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Energy from Waste

One man's trash is another man's treasure; Covanta Energy Corp. in Tulsa is turning the treasure into energy.
Energy from Waste

Energy from Waste

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Show 1504: Energy from Waste
Air Date: January 25, 2015



Rob McClendon: Well, normally, people don’t put the words innovation and trash into the same sentence. But for one company in Tulsa, those two actually go together. Joining me now is our Alisa Hines.

Alisa Hines: That’s right, Rob. You’ve heard the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and for Covanta Energy Corporation in Tulsa, that treasure is being turned into energy.

Alisa: Trash, trash and more trash -- a thousand tons a day to be exact, and it just keeps coming. Covanta’s Matthew Newman says they’re happy to take it and transform it.

Matthew Newman: Energy from waste is a high-tech process that utilizes everyday household garbage and converts it into clean energy. And as we know, there’s plenty of household garbage available, so it’s a renewable fuel source for all of our facilities. And what Covanta does is, we take the household garbage that remains after the recycling process and combust it in specially designed boilers to produce high-temperature, high-pressure steam.

Alisa: Everything from nature’s trash to man-made materials.

Newman: Approximately 70 percent of the trash, the postrecycled trash that is delivered to an energy from waste plant is from the earth -- it’s biogenic, so it’s things like coffee grinds and coffee filters, egg shells, and in the process we actually recover energy from those products -- and about 30 percent or so is made by man. So Ziploc bags, those nonrecyclable plastic bags that you see, we can actually use those and capture the energy out of those plastic products with very, very little impact to the environment. At this facility, just this facility alone, even though we receive postrecycled waste streams, this facility will recover and recycle over 10,000 tons of metal every year.

Alisa: All nonhazardous of course. Covanta is helping the Tulsa area with the EPA’s four R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle and recover.

Newman: What we do is in our processes actually offsets, for every ton we process, it offsets one ton of greenhouse gas. So we provide an alternative to landfilling for the municipalities, for the citizens in this area, as well as large commercial and industrial clients that want to attain zero landfill initiatives.

Alisa: With very low emissions from Covanta, just water vapor.

Newman: With the backend air emission control devices that are installed at our facilities, the actual emissions from this process are very, very small. What you see at the top of the stack, usually in the wintertime, is a white plume, and that’s actually water condensing in the cool atmosphere. If you look right at the top of the stack, you see nothing. Our air pollution control devices are doing their job.

Alisa: Producing clean steam that helps fuel homes and businesses in the area.

Newman: About two-thirds of the steam is delivered across the street to Holly Frontier, which offsets their need to use fossil fuel to make steam for the processes in the refinery, and about a third of the steam is utilized in our turbine generator. We make clean, renewable electricity that’s delivered to the grid and used in area homes.

Alisa: And according to refinery manager Tony Conetta, Holly Frontier’s production of 125,000 barrels of oil a day would be much more expensive if it wasn’t for Covanta.

Tony Conetta: We have kind of a unique partnership with Covanta trash to energy plant across the street. Here in our west plant, we purchase steam back from Covanta that supplies 50 percent of the steam that we use in the plant. Of course, we use steam for intermediate processes such as heating products up, keeping tanks warm for winterization, steam tracing that we have on pipes and also to power turbines in our plant. And with Covanta, we look for all opportunities for us to send over our trash to Covanta, they turn it into steam, and then they bring it back into our facility, and once again it supplies about 40 percent or a little bit more of the steam that we use in our west facility.

Alisa: Now, every year, Covanta processes 415,000 tons of metal across the U.S. To put that into perspective, Covanta could build five Golden Gate Bridges and over a billion soda cans every year.

Rob: Well, certainly a lot of metal, and I would think that would have a fairly substantial environmental impact.

Alisa: It does, Rob. For every ton of trash a Covanta facility processes, it offsets one ton of greenhouse gas. And for every ton of trash they process, they also offset about a barrel of oil and a quarter ton of coal. For instance just at the Tulsa facility, they offset the need for about 300,000 barrels of oil and about 75,000 tons of coal. Add that up between the 45 facilities Covanta has globally, and the savings are astronomical.

Rob: And on the flip side, keeps a lot of trash out of our landfills.

Alisa: It does. And when you stop to think about all the greenhouse gas that just one landfill produces, turning the trash into energy just seems like the right thing to do.

Rob: Now, I understand Covanta takes their mission of helping the community one step further by helping the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

Alisa: That’s right. When they began their prescription take-back program to get the drugs off the streets, the bureau wasn’t sure how to dispose of them. But according to director Darrell Weaver, Covanta stepped up with a solution.

Darrell Weaver: They said, “Listen, we believe we can take these unused, unwanted prescriptions back and dispose of ’em in an environmentally safe way and it not cost you anything.” And obviously we went into that partnership, and it has been just a marvelous, amazing relationship with Covanta.

Matthew Newman: Director Weaver and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics heroes in uniform bring that material to Covanta. We put it directly into the hopper. There’s no impact to the environment, we actually recover the energy from those pills and don’t put medicine, prescription medication, down the sink or down the toilet. It does not get processed through the wastewater system and it ends up in our river. So we benefit in removing the drugs from our youth’s hands, we keep it out of our waterways, and this one is a public service. We do this for Oklahoma for free. We started this program and this partnership with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics July of 2011, and to date through today, we have accepted, destroyed and recovered energy from almost 95,000 pounds of prescription medication.

Alisa: Success in taking our trash and turning it into energy, all the while protecting our environment.