By: Cody Ellis, Waste Dive, Feb. 19, 2019
- The last two years have shown $0 in asset finance for biogas and waste-to-energy projects in the U.S., according to the 2019 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook from the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Bloomberg NEF.
- In total, the U.S. saw the addition of 51MW of biomass projects and 32MW of biogas projects in 2018. Those numbers are down from a recent high in 2013, when there was an addition of 555MW of biomass and 187MW of biogas.
- According to the report, new construction of farm-based anaerobic digesters remained steady, with five projects coming online in 2018 compared to four in 2017.
There have been no large-scale WTE projects in the U.S. since 2015, and biogas and anaerobic digestion development have slowed from previous heights due to the loss of certain federal tax incentives. Meanwhile, energy levels from wind, solar and natural gas continue to grow. The report also mentions 623 operational landfill gas-to-energy sites that weren't counted toward overall project totals.
According to the report, waste-related projects in the U.S. stand in stark contrast to those internationally. China saw a 300% increase in WTE capacity between 2009 and 2016 due in part to government investment, while the UK brought nine new WTE projects online in 2016.
Beyond the fact that landfill capacity remains abundant and inexpensive in many parts of the U.S., local politics and national conversations continue to affect how WTE and similar projects are viewed — prompting major companies such as Covanta and Wheelabrator to seek overseas growth amid a tight domestic market.
A late 2018 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance – part of an ongoing activism campaign – characterizes WTE as "neither sustainable nor renewable." And despite industry opposition, Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh has promised to sign legislation that would regulate emissions more tightly than existing state or federal requirements — and potentially force two WTE facilities (one owned by Wheelabrator) to shut down if they are unable to adapt.
While WTE faces domestic headwinds, there may be more opportunities on the horizon for biogas and anaerobic digestion. Vanguard Renewables, for instance, has successfully built multiple farm-based digesters in recent years and is currently working on multiple projects throughout the Northeast. Further infrastructure can be expected as cities and states look toward organics processing options to meet their regulations and goals .
While the loss of certain federal tax incentives has been a challenge, the industry praised the EPA for increasing the amount of cellulosic biofuel requested under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) late last year. Of the 418 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel requested, the American Biogas Council estimated that 388 million gallons are requested from biogas.
More recently, the American Biogas Council joined with the Biomass Power Association and the Energy Recovery Council to create the RFS Power Coalition, the stated goal of which is to press the EPA to include qualifying renewable electricity in the RFS. The group filed a petition in D.C. Circuit Court in mid-February to challenge the EPA's Renewable Volume Obligation for 2019, which excluded electricity from renewable fuel production targets.