climate change. Countries of the European Union have long acknowledged waste-to-energy as the preferred means of preserving valuable land space and achieving compliance with Kyoto Protocol mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously producing valuable energy. This technology eliminates concerns of landfill leachate contaminating our groundwater and coast lines or of underground fires releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere without any pollution controls.
There is a reason that waste-to-energy technology has emerged as a preferred alternative to the status quo. That decision is based on understanding the science and technology involved and analyzing the real impact of these facilities in the communities where they are located. The technology has matured significantly in the past two decades and is an improvement over our current solid waste management and power generating facilities. The opportunity to purchase electricity at 14 cents per kilowatt-hour and to break the stranglehold that our dependence on fuel oil has on the territory’s economy is too valuable a proposition to reject without sound, rational alternatives.
Editor’s note: Karl Knight is the director of the Virgin Islands Energy Office.