It’s a familiar sight driving north along Crown Point Road or Route 295 on cold December mornings: A white plume rising above the Wheelabrator Gloucester waste-to-energy plant, lazily drifting out over the Delaware River.
While that plume is just water vapor, burning waste to produce energy does produce some less-desirable emissions, but thanks to new state-mandated targets the plant hit earlier this year, those emissions are safer now than they ever have been.
The main reduction came from limits on nitrogen oxide, one of the components of smog and acid rain, which dropped from 205 parts per million (ppm) to 150 ppm this year.
“It’s a pretty substantial reduction,” plant manager Mike Kissel said. Though a 26-percent cut was a big step, Kissel said changing some of the plant’s processes and what chemicals they use made that drop possible.
As it is, they use a number of methods, from injecting carbon to using filters and scrubbers, to make the operation as clean as possible, Kissel said.
And whether it was state Department of Environmental Protection checks, county inspections or their annual stack tests–a battery of emissions tests conducted over about the course of a week–the plant passed, Kissel said.
All of that adds up to a power plant that’s cleaner than some fossil fuel plants.
“In a tradition coal plant, you’ll see a brown haze coming out of their stack,” Kissel said. “You won’t see that with ours.”
Along with emissions reductions, the plant also helps bump up local and county recycling rate, pulling about 2,500 tons of iron-bearing metals and about 200 tons of metals like aluminum and copper from the trash that’s incinerated.
All of this comes while Wheelabrator has to go looking for extra municipal waste to keep it running on a 24-7 schedule.
“This year, the county’s actually generating less than we expected,” Kissel said.
That’s meant importing about 32,000 tons of waste from outside the county as part of the 190,000 tons they incinerated.
Some of the reason for that shortfall is improvements in single-stream recycling, Kissel said, but it has as much to do with economics as anything else. Over the past several years, they’ve seen a reduction in waste from the 100 or so trucks that roll into the facility on a daily basis, coinciding with the recession, he said.