Municipal waste-to-energy (WTE) plants produce electricity by burning municipal solid waste in specially designed furnaces. These plants are paid a “tipping” fee by municipalities for the disposal of solid waste (mostly household garbage) that is trucked to the plant, and sell electricity to the local utility. Currently, there are a total of 86 WTE plants in the United States, with a capacity to produce 2,720 megawatts of power per year, enough to supply the needs of 2.3 million homes. These plants process about 12 percent (28 million tons) of the country’s municipal solid waste per year and are located in 25 states, mainly in the Northeast.
When constructed, these WTE plants had the needed economic support from local municipalities and electric utilities to make them economically viable. Contracts between WTE plants and municipalities were often at tipping fees, paid to the WTE plants, that were higher than those paid to the competing regional land fills. Also, these plants were considered “alternative energy facilities” by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and, as a result, were able to obtain prices higher than market price for electric power sold to the local electric utilities. Without government assistance, the majority of the WTE plants built in the United States would not have been constructed. In fact, the last domestic WTE plant was built in 1996, and coincides with the period of time when local and federal governments had lost interest in providing economic incentives to the municipal waste treatment industry participants.
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