An Independent Engineering Evaluation of Waste-to-Energy Technologies

Waste-to-Energy (WTE) or energy-from-waste is the process of generating energy in the form of electricity and/or heat from the incineration of waste. In the U.S., some cities primarily in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic, burn part of their municipal solid wastes. Hemmed in by major population centers, landfill space in these areas is at a premium, so burning wastes to reduce their volume and weight makes sense. Combustion reduces the volume of material by about 90 percent and its weight by 75 percent. The heat generated by burning wastes has other uses, as well, as it can be used directly for heating, to produce steam or to generate electricity.

In 1885, the U.S. Army built the nation’s first garbage incinerator on Governor’s Island in New York City harbor. Also in 1885, Allegheny, Pennsylvania built the first municipal incinerator. As their populations increased, many cities turned to incinerators as a convenient way to dispose of wastes.

These incineration facilities usually were located within city limits because transporting garbage to distant locations was impractical. By the end of the 1930s, an estimated 700 incinerators were in use across the nation. This number declined to about 265 by 1966, due to air emissions problems and other limitations of the technology. In addition, the popularity of landfills increased.

In the early 20th century, some U.S. cities began generating electricity or steam from burning wastes. In the 1920s, Atlanta sold steam from its incinerators to the Atlanta Gas Light Company and Georgia Power Company.

Europe, however, developed waste-to-energy technologies more thoroughly, in part because these countries had less land available for landfills. After World War II, European cities further developed such facilities as they rebuilt areas ravaged by war.

The use of municipal waste combustion for energy in the U.S. is not common; the nation had only 87 such facilities in 2007 and has added several more today, while Europe has more than 430 such facilities. By the 1990s, after the tax credits extension of 1986 finally ended, fewer waste-to-energy plants were built. Figure 1 shows the generic process of converting waste to energy. 

Recently in the U.S. WTE has been deemed a Renewable Energy source. According to the EPA the definition of Renewable Energy – “Renewable Energy is energy obtained from sources that are essentially inexhaustible, unlike natural gas, coal and oil, of which there is a finite supply.” According to the Department of Energy (DOE) – “Renewable energy sources include: wood and other biomass, solar (Photovoltaic and Thermal), wind, geothermal, wastes [Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), Refuse-Derived Fuel (RDF), Landfill Gas (LFG)] and any other sources that are naturally or continually replenished.” By definition, the DOE describes renewable energy as a “non-deplete-able source of energy.”


The technologies described in this paper all produce energy, we will not address pure incineration or other means of reducing municipal solid waste that does not produce energy. We will also not address the Non-Thermal Technologies (Anaerobic Digestion, Landfill Gas, or Hydrolysis and Mechanical Biological Treatment.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a technical evaluation of the available technologies and provide an indicative cost estimate ranges associated with each.

The technologies we reviewed are as follows:

  • Thermal Technologies
  • Direct Combustion (Mass Burn and RDF)
  • Pyrolysis 
  • Conventional Gasification
  • Plasma Arc Gasification

As mentioned earlier we did not evaluate the Non-Thermal Technologies.

Thermal Technologies

Direct Combustion Mass Burn and Refuse Derived Fuel

As mentioned above Mass Burn facilities have been in existence for decades and as the technology reflects it literally burns/combusts everything, leaving only noncombustible material. There are over 100 of these facilities operating in the U.S. and considerably more in Europe and Asia. Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) is the process of removing the recyclable and noncombustible from the municipal solid waste (MSW) and producing a combustible material, by shredding or pelletizing the remaining waste. There are only 19 RDF facilities in the U.S., but as energy prices climb and landfill permitting gets more difficult there may be an increase in the number of these facilities. Figure 2 and 3 are B&W’s rendition of typical Mass Burn and RDF technologies. 


Pyrolysis is the thermo-chemical decomposition of organic material, at elevated temperatures without the participation of oxygen. The process involves the simultaneous change of chemical composition and physical phase that is irreversible. Pyrolysis occurs at temperatures >750°F (400°C) in a complete lack of oxygen atmosphere. The syn-gas that is produced during the reaction is generally converted to liquid hydrocarbons, such as biodiesel. Byproducts from the process are generally unconverted carbon and/or charcoal and ash. 

