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Local View: Burning residential trash can be part of clean-energy transition

From the column: "At the end of the day, money is king. We pay trash haulers big money so our residential trash can be buried in holes that tend to become unintended mountains. ... The sheer volume of our residential trash is crazy to think about, and it’s growing."

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Frankly, I don’t understand it; environmentalists hold industrial development projects accountable with regard to environmental discharge limits and controls, yet I don’t see any efforts to promote positive change in our growing catastrophe of residential trash disposal.

I have been working in the industries for 30-plus years. I have seen great efforts for compliance by industry in general for the promotion of a clean environment, yet there doesn’t seem to be any concern for the issue of residential trash disposal.

Environmentally speaking, in the U.S., with global warming worsening, we have been moving forward to limit the discharges of carbon dioxide into the air. The issue has greatly affected coal-burning electrical-generation plants. Thousands of megawatts of base-load electricity have been scuttled with plants closing or going offline. You would think this is a good practice, but I have concerns about the large reduction in base-load electricity available on the grid.

Wind and solar power have come a long way; however, they often provide energy when the load doesn’t require it and can fail to provide power when it’s needed. This makes the load far more difficult to manage. I predict far less dependability for electricity in our future and far greater cost to provide it.

That’s what’s coming unless an alternative base load can be developed. Nuclear electrical generation is a safe, clean alternative, in my opinion.

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Great River Energy in Elk River, Minnesota, was a three-boiler station that burned residential garbage for its base-load fuel. It also burned natural gas as a co-fire when required. It was a very well-managed, electrical-generating, trash-burning facility. There were sorting and garbage-preparation facilities that hammer-milled trash into a more-uniform size. Great River Energy did a fantastic job recovering scrap metal and recycling materials such as aluminum, tin, and heavy metals. I was fortunate to be able to tour the facility a number of years ago, and I can say I would not have known it was burning trash, from how well kept the property was, with very little odor.

This very nice, well-kept, and accountable residential trash-burning facility is no longer in business, however. Great River Energy was not able to get enough garbage to accommodate burning full loads. Its demise undoubtedly boosted profits for private landfills as well as public landfills managed by county commissioners.

At the end of the day, money is king. We pay trash haulers big money so our residential trash can be buried in holes that tend to become unintended mountains. Where is the next landfill going to be? No one wants them in their backyards. The sheer volume of our residential trash is crazy to think about, and it’s growing.

We are standing at the threshold of opportunity, change, and even perhaps a new paradigm, one requiring responsibility and ownership. We all bring our cans to the curb, and the trash goes away, but it’s not going to stay away. The status quo is no longer acceptable.

Many coal-burning facilities being scuttled because of new rules concerning carbon-dioxide emissions could be retrofitted to burn residential trash. The biggest problem to overcome is in how we provide garbage to these sites and compensate these facilities to make them profitable.

I believe a win-win for all concerned is possible with a change in thought. Reducing the huge volume of residential trash has extreme value for everyone. We cannot just keep hoping this problem will go away; it’s not sane to do so. Help from the government would be required, similar to the assistance provided for wind and solar energy.

The fuel from burning residential trash should be considered green. European countries and other places very successfully burn residential waste, proving it could be a sustainable option for Minnesota.

Roy R. Maki Jr. of Cloquet is a licensed chief engineer who worked as a steam engineer and at a number of hydro facilities, including the Thomson Dam at Jay Cooke State Park. In his 35-year work career, he also was employed by Potlatch and Diamond Match and currently works for the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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Roy Maki

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