If You Can Scrub Biomass and Garbage Emissions, Why Not Coal?

solid wasteOne of the ongoing criticisms of coal-fired power is that it’s “dirty.” And so, when environmentalists lament coal-fired power, they warn about mercury emissions, soot, smog, etc.

But this is no longer an accurate portrayal of coal power, even though it’s still used to play on public fears about “pollution.” Currently, America’s coal-fired power plants utilize 15 different state-of-the-art technologies to trap emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, mercury, acid gasses, and particulate matter. Thanks to these various technological advances, what goes up the smokestack in a modern, clean-coal plant is essentially just steam and carbon dioxide.

So, here’s an interesting twist to the notion that green projects are necessarily “cleaner.” Last Fall, NASA Science Communicator Laura Faye Tenenbaum praised a new power plant run by the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida. Essentially, Palm Beach has constructed a system that burns the city’s garbage, rather than dumping it in a landfill site. Tenenbaum says this is the “most advanced and cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in North America.”

She explains: “They take trash directly from garbage trucks and load it into ‘the Pit,’ which is designed to handle up to seven days of waste. Grapples that look like giant claws feed the waste into one of three boilers. There, it’s burned to generate steam, which drives a turbine generator to produce electricity. A suite of pollution control technologies ensures extremely low air emissions.”

Tenenbaum says there are advantages to such a system— that it produces “electricity that otherwise would have been generated by burning fossil fuels,” and that it “decreases the volume of waste that goes to the landfill, thereby limiting methane generation.”

That all sounds fine, but it overlooks some logical contradictions. Burning garbage and biomass still produces carbon dioxide, which is presumed by green activists to be the one and only cause of global warming. And the burning of garbage produces a number of chemicals and emissions, including hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, benzene, and formaldehyde. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has noted, the burning of wood also releases mercury.

So here’s a question: If the Palm Beach garbage burning system utilizes a suite of pollution control technologies to scrub its emissions, why aren’t the same emission controls considered equally valid when used at a coal plant?

There’s little difference between scrubbing the emissions of burning garbage and burning coal. And it’s likely that whatever scrubbing mechanisms are in use at the Palm Beach project are based on emissions controls previously devised for coal plants.

It’s fine if Palm Beach wants to burn its garbage and scrub the emissions. But doing so demonstrates exactly why coal-fired power plants are similarly safe and effective. Thus, the environmental Left should rethink some of its visceral, knee-jerk opposition to coal-fired power that has long proven to be reliable, plentiful, and affordable in the United States.