There are various types of Pyrolysis technologies ranging from carbonization to rapid or flash type systems. Table 1 below shows the different types and comparisons of the process conditions and major products. 

Figures 4 and 5 show the process flows for the fast and rapid pyrolysis processes that are being offered commercially. We are aware of small modules operating throughout the world, but to our knowledge there are no systems operating at large industrial sized. 


Conventional Gasification

Conventional gasification is defined as the thermal conversion of organic materials at temperature of 1,000 °F – 2,800 °F (540 °C – 1,540 °C), with a limited supply of air or oxygen (sub-stoichiometric atmosphere). This is not combustion and therefore there is no burning. Gasification uses a fraction of the air/oxygen that is generally needed to combust a given material and thus creates a low to medium Btu syn-gas. Although more mature than other processes, it does require complex systems, such as gas clean up equipment.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Worldwide Gasification Database shows that the current gasification capacity has grown to 70,817 megawatts thermal (MWth) of syn-gas output at 144 operating plants with a total of 412 gasifiers. The database also shows that 11 plants, with 17 gasifiers, are presently under construction, and an additional 37 plants, with 76 gasifiers, are in the planning stages to become operational between 2011 and 2016. The majority of these plants—40 of 48—will use coal as the feedstock. If this growth is realized, worldwide capacity by 2016 will be 122,106 MWth of syn-gas capacity, from 192 plants and 505 gasifiers. This data base does show that there are gasifiers operating on both biomass and waste. Figures 6 and 7 are two basic types of gasifiers, Figure 6 is fluidized bed gasifier and char combustor and Figure 7 is a typical slagging gasifier. 

Plasma Arch Gasification

Plasma Arc gasification is the process of that utilizes a plasma torch or plasma arc using carbon electrodes, copper, tungsten, hafnium, or zirconium to initiate the temperature resulting in the gasification reaction. Plasma temperature temperatures range from 4,000 °F – 20,000 °F (2,200 °C – 11,000 °C), creating not only a high value syn-gas but also high value sensible heat. The technology has been used for decades to destroy wastes that may be hazardous. The resulting ash is similar to glass that encapsulates the hazardous compounds.

The first Plasma Arc unit began operation in 1985 at Anniston, Alabama. The unit used a catalytic converter system to improve gas quality and the gasifier was designed to destroy munitions. The second system began operation in 1995 in Japan followed by the third system in Bordeaux, France, both design for MSW. There are other operating systems in Sweden, Norway, the UK, Canada, Taiwan and the U.S., Japan has added nine more since 1995. All of these are small in size but have the ability to scale up, using multiple units. Figure 8 and Figure 9 show a couple of current systems available on the market and both can be employed to reduce waste and generate clean electric energy.

The advantage of the Plasma gasification is the high temperature that minimizes air pollutants well below those of traditional WTE facilities. At the elevated temperatures, there is no odor, and the cooled off gas has lower NOX, SO2 and CO2 emissions. The solid residue resembles glass beads. 

Technical Evaluation

In order to fairly evaluate each of these technologies we assessed the overall technology capabilities, commercial viability and associated costs, while asking the following questions:

  • Is it proven? (technically sound) – Not serial No. 1
  • What is the capital and long term O&M costs? (Long Term Lease?)
  • Is it guaranteed and what is behind the guarantee?
  • Land and Water requirements?
  • Is it scalable? (Modular)
  • Environmental?
  • Can it use all the municipal solid waste, with little or no waste streams?
  • What is the schedule for delivery and commercial operation?
  • Is the technology/company committed to resolve all issues with waste?

Note: If it doesn’t work technically then it doesn’t work and if it doesn’t work economically, then it doesn’t work. (Both are needed to be viable)

Estimated Costs

Ranges for Capital Costs for each of the Thermal Technologies assumes a 15 MW output for a:

  • Direct Combustion (Mass Burn and RDF) ranges from $7,000 to $10,000 per kW.
  • Pyrolysis ranges from $8,000 to $11,500 per kW.
  • Conventional Gasification ranges from $7,500 to $11,000 per kW.
  • Plasma Arc Gasification ranges from $8,000 to $11,500 per kW

Costs vary from technology to technology due to each having unique design characteristics, variations in equipment costs, site specific waste characteristics and site space requirements. There are significant other factors that can negatively affect the costs of construction.

If the site is located at an intercity location several issues can occur:

  • Restrictive site: A restrictive site size can have a number of effects including possible off-site laydown requiring double handling of equipment and material leading to a significant increase in construction indirect costs. Similarly, the requirement for offsite craft parking would lead to bussing of craft to the site on a daily basis, resulting cost of bussing and loss of craft productivity. Loss of craft productivity also occurs with a restrictive site size due to congestion during construction because of conflicts between craft interfaces and worker densities issues.
  • Accessibility of site: Intercity locations can have issues that affect accessibility of the site for delivery of major equipment by rail or by barge (if located on a waterway). Additional cost for heavy hauling of major equipment may occur.
  • Architectural: Architectural considerations to disguise the nature of the facility may be required utilizing storefront and enclosure walls with special treatment to blend in with neighboring structures.
  • Noise considerations: Acoustical panels and sound attenuation sound walls may be required.
  • Possibility of contaminated soil: Many inter-city sites have issues with contaminated soil occurring when the new site is located where a previous facility was located that had processes that contaminated the soil if not previously mitigated. The new Owner is then required to rectify the soil conditions based on EPA requirements.
  • Utility tie-ins: the new site will need to be either being tying in to an existing switchyard or have a requirement for a new switchyard and/or transmission line. If the gas supply is not adjacent to the site, issues may occur where gas tap fees and routing through existing inter-city infrastructure for any distance could be expensive.

If the site is located in a unionized craft location several issues can occur:

  • Craft labor costs: Particularly in northeast and west coast locations of the US craft labor costs can be very high along with low craft productivity. Low craft productivity can be attributable to restrictive union rules, weather conditions in northerly locations and labor productivity intrinsic to the particular location.
  • Availability of skilled labor: Lack of available skilled craft labor can have a tremendous affect of the total facility cost. Lack of availability can be caused by other high labor hour projects being built at the same time as the new facility. Difficult union relationships would be another potential factor.

Evaluation Conclusions

In our opinion, all of the technologies presented provide the end user with different results. Although mass burn and RDF have the most units installed around the world, the lesser used technologies (Pyrolysis, Gasification and Plasma Arc) all have the capability of changing the landscape of the WTE arena. All three of these technologies provide systems with lower emissions than the mass burn and RDF system simply due to their process characteristics. The Plasma Arc has proven that it has the lowest emissions of all the technologies presented, but does not have a track record of multiple units around the world. That said, it is gaining in acceptance and increasing the number of installations due to its complete elimination of the waste stream. Although there are few Pyrolysis systems installed around the world it appears as though this technology will not be used to produce electrical energy rather it will be used to produce bio-fuels for the transportation industry. We opine that even though it could make electrical energy the likelihood will be rare.

Although the capital costs are conservative and high compared to other energy technologies, we need to look at the possible revenue streams. The revenue for all of the technologies is; Electric Energy Sales, Government Subsidies, Renewable Energy Credits, Sale of any Recyclables and tipping fees. Although some are more valuable than others, WTE technologies have more ways to generate revenue that any other power generation technology. The only revenue stream that may not be included with the Plasma Arc, as it may not have a recyclable revenue stream due to its complete consumption of waste and this will depend on the ultimate final design.

We would like to thank the companies who have provided their technology, the Department of Energy, the EPA and other sources we have reviewed prior to writing this paper. 

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Thomas Stringfellow is a senior technologist and consulting engineer at CH2M Hill. He has over 40 years of experience, with proven business and technical expertise in the field of energy, managing the development, engineering, construction, operation and maintenance of solid, liquid and gaseous fuel projects. He possesses significant abilities in the energy arena addressing issues such as energy contracting, environmental, performance and interfacing with State and Federal agencies domestically, nationally and internationally. Stringfellow is a nationally recognized as a proponent for renewable energy development and green power applications. He is involved in numerous biomass and other renewable energy projects including concentrated solar thermal plants.

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